Can a republic of fictions endure?
A conversation with the writer Ayad Akhtar about truth, whether the Capitol insurrectionists were "terrorists," and why he worries about the Federal Reserve
This week, as the darkness of these last years recedes and a new era dawns, I knew exactly whom I wanted to talk to — a great American writer who investigates so many of the ingredients that make up this moment: the epic identity transition roiling the country, the all-encompassing power of money in our neoliberal age, and the possibility, and difficulties, of understanding each other across walls.
Ayad Akhtar is a novelist, a playwright, a screenwriter, and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for his play “Disgraced.” He is also the president of PEN America, an organization that advocates for writers. His latest work is the novel “Homeland Elegies,” an ambitious book that examines some of the most pressing themes of our moment through the story of one immigrant family, slightly resembling his own.
Our conversation is just below. But first: I will be doing my regular live chat/webinar/Zoom-where-it-happens thing today at 1 p.m. New York time, 10 a.m. Pacific time, and 6 p.m. London time. If you’re new to The Ink, they’re really fun and engaging. We talk about the world and we scheme hope. It’s great. If you haven’t yet, subscribe today to join us. Subscribers will get login details beforehand.
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“We live in something like a corporate autocracy”: a conversation with Ayad Akhtar
ANAND: You have said you were interested, with this novel, in blurring the line between truth and fiction, because we live in an age in which truth and fiction are blurring — in which a good story has become a substitute for truth. Explain.
AYAD: We're seeing it almost everywhere. To the extent that a generation and a half ago, kids started learning about history by watching Spielberg movies, that was already an indication of history taking a backseat to entertainment. The idea that you had to somehow fight for somebody's attention when you were trying to educate them already indicated some kind of a shift in the hierarchy of how knowledge was valued.
I've been particularly sensitive to the ways in which forms of entertainment used as modes of talking about history really deform the historical process. The individual struggle that is at the center of the Hollywood prestige film, in which the individual is going to embody the moral dilemmas of a particular moment and his or her agency is going to signal historical change — that's actually not how history works. It's a fiction. It's a fiction in order to get us to understand.
These storytelling techniques themselves increasingly act as substitutes for processes of knowledge.
ANAND: As someone who turns the truths you perceive into fiction for a living, how do you think about this massive problem over the next many years of weaning tens of millions of Americans off of political fictions and bringing them back into relationship with reality?
AYAD: It's the central dilemma of our time. And I really don't know that substituting an alternative, more compelling, or more tethered-to-reality form of fiction is going to be a solution.
It seems to me that it's fundamentally an education problem, but it's also now increasingly a problem of the tech platforms, which have so transformed the way information is produced and consumed and processed. I sometimes think that what has happened to knowledge in our time is that knowledge and information seem to become synonymous, when of course, they're not synonymous.
You can't get to wisdom from information. You can get to wisdom only from knowledge. So confusing information for knowledge has pretty intense and real social consequences.
ANAND: You write a great deal about identity, and yet you have said that, beneath all of that, what's actually driving the society is money. How do you think about that interplay between the role of identity in the society and the role of money?
AYAD: That's a conversation that I hoped you and I would have at some point. I think a simple way to put it is that the tech industry has figured out how to monetize any expression.
It doesn't matter whether that expression is truthful or not truthful, whether it's motivated by social justice or whether it's motivated by something else. Underlying all of this is a system that has found a way to make money off of our attention.
There isn't a more pressing issue than the ways that we are being incentivized and the way our pleasure principle is being curated. The way that we are being shepherded into the system of really having our behavior predicted and our actions monetized. That really is the central social issue.
And beyond that, yes, there are dimensions that have to do with making sure that folks have the rights that they are entitled to, and that people are treated equally and all of that. But there's this predation on the human being which is coming, which I think is fundamentally the most important issue facing our societies, much more so than equal rights. Because it is predation on the whole human population, not just on the disadvantaged parts of the human population.
ANAND: You have a couple sentences in the book that made me think of the January 6 insurrectionists. You write, “In this country, the white majority is basically blind to the worst in themselves. They see themselves in the image of their best, and they see us in the image of our worst.” Unravel that.
AYAD: I'm riffing off of a quote by Norbert Elias, the great German sociologist: “The established majority takes its we-image from a minority of its best, and shapes a they-image of the despised outsiders from the minority of their worst.” It's a social mechanism that he observed in a community in Britain that he was studying as a sociologist, and one that he theorized was really at the root of one of the larger dynamics of societies.
