Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Totem

I am always curious to read David Osler, our Socialist friend. He knows what to write, before he writes it; at least that’s how it reads to me. Take his piece on Gordon Brown, and the invite to Mrs Thatcher. The conclusion is determined from the start. No doubts, no digressions; bang! Brown is nailed. Is this what Marx meant by the iron laws of history? I assume party political writing demands this kind of thing: it cannot risk exploring a topic, but has to confirm an opinion; for you must not lose the membership along the way.

Why get upset about it? Apart from the party faithful it is clear that Labour and the Conservatives are now a common political elite; sharing the same ideology and values they are the management class for the corporations and financial institutions. There are differences, of course. Ross McKibben describes them well: one is the party of moderately enlightened businessmen, the other of unenlightened ones. So while Osler may be right, and Brown was sending out smoke signals to Middle England and the Labour Left (the latter political tadpoles these days, surely), it is also true that he was simply reassuring the City that nothing was going to change. All ruling elites want stability, for themselves.

His comments about Brown’s volte-face are true enough. Easy pickings, really. But why not explore the subject just a little more? Aren’t his audience bored with these old repeats? Do they watch UK Gold every evening? A more interesting question is why the compulsion to invite Mrs T. in the first place. After all, Brown presided over a decade of Neo-Liberal policies; where both the City and the middle classes prospered. Does he really think we think he is a Social Democrat? We know that Cherie and Tony both believed they were Socialists; of a particular kind: welfare for the rich, redistribution for everyone else. Brown is far more intelligent… but no less blind it seems.

An alternative explanation is that Labour, like the Democrats in America, can never be altogether comfortable as a party of the rich; for some of their political message has to appeal to the poor. Thus the tensions are greater than within the Conservatives (or Republicans); for however much they facilitate the rule of the multi-national corporation they have to pretend they are doing it for the common man. There is always a sense of fakery or unease about them; a weakness the press loves to attack.[I]

We could try sex appeal. Thatcher, like Blair (who is responsible for the deaths of a far greater number of people, and thus is much more morally culpable), has charisma. She is a political totem, and politicians who lack this gift hope to acquire the magic by meeting her.

As for the animal, it protects the man and functions as a kind of patron. It warns him of possible dangers and the means to escape them; it is said to be his friend. And since it is often thought to have magical powers, it transfers those powers to its human partner, who staunchly believes them to be a shield against bullets, arrows, and blows of all sorts. The individual’s confidence in his protector is such that he braves the greatest dangers and accomplishes disconcerting acts of daring with a fearless serenity: faith gives him the courage and the necessary strength. (Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life)

They are in the cabinet room. Down to their underwear, and tattooed in the party colours, they read highlights from John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government; while a DVD shows the collapse of the Berlin Wall. There is a solemn ceremony, and a reading from Adam Smith, where Brown gravely accepts Thatcher’s pink petticoat. He puts it on, and chanting Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom he hops around the table…

What does a weak man do, when he hasn’t got the talents of a leader?

My own view is that Brown was better than Blair, as Major was Thatcher, precisely because he was weak. We want cautious and timid people to rule us; for they are less likely to do anything catastrophic. Often politics is the art, especially in today’s media age where the press push for their causes continuously, of being able to do nothing… Too many dead people, and too much waste, comes from the belief that something must be done, now!

Who were Blair and Thatcher, anyway? Fanatics. One of the curious features of successful leaders is how odd they are. Think of Hitler and Mussolini… Of course, it is usually only afterwards we realise this. Why? Their oddity requires first their supporters, and then anyone else, to take a leap of faith in them. That is, they require a stronger commitment than ordinary politicians. As a result they are far more divisive; people both love and hate them. However, once the emotions are up, and we’re committed, there is no going back: we not only accept their strangeness, but come to worship it; we have been captured by their charm, and now believe in their magic potions.


[i] Of course there are substantive differences too. Perhaps the best formulation is that Labour tries harder to deal with the effects of its policies on the poor. Neither are interested in the causes.

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