The amazing graphic perceptionalist MC Escher contended he wasn’t interested in politics, but this bird tessellation, gracing the Princessehof Ceramics Museum in Leeuwarden, may be read as a metaphor. Despite the constant current wailing about the need for leadership, Escher’s innate understanding of the nature of change couldn’t be clearer.
Whatever sphere of our society is under scrutiny – political, athletic, economic, scientific, social, religious, legal, artistic, military, academic – platitudes and attitudes abound concerning this leader or that. As the redundant 2016 beckons us all into a new chronology, it ends a year pretty universally deemed a disaster.
So, here’s the question: would or could a different leader of this or that have altered the prospect of past, present or future? While it’s oh-so-tempting to hold a magnifying glass to the US President-elect, let’s focus on four British examples. The points will hold for this overview. Let’s think the unthinkable: do we actually need leaders at all?
Contemporary royalty inherits a legacy of divine right. By that definition, the ruler knows best, and inherently is best – not because a human sperm fertilised a human egg, but because the resulting zygote was divinely chosen. While I’m pretty sure that neither today’s monarch nor her subjects believe that, you needn’t go far to overhear endorsements and mindless support for the royal power elite. Whether from titled aristos or forelock tuggers, we’re below while they’re above. And it’s stating the bleeding obvious to note that once chosen, only a succession of regal bums will ever be cushioned by that padded throne.
The irony is that ever since rule by sovereign was set in train so many centuries ago, it was the office not the person to whom one gave fealty. Yet, in our world which worships the cult of personality, the media’s top of that list are members of the Royal Family. Even the dead ones. Are they epitomes of leadership?
The more temporary seats of power are allegedly chosen by the people. Setting aside the matter of exactly just how democratic such a procedure might be, or how subject it may be to corruption – the only reason that politicians are there is because they’re self-selecting. The majority have precious few qualifications as people representatives. Traditionally they’ve defined themselves by the unquestioning support of those they wish to replace. Conviction, if not genuine, can be induced by the thought of a slide up the greasy pole to corridors of opportunity. Yes, sure there are relatively honourable councillors, MPs, Ministers, and even Mayors – across the political divide. That’s not the point. Each and every one has pledged to ‘play the game,’ rather than challenge its more dubious rules.
Perhaps the most obvious change about the perception of politicians has been the increasing public knowledge of their flaws and foibles. With the rise of literacy rates after the Reformation, continuing through WWII, this acknowledgement was fuelled by rumours about closed door deals with Hitler, Churchill’s alcoholism, and the abuse of rationing by the aristocracy. By the dawn of the 21st century, and aided by social media, politicians have become objects of scrutiny about undeclared expenses, and false declarations of attendance allowance as well as more salacious sex scandals.
Even more disconcerting are the lies. Thatcher, for example, is still bamboozling the middle-classes who’ve just voted her Top of the BBC’s 100 Most Influential Women of the 20th Century, and is still regarded as inherently, almost genetically, a great leader. Buried under the rubble of other news, however, is the recently released documentation of Operation Omega. As described so eloquently by the Guardian’s Alan Travis on 25 November, “The plan commissioned by Thatcher and her chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe included proposals to charge for state schooling, introduce compulsory private health insurance and a system of private medical facilities that “would, of course, mean the end of the National Health Service”.
Now we know how dedicated a Thatcher-worshipper Jeremy Hunt is… he who studies Operation Omega as a blue-print to lead us into the future. Knowing his views, the PM could have shuffled him to the bottom of the deck, but no way, Jose. No wonder the mealy-mouthed and arrogant press are likening May to her sole female predecessor. Safe in whose hands?
It’s only in the very recent past that those in power have not been able to declare with certainty that their colleagues are among that happy band dubbed ‘one of us.’ No longer plucked solely from their traditional demographic base, their very expressions have been influenced by the boardroom and the public relations industry. Such changes have paved the way for the power vacuum we’re currently experiencing at all levels of government from local to international. And you know what they say about nature and vacuums. Is this really a paradigm for leadership?
The ubiquitous power structure of the corporate world now dominates our perceptions in similar ways. As readers of outRageous! know, the political and cultural landscape of the UK shares with America its business vista. Long locked behind closed doors, the system – guided by the agenda of vested interest lobbyists – has gradually come to the attention of the electorate and the consumer… including the bombshell that they are the same person. Well, duh!
