This short essay by Alan Lacerda, professor of political science at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, draws comparisons between elements of the novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick and the alternate political realities fabricated by modern populist administrations throughout the world.


In his brilliant novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Philip K. Dick conceives of a future in which two drugs appear. The first (and lighter) of them is called Can-D. It is consumed by colonists living in the horrific conditions of Mars, as well as by some on Earth, which has arrived at a state of global warming so extreme that it is generally unsafe to be outside during the day without special protective equipment. Consumers use Can-D in concert with “layouts,” physical props inside of which they live a shared alternate reality. Though illegal, the drug is held as relatively harmless, and its consumption does not carry overt negative connotations.

Then an altogether more insidious drug, Chew-Z, begins to be marketed to users of Can-D by Palmer Eldritch, a wealthy merchant explorer just back from the Prox system, where he claims to have discovered the new hallucinogen. The ambiguity of Eldritch’s identity as a prophet, an anti-messiah, or a perverted magnate is beside the point here. In any case, we shudder at him. It is doubtful that Chew-Z, despite the play on words, will give its consumers much of a choice. At least a real one, since it becomes clear as the story progresses that its use preempts reality entirely.

I might be risking exaggeration, but I do think certain manifestations of populist politics nowadays are similar to the effects of Chew-Z. Modern populism simply disregards reality entirely and sometimes even endeavors to live within the parameters of the fiction so created. This may be seen, for instance, in the handling of the current public health crisis by the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations in the U.S. and Brazil. Bolsonaro’s initial response to the pandemic was to characterize the sickness as being nothing more than “a little flu,” and in so doing seemed to be following cues from his counterpart in North America.

A softer form of reality denial had already emerged in the debate leading up to the 2016 Brexit referendum in Britain. Figures and data were invented out of thin air by many Brexit supporters, and experts were dismissed by a wave of the hand as being incurably arrogant.

In Poland, President Andrzej Duda, who was reelected by a razor-thin margin earlier this July, took aim in a series of public statements at what he called “LGBT ideology,” describing it as a kind of “neo-Bolshevism,” and saying, “We are told that LGBT is about people, but it’s about ideology.” He has mused aloud that perhaps “LGBT ideology” is more destructive than communism. A ludicrous statement, considering how many Poles Stalin killed in the name of communism, not to mention there is no credible evidence indicating that gays are causing any harm to the fabric of Polish society.

“The politics of Chew-Z” does not consist in the mere act of lying. Politicians all across the spectrum and in every country lie, but this is only a form of Can-D politics. This class of lying may involve the electorate at certain times, but in general the politicians and political movements that engage in it are naturally checked by electoral cycles and, though it is considered cynical by certain sectors, lying is taken as an unavoidable aspect of the political game. The damage of Can-D politics tends to be quickly recognized and eventually contained once voters leave their “layouts.” That’s not the case with the Chew-Z approach, which distinguishes itself by either ignoring reality outright or by making another one up entirely. Bolsonaro supporters in Brazil spread fake news daily on Twitter, and it leads one to wonder not just whether they believe the myriad falsehoods they propagate, but if they actually inhabit them and abide by their logic even when there is nothing to gain politically. One could absolutely derive inner enjoyment from living in another political reality. But, as Dick himself said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, does not go away.”

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