Dwindling by Stephen Zelnick

Dwindling: the Shrinking Citizen

 

John Milton never attended a Trump rally, but Paradise Lost depicts satanic demagogy and citizens dwindled to mere onlookers, overwhelmed by giant voices. In the great hall of Pandemonium, the rebels against God gather to decide next steps. Giant angels, now tarnished by betrayal, swarm into the vast auditorium. They are too large to fit; Satan downsizes them. Satan’s central committee of the rebellion retain their vast dimensions and thundering voices in the fateful debate. Milton, alert to the political crisis of his time -- feudal authority fractured and politics opened to the bold and aggressive – warns his readers against brilliant and unscrupulous leaders able to bend the great many to their will:

 

Behold a wonder! They but now who seemed 

In bigness to surpass Earth’s giant sons, 

Now less than smallest dwarfs, in narrow room 

Throng numberless

Thus incorporeal Spirits to smallest forms 

Reduced their shapes immense, and were at large, 

Though without number still, amidst the hall 

Of that infernal court. But far within, 

And in their own dimensions like themselves, 

The great Seraphic Lords and Cherubim 

In close recess and secret conclave sat, 

High on a throne of royal state, which far 

Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind, 

Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand 

Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold, 

Satan exalted sat, …

 

The rebelling angels imagine themselves consulted in this conclave of the great, deceived by Pandemonium’s grandiose architecture and the resounding rhetoric. The decisions have been fixed by “the great seraphic Lords and Cherubim, / in close recess and secret conclave.” This mockery of democracy (demockracy) inspires the rebel warriors to cling to their masters. Blind to their subservience, they imagine their fate is their choice. The great hall emboldens them to imagine truth is determined by their numbers and the grandeur of their leaders. And all this, long before the massive screens and thundering speakers of our own day.

 

Milton has spotted the willingness of the great many to be welcomed to governing and then fooled about their role in it. Swift warns us in his own delightfully savage way, and the actions of the Founders of the United States in the 1780s demonstrate a real-world instance of an elite misleading the great many to a false democracy. Melville’s Moby-Dick dives deep into the same theme, as do Chayevsky’s Network and the recent film “Downsizing”. The crisis of democracy is nothing new, as Thucydides and Plato illuminated, in Athens at the beginning.

 

1

Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) Gulliver awakens a captive of Lilliputians, bound by a thousand threads and encircled by an army of minuscule but bold warriors. Gulliver is bewildered, but gentle and receptive to his captivity. Although powerful enough to trample their courts and cities, he falls under the spell of regal authority and the law which binds him by imagination more firmly than by packing thread. The Great Many, can agree to accept the most preposterous explanation and symbolic assertion of the hostile powers that bind them – Gulliver, one of us, is gullible.

 

Awakening, Gulliver is addressed by the emperor’s emissary. Though Gulliver understands none of his speech, he is impressed by his comportment. “He acted every part of an orator, and I could observe many periods of threatenings, and others of promises, pity, and kindness. I answered in a few words, but in the most submissive manner, …” Gulliver falls into the proportional delusion, attributing grand motives to this miniscule official. Gulliver observes he could easily “seize forty or fifty of the first that came in my reach and dash them against the ground.” However, Gulliver resists this impulse, overwhelmed by the arts of political grandeur to accept these tiny beings at their own measure.

 

While the Founders welcomed the great many to participate in government, they established strict limits. The House of Representatives (the “people’s house”) was a gathering of representatives only. Direct democracy may have functioned locally, but distance and slow travel made large gatherings impractical, and cities later produced greater numbers and collisions of cultures. Today Congress members represent 750,000 people, guaranteeing they will respond only to their wealthiest and most prominent constituents.  The rich merchants and powerful landowners who shaped the republic expected the “People’s House” to be raucous and subject to demagogy; and so, provided a Senate of wise, experienced men to restrain them. Like the Senate, the President was chosen not by popular vote but by an electoral college. States were accorded two Senators, no matter their population, corrupting the force of the popular vote. Amending the Constitution was made nearly impossible. The Founders’ republic respected property but not the people. Recently, a person of great wealth called them “little people”, recalling Swift’s Lilliputians.

