Messiah Politics or Grassroots Movements?
Synoptic Description of Messiah Politics
In 2001 throughout the Western World, the Middle East and North Africa, grassroots movements challenged mainstream politics, in which category belongs ‘Messiah politics’ – I would also characterize it as ‘Savior politics’ or ‘hero-worship politics’. This is not to suggest that the choice in “social contracts”, as Enlightenment thinkers defined the concept, is between ‘Messiah politics’ – salvation from a Savior acting as a benevolent master of the masses – or grassroots movements invariably linked to protest, dissidence and /or revolution – salvation from below with the masses’ participation. However, in the early 21st century when markets are imposing complete hegemony over all aspects of society from politics to culture, I am suggesting that the dichotomy between ‘Messiah politics’ and grassroots movements appears to be growing sharper owing to the huge gap between what “Messiah politics” pledges either under “democracy’s” promising theoretical rhetoric vs. the reality of socioeconomic polarization, or under an authoritarian regime that pledges to act benevolently on behalf of the people, but in reality serves very narrow interests. Whether under the authoritarian ‘one-man rule’, or an elected representative model, in all cases and under disparate political and ideological models, ”Messiah politics” has the following three common denominators:
c) Machiavellian Rule: The criteria for Messiah politics is not necessarily social justice or any moral foundation, let alone a benevolent goal, though it could be as a theoretical framework, but rather a practical Machiavellian projection of and the quest for power, glory and riches that people identify with the ‘Savior politician’.Does “Messiah politics” differ from ‘apocalyptic’ politics, and does it have an inordinate influence in the public mind during the age of mass politics both in Western countries and traditional/religious societies? Messiah politics transcends regime, ideology, political party, national, ethnic or religious identity, as well as historical epoch. While the focus of Messiah politics is on “saving” the nation-state (in the Westphalian sense of the term “sovereignty is the principle of international law that each nation state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs”) from domestic and external forces trying to disrupt its sociopolitical consensus, there have also been Messiah political figures who have tried to save the region surrounding the nation-state, or the world at large through revolution, wars, imperialist (political, economic, cultural) policies intended to spread the values and institutions on a global scale with the goal of imposing hegemony. In other words, the charismatic element of the Messiah political figure is not limited to the status quo ruler, but extends to the dissident or rebel using the same means to mobilize grassroots support for regime change.
Apocalyptic Politics vs. Messiah Politics
The concept of a ‘political savior’ equated with a spiritual prophet (Messiah politics) in charge of society is as universal and as timeless as civilization and owes its origin to concentrated powers of defense (warfare) and society’s welfare in the hands of a single person – the tribal war chieftain in early civilization, and later King and Emperor ruling with the military as the power base and the priests and nobility as the privileged popular base.
The origin of the state, which accounted for the division of labor and class-based society with institutions reflecting it, gave rise to the origin of Messiah politics that we have inherited and maintain five thousand years since the emergence of city-states in ancient Mesopotamia. The intersection of politics and religion accounts for the “messiah politics” phenomenon throughout history. Even in contemporary times when secular civilization is thoroughly materialistic, the general conceptualization of Messiah politics maintains its religious aura, regardless of religion or absence of it.
The concept of Messiah politics differs from ‘Apocalyptic politics’, although in some cases there can be convergence. Apocalyptic politics is about predicting Armageddon resulting from the forces of good and evil, the struggle of morality or God as subjectively defined and the anti-Christ, for example. Christian “Apocalyptism” has a long history in the West, especially among fundamentalists who fear the strong state and deem that sin is measured by the scale of a strong public sector and a trend toward greater materialism, hedonism and moral relativism.
The solution for “Apocalyptism” is greater adherence to faith (institutionalized religion) and a messiah-style leader who protects religious traditions on which society is built and conducts policy on the basis of moral absolutes, targeting for elimination any threat to traditionalism – for example, mode of dress and behavior, gay rights, abortion, replacing scientific theories resting on physical cosmology with religious cosmology, etc. Furthermore, “Apocalyptism” in some cases provides a religiously-based legal system as a means of preventing the degradation of society that would otherwise be viewed as secular progress. If society is headed for ruin owing to the economic and political system in the hands of ‘secularist sinners’, then the essential problem of “Apocalyptic politics” is to propose a Messiah-on-earth solution to prevent, or at least postpone, Armageddon.
