The phrase ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ has come to mean an ambitious (and even unnatural) creation which not only becomes a threat to society, and to itself, but also to those who created it.
The term is derived from an 1818 novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. In it, a brilliant scientist Dr Frankenstein discovers a way to infuse life into lifeless matter. He creates a humanoid, expecting him to be pure in emotion and thought. The creation tries to fit into society, but fails. After realising his failure, his immense yearning to be accepted mutates and turns into rage. He violently turns against society, and against his creator who abandons him.
Modern political commentators have often used the phrase ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ to describe powerful elites sculpting forces or individuals who could execute their political agendas. But the creations often mutate and turn against their creators. Their rage can also damage whole societies.
The intentions of Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein were ‘noble’. The scientist wanted to create the ‘perfect man’ who could be taught morality through reason and whose core emotion was to be compassion. But the creation’s core emotion became an intense desire to be loved by society. Once the creation failed to conjure this, the desire to be loved became an uncontrollable urge to hate those who refused to love him.
Smokers' corner: Political morality and amorality
In his 1987 book Frankenstein’s Shadow, Chris Baldick writes that one of the things Shelley’s monster represented was the mob during the 1789 French Revolution. The principles of the Age of Enlightenment — reason, logic, science — had noble intentions i.e. to rid society of superstition and the totalitarian hold of the Church and the monarchy. But when these principles were manifested through revolutionary action, they became monstrous.
The psychology at play in Mary Shelley’s 19th century literary masterpiece — of a creature born of ‘noble’ intentions that goes out of control and turns against its creator — may help explain a number of international and domestic political developments
They took the shape of mobs going on a killing spree, negating everything that the Enlightenment stood for. If Enlightenment philosophers created the Revolution, the uprising dismembered their philosophies. The philosophers wanted to create rational individuals, but ended up giving birth to irrational mobs, mindlessly demolishing institutions and individuals.
Some historians have explained Marxism as a noble idea (seeking to create economic equality), but one which gave birth to totalitarian figures such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot. They turned into ‘monsters’.
Same is the case with Hitler. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot’s creation was shaped by Marxism’s idea of establishing a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Hitler’s monstrosity on the other hand, was shaped by an assortment of 19th century racist theories and myths circulating in Europe.
It is easier to find noble intentions in Enlightenment philosophies and in Marxism, but not so in racist ideas. However, Nazism explained itself as a struggle to revive a noble Germanic past that was full of purity and honour, but was disfigured by ‘non-Aryan’ races and ideologies. After realising that the world at large was refusing to recognise this, Hitler sought to destroy the world. He ended up destroying Germany and himself.
Of course, a multitude of economic and political factors also contributed to creating these ‘monsters’. The rise of Ruhollah Khomeini was shaped by the manner in which the economic interests of Iran’s ‘petit bourgeois’ and Iran’s heterogeneous commercial class (the ‘bazaaris’) were impacted by the Shah of Iran’s ‘modernisation’ programmes.
Khomeini was moulded by this class as a messiah. Other anti-Shah forces, such as the Marxists and secular democrats, went along. Liberals and many Marxists invested a lot of their revolutionary energy in propping up Khomeini.
After the Revolution, Khomeini expected them to ‘understand’ his Islamist route to vanquish American capitalism as well as Soviet communism. When the understanding wasn’t forthcoming, he launched a ferocious attack on his former non-Islamist allies. In 1988 alone, over 20,000 Marxists and liberals were executed by the Khomeini dictatorship.
In the 1980s, the Afghan Mujahideen were engineered as ‘freedom fighters’ by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. US President Ronald Reagan said that, to the Afghan Muslims, the Mujahideen were what the heroes of the 18th century American Revolution were to the Americans. The anti-Soviet Islamist militants were bolstered by billions of dollars’ worth of military aid to fight a ‘just war’ against Soviet atheism in Afghanistan.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the same leaders who were invited to the White House and glorified as forces who were ‘saving Islam’ (and the world) from communism, began to be seen as nihilists. In turn, the leaders who had romanced the US as a ‘Christian brother’ helping them fight atheism, became their enemy number one.
Like Shelley’s monster who couldn’t find acceptance, former pro-US Islamists went on a rampage, killing thousands in their compulsion to hunt down their creator.
In 2011, Pakistan’s military establishment began to create a politician who they believed would vanquish the country’s old mainstream political parties, and become the establishment’s civilian vessel. This wasn’t the first time the establishment did this. However, this time, a lot more resources were invested.
Imran Khan, who had been leading an insignificant little party since 1995, was provided enough resources to suddenly manage to gather thousands of people at his rallies, and gain constant air time on popular TV news channels as well as a sympathetic ear by the judiciary.
This despite the fact that he was a political novice. His understanding of history and politics was a curious potpourri of contemporary Islamist ideas, illiberal nationalism, a drawing-room-view of Pakistani society, and a muddled postmodernist understanding of imperialism. Yet, he was diligently propped up by at least three generals, various ISI chiefs and TV channels. Then in 2018, an election was manipulated to put him in power.
But as PM, he was an abject failure. He was only interested in being admired and accepted as a legitimate saviour of the nation and the ummah. Everything else was to wait.
Dismayed by his performance and utter lack of political tact, his creators withdrew their support. Within months after this, he was ousted by a no-confidence vote. Feeling betrayed, he is now on the streets claiming that sinister anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan forces engineered his ouster. In his obsession to denounce those who created him, and plunge the country into political chaos, it is likely that he just might be damaging his chances of ever being a viable political option again.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 12th, 2022