Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Stunning Events in Greece!

Victory -- well, not quite -- in the cradle of democracy! 

I am interested in the utility of protest, and in its potential to redress the failure of electoral politics. It is absolutely clear that democracy as currently practiced in most Western countries is a failure. The electoral process does not work. Representative democracy no longer represents the majority.

In my post on Friday, I described the recent actions of protesters in Greece, and their apparent failure to sway the government from its chosen course of action: 
The recent images of 100,000 Greeks demonstrating in the streets of Athens raises an intriguing question about the utility of protest. And, as it relates to the ever-widening Occupy movement, its worth asking: "how many people will it finally take"? How many people must take to the streets before a government will respond to the will of its citizens? 
In the case of the Greek protests, what is clear is that 100,000 was not nearly enough, because the country's parliamentarians enacted tough new austerity measures despite the vigorous opposition of those who elected them. The government clearly understood the pain it was inflicting on its own people, even as it refused to consider their wishes, and it chose instead to meet the demands of the international banking class. In a democracy, then, how many people must take their dissent to the streets?
The Greek example demonstrates yet again that the almost universal disapproval of a people, and massive displays of public protest, are generally insufficient to sway the course of government. In Greece, a higher authority was at work. Economists tell us that the world-wide catastrophe arising from a Greek default is too terrible to contemplate. They tell us that crushing the lives of ordinary Greeks is a necessary price for the greater good. A fact central to this unfolding drama that receives almost no commentary is that working- and middle-class Greeks played no part in creating the explosion of debt that now puts us all in such jeopardy. Adding insult to injury, those actually culpable for this mess have quietly and safely moved on with their lives.
That post was a snapshot in time, and new events have overtaken us. A series of reports out of Greece today are nothing short of stunning. In a move that has taken the world by surprise, Georgios Papandreau has announced he will give back to the Greek people the final decision on the austerity measures that resulted from the debt crisis and the financial bailout.

This action by Papandreau certainly represents real desperation on his part. His ruling Socialist party has fallen dramatically in opinion polls and, well ahead of new elections in 2013, his government could face a non-confidence vote. This announcement is widely being characterized as an attempt to get out in front of events related to the debt issue in order to save his party.

At the same time, there is no certainty that the Greek people will ever get to vote on the issue -- in fact, there is every likelihood they won't. Already there are reports of major defections by lawmakers, and the government could fall by week's end. But that's not really important; the larger lesson is that ordinary Greeks took their dissent to the streets, outside the normal political process, and achieved a stunning result -- a critical mass of popular participation succeeded in bending the government to the people's will -- even if only for a few days.

I'm not so naive to believe that the Greek people will actually win the day on the referendum because aligned against them are some very powerful entities -- the international banking class and the full weight of the EU, for example. However, it's great to see a glimmer of success resulting from mass dissent and public protest -- better still to see it first in the birthplace of democracy. Very cool.

Lets pause for a moment, though. The specifics of the Greek protests are not necessarily analogous to the Occupy movement. Certainly the broad issue of social justice is present in both cases. But the people of Greece were railing against the imposition of unjust and draconian austerity measures demanded by the international banking class. In this rather unique set of circumstances, the Greek protesters were confronting not only their own government, but also the full weight and enormous power of the European Union. They managed to shake the resolve of Georgis Papandreau (an amazing result), but not that of the faceless EU bureaucrats that now control him.

Despite the inevitable setbacks and reversals that will soon unfold, the mass protests in Greece have had a profound affect. We have affirmed the utility of protest. Public protest and mass participation can indeed cause a government to bend to the popular will.

And not all observers are blind to the righteousness of the protests. The NY Times editorial for November 2nd said this,
"Europe's leaders should have paid more attention to the distress of ordinary Greeks and less to the distress of well-heeled European bankers."
We need next to imagine how this might inform the growing Occupy movement in the US and around the world.

Update. This morning there were reports that Greek Prime Minister Papandreau would resign after his cabinet broke with his plan to hold a referendum on the bailout plan and the accompanying austerity measures. Now the Post is reporting that he has scrapped plans for the referendum. Another defeat for the people and democracy. The scoreboard continues to read like a rout.

The central question in my previous post was: how many people must take to the streets before a government will bend to the will of its citizens? In that post I pointed to 100,000 in Greece, 500,000 in the Israeli protests, and millions in the streets of Egypt. The excitement over the Greek referendum seemed to suggest that it was possible to bend a government's will. But the cold glare of reality has returned.

In the end, this bit of theater in the Aegean again proves (at least for the moment) my point -- that to bring about any meaningful change will require that millions take to the streets. Under no circumstances will the state ever alter its course without a massive display of public dissent by the people.

And what does this mean for the Occupy movement? I'll not make many friends by saying that the campers on the commons have no hope -- I mean, zero -- of affecting any meaningful change unless their movement takes to the streets in numbers that dwarf anything ever seen in the protests against the Vietnam war. That was the last true example of a government bending to the will of its people.

Update Two. It is now Sunday November 6, and the sad end to the political career of Georgis Papandreau is finally upon us.

First, the Greek Premier plunged the EU, and by extension the world, into a tailspin with his promise to return to the citizens of Greece their franchise through a referendum on the debt issue. Next he was taken to the woodshed by Sarkozy and Merkel, and obediently backed down, rescinding the vote and calling for a national unity government that would toe the line on EU membership. He survived a non-confidence vote, brokered a new ruling coalition, and has now been shown the door, as reported by every credible source.

So the Greek state will remain in the EU, and it will get the next tranche of needed cash. And the people who created this disaster will remain happily and profitably at large, and the ordinary Greek citizen will endure enormous hardship and brutal austerity, as more and more of the Greek commonwealth is purchased by wealthy speculators at bargain basement prices.

And the scoreboard continues to read like a rout, and governments continue to disregard the will and best interests of its citizens -- all because they can.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day:  La Cathedrale Engloutie, Claude Debussy, Livres de preludes 1. Enjoy. 

Friday, 28 October 2011

How Many Will It Take?

How many people must take to the streets?

The recent images of 100,000 Greeks demonstrating in the streets of Athens raises an intriguing question about the utility of protest. And, as it relates to the ever-widening Occupy movement, its worth asking: "how many people will it finally take"?

How many people must take to the streets before a government will respond to the will of its citizens? There's no ready answer. There's no absolute number. And just posing so fundamental a question itself unleashes a torrent of new ones.

In the case of the Greek protests, what is clear is that 100,000 was not nearly enough, because the country's parliamentarians enacted tough new austerity measures despite the vigorous opposition of those who elected them. The government clearly understood the pain it was inflicting on its own people, even as it refused to consider their wishes, and it chose instead to meet the demands of the international banking class. In a democracy, then, how many people must take their dissent to the streets?

The Greek example demonstrates yet again that the almost universal disapproval of a people, and massive displays of public protest, are generally insufficient to sway the course of government. In Greece, a higher authority was at work. Economists tell us that the world-wide catastrophe arising from a Greek default is too terrible to contemplate. They tell us that crushing the lives of ordinary Greeks is a necessary price for the greater good. A fact central to this unfolding drama that receives almost no commentary is that working- and middle-class Greeks played no part in creating the explosion of debt that now puts us all in such jeopardy. Adding insult to injury, those actually culpable for this mess have quietly and safely moved on with their lives, even as the austerity measures,
"are being imposed by the very people whom most Greeks blame for misgoverning the country and benefiting from pervasive corruption. Nobody has been arrested. Ex-ministers live lavishly in Athens' most luxurious properties. Everybody speaks furiously of the immunity of the political elite."
Still, there must be a number. At some point, a critical mass of citizen participation and dissent would have swung the balance in the Greek protests. So what exactly was that number? Let's look to other recent examples for a possible answer. 

Like OWS, the J14 movement in Israel was borne of a tent city and a growing dissent over the issues of social justice. A mood of palpable disaffection spread across the country this past summer, culminating in street protests that attracted 300,000 people, the largest such demonstrations ever seen in Israel to that point. What began as a protest by young Israelis against the high cost of housing soon turned to broader societal issues, ultimately giving voice to calls for Prime Minister Netanyahu's resignation and the fall of his government.

The J14 movement continued to grow in intensity, and was ultimately capped by the September 3rd Million Person March. While the actual numbers were closer to 500,000, it was nonetheless a truly inspiring example of mass participation and public dissent. However, like the recent events in Greece, it too has amounted to nothing -- Netanyahu expressed the appropriate concern; he formed a suitably august and benign commission to investigate the problem; and then he promptly ordered the tent cities forceably dismantled.

