Thursday 5 July 2012

We DO Need Another Hero

Two Men Enter. One Man Leaves: Does Labour need another hero? David Shearer's failure to pull the metaphorical sword from the stone bodes ill for his looming battle with the National Party's (and the nation's?) "monomythic" leader.

“WE DON’T NEED ANOTHER HERO” sings Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It’s a curiously contradictory song because, if you listen to the lyrics, it soon becomes painfully clear that a hero is exactly what these captive children, “the last generation”, need: someone who does “know the way home”; someone who can lead them “beyond Thunderdome”.

Perhaps the popularity of the 1985 hit recording is attributable to the worldwide collapse in the public’s – and especially the young’s – faith in political leaders and political ideologies. This was, after all, an era dominated by the polarising figures of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, leaders who made it very clear that they would rather be dead than red and were quite willing to enlist the rest of us in proving the point. Mad Max was itself set in a post-nuclear-apocalypse world. In the eyes of many young people, heroes weren’t the solution – heroes were the problem.

And yet, as even the most cursory glance at the historical record makes clear, people not only need heroes but they are ready and willing to follow them. Indeed, modern political marketing is about little else. Just take a look at a professionally produced campaign ad. Note the camera angles, the lighting, the music, the symbolic references: the entire exercise is devoted to making the candidate look taller, wiser, braver, more patriotic, more heroic that his or her rivals.

The great American socialist, Eugene Victor Debs, warned his working-class followers against putting their faith in leaders:

I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.

By the same token, however, Debs never came close to being elected President of the United States and his Socialist Party remained forever in the shadow of the Democratic Party.

Nor is it certain that Debs’ contention is even true. Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister, was hailed as a hero by his working-class followers as the world spiralled into financial ruin in 1929. But when, in 1931, bereft of ideas about how to stem the rising tide of unemployment, MacDonald threw in his lot with the Conservative Party and led a rump of Labour into a coalition “National” government, he was vehemently denounced as a traitor to both his country and his class.

The notion that a hero is someone who wields great physical and/or moral power in his own right, though widely held, is misconceived. A hero isn’t something that you are, it is something you become. Joseph Campbell, in his seminal 1949 work The Hero of a Thousand Faces, describes what he calls the “monomyth”, the narrative structure common to all hero tales:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Heroes succeed because they embody the virtues and have acquired the skills necessary to overcome or divert the forces their communities feel most threatened by. The hero is the distillation of collective aspiration, not its creator.

Local Hero: John Key is the distillation of New Zealanders' aspirations - not their creator.

John Key’s extraordinary success as a political leader owes a great deal to how closely his own career conforms to the heroic monomyth.

The story begins with John, an ordinary Kiwi joker with a head for figures, setting out on a risky journey into the fantastic world of high finance, where all but the hardiest and most cunning traders are eaten alive. Having mastered the magical art of making money, and acquired a vast fortune, John returns home from his adventures determined to put his hard-won skills to good use among his own people.

It is difficult to imagine a “hero” better suited to the needs of twenty-first century New Zealand. John Key’s very ordinariness confirms his “Everyman” status, and amplifies the potency of his success. The power he wields is not his own, but a weapon forged from the capacities inherent in every Kiwi: those mysterious qualities that allow New Zealanders to “punch above their weight”; that national essence which sanctions John Key’s followers’ vicarious participation in his personal and political success. He is Us, and We are Him. It’s why, until an even more emblematic hero comes along, John Key will remain invincible.

For a while, it looked as though Labour had found just such an emblem. David Shearer’s story, like John Key’s, begins with an ordinary bloke setting forth on a journey, during which he encounters all manner of monsters – from Somali warlords to murderous Israeli settlers – learning in the process the magic spells for opening the human heart to compassion, justice and reconciliation. He, too, returns to his people and, at the crucial moment, steps forward from the shadows to declare that he is the one destined to lay low the National Party usurper.

Except he hadn’t learned the spells, or, if he had, he could no longer remember them.

