Do androids dream of electoral defeat?

by Sam Kriss

I now have before me a machine that works automatically. This is no longer life, it is automatism established in life and imitating it. It belongs to the comic.
Henri Bergson, Laughter


Here’s my problem. Everyone knows that electoral politics and the democratic process are pure spectacle: an empty distraction for the cud-chewing masses; a potent mix of fizz, glamour, and the illusion of government by the people, whose only purpose is to conceal the real centres of power. And to be honest, this leaves me feeling a bit short-changed. It’s not so much the absence of any mass political autonomy that bothers me. Rule by smoke-shrouded Knossosian mystery seems to be a pretty effective system – it’s got us this far, after all – and its dark architectonic hiding-holes tend to offer plenty of outlets for the eroticised interpetosis we all enjoy so much. The only real secret in democratic society is that all the other conspiracies only exist to afford people the pleasure of discovering them. My problem is this: if we’re to have this all-singing all-dancing electoral charade, thrown on top of the real power-play like a carpet on top of a dungheap, shouldn’t the spectacle be more, well, spectacular? The upcoming British election will most likely be the closest in decades, all manner of insurgent parties are tunnelling through the political terrain, and yet it’s just so utterly, aridly, bradycardially boring. It’s been two weeks since the dissolution of Parliament, and still the most interesting thing that’s happened was when Ed Miliband’s face fell off during the televised seven-way leaders’ debate.

It all happened very suddenly. One moment Ed Miliband’s face was where it ought to be, covering the front part of his head; the next it was on the floor, leaking piston grease in a steady trickle onto the studio floor. Miliband didn’t even stop to try to pick it up. The question was about agricultural subsidies for cattle feed and related products, and he just kept on talking, his big clumsy teeth gnashing about in the middle of a dark wormy mess of wires and transistor tubes from which two eyes still stared, huge, unblinking, and grotesquely spherical. The various little mechanisms that had controlled his facial features were also still going, a ring of tiny moving rods and clasps around the edge of his now faceless face, their frantic pump and twist giving the impression of some crustacean or millipede flipped onto its back and desperately failing to right itself. As cogs spun and switches switched, he talked directly into the camera, facing the voting public with that emetically truncated head, as if unaware or unashamed of his sudden nakedness. And as he spoke his hands whirred into one strange and frantic gesture after another, running through all their pre-programmed positions: angry child demanding ice cream, Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations, Kali, the Hindu goddess of time and death. “I have this to say to the people of Britain,” he said, his voice dribbling from some sonorous cavity in the middle of his head. “If enough of you vote for my party, you will be voting for me to be your next prime minister. If I am your next prime minister I will live in Downing Street and be the prime minister. And people will call me Prime Minister Ed Miliband, or Ed Miliband, the British prime minister, and I will be very prime ministerial.”

If Miliband didn’t notice the shock departure of his face, others did. David Cameron was the first to comment on the Labour leader’s embarrassing gaffe, speaking authoritatively about the importance of hay to the rural economy for a few minutes before straightening his lapels and glancing at his jerking, buzzing, shambolically oil-spurting opponent. “I also want to say one thing,” he added. “This man thinks he can keep a lid on the deficit. But how can he do that when he can’t keep a lid on his own party, and he can’t even keep a lid on his own head?” Later on the Greens’ Natalie Bennett voiced her regret that the Labour party hadn’t constructed its leader from something more environmentally sustainable, like wood, at which Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru perked up and added that Miliband’s lack of concern for Welsh issues was especially hypocritical given that half of his processors had been made in a factory outside of Swansea. Scores of people took to social media to call the stricken leader of the opposition (whose battery was now visibly draining) a numpty, while BuzzFeed gleefully featured a series of animated gifs that showed his face coming unmoored from his head and clattering gently against the floor. The Labour press office quickly released a statement lambasting the media for focusing on a technical malfunction instead of reporting on the issues. Nobody really paid any attention, except to point out that the statement had come out almost before anyone had spent much time focusing on that technical malfunction, as if they’d already written it long in advance, in the sure knowledge that some disaster of this sort was bound to happen.

