Camp of the Saints

The 1973 dystopian apocalyptic French novel that inspires today's violent white, rightwing populism.

Image credit Tony Webster via Flickr (CC).

In mid-February 2019, US president, Donald Trump, declared a national emergency to combat an immigration “crisis” and “invasion” that is not based in fact, but in deep-rooted fears about the end of white, Western civilization. That is: the president’s national emergency is about more than just placating an angry electorate. He is waging an ideological battle that is heavily scripted by 20th-century white nationalist thought.

It is this same script that informed the “Great Replacement” manifesto of the New Zealand mosque terrorist, who killed at least forty-nine worshippers a month later. It is a script that European far-right politicians and intellectuals have increasingly enlisted to resist pressure from the EU to accept climate refugees and asylum seekers into their countries. Now would be a good time to shed some light on this script—a script that is so vile, so apocalyptic, so dehumanizing that it makes sense why more people haven’t done a deep dive.

I mean more specifically The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 dystopian apocalyptic French novel about the crisis of immigration, the fear of ethnic replacement, and the invasion and end of the white West. I read this toxic book so that you don’t have to. And yet I think everyone should read it in order to uncover the fictional source code for the tropes, language, rhetoric, and style that invent the crises of invasion and replacement—and to uncover the very real consequences of (mis)taking these fictions as fact.

Imprinted into the Brain

Representative Steve King (Republican, Iowa), the US congressman recently relieved of his House committee assignments for asking—out loud—when white nationalism had become offensive language, has been on the crisis of invasion, great replacement anti-immigration train for years. He remarked in a 2018 interview with the far-right Austrian web publication Unzensuriert that the story of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints “should be imprinted into everybody‘s brain.” King’s comment rang true for me, though for very different reasons. My experience of Raspail’s text was more like a toxin or a parasite: the text burrows into the psyche through its extremely effective use of rhetorical and figurative devices: anaphor, repetition, accumulation, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and imagery.

I assigned Raspail’s novel in a class I was teaching on far-right nationalism (Maurrassisme) and Catholicism in 20th-century France, part of an attempt at what I’ve come to think of as “staring into the abyss”—close reading, analysis, and evaluation of the far-right nationalist screed that informs not only present-day ideology, but our present-day political language. There is pedagogic value in tracing this textual and discursive heritage by actually reading the texts themselves, instead of just pointing to their existence. We come to know them and the power they hold for an emergent new far right that is hyper-nationalist, islamophobic, anti-EU, and for zero immigration.

Indeed, Raspail’s book has long been lauded by the far-right nationalist Le Pen dynasty in France (Marine Le Pen famously gives the book pride of place in her office), and has more recently surfaced in the US as a point of reference for the anti-immigration advisors and congressional allies that work with Trump.

Peter Maass at The Intercept pointed out a truly extreme Breitbart article (which is saying something) penned by erstwhile special assistant to Trump, Julia Hahn. In it, she accused Pope Francis of repeating the fictional folly of the pope character in Raspail’s book: treating impoverished migrants with humanity and dignity. No surprise, coming from a Bannon protégé. In his deep dive into Bannon’s intellectual and ideological roots, Josh Green described the former Breitbart chair’s worldview as:  “the whole world is falling apart, the country is going to hell, these dangerous immigrants and criminals are kinda marauding through our culture, and meanwhile the secular PC liberals are turning a blind eye to it and destroying American identity and so on and so forth.” This is, predictably, the tl;dr version of The Camp of the Saints updated to a 21st-century US context.

So the novel inspired Bannon. But what inspired the novel itself? Certainly some of the same early 20th-century far-right nationalist, fascist thinkers (Julius Evola and Charles Maurras, for starters). But Raspail’s text was also born out of the neo-Malthusian revival of the 1960s and 1970s, when demographers predicted exponential population growth from 3.7 billion to 7 billion by the year 2000. We would do well to revisit this historical context in order to better grasp the ideology and the zero-sum thinking that structure at least the current White House policy on immigration, if not the broader language, legislation, and action of the far-right leaders throughout the world. It is a script that is unfamiliar to most Americans, if we consider the sheer foreignness of the language, imagery, and references that scripted Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural speech. This script has come into focus as the administration has moved forward: in legislation, in presidential remarks, in news show appearances, in media talking points.

The Camp of the Saints

Jean Raspail is a nonagenarian French novelist whose prolific fifty-year oeuvre is part travel narrative and part fiction–rather like a conservative, Catholic, not-at-all-nouveau roman version of J.M.G. le Clézio. Raspail’s political and literary leanings share much with earlier French intellectuals like Paul Morand and Maurras, though comparisons to Camus, Céline, Rabelais and, more recently, Houellebecq and most certainly Renaud Camus and Eric Zemmour, are warranted. Raspail shares the fate of some of the above-listed authors who were denied entry into the French National Academy for their political views—he has been nominated for a seat as an “immortel” three times already and failed. He has nevertheless won a handful of small awards from the prestigious French literary academy.

