Saturday, 28 June 2008

Mandela Madness

I was watching the News today and the item about the Birthday celebrations for Nelson Mandela. A whole lot of people seemed to have turned up with very little idea of what they were actually celebrating other than the 90th birthday of some old bloke who was a celebrity, and for whose Party a whole host of other celebrities had turned up. A bit like those "An Audience With..." programmes that are on occasionally where a bunch of celebrities of varying degrees of worthiness to the title turn up so that TV spectators can again live their lives vicariously through that of people with whom they have nothing in common, and can provide the TV companies with cheap scheduling, whilst replenishing the bank balances and ego of the celebrity who has deigned to grant us an audience.

One of the celebrities interviewed - I have absolutely no idea who she was, but she was being interviewed by a News reporter so must have been a celebrity - summed up just what as wrong with the event, and what is wrong with much of modern society. This young woman was no doubt a celebrity, but what does that term mean. It seems at every turn there are celebrities of varying degrees, just like the social ranking of society that was the characteristic feature of feudal society. It seems the main reason there has to be so many celebrities is in order to fill the pages of all the celebrity magazines, that enlighten us all with their in depth analysis of the life and times of the rich and famous, just as in the past everyone had to know what the latest developments were at Court. The system of becoming a celebrity seems very similar to feudal practices too, and shrouded in mystical practices. For many celebrities we ask, r actually most people don't ask, but should, "Why are they a celebrity?" The reason often seems to be, because we have been told they are a celebrity. By whom? Probably by the celebrities own publicist. And having become a celebrity they must be fetd as such by the celebrity magazines, and lesser celebrities. And of course, i they are treated as a celebrity it can only be because THEY ARE a celebrity can't it?

The young woman being interviewed by News 24 clearly had no idea why she was there for Mandela's birthday celebrations. Probably noone else there did either. It was rather like the other news item that followed about the Glastonbury Music Festival. Did most people really to listen to Shakin Stevens? Did some of the young people there even know who he was, did they think he was some new rising Hip Hopper? Or in a society where everyone has to give their opinion on how great the Emperor's New Clothes are were they just there because a lot of other people were reported to be there? Our interviewee said she didn't really know anything about Mandela, because she was too young, but she had grown up listening to stories from her Mother about what a great man he was, and the wonderful things he had done. It, of course, would have been interesting to have asked if she could list any of these wonderful things.

The fact is that Mandela is fanmous for essentially one thing. Rather like all those other celebrities what he is most famous for, is being Nelson Mandela. What Nelson Mandela is and was is a symbol, a symbol of a people's fight against a nasty apartheid regime. But for that reason it is the struggle of that people that should be celebrated not Nelson Mandela, to do otherwise is an insult to those people, but in another way it is an insult to Mandela too, because it reduces him from being a political fighter to being just another celebrity in a night sky of celebrities. Mandela has probably more right to that title than most of those other stars, but just as the fawning over him by politicians who previously described him as a terrorist, and who describe others engaged in the same kind of fight against opression today as terrorists, is sickening, so to is the elevation of him as a political figure into something he is not.

The fact is that Mandela was a part of the struggle against Apartheid, and a part based on inadequate, bourgeois nationalist politics. To speak as our interviewee did of the wonderful things he did is to brazenly ignore the fact that for 27 years, or the majority of his active political life, what he could do, wonderful or not, was heavily circumscribed by the fact that he was a prisoner! How meaningless is it to describe someone as having accomplished such wonderful acts when what they achieved was to be in gaol? During all that time, Mandela's main contribution was to be what it has been since, to be a symbol. That is not unimportant in itself, but stop this fawning, and begin to ask the questions that need to be asked, to avoid the mistakes made in Soputh Africa, and to deal with the situation in Zimbabwe now. Thos problems won't be solved by fawning and pop concerts, they'll be solved by real struggle on the basis of an adequate political Programme.

2 comments:

a very public sociologist said...

Unsurprisingly, I agree with you. I remember a comrade telling me the real tragedy of Mandela was his spending 27 years breaking rocks for ideas that could never do the job of liberating black South Africans.

As for ignorant celebrities, well they're par the course I'm afraid. Set adrift from any kind of "real" existence, is it any wonder they fall prey to crap like Scientology and the Kabballah?

Arthur Bough said...

But, what an indictment of the Left! As a Marxist I accept my share of the blame for the fact that the Labour Movemement is in such a terrible condition. As I have written elsewhere in the 19th century under pretty poor conditions Marx, Engels, William Morris, Julian Harney and other socialists paved the way developed ideas - imagine trying to develop an entire new economc and scoial theory when for large parts of the day all you could read by was a candle! - and by concentrating their attention on the working class were able to bring together and lay the basis of powerful working class organisations all over the world. Organisations that by the beginning of the twentieth century had membership running into millions, and votes running into millions more, when workers took up socialists ideas like milk from their Mother, who attended meetings, and educationals through the Workers educational Association and other such organisations, that had created the Co-operative Movement as a living expression of how a society could work without Capitalists, and which nearly eery worker looked to to supply their basic needs - even when I was a kid everyone went to the Co-op, had their milk delivered by the Co-op and even used the Co-op Laundry. And in the last 100 years instead of taking that Movement forward, we have managed to destroy and udnermine all that work.

The Majority of marxists exist in tiny irrelevant sects, that are increasingly remote from the working class they claim to place at the centre of their politics. The idea of Co-operatives which Marx and Engels put at the centre of their vision of how workers could reclaim the means of production and transform society is disdained by most Marxists as "Utopian", because they cling to a vision of revolution a la 1917.

We need to go back to those basic lessons and begin again.