The romanticising of Julius Malema is gaining momentum. So far, very little focus has been on the actual policies of his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), nor is there much on the authoritarian streak that runs from his office all the way down to ordinary membership. There is, also, little to no evidence of the successes or failures of these policies, nor of the threats they may pose to society, to the poor, the middle class, the marginalised and especially to women.
If we look, right now, at the imagery and presentation of Malema, we see that a new phase of representing him is as a sanitised, dangerously lionised and romanticised alpha male in a suit with a red power tie (not unlike Donald Trump) that is necessarily good for the society, and at least better than the rest.
Malema is presented in this week’s Sunday Times as ready to be president of South Africa. His performative populist mask removed, and with a smarmy onanism, Malema is no longer dressed in signature red workers’ clothing in self-serving performative solidarity, but now looks at us from above the fold wearing a suit and tie, bought with the profits of workers’ dreams.
The Sunday Times photograph used in this latest, most romanticised, image of Malema, stood before shelves of books — red spines on black shelves to match his red tie and black suit — is a contrived symbol of privileged-class notions, and pretences of intellect, prestige and learnedness.
The stacked bookshelf has since at least the 19th century (probably earlier, but I have no research at hand) been used to project privilege, prestige and learnedness. Early in the 20th century the strategic placement of books, mainly to impress observers, was described as “bookaflage” to denote seriousness (and conceal intellectual vacuity).
Contrived as it is, it dissolves into the symbolic capital of elites. Bookshelves in the background, the low spark of the well-dressed leader, would have the viewer forget that “lights praised … the loveliest trick of the devil is to persuade you that they don’t exist”.
Or if you are disinclined to take heed of Baudelaire, The Temptations warned three or four (I am loath to say five, because I am that old) decades ago, that “Smiling faces sometimes pretend to be your friend/Smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within”.
The low spark of well-dressed boys (with apologies to Traffic)
Malema’s denunciation of Western liberal/White Monopoly Capitalism is delivered in near-perfect mimicry of high-status posturing, his latest power move, which would give social psychologists much to talk about.
On its own, the picture is, by accident or design, a type of non-conscious/non-verbal mimicry and behaviour. I’m sure social psychologists would know this much better. What is curious, is that mimicry is generally quite good at establishing or enhancing increasing affiliation.
In this sense, Malema seems to be opposed to Western elitism, and the quintessential liberal establishment men (he usually singles out “the Ruperts” or “Oppenheimer” or John Steenhuisen and Cyril Ramaphosa the businessman), but quite readily mimics (or imitates) their dress code. (As a way to curry favour?)
At least two things stand out.
One is that he prepares a face to meet the faces that he meets. He is just sharp and knows how to schmooze; he may not like you now but is ready to go out and bat for you when the time comes.
The other is that he forgets that the pole he is climbing up on is greased by the same people whom he tries to emulate. Or, as Little Feat reminded us: People fly high, begin to lose sight/But you can’t see very clearly, when you’re in flight/Well it’s high time/That you find/The same people that you must use on your way up/You might meet up on your way down.
In the wake of the most recent reports on Malema-as-ready-to-be-president, there have been letters of caution about the EFF leader in office. There has, of course, been praise for his intellect. It is difficult to learn anything from Malema’s oration, other than the noise from the low sparks of well-dressed men.
What does seem clear, reading and listening to what he says and the things he promotes, is that Malema remains as dangerous as I have been pointing out in this space for a couple of years or more.
Little form and no substance, but a lot of danger
There are very many parallels and homologies between Malema and some of the fascist leaders of the past 100 years or so. In this sense, we can draw on the way Mussolini was prepped and prepared by his minders.
The EFF and Malema, in particular, have provided politics with a 10-year orgy of shouting, screaming, vituperation, rhetoric and cant, blood-curdling cries of death and dying for the revolution, (it should not be surprising when only the lumpenproletariat die) while the leader changes into his suit to conceal his provincial pettiness and vulgarity.
Malema’s oratory, in Parliament and on platforms around the country, is marked by insult, sarcasm, provocation, selfishness or egotism — the characteristics that Mussolini borrowed from Vilfredo Pareto (and Niccolo Machiavelli, for that matter).
Malema’s insistence that his followers should be prepared to die/kill for the revolution, is consistent with Pareto’s justification for or normalising of the use of extralegal force — the desire to overpower others by force — as necessary in place of existing institutions of state (and bureaucratic) structures.
Orthodox economists may object to the use of Pareto as an example of early 20th-century fascism, but… (see Vilfredo Pareto, Il Fascismo, published in the Italian magazine La Ronda in January 1922, and Il Fenomeno del Fascismo, published in La Nazione in March 1923).
About Malema in a suit: it’s not difficult to imagine a Margherita Sarfatti preparing the EFF leader, and teaching him “how to choose the right shape of his shirt collars and [learn] the proper way to knot his tie”, and thereby turning “an ignorant boorish paisano, unable to use a knife and fork properly, who wiped his mouth with his sleeve, into the semblance of a mannerly gentleman” presented to society as the next best president of a country. (Quoted passages from My Fault: Mussolini As I Knew Him, by Margherita Sarfatti, and Il Duce’s Other Woman, by Brian Sullivan and Philip Cannistraro).
Sadly, unless you ignore the lack of evidence (from the EFF or Malema) about the workability of the “non-negotiables” in their constitution, and how their demands would actually lead to a progressive stable and prosperous society with high levels of trust and justice for all, Malema in his Sunday best, in bookaflage to show he is learned and powerful, satisfies only the intellect of a doorknob or a fencepost.
Some of what I have alluded to has appeared in this space previously. We should not tire of pointing out the dangers of romantic revolutionary populism — and evidence of the way it destroyed societies, from Pol Pot’s Cambodia, westward to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
An even greater danger is for the media to promote, lionise and romanticise dangerous people.
It is worth remembering, when reading reports about Malema, how it was reported in the Western media during the 1920s (The New York Times in particular) that Mussolini was the “hope of youth”, Italy’s “man of tomorrow” and that hard work was his creed. DM