 

When he arrives, the emperor is impressive: “His excellency, having mounted on the small of my right leg, advanced forwards up to my face, with about a dozen of his retinue; and producing his credentials under the signet royal, which he applied close to my eyes, spoke about ten minutes without any signs of anger, but with a kind of determinate resolution,…” The royal signet is impressive as is the emperor’s manner, but it is his physical presence that awes Gulliver: “He is taller by almost the breadth of my nail, than any of his court; which alone is enough to strike an awe into the beholders. His features are strong and masculine, with an Austrian lip and arched nose, his complexion olive, his countenance erect, his body and limbs well proportioned, all his motions graceful, and his deportment majestic.” Swift invites us to enjoy his comparison with the Hapsburg facial deformity, a recognized signet of its own throughout Europe. But Gulliver immediately adopts his diminishment and dwindling subjectivity.

 

Once assured his giant visitor has accepted the Lilliputian measure of things, the prince has Gulliver pledge his fealty: “I made my acknowledgements by prostrating myself at his majesty’s feet: but he commanded me to rise; and after many gracious expressions, which, to avoid the censure of vanity, I shall not repeat, he added, ‘that he hoped I should prove a useful servant, and well deserve all the favors he had already conferred upon me, or might do for the future.’” Gulliver as yet knows nothing of his prince’s treacheries, but ceremony and trappings of feudal eminence are sufficient to exact his pledge of service. He is like the rest of us, entangled in the web of ceremony and convention to surrender his freedom and good sense. As the emperor’s cruelty becomes clear, Gulliver struggles to free his mind. State honors – for dousing the blaze in the empress’ chambers -- enhance his delusions. His submergence into the Lilliputian madness is complete when he captures the enemy fleet and earns the title of “nardac” … “the highest title of honor among them” as he boasts.

 

Nonetheless, Gulliver’s service to the state causes him nothing but trouble. The empress rages at his discourteous method of dowsing the fire, and the admiralty is furious at Gulliver’s easy victory over the rival fleet. They plot against him and convince the emperor to agree to put out Gulliver’s eyes, reducing his danger to Lilliput, while preserving his size and strength for public works and war. Once his usefulness ends, he can be starved to death. A courier delivers the emperor’s sentence in the official and authoritative form: “That if his majesty, in consideration of your services, and pursuant to his own merciful disposition, would please to spare your life, and only give orders to put out both your eyes, he humbly conceived, that by this expedient justice might in some measure be satisfied, and all the world would applaud the lenity of the emperor, as well as the fair and generous proceedings of those who have the honor to be his counsellors.”

 

One would expect Gulliver to rebel. However, as the emissary explains:

 

“That the loss of your eyes would be no impediment to your bodily strength, by which you might still be useful to his majesty; that blindness is an addition to courage, by concealing dangers from us; that the fear you had for your eyes, was the greatest difficulty in bringing over the enemy’s fleet, and it would be sufficient for you to see by the eyes of the ministers, since the greatest princes do no more.”

 

Gulliver, an exemplary citizen, accepts this judgment as normal and just. He remarks: “if I had then known the nature of princes and ministers, which I have since observed in many other courts, and their methods of treating criminals less obnoxious than myself, I should, with great alacrity and readiness, have submitted to so easy a punishment. But hurried on by the precipitancy of youth,” Gulliver escapes by fleeing the emperor’s domain, yet taking with him feelings of guilt at his own ingratitude.

 

Swift’s satire aims at the cruelty of kings, the misuse of science, insignificant differences that divide nations internally and from one another, and so on; but at the heart of Swift’s satire is Gulliver, a good man who means well but is bound by invisible threads of imagination that keep him and the rest of us enslaved to systems that mean us harm. He suffers from the dwindling of imagination, a disease that makes him small, helpless, and insignificant. Though he is a giant, stepping over towering buildings in Lilliput and wading their seas, he is trapped in a net of illusion; in a moment of clarity, the honest citizen remarks “I really began to imagine myself dwindled many degrees below my usual size.”

 

2

In the United States, we now have diminished expectations for democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s marveled at how well-informed and energetic in political debate Americans were. Through the next century, waves of immigrants arrived, many seeking a nation “of, by and for the people.” Democracy at most requires a state ruled by the people, or as a republic at least friendly to the people’s liberty and dignity. But 18th century Founders doubted the people’s trustworthiness and recorded their misgivings. The Constitution excluded women, enslaved people, transients, and the poor from the exercise of citizenship. One could argue those people lacked experience and a sufficient stake in outcomes to promise reliable judgment. People merely passing through or owning no property might make decisions without suffering the consequences. Women and enslaved people had limited experience directing their own lives let alone governing others. Some of these direct exclusions persisted for two centuries, and some remain.

