Congress, Commons, and the institutionalist fallacy

It’s something of a truism when people discuss US politics that the American system is uniquely obstructionist.

For Canadians especially, there’s an obvious truth to this: under our own parliamentary system, institutional power is less diffused between various branches of government and single-party rule (even without a strict popular majority) is very much the norm. Contrasted with the American model, with its two elected houses, separate executive branch, and a general cultural ethos more prone to referenda and direct democracy, ours is one in which it should be relatively easy to get things done and make sweeping legislative changes. (There’s also the matter of Canada’s campaign finance system, which is infinitely cleaner than its American equivalent in banning outright corporate donations at the federal level and putting strict caps on individual donations.)

I don’t bring any of this up for wonkish reasons, but because it’s so frequent in the American context to see liberals put conservative political outcomes down to the institutional constraints placed on their own side’s lawmakers by (small-r) republican governance. This is still a hallmark of how some discuss the Obama presidency and its supposed policy “failings” despite two years of nominal majority before the 2010 midterms. The implication, whether the issue at hand is the administration’s rather conservative healthcare reforms or the relatively meagre regulations it placed on Wall Street in the wake of the biggest single economic crisis since the Great Depression, is invariably that Obama and his allies would have somehow pushed further with fewer institutional impediments.

The Canadian model, which gives our own L/liberals a good deal more latitude, strongly suggests otherwise. I could begin this argument from basically anywhere, but let’s consider anecdotally the infamous 1993 Liberal campaign promise to create a universal, public childcare system (which, incidentally, was roughly synchronous with the Clinton administration’s retreat on healthcare). Across successive parliamentary majorities it simply never came, nor did any other significant new social program. (It did briefly resurface in 2006 when the Liberals under Paul Martin, reduced to an insecure minority and mired in a major ethics scandal, rather opportunistically became its greatest champions before losing the federal election later that year). All the national goodwill and enthusiasm that accompanied its formation in 2015 didn’t inspire Justin Trudeau to do anything transformative, despite his big legislative majority (just as the Liberals did after 1993, in fact, his government has in some areas moved in quite a different direction…).

I think these examples and innumerable others like them, all-too familiar to Canadian politics (where the Liberal Party has historically been dominant), seriously call into question the institutionalist premise so common among American progressives and liberals. (They should also, I think, serve as a corrective to Canadians who see electoral reform or similar institutional changes as silver bullet solutions that will inevitably lead to more progressive outcomes.)

If this sounds like a cynical observation, it shouldn’t. Because the crux of what I’m getting at isn’t that progress is impossible, just that we need to be a whole lot clearer both about its source and the things that stand in its way, which are less institutional hurdles than they are political impediments.

Ongoing actions by our postal workers are a good occasion to remember how public sector workers won maternity leave during the 1980s (hint: it wasn’t by electing a Liberal government then waiting for it to do Good Things™). Medicare certainly didn’t become our most cherished national institution because the niceties of our parliamentary system allowed it to glide frictionlessly through the House of Commons courtesy of a Liberal majority government.

Which is all to say, if you’re a progressively-minded American (or Canadian) frustrated with your liberal class’s failure to make life greener, fairer, or less cripplingly unequal, don’t let its standard bearers get away with telling you they’d do more if only the system allowed. We have decades of Liberal triangulation to suggest the problem is a political rather than an institutional one.

Image via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons License. 

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Two cheers for the post-political

Since at least the 1990s, it might be said that Western liberalism has set the negation of politics as a primary objective. Perhaps a bit more precisely, it has seen the end of “the political” as the final outcome and greatest metric of its own success in a post-Soviet global order.

These rather triumphalist remarks of Tony Blair’s from 1998 – intended to lay out the principles of the Third Way political project – are emblematic of that zeitgeist:

“Human nature is cooperative as well as competitive, selfless as well as self-interested; and society could not function if it was otherwise. The grievous 20th century error of the fundamentalist left was the belief that the state could replace civil society and thereby advance freedom. The new right veers to the other extreme, advocating wholesale dismantling of core state activity in the cause of “freedom”. The truth is that freedom for the many requires strong government. A key challenge of progressive politics is to use the state as an enabling force, protecting effective communities and voluntary organizations and encouraging their growth to tackle new needs, in partnership as appropriate. These are the values of the Third Way. Without them, we are adrift. But in giving them practical effect, a large measure of pragmatism is essential. As I say continually, what matters is what works to give effect to our values.”

