Saturday, August 29, 2015

Deficits, the left, and Twitter confusion. . .

I got into an interesting, though entirely unproductive, twitter exchange this morning concerning the issue of the Left and balanced budgets. It all began when someone posted a link on the issue of balanced budgets and the leftwing. The accompanying twitter statement was "if you think the NDP is rightwing to balance a budget, you need a history lesson." My simple reply was that "it is not rightwing to balance a budget, but it is rightwing to insist that all budgets have to be balanced." This set off a small storm in a teacup exchange with a blogger who I respect but who, I think, was confused about what I was saying. (To be fair, this confusion is easy to generate on Twitter where complex issues cannot be explained.)

Now, of course, it is easy to see that many leftwing governments have balanced budgets and many rightwing governments have failed to balance budgets. It is not rightwing or leftwing to balance a budget. But what I believe is rightwing is to buy the Neo-Liberal discourse on "fiscal responsibility" or "balanced budgets." For years, regardless of their poor performance on the issue, the corporatists and Neo-Liberals have attempted to generate the false notion that balancing budgets is an objectively good thing. But, of course, it isn't. The desirability or undesirability of a balanced budget depends entirely on the circumstances. It would be great, I suppose, if we were always awash with lots of cash and could always balance budgets while making the investments necessary for a better future. But those circumstances don't obtain and sometimes it is necessary to fall into deficit. The rightwing, (again, despite their poor performance on the matter) have attempted to generate a pubic discourse that always condemns deficits. And my claim is simple - it is rightwing to buy into this discourse.

Now, again to be fair, the original twitter post was one among many that is attempting to counter the rightwing claim that left of centre governments are 'fiscally irresponsible' and always fall into structural deficits. But there is something else at stake here. I think that many NDPers have pushed that envelope so far that they are failing to see that Mulcair has tipped the party into the realm of rightwing discourse. If you don't believe me watch the exchanges this week on CBC's Power and Politics between Andrew Thomson (the NDP candidate for Eglington-Lawrence) and the Liberal spokeswomen. (I am sorry, I can't remember her name offhand.) Thomson, a former NDP Minister from Saskatchewan, went after the Liberals like a good-old fashioned Tory for suggesting that they might run a temporary deficit in the cause of infrastructure spending. Instead of accepting the real nature of the Liberal claim (that they would earmark particular deficit spending for specific and temporary infrastructure programs) he went on like a Tory about how this was an open faucet of planned structural deficit spending. These attacks (and they went on for several days) from a high-profile NDP candidate, is a fairly basic demonstration of the way in which the NDP has adopted the rightwing discourse of balanced-budget madness.

Of course it is not rightwing to balance a budget or leftwing to run a deficit. But what my blogging colleague either didn't understand or intentionally misconstrued was my claim that it IS rightwing to fall into the discourse that budgets have to be balanced. Now, granted, I have never heard Mulcair specifically say that (though I have heard other NDP supporters make just such a claim). But what I was pointing out was that the NDP leadership has fallen into a rightwing discourse of balancing budgets as an objectively good thing. (The professed confusion on the part of my Twitter opponent was the claim that because I said that it is rightwing to INSIST that budgets have to be balanced, that I had therefore implied that it is not leftwing to balance a budget - unfortunately, it was a confusion hardly worthy of his intelligence) And this discourse has been nowhere more in evidence than in the NDP attacks on the Liberals for outlining a fairly modest (and actually very rational) plan for running a few small targeted deficits.

We cannot presently know how an NDP government would act once in power. Neither can we really know if Trudeau would, like past Liberals Governments, shift decidedly right once in power. What we do know (if we are paying attention) is that the NDP has shifted significantly in its discourse and accepted the corporatist discourse that eschews deficits as a terrible thing and lauds balanced budgets as though they will save the world.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The (un)fortunate Luck of our Oligarch. . .

The widespread belief that Stephen Harper is some kind of political genius does not even vaguely conform to anything in reality. In fact, I suggest that like most petty oligarchs he is not even above the average intelligence of a ambitious and driven political opportunist. However, people often mistake focused devotion to a cause, or extreme ambition for intelligence.

