Conventional stories about the struggle against authoritarianism can’t manage to keep the sides straight.
By Malcolm Harris
DisruptJ20 protesters march against the Trump inauguration. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr)
Considering how much dystopian science fiction Americans have produced and consumed, you’d think we would have been prepared to fight the Trump Regime by now, at least psychologically. It seems like every other popular movie or television show features an evil authoritarian state pitted against a group of rebels that more often than not actually calls itself “The Resistance.” Liberal Hollywood has been subliminally preparing us for just this moment, and now we’re just awaiting the signal to go all Hunger Games.
Or not. Though the synopses always make dystopian or resistance stories sound anti-fascist, the contemporary American ones tend to advocate a third position, a humanist ethics that supersedes political division. Here’s how the conventional narrative plays out: A woman (always beautiful, usually brunette, somewhat naive) finds herself accidentally pitched into the struggle. She becomes crucial to The Resistance, though one member remains wary of her presence (typically another woman). The protagonist performs her duty for The Resistance, but discovers that they aren’t telling her the whole truth — and, what’s more, they don’t have an inviolable respect for innocent life. Declaring that “You’re just as bad as them!” the protagonist betrays The Resistance and returns to her original place, albeit no longer so naive.
This pattern applies in no shortage of recent examples: The Hunger Games series, of course, as well as current TV shows like The Man in the High Castle and Colony are clear instances.The OA co-creators’ Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s movie The East and the USA show Mr. Robot partake in some of these elements too. Even Twilight shares commonalities. In each case, The Resistance is the group that the viewer is rooting for (at least against the fascists), but the viewer also isn’t looking at the action through their eyes. Instead, our perspective is that of the outsider who has somehow found their way inside. The hero’s real victory is not the defeat of the regime, but maintaining their own idealistic integrity and intellectual independence.
Without communism, there’s something missing in our dystopian stories.
The lesson at the end of this story is not about fighting fascism, it’s about how to be a good liberal, how to endure dictatorship (or alien occupation in the case of Colony) without losing your soul. Since liberals believe we’re already in the last phase of history, any authoritarianism is a mere interruption. We must oppose it, but not go so far as to become ideologues. It’s a common sentiment in popular entertainment; quotes from Nietzsche find themselves equally at home in sc-fi operas and network TV crime procedurals: When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back; people who fight monsters must take care not to become them. But the liberals weren’t always the ones writing our resistance media.
There’s a decent chance that your favorite director’s favorite director had firsthand experience fighting fascism. Jean-Pierre Melville kept his author-inspired French Resistance nom de guerre as his nom de film. Gillo Pontecorvo used his background in the Italian partisans as inspiration when he made perhaps the most admired insurgency film of all time, The Battle of Algiers. Surrealist Luis Buñuel put himself in the service of Republican Spain, which meant going to Hollywood to influence other filmmakers for the cause. Their knowledge shows; in Melville’s French Resistance drama The Army of Shadows, for example, we watch a group of high-ranking rebels execute a traitor. The leadership isn’t bloodthirsty — they all nervously confess they’ve never killed before — but if they don’t do their duty then more will die. It’s agonizing to watch them choke the life out of the man, more so because we know they’d rather just let him go. The movie doesn’t give the viewer anywhere to take refuge, no third side with clean hands.
Besides movies and anti-fascism, these filmmakers shared another thing in common: They were all communists. That’s not statistically surprising; from Spain to South Africa, communists led the struggle against fascism, even when the official Party wasn’t much help. But having lost the Cold War, the Soviets and their fellow travelers also lost control of the means of historical production, and thereby the narrative. As Dylan Matthews writes at Vox, there’s been a “successful 70-year campaign to convince people the U.S.A. and not the U.S.S.R. beat Hitler.” It doesn’t hurt that America did its best to purge its own entertainment industry of anyone with even tenuous communist affiliations. In his new history of the French Resistance Fighters in the Shadows, University of Oxford history professor Robert Gildea writes that, “The memories of resisters of dissident communist, foreign, and Jewish origin survived as group memories but not as dominant narratives.” The dominant narrative is closer to the one where liberalism single-handedly crushed the Nazis.
Without communism, there’s something missing in our dystopian stories. The proverbial Resistance is rigidly ideological, but it doesn’t seem to believe in anything in particular besides revenge and its own advantage. Mr. Robot’s insurgents are nerds committed to revolution, but somehow none of them talks about ideas that originate anywhere other than inside their own heads. Without actual class struggle as part of the narrative, The Resistance is led by charismatic megalomaniacs who freestyle whole ideologies — more Charles Manson and the Unabomber than Marx and Lenin. People join this “Resistance” because they’re looking for a home or a source of dignity — not because they believe in the revolution’s purpose with open eyes — and then they’re taken advantage of.
If you have any familiarity with left-wing history — especially the contemporary American kind — this all gets absurd very quickly. Eco-terrorists killed more people in a single episode of Law and Order than they ever did in real life (zero). You might not know it from the flashback episodes on cable cop procedurals, but even the Marxist militants in the archetypical ’60s bombing group Weather Underground never killed anyone but themselves, and then just on accident. If any of these people had actually been bloodthirsty the way we depict them now, then they were extremely bad at it or very lucky. In truth, negligent bombing murder is the specialty of the liberal state, not The Resistance.
Liberalism has rewritten a lot of 20th-century history along the lines of the French Resistance, and we’ve drawn our contemporary Resistance stories from that revised account. Nelson Mandela wasn’t a militant red backed by the Cuban army — he’s an Apple brand ambassador who “thought different.” But now that liberals find themselves threatened with illiberalism in the highest office, their sentimental, individualist stories aren’t going to be any use. If you want to know what liberal Resistance looks like in practice, imagine Keith Olbermann wrapped in the flag like a security blanket, forever. It doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of our new overlords.
There are real histories of anti-fascist struggle out there, and we can bring them back into the mainstream. If some section of the American people is going to face down Trump, his lackeys, and the bystanders, we’re going to need a few of them.