*By Maria Moritz
…politics involve more than public management and a rational assessment of interests. Some may have forgotten, but politics still involves imagination, the capacity to dream collectively, to tell stories; politics still contains a form of mythology.
In the context of the lecture series New Faces of Authoritarianism in the Global South, I started to reflect on the potential of narratives, images, and myths, including their emotional dimensions. I became intrigued by the question of how they can be used as part of a strategy in the struggle against neoliberal authoritarianism in Western Europe. In one of our sessions, Boaventura Monjane argued that in the cases of Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe it may be possible, though difficult, to deploy left-wing populism to defeat its right-wing counterpart. Moreover, the same means could assist the convergence of different classes into a broad united front in order to achieve anti-capitalist change. This, in turn, made me ponder the question of how to extract the effectiveness of populism without implementing its dangerous downsides. To shed light on this inquiry, I will draw on arguments on the use of myths:
As Roland Barthes has shown, myths are to be understood as communication systems and communicated messages (Barthes, 1957). In this sense, everything can be a carrier of a message: the visual, auditory, spoken, written, and representational—all of these can, as an associative interplay of signifier (the expression and form) and signified (the content and imagination), yield a second-order sign and thus a myth.
Myths, as a form of narrative, are not necessarily counter-concepts to truth in political interplay. They form mental constructs, collective ideas, and dreams that are as much a part of reality and politics as „hard facts,“ public management, and rational advocacy. My main question is how myths and narratives can be used to simultaneously address differing concerns and needs of diverse groups and how they can help overcome fragmentation to accelerate the urgent social and ecological transformation of society.
Both left and right-wing populisms turn out to be effective when their stakeholders successfully play on the political stage with images that attract people on the basis of affect. By dividing political orientation into four layers—affective importance, epidemiocracy, narrative structures, and mythical attractions—Yves Citton has discussed how affects mobilize us: “Hunger, lust, envy, commiseration, hope, hate will certainly push me to act, but I won’t be able to enter any specific action until I can integrate my possible moves within the structure provided by a narrative or story” (Citton 2010, 64).
Affects and Unifying Symbols
As affects form the first level of mobilization, it is critical to acknowledge popular concerns and fears, as opposed to dismissing them as ill-founded from the start. Telling those who are afraid of higher taxes or a rise in criminal activity that they are wrong can make them wait for someone to offer a solution—however damaging it may be. The so-called Querdenker*innen in Germany, a group of people who have been protesting against the measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, provide an example of the mobilizing power of negative affect wherein fears trigger more fears and destructive narratives. Furthermore, in this case, the demand to not wear a mask becomes a symbol conveying unmet needs and longings in general.
Esotericism, spirituality, anthroposophy, and their self-assessment as heroic opponents of the regime has played a major role in their coalition from the very beginning. However, the composition of their worldview is rather inhomogeneous. The rejection of the mask and the undesirable meanings attached to it has united them and established their identity as a group. Not wearing the mask and adopting an anti-vaccination stance is seen, by most of the movement’s supporters, as resistance to oppression. Along with vaccination, the mask has become a symbol for a perceived sense of subjugation and un-representation. The Querdenker*innen movement thus offered all those who felt betrayed and unrepresented by the state and institutionalized mainstream politics an opportunity for identification.
The fact that so many people find themselves in such stirring narratives and are attracted to symbols is hardly surprising, given that it is what narratives and myths do: they explain the past in order to enable and justify future action. We are drawn to them because they make sense and alleviate contingency fears, ambiguity, and disorientation. They respond to these phenomena and create coherence, a sense of being well taken care of, and identity through exaggeration or reduction of complexity. This is not a bad thing per se, and because it is so effective, it is also very promising. Following Yves Citton, in order to counteract destructive narratives and myths—namely those that are suicidal in nature as they provide short-term relief, but ultimately lead to a worsening of the situation, or are detrimental in the sense that they cause injustice and danger for others—we need constructive myths and narratives.
Common Denominator for an Alternative Union
But what does a constructive myth look like? How can it appeal to different groups and address their different fragilities simultaneously, as well as address the root causes of their problems? How can affects be harnessed without being manipulative, but rather mobilize critical judgment? In employing myth, how can we avoid undermining the concerns of diverse groups and containing their agonistic struggle? How, then, do we create a counter-hegemonic bloc that is cohesive and united, but at the same time diverse in its fragilities and in its forming stance? How do we establish a space for those who would otherwise be tempted to follow a false prophet and identitarian enemy images?
