Andy Blunden July 2005

False Heroes and Villains

The Left is in a disgraceful position really. We have two very different enemies who should be at each other’s throats, but we have allowed them to join forces against us.

I refer to the alliance of social conservatives and neo-liberals. Everything the social conservative holds dear is being done away with by the neo-liberals, who are meanwhile promoting everything they abhor. Neo-liberalism is destroying the family, laying waste to the Church, undermining authority and decimating communities, while channelling commercialism, pornography, homosexuality and hedonism into our living rooms and even our children’s bedrooms. While eroding the country’s borders, driving people off the land and flooding the cities with foreigners, they have reduced people’s lives to meaninglessness, with consumerism and scepticism eclipsing religiosity, cynicism replacing loyalty and patriotism, and greed overshadowing honesty.

And yet, right-wing leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Crusade like John Howard can present themselves as champions of social conservatism while orchestrating the most devastating onslaught upon traditional forms of life that history has ever known.

How are we letting them get away with this?

Villains and False Heroes

Have you ever read a novel or seen a play or a movie in which there is more than one villain? Do you know of a fairy-tale, traditional legend or myth in which there is more than one villain? The Devil of course has his minions and hirelings, but no decent narrative has more than one villain. Imagine Superman fighting on two fronts, or Faust making a pact with two different Devils.

According to Vladimir Propp, the seven archetypal characters of any traditional fairy tale include, in addition to the villain, the false hero. The villain struggles with the hero and tries to thwart the hero’s efforts to achieve his goal, classically to wed the princess. The false hero, or usurper, claims to be the hero, often seeking and reacting like a real hero, for example by trying to marry the princess. The villain has to be defeated, the false-hero has to be exposed. The villain’s motivations are utterly evil and beyond redemption, the false-hero has character weaknesses, even vices, but is not self-evidently evil.

Iago, Richard III and maybe Hamlet’s uncle Claudius are among the few out-and-out villains in Shakespeare’s plays; most of his characters are complex personalities led into tragedy by their fallibility. Even Shakespeare’s heroes are never just heroes; Shakespeare builds his tragedies through the medium of such “false heroes” as Othello, Anthony and Brutus. But characters never “turn out” to be villains, or become villains, or are partly villains; a villain is a manifest evil, and the complexity of a well-written plot derives from how the characters deal with that.

The point is that the Left will only be understood if we can present our analysis in a coherent and convincing narrative, and the evidence from thousands of years of story-telling is that you can’t have two villains, but you can have a villain and a false hero.

The polemical stance involved in dealing with a subject as a false hero is quite different from dealing with a subject as a villain. So the Left needs to make a decision to either:

  1. attack Neo-liberalism as the real enemy and expose the social conservatives and fundamentalists as “false heroes,” or
  2. attack social conservatism as the real enemy and expose the neo-liberals as “false heroes.”

I see social conservatism as essentially a reaction to the erosion of traditional relationships by capitalism, and therefore it is neo-liberalism which is the real enemy. The extreme wings of social conservatism, Islamic and Christian Fundamentalism, claim to defend their respective forms of life against the impact of modernity, but each in their own way manifestly fail.

There is much in the social conservative agenda which is antithetical to the Left – homophobia, patriarchy, cultural apartheid, religious dogmatism and so on – but as I see it, in today’s conditions, the significant support which such old-world attitudes get does not originate from the few old men who directly benefit from them, but rather on the basis of defending a viable and meaningful way of life.

If on the other hand, we were in a situation where the destruction of an oppressive traditional institution was the principal historical task, then one could take the converse option: criticising neo-liberalism as a false-hero, perhaps for destroying the oppressive institutions, while reinstating the same power relations in a new form. But that is not where we are today.

The present conjuncture is characterised by the collapse of social cohesion; it is not generally the case that people are suffering because they are trapped within an oppressive system of social relations, but more generally because they are denied a place in any robust and extended system of social relations. The over-zealous assertion of traditional relations is therefore to be understood as reactionary in the literal sense of the word. It is an effort to withstand the neo-liberal onslaught. Success by the Left in overcoming the neo-liberal project would be unlikely to entrench socially dominant groups. It is more likely that it would be a neo-liberal triumph which would benefit the most privileged groups in a traditional society.

But those layers who are most disadvantaged by traditional relations are the very people who are being recruited to social conservatism and its fundamentalist troopers. Because it is they who face losing everything.

John Howard

How is Howard getting away with this?

The conservative side of politics has long relied on the aura of those “born to rule.” A business leader is a natural candidate for the CEO of Australia Incorporated, and no-one challenges the thesis that government means the management of the national business.

