Take Me From Your Leaders

For me, science fiction is an alien world. I watched Doctor Who, Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and a whole load of other TV programmes as a kid, and I was into comics too, but once I turned about 12 or 13 I closed the book on the whole thing. Not sure why. So I feel at a bit of a loss when people start making references to characters or situations from sci-fi novels. I’m not even in a position to say that I respect science fiction, simply because anything I learned from it I learned before the age of 12. Perhaps I’m missing out on all sorts of groovy perspectives on the world.

I say this because my rather limited adventures in sci-fi came to mind this morning when thinking about the idea of leaders and leadership. The comics and shows I consumed were full of characters who seemed to want to lead just -as far as I could see- for the hell of it. Now it may be that I was just too young to discern some sort of elaborate back story to their enterprises, but figures like Dr Doom or The Leader or Galactus, well, despite the fact that they had incredible powers, they just wanted to boss people around. And yet bossing people around when you’re already more or less supremely powerful doesn’t make any sense, from the standpoint of an ordinary human. So their extreme power also demanded that they be unhinged. Perhaps all this acting up and demanding domination and loyalty was just a device for allowing superheroes to demonstrate their heroism.

When I first saw Superman II, which must be about 25 years ago, and I can’t recall seeing it in its entirety since, I was puzzled at why the three evil Kryptonians wanted to wield absolute power over puny humans. I imagine this film is full of ironic stuff that I didn’t pick up on first time (I think there was some sort of subtext about the tyranny of catwalk fashion, what with the extraordinarily dapper Terence Stamp playing the lead baddie), but it essentially follows a well-worn narrative about aliens descending to Earth and demanding to speak to the leader, ‘take me to your leader’ being a stock phrase in the vocabulary of visiting aliens.

And it often occurred to me that this ‘take me to your leader’ schtick isn’t very convincing. I imagine that this has also occurred to many sci-fi writers, to say nothing of other members of the general public. But to wit: if a given species has evolved to the extent that it has mastered interplanetary travel and possesses incredible powers, why is it going to get bogged down with the rigmarole of asking to speak to the human in charge, as if it were a caller following up on a catalogue order that hadn’t arrived?

Clearly it’s only humanoid aliens who would get distracted by that sort of thing.

But once you accept the premise that aliens would be humanoid, then it isn’t really that unrealistic to envisage aliens demanding to speak to the leader. Because most people figure that the industry of advanced discovery and research requires the same sort of hierarchies that appear to have produced discoveries in human society hitherto, particularly with the advent of modern division of labour.

We, or at least I, find it hard to imagine the industry of interplanetary space travel operating according to anarchist principles. This is not to say that interplanetary space travel would not operate according to anarchist principles, but merely that if we think about the types of organisations that create and run the technology required historically to produce the massive advances in travel (whether on land, sea, or in space), there are strict hierarchies in operation. That said, how the enabling research and development gets conducted is another matter entirely.

For all I know, there are Star Trek fans reading this and yawning, thinking, “but all this is covered in episode X where the crew meet the X”. But bear with me. So you have these hierarchies, and that means leaders. And the leaders of the humanoid aliens need to meet the corresponding leaders among the puny humans, because that is the way that the alien humanoid leaders do their business. And then the drama that unfolds is: “are our leaders up to the task of striking a deal that might save our asses from slavery and domination and vivisection? Or are they going to strike a deal that will allow the aliens to save their asses and to hell with the rest of us? Or is a Messiah going to arrive and kick alien butt?”

When I came into contact with this sort of drama, where the elected political leader was presented as the obvious go-to person for the inquiring alien, I took this at face value. Talking with the aliens- well, that was a job for the President!

This is in spite of the fact that politicians seldom include in their manifestoes their approach to relations with occupants of interplanetary craft. None -and I am prepared to stand corrected on this- has ever been elected based on an advertisement based on the 3am call in which slavering bug-eyed 12ft creatures with their genitals on their head have taken over the Internet.

So I am wondering. If aliens descended on Earth tomorrow, assuming that they were benign enough, would human political institutions magically retain whatever legitimacy they presently enjoy? Or would countless millions just go, to hell with this, if there are space aliens about, we should forget about the idea of France?