Instead of being a political "genius," Harper has built a political career out of a very fortunate (for him) confluence of events. The first, and most obvious, of these fortunate occurrences was the fact that Harper won the leadership of a newly united rightwing party at a time when the Liberals had been in power for a long time and were widely perceived as scandal ladened and politically out of gas. Furthermore, almost his entire time in power has been spent at a time when the Liberal Party, which was for so long thought of as the "natural" party of power, has been through a difficult time of trying to rebuild itself, a process that it hasn't been particularly successful at accomplishing. Harper succeeded on the backs of two rather hapless Liberal leaders neither of which resonated with the public. And perhaps more importantly, the second of those leaders (Michael Ignatieff) was arguably so rightwing that Liberal Party ceased for a time to have any real reason for existing. Then, more recently, Harper had one of his greatest strokes of luck of his entire career when Trudeau made what I think may turn out to be the single greatest political mistake in Modern Canadian history (outshining even Hudak's one hundred thousand layoff promise and Prentice's stunning effort to blame average Albertans for his Party's financial mismanagement). Trudeau's support of Bill C-51 (regardless of how you feel about the bill itself) could be, I believe, the undoing of the Liberal Party itself. For years the Liberal Party was perceived by people on the left and in the centre as being little more than a rubber-stamping committee of Harper's government. Under Dion and Ignatieff the Liberals voted over and over to support Harper's legislative program. Whatever the reasons for this support, it turned out to be, I think, a colossal mistake that made the very existence of the Liberal Party seem meaningless to many. Then the Liberals got lucky: Harper won a majority and Trudeau took over the leadership of the party. The Liberals could look forward to a period of stability for their rebuilding and Trudeau, for a change, did seem to resonate with the public and he had a chance to rebuild the party as something distinct from the Conservatives. Sure he made some gaffs but what politician, particularly young ones, don't? Things were basically going well until Trudeau made a fatal error. In supporting Bill C-51 Trudeau suddenly reiterated all the negative feelings that had caused the real decline of the Liberal Party in the first place - he rubber stamped a Conservative bill, and not just any bill but one that is a fundamental and profound attack on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a bill that former PMs, constitutional experts, international rights groups, and almost every jurist in the country have said is dangerous and wrong-headed. Trudeau essentially handed the head of the Liberal Party to Harper on a plate. It wasn't a genius move on Harper's part, most rightwing politicians would have tried this. Rather, it was just a very blatant mistake on Trudeau's part. Harper must have been elated at his luck.

But Harper has enjoyed other political good fortune that has kept him in power and made him seem like a political master-mind to those who don't pay enough attention. Perhaps Harper most unexpected good fortune was that he has faced what I would argue is the most compliant media of all Western Democracies. Harper has a dark and troubling past that has never become an issue with the media. Perhaps more importantly, he has treated the media and public with absolute disgust and disrespect with almost no blowback for over ten years. I have lived in both the US and England during turbulent times and it is almost impossible to imagine the media of those countries giving a leader a continual pass on so many things. Harper has also been lucky in the sense that our proximity and close cultural association with the United States allowed much of the rightwing extremism of that nation to creep into our own culture. This has helped Harper take advantage of a wing-nut base that has increased as the Tea-Party wackiness in the US has gained more power.

On top of all this political good fortune, Harper has engaged in good-old-fashioned political corruption, fraud, and illegality to maintain his power.

But here is where all of Harper's luck coalesces: Harper is often been said to be a master of "message control," but this is a misunderstanding of Harper's underlying strategy. The idea of message control is only a part of Harper's real political cause which is the continual limiting and destruction of information at every level. Harper's political efforts are always centred on undermining the free flow of information. End the long-form census, muzzle civil servants, muzzle his own MPs, refuse to reveal basic financial information to the House or to the People, stop funding adult literacy programs, don't talk to average Canadians, never talk to the media in a meaningful and unvetted way, undermine the freedom of information; these are all part of Harper basic strategy - destroy the life-blood of democracy: information.

Let me make this clear - this is NOT political genius, it is just the basic program of all dictators and oligarchs throughout history. It is a strategy which all effective politicians are aware of, but which only those afflicted with a fundamentally anti democratic spirit are willing to take advantage of.

The only constant being change, Harper's cabal must eventually fall. It is just in the nature of things. You can't limit information forever, particularly in a technologically driven society. Furthermore, I believe that the supremacy of Neo-Liberalism is coming to an end. Like capitalists always do, they let their greed destroy the basis of their power. People have been surprisingly willing to tolerate unequal political systems in modern times as long as they seem to be in a process of gradually generalizing the wealth. But over the past forty years as the wealth of the system seems to be doing the very opposite of this and concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, the system itself is generating dissatisfaction that will eventually lead to real change.

