Dominic Hilton on a 'timely satire' that is neither
This is a novel of ideas. Bad ideas.The centrally-planned socialist command economy, for example. That was a shocking idea, though Allan Cameron seems to think otherwise. And Stalinism - that was an even worse idea. Still, an approving plug from Uncle Joe-apologist Eric Hobsbawm decorates the cover. The Berlusconi Bonus is less fiction than a wrongheaded argument in speech marks. Cameron thinks he's identified the threat facing mankind. Apparently, it's not Weapons of Mass Destruction, Islamic terrorism or Chinese Communism. It's voting and shopping.
The bulk of this 'timely satire' is set in the 2050s (the other two pages in 2084), though the inspiration is all present day anti-American anti-Bush anti-capitalism. Cameron envisages a dystopian future in which Francis Fukuyama's celebrated 'End of History' thesis actually ends history and 'Fukuyama Theme Parks' full of asylum-seekers serve as museums to 'the history period'. Citizens with 'Rational Consumer Implant Cards' lodged in their craniums inadvertently indulge in retail therapy in an all-powerful 'Federation of Free Democratic States' (a post-Union England allied with the United States) as the sinister 'Central Surveillance Agency' keeps watch and order.
The state exists only to sustain the 'rational self interest' of its citizens, providing nothing in way of welfare. Except, that is, to plutocrats like Alphonse Hibbert, the protagonist, who made his billions supplying bedpans to the 'Free Market Super-Saver Hospitals'. In return for their wealth creation, and inspired by the actions of Italy's favourite former cruise-crooner, plutocrats can apply for a 'Berlusconi Bonus', which effectively lifts them above the law and grants them free reign to act as murderously or hedonistically as they desire. Oh, and best of all, they pay no taxes.
I'm making this sound better than it is. Under the guise of 'satire', Cameron tries to convince us of several tropes. Firstly, that this scenario is not only likely but that western society is already a plutocratic order underneath which a morally, spiritually and intellectually shallow mass shops for face cream. Secondly, that all businessmen are stupid. Thirdly, that the free market is a con and anyone who succeeds is a glorified grifter. Fourthly, that liberal democracy is more secretive and threatening than the Politburo (it really says this!). Fifthly, that wealth is worse for your life and soul than poverty. Sixthly, to maintain control by inventing a fictitious enemy, bombs in the heart of London are planted by the state, not by anarchists or al-Qaeda (oh yes, how very 'timely').
The plot is straight out of Mission: Impossible and hardly matters. Let's just say it involves an inevitable waking from false-consciousness.
The failings of this book are both intellectual and stylistic. Cameron's pains to show off his knowledge and justify his plot breed embarrassing philosopher name-dropping, the papering-over of inconsistencies in his argument, and clunky passages of explanation interspersed with absurdly leading questions. There's no excusing the line "Isn't it a rather absurd propaganda campaign that no one can really believe in?" Cameron falls straight into the trap of 'ideas' novels. Nobody talks like his characters. Within three lines of introduction, everyone starts sounding like a textbook.
Worse, the intellectual foibles. Fukuyama did not abolish history, as the novel claims. Fukuyama wrote an article and a book. A universal thirst for liberal democracy, he said, is cracking the totalitarian edifice. His big failing was to forget about Cameron and co, who appear not to subscribe to liberal democracy.
Freedom is not, as Cameron would have it, 'a meaningless word'. Freedom allowed the author to write this book, peddle his theories, and get published. People like Cameron search so hard for a conspiracy, their efforts only prove there isn't one.
Anti-dogma so quickly becomes dogmatic. In this case, on page 1. Cameron belongs to the school of incessant pessimism, the kind that ends up romanticising Milosevic's socialist Serbia due to the absence of Starbucks. Liberal democracy does not make everything 'pallid' (has Mr Cameron been out lately?). And what do these people mean when they incessantly attach the word 'extreme' to the term 'free-market economics'?
This book is never funny. 'Satire' in this sense means knocking everything not wilfully suffering in a home-knitted woollen jumper. There's no edge and it is not scary. The enemies are wrong, the self-righteous execution hackneyed. 'Fallujah' even gets a mention. Cameron fancies himself as a 21st century Orwell. But Orwell described a likely (and near-existent) state. Cameron doesn't.
Still, I say buy it. It makes you think and Mr Cameron can go shopping with the proceeds. He might even enjoy himself.