Some Thoughts On Writing The Political
Based on multiple twitter discussions and other online discussions I’ve encountered in the past two months, I want to elaborate on some thoughts I have about writing politically charged fiction from a critical left position. Obviously I am not a published, let alone popular, writer of fiction. I am, however, a left academic with the credentials that (make of my doctorate what you will) give me some kind of authoritative license to talk about the political and social. Moreover, I’ve written two books in the field and will release a third in six or seventh months that are radical engagements with the current predatory state of affairs. Hence, whenever I read fiction (particularly genre fiction) that proclaims fidelity to an anti-capitalist/anti-colonial/anti-imperialist/anti-oppressive ethos, my first response is to temper my excitement with a suspicion about whether this fiction has closed the gap between its intentions and presentation. That is, has this book or short story that purports to be politically challenging adequately grasped the structures it claims to critique, is the social formation it articulates concretely rather than abstractly understood, and is this a materialist instead of an idealist representation of the real.
Sadly, most contemporary progressive literature (either genre or non-genre) that treats itself as a radical challenge to the state of affairs in fact fails to understand this state of affairs. Even if authors go out of their way to find “sensitivity readers” when necessary, advertise their “SJW” acumen with the appropriate buzz-words, and struggle to avoid offending marginalized and oppressed people, a lack of political economy and understanding of social theory can blunt whatever critical literature they hoped to produce. None of this is to say that the above anti-oppression laundry list is useless––these aspects may in fact be necessary correctives––only that they don’t by themselves necessarily promote the kind of critical incisiveness and political line required to make a truly radical and subversive literature. At best they can help point the author towards such a literature. At worst they can preserve the worst kind of liberalism.
(To be clear, I’m not arguing that a left literature must be didactic. While I appreciate many examples of didactic art, and conversely would not dismiss didactic realism, I also think that non-didactic and subtle works of art are extremely important. There is, after all, a crude activist didacticism that wants a novel or movie to function like the shittiest political poster. Complex and subtle engagements with exploitation and oppression, on the other hand, can function to unsettle dominant narratives while refusing to sacrifice aesthetic development.)
In the past so much of the literary output of the active left (and here, when I say “left”, I do not mean the tendency to the left of every form of liberalism) rigorously understood the political contexts and social formations in which it produced. Indeed, the majority of the fiction that we can truly claim is “radical” and “revolutionary” is not contemporary; it belongs to a past period of struggle. Take, for example, the work of Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Ghassan Kanafani: novels and stories that were not only aesthetically advanced but truly grasped, in their articulation of the conjuncture, a deep understanding of the social formation, the world situation, and the meaning of politics. One significant reason for the political quality of this work, though, is that these authors (and others like them) were intimately involved in revolutionary struggle. In this context, they saw their literature as part of a liberation movement and thus were deeply invested in understanding what stood in the way of liberation. Ngugi reinvented Kenyan literature so that it was accessible to the nation’s peasants and workers. Kanafani became the cultural minister of the PFLP. Ngugi was imprisoned and later became an exile. Kanafani was assassinated by the Mossad.
But today, where struggles are fragmented and movementism is the norm, liberalism also dominates the left literary crowd. As I once joked with an author who I think is producing the kind of fiction that is critical of the state of affairs (and in a non-didactic manner), a lot of the would-be “left” literature today tends to understand imperialism and anti-imperialist struggle according to the tropes of the original Star Wars trilogy.
So in the absence of a coherent anti-imperialist/internationalist movement that the authors of the past could plug into, what is to be done? How can authors even in the “genre” field produce a critical literature that serves a revolutionary impulse? I have left out any discussion of being aware of your privilege, avoiding sexist caricatures in the name of realism, and all the very basic anti-oppressive requirements. This is because most of the people committed to writing progressive politics in their literature already get this and still fail to produce a thorough politically committed work. In my opinion, when your king or queen is a committed feminist, maybe queer or trans, and some kind of social activist in a tributary society you are not creating a very useful political literature for reasons I will discuss below.
Here are my thoughts, based on my training and credentials as a philosopher whose dissertation and output is focused on revolutionary theory. It’s fair to dismiss them, because lord knows there are a lot of “experts” out there, but at the same time I do happen to be someone who did the hard work of studying actually existing social formations in an academic context and, just as you wouldn’t dismiss a biologist talking about biology, I happen to think it’s fair that you shouldn’t dismiss a political philosopher’s thoughts about politics — especially one who is concerned with social transformation.
A. Concrete Analysis of the Concrete Situation
If you’re going to create fiction that is anti-capitalist then you should really figure out what capitalism is: read Capital, at least volume one, and other critical works that attempt to unveil the material functions of your mode of production. If you’re going for a particularly anti-colonial focus then read Frantz Fanon. If you want to write something about imperialism in general, then fucking read Samir Amin. There is a shit ton of resources about the material nature of the word that is out there for you to access, that can tell you something about the way the world functions, by writers who have put in the time and energy to really think through the meaning of your existence.