A Historical Overview of “Messiah Politics”
“Messiah politics” differs in scope from “Apocalyptic politics”, in so far as the former is a much broader concept that includes rulers of any type with strong hegemonic role and societal acceptance that the individual can save society through divine inspiration or divine right principle, but not limited to those alone. Messiah politics is a concept as ancient as civilization when kings and emperors identified with deities and people engaged in worship of their leaders that they deemed closer to divinity than mere mortals. Hence, paternalism whether under the Czars of Russia, Chinese Emperors, modern-day dictators, or elected presidents is an integral part of Messiah politics. The ruler is the father of the country and embodies its welfare (Thomas Hobbes paternalistic concept of sovereignty), thus he must not be questioned by his subjects who are prone toward atomistic behavior.
With the advent of the Renaissance era’s drastic change in Europe owing to the Commercial Revolution (transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture and long-distance trade), Messiah politics evolved as the idea of a savior leader in the image of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” of in Thomas Hobbes “The Leviathan”. The emergence of capitalism and new division of labor – capitalist and worker replacing landlord and serf – accounted for modification of Messiah politics in so far as the monarch Messiah would have to cater to the interests of the bourgeoisie along with the nobility and upper clergy.
After the American and French Revolutions, elected officials emerged as guardian-saviors of the electoral system itself – George Washington and Thomas Jefferson embodied the concept of ‘fathers of the nation’. The French Revolution was obviously broader in its definition of Messiah politics, considering that all Revolutionary leaders from the early more bourgeois ones to the later more egalitarians fell into the Messiah mold because some people and they saw themselves from that perspective. The Emperors Napoleon Bonaparte and half a century later Napoleon III were probably the two most important figures of messiah politicians representing the grandeur France was seeking in competing with industrialized Great Britain.
It can be argued, however, that Abraham Lincoln belonged in the same category, largely because of his impact to ‘save’ American society by ending slavery as an obstacle to progress domestically and internationally. Whether he “saved” black slaves or white capitalists – in essence helped end an archaic institution that was an obstacle to industrial capitalism operating under free wage labor rules – is another matter. After all, in 1861 Tsar Alexander II issued a decree freeing Russia’s serfs also as part of broader reforms to modernize society just as the US was working toward a similar goal at the same time. Than an absolutist monarch freed serfs about the same time as the democratically-elected US president is very telling not about Messiah politics but the top-down reforms necessary to modernize society and make it competitive with the rest of the world. Social justice did not result any more for the Russian serfs after 1861 than it did for the former American slaves after 1865.
In the 20th century there were a number of revolutionary leaders belonging to the category of ‘Messiah politics’ that they redefined. Those included Vladimir Lenin (leader of the Bolshevik Revolution), Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, (leader of the nationalist-reformist movement in Turkey), Mao Tse-tung (leader of the Chinese Communist revolution), Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egyptian nationalist social reformer), revolutionary leaders Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Ho Chi Minh the father of Communist-nationalist Vietnam, Sukarno the non-Aligned leader of Indonesia, and Fidel Castro who revolutionized Latin American politics by taking over Cuba and challenging US hemispheric hegemony. As leaders of the political opposition, they represented hope for social justice and progress. Their brand of Messiah politics rested on the hope that change would raise the dignity of their people amid massive changes owing to industrial, technological and scientific developments in the Western World exploiting labor and natural resources of the rest of the planet and imposing its economic and political hegemony.
Liberal-democratic elected leaders Charles De Gaulle, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Barak Obama were swept into power as a result of Messiah politics mystique surrounding their leadership of forging middle class consensus while strengthening capitalism. Of course, it is true that there are degrees of popularity and power that individual leaders under the category of Messiah politics have enjoyed through the ages. One cannot possibly compare the popularity and power of Nasser ruler for life, for example, at home and globally with Obama. The first black US president was elected to office and had very constrictive institutional perimeters of power that he had to serve faithfully as a status quo leader. This is in sharp contrast with Egypt’s Nasser who came to power to change the status quo at home and regionally, while having the military as his power base and the broader social classes as his political base.
There are presidents like George Washington or leaders of movements like Mahatma Gandhi who have become demigod legends as part of the ‘Messiah politics’ mythology that surrounds their legacy that a majority of the population deems constructive for society. There vast differences between Washington who respected the international order based on European imperialism as long as the US as a free nation was not exploited, and Gandhi who opposed imperialism on political, economic, social, and moral grounds.