When Harper finally does fall, and when the younger generation begins to rebuild, one thing we have to hope above all others is we can put in place very basic protections of information so that a future maniac like Harper will not be able to cripple our system by keeping the nation in the dark.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The RCMP and the Banality of Evil . . . .

There has been increasing anxiety among many of us that the corruption of Mr. Harper goes much deeper than most suspected and that the RCMP has become an extension of Harper himself. I, and many of my fellow bloggers, have written about this issue in recent days and now Michael Harris has added his voice to the growing chorus.

Of course, many have been suspicious that this was what was going on for a long time, years in fact. Ever since the RCMP, against its own protocols, announced in the middle of an election campaign that they were investigating Ralph Goodale, a fact that arguably brought Stephen Harper to power, many of us have thought that there is something rotten in the state of policing in this country.

I once lived in El Salvador and I spent years studying development and the corruption of so-called 'third-world' regimes, and I understand just how effective this kind of corruption can be. In the end, despite the fact that people tout the international success of 'democracy,' many countries that are hailed as democracies are nothing of the sort. Even countries like Mexico (which has a much higher profile as a democracy than countries like, say, El Salvador or Honduras) is a state with a government that so effectively controls, in political terms, the upper echelons of its national police that it can hardly be called a democracy at all.

Unfortunately, the lessons that we can derive from the corruption of 'third-world' states are not at all encouraging. The fact is that once a government effectively controls a national police force in its own political interest, there is almost nothing that a domestic population can do about it. The fairly simple, and depressing, fact is that a government in such a position can do almost anything it wants, all the while claiming to be a democratically legitimate force. Harper's control of the RCMP, coupled with his gutting of Elections Canada means simply that he can steal the election in  host of ways and we are absolutely helpless to stop him. The effectiveness of such a regime of corruption explains why corrupt 'third-world' governments can so effectively hang on to power for decades. And, more's the pity, it also means when an opposition party does sometimes take over a government they are very often, by that time, so steeped in the corruption themselves that they just maintain the status quo.

We will know in the next few weeks if our democracy is even vaguely salvageable. To what extent will Harper suppress votes and/or use just plain fraud to win this election? And if it looks like these efforts will fail, will he have his personal police force announce that they are investigating opposition leaders for spying or some other trumped up charge? Or will he throw caution to the wind and actually have Tom Mulcair arrested in the last week of the campaign? Or perhaps, as so many have suggested, Harper will opt for the politically less obvious tactic of announcing a major 'terrorist' plot in the closing weeks of the election? If any of these possibilities come to fruition we will have to face up to the painful fact that we have lost (for now) our democracy and that we will have to tell our children that we let a grey-haired, petty, self-interested, banally-evil man take away our country.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Conspiracy behind the Conspiracy. . . .

It is becoming increasingly clear and ominous that not only was the PMO involved in a bribery cover-up, and not only has the Prime Minister been consistently lying to the Canadian people, but that the RCMP has been acting at the behest of the Prime Minister. Michael Harris has written a great article today about the systematic way in which the Prime Minister has made lying central to his time in office.

But what he only touches upon, and what is becoming increasingly disturbing is the obvious way in which the RCMP has been acting as a branch of the PMO. When it was first revealed that Duffy was going to be facing bribery charges but Nigel Wright was not, the country did a collective double take. How could, we all wondered, a bribe be taken if a bribe wasn't given. When people wondered publicly about this strange contradiction, the Commissioner Bob Paulson assured us that it would all become clear in time. However, no explanation has ever been forthcoming, and anyone with any sense can smell a rat here. And now that the extent of the conspiracy has been made clear in court, this smells worse than ever.

There is, in other words, more than one conspiracy here. There are the ones that took place in the PMO, one to pay off Duffy's expenses and hide where the money came from, and the other to interfere with the audit. But the other, more ominous conspiracy, and the one few people are really talking about (and no one in the MSM) is the RCMP conspiracy to insulate the Prime Minister and the PMO from the full extent of the original wrong-doing. Harper's lawyer, Benjamin Perrin gave a sworn statement concerning the extent of those who knew of Wright's payment to Duffy. He had no conceivable motivation to lie about it, he just told what he knew. He then confessed to being shocked that the RCMP had ignored that information and publicly reiterated the PM's line that only Wright and Duffy knew of this conspiracy to pay off the money and then mislead the public into thinking Duffy had paid his own expenses. If the RCMP was, in fact, still an independent expression of the law, at the very least Wright would have been charged with bribery. But, more importantly, a raft of conspiracy charges would also have been laid.