We can be certain that the J14 protesters anxiously await the solemn pronouncements of the Trajtenberg Committee on housing reform. But the larger issues of social justice that truly animated the average Israeli's active participation remain unresolved -- it was, and is, an extraordinary opportunity lost. Perhaps the average Israeli citizen is left wondering today just how many more thousands it would have taken to affect a real change.

Tahrir Square -- a million people in the streets.

We continue our search for evidence that a critical mass -- a tipping point of participation -- can bend the actions of the state to the will of its people. And so we turn our attention to the mother of all protests, an event so inspirational that it continues still to inform the Occupy movement in the US and around the world -- Tahrir Square in Egypt.

The popular revolt in Egypt brought millions to the streets of Cairo and other cities around the country. It riveted the world's attention, and it ultimately brought down the government of the dictator Hosni Mubarak. It was not polite, and it was not without bloodshed. But the sheer mass of people in the streets seemed to still the worst of the military's basest reactionary instincts -- this in a country dominated by the military.

The demands of the revolution's organizers and leaders were initially embraced by the ruling military council. In a country so rife with daily corruption and police brutality, there was much to correct. The success in social and political reform made for inspiring reading; the arrest and subsequent trial of Mubarak and his two sons; the dismantling of the hated State Security Investigations Service; the dissolution of parliament and the announcement of new elections; the removal of the SSI-controlled university police; and the dissolution of the singular and authoritarian National Democratic Party.

So, at last (!), a popular will that bent the state to its own service!

Well, no, not quite.

There are new reports of significant reversals by the ruling Egyptian council. In recent clashes with the military, several protesters have been killed. And in an announcement that has stunned the public, the military council has said it expects to retain control of the government even after the elections that have now been postponed till November. Moreover, the continued control by the council will ensure that the 30-year old emergency laws will remain in force, and that the ratification of a new constitution may not conclude till 2013, if at all. And finally, it appears that one dictator will simply be replaced by another.

Perhaps it was much too much to expect that a modern dictatorship could actually be transformed by the popular will of its people. And complicating this particular event, one wonders how much pressure was brought to bear on the Egyptian military by its major benefactor, the United States, in negating the gains of the people's revolution.


In the end, is it really possible? Are there no examples of government actually acceding to the popular will of its people? From the protests of the Indignados in Mexico and Spain to the labor wars in Wisconsin, the recent history of public dissent around the world is sadly bereft of success. Indeed, the scoreboard reads like a rout.

But before we give up, before we fold our tents and quietly go home, lets first consider the nature of our opponent -- the opponent that is our own government, and the representatives charged with upholding our will and best interests. Because that's just it, they don't. Instead, they represent the monied class and their own ideologies, with the backing and full coercive power of the state.

The struggle for social justice and the growing imbalance of the 99% demonstrate that, once safely in power, our representatives imagine themselves to be unassailable -- they are validated by a manufactured "democratic process" that is carefully scripted, choreographed and managed to ensure the "correct" result. George W. Bush was more forthcoming than he perhaps intended when he boasted of spending the political capital he had "won". Bush offered a rare glimpse of how today's ruling class views its own sovereignty; it is a view that holds the rest of us in barely concealed contempt. We are, at best, tolerated for the vote we provide and the vote they must have. The ruling class use democratic election cycles like a bludgeon, saying in affect, "you get your chance every four years, and you've had your say, so now sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up".

And that's precisely why we must stand up, and speak up, loud and clear. That's exactly why mass protest and public dissent have now become our last possible route to meaningful change. It explains why, in democratic societies that so righteously espouse liberty and the right of free assembly (unless, of course, you live in Oakland), the political class and their enablers and courtiers bristle at all forms of populist participation. And it explains why, in the final analysis, there are so few examples of a government actually heeding the will of the people it so earnestly purports to represent.

Governments routinely shirk their most important responsibility to us by relying on their most reliable weapon -- time. The state knows it has time on its side. It will stall and placate its activists (as in Israel), it will outlast its activists (as in Egypt), and it will ignore its activists (as in Greece), because by doing so it knows it will diffuse and exhaust their energy. In moving forward, our activists for social justice must gain a more complete understanding of these strategies to better aid in counteracting them.


What does all this mean for the nascent Occupy movement? Well, for a start, and in answer to our original question: how many will it take?, if we accept the lessons offered up by Greece, Israel and Egypt, it will take millions. And those millions must offer more than just supportive chatter around office water-coolers, or give solidarity through on-line opinion polls; they must demonstrate their commitment to our shared values through direct action and mass participation. At the same time, we must recognize the state's desire for certainty and the status quo, and in combating it's strategy to placate, outlast and ignore, we must hold firm to our right of free assembly, even as the state will embrace every opportunity to subvert it.

Compared to the Greek protests, the J14 movement, Tahrir Square and the Indignados, the Occupy movement remains embryonic and fragile. To be sure, it has accomplished much -- it has changed the nature of public discourse, and it has thrust the issue of social justice to the very top of our political agenda, something that all the pundits and bloggers in the world have been unable to do for all their years of trying. But this brave and dedicated vanguard camped out on the commons cannot themselves affect the necessary outcomes. They must be joined by many more, both in the tent communities and out on the streets, so that the Occupy movement will become more fully legitimized in the public mind, an important step in building a critical mass of participation that our politicos and their corporate masters cannot possibly ignore.

It is not our job to take power, but rather to hold our representatives accountable to us. The sheer weight of our numbers makes this goal possible, but only through the active participation of millions in the coming months can it become truly attainable.

Postscript. The situation in Egypt is not good. In a story published October 30, we learn more about the post-Mubarek era. And as I had suggested in the main post, it is almost impossible to resurrect and mobilize the passion and participation of the critical mass once it has been diffused. The state understands this fact, and uses it to its own advantage as part of its response to public dissent.

Also related to my piece is a newly posted column by Chris Hedges in Truthdig. This man is a well-respected chronicler of social and political trends and events in America. And I greatly admire his writing. But his last several pieces are difficult for me to embrace. There is a lot of poetic romanticism of revolutions past; too many fond recollections of anarchists and revolutionaries that have no bearing on the issues now at play in the 21st century. We're faced with a situation that is unlike anything we've ever seen, in that the financial control now exercised by the monied class is unprecedented. And to be brutally frank about it, Hedges has lavished much too much enthusiasm on a 27 year-old self-taught anarchist.

And when ever I need a little positive affirmation to shore up my own poor scribbles, I can always rely on Bill Moyers. And there he was, this morning, on the pages of CommonDreams. In a keynote address at Public Citizen's 40th Anniversary Gala, he quoted Lawrence Goodwin, who said there was,
"a mass resignation of people who believe the dogma of democracy on a superficial level, but who no longer believe it privately, [and who saw] a decline of individual self-respect on the part of millions of people."
Moyers understands perfectly well why this is so,
"We hold elections knowing they are unlikely to produce the policies favored by a majority of Americans. We speak. We write. We advocate. And those in power -- Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives -- turn deaf ears and blind eyes to our deepest aspirations."
These comments speak to my post, and the politicians who tolerate us for our vote, and then tell us to shut up and sit in the corner till next election day. Our democratic election cycles are truly used against us like a bludgeon. So I ask again, how many people must take to the streets before a government will respond to the will of its citizens?

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Pack My Jack, by J.J. Cale, from the album Shades. A great blues feel for a Friday afternoon. Enjoy.


Friday, 21 October 2011

Canada's Warrior Prime Minister

All hail the warrior prince, Stephen Harper!

As pronounced in the Globe and Mail today, he has won his first war. We can now all bask in the glory that is Stephen Harper's Canada.

In his fawning post about our Prime Minister, Campbell Clark boasts that the "mission's success bolsters Harper's argument for a muscular Canada with military assets and the will to deploy them". It does not. Harper will no doubt make the claim, but it does not follow logically. This was not a war won by Canada. It is, instead, a blight on our international reputation. And further, it is both an absurdity and an obscenity to characterize the murder of a head of state -- however odious -- as a righteous act, a "war victory", much less one that in any way belongs to Stephen Harper.

But there he was, our new 'war prime minister', as quoted by the breathless Mr. Clark, expressing satisfaction at the end of a dictator,
"Gaddafi's days are over. Never again will he be in a position to support terrorism or to turn guns on his own citizens. The Libyan people can finally turn the page on 42 years of vicous oppression and continue their journey toward a better future."
Always play the terrorism card. For domestic consumption, always link safety and security at home with the need -- as per the sage words of George W. Bush -- to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here. And in so doing, it is entirely acceptable to ignore the rule of international law that forbids any aggression toward a sovereign nation for any reason other than imminent self defense. Link the struggle against terrorism to the cause of liberty and a better life for others, and bind them together to strengthen your broader domestic agenda. This Stephen Harper has done, ably assisted by the likes of Campbell Clark.

