Embarrassingly, one of my first breakthroughs on the road to taking Marxism seriously was when, as a young boy, someone explained to me that the queen must piss and shit like anyone else. It came as quite a revelation to the embodiment of sheltered suburban decency that I then was (and, depressingly, still more or less am). That she was somehow ‘human’ like the rest of us was almost unthinkable, the discrepancy between regal appearance and faecal truth too much to grasp.
But the saddest thing is that most current political satire hasn’t really moved beyond this infantile act of revelation: in public, politicians are virtuous statesmen, whilst behind closed doors they’re fallible, vindictive, power-hungry maniacs. In public they are eloquent spokesman, in private they shit all over themselves and all over us. The problem is that everybody already knows this, and hence there is no revelatory or liberatory potential in such comedy. ‘Cameron’s a good, immigrant-loving man, nudge nudge, wink wink!’ is not exactly explosive stuff.
As Žižek, following Peter Sloterdijk, has long been telling us, we live in an age whereby ideology functions through cynicism. Everbody knows that politicians are corrupt, that capitalism is unjust, that the poor are being screwed over, but we act as if we didn’t know. Ideology used to be conceived as ‘false consciousness’, which could be remedied by revealing to someone the truth of his or her situation. In other words, it was an epistemological affair. And this, we might argue, was when traditional satire was politically progressive. But now ideology is no longer ‘false consciousness’; it is that which we do despite knowing that what we’re doing is perpetuating a system we know to be destructive of humanity.
It is in this age of cynicism that satire becomes a reactionary force. What do shows like Have I Got News For You? or The Daily Show effectively do? They make us laugh at what we already know. They constitute a sort of balm, soothing the daily pain of knowing that I’m acting in a way contrary to almost all reasonable evaluations of the state of the world. They create an atmosphere of entertaining resignation.
And here I’d like to move on to a related topic. Part of this whole age of cynicism, it seems to me, is that obsession with debunking the aura of greatness surrounding certain revered figures. If you want to make a film of Homer’s epics these days, you can’t present these figures as towering above their epoch; you have to drag them down into the nitty-gritty of the daily grind. If you want to make a TV program about Caesar, you have to show him shagging half the women of Ancient Rome. Even superheroes now have to have a ‘human’ side!
Back in the day, of course, this was progressive. If the Establishment told you that Dante was great, you went looking for the material historical circumstances that made Dante possible in the first place. But today I have the sneaking suspicion that this simply plays into the hands of the enemy.
And that is why I would like to suggest the benefits of the personality cult. Liberals shy away in horror from those massive icons of Stalin and Mao, symbols of dictatorial atrocity, but they forget their hidden powers. In Soviet or Chinese propaganda it was common to be told tales of superhuman heroics – Stalin takes on a whole battalion of the imperial army with his bare, crop-coarsened hands…and wins! – which no one could be expected to believe, and which no one did believe. The point, however, was that instead of dragging these figures down into the depths of bureaucratic mundanity, it swept gazes up and out, and into the impossible gyres of history! What we need now is not to engage in apathetic satire, posting re-runs of the ‘Ten Best Anti-Thatcher Gags’ so as to make us chuckle into our spreadsheets; we need to outsoar the easiness of cynicism and dare to be great, dare to be mocked, dare to be epic heroes in the age of Peep Show.
(The comic bathos of that last sentence should give you some idea of how difficult is our task).