It is now obvious to anyone who choses to look without a partisan eye that this country has been compromised in the most sinister, banana-republic fashion - the federal police force has lost its independence at the very highest level and become the plaything of the Prime Minister. They have intentionally ignored the real nature of the conspiracies inside the PMO and exonerated the people involved, all to avoid harming Stephen Harper. One can only imagine the real reasons that they even charged Mike Duffy. One must assume it was an effort to appear not entirely corrupt and to give the PM the ammunition to say that he had taken "appropriate action." Make no mistake, this makes all other national scandals in Canada pale in comparison. When you can't rely on the law enforcement system to act independently, when the Prime Minister and his cronies are above the law, that's when you know that the country is in deep, deep trouble. One can only hope, if Harper losses the election (and actually decides to voluntarily give up power and not stage some sort of coup) that the next Prime Minister will gut the management of the RCMP and begin a new unbiased investigation into the depth of this conspiracy. Otherwise, all really is lost.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What's in a Lie?

I, for one, was always a little (should I say, morbidly) curious exactly what lengths Stephen Harper would go in his blatant denial of inconvenient facts when they became clear. We all know the degree to which Harper's political career has been based upon a simple strategy of lying. Say the economy is healthy even when it's in decline. Say you are vigorously defending the environment even as you are rapidly deregulating in such a way as to make the environment significantly more vulnerable. Tell people that you are making government more transparent and accountable even while you are blatantly making government more secretive and top heavy. Appoint a Minster for "Democratic Reform" who actually actively attempts to make government less democratic.  It is all part of a strategy that says, as a government you can do almost anything you want as long as you keep saying publicly that you are doing something else. And the strategy has working shockingly well given the depth and blatantness of the lies involved. The success is, I suppose, partly a result of media collusion, but we have to hold average people largely responsible, people who are simply too lazy to be informed citizens and simply parrot the talking points that they are fed by a deceptive administration.

And given the relative success of this strategy of blatant lying, it is hardly surprising that Harper has now double downed  on it. A lot of what a government does is complex. And complex issues are things that can be debated, confusing, and difficult to understand. Thus, the strategy of writing legislation that is really designed to weaken our environmental laws while saying publicly that you are strengthening them, can be sadly effective. Environmental legislation, for example, has long term implications and impacts, statistics can be intentionally misused, etc. Similarly, the economy is measured and understood in a lot of different ways, so saying that the economy is healthy even when you know it not to be, is not huge leap. But what happens when the facts that you are denying are relatively simple? Does a blatant lie, one that almost everyone uniformly understands to be a lie, make a politician more vulnerable, or has our political discourse become so twisted and perverted that a blatant lie just rolls off people's backs? This is the question to which we will see the answer in the next few weeks. As recently as today Stephen Harper has continued to say that only two people knew about the illegal payment to Mike Duffy. This is not a complicated lie, it is not one that can be hidden behind statistics and policy approaches, future targets, or ideological emphasis. It is a straightforward, unadulterated, simple lie. Sworn statements to the police, a mountain of emails, and testimony in court demonstrate that it is a lie. Stephen Harper's problem is that it is a lie that he has maintained for years, and though many people assumed it was a lie, it is only now clearly and demonstrably false. This puts the Government in a rather awkward position - they are now forced to simply deny the facts as everyone knows them. It is like a spouse being caught red-handed in bed with someone else and simply saying "but I wasn't cheating."  

The depth of someone's duplicitousness is only really understood when they are caught red-handed in a lie. A psychopath will often continue to maintain their innocence even when exposure is full and unadulterated. This can be a result of a mental illness so deep that they can't actually bring themselves to admit to themselves that they have been duplicitous. Or it can simply be a result of a personality that is so twisted and/or so childlike that they are too weak to admit wrongdoing.

For whatever their personal reasons, Harper and those around him are now simply blatantly denying facts which are publicly known and understood. And luckily for them, they have so effectively taken over the RCMP that they are basically immune from prosecution. Because, make no mistake, this is what is going on here. If the RCMP continued to be an independent organization, several people, including Ray Novak and Nigel Wright would already be under arrest. So the only question left is - is our democracy (though weakened) strong enough to save itself?

