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.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Neoconservatism in Canada

Caesar Augustus

An article in the latest issue of Humanist Perspectives provides an important backgrounder to recent political developments in Canada.

Written by Shadia B. Drury, and entitled "The Rise of Neoconservatism in Canada", the article amplifies many of the themes identified in my most recent posts, "A King in All But Name" and "Canada's Shameful Record Gets Worse".  As Professor Drury declares in her article's concluding statement,
"So far, there is every indication that [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper will keep his promise that Canada will be unrecognizable when he is done."
Shadia Drury has written extensively on the phenomenon that is the neoconservative movement in the US, and on the political philosophy of Leo Strauss that spawned it.  She is the Canada Research Chair in Social Justice, and the Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Political Science at the University of Regina.

The article begins with a reminder of just how strongly Canadians have held to the notion that we are different than Americans, and how proudly we proclaim that difference.  While both countries share their ancestry with Great Britain, American culture and politics became far more belligerent and militaristic with its War of Independence.  While Canada learned and absorbed the traditions and institutions of the mother country, the US took a much more combative road.  In the revolutionary era, American Protestant Churches,
"beat the drums of war and insisted that America was the new Israel, Americans were the new chosen people, the British were the Egyptians, and King George was the Pharaoh.  Those who opposed the war were denounced as enemies of God and his chosen people."
Evocative phrases such as "shining city on a hill", "manifest destiny" and "American exceptionalism" all reinforce this idea of Americans as the chosen people in the land of a new Israel.  And the politics of America reflects this self-proclaimed and self-righteous religious and cultural pre-eminence, as the article suggests,
"The distinctively American brand of conservatism is radical, belligerent and brutally competitive...In Canada, a British style of Conservatism was allowed to thrive...[it was] interested in conserving the good while gradually reforming the bad."
Canada has come to represent the very best achievements of British liberalism.  It is therefor little wonder that envy of the US system had no prominent place in Canadian politics -- until recently.  The recent reformation of the Conservative Party of Canada has radically changed the discourse and trajectory of politics here.

Prior to the emergence of Stephen Harper's new Conservative Party, the traditional "Tories" held to the British model of governance.  They supported the British political tradition that reflected the gains won through the liberal revolutions in Europe -- that set limits on executive power, insured due process of law, defended the rights of individuals and prevented the abuse of power.  Unlike the American experience, governance in Canada did not carry the millstones of apocalyptic delusions and radical experimentation.

The ascension of Stephen Harper has changed all that.  The principles of the British Parliamentary system, which were "achieved at a great cost and over a long period of time", are now in peril.  The strategies and tactics employed by the Harper Government ape the worst of the so-called neoconservative movement.  Not content with the inherited wisdom of the past, neoconservatives are eager for radical change. Indeed, as Stephen Harper said in a recent interview, when he is finished with Canada it will be unrecognizable.

In past writings on the subject, Professor Drury has linked the rise of neoconservatism in America to two European thinkers -- Leo Strauss and Friedrich Hayek -- and says that the phobias and delusions of these men dovetailed with American ideology and propaganda in a way that was fertile to the growth of the neoconservative movement.

The philosophy of Strauss, in particular, was highly amenable to the ruling elites in America.  Strauss upheld Plato's position that the wise few should rule the masses without legal restraint.  The scholarship on Strauss reveals his teachings,
"What is needed is a wily elite ruling behind the facade of democracy.  This devious elite would partner politics with religion; it would engage the masses in a constant struggle against an existential threat to the nation and its god.  In the state of of existential dread, the democratic masses would be too pre-occupied with the external enemy to turn on their betters."     
According the Professor Drury, Strauss was severely criticized for his elitist and anti-democratic opinions.  But, as she says, "Americans tend to romanticize democracy", and politics is "characterized by hyper-democratic rhetoric".  And in America, democracy has become wary of the liberal tradition, to the extent that important elements of liberalism such as the protection of individual and minority rights have been marginalized.

And it is a paradox that the neocons' true disdain for democracy, coupled with their hyper-charged rhetoric for it, fuels a crusading foreign policy in the name of those very democratic ideals.  It was the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, you will remember, who were the primary architects of the Iraq War.  Even today the millions of casualties (the collateral damage) are justified as the price the grateful Iraqis paid for their "freedom" and democracy.  Conditions on the ground, there and in Afghanistan, would render a much different judgement, even as the decline of the American empire proceeds.    