Some readers will instantly detect certain rhetorical ticks – even if unfamiliar with the speech – thanks to the Blairite posturing having been so widely emulated: the synthesis of themes taken from the old right and left (competition and cooperation!); the fanatical commitment to “moderation”; the attempt to discard ideology entirely; the instrumental logic undergirding the whole thing (“what works“).

The specifics of Blair’s speech are not hugely important – I could have chosen innumerable other passages. But taken together its themes usefully illustrate the post-political, as I understand it, within the context of modern liberal capitalism.

That is: a political framework, both normative and conceptual, that sees politics as an enterprise of management and narrows its horizons accordingly. The “big questions” having been resolved, so the story goes, democracy is primarily about people selecting the best team of managers – representatives whose disputes, such as they are, will be limited to things like small tax cuts, minor subsidies to citizens or private enterprise, the adjustment of certain social benefits in response to global economic changes, etc. Adherents therefore practice what they take to be a politics without conflict or ideology where what matters is what works.

Readers of my work elsewhere will know that this particular contention of contemporary liberals – that they transcend the binary of left and right, even “politics” altogether – plays a big role in my general animus towards their project. For one thing, it’s impossible to be “without ideology” if by ideology we mean a way of understanding the world and having certain ideas about how it ought to be. I think there’s also a near irrefutable case to be made that this style of politics has contributed to widespread democratic disengagement and atrophy in countries like Britain and the United States, with huge sections of the electorates disengaging and political contests becoming increasingly low-stakes PR battles an ever smaller segment of the population pays attention to. In the face of right wing onslaught, it’s also proven totally impotent and inadequate – putting huge numbers of people at risk.

Post-political liberalism, as much as some op-ed writers would like to preserve it, does appear to be on notice.

It recently occurred to me, though, as someone whose expended so many words agitating against the post-political character of contemporary liberalism that there’s nothing particularly wrong with the category of post-politics itself.

In their own crude way, figures like Clinton and Blair had a dialectical view of history and human progress – not semantically unlike the Marxist one. The 1990s was, for them, the triumph of the last and best system by which our societies could organize themselves and, sincerely or not, they at least branded their project as a synthesis of left and right. Where the enterprise went fundamentally wrong was in thinking that social and ideological conflict could simply be ended by declaring it finished. Put another way, partisans of the Third Way were incorrect that the big questions had been put to rest (or were at least content to sublimate them, hail victory, and let the markets rip).

Instead of Clinton and Blair clones arguing over which taxes to cut, imagine a cooperative socialist society amicably debating how to best distribute abundant resources, how to cut necessary labour hours the most, or which galaxy to explore first.

Conflict remains and the fundamental interests of whole blocs of society are visibly at odds. Whatever the specifics or ideological contours of your analysis it seems impossible to look upon countries as structurally unequal as Britain and the United States (where the post-political Third Way was most fanatically embraced) and conclude anything else. Politics, of the kind which recognizes and embraces division, is the only potential avenue of escape or resolution here.

But supposing any of us survive to live in something resembling an equal society it’s likely we’ll see the return of the post-political, and in that case it should probably be welcomed. Instead of Clinton and Blair clones arguing over which taxes to cut, imagine a cooperative socialist society amicably debating how to best distribute abundant resources, how to cut necessary labour hours the most, or which galaxy to explore first. These debates would still be debates, but they would in some respects no longer be political – genuine, dispassionate differences of opinion about how to pursue a common objective rather than expressions of divergent interests between asymmetrical actors.

The point isn’t that conflict is desirable in politics – only that, in an unequal world riven with injustice, it is necessary.

One day, perhaps, it will be socialists who greet the post-political with open arms.

