Michael Paye


With the carrying of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election to the White House (as well as his growing list of hard-right nationalist cabinet nominations), events that might seem more at home in a George Orwell novel have moved into the realm of real-life American and British politics. As heroes in The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner battle against insurmountable odds in dystopian settings, the unreality of the right-wing swing across Europe and America seems startlingly familiar. Indeed, the spectre of fascism, central to such young adult dystopian narratives, looms large in contemporary American and European politics. 

The wisdom is that dystopian and apocalypse scenarios play out extreme versions of social contradictions, particularly around class politics, and thereby allow us to see such contradictions more clearly. Fascist governments and cataclysmic events abound in such narratives, and only violent revolution and/or a deus ex machina (an inexhaustible energy source, a cure for plague, a half-immune zombie) can save humankind. Often, the savior moment does not come, and as in The Walking Dead and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (novel: 2006; film: 2009), survival through everyday struggle becomes the point of existence. Yet arguably, apocalyptic and dystopian narratives not only predict the rise of Trumpism and Brexit, but contribute to conditioning their possibility, because we are accustomed to revolutionary battles in the face of extreme evil and fascism, not against the politics as usual which led to this point. While Gordin, Tilley, and Prakash write that utopia and dystopia “address root causes and offer revolutionary solutions” (2010), a plethora of twenty-first century novels, television shows, movies, and videogames put most of their energy into the dystopian imaginary, and what comes after the revolution is rarely meaningfully explored. Struggle for its own sake has become popular entertainment in Britain and the United States, and perhaps entertainment is returning to punish western democracy in the face of Trump and Nigel Farage, the former, fittingly, a reality television star.

In fact, though Trump’s attitude towards women, Muslims, Latin Americans, and civil rights in general has been roundly criticised, such chauvinism has existed for centuries, and has been made more explicit by his election. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) argues that the legacies of slavery are detectable today in acceptable levels of police brutality, racial profiling, and mass incarceration of black men. So too can the new misogyny of Trump (its glaringly honest, unapologetic arrogance) be traced to centuries of privatisation and dispossession, as Sylvia Frederici illustrates in Caliban and the Witch (2004). Trump has drawn back the curtain to make long-existent social contradictions––including violence against women, colonialist attitudes to non-whites, and the alienation of the working class from the political process––often most extremely represented in dystopian narratives, painfully obvious. 

This re-emerging politics of hate was eerily captured decades ago by author Alice Sheldon. In her 1977 story, “The Screwfly Solution,” Sheldon picks up on a central tenet of contemporary masculinist paranoia: white men are under threat from external forces, specifically anyone not white and male. Like the Christian fundamentalists who roam Jim Mickle’s 2010 film Stake Land, airdropping vampires onto unsuspecting villagers from helicopters, Sheldon’s short story concerns homicidal men murdering women and children. The men are believed to have contracted a sickness that causes them to kill their families, but this sickness is inseparable from the chauvinistic culture from which it has emerged. While the fundamentalists in Stake Land welcome the chaos of vampires as a newly purifying force, in Sheldon’s narrative, groups across North America calling themselves the Sons of Adam speak of angels rewarding their femicide. Anne, one of the central characters whose letters describe much of the violence, draws a link between man’s domination over nature and the elimination of difference. She sees one of the angels described by the Sons of Adam, and in her final letter, writes, “I saw it. It was there. But it wasn’t an angel. I think I saw a real estate agent.” As her researcher husband exploits the weak link in the social and genetic makeup of cane flies to prevent their parasitic spread, something else is doing the same with humans. Donald Trump, real estate tycoon, must have been paying attention.

As Sheldon writes, such mass violence against women is “not uncommon in world history in times of psychic stress.” Indeed, with a Brexit–Trump double-whammy, in which Farage and the New White Order (from Trump to Brexiteers to white supremacists) pose for photos in a gold-plated elevator, we are more in the universe of Jeanette Winterson’s 2007 novel, The Stone Gods, destined to repeat the same mistakes on a global scale over the course of millennia. Greedy, uncaring elites scoff and scorn at their electorate, thankful for their votes, but ultimately disdainful of their needs, encouraging their ignorance and rage. It should not be forgotten, of course, that many pro-Brexit and pro-Trump voters are on the periphery of the social, economic, and political system, while many high-profile Trump supporters profit from such peripheralisation. Meanwhile, those most at risk—pro- and anti-Trump alike— take the brunt of the horrors of this system.

