The Politics of Masks & Shadows

Still from Eisenstein's 'Ivan the Terrible'

Masks and Shadows

We don’t have to be Jungians or Freudians to acknowledge that we all to some extent have public personas or wear social masks that differ from our more private selves. These personas seem quite necessary protective devices against possible social attack or impingement. It can be a cold, rough world out there.

We can also acknowledge that we all have ‘shadows’, i.e. unwelcome, mostly unconscious aspects of ourselves that we are reluctant to admit even to ourselves because they seem painful and so different to who we would like to think we are or present to the world. These shadows or shadow personalities usually derive from painful infant and childhood experiences that we have repressed and not worked through. We are all Dr Jeckels and Mr Hydes to some extent. Often our only contact with our inner Mr Hydes will be in our dreams and nightmares, in states of inebriation, in sudden slips of the tongue or seemingly irrational outbursts of strong feelings where we say we ‘lost it’ or acted ‘out of character’ or ‘don’t know what came over us’. What ‘came over us’ was most likely our shadow self clamouring for attention. Like St Paul, we may often find ourselves not doing the good we would like to do and doing the evil we would not like to do.

However, we also can intuit that a great price has to be paid when we spend the greater part of our lives living behind masks as mere social personas without contact to our authentic, real sense of ourselves or to our shadows. Our celebrity-oriented consumer culture of advanced capitalism does not help here. Its inherent me-first narcissism and possessive individualism reinforces this tendency to live as personas, as ‘personalities’, as character masks, as one-dimensional, smiley-face constructions on Facebook. The cultivation of the ego-centric, narcissistic consumer is of course systemic: it is needed for planned obsolescence, rapid turnover and profit making.

The price of ongoing disconnection from one’s true sense of self and shadow is at least twofold. First, we will inevitably be filled with a pervasive and deepening sense of meaninglessness, unauthenticity, emptiness, creative atrophication, passivity, loss of energy and direction. We feel outer- rather than inner-directed. Often this will be denied and distracted from in attempted escape to even more consumerism or other addictions, including spiritual ones. One of the addictions can also be that to power, especially those still seen as culturally legitimate: corporate, bureaucratic, military or political power.

Secondly, when denied, our shadow personalities will grow ever more dangerously large and even more unconscious. At times Mr Hyde may tend to begin overwhelming Dr Jekyll, with usually unpleasant and painful results for all concerned. This is especially the case where the shadows belong to people with power over others.

Vice versa, the task of contacting one’s authentic sense of self is also linked to the difficult and humbling task of acknowledging one’s shadow, listening to its often extremely useful wisdom without becoming swamped by it and attempting to integrate it into one’s whole sense of self. Jungians see this as the central growth task of midlife and old age after the more necessarily role- and persona-oriented phases of youth and young adulthood in which work and family are the usual centres of activity and self-definition. Where this task – often taking the form of a ‘mid-life crisis’ – is avoided or postponed, the self will remain stuck in obsolete masks and dangerously unconscious shadows.

Politicians and their Shadows

The danger of political and other forms of social power is that they may actually facilitate the avoidance of these tasks of individuation and keep politicians and other leaders or ‘gurus’ stuck at immature levels of psychic development. In a reciprocal process of collusion, these will then both mirror and reinforce the average levels of immature development in the public at large. As media celebrities, politicians, like other entertainers, constantly live not as themselves but as carefully crafted masks and fakes, i.e. as PR creations and ‘media personalities’ where image is everything and substance nothing. Media commentary, polls and elections reinforce the whole empty spectacle by giving, albeit transient, rewards to those politicians most successful in faking it. They are usually trapped in (‘youthful’) frenetic hyper-activity that mainly serves the purpose of being seen to be doing something and ‘in control’ rather than actually doing anything substantial. (There are of course systemic reasons for this factual lack of political power that have to do with the primacy of corporate power over political power within capitalist systems).

Unacknowledged, politicians’ personal ‘baggage’, their shadow selves, can become dangerous indeed. Instead of openly recognising their own childhood wounds and their compensating neurotic needs for a sense of power and control, politicians will publicly rationalise this need and convincingly lie to themselves and others that they are not in it for themselves but for some greater public good. Hitler and Stalin were of course not compensating their painful childhood sense of abuse, loss, rage and powerlessness with totalitarian displays of state power; they convinced themselves and others that they were ‘securing the future of the fatherland’ or ‘building socialism’.

Similarly, as they send their soldiers to death and civilian-destroying bombers over Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq or Afghanistan, democratic politicians and bureaucrats will dutifully intone their rationalising mantras of ‘national security’ or ‘liberation from tyranny’. Opponents, often previous allies and ‘good guys’, will be routinely demonised into fascist ‘bad guys’ that become the projection screens of leaders’ and collective shadows. Rogue politicians who condone torture and wars of aggression will see ‘rogue states’ and terrorists everywhere. Thus will our smiling media performers suddenly manifest their own grim shadows, unconsciously of course. Our Dr Jekylls will suddenly reveal their Mr Hydes.

