In 2001 throughout the Western World, the Middle East and North Africa, grassroots movements challenged mainstream politics, in which category belongs 'Messiah politics' - I would also characterize it as 'Savior politics' or 'hero-worship politics'. This is not to suggest that the choice in social contracts, or more precisely, the choice before voters is between 'Messiah politics' - salvation from a Savior acting as a benevolent master of the masses - or grassroots movements invariably linked to protest, dissidence and /or revolution - salvation from below with the masses' participation.
However, I am suggesting that the dichotomy between 'Messiah politics' and grassroots movements appears to be growing sharper owing to the huge gap between what "Messiah politics" pledges either under democracy's promising theoretical rhetoric vs. the reality of socioeconomic polarization, or under an authoritarian regime that pledges to act benevolently on behalf of the people, but in reality serves very narrow interests.
Whether under the authoritarian 'one-man rule', or an elected representative model, in all cases and under disparate political and ideological models, ''Messiah politics" has the following three common denominators:
a) projecting the notion that society's welfare rests in the hands of one person (savior) - for example, Barak Obama (US), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud (Saudi Arabia), etc.;
b) in essence the "Messiah" - elected for limited term or ruler for life - often represents the national and international socioeconomic elites to the detriment of the masses that Messiah politics claims it wishes to save; and
c) the criteria for Messiah politics is not necessarily social justice or any moral foundation, let alone a benevolent goal, though it could be as a theoretical framework, but rather a practical Machiavellian projection of and the quest for power, glory and riches that people identify with the 'Savior politician'.
Does "Messiah politics" differ from 'apocalyptic' politics, and does it have an inordinate influence in the public mind during the age of mass politics both in Western countries and traditional/religious societies? Messiah politics transcends regime, ideology, political party, national, ethnic or religious identity, as well as historical epoch. While the focus of Messiah politics is on "saving" the nation-state (in the Westphalian sense) from domestic and external forces trying to disrupt its harmony, there have also been Messiah politicians who have tried to save the region surrounding the nation-state, or the world at large through revolution, wars, imperialist (political, economic, cultural) policies intended to spread the values and institutions on a global scale with the goal of imposing hegemony.
Apocalyptic Politics vs. Messiah Politics
The concept of a 'savior' (Messiah politics) in charge of society is as universal and as timeless as civilization and owes its origin to concentrated powers of defense (warfare) and society's welfare in the hands of a single person. However, the concept of Messiah politics differs from 'Apocalyptic politics', although in some cases there can be convergence.
Apocalyptic politics is about predicting Armageddon resulting from the forces of good and evil, the struggle of morality or God as subjectively defined and the anti-Christ, for example. Christian "Apocalyptism" has a long history in the West, especially among fundamentalists who fear the strong state and deem that sin is measured by the scale of a strong public sector and a trend toward greater materialism, hedonism and moral relativism.
The solution for "Apocalyptism" is greater adherence toward faith (institutionalized religion) and a messiah-style leader who protects religious traditions on which society is built and conducts policy on the basis of moral absolutes, targeting for elimination any threat to traditionalism - for example, mode of dress and behavior, gay rights, abortion, replacing scientific theories resting on physical cosmology with religious cosmology, etc.
Furthermore, "Apocalyptism" in some cases provides a religiously-based legal system as a means of preventing the degradation of society that would otherwise be viewed as secular progress. If society is headed for ruin owing to the economic and political system in the hands of 'secularist sinners', then the essential problem of "Apocalyptic politics" is to propose a Messiah-on-earth solution to prevent, or at least postpone, Armageddon.
A Historical Overview of "Messiah Politics"
Messiah politics differs in scope from "Apocalyptic politics", in so far as the former is a much broader concept that includes rulers of any type with strong hegemonic role and societal acceptance that the individual can save society through divine inspiration or divine right principle, but not limited to those alone. Messiah politics is a concept as ancient as civilization when kings and emperors identified with deities and people engaged in worship of their leaders that they deemed closer to divinity than mere mortals. Hence, paternalism whether under the Czars of Russia, Chinese Emperors, modern-day dictators, or elected presidents is an integral part of Messiah politics. The ruler is the father of the country and embodies its welfare (Thomas Hobbes concept of sovereignty), thus he must not be questioned by his subjects who are prone toward atomistic behavior.
With the advent of the Renaissance era's drastic change in European society, Messiah politics evolved as the idea of a savior leader in the image of Machiavelli's "The Prince" of in Thomas Hobbes "The Leviathan". After the American and French Revolutions, elected officials emerged as guardian-saviors of the electoral system itself - George Washington and Thomas Jefferson embodied the concept of 'fathers of the nation'.