Professor Drury asks why the neocons in America, so obviously influenced by an anti-democratic philosophy, would push the democratic mythology to such catastrophic ends.  Her answer is illuminating,
"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."
And so, on now to Canada.  The undemocratic political philosophy practiced by Stephen Harper has been a subtext to his leadership for several years.  If he is not specifically Straussian in his strategies, Stephen Harper employs the philosopher's general tone and direction. He has a preoccupation with the military and nationalism, has created a strong linkage between religion and politics, and is highly secretive and controlling of the operations of government.  As Martin Lawrence wrote of Harper in his book Harperland,
"There is a harshness, a lack of humour, humanity and moderation that disregards the traditions of Parliament where all members have a right to treated as honourable." 
As I have written in earlier posts, Harper's legislative agenda supports the basic tenants of the neoconservative world view, such as his crime bill and anti-terrorism act, both deemed wholly unnecessary, if not counterproductive, in Canada today.  The Harper agenda of deep integration between Canada and the United States is moving apace. The question is why.  Why, as the Drury article asks,
"would anyone trade Canadian freedom, individuality, skepticism, and a healthy balance between capitalism and socialism, for American religiousity, mindless faith, perpetual war, and unfettered capitalism?  Why trade Canadian sobriety for a toxic concoction of American imperialism?"  
In answer to that question, we begin with the recognition that political movements develop for reasons that are complex, and in response to political motivations that are diverse; Professor Drury more specifically offers three possibilities to explain the rise of neoconservatism here in Canada.

First, as has been discussed in the many posts related to the recent 10th anniversary, 9/11 did change the world.  And liberal principles such as the rule of law, respect for individual rights, the insistence on due process and strict limitations on executive power have been deeply compromised in its aftermath.  Into this vacuum have rushed neoconservative ideals.  The article suggests that some Canadians genuinely feel that joining fortress America is the only prudent course. The recent announcement of highly integrated security initiatives between the US and Canada only reinforces that view.

Of course, advocates of this garrison mentality in Canada conveniently neglect the American culpability in stoking the resentments and inequities that brought about the blowback that was 9/11.  The aggressive war mentality that Canada has recently adopted in Afghanistan, its increasingly belligerent position toward Palestine, and its blind support for Israel whatever the costs, are out of step with mainstream opinion of the majority of our citizens.  As the Straussian philosophy suggests, however, this is a trifling matter for Harper, since our elites are endowed with a deeper insight, and will therefor ensure that the Canadian public adopts the correct attitudes.  

Second, and as has been demonstrated in America, Canadians of faith, and in particular the evangelicals, are highly amenable to the ideals of neoconservatism.  For them, religious virtue and ideology provides their preferred foundation for society.  It is well known that Stephen Harper has tapped into the evangelical and broader religious communities, and often tags his speeches with "God bless Canada". And his lock-step support for Israel can be seen in the mobilization of his christian base.

Finally, Professor Drury identifies Western Canadian alienation and the region's perceived rugged individualism as being compatible with neoconservatism.  The long-standing domination of Canada's east-centered Liberal Party has been a lightning rod for protest, and Stephen Harper's visceral hatred for liberals and liberalism is well known.  He is an ultra-partisan politician, tactically brilliant, and known to rise each day with a mission to destroy his adversaries -- and he is intent on transforming the new Conservative Party into Canada's natural ruling party.  Western alienation, and the protest movement that spawned The Reform Party was steeped in grievance, and it remains today the backbone of Harper's electoral strength.

Stephen Harper's views are consistent with all three possibilities that Professor Drury offers on the rise of neoconservatism in Canada.  He is absolutely sincere and committed to leaving Canada unrecognizable by the time he is done.

And when he recently committed Canada to adopting America's wars as our own, Harper began to make good on his threat.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: "American Woman", The Guess Who, American Woman.  Enjoy.

Friday, 9 September 2011

A King In All But Name

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has of late embraced the ermine and purple of royalty.  Much more on this in a moment, but first...

