"As terrible as death. But harder to find.”
Alternative history fiction is being revisited in our entertainment media; the reality if these outcomes had come to pass is not as devastatingly dystopian as it is, both, familiar and prescient.
The purpose of alternative history fiction is often to tell a larger societal truth, and extrapolating out from where reality and the narrative diverge on the timeline usually is meant to reinforce was would’ve been useful in retrospect on the prime timeline; The Man in the High Castle is an excellent meta-example of this. The fracturing of the Axis powers, rather than becoming a grand world government, the competiting authoritarian ideologies conflicted rather than coalitioning, and resistance manifests as a reaction to this. This is a geo-political lens on a hypothetical where the Allies did not prevail in World War II, at least on the surface, but it’s actually much more— a complex calculus that makes “alternate” timelines difficult to predict with any real accuracy because history only happens one way, so alternate timelines will have as many iterations as it does events where an event can go one way, or some infinite number of other ways. Philip K. Dick drives this point home because of the in-universe alternate history within the novel where the Allies won, and it’s intended to be unrecognizable to the reader in our timeline.
In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, there’s a similar premise; what if Nazism prevailed in the United States as a mainstream political ideology. Roth’s vision of this America isn’t all that fantastical, or even particularly dystopian; it’s an indictment of how these subversive elements would manifest overnight the moment it became socially acceptable to hold these views, and live these values publicly. Similar to Dick’s premise that alternative histories are easy to generate, but impossible to say what will, and may not, happen, Roth’s premise seems to be that acknowledging what was known to exist at a given point in time (large amounts of Nazi sympathizing in American society, both, in the early 20th century, and at the end of it when the novel, itself, was published, as well as today, in 2020) would, necessarily, be a core component of the cultural ethos, and is crucial to populating the elements of one potential alternative history. It’s a way to evaluate the past, by speculating what could’ve happened in the future, based on what we know about our culture today.
The example of Nazism is one that has a lot of cultural relevance because of how the post-war century played out for the United States; families like the Bushes, for example, had ties to the Nazis, which directly influenced their material interests, which includes the underlying oil interests and relationships that ultimately motivated the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We relied on Nazi science for the space program (this is well known, for example), and our government helped expatriate SS officials out of Germany before and during the post-war occupation aside from the scientists we’d employed; there was always a tolerance for this amongst our leadership, to say nothing of the anti-semitism, for example, prevalent within the country (consider that, for example, refugees from the Nazis were denied entry during the war and were returned to Europe to be put in camps, but even internally, Manhattan Project scientists like Richard Feynman were denied entry to graduate programs and employment that had already hit their quota on Jewish students and graduates) amongst the other well-known institutional and systemic bigotries at work at this point in the century. This was a country less than a century removed from an active slave trade; among the last to abolish slavery, and would go on in the next century to revive a slave trade overseas because of our imperialism. To say the United States is, at best, apathetic towards its own tolerance for evil is an understatement, and that there are predictible elements that would only amplify as a function of predicting an alternative trajectory for events.
We look at history as a valid datasource for punditry, but rarely does it hold up to the standards of analysis of that history— it becomes rhetoric, rather than good faith attempts to understand what extremism would be tolerated by an extremist, reactionary populace. Calling Donald Trump a fascist, for example, is not incorrect, but it’s also imprecise to say he’s singularly one amongst a bipartisan field of similarly corporatist-leaning authoritarian-adjacent agents of a global imperialist system of multinational corporate nation-states, so an analysis like this actually speaks to the reality that there are already deeply insurgent forces embedded deeply in our poltical culture prepared to execute on precisely this kind of exchange of power from the public to the corporate, or to extremely partisan interests that engineer outcomes like those ruling corporations are people, and can have politically protected speech (and thus influence), or something far more directly an assault on the public in our current framework of private institutions in public affairs:
A proposition like the above is actually no more far-fetched than the reality of experiments like that of the Koch brothers, which has resulted in many massive shifts of the more effective political currencies into privatized hands under the guise of Libertarianism, while mostly staging what can only be described as a soft coup. So, why wouldn’t an overt attempt at exploiting the electoral system be on the table as well? What should be alarming, but seems to barely register is that there’s a bipartisan misbelief that there’s a functional republic ready to bend to the will of an electorate, not one bought and paid for by elites through a decades-long program of eliciting concessions to corporate nation-states and private government contractors for crucial functions of our government. This extends, even, to things like both of the Bush administrations, again, acting globally in the interests of private interests of themselves and their associates; so why, now, is this apparently unenumerable threat being acknowledged, seemingly decades so late, by the mainstream as singular, or isolated to anything but the long papertrail of complicty that reaches back almost a full century?
That answer might be found in what alternative history evokes from us; do these stories resonate because it’s merely curiosity of what could’ve been, or because it was simply another possibility for our world as it is? If it’s the latter, what does this suggest about the elements we’ve normalized in our timeline. Would such a narrative be so compelling if the elements that make it even remotely plausible weren’t present enough parts of life at the point where our timelines diverge that the alternative narrative is simply one version of the way history didn’t, but could have, happened?
