Monday, July 26, 2010

'Populism' and the mob

Interesting to see that Will Hutton regards the BBC as a paternalist safeguard against 'mob rule', or rather against "populist government by the mob". He really takes seriously the idea that advertising-driven broadcasters merely give people what they want, and that to do so is dangerous. To give people what they ask for is to invite a debasement of public life, a degeneration of culture and - ironically - a degradation of democracy.

I don't much care for Hutton's Eurocentric liberalism, and no more do I like his oligarchic conception of 'democracy'. It's more than apparent that, like most of his cohorts in the liberal commentariat, he doesn't at all like democracy in the sense of popular rule. To blame corporate reaction of the kind vended by Fox et al on this specious notion of the "mob" is to buy into one of the most culturally pervasive, and pernicious, conceptions of popular rule.

Literal expressions of contempt for the masses tend to stick in the public throat. People don't like it. It works better as caricature and satire. In American pop culture, this is usually expressed in cartoon form. In The Simpsons, a constant mainstay is the hysterical, shrieking, irrational crowd, inflamed with murderous rage, galvanised by some moral panic or other. Pitchforks and flaming torches appear out of nowhere, looting begins spontaneously, anarchy in its basest form prevails. In South Park, they literally mutter "rabble, rabble, rabble" as they lead their charge, addressing hysterical demands to some political or corporate authority (who, however venal, comes across as a paragon of Enlightenment against the hateful mob).

In Futurama, the mob is, even more advantageously, a race of robots with hard-wired mechanisms. In one episode, 'Mom', the chief executive of 'Momcorp' that mass produces robots, has pre-programmed her product with a 'rebel' instruction. When she presses a button, they rise up and conquer earth, mimicking the lingua franca of protests and revolution while, as one character says, "making civilization collapse". The robots chant in binary: "Hey hey, ho ho, 100110...". A robot greetings card speaks in mutilated marxism to "comrade Bender", urging him to "take to the streets" and loot. (Later, as the "revolution" unfolds with the anti-human massacres and mayhem, and civilizational collapse, Bender is turned into a counter-revolutionary when he learns that "Liquor is the opiate of the human bourgeoisie ... In the glorious worker robot paradise, there will be no liquor. Only efficient synthetic fuels.") Thus, in what has to be considered the more critical, liberal end of mainstream American cultural production, the spectre of the "populist rule of the mob" is rendered as a chimerical mash-up of capitalist communism.

It's all the same. "Mom" is a Machiavellan power-maximiser, where in her guise as an arch-capitalist or a revolutionary demagogue. The masses are a stupid, baying insta-mob, incapable of rational, collective deliberation, whether they're spouting ignorant bigotry ("they took our jobs!") or snippets of de-sequentialised pseudo-marxist rhetoric. Populism in this sense is a political fable about the irrationality of crowds, and the impossibility of reasoned collective decision-making. That there are and have been mobs does not alter the fact that this cultural motif is a fabulation. It has nothing to do with the real historical processes in which murderous mobs - say, pogromists - have been galvanised. The 'mob' of popular culture is an Aunt Sally, and it is surely of some significance that this 'mob' is with few exceptions the only way in which masses appear as an agency in said culture. Contempt for the 'populist mob' really expresses hatred for democracy.