It was not so long ago that Col. Gaddafi had been rehabilitated and returned to the community of nations, lauded by a parade of world leaders. But in the end he, too, suffered the shifting fortunes that plague all usefully useful dictators. Sadaam Hussein comes to mind. And like the Butcher of Baghdad, who was dragged up from a hole in the ground, Gaddafi was found hiding in the muck and mire of a drainage ditch. The similarities, in the end, are striking.

And, too, like Sadaam's Iraq, Gaddafi's Libya is now available for the taking. As Paul Craig Roberts says in this post, Libya will likely become another American puppet state. Roberts notes that much of the Libyan infrastructure has been destroyed by air strikes -- air strikes that so satisfied our own warrior prince -- and that lucrative new rebuilding contracts will reward the invaders.

But more than bridges and roads are in play here. As Roberts makes clear,
"With Libya conquered, AFRICOM will start on the other African countries where China has energy and mineral investments. Obama has already sent US troops to Central Africa under the guise of defeating Lord's Resistance Army, a small insurgency against the ruling dictator-for-life. Washington has revived the Great Power Game and is vying with China. Whereas China brings Africa investment and gifts of infrastructure, Washington sends troops, bombs and military bases. Sooner or later, Washington's aggressiveness toward China and Russia is going to explode in our faces."
So the Prime Minister of Canada can congratulate himself, or have surrogates act on his behalf, for winning the war of Libya (!), but the game is far beyond him. In touting a muscular Canadian foreign policy (laughable, really) as a central part of his domestic agenda to become the ruling party for a generation, Stephen Harper has become a minor though clearly committed partner to a new imperialism that may well have devastating consequences far beyond his own limited vision.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day:  Big Change is Gonna Come, Peter Green Splinter Group, from the album Destiny Road. Enjoy.

Monday, 17 October 2011

OWS is Only the Beginning

The first exhilarating steps in a very long journey.

It is a wonderfully warming sight. Thousands camped out now for weeks in solidarity and protest against the deteriorating state of social justice in our society.

There is much to say -- and much has already been said -- about the OccupyWallStreet movement. The first call to action; how to sustain and shape the momentum; where it will lead; the rising concerns over messaging, leadership and demands.

For those of us inclined toward liberal democracy and social justice, this is a tremendous moment. Commentators in the alternative media have long called -- largely in vain, it appeared -- for action against the excesses of a corporate culture that now dominates almost every facet of our lives. In the OWS movement, we have finally found an answer to Ralph Nadar's question, Where's the Spark?.

In posing his question, Nadar was reacting to the first swell of protests in the Arab Spring, which had begun to fire the imagination of many around the world. Wishing for some of that magic at home, he said,
"How do we break the cycle of despair, exclusion, powerlessness and endless betrayal by those given authority to bring down the exploiters and oppressors to lawful accountability?
The spark can come from a recurrent sequence of abuses that strike a special chord of deeply felt injustice. Or it could be a unique episode or bullying that tolls the feeling 'enough already' throughout the land. Such sparks cannot be manufactured; the power to arouse and break people's routines is spontaneous.
When that moment comes, millions of Americans whose self-respect and keen sense of wrong will remind them precisely why our Constitution begins with We the People and not, We the Corporations."
And so we finally see the spark. Following from the protests in Greece, Israel and in the Arab Spring, there is a growing sense that public dissent is the only viable path by which we can achieve social change. The OWS movement is the first tangible effort to affect that change.

I say "first" because it may be just that. It might be the first of many sparks, the first among many faltering steps. If OWS is seen as a good beginning, it might be just that, a beginning.

The early success of OWS is, in my view, the spontaneous gathering of like-minded people who are finally heeding Mr. Nadar to say "enough already" -- those who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more. And they've done it without leadership and top-down thinking, a revolutionary concept in and of itself that typifies the movement's anti-corporatist sentiment. If OWS can sustain itself, perhaps its greatest legacy will be the notion that active dissent is a right and a duty, and that opposition to unjust power is a habit and a mindset that requires effort and dedication.

But for all the hopeful reporting from the left, we are nowhere near such an outcome. Chris Hedges recently wrote that the rich are now trembling at the prospect of the OWS movement. They are most certainly not. Naomi Klein says that OWS is the most important thing in the world. It is not -- at least, not yet.

The rich will tremble, and OWS will become truly important, only when millions take to the streets. It is certainly a welcome start that 2500 people (or more, or less) have taken on the occupation of Wall Street. And it is a good beginning that hundreds (maybe thousands) of like-minded citizens are occupying and protesting in solidarity in communities across the country and in countries around the world.

But there are more than 25 million unemployed people in the United States. Millions more live in poverty and millions have lost their homes to the avarice of our now dominant corporate culture. This is the core constituency from which the dissenters must be drawn and mobilized. And even this subset does not represent the 99. There are millions of union and government workers, teachers and healthcare providers, whose rights have been trampled; there are millions of students who will not find work for which they have trained; and there are millions from the so-called middle class who now hang on in quiet desperation, hoping against hope to keep the modest lifestyle they've won through a lifetime of playing by the rules. And then there are the millions more around the world suffering under government imposed austerity designed solely to rescue the rich from themselves.

It is the concerted action of these millions, in countries around the world, that will finally put the elite and the governments that serve them on notice that change is inevitable. Bring 25 thousand to the streets and they will be denounced as hoodlums and radicals; send a million to the streets and governments will put their security forces on high alert. But bring 25 million out in sustained protest, and then, truly, Hedges and Klein will be right.

The trick is getting from here to there -- and doing so in the most peaceful way possible. The power that will oppose the OWS movement (and anything that looks like it) is the enormous power of the state. Even in our so-called democracy, the state will employ every means at its disposal to suppress the exercise of free will and public dissent, as was made clear this past weekend, when security forces were on full display at Occupy events around the world.

It will take time to nurture and mobilize the numbers needed to truly tip the balance in favor of the 99, so there is no immediate need for a list of demands. In fact, the absence of specific demands deprives our opponents of a recognizable target. And in any case, there is no doubt that the monied class, and the governments who serve them, know full well what the issues and grievances really are. They have spent the last 30 years denying them.

As the numbers grow, and the momentum builds, OWS must resist both the attacks from its enemies, and the warm embrace of its so-called friends. While the reaction from the right is expected, there is growing concern that Obama and the Democrats, the unions, and the liberal class in general, will try to co-opt and leverage the protests for their own advantage -- it is abundantly clear that they all are tone deaf to the movement.

And so finally, OWS is still a work in progress. There is no clear and obvious path to a finite result within a well defined timeline. What is clear and obvious, though, is the urgency. It is now critical that we navigate the obstacles and maintain the momentum in order to build participation to a critical mass. And then Nadar and Hedges and Klein might be right, and we might yet see a return to liberal democracy and social justice.

These are, however, only the first steps on a very long road.

Update. I want to pull at a few threads from the main post. First, a quick return to the writing of Chris Hedges. His two most recent posts have been much more upbeat in tone than usual. The OWS movement seems to have softened his earlier view that "The war is over, and they won." He seems absolutely giddy over the "imminent" toppling of the monied class -- see the links here, and here. However, his enthusiasm has outpaced reality. True, OWS may prove to be an historic moment, but we are still at the very earliest beginnings, and the outcome is far from assured -- hell, the outcome has yet to be articulated!

But I want to return to Hedges' Death of the Liberal Class to expand on a thought in my post. A central thesis in Death is the notion that the liberal establishment, the institutions of liberal democracy, have been co-opted by the forces of the now-dominant corporate culture. Hedges correctly notes that the liberal elite exchanged their relevance for position and comfort (I'm reminded of the line from Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here "And did you exchange / a walk-on part in the war / for a lead role in a cage?"). And so the liberal establishment has become an empty and contemptuous vessel in today's society. Where representatives of the professional left (unions, churches, universities, social democratic political parties) have nothing to offer in the struggle for social justice and liberal democracy because they have become so thoroughly compromised.

From this brief discussion, it is important to note that OWS did not grow out of the professional left. It is borne of a truly populist, grass-roots phenomenon. If it weren't so sad a sight, it might be comical to watch the institutional left as it scrambles to catch up, fighting for its own relevancy. As I said in the main post, OWS must be wary of the death-grip embrace of its so-called friends. Already the pundits and the politicos are strategizing this movement -- see the post by Eugene Robinson, How Democrats can Use Occupy Protests to their advantage as the most recent example of this cynical opportunism (note the word "use"). Or read this post by Glen Ford about how the Democrats have already begun to co-opt the OWS movement. And finally, Matt Taibbi posts his thoughts on the gathering threats to the movement.