The Philip Roth example is one such instance where the narrative, in 2020, is shockingly accurate for how a public endorsement of white nationalism by the federal government in any capacity would activate the sensibilities of those who had, if not completely transparently, already held these views and at the most extreme openly espoused them— Charles Lindbergh while perhaps not openly a Nazi, expressed a lot of views on race politics and the general nationalism of the sort practiced by the Nazis in a war-fractured, demoralized Nazi Germany, and did, indeed, seek a political life with these jingoistic aims in mind, for example, with the America First Committee. The novel speculates if he had followed through all the way to the White House, the outcomes would’ve been, well, what we’ve seen from the United States over the next several decades anyway—an activation of the latent systemically bigoted roots of our system repackaged as a quotidian, populist ideal, something which played a big role in its synthesis in our own 2016 election. But even contemporaneously, we saw the seeds of which outcomes were more likely than others, and even short-order analysis of these events in our history seemingly validate a lot of what the fiction presupposes.
A challenge is that there are ways to evaluate the plausibility of a given alternative narrative without the whataboutism of comparing contemporary outcomes to those of another timeline—this is an example of using a projection to evaluate the circumstances at the last shared moment, who are the players, what do they wield, where did those who “lost” go? Philosophers like Spinoza might suggest, well, simply back underground when the political expediency of their views being open became less convenient— and why shouldn’t they, if our society is engineered to protect these interests?
What does the America First Committee, for example, have in common with similar corporatist concerns today? Well, nominally, the committee dissolved after the Pearl Harbor attacks, but by then, they had already succeeded in their primary goal— keeping the US out of WWII for humanitarian reasons; the Pearl Harbor attack precipitated what had, even in the 1940’s, been a looming concern of oil conglomerates concerned about supply from the Pacific, Central Asia, and companies with whom they had relationships based in Europe. Anti-interventionism, for a committee involving a virulent white supremacist like Lindbergh, meant mainstreaming the idea that they had no business in the war when the main issue was whether or not to take in refugees from Europe, but why the double standard, then, when the concern becomes commercial? AFC’s main investors were chemical companies, and sympathetic media magnates for whom failing to render humanitarian aid was a success, but a challenge to economic supremacy was sufficient reason to back down. Lindbergh, himself, makes clear that the organization was anti-intervention for these purposes, citing the the risk to control of the media to, again, refugees fleeing a literal genocide:
It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution the Jewish race suffered in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government. - Charles Lindbergh, Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941
Let’s look from this moment back to the 1940 election, where in Roth’s narrative, Lindbergh successfully challenges Roosevelt, and signs non-intervention pacts with Japan and Germany, thus fulfilling the vision outlined above. Lindbergh opposed lend-lease, in reality, but upon dissolving the committee following Pearl Harbor, it was with the beseechment that the US “must now turn every effort to building the greatest and most efficient Army, Navy and Air Force in the world. When American soldiers go to war it must be with the best equipment that modern skill can design and that modern industry can build.” thus beginning the slow mestastization of the influence of defense contractors, the interests of corporations, and the various conflicts of interests within our state into the fabric of our republic. Is this real world sentiment, this movement, this sequence of events really any less the horror of these alternative narratives? Perhaps beyond acknowledging fiction is ultimately an exercise in enjoyment, so there are flourishes, but the material circumstances, the cast of characters, their motivations and views, largely remain the same, and ultimately, in both cases, the fascists got what they wanted. We can read a narrative like Roth’s and come away understanding the narrative that unfolded over the last 79 years from that point until now in our own universe.
The resurgence of these types of groups into the mainstream in the present, however, only belies the reality that ideologically, Lindbergh’s views were not only not uncommon, but comparatively tame when considering the broad configuration of fascistic, Nazi-adjacent ideological options available, such as the adherents of the Silver Legion; a fascist paramilitary group, one of many, during this era, even fielding the founder of its Christian Party of America, writer William Dudley Pelley, as its presidential candidate in the 1936 election. That Pelley failed to gain traction is not the point, but that he was one of many harboring these views, and had, for example, events aligned differently, and these organizations coalitioned (as many have in the present— take, for example, organization in the Koch Brothers universe, the Libertarian Party, Cato, etc. creating network pockets of broad, ideologically consistent thoughts, with a singular goal of offloading government function to corporatist ends in the name of liberty; similar to the corporatism espoused by Pelley’s worship of Mussolini), the speculation of what might have come next is possible, but serves primarily of a valuable reminder of what did happen, and why something else did not. It’s telling that, in 1939, Lindbergh would tell Reader’s Digest, “We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.” and many, systemically, still do not seem to believe fascism has long been an American reflex whenever nationalism rears its head as a weapon against (not for, as the propaganda suggests) its own people, and that of humanity in general.
“But we cannot do it all at once; it is a sequence. An unfolding process. We can only control the end by making a choice at each step.” as Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle says— perhaps this is as good a metaphor as any that we make the road by walking, and knowing the rules of the terrain, we know where other paths may lead, but are only certain of the one taken, and backwards from our own, we can better understand the implications of the path previous.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
Music, not muddle: Re-examining Soviet sounds and the socialist project By Noah Leininger
Project Cybersyn: the afterlife of Chile’s socialist internet by George Eaton
The Bolsheviks and Islam by Dave Crouch
Galaxy Dream by Dmitriy Ivankov
Non-POSIX Filesystems by Göran Weinholt
Literary Influences, Personal Pathologies by Dennis Lim
Death/Corner Reading List/Canon (from Reddit)
Postcards From the Future: Utopian North, Dystopian South by Kristin Miller
Header image is by Louis Lozowick, High Voltage--Cos Cob, 1929, lithograph on paper