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Fictions of fascism: what twentieth century dystopia can (and can't) teach us about Trump

Dystopian novels of the 1930s and 1940s feel topical once again – but how much do they tell us about Trump and today’s populist upheavals?

A 20th-century novelist pictured a Nazi diplomat ruminating over the grand objectives of the regime he served:

“Don’t you realise that what we are doing is a real revolution and more internationalist in its effects than the storming of the Bastille or of the Winter Palace in Petrograd? . . . Wipe out those ridiculous winding boundaries . . . wipe out . . . the influence of the churches, of overseas capital, of any philosophy, religion, ethical or aesthetical system

of the past . . . There are no more impossibilities for man now. For the first time we are attacking the biological structure of the race. We have started to breed a new species of Homo sapiens. We are weeding out its streaks of bad heredity. We have practically finished the task of exterminating or sterilising the gypsies in Europe; the liquidation of the Jews will be completed in a year or two . . . We are the first to make use of the hypodermic syringe, the lancet and the sterilising apparatus in our revolution.”

The writer was Arthur Koestler, and the book Arrival and Departure (Vintage Classics), first published in 1943. We are living in a time when many believe we are seeing a resurgence of fascism, yet so far Koestler’s semi-autobiographical novel has been neglected. This is a pity, as he did not invent the type of Nazi whose terrifying visions he put into the mouth of Bernard, the fictional diplomat. Travelling across Europe as a journalist and undercover communist in the 1930s, Koestler must have encountered many who shared this view of the world – one that departs in a number of ways from the view of fascism that most modern liberals have today.

Under the impact of the rise of Donald Trump and with the growing strength of European anti-immigrant parties, fascism is equated nowadays with extreme versions of nationalism. However, as Koestler shows, many Nazis and fascists regarded nation states as relics that would be subsumed into a new, pan-European order – a project that was revived by Oswald Mosley after the Second World War under the rubric “Europe a Nation”.

Fascism is now being seen as an ideology of irrationalism that was hostile to science and reason. But while some fascists preached “thinking with the blood”, others, like Koestler’s diplomat, gloried in the new powers conferred by modern science. As the historian Lewis Bernstein Namier wrote in 1958: “Hitler and the Third Reich were the gruesome and incongruous consummation of an age which, as none other, believed in progress and felt assured it was being achieved.”

In some ways interwar fascism was a parody of the progressive thinking of the time. In Spain and Portugal, the Balkans and Vichy France, many fascists wanted to roll back the modern world – a project that appealed to figures such as T S Eliot and G K Chesterton, who hankered after the cultural homogeneity of medieval Christendom. Yet many others were at one with Koestler’s diplomat in believing that modern technology opened up the prospect of remaking humankind on a “more advanced” model.

Such views were not confined to the far right. The “evolutionary humanist” Julian Huxley, for many years a prominent member of the British Eugenics Society, advocated “preventing the deterioration of quality in racial stock” throughout the 1920s into the early 1930s. “Racial science” was not a Nazi aberration.

Attitudes that many have seen as defining features of fascism can appear at many points on the political spectrum. Anti-Semitism has been a feature of fascist movements everywhere, and hatred of Jews was the core of Nazism. But anti-Semitic attitudes are not the exclusive property of the far right. After its foundation, the state of Israel was attacked by the left under the banner of anti-colonialism. Clearly, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are analytically distinct positions; but when criticism of Israel’s policies occurs in the context of talk about “Zio media conspiracies” – as has been the case recently among certain sections of the left in Britain – the two become functionally equivalent. The emergence of a left-liberal anti-Semitism is a defining fact of our age.

At a moment of disorienting political flux, it is not surprising that dystopian classics are fast rising up the bestseller lists. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, Newspeak – hailed by some as anticipating the “post-truth” discourse of the Trump administration – is the language of Ingsoc, English socialism. Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) is a satire on ­utilitarian social engineering. Other writers speak more directly to fears of renascent fascism.

