Back in the late nineties, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) wrestlers Mankind, Ken Shamrock, the Big Show, and Test took a stand during Monday Night Raw. Wielding two-by-fours, they declared themselves “The Union” (also known as The Union of People You Oughta Respect, Son, or UPYOURS for short).
The Union was about more than championships and personal grudges; it voiced concerns about compensation and job security usually unmentioned in the cartoon world of wrestling. As columnist David Shoemaker put it, “The Union’s goal wasn’t just to settle a fight, but to keep its member’s jobs.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a real union. The formation of UPYOURS was a mere plot point in a larger storyline. Four days before, on the pilot episode of Smackdown!, the Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness had merged with Shane McMahon’s Corporation to form a super-stable (a wrestling term for posse) called the Corporate Ministry, which sought to give its own members preferential treatment, interfere in matches, and screw over long-standing enemies as well as former allies — typical wrestling fare.
WWE storylines are typically melodramatic and preposterous — but they work unexpectedly well as an allegory for our current political moment. The media scandals and PR spins that have characterized this year’s election cycle have much in common with the staged war between the Union and the Corporate Ministry.
In both cases politics is refracted through ideological spectacle and simulation. Both the WWE and the two major US political parties conjure storylines that recreate reality on their terms, obscuring the power relations underlying their institutions.
Fact or Fiction
Wrestling is unique among narrative art forms. Unlike other fictions, wrestling is a simulation of the conditions of employment of its actual employees. A novelist can write a novel about being a novelist; a playwright about writing plays; but it is only wrestlers that must simulate their own jobs. Going to the ring and wrestling is intrinsic to the form. This causes great difficulty in distinguishing the “reality” from the “fiction.”
The backstage politics of the WWE exemplify this. As everyone knows, wrestling is predetermined; former WWE wrestler Ryback explains, “The winners cannot win unless the losers go out there and agree to lose to them.” Yet absurdly, these “winners” are paid more — narrowing the gap between onstage fiction and backstage politics.
And wrestlers are prone to believing their own hype, making it difficult to determine where the employee ends and the character begins. After all, it was none other than Hulk Hogan who ratted out Jesse Ventura’s nascent unionization drive in 1988.
But these locker-room maneuverings do not even begin to encompass the way that the WWE nurtures its fictions to obscure real-life power relations and ultimately reconceive them on other terms. Beginning in the late 1990s, triggered by an infamous case of employee abuse, Vince McMahon became the villainous on-screen CEO of the WWE, playing an exaggerated version of himself (the actual CEO of the company): a bully who screwed likable wrestlers out of their dreams for his own amusement and profit.
McMahon’s stage character tapped into American anger over corporate greed and elite privilege. McMahon’s enemies tended, in turn, to represent the opposite. His main foil for many years was “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a Texas “rattlesnake” who didn’t care for rules, cursed his opponents out, and “opened up a can of whoop ass” every time he stepped into the squared circle. He encapsulated the WWE audience’s resentment towards its bosses and provided a revenge fantasy in which ordinary folks came out on top.
McMahon and Austin took turns getting the best of each other, but regardless of the outcome, the overall effect of the storyline was to invest fans in the drama and defeats of the fantasy McMahon, rather than the real-life backstage battles of professional wrestling.
Steve Austin’s character may have been validating, but he diverted fans’ anger away from their actual bosses. The Union may have been a politically incisive storyline, but it did nothing to improve working conditions for wrestlers.
Leading up to November’s election, it is striking how similar the Democratic Party’s approach towards working people is to The Union’s appearance on Monday Night Raw. Like the WWE stable, it gestures towards the traditional symbols and slogans of the working class (just as The Union carried two-by-fours), and claims to represent its interests.
But ultimately its goal is simply to defeat its partner in fiction: the Republican Party (with whom the Corporate Ministry is not such a bad comparison, either). It never keeps its word, implementing pro-business neoliberal policies and undermining workers’ bargaining power at every turn.
And yet it purports to be the working class’s champion. More than that, its status as pro-labor is presented as a feature of the party’s being, as if it were an intractable physical quality.
