Life under fascist rule

February 24, 2019 (1121 words) :: In the alternate history TV series 'The Man in the High Castle', most of 1960s America simply accepts Nazi or Japanese rule as a fact of life. Why don't they resist?
Tags: the-man-in-the-high-castle, ideology

This post is day 55 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

This post contains some mild spoilers about The Man in the High Castle.

One of the most startling things about The Man In The High Castle (a TV show which imagines life in America if the Nazis had won the war, which I’ve written about previously) is its depiction of everyday life under fascist rule. On the East Coast, life under the Nazis has dissolved into an uncanny peacetime, and some of the scenes involving the Smith family could be taken right out of a 1960s sitcom about suburban America - that is, if you ignore the occasional swastika. In some ways, it’s even better: with Hitler at the helm, the sun shines on a tranquil America, where the trees are leafy, the streets are clean, and no one needs to lock their doors.

Of course, not everyone is happy all the time; the men who work for the Nazi regime have troubles of their own (intraparty politics, dealing with the resistance), while their wives are turning to substance abuse to (presumably) cope with the tedium of the endless games of bridge with the other housewives, since that’s really all they’re allowed to do. But overall, most people seem fine with the way things are. Whatever problems they may have with the system are individualised, and the result is that its subjects don’t do much to contest the social order in which they live.

It’s eerie to watch, because, remember: this is a world where fascism has taken over the world. Nazi America is characterised by its strict adherence to conformity along multiple axes: religion, race, sexuality. There are no Jews, here - the result of a genocidal campaign that is only ever hinted at in the show, as if people would prefer not to talk about it. There are no non-whites other than those who belong to the other global superpower, the Japanese empire, and even the Japanese are really only tolerated for the time being. Deviance when it comes to gender or sexuality is harshly punished.

How can these people live like that? How can Americans who had previously fought against the Nazis so calmly adjust to Nazi rule? How is it that so many Americans have managed to acclimatise to this new political atmosphere of autocratic rule and cultural homogeneity, rather than fighting back?

Things are far worse on the West Coast. Under Japanese occupation, white Americans live as second-class citizens against a backdrop of quiet fear, with their days punctuated by legal reprisal shootings carried out by the Japanese police. They have seen their lives circumscribed - shrunk to a size where they don’t pose a threat to their colonial overloads - but there is no one to turn to for help, and no obvious avenues of resistance other than putting their own lives on the line, possibly to no avail.

Beyond the undeniable commentary on what life was like under Jim Crow laws in the real 1960s America, this aspect of the show suggests something profoundly depressing about how easy it is to adjust our expectations. Moral standards are always relative, taking into account the world we live in as well as the worlds we can imagine. And in this alternate America, whether on the East or the West Coast, most people seem resigned to the way things are. They’ve downsized their expectations, not to mention their morality, according to what seems most viable under the circurmstances. The big-picture stuff, the institutionalised injustice, fades into the background, and people just go on living their lives as best they can.

The underground resistance offers the only real opposition to the status quo. It’s no surprise that they also happen to have a vehicle for imagining alternate political possibilities, through the films (which depict other worlds, including one that seems similar to our own). But they represent a tiny proportion of the population; everyone else sort of just keeps chugging along.

You can’t really blame them, in the end. They don’t have the benefit of the perspective offered by the films, nor the acuity of the show’s audience, who live in a world where - despite its myriad flaws - at least Nazis did not colonise America. They don’t know that there’s an alternative to fascist rule.

As Erik Olin Wright, a Marxist sociologist who recently passed away, writes:

It is no easy matter to make a credible argument that ‘another world is possible’. People are born into societies that are always already made, whose rules they learn and internalize as they grow up. People are preoccupied with the daily tasks of making a living, and coping with life’s pains and pleasures. The idea that the social world could be deliberately changed for the better in some fundamental way strikes them as far-fetched—both because it is hard to envisage some dramatically better yet workable alternative, and because it is hard to imagine successfully challenging the structures of power and privilege in order to create it. Thus even if one accepts the diagnosis and critique of existing institutions, the most natural response is probably a fatalistic sense that not much could be done to really change things.

The cool thing about dystopian fiction is that you can lead the audience to quite radical political convictions in a way that you couldn’t if you had remained in a non-fictional realm. And once they’ve absorbed certain truths about the fictional world, it only remains to convince them that the fictional world which they find so horrifying is not that different from their own world.

I submit that the world under fascist rule is a reflection, however twisted and jagged, of the world today. And just like the nameless figurants of The Man In The High Castle who yield to their colonial overlords or even work alongside them, most of us are resigned to the way things are. It can’t be that bad, and anyway, it’s hard to imagine actually substantially changing anything, when the pockets for resistance seem so feeble.

The key lesson of The Man in the High Castle is that yes, maybe it is that bad, and we just can’t see it because we’re used to the way things are. If, when watching the show, you find yourself in a state of bewilderment or frustration at the characters who simply acquiesce to the horrific state of things, ask yourself what someone watching our world on a screen would think about us.

Fiction can help us break through the illusions of the world we live under: by presenting us with the unfamiliar, it can provide a new lens through which to view the familiar. And that opens up new possibilities, and new realisations.

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