A recent post in the Globe and Mail disclosed some internal emails that sheds more light on the nature of Harper's skewed (and largely self-serving) notion of what it means to be Prime Minister.  The chief of social media for Health Canada asked in a Nov. 30, 2010 email,
"Since when have we started making announcements as the 'Harper Government'?"
And in another,
"Why is @healthcanada creating partisan 'press releases' and marketing them as non-partisan ministry news?"
The reply came from a senior communications adviser at Health Canada,
"This was a directive I received from PCO."
The Privy Council Office serves the prime minister as his bureaucratic "nerve centre", and works in conjunction with the Prime Minister's Office.  The PMO houses Harper's top political advisers, while his top policy advisers work out of the PCO; under Stephen Harper the two groups have come to embody his iron grip on messaging and strategy, secretive and unaccountable.  The near-total control over routine government communications requires that virtually all public comment must be pre-cleared by this "cabal".  Civil servants say that the politicizing of all government communications has greatly reduced the amount of information disclosed to the public, and that what little that is released is thoroughly sanitized.  As one civil servant is quoted as saying,
"The existence of this draconian, Orwellian, unprecedented prerequisite to clear any and all public statements that might be picked by the media reflects, in my view, a level of micromanagement in the public service, a lack of confidence, trust and respect, and a commitment to total control of the message the like of which has never been seen before."
The purposeful re-branding of the government of Canada as the "Harper Government" has met with public outrage.  The general view seems to be that "an aggressively partisan Conservative administration is trampling the admittedly grey area between party and the non-partisan public service".  The Globe article goes on to say,
"Non-partisan departmental web sites switched to a Tory-blue motif soon after the Conservatives took power in 2006, and taxpayer funded Economic Action Plan website, signs and ads have blanketed the country since 2009 in a 'whole of government' exercise that is indistinguishable from the partisan Conservative pitch."
The PCO recently posted a public notice of "Proposed Procurement" soliciting new design concepts for Government of Canada advertising in order to "develop a 'whole of government' branding approach that increases the public resonance of government messaging and information."  This initiative has drawn strenuous criticism, and as one former civil servant and communications expert said,
"There's a serious issue here and it's a deeply corrupting one for the public service.  I would say that any public servant who's involved in communications activities of that type is in breach of both the Communications Policy and the Values and Ethics Code." 
The re-branding of the government of Canada in Stephen Harper's image should be deeply troubling to Canadians.  It is easy enough to see through the charade and understand the logic that Harper is employing here.  He is intent on creating his own facts on the ground, now that his Conservatives have fortuitously seized power.  Earlier this summer, he famously said that "Conservative values are Canadians' values."  This from a politician who has yet to win a simple majority in three attempts.  That he currently occupies the primary seat of power in this country is merely a happy circumstance of our first-past-the-post electoral system. 

In point of fact, the Conservatives have never been the natural ruling party of Canada.  As John Ibbotson of the Globe recently wrote, "A majority of Canadians did not, never do, vote Conservative."  And so, while he is positioned to do so, Stephen Harper is taking every opportunity to set the table to his future advantage.

Beyond the re-branding of Canada in his own image, consider other initiatives planned by the "Harper Government".  Recent news reports (here and here) indicate that he will re-introduce anti-terrorism laws that sunset in 2007 in order to further protect Canadians (this tactic sounds ominously familiar, if you follow even casually the American experiment in "democracy").  Harper said in an interview with the CBC that the major threat to Canada "is still Islamism".  His proposal will give police the power to arrest suspects without warrant, and to detain them for up to three days without charges.  In another, he would give judges the power to jail reluctant witnesses so as to encourage their cooperation.  Such controversial law-and-order bills were off the table when Harper was in a minority position, but he now intends to push the legislative agenda of guns, prisons and increased powers to police.  In response interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said the "Harper Government" is intent on,
"taking us on a forced march to the mid-18th century with their approach to criminal justice."   
In recent months Harper has pushed at the criminal justice system in several ways.  He has, against all logic, signaled his intent to spend $billions on a massive new prison infrastructure, this at a time when crime rates are falling.  His justice minister has demanded of judges apply mandatory sentencing guidelines that even the Americans have called out-of-step.  And Harper has himself suggested that judges be more responsive to the government.

It is instructive that while Harper pushes get-tough-on-crime legislation, has demonstrated his own inclination to circumvent the rule of law.  An issue that deeply concerns Canadians is climate change; Harper has not accepted the reality of the problem, or the science behind it.  While the Harper Conservatives were still in minority, parliament passed the Climate Change Accountability Act, which called upon the government to establish regulations that would substantially reduce greenhouse emissions.

But the wily Stephen Harper chose to kill the bill in the Senate, where Conservatives are in the majority, by ensuring that the passage was debated when Liberal senators were away.  This action demonstrates our prime minister's true regard for the concept of democracy, and it shows why he is far better suited to the role of king.  Jack Layton called this action,
"One of the most undemocratic acts that we have ever seen in the Parliament of Canada.  To take power that doesn't rightfully belong to them to kill a bill that has been adopted by a majority of the House of Commons representing a majority of Canadians is a wrong as it gets when it comes to democracy in this country."
And in further ignoring the will of the majority of Canadians on the climate issue, Harper has
 - refused to cooperate with the Kyoto protocol signed by the previous Prime Minister Jean Chretien;
 - refused to pass new federal energy policy that would curb carbon emissions and develop new technologies;
 - subsidized and supported the production of oil from the environmentally devastating and energy intensive Alberta Oil Sands;
 - failed to support the goals of such environmental gatherings as the Copenhagen Climate Conference, resulting in Canada being labeled by some as the nation with the worst behavior.

Harper's actions to centralize absolute power and control in the PMO/PCO, his authoritarian legislative agenda, and his disdain for the democratic process all suggest that his temperament is far better suited to the royal prerogative.

