The French writer Luc Moullet once wrote, “On fascism, only the point of view of someone who has been tempted is of any interest.” These wise words apply to totalitarianism in general, and, in the spirit of Moullet, The Circle depicts a totalitarian organization from the point of view of someone who is slowly being pulled into its orbit. Because The Circle is told from Mae’s perspective, we learn relatively little about how, exactly, the Circle is going to take over the world—as is so often the case in totalitarianism, Mae (a mere foot soldier) is kept in the dark. However, by focusing so exclusively on Mae, the novel explores one of the key aspects of any totalitarian organization: how powerful people indoctrinate their underlings into obedience, using a mixture of peer pressure, persuasion, and outright brainwashing.
Perhaps the novel’s key insight into indoctrination is that it has to be gradual. Like the proverbial frog in a pot of water, Mae is slowly pulled into the radical ideology of the Circle. As the novel begins, she is enthusiastic about the basic premise of the Circle—accountability on the Internet—but skeptical of some of the company’s more ambitious ideas. Instead of live-blogging her life and posting online at all times, she spends time with her parents and kayaks alone. As the novel moves along, however, Mae’s colleagues and superiors cajole her into spending less time with her family, posting online more frequently, and cutting her ties to the world outside the Circle.
At first, the arguments Mae hears in favor of transparency seem to be somewhat justifiable. For example, Mae learns about the Circle’s plan to implant tracking chips into human bone, but she doesn’t question it because it’s intended to protect young children from kidnapping. Much later, when it becomes clear that the Circle is going to use the chips to track all human beings in order to control them, Mae still does not object—the moral groundwork for this totalitarian project has been laid already, and Mae has invested too much in her life at the company to change her mind once she begins to understand the truth. It has been argued that, had Adolf Hitler proposed the murder of the Jews in the early days of his regime, the German population would have opposed or ignored him. However, by gradually proposing increasingly extreme measures, Hitler was able to seduce his people into supporting his genocidal plan. Much the same is true of the totalitarian Circle: if Mae had heard on her first day that the Circle wanted to track all aspects of human life, she might have quit. But because the Circle slowly nudges her into obedience, she comes to support all of its endeavors.
Another important point about indoctrination is that it’s often a collective process in which the psychology of the group can convince individuals to conform. Central to this is the Circle’s emphasis on isolating employees: the Circle campus is a self-contained world that employees are encouraged never to leave, which means that they spend very little time with non-employees. This isolation amplifies the effectiveness of indoctrination in several ways. First, it minimizes the number of dissenting voices who might dissuade Mae and her friends from embracing the Circle’s ideology. Second, it pressures Mae and other new employees to fit in with the group at all costs, since this is their only community. Third, it creates a spirit of competitiveness, in which Mae and the other employees all want the same things (the same romantic partners, the same accolades from their superiors, and the same promotions). This instills loyalty to the company over loyalty to one another.
The Circle’s indoctrination techniques are, in sum, taken straight out of the totalitarian playbook. By examining the psychology of a lower-level employee who gradually comes to believe the company’s twisted ideology, the novel provides valuable insight into how even independent and intelligent people can be seduced into supporting practices that, when viewed objectively, are clearly immoral.
Totalitarianism and Indoctrination ThemeTracker
Totalitarianism and Indoctrination Quotes in The Circle
The extra layer of the CircleSurveys helped distract Mae from thinking about Kalden, who had yet to contact her, and who had not once answered his phone. She'd stopped calling after two days, and had chosen not to mention him at all to Annie or anyone else. Her thoughts about him followed a similar path as they had after their first encounter, at the circus. First, she found his unavailability intriguing, even novel. But after three days, it seemed willful and adolescent. By the fourth day, she was tired of the game. Anyone who disappeared like that was not a serious person. He wasn't serious about her or how she felt.
Somewhere in the stampeding applause, Bailey managed to announce the capper to it all—that Mae, in the interest of sharing all she saw and could offer the world, would be going transparent immediately.
Later that day, a headache appeared—caused, she thought, by eating less chocolate than usual. She reached into her bag, where she kept a few
single-serving aspirin packets, but again, on her screen, she saw what everyone was seeing. She saw a hand searching her bag, clawing, and instantly she felt desperate and wretched, like some kind of pill-popping addict.
She did without.
She wanted to hear it again, so she said nothing. "Mae."
It was a young woman's voice, a young woman's voice that sounded bright and fierce and capable of anything.
It was a better, more indomitable version of herself. "Mae.”
She felt stronger every time she heard it.
"But there are a thousand protections to prevent all of this. It's just not possible. I mean, governments will make sure—"
"Governments who are transparent? Legislators who owe their reputations to the Circle? Who could be ruined the moment they speak out? What do you think happened to Williamson? Remember her? She threatens the Circle monopoly and, surprise, the feds find incriminating stuff on her computer. You think that's a coincidence? That's about the hundredth person Stenton's done that to. Mae, once the Circle's complete, that's it. And you helped complete it. This democracy thing, or Demoxie, whatever it is, good god. Under the guise of having every voice heard, you create mob rule, a filterless society where secrets are crimes."
What was going on in that head of hers? It was exasperating, really, Mae thought, not knowing. It was an affront, a deprivation, to herself and to the world. She would bring this up with Stenton and Bailey, with the Gang of 40, at the earliest opportunity. They needed to talk about Annie, the thoughts she was thinking. Why shouldn't they know them? The world deserved nothing less and would not wait.