Please God Don’t Send In the Clowns

“Barbie World” is materialistic in Madonna’s sense of the word (and Aqua’s obviously). “Clown World” is materialistic in Marx’s sense (dialectical materialism). Barbie World is a world of muggles and addicts. Clown World is a world of muppets and victims.

There are any number of Hollywood films about the “plastic fantastic” Barbie World, from The Stepford Wives to American Beauty and The Truman Show. For insights into Clown World, you need look no further than the recently released Todd Phillips film, Joker.

Joker is a sustained meditation on the relations between the victim, muppet, diva and demon archetypes. The climax of the film, a full-blown riot by protesters in clown masks, was eerily prescient of the scenes we are now witnessing in Chile, which, by strange coincidence, I first found out about the day after seeing the film. Sadly, the situation remains critical, with increasingly radical protesters now demanding the resignation of the President, Sebastian Piñera.

Piñera has made significant concessions since the protests first erupted a couple of weeks ago, but this does not seem to have dampened the fires of mass outrage. He arguably made an error of judgment in bringing out the army in an attempt to control the situation, which has given renewed impetus to the protests, now mining the rich seam of state violence and repression, human rights abuses, disappearances, torture, etc.

The protesters have valid grievances. Chile is one of the more unequal countries on the planet, although it’s not actually as bad as all that: “Although Chile has high economic inequality, as measured by the Gini index, it is close to the regional mean” (in 2015 it scored 47.7).

Chile is the strongest economy in Latin America with a large number of very wealthy people, which obviously pushes up the Gini coefficient, even if rates of absolute poverty are actually much lower than its neighbours. But the extreme neo-liberal economic policies introduced by Augusto Pinochet in the 1970’s have left a lasting legacy of resentment as the rich get richer and the poor get just a bit less poor. Relative poverty and inequality have deeper well-springs of resentment than absolute poverty: poverty is psychologically more bearable if everyone else is poor.

Reforms to the pension system among other things are clearly overdue. It is right and proper for the people to demand such reforms. That’s what democracy is all about. But it can go too far. Popular demand for economic reform can degenerate into popular revolt and revolution when muggles turn into muppets en masse. This is the great danger of and to democracy, as Plato realized almost two and a half thousand years ago – the demos dissolves into mob rule and anarchy, which then leads ineluctably to tyranny (as we saw in Soviet Russia and every other revolutionary movement of the twentieth century, most recently in Venezuela).

The horrible irony is that revolutions often happen when things are actually improving. All you need is a little economic bump against which people’s raised hopes can be dashed, even a short period of stagnation as in the case of Chile, and all hell breaks loose. The paradigmatic case is, of course, the French Revolution of 1789. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!” wrote a young and starry-eyed William Wordsworth. Little did he realise what Terror that dawn would unleash.

There is a special hell reserved for Clowns. Let’s hope the Chilean people don’t go there.