In the 19th century, emperors Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon III were probably the two most important figures of messiah politicians representing the grandeur France was seeking in competing with Great Britain. It can be argued, however, that Abraham Lincoln belonged in the same category, largely because of his impact to 'save' American society by ending slavery as an obstacle to progress domestically and internationally.
In the 20th century there were a number of revolutionary leaders belonging to the category of 'Messiah politics' that they redefined. Those included Vladimir Lenin (leader of the Bolshevik Revolution), Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, (leader of the nationalist-reformist movement in Turkey), Mao Tse-tung (leader of the Chinese Communist revolution), Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egyptian nationalist social reformer), revolutionary leaders Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Ho Chi Minh the father of Communist-nationalist Vietnam, Sukarno the non-Aligned leader of Indonesia, and Fidel Castro who revolutionized Latin American politics by taking over Cuba and challenging US hemispheric hegemony.
Liberal-democratic elected leaders Charles De Gaulle, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Barak Obama were swept into power as a result of Messiah politics mystique surrounding their leadership. Of course, it is true that there are degrees of popularity and power that individual leaders under the category of Messiah politics have enjoyed through the ages. One cannot possibly compare the popularity and power of Nasser ruler for life, for example, at home and globally with Obama who was elected to office and had very constrictive institutional perimeters of power in comparison with Nasser.
There are presidents like George Washington, or leaders of movements like Mahatma Gandhi who have become demigod legends as part of the 'Messiah politics' mythology that surrounds their legacy that a majority of the population deems constructive for society. There are also leaders like North Korea's Kim Jong-il whose funeral (December 2011) revealed that Messiah politics can easily be transformed into 'demigod politics' in order to maintain a political system through a massive public relations campaign that the state stages. The psychology of a nation is very much dependent on image cultivation, more so today than in the Renaissance when Machiavelli and Hobbes crafted their political philosophy.
Nationalist politician Vladimir Putin appealing to the 'New Russia' of a rising middle class, and Hugo Chavez appealing to the working class and peasantry of Venezuela belong in the category of Messiah politics. Although the latter has proved far more popular and with far more staying power than his Russian counterpart, the modality of power is not very different and neither is image cultivation and public reception, which can and does foster societal divisions with dissidents.
Messiah politics in modern times can entail a dictator imposed upon society, by heredity or force, and project the image of indispensability to holding society together, a point that Hobbes stressed in "The Leviathan". Such has been the case with a number of authoritarian rulers in many parts of the Middle East and Asia with authoritarian rulers that identify their regime with the national interest, thus with the national welfare. Such dictators can be ideologically right-wing or left wing, ruling on behalf of the armed forces and police for the benefit of a small segment in society, or ruling on behalf of the masses but in reality benefiting a small group linked to supporting the "Savior politician" who has no grassroots support.
Grassroots Movement's Challenge: the case of Italy
Although the mass grass-roots protest movement that spread across the Western World started in Madrid in spring 2011, Italy is the birthplace of the 'anti-Messiah politics' movement. This is not to suggest that the Italian invented grassroots anti-Messiah politics for that has been around since the German Peasants' War, and some argue since fifth century Athens as Aristophanes explains in "Lysistrata". However, in the early 21st century, Italy is setting the example of grassroots anti-Messiah politics, a movement that has the potential of spreading to other countries.
Italy's Movement of National Liberation launched in October 2009 by Beppe Grillo, evolved into the Five Star Movement whose platform is anti-corruption, respect for the environment, and genuine democracy rooted on people and not the elites. The five stars stand for 1. environment, 2. water, 3. connectivity, 4. development, 5. transportation. Political candidates qualifying for the Five Star Movement needed to:
1. have no criminal record, 2. no political affiliation, 3. reside in the city that they represent, 4. have not previously held office for the position they are candidate, 5. refusal of government campaign funds.
One among dozens in Italy known for its dozens of national and regional political parties, the Five Star Movement is close to what I call the equivalent of the 'Cyber-Eco-Bourgeois' revolution in contemporary politics (see my four-part essay on cyber-eco-bourgeoisie and the future of revolutions). Using the web and blogging to raise consciousness attract followers, Beppe Grillo started the 'vendetta' or vengeance protest movement in 2007, pointing out Italian politicians who were not only corrupt but criminal, aiding and abetting murderers.
