Strongmen: A review

Trevor Grundy writes on a new book about Trump, Erdogan, Putin, Duterte and Modi

Strongmen edited by Vijay Prashad published by OR Books 2018 

Until recently, progressives believed that the retreat of liberal democracy after the end of the Cold War would be akin to water running uphill. “There is no coherent alternative to liberal democracy,” wrote Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History (1992).

A better quote to describe large parts of the world as it is now came from George Orwell half a century ago in his long essay Inside the Whale. “Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorship – an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction. The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence.”

Today, the danger is not a bit of water flowing upstream. The threat we’re facing is a tsunami – the age of the truly weak but media-manufactured “strongman” who climbs to power on the back of new forms of strident nationalism which remind us of the inter-war years of the last century and its “saviours/strongmen”, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Stalin and Mao.

This is the message that freezes your bones in this totally absorbing new book edited by the Marxist thinker and author, Vijay Prashad.

At the end of three careful readings of “Strongmen” I wanted more – a follow-up publication about other countries, different authors, writers with the same wholeness as the ones who wrote this one.

“Strongmen” deserves a place on the shelves of schools, colleges, universities and public libraries in those countries around the English-speaking world who treasure their democratic heritages and who don’t want to see them destroyed by men like this lot.

The multi-billionaire swaggering loud-mouth and pussy-grabbing Donald Trump (America), the tribalist and Hindu religious fanatic, Narendra Modi (India), the Muslim fantasist and self-elected “man of the people” dictator and exterminator of any form of opposition Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), the shirtless, horse-riding Vladimir Putin (Russia) and the boastful and dangerous Punisher, Rodrigo Duterte- who came to power by promising to slaughter drug dealers ,and anyone else who gets in his way (Philippines).

Each section is a timely, well thought out and at times highly amusing send-up of a new generation Adolf and Benito wannabes. The five writers are the American playwright Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues); Danish Husain, the Indian storyteller and actor, Burhan Sonmez, the Turkish novelist, the Russian-American writer Lara Vapnyar and the Filipina novelist Ninotchka Rosca.

As the publisher’s blurb insists, these essays do not presume to be neutral. They are by partisan thinkers, magical writers, people who see not only the monster but a future beyond the ghouls.

But it’s not enough to mock, ridicule, condemn, laugh at these tyrants. Their rise has to be explained.

And if it’s true that we are edging towards a new kind of global fascism, a form of financial control that crossed the colour-line years ago, we all need to know where it comes from and where it’s heading.

If we want to win the political battles, says Yascha Mounk in his new book The People vs. Democracy “we need to fight for the interpretation of what nationalism should look like, rather than running away from nationalism altogether”.

Strongmen helps us do just that.

Trevor Grundy is an English writer who lived and worked as a journalist in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996.