There are also leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jong-il whose funeral (December 2011) revealed that Messiah politics can easily be transformed into ‘demigod politics’ in order to maintain a political system through a massive public relations campaign that the state stages. While it would not have surprised people if Kim’s funeral scene had taken place 3000 years ago, they found it eerie in the 21st century because it blatantly revealed the degree to which Messiah politics penetrates society. The psychology of a nation is very much dependent on image cultivation, more so today in the age of mass communications than in the Renaissance when Machiavelli and Hobbes crafted their political philosophy based on paternalism.
Nationalist populist politician Vladimir Putin appealing to the ‘New Russia’ of a rising middle class, and former president Hugo Chavez appealing to the working class and peasantry of Venezuela belong in the category of Messiah politics. Although the latter proved far more popular and with far more staying power in the country’s political culture than his Russian counterpart resting his political base on Russia’s wealthy class, the modality of power is not very different. Clearly, Chavez had a firm commitment to social justice rooted in Venezuela’s “caudillo” political tradition, while Putin merely cultivates nationalist sentiment given that the US and the West make it easy for him with hostile policies. While the goal in both Russia and Venezuela under Messiah political figures is image cultivation to forge a broad public consensus, class interests dominate as much in Venezuela where capitalists demand a dominant voice in policy to the detriment of the rest of society, as in Russia where the there are limitations to how far nationalism focused on external enemies can carry the self-styled Messiah political leader.
As we have seen in the last century, Messiah politics in modern times can entail a dictator imposed upon society, by heredity, military force, or manipulation of the electoral system based on massive amounts of campaign contributions from the wealthy as we have in the US and other countries. Regardless of how a Messiah leader comes to power, the idea is to project the image of indispensability to holding society together – forging political consensus while projecting the image of serving the general welfare. Such has been the case with a number of authoritarian rulers in many parts of the Middle East and Asia. Identifying their regime with the national interest, thus with the national welfare, these dictators can be ideologically right-wing or populist left wing, ruling on behalf of the armed forces and police for the benefit of a small segment in society, or ruling on behalf of a segment of the masses but in reality benefiting a small group linked to supporting the “Savior politician” who has no grassroots support.
Grassroots Movement’s Challenge: the case of Italy
In the early 21st century, Italy seemed to be the birthplace of the ‘anti-Messiah politics’ movement. Grass-roots protest movements took place spread across the Western World and the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East initially appeared as grassroots movements that would end the era of dictators for life cultivating a cult of personality and serving the rich at home and foreign capital. In the age of NGO’s funded by governments and corporations, there is enormous manipulation of grassroots movements, as we have seen in the last ten years in a number of countries including those like Ukraine, Syria, etc. Until the dust settles, it is very difficult to know the difference between a genuine grassroots movement, and a well organized and government or business-financed group of people manipulating dissidents on behalf of narrow political and corporate interests.
It can be argued that grassroots politics has been around since the creation of organized society and popularized since fifth century Athens as Aristophanes explains in his satirical play “Lysistrata”. In modern European history, the earliest evidence of a mass grassroots movement came in the Age of the Reformation with the “German Peasants’ War” (1524-1525) when capitalism was making cost of living very high for the lower classes amid greater wealth concentration. There were aspects of grassroots movements within the French Revolution that the middle class led and dominated, and increasingly in trade union organizing throughout the 19th century in Europe and US.
The evidence of grassroots organizing in the 20th century can be seen by the results of successful revolutions – Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba – all involving Messiah-styled leaders to whom the masses looked to bring social justice where was none. In the early 21st century, it appeared that Islamic countries would set the example for the rest of the world to follow when it came to ending Messiah politics and embracing grassroots movements. This proved another illusion because of the manipulation of these movements by domestic and foreign political and economic interests.
Italy presented itself as the country that could set the example of grassroots anti-Messiah politics, a movement that has the potential of spreading to other countries. Italy’s Movement of National Liberation launched in October 2009 by Beppe Grillo, evolved into the Five Star Movement whose platform is anti-corruption, respect for the environment, and genuine democracy rooted on people and not the elites. The five stars stand for 1. environment, 2. water, 3. connectivity, 4. development, 5. transportation. Political candidates qualifying for the Five Star Movement needed to:
1. have no criminal record, 2. no political affiliation, 3. reside in the city that they represent, 4. have not previously held office for the position they are candidate, 5. refusal of government campaign funds.
