Decline Into Fascism

Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song

Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song is a truly horrifying novel. Set in Ireland in the throes of a far-right takeover, it resonates with present-day traumas that make it difficult, at times devastating, to read.

Pre-populist Europe. Anti-AfD rally, Bundestag.

When it highlights the vertiginous loss of liberal norms, Prophet Song joins the ranks of 20th-century authoritarian literature.

By choosing Ireland, Lynch has found a particularly appropriate setting.

The national narrative of the Republic of Ireland is that of a plucky underdog, fighting its way out from centuries of domination by its larger neighbour to form a free and prosperous state.

As with all such myths, this one has numerous lacunae, most of which need not detain us here.

However, it is worth remembering that the war of liberation that resulted in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 was followed by a brutal conflict, resulting in over 1500 deaths.

Included among the dead was Michael Collins, leader of the guerilla war that had resulted in the Treaty in the first place.

When British Prime Minister David Lloyd George commented that signing the treaty amounted to signing his own political death warrant, Collins is said to have replied, “I’m signing my actual death warrant.”

This statement proved grimly prophetic, as Collins was killed in an ambush by anti-treaty partisans eight months later at Béal na Bláth in County Cork.

An insurgency by elements of the Irish Republican Army opposed to continued British rule of large portions of Ulster led to increasingly stringent military and legal measures by the pro-treaty Free State government.

The Irish Republic that emerged from this period was both politically and religiously conservative. Since the 1990s, Ireland has increasingly taken on the progressive liberalism of Western Europe.

And this might be rightly consigned to the distant past were it not for some alarming developments, both in Ireland and further afield.

Although Irish national identity has been powerfully shaped by the experience of foreign domination and an accompanying sense of (and sympathy for) victimhood, more recent times have seen increasing incidents of anti-immigrant sentiment.

This is consonant in essential ways with the rise of right-wing populism elsewhere in Europe, as well as in Asia and the Americas.

Populism is a complex phenomenon, but the insider vs. outsider binary is central to most varieties and crucial to defining whose interests matter and whose are alien to those of “the people”.

Most alarming in this context was the right-wing rioting that took place in Dublin in early December.

While international news coverage of Irish politics since Brexit has centred on the rise of the moderate left, both in terms of the political fortunes of Sinn Féin as well as in grassroots movements for water rights and rent reform, the radical right had been percolating on the internet.

This was so far below the radar that the authorities were left wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth when last year’s anti-immigrant violence broke out.

Prophet Song envisions Ireland in a state of emergency. While the sources of the situation are never identified, the government’s response in the novel bears strong similarities to the nightmare scenarios fantasised by today’s populist right.

The book centres on Eilish Stack, a scientist, mother of four, and wife of a trade union activist.

Early in the story, her husband is arrested after a supposedly routine visit to a police station and disappears into the netherworld of extra-judicial detention, never to be seen again.

Much of the first half of Prophet Song is devoted to Eilish’s attempts to find her husband, to come to terms with his absence and with the disintegration of liberal democracy, all the while trying to prevent her family from falling apart.

Prophet Song powerfully resonates with literature about fascist decline. Eilish’s political experiences chillingly recall the repression detailed in Viktor Klemperer’s diaries of Jewish life in the Third Reich.

In both, one finds an accretion of increasingly horrifying changes, with each followed by the hope that this might be as bad as it gets or that things might somehow revert to the way they were before.

A particularly profound commonality is the experience of being trapped.

I’m reminded of history courses I’ve taken, where students often asked why it was that people (Jews specifically) didn’t leave Nazi Germany before it was too late.

As both Klemperer and Lynch make clear, the difficulty of living through such transitions in real-time is that it is difficult or impossible to know exactly when or if the point of too late will be reached.

Eilish’s anxieties will be familiar to those who’ve lived under fascism: the need to find what has happened to friends who’ve disappeared and the growing realisation that the judicial system no longer provides protection.

Towards the end of the novel, Eilish is told that her sister, who lives in Canada, has managed to secure her husband’s release and can help her flee as well. But it is never clear whether her husband is actually free, whether she will be able to join him or if she’ll be able to leave the country at all.

Over all of her efforts to leave hangs the threat of statelessness, a precarious condition in a world where citizenship is the predominant guarantor of personal security.

The profound horror of Prophet Song stems from its realism.

In the decades following the Second World War, Americans, Canadians, and Western Europeans came to believe they had arrived in a democratic promised land.

While authoritarianism persists in the benighted regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America, on paper, at least, the United States and the European Union continue to represent a world of liberal norms and values in which governments reflect the will of the people and political pluralism means stability.

The rise of the populist right has called these certainties into question. Donald Trump is the most alarming example, with his clear contempt for democratic institutions and the rule of law.

The January 2021 coup attempt by Trump’s supporters to prevent Joe Biden from taking over and his party’s transformation into a cult of personality says it all. Just look at Trump’s poll numbers.

The challenge to democracy in Europe has been more subtle, if no less profound. The rise of fascist-adjacent parties in Italy and the Netherlands since 2022 should be similarly sobering.

Though Poland and Spain narrowly elected centrist and left governments this year, the zeitgeist doesn’t seem on their side. Hence, the anxieties of Prophet Song and why democracy feels like it could die.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.