Case in point: We've had a tough time getting anybody to take white domestic terrorism seriously as terrorism. Now that conversation has finally gone mainstream, when of course the threat to the American social body because of Islamic terrorism has really been pretty minuscule in comparison over the years.
ANAND: I hear some folks saying, "It is very important to call those insurrectionists terrorists, because it's naming what it is." And I've heard other people say, "Don't do that. When you do that, it's going to come back around and in the end hurt marginalized people the most." What do you think about using a word like “terrorist” to describe the Capitol insurrectionists?
AYAD: The word “terrorist” is probably pretty shallow to start with. I only accept the designation because it's become common parlance at this point. But I think that depends from what perspective you're really talking about.
Individual, violent resistance — is that terrorism? Is organized societal violence that we accept as war not a form of terrorism? I think it's a flimsy term. But if we're going to use it, which is what we tend to do, then we might as well use it for the phenomenon that fits. If the shoe fits, then we might as well use the term.
ANAND: In “Homeland Elegies,” the narrator says, “Being American is not about what they tell you — freedom and opportunity and all that horseshit. Not really. There is a culture here, for sure, and it has nothing to do with all the well-meaning nonsense. It’s about racism and money worship.”
I wonder how you fundamentally come down — not your character, but you — on this question that has been much debated in recent years about whether America is fundamentally about these base things, or whether, at bottom, there is some noble striving that is real and can be salvaged from the ruins of the way we’ve actually lived.
AYAD: Our history displays both things. It’s a matter of what one wants to focus on and whether one feels that one strain is more dominant or one strain is more definitive than the other.
I think that we're in a moment of correction — correction in discourse, correction in rhetoric. The younger generation is recognizing that the old rhetoric around exceptionalism doesn't correspond meaningfully to the facts in their lives. Their lives are not getting better, they don't have access to the kinds of things that they were promised or that their parents imagined would be possible for them.
I think that story now has to coexist with another history that we were taught in school and we've heard at infinitum and I don't know we need to repeat ad infinitum. It's not going away. I suspect that until the republic crumbles for good people are going to continue to try to claim that other history where the United States is in the main a force for good, which is what I think Barack Obama likes to think. And I think that there's a good case to be made that he's right.
ANAND: I wanted to ask you about money. There's this big problem for artists, which is that a lot of the things that actually determine what our society is like are either very boring to render artistically or hard to understand by the kinds of people who choose to become artists.
You very clearly seem to have made a decision to address that problem and teach yourself about some of these abstruse financial things and find a way to put them into your art. Can you talk about that motivation and why you think artistically it's important to get into that arena of finance?
AYAD: I think that in a time of increasing specialization of knowledge and the fracturing of experience, the individual really can only know this very tiny amount about the larger picture. The artist is one of the only roles in the society that can perform a synthesizing function, as opposed to a specialized function.
In some cases, as with finance, people seem to be starting to catch up to understanding how important these systems are to our lives, and they're trying to find ways to tell stories about them. But it's going to take some time before we get a story that really cracks it for the wider audience and gets them to really understand how much people's lives are being determined by interest rates, say.
ANAND: Can you talk about debt in particular, which you write about in depth in the novel? So many of our political debates are about relieving student debt or preventing medical debt by doing something like Medicare for All. What is debt from your artistic point of view as opposed to a strictly economic one?
AYAD: I had an experience shortly before the pandemic which was really illuminating to me. I was at a noodle bar on the Upper West Side, and I was sitting at lunch at the counter, and a fellow sat down next to me. Asian-American guy in his early 30s. We got to talking.
He asked me what I did. I told him I was a writer. I asked him what he did. He managed the real-estate portfolio for one of the sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East.
We got to talking about money. I said I write about finance. And then he, unprompted, brought up debt. He said, "It's interesting, people talk a lot these days about the gap between those who have and those who don't. And I don't think of it so much in terms of the haves and have-nots. I think of it more in terms of people who understand debt and people who don't." I said, "What do you mean by this?" He said, "Well, in a society which has so effectively financialized so much of itself, debt is the way that the society has figured out how to factor the future. And so if you can understand the use of debt, you really have a leg up on everybody else in terms of your understanding of how to manage time." I thought, Yeah, that's exactly right.