Newly reissued as a Penguin Classic, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) tells of how the flamboyant demagogue Buzz Windrip defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt by exploiting popular discontent with corporate power and quickly establishes an authoritarian regime that promises economic renewal. When his plan for prosperity comes to nothing, Windrip is succeeded by his secretary of state, who is then ousted in a military coup. After the military junta incites war with Mexico, the US slides into civil strife and chaos. Lewis’s novel is an uncanny premonition of Trump’s rise to power and how he might end.

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) presents a counterfactual history in which the aviator Charles Lindbergh runs successfully against Roosevelt on an isolationist ticket that enables him to reach a rapprochement with Adolf Hitler and implement a programme of anti-Semitic persecution in America. Seamlessly melding the traumatic history of a Jewish family with penetrating analysis of the America First movement (against entry by the US into the Second World War), in which the real-life Lindbergh played a prominent role, Roth reminds us how history could have taken a horribly different turn.

Both of these novels present powerful visions of a fascistic America. At the same time, because of their American focus, they leave out some of fascism’s distinctive features. An egocentric conman, Windrip has no political beliefs; the apocalyptic visions of Koestler’s Nazi diplomat would mean nothing to him. Roth is at his most disturbing in depicting how a European version of radical anti-Semitism could be imported into the United States. But the actual anti-Semitism of 1930s America was expressed by the demagogue Father Coughlin, whose radio broadcasts praising Europe’s right-wing dictatorships commanded wide audiences throughout the 1930s but lacked the “scientific” pretensions of Nazi racism. Rooted as it was in a reactionary Roman Catholic world-view, Coughlin’s brand of bigotry could never attract a modern secular intelligentsia. Nazism and fascism did that in Europe, and on a large scale.

A remarkable work of speculative fiction that appeared in 1937 illuminates some of the reasons why this could happen. Appearing under the pseudonym Murray Constantine but in fact written by the feminist Katharine Burdekin (1896-1963), whose authorship of the book was established only in the 1980s, Swastika Night portrays a Nazi Europe centuries after the triumph of Hitler. With great subtlety, Burdekin describes a world in which conflicting stands in Nazism and fascism have been integrated to produce a neo-medieval order. The extermination of the Jews has been followed by a campaign against Christianity, and Hitler is worshipped as a superhuman being, the only son of a Thor-like god of thunder, from whose head he “exploded”. It is not hard to see how such a vision could have attracted interwar European intellectuals steeped in sub-Nietzschean fantasies of a new paganism.

Of all the fictions that have attempted to capture the appeal of fascism, the most extraordinary – and the one most nearly forgotten – may be The Aerodrome: a Love Story (Vintage Classics) by Rex Warner. Written in an allegorical and at times darkly humorous style reminiscent of Kafka, whose stories Warner greatly admired, this 1941 novel is a first-person account of the conflict between the Village – earthy, chaotic and sordid, where people are ruled by their ignorant passions – and the Aerodrome, where the Air Vice-Marshal preaches a life governed by conscious will. Speaking to the aviators, the Air Vice-Marshal declares:

Please put [your parents and your homes] out of your minds directly. For good or evil you are yourselves, poised for a brief and dazzling flash of time between two annihilations. Reflect, please, that “parenthood”, “ownership”, “locality” are the words of those who stick in the mud of the past . . . And so is “marriage”. Those words are without wings. I do not care to hear an airman use them . . . Science will show you that in our species the period of physical evolution is over. There remains the evolution, or rather the transformation, of consciousness and will, the escape from time, the mastery of the self, a task which has in fact been attempted with some success by individuals at various periods, but which is now to be attempted by us all . . . This discipline has one aim, the acquisition of power, and by power – freedom.

Joining the air force, falling in love and then discovering the true identities of his father and mother, the narrator returns at the close of the book to the muddled and contingent world of ordinary human beings – a world “too vast to be imagined by me”.

Warner (1905-86) was a classical scholar whose first published story appeared in the New Statesman in 1930. An ex-Marxist, he never ceased to be a partisan of the left. Yet he was able to articulate, as few writers of fiction have done, the powerful allure that Nazism and fascism exercised over many European intellectuals in the interwar period. Showing open contempt for democracy, they were avowed elitists who looked to government by an intelligent few.