But I’ll bite, and talk about the issues. In the televised debate, the Milibot finally had the chance to denounce and abjure some of New Labour’s record before the voting public at large. And what did he choose? Looking back on thirteen years of wars, bloodshed, bombs, slaughter, tax scams, privatisation, crooked bailouts, arbitrary detentions, surveillance, death, penury, crappy indie music, shameful BBC dramas, genocide, and the emergence of Simon Cowell as a figure of cultural significance – after all that, he attacked his party for supposedly being too lenient on asylum and immigration. Was that also a technical malfunction? After all those years of murder and chaos, he chose to blame the most vulnerable and disenfranchised people in the country – was that also the fault of a grain of sand lodged in his gearing mechanism?

In the end you have to wonder why the Labour party built a leader as weird and as offputting as Ed Miliband. Some of his strangeness is vaguely explicable – his general air of geekery, the nasal honk and nervous grin, clearly designed to mildly endear him to the doting grannies and pustulous Doctor Who fangirls that presumably constitute Labour’s core demographic. But why build something that fails so spectacularly in its task of appearing to be human?

After that debate, the Sun newspaper captured the Milibot’s notes from his dressing room at the Salford ITV studio, and paraded them in front of the public like loot in a Roman triumph. It’s hard to see why they bothered. Even before his face fell off, Miliband’s programming was as visible as the oil on his skin. The coders working on his back-end database told him to smile, so he gave his creepy grin even while informing the viewers that their living standards had declined. People don’t think he’s prime ministerial enough, they can’t really see him scooting round number ten, banging repeatedly into cupboards as the gyroscope in his chest comes loose – so he kept on repeating the subjunctive possibility of his becoming our head of government. “Hard-working families,” he said, not once, but over and over again. “Those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden,” he said, not once, but over and over again. “Britain will succeed only when working people succeed,” he said, not once, but over and over again. “Hard-working families,” he said, not once, but over and over again. They may as well have not given him that face in the first place. It was all very similar to that famous incident in 2011 when the Milibot responded to any question with the meaningless phrase “these strikes are wrong while negotiations are still taking place”, as his neck twitched and his left eyeball revolved constantly in its zinc-alloy socket. Another supposed technical malfunction. There’s only so much of this you can watch before reaching the conclusion that having a leader with his constituency office in the middle of the Uncanny Valley isn’t a bug at all but a feature, something that Labour have done very deliberately.

Of course, the received wisdom is that all front-bench politicians are basically the same, that they’re all cold and irreducibly inhuman automatons. It’s this general idea that allows the public schoolboy and former banker Nigel Farage to do his absurd, theatrical cor-blimey-guvnor-me-suit-don’t-quite-fit-right routine every day and still appear as the straight-talking voice of the bloke on the street (or bloke down the pub more like knowarramean). The problem is that this isn’t really true. It might be the case that most of the political class have essentially nothing in common with their constituents (as perfectly satirised in the ‘and why are they so fat’ bit in The Thick of It). It’s certainly the case that scores of young political rhabdomancer-interns are watching every second of their opponents’ waking lives, scrying for any misstep or contradiction that can be fed into a media-parliamentary feedback loop that spins on its own giddy axis without much concern for the rest of the country. Under such conditions it makes far more sense for politicians to endlessly repeat prepared catchphrases than to actually speak like a normal person. But then look at David Cameron, who consistently tops individual popularity polls of the party leaders. He’s also far and away the most trusted on economic affairs, even though the same public also reckons, by a similar margin, that he’s running the economy for the betterment of the rich and to the detriment of everyone else. (He also does pretty well in debates – this is exactly what they train for in Eton debating societies and the Oxford Union.) The thing is that even though he’s a brutish, pompous, thoughtlessly self-regarding scion of the chinless classes bred solely to massacre povvos and darkies for the empire, an utterly loathsome arsehole, he’s also very visibly a human arsehole; puckered, pulsing, and made of real flesh.