 

Political philosophers have long challenged the competence of “the people”, considering them ignorant, formed for slavish lives, and needing others to lead them. Some considered the demos limited by nature to pursuing animal pleasures. When, for example, Moses went off to confer with God, the Israelites erected a Golden Calf and fell to worshipping lust. In Plato’s Republic the demos embrace novelty and disorderly delights at the cost of sanity and justice. Machiavelli’s Florentines, two millennia on, are credulous and easily misled.

 

The crisis of democracy in our time comes from the concentration of wealth and the nation’s expansion into empire, with needs and interests too weighty to be left to the people. We have arrived at “managed democracy”, the illusion of free choice, controlled by economic interests with sharply focused tools to compel consent. Mass culture of the 20th C., especially in war time, produced powerful weapons of coercion to organize the imagination and will of nations. same processes that advertise deodorant, automobiles, cheap eateries, and soft drinks now herd citizens into safe pens of agreeableness and narrow chutes of destruction. The dwindling of the citizen, his helplessness and anxiety, is now the project of the imperial state commanded by powerful corporations, exceeding the wealth and power of nations, led by ruthless commanders of reality, operating beyond law and moral restraint or tradition. Corporate states reduce citizens to spectators in a drama of large gestures and grand rhetoric, in the imaginary halls of modern media. None of this works without the agreeableness of the gullible, pledged to be orderly and convenient to their masters, who would pluck out their eyes if need be.

 

3

Moby-Dick explores this theme of dwindling democracy, casting Captain Ahab as Satan and the Pequod’s crew as giant personalities diminished by the force of a master demagogue. Melville dramatizes the worries that haunted the Founders and that even de Tocqueville acknowledged. Ahab is surprised at the ease with which he enlists his crew in his demonic project: “’Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. Or, if you will, like so many ant-hills of powder, they all stand before me; and I their match. Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting! What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do!” (Chapter 37).

 

The  Pequod’s crew draws its peculiar genius from the hard-working masses of all the world, indigenous peoples from cultures East and West, and talents of every kind required in the whaling trade. The ship is an elegant hierarchy, from the cabin boys, to the master carpenter and skinners, to the majestic harpooners, and the managers (Stubb, Flask, and Starbuck), and mad Ahab overseeing it all. The crew, like the people of the United States, come from everywhere and lose the cultures they have fled. They are forged into a new identity – rootless and yearning for great adventures and titanic accomplishments. Unquiet souls, they are ready-made for Ahab’s exploitation, molding their restlessness to the bitter shape of his vengeance. The Founders feared majoritarian tyranny and obstructed democratic power (only the House of Representatives was elected directly). Melville envisions the threat to the republic issuing from the political talents of a great leader grasping power over a demos unanchored by traditions, social habits, and settled institutions.

 

The traditional account of democratic corruption identifies flattery as the source, and Ahab caters to their self-esteem, praises their hardihood and exalts their ambition.[i] Ahab, however, achieves his pre-eminence by understanding the psychological needs of his men.  Ahab knows that his countrymen are restless, divided between the rigors of a hard, laboring life, and the dreams of vast endeavors in a boundless landscape. The inquietude of soul that drives Ishmael to sea is a national disease, waiting for a canny leader to exploit it. Even Ishmael, our Gulliver, clever and irreverent as he is, is not immune: “I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge.”

 

Ahab has the power of his madness: “There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod” (Chapter 109), but he is also a master Con-man, a genius at dramaturgy. Ahab constructs three bewitching moments of political theater: (1) the doubloon -- and its exotic heraldry of mountain, eagle and sun -- focusses his crew’s imagination (Ch. 36 and Ch. 99); (2) Ahab’s mastering of St. Elmo’s fire – here appearing to command nature itself (Ch. 119); and, finally, with a mountebank’s skill, Ahab re-magnetizes a needle compass, astonishing his crew (Ch. 124). Ahab fashions himself as a force challenging both God and the Devil to redeem mankind from subservience to the galling indignities of life.[i]

 

Ishmael as narrator demonstrates his philosophical agility and endless skepticism. Yet, Ishmael cannot resist Ahab’s call to rebellion against all decency and order. Starbuck, a wiser man, with home and hearth to protect and the reality of commercial responsibilities gnawing at him, also, in the final instance, is drowned in the maelstrom of Ahab’s imperial arrogance. They and the titans of craft and power, the immense harpooners, fit the cogs of Ahab’s great wheel, and shrink into the machinery, having surrendered their minds and souls to Ahab.

