Sucking up to the boss: Trump as an Archetype

Ever since Trump was elected, like many progressives, I have been struggling to understand why. In the course of reading around what Trump himself says, and what his supporters say about him, I started to think about him as much as a spiritual phenomenon, as a political one. These two domains are, after all, more or less impossible to distinguish in any absolute sense.

As is often the case when a line of thinking is worthwhile, another author recently published something along the same lines. Reading Patacelsus’s meditation on the egregore of The Trump Corporation has encouraged me to put down my own thoughts on this subject. But rather than apply the theories of chaos magic and witchcraft to Trump’s ascent, below I’ll use another important conceptual tool from the Pagan toolbox – the Jungian archetype. What archetype might Trump be harnessing to cultivate his success? Why is it so influential amongst certain sections of American society? How does this archetype become a trope, to be repeated in creative work? And how can we combat it, politically, creatively and magically?

When we think about hierarchy, our first instinct might perhaps be to reach for classic Pagan archetypes – in Tarot, we find the temporal power of the Emperor, for example, and the spiritual authority of the High Priest. Such images can be compared constructively to the Jungian archetype of The Father – a character that, for Jung, represented our collective experience of authority; an experience that often induces fear. But in the modern world, we experience authority rather differently than we might have done when these archetypes were defined. High priests and emperors lack much of the legal and political authority they once commanded, where they continue to exist at all. And though fathers remain authority figures for many people today, this dynamic is much reduced in its prevalence and power compared to when Jung was writing – it’s much more usual now for men to be caregivers, and friends to their children, or to be unable to act as an authority figure for other reasons. The nature of fatherhood, and parenting itself, has changed, so that the role of it in expressing formal authority (and instilling fear) is much reduced on the collective level.

Therefore, if we wish to identify the social roles that carry formal authority, and invoke fear in us, and therefore play the psychical role of “The Father”, we must look beyond recorded archetypes, and think a little more creatively. When you do this, new archetypical forms begin to emerge. For many contemporary Americans, I suggest, the primary experience of authority today comes not from male parents, but rather in the workplace. Imagine back to your first job: you were eager for pay and the independence that came with it, but you probably didn’t enjoy the job itself. Nonetheless, you may well have been nervous, and worried that you might be fired – conscious of the fact that you were at the mercy of the company. The will of the company would be distilled in a particular person: namely, The Boss.

Naturally, there is a wide degree of diversity amongst individual line managers – some are good with people, kind, reasonable, and even helpful, while others will be irrational, ruthless, and cruel, and everything in between. Though important for the experience of individual employees, these differences are incidental, relative to the structural role any line manager plays in the business. A line manager is invested with authority over the staff who report to them; a hierarchical relationship that does not go away, no matter how good a boss the line manager might be. The employee’s ability to make rent, buy food, pay medical costs, go on holiday, is entirely dependent upon that relationship. The boss’s ability, by contrast, is not dependent on his employee to same degree. As such, that relationship is bound to become invested with emotional energy over time, particularly fear and anxiety; energy that over time crystallises into the Boss as a collective idea – an archetype.

Given the negativity of the emotions involved, the Boss normally manifests as a Worst Case Scenario. An avalanche of stories, films, and op-ed pieces about awful, tyrannical, cruel, incompetent, stupid, mean-spirited, greedy bosses descends from the collective unconscious of America every year; movies like the Horrible Bosses franchise are a case in point. This is perhaps best crystallised by The Lonely Island song Like a Boss, in which the eponymous boss careens from his professional responsibilities through a sequence of events that ranges from the aggressively antisocial to the pathetic, becoming progressively less and less realistic over the course of the song. This mixture of deceit, desperation, and braggadocio is a distinctive feature of many bad boss caricatures, not least David Brent from The Office.