Image: “The Prologue and the Promise”, by Robert McCall. 1983.

 

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Petite bourgeois resentment: a sketch

It’s a truism among socialists that capitalism creates many losers and comparatively few winners. Put another way, capitalism dominates nearly every aspect of life but very few people actually become capitalists.

The great majority of us are working class, whether we identify as such or not. We sell our labour and are compelled to commit a more than negligible share of what we earn to the basic necessities of life: in effect, expending many of the most precious hours and years of our lives so that the free time we do have includes a roof over our heads and at least three square meals a day.

This gets at the great paradox lying at the heart of human society since the Industrial Revolution: if most people are working class and enjoy a less than equitable deal under capitalism, how and why does capitalism persist?

There are several answers to this question, and at least one of them is obvious. Thanks to more than a century of organizing by workers’ movements and others on every continent, some of the harshest aspects of capitalism have been, at least partially, reigned in. The 8-hour work day; the five day week; laws banning child labour; public pension plans – all meaningful improvements on the atavistic industrial capitalism that prevailed in Victorian Britain and was spread (or imposed) throughout the world. It’s because of reforms like these that many (though increasingly fewer) people in modern liberal democracies consider themselves middle class and reflexively associate “the workers” exclusively with manual labour and toil on the factory floor.

The more complicated answer, though, is that while there are very few actual capitalists there remain many partisans for capitalism: people ideologically committed to its core premises, myths, and romanticisms despite living limited, or in some cases, extremely limited, versions of them. The fiercest ideologues of Thatcherism, including its namesake herself, hailed from the middle class, rather than the aristocracy. Theirs (rhetorically at least) was a philosophy of martial struggle, radical individualism, and Promethean self-creation – not of class solidarity or traditional noblesse oblige.

Or course, partisanship for capitalism needn’t practically be so conscious of itself. Your average member of the petite bourgeoisie probably isn’t going to attend lectures organized by the Adam Smith Institute or consult The Road to Serfdom before starting a business. But they probably will be invested in bourgeois totems like free enterprise, meritocracy, and the familiar rags to riches fable.

Consequently, many of them will look down with contempt upon anyone less invested in capitalism’s self-perpetuating myths. (In my experience, socialism’s greatest nemeses have often fit this description. If Big Capital is ultimately the adversary, small time capitalists tend to be its most zealous shock troops and most loyal guardians.)

Oddly enough, these thoughts came to me because of some recent career developments experienced by a friend of mine. After a year or so working as a temp (though nevertheless in the full-time employ of a company) with no benefits or perks save a bit of scheduling flexibility at a small startup, said friend recently accepted a superior gig at a larger, more successful company that offers a better salary and an actual benefits package. Upon informing their boss of the impending departure, they came face-to-face with what I think can only be described as petite bourgeois resentment: a reflexive contempt towards people less invested in their adopted narrative of bourgeois self-fulfillment: “You’re making a big mistake and you’ll regret it”, said the founder of a small, nameless, floundering company that reflexively employs temps and pays peanuts to a young worker wanting stability and security. “We’re gonna do great things and you’ll be missing out” (or something to that effect).

These remarks, in a sense quite bland and commonplace, stuck with me because I think they so effectively illustrate one of the mindsets that most keeps capitalism afloat.

And they weren’t being uttered by some great viceroy of Capital but by a small time businessman who doesn’t see himself as a loser in the system – but rather as a winner who just hasn’t won yet.

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Liberalism in theory and practice

“Liberalism dominates, but without confidence or security; it knows that its victories at home are tied to disasters abroad; and for the élan it cannot summon, it substitutes a blend of complacence and anxiety. It makes for an atmosphere of blur in the realm of ideas, since it has a stake in seeing momentary concurrences as deep harmonies. In an age that suffers from incredible catastrophes it scoffs at theories of social apocalypse—as if any more evidence were needed; in an era convulsed by war, revolution and counterrevolution it discovers the virtues of “moderation”…Liberalism as an ideology, as “the haunted air,” has never been stronger in this country; but can as much be said of the appetite for freedom?” – Irving Howe

One of the major points of division between liberal and left thinking, it seems to me, is evident in how each side perceives liberal democratic institutions and how they function in practice as opposed to theory.

