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A Fascist State? Another Look at Kingdom Come and Consumerism

Author: • Jul 7th, 2010 •

Category: advertising, architecture, Bentall Centre, celebrity culture, consumerism, dystopia, fascism, features, Lead Story, media landscape, Salvador Dali, Shanghai, speed & violence, sport, surrealism

The Bentall Centre. Photo by Fr3d.org. Reproduced under Creative Commons.

by Mike Holliday

Why do I dislike the Bentall Centre so much? Because it’s so… cretinous. [The consumers] seem to be moving though a kind of commercial dream space and vague signals float through their brains.

J.G. Ballard in interview, 2006.[1]

Ballard’s final novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopian account of consumerism as a type of ‘soft fascism’, [2] received lukewarm reviews and suggestions that the author was, perhaps, finally losing his touch – that the metaphors seemed strained, the text confusing and ambiguous.[3] M John Harrison, one of Ballard’s fellow authors in New Worlds back in the 1960s, commented that ‘Perhaps, after all, it is not the consumers who have fallen for the dream of the Metro-Centre; it is the alienated intellectual of the London suburbs … For the old metaphorista, perhaps, the hidden terror of the shopping centre is that it is just somewhere people go to shop’.[4] Other commentators were eager to point to parallels between Kingdom Come and events in the world around us – aggressive car commercials, racist behaviour by sports fanatics – but appeared reluctant to delve into the novel’s theses in any depth. In this article, I re-examine Kingdom Come and ask: can we really equate consumerism with fascism?

How you convert a metaphor into the arming device of a political conspiracy, or how the consumerist dream might be co-opted to produce the kinds of hard results associated with the nationalist dream of the 1920s and 30s, Ballard seems less sure. In reality, there are only a lot of people buying American sports utility vehicles, Tanzanian fish, Chinese teddy bears, French five-hob stoves … Do unconscious dreams of mass violence need to figure?

M John Harrison, ‘Narratives of the mall’.[5]

The elements of Kingdom Come are taken straight from the world that the author would have seen around him … a giant shopping mall (loosely based on the Bentall Centre in Kingston) which is not just a place to buy things but somewhere to take the family for a day out; low-level racist behaviour against ethnic minorities in the suburbs of West London; an upsurge in interest in sporting events such as the World Cup that enable displays of national or tribal identity. These realistic components can prompt a straightforward reading of the novel: Kingdom Come is rendered as the idea that consumerism in 21st century England can be seen – with the help of a modest dosage of imagination and metaphor – to be a type of fascism. Such realist readings appear to lie behind M John Harrison’s complaints, as well as Rod Liddle’s attack on the book as ‘deeply silly and patronising’.[6]

The Bentall Centre. Photo by Joanne Murray. Reproduced with permission.

‘I remember four or five years ago going into the Bentall Centre, a huge shopping mall in Kingston, a town I hate. It was before Christmas, and there were these three gigantic bears on a plinth in the centre of this huge atrium … automatons, moving to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The place was packed; crowds looking up at them. And I thought, God, these people have left their brains somewhere. What’s going on here? And then I noticed that my head was moving, too. I thought, Jesus, get out fast.’

Ballard in interview, 2006.[7]

If Kingdom Come is a realistic reading of the English suburbs, then various of its details fail to convince. It seems odd to emphasize the violence of spectator sports when the most popular, soccer, has become far less brutal, among both participants and spectators, than was the case 25 or more years ago. And the portrayal of ethnic minorities as antipathetic to consumerism seems equally unrealistic, and risks an accusation of the very racism that the author wants to attack – for implying that they aren’t interested in consumer goods or sport because their culture is different from ours.[8]

Beyond the details, there seems to be a conspicuous problem with the novel’s underlying theme, since fascism was always anti-consumerist in its temperament. As Peter N Stearns puts it in his review of Consumerism in World History: ‘For fascist leaders, modern society had become too disunited and individualistic. Consumerism was a fundamental part of modern degeneracy’.[9]

But any such straightforward reading of Kingdom Come surely founders on the fact that Ballard is simply not, and never has been, a realist writer. Deeply influenced by the surrealist artists, and by Freud’s distinction between manifest and latent content, Ballard’s descriptions are no more ‘realist’ than Dali’s clock-faces or Delvaux’s mysterious women. He described his semi-autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, as an effort to reach some sort of psychological truth, as opposed to a depiction of actual events in the camp at Lunghua in which he was interned, and Kingdom Come is perhaps best viewed in like manner, as a surrealistic attempt to discover the latent psychological meaning behind consumerist society, rather than as a portrayal, however exaggerated, of the behaviour of sports fans and visitors to shopping malls.

Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’.

Ballard in front of his commissioned reproduction of a lost painting by Delvaux. Photo: David Levenson.

This still leaves us with the underlying concept, reiterated by Ballard in contemporaneous interviews, of consumerism as a soft fascism. An obvious temptation is to interpret Ballard as agreeing with the frequently articulated view that modern consumerist societies are totalizing – enclosing individuals in a perpetual obligation to choose, but allowing no alternative ways of living outside of the marketplace and the media – and concluding that therefore such societies can be regarded as fascist.

If there is no principle restricting who can consume what, there is also no principled constraint on what can be consumed: all social relations, activities and objects can in principle be exchanged as commodities. This is one of the most profound secularizations enacted by the modern world … [and] places the intimate world of the everyday into the impersonal world of the market and its values. Moreover, while consumer culture appears universal because it is depicted as a land of freedom in which everyone can be a consumer, it is also felt to be universal because everyone must be a consumer: this particular freedom is compulsory.

