Politics for Beautiful People

There’s disagreement about who first described politics as “show business for ugly people”: some commentators attribute the zinger to Jay Leno, others to political consultant Paul Begala. But there is broad agreement that whoever it was identified a genuine phenomenon. Politics in the era of mass communication has indeed become more “mediated” – as focused on personalities as it is on ideology and policy, and a prey to the dark arts of image-making and spin. The successful modern politician knows that in order to be successful s/he must defer to the media consultant and submit to the stylistic makeover. Above all, s/he knows to stick to the script.

Now, however, we have a different phenomenon – not new, exactly, but newly prominent: the political celebrity. Actors and other media personalities are increasingly engaged in awareness-raising, social media campaigns and activism, and the news media’s appetite for their interventions is huge. When celebrities speak out, their words are reported, analysed, criticised, celebrated. If politics is show business for ugly people, show business is looking more and more like politics for beautiful people.

In the event, last Sunday’s Oscars ceremony was a more muted affair, politically speaking, than previous recent industry gatherings, perhaps because the organisers of Time’s Up and its analogues are aware that the law of diminishing returns may soon kick in, if it hasn’t already. But the broader trend is conspicuous. From the celebrity envoy or “goodwill ambassador” to the “controversial” acceptance speech to the red-carpet anti-fashion statement, the idea that Hollywood and the media more broadly have a responsibility to deal with issues of social justice is now utterly mainstream.

The intersection of showbiz and activism is by no means a new phenomenon. Jane Fonda’s opposition to the Vietnam War, Harry Belafonte’s involvement in the civil rights movement, and Charlton Heston’s advocacy on behalf of the National Rifle Association are just a few examples of celebrities lending their imprimaturs to issues that are important to them. Nor is this an unwelcome phenomenon, necessarily. It isn’t incumbent on anyone to shut up about the state of the world just because they have money in the bank and a state-of-the-art home-security system, though an intelligent analysis will account for the skewed perspective such privileges tend to engender. Yes it can be irritating to hear ditsy A-listers wax political about topics they’d never heard of until the day before yesterday. But these aren’t crimes against humanity. And, really, Clint Eastwood’s heart to heart with an empty chair was no more embarrassing, at the end of the day, than American Sniper.

And yet the form celebrity politics now takes, and its recent explosion into the headlines, is something else entirely. Indeed I would say that the size and character of this phenomenon are inextricable – that quantity is turning into quality. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, and it’s possible I’m becoming a bore on the issue. But I’m convinced that on the liberal side of politics in particular – and, yes, I know that the current US President has also dabbled in light entertainment – something quite remarkable is happening. When Suzanne Moore can write, in all seriousness, that the “fightback” against the Cheeto Jesus begins with a speech by Meryl Streep, and liberal friends feel called upon to consider whether Oprah Winfrey should run for US President, it is necessary to take a long hard look at progressivism in its contemporary aspect.

Make no mistake: celebrity activism does not exist in isolation from the broader ideological shifts of what’s loosely described as the neoliberal era. It’s often said that in the late twentieth century the right won the economic argument and the left the socio-cultural one. What’s less often said is that both of these victories were victories for liberalism, and for liberal individualism in particular. On the economic side, we were presented with the figure of the creative, risk-taking entrepreneur, and the vision of the flexible, exciting economy that would emerge as a direct result of his/her efforts, while on the cultural side many liberals and progressives, having internalised defeat at the economic level, came to focus more and more on issues of personal identity, moving from an emphasis on native solidarity of the kind that underwrote much second-wave feminism and the 1960s civil rights movement to a more individualistic focus on personal authenticity and acceptance. Now it is possible to see that the latter was in many ways a projection of the former – that as society became more individualistic and “meritocratic” in an economic sense, it also became more individualistic in the socio-cultural-political space. The result is that collectivism is now all but dead in anything other than an idealist (as opposed to materialist) sense; increasingly, the modern liberal/progressive asks only that you be accepting of others in your efforts to be true to yourself.