But this negative view of the Boss is matched by a complimentary, positive view of this archetype. I was stuck by the power of this when I read a recent piece by Rick Perlstein regarding an essay written by “Peter” – one of Perlstein’s students – to explain why he had voted for Trump. “Peter” describes his home town in Oklahoma, where the local economy was suffering. “Peter” mentions that Oklahomans felt deeply disenfranchised from local politics, and found it easier to reach an accommodation with their managers, than lobby their representatives for legislative changes. Attempts by the federal government to improve workers’ rights would often result in local employers – such as Walmart – laying off employees or cutting pay, creating greater welfare dependency amongst the general population. He goes on to say,

“The majority of the people in the area do not blame the business or the company for their loss because they realize that businesses are in the business of making money, and that if they had a business of their own, they would do the same things.”

Clearly, here, the inhabitants of “Peter”s hometown sympathise with their Bosses, even when they make choices that negatively effect them. This is because, clearly, they see themselves as potential bosses too.

Much of the power of the Boss in the American imagination arises from the importance of a particular institutional form in American society – bureaucracy. As sociologist Max Weber points out, one of the key features of bureaucracy is a set hierarchy, with clear lines of authority and areas of responsibility. Bureaucracies require bosses. As David Graeber argues, Americans actually rather good at building and running bureaucracies, despite their antipathy towards them. As in France, official processes in Britain are often inefficient, slow, and incompletely realised, and end up being used to reinforce the established class system – with only those who attend certain schools and universities being equipped with the necessary skills to penetrate the byzantine levels of administrative complexity, or even avoid them completely.

American society, by contrast, has been thoroughly integrated into inclusive bureaucratic systems for over a century, making bureaucracy seem to Americans like a truly universal system*; despite the fact that Americans still adhere to a self-image of rugged individualism. Graeber reveals the reason for this apparent contradiction; the majority of American bureaucracies emerged from within the private sector, where they largely aren’t thought of as “bureaucracies” at all.

A corporation is also a bureau; it’s just a bureau devoted to the enrichment of shareholders, rather than the execution of state power. For Tea-Party Republicans, the government department and the private corporation exist as hypostases for the bad and good faces of Janus-faced Officialdom. The junior staff of the state are demotivated, surly, obsessed with paperwork (as well as being black**), while the junior staff of the corporation are efficient, professional, and obsessed with the customer (as well as being white**). Those in charge of state bureaucracies – that is, politicians – are corrupt, smarmy, and mercenary. Those in charge of private bureaucracies are strong, driven, and successful. The bad side of bureaucracy is symbolised by “the Swamp” – a brown-grey turgid morass populated by pond life and predators. The good side of bureaucracy is the Boss.

Now, to suggest that Trump actively embodies “The Boss” should seem like a logical conclusion to draw. He is, after all, the CEO of a multinational corporation. His reality TV persona is literally all about his status as an employer of other people. The Apprentice was just an extremely protracted job interview, in which Trump was doing the interviewing; giving candidates tasks, assessing their performance, firing them and hiring them – in short, bossing them about. All his rhetoric during his campaign and subsequently – concerned with winning, adversarial posturing against competitors, and promising to run America like a business – actively harnesses this image. Trump has approached the entire election as a hostile takeover; of the American state by corporate America.

The fact is that even though archetypes are universal, they take culturally very specific shapes. Tolstoy began Anna Karenina by famously saying that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same could be said of politics. Every country has its own nationalistic obsessions and anxieties; that manifest publicly in quite a specific guises – guises simply wouldn’t fly anywhere else. Every far right leader is necessarily playing to the home crowd; so the fact that someone else’s extremist seems so ridiculous, should never be taken as an indication that your own national discourse would be immune. The fact that there has been an international chorus of disgust at Trump’s election should not make anyone complacent.

Regardless of the particular, local shapes Father-surrogates might take, what unites them is the response these shapes elicit from others: they demand sycophancy, absolute obedience, and unquestioning loyalty. They surround themselves with those who are willing to give these things, and shun or attack those who do not. In short, what the Boss demands from all of us is sucking up.