 

4

Sci-Fi film “Downsizing” (2017) was an ambitious project that several A-list actors rejected. “Downsizing” was not a commercial or a critical success, and critics viewed the film as an entertainment rather than a meditation on today’s world. Treating science fiction lightly is a common mistake, as if a tradition that includes “Metropolis”, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “The Body-Snatchers”, “Twilight Zone”, “Soylent Green”, and “Blade-Runner” has not been whispering to us all along about what we have become and what fate awaits us.

 

“Downsizing” explores dwindling in three settings – Norway, the US, and the Third World. Norwegian scientists, fearing overpopulation, devise a way to shrink human beings from 1.8 meters (6 feet) to 12.9 centimeters (about 5 inches). As the lead scientist, now downsized, explains to a startled audience, the human footprint imposed on nature can be reduced, with no degradation of life experience once the downsized settle into communities of the super-small. To demonstrate, a full-size assistant carries onstage a single trash bag, partially full, representing the output of a downsized community over four months’ time. A happy community of the downsized, young and old and of every ethnicity, waves to the audience from a metal cart, as the audience greets its future prospects in a new balance of nature.

 

We  shift then ten years into the future and into the life of Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), a normal American -- congenial, weighted down by financial worries, tolerating a job below his aspirations, hungering after pleasures dangling just out of reach, but accepting it all as his dose of life. Safranek is pudgy and not particularly attractive, pleasant but his affect suppressed; everyone mispronounces his name, his identity barely acknowledged. His wife wants more out of life -- a bigger kitchen and ultra-modern shower -- a house to keep pace with the Jones’. With downsizing, their savings of $158,000 would be worth $12.5M, where even the grandest mansion is a doll house, and living costs are dramatically reduced. Unlike the Norwegians, the downsizing incentive in the US is purely economic – Audrey can have her dream house and Paul a way to escape his pinched existence.

 

5

The detailed process of downsizing is painstaking and funny. With all body hair and teeth replaced, subjects awaken to the shock of their diminishment. The newly tiny are lifted from their beds on spatulas, and in recovery the nurse delivers an immense saltine. The downsized now are mice; their doll house world, Leisureland, recalls “The Prisoner” and “Pleasantville”, a cheerful world of the well-to-do with nothing to do. He lives at “Navajo Orchards”, a subdivision with the curving roadways and cul-de-sacs of our soul-less suburbs. But his wife, repelled by the cosmetic aggressions, refuses downsizing; Paul’s divorce bankrupts him, leaving him living in a modest condo and a job, fielding phone complaints for Land’s End clothing. As in Gulliver’s Travels nature’s violation appears normal; in the US, as economic rationality and an appeal to the latest thing. Safranek cannot change his circumstances, where the bank’s loan officer determines the limit of his hopes. He lives in a managed democracy, where citizenship has no meaning

 

The satiric force, as in Swift, is how citizens accept bizarre conditions as normal. Gulliver will accept having his eyes put out, because it is a regular process of state, duly recognized by the court. His doom is pronounced with official ceremony, and with legal language and paperwork. Paul Safranek – like Gulliver, pleasant and agreeable and willing always to cooperate – is persuaded by brochures and showrooms and model houses and sales pitches that dwindling is sensible. We become our bank balances, victims of hunger and debt that can never be satisfied. In “Downsizing” the state has disappeared, replaced by the corporation, upon which the citizen can exert no weight. Paul is helpless and some sort of happy, as his wan smile testifies.

 


[i] De Tocqueville quotes Alexander Hamilton from Federalist Paper No. 71 on this theme of the dangers to the people from those who would employ flattery and other wiles: “The republican principle demands, that the deliberative sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they entreat the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests. … [The people] know from experience that they sometimes err; and wonder is, that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants; by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate; by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than deserve it” (Ch. VIII, 154).

 

6

In P aradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels state power creates a dwindled normalcy. “Downsizing” state power, for the American, recedes behind the force of consumption and advertising. Unlike Norwegians, Americans are oblivious to the threat of an exhausted planet and pursue their lives getting and spending and competing with neighbors. “Downsizing” is much like “Network”, where in a key scene the mega-industrialist (Arthur Jensen) reveals to the addled news reader that corporate power rules his world. “Downsizing” depicts neo-liberalism, where no tensions appear in the smooth progress from cradle to grave now made rational by corporate management. Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network”, a harder-edged satire, names names.

