Divergent and Democracy
Review of: Roth, V. (2011). Divergent (London: Harper Collins).
Veronica Roth’s Divergent places an experimental societal model into the remains of a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Chicago. After the breakdown of society, the colony has restructured around five factions, each prioritising a trait they see as corrective of the causes of the past society’s disintegration. At the age of sixteen individuals may choose a life in any of the factions but must remain there or live an empty existence factionless. Each faction, with its own trait, fulfils a different societal role: Amity (the peaceful) are farmers and counsellors; Candor (the honest) make trustworthy lawyers and advisors; Dauntless (the brave) provide security by guarding the perimeter fence, and Erudite (the intelligent) are scientists and teachers. Abnegation, the original faction of the protagonist Tris, are selfless public servants and are thus chosen as the ruling faction, taking all fifty places on the council.
In typical Hollywood style, the social experiment is disastrous due to scheming Erudite leader, Jeanine Matthews, who attempts to seize governing power for her faction. While the book has received some criticism for the “preposterous premise” of the faction system (Kirkus 2011), can we use Divergent to reconsider our understanding of democracy and its practice? Are the ideas in Divergent as far from reality as we might think?
Firstly, we can consider the decision to allow the Abnegation to rule by virtue of their selfless intentions. For Rousseau (in Gofman and Feld 1988, p. 568), the pursuit of the general will, frequently determined to be best known through democracy, is essential for achieving the common good which justifies the state’s existence. This same spirit is embodied in Divergent, where the faction that prioritises selflessness governs society on the other factions’ behalf, always considerate of the needs of society as a whole. As our society (currently) lacks the testing serums found in Divergent to identify the truly selfless, we may be forced to settle for Rousseau’s method of determining the general will – voting.
However, the concept of a ruling faction of identifiably selfless individuals recognises a need for a reconsideration of how democracies in practice identify and pursue the common good. Whilst the adversarial nature of party politics makes government more greatly contested than the Abnegation’s one-party rule, it is not necessarily more representative of the general will. In many democracies there is a tendency to elect decision-makers based on their technocratic ability in formulating policy, their charisma and presentability, or what they and their party can do for us as individuals.
In Divergent, the technocratic role of policy formulation would be fulfilled by the Erudite (the intelligent), but the role of governing is instead assigned to “selfless leaders” from Abnegation. Whilst we may not be able to test for selflessness (and indeed true selflessness may be unattainable), we might consider recalibrating the role of elected politicians to focus on their moral judgement and ability to think of society as a whole rather than their technocratic ability, which can be fulfilled by non-elected individuals. This is an attractive and practicable principle for democracy, as it would go some way to restoring the link between government and Rousseau’s concern with the general will.
Other ideals closely related to thought about democracy can be drawn out of Divergent’s political system, which need not be as dystopian as Roth envisages. A dystopia refers to the presence of injustice, of dehumanization and often totalitarianism in opposition to human flourishing or utopia. In Divergent, we might point to the lack of individualism allowed by a faction system as dehumanizing, or to the lack of voting rights for citizens as an injustice in defining it as dystopian. However, further thinking calls into question the link between Divergent’s political system and dystopian outcomes.
Justifications of democracy are often based either on democracy’s intrinsic or instrumental value. The former focuses on the importance of legitimacy, liberty and equality democracy embodies, whilst the latter prefers democracy’s ability to produce good outcomes (Christiano 2006).
Legitimacy in Divergent is derived from the selfless nature of the Abnegation, the decision-makers. In terms of liberty, the faction system is attractive in that it removes almost all barriers to social mobility, with those who best employ the trait of their chosen faction rising to the top. All sixteen-year olds may place themselves in any of the five factions regardless of their aptitude test results (including the rulers, Abnegation) and thus have the opportunity to live their lives as they wish.
But is the value of liberty not undermined in the denial of political power to those who choose a life outside of Abnegation? Each faction is allowed a leader to represent them to the council (which is entirely Abnegation) and their advice and concerns in theory should be considered fairly given the onus placed on selflessness. Additionally, each faction has an internal decision-making structure with its own leader; in Amity, all decisions are even voted on by the entire community. However, the rigidity of the faction system which denies people the choice to live between multiple factions does pose a significant challenge to liberty which I consider later.
The faction system also creates a unique equality within and between factions, with an acknowledgement of the equal importance of each faction’s role in society. Again, while the rigidity of the faction system may be preposterous in practice, its intrinsic value can perhaps be realised in other ways in our democracies. Greater recognition of the value of different societal roles is a common argument towards introducing a universal basic income, promoting equality by acknowledging the value of all contributions, not just traditional, paid work. This is also empowering for the individual, providing a strong sense of purpose and belonging embodied by the mantra “faction before blood” and removing socio-economic barriers to the exercising of their liberty.
Finally, we must address the main concern of Divergent’s “preposterous premise”. Can society really be divided and truly represented into five groups, dismissing the notion of the individual subject at the centre of much of political theory? This concern for the theorist is also the concern for those in the book, as Divergents like Tris (who possess an aptitude for multiple factions) threaten the foundation of the entire system and the true selflessness of Abnegation is called into question. In reality, it is highly unlikely that even broadly speaking any population could be well divided into just a handful of ‘types’; individuals possess numerous and complex traits that makes them beyond categorisation. Additionally, such rigidity which ties individuals to a single faction for life threatens the freedom of those under system. To be practicable and avoid undermining liberty, it would be necessary to broaden the faction system. This could be done by adding more factions, allowing individuals to be part of two factions rather than one, or by defining a period of time or a stage in life where one might change factions. However, how many factions might we need to categorize human nature, if this is possible? What would they be? And what could be done in instances where people just don’t fit in?
Whilst it would be difficult to justify the implementation of a faction-based society I hope to have promoted a shift in thinking to at least viewing Divergent as impracticable rather than entirely dystopian. In addition to its entertaining plot, Divergent presents a thought-provoking social experiment that is more relatable to considerations of practiced political systems than its critics and nature as a Hollywood blockbuster would suggest. The novel offers important reflections on the deviation from the importance of the general will and common good idealised by Rousseau, as well as how the ideals of equality and liberty can be better embodied.
Christiano, T. (2006). Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: Democracy. Available at
<https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democracy/#JusDem> (Accessed 21/05/2018).
Gofman, B. and Feld, S.L. (1988). “Rousseau’s General Will: A Condorcetian Perspective”, The
American Political Science Review, 82 (2), pp. 567-576.
Kirkus (2011). Kirkus Review: Divergent. Available at
Roth, V. (2011). Divergent (London: Harper Collins).