As Trumpers and Brexiteers proudly state their opposition to the scourge of political correctness across social media, chauvinism has been given its political and cultural mandate. Hate, masquerading as free speech, is quickly becoming part of the status quo. Identifying and categorising problem figures (specifically non-whites) is central to the normalisation of this rancor disguised as politics. Building walls, closing borders, and creating a database of undesirables takes people’s attention away from their own immiseration as they rely on the system to grant them a sense of stability. Indeed, everyday life in Britain and the United States has never been closer to dystopia. Ursula Le Guin writes of science fiction in her 1996 essay, “The Carrier Bag of Theory Fiction, “It is a strange realism, but it is a strange reality.” So too is the monstrous realism of politics in 2016.

With the zombie figure given the enviable title of “official monster of the recession” by Lev Grossman in Time Magazine in 2009, the next capitalist monster is yet to be decided, though androids seem to be making quite the comeback. In the television series Westworld (2016), for example, the wealthiest stay at a theme park populated by androids to fulfil their desires, with the series promising a secret, unknown territory that breaks the rules of the game itself, a harbinger of utopia/dystopia, which might invigorate the clear bourgeois–proletarian subtext between wealthy humans and enslaved androids. But in its final throes, the zombie figure is still the creature par excellence that reveals a particularly virulent form of inhumanity on which neoliberalism has thrived for decades. At the conclusion of Naughtydog’s hugely popular 2013 zombie survival-horror videogame, The Last of Us, the central father figure, Joel, prevents the dissection of a young teenager, Ellie, by scientists hunting for a cure for the virus. A grand narrative of love and companionship overtakes the more troubling normalcy of brutalising those most at risk for the greater good. While zombies came back to humanity through love and understanding in 2013’s Warm Bodies, the young zombies of The Girl with All the Gifts (novel: 2014; film: 2016) only show signs of infection when exposed to human blood and saliva. Rather than assist the military in curing the plague, ten-year-old Melanie, one of these zombies, single-handedly releases the virus by burning the pods that contain the pathogen. The next half-zombie generation are thereby given a chance to remake the world, indicating a general feeling of malaise against politics as usual. Melanie releases the spores because she represents the anger of the moment and refuses to simply get in line. What comes after, though, is not so clear. The very idea of change through normal political channels is under serious scrutiny, made explicit by apocalypse narratives, but the apocalypse itself is a convenient way of getting around the serious difficulty of imagining a culture that can avert the coming horrors before they reach fascist, unapologetically racist levels.

With Trump, climate change will likely accelerate, but the planet will ultimately have the final say in capitalism’s drive for resources at all costs, at least, according to apocalypse narratives. In The Last of Us, the longer zombies stay outside, the more organic they appear. They do not rot as in The Walking Dead, but become scaly and develop fungus. The more fungus- and plant-like they become, the more difficult they are to kill—you learn this when trying to take on a “clicker” in the game, creatures whose faces are made up of teeth and tumor-like fungal swellings. As in The Girl with All the Gifts, the game shows you a world where trees and forests have overtaken major towns and cities, as deserted post-industrial America finds its green, organic corollary. Indeed, “Coral reefs might have been adios on the ocean floor, but they were alive and well on the arms and backs and heads of the infected” in Junot Díaz’s “Monstro,” a tale of cataclysm in which Haiti is ground-zero. Monstrous, rage-fuelled zombies threaten to engulf the entire island, spilling over into the Dominican Republic and exceeding the understanding of racist geopolitics, military strategy, and elitist social life. But “Monstro” never became the full novel Diaz planned, and may forever remain at the early incubation stage of its 2012 appearance in The New Yorker; again, what comes next is deferred. The spread of infection as organic fungus in many contemporary zombie tales might metaphorize the very planet striking back against inhumanity. Such images of ecovengeance are highly satisfying to observe. Herein lies the problem.