Meanwhile, neoliberal capitalism, as so many scholars have pointed out, has penetrated all areas of our lives and is in the process of destroying them and the conditions for our continued existence. In that regard, it has the potential to represent a systemic enemy image for the entire human population. In economic terms, especially since the global financial crisis of 2008, it has threatened and even destroyed diverse livelihoods through deregulation, privatization, strengthening of the free market, and socio-political austerity measures.
Politically, as Chantal Mouffe argues in her book For a Left Populism (2018), the competitive order of neoliberalism has been accepted by almost all ruling political parties across Western Europe. Under Gerhard Schröder, chancellor of Germany from 1998 to 2005, the Social Democrats also entered into an alliance with global neoliberalism. Within almost the entire parliamentary political spectrum, from centre-left to centre-right, there has been no apparent alternative to neoliberal globalization. This, Mouffe argues, has blurred the boundaries between the political parties, making it impossible for the population to choose among real alternatives, making them feel unrepresented, weakening democracy.
It is also neoliberal capitalism that has turned us individuals into ego entrepreneurs, striving for self-maximization and making our self-worth dependent on performance and efficiency. The subjectivity technologies set forth by neoliberal capitalism demand us to constantly reinvent ourselves. Moreover, as Eva Illouz (2007) discusses, they erode our social relationships, since our interactions too are shaped by capitalist principles, such as when lovers consume goods that are conducive to a romantic atmosphere and intimacy (dinner in a restaurant, for example). Or in friendship, taken to extremes by Instagram where the maximization law of capitalism applies most particularly and the question of how many people you know becomes at least as important as how well you know them. Friendship, in other words, becomes a form of social capital and intimate relationships are determined by political and economic models such as exchange, trade, and capital.
On the basis of an economic, political, social and above all environmental problem, I therefore claim that a common denominator could be the fight against neoliberalism, which could create a sense of belonging to a counter-hegemonic bloc through all the negative affects. Such a bloc should not exist for the sake of harmony, risking a loss of conflictuality, but rather should be united particularly out of urgency, simply because, due to the climate crisis, time is running out. However, because a counter-position to neoliberal capitalism understood in this way encompasses many thematic lines, it is often too abstract as an agenda to advance the transformation of our social and ecological society quickly enough. Therefore, more people, such as the climate activist Greta Thunberg, and more narratives and myths must symbolize this disidentification with the regime of exploitation and destruction and serve as placeholders for anti-capitalist ideas.
Elaborating on Constructive Myths
At documenta fifteen in Kassel, one of the most important exhibition series of contemporary art in the world, we can find such a constructive myth and prefiguration for anti-capitalist ideas. This year, the art exhibition was directed by the collective ruangrupa, which was founded in 2000 in Jakarta by a group of artists. The central image for ruangrupa and this year’s documenta fifteen is the communally shared rice barn, which is called lumbung in Indonesian. It is used to store surplus crops for the benefit of the community. It stands as a model for the practice of documenta fifteen and thus for a collective fund of resources. It is an image to hold onto, one that guides solidarity and “satisfies hunger” in a double sense.
The image of the rice barn does everything that the mask does: it becomes a symbol for unfulfilled demands, the difference being that it attacks real problems, such as the imbalance in the distribution of resources and attention. And in doing so, it is additionally emancipatory because it points to an exit strategy. It celebrates hybridity, collaborative cosmopolitanism, collectivity, shared resources, and shared experience, as well as cultural interconnections. These are myths as well, but constructive myths: they ignite a disruptive fire and pose a challenge to the highly capitalist visibility regimes of the art world and constitute, as Homi K. Bhaba (2022) puts it, a redistribution of the symbolic surplus of the art world towards a commonly shared cultural resource.
However, anti-capitalist narratives and myths also run the risk of degenerating into a fetish and thus becoming fashionable and consumable. They can fall prey to an aestheticization in which the concept itself becomes a resource for capitalism and they lose their substantive dimension, such as when certain textile companies dress their models as Fridays-for-Future demonstrators, engage in greenwashing, or cover up the fact that their sector produces more CO2 emissions than international flights and cruises. Despite this danger of co-optation, these counter-narratives and myths, through their affective dimension, contain the potential to overcome the fragmentation of counter-hegemonic forces and show a way out of the vicious cycle of profit maximization and social and ecological exploitation with a common attitude—an attitude that can, in turn, promote the development of concrete solutions.
*This text is part of the Dossier IRGAC LECTURE SERIES – New Faces of Authoritarianism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Global South
**All footnotes and references can be found in the PDF version