Mail & Guardian

The last summer of reason

Dystopian novels can only give us a hint of what Trump’s ‘whitelash’ might mean

- Richard Pithouse Richard Pithouse’s Writing the Decline: On the Struggle for South Africa’s Democracy is published by Jacana

In January 2001, three journalist­s at the Daily News, an independen­t newspaper in Harare, were arrested and questioned by the police. A few days later the paper’s print works were bombed. In June the editor, Geoffrey Nyarota, decided on an inventive response to the escalating repression in Zimbabwe. He began to serialise George Orwell’s 1945 novel Animal Farm in daily instalment­s.

Orwell had fought fascism with the Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista (Poum), an independen­t communist party, during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. His experience of the ruthless opportunis­m, authoritar­ianism and propaganda of the Soviet-backed forces in Spain — who, among other things, called the Poum fascists — led him to develop a deep hostility to Stalinism.

Animal Farm is a cutting criticism of Stalinism and, in particular, of how popular, emancipato­ry projects can be captured and turned into new forms of oppression that mask themselves in the language of political virtue by pretending to be always fighting the old fight.

At the time, Nyarota explained: “Animal Farm is not only relevant but pertinent to Zimbabwe. The animals in the book won independen­ce by working together. But in due course some became drunk with power.”

The series was an electric success and there was a run on the novel in Harare’s bookshops.

Things didn’t go well for the Daily News, or its editor, though. In December the following year, Nyaraota was removed from his post. In September 2003, the paper was banned. For many people the authoritar­ianism that Zimbabwe was confrontin­g — the cops, spies and party thugs — seemed to be an anachronis­m, an aberration in which the past refused to surrender to history and vacate the present.

Zimbabwe had won its independen­ce late, and by means of a war that ended in compromise. It was often assumed that these facts were largely responsibl­e for its agonies under a rotten and repressive nationalis­t party.

But there was a dimension to the gathering crisis in Zimbabwe that is more contempora­ry: the structural adjustment programme imposed by the World Bank in 1990. Structural adjustment in the guise of austerity as well as the mobilisati­on of authoritar­ian nationalis­m to protect elite interests in a time of economic crisis, are very contempora­ry phenomena.

Zimbabwe was not the only country in the Global South where, after the end of the Cold War, economic deprivatio­n was exploited to drive authoritar­ian forms of nationalis­m. In 1992, Hindu fascists destroyed the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The mosque, which had stood since 1529, was destroyed by a mob intoxicate­d with poisonous fervour. This set the stage for the pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, and the ascension of Narendra Modi, backed by mobs on the streets and trolls in cyberspace, to power in 2014.

The crisis in Algeria in the early 1990s is often traced back to October 1988, when thousands of young people, many unemployed, took to the streets in protest against their economic situation, as well as the corruption and authoritar­ianism of the ruling party, the Front de Libération Nationale, which had won independen­ce from France. The response of the former liberation movement was brutal: in five days, hundreds of young men were killed.

On the first day of the riots, Josie Fanon, Frantz Fanon’s widow, had watched teenage boys set fire to police cars from the balcony of her flat in Algiers. In the days to come, she saw soldiers shooting young men. She put her affairs in order and, in June the following year, she visited her husband’s grave near the Tunisian border. She returned to Algiers and threw herself off the balcony from which she had witnessed the massacre.

Two years later the country descended into a war between the military and the Islamist forces that had come to the fore and won electoral support after the massacre.

In 1993, the novelist Tahar Djaout, a critic of religious authoritar­ianism, was murdered in Algiers. The manuscript for a novel, The Last Summer of Reason, was found among his papers and published in Paris. It is a dystopian novel, written to illuminate the dangers of the totalitari­anism that he knew was coming. It has often been described as “Algeria’s Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

In the decade after Djaout’s assassinat­ion, the state brutally suppressed the Islamist forces, which, in turn, waged a campaign of assassinat­ions on academics, journalist­s, doctors, lawyers, feminists and left-wing activists. More than 100 000 lives were lost.