 

The film “Network” (1976), script by Paddy Chayefsky, has become famous for its iconic bellow “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore”, by the unhinged TV news anchor Howard Beale. Beale has lost his mind reporting endless war, a crime infested NYC, and boundless corruption; but his listeners echo his cry, lifting their windows in the night to cry out in despair. Chayefsky’s satire targets TV, loveless love, revolution as business. However, at a critical moment, he lifts the veil of illusions to reveal the global network of corporations that direct human destiny and mock all previous understandings of nations and ideologies, and, indeed, of God Himself.

 

In an antique corporate boardroom, Jensen has this to say:

 

You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it…. You are an old man who thinks of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no Third Worlds. There is no West.

 

There is only one holistic system of systems. One vast and interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petrol dollars, electro dollars, multi dollars. Reichsmarks, rins, roubles, pounds and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today…. And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature. And you will atone.

 

There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T...and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon… The world is a college of corporations...inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit…all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.

 

[Beale] Why me?

 

[Jensen] Because you’re on television, dummy; millions of people watch you every night of the week, Monday through Friday.

 

[Beale]I have seen the face of God.

 

[Jensen] You just might be right, Mr. Beale.

 

Broadway, the at-home TV audience becomes a live audience in the theater; the real audience becomes the audience in the play. That audience is subjected to the new technologies that expand human figures into large screen projections. The new Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) moves among them with feigned hominess, but his image is gargantuan and shrinks the public into the tight spaces of their seats. While the audience can see the manipulation – the swarm of technicians -- the enhanced image is overwhelming. Jensen’s oration has added power, now that we are familiar with our corporate masters and their dominance.

 

7

There is a parable here in our time of powerless souls, wandering without political power as their world shatters down upon them, in routines shaped for happy consumers and quiescent citizens. As is typical in so much sci-fi, government slips away to reveal the corporate management that runs things. It is not only “Network”, but Spielberg’s “AI” or “Ex Machina” or “Blade Runner” where the world is run by business concerns, free to shape the world, while lingering humanity limps along as best it can. Corporate totalitarianism wields technological marvels and the story-telling prowess that captivates the citizen’s hunger for thrills. The sheer boredom of Leisureland excites its residents with flashing shimmer and primal thump of group grope fueled by powerful drugs in their frantic effort to make this novelty seem new and different. They are not citizens but clients in a humiliating diminishment from which there is no return.

 

Victims embrace their dwindling willingly. The loss of citizen power to the corporate state is a slow seepage, a coup in slow-motion, scarcely noticed by hard-pressed shoppers and taxpayers, competing for social status and normality. Their loss of unions and free-standing political parties to express social power -- leaves the denizens of Leisureland unarmed against corporate power. As in Milton’s vision, they have become spectators in vast assemblies, within expansive architecture diminishing them. The portals to Leisureland are immense with gleaming glass and metal atriums that awe the senses. Candidates for dwindling tread happily along bright corridors. The excitement is contagious as they fill the stands for a neatly packaged presentations for prospective purchasers of diminished, plastic communities. These future world projections are already familiar.

 

Citizenship seeps away, too, in the constant din of television, filling the emptiness with excitements of the news, now the prime entertainment for the middling masses living right at the edge of “not a care in the world”. The screens are cleansed of the poor and the sick and the miserable, they focus on the decent middling masses and their consumption styles. The distractions of celebrity and sports provide some ripple of excitement but nothing to awaken awareness of subjection and alarm.

 

These days, a growing commentary focusses on the decay of democracy into a corporatized spectacle. How can one say that the people have no voice when, at regular intervals they get to choose their leaders? However, in the United States, until recently considered a highly developed democracy, elections offer little choice. The wealthy and powerful dictate the roster of candidates, and, afterwards, the policies and actions of government. The people are aware it is a sham but are distracted by game show personalities to cheer or growl at. This is managed democracy, with its slogans and logos and memes; colorful projections, vivid personalities, and ringing slogans blazoned across the electric web, and dazzling the collective hive in Pandemonium.

 

                                                                   ---  ----

[1] De Tocqueville quotes Alexander Hamilton from Federalist Paper No. 71 on this theme of the dangers to the people from those who would employ flattery and other wiles: “The republican principle demands, that the deliberative sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they entreat the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests. … [The people] know from experience that they sometimes err; and wonder is, that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants; by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate; by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than deserve it” (Ch. VIII, 154).

 

[1] De Tocqueville comments on the dangers of demagogic persuasion in a way that sheds interesting light on the doubloon episode. He writes: “A proposition must be plain to be adopted by the understanding of a people.  A false notion which is clear and precise will always have more power in the world than a true principle which is obscure or involved” (Ch. VIII, 166).


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