The Only Revolutionaries are Bourgeois: J. G. Ballard’s Millennium People

Nuclear terrorism, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyberwarfare, and the depletion of resources necessary for running the industrial economy – for J. G. Ballard, missing from this list of the disasters most feared in the present would be the calamity in which there is no disaster.  Millennium People, his novel of 2003, gives us a glimpse into the kind of social problems that would prevail in an affluent, high tech society that had reached the point where it had little to fear from external dangers and could take for granted its continued prosperity.  That human beings might be fundamentally unsuited for such a pacific existence finds support from history as well as evolutionary biology: it is only in the late twentieth century that human beings, at least in the industrialized world, had within their grasp a way of life in which there was no need to struggle for necessities – one needed only to struggle for luxuries, and even then struggle was not always requisite either.  One could also describe this situation as an impasse in which a species long inured to contending with a hostile environment and unrelenting competition from rivals, finds itself at last without any natural enemies.  If human beings only truly take notice of and value what they perceive can be taken away from them, in other words, those things they understand to be under some kind of threat, what happens to their concerns and cares if all significant threats have become swept into the dustbin of history?  The easiest and most immediate answer would be to invent new threats, and thereby bring about one’s servitude to new forms of necessity.  For we do not find intensely meaningful those things that we create or choose, but rather those things to which we find ourselves forced to submit.

The protagonist of Millennium People, the psychiatrist David Markham, is drawn into the sects and rituals of weekend activism after a bomb on a baggage carousal at Heathrow Airport takes the life of his ex-wife Laura.  The fact that he is a psychiatrist supplies a productive point of entry for examining the desires and anxieties of the highly educated professionals who dedicate their spare time to protesting an enormous range of causes: calling for the removal of nuclear waste stations, attacking travel agencies, and defending badger dens from development.  Convinced that the culprit behind the bombing spun out from one of the more deranged orbits within these protest movements, Markham goes undercover at various demonstrations in and around London in the hopes of uncovering clues that would lead him to the Heathrow bombing.  For Markham, the weekend demonstrations are far more than political events, rather, their essence can only be described as religious: “Protest movements, sane and insane, sensible and absurd, touched almost every aspect of life in London, a vast web of demonstrations that tapped a desperate need for a more meaningful world. . . At times, as I joined a demonstration against animal experiments or Third-World debt, I sensed that a primitive religion was being born, a faith in search of a god to worship” (pp. 37-38).

What does Markham mean by a “more meaningful world”?  The world of which Markham speaks is not the narrow and familiar world of pleasures and fears in which we are locked by our own preferences.  Instead, one enters it by means an encounter with otherness that is both painful and pleasurable, painful because it reveals to us the limited nature of own knowledge and experience, and pleasurable because it fills us with new and unfamiliar sensations, which are richer and more potent than ordinary freedom and mundane happiness.  A “more meaningful world” is by definition beyond one’s grasp, as a middle class, law-abiding individual.  One needs contact with someone or something more intelligent, more impulsive, more insane, more dangerous, or otherwise less scrupulous than oneself in order to gain access to it.  We may note that in premodern times, such a role was typically fulfilled, for better and for worse, by the Church.  We may note as well that the fascination exerted by the criminal, the cult leader, and the tyrant arises from their promise to transport us to regions where we would, on our own, never seek to venture.  The enduring popularity of the film Fight Club can be attributed to how it depicts, without quite laying bare, the charismatic appeal of the leader who offers his followers psychic rejuvenation through acts of physical violence and wanton destruction.