This, I think, represents a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Trump moment, that is ripe for exploitation by those of us opposed to it. Just as capitalism is bedevilled by internal contradictions, so it is with the far right politics that defends it. For while Trump’s supporters may like to imagine themselves as muscular, pioneering individuals – who do not rely on the State or anyone else for their livelihood – what Trump himself demands of them is nothing short of vassalage. He will make America great again, create jobs, and bring back the 1950s, and in return, his voters will magnify his own greatness. In dramatic contrast to the kaleidoscopic heterogeneity of the anti-globalisation movement or Occupy***, the Trump movement, with their mass-produced baseball caps, mostly white faces, the choreography of their rallies, the vision that many Trump supporters have of America, is remarkably uniformist.

Such uniform public displays, so typical of totalitarian regimes, do not exist to highlight the strength and distinctiveness of individual participants – but to accentuate and reinforce the power and will of the guy in charge. Of course, the way the Boss copes with this is by creating opportunities for his followers to get a taste of his power, in small, confined ways. By restricting the reproductive rights of women, the Boss makes men the boss of women’s bodies. By expanding and militarising the police, the Boss creates opportunities for small-town sheriffs to feel like the boss of blackfolk’s lives. By forbidding transfolk from entering the right bathroom, the Boss allows ciswomen to feel like the boss of their trans sisters. By rolling back the rights of workers, the Boss allows managers to become more like him. The Boss transforms the contagion of schoolyard bullying into tool of government

And yet, American culture demonises sucking up. Having to tug your forelock at someone richer and more powerful than you to get ahead is precisely what the ancestors of most present-day white Americans were striving to escape when they colonised Turtle Island. This experience has left many scars in American national consciousness – in film and on TV, suck ups are, at best, a pathetic comic relief, and at worst the guy who holds the bad guy’s hat, and runs off squealing in fear when the hero wins

Nobody wants to see themselves as that guy; least of all the sort of middle-class, white folk who voted for Trump in their droves. But that is precisely what they have become. Seduced by the facade of egalitarianism and meritocracy that corporate America has spun around itself, they have become everything their ancestors would have despised – the cringing assistant to the local liege-lord; responsible for keeping the rest of the manor in line, and keeping him in power. Their fate is not their own, but tied to his. This will remain the case, until they choose to abandon him.

Now that Trump is in power, he and his cronies in the Republican party are starting to take steps that will hurt many of those who voted for him – from dismantling the Affordable Care Act, to removing important environmental protections. As a result, some Trump voters are starting to regret their choice. Although I have little sympathy for people who fail to apologise for support an overt racist, sexist, and xenophobe; this bitter experience will hopefully make one thing abundantly clear; The Boss is using you. This is the most important lesson for any Trump voter to take away from the connection between Trump and the Boss archetype; a lesson evident in the anxiety of that first day’s employment; a lesson “Peter” and his fellow Oklahomans failed to grasp. To the Boss, you do not exist as a person to him, but as an employee, as labour that he needs. As soon as he no longer needs that service, or you can no longer provide it, he will discard you. And, unfortunately, you’ve done your bit – he’s in office now.

There may still be time to turn from the dark road the Anglophone world is now on. To turn away from bosses and Father-surrogates, to embrace equality and compassion for all. Because nobody should have to live their life sucking up to the Boss.


Notes:

*You’d never see a British filmmaker depicting an aristocrat queuing up to get their title recognised by the state. To us, that’s too weird, even for science fiction.

**There is a clear, racial dimension to this distinction. The State is viewed as both an employer and a patron of people of colour, whereas the private sector is imagined as a white domain.

*** Occupy was so diverse, that mainstream journalists frequently used this as a stick to beat the movement with – presenting it as fundamentally disorganised, with no clear objective, despite much evidence to the contrary.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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Review: The Utopia of Rules, by David Graeber

 

Reviewed: The Utopia of Rules – On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. (2015) Brooklyn and London: Melville House.

Reading a book about bureaucracy may not sound like an exciting way to spend a weekend off with my family. And yet, having just started David Graeber’s latestA Utopia of Ruleswhen I wasn’t making tea for my elderly grandmother, I curled up in a comfy chair with this little pink book, mocked up to look like one of the forms it excoriates, and excited by each new page. Although many of the ideas Graeber presents here aren’t new, the clarity and force with which they are drawn together and set out is a rare pleasurea contrast with turgid official paperwork that was almost certainly intentional.