One among dozens in Italy known for its dozens of national and regional political parties, the Five Star Movement is close to what I call the equivalent of the ‘Cyber-Eco-Bourgeois’ revolution in contemporary politics (see my four-part essay on cyber-eco-bourgeoisie and the future of revolutions). Using the web and blogging to raise consciousness attract followers, Beppe Grillo started the ‘vendetta’ or vengeance protest movement in 2007, pointing out Italian politicians who were not only corrupt but criminal, aiding and abetting murderers. Considering that organized crime has had a long history of involvement in Italy’s politics and business, and considering that former Prime Minister Berlusconi, who owned a media empire, was in constant trouble with the law for various violations including collusion with the mafia, tax evasion, fraud, etc., it is understandable to see how corruption had a corroding impact on Italian society and not because of the prime minister’s licentious lifestyle, but more because of the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions.
Circumventing government-subsidized media that Berlusconi and other millionaires control, the anti-Messiah grassroots movement petitioned for a Bill of Popular Initiativeto remove known criminals who were members of parliament – criminals in politics also part of the Messiah political mystique. Although Berlusconi was able to continue buying votes so he can remain premier, more than two million people joined the anti-Messiah or V-Day movement against a corrupt and undemocratic regime that controlled the mainstream media and perpetuated messiah politics as embodied by “il Cavaliere”. The success was largely to blogging, internet, cell phone and new technology that links people together and bypasses the mainstream media representing the elites.
While the party is primarily popular in the north that historically has been more progressive and more ‘European’ than the south where organized crime, politics and business play a larger role, the ‘Anti-Messiah’ grassroots movement, largely lower middle class with some working class elements, is in its nascent stage. It remains to be seen if it takes off in the next few years when Italy sinks deeper into recession and when the major political parties fail to deliver a political solution that takes into account not just finance capital and the markets, but the middle class and workers. It also remains to be seen if Italy’s anti-Messiah movement, largely middle class (part of what I call cyber-eco-bourgeois) spreads to the rest of Europe and beyond. So far, the movement has fallen into the same mold of “politics as usual” and lost its luster as a genuine grassroots movement interested in promoting social justice. Clearly, the institutionalization of a political party that becomes part of the status quo entails co-optation and abandonment of its goals to serve the masses.
Somewhat similar to Italy, Greece after 2010 immersed itself in Messiah politics, seeking a savior either on the right or the left to lift the country out of austerity and deep recession that is not unlike the Great Depression of the 1930s. The majority opted for Alexis Tsipras of the center-left SYRIZA party that came to office in January 2015 promising salvation for the working class and the rapidly declining middle class. Five months later, the Greek Messiah Tsipras proved that he is unable and perhaps unwilling to abandon the commitment of the state faithfully serving domestic and foreign capital regardless of the cost to the workers and middle class. The irony here is that a large segment of the people will continue to embrace the Messiah politician regardless of the absolute and total abandonment of pledge to support social justice. The only thing that matters is the appearance of “salvation” from what actually may be far worse – the unknown!
The Future of Messiah Politics and Grassroots Movements
The future of Messiah politics is safe, given that a segment of the population wants to believe in morally-motivated idealistic ‘Savior politicians’ that bring miracles to society on behalf of the people, at least appearing to do so in a Machiavellian sense. In this respect, both Machiavelli and Hobbes were correct regarding assumption about human nature and likely political behavior under the social contract. Messiah politics will continue to exist because the elites have the means to manipulate public opinion and co-opt just about everything in society.
There are indications that ‘democracy’ as currently constituted is more authoritarian than democratic, something proved by the large number of voters who choose not to take part in voting process, to vote for small parties, or to decry the entire institutional structure by simply engaging in protests, as is the case with a segment of educated youth that does not have much hope for a bright future under the existing institutions favoring a small segment of the population benefiting from Messiah politics.
Anti-Messiah example may spread throughout Europe, Russia, US, Canada, Australia, and beyond. Europe is especially vulnerable, as the continent sinks deeper into a division between the rich northwest and the periphery across the south and east. A rejection of Messiah politics in favor of grassroots movements can continue assuming the following conditions:
c) The mainstream major parties – varieties of center–left, center, center-right, and right – fail to achieve political consensus and mobilize at least half of the voters, and especially the declining and weaker middle class.
d) Varieties of rightwing extremism are on the rise, especially nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-Islam sentiment translated into a stronger right wing movement and/or platform of political parties.
e) There is a growing perception that society will become relatively stagnant and there is a gap between the high expectations of the middle class and the lack of fulfillment of the social contract by regimes that rest largely on middle class votes for their support.
f) The contagion effect becomes a factor as one country’s grassroots movement will emulate the other.
g) There is continued erosion of the middle class ‘Liberal-democratic’ consensus on which representative regimes are based, and a continued transfer of public wealth toward corporate welfare at the expense of the rest of society.