Politics has become something of a career move for a self-manufactured professional class. There aren’t a lot of plumbers or factory hands in politics. For the elites who see politics as a good career move the question remains: What is it about politics that attracts them? When one looks at the premiers of our various states, none of them appear to be paragons of sanity. In truth, they all seem like very disturbing people – chronic liars, keen to schmooze with the rich and powerful, not really very bright, largely incompetent, narcissistic, hyper-sensitive to criticism and, generally, control freaks to boot. It seems really clear to me that many politicians are dangerously ill.
A number of years back I heard a couple of interviews on Radio National. One was with the late Don Chipp, the former leader of the unlamented Australian Democrats. The other was with a psychologist who had had many politicians as clients. Chipp said he believed that virtually all the politicians he knew were motivated by altruism. The shrink said that every politician he had worked with was convinced that it was their destiny to be prime minister.
There’s something in that I think. I doubt if many of the middle managers at News Corp – as deranged and ruthless as they may be, however grandiose their desires – fantasise about toppling Rupert from his perch. But perhaps every politician has one secret goal, one vivid fantasy of paranoid omnipotence: that they are destined to be PM.
The last children’s centre I worked in was on a university campus, managed by the student union. Twice in three years we were contacted by the union and asked to allow successive Labor Party leaders in for a photo opportunity. We refused each time, leading to explosions of impotent fury from the union and, in one case, numerous phone calls from the local federal member’s office and a visit from a Vice-Chancellor, senior academic and security guard. We told the VC we’d be happy to talk to Kev about his policies on children as long as he left the cameras and the minders outside.
The Vice-Chancellor, barely keeping his rage in check (and perhaps conscious that a headline that read ‘Rudd forces his way into children’s centre’ would neither make him popular or Rudd happy) referred wheedlingly to Kevin Rudd as ‘Kevin’, as though they were buddies who had palled around at student parties. And it was this completely unnecessary act that gives another clue as to why someone would want to aspire to political office.
The gaining of political office is not just a matter of submitting oneself to the people for their opinion. There’s a ruthless process of party pre-selection that has to be engaged with, and of course the agreement to submit to party policies no matter how stupid, venal and destructive they might be.
This is not to say that having a competent local state or federal member is impossible. In my local rural electorate the federal member (ALP) is well-liked, hardworking and, I think, genuinely advocates as honestly as possible for her constituents. But I can’t help wondering why she bothers sticking with Labor at all. My guess is that people would love it if she ran as an independent, where she wouldn’t be saddled with Gillard and Rudd’s duplicitous baggage or have to be continually distancing herself from Labor’s weird and punitive policies. Perhaps there’s either a hope for something or a fear of something at work in her clinging to a party so rapidly moving further and further to the right.
Anyway, there was something in the nature of the Vice-Chancellor’s modest smile whenever he referred to Rudd by his first name that really gave me a visceral experience of what it must be like to continually work toward the gaining of power and influence.
These days, the ruthless drive for sovereign power has been partially dignified under the name of ‘networking’. It’s as if a criminal suburb previously home to the local Mafia scumbags has been gentrified, or as though the Kray brothers had become urbane talk show guests. London City University’s business school has a visiting Professor of Networking. What’s really weird is that she’s the daughter of the Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm. ‘We are all islands,’ says Julia Hobsbawm, ‘surrounded by oceans of information and oceans of possibilities and entire oceans of people we might need.’
Or we might say, we are all isolated subjects of the neoliberal enterprise drowning in a sea of narcissistic destruction, and the one most skilled in Shakespearean techniques of assassination, flattery and deceit will prosper.
The example par excellence of networking is Rebekah Brooks’ text to David Cameron on 7 October 2009, on the eve of his Tory conference speech. Here’s what Rebekah said to Dave:
But seriously I do understand the issue with the Times. Let’s discuss over country supper soon. On the party it was because I had asked a number of NI [News International] people to Manchester post endorsement and they were disappointed not to see you. But as always Sam was wonderful (and I thought it was OE’s [Old Etonians] were charm personfied!) I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam.
There’s so much subtext to the text it would take a PhD thesis to get to the bottom of it. I think if I started to deconstruct it all for you I’d make myself ill. It drips contempt. Whether it’s the weird flirting, the order to attend the ‘country supper’, the injunction not to stand her up again, the revolting and sinister flattery, the reminder that it is News Corp that Dave is dicking around with, the fury at having been fobbed off with the contemptible Sam or the casual assumption of power over the UK’s next Prime Minister, Brooks text is networking at its finest.