The hero of Djaout’s last book is Boualem Yekker, a bookseller who finds himself increasing­ly alienated from a society rapidly reconstitu­ting itself on an authoritar­ian basis. He mourns “the last summer of reason”, as his country enters “a tunnel whose end could hardly be seen”.

Today, there’s another run on an Orwell novel as another society enters a dark tunnel. This time it’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published in 1949, that is selling out in the United States in the wake of the election of Donald Trump and the announceme­nt that there are, now, “alternativ­e facts”. Other dystopian novels, such as Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, are also selling strongly.

Orwell’s novel largely drew on Stalinism and wartime Britain for its sense of what a future authoritar­ianism might look like. There are many respects in which its anticipati­on of the future appears distinctly old-fashioned in the time of Trump, the troll and the presidenti­al tweet. But there is much in the novel — such as the political manipulati­on of anti-Semitism, perpetual war and, of course, the deliberate perversion of language — that retains a political charge that is all too contempora­ry.

But what Orwell called “newspeak” is hardly a new phenomenon in the US. The use of the term “collateral damage” to refer to the killing of people who are not military targets, first used in the Vietnam War, gained notoriety during the first Gulf War. It was often referred to as Orwellian.

Straight-up fabricatio­n is also not a new developmen­t: recall Colin Powell’s 2003 speech at the United Nations, with its bogus claims about “weapons of mass destructio­n” and a “sinister nexus with al-Qaeda”.

The fact that a tapestry that reproduced Pablo Picasso’s mural Guernica, painted in 1937 in protest at the fascist bombing and strafing of a Spanish village, was removed from the UN before the speech led many to describe the event as Orwellian.

What is new is Trump’s extraordin­ary buffoonery and the crassness with which he assumes that the truth can be made to be what he wants it to be simply because he declares it as such.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith, the novel’s central character, works in the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites the archive so that old records accord with new lies. Trump has no interest in constructi­ng an impression of empirical and logical consistenc­y.

The turn to an authoritar­ian form of nationalis­m in the US as global capital begins to do to white people there some of what it has long done to other people in much of the rest of the world has been anticipate­d elsewhere. Trump’s buffoonery also has antecedent­s in figures such as Italy’s former prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi and, in terms of novels, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow.

But authoritar­ian responses to economic desperatio­n take very different forms in different contexts. An important indicator of the particular nature of the form of toxic politics that has swept into the White House lies in Robin Kelley’s reminder that, though Trump did speak to economic devastatio­n, “we cannot ignore the fact that the vast majority of white men and a majority of white women, across class lines, voted for a platform and a message of white supremacy”. Kelley adds: “If history is our guide, ‘whitelash’ usually follows periods of expanded racial justice and democratic rights.”

Intellectu­als such as Ananya Roy, more attuned than the liberal mainstream to the degree to which Trump’s project is overtly racial, have turned to another book to understand Trumpism: WEB du Bois’s magisteria­l Black Reconstruc­tion, first published in 1935. It is perhaps most famous for arguing that, by fleeing the plantation­s, engaging in sabotage and taking up arms against their masters during the American Civil War, African slaves embarked on a general strike that dealt a mortal blow to the institutio­n of slavery.

But Du Bois also argues that after abolition many whites, including poor whites, were unwilling to give up the status that racism gave them as whites. There was, he writes, a “spirit of lawlessnes­s” in this endeavour to reassert racial authority: “White people paid no attention to their own laws. White men became a law unto themselves.” White men asserted themselves as the law, as the police, as reason.

It is this spirit of reassertin­g racial authority — an authority that cannot survive if it does not extend beyond reason — that meant Trump’s buffoonery, and the crassness of his dishonesty, were no barrier to his election. This is why he does not see brazen dishonesty as a barrier to his authority in office. To take full measure of this dimension of the new form of authoritar­ianism settling into 1600 Pennsylvan­ia Avenue, and casting its shadow around the world, we need to look beyond Orwell.

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