Saturday, January 14, 2006

Election Post #4: Elite Divisions

As the polls shift to predict a Conservative minority or even majority government after the January 23 election, it is more relevant than ever to move beyond appreciating the fundamental consensus among Canadian elites (see also: this) to examine whatever divisions there might be. We know they are small in degree in the grand scheme of things, but what is their substance in qualitative terms?

To examine this question, I will not look at the often deceptive ephemera produced in the course of a specific election campaign. Indeed, the particular differences I'm interested in do not necessarily correspond simply to particular political parties. For ease of discussion I need to label the two different camps, and the labels "liberal" and "right" are useful though they are imperfect. They overlap and bleed into each other, and it might be better to think of the two of them as hazily defined tendencies rather than concrete groups.

In any case, the group I am labelling "liberal" used to encompass both the Liberals and the Tories. They still dominate the Liberal Party, and have maintained a small, quiet presence within the new Conservative party. What I am labelling "right" dominates the Conservative Party but has a presence within the Liberals in some parts of the country. I would also add that the current surge by the Conservatives in the polls probably has to do with a block of elites switching their allegiance between the two parties because the Liberal Party corruption is just too much for them to take (e.g., this), but it is not clear at this point what it means about their allegiance to the two factions I'm talking about here. Their presence in the Conservative Party may help contain some of the worse excesses of which the "right" grouping is capable but that is hardly likely to be a priority for them, unless those of us on the other side manage to stir up enough of a fuss to make the risk of loss of legitimacy brought by this approach greater than its benefits. But more of that in a later post.

This post counts on a particular feature of Canadian elites: they know which side their bread is buttered on. The relationship between Canadian elites and their patrons in Washington/New York (or London, in an earlier age) may not always be straightforward or easy, but generally speaking the conflict has been about the details and there has never been any impulse by Canadian elites to strike out on an independent course in any truly important way. When there are shifts in the United States, they eventually find their way here as well -- perhaps the resulting changes are not identical, but the two countries are sufficiently connected economically and culturally that forces producing change in the U.S. will inevitably have an impact here as well. This is important because the division that I want to talk about is much more fully developed in the U.S. so I'm going to feel free to use examples from there. I will, however, tie it back to Canada in the end.

At the centre of this post is the nature of classical liberalism -- not necessarily the way "liberal" is used in contemporary political discourse, but the overall system that characterizes the liberal-democratic capitalist state. One of the ways that this system attained and maintains legitimacy is through its myths of equality and objectivity -- "All men [sic] are created equal" and such. Everyone is free, everyone is equal, and neutral rules regulate everyone alike, so only the sweat of your brow and Lady Luck determine where you end up; so runs the myth. But the abstract citizen of liberalism turns out to be, if you scratch the surface, a(n outwardly) straight, white, property-owning man, and everyone else has been written out of the deal in different ways and to different degrees at different points in history. In the 20th century, struggle expanded both the formal and functional definitions of "citizen" in part, but only in part. Even today, the rules are not neutral, power is far from equal, the obligation to sell your labour to eat isn't freedom, and it isn't easy to exercise your supposed rights as a citizen when you're not even treated as human.

So, yeah, liberalism sucks, but it does hang its legitimacy on having rules and on words like "justice," and that can be useful. It also has pretenses to internal consistency, and sometimes that can be used in the service of real gains by them who ain't. ("Neoliberalism," by the way, is the effort by this system to shed all of the baggage it picked up from social democracy and various popular struggles in the effort to keep its masses from turning Red, and because popular struggles forced it to. That isn't necessary anymore, so the more savage world of classical liberalism can be returned. The "liberal" grouping that I talk about in this post and the Liberal Party are both enthusiastic participants in this process, whatever some of the less important members of both might delude themselves into thinking.)

A basic adherence to this system, a desire for stacked but ostensibly neutral rules, and a shift to neoliberalism at some rate (fast or slow), characterizes what I'm grouping under "liberal."

What I'm labelling "right" says of liberalism, to some extent, "Fxxk that sxxt." To what extent, I'm not exactly sure. It may be within the confines of classical liberalism but a quicker return to more blatantly stacked rules than standard neoliberal pretensions can accommodate right now. Or it may be something more. The term "fascism" gets bandied about rather carelessly, I think, but the impulse to employ it comes from a desire to name the tendencies of those I'm labelling "right" in this post to wish to dispense with inconvenient rules and let the powerful do what they want in a very open and obvious way.