Forgotten Magic: What if the Once and Future King had grabbed the sword in the stone - and it hadn't budged?

It’s as if Arthur stepped up to the sword in the stone, gave it a confident tug – and nothing happened. Instead of a sword flashing in the sunlight above his head, proof positive that he was “rightwise King born of all England”, the weapon stays exactly where it is, and the hero, with an embarrassed shrug, picks up a guitar instead.

There are, of course, many variations on the classic hero tale. Instead of acquiring forbidden knowledge and inheriting mysterious powers, the hero is often required to overcome a series of obstacles and/or eliminate a host of adversaries before completing his quest. In doing so he blazes a trail and lays a path for those who follow after him. Think of the Labours of Heracles, or Theseus’s struggle with the Minotaur, or Luke Skywalker’s destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars.

Does Labour have another hero? And, if it does, can we assume that the first obstacles and adversaries he must overcome are all inside his own party?

In the words of the Bartertown mob in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: “Two men enter! One man leaves!”

Or, as Savannah Nix (more generously) declares in the movie’s closing sequence:

Still in all, every night we does the tell, so that we ‘member who we was and where we came from ... but most of all we ‘members the man that finded us, him that came the salvage. And we lights the city, not just for him, but for all of them that are still out there. ‘Cause we knows there come a night, when they sees the distant light, and they’ll be comin’ home.

We DO need another hero.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Monique Angel said...

You're as left as the day is long, CT, whereas I have moved away from my back-handed roots on many issues. But I thoroughly enjoy your posts and this one is s a cracker. Jk was promising. He's telegenic, quick-witted and relatable. But he almost suffers from the quality of161 opomense "not being inspiring enough". this leaves him open for charges of being a "front" for the nefarious capitalist agenda.

Pete George said...

We also need SOME PATIENCE. The last hero took longer than a few months.

jh said...

The working class of NZ should stay well clear of the NZ left-wing. Why? Because the left are still in the 19th C and workers must be increasingly aware that:

"Globalization brings reorganization at the international, national and sub-national levels. Specifically, it brings the reorganization of production, international trade and the integration of financial markets. This affects capitalist economic and social relations, via multilateralism and microeconomic phenomena, such as business competitiveness, at the global level. The transformation of production systems affects the class structure, the labor process, the application of technology and the structure and organization of capital. Globalization is now seen as marginalizing the less educated and low-skilled workers. Business expansion will no longer automatically imply increased employment. Additionally, it can cause high remuneration of capital, due to its higher mobility compared to labor."

from investopedia.


“Both in New Zealand and globally, the best of the leftwing tradition has always rejected small-minded nationalism, xenophobia and racism. In fact, leftists of an internationalist tradition have always favoured globalization and getting rid of national borders and barriers to migration. Progressive advocates of globalization of course do not defend a handful of rich imperialist countries, including New Zealand, dominating the world’s economy, but instead advocate an integrated and radically egalitarian world economy where production is based on social need and not on private profit. ”

jh said...

Hooked a dogfish Chris Trotter?

Anonymous said...


No worthwhile political leader will come. We stopped making them 25 years ago. If you want anything other than a telegenic poll watcher, you're out of luck.

In the same way that the Americans can no longer put people into orbit, nobody in NZ now has the education or character to do the job that needs doing.

You're looking for the man who isn't there.

Anonymous said...

Francois Hollande isn't a very heroic type. That hasn't stopped him.

jh said...

The Savings Working Group placed the blame for high house prices fairly and squarely on government policy.They mentioned land supply constraints but also net migration which requires more houses, roads schools at the expense of business investment and capital deepening. We have had wave after wave of new migrants. Houses only keep going up and those positioned in the property sector get richer and richer. Unable to question immigration the left is left with one option and that is to ally with the libertarian property developers such as Hugh Pavletich, where town plans must not include urban limits and population growth is an end in itself. The model is Houston Texas where infrastructure is largely provided privately and those who don't have it are presumed not to want it and you can't walk any where.
Steven Franks is banging this ("land supply")theme on the panel (Jim Moira).

