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WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 15: The Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale” is filmed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on February 15, 2019. (Photo by Calla Kessler for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Dystopia revisited

Dystopia revisited

WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 15: The Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale” is filmed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on February 15, 2019. (Photo by Calla Kessler for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Like Orwell before her, Margaret Atwood warned us what was coming

On the evening of 6 January, as a far-right mob invaded the US Capitol, my reflex response to this attack on the heart of American democracy surprised me almost as much as the news itself. I thought: Yes – just like The Handmaid’s Tale.

In Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel, published in 1985, the narrator, Offred, recalls how a ruthlessly patriarchal, theocratic regime established its brutal authority. “It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.”

The parallels aren’t exact, of course. In the case of the 6 January incursion, the president was the inciter-in-chief, rather than the most prominent casualty. The scale of the attack was smaller than in the novel. And no state of emergency followed (though a green zone perimeter had to be enforced in Washington DC in the days leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration). 

Yet the spirit of what happened in January is not so far from Atwood’s fiction. As became chillingly clear during Donald Trump’s second impeachment, the invaders of the Capitol fully intended to attack Vice-President Mike Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Among the weapons seized by the police were two pipe bombs, components for 11 Molotov cocktails, homemade napalm, firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. And though nobody tried to blame it on jihadis (as in Atwood’s scenario), there was plenty of false propaganda from the far right on the day itself, to the effect that the true instigators were supporters of Antifa (the anti-fascist movement) and of Black Lives Matter.

Trump supporters clash with police as they try to storm the US Capitol Building in Washington DC

As absurd as many of the invaders may have looked, this was not a disruptive prank. It was a murderous assault, intended to sow terror and obstruct congressional validation of Biden’s election victory; the bloody endgame of the deluded #StopTheSteal campaign to preserve Trump’s grip on power and slaughter his political opponents.

For more years than I care to mention, I have kept a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on my night-stand. Whenever sixth-formers or students ask me to nominate the best single book on politics, it is the title I recommend without hesitation. 

In his great novel on the nature of totalitarianism, psychological repression and the crushing of dissidence, Orwell did much more than issue a warning. He described – albeit in pathological form – many of the techniques that were, and are, commonplace in everyday politics around the world. Like all the best dystopian visions, it is, as it has always been, a plea for rigorous watchfulness, not an invitation to complacent self-congratulation.

So my devotion to Nineteen Eighty-Four remains undimmed. All the same, the horrifying scenes of 6 January persuaded me finally of a conviction that had been brewing for a while: namely, that The Handmaid’s Tale is now the more immediately important manual for the times in which we live, and the specific challenges we face in 2021. 

Orwell was interested in all-encompassing state surveillance, the use of poverty, war and torture to control populations, and the insatiable appetite for power that lurks within any absolutist ideology. Atwood (who, with pleasing symmetry, began writing her book in 1984) was intrigued by many of the same themes, but focused much more clearly upon gender, religion, identity and how they might form the basis of a totalitarian regime. And therein lies her novel’s nerve-jangling topicality.

In Gilead – the successor to the United States – an oppressive elite of Commanders, calling themselves the Sons of Jacob, strip women of all rights, and enslave those who remain fertile as handmaids, serially raped in a pseudo-biblical “ceremony” to provide the infertile governing oligarchy with children. 

The system is overseen by the “crack female control agency” of “Aunts”, the most senior of whom, Lydia, is presented as Gilead’s conscience. Marriages are arranged, “Econowives” allocated to ordinary citizens, and the infertile, gay people (“gender traitors”) and dissidents transported to the Colonies to remove dead bodies and toxic waste.

What is so shocking is that, over the years, The Handmaid’s Tale has become more rather than less contemporary: frighteningly so, in fact. Though Atwood has denied that Trump himself is an explicitly Gileadian leader figure, his unapologetic misogyny – like his racism – undoubtedly resonated with a significant section of the US population, made many voters feel free to voice bigotries they had previously kept to themselves, and encouraged those states that were (and are) seeking to constrain women’s reproductive rights.

