Upon its release in 1985, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s unremarkable work of speculative fiction The Handmaid’s Tale was marketed for its prescience. The publisher promised that this book, which depicted an America now cruelly governed by an ultra-Puritan minority, was a “forecast” of things to come. Guess they did a bang-up job. Thirty years later, the US is now cruelly governed by corporate rather than religious overlords, yet folks just keep on saying that Atwood is an actual clairvoyant. Because Trump.
When the trailer was released last week for the forthcoming MGM-Hulu TV version of this sack of old balls, many again found its dystopian prophecies both thrilling and “deeply, deeply unsettling”. I do not understand how a work that predicts the future nature of the hegemon with about as much forethought and accuracy as a magic 8 ball is deeply, deeply unsettling. I guess it’s a little unsettling that Elisabeth Moss, a Scientologist, plays the role of a woman whose life is governed by a tiny cult with terrible views on the gendered division of labour. But, as for all the “this could really happen here!” claptrap. We can only suppose that the wide availability of medical-grade doobies to US critics has narrowed the faculty for hard analysis even as it has deepened soft-headed paranoia.
This is not, Miss Feminist Pants, to say that the future looks rosy for all the world’s women. Of course it doesn’t. The future of the world looks shit for everyone save for about eight guys. Our waterways are in peril. The people of the Global South toil and die to serve the interests of a shrinking Western middle class. Nativism and other forms of bigoted nostalgia, including sexism, arise as the deluded political response to a time of income crisis. The future’s so dim, we need night vision goggles. Atwood does not provide these.
What Atwood does very explicitly provide in her book, to which the TV interpretation looks set to be faithful, is a murky faith in liberalism, which is to say, the way we currently organise our societies. The great calamity in the book, which I reread last night, is that the US Constitution has been overturned and the dollar has disappeared. Oh, no. This is the central problem in her work: America stopped being great.
It is strangely pleasurable to believe that a tiny group of radical elites can seize upon some antique values and impose them quickly on the world’s wealthiest and most complex nation.
The Handmaid’s Tale describes a total break with the past. And it is this thrilling, actually impossible, shift that has propelled the book back to the top of best-seller lists far more than any of its “predictions”, none of which have come to pass and all of which are historically improbable. Brutal theocratic rule doesn’t just happen on its own in the modern period—even the case of Middle Eastern nations, which Atwood mentions in the book’s epilogue, it only happened with the coercion of the US.
The author is of the view that a radical change to social organisation can occur with a moment’s notice, and so, currently, are many readers. Ergo, this middling fantasy can now be compared, in public, to a more plausible vision like 1984.
It is tempting to believe—although Orwell didn’t—that bad things suddenly occur. It is strangely pleasurable to believe that a tiny group of radical elites can seize upon some antique values and impose them quickly on the world’s wealthiest and most complex nation—maybe, you know, with some help from “Russian hackers” and not through any legitimate process. This is a reassuring way to explain the rise of a leader like Trump, a figure those who believe in the goodness of American liberal democracy reject as an outsider.
The more difficult way to think about Trump, or his more extreme European versions including Farage, Le Pen, Wilders, Vona etc., is as having arisen as inside, not outside, a liberal nation-state. It’s unpleasant, of course, to concede that you have, for all your life, inhabited a society that can produce brutal isolationist views that, somehow, a lot of people seem to support. You can say, “this is not my country”. But, the fact is, it is your country and when one of its contradictions reveals itself, maybe the best response is not to say, “this happened very quickly and without my knowledge”. We do not get off as lightly as Atwood would like.
Inequality is not something we can merely overcome with a few warm-hearted policy adjustments, but intrinsic to the way we have agreed to organise our societies.
We privileged inmates tend to think of cultural and social inequality in our liberal democracies as an oversight, Atwood-style. What we dare not entertain is the idea that inequality is not something we can merely overcome with a few warm-hearted policy adjustments, but intrinsic to the way we have agreed to organise our societies.
When we confront, for example, the indignity borne by Dylan Voller, we do so with shock. We white people see such brutality committed against Aboriginal people as aberrant and not as an ongoing tradition. We do not participate in it ourselves and, if we are liberal, we say “not in my name”. Which is a lot simpler than conceding that it has occurred and will occur until we agree to truly see such brutality as part of the “name” of Australia. You don’t just come and steal the land and the material resources of an ancient society and expect things to be hunky dory once your Christian Prime Minister says sorry and pays the rent in tears. The theft will continue “in your name” until it is recognised as a foundational and a systematic theft.
History has the irritating habit of unfolding, and not simply occurring. Violence has the irritating habit of existing within systems, and not simply being attributable to a couple of bad guys and girls. Mineral conflicts do not flare up in Congo just because people are shitty. They happen because those minerals are privately held, and Apple and other companies will pay for their extraction. You didn’t ask for your iPhone’s capacitor to come with bonus blood, of course. But, you may ask for the gods of liberalism to allow you to believe that cheap marvels, like your smartphone, can be made available to you without it.
There is no Australia without a brutalised Dylan Voller. There is no iPhone without blood. These are not aberrations caused by the neglect or the cruelty of a few, but the inevitable results of the freedom of which Atwood is so uncritically fond.
Atwood recounts in a recent, delicately self-congratulatory New York Times essay that she began to write the book within the walls of West Berlin. She speaks, still, in this age, of the “Iron Curtain”, and so betrays her willingness to see good guys and bad guys rather than systems of social organisation that will eventually fall beneath the weight of their internal contradictions.
The Berlin Wall fell due, of course, to the failure of the eastern bloc’s state-capitalism. But to say, as Atwood clearly does, that this was a victory for “freedom” is to valorise the West as a place that actually provides such a thing. She talks in her essay about being surrounded by Soviet surveillance and other evidence of state apparatuses. But somehow managed not to recall the very visible US military presence in that city. Ich bin ein handmaid. For a Canadian, this chick sure loves the USA.
Uber, your Facebook and all the other things you freely enjoy accessing on your iPhone form part of a vast, opaque system.
For those paying little attention to the political economies of the West, Trump was a great surprise. These are the people who find Atwood’s book a comfort. They can easily imagine a claque of crude sexists conspiring to overthrow all existing history, somehow overcoming all the machinery of the deep state and its partner economy. This is much more agreeable than admitting that your Uber, your Facebook and all the other things you freely enjoy accessing on your iPhone form part of a vast, opaque system that was not ever a conspiracy, but coerces you into particular patterns of existence nonetheless.
Still, everyone and her pit bull, including Atwood herself, is going on and on about how this particular fiction, freed from the bonds of history, is prescient. It is far easier for the New Yorker to see the “enemy” as the filthy, sexist impulses of a few dicks than as immanent in the nation itself.
I am certain that Elisabeth Moss’s Offred will be a great success. The actor will breathe ostensible life into this white, middle-class tertiary educated female rebel who suffers abuse because a few guys overturned the glorious US constitution, which is really the only thing standing between us and the penis of the master. Offred’s pain will be enjoyed by a wide audience of masochistic fantasists who would prefer to imagine their own impossible future agony rather than think about where their iPhone, or where Trump, arose from.
I recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t believe in history.
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