Thursday, March 26, 2015
Ungrounded Progressive Rhetoric of Alarm & Two Awful Stephen HarperInnovations That Really Do Matter
Often, when faced with a barrage of new awfulness from a government or party of the Right, people who fall under the broad umbrella of "mainstream progressive" do a pretty ungrounded job of framing and articulating their opposition. It's not a problem of a lack of vehemence in their objections, or at least not in the kinds of examples I'm thinking about today. Rather, it's a disconnect that shows up in how they contextualize what they oppose, which has consequences for the course of action they advocate as an alternative. What will the Right's new set of policies and practices do? How are they new from what has come before? How are they the same?
In this post, I talk about that tendency a little bit, and then I do some preliminary work to sort out a couple of key things that I think really are both novel and significant in the awfulness of the Harper Conservatives.
Ungrounded Liberal Rhetoric of Alarm
A key period of time during which I repeatedly encountered this tendency by mainstream progressives to contextualize the actions of the Right in unhelpful ways was the heyday of George W. Bush. A lot of writers and a lot of regular folk did similar things, but for me it was epitomized by work done at the time by liberal feminist Naomi Wolfe. I didn't actually read the relevant book of hers, but I did read a sympathetic and lengthy -- like, 7000 word or something like that -- interview with her at the time, so I had a pretty good sense of the points she was making. She pointed to a lot of the truly awful things that the Bush administration was doing in those years, bandied around terms like "fascism" rather freely and without much analytical basis, and made some pretty startling claims about where the United States might be headed politically. Certainly, GWB deserved vehement opposition. Certainly, the violence that the US state did under his watch needed to be named and opposed. But the framing of Wolfe and many other liberals at the time was such that, whatever their intent, the ungrounded liberal rhetoric of alarm that they deployed functioned to make it possible to express visceral, angry opposition to politics that very much deserved to be opposed without risking leading people anywhere near analysis that might compel a recognition of the violence upon which liberalism, liberal-democracy, the liberal state, and liberal capitalism themselves rest.
Or you can look at some of the discourse coming from opponents of Bill C-51 in Canada today. It is, indeed, an awful piece of legislation. It will result in higher levels of state violence and a wider range of oppressive state practices. It will be used to repress movements for justice and liberation. And it should be opposed as vociferously as we are able.
There has been a piece circulating the last few days that rightfully mocks the Conservatives for attributing opposition to the bill to "conspiracy theories" (and the piece also links to a lot of other useful resources, so it's worth looking at). But one thing I have not yet seen mentioned by the lefty and progressive people who have shared it is that one of the things that makes it at least vaguely credible for the Conservatives to make this accusation is that there is a subset of the opposition to Bill C-51 that really is based in the same kind of thinking as sometimes gets labelled "conspiracy theories." (I try to be cautious with that language, as someone quite rightfully pointed out to me a few years ago that however ludicrously ungrounded people commonly labelled as "conspiracy theorists" might be in the details of their claims, however misguided and unsystemic their approaches to thinking about the social world, however magical their thinking, they do often have an impulse to oppose unjust power that we need to strategically engage rather than just dismiss. We need to understand that the prevalence of this kind of thinking is about the triumph of neoliberalism and the failure of the left, rather than falling into a discourse of individual flaws.)
In the case of Bill C-51, while I'm encouraged by the broad participation in the opposition and I think we absolutely need to engage with and welcome folks with a wide range of politics, we also have to recognize that there is a sizeable cluster of liberal and social democratic middle-class white folks who have been very vocal against the bill who don't really get the trajectory of brutal racialized violence by the Canadian state on which Bill C-51 builds; who don't seem to have any recognition of the highly uneven (especially but far from only colonial and racialized) way in which the legislation and its consequent state violence will function if it is passed; and (of most relevance to the accusation of "conspiracy theory" thinking) who have a vastly inflated sense of the danger that they themselves would be in as a result of engaging in conventional liberal and social democratic political activities under the new legislation.
Maybe it is impolitic to point this out, as this deeply personal concern is one important source of energy driving people to be active on this issue. And I'm not denying that these kinds of changes in state practices do change the field for political action in broad and complicated ways that go beyond those most immediately targeted, and they will have at least some chilling impact on all of us, even those not at particular risk of direct state violence because of them. Nor am I denying that climate crisis, the ongoing spiral down into the abyss of neoliberalism, and the changes that actually are happening in terms of state practices and political culture in Canada have already increased in a limited way the likelihood of people with relative privilege facing state violence and repression for relatively benign political activities -- cough, G20, cough -- and at least point to the possibility of much starker realizations of the same trends. They just don't do so in nearly as direct and simple a way as these opponents of the Bill sometimes imply. And they do do so in ways that will inevitably add in awful, tragic ways to the blood of racialized and colonized people spilled through Canadian state practices well before they have the kinds of impacts on middle-class white liberals that some of that stripe seem to fear.