Of course, the foundational premise of those who strive for political power is that one is nothing and can achieve nothing unless one is at the top of the decision-making heap, at the very pinnacle of sovereign power. It’s rather like a child wishing they were the mum or dad because then they’d be able to eat all the ice-cream they wanted, stay up late and be the boss of everyone. It’s perfectly acceptable for children to have these fantasies of fury and omnipotence. It’s something of a problem when political parties adopt them as power structures.
This is the way sovereign power sustains itself: by declaring it to be self-evident that this is how power and political action naturally work. What happens at the bottom, (that is, where everyone lives) is dictated by what is said at the top. It’s a delusional idea, always prone to outbreaks of proto-fascism and requiring more and more exercises of brute force to sustain itself. In other words the only way to remain sovereign is to become more and more sovereign. And to some extent the Left has subscribed to this. If we only had a prime minister who was of the Left, some of us think, things would be cool. Thinking like this gets the world cheering over the election of Barack Obama, a man whose psyche seems so damaged that his galactic sense of his own omnipotence and goodness is unscratchable.
To schmooze your way to the top for the purpose of influence doesn’t require competence. It requires a sociopathic mindset. The people who are most likely to be successful at climbing the pyramid are exactly those it is most dangerous to have there: those who seamlessly combine a staged impersonation of charm with a ruthless and callous mind.
And it’s always the case that the paranoid sociopaths in their quest for more and more control have contempt for anybody who doesn’t want the same. Weakness is despised, and must be crushed as they crush it in themselves. And so to be dependent on weak nobodies like us for their job every three or four years must be galling in the extreme. Lying to us is the best we deserve, contemptible insects that we are. Why can’t elections be stitched up somehow? Get me the spin doctors on the line now.
In western democracies we currently seem to be largely bedevilled by ruthless, charmless semi-sociopaths – sociopaths-in-training – who also happen to have the added happy quality of being amazingly incompetent. Cameron and Osbourne once thought it would be a great idea to sell all the trees in Britain. Now that Rio Tinto’s massive expansion of an open-cut coal mine got kicked out of the NSW Land and Environment Court, Premier Barry O’Farrell and his planning and environment ministers want to completely rewrite the law so the ‘economic significance’ of any mining project becomes the primary consideration of any environmental or planning approval. Even Alan Jones thinks this is a spectacularly dumb idea. Rudd, Gillard and Rudd have presided over a Labor Party whose mindboggling stupidity and casual cruelty will probably only be surpassed by an Abbott government.
Under Howard’s incumbency, sovereign power was predicated as a kind of paternal iron-fist. Dad is perfectly reasonable as long as you do exactly what he wants. Now. It was like being in a school where the most important value was to be white and wear a tie, and deviance wasn’t punished with the cane but by permanent poverty.
With Rudd and Gillard we found ourselves subject to a weird dysfunctional family – as though Howard had given birth to scary fraternal twins squabbling over dad’s inheritance while being unable to divest themselves of his punitive psychology of contempt with its special focus on women, children and the Indigenous.
Under Abbott we can expect a bizarre variation on this – an explosion of thuggish, racist, misogynist, baboonery that hasn’t been seen since the days of Alf Garnett. It’ll be like watching a holdup by a bunch of depraved and witless henchmen hired by a clown under orders from gangsters.
Speaking truthfully under Howard could get you spied on. Speaking truthfully under Abbott will probably get you worked over by idiots. And spied on. The only fun will be watching Abbott’s thugs turning on each other as the months pass, like Roald Dahl’s thick but bloodthirsty giants who can’t see who is hitting who in the dark.
Of course, wondering like this about the scary power freaks currently wrestling over the opportunity to be the ones to smugly punish the poor and gloatingly sell us out to transnationals leaves one wondering where political autonomy lies. As the anarchist Federico Campagna pointed out last month (in a rather odd video at The Guardian that seemed to hint without irony at anarchist celebrity chefs): we might need to think about ‘interstitial spaces that work within and against the state’. He’s probably right, and playing this out in our own lives – that is, actively seeking collegiate, ethically self-interrogatory and politically disruptive places – can be a priority that anyone can engage in, and has the responsibility to. Pretending that the current political system can be fixed is probably bonkers. It’s weighted toward ownership by the rich and the psychologically damaged, who have no more interest in politics and how people actually live than I have in flying to the moon on a chicken.
If we think back on the political acts of cruelty, sadism and thuggery that have characterised the past couple of decades of Australian life, we’re not looking at acts perpetuated by people who just have odd political views or are ideologically driven. The NT Intervention, the cutting of benefits to sole parents, the talk of boot camps for unemployed teenagers, the imprisoning of asylum seekers in prison camps, and so on and so on are articulated by people who are dangerously disturbed, within structures of power that valorise their cruelty and abusive behaviour and mandate it as a structure that we all must inevitably bow down to.