Sarcastically, I’m In Charge
February 27, 2020
Modern electoral politics in western liberal democracies often take the shape of a bourgeois elementary school play. As is frequently the case in those events, the occurrences on stage generally are lent meaning by the degree of investment in its success that interested parties have. Not only does this ensure that the performances themselves are never judged objectively for their content or efficacy, but also the extent to which they abide by expectations of ‘the stage’.
This tendency becomes luridly clear in the case of the American Democratic Party Primary process. Because of the interaction between liberal politics, social mores and the media’s depiction of events, the performative nature of ideology and political process becomes very apparent.
The characters in this situation can be roughly divided into four parties: the teachers, the students, the parents and the extended family members. These parties each behave according to a loosely definable set of movements within their own groups, and in their interactions with other parties. It is these internal and external patterns of movements, defined on a larger scale of magnitude by the generative and coercive nature of power in social and economic relations, that have created the Spectacle that we see today.
This essay will seek, through an elaboration of the Elementary School Play metaphor, to establish a structural understanding of the nature of liberal electoral politics.
Sames and Opposites, My Friend
In order to explicate the current status of political choice-mechanisms, it is first necessary to establish a thematic grounding on the nature of social conceptions of Politicians. One important illustration is pertinent here:
Thinkers have for some time established that human beings are both socially tendentious and cognitively lazy. Much has been made in recent years of the advertising and culture industries’ ability to successfully weaponise these traits for financial gain. What is being posited here however is something somewhat deeper than simple manipulation. Politics, whilst existing as a form of gestated cultural formalism, possesses at its foundations a more profound structure of human thought, duality.
Duality as a conceptual framework primarily seems to exist in politics as a means of narrativisation. That is to say that it possesses a historical character, it defines, moralises and then proposes fields of view toward the participant, much as an art dealer does when selling a dubiously attributed painting. Duality could be argued to be the pre-eminent political narrative, at least in terms of the fact that it is the foundational dialectic upon which the whole house of ideology is built. These competing dualities are drawn, naturally, from fashions and habits, but quite crucially, reach their most unreal expression (in terms of separation for observable truth) in the form of political leaders.
In the United States, myth and narrative have a pre-eminent position in its own self-awareness as a state and, as disseminated through educational and cultural institutions, amongst its population. The cowboy, the gold miner, the hollywood star, the gambler and the trucker are all archetypal figures, who, like tarot cards, act as self-fulfilling prophecies. Coercion, and then variation is ensured underneath this umbrella of ‘national character’ and much hard working talent is brought to the institutions which prop up imperial power.
In the modern history of the United States, no duality seems to be more effectively acted out politically, and completely unreal, than that of the North and South. As trite cliches often remind us, history has a peculiar tendency to say it had cards it did not, a position obvious in the treatment and internalisation of the American Civil War. Its brutal content and horrific battleground both real and moral will not be discussed here. What is necessary to take from the Civil War is only its symbolic result. The triumph of good over evil, the victory of proto-industrial capital over agrarian feudalism and the ascendancy of egalitarian liberal-christian morals over pseudo-fascist authoritarianism. These dichotomies, beautifully polarised and well packaged into a Whig conception of progress; form, to this day, a very effective heuristic with which to view American political conflict.
As is clear to anyone possessing Common Sense, the reality of these distinctions is unsatisfactory. Not only do most of them possess the characteristics of their opposites, often times they are Jekyll and Hyde esque mirrors of them.
However, this fact has done nothing to alter the advance of North and South into the American Political Landscape. The horrifying totality of that war, the unintended consequences it brought about and the various currents it dammed or set free continue, unsurprisingly perhaps, to dominate the discourse today. The inaccuracy of man’s characterisation of themselves and historical events is alluring. If the past has taught us anything, it is that we often find the truth very boring.
It is, therefore, under this magnificent canopy, sheltered from the elements, that political battle lines are drawn, North v South, Democratic v Republican, Angry v Scared. Convenient, attractive, comprehensible and entertaining, they present themselves as possible to be enforced or reformed, or at the very least familiar enough to be an acceptable way to spend some time participating in.