Harper has returned Canada to a by-gone era with several actions to embrace the monarchy.  Most recently he restored the "Royal" name to the Canadian armed forces, an action in a former colony largely indifferent to the queen as head of state (indifferent except, of course, when Kate and William are touring).  This is part of a larger strategy to place greater emphasis on traditional symbols such as the military, ice hockey, arctic sovereignty, patriotism, and the monarchy -- see Jeffery Simpson's commentary in today's Globe and Mail.  Symbols are vital to the style of governance envisioned by Harper's Conservatives.  These symbols are necessary to advance his agenda to shift Canada's ideological centre from centre-left to centre-right.  He must do this because, despite all his bravado, Conservative values are not yet Canadian values.

Harper's long-term goal is to kill the notion of the Liberal Party as the natural governing party of government in Canada.  The liberals made Canadian independence and autonomy from Britain a key message, particularly the government of Pierre Trudeau which fostered pride in Canadian nationalism.  As a former aid to Harper said recently,
"He's trying to roll back the Trudeau revolution.  Trudeau did a lot of things to upset traditional minded [evangelical?] Canadians, introducing more socialism, making government bigger and going after traditions like the military and the monarchy."
Of course, you will know that the Liberals were displaced in the last election by Jack Layton's New Democratic Party which, by the very nature of the NDP, must give Harper uncontrolled gastric pain.

As you read the details of Harper's grand strategy, you cannot miss its parallels to the right-wing in America, with its focus on rolling back Roosevelt's New Deal, its emphasis on traditional values and its blind hatred for all things that smack (to them) of socialism.  And it should not surprise you that the neo-conservative movement is alive and well here in Canada.  To reinforce the point, Shadia Drury has an excellent and illuminating piece in the latest issue of Humanist Perspectives on this very subject.

What's really bothering me is this: Stephen Harper has put in place a plan to change the nature of my country -- a plan that is overtly partisan, slickly marketed, tightly managed, secretive, sophisticated, and devious.  It reeks of propaganda.  It is a plan well conceived, and already well established.

And, most egregious, it is a plan that has no mandate from the Canadian people.

With a four year stretch of uncontested power ahead of him, I fear Stephen Harper will do tremendous damage to Canada.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Dazed and Confused, Led Zeppelin; Led Zeppelin I.  Enjoy.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Canada's Shameful Record Getting Worse

A post in today's New York Times tells us that the Obama administration hopes to avert the issue of Palestinian statehood that is scheduled to come to the floor of the UN when world leaders gather at the General Assembly beginning later this month.

Obama hopes that a new round of peace negotiations will forestall the fallout the administration's certain veto of the resolution will generate.

According to the Times' article, efforts to head off the Palestinian drive have continued through the summer, but have become more urgent as the vote looms.  These efforts included direct intervention by David M. Hale, the administration's new special envoy, and by Dennis Ross, the president's Middle East advisor on the National Security Council. In an escalation of this initiative, the State Department recently issued a formal diplomatic message to more than 70 countries urging them to oppose any unilateral moves by the Palestinians at the United Nations.  As the Times' article noted,
"The message, delivered by American ambassadors to their diplomatic counterparts in those countries, argued that a vote would destabilize the region and undermine peace efforts, though those are, at least for now, moribund." 
The dilemma for the Obama administration is that it does not have enough support to block a vote by the General Assembly to elevate the status of the Palestinians from nonvoting observer "entity" to nonvoting observer "state".  The change, as the Times notes, would pave the way for the Palestinians to join dozens of United Nations bodies and conventions, and it would strengthen their ability to pursue cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court.
"Senior officials said the administration wanted to avoid not only a veto but also the more symbolic and potent General Assembly vote that would leave the United States and only a handful of other nations in opposition. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic maneuverings, said they feared that in either case a wave of anger could sweep the Palestinian territories and the wider Arab world at a time when the region is already in tumult.  President Obama would be put in the position of threatening to veto recognition of the aspirations of most Palestinians or risk alienating Israel and its political supporters in the United States."
While it appears that the Obama administration is at least aware of the dilemma it now faces, the outcome is hardly in doubt.  The returning reader to this site (yes, there are a few of you kind souls) will recall my post last month about President Obama titled "Hoisted by His Own Petard" -- it is apropos to recall that post in the context of this bit of new drama.  Obama has courted AIPAC shamelessly and, with it, the substantial cache of American Jewish campaign donations, and he has bowed and scraped before Bibi Netanyahu in a manner that emasculates the supposed power of the United States of America. So while Obama once fashioned himself as the standard-bearer of human rights and democracy around the world including, one would assume, the Palestinians, he seems to have lost interest in this outcome -- just one of his many reversals.

And so, return now to the quotation above from the Times' article that the General Assembly vote would leave America "and only a handful of other nations" in opposition.  It is a certainty that among that group we will find Canada...

