May 22, 2013
The S&M Election
Posted on Nov 5, 2012
By Chris Hedges
“Crowds have always undergone the influence of illusions,” wrote Gustave Le Bon, one of the first pioneers of the study of mass psychology. “Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”
The more we believe the lies that saturate our airwaves, the more we salute our “heroes” in Iraq or Afghanistan, the more we militarize social and political values, the more frightened we become, the more we bow down and clamor for enslavement, the more the elite detests us. We are, in their eyes, vermin. We have to be dealt with and controlled. At times we have to be placated. At other times we have to be repressed and even killed. But we are a headache. Our existence interferes with the privileges of the ruling class.
“Those who have put out the people’s eyes,” John Milton wrote, “reproach them of their blindness.”
There are a few writers and artists who give us a view of the dark, corrupt heart of power. The 1972 film “The Ruling Class,” a black comedy based on Peter Barnes’ play, does this, as does Jean Genet’s play “The Balcony.” So does Noam Chomsky, Elias Canetti’s “Crowds and Power,” C. Wright Mill’s “The Power Elite,” Karl Marx’s “Capital,” Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s “Castle to Castle.” The astute explorations of the pathology of power, however, are buried in the avalanche of Disneyfied popular culture and nationalist cant. The elite deeply fears any art, literature, philosophy, poetry, theology and drama that challenge the assumptions and structures of authority. These disciplines must appear to the public only in bastardized forms, packaged as froth, entertainment or sentimental drivel that celebrates the established hierarchy.
Peter Barnes captures the same dementia in “The Ruling Class,” in which Ralph Gurney, the 13th earl of Gurney, accidentally hangs himself in his bedroom while wearing a tutu and playing erotic games with a noose. His successor, Jack Gurney, believes he is God and speaks only of love and charity. This will not do. A psychiatrist is called in to help the new earl adapt to his role as a representative of the ruling class. By the time the psychiatrist’s work is complete, Jack is cured of his God delusion. He now believes he is Jack the Ripper. He assumes his seat in the House of Lords. He rails against the unemployed, homosexuals and socialists. He champions God, queen and country, along with corporal and capital punishment. He murders innocent women on the side, including his wife, and becomes an esteemed member of the ruling class.
Genet, who like Pynchon and Barnes equates the lust for power with sexual depravity, sets “The Balcony” in a brothel. Clients don the vestments of power, including those of a judge, a bishop and a general. The “bishop,” who outside the brothel works for the gas company, hears the sins of the prostitutes in confession and revels in the power of absolution. The “judge” metes out severe sentences for trivial offenses to maintain law and order. The “general,” who rides his prostitute as if she were a horse, demands self-sacrifice, honor and glory for the state. A bank clerk in the brothel, meanwhile, defiles the Virgin Mary. Revolution occurs outside the doors of the brothel. The actual rulers, priests, generals and judges are killed. The patrons step outside, along with Irma, the brothel madam, who is anointed the new queen, to assume the roles in society they once playacted and to mount the counterrevolution.
Irma, at the close of the play, turns to face the audience. She says:
The only recognizable basis for moral and political authority, in the eyes of the elite, is the attainment of material success and power. It does not matter how it is gotten. The role of education, the elites believe, is to train us vocationally for our allotted positions and assure proper deference to the wealthy. Disciplines that prod us to think are—and the sneering elites are not wrong about this—“political,” “leftist,” “liberal” or “subversive.” And schools and universities across the country are effectively stomping out these disciplines. The elites know, as Canetti wrote, that once we stop thinking we become a herd. We react to every new stimulus as if we were rats crammed into a cage. When the elites push the button, we jump. It is collective sadomasochism. And we will get a good look at it on Election Day.
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