Raspail published Le Camp des Saints in 1973 with Éditions Robert Laffont, one of the bigger French publishing houses known for its popular (less “high culture”) literary offerings. The novel’s publication coincided with a fundamental shift in French politics, culture and society, and the emergence of reactionary, new-nationalist thinking. Not incidentally, the early 1970s saw the founding of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-EU National Front party (recently rebranded for maximum main-stream normalization as the “National Rally” or Rassemblement national party).

In its packaging—title, structure, epigraph—Le Camp des Saints is based on the Apocalypse of John in the Book of Revelation that prophesizes the arrival of apocalyptic hordes (Gog and Magog) who will gather in an assault against the holy city. In this, Raspail’s narrative is fairly straightforward: it tells the story of an armada of migrants from Southeast Asia arriving upon the shores of the French Riviera and sacking the unnamed coastal city by the novel’s end. The book’s rather uncomplicated premise allows Raspail to typify the main groups involved for symbolic effect: the French army; the Catholic Church; the French elite; the communist hippie youth; the nameless, faceless masses of North African and sub-Saharan immigrants that are already packed into cellars, attics, and twenty-mattress rooms in Paris; and the half-naked, only half-human hordes of migrants from the subcontinent that are set to arrive on the shores of the West.

Fair enough. Yet in spite of this symbolic framing, I would argue that the novel is primarily driven by real, concrete concern for—obsession, really—with those 1970s population growth models and more specifically, non-white population growth. In the short two-paragraph preface to the first French edition, Raspail states in no uncertain terms that his text is to be taken literally and not symbolically. That is, in spite of the biblical allusions, the symbolism, and the prophetic narrative mode that he adopts, he purports to write the novel with authentic ripped-from-the-headlines news stories, presidential speeches, and faits divers. For Raspail, France—and the rest of the White West—is indeed headed for its Camp of the Saints moment: “We need only glance at the awesome population figures predicted for the year 2000, i.e., twenty-eight years from now: seven billion people, only nine hundred million of whom will be white.”

Oof. It’s shocking to read the plainly-raced terms in which Raspail states his premise—one that has been rebranded, reframed, shined up, and sanded down but never really changed in the fifty odd years since his novel came out. It’s the premise of white supremacy, and the ontological threat that a growing non-white world population poses to it. Its unchecked, unabashed premise is that whiteness=Western civilization and non-whiteness=the end of that civilization.

In Raspail’s fictional world, all non-Western, non-white immigrants exist as pathetic, sub-human, nameless, faceless hordes. Indeed, he often describes them as bare, naked flesh; disembodied parts with no identity, no face, no soul. The desired effect of this rhetorical and stylistic conceit cannot be overstated: in order for Raspail to create the effect of the onslaught of the horde, of the swarming mass, to evoke fear, there can be no individual description or discrete identity within the group. Raspail describes the migrants coming ashore: “like an anthill slashed open […] Endless cascade of human flesh  […] Surging blindly forward. Unthinking, unwitting.” The horde—the plague—is unmistakable here; the migrants are insects, swarming in an infestation, acting as one without actually thinking, deciding. The text itself is a virtual assault on the reader; we are trapped, subsumed by the onslaught of adjectives and descriptions. His language itself is an infestation, submerging the reader and, in many ways, overwhelming her.

So Raspail successfully creates the effect of the infestation through his stylistic and rhetorical devices. But people read this stuff and believe it? Even if we set aside the white supremacy disclaimer he loudly announces in his preface (and we definitely shouldn’t), we would also have to acquiesce to the assumption that structures Raspail’s entire gambit: that not a single one of the millions of migrants that stream ashore in The Camp of the Saints can be treated with an ounce of humanity. Raspail may know that they are human beings, but that is not the point. The point is that, to survive the fictional, sensationalized, entirely unrealistic onslaught, the West has to decide to dehumanize the non-Western, non-White other. This is crazy. And yet, it makes everything else that we’ve seen out of the Trump administration in the last three years make so much more sense: it’s based on the zero-sum idea of the survival of (White, Western) humanity that Raspail’s novel is constructed to conjure up, and to make seem and feel real.

In subsequent writing about the book, Raspail further elaborates this aspect of his worldview, explaining the importance of The Camp of the Saints by rooting it in a series of either/or propositions. In the 1982 Afterword, Raspail presents the problem of the Global South and the migrant crisis as one that is “absolutely insoluble by our present moral standards. To let them in would destroy us. To reject them would destroy them.” The vague “present moral standards” that Raspail evokes here should be understood to mean Enlightenment liberalism, and more specifically, humanism, universal equality, and human rights. He laments the “Western conscience” as having been besieged by “the slow, cancerous progress of compassion, which is only a misleading and lethal form of charity.” Westerners must accept that “rejecting them” is a necessary condition for the survival of the West. His novel is designed to prove that “the denial of essential basic human differences would work solely to the detriment of our own integrity,” and so the West must act according to basic human difference between races, maintaining some apartheid-style wall building or, if necessary, destroying the Other.