Consider the possibility, which lots of people known as alien conspiracy theorists have contemplated, that if aliens arrived on earth, state bureaucracies and technocratic elites would keep the whole thing a secret. Whilst I think it highly unlikely that the practical dimensions of an alien invasion would lend themselves to state secrecy, I think these conspiracy theories contain a kernel of truth: there is absolutely no reason why state or state-enabled bureaucracies would just release all the files on the thing there and then, in the interests of humanity, assuming there was some way of keeping all the info to themselves. Within the relevant decision-making groups, there would still be lots of wrangling and weighing up of competing positions. Some might want to strike a deal with the aliens, or among themselves with regard to how information from the aliens ought to be used. I can imagine no way in which the ‘interests of humanity’ would somehow worm their way into the decision-making processes.

My own theory about the origin of alien invasion myths is that they arise in response, among other things, to the opacity, from the point of view of the conspiracy theorist, of state and corporate power. It is the brute imperceptibility of the whole thing, the appearance of state power as an alien power, allied to the idea of bureaucratic machinery controlled by a group of people working entirely in concert, that produces the aliens in more or less human form. But it is also a matter of feeling that one’s benign view of what ‘the government’ ought to be has been defiled by some alien interloper. So -to take the Tea Party example- the US government has been taken over by a black Islamic Nazi who is Marxist son of Malcolm X with a forged birth certificate, whereas back in the day, we had people like us, the type of people you could have a beer with, who loved family and regular stuff like clearing brush from the ranch.

Fortunately, in Ireland, no such paranoia has seized hold of any significant proportion of the population. And yet.

Look at what has happened in the last week or so. First, Brian Cowen appears on radio hungover, but no less articulate than what he usually is. Cue media-stoked national outrage about how this is inappropriate for a political leader. Leaders, after all, need to communicate. (But communicate what?) Then, Cowen gets called a drunken moron by a US talk show host, and it makes front-page news. The idea of a leader -and by extension, the population- being subjected to ignominy is unbearable for some. But what is this leader for?

And then you turn on the radio on any given day and you hear stuff about how we need ‘real leadership’. This ‘real leadership’, whether supplied by the current leader of Fine Gael, or an ensemble of company bosses, are what will get the country back on track. But lead where? To growth. To take the tough decisions. Fireside chats. Award ceremonies. To give people a sense of hope, and so on and so forth.

Obviously, there are different forms of leadership. Starting a campaign among your friends and neighbours to keep a hospital open or to get a school renovated is an example of leadership, but so is sending in the F-16s against a democratically elected government.

The dominant idea of leadership in media flows in the main from corporate iconography and hagiography, which in turn appropriates political hagiography. If this dominant idea of leadership can be characterised by one quality, it is the ability to take tough and unpopular decisions. As such, it has nothing to do with democratic representation. It has to do with you delegating other people the power to take action against you, much as you might take out a contract on your own life with a hitman. The demand for this sort of leader doubles up as an implicit demand for a passive population.

It strikes me that many people develop the habit of seeing leaders just as a seven year old would see the President of the United States in an alien invasion flick: in the natural order of things, they are the people you rely on whenever the chips are down to fend off alien predators. Sure, you can get others if it looks like they’re not up to the job, but you appoint them to do the same things: to take the tough and unpopular decisions, and so on. Basically, your relation to the leader is that of a passive subject needing to be led. You’re allowed to have jokes at their expense as a means of alleviating despair.

Speaking of alien predators:

Why Ireland is bailing out foreign banks | Analysis & Opinion |

But we don’t live in an ideal world and the collective-action problems here are all but insurmountable: at the first whiff of a haircut, everybody’s going to want to be the first to bail out entirely. Ireland’s technocratic elite seems to understand that and so it’s unhappily bailing out its foreign lenders at 100 cents on the euro, even the government continues to slash spending domestically. It’s not fair, everybody knows that. But it might be unavoidable.

In short, Ireland’s technocratic elite is launching a savage assault on the population in order to satisfy the voracious appetites of proverbial capitalist pigs. From the point of view of the average victim, it hardly matters what the precise motivations in play are: the three main political parties make no secret of their intention to cut another €3bn from government spending on people this year, but will raise taxes on the labour of the same people in order to feed the pigs. There’ll be no ‘leader’ from political or business elites who’s going to tell the truth about this, because any such leader is primed to adopt the mantle of commander. As the shrinking economy vomits people onto ferries and planes in the tens of thousands fleeing unemployment and debt peonage, appointed media talking heads -pulled from the same elites unleashing this savagery- will intensify their shrieks for better leadership. Meanwhile, sightings of UFO and apparitions of the Virgin Mary will multiply, and people will be wondering why the Taoiseach hasn’t said anything about the meteorite landing in a field in Westmeath. Is there something he’s hiding from us? Has he been making deals behind our back?

We don’t need these leaders.

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