The differences between these two are more easily visible in the U.S. context, mostly because both factions have held power in recent years.

Perhaps a good place to start in characterizing the nature of the "right" grouping in the United States is the following quote that surfaced on lots of progressive U.S.-based blogs before the November 2004 election. This quote is journalist Ron Suskind talking about his interview with an un-named "senior White House advisor":

" . . . then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality ­ judiciously, as you will ­ we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

You can't find a much more direct rejection-from-the-right of the principles of classical liberalism than that. We have seen this show up in countless places in the last five years. When Clinton or Bush Sr. wanted to invade somewhere, they followed a certain protocol that hid their imperial designs behind legitimizing but stacked rules, accepting that this process might place some limits on what they could do -- I've seen the quote form someone that they would go "multilateral if we can, unilateral if we must." During the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Bush Jr. administration was quite clear that it was not interested in expending too much energy in even appearing to follow these rules, or in accepting any modest limits (such as sharing the spoils of the war with lesser European powers) that such a process might impose.

You see it in the endless subversion of the legal system. Again, lots of horrible stuff in terms of civil liberties has happened under supposedly liberal presidents, but under this president it has been in a way that obviously doesn't care too much if the legitimizing fictions of the liberal-democratic state remain intact. You can see it when legal categories like "enemy combatant" are invented from nothing, with no basis. You can see it in the judicial theory of the "unitary executive" being pushed by the administration and held by their current Supreme Court Justice nominee. This theory basically says that the Commander-in-Chief is above Congress and the Courts. It can be seen in the still-building scandals around domestic NSA wiretapping -- they are supposed to ask for a warrant from a secret court which almost never says no, but Bush ordered them to just ignore the requirement to ask the court in some situations, and then when this got out he didn't deny it but claimed it was perfectly legal for him to give orders contrary to the law of the land.

You can find the difference in other settings, too. Take the distinction between the New York Times and Fox News. The former is the bastion of the liberal-democratic rules of objective reporting. Its subservience to power (a la Manufacturing Consent) is generally covered with the fig leaf of legitimizinag rules and "objective" procedures for reporting, which can occasionally be turned to the advantage of popular struggles and which set bounds on what kinds of distortions can occur. While abuses do occur, the bias in the news that ends up favouring the powerful is a product of a system with rules. These rules provide the range of outputs that can occur given available inputs. They don't prevent important things from being supressed (e.g. invasion of East Timor back in the '70s) and they don't prevent manipulation of and mischaracterization of the inputs from producing reporting that bears no relationship to reality (e.g. Judith Miller and Ahmed Chalabi et al in the run-up to the 2003 invasion), but they do set standards to which the content can theoretically be held. With Fox News, you have blowhards like O'Reilly sitting there spewing falsehoods that are easily disproven, and very blatantly following a pro-elite political line without bothering to go to the trouble of inventing a system of supposedly objective rules to disguise it.

You can also see it with things like Intelligent Design and arguments over sex education and climate change. In these cases, the "right" grouping (including both elites and their allies in right-wing grassroots social movements) really doesn't care about liberal-democratic epistemology and rationalism. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Assessment of evidence by very traditional methods is irrelevant. Entirely different epistemologies not rooted in enlightenment thought are substituted, not through careful critique of enlightenment epistemologies (which is important and necessary) but through having the power to just ignore them.

The connections between the "right" grouping in Canada and that in the United States are obvious to anyone who has followed the rise of this grouping in the last fifteen years. As a self-identified Tory observes, "The present Conservative party of Canada, predictably and consciously so, has many an affinity with the American empire."

You can look at the idiotic statements that Reform Party, Canadian Alliance, and new Conservative Party leaders, MPs and affiliates have made over the years.

You can look at the reports of the glee with which right-wing forces in the U.S. are anticipating a Harper victory. The Washington Times, owned by the leader of the Moonies and an institution of the right if there ever was one, has called Harper "the most pro-American leader in the Western world" and has said, "If elected, Mr. Harper will quickly become Mr. Bush's new best friend internationally and the poster boy for his ideal foreign leader."

According to Murray Dobbin, in 1999 Harper was quoted as saying of human rights commissions, "as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society. It is in fact totalitarianism. I find this is very scary stuff." Harper has also said of the United States, "your country, and particularly your conservative movement, is a light and an inspiration to people in this country and across the world." Harper spoke very strongly for Canada following the lead of the U.S. right and becoming a full participant in the recolonization of Iraq -- we are complicit in many ways as things stand now, but Harper wants us to be enthusiastic and open in our participation in empire.

