A few notes about my usual reading habits. I commonly read two or three books at once. Over the last few weeks, I read Alan Moore’s From Hell finally, a masterpiece that encapsulates the emotional and psychic terror, corruption, and destructiveness of Western society as it existed in the Victorian era. Moore depicts the acts of Jack the Ripper as an expression of power in the form of raw violence: both the political violence of an imperial throne and the brutal, bloody, personal violence of street murder. Genocide and serial murder are depicted as expressions of the same force: the intoxication of the power to destroy.
Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism has much in common with Moore’s own mystical take on the subject. I’ve written many times over the last weeks about her description of totalitarianism as a pure movement in essence, a mode of politics that takes the essence of a particular idea (ex. racial superiority, class warfare), understanding it as implying an inevitable endpoint for history, and uses methods of terror and public fear to move a populace with the most radical speed toward the ideal of that essence. Basically, it’s the achievement of utopia through fear and terror.
|Eddie Campbell's stark artistic style in|
From Hell accentuates its brutality.
Moore’s take on the idea is mystical, given the orientation of his book as a serialized comic, but there’s a striking similarity in theme. The politics of the imperial and totalitarian era of Western culture is ultimately defined by fear and terror as its methods.
The third book I’ve been reading concurrently with all that is Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, his analysis of how various expressions of the expansion of imperialism and the struggles against it reveal various aspects of the whole phenomenon. While I’m also incorporating its ideas into my thinking as I plan the utopias project, Said’s is mostly a book that I’m also reading for entertainment value. I’ve learned a lot about some wonderful elements of world culture and writing in fiction and history that I didn’t know before (the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o is on my list now, and I’m particularly keen to acquire some of his books that were originally written in Gikuyu). But I’m also reading Culture and Imperialism because I enjoy it.
Yet there’s one question that comes to my mind when I reflect on the coincidence that I’m reading all these three books simultaneously. Said focusses specially on the imperialist phenomenon, its politics, and its effects on everyday people, the same multi-scale eye as Moore and Arendt. This is especially true for Arendt if you include Eichmann in Jerusalem as part of her historical work on totalitarian politics, one example of an individual at the causal epicentre of totalitarian genocide. After these last weeks of reflecting on imperialism and totalitarianism, I’m left with just one question, at least with regard to my political conscience.
Why were any of these basic ideas controversial? I cannot wrap my head around the fact that we now know all that we know about the physical and cultural violence of imperialism, particularly its aspects as economic exploitation. We admit that slavery is horrifying, yet as a culture, we seem unable to understand that hideous squalor is an injustice. We all seem aware that most of our technological products (and I don’t just mean the awful labour conditions in computer factories, but even a lot of the global textile manufacturing sector) are produced in such conditions of poverty that they amount to slavery in all but name and intended bondage. When states do it, we call it imperialism and say it must be destroyed. When businesses do it and avoid the actual purchase of labourers like chattel, we call it the natural economic development of the free market. But it amounts to the same kind of poverty and violence.
It’s not as if I know how to stop any of this, but at least there are times when I bring this situation to the forefront of my thoughts and feel terrible about it. Yet I remember Rick Perry, a mainstream American politician and governor of one of its most populous states, Texas, running for US President and openly advocating the re-invasion of Iraq. Few people in modern politics suggest that our current economic system has some major poverty problems.
Each in their own ways, Moore, Said, and Arendt show the subtle and complex links through which a whole society is implicated in political, economic, and personal violence. Having learned that lesson, I don’t know that anyone has any idea how to escape it.