These revelations will occur again and again in differing situations. Their Dr Jekylls will attempt to wipe out booze and sex and rock and roll at their student homes while their Mr Hydes will be found drunk at a strip club in New York. Their Dr Jekylls will call climate change the greatest moral challenge of the age and their Mr Hydes will willingly, openly and miserably fail that challenge. Their Dr Jekylls will proclaim they are staunch Christian conservatives offended at artistic images of pubescent girls while their Mr Hydes will indulge in liberal use of the charming term ‘to ratfuck’ when describing Chinese diplomats’ behaviour at Copenhagen.

They will be Green pacifists one day, Green ‘bellicists’ demanding military interventions the next. They will fight for the immediate shutting down of atomic power stations one day, then as ministers grant thirty year run-out leases on them the next. They will reject foreign military bases as part of nuclear first strike capabilities one day, see them as necessary for ‘national security’ the next. They will fight uranium mining and old growth forest destruction one day, pass new uranium mines and pulp mills – all ‘world’s best practice’ of course – the next. They will enter mainstream politics – undemocratically parachuted in from head office – purporting to be wanting to finally ‘make a difference’ and then as ministers find themselves incapable of even banning plastic bags or defecating on Uluru.

Other politicians or evangelists and spiritual leaders will proclaim their abhorrence of adultery or homosexuality and then be found to be adulterous or gay. Revered priests will be revealed as closet paedophiles, Buddhist and other gurus as serial womanisers. Meditation, spiritual teachings and hierarchical groupthink will be used to conveniently bypass the uncomfortable psychological work needed to come to terms with one’s childhood wounds and shadows.

Politicians as Parvenus

Such manifestations of unacknowledged psychic wounds and shadow personalities are often closely intertwined with broader issues of social mobility and class. In many countries the democratic politician is often a member of the lower middle classes or ‘aspirational’ working classes aspiring to higher status and financial security. Recent prominent examples of leaders that spring to mind in this regard are Thatcher, Reagan, Keating, Joshka Fischer, Clinton, Howard, Rudd. Becoming elected often means certain public recognition, immediate financial rewards for little real work and, after a time, generous financial benefits from the taxpayer for life after politics. In addition, for ex-ministers and senior bureaucrats there is often the prospect of extremely lucrative consulting and lobbying work for big business.

This objective situation will automatically attract the social personality type known as the parvenu, the ‘little’ man or woman aspiring to become a ‘big’ one. Many working class men and a few women have traditionally made such careers in the bureaucracies of the unions, social democratic and communist parties. Modern day yuppies will now also enter newer, once ‘alternative’ parties like the Greens which can be seen sociologically as the rising lobby for new Green capital interests (green consultancy, green and ethical investment services, carbon and offset traders, renewable energy entrepreneurs etc). The character type can also be found in sectarian, ‘revolutionary’ groups, although here, given their lack of power and financial rewards, it is more often associated with some level of personal ‘charisma’ than in socially powerful institutions.

The conformist persona needed in the parvenu is one of extreme moral flexibility and opportunism (euphemisms: ‘pragmatism’, ‘realism’), a willingness to ingratiate oneself with the powerful (‘team playing’, ‘party unity’) and a readiness to mercilessly attack or out-compete where necessary. All the while, the powerful feeling driving the parvenu towards the perceived achievement of ‘bigness’, namely his or her own personal sense of powerlessness and ‘littleness’, is suppressed or denied. It becomes his unconscious shadow, something to hide, i.e. his Mr Hyde.

(In some cases the personal sense of smallness is of course literal, thus conscious and hardly hidden. French president Sarkozy, 165 cm, manages his sense of inferiority or Napoleon complex by having his wife wear flat shoes, banning tall bodyguards, wearing specially designed stacked shoes and standing on tip-toes or boxes at global leader photo opportunities.)

From such conformist personas with such unconscious shadows of inferiority are party dictatorships, communism, fascism also made. Democracy in its authentic sense of critical thinking and debate and the self-activity of the citoyen is incompatible with a predominance of conformist parvenus whether as leaders or as public. Democracy needs strong, anti-authoritarian personalities who have, to some basic extent at least, acknowledged their own childhood wounds and shadows and are thus less likely to unconsciously project them onto others.

Without this essential feature of an authentic living democracy, the eternal cycle of neurotic leaders and sheeplike followers seems inevitable, both feeding off each others’ shadows and both projecting them outwards onto various demonised bogymen, ‘bad guys’, bad others. That way means paranoid xenophobia, siege and fortress mentalities, and, ultimately, war. Can we attempt to break this fatal historical cycle at this critical time in human history? Good question.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on June 19, 2010.

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