The Handmaid’s Tale

Bruce Miller – HULU

I wasn’t sure if I was going to write something about this show. In it, the State is so omnipresent and abusive that it hardly needs much explanation; one simply must walk away from it with a desire for a more libertarian world that allows for more individual choice for the Handmaids and the Marthas. Yet, there is much still that we can explore here.

Note that this is my impression of the TV show, not specifically of the book by Margaret Atwood as I have not read it yet.

The Takeover

One very important point that Atwood makes here is that any society can be subject to a violent upheaval and political coupe, even by a minority. The outcome of this revolution in no way ensures liberty of the individual; the American revolution was really the one exception that increased human liberty through revolution. This is because those who were fighting and leading the rebellion had a strong understanding to the ideological principles of John Locke, Voltaire, Threnchard Gordon, and others who espoused libertarianism and the universality of private property rights at the time.

The Bolshevik Revolution, probably the most notable violent (albeit bloodless) takeover of a political structure in history, led directly to the authoritarianism of Lenin and Stalin, two of the biggest mass murderers of their own citizens in history. This revolution happened very quickly and without the consent of the general population; the revolutionaries took over and held government buildings and simply never left.

In Handmaid’s Tale, the revolutionaries killed most of the current government violently and then used armed military agents to apprehend the citizenry and herd them into holding and processing facilities. Like cattle, they were moved into their new lives under the new laws of Gilead or were killed if they were found unuseful or dissident to the cause. They had been just going about their days in a way that is familiar to Americans today until they weren’t.

Many people simply weren’t paying attention. They were busy working, having fun, meeting people, etc. By the time the entire framework and structure of society had been overturned, many had no idea what they were headed towards and had no time to prepare or flee.

Law is Whimsical

Another important lesson here is that government law is in no way objective or universal or even fair. It is not the non-aggression principle that we talk about in libertarianism wherein private property is the objective and universal, unwavering standard that keeps people from forcing other people to do things against their will. Although people will of course still try to violate this rule, nothing can be done ideologically to overturn, alter, or insubstantiate it’s general framework. Law, on the other hand, flows to and fro with the vicissitudes of the lawmakers; it can be as aggressive, invasive, unfair, reprehensible, or as insubstantial and lenient as those who pass the laws choose it to be.

If the new government of Gilead passes a law that all women of child bearing age must be slaves to the ruling class and made into concubines to serve the commander’s child bearing needs (even if the pleasure of sexual encounter is ordained to be outlawed), then that law becomes “legitimate”. No matter that slavery is reprehensible and coercive and a blatant violation of property and therefore human rights. Government laws override all reality and morality when need be.

If the new law is that all women deemed “unuseful” and anyone who opposes the new order shall be put to death, what can anyone say? If the answer is “well the law of the land is superior and must be followed”, then there is no recourse. To resist these orders is then deemed unethical. However, judged from the objective standard of property rights, these laws are not valid and must be resisted.

What did the abolitionists do about slavery? They didn’t just sit on their hands and say everyone should just obey the law. Laws reprehensible to human liberty were resisted; entire underground networks of transportation emerged to get slaves to their freedom, as emerged in the Handmaid’s Tale as well as Marthas and others tried to ferry people away from Gilead by any means.

Rule by Force

The State of Gilead rules with an iron fist. In this way, it’s brute force and violence is clearly seen by the citizenry. They do attempt to shield the view of their coercion to other countries around the world. To outsiders, the people of Gilead have volunteered for the selfless act of sacrificing themselves for society. The sterility of mankind is a real thing in this world; childbirth rates have precipitously dropped and the perpetuation of the species is in peril. Gilead tries very hard to convince everyone else that their society is just and is, importantly, completely voluntary.

To people witnessing the inside of this society, however, the view is very different. Helicopters, military soldiers with guns, endless unintelligible radio chatter, barbed wire, outright violence, intimidation, rape, prisons, torture and fear inculcate almost every scene in this show. All the markings of the violence of the State are on full display and all of it is entirely legal.

However, States in reality today can rarely get away with this type of outright violence. Sure, the totalitarian states of Russia and Germany who generally also tried to shield their abuses from their own citizens and other countries as much as possible could get away with their dazzling displays of violence and physical control, but, with technology and information multiplying as quickly as it is, States today must Rule by Deception.

Rule by Deception leads people to falsely believe that they live in a non-violent or a voluntary/free society. They don’t generally see any of the outright coercion that Gilead subjects it’s citizens to. They have been led to believe that as long as they comply with the law, despite it’s turbulence and the constants shifting sands of whimsicality on behalf of the ruling class, they’ll be just fine.