Don Slater, ‘Consumer Culture & Modernity’.[10]

But seen as an interpretation of Kingdom Come, this makes little sense. Ignoring Ballard the surrealist, it instead concentrates on an all-too-easy transition from ‘totalizing’ to ‘fascist’, a transition which effectively empties the term ‘fascist’ of meaningful content and historical context. Yet Ballard’s novel is full of such context – from the explicit references to the Third Reich in the set-speeches, to the marching groups of supporters and over-lit sports stadia, and even to small details such as the cable-TV presenter naming his new Mercedes limousine ‘Heinrich’. On the proposed interpretation all this detail becomes mere window-dressing, and the novel adds little or nothing to the political critique on which its main thesis supposedly rests. I therefore suggest that Ballard really does intend arguing for the more substantive, if less obvious, notion that modern consumer societies can mutate into something best understood in terms of 1930s Nazi Germany.

To see how this might be the case, I think we should start by recognizing that Ballard’s understanding of society is principally in terms of psychology, and that Kingdom Come re-emphasizes, and links together, two of his long-standing motifs – that the future will be boring, and that humans are dangerous and violent animals.

Consumerism rules, but people are bored. They’re out on the edge, waiting for something big and strange to come along. … They want to be frightened. They want to know fear. And maybe they want to go a little mad.

Ballard, Kingdom Come.[11]

Lying behind Ballard’s expectations of a boring and empty suburban world is the notion of human reality as a constructed reality, the roots of which seem to lie with his early grasp, as a child in Shanghai, of the everyday world as a stage-set.[12] For Ballard, the human brain has presented us with ‘a kind of ramshackle construct’ suitable to the lives of all those countless ancestors who were engaged in the struggle for food, shelter, and safety. But we no longer live in an age of day-to-day scarcity and insecurity, and as a result the external world no longer forces its interpretation upon us. Therefore the conventional ways in which we viewed the world, which had been buttressed by traditional social structures and conforming behaviours, have weakened their hold over us. The external environment has become fictionalized, and ‘reality’ – that which is of most significance in our lives – has retreated inside our minds, to be represented by our hopes, desires and obsessions.[13] One way in which we establish meaningful relationships between events and objects is via our our notion of time, by working out causal relationships and by connecting the present to the past through memories, either individual or social, or to the future through our intentions and expectations. However, as Ballard has emphasized, the past as a guide and the future as a destination no longer have much meaning for us.[14] Nowadays, an understanding of events and objects cannot simply be read off from the external world, nor can we link them in a straightforward temporal manner.

The Bentall Centre. Photo by elyob. Reproduced under Creative Commons.

The retreat of past and future and the internalization of reality – both of which are ultimately grounded in increased prosperity – are viewed by Ballard in two very different ways. On the positive side, our freedom and possibilities for fulfillment are enhanced. But, because we lack the sense of meaning provided by a stable external reality and by an awareness of time, we can experience emptiness and boredom. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ballard chose to emphasize the use of our imaginative powers as a way of providing us with different perspectives and of transcending our conventional outlook on the world. But the way Ballard told it to Carol Orr in 1974, this seemed a demanding and daunting task: ‘people will behave in a very lunar way, very isolated from each other. Does that appeal to me? Yes, it does, because I think people will have more freedom there. I mean, the freedom of isolation, the freedom of complete choice in one’s behaviour.’[15] Fifteen years later, there was more urgency in his comments to Rolling Stone: ‘the suburbanization of the soul [forces] the individual to recognize that he or she is all he or she has got. And this sharpens the eye and the imagination. The challenge is for each of us to respond, to remake as much as we can of the world around us, because no one else will do it for us. We have to find a core within us and get to work. Don’t worry about worldly rewards. Just get on with it!’[16] Using the imagination and following one’s obsessions may, perhaps, be rewarding, but it certainly doesn’t sound easy psychologically, more like hard work. By the early 1990s the warning was starker: ‘If people are going to survive they will need to do this on the plane of the imagination much more than they have done. Otherwise, they’ll simply become a mark on some consumer chart.’[17]

The reasons for concern are clear: if we do not use our imaginations and obsessions, we are at risk of being governed by forces outside ourselves which still operate, such as capitalism or purposeless social conformity. Ballard has drawn attention to the way in which moral structures and decision-making powers have been externalized out into the environment by technology – from traffic lights to CCTV cameras – providing us with a safe passage through our lives,[18] and in like manner we may find it psychologically easier to decline the freedom to utilize the imagination that comes with a safe and prosperous, but individualistic, society. People might instead be content to be governed by forces of social conformity, and to let themselves be directed by their emotions – which Ballard thinks of as tending to reinforce existing social conventions and as restricting, rather than expanding, the possibilities for action.

It may be that we thrive when certain of our relationships are drained of emotion, that we may then be able to explore our lives more fully, because emotions tend to act as a brake. They reinforce the status quo. They set up a kind of tyranny rather like the psychology of a very small child, which may be entirely governed by passionate emotions that are in fact very limiting. It’s only when the child learns to control its emotions that he can begin to explore all sorts of interesting possibilities at the other end of the nursery.

Ballard in interview, 1997.[19]

If this is the bare bones of the psychology that underpins Kingdom Come, we can perhaps add some flesh by considering the social aspects of consumerism. Peter Stearns points out that the growth of consumer behaviour was closely connected with the decline of long-established social structures under the pressures of industrialization and urbanization. In earlier times, social hierarchies were much more rigidly observed, and any crossing of social boundaries or individualistic behaviour tended to be viewed negatively, especially by the upper-classes. The latter had luxury, i.e. their wealth was displayed, rather than consumed, and in standard formats with an absence of individuality or any concern about fashion.[20] However, once this social edifice began to lose its grip, consumer behaviour helped people cope with the resulting uncertainty and insecurity about social status, and with the disruption to established patterns of behaviour, by providing alternative ways of fulfillment and by enabling an individual to demonstrate personal achievement, no matter how limited. This was particularly the case in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the growth of large firms meant that many in the middle-classes found themselves working for others rather than themselves and in jobs with a high degree of routine: satisfaction and success were no longer an integral element of their occupation, and had to be sought elsewhere.[21]