As in Fight Club, the protagonist falls in with a group of militants dedicated to committing acts of destruction to shake middle class society out of its spiritual torpor.  But unlike in Fight Club, these gallant activists are longer in the tooth, paunchier, and more grey-haired, making Millennium People refreshingly free of the youthful glamour that absolves all mischief for Hollywood audiences.  They are also portrayed with a biting humor, not least when they are most hell-bent on spreading mayhem.  The most forceful personality in the group belongs to a film studies lecturer named Kay Churchill, who has been suspended from her academic post for giving her students the assignment to shoot a pornographic film.  Her reasoning: “I thought they needed a day trip to reality.  There’s too much jargon around – ‘voyeurism and the male gaze,’ ‘castration anxieties.’  Marxist theory-speak swallowing its own tail. . . Fucking is what they do in their spare time, so why not look at it through a camera lens?  They wouldn’t learn much about sex, but they’d learn a lot about film” (p. 53).  Kay is a force of nature whose outbursts of righteous indignation are charged with an irresistible sexual allure, enabling her to become the telegenic center of attention for both police and protesters.  Markham becomes her lover knowing full well that once the affair ends, she will miss him for ten minutes and take up the “game of emotional snakes and ladders” leading to her bedroom with the next lodger in her house (p. 212-213).  But the psychiatrist also comes across Kay holding a photograph to her chest with tears in eyes – it is a snapshot of her daughter, who moved away to Australia with her father after he was awarded custody over the girl.  “Only the deepest obsession could assuage that kind of sadness,” reflects Markham.

Dust covers Kay’s coffee table and writing desk like “an ectoplasmic presence, a parallel world with its own memories and regrets” (p. 50).  Ballard is not poking fun in this instance at the slovenly habits of a middle-aged single professional woman.  Rather, the fact that Kay does not keep these wooden surfaces bright and shiny is a sign of Ballard’s identification with her.  For a steady source of irritation for Ballard, a single father of three, was how female journalists, whenever they showed up at his modest suburban home to interview him, would without fail note the clumps of dust accumulating in the hallways and over the furniture.  One wonders whether Ballard wishes for Kay’s outlandishness to be more seductive and intoxicating than the extremity of his own vision.  Trying to recruit Markham to their subversive activities, she rails against the spiritual oppression of the middle class in Britain, who are enslaved by their educations, sense of responsibility, and adherence to the law.  When the skeptical Markham asks rhetorically, “like the poor in a Glasgow tenement?” Kay replies without skipping a beat and without a trace of irony, “Exactly.”

But Kay is anything but a humorless scold who wants to announce to one and all the deep personal sacrifices she is making to combat the injustices of the world.  Rather, the operations she undertakes with her group have an air of devilish playfulness, with a lightness of touch that is largely missing in Fight Club.  Pretending to be carrying out a lifestyle survey, Kay asks a housewife if she is in favor of wife swapping, and then steers the conversation towards the legalization of bestiality, after getting the exurbanite to state that she is in favor of consensual sex.  Another interviewee, a female doctor, is asked how often she cleans her toilet.  Kay then suggests that she have her family bathe less often, on the grounds that “natural body odours are an important means of communication, especially within families” and would give her time to “adopt a freer lifestyle” (p. 88).  Kay declares that she and her group seek to root out the beliefs and practices that serve to put the middle class in the straitjacket of proper behavior, the social codes that dictate the “right way to have sex, treat your wife, flirt at tennis parties or start an affair” (p. 89).  But what Kay herself feels about the method of liberation she so mischievously prescribes to others is something of an enigma wrapped in a hypocrisy.  She tells Markham that she is also busy unlearning these tyrannical bourgeois protocols, but makes sure to assuage what she detects must be for him a grave reservation, “Don’t worry, I still shower every day” (p. 89).

Such double-edged characterizations, in which a single gesture can act as both a warning and a come-on, pervade the novel — they are the hallmark of Ballard’s novels, which effortlessly create the vertiginous effect that accompanies the movement of stumbling into a world more historical and thus more real than one’s own.  This playful and alarming sense of ambiguity defines the revolt of the middle class that breaks out in an affluent housing development called Chelsea Marina.  The doctors, academics, and civil servants residing there, confronted by a negligent management company that keeps raising fees while refusing to do repairs (“You have to plan when you need a shit,” complains one of the subversives [p. 79]), decide to go on strike against their school fees, maintenance charges, and utility bills.  They set up barricades against the police, set fire to cars, and hurl a barrage of souvenir stones gathered from tropical beaches in the Seychelles and Mauritius on the officials attempting to serve an eviction notice.  But they also turn to shoplifting from nearby supermarkets and delicatessens, and cannily maneuver their toddlers as human shields to deter police brutality.  The vehemence of their resistance makes the working-class refuse collectors too fearful to enter the development and do their work.