Unlike President Obama, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper suffers not the slightest angst on this issue -- he has openly, forcefully and repeatedly committed to defending the interests of Israel, "whatever the costs".  In so doing, he has set out to become the most fervent defender of Israeli actions in the community of nations.  At the Deauville G8 summit, for example, he blocked any reference in the final communique to a return to the pre-1967 borders as a condition for peace -- this, despite president Obama's stated support for it (a position from which he ultimately backed away under withering condemnation by Israel and AIPAC).

Harper defended the 2006 Israeli campaign in Lebanon that killed almost a thousand Lebanese civilians, an unprovoked military action that resulted in the condemnation of Israel by the world community. In fact, from the outset of the conflict, he defended Israel's "right to exist" and described the military campaign as a "measured" response. He blamed Hezbollah for all the civilian deaths, and he asserted that Hezbollah's objective is to destroy Israel.

When the Gaza flotilla was brutally attacked by the Israeli military, it just so happened that Benjamin Netanyahu was meeting with Stephen Harper.  Our Prime Minister did not waste the opportunity to fully endorse the criminal actions by the Israelis, and even thought it right that Israel should lead any investigation into the affair.

Harper's blinding fealty to Israel has in turn puzzled, infuriated and delighted observers of the Canadian scene, many of whom have sought to explain this apparent departure from what is generally agreed to be our traditional even-handed and consensus-based foreign policy.  The widely held view is that Harper's slavish support for Israel is driven by ethnic politics.  A former Canadian diplomat is reported to have told a Liberal Party conference that,
"the scramble to lock up the Jewish vote in Canada meant selling out our widely admired and long-established reputation for fairness and justice."
As Yves Engler has noted, however, the numbers don't add up.  He points out that just over 1% of the Canadian population is identified as Jewish.  From the 2006 Canadian census, according to Engler, Jews were the 25th largest group defined by ethnic origin, and only a handful of electoral ridings have a significant concentration of Jews.

As in America, Jews in Canada are politically engaged, are well represented in positions of influence and are a relatively prosperous minority group.  As is also the case in the US, voting patterns suggest that few Canadian Jews cast their ballots based on Ottawa's policy towards Israel, and there may actually exist an inverse relationship to Jewish support.  The reality is that pro-Israel Jewish lobbyists have influence because they operate within a favorable political climate -- as Engler says, "they are pushing against an open door."  

But there was a time when conditions were not so favorable, when Canada did not reflexively side with the pro-Israeli Jewish lobby.  As Engler notes,
"In 1979, at the instigation of Israeli PM Menachem Begin, short-lived Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark announced plans to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the city.  Arab threats of economic sanction pushed the CEOs of Bell Canada, Royal Bank, ATCO and Bombardier, which all had important contracts in the region, to lobby Clark against making the move.  And embarrassed federal government backtracked, more worried about an important sector of corporate power than the pro-Israeli Jewish lobby."
There is another motivator that better accounts for Stephen Harper's Israel first, "whatever the costs" policy -- it has been suggested that it has to do with mobilizing his rightwing evangelical base.  As in the US, Zionism is particularly strong among evangelicals who believe that the return of the Jews to Israel will hasten the second coming of Christ and the Apocalypse.  It was reported that a Conservative member of parliament recently gave a speech at a major Christian Zionist event in Toronto -- the MP for Essex delivered greetings from Prime Minister Harper, and said, 
"The creation of the state of Israel fulfills God's promise in Deuteronomy to gather the Jewish people from all corners of the world."
Engler notes that about 10 percent of Canadians identify as evangelicals (including a number of MPs in the government).  The president of the rightwing Canadian Centre for Policy Studies was quite explicit when he said, 
"The Jewish community in Canada is 380,000 strong; the evangelical community is 3.5 million.  The real support base for Israel is Christians."
Stephen Harper is himself a devout evangelical Christian, the third to lead the Canadian right (all from Alberta), and the first to attain national power.  He is renown for his absolute control over government messaging, and has thus maintained a relatively low public profile on the issue of evangelicals.  But the religious right in Canada know that Harper is one of their own -- the Founder of Canada's premier Christian talk show, 100 Huntley Street proclaimed "We've got a born-again prime minister!".  They see Harper as an image-savvy evangelical who will keep his signals to them under the radar, but it is clear that his faith will be translated into policies that will remake the fabric of the country -- and the evangelical influence is already strongly felt in Ottawa.

And so with respect to the pending UN resolution on Palestinian statehood, it is no surprise that Canada has already signaled its intent to reject any such outcome. Given its deep commitment to evangelical Christians, the Harper government is quite prepared to accept all criticism for its "slavish" support for Israel, and for turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Palestinian people.  In a recent interview with a leading Mideast analyst, Rami Khouri, our reputation as a country that practiced "a sense of decency and fairness in its foreign policy" is increasingly being called into question.  Khouri had this to say,
"I think the critical point for any Western government -- Canadian, American, British -- is to differentiate between supporting the security of Israel and opposing the colonization policies of Israel.  Israel within its 1967 boarders is a phenomenon the world accepts, even the Arabs.
Any real friend of Israel should tell Israel, 'we support you, your security but we don't support what you're doing'."
Canada's reputation, as Rami Khouri says, is that of a fair and honest broker.  Under Stephen Harper's leadership of the Conservative Party, that reputation -- earned or not -- will suffer greatly, and the country will continue to veer hard to the right.  To appease his evangelical base, Harper will perpetuate the misery of millions of Palestinians, as we forfeit any semblance of moral standing in the world.

