Friday, 17 April 2015

Legend and Contemporary Politics

[This is a much revised version of a piece first published in March 2012 in Eyeless Owl]

Politics over the last hundred years has been relatively resistant to mythic or legendary considerations. Legend can be used tactically for propaganda in a crisis or it can enter into the perceived history of a nation out of laziness, ignorance or manipulative deliberation. Yet, despite the influence of legend on nineteenth century romantic nationalism, most modern politicians most of the time like to avoid appeals to irrationalism. A distinction between mythic and legendary narratives allows us to place to one side in this posting faith-based political ideology - notably that of the Shi'a but also the now much reduced, except in the backwoods of America, biblical fundamentalist narratives about race and providence.

A legend is something based not on the will of God or God's intervention in the world but on re-interpreting what men have actually done. It also has to stand a certain reasonable time. The attempt at promoting the legends of JFK and Camelot and of Churchill's wartime record eventually fall into the hands of historians and soon cease to drive political decision-making - or, at least, they are eventually restricted to the mobilisation of factions or parties rather than whole communities. They start to die with the generations involved. The classical legends of Greece and Rome may be embedded deep within Western culture and are often used rhetorically but they cannot reasonably be said to be at the heart of modern Western political theory or practice. The exploits of Theseus and Heracles or of Horatio at the Bridge have ceased even being imperial exemplars.

The Modern World and 'Noble Lies'

The modern world might be regarded as rational with irrational characteristics whereas legends are 'noble lies', redrafts of history to instill exemplary values for largely conservative purposes. The remnants of legendism in the last century are intriguing for signs of where irrationalism may re-emerge as the basis for a trans-valuation of values in politics. We might draw a distinction between cultures where an otherwise long-since dead culture lives in the minds and values of the population and those where an event in the recent past has the potential to be recast in legendary terms.

We could also note that legend becomes distanced from politics with lessening vulnerability. Romantic nationalism owes a great deal to legends and romantic nationalism tends to appear strongest when a nation is submerged within an empire or under direct and immediate threat. Otherwise, quotidien money-making shifts legend quite quickly to the entertainment sector. This is why the most ambivalent attitudes to legend lie in nations that once relied on legend for their sense of continued existence but which now have developed into relatively wealthy late capitalist economies where legend has become the staple of the tourist and arts industries. Feeling Beowulf as part of one's identity is different to watching Ray Winstone strut his stuff in a movie.

Israel and Its Shadow

Perhaps the oddest example may be Jewish culture which has found legendism to cut both ways. The 'blood libel' guilt is no longer present in our culture but the awareness of it has created a sort of contra-legend about the ‘normality’ of anti-semitism. The legend that the founder of the Rothschild dynasty was given an inexhaustible barrel of oil by Elijah for a good deed in the eighteenth century might be seen as fraught with worrying potential in the current climate. Legendism has a long history in Jewish culture from biblical through rabbinical and hasidic cultures to modern Zionism. The living construction of legends in modern Israel and in the diaspora for contemporary purposes (no doubt mimicked in the Arab world) is a live political issue.

Its deepest and darkest enemy, national-socialism in Germany, was highly mythologised and, like Jewish culture, interested in adopting legend for nationalist purposes. This partly mythic, partly occult culture descended into bloody mayhem under such conditions that it seems unlikely that it will ever recover its political importance. Nevertheless, the Nazi mythos has to be noted as a continued inspiration for the marginalised Radical Right across the West and beyond. Its modern absurdities have moved on from Wotanism and from myths of an Aryan Atlantis to contemporary stories surrounding the origin UFOs. The legendary aspects started with the rewriting of history by strange outsiders like the Greek-French pseudo-Aryan Savitri Devi and have continued with tales of the escape of Nazis to Latin America.

Declining Western States

Three 'cases' to watch might be Eire as its 'Celtic Tiger' dream implodes, Spain - and Japan as its economic status begins to sink relative (though only relative) to that of China. A fourth may be (strangely) the most advanced of all - the US as it comes to terms with its own equally relative decline. Yet, Ireland saw no return to romantic nationalism under economic pressure - on the contrary Sinn Fein has 'degenerated' into another pragmatic fixer trying to get the best financial deal out of Dublin and London.

Traditional legends were still being created about Eamonn de Valera within the last hundred years but it seems unthinkable that such thinking can be recreated now, except that there remains a residual belief in the power of the land, national destiny and spirits that might be re-encoded into politics under extreme pressure in both Eire and Cymru - and perhaps Scotland. In the Irish case, the discrediting of the Catholic Church, as wave after wave of scandals related to past abuse of the vulnerable, leaves a cultural vaccuum that is being filled with European liberalism and not the return to traditional values.

