Illusion of Leadership and Democratic Impotence

Jeremy Seabrook has a very pessimistic but, I think, powerful column in the Guardian in light of Barack Obama’s world tour. It centers on Obama but has wider implications for the way we consider political leadership in the global context. For those of us who regularly read Seabrook, it is a well know fact that he is vehemently opposed to corporate globalization (he writes for the New Internationalist as well) and is a subscriber to the Habermasian school of Crisis of Legitimacy in the political sphere. This column is no departure from this.

His starting point here is the focus on personality politics:

"Why such obsessive concern with the "leaders" of the world, when these have never been of such indifferent quality, and their capacity to lead seriously undermined by globalisation? Is it because of their diminished power and lowered status that debate concentrates on character and idiosyncrasies, personal qualities, their charisma, or lack of it?

The contrast between aspirant Barack Obama and falling star Gordon Brown illustrates the point. So mediocre has the quality of leadership in the world been over the past two decades that Obama is hailed as a deliverer; a role he clearly does not repudiate.

The crowds that turned out for a self-consciously historic occasion in Berlin demonstrate both the hollowness of contemporary leadership and the yearning – never entirely banished – for someone to show us the way, to inspire and to move us.(…)

It may well fall to him to restore the "image" of the United States, especially among the poor, non-white majority of the world – an eloquent comment on the disreputable shabbiness of the Bush years. But it would be folly to imagine he will do anything that runs counter to US interests. The most we can expect is some skillful choreography, a"performance" to reconcile the peoples of the world with American supremacy once more."

Obama and Brown are not alone in that category: the focus on French President Sarkozy and his model / (lousy) pop singer wife, his oh-so visible divorce from his previous wife and their media shenanigans when they were still married, the focus on Silvio Berlusconi’s extravagances, etc. For Seabrook, these people are simply no longer perceived as representatives (or would-be representatives) but rather as flamboyant individuals with a good narrative. We are just their audience to their performance.

"People of meagre talent and modest imagination now pose as "world leaders", guides and instructors of an imaginary, shifting "international community"."

What is the imaginary in question and what do they pose for? What is the performance for? Well, like a lot of good performances, the point is not so much what you see that what you don’t see:

"Preoccupation with individuals, of course, deflects attention from the powerlessness of the people, the voiding of democracy, even in places where the most highly sophisticated "electoral process" prevails. Leaders are keen to display their control over events over which they have waning influence, an influence they have willingly ceded to the stark urgencies of globalism. (…)

The fascination with leaders is an alibi for democratic impotence. The tendency of people to disengage from electoral politics is not evidence of a terrible apathy, but is a perfectly understandable refusal to play their walk-on part in the farce of popular sovereignty. Whoever voted for globalisation? Where is the majority in favour of concentrations of wealth and power in a handful of individuals who control more wealth than the GDP of whole countries?"

Of course we already know that no significant alteration in the global arrangements will be made by leaders of the G8 countries. These elected leaders are part of the political branch of the Transnational Capitalist Class. As such, their job is to provide the necessary state support to the global capitalist system. As such, "leaders" are actually more "managers" of the global system they do not control(I need to post on the spread of management theory and practices to all spheres of social life at some point!).

The point of management is to keep us rubes quiet and relatively happy, and sometimes, inspired, anything but to let us question the workings of the system and push for more social and economic justice. So, they’ll agree to put a few patches here and there in terms of social policies but nothing radical, like universal health care in the United States. And if the political opposition is in sufficient disarray, as in France, then, it is a mandate to take down entire chunks of the welfare system or to make it more punitive (if you’re unemployed, you have to accept ANY job the unemployment agency finds for you or lose your benefits).

"It is the ignoble shabbiness of their role that has created a highfalutin language of "governance", "high office", "senior politicians", "veteran leaders", "statesmen and women"; as well as the global babble about "transparency", "accountability" and of course, the "empowerment" and "participation" of the people. The grandiose words are merely decorative. No one should be under any illusion about the emancipatory potential of Barack Obama, and nor should we be quite so vengeful over the shambling figure of Gordon Brown who strings together cliches much as our grandmothers knitted kettle-holders. Their destiny is to strut and fret their hour upon the stage, to exit and not mess with the decor."

Depressing but plain for all to see if one is paying attention.