As I said in the main post, OWS will be challenged by its enemies, and tested by its so-called friends. And all the while, it must find a way to grow to a critical mass of participation.  

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Insomniacs' Boogie, by the Insomniacs, from the album At Least I'm Not With You.  Enjoy.

Friday, 7 October 2011

The Furor Over Our Flag

When ideology trumps sound policy.

Canadians love their flag. Simple. Distinctive. Instantly recognizable.

And we like to be recognized as Canadians because our self-image is that of a peaceful, kind, warm, friendly and intelligent people. It is a self-image that our flag helps communicate to the world. Like I said, we love our flag.

So why would anyone waste even a moment's thought over the hype Prime Minster Harper has recently lavished on our national standard? Well, perhaps its because we know he attaches a carefully concealed agenda to almost everything he does. Put another way, we are sharp enough to see through the bullshit. As one commentator noted, the PM's glorification of the flag is a joke.

Still, this is a joke with purpose. A new mandate protecting our "right" to show the flag in high-rise apartments -- yes, that's the urgent issue at play here (!) -- is part of the Conservatives' strategy to implant a new symbolism and ideology that they hope will bolster their brand as Canada's permanent ruling party.

The returning reader will recall (here & here) my poor opinion of our prime minister's leadership. As has been very well documented, his governing style is combative and partisan, secretive and controlling. And while these traits have won for him the ultimate seat of power in Canada -- though not yet a simple majority of public support -- they are out of step with the traditions of a parliamentary democracy.

In a recent post I commented on Harper's desire to re-brand the country in his own name. In another I reported on Professor Shadia Drury's views on the rise of neoconservatism in Canada, in which she says,
"Neocons...share [Strauss'] faith in the importance of religion, nationalism and war for the health and well-being of the political society...Religion, nationalism and the looming menace of an existential enemy are the key neoconservative ingredients in the war against liberal laxity and weakness.  Moreover, liberal niceties such as the rule of law, insistence on due process, and the limitations on executive power, can be formidable obstacles in the effort to defend society against unpredictable hazards."
The undemocratic political philosophy practiced by Stephen Harper has been a subtext to his leadership for several years. While he may not be overtly Straussian in his strategies, he has surely embraced the philosopher's general tone and direction -- he has shown a strong preoccupation with the military and nationalism, he has forged strong linkages between religion and politics, and he is highly secretive and controlling in policy, delivery and general communication.

This is Stephen Harper's government, in the most literal sense -- a better example of the singular possessive would be difficult to find. There is not a single government action, statement or strategy that is not conceived and stage-managed by our prime minister and his corps of close aids.

The purity of their thought and execution has produced an agenda that is ideologically locked-in, which is, of course, the whole point. The loud and growing opposition to the omnibus crime bill offers only the most recent example. Contrary to the clear evidence from Statistics Canada, the Harper Government will ram through legislation that goes overboard on sentencing, will put thousands more into prisons and will cost the provinces $billions. And all this at a time when crime rates have steadily decreased.

According the Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, Bill C-10 will deter terrorism, increase the accountability of offenders, and better protect Canadians from violent young offenders, among many, many other much needed outcomes. As he said,
"The objective of our criminal law reform agenda over the past few years has been to build a stronger, safer and better Canada."
And who could not want that? Of course, this tough-on-crime persona solves a problem that did not actually exist. It also fulfills a campaign pledge, and therefor portrays the government as active and effective and trustworthy. And it never hurts to hype the danger and heighten the public's fear -- it's a tactic that worked well in America, did it not?

The Harper Government has also demonstrated it's commitment to ideology in the struggle over Vancouver's safe injection drug clinic. The Insite facility was launched in 2003 under special exemption from prosecution to bring seriously ill addicts off the streets, and to help those afflicted deal with the dangers of their addictions. But the government of Stephen Harper does not use the word "afflicted" when referring to addicts -- it prefers the term felon, and withdrew the exemptions that sustained the site's operation.

In a case of gross over-reach, the government put ideology over the rule of law, as it sought to trump healthcare (a jurisdiction of the provinces) with criminal law (a federal jurisdiction). In what is seen as a landmark victory, the Supreme Court of Canada preserved Insite as North America's only legally supervised injection facility. In so doing, the Court has showed itself to be perhaps the only remaining check on this government's power.

University of Law Professor Errol Mendes commented on the ruling,
"It is extraordinary that the court has found that government decision-making was arbitrary and hugely disproportionate. This is probably the first major strike against the Harper majority government using its hard-right ideology to counter evidence-based health and social initiatives when they impact on Charter rights."
As noted by a news post in the Globe and Mail, the Court grounded its decision in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and our right to life, liberty and security of the person. As Chief Justice McLachlin said,
"Iniste has saved lives and improved health. And it did those things without increasing the incidence of drug use and crime n the surrounding area. The Vancouver police support Insite."
She also disagreed completely with government's contention that drug addicts choose their own fate, calling drug addiction a grave illness and not a choice, or sign of immorality (the Harper government's own self-serving and ideological position).

While I don't want to flog this point beyond exhaustion, it is important to hear and understand exactly what the Chief Justice said in reaching this unanimous decision,
"On future applications, the Minister must exercise that discretion within the constraints imposed by law and the Charter, aiming to strike the appropriate balance between achieving public health and public safety. In accordance with the Charter, the Minister must consider whether denying an exemption would cause deprivations of life and security of the person that are not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice [emphasis added]. Where, as here, a supervised injection site will decrease the risk of death and disease, and there is little of no evidence that it will have a negative impact on public safety, the Minister should grant an exemption."
I wish to draw your attention to the wonderful phrase the principles of fundamental justice, as it is so completely absent from the lexicon of this ideologically driven government.

In both the omnibus crime bill C-10 and the Insite case, the Harper Government has shown itself willfully immune to facts. Statistics and empirical evidence have no merit when they run counter to ideology.

And so the faux veneration of our flag -- like Harper's plan to celebrate the War of 1812 -- is just a diversion from the real agenda intended to reshape the very nature of our country.

Update. The Supreme Court's ruling on the Insite injection facility has generated more news. A post in the Globe and Mail points to a brewing confrontation between the judiciary and the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

The article begins by suggesting that the Court's ruling, based as it is in scientific fact and statistical evidence, gives judges a "new tool for activism". I find it curious that the Globe believes that judicial activism would grow out of the proximity to scientific facts -- while the government would surely take that view as a means of discrediting the Insite decision, it is clear that facts and truth are the very foundation of our legal system, so I say, bring on the activism.

But this is not judicial activism. It is a refreshing application of the principles of fundamental justice against an over-reaching and ideologically driven government.

The article suggests that the Court "elevated scientific evidence over laws found to be arbitrary and grossly disproportionate". Again, I say bring it on. This is an important check against government abuse, and particularly against the abuses of this government.

The Globe article quotes two prominent legal minds who seem to support the decision;
"The Insite ruling is a warning to the government that any of its laws or policies which restrict liberty or threaten lives or health are vulnerable to Charter challenge, if compelling evidence calls into question their effectiveness in achieving their stated goals." Bruce Ryder, law professor at York University.
"When government policy affects liberty and relies on politics to shunt aside real scientific evidence, the court will step in." Clayton Ruby, a prominent Toronto lawyer.
But for the most part, the article hints darkly at the judicial activism the Insite ruling will supposedly unleash, as well as the worry and discomfort it will cause to judges in lower courts.

And its in the last section of the article that the author fully reveals his own negative opinions on the Insite ruling. Repeating the terms "arbitrary" and "grossly disproportionate", and suggesting that the ruling will invoke "future attacks" on laws and government policy, Kirk Makin asks,
"Arbitrary in whose view? And grossly disproportionate to what?"
He then goes on to cite a Charter expert who worries that courts will scrutinize the intent of legislators when they were drafting a law. Makin quotes the expert, who asks,
"Does the law make sense? Does it cause more problems than it solves? Does it create rather than avoid danger? Does it fail dismally to achieve its objectives? Do the costs of enforcement far outweigh the benefits achieved?"
Good questions, all, and worthy of consideration. But the tone of the Globe post by Kirk Makin seems to suggest that truth and scientific evidence should not be allowed to intrude on the government's will, even if it is ideologically driven. For all Makin's fretting, there seems no concern for the fundamental principles of justice that the Supreme Court's Insite ruling has upheld.

Like I said, if this is judicial activism, bring it on!  

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: "Breezin" from the album of the same name by George Benson. Enjoy.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Class Warfare: More Than The Money

We only call it class warfare when they fight back!

