notes from an unfinished project
... Corbyn is not a throwback to 1980s militant left wing, but a throwback even further in time - to the English Civil War of the 17th Century – He’s a Puritan – famous for his drab clothing, his frugality (he had the lowest expenses claim of any member of parliament, just 9 Euros in one year for a single printer ribbon) - he rides a bicycle, grows vegetables, he’s a vegetarian and doesn’t drink - like the original Puritans of the 17th Century he is also anti-royalist, a republican who refused to kneel to the Queen
More than a Puritan he is in temperament if not actual beliefs a Quaker - absolutely committed to pacificism.
Alongside their belief in plain dress and plain speech, their lack of interest in appearance and commitment to sincerity, one other thing about the Puritans is they hated the theatre, they regarded it as a corrupting influence, stirring up ungodly emotions and desires - acting itself was sinful because it involved pretending to be something you’re not - during Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary republic of the 1640s, the Puritans actually closed down the playhouses - theatre went underground, actors performed only in private houses
One defining thing about Jeremy Corbyn is his distaste for political theater – he has said that he would like to remove the theatricality from Parliamentary business – during one Prime Minister’s Question Time, which is usually a scripted spectacle of politicians making fun of each other, Corbyn said to Cameron “I invite the prime minister to leave the theatre and return to reality”
Now one of the striking things about Corbyn mania – and much the same applies to Bernie Sanders in the USA – is the huge cult following among young people for these old men who wholly lack charisma in the sense of looking good on television or being able to deliver inspiring oratory - there is a disdain for image, for presentational slickness. that is virtually heretical in this day and age – that’s why the entire political class of smooth talking politicians – the Blair era Labour, the Cameron school of new Conservativism (Cameron having worked in PR before joining politics) – that’s why that class of professional politician finds Corbyn both ludicrous and disturbing – but for Corbyn believers, his very ineptness at media, his indifference to how things look, is what gives him authenticity.
I referred to this being heresy – and I would argue that it is akin to religious dissent of the 17th Century, a radical break with conformity and the accepted way things are done. I think Corbynmania expresses along with economic frustration and anxiety about the future, a disgust with politics as usual – there is a revolt against the culture of the public image, optics, spin, photo opportunities and staging – what Daniel Boorstin in his book The Image called pseudo-events
All substance and policy, Corbyn is the opposite of Blair and Cameron – but he is also the opposite of Trump – the politician as entertainer, as huckster. Trump is all theatre.
One of the reasons the Puritans feared theatre was that it connected for them with the buried paganism within Roman Catholicism – the ceremony, the spectacle, the splendor, all this bypassed the faculties of reason – when the liturgy was in Latin, there was never a question of common people understanding Christianity as doctrine or credo, it was all on the level of visuals, the nonverbal seduction of image and gesture – which is why Protestantism’s demand was for the Bible and religious ceremony to be translated into everyday language that could be understood by common people, so that you read Scripture and reasoned out what God wanted-
Often compared to Mussolini, who was decried in his day for being a mere actor, Trump is infamous for the fact that his public speech is at the level of an eight year old’s language level – in terms of vocabulary or conceptual complexity – Trump achieves his effect through bypassing rational comprehension, through the projection of authority or power by image, gesture, and also repetition of simple assertions and vows about making America great again. Again working on the level of the child’s magical wish-speech: I will it to be so.
Trump’s forte is what in old English was called Trumpery –from the French word tromper, to trick – as in trompe l’eoil. In English, trumpery means “practices that are superficially or visually appealing but have little real value or worth”. Trumpery is empty display, vacant bluster – and that’s Trump: a showman, someone in showbusiness.
So if you were to create a graph that illustrated the spectrum running from fascist-irrationalism through image-manipulative slickness to straight-talking adult honesty, Trump is at one end.... most modern politicians like Obama, Cameron, etc, are in the middle, mixing persuasion through intelligent discourse with theatrical elements involving oratory and optics - and Corbyn is at the other extreme from Trump: with that Puritan disdain for appearances as illusion. “I invite the Prime Minister to leave the theatre and return to reality” – the reality of facts, figures, policy.
Being a modern day Puritan, Corbyn - like many on the Left has an unconscious sympathy for radical Islamic critiques of the West as decadent, sexually permissive, narcissistic – radical Islam’s contempt for a culture that produced pornography, cosmetic surgery, reality TV, is mirrored by the self-disgust of many in the West. In that worldview, the vanity and venom and empty bombast of Trump is like a boil on the backside of Western culture, poison seeking an outlet.
... In the process of writing Shock and Awe – and exploring the suspicion directed towards glam theatricality as embodied by Bowie and Alice Cooper amongst others - I came to the conclusion that pop culture has gone through cycles of glam and antiglam. Anti-glam phases would include the folk revival of the Fifites; the counterculture, where the values were those of Rousseau – nature, primitivism, childhood, purity, authenticity; then punk and postpunk- also anti-glam: hedonism was distrusted and despised, there an emphasis on the didactic, on content over form. The eighties of synthpop and hair metal are very glam, very narcissistic and image oriented. But then you have another anti-glam wave: grunge and gangsta rap. The values of the 90s are underground, they’re not to do with glamor or fame. But that changes in the 2000s and I think we are now in the longest glam cycle I can recall - from the bling of rap through to Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj - we are long overdue a switch back to antiglam, to underground values and a rejection of the idea of music as simply showbiz, simply entertainment
Rooted in a painful feeling of urgency in the face of global problems, the earnestness of the idealistic youth energy behind Corbyn in the UK, or Sanders in America, is essentially a movement against decadence. Decadence was a big Glam buzzword, the idea was that we’re all doomed, the world is going to end, so nothing is forbidden and lets revel in every kind of selfish sensual excess – glam drew influence from Weimar Berlin via the movie Cabaret, from Oscar Wilde, by every era was people gave up on the idea of self-sacrifice for the future – I think current pop is essentially decadent, figures like Drake or Kanye West in particular.
What I imagine is a coming cultural wave that combines the urgent sense of duty for the future that you get in Green politics with the self-sacrificing militancy of socialism - that may find its focus in a political figure who turns anti-decadence into a new kind of spectacle – I can imagine the emergence of a modern Savonarola - Savonarola, the 15th Century priest who led a movement to renew the Church – imagine a new Savonarola who possesses a compelling anti-charisma, which gathers up behind him, or her, all the rejected and excluded – and creates 21st Century equivalent of the bonfires of the vanities – into the flames go not just mirrors and make-up that Savonarola and his followers burned in the 15th Century - but in go selfie sticks and smartphones and breast implants and virtual reality helmets – everything that relates to vanity and vice, delusion and illusion.
In that apocalyptic scenario, a lot of what pop culture today consists – which is essentially the same as rock culture in the 70s and after – values like freedom, wildness, living for the moment, impulsive excess – all that would start to seem like it was and always had been retrogressive.
From this new Puritan perspective, in which self-control, discipline and altruism were the virtues, the entire rock era would seem as though it had always been on the side of capitalism and ecocide, the mania and greed that literally consumed the world.