It is a frightening prospect that Stephen Harper now has a full four years to govern -- he is virtually unopposed in his power to implement his will and prerogative.

Postscript.  The power of the Jewish Lobby in the US has been well documented by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.  Their widely cited paper, as you may recall, set off a fire-storm of protest and recrimination by AIPAC and its operatives -- a sure sign that the authors were on to something.  If you haven't read the paper, do so this very minute.  (Read also the book by Yves Engler, Canada and Israel, referenced below.)  Pat Buchanan famously called Congress "Israeli occupied territory", and it is well known that senators and representatives who don't rigorously uphold the interests of Israel will be targeted for elimination in the next electoral cycle.  And every presidential hopeful must make a pilgrimage to the national AIPAC convention to publicly acknowledge and proclaim their fealty to the Jewish state, often to the detriment of their own country.

There is something terribly wrong with a political system that funds another country to the tune of $3 billion annually, and then meekly allows that country to spy against it repeatedly.  The interests of America and Israel are not the same (nor are the interests of Canada and Israel the same), yet politicians here in North America proclaim Israel first, "whatever the costs".

And then, of course, there's the evangelicals. Upon that base rests the power of the Jewish Lobby.  In America, and now increasingly in Canada, the separation of church and state is disintegrating, and with it the last vestiges of democratic liberalism.

Update.  The smile is fading from the smug countenance of Bibi Netanyahu.  And it puts me in mind of the variously attributed quotation,
"When the government fears the people, there is liberty; when the people fear the government, there is tyranny."
It seems liberty may be returning to Israel.  Since July 14th, when an impromptu tent city sprang up in protest of worsening social issues, dissent in Israel has become a growth industry.  It was reported by TheRealNewsNetwork that on Saturday almost half a million Israelis took to the streets to denounce the government.

From the streets of Tel Aviv, here is a sampling of comments,
"The people demand social justice.  Our Israel demands a change in the set of priorities of its government."
"This summer we woke up and refused to keep going with our eyes closed toward the abyss."
"The circle will keep going until it breaks through the government's walls and it starts to comply with our demands.  We demand to see our government members losing sleep and losing weight as a result of the burden of responsibility on their shoulders."
"This protest will continue until the government resigns and we have new elections."
As the protests have grown, Bibi has remained silent.  With the huge demonstration of dissent on Saturday, he was forced to appoint a special committee to "look into" the issues.  This has done nothing to placate the protesters, who have called the chairman of the committee,
Bibi's man...he was sent by Bibi so Bibi can keep his hands clean without doing anything."
It seems that when government makes a commitment to corporatism and austerity, the result can be the kind of mass public protest and dissent we are now witnessing in Israel.  These events should cheer activists in North America, and may even give pause to the ideologues on the right as they craft their political strategies.


Some recent news reports related to the main post.  The September 13 edition of Haaretz quotes Obama as saying that the US will veto the Palestinian motion for statehood because its approval would be "counterproductive".  Go here, here and here for additional articles from the region on the Palestinian movement for statehood.

And the Prime Minister of Turkey spoke out against Israel's attack on the Gaza aid flotilla; he attached the phrase "Acting as advocates for Israel" to those who remain uncritical.  He also said that he would refer the position and actions of Israel to the Hague for prosecution.

By David.


A Commentary on "Canada and Israel".

Our reputation is darker than most know -- our foreign policy more checkered than generally understood.  A book by Yves Engler brings some much needed and perhaps, shocking, clarity to Canada's real role in the world.

Below is a commentary on Engler's work by Ali Mustafa.

Countless books have been written to date on the Israel/Palestine question, exploring everything from the origins of the conflict and current obstacles to peace, to the role of the major world powers involved and vested interests at stake.  But few books have yet to examine in any depth the nature of Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East, much less call into question the key political, economic, and ideological forces at play. Yves Engler’s Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid not only succeeds on both counts but manages to do so with convincing authority, putting to rest the popular myth that Canada is, or has ever been, an ‘honest broker’ in the region.

Far from merely yet another account of the ongoing conflict or a historical survey of Zionism -- both of which it no doubt is -- what distinguishes this book from countless others in the field is its decided focus to put Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East, and therefore the issue of Canadian complicity, front and center in the debate. Meticulously researched and comprehensive in scope, scarcely before has Canada’s historically one-sided support for Israel and the underlying geo-strategic motives behind it been so systemically documented in a single book.