Warren Buffett is an uncommonly outspoken and candid rich guy,
"There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."
But it seems his candor has drawn the ire of his class,
"Buffett has outraged conservatives by saying that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary. He's said this for years, but he's a target now because President Obama is using his comment to make the case for higher taxes on millionaires."
The issue of class warfare resurfaced recently when the Republicans shrieked and howled in response to Obama's "tax the rich" campaign rhetoric.  The reactions of Boehner and Canter are to be expected. The representatives of the monied class always cry "class warfare" at any threat to their position, just as Zionists cry "anti-semitism" to deflect any and all criticism of Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians.  Their unrelenting hypocrisy is a time-honored tactic, proving again that the best defense is always a brutally aggressive, take-no-prisoners offense. And that's why the rich only call it class warfare when we fight back.

A recent post by Joshua Holland suggests six ways the rich are waging a class war against the middle class.  The actions he cites are mostly related to vilifying the poor, but also hint at the illusion of meritocracy in America -- this idea that the rich have earned their gains due solely to innate attributes of talent, character and hard work.  On both these points, Holland's views are consistent with Shadia Drury's commentary on Fake Populism.  But Holland adds a wonderful bit of imagery,
"I recently offered a less Orwellian definition, arguing that real class warfare is when those who have already achieved a good deal of prosperity pull up the ladder behind them by attacking the very things that once allowed working people to move up and join the ranks of the middle class."
As he says of his six strategies, they all are designed to protect the status quo in service of the elites' interests, in part to distract from the structural causes of poverty and inequality.

And, as I've argued in earlier posts, this latest campaign in the war of the classes differs markedly from the past -- the success of the rich is so sweeping this time -- because today's elites have at their disposal an incredibly powerful weapon known as the corporation;
"The rise of this new breed of elites, come to exploit the tension between democracy and liberty -- as well as the perennial conflict between rich and poor -- coincides with the ascendance of the corporation.  The global corporatist infrastructure provides the vast sums of money -- the enabling mechanism -- that now powers the policies and politics of our so-called democracy.  Corporatism has come to dominate our culture and society.  It is the corporation, and the pervasive culture of corporatism, that has spawned this new breed of corrupt elite."
Corporate structure and corporate culture have given today's elites an unprecedented advantage for which we have no countervailing force -- much like a virus for which humans have no natural defense.

And you can be assured that the staunch advocates of the monied elite (otherwise known as our elected representatives) will continue to press this tactical and strategic advantage.  For example, according to a Republican insider who recently "left the cult", the GOP's corporatist worldview is perfectly aligned with one of its most sacred beliefs;
"The GOP cares solely and exclusively about its rich contributors. The party has built a whole catechism on the protection and further enrichment of America's plutocracy. Their caterwauling about the deficit and debt is so much eyewash to con the public.
Republicans have attempted to camouflage their amorous solicitude for billionaires with a fog of misleading rhetoric. John Boehner is fond of saying 'we won't raise anyone's taxes' as if the take-home pay of an Olive Garden waitress were inextricably bound up with whether Warren Buffet pays his capital gains as ordinary income or at a lower rate. Another chestnut is that millionaires and billionaires are job creators.  US corporations have just had their most profitable quarters in history.  So, where are the jobs?"
But you don't need the revelations of a political insider to acknowledge the obvious fact that we are in the midst of an epic struggle for the very soul of democracy -- one that they are winning, by the way. Class warfare is being waged everyday in the statements and actions of this new breed of corrupt elite.  And what is abundantly clear is that they hate democracy -- or at the very least, they wish to reserve it only for those (in their opinion) best qualified to exercise it.  As one prominent conservative wrote recently,
"Registering them [the poor] to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals. It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country."
This sentiment was echoed by Rush Limbaugh, who wonders why poor people should be allowed to vote; and Judson Phillips, president of Tea Party Nation, who says that voting should be limited to those with property; or Walter Williams, who writes that he finds "democracy and the rule of the majority a contemptible form of government"; or Pat Buchanan who calls democracy a "childlike faith", and then goes on to quote John Adams,
"Democracy never lasts long. Its soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."
But while they may hate democracy, the elites and those who serve them are not above using its trappings and traditions as cover for their own advantage.  Our culture is infused with a populist rhetoric that ignores the fact that we live in an unprecedented global oligarchy or, rule of the rich on a global scale.  We are constantly bombarded with a populist rhetoric that suggests we live in a radical (ie, populist) democracy that caters to the needs of the many, rather than the privileges of the few,
"Even though oligarchy reigns supreme, democracy is so revered in our society that it has become a new god. People are willing to die for it, launch wars in its name and bomb others in the hope of converting them to the true faith. The prevalence of this naive conception of democracy allows us to be hoodwinked by our ruling elites into supporting an agenda that serves the interest of the global oligarchy while pretending to be radically democratic or populist."
The elites and those who serve them have been waging class warfare for the past 40 years.  Today's GOP remains determined to drown government in the bathtub; it is a movement that now requires its members to pledge an oath that they will never raise taxes. Today's GOP is the ideological offspring of the sainted Ronald Reagan's famous dictum "government is the problem", an ideology that is now totally loosed from its moorings.  Today's GOP is based on the unrepentant and unassailable conviction that victory in the long struggle for power is at hand.  And, like the evangelicals with whom they are allied, these are not people with whom you can reason.

Leading GOP commentators like Bill O'Reilly continue to advance the elitist agenda that taxation of "achievement" is unfair and unjust (the meritocracy argument), while Elizabeth Warren correctly put taxation and the social contract in their proper context when she said,
"There is nobody in this country that got rich on his own.  Nobody."
And in an excellent commentary on the social contract, Paul Krugman refutes the idea that the meritocracy of the monied class absolves them of any responsibility to share in the burdens of society, even as they happily reap all the benefits it affords,
"Republicans claim to be deeply worried by budget deficits. Indeed, Mr. Ryan called the deficit an existential threat to America. Yet they are insisting that the wealthy -- who presumably have as much of a stake as everyone else in the nation's future -- should not be called upon to play any role in warding off that existential threat. Well, that amounts to a demand that a small number of very lucky people be exempted from the social contract that applies to everyone else. And that, in case you're wondering, is what real class warfare looks like."
If the Republicans are the most visible, shameless and outrageously outspoken in waging class warfare, they are not its only practitioners. While it is true that the GOP has become an "insurrectionary party that flouts the law when it is in the majority and threatens disorder when it is the minority", the Democrats are employed by the same corporate paymasters. They may lack the partisan zeal and cynical strategic vision of their rivals, but Democratic lawmakers understand the bargain they must strike in order to gain and hold power, and they have demonstrated their willingness to play the game.

At some point, though, as you trace the rise of money in politics, follow the history of deregulation and offshoring and the gutting of the middle class, and read of the renewed (and farcical) angst over tax rates for the rich, you must ask the most basic of questions: Why?

Can it all just be simple greed?  Can this most spectacular success of the monied elite be nothing more than a brilliantly conceived and executed bank heist?  Well yes, it certainly is about the money -- and enormous sums of it, to be sure.  After-all, four hundred Americans now control more wealth than 150 million of their fellow countrymen, combined, in what has become a new Gilded Age.

But there's got to be more to it.  Beyond these staggering financial gains engineered by the monied elite, there might also be a certain prestige in this victory -- a triumph for the ages that elevates these newest captains of industry (or Robber Barons, if you prefer) to the rarified status of an Astor, Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller or Vanderbilt.

Beyond the obscene piles of money, the "why" is really about a return to the natural order of things, where wealth is the mechanism that not only distinguishes the few from the many, but also maintains that separation. From Plato to Alexander Hamilton to the conservative thinkers of today, rule by the elite remains, in their view, the natural order -- money and power in the service of money and power.
"All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well born, the others the mass of the people...The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge and determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share of government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second." Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury Secretary of the U.S.
Viewed in this context, the elites consider liberal democracy and the New Deal to be the aberrations of history, not the basis for a new society.  And since the term democracy does not even appear in the US Constitution, it is the views of Limbaugh, Phillips, Williams and Buchanan that truly animate the them.  The monied class has chafed at what it views to be the unnatural imbalance created by FDR, and it is now poised to reclaim its natural right.  And this brings us full-circle to Warren Buffett and his so-called betrayal of the rich few.

Buffett has a shone light where darkness prevails.  He has opened a dialogue on a forbidden subject.  But the tax issue is a misdirection. True, the rich believe in meritocracy, and have managed to shed the burdens of the social contract (the rich will always find ways to shed the burden of the social contract).  The real prize is the power that their money has secured, a return to their self-serving vision of the natural order of things, and their self-proclaimed right to a permanent share of government.