The new status quo – or political “centre” – is thus one in which the priorities of both the liberal (economic) right and liberal (cultural) left combine. It is an ensemble characterised by what we might call “progressive individualism” – a worldview that sees no necessary tension between a competitive and precarious economy, and the unequal rewards it bestows on its constituents, and a broadly progressive attitude to issues of social and cultural justice. Indeed it regards these two emphases as (potentially) mutually beneficial. To achieve greater diversity in boardrooms, for example – not through affirmative action, of course, but through the “silver bullet” of education and the honest consideration of merit – would be at once to enhance the economy and the “life-chances” of the hitherto marginalised. Thus Hillary Clinton’s combination of lean-in feminism and neoliberal economics: a paradigmatic case, if ever there was one, of the belief that personal excellence and the overcoming of disadvantage are different sides of a single coin. That belief is far more coherent, it should be said, than the Thatcherite or Reaganite model, in which economic liberalisation was combined with a lot of conservative messaging around the traditional family and nationhood and morality – a model that fatally underestimated the propensity for untamed markets to destroy the very settled communities from which such traditional life-worlds emerge. But it is, I think, precisely this coherence that should be a cause for alarm among those of us who are reluctant to regard capitalism as history’s last word.

Indeed, this ideological package is in some ways more demoralising than the socioeconomic model of old. For now it is not just economic success for which the individual must take responsibility but the burden of social improvement as well; both wealth and virtue will fall to those who strive to be better individuals. Thus, where an issue of unequal treatment or exploitation or bullying is identified, it is for more awareness and tolerance that the liberal calls, reflexively, not for improved conditions at work or better union representation or a higher minimum wage. It is a trickledown model of social justice, in which the redistribution of material resources now plays distant second fiddle to the inculcation of self-esteem and “empowerment” through public moral suasion. And it’s within this ideological ensemble, with its emphasis on “modelling” and raising awareness, and its tacit identification of success with virtue, that the members of a high-profile, empathy-rich, big-money profession such as movie acting can become politically important and persuasive.

Consider, for example, Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes in January, in which she spoke movingly about seeing Sidney Poitier receive the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964. Winfrey was just ten years old at the time, and living in straitened circumstances, and the experience of seeing a black actor hailed in this way was, for her, a formative one. But while few would doubt Winfrey’s genuineness here, her generalisation and extrapolation of this (personal) experience was trickledown politics in its purest form. This is how Winfrey ended her speech:

In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and how we overcome. I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say “Me too” again.

Even allowing for the champagne-fuelled atmosphere of mutual congratulation, this was pretty remarkable stuff. Not only is a “new day” on the “horizon”, but, when it dawns, it will be because of some “magnificent” and “phenomenal” women and men, who, by dint of their activism, have become “leaders” on the path to this “brighter morning”. That such a staggering claim to efficacy should be celebrated in the liberal prints, with some journalists and commentators calling for Winfrey to throw her hat into the presidential ring, speaks volumes about the state of modern liberalism.

As it happens, Winfrey is one of a number of figures analysed in Nicole Aschoff’s The New Prophets of Capital (2015). This book, which also contains chapters on Sheryl Sandberg, John Mackey, and Bill and Melinda Gates, is principally an analysis of how causes such as feminism, environmentalism and global development have been reconfigured to reflect and promote an essentially neoliberal ethos. For Aschoff, Winfrey is an example of this trend, one who embodies at a very deep level the priorities of neoliberalism, which entails not only “a political-economic dimension in the reorganisation of laws and practices” but also “an ideological dimension in which social issues [are] transformed into personal troubles”. As Aschoff puts it: “Oprah recognises the pervasiveness of anxiety and alienation in our society. But instead of examining the economic or political basis of these feelings, she advises us to turn our gaze inward and reconfigure ourselves to become more adaptable to the vagaries and stresses of the neoliberal moment.”

That Winfrey’s message of “hope” and overcoming is often combined with product promotions and the celebration of material possessions is in this sense no contradiction at all. Indeed, and as Kathryn Lofton has argued in Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011), her “confessional promiscuity” and materialistic “prosperity gospel” are separate points on a single star, the appearance of which in the still-dark skies will guide us all to that “brighter morning”. Winfrey herself makes no bones about the fact that her personal wealth and personal “excellence” are connected in a fundamental way. As she put it in a speech in 2012: “What I recognise now is that my choice to, in every way, in every example, in every experience, do the right thing and the excellent thing, is what has created the brand.” Inspirational stuff. But flip the equation and you see how the lack of vocational success is implicitly put down to doing the wrong thing. If you were a better person, you’d have better stuff.