The degree to which Raspail, a Catholic, criticizes Catholic social teaching in the novel is particularly noteworthy here: he assails the fictional pope and the line the Vatican takes in favor of the migrants, and shows a group of Benedictine Monks committed to welcoming the migrants get trampled in seconds by the migrant onslaught in the novel’s denouement. Indeed, Raspail seems to take aim precisely at the social justice Catechism of the Catholic Church: that of the transcendent dignity of humankind, that one must fight against sinful inequalities in the name of social justice, equity, and human dignity. These, too, are the “present moral standards” that Raspail argues must be done away with. Again, for Raspail this is zero-sum: “we are facing a unique alternative: either learn the resigned courage of being poor or find again the inflexible courage to be rich. In both cases, so-called Christian charity will prove itself powerless.”  It is perhaps this last sentence, penned in a new 1985 Introduction, that resonated most with a certain kind of US readership that would come to see in Raspail’s novel a useful tool and a prophetic touchstone.

The Camp of the Saints in the US

“Years ago a book, ‘The Camp of the Saints’ came into my hands.” This is how Steve King explains how he became familiar with Raspail’s novel. It’s a convenient phrasing—passive voice, no indication of when, who gave it to him, or in what circumstances. This phrasing also maintains the cult-like status of the book, passed around among like-minded adherents.

In fact, the book came to the US via Scribner’s—the well-respected publisher of works by major US writers from Hemingway to Stephen King—which published the first translation in 1975, just two years after it appeared in France. The edition included no other introductions or prefaces, though the dust jacket notes that the novel is “already a sensation in Europe” and that “no one will forget it or remain unaffected by the questions it raises about the future of the world.” Scribner was thus plugged into the same zeitgeist of population projections and dystopian future worlds of the 1970s.

(Small side note: Scribner commissioned Norman Shapiro—a well-known translator of scores of French-language literary works then quite early in his career—to translate. Shapiro is rather notorious in the field of Francophone Studies for writing translator prefaces that denigrate the Francophone poetry he’s tasked with translating as “derivative” or subliterary, as he recently did with the poetry of Haitian independence).

Scribner only printed one hardbound edition of the novel, though Shapiro’s translation was used in each subsequent US edition. What is clear from these different publishers is that Raspail had found in the US a special interest anti-immigration audience early on: the Institute for Western Values, Inc. (1982), the American Immigration Control Foundation (1987), and the Social Contract Press (1995) each published US editions of the book. Notable for its status as a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, The Social Contract Press leaned heavily on Raspail’s status as a “prophet” in lauding the book for its prescient depiction of an invasion of immigrant hordes. The novel has found an important anti-immigration audience outside of the US as well. Literary critic Jean-Marc Moura has noted translations in Spain (Plaza y Janès 1975), Portugal (Publiçoes Europa-America 1977), and London (Sphere Books 1977). Moura argues that the publishing history of Raspail’s book is not purely based on literary or commercial interests, but rather ideology, and that the book itself is not received by its readership as a simply literary fantasy (as it was first marketed by Laffont and Scribner’s).

All of this to say, the novel did not just fall into the hands of Steve King; a network of special interest non-profit organizations worked hard to make sure it got into the hands of people like King. And, in the advent of internet hate, it has been discussed at length on Occidental Dissent, Daily Stormer, Breitbart, Reddit, and probably all sorts of other corners of the internet.

The Script

Donald Trump’s dislike for the written word has been a feature of his presidency from the start, and a near-constant theme in news coverage of it. This fixation on the president’s predilections for TV screens and phone calls tends to mask the highly textual nature of Trumpism, and the script that informs it. Indeed, many of his aides and advisors love to read, but what they’re reading is a body of work that most educated Americans are entirely illiterate in.

The novel is not a prophesy, nor is Raspail a prophet. It is a discursive and cultural script that includes a “deeply predictable” trope that Dara Lind has called, in shorthand, IACATBTKY (Immigrants Are Coming Across The Border To Kill You). To be sure, it is not a script in the sense that Trump or his aides are thumbing through an old dog-eared copy of the book. Rather, Trumpism is based on set of images, comparisons, and tropes that are part of Raspail’s dystopian, terrifying worldview that sees the end of the White West as nigh. In this scenario, the question of humanity is entirely self-referential. It’s not about recognizing the fundamental humanity of all beings in the world, but about White Westerners seeing their own human existence as under threat. Their humanity thus becomes contingent upon whether they choose to “break” with the moral principles of human rights and fundamental human equality—whether they choose to see the Other as a threat upon whom the most inhumane treatment should be visited.

Whether or not Trump’s national emergency is blocked by Congress or the courts, as it is likely to be, there is now no mistaking the scripted nature of the crisis. Its actors are unmoored from the basic principles of human rights. What real emergencies they might create within their own nation and in others—we do not need a fictional apocalyptic tale to predict.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.