“The high-rise was a huge machine designed to serve, not the collective body of tenants, but the individual resident in isolation.”
Author JG Ballard begins a metaphorical story with emphasis of the individual over the community, a key element feeding the social collapse within a luxury housing complex near London. High-Rise (1975) expresses the stark horrors of an imbalanced community, a social rot similar to the dysfunction of contemporary America.
Attempting to reverse American social implosion, US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey recently presented a resolution, a “Green New Deal,” which addresses environmental, economic, and social problems exacerbated by massive wealth inequality. To help pay for reform, Ocasio-Cortez floated the idea of a 70 percent income tax on individuals accruing over $10 million per year. Conservative pundits immediately attacked this idea with trigger words like “socialism” and “Venezuela,” despite a Fox News poll finding 70 percent of its own audience “favoring an increased tax rate for families earning over $10 million.”
Most Americans prefer policies that discourage wealth inequality; and if they read the dystopian story High-Rise, this enthusiasm for sharing would expand.
Two thousand residents, stratified by 40 floors, compose Ballard’s fictional tower, where “fellow tenants were far more tolerant of any noise or nuisance from the floors above than they were from those below them.” The principal characters of the story reinforce this hierarchy. Richard Wilder, an aspiring TV producer, lives near the bottom floor, along with the flight attendants and other young professionals. Wilder seeks fame and greater social status via a documentary film about the pressures of living in the high-rise. The middle stratum is represented by Dr. Laing, an academic who occasionally associates with Anthony Royal, the high-rise’s architect-developer who resides with those at the top.
Royal is “certain that a rigid hierarchy was the key to success of the huge building” and total self-sufficiency from others created harmony, an echo of America’s “pull up by the bootstraps,” individual-in-isolation, success myth. Yet Royal never anticipates the devastating consequences of such a disjointed social structure. As society within the high-rise becomes more stratified, individuals become more isolated and self-obsessed.
This isolation, in turn, leads to fewer consequences for individual acts: One doesn’t care what those below think, while seldom challenging those above. A sparkling wine bottle falls from above and shatters on Laing’s deck, and he initially lets it go. Small resentments build. Wilder kills a neighbor’s annoying dog during a blackout. With little social consequence for poor behavior, “for the first time since we were 3 years old, what we do makes absolutely no difference.” Vandalism, elevator hoarding, and lockouts of kids from the pool and roof deck sculpture garden soon proliferate like political fights on Facebook today.
A growing defiance of social norms builds as civility declines. High-rise tenants are more openly and rudely antagonistic with one another, as garbage is jammed in air conditioning ducts, pets and their owners piss in stairwells, the systemic plan for building repairs is abandoned, and the maintenance department workers all quit. Beatings and muggings become more common, especially in the stairwells, as folks retreat to “safe areas” and arm themselves against increasing violence. Is not America at the same stage, given our declining infrastructure investment, our rude and crude president, our segregated residential enclaves, and our entrenched gun culture?
For a brief period before collapse, high-rise residents create small community defense groups. Tribalism ensues to counter faceless enemies everywhere in the building, while some apartments are simply abandoned. Like modern America, “these self-possessed professional men and women were moving away from any notion of rational behavior.” The upper floor residents, perfumed and well-dressed, continued to hold cocktail parties amidst the wafts of garbage smell and chaos closing in. They irrationally hold on to the old order and discuss how to make the high-rise great again, while this old order collapses. Most residents fear and resist organizing society in a different way, living beyond a rigid hierarchy, a mentality that grips the building, as residents barricade hallways and doors with furniture and build secret floorboard cubbies to stash food and valuables.
“All move toward a state of primitivism … a chance to become perverse,” and eventually become all-consumed with the high-rise battle. A complete collapse of social supports, community, morality and family lead to a psychological imbalance that sociologist Émile Durkheim labels “anomie.” At heart, anomie is a deep despair that turns toward self-annihilation, which then morphs into intoxicating empowerment; it is a twisted mental liberation from feelings of oppression and meaninglessness. Chris Hedges, author of America, The Farewell Tour, asserts that anomie drives America’s drug and pornography consumptions, gambling addictions and hate crimes.
In High Rise, anomie results in overt sexual assault, and cannibalism when food delivery systems break completely. In the tower, many die quickly from violence at this stage, while the remainder pillage for food and water. Wilder survives and begins marking his chest with tribal lines. He continues to shoot his TV documentary, although his camera has broken long ago. Eventually, Wilder fights all the way to the top of the building and kills Royal.
At the top, Wilder discovers a new society dominated by women, a tribal matriarchy. Blood lathers the deck where dead bodies are stacked by a fire fueled by old furniture. Naked children play between sculptures and piles of human bones. The women and children are indifferent to Wilder, despite his markings, showing a symbolic social reset from the patriarchal hierarchy to a matriarchal community.
Will America devolve to these final steps of murder, pillage, rape and cannibalism? Will inequality, self-obsession, defiance of social norms, irrationality, resistance of change, and anomie complete America’s social collapse? Or will we find common ground, share more, engage cooperative venture, and strengthen community before it is too late?
A 70 percent tax on incomes above $10 million is small, positive, first step toward a stronger society, and one step away from the potential horrors of JG Ballard’s High-Rise.
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over seventeen years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This column examines current events through the lens of quality literature.