Nelson Mandela in 1990. Photograph: Getty Images
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10 June 1988: Mandela's image problem

Marek Kohn examines Nelson Mandela's image through the prism of the mass media world.

The Nelson Mandela 70th birthday celebrations begin on Saturday. A troupe of major-league rock per-formers will draw 70,000 people to Wembley stadium. Millions more will watch the event on BBC2 or via satellite on foreign networks around the world. The next day, a demonstration in Glasgow will send a party of marchers on their way to London, where they will be greeted by another rally. The birthday itself, a full month later, will be marked by a church service and other events.

The Wembley concert takes place on another Mandela anniversary—that of his conviction 24 years ago. All this provides an outstanding opportunity to publicise the cause of resistance to apartheid, at a time when the South African regime's restrictions on the media have been effective in obscuring the struggle from the outside world. But, as we applaud the fact that the imprisoned nationalist will be honoured around the globe, it would be as well to consider some of the consequences of the way the idea of "Mandela" will be broadcast through the world's media.

Since Live Aid, there has been a widespread tendency to shun any real scrutiny of the global charity jukebox phenomenon in the face of its unarguably welcome results. It raises a lot of money for needy people—and large sums of money are particularly impressive in a money-obsessed culture. It also causes the simultaneous detonation of vaguely benevolent impulses among millions of affluent people, which creates an attractive counter-image.

And there it stops. The global jokebox, where-by the electronic media extend the mass gathering of the stadium rock concert to armchair participants around the world, is outstanding at disseminating simple images and messages. It is unable to articulate more complicated political concepts. Bob Geldof was phenomenally successful when he spoke as the voice of the ordinary, decent, apolitical humanitarian, but his calls for Live Aid's commitment to be turned into a political movement for greater justice in the relationship between rich and poor, although widely reported, fell on deaf ears.

It may be that the Mandela commemorations will be more successful in this respect, but that seems unlikely. A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend the meeting in London between Ismail Ayob, Nelson Mandela's lawyer, and Annie Lennox, the Eurythmics singer, at which the con-cert and matters surrounding it would be discussed. The idea was that this tete-a-tete between representatives of the worlds of rock and politics would be recorded and analysed by me for Another Publication. A couple of TV crews would record brief interviews before-hand, and then it would be just us. In the event, the pair answered the TV interviewers' questions for a couple of hours and then got up to go. In my desperate bid to snatch a scrap or two of useable material, a predictable confrontation developed. Ayob declined to answer one question for fear of compromising his security on his return to South Africa. This is obviously a consideration of the greatest importance. However, I did feel that the general fuss that ensued owed much to the desire that representations of the campaign in the media be as bland and uncontroversial—that is, apolitical—as possible. This impression was deepened by the subsequent reaction to the unmentionable words "Paul Simon".

Early last year, the diminutive singer had deftly outmanoeuvred his critics in the anti—apartheid movement over his controversial Graceland album. The day before Simon's now notorious press conference, the word from the Artists Against Apartheid office was that Simon was going to eat humble pie and admit he was wrong to record in Johannesburg. He did no such thing, asserting instead that his action had not broken the UN cultural boycott. In a powerful appeal to liberal perceptions, the black musicians who played on the album were portrayed as victims both of apartheid and the anti-apartheid movement. AAA had committed itself to a fundamentalist interpretation of the terms of the cultural boycott; one based on the old picket-line principle—"nothing moves in or out of here". In private, its response to the Simon debacle showed a preference for the lecture over the debate. A bit of practice in genuine debating skills might have enabled the movement to contest the ideological high ground Simon so successfully occupied.

AAA had been facing this impasse for some time. In a culture of traditional left political activism, the picket-line principle—no compromise, no flexibility, obedience to the edicts of the Party or its equivalent—was generally understood and accepted. So was the idea of personal activism. Pop musicians were a different kettle of fish. They could grasp a simple idea, like that of not playing in Sun City, but the comparative complexities of negotiating with their record companies to exclude their records from sale in South Africa were beyond all but a handful of them. When AAA has been able to articulate the liberal pop consensus, it has been spectacularly effective. The huge concert held on Clapham Common in 1986 was a testament to its success as a politically-motivated rock promotion agency. But its attempts to politicise pop performers have been ineffectual by comparison.

Annie Lennox was certainly ill at ease in the role of activist when she met Ismail Ayob. Disclaiming political sophistication, she emphasised the moral basis of her commitment to the cause. The PRs approved of this tack. We want to get away from the politics and concentrate on this guy in prison, one said. Her colleague helped get the MTV rock video network's inter-viewer away from politics, by vetting the questions and objecting to the one about Paul Simon.

It's easy enough to pick on PRs for making fatuous remarks and sanitising information, but that's their job, and there is only so much point in blaming them for doing it. The question is whether the attempt to use the mass media for what starts out as a political cause is not doomed to result in the reduction of the cause to banality. The set-piece question of the evening concerned Mandela's present condition. Much of Ayob's answer dwelt not on the prisoner's inner state, but on his external appearance. A ripple of amusement went round the room when, answering Lennox' inquiry, Ayob decided that the nationalist leader's hairstyle and face resembled those of the bleached-blonde rock singer.

The emphasis on appearance was revealing. The power of the apartheid regime is such that, in a world so extensively surveyed by television, the only new broadcast image of Mandela in a quarter of a century was that indistinct and uncertain shape of a man picked up by a TV crew with the wit to train their camera on a security monitor in a hospital where Mandela was receiving treatment. For "Mandela" to become an effective symbol in the lexicon of symbols circulated by the electronic media, there must be an image. So the newest of media must depend upon the oldest; the eyewitness. This is an indictment of Pretoria's repressiveness, but it is also a symptom of a shift in symbolic meaning. Mandela becomes detached from the millions he represents. The world is encouraged to consider the plight of the individual rather than a people.

The combination of hi-tech banality and a left political culture which frequently seems more concerned to impose its authority than to win arguments is a worrying one. Popular culture is capable of articulating contradictions and complexities. Sir Richard Attenborough, arguably Britain's cleverest liberal politician, demonstrated this with Cry Freedom. Backstage, he brought the energies of a Kissinger to his diplomatic exchanges with important black activists. The film itself is aimed squarely at a white audience, and therefore concentrates on the story of a middle-class white family. But it continually reminds its audience of the contra-dictions and inadequacies of the whites' political position. The tale of the white family is carefully framed and intercut with images of mass black struggle.

It would be futile to demand a similar political fertility from pop music. Pop is undoubtedly a potent publicity medium. But it would be a sad irony if, as Mandela the man continues to be confined by the apartheid regime, Mandela the symbol should be drained of its political substance as the price of getting on to MTV. After all, to paraphrase Mandela's most famous saying, that political substance is his life. 

 

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)