Why everyone needs to read J.G. Ballard’s “High Rise”.

Our collective id is to blame for President Trump. Now we need to get back in control of it before all hell truly breaks loose.

The great punk poet and philosopher Henry Rollins once opined that if the Rolling Stones truly wanted to stay relevant they would change the words to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” to “I Don’t Want No Satisfaction”. Reason? While the song might have been relevant back in 1965, hearing these words from a geriatric multimillionaire who can pretty much indulge in whatever he wants, whenever he wants, is an insult to our intelligence. Conversely, for Sir Mick to be truly edgy once again, he would have to reject all that and embrace an ascetic existence bereft of all the physical pleasures he currently enjoys. After all, what’s so exciting about “satisfaction” when satisfaction abounds?

As the closest thing to a public intellectual thrown up by punk music (together with the likes of Ian MacKaye and Jello Biafra), Rollins has always understood the inherent ridiculousness of his genre’s wholesale embrace of anarchy and rage. In recent years in particular, as he has eased into the role of elder statesman of punk, all the while travelling to places like Myanmar, South Sudan, and other deeply traumatized parts of the world, he has come to view the knee-jerk cynicism of his younger years with a certain bemusement, while simultaneously acknowledging it as an inseparable part of his identity.

“When I was twenty I wanted to fuck on the floor and break things. When I was thirty I wanted to fuck on the floor and break things. And then I turned forty — and I still wanted to fuck on the floor and break things.” — Henry Rollins

This, in a nutshell, is the voice of our collective id, in Freudian terms. And with the dawning of the Trumpocene Era, it’s pretty much guaranteed that our collective id is going to have free and clear access to the world’s megaphones and, if we’re not careful, the levers of public policy.

And this is why everybody should acquaint themselves with the work of J.G. Ballard as quickly as possible. Because no modern author that I know of has given voice to the dark inner demons of our head that, in the words of Alfred Pennyworth (played by Michael Caine) in The Dark Knight, “just wants to watch the world burn.”

Of all of Ballard’s trademark dystopian novels, High Rise has proven to be his most iconic — in no small part due to its prescience vis-à-vis our modern social condition. Released in 1975 (a suitably grim year for humanity that saw the start of the Khmer Rouge genocide, the brutal Indonesian occupation of East Timor, and protracted civil wars in Lebanon and Angola), the novel centres on a luxury high-rise condo complex in an unnamed London suburb whose well-heeled residents slowly descend into violent chaos, with groups of tenants forming tribal factions and engaging in violent raids on other floors for resources, retribution, and kicks. Think Lord of the Flies meets Fight Club with a dash of Heart of Darkness thrown into the mix, and you have a taste of what the book is about.

What is arguably most disturbing about High Rise (and indeed Ballard’s particular brand of dystopian fiction) is that the violent anarchy that subsumes its characters is not precipitated by any external calamities à la Mad Max or The Walking Dead. Indeed there are no zombies or nuclear holocausts or even any pulverizing poverty to attribute the ensuing societal collapse. Rather, the primal violence portrayed in High Rise and elsewhere in Ballard’s oeuvre comes purely from within, from a perceived fundamental hominid need to blow off steam through unrestrained barbarity.

Fast-forward to November 2016 and the election of “President” Donald Trump. All kinds of explanations have been proffered by the usual talking heads as to how a terrifying, obviously mentally unstable buffoon succeeded in being elected leader of the world’s most powerful country. Some blame the widening wage-gap that has left working class whites feeling powerless and angry. Others blame PC culture. Others the cult of celebrity. Others still blame the Democrats for running a lacklustre campaign. Many have pointed the finger at the degree to which racism still contaminates US culture.

For me, however, none of these quite add up. A further reason, I’m convinced, is that Trump and his campaign successfully tapped into the country’s (and indeed the world’s) collective id and our deep but largely unacknowledged desire for a full-on rumble. Our media culture has largely redefined our sense of tribal affiliation, which now transcends national boundaries and is increasingly centred on a sense of shared values and grievances. Add to this Dickensian gaps between today’s haves and have-nots and a marketing and communications landscape that further exacerbates our innate narcissism and isolation through microtargeting.

Now throw Trump into the mix. For some, he’s seen as an alpha-male hero who’s going to wipe the smile off the smug faces of liberals, Muslims, Mexicans, whiny PC egghead types, hybrid car drivers, bike commuters, vegetarians, kale smoothie quaffers, feminists, LGBTQ+ social reformers, and the rest of the no-fun, pontificating fucktards who are ruining everything for the “real folks”. For others, he’s the epitome of evil — Orange Hitler, Mango Mussolini, Crimson Caligula et cetera — the man who wants to turn the United States of America into the Fourth Reich, round up Latinos and Middle Easterners into concentration camps, and unleash his Waffen SS on the rest of us.

Either way — and let’s be honest here — you’re probably loving this on some level. Yes, you say you hate it, that the news makes you sick when you get up in the morning, but you’re still re-posting it and still wasting precious work and family time commenting on how Trump reminds you of Mussolini and that Donald Jr. and Eric Trump are eerily reminiscent of Uday and Qusay Hussein. Let’s face it, you’re eating this shit up right now, and on some level you’re far more excited about the future of the world at large than you’ve been in ages.

It’s OK. That’s just how we are. Primitive human societies have always engaged in blood feuds and the like, and such conflicts are still commonplace in remote corners of Papua New Guinea and the Brazilian Amazon. We all have it in us, and with so many of us feeling isolated and disempowered, while simultaneously bored out of our skulls in a world where (in the developed world at least) most of us have enough to eat but our days consist mainly of drudgery in pursuit of some future happiness than never arrives.

We are, in a nutshell, like Henry Rollins’ Mick Jagger 2.0 — we don’t want no satisfaction. We want chaos and destruction. Trouble is, we don’t actually want that; we’re just so immured from real chaos and calamity thanks to the machinery of civilization that we’ve forgotten what real chaos and calamity feels like. An obvious (and troubling) analogy can be found in Europe in 1914, when Europeans at large celebrated the onset of World War I. What could be more fun than a war? Four years and 16 million corpses later and we were quickly reminded that civilization is always preferable to chaos.

Read up on your Ballard. Trust me, you won’t regret it. And really pay attention to your thought processes, and acknowledge the fact that on some level you probably kinda want to see the shit hit the fan in some earth-shattering way. After all, this sort of thing gives life meaning, doesn’t it? Acknowledge it, and then acknowledge that you don’t actually want that — and take a step back from your computer. And maybe meditate, or have sex, or bake cookies, or do something randomly nice for somebody. It’s always better that way.

But yes, you can still protest against Trump. He’s a dangerous lunatic whose tenure in the White House should be made as mercifully short as possible. And yes, have fun doing it — dress up like Che Guevara or Abe Lincoln and turn it into a carnival. Just be sure to not let your id get the best of you, and be sure to watch for the telltale signs that your closest and dearest might be turning into barbarians. It’s happened before. Many, many times.


Ben Freeland

Photo Credit: Poster from the Ben Wheatley film “High Rise” based on the J.G. Ballard novel (Source: indierevolver.files.wordpress.com)