So in light of all of this, I've been thinking a little bit about what is new and what is just more of the same -- not so much in terms of Bill C-51 specifically, but in the larger context of the Harper government over the course of its mandate to date and in the lead-up to the fall election more specifically. I don't often engage directly with things in the electoral realm, but I think this particular set of questions can be pretty important as well as quite relevant to the choices of those of us who ground what we do in movements rather than parties. In thinking about all of this, it has not been immediately obvious to me how to dissect out what is new and significant, versus what looks different but is substantially politically similar to longstanding practices, versus what is new but trivially so. With many, many months to go, the pre-election intensity of the liberal rhetoric of alarm is already pretty high, which only adds to the challenge of figuring out what's actually going on. But as I've been thinking about it, I've come up with two things that I think are both qualitatively new and significant in what the Harper government has been doing.
A War on Process
Anyone who has read liberal and left commentary about the Harper government over the course of its mandate has no doubt encountered this accusation. I'm not even going to bother wading through articles and linking to them, because it's easy enough to name things that are likely already familiar to readers who pay even minimal attention to electoral politics. There were the inappropriate uses of the power to prorogue Parliament. There were the robocalls and other election-related skullduggery. There was the manual of Parliamentary dirty tricks, the clear erosion of governmental responsibility to Parliament (i.e. in terms of refusal of ministers to resign for resignation-worthy things, refusal to provide information to Parliament, etc.), and the anti-democratic deployment of omnibus bills. There is the tendency to react to having legislation overturned by passing new legislation that does more or less the same thing because it will get votes and will take years to be struck down again -- or to just pass unconstitutional things de novo for the same reason. There have been the shenanigans around judicial appointments. And lots more.
There are few different ways to think about those things. Some on the radical left would just shrug their shoulders with a few muttered words about the limits of parliamentary democracy, particularly in a settler colonial state. I have some sympathy for that, especially when it is in response to the above list as contextualized via the liberal rhetoric of alarm. I certainly don't deny the limits of electoral politics or place much hope that the world we need -- the world beyond capitalism, the world of the treaty commonwealth -- will come about through elections and legislation (though reforms to make the world more liveable for folks who are marginalized, on the road to that better place, might). Nonetheless, I think it is also an important point made by...hmmm...EP Thompson? Eric Hobsbawm?...some English marxist historian or other, that it was actually a pretty monumental accomplishment of popular struggle in Europe to force elites to obey the rule of law. And you don't even need to romanticize the rule of law (as some even on the left do) to think this matters. I certainly don't think that the law has ever applied to the rich the same way it applies to the poor, and of course the rules of liberal-democratic capitalism are designed precisely to favour those who own as the extract value from those who work (and of settler colonial states to favour those who settle and to inflict violence on the colonized). But, still, mechanisms that put limits on arbitrary power matter, however imperfect and partial they might be. Yes, the rules are rigged and they cheat, and the state organizes violence into lots of lives, but let's not disrespect the space created by past victories and the constraints put on power thereby.
So partly I think the mainstream fuss being made about the practices I listed in the first paragraph of this section is connected to a point I read years ago in something Noam Chomsky wrote about the Watergate scandal in the US -- it was a scandal because it was elites cheating in ways that targeted other elites, whereas very similar practices directed at entirely nonviolent socialist organizations in the US over the course of decades aroused little interest let alone passionate criticism among elites or in the mainstream of ordinary people. So a good chunk of the furor about Harper's disdain for aspects of Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, at least as heard from elite figures, is not really for our (ordinary peoples') benefit, but because it impacting the ability of another segment of elites to access power. As well, it is also significant that liberal-democratic theory places a lot of ideological importance on having a system of rules; this is part of its claim to fairness, which it contrasts with the arbitrary power exercised in the social forms it replaced. Of course many left thinkers have pointed out that this system of rules functions to hide the imbalance of power by writing it into the rules themselves, so following them will maintain existing imbalances, and that in practice this is often coupled with keeping cheating by elites within certain bounds and out of the public eye. This is, I think, an important divide among elites in North America today -- one faction wants to stick to that relationship to rules, I suspect out of a sense that it makes the system more robust in the long term; whereas another faction wants to make the flouting of process more open and more widespread and its subservience to the interests of the already-rich and powerful more visible. The Harper government is the first real instance at the federal level of that faction of elites winning the place of "government" within Canadian settler state relations.
So I would argue that though the system is rigged, though the system is colonial, and though elites have only ever partially followed the rule of law anyway, it still matters. It's still space that our ancestors won. It still puts some limits on what elites can do, on what power can presume versus what it must work for. It still preserves space for our movements to do important work towards those larger changes we need. So I think, taken as a whole -- and articulated with no illusions about electoral democracy -- these attacks on process and rules and Parliamentary democracy by the Harper government are something new, and they do matter. They are, if you will, non-reformist reforms from the perspective of the forces of reaction.
