Monday, March 14, 2016

Democracy in Retreat, Neo-Fascism on the March

The editorial in today's Washington Post laments the decline of democracy in many corners of the world.

AFTER THE Cold War it seemed that democracy was spreading, dictatorships were tumbling and capitalism ascendant. Today, democracy is in retreat. Liberal values such as transparency, rule of law, accountability and respect for human dignity are being widely trampled. Autocrats and even some Western politicians openly traffic in fear, xenophobia and paranoia. The enemies of democracy are growing bolder by the day. The United States is partly responsible for letting this happen. It should step up to the autocrats of the world and confront their dangerous illiberalism.

...The tyrants of today are more sophisticated than those of the past; rather than outright totalitarianism, they erect a facade of democracy and subvert it from within. They hold elections that are not competitive, use government-approved shell groups to edge out genuine civil society, pass laws outlawing free association and speech, and force the news media into submission by pulling the strings of the owners and editors.

...Even in the United States, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is embracing illiberalism. He is stoking fear of Muslims; threatening retaliation against the media; and promising to embrace strongmen like Vladi­mir Putin and bring back and enhance the use of torture against suspected terrorists.

...No other nation can match the power of the United States in advancing liberal values. The past decade has been marked by a crisis of confidence, a feeling of fatigue and withdrawal from the world. Unfortunately, there is a chance that America’s lethargy will worsen — Mr. Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders are promising a further retreat from international commitments. Those who hope for a resurgence of freedom around the world can only hope that voters elect a president who will reinvigorate U.S. democratic leadership.

Unfortunately the paper's editorial board failed to note that, even if the US has unrivaled power to advance liberal democracy, its history is not of advancing liberal democracy but of suppressing its spread and instead supporting collaborative despots willing to do Washington's bidding.

The Post editorial focuses on Russia and China and the Arab states but overlooks the authoritarianism sweeping through America's allies ranging from Hungary, Poland, the Slovakian republic, Sweden, Denmark, France and even Britain. It likewise sees illiberal democracy in Trump but not in America's 'bought and paid for' Congress and the political capture of America's political apparatus and institutions by the forces of corporatism. Even if Trump is defeated, that scourge will continue to fester and grow. America is already, at best, an illiberal democracy.

The editorial made me recall an essay by John Raulston Saul about 'negative nationalism' that has surfaced in the power vacuum created by the failure of globalism, a dangerous hiatus that our political leaders can't even acknowledge while they pursue the mantra of free market fundamentalism. The essay forms one of the final chapters in Ralston Saul's 2005 book, "The Collapse of Globalism." Here are a few excerpts:

Insecurity, poverty, ambition are three of the roots of [negative] nationalism. Its expression is often dependent on ethnic loyalty, an appropriation of God to one's side, a certain pride in ignorance, and a conviction that you have been permanently wounded  that is, an active mythology of having been irreparably wronged. On key subjects, ignorance is often encouraged. Sometimes this is more a pretence than a reality. Such wilful ignorance allows highly sophisticated societies to remain fixated on specific wounds. At its worst this can become psychotic cynicism. Giambattista Vico, the great Italian philosopher, was denouncing this in the eighteenth century just before the modern nationalist movement got off the ground: "Where ever the human mind is lost in ignorance man makes himself the measure of all things.... Rumor grows in its course... The unknown is always magnified... Whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand."

On the worship of family:

...Of course, family is central to human life and to our emotional life in all its complexity. But family as a measure or structure of society is a mafia argument or an argument of the extreme right, for whom there are only two possible choices: either the sacred family or the sacred nation. In either case loyalty is measured according to how successfully it represents a closed situation. Thus the democratic and humanist ideas of civilization, society and community, which are all dependent on our ability to imagine the 'other' - the one who is not close - are expelled to the margins.

...This is nationalism as a culture of belonging, rather than nationalism as a civilization of culture. Thus, ignorance becomes a protection from the fear within us. Ignorance, often presented with the charm of innocence, becomes a state of sanctity. Erasmus warned against this almost before it existed: "lack of culture is not holiness, nor cleverness impiety." And of course, this is nationalism in which "nationality becomes a synonym of ethnicity." Finally it is nationalism as belief, as religion.

The transition from positive nationalism to globalism and on to today's negative nationalism.

After 1945 ...there was a gradual move toward a civic model of nationalism. At least inside the democracies, nationalism as an expression of the public good grew and left the negative sort to superficial expressions of enthusiasm and emotion. Sports, public celebrations, more innocent effusions of belonging replaced what might have been negative. Then came the Globalist period, and the concept of nationalism was swept right out of sight. To mention it in Canada was to be simplistic, protectionist and out of step with the inevitable times. In Europe it belonged to the unhappy past...

Then, as if from nowhere, it began to re-emerge. Perhaps because there had been such denial of the positive possibilities of nationalism - such  denial of society as a humanist project - what now came out into the light was largely negative. It was closely linked to the old demons of fear, ethnicity, cultural alienation and misappropriated religion.  ..The rising negative nationalism has been filled with all the old shibboleths of belief, loyalty, fear and guilt.