A particular memory from grad school comes to mind. I recall participating in a discussion of John Rawls’ political thought that after half an hour or so felt completely divorced from reality. It wasn’t that those assembled didn’t understand Rawls – on the contrary, they were incredibly knowledgeable about his work and the innumerable theoretical debates surrounding it. What struck me was that they were discussing these debates in tones that strongly implied contemporary political institutions actually, albeit in varying and imperfect degrees, embodied the idealized speculative versions sketched out in Rawlsian and other neo-Kantian thought.

This is visible in more banal, less esoteric contexts too. A big part of what animates mainstream liberal opposition to the Trump administration – let’s call it the hashtag resistance – is an underlying notion that American institutions more or less functioned harmoniously, or at least in a manner not completely dissonant with what they’re supposed to be on paper, before Trump and his brigands crashed the gates.

The general left view of liberal institutions, on the other hand, is a lot more pessimistic about how they actually work and, in particular, how they work relative to what liberal intellectuals have told us we can expect from them – furthermore to what extent they can conceivably be expected to fulfill even their most basic assigned functions against the backdrop of a political and economic system in which “democracy” has such narrow applicability.

Oddly enough, this all came to mind because of some work I’ve been doing around employee pension plans in Canada – among the biggest and most profitable companies criminally underfunded despite huge dividends continually being paid out to shareholders since the financial crisis. As we’ve recently seen with Sears, this means that the pensions of a huge number of Canadian workers aren’t safe and could more or less vanish into thin air if their employer suddenly goes into insolvency. Why? Because shareholders at big companies have been allowed to cannibalize billions of dollars even if it’s meant worker pension plans run deficits in the hundreds of millions. Even in the wake of the Sears debacle, the reaction of Canada’s Liberal government has been extremely tepid. Justin Trudeau, our great and progressive leader, has said “his heart goes out” to laid off workers at Sears but nothing about concretely guaranteeing pensions in the future and has uttered not a single word of censure towards Sears executives and the bonuses they’ve received despite crashing one of the country’s flagship retail chains (and biggest employers). His Finance Minister, meanwhile, wants to help employers permanently shift potential liabilities onto workers by replacing Defined Benefit Pension plans altogether.

I bring this up because it seems like such a clear demonstration of liberal institutions’ structural inadequacy but also their failure to reflect the basic principles of economic pluralism and democratic representation we’re told they exist to guarantee, expand, and protect. Here you have a clear and present issue of basic justice, around which there are strong incentives for the government to act – the Liberals, after all, talked about protecting pensions in opposition, and a visible move on behalf of ordinary people’s retirement savings would undoubtedly be popular – and the best a supposedly progressive, liberal PM with a massive parliamentary majority can offer is his best wishes.

 

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All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

Ontario.jpg

Since there’s an election looming in Ontario, I think it’s pretty safe to bet we’re about to experience the start of a very familiar arc, which goes a little something like this:

Having spent the past 3 and a half years overseeing the privatization of Hydro One and genuflecting to Bay Street, the Ontario Liberals will again discover that they’re on the side of workers and progressive activists after all. Miraculously, canned corporatist talking points about “asset redeployment” will be replaced, as if by magic, with refrains about social justice and the power of the state to be an equalizing force in our society.

The submerged social consciences of every cabinet minister will suddenly resurface from the deep, with little bits of money (no doubt mostly promised for some hypothetical future) announced for every progressive and civil society cause under the sun. Labour leaders will be courted to speak glowingly about the rectitude of the Liberal project and its pro-worker virtues. Attempts to seduce the urban middle class with the language of civic solidarity and activist government will commence at the eleventh hour, coupled with the usual refrains about the mortal threat posed by the PCs.

Like clockwork, Kathleen Wynne will be transformed from a centrist technocrat into a soft version of Sandersesque populist. Meanwhile, the smallest and most superficial gestures from the Premier and her lieutenants will be showered with praise by a gushing centrist wonkosphere, while the right wing press goes into meltdown mode and warns about the threat of creeping socialism (in effect, doing its part to shore up Liberal messaging).