Utama shopping centre, Malaysia

But there is a malign dialectic at work here. I buy things in order to try and reassert my identity, but as the marketplace grows I am offered an increasing variety of goods and services, and associated ways of living, from which to choose. Now my identity is even more in question, because it is something that I myself have to select and realize. The impact is heightened as the material prosperity of society increases – even something as basic as food becomes no longer a matter of survival and physical well-being, but a decision about life-style.[22]

Yet coherent identity seems to be precisely the main problem of modern existence and is itself something to be chosen and achieved. … Consumerism simultaneously exploits mass identity crisis by proffering its goods as solutions to the problems of identity, and in the process intensifies it by offering ever more plural values and ways of being. … That the self must be a project is dictated to us by a pluralized world and must be pursued within that pluralized world. This entails a high level of anxiety and risk. In terms of consumer culture, there is high anxiety because every choice seems to implicate the self: all acts of purchase or consumption, clothing, eating, tourism, entertainment, ‘are decisions not only about how to act but who to be’.

Slater, ‘Consumer Culture & Modernity’.[23]

To make matters worse, the psychological support that might have been available from kinship ties, the local community, religion, voluntary organizations, and such like, is now much weaker – in fact, involvement in these is as much a life-style choice as everything else. Yet the evidence is that people with a rich variety of social connections are less likely to suffer depression and anxiety than those without.[24] As well as support that I might obtain directly from others, I am better able to cope if I am ‘not just the local lawyer, but also the coach of the cricket team, the friendly neighbour, and the person who always sings at the christmas party’, as a setback in one role is of less significance to my sense of identity and self-esteem.[25]

Without a traditional social fabric around me, I live in a world of endless possibilities but any failure to find fulfillment in my life must somehow reflect my own inadequacies. Hence, as Zygmunt Bauman suggests, we are nowadays more likely to suffer from depression – caused by the fear of inadequacy in the face of endless possibilities – than from neurosis arising from guilt caused by the transgression of prohibitions.[26]

The more we are allowed to be the masters of our fates, the more we expect ourselves to be. We should be able to find education that is stimulating and useful, work that is exciting, socially valuable, and remunerative, spouses who are sexually, emotionally, and intellectually stimulating and also loyal and comforting. Our children are supposed to be beautiful, smart, affectionate, obedient, and independent. And everything we buy is supposed to be the best of its kind. … [Hence,] almost every experience people have nowadays will be perceived as a disappointment, and thus regarded as a failure – a failure that could have been prevented with the right choice.

Barry Schwartz, ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less’.[27]

In such circumstances, the temptation is to seek comfort and easy pleasures. But experimental psychology suggests that the systems of the brain which control desire are not the same as the systems that control pleasure.[28] Hence, some things – sex, good food – will both activate desire and bring pleasure, but others – such as a bigger, higher-definition TV – may provoke desire but not add much to our happiness. Biologically speaking, happiness is a spur to action, not some end-state that we are programmed to seek out, and this is reflected in the wealth of data indicating a lack of correlation between absolute levels of income and happiness (other than at extremely low levels of income), whether it be between different societies, different individuals in the same society, or individuals over time.[29]

Ballard’s recognition that we ‘construct our own reality’ implies an understanding that happiness is not some ‘default’ or natural state, and that nowadays we have to create the conditions for our own satisfaction and fulfillment; failure to do this in a world that does not impose its meanings on us will lead to emptiness, boredom, and anxiety. What we seem to have, therefore, are the possible conditions for a social crisis rooted in personal reactions to the complexity and uncertainty inherent in a prosperous, individualistic, consumer society, exacerbated by the lack of established social structures that might provide support. And here we can make start to make the connection with fascism …

Given the near unintelligibility of the Nazi regime,[30] any interpretation of its causes needs to explain why it developed in Germany (and not, say, the U.S.A. or France) and in the 1930s (rather than some earlier or later date). Generic explanations based on the ‘German psyche’, or some form of ‘moral crisis’ in modern capitalism, fail to convince precisely because they have no answer to these questions.

Under a leader who talked in apocalyptic tones of world power or destruction and a regime founded on an utterly repulsive ideology of race-hatred, one of the most culturally and economically advanced countries in Europe planned for war, launched a world conflagration which killed around 50 million people, and perpetrated atrocities – culminating in the mechanized mass murder of millions of Jews – of a nature and scale as to defy imagination.

Ian Kershaw, ‘The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems & Perspectives Of Interpretation’.[31]

No explanations I’ve seen are ever convincing of why cultivated and intelligent people like the Germans and Italians should plunge into this insane world-view.

Ballard in interview, 2006.

A promising approach is to start from the idea that inter-war Germany was suffering from a crisis that was simultaneously political, economic, social, and existential. Fascism is then seen to result from a generalized sense of trauma, where stresses in one arena – say the economic or the existential – cannot find an outlet in another, such as the political or social. Such an explanation of fascism owes a debt to Erich Fromm’s prognosis in his 1941 book Escape from Freedom, where he described the fascist regimes, and Nazi Germany in particular, as resulting from the isolation, powerlessness, and anxiety that people felt following modernization and industrialization in countries where traditional structures had lost much of their strength, and which had suffered hyper-inflation and extremely high unemployment.[32]

By the early decades of the 20th century, the German economy was the most developed in Europe and becoming dominated by large organizations: the local boss whom the worker knew on a personal basis was being replaced by distant and amorphous management, and the individual’s sense of their place in the whole was increasingly opaque. In politics, the parties of the new Weimar democracy were concerned with large-scale, intractable issues at the federal level, weakening the significance of local or work-place participation in political or trade union affairs; and the advent of radio was about to kick-start the transformation of politics into a form of advertising and manipulation of the emotions – as the Nazis were quick to realize.

Hitler practices his acting skills. ‘Apocalyptic, visionary, convincing’: three photos by Heinrich Hoffman from 1925.