It is easy to think of Democratic Party doublespeak as dishonest. Doing so allows for the possibility that dishonesty can be countered by the truth (“If people just held the party to its word . . . ”). But what characterizes the Democratic Party’s (as well as the Republicans’) position is a commitment to fiction, not falsehood.
Fiction and falsehood are distinct concepts. A lie, revealed for the deception that it is, leads to a rejection of the principles upon which it was based. A fiction, by contrast, is not broken by the discovery that it is not real. It can still act as the bearer of the hopes and fantasies of those who believe in it.
This is common sense in the wrestling community, where fans constantly express admiration for moments which make them “feel like it’s real” again. It is also true of much of the Democratic Party’s base, who continue to see the party as being in favor of progressive causes such as unionization in the face of an immense body of evidence showing the opposite to be true.
To some extent, all political organizations must build fictions — weave stories of the good life to lend unity and vision to the various short-term political goals they pursue. This includes those on the far left — what other role does “the revolution” play but that of the horizon of the political imaginary? Their power to cohere scattered efforts or expose the gap between our aspirations and reality can be useful.
But the fictions of the two dominant US political parties do not serve that purpose. Their only goal is to attract the highest amount of potential voters, so they present narratives which conceal their underlying political economy.
This is in part because US political parties are rather peculiar. They don’t have a mass base of registered members who vote on internal decisions, nor a set of principles which all subsequent choices must refer to. This affords them broad political flexibility (one need only look at the massive changes in party platforms from election to election to observe this) and removes any responsibility toward the people that vote for them.
Instead, style and branding take on an exaggerated importance as fictions that replace mass politics rather than guiding them. As Fredric Jameson put it in a critique of postmodern art, “the work has become the content; and that what we consume in such works is the form itself.”
Examples of this exist everywhere. Trump’s tweets seem to have become political acts in and of themselves; the DNC e-mail leaks reveal the extent to which Democratic aides were working very hard to come up with ways to brand themselves better; going back a few years, Advertising Age called “Barack Obama, Inc.” 2008’s brand of the year.
In wrestling, the way a character is presented is determined by how much attention the bookers (people who write the characters and determine the matches) think that they can generate, and thus, ticket and merchandising sales.
This is true in politics as well, although candidates are looking for votes rather than sales. Trump’s popularity comes from his loud-mouthed, vituperative, Steve Austin-esque anti-hero persona, while Clinton’s long Roman Reigns promo of a candidacy gives off an aura of inevitability, as if Vince McMahon himself were choosing her to win the title at WrestleMania (which perhaps explains her struggle to excite voters).
In both cases, the fiction — whether it be that Trump is standing up to politically correct, two-faced beltway elites, or that Clinton is carefully “managing” a government with progressive aims — is more important than the material circumstances actually at play.
In reality, Trump represents the establishment just as much as Clinton does, his “outlaw” status on Twitter aside. By the same token, Clinton can only be seen as a responsible leader if you take mass poverty, never-ending war, and co-optation of social movements as necessary and eternal features of US politics.
The point of these “gimmicks” (the wrestling term for character) is to hide the political economy underlying this scenario by instead presenting two characters engaged in a feud that fans (voters) can emotionally invest in. As Lauren Berlant writes, “politics is always emotional. It is a scene where structural antagonisms — genuinely conflicting interests — are described in rhetoric that intensifies fantasy.”
To hide the fact that neither party need have any loyalty to the people who vote for it and donate to it, that capital successfully lobbies for the policies it desires, regardless of who holds office, the parties present well-worn ciphers as repositories for people’s hopes and aspirations.
A central reason why people so vehemently support one candidate over another is because it is psychologically expedient and pleasing to invest in a conquest story, in which their favorite overcomes all odds to win the title.
But this is not WrestleMania, or Raw. Vince McMahon never stopped being Steve Austin’s boss, The Union didn’t improve the lives of professional wrestlers, and the Democratic Party isn’t going to usher in a new era of left-wing politics. For that, we will need our own, living movements that help us overcome the reality of capitalism.