Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Obama and the illusion of leadership

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 is, of course, a mercy that the visionary leaders of the 20th century who sought to impose their malignant version of the world upon their own – and other – peoples, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, should have departed. But to a world hungry for idealism and hope, surely the pedestrian lack of purpose of today's global leaders represents something more than a salutary corrective to the overarching ideologies of the last century. This, perhaps, is why Obama seems a redemptive figure.

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 skilful choreography, a "performance" to reconcile the peoples of the world with American supremacy once more.

Just as the hope vested in Obama is excessive, so the obloquy heaped upon Gordon Brown is also unbalanced. The worst he has been guilty of is hypocrisy – claiming Prudence as his handmaiden when the going was good, and urging Patience when global turbulence and events beyond his control throw the economy into possible recession.

The obsession with leaders – the private life of Sarkozy, the manipulativeness of Berlusconi, the new-found assertiveness of the Russians, a newly emollient China anxious to prove itself a modern, responsible power – suggest they are now flamboyant individuals rather than representatives; it is as though they have nothing to do with us. People of meagre talent and modest imagination now pose as "world leaders", guides and instructors of an imaginary, shifting "international community".

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 great movements of goods and money around the world, and the vanity of efforts to deter humanity from following this licit and highly profitable mobility, clearly indicate the limits of their power.

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? Who cast a ballot in favour of the de-industrialisation of Britain? Who, indeed ever voted for the establishment of manufacturing industry in the first place? Where is the universal suffrage that produced inequality in the world, which even the collective might of the United Nations and its pious millennium goals appear incapable of putting into reverse?

No wonder so much must be invested in the leaders of tomorrow – the Obamas and Camerons, fair of mien and full of promise (like Tony Blair only yesterday) – since they too must defend an existing order which, at a time of crisis, must be "mended", so that it will resume growth and expansion in perpetuity. For all our futures are already inscribed in the deterministic landscapes of universal industrial happiness. It is reminiscent of the middle ages, when rulers and kings, repenting their misdeeds, arranged for masses to be said "in perpetuity" in the cathedrals of Europe.

Perhaps it is because the function of leadership is now the management of a more or less autonomous global economy, that people of great talent, intelligence and insight simply do not put themselves forward. They do not join the exhausted political formations and clapped-out parties of right or left, in a world that has left behind the sclerotic inheritance of a time when universal suffrage still seemed a guarantor that the will of the people would be respected and implemented.

Power and privilege will always find ways round efforts to create economic and social justice. And so it has been in our time. The principal participants in the global theatre are increasingly masks of some gigantic harlequinade or Noh play. The script is pasted in the wings. It is their business to offer prospectuses of freedom and constant improvement to the people, to receive acclaim, to fail, and be scorned and repudiated for their venality and dishonesty. They know this. This is why they tend to expend so much effort providing against the time of their downfall; sometimes corruptly, usually within the loose limits placed upon their right to accumulate and prepare for the day when they will be hounded from power in defeat.

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.


Unknown said...

How about a follow-up article plugging McSame into the narrative and how much better that picture looks.

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