Spain is interesting because the Legend of El Cid was played to great political effect by both the republicans and nationalists in the Civil War. Franco not only built an imposing new tomb for the legendary hero in Burgos Cathedral but organised national celebrations in 1943 both for the 900th anniversary of his birth and 1,000 years of Castilian independence. At the moment. Spain is very troubled but the corrupt old Right is not playing the legendary nationalist card but embedding itself deeper into Europe.

In Japan, the cult of the samurai, much of it quite recent in origin but with more ancient legendary roots, maintains a powerful role in modern Japanese history, reaching its post war epitome in Yukio Mishima's attempted coup in the 1960s, but this too has diverted itself into manga and anime and thence into the global games industry. Mishima himself is seen rightly by the Japanese as closer to the Western decadent tradition than as exemplar of traditional values. The modernisation of the Meiji period has allowed a persistent interest in ancient heroes but they do not drive an essentially pragmatic politics.


The fourth case, the United States, brings us to a theme that is more germane to outlier and semi-developed cultures - banditry. Much of American legend is now made redundant out of regard for the American Indian (General Custer) or because an age of resource exploitation (Paul Bunyan) has passed. But the country of Jesse James and a tradition of murderous robbery from the American Civil War through to Dillinger have also created the standard 'Robin Hood' myth that we see in all frontier societies. But while the frontier has closed, the legend could yet have lived on against presumed rapacious bankers but it did not - protest remained law-abiding.

In the Balkans and the Turkic area, bandits and outlaws can still be politically relevant. The myth of the bandit became inspirational in the partisan ballads of the last century in Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria (and elsewhere) while Kuroghli is the Turkic Robin Hood, a romantic, noble and generous rebel, challenging all authority. Kuroghli, a seventeenth century brigand, remains a 'living' legend, protector of the poor and enemy of the rich, perhaps available as an Islamist iconic figure, given the claims that he has the special protection of the Islamic pre-Mohammedan culture hero of Khidr or that he is the reincarnation of the significant Shia figure Ali, son-in-law to the Prophet.

The Caucasus

There are two nations (Armenia and Georgia) and many ethnic groups in the Caucasus with a strong sense of their own heroic past, mostly of resistance to authority derived from larger powers. This has expressed itself both as legends of banditry in the pre-revolutionary Soviet cause and as anti-Soviet risings after the Revolution. In Armenia, the saga of King Arshak II has been central to the story of struggle for freedom. It was a factor in the exile and death of the poet Osip Mandelstam in 1938 after he published a symbolic treatment in which the oppressor King Shapur was too easily seen as Josef Stalin, an association implied more than once in his poetry.

Stalin was a Georgian but the nationalist poet whose work he admired, Mikheil Javakhishvili, nevertheless died at the hands of the NKVD despite Stalin's appreciation of his novel about the romantic legendary early nineteenth century bandit Arsena. On the other side of the coin, perhaps fortunate to die in Tiflis in an accident in 1921 before Stalin started cleaning up behind him, was the revolutionary bandit Kamo (Ter Petrossian) who raised funds for Lenin in much the same way and not long after Stalin was doing the same in Georgia - through organised crime as a bank robber.

The link between past American resentments of bankers and our Caucasian revolutionaries is simply that crime becomes a political issue where the population no longer trust the State and where warlordism becomes an alternative to democracy. The alleged individualism and manliness of the cowboy offers another legendary model for libertarian resistance. It may seem extreme to suggest that the US is at risk from such a scenario but its legends of approval for free-booting criminals, maintained through its popular culture, show that the extension of the current chaos in Northern Mexico into the South West of the United States may well rely on a 'legendary attitude' hidden within American values. As we have noted, this did not result in rediscovery of Hobsbawm's 'social bandit' in the post-2008 economic crisis so we must conclude that the American people basically trust their system and prefer it to the rule, even theoretical, of warlords.

Asian and African Models

In Iran, the Shahname or 'The Book of Kings' remains a live legendary text for many Iranians who oppose the dominance of the Shia theocracy. This is not an immediate issue but, as we saw in the Arab Spring, it is not to be assumed that democratic liberals will be the beneficiaries of revolutionary changes.