Walking past the burned out hulks of BMWs and Volvos sitting along the empty streets of the abandoned by its residents, Markham lingers over the discarded detritus of the educated middle class: “The skip was filled with books, tennis rackets, children’s toys, and a pair of charred skis.  Beside a school blazer with scorched piping was an almost new worsted suit, the daytime uniform of a middle-ranking executive, lying among the debris like the discarded fatigues of a soldier who had thrown down his rifle and taken to the hills.  The suit seemed strangely vulnerable, the abandoned flag of an entire civilization. . . “ (p. 8).  But if the residents of Chelsea Marina, recognizing themselves as the new proletariat, have fought a desperate struggle against the government and the police, their risky and provocative actions appear wildly of out proportion to the fate they seek to avert.  When Markham asks why the residents won’t simply to move in response to the deliberate negligence of the management company, which is in cahoots with developers eager to tear down the houses and build more expensive units, Vera, one of Kay’s comrades-in-arms, replies, “We’re all locked into huge mortgages.  People have sky-high school fees, and the banks breathing down their necks.  Besides, where do we move to?  Darkest Surrey?  Some two-hour commute to Reading or Guildford?” (p. 79).

The middle class professionals of Chelsea Marina carry on street battles with the police in order to avoid their banishment to more distant and less posh neighborhoods.  While the reader, like Markham, is seduced by their political commitment, their willingness to risk life and limb for the sake of what they consider to be right, it is nevertheless impossible to escape the thought that what they are fighting for does not merit such extreme sacrifice.  While their grievances against the management company are fully justified, the revolt of the middle class takes on a momentum that carries it beyond mere economic concerns.  Liberal democratic ideals like justice and equality proves to be thin gruel compared to the trangressive thrills offered by the suspension of the rules governing everyday reality.  The loss of reality comes through in the hyperbolic identifications made by the bourgeois extremists in decrying their plight, the readiness and utter lack of constraint with which they compare their situation to the gulag and the Holocaust.

Millennium People calls to mind, in a somewhat satirical manner, Giorgio Agamben’s contention that the distinction, foundational for classical politics, between “private life and political existence,” no longer holds in the present epoch, since sovereign power has achieved complete domination over human life (Homo Sacer, p. 187).  Whereas for Agamben the catastrophe of modern politics is exemplified by the unchecked power of the state, for Ballard, the crisis stems from the bourgeois individual’s own conflicting desires. As the novel’s diabolus ex machina, a doctor working with severely handicapped children, puts it:

“People don’t like themselves today.  We’re a rentier class left over from the last century.  We tolerate everything, but we know that liberal values are designed to make us passive.  We think we believe in God but we’re terrified by the mysteries of life and death.  We’re deeply self-centered but can’t cope with the idea of our finite selves.  We believe in progress and the power of reason, but are haunted by the darker sides of human nature.  We’re obsessed with sex, but fear the sexual imagination and have to be protected by huge taboos.  We believe in equality but hate the underclass.  We fear our bodies and, above all, we fear death.  We’re an accident of nature, but we think we’re at the centre of the universe.  We’re a few steps from oblivion, but we hope we’re somehow immortal” (p. 139)

What this means for a bourgeois society undergoing economic hardship, just as it does for one that is unshaken in its confidence in future growth, is the loss of any sense of reasonable equilibrium in political life.  What burdens are fair to ask of every individual?  How are we to distinguish hobbies from duties, or to separate necessary desires from superfluous ones?  Such an equilibrium underpins broad social expectations of fairness and reciprocity.  The fact that such expectations have become a chimerical quantity is in my view the greatest obstacle to a politics of economic justice.

Texts cited:

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

J. G. Ballard, Millennium People (London: Harper Perennial, 2004).

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