Update. This post was given a brief run on OpEdNews this past weekend, and in its short life there generated some interesting conversation. The big story in the online world is of course the growing protest movement which has taken on Wall Street, and it now seems to be morphing into other causes in other cities. Known as the 99%ers, this movement has been likened to the protests of the Arab Spring, and the anti-austerity actions in Europe, Israel and Greece. Even the organizers of the long-planned October 6 rally are climbing on board. Whatever association you prefer, the public dissent now building in the US is a long-overdue expression of a class struggle that most citizens didn't even know they were waging.

I would urge the interested reader to follow the link to a post by Michael Parenti, called Class Warfare Indeed.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: "Hey Jude", The Beatles, Past Masters; the massed horn entrance at 3:48 of the song is one of the great moments in rock music.  Enjoy.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Voting Against Our Own Self Interest

"Money and power, in the service of money and power", has become the template upon which our human experience is built.

This is at once both obvious, and, in need of some clarification.

What is obvious today is that the multi-national corporations, and the politicians who serve them (along with the mainstream media, think-tanks and a host of unelected advisory and regulatory entities) together form the power structure that, virtually unopposed, shapes our lives.

It is further obvious that this corporatist structure is the source of the vast sums of money -- the enabling mechanism -- that now powers the policies and politics of our so-called democracy.

It should be obvious that the corporatist ethos now dominates every facet of our society and culture.

And it might be obvious that today's pay-for-play politics is, in reality, a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing feedback loop, the negative outcomes of which we seem unable to escape.

Less clear, though, is how this situation came about, and what might be done to change it.

The history of mankind is the struggle for power -- the power to rule and to dominate -- by emperors and kings, and despots and tyrants. The great events of history have arisen out of this struggle, in which chaos and upheaval gave way to a productive equilibrium.

And recently, as we began to imagine ourselves as more civilized, having learned the lessons of distant history, we re-discovered the philosophies of the ancients.  It is from them that the liberal revolutions of the Enlightenment shaped the early traditions of democracy, and the notion of "consent of the governed".

And today, kings have been replaced by prime ministers, dictators by presidents. But the struggle for power remains, and our consent is now mostly manufactured.  The great liberal traditions that infused our founding documents in North America are being rapidly swept away.  The age-old desire to dominate still persists, and more than just natural resources are at stake -- after all, the minds and will of the people are the greatest prize, are they not?

This struggle for power simply reflects the tension that has always existed between the rich few and the poor many.  It is a tension that has been played out throughout the history of mankind, one that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Between the polar opposites -- government for the benefit of the rich, and government for the benefit of the poor -- is the middle way with which we are most familiar, a liberal democracy supported by a strong middle class.  However, as is increasingly clear from all manner of reports, the middle class in Canada and the US is under grave assault, and the gap between rich and poor unprecedented.

In his book Death of the Liberal Class, Chris Hedges describes how the central institutions of our liberal democracy have been co-opted as part of this assault on the middle class.  This diminution of the moderating force between rich and poor has positioned the elites to retake much of the hard-won gains of the liberal revolutions. As Hedges says,
"With its reformist and collaborative ethos, the liberal class lacks the capacity or the imagination to respond to this discontent.  It has no ideas.  Revolt, because of this, will come from the right, as it did in other areas of bankrupt liberalism in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Tsarist Russia.  That this revolt will be funded, organized, and manipulated by the corporate forces that caused the collapse is one of the tragic ironies of history.  But the blame lies with the liberals.  Liberals, by standing for nothing, made possible the rise of inverted and perhaps soon classical totalitarianism."
The institutions that comprise the liberal class, and the strong middle class necessary to sustain it, perform a very specific function in the liberal democracy in that it provides a safety valve through which reform is possible.  But when, as Hedges suggests, that safety valve is removed, discontent cannot be adequately expressed, and incremental reforms become impossible.  In the absence of change mechanisms that offer even the faintest of hope for greater equality, radical social movements can arise.

The dramatic shift away from liberal democracy in North America is generally attributed to the rise of right-wing forces inside the Republican Party in America and, more recently, the new Conservative Party in Canada.  The potent mix of neoliberal, neoconservative, corporatist and Christian Right ideologies has served very well the interests of the wealthy few over the needs of the many poor.

How has this been accomplished?  By what sorcery has the great liberal revolution been turned back?  It is a never-ending source of amazement that the great mass of citizens have no idea how completely they are manipulated to endorse policies through the "democratic process" that are in direct opposition to their own best interests.

To understand how consent is manufactured both here in Canada and the US, I am delighted to share an article from a recent volume of Humanist Perspectives, written by Professor Shadia B. Drury of the University of Regina.  Fake Populism describes how our naive conception of democracy, purposefully cultivated by the now dominant elites, provides the necessary conditions to enact five key strategies that manipulate the public into voting against its own self interest.


Fake Populism, by Professor Shadia B. Drury

Our political culture is characterized by a radically democratic or populist rhetoric that belies the fact that we live in an unprecedented global oligarch -- which is to say, rule of the rich on a global scale.  Our political culture exudes so much populist rhetoric that one would think we lived in a radical (ie, populist) democracy that caters to the needs of the many, not the privileges of the few.  Even though oligarch reigns supreme, democracy is so revered in our society that it has become a new god.  People are willing to die for it, launch wars in its name, and bomb others in the hope of converting them to the true faith.  Unfortunately, our faith in democracy is as naive as our faith in God.  In my view, the prevalence of this naive conception of democracy allows us to be hoodwinked by our ruling elites into supporting an agenda that serves the interest of the global oligarchy while pretending to be radically democratic or populist.  To loosen the grip of the fake populism on our collective psyche, it is necessary to subject our view of democracy to rational scrutiny.

We have inherited our understanding of democracy from inflated American rhetoric such as Abraham Lincoln's memorable Gettysburg address, where he romanticized democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people."  But this vision of democracy is neither attainable nor desirable.  It is unattainable because it relies on the fiction of the rule of the people, as if the people had a single will.  In reality, there is no such thing as the will of the people; the will of the people is not a single unified entity but a plurality of diverse opinions and conflicting interests.  Any meaningful account of democracy must be nothing other than the rule of the majority.  So understood, democracy is only as good as the majority of the people in the society.  If the majority is ignorant and bigoted, then democracy will be the tyranny of the ignorant and bigoted.  This is why rule of people in the interest of the people is neither realistic nor desirable.

Ever since Aristotle, philosophers have acknowledged that politics is a perennial conflict between the few rich and the many poor.  The government in which the rich get a stranglehold on society is known as an oligarchy, or the rule of the rich in the interest of the rich and the exploitation of the poor.  When the many poor control the government, the result is a democracy or rule of the many poor in their own interest.  In such a radical or populist democracy, the rich are not given their due.  Aristotle was justified in thinking that both forms of government are seriously flawed.  Both forms of government invite a degree of animosity between rich and poor that can easily erupt into class warfare.  Aristotle rightly argued that both the few and the many, the rich and the poor, had claims to rule.  Because the wealthy can contribute to the enhancement of culture and the arts, and because wealth provides opportunities for self-development, self-cultivation, wisdom, and good judgement, the wealthy have a claim to political power.  On the other hand, just because one lacks the wisdom to rule, it does not follow that one cannot be a god judge of what constitutes good government.  In this view, many heads are bitter than one.  Moreover, an oligarchy may abuse its power and rule in its own interests.  In view of these considerations, Aristotle surmised that the best attainable regime is a mixture of democracy and oligarchy.  In such a mixture, a middle class that is neither rich nor poor emerges as a useful safeguard against class warfare that extreme disparities between rich and poor invite.
"In truth, the prevalence of policies that continue to favor the rich at the expense of all others invites class conflict."
Unfortunately, the common sense wisdom of Aristotle is sadly lacking in our time.  The rich have the upper hand; the middle class is shrinking; the gap between rich and poor is increasing dramatically.  Any effort to defend social justice by advocating policies that equalize the benefits and burdens of society is denounced as instigating class warfare.  In truth, it is the prevalence of policies that continue to favor the rich at the expense of all others that invites class conflict.

What made our democracy tolerable is that it was a compromise between the rule of the few and the rule of the many.  What made it succeed is that it has never been a radical or populist democracy.  It was a liberal democracy, which is to say that the will of the majority has been limited by the rule of law, limitations on executive power, separation of church and state, independence of the judiciary from the ruling party, and protection of the rights of individuals and minorities against the will of the majority.  All of these liberal principles prevent democracy from turning into a tyranny of the majority.  But the combination of liberalism and democracy was not a natural love affair.  It was more like the co-habitation of an odd couple.  Unlike democracy, liberalism is by nature elitist -- it prefers excellence to mediocrity, eccentricity to conformity, and unique individuals to collectives.  Writing in the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill, the father of liberalism, felt compelled to defend liberty in an age of democracy (On Liberty, 1859).  He understood instinctively that democracy poses a serious threat to liberty.