In our own era of relentless and expanding culture wars, the “speculative fiction” (as Atwood describes it) of 1985 has become a close-to-the-bone warning of clear and present danger. It is no accident that the hit Hulu television series inspired by the novel, starring Elisabeth Moss, is now in its fourth season, or that Atwood herself chose this moment – after 34 years – to write a sequel, The Testaments (which shared the 2019 Booker Prize). 

There are Handmaid’s podcasts, Facebook fan pages, an opera, a ballet. All over the world, women protesting against threats to their rights have taken to dressing in the unmistakable handmaid’s uniform of red gown and white wings bonnet. 

The hit television series, produced with Atwood’s close collaboration, quickly turned the original novel into a franchise (in conspicuous contrast to Volker Schlöndorff’s underrated 1990 movie adaptation, starring Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall, and scripted by Harold Pinter). But the mood of the times has, in turn, transformed the franchise into nothing less than a global phenomenon.

As the author said at the time of the second book’s publication: “If I’d thought, Let’s write a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale of this kind in 1999, I’d have said: Why bother? We’re not going there, surely people are moving from that. But in the moment in which we now exist [2019] that’s not true any more … It’s time to bother. You can’t ignore the fact that there are a number of regimes that have come into power that have these kinds of ideas in mind. The thing they have in common is they all want to roll back women’s rights.”

Trump’s America certainly fits this description – and part of his legacy is the appointment of three Supreme Court justices, and more than 200 judges to the federal bench, all of whom will play a central role in the ongoing state-by-state campaign to limit abortion rights and (eventually) overturn the cornerstone Roe v Wade ruling of 1973.

A woman waves a smoke bomb as people block traffic in the centre of Warsaw during a protest against a decision by the Constitutional Court on abortion law restriction, Warsaw,

Like Gilead, Russia is a nation confronting population decline. In 2007, Vladimir Putin’s government declared abortion reduction to be one of its principal demographic policy objectives (it claims that the number of terminations fell by 60 per cent between 2006 and 2018). In broader terms, the Russian president’s regime has been unambiguously patriarchal: in 2017, it decriminalised domestic violence.

In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the cultural pressure upon women to stay at home and raise children has become fierce. “It is an undisputed truth that the world belongs to those who populate it,” said László Kövér, speaker of the National Assembly, in October. “Those who don’t want children choose a path of self-annihilation.”

All this is foretold in The Handmaid’s Tale. The Commander to whose household Offred is assigned, Fred Waterford, rationalises what Gilead has done to women thus:

We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles bars, the indignity of high-school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery … This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out … This way they’re protected, they can fulfil their biological destinies in peace.

It is clear that the theocratic regime of which the Commander is a senior member is opportunistic rather than sincere in its use of fundamentalist religion. He takes Offred – whose real name, we can deduce from close reading, is June – to a private club, nicknamed Jezebel’s, which is no more than an upscale brothel for the ruling caste and its guests. “‘It’s like walking into the past,’ says the Commander. His voice sounds pleased, delighted even. ‘Don’t you think?’”

Yet this crass hypocrisy is not the main point. What the Sons of Jacob Think Tanks planned before seizing power was the practical ways in which Old Testament scripture could become the notional basis for a society rooted in patriarchal values rather than constitutional principles. 

Thus, the disgusting ceremony in which the Handmaid is raped by the Commander as she lies between the legs of his wife is framed as a ritual reenactment of Rachel, in Genesis, 30:1-3, telling Jacob: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”

As Atwood explains in her essay, Writing Utopia, the parallels between present-day or historical practice and the society imagined in her novel are no accident: “… nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some time in the past, or that it is not doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, or we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. Nothing inconceivable takes place.”

Hence, the original novel based many of its speculations upon what the author had seen in Afghanistan; the society created by the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979; and the rise of the Moral Majority and evangelical intervention in the US political process.

