I was reading an essay by Eco about Barthes’ Mythologies when I was struck by a citation from the essay on ‘Catch”, or wrestling. In fact, floating past the citation, I had the same feeling course down my spine that must be activated in the trout when confronted with a bright fly pierced by a hook. I had to swallow it.
I had to swallow it because it turns out that what Barthes writes about wrestling applies with an almost diabolical pertinence to politics in the age of mock democracy.
Mock democracy is defined as an electoral system in which both parties are concerned with aid and comfort of the minority of the wealthy, to the exclusion of anything else. This is a fact known to the electorate. It is known to the commentariat. All issues are shaped exclusively for the wealthiest, by their instruments, who have, in turn, got wealthy in the business of message management. This reality –which is easily confirmed simply by going through the bills passed by Congress and signed by the President for the past thirty years – is turned upside down during the elections, when the promises of both parties are directed at the concerns (economic and cultural) of an electorate that will be totally ignored after the election. Larry Bartels has a rather nice paper concerning whose concerns count with congress here.
From Bartels: “For incidental reasons of data availability, my research focuses on representation by U.S. senators in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Using both summary measures of senators’ voting patterns and specific roll call votes on the minimum wage, civil rights, government spending, and abortion, I find that senators in this period were vastly more responsive to the views of affluent constituents than to constituents of modest means. Indeed, my analyses suggest that the views of constituents in the upper third of the income distribution received about 50% more weight than those in the middle third (with even larger disparities on specific salient roll call votes), while the views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution received no weight at all in the voting decisions of their senators.”
Given this situation, the election becomes a more interesting event. Why does the electorate participate in it?
The clue, I think, is given in Barthes analysis of wrestling, which, he is quick to say, is not a sport, but a spectacle. And a spectacle of a particular type:
Le public se moque complètement de savoir si le combat est truqué ou non, et il a raison; il se confie à la première vertu du spectacle, qui est d’abolir tout mobile et toute conséquence: ce qui lui importe, ce n’est pas ce qu’il croit, c’est ce qu’il voit.
(The public could completely care less about knowing if the combat is faked or not, and it is right; it trusts in the first virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish every motive and every consequence: what matters to it is not what it believes, but what it sees.)
One of the great commonplaces is that seeing is believing. But in the world of commonplaces, I go with St. Paul: we see now as in a mirror, darkly. The inverse is really the sublunar true: believing is seeing. What we believe, we will see.
Of course, we have been saturated for years with advertisements that mock seeing and believing. In the culture of the mock democracy, it has become a sort of official dogma that what occurs and what is believed – or at least what is believed about the belief of the ‘public’ – exist on separate continuums. The cynical manipulation of the latent violence of the public feeds the educated stance of permanent irony, peppered of course with fetishistic and bizarre attachments to random phenomena in popular culture. Where once one could be assured that the Marxist you know was going to tell you about the inevitable victory of the working class, now he or she is more likely to tell you of the subversive potential of Lady Gaga.
Thus, the election has shifted as it becomes meaningful only for the upper class. The upper class, of course, well knows how to monetize nuances. The Democratic Party candidate (usually an upper class type with good intentions) will differ radically with the Republican Party type on the margins. But both are content with, for instance, the thirty year slump in medium incomes. In fact, both have simply stopped imaging the bottom thirty percent – and have only a dim, Hollywood lit sense of the very middle. Of course, the Hollywood scenario endows the 50 000 dollar household with the accoutrements of the 500 000 dollar one, and never notices – because once you are inside the Gated City, noticing becomes too hard. In the hinterlands, the Yahoos aspire themselves – in the vacant moment - to the image of their lifestyle as presented by the media message benders, but in the end they can’t really think about. They have no power to change anything even if they wanted to. Unlike, say, the French or Italan peasant at the end of the feudal period, they are pathetically docile. What castle would they burn even if they could find it?
Thus, the odd asymmetry that governs this thing called an election. On the one hand, it is taken seriously by those who know they will gain or lose on the result. On the other hand, it has to be taken as a passion play by those who will lose no matter what the result. Thus, the latter have come increasingly to seek catharsis and madness – qualities proper to wrestling, as well.
This disparity is also mirrored in Barthes’ essay, when he compares boxing and wrestling. For my comparison’s sake, the interest taken by the upper class in the election parallels, boxing, while for the loser classes, it is wrestling all the way.
“This public know very well how to distinguish wrestling from boxing. It knows that boxing is a jansenist sport, founded on the demonstration of an excellence; one can bet on the issue of a boxing combat: with wrestling, that has no sense.The boxing match is a history that is constructed under the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, it is very much the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the whole duration. The spectator doesn’t interest himself in the mounting of a fortune, he waits the live image of certain passions. Wrestling demands thus an immediate reading of the juxtaposed senses, without it being necessary to connect them. The rational future of combat doesn’t interest the amateur of wrestling, while on the contrary, a boxing match always implies a science of the future.”
I will end this with a passage from the NYT story about the election campaign of Patrick Murphey, a Democratic representative running for re-election in Pennsylvania. He is a quintessential Obama Democrat – moderate, well intentioned, a man who wants to do what is right – as long as this is politically possible.
"Marge Reed, 75, opened her screen door and before he could complete a sentence said, “You know what, Mr. Murphy, I don’t believe anything anybody tells me anymore.” She apologized for her frankness but said it was to be expected because of her Irish heritage. “I’m Irish, too,” Mr. Murphy said, as if she might not know that. “So is your opponent,” she said, and they both laughed. She told Mr. Murphy that she planned to vote for him, then continued giving him a piece of her mind.
Little of the anger Mr. Murphy encountered was aimed directly at him or even at President Obama. Mr. Murphy never once mentioned the president’s name, and, oddly, over the course of three hours, neither did any of the Levittown residents. People just did not like their situation or the general drift of the country, and seemed to hold everyone in a position of power — locally and in Washington — responsible.
I called Marge Reed the next day. She had worked for the Spiegel catalog company at a store in Levittown where people picked up their orders. She said she had lost much of her retirement nest egg in the stock market and was living on $13,750 a year and having a hard time paying for her prescriptions. Her husband died in 1993. “I don’t feel like anybody cares about people like me,” she said. “I remember President Obama talking about how he worried about his mother paying her health bills when she had cancer. Well, I’m somebody’s mother, too.”