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

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Everything is communism

Spend any sizeable portion of time in the right wing blogosphere and its associated mediums and you quickly notice that just about everything is communism.

Same-sex marriage? Communism. Soup kitchens that serve the homeless? Establishments of the deepest crimson. Anti-discrimination laws? Bolshevism, pure and simple. Taxes that subject janitors to different rates than Fortune 500 CEOS? Surely, this must be the Frankfurt School at work.

Earlier this week I spent some time investigating organized conservative opposition to a new sex-ed curriculum. Most striking, apart from all of the oozing sexual insecurity at play, was the way a primal fear of socialism always seemed to be lingering in the background. At one rally, for example, a speaker denounced the use of gender neutral language in classrooms by complaining that the word “comrade” had allegedly appeared on a school board list of gender neutral terms.

This is silly and anecdotal, sure. But there’s a lot more where it came from.

According to senior figures in Canada’s conservative movement: Mary Poppins is communist propaganda; minimum wages are communist, as is “the language of equality” when applied to marriage. In the midst of the 2015 federal election, Conservative MP Larry Miller tweeted an old warning (in fact, an infamous fake meme on the right) of the “communist rules for revolution.”

Fake as it may be, note the range of conservative pathologies represented here:
communist_rules-for-revolution.jpg

No special insight here, except that this particular conservative tick seems to affirm Corey Robin’s thesis that the right is less a strict set of ideas than it is a fluid series of reactions to any push for equality.

 

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Getting the right wrong

One thing that I think is persistently overlooked and underestimated by some commentators and casual observers of the right is the extent to which its infrastructure and organization depends on a relatively small cadre of donors and activist plutocrats.
 
There’s a narrative line of sorts running right through the Reagan era (and its own analogues here in Canada), the Tea Party, and now the Trumpian alt-right which likes to portray outbursts of right wing rage and resentment as fundamentally populist: the product of working class pathologies and prejudices.
 
But this account of the right, among its many errors, really misses the mark in explaining how well organized and politically effective its been in setting the political agenda in many countries (particularly the United States). If anything, the mistaken image of right wing politics as inherently populist is just further evidence of a successful strategy on the part of the people who’ve masterminded them.
 
Some of the recent news and allegations about Rebel Media are a case in point.
 
Yesterday, Press Progress reported that Ezra Levant has received an unspecified amount of money from a far right outlet called the “Middle East Forum”. As a [surprisingly excellent] 2011 study from the Centre for American Progress revealed, the Middle East Forum is part of an established network of hard right “think tanks” and media projects engineered specifically to spread xenophobic propaganda and funded in trickle-down fashion by several “foundations” set up by an extremely small subset of unfathomably wealthy people (see the chart below). Much of the actual money for this stuff comes from above, but the further you go down the chain the more the official branding associates itself with crowdfunding and non-partisan “watchdog” models or independent “truth-telling” alternative media aesthetics.
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Image: Centre for American Progress

 
The same might be said about countless right wing organizations that frame themselves in populist or charitable terms (“foundation”), giving themselves grassroots-ey titles like “council” or “federation” despite being funded by wealthy donors who they very often refuse to disclose. (A few months ago I made a similar observation after Press Progress investigated Kellie Leitch’s donor base and found that the “anti-elite” campaign we’d been told by the Canadian media had set off a “culture war” was getting much of its funding from plenty of supposedly respectable patricians who evidently had no issue with racist dog-whistles.)
 
Sure, there’s clearly a popular base for this stuff – after all, it needs an audience. But even this tends to be much more affluent and upper middle class than it’s fashionable to admit, and people from this strata are probably a lot more likely to become the right’s footsoldiers than the “ignorant redneck” archetype and others in the same family suggest.
 
This matters for many reasons, but especially because our understanding of what the right *is* informs in a big way how we decide to fight against it. And conceiving its most reactionary elements as flourishes of mindless ignorance by dumb, uncultured proles lets the very worst people in our society off the hook. 
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