The co-habitation of liberalism and democracy in our society makes us assume that the two are natural allies; we assume that democracy automatically yields liberty.  But that is not the case.  The conflict between them is particularly apparent when democracy is imposed by force on foreign soil, as it was in Iraq.  There is clearly less freedom and security under the democratic regime imposed by the Americans than there was under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.  During the dictatorship, Shiites and Sunnis could marry and live in religiously mixed neighborhoods, without fear of being abducted and killed; women could walk down the streets of Basra burka-free, without getting beaten up.  In the absence of the limits set by liberal institutions, democracy can be much worse than dictatorship.  What make our democracy workable is the deep integration of liberal institutions into its core.  But this process has taken several hundred years to develop, and cannot be recreated in an instant.  Our mad forays into foreign lands are fueled by historical oblivion to the fact that liberal institutions are integral to the proper working of our democracy.

In the current populist fervor, elitism has become a term of abuse.  It is an automatic way of discrediting any institution, society, or policy.  In my view, there is absolutely nothing wrong with elites; they are a fact of life.  every society has elites.  To call a society elitist is neither here nor there.  What's important is not whether a society is elitist, but rather what kind of elites it has -- there are good and bad elites.  Even a democracy needs elites.  In fact, it cannot function without them.  The golden age of Athenian democracy in the fifth century BCE could not have existed without the leadership of Pericles, who was an outstanding individual and a democrat.  To be a democrat is to believe that ordinary people have a capacity for good will and good judgement -- but only if they are informed.  Not everyone in a democracy has the leisure to be informed about all the issues -- that is the function of the ruling elite.  A good ruling elite must strive to make the popular will, the will of the majority, as good as it can be.  This means studying the issues, presenting the facts, setting out the pros and cons of alternate policies, and talking to the people as adults, the way Pericles did.

A decent ruling elite in a democracy does not pander to the people as if they were children, seduce them with promises of the impossible, mislead them into expecting the unattainable, or manipulate them for partisan political purposes.  Good elites in a democracy do not pretend that there are any easy solutions, magic cures, or fool proof policies.  Responsible elites do not claim to possess strategies free from all negative repercussions and unanticipated consequences.  What distinguishes a democracy from from an autocratic society is not rule according to the will of the people, but the existence of a plurality of good elites competing for power.  In other words, democracy and elitism are not incompatible.
"But liberals and conservatives have been replaced with neoliberals and neoconservatives.  These new elites serve the rich, impoverish the middle class, and ignore the needs of the poor."
Our conception of democracy is so naive and unrealistic that it has allowed us to become dupes of the most unscrupulous elites.  There was a time when good liberal and conservative elites competed for power in our democracy.  But liberals and conservatives have been replaced with neoliberals and neoconservatives.  These new elites serve the rich, impoverish the middle class, and ignore the needs of the poor.  Progressive conservatives [in Canada] have exited the scene.  Meanwhile, the Liberal Party [in Canada] has lost its way, and liberals have given way to neoliberals who support the same economic policies as the the neoconservatives.

The dramatic ascendancy of gargantuan wealth could not have happened without the acquiescence of the majority.  But how can this acquiescence be elicited?  It seems to me that there are at least five key strategies that are used by the ruling elites and their right-wing pundits to hoodwink us into a fake populism.  It is my contention that all these strategies are parasitic on the the prevalence of the naive conception of democracy criticized above.

(1) Demonizing liberal elites as champions of the lazy and indolent.
The first step is to delegitimize the elites in general, as being at odds with a democracy, and to define all elites as liberal.  Teachers, lawyers, judges, artists and university professors are counted among the elites, but not bankers, money-managers, corporate executives, or multi-millionairs.  In other words, the richest men in society are not part of the elite.  Instead, they are presented as allies of working men and women against the latte liberal elite.  And that is the coup de grace.

In a speech delivered on December 7, 2010, Christine O'Donnell, a poster-child of the Tea Party movement in the US, declared that evils usually come in threes, and that the three evils of the day were (1) the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, (2) the death of Elizabeth Edwards from cancer, and (3) the extension of unemployment benefits by President Barack Obama.  In the same speekch, O'Donnell made sure to praise the president for extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich on the same day.  At the heart of this apparent mean-spiritedness is the conviction that the capitalist system is meticulously fair and therefore rewards the virtuous and industrious.  It follows that the poor and unemployed are lazy bums who live off the tireless industry of productive, hard-working people.  By inventing a huge underclass of bums and free-loaders living off the largess of the state, the fake populist ideology forges a spurious alliance between the working classes and the ultra-rich.  The message is that the poor are not only stupid and lazy -- they are blood-suckers demanding the expansion of government to serves their interests -- and the liberal elites are their champions.  So, the working classes had better stand with the ultra-rich against the bums and liberal elites.  The working classes had better stem the tide of the free-loaders and the liberal elites by putting pressure on politicians to roll back social security, government health care, and the rest of the safety net.  The most striking thing about O'Donnell's world view is the total lack of compassion for working class men and women who are subject to forces beyond their control, such as inflation and unemployment.  This hostility to the working classes, who have suffered the consequences of a recession resulting directly from the greed and mismanagement of the monied classes, is what passes for populism in our time.  Although O'Donnell lost her bid for a senate seat, many other psuedo-populists have made their way to the corridors of power in Canada and the United States.  If their voices are not as loud and clear in Canada, the credit must go the uncanny ability of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to silence and censor members of his Party.  

(2) Undermining the liberal separation of church and state.
It is not enough to demonize the liberal elite; the triumph of fake populism requires the destruction of the liberal aspects of our democracy -- especially the separation of church and state.  This strategy involves using religion and so-called family values to demonize liberalism.  The idea is to blur the distinction between freedom and license; in so doing, liberalism is painted as the ideology of the vulgar, licentious, sexually perverse, and atheistic.  In this way, liberalism is presented as a threat to any decent, god-fearing society, while conservatism is the ally of the upright and devout.  This strategy has been brilliantly documented by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas? (2004).  Frank argues that in the United States, Christianity has been used surreptitiously to demonize liberals and further a corporate agenda.  But a direct appeal to Christianity may not be as effective in Canada.  Accordingly, the Prime Minister has relied on a more ingenious tactic.  He has managed to convince a plurality of immigrant minorities -- Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs -- as well as Christians, to unite against a common enemy -- namely, the wanton, immorality of secular liberal society.  In this way, liberalism, which provided the solution to the warring religious sects of Christendom in the seventeenth century, may ironically be defeated by the miracle that made it possible -- namely, the existence of a plurality of religions living peacefully side by side.  The strategy is predicated on oblivion to the indispensability of liberal principles in the proper functioning of our democracy -- especially the principle of separation of religion from politics.

(3) Promoting a crude conception of representation.
Once the liberal elites are discredited, they can be replaced by the notion of anti-elitist ruling elites.  The trick is to blur the distinction between the people and the ruling elite.  On this view, representatives in a democracy are simply instruments of the will of the people, eager to do its bidding.  In a recent discussion on elites and elitism on CBC radio, former Parliamentarian and Reform Party member, Deborah Grey, seemed genuinely surprised that she was counted as a member of the ruling elite.  She believed that she was one of the people, representing the "gut wisdom" of the people.  Like Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, and other members of the pseudo-populist Tea Party movement in the US, our neoconservative elites regard themselves as mere servants of the will of the people.

This spurious conception of representation allows unscrupulous elites to pretend that all limitations on their power are limitations on the power of the people.  It explains how the Prime Minister of Canada can shamelessly declare that the judiciary should be accountable to his government, implying that the judiciary was just another pernicious liberal elite that must genuflect before the power of the people.  In an important speech delivered in Parliament in December of 2010, an opposition member explained that interference with the judiciary by the party in power is the essence of dictatorship.  In other words, dictatorship is parasitic on a crude or populist conception of representation.  In contrast, a more sophisticated conception of representation regards the representative as someone entrusted with power by the majority of his or her constituents; someone entrusted to exercise good judgment, guard the common good of the nation, and vote according to the dictates of his or her conscience.

(4) Introducing voodoo economics.
This strategy involves the dissemination of a voodoo brand of economics (also known as trickle-down economics) that promises to the magic star-dust that will save the world.  According to this economic "theory" the whole of society benefits when the rich get richer.  In the United States, this economic thinking has led to absurd policies such as huge tax cuts for the rich in times of crushing deficits, or the launching of irrelevant war that augment corporate profits while killing and maiming the children of the poor.  Supposedly, the economy is like a tide that raises all boats.

