A former colleague with decades of teaching experience and a masters degree returned to the US, to Florida, after making a high salary in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region to find herself working 29 hours a week as an adjunct at a community college, just below the 30 hours requiring her employer to pay benefits, for $2000 a month or approximately $17.24 an hour. She did not accrue vacation, receive health insurance and was not paid if she was sick. Tired of the exploitation, she applied for a teaching job in Kazakhstan making $10,000 a month and was accepted.
Many people would consider Kazakhstan an extreme choice. Winters seem dystopian compared to sunny Florida. Temperatures can plunge to 30 below zero. You conduct your life almost entirely inside. But if you can’t survive financially in Florida and you can achieve financial security and freedom by working a few years in Kazakhstan, you might consider Florida, at least temporarily, a society of suffering and injustice and Kazakhstan the paradise. Personal perspective is everything.
Another former colleague, an American citizen working abroad, suffered a job-related injury and was denied worker’s compensation. He was suddenly terminated for no reason given, jailed for weeks for things that would not be crimes in the US, denied due process and justice by the courts. Yet once free he chose to stay in that country because he did not believe he could easily establish a better life in the United States.
While in jail, he read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by attorney Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those innocently trapped by the criminal justice system in the US. Surprising to me, after my friend was set free he secured a high-paying job in that country and decided to stay there. Jail and injustice can be the costs of living anywhere.
My son’s South Asian colleagues at a technology and entertainment firm in the UAE were paid approximately half what he was paid as a white American. But some of them learned to game the system, and who could blame them? They frequently ran up credit card debt and were threatened with debtors prison. My son was shocked. When these colleagues suddenly asked for vacation time because they had to spend a week in prison due to debt, he was appalled. “Jail is no problem,” one South Asian colleague explained. “After a week of sitting around in jail chatting with other guys, I will be debt free.” He indicated happily that he could obtain another credit card and continue to live beyond his means, with luxuries he could never afford back home. Then he would either spend another week in prison and clear his debt, or “do a runner,” flee the country before authorities detected his massive debt.
My son viewed debtors prisons as a primitive dystopia, shockingly still in existence in the 21st century. His friends from developing countries viewed a week in prison as a minor detour and inconvenience on the road to living the high life in Dubai.
Warfare, extreme poverty or totalitarianism are currently rarer in the world than they have ever been. Prosperity has grown world-wide. But income inequality has increased dramatically, making comparisons among people who live in the same society inevitable, contributing to the rise of right-wing and left-wing populism. This is a golden age for Dystopian fiction.
I’ve reflected on what characterizes dystopian environments or societies, and realize they can occur almost anywhere in the world these days. I’ve identified the following dangers facing average people in the 21st century:
- encroaching surveillance societies, most severely as in China.
- Kafka-esque authoritarianism.
- Laborers, indentured servants, run-aways, modern-day slaves, abused workers are all too tommon in era of globalization
- Amusing ourselves to death, driving ourselves to distraction with smart phones.
- Isolation and fragmentation.
- environmental degradation, paving paradise, putting up a parking lot, as in Turkey.
- modernity without soul or character.