‘Everything about them smelled of decay’

ATOMnYM (flickr zyphichore)

One way in which class inequality has affected my life, is that it has become difficult to read a book or watch a movie without making a sociological analysis. In fact, it seems I’m drawn to science fiction – movies and books – for that very reason. Whether it is reading 1984, or seeing Matt Damon in Elysium (or even Justin Timberlake in In Time), I take pleasure in discovering how fictional class structure are thought out and in discovering its parallels with now.

For this reason (and others) I was curious to read Dave Eggers’s book The Circle (although it may be a caricature rather than sci-fi). ‘The Orwellian references scarcely need spelling out’, the Guardian said. So I wondered: How would Eggers imagine class inequality in his fictional society?

Profiling and parenting

Obviously The Circle is a fascinating read for criminologists and sociologists interested in social control for many other reasons. For example, there’s a detailed description of advanced technologies that aim to eliminate racial profiling by providing full transparency of everyone’s risks to commit crimes (p.417 and following pages). Eggers offers numerous examples of how The Circle (the company) works for the good of society – which might make the reader unsure as to whether the technological advancements in The Circle are desirable or not. Certainly, eliminating racial profiling would be something desirable. I’m not sure whether Eggers’s goal was to confuse the reader here, but in my reading the proposed solution is not a solution at all: replacing racial profiling by risk assessment would not eliminate class or ethnic/racial profiling because risk profiles build on class bias and biased historical data.

Another achievement of The Circle is a watch that registers the number of words spoken to a child, because ‘studies show that kids need to hear at least 30,000 words a day’ (p.338). This is another example of how close Eggers stays to actual recent developments. Researchers have found that there is a ‘word gap’ between children from affluent and children from poor families, which is supposedly related the time parents spend talking or reading to their child, and that the word gap relates to educational disadvantage. ‘In other words, the word gap is not about access to income, but access to information.’ This could have been a quote from the book (The Circle is all for access to information), but it is not; it’s in this article in The Atlantic.

Class inequality

Back to my obsession. Both 1984 and Brave New World describe in great detail the hierarchical order and class divisions based on wealth and power. By contrast, in The Circle we learn little about how society at large is ordered. Unlike Orwell and Huxley, Eggers does not bother giving us much insight into the world outside the work place of the protagonist. It could be taken as telling of our time that Eggers pays little attention to social inequality and class hierarchy – he would reflect the common-sense notion that the U.S., like other western societies, is a classless society.

However, inequality and stark social divisions are not at all absent from the book. Health care is a problem for normal people, as we find Mae’s (the protagonist) parents struggle with getting their insurance to cover all costs, until Mae learns The Circle’s health insurance covers her parents, too. ‘Demoxie’, a system of direct democracy, is presented as the solution to ‘an innately flawed kind of democracy, where only the wealthy were elected, where their voices were heard loudest’ (p.400).


And then there are Mae’s (rare) thoughts about the world outside The Circle:

Increasingly, she found it difficult to be off-campus anyway. There were homeless people, […] and there was, everywhere, the chaos of an orderless world. The Circle was helping to improve it, she knew, and so many of these things were being addressed—homelessness could be helped or fixed, she knew, once the gamification of shelter allotment and public housing in general was complete. […] Walking through San Francisco, or Oakland, or San Jose, or any city, really, seemed more and more like a Third World experience, with unnecessary filth, and unnecessary strife, and unnecessary errors and inefficiencies. (p.371)

Whereas the protagonists of 1984 and Brave New World are fascinated by the ‘proles’ (underclass) and the ‘savages’, even wish to be part of these social outcasts, Mae is rather disgusted by poverty:

She went back to watching the circus. The performers seemed to be not just affecting the air of poverty but to be living in it—everything about them seemed old, and smelled of age and decay. Around them the Circlers captured the performance on their screens, […] to document how incongruous it was here at the Circle, […] amid the people who worked there, who showered regularly, tried to stay at least reasonably fashionable, and who washed their clothes.’ (p. 164)

Orwell and Huxley chose to present their protagonists as people who feel connected (even if it is for selfish reasons) to the underclass and outcasts. Eggers’s protagonist might just reflect contemporary relations between the affluent and the poor: that affluent people support people in disadvantaged positions (investing in social housing, welfare, ‘Demoxie’) does not mean that disgust and contempt have disappeared.

Image by Leigh Anthony Dehaney on Flickr

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