- Survivalism, the Jeremiad and the Settler Colonial Utopian Imaginary in James Wesley Rawles’s Survivors: A Novel of the Coming Collapse
While dystopian fiction has enjoyed popularity across the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, in recent decades public enthusiasm for the genre has skyrocketed as writers and filmmakers have increasingly turned to dystopian and apocalyptic representation to diagnose and warn against a range of social, political, economic, and environmental crises. Western American literature and film have not been immune to the dystopian turn in popular culture, as evidenced by the prevalence of frontier mythology in dystopian and apocalyptic tales (as William Katerburg and Barbara Gurr have both noted) and the frequency with which dystopian and apocalyptic texts choose the US West as their setting or engage tropes of the Western genre in their storytelling. Examples abound but include novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Octavia Butler’s Parable series, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias Triptych, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, as well as television series and films such as Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity, George Miller’s Mad Max films, The Walking Dead franchise, and HBO’s Westworld. Despite this, western studies has seen a relative dearth of scholarship taking up the dystopia in a serious way as a relevant and important genre to the field (Katerburg’s 2008 Future West: Utopia and Apocalypse in Frontier Science Fiction is a notable exception). This essay seeks to initiate and participate in a more sustained engagement between western American studies and dystopian and apocalyptic scholarship and cultural production. I am particularly interested in the opportunity western studies offers to bring dystopian scholarship into conversation [End Page 65] with settler colonial theory in order to understand how the history and mythology of the US West informs the speculative futurities envisaged in American popular culture, in particular the religious and gendered ideologies that structure these narratives. Such a project, I contend, enables us to put more critical pressure on the political investments of a genre consumed by a wide swath of the American public.
Despite critics’ tendency to classify dystopian imagination as a progressive antidote in troubling political times, conservative iterations of the genre have proliferated alongside their more progressively minded cousins. This is nowhere more evident than in the widely popular genre of the postapocalyptic survivalist dystopia, a branch of dystopian literature that has shown a particular investment in the US West as a setting and the Western as a genre. Libertarian survivalist blogger James Wesley Rawles’s Survivors: A Novel of the Coming Collapse (2012), the second installment of his Patriots novel series, stands as an exemplar of this trend. If the success of Rawles’s novel (a New York Times bestseller) speaks to the popular fascination with the postapocalyptic and dystopian genre, the novel’s overt political ideology underscores the compatibility of survivalism and Christian nationalism with the imaginary of US settler colonialism. Through his novel and blog Rawles simultaneously roots his Christian survivalist politics in a US settler colonial imaginary and constructs survivalism as a utopian settler colonial project unique to itself. I read this double move as an attempt to maintain the integrity of the historical project of American settler colonialism in the context of the dystopic trends of globalization that jeopardize that project and its imaginary. Furthermore, I argue that the rhetoric of the jeremiad is indispensable to this project given its dual ability to narrate a logic for understanding hardship and crisis as an individual and communal moral failure while simultaneously acting as a reminder of how adherence to a narrow set of Christian values and precepts will reset the trajectory of the faithful toward a righteous and moral outcome.
In crafting his novel as a modern jeremiad, Rawles posits dystopia as a necessary evil that will identify and punish the impious [End Page 66] and liberate and lift the pious to do good works. Rawles imagines the dismantling of the current US government and nation-state as both due punishment for political and religious backsliding as well as the necessary, even desirable, precondition for the emergence of the ideal American settler society. Rawles envisions this...