Political Protests and the Power of Heroic Narratives

Photograph: François Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

France is in the middle of a political crisis as its president Emmanuel Macron is facing extremely low approval numbers while protests are intensifying to the point the government cannot contain them. For me this is kinda baffling, how such a wealthy and stable country like France could see such large and enduring protests that suddenly implode in violence, with rioters joining the peaceful protesters, followed by police responding with violence to the point of shooting students at point blank.

I don’t think this is just about the incompetence of a neoliberal centrist government that has utterly failed at gaining support from normal people, it’s also about the alienation that’s present across all social classes in the modern world. These protest movements can gain such momentum and intensity so quickly because most people don’t have any hopes of improving their living conditions, while also don’t have much personal aspirations rooted in archaic ideals like religion or ideology.

I think that such a lack of purpose or hope in the future is what drives many people to unusual causes like the Catalan independence movement, if you read the news you can just feel the complete confusion that analysts and traditional politicians feel regarding a movement that isn’t going to give its supporters any immediate or obvious benefits. But that’s because all those professionals and pundits are detached from the rest of the world, as they are trapped in a bubble of empty stat sheets and esoteric economic indicators.

This problem has gotten especially bad as the ruling classes themselves have fallen under the same curse, as the leaders of the “free world” are now completely aimless and devoid of any realistic, or even inspiring, goals. The embodiment of this resides in monsters like Donald Trump, a deluded idiot who lives in fantasies and empty slogans like “Make America Great Again”, while lesser critters like Macron live in their own imaginary world in which France returns to its former Imperial glory.

Look at this dudes

So it’s only natural that people reject these idiots, despite all their claims to the contrary they are both ideological vacuums, they are just simple men who crave for personal glory and not much else. For all their talk their main policy achievements have been implementing tax cuts to the rich at the expense of everyone else, as the lower classes will have to face the eventual fallout in the form of austerity and economic meltdowns.

People are now completely tired of a political establishment that provides boring (and fake) promises of marginal reductions to the fiscal deficit or a small percentage increase in economic growth, even though everybody knows that any growth will fall mostly in the hands of the ultra-rich and the many soulless corporations. Normal human beings are instead drawn to narratives and political movements that provide them with an intoxicating purpose, and massive protests are a perfect outlet for such primal desires.

One of the most ancient heroic narratives is that of a hunter fighting against a monster, a beast, or a dragon. And this is clearly rooted in our common past as hunters, for thousands of years humans spread around the world searching and hunting large beasts, constantly fighting an epic battle for life and death against creatures that have been lost to time. And yet we also forget that humans aren’t lone hunters, we are social animals and so hunting was a community activity in which several hunters joining together to defeat a monstrous beast that’s much larger than them.

It’s also not strange that a lot of popular entertainment these days, including movies and video games, often feature a group of heroes fighting together against a powerful enemy such as Thanos or an Elder Dragon. This desire of hunting down monsters is written into every single one of our cells.

Monster Hunter: World (2017)

The massive protests against Trump and Macron are a reflection of this primal desire that’s common to all humans, this desire to defeat a grotesque monster for the sake of the survival of the community. And we need this not just because of any practical reasons, but rather because at the deepest level of our subconscious we want this, we want to defeat monsters that are much more powerful than us in order to fulfill our most basic psychological needs.

And yet the political establishment has completely failed to understand this basic need for an heroic narrative, and they prove it time and time again, as they fail to persuade people with empty promises based in mere statistics. Since the end of the Cold War the leadership in the Western world has given up on dreams and conflicts, instead focusing on mere administrative goals that betray the aspirations of normal people.

Although I am just paraphrasing Adam Curtis here.

We see this happen over and over again across the world, not just in France or the United States. For example the president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, is slowly wrecking the economy of his own nation with self-destructive austerity policies while also facing mass protests against his regressive rule, while all he can deliver are sterile promises of a percentage increase in some random statistic sheet that no sane person actually cares about.

The same pattern is repeating itself in other parts of Latin America, with countries like Colombia and Costa Rica facing the exact same situation, as both are facing protests against a recently-elected and deeply-unpopular government that’s trying to impose austerity policies on a population that’s just not gonna take it.

This is also what’s driving the rise of the far-right in Europe, although in a more insidious way since these right-wing populists aren’t focusing on promising an inspiring vision of the future, instead they rely on creating nightmares based in imaginary threats (such as refugees and Russians) in order to impose order amid declining economic prospects.

If progressive politicians want to change the world they need to embrace the idea of a heroic narrative, of a realistic promise of positive change that isn’t rooted in meaningless statistics, but rather in a hopeful vision for the future. They also need to put themselves in the center of such a narrative as heroes that represent the interests of the people who put them in power.

There is certainly some hope for such a change, although the last time we saw something like this was during the “ Obama revolution” which completely failed to deliver on its initial promise, although in terms of narrative it was very successful as it managed to portray the former president of the US as a savior who arrived to heal the damage done by the previous administration.

But the world needs more than empty promises, at least if we want to defeat the greatest monsters in the history of humankind such as global warming and nuclear proliferation. And so I wonder if progressive populist leaders like Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Bernie Sanders and Jean-Luc Antoine Pierre Mélenchon can deliver a heroic vision of the future that relies on real hope and real change. Because if they can’t humanity will probably not survive.

Although there is always hope as long as we are still breathing, because the battle for a better future will be never over as long as there is a child with a dream of vanquishing the monsters hiding under the bed.