In fact, almost all of the other party leaders make a point of foregrounding their unpleasantly human aspects. Nick Clegg is a slavish lickspittle who regards Cameron as less of a coalition partnner and more of a queasy father-figure, and so when he does turn on him it’s with a show of properly Oedipal glee. Natalie Bennett is a droning eco-bore, and so she drones, and ecoes, and bores. Farage is a secret bigot, so he blames the country’s woes on immigrants with HIV. They all seem to be actively testing the limits of our dislike for them, trying to keep the electoral spectacle as seedy and unexciting as possible. The stomping, glitching, godawful Milibot really just represents the automated perfection of this strange form of human labour: it’s hard to actually hate a machine, but impossible to really like it either. After all, in terms of sheer charisma, he’s essentially interchangeable with the podium in front of him.

But why on earth would they want to do such a thing? The case of the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon might be illuminating here. Not long after the debate, the Telegraph published a leaked Foreign and Commonwealth Office memo that purported to be the record of a conversation between the first minister and the French Ambassador, in which the former confided that she’d secretly like to see Cameron cling on to power. Both parties strenuously denied any such conversation having taken place, the affair was a pretty transparent attempt to drive Tory-hating voters away from the SNP, and given that it required the forging of an official government document, it’s not unreasonable to assume that some intelligence agency or another was involved. Their motivations are less clear. Sturgeon’s party might be actively campaigning for the final annihilation of the United Kingdom, but any concern for that kind of thing belongs to the old world of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. The SNP is not by any measure a radical party; it has no desire to interrupt the smooth flow of capital, it’s perfectly willing to implement austerity in Scotland whenever the City of London wants it to, and it’s difficult to imagine the secret services involving themselves in electoral politics for something as gauche and unprofitable as Queen and country. Something else is at stake. During the debate, Sturgeon did the unthinkable and spoke like a normal person. She argued her party’s position as if she actually believed in it. She was quick-witted, persuasive, and likeable. She wasn’t a sneering prick or a broken robot, and so she won the debate hands down, prompting millions of people to beg the Scottish nationalists to start running candidates in England. She dared to be human, and so the spies came after her. Because just for a moment she made people think (however wrongly) that parliamentary democracy could actually deliver some kind of change. Because the real powers in this country – the bankers, the businessmen, the spies and the soldiers, the eldritch and unkillable vampire aristocrats – all want us to be cynical and detached. They don’t want people to actually engage with their sham democracy, in case we expect something from it; far safer for us to know that it’s rigged, know exactly who’s rigging it, find everyone involved despicable or embarrassing, and dismiss it with a shrug. And when the conspiracy only functions if everyone believes in it, what better symbol and frontman than a gurning machine with its face falling off?

This is what I thought, and so I wrote it down. Now I’m not so sure. (If everyone knows about the conspiracy, wouldn’t MI5 or whoever take into account the fact that their forged memo would be uncovered too?) The other day, I registered to vote, with the vague intention of drawing a picture of a naked Monty Burns on my ballot, after the excellent second-season episode Brush With Greatness. But then, while idly Googling my constituency, I discovered that since the last election I’ve moved to a very marginal Conservative seat, that the latest polls have Labour ahead by only a fraction of a point. Suddenly it was as if my brain had been replaced by a reel of magnetic tape. “For once your vote counts,” the recorded voice said, in tones that were slow and mechanical but still somehow nasal, as if the synthesiser had been clogged with phlegm. “You can’t let the bastards stay in government. Suck it up and vote for Labour. Ed might be a greasy racist dildo, but he’s not as bad as the Tories, is he?” I hardly noticed that my hands were making strange and furious gestures as if of their own accord. My bones felt metallic, my eyeballs as hard as gemstones. I didn’t feel like breathing, so I stopped, with no ill effect. I still want to draw that picture of Mr Burns. But now I’m no longer certain that what I want has any effect, or if the ‘I’ that wants is anything more than an insubstantial hologram thrown up by tiny errors in the thousands of computerised nodes that contain my programming. I’m not sure what I’d do if I saw a tortoise laying on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun. It makes sense now. A mechanical prime minister for a mechanical electorate. So when I saw Ed Miliband on the television the next day, as sunlight burst in through the window and crowded the screen with ghostly reflections, I wasn’t even surprised that I couldn’t tell the difference between his face and my own.