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Popular culture has heated up our imaginations, making us vulnerable to right-wing populism

What has led to the rise of right-wing authoritarianism? One view is that globalisation and capitalism are responsible. Another view is that it is related to patriarchy fighting back against feminism. A third view is that liberalism is flawed and that authoritarianism has never been very far from liberalism.

All three may be correct. Right-wing authoritarianism may have different causes and trajectories. One driver of authoritarianism that has not received sufficient attention is popular culture – film, television and fiction. These media entertain, but they also reflect and shape social attitudes. Popular culture is affected by economics, gender relations, and prevailing political values and practices. But it also has a degree of autonomy from these basic structures.

What is striking is the paranoid turn in popular culture. It is not recent, but it has grown. The basic paranoid story line is well known. A hero, male or female, fights an authority figure or figures who are self-seeking, two-faced, violent, exploitative, even deranged. The authority figures are politicians, business tycoons, scientists and engineers, as well as religious leaders and activists. The hero uncovers or is embroiled in a conspiracy by authorities. He or she battles against a rotten “system” as much as a particular individual and in the end wins though at great personal cost.

A consistent theme in these media is that under the genial facade of normal and seemingly liberal social existence are dark forces that are working to control others and take away their freedom and dignity, or their lives. The broad message is that authority is corrupt and cannot be trusted. Political and other authorities in liberal societies are in these depictions shown to be illiberal, selfish and violent even if they pretend to be otherwise. The audience is left with a view that though the hero has triumphed, the dark forces will return and have not been entirely defeated.

Why does this paranoid theme flourish against liberalism above all? It does so because other kinds of political dispensations are assumed to be reactionary, controlling and violent. A film, television serial, or a novel that deals with the heroic resistance to a ruthless dictatorship is too predictable, or sentimental, and provides no “kick”. It is only in science fiction that heroic action against monstrous foes excites and entertains. On planet earth, it is liberal structures and practices that provide a more interesting backdrop to the story. Underneath the seemingly normal and open existence we take for granted in a liberal society, the narrative shows that there are terrible forces at play below the surface. It has shock value and challenges our complacency, and that makes for good viewing or reading.

In essence, films, television serials or pot-boiler novels with these kinds of storylines provide us with the comfort that there may be simple answers to complex social problems. Poverty, inequality, unemployment, everyday violence in the streets, social malaise, environmental damage and confounding antagonisms with other countries are traceable to corrupt, self-seeking politicians, business executives and entrepreneurs, scientists and other experts, religious figures and activists. Well-meaning liberals exist, but they are shown to be foolish, cowardly or stymied by legal niceties in dealing with the villains. It takes a hero who sees things clearly and sets aside the normal and the legal to put things right.

It is this that provides the political narrative that authoritarian leaders and movements use to unsettle democracy and come to power. Crusading leaders and movements are the heroes that see the corrupt and violent forces below the surface of a seemingly liberal existence. They must unmask and reveal what is going on and use extraordinary, even unconstitutional means to do battle and triumph on our behalf.

We live in a time of dark and dangerous conspiracy theories. As we ask why, we should consider that popular culture has played a role in encouraging our increasingly paranoid and heated imaginations.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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