Kirk's Book Reviews
Kirk's Book Reviews
|Posted on January 2, 2016 at 8:45 AM|
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It should come as no surprise that France has produced in Michel Houellebecq the foremost critic of Moral Relativism. This is the country, after all, that produced the 1968 generation and made anti-authoritarian and secular humanist concerns part of the establishment. A compromise between capital and labour, gay and straight, Christian and Muslim, male and female and just about every other competing ideal is the flimsy basis on which we now live.
Yet the contradictions are hard to square: the liberal democracy that has taken the place of religion on the political Left is tolerated on the Right for its ability to enrich people and divert their energies into consumerism. Nobody would call this heroic or romantic, and as a system that encourages little public spirit in its quest to uphold the sovereignty of the individual, the modern western democracy has plenty of detractors. Indeed, the tolerance that underpins the intellectual basis of democracy acts both as the motor and the wrecking ball of the system’s strength.
The anxiety of living in a declining civilisation is compounded by the facts. Our populations are aging, multi-racial societies are now the norm, budget deficits are ballooning, welfare bills are growing out of proportion and our national identities are becoming more transient. The biggest challenge in the future will come from the continent’s young Muslim population, numbering more than 10 million people and now given an injection of life by Germany’s astonishing decision to allow 1 million refugees to settle in the heartland of Europe. With Fascism, Communism and Nationalism long dead, Islam is perhaps the only civilisation capable of offering a viable alternative to liberal democracy, even if the latter brings material comforts and scientific achievements unparalleled in any former age.
Demographic projections for the future will only embolden this idea, and no one understands this better than Michel Houellebecq, the writer who’s done more than anyone to bring Nietzsche’s criticism of the modern man into the pantheon of Contemporary Literature.
Set in France in 2022, ‘Submission’ is the story of Michel, a middle-aged Professor of Literature at the Paris Sorbonne, who’s spent the best part of his life studying the works of Joris-Karl Huysmans and lamenting the unfulfilled promise of sexual relationships with a catalogue of women. In the backdrop to his personal crisis, the French nation is paralysed by a divide between Front National and an intransigent Socialist party. Into the fold steps Muhammed Ben Abbes of the Muslim Brotherhood, a party that gains over 30% of the election vote and is invited by the Socialists and UMP to take the presidency in a bid to block the far right from power. The price is allowing the Brotherhood control over Education and use of state subsidies to encourage women to leave the workforce.
But these developments are only the beginning: polygamy is legalised, state funding for education is cut by two-thirds and France’s subsidised industries are descaled in the hope of ending salaried employment. Furthermore, the much-maligned nuclear family is restored to its pre-industrial mode of extended kinship, and the Welfare State is slowly dismantled. With generous funding flooding in from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it soon becomes clear any parent with ambition will have to send their children to an Islamic school for the best-funded education. In a strange way, life goes on without an insurgency or civil war, even when the Islamic Crescent flies over the Paris Sorbonne University.
Yet despite this gloomy outlook, ‘Submission’ is not a dystopian novel or shallow excuse to disguise the author’s anxieties through the medium of fiction. Nobody (other than Haruki Murakami) portrays the noble loneliness of the individual like Houellebecq. Free from cynicism, prone to suicidal thoughts, propped up by nihilism, yet appalled by the worship of money and democracy, Michel ought to be just another ‘Jude the Obscure’ fighting for the dignity of recognition. Instead, he realises the new regime may provide opportunities for greater happiness. Polygamy will give him the comfort and gratification he craves, and perhaps the deep yearning for life to have a clear meaning can be answered in Islam. With the religion’s rise now accepted as a fait accompli, why bother with dead concepts like Nationalism? The future belongs to the civilisation that prioritises high birth rates as a geo-political goal. Capitalist societies, with their love of science and contraception, their distaste for authority, and attachment to reason and desire will never win this contest. Their Welfare States have removed the last economic reason for adults to have children as insurance against old age.
Though the themes are familiar in his earlier works, this is satire at its best. The vicious sense of humour running throughout the book is on a par with Nietzsche’s aphorisms in ‘Beyond Good and Evil,’ and nobody can expect Houellebecq to stop writing about the emptiness of living in a consumer society, just as nobody expected Charles Dickens to ignore urban poverty in his novels. His left-wing critics will line up to take a pop at the man rather than his writing, and the usual accusations of sleaze and gratuitous pornography that precede Houllebecq’s reputation will re-appear. Perhaps he’s laughing all the way to the bank as the sales increase with each controversy.
Nevertheless, Houellebecq is more of a sniper than a fighter pilot when it comes to attacking the taboos of modern society. Our present day obsession with democratic debate and reason is attacked with gusto: ‘The existence of political debate, however facetious, is necessary to the smooth functioning of the media – and, perhaps, also, to keep people feeling that they live, at least technically, in a democracy.’ Indeed, the sanctimonious media are pilloried for creating the conditions for Islam to thrive in France with their determination to keep the white middle-aged man out of politics. Their collusion with the Left has made criticism of the Muslim President almost impossible on grounds of politically-correct ideology. By 2022 the pro-immigrant wing of the Socialist party would rather avoid accusations of hypocrisy than object to Muhammed Ben Abbe’s Islamification of public life.
The real criticism at the heart of this book is reserved for the mainstream Left-Right divide that has run France since the Second World War. Houellebecq’s prediction that the Socialists would rather have an Islamic party instead of a Nationalist one elected to the Presidency may be exaggerated, but the recent fervour following Front National’s resounding win in the first round of regional elections in December 2015 suggests mainstream parties will form uncomfortable alliances to keep them out. A system that frustrates the will of 33% of its population will come under more strain in the future, and something will have to give.
Of course, nobody expects Houellebecq’s scenario to come into fruition anytime soon, yet ‘Submission’ is not a crude piece of scare-mongering. The contradictions and weaknesses of liberal democracy are the author’s ‘Platform’ to attack an ‘Atomised’ society that is still haunted by the dark twentieth century. With identity politics still in the ascendancy, these internal conflicts will not be resolved any time soon, and it seems Europe will need to accept Islam as a minor part of everyday life alongside gay rights, positive discrimination and the vigorous prosecution of hate crime laws.