issue 27

Seduced Rather Than Controlled

Author Hari Kunzru on the far right and a shared decent into madness

Hari Kunzru is not in a hopeful mood. The British novelist and author, most recently of Red Pill, has spent more than two decades immersed in internet culture, and what he now sees rising up out of cyberspace to meet him is a resurgent fascism, glib and media-savvy, frog-faced rather than black-shirted, confident of its threat to the establishment and secure in its disaffected cool – an irrepressible anarchic energy channelled to bad ends. Nearly as bad as the message, to Kunzru, is the medium: a monitored and gamified mockery of the agora endlessly urging us to share; a megacorporate system of surveillance by which, he says, we are being “seduced rather than controlled”. The private self, “a space of experimentation” so basic to our idea of what it means to be a person, “is being constricted as it never has been before”, he says. What it could mean, if Kunzru’s darkest fears come true, is the end of meaning itself.

Kunzru was, it is clear, extremely online avant la lettre. After graduating from Oxford he worked in London as a freelance technology journalist and, for a time, as an editor at Wired. In those heady days he would fly out to San Francisco for regular doses of dot-com fever and techno-utopianism, absorbing ideas and modes of being which, back home, he cross-pollinated with underground leftist thought. This was “sort of a Janus-faced thing”, he says – hanging with left-leaning hackers and crypto-libertarians alike, all of them jazzed up about the cypherpunk dream that the internet would make national borders obsolete. If only they were all heavily encrypted enough, they figured, they “could sort of float free”.

Looking back now, he is struck by how easy it was to sell himself as a tech writer. If you had an internet connection and could write a decent sentence, you could get hired, he says. “Everybody was desperate for somebody who could explain why it was a good idea to connect computers to phone lines.” It seems appropriate that our conversation is mediated by these same technologies. Kunzru and I both live in New York City, but the strictures of the coronavirus pandemic dictate that we not meet in person. “If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that things happen which exceed our understanding of what’s possible,” he says. Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016, long thought impossible, looms over Red Pill’s denouement. But it is the pitiless march of technological progress, more even than populist nationalism, that Kunzru fears will destabilise civil society, scything down both the organic past of conservative nostalgia and the pat liberal notion of the public sphere.

In Red Pill, the public sphere is problematised as a panopticon. Having cadged a fellowship to a cultural centre in Berlin, the unnamed narrator finds to his horror that it spies on him and other resident scholars in the name of “transparency”. By his own admission a “waster”, a Brooklyn-dwelling progressive who writes ineffectual essays and, though settled in a stable marriage, is at loose ends, the narrator seems to stand at the exhausted end of something, conscious of his belatedness. Time and again, he finds himself unable to articulate his principles or his reasons for holding them. He is thus easy prey, first for the lurid delights of a transgressive cop show called Blue Lives, and later for the show’s creator, Anton, a sinister alt-right “magus” who preaches atavistic violence.

What follows is a descent into madness. Anton is not merely a neo-Nazi but a prophet of the posthuman, and the narrator – who shares much of Kunzru’s biography and an etiolated form of his politics – becomes convinced that Anton is seeding the ground for something horrible, a future in which a “cognitive elite” are liberated from their bodies while the masses “can be used and discarded without compunction”. Ironically, the narrator comes to accept Anton’s twisted philosophy even as he fights desperately to repudiate the man himself. “The joke to me is that it’s the story of his redpilling,” Kunzru says, using the alt-right term, borrowed from The Matrix, for awakening to the true nature of reality. “Instead of refuting the naughty fascists, he ends up in some way colonised by their more powerful, nihilistic story.”

Unlike many liberals, Kunzru doesn’t scoff at the allure of the alt-right. At a time when Nike and Amazon are toeing the line on progressive causes, the alt-right “is seductive”, he says. “Suddenly they’re the ones with the jokes; they’re the ones with the panache.” You have to go back to the skinheads of the 1970s – “Those were the people I had to run away from in subway underpasses when I was a teenager,” Kunzru says wryly – to find a far-right counterculture of similar force. Liberals have been caught flat-footed by this burgeoning movement of ironic nihilists who scornfully shrug off the scarlet letters of mainstream society. “Calling someone a racist only works to shut them down if they give a fuck,” Kunzru points out.

He should know. He was born in London in 1969 to a Kashmiri father and a British mother, and his first published novel, The Impressionist, was an attempt to grapple with his father’s heritage. Subverting the classic going-to-India novel, Kunzru “had this character passing as white and going to the ‘exotic West’”, he explains. The Impressionist won the Betty Trask Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award, but the book’s acclaim in certain quarters discomfited him. “It’s sort of disguised as one of those big, luxurious Raj-era stories with lots of elephants and all the other furniture of an Orientalist story, but was intended as a subversion of that,” he says. Many people, however, read it “as being much straighter than it was”.

With Red Pill, as with his last novel, White Tears, about white record producers appropriating the music of a black musician, Kunzru has written a decidedly topical book of enduring relevance. This time the topic is apocalypse. That our future may not be liveable but may nonetheless be inevitable is one of his novel’s animating concerns. There is a sequence in which the narrator, feeling like “a saint, a desert father”, holes up in a bothy on a Scottish island to record his bleak Revelation. Given the chance to dismiss his protagonist’s imaginings as the ravings of a madman, Kunzru laughs. “That’s the part of the book closest to my actual suspicions.” Technology will tend to dissolve “human boundaries and the set of human meanings,” he says. Even his most cherished beliefs, things that he finds “beautiful and true and good”, will likely one day become “part of the past, rather than the terms in which people understand things”.

Although the novel gives us a vision of Trump as hellmouth – “a portal through which all manner of monsters could step into our living room” – its author sees him as merely a symptom of a larger trend. Kunzru is as impatient with the “enormous intellectual complacency” of ostensible allies on the left as he is sceptical that electing Hillary Clinton would have solved anything. He considers Red Pill “an exhortation to try harder”, to make their case more forcefully, even as the humanistic terms in which they make it are threatened with obsolescence.

The technological drive to reduce everything to brute function is, for Kunzru, something worth writing against. “My project, such as it is, would be to rescue some sort of ethical position which finds value and dignity in human life in the midst of this tsunami-like event,” he says. “That may be pointless and quixotic, but that’s what I’m doing.”

Photography Nathan Bajar

This article is taken from issue 27. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here