J.G. Ballard was one of the UK’s most acclaimed Science Fiction writers. I once thought that his early 1970s stories of sexualized car crashes and mass hysteria were too far out to be realistic, but then the death of Princess Diana happened and suddenly we were living in Ballard’s world.
“Kingdom Come” was his last novel, first published in 2006. Reviews at the time noted that it was structured like a report on contemporary Britain, but dismissed it as more of a report on the strange imaginings of Ballard’s mind. Too weird, too out there; hysterical and paranoid.
Reading “Kingdom Come” in 2018, though, it seems as though the last laugh — or perhaps, last scream — is Ballard’s. He could apparently feel the forces that were about to bring us Brexit and Trump, he just wasn’t quite sure of exactly how fascism would manifest.
Ballard saw the new fascism emerging from late stage capitalism, wedded to consumerism and sport. He would have been disappointed by the sheer lack of imagination of Ukip, even though he clearly saw that they were coming:
I accepted that a new kind of hate had emerged, silent and disciplined, a racism tempered by loyalty cards and PIN numbers. Shopping was now the model for all human behaviour, drained of emotion and anger. The decision by the estate-dwellers to reject the imam was an exercise of consumer choice.
He even saw some of the talking points of the racists:
“…On the other side are the low-value expectations of the immigrant communities. Their suppressed womenfolk are internal exiles who never share the dignity and freedom to choose that we see in the consumer ideal.”
He saw the form forthcoming political campaigns would take:
“…There’s even talk of him starting a political party.”
“The kind that goose-steps? The Oswald Mosley of the suburbs? I don’t think he’d be convincing.”
“He wouldn’t need to be. His appeal functions on a different level. It’s more your world than mine. Politics for the age of cable TV. Fleeting impressions, an illusion of meaning floating over a sea of undefined emotions. We’re talking about a virtual politics unconnected to any reality, one which redefines reality as itself. The public willingly colludes in its own deception…”
In Ballard’s novel, the demagogue is a TV personality who appears on the cable TV channels broadcast from a suburban mega-mall. The protagonist is an advertising man, recently fired from his job, who finds at the mall the chance to try some of his more avant-garde ideas for political advertising. As he explains to the TV star:
“Be nice most of the time, but now and then be nasty, when they least expect it. Like a bored husband, affectionate but with a cruel streak. People will gasp, but the audience figures will soar. Now and then slip in a hint of madness, a little raw psychopathology. Remember, sensation and psychopathy are the only way people make contact with each other today. It won’t take your viewers long to get a taste for real madness, whether it’s a product or a political movement.”
Isn’t that basically a Trump rally? In the novel, school headmaster Sangster goes further:
“…Who needs liberty and human rights and civic responsibility? What we want is an aesthetics of violence. We believe in the triumph of feelings over reason. Pure materialism isn’t enough, all those Asian shopkeepers with their cash-register minds. We need drama, we need our emotions manipulated, we want to be conned and cajoled. Consumerism fits the bill exactly. It’s drawn the blueprint for the fascist states of the future. If anything, consumerism creates an appetite that can only be satisfied by fascism. Some kind of insanity is the last way forward. All the dictators in history soon grasped that — Hitler and the Nazi leaders made sure no one ever thought they were completely sane.”
Asked once why his novels weren’t better at predicting the future, Ballard said he wasn’t interested in predicting the future — he was interested in preventing it. “Kingdom Come” is fairly typical in its Ballardian structure, in that once the premise has been set up, society soon begins to descend into collective madness, and horrific events ensue on the way to an apocalyptic conclusion.
Let us hope Ballard was wrong about that.