on 3 August 2016
It’s 2048. The UK has split and England has left the EU for the US-led Federation of Free Democratic States. The Federation has two political parties: the New Freedom Party and New Liberty Party. Its middle-class has withered; the poorest are in gated reservations called ‘theme parks’, and the rest have a brain implant that turns them into Rational Consumers. The Federation has also expatriated all Muslims, and invaded Pakistan in ‘Operation Extending Democracy and Justice’. Above all, ‘History has stopped’ and the newspapers print the same news year after year, but no-one notices, or claims to.
I loved this satirical dystopian setting! I had trouble, though, with the narrating character: Adolphus Hibbert is a self-made billionaire, yet is supposedly ‘uninterested in politics’, ‘not a risk taker’, ‘a bad liar’, and even ‘had never learnt to drive’. He takes the tube, doesn’t have a good suit, seemingly has no servants or ‘people’, and even lives in _Hampstead_…? Anyway, this character is recruited (for reasons I was unclear about) by the Secret Service. His lawyer, Linklater, is a dissident who, despite knowing Hibbert’s a spy, introduces him to his contacts in one of the theme parks. Hibbert falls in love with one of them, Edith. Suddenly his heart is telling him one thing, and his Rational Consumer implant another…
This is a novel with a lot of interesting political discussion. One character wants ‘a cultural revolution in which the consumer would take complete and radical control of the means of consumption’. Another says, ‘if you are a half-baked philosopher it’s much better to write for the rich and powerful.’ As its main theme, the book examines the Orwellian implications of the Fukuyama end-of-history conceit. Overall, I got the impression that the author’s stronger on ideas than on character and plot, but it’s a good read if you don’t mind that. And there’s an intro by Ilan Pappe.
on 3 July 2007
In 'The Berlusconi Bonus', author Alan Cameron skillfully constructs a dystopic satire and thereby draws on an honourable tradition going back to Classical times but most particularly to the works of those post-Voltaireans heavily sceptical of the rationalist project. This disparate group includes writers such as Edwin Abbott Abbott (mathematician, theologian and author of the bizarre 1884 novel, 'Flatland'), Pierre Boule ('Planet of the Apes', 1963), Henry Harrison (author of the novel, 'Make Room! Make Room!' which was adapted into the 1973 film, 'Soylent Green' which also starred Charlton Heston in his anti-heroic, `Pre-Rifle-ite' days), William F. Noland and George Clayton Johnson's 1967 novel, 'Logan's Run' and of course the iconic books of Orwell and Huxley. But there are many more, each one arising of the geopolitics of its time yet attempting to project forwards into a murky and essentially fascistic and terrifying near-future.
Ever been inside a corporate brain? 'The Berlusconi Bonus' pitches us into a hyper-capitalist mid-to-late-C21st and into an existence, that of the weak-kneed, uncertain Adolphus Hibbert, whose mental space relays a semi-conscious state which seems not so very far from the collective insecurity of our own existence. Just as, in the world of the novel, (end-of-history) Fukuyama is revered as a prophet, so Berlusconi, the ex-PM of Italy, is used as a heroic symbol of the unification of corporatism, militarism and surveillance which forms the rubric of the dualistic society of the novel. Average citizens live effectively - but subliminally - lobotomised by consumer implants in their brains, in demand-fed, mendacious, gated cities, while the rest swarm on the peripheries in brutish, marginalised parody. But at least the rejects can still think for themselves, though they remain powerless. In honour of his relentless pursuit of wealth (the sole virtue in this society), and somewhat in the manner of a reality TV show, Adolphus has just been granted a Berlusconi Bonus, a pass allowing access and almost absolute privilege, including that of breaking the law with impunity, but he also enters a state of existential crisis in which forever deprived of the manifestation of societal memory we call, history, he is unable to measure the significance of events and lacks the socialised formation of personality with regards to power which is the prerequisite to conditional trust. He gets drawn into spying on a terroristic underground resistance movement some of whose acolytes may be being groomed by the security services and with one of whose members he falls in love. Cameron correctly identifies the lucid understanding of the dynamics of information and history as the prerequisite of both (individual and collective) freedom and power and 'The Berlusconi Bonus' turns on the irony that although above all, it is an exhortation to think, a sense of historical futility - the fatalism of the cinematic flashback - pervades the novel, largely because we are told at the start (as a memoir by the chief antognist, the intelligence officer, Captain Younce), that the whole thing has been written as a confession by Hibbert to the security police.
On first reading, I had felt that the references to contemporary events (e.g. the Blitzkreig by the US Army of Fallujah) which pepper the narrative tended to break the fictive spell and thereby detract from the novel's potential power, but now, a couple of years on, these events have become part of history and as such, these periodic and unpredictable allusions strike me as horrific (in the Conradian sense). Cameron is not pretending here. He is writing about our world now and as it may become, if we are not sufficiently alert, in just a few decades' time, in the lifetimes of our children. He exposes the internal and external state violence that is the engine of capitalism, the intensely subtle political brainwashing which Public Relations cadres - societal engineers if ever there were any - have developed over the past few decades and the structural mendacity that already has degraded some essential stratum of the liberal democratic state. It would not be difficult to place, say, (the ultimate triangulation of) Alastair Campbell (Blair's PR supremo), Dr David Kelly, the dead microbiologist and the SIS officer, (Sir) John Scarlett as characters in 'The Berlusconi Bonus'.
It is absolutely no surprise - and is quite possibly a marker of its effectiveness - that the novel excited vitriol, derision and anger in certain quarters, even down to the virtually libel of both the author and the internationally respected historian, Professor Eric Hobsbawm who provided a glowing testimonial for the cover, mysteriously and hysterically, as "apologists for Stalin". Eh? 'The Berlusconi Bonus' is the anti-Stalinist novel, par excellence; the slick, dissembling type of totalitarianism it deconstructs is a capitalist one, yet one imagines that secret policemen all over the world get on a storm (at least if the reptilian obscenity of Guantanamo Bay, the Nazis who worked for the CIA and the glorious alumni of the School of the Americas are anything to go by). Perhaps, instead of the fluttering flags and farcical citizenship tests proposed by the court jesters and artichokes of the New Labour government, everyone, including government ministers, instead should have to sit a Cartesian version of 'The Berlusconi Bonus' test, to know on which side of the fence they fall, in order to determine whether or not they have the chip in their heads, to scry whether for them and their society it is already too late.