Considering that organized crime has had a long history of involvement in Italy's politics and business, and considering that former Prime Minister Berlusconi, who owned a media empire, was in constant trouble with the law for various violations including collusion with the mafia, tax evasion, fraud, etc., it is understandable to see how corruption had a corroding impact on Italian society and not because of the prime minister's licentious lifestyle, but more because of the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions.
Circumventing government-subsidized media that Berlusconi and other millionaires control, the anti-Messiah grassroots movement petitioned for a Bill of Popular Initiative to remove known criminals who were members of parliament - criminals in politics also part of the Messiah political mystique. Although Berlusconi was able to continue buying votes so he can remain premier, more than two million people joined the anti-Messiah or V-Day movement against a corrupt and undemocratic regime that controlled the mainstream media and perpetuated messiah politics as embodied by "il Cavaliere". The success was largely to blogging, internet, cell phone and new technology that links people together and bypasses the mainstream media representing the elites.
While the party is primarily popular in the north that historically has been more progressive and more 'European' than the south where organized crime, politics and business play a larger role, the 'Anti-Messiah' grassroots movement, largely lower middle class with some working class elements, is in its nascent stage. It remains to be seen if it takes off in the next few years when Italy sinks deeper into recession and when the major political parties fail to deliver a political solution that takes into account not just finance capital and the markets, but the middle class and workers. It also remains to be seen if Italy's anti-Messiah movement, largely middle class (part of what I call cyber-eco-bourgeois) spreads to the rest of Europe and beyond. Naturally, by definition grassroots movements must be homegrown and cannot be imported like tomatoes, but they can be influenced by others like them.
The Future of Messiah Politics and Grassroots Movements
The future of Messiah politics is safe, given that a segment of the population wants to believe in morally-motivated idealistic 'Savior politicians' that bring miracles to society on behalf of the people, at least appearing to do so in a Machiavellian sense. In this respect, both Machiavelli and Hobbes were correct regarding assumption about human nature and likely political behavior under the social contract.
Messiah politics will continue to exist because it represents the human soul (the spiritual craving of the human mind), and because conditions will always deteriorate to the degree that a well-motivated person or an opportunistic demagogue will come along to promise deliverance from human suffering brought on by societal institutions. Finally, Messiah politics will continue to thrive as long as there are powerful elites behind such political packaging, promoting, and delivering the 'Savior politician' to the voters for their approval, and as long as voters remain committed to worshiping power, at least mesmerized by it (as Machiavelli and Hobbes correctly argued), even if it is to the detriment of their interests.
At the same time, there will also be a rising trend toward grassroots movements that has swept across Europe, US, Australia and Islamic nations, Russia, Chile, and other parts of the world. Many politicians and analysts have argued that the last four-five years (2008-2011) resembled the Great Depression era in terms of the shock in the magnitude of economic global contraction and socioeconomic downward mobility. It is precisely such objective conditions that account for the rising popularity of grassroots movements that may or may not evolve into political parties, but will most definitely influence the political arena.
There are indications that democracy as currently constituted is more authoritarian than democratic, something proved by the large number of voters who choose not to take part in voting process, to vote for small parties, or to decry the entire institutional structure by simply engaging in protests, as is the case with a segment of educated youth that does not have much hope for a bright future under the existing institutions favoring a small segment of the population benefiting from Messiah politics.
Italy's anti-Messiah example may spread to the rest of Europe, Russia, US, Canada, Australia, and beyond. Europe is especially vulnerable, as the continent sinks deeper into recession in 2012. A rejection of Messiah politics in favor of grassroots movements can continue if:
a) one or more members of the eurozone leave the common currency, or if the EU disintegrates as many analysts and many in the the UK expect that it would;
b) the parliamentary system that theoretically claims to represent all people continues to be undermined by the hegemonic economic system that caters to a small percentage of the rich, and the poor-rich gap widens with unemployment remaining in double-digits;
c) the mainstream major parties - varieties of center--left, center, center-right, and right - fail to achieve political consensus and mobilize at least half of the voters, and especially the declining and weaker middle class;
d) varieties of extremism are on the rise, especially nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-Islam sentiment translated into a stronger right wing movement and/or platform of political parties;
e) there is a growing perception that society will become relatively stagnant and there is a gap between the high expectations of the middle class and the lack of fulfillment of the social contract by regimes that rest largely on middle class votes for their support;
f) the contagion effect becomes a factor as one country's grassroots movement will emulate the other;
g) there is continued erosion of the middle class 'Liberal-democratic' consensus on which representative regimes are based, and a continued transfer of public wealth toward corporate welfare at the expense of the rest of society.