Very often the poetics of real life leap out fully defined. In the case of institutions, which must necessarily be hierarchical (and therefore role dependent), quotidian and concentrated, criticism can quite easily be engaged in. One need not spend a long time in school to realise how unjust it is.
Institutions must have prison guards, and never have a more complex group of prison guards existed than teachers. They possess their own taxonomy and are deeply segregated according to their material conditions. Teachers replace parents, in a rather unequal swap, and given the illegitimacy (in a natural sense) of the authority they are delegated, they must necessarily wield it totally and frequently; hence the horrors of curriculum and timetable. Where in the early decades of modernity you could make the argument that curriculum existed as a transparent way to indoctrinate certain demographic groups with specific fields of knowledge, today curriculum and timetable, the two linchpins of educational conduct, exist as simple means of subjugation and programming.
As the strength of social conventions become necessarily diluted by the engorged nation state in the 21st century, schools have been given more and more power over the destinies of citizens. It is remarkable to see how the same is the case in electoral politics. The teachers in our metaphor are the staffers of the Democratic Party, and her subordinate state-level organisations, or those members of the branches of state that ensure the day to day application of the constitution.
In an elementary school play, the teachers are the organisers: with military precision they plot out the calendar year, whose dates become immovable lighthouses through the murky mists of time. They establish committees, whose members release diktats concerning the appropriateness of subject material, and the necessity for good conduct. These activities are essential to the outward and internal movement of the people needed to institute events.
Within this cohort there exists an internal hierarchy: there are those with executive control over the organisation – the headteachers and the board of governors – who set the rules and dictate the dynamics of the play. The Democratic National Committee and its donor class are a perfect substitution here. The more obscure and complex the selection process set out by the headteachers, the less blame can be attributed to them in the case of failure either by the students, or other lower class of teacher. This seems mainly to be the case because most liberal educated people have made the collective decision that complexity in rules and procedures are indisputable signs of their justifiability. A desperate attempt to wrest control from an obviously disordered world.
Many are the battles fought between these teachers, as they seek to gain power for themselves, by doing the ‘costumes’ one year, or the other year organising ‘outreach’. Desperate to move up within the internal hierarchy of the system, dreaming of being beholden to a higher power, to be proximate to significance – why else would one suffer these indignities? Now it must be said, not all the teachers have been captured. Within some still beats the heart of innocence and good faith: that with collaboration and probity, the right thing can happen. But they are always drowned out, matters of scale are too inevitable to escape, and without critical mass they paddle with weights around their necks.
So the teachers don’t do anything too crazy. It is easier just to do what people did last year, as it tends to go down well with everyone involved, and the consistency is calming to participants on the stage. The periodic arrival of a radical drama teacher, who wishes to shake up the traditions of the school, is generally met with bemused detachment, followed by patronising understanding and finally by rejection and dismissal. The immune response of the system tends to have a delay to it, defined by the inability to process dynamic information quickly and a tendency toward arrogance, compounded by the obligations toward social pleasantries.
The more revealing picture of this class is made visible on opening night. To us, the audience of extended family members (more on this later), the performance will appear as a product of the labour of the organisers, just as much as it will of the behaviour of the performers. By their words we shall know them. In this case the earnest statements of good intentions about the event, pride about their involvement in the success of it (assumed before it even takes place) and confidence about the totally perfect comportment of the people on stage. The fact that the entire project is very far from perfect, and the behaviour of most of the teachers is visibly incompetent, is apparently unimportant.
Among the tendencies of modern architecture, one particularly insidious and utilitarian one is façadism. Some traditional building front is kept, of a church or factory, held up by trusses, while behind it the building is gutted and replaced with a mixed use residential and commercial property development; praised by whatever local cultural heritage organisation as a wonderful example of successful conservation.
Here everyone crows with delight about the insidious compromise, which gives the centres of European towns an absurdly cartoonish feel: as if a fully formed office supply company might be lurking behind whatever neoclassic columnar arrangement one comes across. The most important people however, as is always stressed, who benefit from this situation, are the residents. The residents must be the vessels of this successful project of ‘regeneration’. It is they that are first cause for its existence, so the narrative goes. It is the same for the school play. There would be no school play without the students – they are the real stars!