The individual was no longer compensated for a lack of security and purpose by the strength of those long-standing and powerful elements of German society to which he had been accustomed. The monarchy had been abolished; the military (who had virtually run the country during 1914-1918) had been defeated in a war largely of their own devising; the once all-powerful German state could no longer even honour the commitments on its own bank notes as a result of massive inflation which had destroyed middle-class savings – together with the resulting bourgeois sense of certainty and security; rapid political change, military defeat, and economic problems had left the older generation lost in the world and the young looking elsewhere than to tradition and family. The lack of – or decline in – local social participation and intermediate-level structures, such as voluntary organizations, led to what Gino Germani referred to as ‘street corner society’.[33] And there were all too many whose recourse was to the street – unemployment rose following the 1929 Wall Street Crash until by 1932 an estimated one-third of the workforce were without a job.[34] To many, the world no longer made sense, and in the words of the Marxist historian TW Mason: civil society was no longer able to reproduce itself.[35]

In such circumstances, one psychological recourse for the individual is to seek to give up their independence and to fuse with somebody – or something – else, in an attempt to somehow recreate the lost bonds that had existed at societal level. Hence the attraction to many of an authoritarian party, such as the Nazis, with a clear leader on whom the party member or citizen could project qualities which – especially in the case of Hitler – they clearly lacked, but which were the counterpart of the psychological needs of the adherent. As Ballard once put it: ‘It’s almost as if what [a politician] needs is sort of a reverse charisma now. Not a light that shines outwards, but the ability, like a black hole, to draw light inwards! You’ve got to be able to draw other people’s fantasies to you’.[36] For the disciple, doubt is assuaged by accepting the opinions and directions of others, and uncertainty is conquered by relying on the conviction of the emotions instead of trusting in rational thought and debate – in a world that no longer makes sense, emotions appear a surer guide than reason. As Michael Burleigh puts it in The Third Reich: A New History: ‘Nazism was truly ahead of its time … This was politics as feeling’.[37]

Not a light that shines outwards, but the ability, like a black hole, to draw light inwards! You’ve got to be able to draw other people’s fantasies to you.

Ballard on the requirements for modern politician, interview, 1997.

Hitler himself understood all this perfectly well, as he displayed in Mein Kampf: ‘The mass meeting is necessary if only for the reason that in it the individual, who in becoming an adherent of a new movement feels lonely and is easily seized with the fear of being alone, receives for the first time the pictures of a greater community, something that has a strengthening and encouraging effect on most people. … If he steps for the first time out of his small workshop or out of the big enterprise, in which he feels very small, into the mass meeting and is now surrounded by thousands and thousands of people with the same conviction … he himself succumbs to the magic influence of what we call mass suggestion.’[38]

Fascist ideology was therefore concentrated on a mythic core constituted by the image of the nation reborn, purified, and following its ‘destiny’,[39] and practical politics accordingly relied heavily on symbols, mass spectacles, and a continuously reiterated vocabulary of basic ideas.

A dreadful mass sentimentality, compounded of anger, fear, resentment and self-pity, replaced the customary politics of decency, pragmatism, property and reason … Belief, faith, feeling and obedience to instinct routed debate, scepticism and compromise. People voluntarily surrendered to group or herd emotions … Among committed believers, a mythic world of eternal spring, heroes, demons, fire and sword – in a word, the fantasy world of the nursery – displaced reality. Or rather invaded it, with crude images of Jews, Slavs, capitalists and kulaks populating the imagination. This was children’s politics for grown-ups, bored and frustrated with the prosaic tenor of post war liberal democracy, and hence receptive to heroic gestures and politics as a form of theatrical stunt.

Michael Burleigh, ‘The Third Reich: A New History’.[40]

Fascism therefore offers an irrational escape from apparently intractable difficulties. As Ballard pointed out long ago, in his review of Mein Kampf for New Worlds,[41] Hitler was successful precisely because he dispensed with any rationalization of his prejudices, and was therefore able to tap directly into the unconscious of his followers.

More prosaically, a sense of place and safety could be supplied by hierarchy and control: a 1938 decree introduced general labour conscription by forcing people to work wherever the State decreed, but this effectively gave the well-behaved worker job security, in stark contrast to the early 1930s and to other countries;[42] and the small-holding farmer was tied to the soil just as much as a feudal serf, but was protected against creditors forcing him to sell his property.[43] Independent groups and sources of power which were not destroyed were assimilated into the system: Nazi ideology did not consider a person to have an identity separate from their obligations as a citizen, and it followed that if one was, say, an engineer, a mother, or a writer, one’s own particular concerns could be most effectively met within the context of the Nazi regime. Organizations such as employee associations or trade unions, or women’s and children’s groups, were therefore effectively incorporated into the party or the administration. For example, sports and recreational societies all functioned under the Kraft durch Freude (‘Strength through Joy’) organization, and one of the tasks legally accorded to the Reich Chamber of Commerce was to ‘gather together the creative artists in all spheres into a unified organization under the leadership of the Reich [which] must not only determine the lines of progress, mental and spiritual, but also lead and organize the professions’.[44]

The Nazi’s ‘Metro-Centre’? A detail from an illustration for an article in the propaganda magazine Signal c. 1941, describing the organization of the Nazi Party: ‘Any creative initiative to be introduced in health and hygiene, the training of youth, welfare work on behalf of the working man … whatever revolutionary idea is to be introduced into the crafts, industry, trade or among the peasantry, all flows through the channels of the Party organization’.