In 2021, the grip of theocracy around the world is stronger than ever. More intriguingly, states that are at least notionally democratic have borrowed selectively from the theocratic playbook to shore up their power. Though an ignoramus on matters of religion and scripture (as on so much else), Trump understood the symbolic power, amid the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, of using riot police and tear gas to clear a path to St John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square, Washington on 1 June 2020, where he held up a Bible for a photo-op. This was a message to white Christian America: I am with you, not with Black Lives Matter and Antifa. 

US President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John’s Episcopal church across from Lafayette Park

Likewise, as part of his rejection of liberal values, Putin – who was still a KGB officer in Dresden when The Handmaid’s Tale was published – has embraced Russian Orthodoxy as the connective moral tissue of the motherland. As he put it in his annual address to the Federal Assembly in 2014: “Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force … in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state … It was thanks to this spiritual unity that our forefathers for the first time and forever more saw themselves as a united nation.”

But Putin’s definition of religion – one need scarcely add – is not a generous one. It thrives on the pursuit of heresy. Just as Gilead’s rulers round up Quakers and Catholics, so the Russian government has persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists. 

For Putin, as for the Commanders, religion is a means of enforcing social conformity, rather than a guide to private grace and spirituality. In The Handmaid’s Tale, faith is crude, vindictive and unreflective. Its discourse is reliably banal (“Blessed day”; “Praise be”; “Blessed be the fruit”; “May the Lord open”). Automated prayers can be bought on account from stores called Soul Scrolls. Group weddings take place in Prayvaganzas. The common words of parting – “Under His Eye” – imply that a vengeful God is always watching.

The only form of redemption that is mentioned is “salvaging”: the euphemism applied to public executions, in which the souls of the guilty are saved by capital punishment. The name of Jesus does not appear anywhere in The Handmaid’s Tale – except as an expletive, on three occasions. Gilead has little connection, if any, with the message of the New Testament.

Another legacy of the Trump years are the right-wing militias that grew in number, size and firepower with his carefully signalled approval. In the wake of the Charlottesville race riots in 2017, Trump’s remark that there were “very fine people on both sides” – one of those sides consisting of neo-Nazis and Klansmen – left nobody in any doubt of his true meaning.

Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists chant at counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville

And this barely concealed endorsement by the president had real-world consequences. When disorder spread in Portland, Oregon, after George Floyd’s death, well-equipped far-right militias – Patriot Prayer units, Proud Boys, Boogaloo groups – swarmed in to stoke the fires. They did so again in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. 

Invited to condemn white supremacist groups at the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, last September, Trump instead spoke as their commandant: “Stand back and stand by.” The groups did just that – only to storm the Capitol (again, at Trump’s instigation) on 6 January. Though Biden is in the White House, the paramilitary infrastructure nurtured by Trump’s presidency is still very much in place. 

In March, the US Capitol police intercepted “a possible plot to breach the Capitol by an identified militia group”. In the same month, it was disclosed that more than 200 far-right groups were continuing to organise and recruit on Facebook. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, such units have grown significantly in number and reach since Biden’s election. The echoes of the Freikorps – the irregular military units that paved the way for Hitler and Nazism – are deeply unsettling.

A Proud Boys rally at Delta Park in Portland, Oregon on September 26, 2020.

What does this have to do with The Handmaid’s Tale? Because, yet again, Atwood saw it coming. When Offred recalls the day when she – along with all women – was sacked from her job, she remembers realising only later that the armed men enforcing their removal were not what they first seemed. “It wasn’t the army. It was some other army.” 

By implication, the Sons of Jacob had been building up their own private forces – deployed strategically when the United States descends into disorder, and then rebranded as Guardians and Angels, the consecrated soldiers who will fight Gilead’s wars within and beyond its borders. 

What Atwood grasped with astonishing foresight was the structural vulnerability of liberal democracies. The Handmaid’s Tale was her reproach to those who insisted “it can’t happen here” (which is, of course, the title of Sinclair Lewis’s classic 1935 dystopian novel). 

In particular, she understood that all societies have complex, tangled roots and dormant traditions that can be reactivated: what the late Svetlana Boym described in her 2001 masterpiece, The Future of Nostalgia, as “restorative nostalgia”. 

