In Britain, dystopian drama - having had its heyday in the 1970s and 80s - has also returned to television screens in recent years, most notably in the form of Channel 4 offerings such as Black Mirror and Utopia. Russell T. Davies’s recent BBC television drama Years and Years has garnered largely favourable reviews from critics. The six-part story reflects the increasingly febrile character of British, indeed Western public life, constituting what Fredric Jameson has called a ‘critical dystopia’, that is, a warning about what will happen “if this goes on”. Here Jameson is drawing upon François Hartog’s claim that in our current moment “the future is perceived as a threat not a promise. The future is a time of disasters, and ones we have, moreover, brought upon ourselves”. More on that point later.
Years and Years follows the multiple misfortunes of the Manchester-based Lyons family. Paterfamilias Stephen (Rory Kinnear) loses a million pounds when the banks crash. His brother Daniel (Russell Tovey) fatally tries to help immigrant Viktor (Maxim Baldry) to escape from homophobic persecution. Stephen’s anarcho-warrior sister Edith (Jessica Hynes), meanwhile, is poisoned after exposure to a nuclear bomb detonated on Chinese territory by a lunatic US president. Restless daughter Bethany (Lydia West), apparently seeking to escape from her dysfunctional family, wants to be a post-human, integrating smart technology into her body at an alarming rate in a Black Mirror-style warning against the perils of unregulated biotech. And several minor characters seem to be in the grip of outlandish conspiracy theories.
The political climate is also going haywire. The Lyons are led not by donkeys, but an unscrupulous right-wing populist Prime Minister Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), who progresses from flouting the rules of civilised democratic discourse to setting up death camps for immigrants and other undesirables known euphemistically as ‘Erstwhiles’. Downwardly mobile and morally conflicted, Stephen finds himself working for the ruthless tech corporation that is running the camps and which in no way resembles Amazon. Indeed, in the age of Trump, of concentration camps from China to the US, of immigration crisis and right-wing resurgence, the contemporary resonance of all these storylines hardly needs to be stated. As a warning about the threat of fascism to liberal democracy, Davies’s drama stands in a tradition of fiction that includes Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which a fascist politician institutes a corporatist regime and introduces concentration camps in the US, and Stephen King's 1979 novel The Dead Zone, which portrays the rise of a Trump-like populist demagogue.
But all’s well that ends well. In the drama’s denouement, the concentration camps are infiltrated and exposed by Edith, who livestreams footage of one of the camps to the world. It is an ending that follows a time-honoured narrative convention, especially common in science fiction, by which state-corporate malfeasance is revealed to the population via the very same screens that had previously broadcast state propaganda and mindless entertainment. An ignorant, brainwashed population is suddenly woken from its slumber and its exposure to the truth is sufficient to save the day.
Of course, in the real world it is not at all obvious that supplying one more piece of ‘information’ is ever sufficient to bring about radical social change. In fact, this difficulty is raised in Years and Years when Edith is mocked in the middle of her livestreaming by a camp guard who tells her “Nobody will believe you”. The implications of this taunt are sidestepped by the drama: fortunately for Edith, it appears that those who watch her livestream do not question its veracity. But the guard’s challenge is worth taking seriously. In a media environment abounding in propaganda and ‘fake news’, is it even possible for us to recognise the truth, let alone act upon it?
Besides, if we have failed to get rid of capitalism, it is not simply because we don’t know what is really going on. Sure, there are conspiracies among the ruling class. And yes, the capitalist-controlled media do obscure the harsh realities of the world with bread and circuses and outright lies; as socialists, it is very important to expose these lies and to put forward an accurate view of world events where we can. But most of us already know a lot – too much, perhaps – about what is happening in the world. We are aware that the planet is on fire with war and terrorism, that children are starving, that much of the world lives in poverty, that the long-term habitability of the planet is hanging in the balance, and so on. Wikileaks revealed much about the atrocities committed in the name of Western ‘democracies’ and the surveillance of their populations. And many British people know that their ruling class has been materially supporting Saudi atrocities in the ongoing war in Yemen.
No, the problem is not so much that we lack facts, so much as we lack a framework for understanding them. As the philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi puts it, “the process of social subjectivation is not based on disclosing the secret; it is based on the process of interpretation”. At present, most people do not accept that the profit system is the cause of the horrors that surround them and they do not believe that abolishing the profit system offers the solution.
It certainly doesn’t appear that Davies believes this, either, despite the drama’s passing nod to a supposedly “socialist” Spain as a beacon of progressive politics. This becomes clear in the drama’s final episode, set in 2029, when the Lyons family matriarch Muriel (Anne Reid) delivers a dinner-table sermon about why the twenty-first century went to hell in a handcart (by this point, we know that things have gotten pretty bad, because the BBC has had its charter withdrawn). Muriel, who overcomes some of her bigoted attitudes during the course of the six episodes, is one of the drama’s most likeable characters and the positioning of her speech at the end of the drama gives it an authorial feel, as though this is Davies’s own ‘last word’ on our contemporary malaise. In her speech, Muriel recognises that right-wing politicians played their part in the social breakdown they have all lived through. She had been, she admits, too smug about the triumph of “the West” and had failed to see “all the clowns and monsters heading our way”. The allusion here to Trump, Johnson and the other rough beasts of our current political scene seems apt.
Muriel’s speech is a well-staged set piece and it’s easy to see why clips of it have been shared widely on social media, where it has been typically described as a political ‘truth drop’. But its explanation for why the twenty-first century West went to pot is moralistic and superficial, suggesting that Davies is more confident in detailing the symptoms of societal decline than he is in providing an accurate diagnosis of them. The horrors of our age – exploitation, poverty, bigotry and war – are not caused by ethical lapses in consumer behaviour and working-class people cannot be blamed for buying goods at affordable prices or for using convenient technology; so let's not chuck our iPhones into the bin just yet. In fact, neither production nor consumption can be carried on ethically within a profit system.
Muriel is right to say, however, that we are responsible for building our world, so our primary task must be to get rid of the ruling class that is currently keeping the planet's resources under lock and key. "Dystopias", Doug Henwood wrote a few years ago, "are for losers". Catastrophism of the kind indulged throughout most of Years and Years, is an appealing, but ultimately disabling perspective. Humanity has a shot at survival - but only if we can correctly identify the root cause of our problems and act decisively to remove it.
- Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, p.61.
- Berardi, F. (2019) The Second Coming. Cambridge: Polity Press, p.100.
- Hartog, F. (2015) Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time, trans. S. Brown. New York: Columbia University Press, p.xviii.
- Jameson, F. (2005) Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London; New York: Verso, p. 198.