...If you look around the [2004] world, there is the same slippage almost everywhere: a more nationalist government in South Korea' a classic nationalist governor of Tokyo; the rise of the UK Independence Party, winning 16 percent of the votes in the 2004 European elections. In China, the official interpretation of history is that "the Chinese people must never again by humiliated by foreign aggressors. Only a great and strong nation will guarantee the survival of the Chinese race." ...In India, there is an unbroken nationalist line from 1947 to today, but the rise of the BJP, even if it is now in opposition, is a sign of growing negative nationalism. In Latin America, most studies seem to show that about half the population feel liberal democracy - the handmaiden of Globalization - has been such a failure they would prefer authoritarian rule.

As for the United States, the general atmosphere seems to be, in historian Simon Schama's phrase, a "Manichean struggle between good and evil, freedom and terror." Why would such a complex and rich society fall into the simplicities of a Manichean view? Rorty's guess is that the Globalization of the labour market without the protections of a welfare state leaves Americans "much more vulnerable to right-wing populism than are most European countries."

...The reign of the Globalist idea being over, the dominant political message coming from those who once argued for it is that things have changed. Today's military and political crisis requires the re-establishment of the authority aspect of the nation-state. But these people who once argued for economic determinism over the conscious will of a nation-state remain silent, or continue to be negative on the positive role of the nation-state in changing the conditions that might have created the crisis in the first place.

...One of the least explored areas is that of the effect of an overemphasis on consumerism in a solid democracy. It was the fascists who believed that a society addicted to consumerism was susceptible to their taking power. They thought the same about societies that had fallen into the hands of what we call transnationals. Mussolini: "When does a capitalistic business cease to be an economic phenomenon? When its size transforms it into a social phenomenon."

On identity politics and "others"

...we need only go back to Huntington's 1996 analysis of the world as a clash of civilizations. In large numbers the disciples of Globalization read his book and raised their voices together in agreement with his argument that societies were driven and held together by shared cultures, not economies. They now understood what was happening around them, why things were not working out as expected. As for the specific case of the United States, its survival was dependent upon "Americans reaffirming their Western identity." The broad welcome this argument received throughout the West revealed how confused and obscure the vacuum is. But it also told us how people have become frightened in the growing disorder of the Globalist era, how uncomfortable they are with the broad global sweeps of inevitability. After all, only a few years ago economic inevitability was on every tongue. Abruptly, the same people or their friends are insisting that exclusive culture is the key.

Father Andrew Riccardi of the Ant'Egidio movement, someone who shows no signs of fear, simply noted that Huntington, in his dividing up of cultures into exclusive groups that should hang out together, hadn't bothered to assign Africa a civilization. Suddenly you realize how crudely racial this theoretically sophisticated argument is. The Aga Khan wasted even less time: "The clash, if there is such a broad civilizational collision, is not of cultures but of ignorance." In this case it cannot be plain ignorance and must therefore either be wilful or the product of fear.

Negative Nationalism, God Returns.

Whether intended or not,God is clearly back in his old public, but non-religious, role, as a political sidekick, ready to justify whatever is required.

His facing participation - bored perhaps - in wars that drag on, such as in Northern Ireland, has been succeeded by star appearances in massacres all over Africa. He has been wandering the Afghan mountains with Taliban and al Qaeda guerrillas. He has broken down temples and led riots in India. He has supported anti-immigrant campaigns in Europe. In his spare time, he inspires the rhetoric of those who want more of the death penalty, and more virgin brides, more flags of specific colours flown. He accompanies American presidents, and for that matter most American elected representatives, on all public appearances.

...Some Kings heard a different voice. In 1599 Henri IV of France signed the Edict of Nantes to try to deal with the Catholic-Protestant divide. He wanted "to remove the cause of evil and of the troubles that can appear because the religious slope is always the slipperiest and can penetrate all the others." The purpose of the Edict was to remove religion, and God with it, from the political debate. When the Edict was revoked eighty-six years later, God reappeared in politics and created uncertainty of a destructive sort. It seems that when it comes to politics, divine contributions tend to be negative.


Kirby Evans said...

Excellent Essay Mound. Well done.

The Mound of Sound said...

High praise, Kirby. Thank you.

Pamela Mac Neil said...

The editorial of the Washington Post comes across as having been written by a high school student rather then someone with serious journalistic credentials. John Ralston Sauls penetrating intellect and analysis stands in stark contrast. A superb post. Thanks for sharing. I just picked up Sauls "The Collapse of Globalism" on your recommendation.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi, Pamela. It is a worthwhile read and, given your interest in neoliberalism, you'll find it helpful to understand the nuances of this plague that remains in force long after it has been shown to be unsound. Why? Because it continues to serve a narrow, private interest even if that comes at the cost of the public interest. It's the perfect economic operating system for the 1%.

BTW, I expect you'll finish the book before I have. It's in my nature to have many books, too many, on the go at any given time. One here, one there, a couple over there... I don't find them as much as they find me. They move around the house, I move around the house, and, as I do, I tend to pick up whatever is closest are read a few pages, perhaps a dozen, sometimes even a chapter. At times I think I have the attention span of my hound.

Steve said...

Sounds like a Turkey