As Atwood put it in a 1986 interview with The New York Times: “… if you were going to do it, what would you do? What emotions would you appeal to? What groups would you utilise? How exactly would you go about it? Well, something like the way the religious right is doing things.”

This, in turn, involved a more subtle recognition: that American exceptionalism was rooted not only in the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the Enlightenment values embodied in the Constitution; but also in the much older tradition of the 17th-century Puritan settlers. “We’re often taught in schools that the Puritans came to America for religious freedom,” she said in the same interview. “Nonsense. They came to establish their own regime, where they could persecute people to their heart’s content just the way they themselves had been persecuted.” One of the book’s dedicatees is an ancestor of Atwood, Mary Webster, who was hanged for witchcraft in 1684 in Massachusetts.

The Commanders’ regime is explicitly atavistic, reactionary and (to use Boym’s term) restorative. It simply deletes the aspects of the past that obstruct its authority. As the Commander puts it to Offred: “Those years were just an anomaly, historically speaking … Just a fluke. All we’ve done is return things to Nature’s norm.”

This appeal to the past as a response to anxiety about the present is now a familiar feature of right-wing populism around the world, from Brazil to Poland. “Take back control” was the slogan of the successful 2016 Leave campaign – as though Brexit could restore the UK to some prelapsarian condition of pure sovereignty and cultural simplicity. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” also mobilised a phony nostalgia for a country that had supposedly been wrecked by the liberal elite, the “fake news” media, illegal immigrants – anyone, really, whom he could think of blaming for robbing decent Americans of the life they used to have. 

In the end, reality, in the form of Covid-19 and a pandemic he barely bothered to manage, caught up with Trump’s world of “alternative facts” – but even then, we should never forget, 74 million voters wanted to give him a second term. 

The power of weaponised nostalgia remains immense – which is why Boris Johnson’s government is preparing to fight “woke wars” over heritage sites, university and school syllabuses, and the display of the Union Jack. This is all calculated, cynical – and potentially effective. Every time a Churchill statue is defaced, a Tory strategist smiles.

A farewell message on the white cliffs of Dover on January 31, 2020 in Dover, England.

Again, it is unnerving how much more topical The Handmaid’s Tale seems now than it did in 1985. What conditions ushered in Gilead? The totalitarian state of Oceania described in Nineteen Eighty-Four was the cruel child of nuclear warfare, revolution and civil war. But Atwood’s dystopia is the product of different converging forces, many of which are present in our own era. 

The precipitate decline in fertility she describes is not yet a cause of social instability in the West. But the environmental crisis that nurtures Gilead is all too familiar. Though the book was published four years before the creation of the world wide web, it describes a pre-revolutionary society struggling with the impact of freely available pornography and degrading sex work: Pornomarts, Bun-Dle Buggies and Feels on Wheels vans. 

There are riots over reproductive rights (“There were a lot of bombings then: clinics, video stores; it was hard to keep track.”) Offred often recalls how, before the rise of Gilead, she argued with her mother – a radical feminist, now exiled, it seems, to the Colonies – over the best way to fight back against the surging patriarchy.

Re-reading these passages of the book, I was haunted by the image of 28-year-old Patsy Stevenson, pinned to the ground by two much larger male police officers during the Clapham Common vigil on 13 March. The outpouring of grief and of women’s stories of harassment and assault triggered by the killing of Sarah Everard was both extraordinary and humbling; and the memorial gatherings organised under the rubric #ReclaimTheseStreets were uncannily similar to those in which Offred remembers her mother participating.

Patsy Stevenson is arrested on the bandstand of Clapham Common, where a vigil was taking place for Sarah Everard

In 1985, Atwood’s notion of a future Western society in which power was divided principally according to gender was widely seen as contrary to the path that history was taking. Not so in 2021. Four years have passed since Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke the Harvey Weinstein story in The New York Times and the #MeToo movement swept the world. Yet that surge of outrage and brave disclosure has not resulted in the structural reforms to workplace practice, regulation and legislation that was promised. The wound is unhealed.