The Nazi state was not a completely controlled society, but rather one where existing societal organizations were subject to a form of ‘capture’. Hence, Germany was no longer a pluralist society in the sense of accepting variation in aims, opinions, and interests; variety could exist but it was merely a functional variety – a diversity in unity. As Kevin Passmore puts it: ‘civil society was absorbed into fascism’.[45] The sense of community was now workers and managers marching in the same procession or rally, all shouting Heil Hitler together whilst feeling the same emotions.[46] One advantage of such a non-pluralist society was that it was able to limit the extent to which the functional and social complexity of modern societies impacted on human subjectivity: common activities and emotions, communal gatherings, signs and slogans, all represented psychological simplifications that helped nullify the difficulties of a complex, modern world. The result of this reliance on myth, symbols and emotions was that fascism transformed consciousness rather than society: ‘The idea of the “national community” was not a basis for changing social structures, but a symbol of transformed consciousness. … [Nazism’s] intentions were directed towards a transformation of value- and belief systems – a psychological “revolution” rather than one of substance.’[47]

So there are indeed similarities between inter-war Germany and 21st century consumerist societies: in particular, people can feel they live in a world without meaning and have somehow lost control of their lives. Obviously there are also major differences – one could hardly suggest that boredom and ennui were a major factor in 1920s Germany, for example, and the economic backgrounds are dissimilar – but these can obscure the psychological resemblances.[48] In both cases, customary social and political structures are debilitated, providing little tangible or intangible support, and the sense of community is weakened. Traditional politics are viewed as irrelevant or with contempt: there is an absence of debate and we are left with politics as emotion and advertising.

A Nazi mass gathering: the 1937 Reichsparteitag at Nuremberg, including a spectacular performance from the young girls of the ‘Glaube und Schönheit’ (‘Belief and Beauty’) organisation.

The ‘solutions’ in the two cases are analogous. A sense of pseudo-community is created through common activities and attendance at mass spectacles, by the channeling of emotions into a narrow range, and through a strengthening of the sense of commonality by means of an emphasis – vague but insistent – on ‘outsiders’. Community and a shared-culture may still be with us, but no longer based on locality or history: ‘What’s the point of privacy if it’s just a personalized prison? Consumerism is a collective enterprise. People here want to share and celebrate, they want to come together. When we go shopping we take part in a collective ritual of affirmation. … Shared dreams and values, shared hopes and pleasures’, claims Sangster in Kingdom Come.[49]

The concept of ‘us’ implies a ‘not-us’ … an age-old and reliable way of putting strength back into weakening societal bonds: ‘David Cruise casually referred to the ‘enemy’, a term kept deliberately vague that embraced Asians and east Europeans, blacks, Turks, non-consumers and anyone not interested in sport. New enemies were always needed’.[50] To the extent that I am not an individual but part of a commonality, you are not an individual either, but a category; in Nazi Germany, one was ‘no longer a person, but an anti-social, criminal, Gypsy, homosexual, Jehovah’s Witness, Jew or political, in involuntary anticipation of modern identity politics, with their replacement of persons by categories’.[51]

The effect of this growth in pseudo-community is the same in Kingdom Come as in Nazi Germany, as Ballard himself described in a discussion with Jeannette Baxter, when he referred to ‘the positive features of the new regime [of the Metro-Centre] – the self-disciplined and healthily glowing families, the sense of a revived community with a new confidence and purpose in life (in short, that “accommodation” made by so many in the 1930s in England and Germany who should know better)’.[52]

‘I like the music,’ I commented. ‘Though maybe it’s a little too martial. Somewhere in there I can hear the Horst Wessel

‘It’s good for morale,’ Carradine explained. ‘We like to keep people cheerful …’

Ballard, Kingdom Come.[53]

Symbols and myths – reaching almost religious significance – start to predominate. ‘Politics’ mutates into something else, a mixture of emotion, myth, and violence that comes close to madness. In Kingdom Come, Sangster is convinced that ‘some kind of insanity is the last way forward’, and the psychiatrist, Maxted, draws the parallel with Nazi Germany: ‘The Germans were desperate to break out of their prison. Defeat, inflation, grotesque war reparations, the threat of barbarians advancing from the east. Going mad would set them free, and they chose Hitler to lead the hunting party.’[54]

But what of psychopathology and violence, which I referred to earlier as another of Ballard’s long-standing themes that runs through Kingdom Come? He has always held – based in part on his childhood experiences in Shanghai and Lunghua – that the human psyche has dark and dangerous depths, including an attraction to violence. On Ballard’s conception, mankind has natural psychopathic tendencies which, although they may not come to the fore in all societies, cannot be eradicated … a view which has some support from the anthropological and historical evidence, which indicates that hunter-gatherer and primitive agriculturalist societies often had far higher male mortality rates from violence than did Europe and North America in the 20th century, despite our technologies of destruction and two world wars.[55]

When I refer to my own childhood, and how people behaved in the Far East during the Second World War, it seemed that some people simply enjoy killing and tormenting others. … To use a term like ‘sadism’ and to construct an elaborate psychological machinery to explain this behaviour, however, is to miss the point. The fact is, we are violent and dangerous creatures. We needed to be to survive all those hundreds of thousands of years when we were living in small tribal groups, faced with an incredibly hostile world. And we still carry those genes.

Ballard in interview, 1997.[56]

For the majority of the time that people have lived in crowded urban environments, any proclivity for violence was – probably of necessity – contained by social arrangements and by a widely accepted system of morality. However, both of these types of constraints are weakening, something which concerned Ballard as early as this 1974 interview: ‘I myself think that Man, if you like, is a naturally perverse animal, that the elements of psychopathology or perversity or moral deviancy are a very large part of his character. I don’t think that can be changed. I think attempts in the past to provide a very rigid moral framework succeeded to some extent. I think they’re going to break down now, simply because the opportunities for limitless freedom are so great.’[57]

The risk is that the erasure of meaning in modern societies produces boredom and emptiness, a gap which a dormant psychopathology can readily fill, fuelled by a preference for emotion over cognition. Hence Ballard frequently links boredom and psychopathic behaviour in his later books and interviews: ‘My real fear is that boredom and inertia may lead people to follow a deranged leader … that we will put on jackboots and black uniforms and the aspect of the killer simply to relieve the boredom.’[58] The descriptions of brutality in Kingdom Come – racist attacks and violent sports events – are simply taken from Ballard’s perception of the world around him. Their significance lies not, I suggest, in the precise content, but in their latent meaning: within the absences which permeate both society and our own minds, ‘violence and hate, as always, were organizing themselves’.[59]

Aggressive advertising: For Mercedes-Benz, from the Nazi propaganda magazine ‘Signal’, c1943; and, below, for Hummer SUVs in Australia, 2008.