In truth, the economy is nothing like a tide.  The metaphor feeds on the naive view of democracy, which assumes that there are no conflicting interests -- the interests of the few rich by the oxymoronic.  This spurious conception of representation allows unscrupulous elites to pretend that all limitations on their power are limitations on the power of the people.  It explains how the Prime Minister of Canada can shamelessly declare that the interests of the rich are allegedly identical to the interests of the many poor, as if the exorbitant rewards for the rich automatically make everyone better off.  The reality is that in Canada, as in America, the middle class is shrinking and collapsing into the ranks of the poor and the unemployed; the contributions of the rich are inflated to astronomical proportions, while the contributions of ordinary people are dramatically undervalued.  The result is a growing deficit of social justice because the benefits and burdens of society are inequitably distributed, with the rich getting the lion's share, while the rest bear the heaviest burden.

(5) Cultivating the illusion of meritocracy.
The success of the economic agenda of the global oligarch and its fake populism depends heavily on exploiting the meritocratic conception of inequality on which liberal society is based.  Liberalism was a successful revolution that replaced medieval inequalities based on birth with liberal inequalities based on merit.  Unlike aristocracy, meritocracy regards life as a race in which status in society depends on talent, diligence, and hard work.  Appealing to our deeply ingrained meritocratic sentiments, the new elites maintain that the rich deserve their riches as a reward for their skill, ingenuity, risk, sobriety and diligence.

The assumption is that the wealthy are self-made men and women who have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps without any social assistance -- as if education, health, and other opportunities that enabled them were of no account.  In reality, all the ability of a great athlete or musician is of little worth were it not for the opportunities to cultivate them, and these opportunities are provided by the society into which one happens to be born.  This is why the wealthy should resent paying higher taxes.  They owe it to the society that made their achievements possible. 

When meritocracy replaced aristocracy, capitalism replaced mercantilism.  The latter was an economic system, based on power, privilege and monopoly.  In contrast, capitalism was based on opportunity, individual initiative, entrepreneurship and competition.  But the trickle-down economic claptrap has endowed corporations with hitherto unprecedented power that surpasses the oligarchic monopolies of old.  Society has become increasingly dependent on corporations that are "too big to fail" because their failure threatens the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people -- but if corporations are too big to fail, it follows that they are too big to exist in the first place!  However, neoliberal and neoconservative governments are reluctant to reign in corporate conglomerates; they prefer instead to bail them out with taxpayer money.

In this way, an inverted form of no-fail capitalism has developed -- a capitalism in which the profits are private while the losses are public.  This inverted capitalism makes a mockery of the meritocratic principle that was supposed to justify the inequalities of the capitalist system in the first place.  In light of this, it is uncertain how long the illusion of meritocracy that legitimizes the power of the wealthy can be sustained.

In conclusion, let me totally clear -- it is not democracy that our troops are fighting side by side with the Americans to defend -- it is the global oligarchy that they are dying for.  I have argued that this global oligarchy is sustained by a fake populism.  Moreover, the strategies used by the peddlers of fake populism depend on a naive, unrealistic, anti-liberal, and anti-elitist conception of democracy that is neither historically nor philosophically tenable.  Unless we divest ourselves of this untenable view of democracy, we will continue to fall prey to this fake populism and its consequences -- destroying the liberal elements of our liberal democracy, expanding the power of the corporate elite, creating huge disparities between rich and poor, dismantling the social safety net, and inviting class conflict

Postscript. The insights of Hedges and Drury are clearly important. But they offer only a framework for our understanding. The details and the nuances of their writings are certainly open to interpretation and debate, and we need not know or care about Aristotle or Plato, or Mill or Strauss. But we can't be blind to the facts on the ground. And the reality is this; the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the moderating middle class has very effectively been impoverished. And the politicians who serve the new breed of wealthy elite are utterly disdainful of the majority they supposedly represent because they know there's not a damn thing we can do about it. And maybe that's why they hold us in such contempt -- because we gave up so easily.

Don't think the political class holds us in callous disregard? How else to explain a presidential candidate who openly boasts (to cheering crowds) that as governor he has executed 234 men without a moments' regret or reflection. How else to explain a presidential candidate -- a medical doctor, no less -- who is not troubled by the death of a hypothetical man without health insurance (again, to a cheering crowd), and who failed to help his own campaign manager who died without health coverage. How else to explain the GOP's pompous bluster over Obama's tax plan, calling it "class warfare". How else to explain, how else to explain...there are so many examples every day -- I could populate this blog with nothing but the inane hypocrisy and mean-spirited pronouncements of the political class and their corporate masters.

And so it seems true that "if the majority is ignorant and bigoted, then democracy will be the tyranny of the ignorant and bigoted".

This is a train wreck in slow motion. We are witness to a catastrophe of epic proportions in the economy, the environment, social justice, human dignity, war and peace. And all the while, as the crime is being perpetrated before our waking eyes, the elites and their servants smile back at us smugly. And they'll soon be back for more -- in fact, they never stop taking. And when they've got all that there is, they'll ask for a small donation and our support at the polls. And we are dazed and confused, and we are compliant. And we call it, democracy.

Its been said that if voting was really effective, they'd have banned it by now. Our job is not to take power, our job is to hold the elites accountable. To this point, we've done a lousy job.

Update. You can't make this stuff up! I noted in the Postcript above that the politicians who serve the monied class are utterly disdainful of us, and hold us in apparent disregard. And I suggested that I could populate this blog with nothing more than examples that prove the point. This morning (Friday) we find two more of the many, one from the Washington Post, and one from the New York Times.

The Post reports that House Leader John Boehner managed to win approval, his second attempt in less than 48 hours, for an interim funding bill to sustain the operations of the government through to November 18. The beauty part, though, is that tucked into the legislation is a nasty little provision to cut $3.65 billion in disaster relief money from FEMA.

Not content with this bit of gamesmanship, 24 Republicans in the House voted against the bill in part because the reduction was not sufficient! It is reported that Boehner and his team  engaged in a frantic, full-court press to bring his fellow Republicans on side, and as the Post article noted,
"The extraordinary effort required to pass such a basic bill suggests even bigger battles later in the fall on potential blockbuster deficit-reduction plans."
As the article also suggested, it is clear that Boehner controls the House on paper only. The wild influence of the Tea Baggers holds hostage even the routine function of government. The Democratic majority in the Senate promptly rejected the House bill, and the charade will begin all over again. Drastic cuts -- this time in disaster relief -- are couched in the rhetoric of fake populism.

The second item is a commentary from Paul Krugman in The Times. In it, he refers (indirectly) to the on-going struggle between rich and poor; Obama's latest pronouncement that the rich should pay more in taxes (you can just smell the election rhetoric) brought immediate howls from the Republicans of "class warfare." It is the Republicans who wish to shield the monied class from an equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of society -- see strategies one, three, four and five in the main post. Krugman brings his usual clarity to the issue; estimates from the Congressional Budget Office for the period 1979 - 2005 show that inflation-adjusted incomes for the middle class rose just 21%, a rather modest growth rate. For the same period, income for the very rich, the top 100th of 1 percent, rose by...wait for it...480%! So, as Krugman asks,
"do the wealthy look to like victims of class warfare?"
Krugman's commentary also speaks to the social contract, in which no one gets rich on their own, suggesting that the rich gain enormous advantage in a stable well-functioning society that provides the opportunities to prosper. I would point the reader to strategy five in the main post above, and the concept of meritocracy, to explain again how the monied elite strive to make the most of the benefits they enjoy while refusing to acknowledge the burdens they must share.
"Republicans claim to be deeply worried by budget deficits. Indeed, Mr Ryan called the deficit an existential threat to America. Yet they are insisting that the wealthy -- who presumably have much of a stake as everyone else in the nation's future -- should not be called upon to play any role in warding off that existential threat. Well, that amounts to a demand that a small number of very lucky people be exempted from the social contract that applies to everyone else. And that, in case you're wondering, is what real class warfare looks like."
Krugman's summary statement to his article serves well to close this post on fake populism.

Well, almost the last word. In a post at Truthout, an article says that Conservatives hate democracy. Well of course they do! And for all the reasons discussed above and in detail. Go to this article if you need further proof of the crisis we face -- and of the need to hold our elites fully accountable.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Mozart, Piano Concerto #19 in F, K459; Alfred Brendel, Neville Marriner, Academy Of St. Martin In The Fields.  Enjoy.