Engler’s overall analysis in the book is informed by the understanding of Israel as an ‘apartheid state’, which, according to the author, represents the antithesis of contemporary Canadian values and the worst of this country’s own dark colonial past.  About the ‘Nakba’ or the ethnic cleansing of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes by Zionist militias in 1948, upon which that state of Israel was founded, Engler writes,
“This was the first major act of apartheid waged against Palestinians. Refusing to allow them to return is an ongoing form of apartheid.”  
But the Nakba was only the ‘original sin’; under international law Israel satisfies virtually all of the central criteria of an apartheid state, including exclusive land ownership laws, a vast matrix of military checkpoints and separate ‘Jewish only’ settlements, and the ‘apartheid’ wall in the West Bank highlight only the most flagrant examples of institutionalized racism found in Israel today.

Canadian ties to Zionism are not only well rooted in this country’s past but as old as Canada itself, Engler argues.  “Zionism’s roots are Christian, not Jewish,” he writes.  Paying careful attention to historical accuracy, Engler outlines in detail the rise of Christian Zionism in Europe and all its major players.  Although ‘biblical literalism’ provided the basic impetus for the emergence of Christian Zionism in Europe, Canada’s support for Zionism was originally spurred by loyalty to its closest ally Great Britain, the major world power and key patron of a ‘Jewish homeland’ in historic Palestine throughout much of the 20th century.

When UN Resolution 181 recommending the partition of Palestine passed in 1947, Canada faithfully supported the plan – despite the fact that, at the time, Jews in Palestine comprised only 30% of the population but would be awarded over 55% of the land.  Former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, then one of Canada’s senior UN representatives, was instrumental in seeing the partition plan come to fruition.  Contrary to popular belief, Engler argues, Canada’s support for the partition plan was due much less to the influence of a powerful Zionist lobby as to the legacy of Western anti-Semitism.  As Engler writes,
“The way to understand Jewish Zionist lobbying is that it pressed against an almost open door […] the anti-Semitism underlying Canada’s ‘none is too many’ policy towards Jewish refugees explains support for Israel.”
But old-fashioned geopolitics offers a far more precise explanation of Canada’s support for the creation of the state of Israel.  According to the author, in order for Canada to avoid a major diplomatic rift between its two major allies at the time, Britain and the US, securing a deal that would satisfy the interests of both parties was paramount. Following the fallout of World War II, whereupon the US supplanted Britain as the new global hegemon, Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East gradually shifted towards the American sphere of influence. Under the new geopolitical order, Israel would come to represent a vital strategic asset of US imperial interests in the world, essentially serving as a Western colonial outpost in the heart of the oil-rich Middle East.

Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and much of the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967 has done little to change the nature Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East. Already deep ideological, economic, and military ties between Canada and Israel have only grown more pronounced over time.  The two countries signed the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA) in 1997, Canada’s first ever free trade agreement outside of the Western Hemisphere.  But Canada’s support for Israel also assumes much more nuanced forms, although no less harmful in effect, Engler argues. For example, the charitable status of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Canada helped found ‘Canada Park’, an Israeli national park built atop destroyed Palestinian villages in the illegally occupied West Bank.  Canadian aid and charitable funds to Israel have a long history of subsidizing illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank, among various other violations of international law.

Neither should Canada’s reflexive, one-sided support for Israel today be seen in any way as an aberration; instead, Engler insists, it must be understood in the context of a long and consistent historical continuum of Canadian foreign policy interests in the Middle East -- regardless of which political party happens to be in power.  Carefully consulting the historical record, Engler leaves little doubt about the overall continuity of Canada’s support for Israel, from both the so-called ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ of the political spectrum.  Whether it is the Liberal Party of Paul Martin or the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper, the book dismantles not only Canada’s ‘peacekeeping myth’ but also the notion of even remote debate or political variety concerning key foreign policy issues in this country.  As Engler writes,
“The trajectory of this country’s foreign policy has been clear: The culmination of six decades of one-sided support, and two years into the Stephen Harper government, Canada was (at least diplomatically) the most pro-Israel country in the world.”
The author explains how under the familiar banner of ‘anti-Semitism’, the historical memory of the Holocaust has been shamefully manipulated by Canadian politicians and Zionist lobby groups alike as a means to shield Israel from legitimate criticism.  Of course, such a clearly harmful and morally bankrupt foreign policy, stubbornly sustained for so long, without logical pretext, cannot survive unopposed forever.  While Engler admits that the broader, grassroots Left has made significant strides in recent years to combat the widespread abuse of anti-Semitism for political gain and the growing ties between Canada and Israel in general, it remains a long and uphill struggle.

