Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An accidentally libertarian novel?

I noticed Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale on Amber's list a few weeks ago when lots of sites I read were absorbed with the ten books game. I'd never read it, and the Kindle for i-phone edition was a little less than $4. It seemed like a decent Metro book. So... why not?

Oooh. It's painfully addictive. Dystopian fiction does that to my brain; I want to learn the rules of the alternate universe perfectly, and I can't do anything else I do. I've resorted to ordering more complicated lattes and sandwiches than usual so that I can get a few extra seconds with Helvidius while I wait for my beverages and food. Worse yet, I'm finding myself tempted to read my Metro book in non-Metro settings...

It may be the most libertarian novel written by a non-libertarian I've ever read. That is, the novel's set in a dystopian United States (now called Gilead) sometime after a radical right group of Christian revolutionaries have seized power. They proceed to freeze women's bank accounts; forbid women to hold property or even to learn how to read (with a narrow exception for the den mothers called Aunts) and otherwise rigidly circumscribe female sexuality. The not that subtle message is, "If we're not careful, this might really happen!" (Were Atwood an even slightly less subtle writer, it would be unreadable. But she's skilled enough to keep the novel from slipping into polemic.)

But what's really interesting about Gilead is how little economic liberty there seems to be. I don't think Atwood has thought much about the economic liberty question; there are no disquisitions (at least not so far) on taxes, regulation, or antitrust in Gilead. It is clear that the whole society is tremendously poor. We're told that commonplace items like meat or oranges, once common, are luxuries in Gilead. Food and other basic consumer goods appear to be rationed from central planners, although the system isn't explained in any great detail. There doesn't appear to be much in the way of even small-scale NEP entrepreneurship. This is even more striking because the narrator appears to be telling this story only about a decade or so after the revolution.

Atwood didn't have to make her dystopian society an economically coercive and poor state, of course. Indeed, the 1980s Christian right -- the anti-feminist groups whom she claims inspired the novel -- are generally actually pretty free market. Furthermore, from what I can glean about Atwood's political views, she herself is far from libertarian according to any conventional definition. Yet in her imaginary society, economic and social liberty are inextricably intertwined.

So what gives? Was she channeling newspaper accounts of life in unfree countries (Afghanistan, etc.?) Just as those countries were poor and economically unfree, so it seemed obvious that Gilead had to be poor and economically unfree, too? Or did she realize intuitively how closely economic and social freedom are intertwined -- that a large, coercive apparatus tasked with policing female sexuality is unlikely to limit itself to that particular purpose for very long?


  1. I suspect that Atwood realized (even if only intuitively) that this degree of repression of women isn't possible in a modern, wealthy, relatively market-based economy. To implement it therefore required a high degree of poverty and coercion (as was, of course, true under the Taliban - the main modern attempt to realize this sort of dystopia).

  2. It's been several years since I read the novel, but I thought that the revolution was possible in large part because of an environmental disaster. Enough humans have been killed off and enough women's fertility has been damaged, that the revolutionaries could plausibly sell the idea that reproduction of the human race in order to repopulate should become women's sole focus. I would think this level of environmental disaster would also have a negative impact on the availability of goods in the first decade out.

    Also, Atwood indicates that this society was made possible by the odd-bedfellows meeting of radical feminists and the Christian right; she's criticizing what she perceives to be their joint opposition to sexuality.

  3. PG, that's an interesting point re: environmental disaster, though I didn't come away with the impression that the environmental disaster was so severe as to explain the full poverty of Gilead. I got the sense from my parents growing up that it was fashionable to fret about population decline for a while in the late 70s/early 80s. There were public schools closed in my town, for example, and a spate of op-eds on same. Then, after baby boomers started having kids themselves en masse, the whole issue received less press. I got the sense that Atwood was channeling that rhetoric, rather than sketching a larger scale environmental disaster.

    Also, the narrator offers only a few brief sketches of her life in the decade before the Gilead folk come. But I didn't get the sense that that society was vastly poorer than 1980s America. The narrator mentions having disposable income to buy fashion magazines, cassette tapes, and normal accoutrements of middle-class life at the time Atwood was writing.