a) Benevolent ruler: Projecting the notion that society's welfare rests in the hands of one person (savior-political leader) theoretically acting on behalf of all citizens and invoking “national interest”.
c) Machiavellian Rule: 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 of the term “sovereignty is the principle of international law that each nation state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs”) from domestic and external forces trying to disrupt its sociopolitical consensus, there have also been Messiah political figures 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. In other words, the charismatic element of the Messiah political figure is not limited to the status quo ruler, but extends to the dissident or rebel using the same means to mobilize grassroots support for regime change.
Apocalyptic Politics vs. Messiah Politics
The concept of a 'political savior' equated with a spiritual prophet (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 – the tribal war chieftain in early civilization, and later King and Emperor ruling with the military as the power base and the priests and nobility as the privileged popular base.
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 paternalistic 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 Europe owing to the Commercial Revolution (transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture and long-distance trade), Messiah politics evolved as the idea of a savior leader in the image of Machiavelli's "The Prince" of in Thomas Hobbes "The Leviathan". The emergence of capitalism and new division of labor – capitalist and worker replacing landlord and serf – accounted for modification of Messiah politics in so far as the monarch Messiah would have to cater to the interests of the bourgeoisie along with the nobility and upper clergy.
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. As leaders of the political opposition, they represented hope for social justice and progress. Their brand of Messiah politics rested on the hope that change would raise the dignity of their people amid massive changes owing to industrial, technological and scientific developments in the Western World exploiting labor and natural resources of the rest of the planet and imposing its economic and political 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 forging middle class consensus while strengthening capitalism. 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. The first black US president was elected to office and had very constrictive institutional perimeters of power that he had to serve faithfully as a status quo leader. This is in sharp contrast with Egypt’s Nasser who came to power to change the status quo at home and regionally, while having the military as his power base and the broader social classes as his political base.
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 vast differences between Washington who respected the international order based on European imperialism as long as the US as a free nation was not exploited, and Gandhi who opposed imperialism on political, economic, social, and moral grounds.
Nationalist populist politician Vladimir Putin appealing to the 'New Russia' of a rising middle class, and former president Hugo Chavez appealing to the working class and peasantry of Venezuela belong in the category of Messiah politics. Although the latter proved far more popular and with far more staying power in the country’s political culture than his Russian counterpart resting his political base on Russia’s wealthy class, the modality of power is not very different. Clearly, Chavez had a firm commitment to social justice rooted in Venezuela’s “caudillo” political tradition, while Putin merely cultivates nationalist sentiment given that the US and the West make it easy for him with hostile policies. While the goal in both Russia and Venezuela under Messiah political figures is image cultivation to forge a broad public consensus, class interests dominate as much in Venezuela where capitalists demand a dominant voice in policy to the detriment of the rest of society, as in Russia where the there are limitations to how far nationalism focused on external enemies can carry the self-styled Messiah political leader.
As we have seen in the last century, Messiah politics in modern times can entail a dictator imposed upon society, by heredity, military force, or manipulation of the electoral system based on massive amounts of campaign contributions from the wealthy as we have in the US and other countries. Regardless of how a Messiah leader comes to power, the idea is to project the image of indispensability to holding society together – forging political consensus while projecting the image of serving the general welfare. Such has been the case with a number of authoritarian rulers in many parts of the Middle East and Asia. Identifying their regime with the national interest, thus with the national welfare, these dictators can be ideologically right-wing or populist 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 a segment 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
In the early 21st century, Italy seemed to be the birthplace of the 'anti-Messiah politics' movement. Grass-roots protest movements took place spread across the Western World and the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East initially appeared as grassroots movements that would end the era of dictators for life cultivating a cult of personality and serving the rich at home and foreign capital. In the age of NGO’s funded by governments and corporations, there is enormous manipulation of grassroots movements, as we have seen in the last ten years in a number of countries including those like Ukraine, Syria, etc. Until the dust settles, it is very difficult to know the difference between a genuine grassroots movement, and a well organized and government or business-financed group of people manipulating dissidents on behalf of narrow political and corporate interests.
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. So far, the movement has fallen into the same mold of “politics as usual” and lost its luster as a genuine grassroots movement interested in promoting social justice. Clearly, the institutionalization of a political party that becomes part of the status quo entails co-optation and abandonment of its goals to serve the masses.
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 the elites have the means to manipulate public opinion and co-opt just about everything in society.
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, and Latin America. Many politicians and analysts have argued that the deep recession of 1008-2011 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.
Anti-Messiah example may spread throughout Europe, Russia, US, Canada, Australia, and beyond. Europe is especially vulnerable, as the continent sinks deeper into a division between the rich northwest and the periphery across the south and east. A rejection of Messiah politics in favor of grassroots movements can continue assuming the following conditions:
a) One or more members of the eurozone leave the common currency, or if the EU disintegrates.
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 rightwing 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.