After the first round of Ukraine’s presidential elections, a comic actor named Vladimir Zelenskyi obtained 30% of votes, with the current leader Petro Poroshenko trailing him with only 16%. He is poised to become the next president of Ukraine. In Italy, M5S founded by another comedian, Beppe Grillo, became the largest party in the Italian Parliament and entered government in 2018. In Guatemala, a former comedian, Jimmy Morales, won the presidency in 2016. Is this a simple coincidence or is the political success of comedians a symptom of some more profound transformations in the way politics is conducted?
Parody, satire and irony have been present in politics throughout history, but only as an accessory to the existing order – in the form of a court jester or joker – a presence located by anthropological studies in numerous primitive societies in different parts of the world, and well-documented in medieval European kingdoms. Jesters had an exclusive prerogative to desacralize the existing power through various forms of transgression of the rules, often with obscenity and savage violence. But this was only to reinforce its sacred character. They performed a cathartic function of diffusion of tensions and disputes; as French ethnologist and sociologist Georges Balendier in his seminal study of theatrical elements of politics has argued, the jester’s role was to show what a society would look like if norms, taboos, codes were to dissolve – a regression to savagery.
It has widely been argued that a recent rise of candidates from outside the traditional political establishment is a symptom of a growing dissatisfaction of voters with political elites. The entry of comedians into politics seems to signal even more profound changes – a desecration of the political, its transformation into a show, with citizens becoming primarily spectators and consumers of entertainment.
Now, it is important to acknowledge that politics and the exercise of political power have always had a theatrical dimension: rites and ceremonials in earlier societies, parades, commemorations, election campaigns and debates or meetings of leaders at international summits in modern times, have all involved elements of a theatrical performance. But these elements (just as was the case with court jesters) played an auxiliary – albeit important – role which consisted in providing the existing order with solemnity and gravity, and, ultimately, with additional legitimacy.
Today, by contrast, these elements are becoming more and more central to the political: it is now all about the image of leaders, their communication skills, the way they dress, speak or shake each other’s hands, they way they manage their Twitter and Instagram accounts. In a way, similar to Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre, politics increasingly immerses itself in everyday life and thereby, necessarily, increasingly desacralizes itself.
In one of his ‘Mythologies’ a French philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes discussed the nature of wrestling matches and their differences from real contests such as box or judo.
While a boxing-match is a story constructed before the eyes of the spectator with the outcome unknown, in wrestling, the spectator is not interested in the conclusion of the contest; ‘wrestling is a sum of spectacles’ which offer excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning. As soon as the adversaries are in the ring, as Barthes puts it, ‘the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles’ and ‘as in the theatre, each physical type expresses to excess the part which has been assigned to the contestant’.
For Barthes, wrestling is an immediate pantomime, much more efficient than the dramatic pantomime, for the wrestler’s gesture needs no anecdote, no decor, in short no transference in order to appear true.
It may be argued that modern political debates increasingly look less like real contests and more like wrestling – juxtaposed moments of spectacle which spectators do need to connect. To quote Barthes once more, ‘each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result’. It may be suggested that it is only natural that in this world of political entertainment professional comedians become successful – indeed, contrary to traditional political elites they are trained performers and their shows give ‘more value for money’ to the audience.
Now, this theatricalization of politics is taking place in the context of rising poverty and unprecedented income inequality that is affecting societies all over the world, the inability of traditional parties to improve the lot of the majority and, in addition, widespread accounts of political corruption and links between political and corporate power, the disenchantment of the masses with politics and their desire to see new faces on the political scene is understandable.
It is a symptom of a profound social malaise, greatly intensified in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and, in particular, the way it was dealt with: taxpayers first paid for the rescue of those who caused it, and then suffered austerity measures that were presented to them as the only option by those in power and which aggravated the problems of millions of households.
This lassitude with the same round of political actors coming up against the desire for change has created opportunities for various alternative social forces, in particular populists and forces representing various extremes of the political spectrum. The desecration of politics has opened the door to those who offer ‘solutions’ rooted in chauvinism, racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia, those who earn respect for violating the rules, for transgressing the codes of the politically correct and for ‘daring’ to insult and intimidate.
This offers new ‘entertainment’ to spectators; it provides a show with a different script, an alternative spectacle with new characters and roles, and they are applauded by more and more people. Political competence and expertise, education and intellect, professionalism and political experience are no longer in demand. Spectators looking for new faces increasingly support simplicity, familiarity and sensational revelations of ‘conspiracies’ orchestrated by the ‘mainstream’.
Buffoons and jesters
Now, going back to comedians, this is of course not to imply that they are necessarily radical or incompetent – this is certainly notthe claim made here. As a matter of fact, the electoral program of Vladimir Zelenskyi is far from being radical and, on the contrary, insists on a democratic values and individual freedoms, challenges political corruption in Ukraine and calls for closer ties of the country with the European Union. What needs to be emphasised is that professional comedians are entering the political stage already widely populated by modern ‘buffoons’ that transgress and desacralize, and who often choose as objects of their ‘mockery’ not those in power, but migrants, Blacks, Latinos, Jews, inhabitants of favelas and banlieues or homosexuals.
Sadly, more and more people now acclaim all sorts of ‘performers’ in the political theatre preaching such ideas. If court jesters desacralized politics to maintain its sacred character through diffusion of tensions, in the era of desacralized politics the catharsis is found in their creation or amplification. Modern ‘buffoons’ now take centre stage, many of them with comparable obscenity – the tweet of Brazil’s far-right president with a golden shower video to promote anti-LGBTQ views is a case in point – but this is no longer a cathartic accessory to politics, it ispolitics. Jesters are ‘taking over the court.’
Unfortunately, in the absence of any convincing alternative offered by traditional political parties and forces, the influence of such new ‘performers’ is likely to grow further. The risk, however, is that people looking for a different kind of spectacle will end up bringing to power those whose actions will be all but entertaining.