A Clicker from The Last of Us

Perhaps in contemporary culture, there is a radical distrust of the establishment, but also an acceptance of its inevitably destructive policies, and with it a concomitant drive to see just how far madness can be pushed before the world mercifully destroys itself. With mainstream media and bookies roundly miscalculating the results of Brexit and the US presidential race, did we secretly want to see what would happen because we are conditioned to prepare for the worst? Perhaps stories of functional societies after the collapse of undemocratic capitalism are not engaging to a wide-ranging, popular audience because we are conditioned not to be engaged by such narratives, rather, to vicariously enjoy the horrors of dystopia and freedom of apocalypse. A tweet doing the rounds perhaps best sums this up: “Trump won't win. 2017: President Trump can't do that, can he? 2018: You watching The Hunger Games tonight? I hope my District wins.”

It is tongue in cheek, but we are now reading contemporary American and British politics as dystopian scenarios, and even the “Biden and Barack” memes are a distraction from the fact that the conditions of possibility for Trumpism precede his rise. These memes are symptomatic of a culture that has been side-eying a clearly impending swing to the far Right that is not unprecedented. Contemporary culture has been willing a day of reckoning in which things get so bad that the battle lines are clearly drawn, where the lines between elite and non-elite are not so blurred. Perhaps we have just gotten too comfortable with the apocalypse, that great accelerator of social change that comes too late. 

Slavoj Žižek’s recent suggestion that Trump will allow room for a “more authentic left” verges on utopia. We should remember that women, Latin Americans, blacks, and Muslims are the ones most at risk, and may not want to be martyrs to this new energy. Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” and, indeed, Farage’s desire to make Britain earn its “Great” epithet through a return to a racist’s ideal of traditional British values, is equally utopian, but only for a certain cadre of Americans and British, principally poor whites and elites. One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia, and without a cataclysm that will eliminate the system that created Trump and Brexit, the lessons of dystopia are hard to draw out from popular narratives. Seeds of hope might sprout after careful cataloguing of what has come before, as in Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, Station Eleven, and such optimism is certainly necessary now. But as U, protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s 2015 novel, Satin Island suggests, we might just be experiencing “a set of variations on generic” moments. It feels that way when you look at the British and American political landscape.

The fun of dystopia and apocalypse has been thrown into disarray, as the former becomes too recognisable. Alejo Carpentier (1949) wrote that Latin American magical realism comes from the “improbable juxtapositions and marvellous mixtures [. . .] of Latin America’s varied history, geography, demography, and politics.” As such, we should expect the current popularity of dystopian and apocalypse narratives to become even more dominant,  more recognisable. The Wire made uncomfortable, though addictive, viewing because it showed, like Satin Island, that comprehending the system is impossible, but incomprehension is not necessarily disempowering. New groups will continue to emerge across America (and the world), will organise, protect human and non-human rights, and imagine alternative scenarios. Standing Rock is an obvious example of the power of a social movement that calls attention to crises ignored by political elites. Enjoying, but getting uncomfortable and perhaps a little impatient, with popular apocalypse and dystopian narratives might be one weapon in the arsenal of the new politics erupting on the streets right now, that sees environmental degradation, racism, misogyny, and hate-speech as part of the same systemic problem. Thinking about how our popular narratives are more than just reflections of our current status, but cultural objects that contribute to conditioning us, prevents us from getting too accustomed to the new status quo of chauvinism and hate, which may not be so new after all.

Feature image via +61J

Michael Paye is a PhD candidate at the School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin, Ireland (2012-2017), and a Fulbright NUI Visiting Researcher at Princeton University, New Jersey (January-June 2017). He is a former IRC Doctoral Scholar (2013-2015) and was a Dobbin Scholar at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia (October 2015). He has written for Green Letters and the Galway City Tribune, with work forthcoming in Atlantic Studies: Global Currents (Spring 2017).