Equal parts amusing and alarming, John Feffer’s dystopian novel, Splinterlands, begins with Hurricane Donald, which floods Washington DC only five years from now. You may deny climate change, Feffer suggests, but Mother Nature will have the last word. She will unleash catastrophes and chaos that, combined with political fragmentation driven by hyper-aggressive capitalism and myopic nationalism, lead to a truly New World (Dis)order, characterized by confessional wars, resource shortfalls, and, within two generations, the end of the world as we know it.
Can “prophets of disintegration” like Donald Trump, driven by “market authoritarianism” and their own hubris, remake the world in their own chaotic image? Feffer makes a persuasive case that they can. Instead of seeing “the end of history” as a triumph of liberal democracy and a beneficial global marketplace driven by efficiency and technology, Feffer sees the possibility of factionalism of all sorts, a rejection of tolerance and diversity and the embrace of intolerance, identity politics, and similar exclusionary constructs.
Coincidentally, a cautionary letter from the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film just crossed my desk; its words encapsulate what Feffer is warning us about. The film directors denounced “the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the US and so many other countries.” The letter goes on to say that:
“The fear generated by dividing us into genders, colors, religions and sexualities as a means to justify violence destroys the things that we depend on – not only as artists but as humans: the diversity of cultures, the chance to be enriched by something seemingly ‘foreign’ and the belief that human encounters can change us for the better. These divisive walls prevent people from experiencing something simple but fundamental: from discovering that we are all not so different.”
The problem, of course, is that many people prefer divisive walls, while finding meaning in fanaticism, nationalism, and the politics of difference. We are now, Feffer writes, in a period of Great Polarization. His book is about what will happen if that polarization wins out. He writes:
“The middle dropped out of the world. Extremes of wealth and ideology flourished. Political moderates became an endangered species and ‘compromise’ just another word for ‘appeasement.’ First came the disagreements over regulatory policy, then sharper political divides. Finally, as the world quick-marched itself back through history, came the return of the war of all against all. The EU, committed to the golden mean, had no way of surviving in such an environment without itself going to extremes.”
The result? By the 2020s, the EU “evaporated like so much steam.” With Brexit ongoing, with the EU under increasing stress daily, Feffer’s scenario of an evaporating EU seems more than plausible.
Meanwhile, another breaking news item just crossed my desk: President Trump is seeking a $54 billion increase to America’s defense budget, to be funded by deep cuts to other federal agencies such as the EPA and Education. Trump and his team see the world as a dangerous place, and the military as the best and only means to “protect” America, as in “America first.” But by its nature the U.S. military is a global force, and more money for it means more military adventurism, driving further warfare, fragmentation, and chaos, consistent with Feffer’s vision of a future “splinterlands.”
As one of Feffer’s characters says, “There’s always been enormous profits in large-scale suffering.” Feffer’s dystopic novel — like our real world today — features plenty of that. People suffer because of climate change. Energy shortages. Wars. Water shortages. Even technology serves to divide rather than to unite people, as many increasingly retreat into virtual “realities” that are far more pleasant than the real world that surrounds them.
Feffer’s book, in short, is provocative in the best sense. But will it provoke us to make wiser, more inclusive, more compassionate, more humane choices? That may be too much to ask of any book, but it’s not too much to ask of ourselves and our leaders. The dystopic alternative, illustrated so powerfully in Feffer’s Splinterlands, provides us with powerful motivation to shape a better, less splintered, future.