How might we view consumerism – and in particular the totalizing aspects of a consumerist society – as a result of this analysis of Ballard’s vision of a ‘soft fascism’? Consumer behaviour is an exercise in choice, and can therefore infiltrate other aspects of our lives, replacing the traditional but declining forms of morality and politics, both of which are essentially ways of choosing between alternatives. This presents us with an obligation to choose from what is on offer, and thereby effectively closes off the possibility of exiting the system – something that Pearson discovers in Kingdom Come on his first visit to the West London suburbs: ‘I moved through the darkened streets, searching for a signpost to guide me back to London. But here by the M25, in the heartland of the motorway people, all signs pointed inwards, referring the traveller back to his starting point’[60] (my emphasis). The fictionalization of the external world means that Ballard’s ‘exit door’ through the use of our imaginative faculties is gradually closing, as these powers of the imagination become colonized by the fantasies around us and by our own emotions. This enables consumerism to satisfy our needs, not directly via the goods and services that we purchase, but indirectly by meeting our psychological requirements through our involvement in the activities of consumer society – shopping, media, leisure. The disassociation between our desires and pleasures – which might be seen as threatening the consumerist system once we discover that satisfying our desires is unfulfilling – can now be bridged: we desire the goods and buy them, but our rewards come from elsewhere, from our very participation in the system itself … from our attendance at Ballard’s Metro-Centre.

This totalizing effect of consumerism, whereby everything is absorbed into it in much the same way as existing organizations and groupings were subject to ‘capture’ by the Nazis, is perhaps reflected in some of those elements of Kingdom Come which perplexed reviewers: Are the group led by the local solicitor Fairfax really opponents of the Metro-Centre, or are they just trying to use it for their own purposes? How much can we trust what the main protagonist, Pearson, says – or should we regard him as an ‘unreliable narrator’? Why is it not clear, even at the end of the book, whether Pearson really regrets getting involved with the Metro-Centre?[61] The ambiguity of Ballard’s narrative is in keeping with the self-reflexive nature of the society that he is describing, where the transgressive gesture rapidly becomes another media item that can be purchased for cash, and an attempt at escape puts you right back at the centre. Any effort at political action or opposition becomes pointless, because this is not – on Ballard’s view – a conspiracy of false needs and false consciousness: by accepting the emotional lie and the feel-good fairy story, we are ourselves complicit in the consumerist society. But if this is right, then we can see the point of Ballard’s long-held insistence that we must, as he puts it, immerse ourselves in the most dangerous elements and hope that we can swim to the other side[62] – a view that infects both the ‘extreme hypothesis’ of Crash and the studied ambiguity of Kingdom Come.

Finally, what does Ballard’s novel tell us about fascistic activity and what it represents? As I have described it here, fascism arises as a result of a generalized sense of crisis in prosperous, complex societies, whereby tensions in each sphere – the economic, the social, the political, and the personal – cannot find relief, but actually amplify each other. The result is an escape to pseudo-community, and a surrender to the emotions and to psychopathic urges. This suggests a close similarity to Daniel Woodley’s recent discussion of the links between fascism, modernity, and capitalism:

Modern [critical] theorists have abandoned class reductionism for a more sophisticated account of fascism as a political commodity, a form of ideological production in postliberal capitalism based on the aestheticization of politics and the mobilization of emotion. … postliberal capitalism entails new forms of ideological justification based on the bureaucratization and societalization of economic life. These structural tendencies increase the pressure for collective solutions to political integration, resulting in a panoply of new ideologies aimed at addressing atomization. … [Fascism’s] timely appearance and reappearance is rooted … in the aestheticization of depoliticized politics and the fetishization of communal identities which conceal the true nature of the commodity as a structured social practice.

Daniel Woodley, ‘Fascism and Political Theory: Critical Perspectives on Fascist Ideology’.[63]

What I have tried to show in this article is that in Kingdom Come Ballard has attempted to unearth this ‘latent content’ of fascism by means of his well-honed forensic tools of imagination and surrealistic description.[64]


