I just finished the novel that everybody has been talking about, The Camp of the Saints, but Frenchman Jean Raspail.
First the good stuff: boy is this book prophetic. It was written in 1973 and predicts the Syrian migration into Europe with remarkable perspicacity. The book is at its best in its depictions of Western decadence. Self-hating left-wing intellectuals, Catholic monks just going thought the motions because they lack faith, left-wing labour unions sabotaging the efforts of the French government (and everybody else), soldiers who desert rather than fight because they don’t believe in France anymore, a Mainstream Media that promotes a self-destructive narrative, do-gooders heel-bent on making the problem worse, a left-wing Pope pushing cultural suicide as a Christian virtue, all-pervasive Political Correctness – it’s all there.
Of course, being forty years out, he gets a few details wrong. In his book, the third-world migrants storming Europe come from India not the Middle East. They sail from the Ganges to southern France in a vast flotilla of broken-down ships. However, the book is not meant to be an accurate depiction of reality but rather a warning to the West about its self-destructive attitudes and policies. For instance, he predicts the total collapse of Western civilization by a huge armada of unarmed and starving Indians because, by the time the events takes place (the date is left uncertain), nobody believes anything is worth fighting for.
Clearly, when Raspail wrote the work in 1973, the events of 1968 were on his mind. As a result, he assumes that the industrial workers belonging to communist trade unions would be saboteurs. Today, they are the fountain of French patriotism and belong to the National Front. In Raspail’s world, the civilized people of Europe are completely lacking in any will whatsoever. From current events - the anti-Islamic Pediga marches to the formation of local vigilantes (such as Finland’s Soldiers of Odin) to skyrocketing gun sales across Europe to the rise of right-wing nationalist parties in every European country – we know that European people are much more capable of self-defence than Raspail assumes. I suspect his exaggerated pessimism was intentional. Unfortunately, this makes The Camp of the Saints a bleak, unrelieved dystopia that is hard to read.
Another reason it is difficult to read is that it is a poorly crafted story. Its main problem is the lack of a protagonist. George Orwell’s 1984 is also a dystopia, but it is a page-turner because the reader is given someone to root for. Though Winston Smith eventually fails in his struggle and dies, we don’t know that until the end. For this reason, Orwell has us glued to the page.
There is no Winston Smith in The Camp of the Saints. The book consists of many vignettes, each highlighting some local protagonist or villain playing a small but inconsequential part among the grand impersonal historical forces moving Europe inexorably towards its destruction. There is nobody we can root for (or against). Even worse, every protagonist is either ineffectual, or is a fatalist who knows ahead of time that his act of resistance will be only symbolic and futile. As a result, the outrage and horror Raspail depicts isn’t cathartic. There is no dramatic tension because we know right from the beginning that France (and the West) is finished. How do you keep reading a book like that? For me, it was a challenge. If Raspail had injected a hero, even a tragic hero, The Camp of the Saints would have been much easier to read.
While it is easy to admire all the things that the book got right, it is important to also take stock of all the things Raspail got wrong. His book is fundamentally Malthusian in its outlook. It is clearly influenced by Paul Erlich’s book, The Population Bomb (though this is never explicitly mentioned). In Raspail’s world, European civilization is washed away as much by a tidal wave of the third-world’s population explosion as it is by its own internal weakness.
He also fails to predict the beneficial aspects of globalism and free trade. In our world - but not in Raspail’s future world - China is getting richer, and so is India. In his world, India is a teeming mass of starving, fungible peasants. In our world, the World’s Biggest Loser (a TV show where fat people compete to get slim) is a hit in India. In our world, many Asian nations (like Taiwan and South Korea) have reached Western levels of prosperity.
Clearly, Raspail does not believe in win-win scenarios. In fact, Jean Raspail is a conservative in the 19th century sense of the word. He is equally opposed to communism and liberalism (which on the continent means free-market libertarianism). He is a Catholic conservative and a monarchist. I think this outlook is both why he got right the things he got right – that cultural elements must be conserved if a civilization is to survive – but also why he got wrong what he did. This is because even though libertarianism has a blind spot for the importance of cultural capital, the things it does get right, it gets very right. People respond to incentives so fecundity can go down as well as up; free-market principles can work in China and India as well as France (and perhaps better); and people care about material well-being as much as they do about who they are and where they come from. Because of his philosophical stance, Raspail is led to unrealistic despair.
It is important to remember when you read gloomy forecasts of the future, not just Jean Raspail’s, good things happen as well, and they are also important. This is a lesson we should heed when we ponder today’s problems.