This gets us to the nub of the issue, and to the real significance and character of what I’ve called “politics for beautiful people”. For my purpose here is not to criticise, still less to sneer at, “personalities” who take an interest in politics and the world, but rather to expose and critique the character of the broader “double liberalism” for which the modern celebrity activist is the avatar. For as Aschoff argues the combination of success and social activism is now a permanent feature of the socioeconomic landscape. The ruthless, cigar-chewing capitalist, with a glass of ten-year-old scotch in one hand and half a kilo of his secretary’s ass in the other, is not yet an endangered species; but his popularity is on the wane. If you want to get ahead these days, well, buddy, you had better care.

Or, rather, you had better be seen to care. It helps if you talk about empathy, of course, and making the world a better place, à la Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose “listening tour” was taken by many as a sign that he may soon run for office (perhaps – who knows? – on a joint ticket with Winfrey); and it helps too if you have your own charitable foundation, à la Bill and Melinda Gates, who have spared no energy in trying to remake public education in the image of the private sector. And while we may kvetch about how every dollar written off in the name of philanthropy is a dollar that isn’t taxed by the state, which is accountable (in theory at least) to the electorate; and about how the rise of the NGO sector is mapped into the priorities of neoliberal globalisation (Aschoff is excellent on this, btw); and about how the Silicon Valley dudes are only interested in guaranteed income because they know that without it they will soon be facing a crisis of profit-realisation stemming from the fact that the majority of workers have been automated out of a job (by them!) – while we can kvetch about all of that, we will have to admit that these Zuckerbergs and Gateses and Musks are a pretty generous bunch. I mean: this is progress, right?

Well, sure. I guess if we have to have capitalists it’s nicer to have capitalists that are, well, nice. But the end result of all of this is the perpetuation of the very system that allowed these figures to accumulate their gargantuan fortunes in the first place, and which now threatens not only to destroy itself but also the planet it treats as its plaything. Bill Gates says he wants to harness the power of creative capitalism in the cause of development. I say that the kind of development you’ll get if you stick with capitalism, creative or not, will lead us to a new horizon, all right, but that it will be hidden behind a prodigious favela and shrouded in a thick black fog. Capitalism with a friendly face is still capitalism, after all, and capitalism isn’t built on friendship. It’s built on competition and profit, and it leads to monopoly, inequality, precarity, and environmental devastation. Elon Musk can be as whimsical as he likes, with his interplanetary cherry-red roadsters and plans for direct democracy on Mars. He won’t change this fundamental fact.

It’s a long way from the red carpet to the cherry-red roadster. (It’s getting longer all the time: Starman is travelling at three kilometres a second.) But I hope it’s clear that what connects the celebrity activist to the billionaire “philanthrocapitalist“, and connects both to the liberal “centre” of politics, is the belief that it is the individual, and increasingly the individual example, that is the motor of political change. Like your Clintons and Macrons, and even your Trudeaux, your Streeps and Dunhams and Musks and Zuckerbergs believe that we can build Jerusalem one beautiful, empowered person at a time.

But we can’t, and we won’t, and any suggestion to the contrary is utopian and delusional. Social justice will not come from the top; it will not trickle down from the rich and the successful. It will come when those at the bottom of the heap recognise their collective interest and take steps to formalise this realisation in collective action against the system. It will come when working and workless people, who lack the time and energy and money to make themselves physically and spiritually nice, decide that they’ve had enough of this shit, and call “time’s up” on their overseers. It will come when the increasingly self-satisfied class of the virtuous and the well-to-do is recognised for what it is: the status quo in a striking new outfit.

That opposition to this “double liberalism” has taken Trumpite form is, of course, a disaster; no one on the left or centre-left can be anything other than disgusted by populism in its current rightwing iteration. But opposition to the Angry Creamsicle and his ilk should not lead us to become uncritical of the liberal centre and its avatars, however well-meaning they appear to be. The beautiful people are not our saviours. There’s a reckoning coming. And it’s going to get ugly.