The film 1984 released that year is generally faithful to the narrative content of Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The approach is less didactic and obvious than the book. Imaginatively directed, the film enables the actors to give of their best. There is one significant omission of narrative. The book depicts people reading what they think is subversive literature actually produced by the Ministry of Truth. That scene, had it been included in the film, would have looked uncomfortably close to the current reality of corporate media. In that respect Orwell was chillingly prophetic.
Another, slightly earlier, film adaptation, Being There, gave Peter Sellers one of his finest performances. It was his swansong. In a rare and welcome serious role he plays an innocent simpleton whose banalities are mistaken for profound words of wisdom. In the final shot powerful men consider who might be the next president. They turn to the idiot sav
A later film Bob Roberts portrays a banjo-playing buffoon running for president. He is outrageously reactionary and hopelessly out of his depth. Tim Robbins, as actor and director, created a very funny film that wouldn’t be funny now. To see it now would be an embarrassment.
Events soon caught up with Bob Roberts.
What was amusing but unlikely in 1992 soon became amusing but fairly credible, and then all too real to be funny.
True, both Brecht and Chaplin simultaneously hit on the idea of portraying Hitler as a clown even as he was reaching the zenith of his manic enterprise. The aim was to diminish their target. They recognized the theatrical element in the Nazi identity. The insignia and parades, the dramatic lighting and sinister uniforms were of a piece with their leader’s demonic style, a conscious parody of dictatorship played not to entertain but to manipulate.
The difference is that the Third Reich did not pretend to be a liberal democracy.
Having gained power by manipulating democratic norms, it swiftly abolished them. What we are seeing now is the subversion of democratic norms from within.
It is no less stage-managed in its use of outrage and parody. Invective and satire are not only ineffective: they inadvertently bolster what they aim to undermine. Right-wing populism thrives on its sense of victimhood. ‘They are not mocking me,’ the populist leader says, ‘They are mocking you, the ordinary people whom they despise and try to ignore. But we are the people, not they.’
The strategy is to gain power, then to retain the outward form of constitutional democracy while undermining the inner reality. ‘With malice toward none.’ was Lincoln’s watchword. It takes a noble soul to live up to those words, and too frequently we see how easily we all fail to live up to Lincoln. Abandoning the democratic norms, however, would not be more honest. It would be a surrender of faith in the civilised development of society. We have to feel we can do better next time.
We still have slavery in this wicked world, but every country outlaws it. That is progress of a kind. To abandon those laws would be unthinkable. No-one so far has suggested such a thing, but the retreat from sympathy and generosity is evident. There may not be chain gangs in shackles. There may not be death camps. What we are seeing instead is a recourse to raw and vociferous emotional responses presented as the popular will.
Liberal democracy is not in practice a perfect structure. The contradictions are readily attested by long histories of slavery and empire, poverty and war.
Self-evident truths are proclaimed in rhetoric and denied in process. It is for some a source of strength that it is imperfect. For others the failure of ideals is a weakness. The radical alternative is not a collectivist bureaucracy masquerading as socialism but a socially responsible polity with new styles of moral architecture and a cultural change of heart.
One thing we can agree on is that the new populism is not acceptable. All concerned and/or educated responses concur on this. A knowledge of history and a modicum of moral intelligence indicate very strongly that a willed violation of civilised norms leads to very dark places. The limits of permission have been reached. We are not at liberty to disregard humane ideals even if we find them cumbersome and difficult.
The retort of populism is that a self-serving elite proclaims in principle what it denies in practice. The hypocrisy is there to perpetuate a corrupt power structure based on wealth, influence and connections. Knowing the right people and going to the right schools and/or universities are essential to success in society.
A sense of exclusion alienates the many. They do not see concerned liberal humanists.
They see privilege. They see arrogance issuing from that privilege. They presume there is access to wealth and influence denied to the many. The crowd at the gates feels ignored. In consequence it is angry and vengeful. An undeclared war rages.
The rage crosses frontiers and oceans. A tide of philistine and simplistic populism comes and goes. Each time it returns it is stronger. In a fractious world many have retreated into the known certainties of their communities. The wider network of society is too abstract and too problematic to understand. Society takes the blame when things go wrong, but is otherwise avoided. The agreed general feeling is for nation, a term evoking emotions of pride and strength in a common bond of loyalties to a shared heritage. It is the world as Downton Abbey.