But since the final failure of macroeconomic policy in the Reagan-Thatcher era, the corporate mentality itself has been completely transformed. In the neo-liberal ethos, not only should government at all levels stay out of business, but so should business. Everything that isn’t “core business” is out-sourced, and ultimately like with Nike, even core business is outsourced; via one-line budgets, work teams, outsourcing and franchising, every relationship of collaboration is broken and replaced with a commercial relationship. Car builders no longer build cars, they just purchase and assemble components.

When this ethos penetrates government it has perverse effects. The “national business” provides a few residual services, but as a business it can have no place for the reproduction of human life. Just as capital consumes human life which is reproduced externally, when government is run along the same lines, then for example, like corporate profit, a budget surplus contributes to consumption of the social fabric. Neo-liberal governments become consumers of the community rather than its representative.

Howard presents himself as the archetypical socially conservative businessman. However, the socially conservative businessman was never in the past a neo-liberal. The old-style conservative business leader was accustomed to command, and his style of management was autocratic; when transferred to the sphere of government this meant that he favoured a strong civil service, meritocracy and paternalism.

Howard is an icon of this kind of social conservatism, but he is also a neo-liberal. But the social base for neo-liberalism is actually very small. This may be one of the reasons that the devastating impact of neo-liberalism on social cohesion is kept one of the best-kept secrets of social science. But have the words of the Communist Manifesto ever been more apt?

“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, ...”

It remains a public secret that Howard and his neo-liberal policies are responsible for destroying community and creating pessimism, fear and insecurity, lending credence to reactionary social policies and religious fundamentalism. And the Left is failing to break this silence.

The Right-wing Populist Narrative

The right-wing populist narrative which Howard and company rely on to keep the Left in its place follows the advice we have proposed, that is, of casting a villain and a false-hero. In foreign policy, Terrorists are the villains; those who jump up and down about the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations and telling the truth are false-heroes who are undermining the war effort. In domestic policy likewise. Child-molesters, dole-bludgers and lazy workers are the villains; the civil rights and welfare lobby are the false heroes. And so on.

This narrative works very well. It has succeeded in creating an amalgam of the hard-working people, including “battlers,” managers and businesspeople on one side, as opposed to an amalgam of an idle and privileged do-gooder elite including the entire social justice community, academics and bureaucrats. A remarkable manoeuvre!

It is much easier to run a polemic against a legitimate political opponent by painting them as an obstructor, a procrastinator, a dupe, a softy, etc., etc., than to paint them as a villain. Think of it from the third person point of view. If the listener is at all sympathetic to the target of your polemic, and you ascribe evil motives to them, then you have lost the listener. On the other hand, if you cast the target as well-meaning, but misguided or irresolute, the listener can be more receptive. It is no use ascribing evil to your listener; evil has to be located in an outsider.

The most successful alliance on the left has always been the intelligentsia and the organised working class. The neo-liberals have succeeded in breaking this alliance, weakening the organised working class and isolating the progressive intelligentsia, at the same time appointing themselves Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

An Alternative Left-Wing Narrative

The proposition is that our polemics need to be based on a polemic which goes something like this: by unrelenting commercialism, the economic rationalists are destroying Australian agriculture and industry, trashing the public education and health services, creating economic insecurity and inequality, undermining the family and community. The conservatives claim to be opposing these processes, upholding family values, calling for curfews on unruly youth, giving more powers to the police, and so on, but this is only treating the symptom not the disease, etc., etc.

This is a very different narrative from one which begins from the fact that both the socially repressive agenda and the socially destructive agenda emanate from the same prime ministerial office. But even though John Howard is only one person, he is representing two quite distinct social bases.

It is tempting to treat social conservatism and neo-liberalism as “twin evils,” if not as one and the same thing, but to engage in polemics which accept the identity of social conservatism and neo-liberalism, actually reinforces the amalgam of the two social bases, when the one thing we really need to do is to separate them and set them against one another.

We have to patiently explain to those who support social conservatives, exactly how neo-liberal policies are destroying family and community. Central to such an explanation I believe is the notion of commodification, or what may be better referred to as “commercialism.” Commercialism replaces an ethic of virtue and duty with the ethic of the market. It transforms the family into a contractual arrangement; learning becomes purchase of a certificate; private medicine sells “cures” for non-existent illnesses rather than keeping people well; food producers manufacture sweet-tasting poisons instead of food; culture is reduced to a feel-good vehicle for advertisements; a person’s worth is just whatever they have to sell; career means a big salary, corporate mumbo-jumbo, putting the kids in childcare and being able to purchase useless and expensive consumer goods.

In the context that the social issues where the Left disagrees with the Conseervatives we have largely already won, the argument we have with social conservatives and religious fundamentalists is the failure of their leaders and policies to resolve what we largely though not entirely agree are the real evils of modern society.

The argument we have with neo-liberals is that they are the cause of the problems in modern society.