Rule by Deception is called that because at it’s heart is a grandiose lie: the individual is not actually free to live by their own conscience and free will. For example, those who do not believe they should be taxed to pay for military endeavors around the world that inevitably kill innocents would be physically accosted if they actually tried to act on their conscience and withhold their funds. People who try to work “under the table” or act in the black market outside of the law face fines, imprisonment, or worse.

The individual in this society still must submit to their political masters or face violence, yet because most people have enough freedom, they rarely step over that line and see the violence being enacted. However, the line that allows for freedom of action inevitably continues to get smaller and smaller, as the ruling class always wants more power over people and continually tightens their grip to reduce the scope of allowable human action.

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”

~Aldous Huxley

The Planned Society

The economy in Gilead’s world is basically communistic/planned: the rulers and commanders get an allotment of “tokens” that they can use to purchase things. It’s clear that they don’t live in incredible wealth. Their houses are large (likely because they were seized from those who were wealthy in the society before they took over), but empty. There’s very little technology; their maids have to prepare food mostly by hand. They certainly save money on clothing since they basically wear the same thing every day!

Part of this general squalor is their spiritual rejection of “material” wealth, as their religion requires, but much of it is likely due to the fact that a society like this simply is not capable of producing wealth. It is centrally planned down to every detail. They claim to have reduced carbon emissions by 83% and are therefore “green”, but most of this “achievement” is likely due to these factors:

  • They killed off or caused to flee a notable amount of the population, leading to less demand for goods/services/energy
  • The non-ruling and slave class has very little ability to vote themselves more resources and must subsist on whatever they are given, and even the ruling class does not really have much wealth
  • Any predatory State can live off the material wealth they seize that has been generated via capitalism by the previous/current society, but only for so long
  • Given their omnipresent military presence, it is likely that any production they are capable of as a a society is directed towards militaristic aims. The upkeep of slavery in terms of physical subjugation necessary of any slave-driven society is extensive and a society where slavery is extended to most of the population requires enormous militaristic upkeep

Indeed, there is mention of them nationalizing all industries under government management, so production will necessarily a) be very slow and inefficient if it is possible to produce anything at all and b) be directed towards the aims of the State, not the general people. Look at Venezuela today for a good example of this decline in production: their oil production in 1970 before the government nationalized the industry was 3.8 million barrels per day; today it is closer to 300,000.

Dissidents and undesirables who are not killed in Gilead are sent to “the colonies”, where they spend their time forced as slaves to clean up nuclear waste and to slowly die from radiation poisoning. Economically, the capitalist order would realize that no one would voluntarily clean up this waste because they would rightfully charge an impossibly high wage rate in order to risk their lives. Companies would therefore likely a) not make the radioactive mess in the first place by choosing weapons and power sources that did not destroy the environment and therefore cost them tons of money to cleanup (as libertarianism demands personal responsibility and property rights demand that companies do not damage other people’s property) or b) invest time and money in creating robots or non-human actors to clean it up for them. In a coercive-labor society, neither consideration will occur because there is no incentive to reduce damage to lives or property done by the State.

The architect of their economy is known to be Joseph Lawrence. He created the class system of Gilead. Money has been banned after it was initially seized from everyone in the society (especially women), so we know that without a common medium of exchange economic activity will be extremely difficult if it is possible at all.

Suppression of Knowledge

The reading of books is explicitly outlawed for all women. When Serena Joy, one of the commander’s wives and one of the political advocates of the new society originally, comes before a council to plead her case that knowledge needs to be available to our daughters and women so that they can grow intellectually, she is punished violently for her pleas.

Any totalitarian society needs to outlaw knowledge, as knowledge brings about the self reflection necessary to realize that the societal framework those people live under is violent and reprehensible. It was knowledge and constant intellectual argument carried out by the dedicated minority of abolitionists that eventually led to the general abolition of slavery. It is a continual theme of all dystopian novels such as 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, etc.

Indeed, the movement in our society today against “misinformation” and alternative interpretations of history or current events is, at it’s heart, a movement by the left to stifle dissent and resistance to their political impositions. Those who are deemed to be so vile as to be “canceled” and turned offline of Twitter and Facebook have generally been Trump supporters or libertarians or people who in some way and to some degree oppose the State and specifically the unending quest of the left for more and more power over the individual. This is no coincidence.


Atwood really wants to make sure that we realize that the “it couldn’t happen here” stuff that people say is simply not true. It can happen anywhere there is a State that rules over us, as that State is susceptible to the whims of those who hold or seize the reigns of power in it. We must remain eternally vigilant if we want the destruction of our freedom to “not happen here”; assuming it won’t all but ensures that it will.

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