The film Things to Come (1936) ­preserves the flavour of this brand of fascism. Based on a 1933 novel by H G Wells, who also wrote the screenplay, it shows how the world is “cleaned up” by an elite of aviators, who establish a world state that suppresses nationalism and religion. In the years before the Second World War, Wells’s view of ­fascism was not always wholly negative. He, too, dreamt of government by an intelligent minority, and throughout the film “the people” appear as an ignorant, prejudiced, Luddite rabble. A similar view of large numbers of their fellow citizens can be detected in today’s liberal critics of “populism”.

There can be no doubt that the contemporary political melee carries sinister echoes of the past. Members of Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland have let it be known that they no longer feel obliged to “apologise” for Nazism, while in Austria the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs – founded by a former Nazi functionary – came only a few percentage points from commanding a majority in last May’s presidential election. And yet viewing the ongoing upheaval as a slide into political atavism is much too simple. Along with Gert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid and Marine Le Pen’s Front National, the Trump administration practises a type of intellectual opportunism, in which ideas are continually borrowed from different sources, mixed and reshuffled, that is wholly of our time. If fascism has returned, it is as part of a chaotic political bricolage in which nothing works any longer and anything goes.

Trump is like Windrip in acting on impulse rather than by reference to any definable world-view. A potentially pivotal ideologue has emerged in the White House, however, in the person of Stephen Bannon, whom Trump has made a member of the highly sensitive National Security Council. Bannon is an ex-chairman of the “alt-right” website Breitbart, former investment banker and former chief executive of Biosphere 2, a company focusing on space colonisation and the creation of artificial human habitats. Many have commented on his infatuation with William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning: an American Prophecy (1997), in which US history is told as a succession of generational culture wars.

Other, more exotic influences may also be at work. In a Skype lecture to delegates attending a conference held at the Vatican in 2014, Bannon cited the Italian Julius Evola (1898-1974) as a “traditionalist” thinker who could be useful in understanding the current global crisis. Bannon went on to claim that Vladimir Putin has an adviser – almost certainly Aleksandr Dugin, the chief ideologue of “Eurasianism” – who “hearkens back” to Evola.

That Bannon should cite Evola and Dugin as his kindred spirits is striking in several ways. An exponent of “magical idealism” – a farrago of occultism, alchemy and sexual magic – and advocate of “pagan imperialism”, Evola was hostile throughout his life to Judaeo-Christian traditions and to nationalism. He had high hopes for the Nazi regime, travelling frequently to Germany to lecture to the SS, which he regarded as a reincarnation of medieval chivalry. (An internal SS report condemned his thinking as “reactionary”.) After the war he continued to expound “traditionalist” ideas, including a “spiritual racism” that identified Jews as a corrosive “anti-race”, while playing a murky role in inspiring right-wing terrorism. Dugin is also a curious figure for Bannon to invoke as an ideological ally. Though there is no reason to believe that he has any great influence over Putin, this guru of Eurasianism regards Western Christianity as a lost cause and urges a “Russo-Islamic pact”, uniting Russian Orthodoxy with certain Muslim traditions. It is unclear how any of this squares with Bannon’s self-styled mission to save the Judaeo-Christian West.

Viewing the current turmoil in politics through the lens of a received account of fascism may stave off a paralysing sense of bafflement. At bottom, however, it is a way of failing to understand the present. Fascism was more alluring to intellectuals, and more modern, than many who fear its return have realised. Yet what we are witnessing is more a meltdown in the political traditions that prevailed since the end of the Cold War than a reversion to interwar fascism. All of our political ideologies are in disarray – not least left-liberalism, now not much more than a collection of smelly new orthodoxies and an uncomprehending wail of self-righteous indignation.

With familiar landscapes melting away, political leaders and their gurus are snatching ideas from the air. In the world’s most powerful nation, important decisions affecting national and global security can be shaped by an internet provocateur seemingly inspired by the ramblings of a forgotten figure from the European ultra right. It is a situation that has yet to find its voice in fiction, and possibly only the theatre of the absurd can do it justice.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His most recent book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry into Human Freedom” (Penguin)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game