So it is that the students have a real sense of responsibility, it does not matter that the teachers choose who will get to go up on stage and say the most stuff; they spend a lot of time (in collaboration with the parents) telling the students that the 7th Lobster is just as important a character as St Joseph. It also does not matter that the content of what they get to say is decided by the teachers (under pressure for the parents), or that they will either get this chance, or one more next time, to get on that stage and thrill the audience. Many of them are doing it because it is what you are supposed to do.
The remarkable consistency in terms of the quality of performance year on year is a testament to the success of the teachers and students roleplaying. The power of institutions is a fantastic thing to witness in real time, as the same phrases are repeated, in the same cadence, annually, even when it is supposed to be a different play. Through this phenomenon, which has not gone unobserved by critics of liberalism from the left or the right, the performance possesses an entirely different focus. It no longer becomes about the content, but about the character of those performing it. The concept of ‘personal value’, so brilliantly meaningless that it becomes the only acceptable means of judgement.
Through this sleight of hand the moral indignity of discriminatory thinking is brushed away and replaced with a system of valorisation, where performances are judged according to their adherence to some combo-meal of general presentability and pleasant demeanour. The students of course, being good kids, jump at the opportunity to portray themselves in this manner, since it is, by the by, significantly easier than coming up with a suite of coherent policy proposals, or memorising your lines properly.
The students are keen, having heard stories about the play from older kids, about how fun it is, the attention you get, and the general sense of excitement and achievement that pervades the whole experience, to get involved. Involvement in this sense pertains primarily to the swollen character of modern political discourse – it concerns itself with everything at the expense of any detailed observation. It gives itself impossible tasks to perform so that it may receive no criticism for its failure and it preaches inclusivity, while excluding people in mass schemes of atomisation. The elementary school play serves us well here: the kids who stand in the back chanting and picking their noses during big dance numbers genuinely believe themselves to be an essential and contributing part of the entire performance, without whom the play would be a failure. Here the conspiracy of mediocrity to power becomes even more apparent.
Now to the play itself. Like most plays, its appeal lies mainly in a certain perspective that is taken toward the players. This must be enforced by them in order to maintain the attention of the audience. The players take them through the narrative, along the way elucidating points about the nature of the universe, or human existence, or making them laugh at the absurdity or cry at the tragedy of their situation. That the audience enjoys the separation between them and the stage is proven enough by the total failure of avant-garde ‘real-theatre’ to capture even the passing attention of the general public.
In elementary school plays however, unlike Shakespearean Drama, the audience is not expecting profound revelation, nor even scintillating performances. What they are expecting is a collaborative effort, in which the work of the adults props up that of the students, who together make a recognisably passable performance of a familiar narrative; after which congratulations and plaudits can be distributed through the food pyramid of the adults. Some might find this unbelievable in the case of the Primary Process, where the general perception is that political power is distributed first to the politicians, and after that to the institutions. This is a fundamental mis-apprehension of the nature of political power in the USA. That there is an internally complex system of power-broking and back-biting, both through political funding and organisation, between the DNC and candidates, is a matter of fact. What is also a matter of fact is that the central committee selects favourites in advance of candidates announcements, that this favouritism is known, and that it is the direct determinant, barring some exceptions, of the campaign’s success.
Here the school play returns: the lead characters are given to the performers on the basis of previous webs of social and economic relations. The part of Mary is given to the daughter of the parent who organises the soup kitchen, that of Jesus to the kid with the highest chance of making it into a competitive private school. This necessitates that the performance itself, once it arrives, is a embarrassing collection of incompetent deliveries of barely memorised platitudes, whose meaningless content is devoured delightedly by the assembled parents, who, after all, have given so much to this project.
The Provider For All
Public intellectuals, such as they are, are regularly wheeled out to debates on mundane subjects for retired college educated people all over the western world. These events are often structured as competitions for the ‘best of’ something: tv show, film franchise, composer, architect and so on. If there were to be one of the most impactful inventions of the 20th century, it would be, without question, the television.
