Recently I was annotating some first editions of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, as one does. The annotated versions are for an online auction in aid of English PEN, a writers’ organisation that works on behalf of fellow scribes who’ve been jailed for writing books that authoritarian regimes have not liked.
Authoritarians attempting to take power have eerily similar playbooks. Destroy independent media. Destroy the independent judiciary, so that all law enforcement officials are their instruments. And neutralise any opposition, which includes killing any opposition politicians, with poison or otherwise, and getting rid of outspoken artists. Twentieth-century history is filled with examples of this playbook in action, from Hitler to Franco to Stalin to Pinochet to Mao, and – as the trolls count in Discworld – one, two, many, lots. Unfortunately, the 21st century is perpetuating the same patterns.
In order to annotate my own books, I had to re-read them. You’d think I’d have memorised them by now – after all, I wrote them – but time has passed, things have changed, and I kept coming across passages I’d forgotten, and being shocked, and in some cases creeping myself right out. I had a White Supremacist Biblically-justified theocracy, back in 1985 – and that’s the plan today in the US. I had digital surveillance back then, though only via credit cards? Too close for comfort! How did I know?
I didn’t know. I was writing about the past, not the future, in hopes that we wouldn’t do it again. But history isn’t linear – it doesn’t move along a straight line called Progress, towards some ultimate golden city Utopian perfection. If it’s a road, it’s a bumpy one, with many twists and turns. Sometimes it circles back upon itself, and we find ourselves repeating the same old mistakes.
Have we learned nothing from former nationalist, racist regimes? Do we not know that climate crises and consequent food shortages – or plagues and mass deaths – create chaos and fear, and chaos and fear give rise to strongmen that promise to make us safe but then end up with Gulags and death camps and police states, not to mention the subjugation of women? Will Covid and the financial problems it’s caused set off not only the increased violence towards women that we are already seeing, but a larger chain reaction? Some are pushing the chaos and violence, as they wish to be on the strongman side. Cute uniforms and ideological justification for atrocities have their appeal.
The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985. It had its origins in the early 1980s, when a backlash to the social and legal changes of the sixties and seventies was underway. Second-wave feminism, having made some gains for women’s rights, was quiescent; the Civil Rights Movement had also made some gains, but there was pushback. The religious right was on the rise.
I began The Handmaid’s Tale by asking myself: If the United States were to have a totalitarian government, what kind would it be? What sort of world would the instigators want to live in? The pattern books lay all around us, in many of our human histories. A world controlled by men, to begin with; thus, power gained by women – financial power, educational power, power over one’s body, political power – must be removed. No more voting, reading, bank accounts, jobs, and all those entitling frills. (There weren’t any smartphones in 1985, but if there had been, the fictional Gilead regime in The Handmaid’s Tale would have confiscated them. They also would have shut down social media: what happens in Gilead should stay in Gilead, as with North Korea.)
The regime, being White Supremacist, would have got rid of Black people in the same way earlier governments got rid of Native North Americans – by relocating them forcibly to resource-poor areas. (The television series did not adhere to this plan, as it would have involved casting choices that violated their diversity guidelines.) White women would have been forced to breed, with multiple female partners provided for the elite – lots of examples in history for that. There would have been female enforcers – functionaries drawn from subjugated groups are also standard. And there would have been spies. One of the most noteworthy features of such regimes is that nobody knows who they can trust.
So far, so gloomy. I did introduce a few moments of cheer at the end, in the form of the Historical Notes. Gilead did not last forever, we learn: we find ourselves at an academic symposium dedicated to the study of this vanished regime. Those at the symposium, though not perfect, are imperfect in ordinary ways. We are not told how Gilead fell, however: that story, or at least the beginning of it, is told in The Testaments. As in the Nazi period, women in Gilead are underestimated; and, as in the Nazi period, a number of them work in the resistance, under the radar because they are thought of as negligible and are not allowed to have overt power.
Are we ourselves witnessing a pre-Gilead ramp-up towards absolutist regimes, as evidenced in a number of places globally? Will Covid and the resulting hardships bring people together to solve common problems, or drive them apart as factions struggle for power, blame one another, and unleash hatred against women and minorities? We are already seeing too much of that.
Am I worried? Yes. Do I have faith that knowing what atrocities are being proposed will stop them from happening? Some faith, but it will take more than faith. Are we witnessing the dismantling of the democratic institutions of the Western world, and of the United States in particular? Will a new world power arise to fill the power vacuum? If money continues to accumulate at the top of the food chain, will the French Revolution be next? Will chaos come again?
Let’s hope none of these things happen. But it will take more than hope.
Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry and critical essays, including Cat’s Eye, The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace. She has twice won The Booker Prize. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is out now in paperback (Vintage, £8.99)