Moreover, read the critical social theory and political economy. History is contested, after all, and there will be work produced by both reactionary and progressive scholars. As a leftist I happen to believe that the work produced with the intention of changing society––that is, work that is simultaneously critical of common sense ideology––is qualitatively superior to work that seeks to preserve the state of affairs. Avoid work tainted by cold warrior discourses; seek out the challenging and radical analyses.
We should also be wary of work that masquerades as critical but is little more than liberal ideology. This is the kind of work that uses leftist language to justify the “end of history” discourse, a pseudo-critical body of research that by pretending to be critical of everything in fact reifies the very thing we want to challenge. This is the kind of literature that veers into idealist rather than materialist analyses of reality. Take, for example, the way that “imperialism” is used as a buzz-word for anything and everything that is connected to a bland concept of “power”. But if you want to write fiction that depicts imperialism accurately you need to get beyond these idealist and banal uses of the term. Idealism is in fact a very real world thing: in its pre-modern form it is colonial expansionism; in its modern articulation (which preserves the pre-modern instance) it is the export of capital. It is not a behaviour or an attitude, though it produces behaviours and attitudes, but a material structure that means multinationals and military interventions.
All works in a fantastic or far future reality should also follow this verisimilitude. A fantasy based in a tributary mode of production should understand what this mode of production means, and the ways in which exploitation functions, rather than creating––a la reactionaries like Tolkien––a wonderland where there are no class conflicts, productive forces, or productive relations to speak of… How the fuck do these societies reproduce themselves without these contradictions? And if you’re conceiving of a far future reality where exploitation and oppression are the norm, grasp something about the ways in which modes of production function in the here and now in order to explain the chains of exploitation and production that persist in your future.
Within SFF genre there are authors who have done the hard work of generating this verisimilitude. Sofia Samatar has done this with her two books centred around “Olondria”. China Mieville has thought through the kinds of material modes of production that would be necessary for his fantasies. Benjanun Sriduangkaew has conceived of a logic of her fictions despite the limitations of the short story. This requirement is not impossible; it simply demands that the author knows reality.
B. Know your antecedents
As aforementioned, there are also authors of fiction who have already done the hard work of understanding the hegemony and have produced a counter-hegemonic literature. Fucking gods, read these authors and treasure their novels and stories. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to wonder about anyone who claims they’re producing an anti-colonial or decolonial literature who hasn’t also read, at the very least, Chinua Achebe. If you’re writing anti-colonial fiction that has something to do with the settlement of the Americas then you should read someone like Leslie Marmon Silko. There are countless other examples; they are not hard to find.
While it is indeed the case that we are living in a time where institutional memory is being deconstructed and we are socialized to be unaware of the precious contributions of literary radicals, we should resist this enforced ignorance. If you want to be a progressive writer of any kind you really should look at the history of radical literature so as to understand what it accomplished, what movements it engaged with, how it was delimited, and how your own fiction fits into this history. Authors like Patricia Galvao (or “Pagu”) produced avant garde revolutionary works like Industrial Park as part of an organic movement––compare your own work and its aspirations to this. If you don’t know who she is (or who the other political examples I’ve mentioned are) then also ask yourself why you don’t know. Because if you want to produce a politically relevant literature and are unaware of the great political writers who have lived and died before you decided to write whatever you want to write then why the hell should you be considered or remembered?
Most importantly, though, the radical writers of yesterday can teach the writers of today how to write politics. They struggled with similar problematics, they fought with the establishment of their time.
C. Avoid Petty-B Moralism
I am sick and tired of reading books that moralizes exploitation/oppression by villainizing individuals without attention to social structure (see point A). The problem isn’t that this or that individual is problematic because of x/y/z identity characteristics, the problem is that the system creates individuals with these characteristics. Such a system also produces individuals who may occupy sites of oppressed identity who are in fact complicit in oppressive structures. Thus, if you are writing a novel about settler-colonialism (my go to example since I’m familiar with the literature) then you need to understand the meaning of the comprador class and cultural nationalism. The fact that all the great anti-colonial novels of the 1950s/60s engaged with the compradori and the problem of culturalism as barriers to revolution (indeed, for Ngugi this is often a primary concern) should tell you, if you paid attention to point B, that this concern (amongst others) should form a necessary part of the fiction totality.