Electoral Racism and Economies of Violence
One way to think about electoral democracy is as a rhetorical economy of violence. Yes, it's a particularly cynical way to frame it, but it's not inaccurate. And by "rhetorical economy of violence," I mean that elections are about different forces within society competing over who harm will be inflicted upon, and how much. This party wants to leave the minimum wage where it is and cut welfare as the cost of living rises? That really means that they are campaigning for poor people to suffer a bit more. That party wants to cut red tape when it comes to environmental protections and enhance the economy by encouraging more resource extraction? They're really campaigning on increasing violence to the land and to Indigenous peoples and nations. This party wants to mandate Gay-Straight Alliances in schools, raise the minimum wage by twenty-five cents an hour, and raise welfare by 2%? Well, they want to reduce certain kinds of violence towards queer youth, which is good; and they want to mildly reduce violence towards poor people, which is also good; but it's important to recognize that they are campaigning on a having little less of the violence that is poverty in the lives of poor people (queer and straight, both), which means their campaign is also premised on preserving the rest of that violence in poor lives. And so on. And in case it isn't obvious, part of this frame for understanding electoral politics is that the competition among those parties understood as electorally credible is in terms of how much violence and where it is inflicted, but no options are (or could be) about transforming the social relations that are the basis of the violence. And most often, this rhetorical economy of violence is conducted in coded ways, to allow everyone to pretend that it is something other than it is. (And I won't go into it, but I want to stress that in saying all of this, I'm not advocating a left-puritanical abstentionist rejection of elections -- this older piece describes my approach to all of that.)
So. The question that actually started me on the path of wondering that spawned this entire post was the intense, deliberate, electoral racism being deployed by the Conservatives, in the last few months especially. Bill C-51 is certainly part of this. The whole nonsense about the niqab is part of it. There have been various ministerial and MP blurtings of a racist sort that I'm not at all convinced were accidental. Even this push to expand the Canadian role in war and empire in Iraq and Syria is part of it. To put it in the terms of the paragraph above, Harper is campaigning in ways deliberately designed to inflame white fears of Black and brown people (especially Muslims), and promising to inflict more violence on Black and brown people.
And I couldn't decide: Is this actually something new, and significant in its novelty? Or is this the unsurprising latest manifestation of a white supremacist settler colony whose first Prime Minister was committed to (and this is quoting him, not some latter-day historian's description) "the Aryan character of the future of British America"?
I might not have got this one quite right, and I welcome responses from people who have come to different conclusions, but this is what I came up with: There is, of course, nothing new about federal campaigning in Canada based on what amounts to commitments to inflict harm on racialized bodies. But usually, in the last few decades anyway, I think that has mostly been coded, tacit, or implicit. What's new about what Harper is doing is that there is a certain openness about it, a certain deliberate viciousness. Violence against racialized bodies has always been a premise, a condition of possibility for the system in its current form, but one that mainstream Canadian political culture has been committed, in the last few decades, to pretending doesn't exist; Harper, in contrast, is easing up on that pretence and using that violence with significantly more openness as currency for political campaigning (in a way that seem to me to be more like what I know of the Right in Europe than in the US, though that's just an impression). And maybe that change doesn't matter, because after all it's the harm that matters, and the harm is not new. But I think it is significant. I think that not only because the official sanction that comes from more openly vicious racism from mainstream politicians create space for increases in everyday manifestations of racism from ordinary white Canadians, but also because I'm pretty certain that making such racialized state violence a more open currency of electoral competition is inevitably going to lead to that more and worse racialized state violence...like, say, via a completely gratuitous bill pitched as "anti-terrorism" that is, at least in part, a way to get people scared and turn that fear into votes. And I'm not sure that making that kind of tacit more permissible in the mainstream will be something that can be easily removed from the political culture now that it's out there. This seems to me to be both new and significant. Not to mention really awful.
What does this mean?
I don't really know. I'm sure these aren't the only two significant differences, they're just the two I came up with. Certainly if you look at the substance of them -- increasing disregard for the niceties of formal processes of representative democracy, and increasingly open and vicious promise of harm to racialized people in mainstream electoral platforms -- they point at least in a vague way towards a certain f-word that Naomi Wolfe brandished at GWB and that not a few people have been using in reference to Harper. But I tend to be pretty cautious about that word. For one thing, it is a word with enough zing to it that it easily substitutes itself for actually understanding a situation, even when we think we're using it to summarize the understanding we've already developed. For another, I'm not sure what tenuous historical analogies actually tell us about what's going to happen next or what we should do. Is the lesson that the Communists should abandon their Third Period ultra-sectarianism and co-operate with the Social Democrats so the Right can't take power and turn us into a dictatorship? Not sure that's a very helpful lesson.
And as dubious as I am about mainstream progressive rhetoric of alarm about the Right, I have no problem at all about other kinds of rhetoric of alarm: We live in an alarming -- horrifying, violent, vicious -- world, and we need to be able to talk about that. The key is to find ways to do it that manage to name both what is new and what has been happening all along, and to explore how it is all happening so we can actually figure out what to do next.
Posted by Scott Neigh at Thursday, March 26, 2015