Friday, September 25, 2015

David Marr's Faction Man; Michel Houellebecq's Submission

David Marr's Quarterly Essays - this is his fifth - are always a must read. He writes beautifully, with precision and insight. 

This one on Bill Shorten is, unfortunately, his weakest. Firstly he's been wrong-footed by Abbott's recent demise and the turnaround in the polls given the nation's huge sigh of relief. 

Secondly, the subject is nothing if not lame. Marr is forced to trawl a lot of old ground: the ugly union fights for control and influence in Victoria; the turmoil of the Rudd/Gillard years, etc. He desperately tries to make this stuff interesting, but it simply isn't. It's tedious. Shorten always was and still is a Union Man. The 'Faction Man' title refers to his grubby union deals and self-serving alignments, not the traditional Labor factions we all know and love. 

Surprisingly, Marr spends very little time on any analysis of the polls over the last two years and why Shorten's disapproval rating is so consistently bad. Now, compared to Turnbull, it's disastrous. The electorate knows why, but Marr doesn't seem to. There is nothing about the Greens here either, and their growing appeal to disenchanted Labor supporters.

(I enjoyed lines like this though: 'Shorten's body is not made for suits').

I've always liked celebrated French author Michel Houellebecq's novels, Atomised (1998) and Platform (2001) in particular.

He brings a jaded, disillusioned, cynical flavour to his usually anti-Western critiques. His main characters are single men, unlucky in love, but constantly on the lookout for casual sex with hot young women. He mixes his literary efforts with soft porn, and it's hard to know how seriously to take what seems to be his main focus - the decadence of our modern, capitalist, materialistic society.

Submission is simply excellent though, and in my view his best. The same ambivalence is there - what is he really trying to do? what is his main point? Is he really anti-Western and pro-Islamic, or is this a mild satire and in fact a comic rubbishing of Islamic society?

The first-round French Presidential election of 2022 has necessitated a run-off between Marine Le Pen, leader of the extremist right wing, anti-immigrant United Front, and the charismatic leader of the newly emerged Muslim Brotherhood party Mohammad Ben Abbes. Abbes wins.

Of course, this is a political fantasy. There is at present no Islamist party in France and there is never likely to be, apart from on the extremist fringes. But Houellebecq uses the scenario to explore and possibly even advocate ideas that could only be described as pure male fantasy.

Abbes brings back the patriarchy. Men can have multiple wives. Women are encouraged to leave school early and marry. Female employment and careers are Western and wrong. The family unit is the new social welfare net, so government provided welfare is virtually eliminated. As the participation rate of women in the work force is radically reduced, the unemployment rate drops dramatically and male salaries soar. The economy booms. Universities become Islamic in curriculum and management, and are well-funded by Saudi money. Only academics who have converted to Islam can be employed.

Houellebecq takes the opportunity to celebrate old Christian values of family, charity, modesty, etc, by reminding us that Islam was very respectful of the Christendom of the middle ages in its early founding years. Patriarchy is proposed as the natural order of things, the best organisation for any society.

Once again our main character is a lonely, single, disillusioned man in his 40's, frequently indulging in meaningless sex, depicted of course in detail. (It's hard for a male to read Houellebecq without getting a constant hard-on!). The meaningless sex is emblematic of the debased social relations of our current Western way of life.

Submission was published in France on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. It caused enormous controversy, with many people outraged.

Now you know why.

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