XChequer said...

Fantastic post, Chris.

"Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.
Galileo: No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero."

Unhappy indeed is the land of Labour.

The only thing I question is making heroes of politicians. Sure, they can be inspirational but tagging them heroes? I wrote something bout this not long back ( because it seems that heroes don't exist but for those that are manufactured and presented to us as such (Apologies to Willie Apiata). Politicians are there because they are meant to lead and do great works. They are installed in parliament as such to do these things. A true hero by General George Patton's definition ("The real hero is the man who fights even though he is scared")wouldn't be a politician which does, point to David Shearer a little. The mythos points to the true hero to be someone from outside the party.

In practical terms, if one was to look for heroic action from David Cunliffe for example (here I'm not suggesting that this piece is a call to arms for DC), well....... he is tarred with the same brush, really. As are all the present lot, including the likes of Andrew Little or Jacinda Adern who is as mired in the muck of the present doom as any of them.

The hero Labour needs is not there at the moment and I suggest the eyes be cast further afield. Like all heroes, the one Labour needs will rise unlooked for and make themselves known by their deeds.

thesorrow&thepity said...

Just so you know what colours I'm flying under, I'm on the political right, I'm not posting to gloat at Shearers demise because in all honesty I truly feel sorry for him. Just as Phil Goff before it just seems no one in his own caucus is behind him unless they're holding a dagger. As much as Clark was the enemy (to us on the right) she was highly intelligent & stood at the head of a political juggernaut that stayed in power for 3 terms. It seems the well oiled machine of PR & media consultants, loyal lieutenants & street level organisers have formed into their own camps & since election night 08 have plotted & schemed against one another (you mentioned in a previous article about game of thrones which seemed most apt). Goff had the leadership foisted upon him like Socrates being given the hemlock. Enough savvy political animals in the Labour party knew National would be in for more than one term resulting in a sacrificial lamb being needed for the leadership. But what now with Shearer? He doesn't seem to have been given the media training Clark received from the likes of Edwards, everyone in the party seems to ignore him, it looks from afar that the factions are still waiting to fight over the leadership, that he's been set up to fail. Politics is a dirty game but how Shearer's been treated by his own party ranks just seems cruel & calculated (for instance articles keeps popping up where someone else is 'accidentally' referred to as Labour party leader). In all honesty dogs are put down more humanely, we all know a leadership change will occur why let it linger?

Kat said...

"John returns home from his adventures determined to put his hard-won skills to good use among his own people."

Poetic license aside, Key was head hunted by the Slater tribe back in the late 90's to be groomed as Nationals future Sheriff.

Shearer is Labours best version of Robin Hood.

Lets see who goes down in history as the peoples ultimate choice CT.

Anonymous said...

No hero would survive in any of the present political parties.

We have ended up in situation where dissent must be minor, or very silly, to be allowable.

Anybody that looks like remotely challenging our total committment to capitalism, or questions whether we should crawl on our bellies before the powerful finance sector is eased out of even our social democrat parties.

The fear of being branded extremist by our ruling class is so strong that Labour and the Greens self censor and get any hero contendors out of the picture by whatever means necessary.

The media is usually more than willing to help in this task.

Nevertheless I still have enough faith in my fellow New Zealanders to beleive we will create our own heros and seize back our country from the 'mainstream' pricks who control our politics and our economy at present.

schultzie said...

What people don't seem to realise is how much a myth the whole Key as success in high finance thing is. If he really had been a success in London or New York then he'd have a lot, lot, lot more money than he claims (either that or he has hidden it away). Personally I think he was just mid-tier, nothing special.

Anonymous said...

There is another fundamental narrative, the anointed god/king who subsequently gets offered up as a sacrifice a la The Wicker Man. This is particularly applicable in politics. True heroes are normally nomads and move on to the next town, like Xena, or Mad Max too I think, at the end of that movie. Either way John Key has a lifespan at the top that will end. Who can replace him, from National?