I’ve read a triptych of books in the past week that all throw light on our particular situation.
The first was Suffragette: My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst
The second was It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
And the third is Kingdom Come by J G Ballard
Suffragette was an eye-opener. Of course we all know the basic details, women agitated, sometimes violently, for the vote. However this book fills in a lot of detail, and the political thinking behind the struggle.
In this day where we have proto-fascists in the White House and the MRA, some of whom advocate that women should remain at home, it is odd to see that we have both progressed and that some things remain the same.
This book should be required reading by those who want to #Resist. History has treated Pankhurst with some equivocation. The received wisdom is that her violent protest – the window smashing campaign, the mailbox burnings etc. set the women’s movement back. However it is difficult to credit that view when reading this book. The government of the day forever put off the question, giving it a very low priority whilst women were just asking nicely.
This shows that petitions (in fact the right to petition in person was lost to us because the government of the day changed the rules specifically to thwart the suffragettes) and gentle protest and even rallies can be easily ignored.(cf the march against the war in Iraq)
The absolute vehemence that the men in power showed in resisting progress is enlightening. As is the duality of how they treated male suffrage and home rule movements against how they treated the women’s movement. The Cat and Mouse act was particularly cruel. Women, let out of prison on medical grounds due to hunger strikes were re-arrested as soon as they were fit again, and so the cycle continued.
As I said, it was an eye-opening read and one I thoroughly recommend.
Next and more immediately prophetic was Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here which is an alternative history book about how fascists took over 1930’s USA (published in 1935).
“… they’ve realised that this country has gone so flabby that any gang daring enough and unscrupulous enough, and smart enough not to seem illegal, can grab hold of the entire government and have all of the power and applause and salutes, all the money and palaces and willing women they want”
Buzz Windrip runs for president on a “Make America great again” platform and wins. It is a mostly racist campaign against both people of colour and jews. He institutes a private army, called the Minute Men, and redivides the USA according to corporate rules. There is talk of war with Mexico.
This does have some similarities with today’s situation especially in the form of Buzz:
“… could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences… was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic… Certainly, there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches…”
It spends much more time concentrating on the little man, the hero of the piece a mild-mannered newspaper editor, than on the movers and shakers of the fascist state.
It doesn’t feel very dated, although Lewis’s style is to tell the reader through narrative summary virtually everything, using immediate scene sparsely. This makes for quite a dry read full of distance. The world of the book also felt very small with no great sense of the States as a nation.Although some of the horror is muted because of the aforementioned distance, it is still there, there is still the sense, when reading, of ‘what would I do?’
Keith Perry argues that the key weakness of the novel is not that he decks out American politicians with sinister European touches, but that he finally conceives of fascism and totalitarianism in terms of traditional American political models rather than seeing them as introducing a new kind of society and a new kind of regime.Windrip is less a Nazi than a con-man-plus-Rotarian, a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation, but neither he nor his followers are in the grip of the kind of world-transforming ideology like Hitler’s National Socialist.
If it wasn’t for Bannon I think this could apply to Trump & his regime…
The last book in the triptych is Ballard’s last book – Kingdom Come and that’s the one that seems the most prescient and the most descriptive of where we are now in Britain, but also predicts a Consumerist authoritarian fuhrer – a la Trump. And its message is that Consumerism can lead to Fascism:
“The danger is that consumerism will need something close to fascism to keep growing.”
Ballard posited that consumerism was the great cause of our age and that it leads to a spiritual boredom, a desire to break free with social pathology. A collective and willing madness that desires a bloodletting:
“People still think that the Nazi leaders led the German people into the horrors of race war. Not true. The German people were desperate to break out of their prison… and they chose Hitler to lead the hunting party… They needed a psychopath god to worship… ”
Ballard paints a bleak picture of England (the book was published in 2006) – riddled with apathy and ennui and a longing for belonging that is not being fulfilled. A land where ugly nationalism is beginning to rear its head, where in a motorway town in Surrey the men wrapped in St George’s cross rule and ethnic minorities cower in fear. Towns, where the only commonality to bind people is consumerism:
“You have to think of England as a whole… The churches are empty, and the monarchy has shipwrecked itself on its own vanity. Politics is a racket, and democracy is just another utility, like gas and electricity. Almost no-one has any civic feeling. Consumerism is the one thing that gives us our sense of value.”
“We have to keep buying or we fail as citizens. Consumerism creates huge unconscious needs that only fascism can satisfy. If anything, fascism is the form that consumerism takes when it opts for elective madness…
‘And the fuhrer figure?’
‘He hasn’t arrived yet. He’ll appear, though, walking out of some shopping mall or retail park… Everyone will be waiting for him, and he’ll seize his chance.”
This is eerily prescient I think. Ballard spotted that the zombie horde (cf Dawn of the Dead) are merely the foot troops of a new fascism. That our collective ennui seeks an outlet and that elective madness is our escape valve. (cf Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds). And he spotted that we were ripe for another bout of madness. His bleak vision noted that liberalism was dying and that the population was colluding in its own delusion.
The elective madness is “… primate behaviour at its most extreme. Witch-hunts, auto-da-fés, heretic burnings, the hot poker shoved up the enemy’s rear, gibbets along the skyline. Willed madness can infect a housing estate or a whole nation.”
I choose to view Brexit through this lens. A willed madness – all the signs point to our divorce from the EU being a massively self-harming gesture and yet it is ‘The will of the people’ and those that say otherwise are the new heretics.
“Consumerism is optimistic and forward-looking. Naturally, it asks us to accept the will of the majority. It’s driven by emotion…”
It is the ennui of consumerism, the failure of globalism, that have led us here. Progressive policies that have engendered equality are being pointed to with fingers of blame. To many, loss of privilege feels like oppression. In the USA this has led to a whitelash, here in the UK there is s strand of this, but our most vitriolic demagogues rail against the East Europeans as much as against the Islamists.
“We have to prepare our kids for a new kind of society… The old ideas of citizenship… are really rather selfish…What’s the use of free speech if you have nothing to say? What’s the point of privacy if it’s just a personalised prison? Consumerism is a collective enterprise… it celebrates coming together. Shared dreams and values, shared hopes and pleasures.
‘So Liberalism, liberty, reason?’
‘They failed. People don’t want to be appealed to by reason any more… liberalism and humanism are a huge brake on society. They trade on guilt and fear. Societies are happier when people spend not save. People long for authority…”
It’s a deeply cynical vision but one that feels realistic. There is an emptiness at the heart of our society and deep down we all know it.
“The human race sleepwalked to oblivion, thinking only of the corporate logos on its shroud.”