Successive governments of both centre-left and centre-right [for only they are deemed electable] have followed not just advice from Big Biz, but adopted their agendas. One of the most dangerous of these is the inviolability in the blatant commission of illegal acts which devastate people’s lives. Their vocabulary serves primarily to confuse. 1984 to the max. This New-speak is illustrated by fomenting hate and false-debate to polarise variations of the truth about any subject on social media… a tactic most effectively aimed at the younger generation. What Big Biz has thoroughly understood since the advent of advertising, is that the truth is a commodity. The brand of leadership supporting this sector of society is about doing the deal. Winning at all costs.
They, more than any other sector, have defined the world of post-truth. Then they’ve gone to great pains to show such a state doesn’t exist. It’s not so much that they lie – though they do – but that they’ve understood how to divert attention away from their tyranny and to produce soothing words to justify their treachery. We need only turn our telescopes across the Atlantic to see the results of such plausibility. But, hey guys, ain’t that the voice of the people? A corrupt and uber-rich leader with an expertise in deal-making – speaking with the voice of the dissatisfied masses? Yeah, right!
So the web of corporate domination has been woven around the very populist prey which put it in power. And according to figures released by The Hill, a Washington DC political paper published by News Communications, the combined wealth of 43 million American households is less than the annual earnings of Trump’s first 17 choices for his Cabinet.
Fourth of this litany, the supposed good-guys of the left – union leaders. Despite the obvious beams of light brought into the dingy lives of increasingly exploited workers, the historical record is not good. Just as with the other examples of leadership abuse, unions have been plagued by social injustice – the very thing they’re meant to challenge.
Selling out trusting members with backroom deals, political advancement, and various perks – this is not leadership.
I’ve often contended that the only way to rise above such unscrupulous examples of misogyny and ethnic prejudice, as well as vested interests, is to declare upfront that the very concept of workers is the main bar to a true democracy. Politicos bleat about hard-working people as though it were a step toward sainthood. But it’s actually code for how to justify cutting tax-funded budgets, disqualify categories of people from the benefits which are their due, and above all to guarantee social and military fodder to meet the requirements of the rich.
It is this pillar of capitalism which allows the chaos of leadership to take root and flourish. Think about it: the system can only exist if the hierarchy places workers on the bottom of the heap. Union bosses are well aware that alternate structures are available. The most obvious is worker ownership. Management is a myth. The entire management phenomenon only serves to divide and conquer. No wonder The People are in despair and grabbing at anything that sounds like a proper solution.
What makes Escher’s birds so significant in this context is the very nature of leadership itself. The tessellation makes it impossible to identify any specific bird as the leader either of the blue flock or the white. Given his early studies of the natural world, it’s entirely possible that Escher, contrary to popular opinion, was aware flocks of birds don’t actually have leaders. In flight, one bird seems to take the lead, but that’s only for a while. That bird falls back when it tires, allowing another to take its place. In that way the burden of negotiating upwinds and obstacles is shared for the good of all.
Actually, when you consider the gorgeous balletic murmuration of starlings at twilight, or the precisely coordinated twists and turns of a school of fish evading a predator, the concept of leadership is no solution at all. As metaphors for social construct, nature’s examples are pretty neat!
I believe the babblings we hear on chat shows, political analysis programs, down the pub, on social media, in union meetings, vox pops, editorials, classrooms, boardrooms – all are symptomatic of a feeling of impotence combined with a desire to devolve personal responsibility to someone else. Anyone else. Just leave me out of it, gov!
Prattling on about democracy without a commitment to participate in a direct way can only result in tyranny and fascism. Populism has become the current mantra, the debating point around the resistence to the sense of socio-economic impotence. Power is the prize.
Absolute power the legacy.
I’m certainly not the first to notice that the current Powerbrokers are still using political and cultural tools of centuries past. That’s one of the biggest reasons why ‘the people’ have a growing sense that those in power and those seeking power just don’t get it. This doesn’t happen overnight. These waves have been lapping further and further up the beach, and now we’re being carried out with the tide to depths we can’t navigate.
What’s quite horrific is that those leaders we believed would guide us to safety – whatever your definition of that is – are equally at sea. Look, they’re waving at us – what a friendly bunch. But, as the poet Stevie Smith realised – Not waving, but drowning.
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This post was written by outRageous!