A mythic past is evoked, which is why the style of many populists is retrograde. Some may adopt contemporary modes, but the usual code is to behave as if the Sixties had never happened. Behind that is the wishful thought that the Twentieth Century never happened. In global terms the return of the Romanov eagle and the Confederate flag both in their ways typify this attitude. The unthinkable is becoming the undeniable. Elected leaders now are saying what once was the preserve of street corner malcontents.
Nostalgia may be the lure, but within is something conceived in violent anger. It is a war against intellect and ideals, against altruism and empathy. The young are a particular target. You see those eager and sensitive but determined faces handing out leaflets to their indifferent elders. What lies behind that indifference and selfishness is the desire for childhood’s simplicities. Why make life difficult by asking complex questions? Why read words that require concentration? Why listen to music that demands an attentive response? Why bother being alive to the possibilities the world has to offer when you can grow old before your time and blame someone else for your disappointment?
All this would be no more than grumblings at the bus stop if it did not have a considered framework. The ascendancy of the free market and the decline of governing intervention has laid the foundations for that framework. The decline of oppositional thinking is also a factor. There is a quasi-liberalism that expresses concern but not commitment. It seeks to identify the divisions within society without offering any credible means of resolution. Populism has its own sense of community, a community where personal and social conscience are absent, and where no-one speaks of international peace and co-operation.
There is an administrative network to support this. It may be found in the new class of administrative and managerial facilitators sufficiently trained to undertake given tasks, but not educated enough to question the purposes of such tasks. It is an ambitious and self-serving corporatism that speaks the language of popular feeling, although the motive of populism is to seek personal advantage.
It is all about self.
Politically it seeks not to ‘take back control’ but to take control, to usurp the functions of governance. H.G. Wells spoke of ‘the inevitable rise of mediocrity’. All that has happened since his death [in 1946] would not surprise him. Ours is not the enlightened future that remains possible without being inevitable.
The democratic process begins with evidence-based enquiry and informed debate.
Matters are discussed, considered and amended before assent is given. It is a given of democracy that the debate is an open forum. At best it is guided by intelligent opinion. At worst it is fouled by prejudiced opinion. In the war between intelligent democracy and irrational populism the latter is gaining the upper hand. Torchlight processions and burning crosses are present only in the margins, but ignorance and fear engender atavistic reactions.
It is a war with all the makings of serious conflict. As the democratic norms are overtaken and undermined an informal democracy is the necessary alternative. Resistance has taken to the streets, and has been met with unwarranted violence. This might grow as battle lines become more entrenched and reason gives way to wild feeling. The problem is not going to fade away. It is not too late to prevent the worst that can happen, but the problem is real.
The democracies of the West could tear themselves apart. Liberal pieties are futile in a conflict zone. The intelligent areas of the mainstream media have a responsibility to ensure that debate and thought continue. That responsibility is radically necessary. Populism cannot be appeased. It has to be challenged. A balanced view, based on democratic norms, must conclude that militant populism is unacceptable and should not be voiced in the mainstream. The questioning needs to be tougher. The argument needs to be firmer.
The aim of populism is to remake the world as a life where nothing happens. All that matters is the immediate, the obvious and the material. You care only about yourself and the people you know. Society is an abstraction. Values are a distraction. There is no history worth knowing, and therefore no future worth imagining.
The lack of imagination engenders purely emotional responses without thought for the consequences. Those who follow populist leaders are not thinking where it might lead. They do not think ahead at all. ‘It will all come right in the end, I’m sure.’ There is no purpose beyond satisfying immediate impulses. Reacting to the moment in which they think they find themselves, populists have no plan for the future beyond a desperate return to a mythic past. In pursuit of this impossible end populism is ruthless. The aims are fuelled by raw emotions that deny the value of objective evidence and rational argument. ‘Never mind the evidence: we say you’re guilty.’
The end of this will be a confusion of competing interests. Such a world will be ruled by demented children. Will be? It already is.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall