2016: Terry Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, delivers the ninth annual Theos lecture
Black Mirror, Beppe Grillo and by-elections
26th February 2013
I’m no fan of Charlie Brooker, but this week’s Black Mirror episode, The Waldo Moment, invoked some prescient questions about the shape of our democratic predicament.
Waldo is a sarcastic blue cartoon bear who, Ali G like, tricks politicians into consenting to humiliating interviews. Supposedly for the education of young children, the interviews are carried out for the entertainment of cynical 30-somethings. Waldo is voiced by an unhappy comedian, Jamie Slater, who is convinced by sinister media executive to run the character in a by-election. If you didn’t see it, there’s a brief plot summary here.
Whoever fixes Channel 4’s schedule deserves a pay rise. On Thursday we will see the Eastleigh by-election - and it’s hard to tell whether life is imitating art or the other way round. The Eastleigh poll was triggered by the resignation of Chris Huhne, for reasons that we need not rehearse in full here, but needless to say are not wholly unrelated to his marital infidelity. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats suffer more scandal, with accusations of sexual harassment made against former party chief executive, Lord Rennard. The by-election in The Waldo Moment also emerges from sexual misadventure, albeit of a different kind. And although there's no Waldo-style candidate, this by-election reeks of the kind of pessimism that he symbolises.
Of course, this disenchantment isn't a particularly recent or local phenomenon. Others nations have travelled further still down the road. Yesterday’s Italian election saw Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement arrive as a new king-maker in Italian politics. Life imitates art again, Grillo and Slater are both comedians - is laughing at politics the only thing left? This political movement (it's not a party in the classic sense - it has a limited platform and has selected candidates through facebook) has ridden to victory on the back of public disenchantment with Italy’s infamous culture of cronyism. Grillo now says that the mainstream Italian parties are "finished, and they know it… We've started a war of generations … They've been there for 25 to 30 years and they've led this country to catastrophe."
It’s difficult to decode Brooker’s morality tale. Is he saying that politicians are guilty, in their venality and dishonesty of opening the door to darker forces? Is it a critique of the ends-justifies-means mentality of contemporary politics (the Labour candidate is a paradigmatic fusion of idealism – “wants change” – and pragmatism – knows she can’t win the seat, so wants to use it to further her career)? He's certainly saying that anti-politics and anti-establishmentism isn't enough - Waldo the bear has nothing positive to say. As the Conservative candidate says at a hustings, it’s easy to sit behind an avatar, and wittily dismantle, but much harder to offer an answer to Lenin’s old question – what is to be done? But both this character and the Labour candidate demonstrate in their own ways a distrust of any voice from outside of the system. Brooker is also warning us to be careful what we wish for. The final scene sees a homeless Jamie Slater vandalising an image of Waldo, who has become a global political brand. He's beaten by policemen. After cynicism, comes demagoguery. If we were to tear up politics as it is, what kind of expression of power would come in its place?
It’s often a mistake to think that things are a lot worse than they used to be, that a culture is degrading. As Plato said, "What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?" But it’s hard to deny the conclusion that democracies across Europe look increasingly threadbare. Beppe Grillo has said that Italy's existing political elite resemble the 'walking dead'. Are our own political parties capable of performing the function that they used to, or are they too zombie institutions, bereft of either significant membership or moral authority? And at the centre of The Waldo Moment sits a personal act of distrust which debases the whole by-election, the perfect metaphor for the mutual suspicion between public and politicians.
I’m currently reading Defending Politics by Matthew Flinders, an academic from Sheffield University. There’s much about the book that I disagree with but one idea which I subscribe to without reservation. Democracy is far more fragile than we realise. It needs to be constantly renewed and constantly justified. Flinders' central mistake, I think, is to believe it can justify itself. We should stick with it because it works. But what happens when functional defences no longer hold? When it doesn’t deliver the best outcomes, is democracy still the best system? Let's not forget the imposition of technocratic governments on several European states in the last three years, or that Beppe Grillo’s democratic success is a threat to Italy’s stability in the short term, not its guarantor.
I would say that democracy can’t sustain itself – it needs something from outside, something behind and beneath itself, on which it rests - a civil society captured by a particular vision of the good, and a commitment to human dignity. Everybody would say that democracy is better than the alternatives, but I'm not sure everyone would know why.
Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme at Theos | @mrbickley