Graebera social anthropologist, anarchist, and prominent leftist thinker, based at the London School of Economics (LSE)develops his argument, in part, by thinking ethnographically with his own personal experiences of officialdom, beginning with a heartbreaking account of his own struggle to deal with his elderly mother’s Medicaid application. In response to this, he introduces the book as a series of short essays on different facets of what he calls “total bureaucratisation”defined as “the gradual fusion of public and private power into a single entity, rife with rules and regulations whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits.” Bureaucracy is not a simple matter of red tape created by the state tying up private enterprise, as right-wing pundits would have us believe: Graeber points out that bureaucratic forms have become intrinsic to both private and public spheres.

While the Left has been largely unable to produce a critique of bureaucracy, the Right has such a critiquebut efforts to “roll back” the state by the Right have had the opposite effect, producing even more paperwork than ever. This leads Graeber to propose what he calls “the Iron Law of Liberalism”, which states that “any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.”

In stressing the coeval nature of the free market and an expansive state, Graeber directs his analysis away from shallow criticism of big government, towards the common institutional basis of all inequality, found at the heart of neoliberal governance. Given the extent to which the general public in the English-speaking world continue to view the expansive state and the “free” market as antithetical to one another and synonymous with the Left and the Right of politics respectively, this is an important point to make.

With the foundations laid, Graeber’s lucid prose carries the reader briskly through a sequence of stand-alone essays, each of which engages with a particular aspect of total bureaucratisation today. Each of these, Graeber claims, will need to be addressed by any critique of bureaucracy the Left might develop. Dead Zones of the Imagination utilises feminist theory of imaginative labour to develop the argument that bureaucracyin addition to being stupidexists to create stupidity. Its impersonal procedures, backed up by threat of violence, ensure that those in positions of authorityespecially the policeare able to avoid doing the imaginative labour of empathising with others, while forcing those others to engage in imaginative labour towards the authorities, simply in order to avoid physical harm. Police insist upon being able to “define the situation”those who contest this, rather than violent criminals, are the ones who are routinely meet with physical violence. This serves to emphasise a very basic point: don’t underestimate the importance of physical violence, even if it takes place behind a veil of paper.

In Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit, Graeber turns his attention to the trajectory of technological development in the modern world. Why is it, he asks, that in the 1950s we were able to explore space, and expected to be surrounded by robotic servants and flying cars by now, but that this awesome potential has not been realised? The answer, he suggests, is that rather than cause social change by itself, the direction of technological innovation is directed by financial interestsso that instead of pursuing automation and space travel that could disrupt existing economic relations on Earth, major funders have prioritised less disruptive research lines, such as information technology. The greatest achievement of the late 20th centurythe Internetis revealed as decidedly chimeric; both a tool for enhanced communication, but also a means of surveillance and manipulation on an industrial scale. The promise of technology has been broken in favour of labour discipline and social control; R&D budgets have been slashed in favour of boosting executive pay and shareholder dividends. Instead of being allowed to pursue their research interests, academics are increasingly forced to spend more and more of their time doing paperwork. Rather than a driver of social change, technology is itself subject to the demands of capital.

The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All concludes the triptych, by exploring the ways in which bureaucracy can, in fact, be deeply enchantingwhen it works wellproviding human beings with a sense of predictability and certainty that can be deeply seductive. While the second essay uses science fiction to reflect upon the curious falling short of innovation, this essay turns to magic and fantasy fiction in an attempt to understand how the appeal of bureaucratic rationality is generated. Graeber argues that the elaborate angelic hierarchies and formulaic modes of ritual address, developed in the Rennaissance but that now enliven Western Ceremonial Magic, actually reflect a political imaginarya vision of the chaotic, violent world of the Middle ages reordered according to a spiritualised version of the old, lost, Roman bureaucracy. Nowadays, however, this vision is invertedfantasy fiction today constructs a pseudo-Medieval world, where bureaucracy is almost entirely absent, where creativity is directly channelled into reality via magic, and where leadership is acquired on the basis of personal virtue and conquest, rather than through impersonal qualification or graduate recruitment. However, while giving us an opportunity to vicariously enjoy a world without bureaucracy, medievalist fantasies – with their perennial sense of threat and danger – nonetheless reinforce our sense that it’s probably preferable to live with the devil we know. Just as the gruesome spectacle of Gladitorial combat both beguiled and repulsed the populace of Rome from the idea of democracy, the blood-soaked cities of Westeros instill in us a fear of a world without bureaucratic order.

