J. G. Ballard‘s new novel, Kingdom Come, is something of a pendant to his preceding novel Millennium People (which I wrote about here). That book was about an abortive “revolution” of the upper middle class; while Kingdom Come tracks a similar process in a somewhat lower social stratum: the inhabitants of “motorway towns,” anonymous suburbs ringing London, but at too great a distance to be really integrated into the life of the city. (Ballard himself, I believe, has long lived in such a suburb). A suburb of this sort, strung out along a motorway, is “a place where it was impossible to borrow a book, attend a concert, say a prayer, consult a parish record or give to charity. In short, the town was an end state of consumerism” (8). The only human need well provided for is parking, which is “well on the way to becoming the British population’s greatest spiritual need” (7).
There is nothing to do in the suburbs except root for the local sports teams, and go shopping at the Metro-Centre, a vast indoor mall whose enormous dome dominates the landscape, and whose central atrium is dominated by three enormous bears who inspire veneration from the shoppers. Everyone’s life is dominated by the twin vicarious activities of consumerism and sports fandom; and there’s a strong synergy between the two, since the Metro-Centre sponsors special sports nights, and organizes its promotions around the matches.
Ballard presents consumerism as an ever-accelerating, positive-feedback cycle. Shopping is immediately satisfying; but once you bring the products home, you feel empty and disappointed. Consumerism thus gives rise to disaffection and boredom. But the only cure for such dissatisfaction is still more shopping. And so the cycle replicates itself, on an ever-expanding scale.
Sports fandom, meanwhile, works as an intensifier. “People don’t know it, but they’re bored out of their minds. Sport is the big giveaway. Wherever sport plays a big part in people’s lives you can be sure they’re bored witless and just waiting to break up the furniture” (67). Destruction and violence are just the flip side of accumulation. Where Bataille and Baudrillard seem to imply that excess, expenditure, and violence mark a line of escape from the sterility of bourgeois accumulation, Ballard is far more pessimistic. Expenditure, or potlatch, is really just another part of the same logic.
What, then, do the white, lower-middle-class British suburbanites do, after getting pumped up by an afternoon of shopping, and an evening of rooting for their team? Why, they go out and engage in a racist mob rampage — targeting South Asians and Eastern Europeans — under the cover of that old British standby, football [i.e. soccer] hooliganism. The police basically stand by during these riots, and do nothing. For they, and the politicians who command them, know that such outbursts are, ultimately, useful to the social order. “Secretly, they [the police and the town council] want the Asians and immigrants out… Fewer corner shops, more retail parks, a higher tax yield. Money rules, more housing, more infrastructure contracts. They like the bands playing and the stamping feet — they hide the sound of the cash tills” (169).
In the 1930s, Bataille held out the hope that the violent, convulsive, extravagant expenditure — which he presciently saw as the motor driving fascism — could be turned against itself, detourned for revolutionary ends. From the perspective of the early 21st century, however, such a hope seems naive. Sports and shopping might seem like domesticated (castrated?) versions of violent expenditure, but for that very reason they absorb all possibility and all hope, and therefore cannot be mobilized as tools of liberation.
In short, Ballard tells us, “consumerism creates an appetite that can only be satisfied by fascism” (168). But this is a ‘soft’ fascism, a “new politics” with “no slogans, no messages… no manifestoes, no commitments.” Instead, it is all about “people’s dreams and needs, their hopes and fears,” as these are manifested in the purchase of more commodities (146). A politics of affective modulation — such as Brian Massumi describes — rather than one of (classically fascist) mass hysteria. The crowd of fans and shoppers gives way to its own moods, its own feelings, like “a herd of wildebeest on the African plain” (146), with no predetermined direction, and no need for a Duce or Fuhrer to stir them up.
Actually, there is a figure who works as a catalyst or enabler; he helps to provoke the crowds into motion, by urging them to shop. But instead of being a ranting, charismatic figure with an apocalyptic message, this enabler is a washed-up TV actor turned low-affect cable talk-show host, “a ‘virtual’ man without a real thought in his head” (168), who adds a vague sense of disquiet to his otherwise bland and affable persona.
The narrative, as is often the case in Ballard’s novels, builds to a point of destructive, degenerative implosion. Eventually, fanatical shoppers and boosters take over the Metro Centre, holding hostages to fend off an attack by the police. From that point, everything decays: entropy takes over, rather than any sort of energizing explosion. The revolution, when it comes, is disappointing, and ends up reinforcing the very order against which it was directed. The old gentry of the suburban town despise the lower-middle-class crassness and vulgarity of the mall; but they end up revealed as the instigators, and the beneficiaries (except for those of them who get killed in the blowback), of the very processes they so much deplored.
The entropic ending thoroughly demystifies destruction and excess as (supposed) forms of transcendence. There’s no such thing as transgression in late-capitalist society: “we’re the most advanced society our planet has ever seen, but real decadence is far out of our reach”; instead, “we worship our barcodes” and rely on advertising to supply us with “cosy little fantasies of alienation and guilt” (263).
Kingdom Come has so far only been published in the UK, not the US. And it has gotten mostly negative reviews — even from speculative writers like Ursula LeGuin and M. John Harrison, who ought to know better. The book has been criticized for the fact that its plot and characters aren’t slick, catchy, and ‘well-constructed’ enough. But of course these are the wrong standards by which to judge Ballard. He writes genre fiction as social theory — and he remains, at age 76, one of the most acute social theorists that we have. His insights could not be communicated in the form of the artfully structured literary novel. His seeming repetitiveness, his clumsy prosaicness, and his insistence on a kind of pop-culture (so-called) ‘kitsch’ are necessary tools of insight. In a thoroughly Modernist way, his form coincides with his themes; though, as an anatomist of our “postmodern” condition, his forms/themes are such as the classic Modernists could never have imagined.