[1] ‘JG Ballard: The Comforts of Madness’, interview in The Independent, 15 September 2006.
[2] JG Ballard, Kingdom Come, Fourth Estate (London), 2006, pp 167-169.
[3] See, for example, Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Revolution in the aisles’, The Guardian, 9 September 2006.
[4] M John Harrison, ‘Narratives of the mall’, The Times Literary Supplement, 6 September 2006.
[5] M John Harrison, ‘Narratives of the mall’, op cit.
[6] Rod Liddle, ‘Our simple pleasures go up in smoke’, Times Online, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/columnists/rod_liddle/article1267260.ece, accessed 5 May 2010.
[7] ‘From Here to Dystopia’, interview in the Telegraph Magazine, 2 September 2006.
[8] A similar sentiment is displayed here: ‘A mastery of the discontinuities of metropolitan life has always been essential to the successful urban dweller … A failure to master these discontinuities, whether social or genetic in origin, leaves some ethnic groups at a disadvantage, forced into enclaves that seem to reconstitute mental maps of ancestral villages.’ JG Ballard, ‘Airports: Going somewhere?’, The Observer, 14 September 1997.
[9] Peter N Stearns, Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire (2nd edition), Routledge (New York & London), 2006, p 72.
[10] Don Slater, Consumer Culture & Modernity, Polity Press (Cambridge), 1997, p 27.
[11] JG Ballard, Kingdom Come, op cit, p 101.
[12] JG Ballard, Miracles of Life, Fourth Estate (London), 2008, pp 58-59.
[13] Some of Ballard’s clearest comments on the fictionalization of the external world and the interiorization of reality as a consequence of increased prosperity are to be found in an unpublished interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, c1974, available at http://www.jgballard.ca/interviews/jgb_cbc_ideas_interview.html, accessed 6 May 2010.
[14] Unpublished interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, op cit.
[15] Unpublished interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, op cit.
[16] ‘The Strange Visions of J. G. Ballard’, interview in Rolling Stone, 19 November 1987.
[17] ‘An Interview with J. G. Ballard’, Mississippi Review Vol. 20 #1-2, 1991, p 32.
[18] ‘Interview by Graeme Revell’, Re/Search 8/9: J. G. Ballard, Re/Search Publishing (San Francisco), 1984, p. 46.
[19] ‘Dangerous Driving’, interview in ‘Frieze’ magazine #34, May 1997.
[20] Peter N Stearns, Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire (2nd edition), op cit, pp 1-14.
[21] Peter N Stearns, Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire (2nd edition), op cit, pp 32-34, 60-62.
[22] Anthony Giddens, Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics, Polity Press (Cambridge), 1994, p 224.
[23] Don Slater, Consumer Culture & Modernity, op cit, p 84-85.
[24] Michael Marmot, Status Syndrome: How Your Social Standing Directly Affects Your Health, Bloomsbury (London), Chapter 6; Robert H Frank, Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess, Princeton University Press, 1999, pp 86-88.
[25] Daniel Nettle, Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, Oxford University Press, 2005, p 180.
[26] Zygmunt Bauman, Consuming Life, Polity Press (Cambridge), 2007, p 94.
[27] Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Harper Perennial (New York), 2004, pp 210-211.
[28] For example, when rats have their brains stimulated to eat food, they don’t show the typical ‘liking behavior’ that normally accompanies pleasurable activities – indeed, if anything, they show ‘disliking behavior’. Conversely, the rats can be drugged so that they have no desire to eat, but show liking behavior when a sweet solution is put onto their tongue. See also Daniel Nettle, Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, op cit, Chapter 5.
[29] Daniel Nettle, Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, op cit, pp 48-52, 70-75; Robert H Frank, Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess, op cit, pp 71-74.
[30] Although the reference is to the generic term ‘fascism’, I shall limit my historical discussion to the Nazi Party and the German Third Reich – as does, by and large, Ballard..
[31] Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems & Perspectives Of Interpretation (4th edition), Hodder Arnold (London), 2000, p 4.
[32] Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom, Routledge (London), 1960, pp 106-116, 180-188 (originally published as Escape from Freedom, 1941).
[33] See S J Woolf (ed), The Nature of Fascism, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968, pp 107-108.
[34] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History, Pan Books (London), 2001, p 122.
[35] T W Mason, ‘The Primacy of Politics – Politics and Economics in National Socialist Germany’, in S J Woolf (ed), The Nature of Fascism, op cit, p. 171.
[36] In a conversation with Mark Pauline c1987, published in J. G. Ballard: Conversations, RE/Search Publications, San Francisco, 2005, p 136.
[37] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History, op cit, pp 210-211.
[38] Quoted in Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom, op cit, p 193.
[39] Roger Griffin (ed), Fascism, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp 3-4.
[40] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History, op cit, pp 8-9.
[41] JG Ballard, ‘Alphabets of Unreason’ in New Worlds # 196, December 1969, p 26.
[42] William L Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Arrow Books, [1960]/1998, p 265.
[43] William L Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, op cit, p 258.
[44] For the Nazi assimilation of intermediate-level organizations, see William L Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, op cit, pp 241-267.
[45] Kevin Passmore, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002, p 128.
[46] SL Andreski, ‘Some sociological considerations on fascism and class’, in S J Woolf (ed), The Nature of Fascism, op cit, pp 100-101.
[47] Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems & Perspectives Of Interpretation (4th edition), op cit, pp 174, 179.
[48] It is the psychological similarities that Ballard stressed in an interview with James Campbell: ‘… could consumerism turn into fascism? The underlying psychologies aren’t all that far removed from one another. If you go into a huge shopping mall and you’re looking down the parade, it’s the same theatrical aspect: these disciplined ranks of merchandise, all glittering like fascist uniforms. When you enter a mall, you are taking part in a ceremony of affirmation, which you endorse just by your presence.’ The Guardian, 14 June 2008.
[49] JG Ballard, Kingdom Come, op cit, p 85. It is interesting to note that Fromm uses the term ‘automaton conformity’ to describe the form that the attempt to escape from freedom takes in modern democracies (as opposed to fascist dictatorships); see Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom, op cit, pp 159-178.
[50] JG Ballard, Kingdom Come, op cit, p 189.
[51] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History, op cit, p 204.
[52] ‘Kingdom Come: An Interview with J. G. Ballard’, in Jeannette Baxter, J. G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, Continuum (London & New York), 2008, p 127.
[53] JG Ballard, Kingdom Come, op cit, p 39.
[54] JG Ballard, Kingdom Come, op cit, pp 102, 168.
[55] See, for example, Azar Gat, War in Civilization, Oxford University Press, 2006, Chapters 2, 6 and 9; also Steven LeBlanc, with Katherine Register, Constant Battles: The myth of the peaceful noble savage, St Martin’s Press (New York), 2003.
[56] ‘Dangerous Driving’, interview in ‘Frieze’ magazine #34, May 1997.
[57] Unpublished interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, op cit.
[58] ‘Age of Unreason’, interview published online by the The Guardian, 22 June 2004; available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/jun/22/sciencefictionfantasyandhorror.jgballard (accessed 13 May 2010).
[59] JG Ballard, Kingdom Come, op cit, p 191.
[60] JG Ballard, Kingdom Come, op cit, p 35.
[61] After all that’s happened, Pearson still has positive feelings for the people of the Metro-Centre: ‘Leaving Sangster and his self-hating motives to one side, I admired Carradine and his mutineers, and the robustly physical world they had based on their consumerist dream. The motorway towns were built on the frontier between a tired past and a future without illusions and snobberies’ (Kingdom Come, op cit, p. 266). And on the penultimate page, there’s the following, rather astonishing, meditation from Pearson: ‘The cable channels had reverted to an anaesthetic diet of household hints and book-group discussions. Once people began to talk earnestly about the novel any hope of freedom had died. The once real possibility of a fascist republic had vanished into the air …’ (Kingdom Come, op cit, p. 279, my italics). This appears to mourn the failure of fascism, but I prefer to think of as reflecting Ballard’s oft-mentioned idea of ‘immersing oneself in the most dangerous elements and swimming’. Just to confuse matters further, on the following (and last) page of the book, Pearson turns pessimistic again and ruminates that ‘In time, unless the sane woke and rallied themselves, an even fiercer republic would open the doors and spin the turnstiles of its beckoning paradise’ (Kingdom Come, op cit, p. 280).
[62] See, for example, ‘An Interview with J. G. Ballard’, Mississippi Review op cit, p 33. And the following brief quote well-illustrates Ballard’s reasoning: ‘I certainly do believe that we should immerse ourselves in the destructive element. Far better to do so consciously than find ourselves tossed into the pool when we’re not looking’, interview in The Paris Review #94, 1984, p 143.
[63] Daniel Woodley, Fascism and Political Theory: Critical Perspectives on Fascist Ideology, Routledge (London & New York), 2010, pp 14-18.
[64] c.f. Ballard on the distinction between manifest and latent content: ‘Freud pointed out that one has to distinguish between the manifest content of the inner world of the psyche and its latent content, and I think in exactly the same way today, when the fictional elements have overwhelmed reality, one has to distinguish between the manifest content of reality and its latent content’, from ‘The New Science Fiction: A conversation between J G Ballard and George MacBeth’ in Langdon Jones (ed), The New SF, Hutchinson (London), 1969, p 50.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Simon Sellars. Simon Sellars said: New post: Mike Holliday takes another look at Ballard's Kingdom Come… Can we really equate consumerism with fascism? http://bit.ly/c7wriy […]