You can look to the fact that the ideological underpinnings of the current Conservative Party come from the "Calgary School" of hard right-wing political scientists, who trace their ancestry to thugs like Leo Strauss, who also happens to have served as a guiding light for many of the neoconservatives that run the Bush administration.

Then you have the statements by Chief of Defence Staff General Richard Hillier earlier this year: "These are detestable murderers and scumbags, I'll tell you that right up front. They detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our liberties... We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people." This is part of a larger offensive by the military bureaucracy in Canada to push the country into much closer alignment with the latest imperial realities of the United States. The Liberals aren't completely closed to this vision, but the "right" grouping and Harper is much more enthusiastic about it, whatever contrary things he has said in the heat of the campaign.

Now, obviously the right is not as strong in Canada as in the United States and has not yet ruled the country, which means that some of the more blatant examples found in the U.S. have not yet appeared here. As well, right-wing social movements, which in the U.S. are strong enough to force even "liberal" elites to take notice, are in more embryonic form in Canada, particularly outside of areas that were Social Credit strongholds in decades past. In addition, during this election campaign the Conservatives are trying hard to look like old-fashioned Tories and to pretend they are really in the "liberal" camp. I saw on the news last night that the cost of their platform not only outstrips the Liberals by a considerable amount, but is even higher than the NDP. Indeed, it is possible that even if they attain power, the realities of politics will constrain the true "right" elements in the Party to a certain extent. Certainly it would take them some time to attain the dominance over as wide a range of institutions as the right has done in the United States. But give them time.

And it is on that basis that I think we on the left, who are neither "right" nor "liberal," should care about which faction of elites is in charge. In saying this I'm not advising a particular strategy, all I'm saying is that it does make a difference in terms of the space open to us for organizing and the harm that is done to our communities. The rules that underpin liberalism are oppressive and flawed, but Canadian popular movements are not in a place to take on the unmasked beast without the buffer that liberalism currently provides.

[See also Election Post #1: Caving In and General Analysis, Election Post #2: Can't Tell the Players Without a Program, and Election Post #3: Elite Consensus.]


Todd said...

Great post.

You could do a bit better, I think, than linking to Cmrde. Plawiuk's site (somebody who insists on calling the Liberals "nanny staters" in the face of current evidence to the contrary needs a reality check).

I think you're bang on about how both the old Tories and the Liberals could have fit well under the umbrella of classical liberalism (the Liberals then being, much as they are now, the more advanced bourgeois party when it comes to social issues of choice). Nowadays, of course, the new Conservatives hew more to a smaller, mean-spirited populist-bourgeois tendency wedded to the "fringier" (and some central) forms of religion in Canada, those who like the appeal of the Conservatives' cri-de-coeur of "individual freedom" to have certain narrow-minded ideas (eg anti-feminism, anti-homosexuality, anti-abortion, "traditional values", etc.) championed.

I think you're mistaken, however, about where the surge in the polls is coming from. Those polls are national IIRC, not targeted specifically at bourgeois interests; they're showing what, generally, average Canadians are thinking ie anger at the Liberals for their actions and more anger building as new allegations come out and more Liberal gaffes, real or not, get play in the media.

Related to that is the Globe editorial. Based on this (which basically states "Change for Change's sake"), some comments I've heard from such people as the president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce (which isn't all that enthusiastic about the Conservatives, though they like them a bit more than the Liberals), and what I think are the wildly gyrating markets (headlines in the business section have been talking about real estate then gold then tech then this or that investment as the new investment-du-jour and global capital's been finding it a bit difficult lately to find someplace to invest well lately) leave me thinking that Canadian capitalists and the Bay Street crowd really don't care all that much at this point who's in power (that is, either the Liberals or the Conservatives) so long as they get in there with something along the lines of a majority so some kind of "normalcy" can be restored ie no more "commies" like the NDP gumming up the smooth operation of biz. Given this and the bad (moral) press the Liberals have been getting, it's no surprise the apparent "push" the Conservatives have been getting from many quarters. The real question is: will this moral outrage propel people who would normally vote Liberal for any reason make them suddenly want to punish the Liberals enough at the ballot box to hand the Conservatives a majority?