The Sinking Ship of Stephen Harper. .

I recently took a break from reading for research purposes to read a couple of novels. In the past couple of days I read the novel V. by the strange and illusive writer Thomas Pynchon, an author who I am never sure whether I love or hate. At the very least there is always something compelling about Pynchon's work.

Anyway, near the end of V. you can read this interesting passage:

"Slung on a stage over a gunwale of an old felucca, the Peri. A storm had just passed, rushing away toward the land in a great slope of clouds; already turning yellowish from the desert. The sea there is the colour of Damascus plums; and how quiet. Sun was going down; not a beautiful sunset, more a gradual darkening of the air and that storm's mountainside. The Peri had been damaged, we hove to alongside and hailed her master. No reply. Only the sailor - I never saw his face - one of your fellahin who abandon the land like a restless husband and then grumble for the rest of their term afloat. It's the strongest marriage in the world. This one wore a kind of loincloth and a rag round his head for the sun which was almost gone. After we'd shouted in every dialect we had among us, he replied in Tuareg: 'The master is gone, the crew is gone, I am here and I am painting the ship.' It was true: he was painting the ship. She'd been damaged, not a load line in sight, and a bad list. 'Come abord,' we told him, 'night is nearly on us and you cannot swim to land.' He never answered, merely continued dipping the brush in his earthen jar and slapping it smoothly on the Peri's creaking sides. What color? It looked gray but the air was dark. This felucca would never again see the sun. Finally I told the helmsman to swing our ship around and continue on course. I watched the fellah until it was too dark: becoming smaller, inching closer to the sea with every swell but never slackening his pace. A peasant with all his uptorn roots showing, alone on the sea at nightfall, painting the side of a sinking ship." 

An an interesting paragraph in an interesting book. I can't help thinking of Harper. A man with his uptorn roots now showing, hanging on the side of a sinking ship painting away but creeping ever closer to the waterline. A man who, like that sailor, long ago abandoned a normal life but was never made any happier by his chosen path, and never stopped grumbling about the sea on which he set himself, and nearing personal and party disaster but labouring as though his ship is as seaworthy as ever.

Monday, August 17, 2015


I just wanted to make a short post today to point out a problem in logic that no one seems to be talking about.

The opposition leaders have been rightly doubting the claim that Harper's chief of staff didn't know about the Wright cheque to Duffy. The problem for the  Conservatives has been obvious - if Ray Novak was intimately aware of what was going on here, not only does that mean he should be fired (obviously an electorally devastating potential move for the Cons in the middle of an election), but it also broadens the scandal to the point where it because implausible to claim that Harper was out of this loop.  The Cons have been laughingly claiming that Novak didn't open the March 23rd email from Nigel Wright to Ben Perrin and Ray Novak. In itself, this is a highly dubious claim becomes, as many have pointed out, Wright was Novak's boss.

But the opposition has failed to asked the right question regarding this email. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Ray Novak didn't open this email. The email was sent at 11:36 AM, maybe Novak started drinking early that day and lost the next 24 hours in a drunken stupor and failed to return to the email. But there is still a huge problem here. Nigel Wright wrote an email, the entire text of which is these two simple sentences "I think her approach works. I will send my cheque Monday." Here is what the opposition should be pointing out - a simple email like this implies that the receivers understand the context, that is to say that they know what is going on. Nigel Wright saying to his associate "I will send the cheque Monday" implies by its nature that this associate knows what the cheque is and what it is for. Otherwise, the email would have provided this contextual information. In other words simple logic dictates that Novak already knew the context of this email, that he knew of Wright's intention to write a cheque for Duffy. Thus the rather pathetic "Novak didn't open the email" explanation is only coherent if Novak had ignored a whole bunch of other emails of explanation or had stopped listening to his boss at important meetings. There is absolutely no way around it -Ray Novak knew about the cheque. And given that nowhere in the emails do we see an instruction from Wright to insulate the PM from this information, there is NO way that Novak, one of Harper's closest and most intimate advisors would fail to talk to Harper about the cheque.

In other words, logic dictates that the simplicity of Nigel Wright's March 23rd email to Ray Novak, is in fact THE SMOKING GUN of the Duffy affair. This seems to be something that has been missed by the media and the opposition leaders.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Harper on his Disgraced associates. . . . Please add more.