  2. Cool, Mike! Lots to think about here, especially as I can see links between the manifest you describe and the latency of Pearson’s wacky ad campaigns…

  3. Interesting stuff, Mike. I’m glad you quoted from Michael Burleigh’s _The Third Reich: A New History_ (2000), because that’s a work we know Ballard read and approved of — he commended it in one of his “books of the year” recommendations in the press. Burleigh’s book may well have _informed_ JGB’s thinking when he was planning _Kingdom Come_, which was probably not the case with any of the other works on fascism/Nazism you cite (which may or may not have been on his private reading list — but there’s no evidence either way; of course, it’s quite possible he read some of your earlier cited works, such as Fromm and Shirer, many decades ago).

    I’m also glad you said this, with respect to Ballard’s belief in the inherited human capacity for violence: “… a view which has some support from the anthropological and historical evidence, which indicates that hunter-gatherer and primitive agriculturalist societies often had far higher male mortality rates from violence than did Europe and North America in the 20th century, despite our technologies of destruction and two world wars.” That’s information that perhaps ought to be more widely known. Interestingly, the two sources you cite for it — “See, for example, Azar Gat, War in Civilization, Oxford University Press, 2006, Chapters 2, 6 and 9; also Steven LeBlanc, with Katherine Register, Constant Battles: The myth of the peaceful noble savage, St Martin’s Press (New York), 2003” — are not ones I’m familiar with. I got the same message from another fairly recent work, _Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors_ by Nicholas Wade (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), which I recommend to one and all.

    — David P.

  4. […] Mike Holliday on J.G.Ballard’s Kingdom Come at Ballardian: …there is a malign dialectic at work here. I buy things in order to try and reassert my identity, but as the marketplace grows I am offered an increasing variety of goods and services, and associated ways of living, from which to choose. Now my identity is even more in question, because it is something that I myself have to select and realize. The impact is heightened as the material prosperity of society increases – even something as basic as food becomes no longer a matter of survival and physical well-being, but a decision about life-style. […]

  5. People are not consumers, they are product-users. There is no such thing as “consumer culture” or “consumerism” or “consumer society.” http://www.consumertrap.com/consumer-bias

    This is capitalism. Advertising and retailing and commercial television are manifestations of big business marketing. Big business marketing exists to serve the rich and powerful by manipulating ordinary people.

    This kind of ham-handed blather obscures reality. Knock it off.

  6. hey, michael… your meaningless rant is poor camouflage for advertising your own quasi-religious site… knock it off.

  7. I’d be happy to debate which is quasi-religious, Rick. This kind of pathetic ass-talk about “consumer society” and the massively over-estimated, under-informed boob JG Ballard, or what I suggest.

    “Consumers are fascists” seems to be the point of this sophomoric and prolix prattle, to the extent anybody can tell.

    Fuck off.

  8. interesting… you realize you’re employing the same kind of psychopathological techniques adman/marketer Richard Pearson uses in Kingdom Come to sell the Metro-Center? aggression. unexpected madness. fear. the repackaging of the obvious as new. envy. enemies.

    I doubt if you’ve read Ballard, and I know you don’t understand Mike’s article… if anything, you (david) cruise the web looking for the tagword “consumer” so you can drop in a link to your $25 diatribe against “the rich and powerful” — which I take as the manifest sign of a latent desire for equal power and control on your part… yes, you’d make a wonderful leader…

    JGB: “I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.”

    See? he even includes you!

  9. Very interesting, although I am probably more sympathetic to the equation of consumerism as a feature of fascism. On this subject, you need to read the excellent book by Koepnick, The Aesthetics of Power (University of Nebraska Press, 1999), which deals with the role of consumerism and commodity aesthetics in fascist ideology.

  10. A very good piece @ a very good website. Salutations to all my animal relations.

  11. […] Crash, which, if you read it in the right way, is a snarkingly funny book. Here’s a fairly recent review of the novel, focusing on the book’s savage critique of consumerism. And here’s Rob […]

  12. […] (source) […]

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