The Playful Goddess Campaign II

Written on March 4, 2008 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

Cerveza Rolf’s post and my own last week commented on the markedly special character that campaigning has when compared to “normal” political life. Now, how is it possible that Western democracies integrate naturally an element as alien to its normal course as campaigning is? For the answer we can, in my opinion, look again to the celebrated Homo Ludens of the great historian Johan Huizinga.

Politicians and spectators follow the campaign in a “playful” mood (not necessarily equivalent to “frivolous”), with a spirit much closer to a horse-race than to rational decision-making. That playfulness is only possible when, as in Western democracies, there is a broad consensus on the fundamental issues, and therefore the rules of the game are accepted by participants. Campaign is, after all, a game, if we define game as Huizinga does: “a free occupation, played within fixed spacial and temporal limits, with compulsory rules which are freely accepted by the participants, accompained by tension and enjoyment and by the conscience of being other than in normal life”. That is why politicians indulge in strange practices and words and are allowed extra-ordinary behaviour during this time. The game culminates in the electoral day: in fact, when politicians feel they have to say something when asked by journalists that day, they often mumble with their last forces variants of the topic “elections are the feast of democracy”. They are (most of them probably unconsciously) saying a great truth. After the climax, the game ends and life comes back to the real world with real rules.

The same happens in other types of ludic moments described by Huizinga: for example, medieval tournaments. Knights turned back to their life of landowners after their chevalresque performances, much as participants in religious rituals (e. g. a procession) go back home after having played their role. The importance of tournaments or rituals as factors of social integration is out of doubt. They allow displaying social and individual ideals unrestrained by the limits of reality, changing them for the new ones, the “rules of the game”. The life in which men think (homo sapiens) and produce (homo faber) would not be possible without a considerable space for the life of symbolism, imagination and amusement, the realms of the homo ludens.

Yet sometimes real life is invaded by the game, and the temporary rules aim to become permanent. It is absurd and even dangerous. A religion with 300 central feasts per year like Christmas or Good Friday would be a ridiculous extremist sect. And experience shows what happens when knights think they are always in a tournament, and that life is led by chevalresque rules: the defeat of the last Duke of Burgundy, that of the French in Agincourt, or that of the Crusaders in  Nicopolis (or in modern times, Gallipolli or the Falklands War), are examples of the disastrous consequences of practical romanticism: of confusing the rules of reality with those of the game.

Now let us come back to the campaigning game: when, as it has happened in Italy and Spain in the last years, the rules of campaign extend beyond their due temporal limits, political life just becomes unbearable. If politics becomes pure campaigning, then, as classical political theory (i. e. Plato and Aristotle) would put it, democracy degenerates into pure demagogy.

Inspired by Rolf’s post, which I read in a thirsty hour, I said that campaigning was to democracy like foam to a German beer. Without some foam it does not look good, but everybody knows what happens when you throw the beer from too high and the whole glass is foam. You cannot even give it a decent sip. But let us finish in a more poetic note, since this is a blog of humanities. Let us go back to the beginning, to our theogonical poem on the goddess Campaign. We can now complete it, and sing these verses:

Every four years playful Campaign wakes up

and she reigns for two months among the mortals.

Then she goes back to sleep in the House of Fame,

as was decreed by Zeus in the beginning,

when he set the rules that transformed Chaos into Cosmos.


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