Unfortunately, what that also means is that the incentive is for those who understand how to use debt to create more of it. And for those of us who don't understand debt to go into greater and greater debt in order to pay the debt. To pay into this process that those who understand how to use debt are making money off. In the book, I say that our lives were increasingly determined by these massive piles of money that were generating returns. Because those piles of money had their own point of view, if you will.
ANAND: One of the phenomena you mention in the book, which feels so uniquely American and of this era, is medical GoFundMes. How do you read those culturally?
AYAD: The system has convinced us that we have to take care of each other because the system's not going to take care of us.
ANAND: And you have to personally brand your systemic hardship.
AYAD: You have to sing the song. You have to speak the language of the system. Branded entertainment is the new dominant model. So you’ve got to brand yourself and offer some form of an experience in return, whether it's videos of your treatment or however you're going to tell the story that's going to make people give.
ANAND: When you look at things like those GoFundMes, one way you could read this moment is that we are at the end of this era. The neoliberal era is burning down. It's exploding from its own contradictions. Trump embodies it but is also part of that burning. Do you feel like we're at the end of neoliberalism, or do you feel neoliberalism is in excellent health?
AYAD: It's definitely not in excellent health. I do tend to think that we live in something like a corporate autocracy. There is no way for people to participate in the decision-making bodies that are actually responsible for most of the infrastructural decisions in their lives.
I don't know how we're going to rein in the increasingly powerful, global transnational companies. I see the rise of authoritarianism across the world as connected to this. Really, it's connected to the fact that there seems to be an organic dissolving of whatever these political systems are, which are no longer able to operate as meaningful checks against those who are actually in power.
To use an analogy from the Roman republic, the aristocrats have arrogated to themselves so much power that the only meaningful check against them is a strong emperor.
ANAND: You have voiced particular concerns about the role of the Federal Reserve in American life, which I will say is an unusual area of anxiety for a literary novelist and playwright. Why?
AYAD: I am confused about the Fed. I'm really deeply confused about the printing of money across the planet by the major central banks. The extraordinary overvaluation of assets that we're seeing, both in the real-estate market and, more importantly, in the stock market, is a harbinger of something truly disturbing.
ANAND: Which is?
AYAD: It seems that the economic viability of the country has become increasingly tethered to shareholder value. We see this with the enormous amount of money that's being dumped into the system, which is going almost straight into the markets, buying assets. We're baking in a dispossession of the folks who don't own assets. We're baking in a redistribution of their wealth in the opposite direction.
It seems like a permanent upward redistribution of wealth. A lot of this money is never going to come back into the system. It's going to sit in accounts that gather four to five percent. That's all it's going to do. It's never going to be used to pay for renovations on a house or groceries or to pay somebody's medical bills. Why are the central banks of the world endorsing this kind of hoarding?
ANAND: One of the reasons many writers don't speak of these issues is related to another phenomenon you write about in the novel, which is the way in which some artists — and I had my own version of this with the Aspen Institute, which I’ve written about — are whisked into the world of the plutocrats as sort of adjacent jester figures.
Can you talk about what that experience was like for you?
AYAD: I was at a dinner one night where I think it really all kind of dawned on me. I won't say who was at that dinner, but it was some prominent people. This is a dinner party of people sitting around a table and bandying about the latest theories on how to make the world a better place and all of that stuff. The conversation was so deluded. And it dawned on me that these were the people who were actually making decisions about the world.
Their analysis was so flawed and completely determined by the fact that they thought they knew something because they have money. Their social situation and the way that they were treated in the world because of their net worth encouraged them to believe that they actually knew something. And, oddly, they didn't.
One person in particular corrected me for suggesting that Mohammed had been born after the alleged birth of Jesus Christ. This is a very prominent person who was correcting me about the timeline of Mohammed’s birth — and with derision, not even with a question.
I realized there's something intoxicating to all involved, myself included, to be hobnobbing with those who pull the levers. Until you realize that those who pull the levers don't know anything.
ANAND: You are the president of PEN America, which defends and advocates for writers and champions the notion of writers standing up to tyranny and propaganda and state-promulgated lies. How do you think the class of people known as writers did during these last years in the United States?
AYAD: I think we'll look back on this time and probably see that there was a lot of extraordinary writing and reporting. In retrospect, what may be disheartening to us is maybe how little that mattered. And how little what people have written about what's been happening was able substantially to change the course of events.
Ayad Akhtar is a novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. His latest novel, “Homeland Elegies,” is out now. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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