Stephen Harper has a long history of associating himself with people who turn out to be criminals or movers and shakers in a culture of corruption. Here are a few quote from Harper defending such people. Given all the disgraced people that Harper has hired and defended, there must be many more quotes out there to be found. If you have any, please leave them in the comments. Maybe we can prompt one of the opposition parties make a good video piece on this. . .

Harper on disgraced Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro -

"He serves his constituents and this House honourably, and I think we should all treat each other with a little more consideration . . ."

Harper on disgraced Conservative MP Peter Penashue -

"…this is the best member of parliament that Labrador has ever had." 

Haper on suspended Senator Pamela Wallen -

"I have looked at the numbers. Her expenses are comparable to any parliamentarian..." 

Harper defends disgraced chief of staff Nigel Wright -

"I have full confidence in Nigel Wright." 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

How do you Cover a Cover-up?

Anyone who has watched events unfolding in Ottawa this weeks (and let's face it, anyone who is interested in the future of the country has been watching with keen interest), knows the degree to which this has become a tragicomedy. The tragedy element is found in the fact that the downfall of these people (if indeed downfall we see) is a direct result of the flaws in their character. Duffy's seemingly lifelong thirst for a senate seat meant rules would be bent or broken because he just HAD to have that seat. An experienced, not entirely unintelligent newsman, was reduced to a childlike state of desire, anticipation, and self-interested protectiveness, to have and keep this job. Meanwhile, Harper's effort to control everything, particularly the message, has led to a massive coverup of Watergate proportions. The comedy of this situation is found in the continued denial that central players were involved in this 'bribery' and coverup, even when an email trail now demonstrates conclusively that there is no longer any plausible deniability.

I am absolutely gob-smacked to hear now that anyone believes the PM when he says he didn't know about the 90k check. The reason that I think that plausible deniability is now a defunct position is that practically everyone was involved in the effort to pay off Duffy's expenses and then, more importantly, it seems that even more people were involved in the cover-up. It is simply impossible to believe that Harper was talking about so-called media lines, message control etc but that the most controlling PM in history wouldn't wonder why he was talking about it. It is simply unfathomable. And the comedy of denial continues apace as the PM denies that Ray Novak didn't read important emails from his boss on the central government scandal. It would take a really good playwright to make this kind of stuff up.

But as ridiculous as all of this is, there is one thing that seems to me as important (or perhaps more important) that no one is really talking about. I have listened to all the media commentators over the past couple of weeks as well as reading a number of good editorials on the issues. But all of this talk has been startlingly logistic. It is a sign of just how far our so-called democracy has fallen that media commentators continually talk about how the Conservative Party will "deal with this" on the campaign trail! Just think about that for a moment. We have a Watergate like coverup that goes to the very heart of our executive branch of government, illegal checks, laundered audits, willful deception, intentional deceptive media spin, and the primary question for the media commentators seems to be how will the government handle this on the campaign trail! In other words, the media is now asking how the government will attempt to deceive the public about an already revealed deception. And keep in mind the degree to which this deception dwarfs what went on with the sponsorship scandal. In that case we had a public inquiry and the events didn't involve the PM or the PMO. However, here we are in a situation in which those involved in the initial cover-up are still with the Prime Minister on a daily and intimate basis. Thus the cover-up not only was integral to the daily running of the PMO but it continues even as we move to an election. At least Nixon and his co-conspirators were out of the picture by the time an election rolled around. It is truly a sad time for democracy in our country that many take it as read that the PMO can orchestrate a cover-up at the highest level and can, as a matter of course, only bother to deal with this cover-up in terms of how they can best continue to cover it up!

When I was young, growing up in Vietnam era U.S., I was struck by the fact that when people talked about the war in IndoChina, they talked about the war's efficacy, its prospect for success of failure, whether the longterm goals of the U.S. might be helped or hindered by this war. I never once remember anyone talking about whether the U.S. had the moral right to suppress elections that had been internationally agreed upon, and then invade a sovereign nation and carpet bomb it killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process. To me that always seemed to be the central question, the one no one wanted to ask.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Elections near but Basic Problems persist. . . .