Although Engler flatly rejects the baseless charges of anti-Semitism routinely made against vocal critics of Israel such as, for example, the organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), he claims that the plight of Palestinians receives much more international attention than do the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, or Tibet, for that matter. “The point of our protest must not just be Palestinian suffering but rather Canadian complicity with that suffering,” Engler argues. He goes on to write,
“By not focusing on Canada’s responsibility for the conflict Palestinian solidarity activists have opened themselves up to attacks regarding their single-minded devotion to Israel’s crimes. To undercut this self-serving argument, which is often an insinuation of anti-Semitism, it is important to make our critique of Canadian foreign policy more explicit.”
Here Engler is uncharacteristically a little careless, unwittingly playing into the hands of the very same political forces whose aims he so skillfully and thoroughly exposes throughout the book.  In reality, Palestine solidarity activists such as those who organize IAW are no more blameworthy for giving specific attention to the Israel/Palestine question than organizers of Congo Awareness Week are for focusing on the DRC or the Canada Haiti Action Network for focusing on Haiti – both of which, it might be added, showcase clear examples of Canadian complicity.  Any activist, among whom I might count Engler, knows that organizers simply cannot do everything.  They are overworked, outstretched, and under-resourced; the fact that events such as those mentioned above even happen at all is an achievement in itself.  So long, I think, as our activism remains rooted in a universal standard of social justice, and we strive wherever possible to highlight common links and build genuine solidarity between various struggles in Canada and abroad, it is possible to take up a given cause without necessarily compromising the integrity of our aims or falling victim to narrow parochialism.

Regarding the growth of Palestine solidarity in Canada in recent years, and the level of international attention surrounding it, Engler fails to acknowledge the degree to which Palestinians themselves have made it possible – both through their own sustained resistance, and practical appeals to international solidarity in the form of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. He argues that it has been largely the belligerence of Israel and, most recently, the brutal military assault on Gaza in 2008/2009 that has caused ordinary Canadians to begin to see Israel for what it is and question Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East, resulting in the largest Palestine solidarity demonstrations in this country’s history. But Israel has always been openly belligerent – this is nothing new. In fact, it has been the growth of the Palestine solidarity movement across Canada – led by Palestinians – that has put the Israel/Palestine question on the political agenda like never before, and channeled these large demonstrations into part of an organized campaign (as opposed to short-lived expressions of outrage). This is an unintentional, yet critical oversight – one that puts far too much emphasis on Israel itself as a measure of public opinion.

But make no mistake, Canada is a real actor in this book. While the trajectory of Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East has been more or less consistent over the past six decades, Engler is sure to carefully put Canada’s aims in their unique historical context. There is no grand plot or shadow Zionist lobby manipulating Canadian foreign policy from afar (i.e. Walt and Mearsheimer), nor is Canada merely subordinated to the whims of US imperial interests; instead Canada is authentically portrayed as a power in its own right, equipped with its own geopolitical aims and interests. Engler’s mistrust of Canada’s motives in the Middle East is not borne out of cynicism or spite but rather a clear historical pattern of harmful Canadian intervention abroad. No doubt, as someone who admittedly began his career as a writer by studying Canada’s shameful role in Haiti, he is surely well versed in the ugly side of this country’s foreign policy tradition elsewhere in the world.

The scope and breadth of the book is initially quite daunting and even a little overwhelming, leaving virtually no historical fact or detail uncovered, yet avoids becoming at all pedantic or trivial in outlook. Each chapter builds fittingly upon the one prior to create a comprehensive historical narrative; anyone still not convinced after reading this book of Canada’s one-sided support for Israel and the fundamental need to change the nature of this country’s foreign policy may well never be swayed. For such a relatively short book (in total, approximately 150 pages) it is surprising just how much history is covered in this gem of a resource. Written in a simple, lucid style, Engler allows the facts to speak for themselves, yet does not shy away from announcing exactly where he stands.

Canadians can no longer plead ignorance of what is being done abroad in their name. This book not only gives its readers the tools to understand Canadian complicity in Israeli apartheid, but in doing so, puts the onus on us to take action in order hold our own government to account. Engler’s proposed solution is as blunt and straightforward as his prose; not wasting words, he writes, “Only when Canadians understand the reality of Israel, when they learn that their government takes the side of Israel despite its glaring human rights violations, will change be possible.”

According to the author, supporting the growing BDS campaign and targeting all Canadian institutions with any political, financial, or military ties to Israel is a good way to begin to take meaningful action. Engler also makes a few recommendations of his own, including: halting all Canadian weapons sales to Israel, revoking the JNF’s charitable status in Canada, and boycotting Chapters/Indigo (which the author himself has done with this very book). Canada’s foreign policy history in the Middle East and its one-sided support for Israel are rife with hypocrisy, and this book is a welcome remedy to it.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Villa Lobos, Suite Populaire Bresilienne; Norbert Kraft, Villa Lobos: Music for Solo Guitar.  Enjoy.