Simultaneously, fictions that locate the solution to the oppression in a hero who occupies one of the oppressive classes is moralistic wish fulfilment. The problem with a lot of epic fantasy––what Mieville once called “feudalism lite”––is that it often locates the moral solution in the trope of the good king or prince (sometimes with magical swords or rings) rather than understanding that maybe the social formation as a whole is the problem. In the real world members of the aristocracy were never the solution to the backwardness of tributary oppression; they were in fact the people holding back progress, which is why they were guillotined in the French Revolution. Similarly there are no “good” slavers or colonialists who will be the solution; the narrative of the nice slave master functions to preserve the structure of slavery as a whole (i.e. let’s just get some nice masters and colonial overlords and it’s all okay!)… So why the hell do we have these pseudo-progressive stories that moralize about individual aristocrats who will help the people and thus preserve the terms of this people’s exploitation/oppression?
In this context appeals to the horrors of oppression fall flat if they are explained according to vague moral categories of corruption, abuse of power, etc. Exploitation and oppression are necessary for certain modes of production to reproduce themselves; they are not secondary qualities that can be corrected by an appeal to a universal morality interior to these modes of production. Feudalism is not fixed by a good king, slavery is not rectified by a compassionate slave master, colonialism is not sanctified by “civilizers” who avoid the genocidal impulse, capitalism is not corrected by anti-corruption laws. America is not saved by a non-Republican president.
D. Stop Reifying the Myths of Your own Social Formation
If you plan to write progressive literature that is intended to be critical of the state of affairs, then you should sure as hell not celebrate anything that celebrates the central myths of the exploitative/oppressive structures of the social formation in which you reside. If you’ve got no problem with the bad fictions that serve capitalist/colonialist/imperialist business as usual, then how are you going to write a critical fiction of anything?
For example, this article was in part motivated by a disappointing online interaction I had a couple months ago with a US author whose work I actually quite like (which is why I’m not going to name them). After they wrote about how much they loved the musical Hamilton, I argued that it was quite problematic to try and left-wash the American War of Independence through hip-hop. Let’s be clear, the US secession was not some great moment of world historical revolution (that was the French Revolution that Thomas Paine thought went too far by killing the aristocracy, not to mention the Haitian Revolution sequence that scared the fuck out of the US “revolutionaries”) but in fact a settler secession driven by the desire to maintain slavery and ramp up colonial violence. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Gerald Horne (among others, see point A) have pointed out, this event was one that was largely resisted by New Afrikan rebels and Indigenous nations who generally sided with the British. Not because they thought the British Empire was progressive (oh gods no) but because they would rather side with an enemy in another continent than the settlers who were the slavers and outright murdering Indigenous peoples. But the US props itself up according to a sanitized version of this myth and not the reality where the settlers under the forefathers were encouraged to shoot and knive Indigenous women and children––or where these same forefathers extolled the virtues of slavery. A musical that helps reproduce this myth without criticizing its assumptions, instead being critical on a formal level, in fact valorizes settler-colonial ideology.
The author did not respond to my criticism by arguing that Hamilton was some kind of detournement of the founding mythology––not an argument I agree with but one that possesses some strength––instead they defended the myth by claiming that I was being too simplistic and excluding the voices of slaves and Indigenous people who supported the War of Independence. But this is the problem: these voices (if they did really exist since no examples were given) are in fact the voices that are always included in the myth. It is the challenge to this myth, which represents the majority of the insurgent oppressed at the time, that is excluded so that this myth can persist. Besides, as I pointed out in point C, this petty-bourgeois moralism needs to be avoided: in all oppressive structures there are people from oppressed groups who participate in the maintenance of oppression and we shouldn’t care what they think or about including their voices except to criticize them. Just as I don’t give a shit about the capo in Auschwitz aside from the fact that they were a capo, I don’t care about the collaborator of the genocide that founded a settler-colonial nation.
This example is meant to demonstrate, then, the ways in which the core myths of one’s nation can seep into one’s consciousness and thus adversely affect your fiction. If you can’t grasp these critical interrogations your own social context, and thus not really understand the ways in which oppression’s material basis and history operates around you as an ideological apparatus, what are you really going to understand in your own fiction?
There is not, as of yet, the explosion of a left radical politically committed literature as there has been in the past. Although there are a few authors who do the above very well they are a minority amongst a community of authors who proclaim some form of progressive left commitment but aren’t writing sharp political work. Simply making sure that your literature does not undermine a vague “SJW” view of reality, however, is not necessarily enough — such a baseline politics can easily end up swerving into a petty-bourgeois moralism and it usually doesn’t produce any kind of verisimilitude with the social formation in which its characters reside.
I am not arguing that all literature should be political propaganda. I don’t have to argue this because all literature already is political propaganda even if the authors are unaware of this fact. Those supposedly apolitical authors are simply replicating the “common sense” norms in their literature and assuming they are not politically loaded. It’s about being conscious of the politics you’re expressing and choosing a political line.
Nor am I arguing that a progressive political literature should only be didactic. Subtlety is a good thing and the political commitment might range from an auto-critique to just the scaffolding behind a story… Again it’s the political line/commitment that matters, being conscious of that, and being willing to pursue its articulation in the work.