Anyone who vaguely pays attention to politics understands that as a system of government, democracy is seriously struggling. The promises of democracy, promises that grew out of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have largely failed to materialize. Universal suffrage never led to anything like universal participation, and participation and trust in the system continues to decline almost everywhere that modern democracy is practiced. People have grown weary not only of corruption (a problem that necessarily occurs in any system), but they have simply begun to lose faith in the notion of representation; they don't believe that they are being represented in a meaningful way so they are (not) voting with their feet, so to speak. A frightening percentage of people have simply turned off. But cynicism and apathy are anathema to the very idea of democracy because it relies for its legitimacy on participation and trust. Democracy requires that people vote, or it will gradually have no legitimacy as a political model. But more than this, democracy requires that people be active citizens pursuing collective goals through participation and compromise. As this concept declines in the public psyche, democracy itself withers and, inevitably, society will grow weak and atomize, leading to social breakdown and, eventually, either chaos or fascism.

However, the more you look at our system of government and the more you think about its problems the more you realize that the decline of participation on which the legitimacy of our system relies is more of a symptom of a problem than a problem in and of itself. Below the cynicism and the apathy that is infecting our supposedly democratic nations lies a more fundamental, structural challenge that continues to plague us: the problem of imbalances of power.

Democracy suffers from a problem very similar to the one that plagues capitalism, and in both cases this problem leads to a breakdown in legitimacy. To sell capitalism, those who have believed in it and promoted it have always had to promote a concurrent idea: the idea that capitalism is, fundamentally, a meritocracy. Capitalists have historically had to persist in selling this idea that even when significant differences in opportunity persist (which they do quite dramatically everywhere that capitalism is practiced),  merit is still the great adjudicator for both individuals and ideas. If this idea of a meritocracy can't be sold, all capitalists are left with is a system that overwhelmingly favours the rich and powerful, a system in which the outcome are not necessarily the best, the most efficient, or even vaguely just, but are simply those which reflect more or less pre-established inequalities.  Now, I can't write an extended essay here on why I believe that, generally speaking, capitalism promotes mediocracy rather than meritocracy, but I believe that this fact should be self-evident to anyone who is culturally aware. Even without a long and detailed conceptual argument about why the idea of capitalism is not a meritocracy, some of the facts are fairly straightforward and speak for themselves. Those with wealth and power are, despite notable exceptions, generally speaking also those born into wealth and power. This is a very simple fact that goes largely unrecognized by society's majority for the simple reason that most people are not personally acquainted with those who have wealth and power in the first place. A clearer and more easily relatable problem with the idea of a meritocracy is found in the issue of so-called race. If you take a society like the United States where racialized people continue to be over represented among the poor, the under-employed, and the among the prison population, one must come to two possible explanations for this imbalance, either you think that these individuals lack merit (a racist notion that even most republicans will deny) or you realize that the deck is stacked against them, in which case the very notion of a meritocracy falls apart before your eyes. Though one could write a whole book demonstrating this basic argument and the problems with the notion of a meritocracy, at a basic level it really is as simple as the above explanation shows.

Now, getting back to democracy, we have a surprisingly similar argument here. The legitimacy of a meaningful democracy relies on a notion very similar to a meritocracy - the notion of a level playing field. The idea of democracy relies not only on the principle that everyone will play by the rules (something which our current government has demonstrated again and again that it is incapable of doing), but that everyone has more or less equal access to the public ear and that various and often disparate ideas will have access to meaningful public debate. In other words for its legitimacy democracy relies on some notion of a balance of power in the public sphere  (or civil society to adopt a popular term). The problem is, of course, that this balance of power simply doesn't obtain. Political parties with more money have, a priori, more chance to set the terms of the debate, to lead the narrative, and to gain access to power. In other words, in modern democracies, those with more money are simply much more likely to have their interests pursued and represented by the government, period. But the problem of unbalanced power in democracy is even more dramatic because much of the debate, much of the public narrative, is set by the most powerful media outlets. Thus, the greater concentration of media, the greater the concentration of power. Just as capitalism is not a meritocracy, democracy is not a level playing field where political parties meaningfully vie for ideological supremacy in public opinion. This is a problem with which democracy has always struggled and things have been getting worse in recent years as the wealthy continue to gerrymander the system to create greater imbalances. I think it was Churchill who once claimed that democracy was the worst system of government, except for all the others. The problem is that until democracies start to face the very fundamental problems that are leading to power imbalances, democracy will be the very best system that ever declined and destroyed itself

I think this argument is clear and basically irrefutable. The problem is not whether democracy suffers from a fundamental problem in its imbalance of power, the problem is what can we do about it.