Perhaps the most fascinating contestation made by Graeberalbeit, only in passingis that bureaucratic rationality rests upon a resolutely spiritual set of commitments. The idea that numbers and their rational appraisal can help one to understand and manipulate reality, reaches back to the Pythagoreanism of ancient Greece. They, in turn, directly inspired Plato, the father of Western formalism, and in turn the Medieval angelic hierarchies mentioned above. This commitment to the power of logic and pure numbers conferred upon bureaucracy a utopian air; bureaucrats envision a world of perfect harmony, governed by well-designed, efficient institutions, and develop frameworks that attempt to make that world a reality. The fact that the complexity of the world-as-lived rarely fits these lofty ideals ensures that bureaucracy requires constant enforcementwith the force in question being the threat of violence meted out by private security, the police or the military.

But it is in the AppendixBatman and the Problem of Constituent Powerthat we find some of Graeber’s most timely observations for the present moment. In a playful analysis of the cultural and political significance of superheroes, Graeber points out thatbuilding upon his analysis of medievalist fantasy in the previous chaptercomics teach the same kind of lesson. In pitting basically passive superheroes who seek to preserve the status quo against endlessly creative and scheming villains who wish to unseat it, comics allow the reader to vicariously enjoy the thrill of unfettered creative potential, only to enforce the idea that such potential necessarily leads to violence, and that violence is in turn the only way that it can be controlled.

In the Marvel and DC Universes, the only alternative to bureaucracy is violent creativity of villainsin short, fascism. This, in turn, allows Graeber to highlight a broad distinction between the left and the right: “Ultimately, the division between left-and right-wing sensibilities turns on one’s attitude towards the imagination. For the Left, imagination, creativity, by extension production, the power to bring new things and new social arrangements into being, is always to be celebrated. It is the source of all real value in the world. For the Right, it is dangerous; ultimately, evil. The urge to create is also a destructive urge. This kind of sensibility was rife in the popular Freudianism of the day [1950s]: where the Id was the motor of the psyche, but also amoral; if really unleashed, it would lead to an orgy of destruction. This is also what separates conservatives from fascists. Both agree that the imagination unleashed can only lead to violence and destruction. Conservatives wish to defend us against that possibility. Fascists wish to unleash it anyway. They aspire to be, as Hitler imagined himself, great artists painting with the minds, blood, and sinews of humanity.”

Following from the magistral philosophical treatise Debt: The First 5,000 years (2011), The Utopia of Rules is a more modest project. Graeber does not attempt to propose a leftist critique of total bureaucratisation within its pages, though he argues such a critique is long overdue. Nor does he advance a singular argumenthis goal is simply to prompt a conversation. With the rise of the populist right, this conversation is more important than ever. The mainstream Left, Graeber points out, has for too long positioned itself on the side of state control, leaving critiques of bureaucracy to the Right. As the pro-market efforts of neoliberalism have done nothing but concentrate capital in the hands of the rentier classes, the frustration is now boiling over. And yet, in unveiling the mystical roots of stultifying modern paperwork, Graeber reveals a way forward for usif total bureaucratisation is a spell laid over the world, that spell may be broken. We need not live out the fevered dreams of Renaissance mystics; we can awaken. Nor shall the dark blood and bone portraits of fascists necessarily hold sway over the human imagination, for the Left is just as creative as the right; indeed, unlike them, we can create without fear of creativity. The Right may aspire to break this world, but it is the birthright of the Left to make a better one.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


 You can still purchase our entire digital catalogue for $20 US until 1 June.