After the killing of Sarah Everard, Mandu Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, argued in a Slow Views piece for Tortoise that male violence against women was now a greater threat than terrorism. “Domestic violence claims 15 times as many victims in Britain as terrorism,” she wrote, “and that figure does not include the women who take their own lives as a result of the abuse they endure.” 

Horribly true – and yet, at the time of writing, almost nothing practical has been done in response to this brutal killing, beyond the usual promise of inquiries, consultations and reviews. 

And this is only half the story. The flipside of women’s justified exasperation, anger and fear is a growing, mostly-online culture of resentment by men who feel they are being emasculated, demonised and cheated out of work. There are the men’s rights activists, the incels (who believe they are entitled to sex) and the MGTOWs (Men Going Their Own Way) gender separatists who, to varying degrees, live their lives free of contact with women. 

Many men on the alt-right envy Islam’s segregation of the sexes. And, as if to vindicate them, there are Reddit groups of “Trad Wives” – anti-feminist women – who constantly measure their SMV (sexual market value) to men and believe fervently in submission to God and to their husbands.

It is easy to dismiss these movements as extreme – which they certainly are – and confined to the fringe. But it is a mistake not to take them seriously. As Laura Bates argues in her indispensable guide to the new and virulent forms that misogyny is taking, Men Who Hate Women: “These are the communities that exist largely online, the massive underbelly of the iceberg going largely unnoticed and unseen, yet the tip extending into our ‘real’ world and becoming bolder and sharper every day.” 

In Writing Utopia, Atwood observes that true dictatorships “do not come in in good times. They come in in bad times, when people are ready to give up some of their freedoms to someone – anyone – who can take control and promise them better times.” It is too early to say whether the post-pandemic years will be bad enough to encourage such a deluded taste for authoritarianism. But the strict Covid regulations of 2020–21 – and the initial passivity with which they were accepted – make her point well.

As Thomas Jefferson observed: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Or as James Baldwin put it in his 1970 open letter to Angela Davis, “if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night”. Yet the sting in the tail of Atwood’s story is that we do not really believe that, or believe it sufficiently.

As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there is an appendix to The Handmaid’s Tale. Whereas Orwell gives us “The Principles of Newspeak” – the ever-contracting language of Oceania – Atwood offers the semi-satirical minutes of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held at the fictitious University of Denay, Nunavut, on 25 June 2195. 

Gilead, we grasp immediately, went on to fall after the events described in Offred’s testimony – found in what used to be the city of Bangor in Maine, we are told, on 30 cassette tapes that were transcribed and assembled into a single narrative. We learn more about the origins of Gilead and the background of Fred Waterford and other pioneers of the regime.

Yet what is most chilling about this apparently playful coda – and the hard kernel of Atwood’s message – is the detachment with which the scholars discuss the horrors that Offred’s story recounts. The keynote speaker, Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, of Cambridge University, is positively indulgent, seeking permission from his audience “to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that judgements are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure … Our job is not to censure but to understand. (Applause.)

Even after the agonising convulsions described in the book, in other words, the society that replaces Gilead has reverted to smug complacency. And this is Atwood’s most powerful message. If we imagine that, for instance, Biden’s victory marks the end of the populist right, we are storing up trouble. If we ignore extremism – especially extremism turbocharged by digital media – as a fringe irrelevance, we clear its path to power.

The last five years – of populist uprisings, social upheaval, racial unrest, constitutional vandalism and global plague – have closed the gap between the merely conceivable and the all-too-real. What once seemed unthinkable has, in many respects, become routine. 

In this respect, unpredictably but undeniably, The Handmaid’s Tale has metamorphosed from a celebrated work of speculative fiction to a schematic guide to the cultural tripwires of our time – and an indispensable manual for survival. We are lucky to have it. Praise be.

Matthew d’Ancona’s book Identity, Ignorance, Innovation: Why the Old Politics Is Useless & What to Do About It is published by Hodder & Stoughton. You can buy a copy here.