Many are the histories of televisual entertainment, and her most evil child, network news. What matters for us is that the news channels are there, and they are turned to when important events happen. That remains the case for a large number of people. The broadcast is paramount, the coverage is total. They are involved in every conceivable aspect, providing opinion and context and telling the story. They truly are the parents, fussing over us when we are late, telling us to dress up warm when we are cold, making sure we are eating right and telling us off when we say bad words.
Their interaction with the teachers is a fascinatingly parasitic one. Neither can succeed without the other, as teachers need the parents to prep the students when they go home each day and the parents need the teachers to provide an official, alternative source of authority. They truly do deserve each other. The parents are parochial, they moralise as often as they ignore, and are paranoid just as much as they are recklessly unconcerned. The model representatives of social climbers, scolds, hypochondriacs, domineering women and overconfident men, they lord it over the students and extended family members with custodial glee. They constantly tell each other, and anyone else that will listen, just how important they are, and that without them, the whole edifice of civil society would collapse in an ashen heap. They offer examples, always taken out of context and engage of sophistry willingly and often, waxing lyrical about their achievements in the face of adversity (like standing in the rain, or waiting for a while for someone to answer a question).
Like the best drunken parents, the entire objective of this project is their own edification. The classic formula is that of the pageant mother, who forces her children into hideous outfits and makeup in some ritual of vicarious libido sustain. Or the spectre of the involved parent, who couches their obsessive controlling desire and desperation for social credit, in a false, duty bound, necessity to better the material existence of their child. It is all very sickening and predictable how these dynamics manifest themselves in the elementary school play. As always, the content is immaterial yet somehow possesses great value.
Saying nothing but meaning everything is a common criticism. The burgeoning field of the domestic into public life is felt very keenly in electoral politics. As social alienation becomes more and more pronounced, and micro-particles of association are hyper-valued, the liberal political parent is the ultimate expression of trite, neo-buddhist universalism. The great irony being that it applies to increasingly shrinking regiment. The constant appeal to civility and good conscience, which dominates the press in the US is transparently opposed to any genuine attempt at solidarity. No candidate who actually proposes a broad coalition, or one that has even addressed the existence of the play is treated with anything other than contempt. Much like the cool cousin who says that there’s more to life than meets the eye, the parents have a profound fear of genuine popularity, as it is something that is earned, rather than constructed.
The Pond Life
What is left for us to do then, the unwashed masses, the extended family? We are dragged to the play whether we like it or not, goaded by the parents with lines about commitment and responsibility, and how this whole project is really being done for our benefit anyway. We grin and take it, sit in the back bored and depressed, sometimes angry (although that tends to fade the more of these things we go to), and think about other stuff like what to have for dinner, or whether we paid the gas bill on time.
We are coerced to go, since that is how social enforcement goes these days. Our lack of attendance is a sign of weakness at the least and betrayal at the worst. We are scolded and cajoled, we begin to feel like children ourselves. Everywhere are the leering grins and frozen masks of the genuine.
The play sucks, it always does and we know it will. Maybe we feel some sense of pity toward the students, that they are just doing their jobs, and at least someone is keeping the tradition going. But then we see that for what it is, a consolation prize for ourselves, and that, in fact, most of the students are just as deluded as the parents and teachers. The important roles are performed with real gusto by those chosen few who, you can see in their eyes, are starting to get quite used to being praised for their mediocrity. They are enjoying themselves a bit too much for something that doesn’t really mean a great deal.
Because ultimately this is the salient point: this play will go on year after year, and it is not the fulcrum of any transcendental experience. Our lives will not change because of this play. Maybe it could have done many years ago, when the parents, teachers and students were genuinely united in the practice of some well-defined economic and social purpose. But not now, because true power, the power to change, lies no longer with these actors, it lies elsewhere: in offices, in military bases, in rice and oil fields and down the mines. Maybe, it lies across thousands of miles of desert and water in corridors where different languages are spoken.
If you really want to see a decent and entertaining play, there is Spectacle in the high school drama society production of a classic – like Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat, or Alice in Wonderland. The stakes are higher, the performances marginally more polished, and the general population a little more involved. But we are still told that we should come to these elementary school plays, that they are important, that they have value. Some of us still trudge along to them, even though there are a million other things we could be doing, like watching Bridge Over the River Kwai, or any other film for that matter.