When you talk about the relationship between Canadian and American elites, you might want to look at these interesting reports:

For a very interesting examination of the American Right, see Chip Berlet's stuff here:

And I agree 100% with your comment at the end of your post: the Canadian Left needs to be aware of the differences between the parties of the Right.

Now, I'll stick my neck out and say what I think you wanted to say (correct me if I'm wrong, of course) but didn't: assess the situation and vote strategically where you have to. With Canada's antiquated electoral system and our organized Left being so relatively small and powerless, we'd be doing the people we want to help a disservice by voting with our hearts and not our heads.

An american lefty I much admire, Doug Henwood, stated that there's a time and place for asserting the essential similarity of the bourgeois parties, but it's _not_ when the "bad cop" camp is looking at winning.

Scott said...

Glad you liked the post!

Yeah, my heart isn't set on Plawiuk's analysis or anything, just happened to go through his site as I was writing this and saw a couple of relevant things.

Not sure I agree with your assessment of what can be inferred from the polls. I mean, you are certainly right that what they directly measure is what "average Canadians" are thinking re. the Liberals, but given the way that public knowledge is created in our society I think it is a rare thing for public opinion to spontaneously shift in directions opposed to the interests of the majority of the capitalist class. That said, you might be right that I overstated the case in the original article, that it isn't so much a matter of "switching allegiances" as of somewhat greater reservations about the ability of the Liberals to deliver economic stability (and dislike of the potential of them being dependent on the NDP to function as a government.) I indirectly alluded to the fact that the capitalist class is open to Conservative, "right" dominated rule does not necessarily reflecting a total buy-in to the nuttier parts of the "right" agenda, but that said lack of buy-in is not really very reassuring because preventing what to us are the horrible outcomes of that agenda is largely irrelevant to them unless we create sufficient disruption to make it relevant. Which, unfortunatley, I'm not sure we're capable of at the moment.

Thanks for the links...I quite like Berlet but hadn't seen those articles.

As for recommending strategic voting...well, I suppose I am, in a way, but that recommendation requires more elaborate discussion, I think, because of the skill that the Liberal Party has in taking advantage of that approach when its form is purely the isolated leftist commentator (and I mean ones that people actually listen to, like Buzz, not little ol' me) disseminating their wisdom to unconnected, atomized left-inclined voters. Often enough this results in votes that are just as much from hearts rather than heads, but grounded in fear rather than in party allegiance. I'm interested in ways in which social movements can intervene in elections that are not party based but are more collective than this atomized approach -- not sure what that could look like in Canada, but I think the grassroots left (both social democratic and further left) need to rethink how we relate to elections in a way that is neither blind party allegiance nor uncritical following of big names like Hargrove.

Scott said...

People should also check out Justin Podur's take on the election.

Todd said...

Absolutely right it's a rare thing for the mass of society to move in a different direction from elite consensus, but it can happen.

You must have read that "What's Wrong With Kansas" book (the author of which escapes me at the moment); I think the author talks about some sort of "compromise" the capitalists in the Repuglican Party made with the Religious Right then basically reneged on what they promised (not that this prevented the RR from getting some stuff done).

True about characterising strategic voting from coming out of fear; after all, as lefties our basic agenda encompasses fear of what the bourgeois will do if they're not stopped, eh? But that fear can force well-thought out plans to be made . . . .

I guess that "non-party-based intervention" would look kind of like "voter-education" drives?

Scott said...

Thomas Frank is the author. No, I haven't read it, but I was living in the U.S. when it came out and around the 2004 election, so I heard him interivewed a few times and read lots of stuff related to it. My impression is that it has lots of useful stuff, but that it way underplays the importance of race and racism, and doesn't necessarily have the same sort of social movement-grounded response to the strength of the right (and the liberals) that I would see as essential.

Not sure that I mean voter education drives in the traditional sense. While they have their place, they still tend to be oriented around the liberal-democratic political system and the atomized citizen more than I'd like. I think I'm fantasizing about social movements that are sufficiently well organized and vibrant that they can generate politicization, including practical radicalization with respect to electoral politics, through action and collective public intervention rather than just passing brochures to individuals. I think popular education approaches would have to be part of that, for sure. But, really, I'm not entirely sure what I's the sort of thing that has to emerge organically from struggles on the ground, I think, and for the most part we ain't there right now in Canada. Or, at least, not in a big enough way to impact elections at the provincial and federal levels.