A cult of Genghiz Khan was tolerated and even supported in Chinese Inner Mongolia to placate Mongol nationalism. A cult centre with battle standards was permitted on the steppes. But the old pro-Soviet Mongolian People's Republic took the opposite view, terming Genghiz Khan as a destructive tyrant (somewhat cheeky given the dominance of Stalin) and sought to suppress his cult at every opportunity.

In Africa, both the Zulus and the Afrikaners, who might yet combine politically in mutual defence against the poor and black urban majority, share opposite sides of the same historic event that has achieved legendary status to both peoples - the Battle of Blood River (1838) when General Pretorius defeated Dinganam, heir to Chaka's Zulu Empire.

The Americas and Pacific

We noted above the risks of warlord chaos spilling over into the South West of US and the drugs community is one of the few zones where legendary figures and tropes are being created in the contemporary world (outside the capitalist-financed media). This directs our attention to Mexico and other parts of Middle America where Indian resistance has always had a legendary aspect, ranging from 'Aztec nationalism' through the legendary appropriation of European themes (the Virgin of Gaudelupe) to support legends of victory over and resistance to predatory tribes backed by the invaders. Lower register forms of Aztlan nationalism extend into Chicano territory within South West Mexico and there are some reports of it appearing within the ranks of the crime lords whose bloodthirstiness may be seen within a longer traditionalist framework of hatred towards the gringos - and may yet be turned on the gringos more directly.

Finally, a very different sort of legend, the cargo cult, offers a form of resistance through emulation and manipulation in the Pacific that may well throw up the odd cult leader but the type hero of both the Aborigines and working-class whites remains - yes, you guessed it - the bandit. White Australians have a slew of legends of courageous legendary resistance to authority encompassing Ned Kelly, the Eureka Stockade and the historical events surrounding Gallipoli but it is the aborigines who can call on genuinely ambiguous criminals who were also cast as freedom fighters, men such as Tucklar, Yagan and Pigeon. It may be that Australia represents the last country in the world whose entire political culture is built on the sustained triumph of legend over historical reality. It may only be the undoubted dominance of the incomers over the indigenes that ensures that it is does not become a brutal clash of banditries.

Lost Leaders

The disappearance of Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the anti-imperialist Indian National Army is an unresolved issue. He boarded a Japanese plane for an unknown destination and was never seen again. (The analogy with the disappearance of various Nazi leaders is noted, notably Hitler himself). The story of Bose suggests the many lost leaders who have disappeared. Many of them are still believed (not by modern men but as mythic ideas) to be ready to return when a nation is troubled. Their spirit may be seen as recoverable on the traditionalist Right. Amongst these are King Arthur, Charlemagne, Owen Glendwyr, Robert the Bruce, Frederick Barbarossa, Siegfried, Sir Francis Drake, King Sebastian of Portugal and Tsar Alexander I. The Romanov blood line was once believed to have survived in at least the genes of Princess Anastasia.

There are also the tales of the flying Dutchman and of the wandering Jew - who was seen in Salt Lake City in 1868, in Glamorgan in the early last century and said to have been a New York stockbroker in the 1940s. Not politically important perhaps but implying mysteries that continue to fascinate the media, the public and the internet.

Concluding Thoughts

Nor should we forget the magicians - there may be Rasputins yet to come at the courts of declining dictators and dynasts ... nor the Freemasons. Some like to cast Alexandre Dugin in that role at the court of Putin - Peter Mandelson developed a sinister (and probably unfair) 'legendary' role as Prince of Darkness within the Labour Party. We have not even touched the surface of legends of secret societies, Illuminati and other groupings seen as either agent of light or sinister manipulators in the contemporary legends of men under stress.

All in all, legendary tales and their role as irrationalism in politics may not have disappeared quite so much as we may believe even if we see little sign of active political importance. A 'legendary attitude' (acceptance of crime lords or a call for the spirit of lost leaders) may reappear and some nations may still be susceptible under pressure. Any real resurgence of traditionalist irrationalism is unlikely, partly because the world is interconnected enough that no leader of such a revolt can be wholly isolated from reality or get away with excessive departure from the facts - faith-based mythic irrationalism is a far greater danger. Note how Subcomandante Marcos, consciously created as a mythic figure to support the aspirations of the Mexican peasantry, is now seen as precisely what he was - a hyper real contemporary creation - rather than a creation of the 'volk'.  But the phenomenon shows us that a legend-based mobilisation of a population, handled with skill by an ambitious politician, prepared to develop an educated post-modern appropriation of its imagery, is still more than possible under conditions of extreme stress.

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