Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Don't Take Canadian Democracy for Granted

Some notable Americans are waking up to the fact that their nation's vaunted democracy is in serious and immediate peril. Canadians would do well to heed their alarm.

Corruption has become endemic in the United States, particularly within America's "bought and paid for" Congress. Whether it's Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Insurance, Big Pharma, Big Agra, corporatism has ruthlessly and relentlessly subverted American democracy. When Republican House leader John Boehner blissfully strolls the floor of the House of Representatives distributing envelopes bearing "contributions" from the tobacco industry just moments before a vote critical to Big Tobacco - and gets away with it - the writing is on the wall and it is indeed as plain as day.

When a nation runs two wars, both fought with a corporate (mercenary) presence hitherto unseen in the West and all funded with foreign borrowings and at the very same time funds tax cuts for the very rich, also paid for with foreign borrowings, this is not a government of the people, by the people, for the people. This is a government beholden to a few very powerful interest groups, the servant of an oligarchy.

Even the US Supreme Court is in on this democracy death dance. It's uber-right wing majority decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission recognizing corporations as "persons" under the First Amendment was far more anti-democratic than most people, particularly Americans, can grasp. There should have been mobs running the streets of Washington with pitchforks and torches but there was barely a whimper of protest. Indeed, after the 48-hour news cycle, the case has been all but forgotten.

Corporations can't vote but that doesn't matter much if they can use their financial muscle to swing elections their way. From here on in, reformers or even those simply trying to restore American democracy, will be swept out to sea by a tsunami of corporate influence peddling. With a voting public conditioned to always look at the "shiny thing", to believe in spectacle and rank delusion, to be driven by fear, anger and hatred powerful enough even to overwhelm self-interest, reality doesn't stand a chance.

In a nation as divided and confused as the United States the forces of corporatism don't have to win over the American people, merely a modest segment of them sufficient to swing elections. Once they've reached that modest goal, a corrupt legislature and a radicalized, ideological judiciary will do the rest. Robert Reich, UC Berkley professor, labour secretary under Clinton and author of several books including "Supercapitalism" has an interesting post entitled "Our Incredible Shrinking Democracy." Even more compelling is Chris Hedges new book, "Empire of Illusion, the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle."

I received Empire for Christmas and immediately set to devouring its small, 215-pages. Like Hedges' earlier works, "War" and "American Fascists", it's a diminutive book, something of a lovechild between a tome and a pamphlet. Like all of his works, it's jam packed with insight.

Empire is organized into five chapters: "The Illusion of Literacy; the Illusion of Love; the Illusion of Wisdom; the Illusion of Happiness; and the Illusion of America." On this skeleton he hangs the meat and offal of delusion, distraction and deceit that have become the standard fare of the American people and their ultimate undoing. Here are a few passages excerpted from Hedges' final chapter, "The Illusion of America."

"The words 'consent of the governed' have become an empty phrase. Our textbooks on political science and economics are obsolete. Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political, and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests. This elite, in the name of patriotism and democracy, in the name of all the values that were once part of the American system and defined the Protestant work ethic, has systematically destroyed our manufacturing sector, looted the treasury, corrupted our democracy, and trashed the financial system. During this plundering we remained passive, mesmerized by the enticing shadows on the wall, assured our tickets to success, prosperity, and happiness were waiting around the corner.

...The government, stripped of any real sovereignty, provides little more than technical expertise for elites and corporations that lack moral restraints and a concept of the common good. America has become a facade. It has become the greatest illusion in a culture of illusions. It represents a power and a democratic ethic it does not possess.

...The decline of American empire began long before the current economic meltdown or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It began when we shifted, in the words of the historian Charles Maier, from an 'empire of production' to an 'empire of consumption.'...We started borrowing to maintain a lifestyle we could no longer afford..

...[Columbia University professor, Seymour] Mellman coined the term 'permanent war economy' to describe the American economy. Since the end of the Second World War, the federal government has spent more than half its tax dollars on past, current, and future military operations. It is the largest single sustaining activity of the government.

Hedges quotes Einstein explaining why he was a socialist: "Private capital tends to become concentrated in a few hands partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. ...The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. ...Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed inmost cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.'"

Hedges points out that the alarm has been ringing since the era of FDR: "...Our political and economic decline took place because of a corporate drive for massive deregulation, the repeal of antitrust laws, and the country's radical transformation from a manufacturing economy to an economy of consumption. Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized this danger. He sent a message to congress on April 29, 1938. [in which] he wrote: '...the first truth is that the liberty of democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism - ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way to sustain an acceptable standard of living.'"

Canada is plainly not in the same boat as the United States. Our parliamentary democracy appears at least somewhat more resiliant than America's congressional system. For the moment at least we have some safeguards on corporate inducements and electoral meddling although they too could be dismantled quite simply on the floor of the House of Commons. Yet there are reasons for concern and these need to be addressed forcefully and rather quickly.

Harper came to power on promises of transparency and accountability and then wasted no time sacking both. We must carefully scrutinize how that happened, how that continues and what needs doing to put an end to it in all future Canadian governments. That has to end for it is a direct threat to our democracy.

Successive governments have sat by and allowed the wealth gap between rich and poor to turn cavernous. They have allowed our manufacturing base to atrophy. They have fed us nonsense about the "new economy" and outright lies about the information age even as they have failed to fund the educational system that sort of transformation requires. They fiercely cling to Industrial Revolution-era capitalism where growth is the elixir to solve all problems even as we have propelled ourselves into a world that already operates well beyond its carrying capacity. They too freely wield the power to wage wars they are powerless to end much less win.

Worst of all, they capitalize on the enormity of their failures by blaming everything on "big government" when the problem isn't size but quality. We're living with the consequences not of big government but of bad governance and those consequences are poised to grow much larger and much more dangerous very, very soon.

My fellow Liberals squander their resources and efforts on the diversion of partisanship, sniping at the Harper regime to little effect, when they ought to be focusing instead on the core failures of their own party, its lack of vision and lapsed courage. They would rather waste time we cannot afford to wait while Harper stumbles and weakens instead of making their own party stronger and more directed to the serious problems besetting our nation. They too cling to the disastrous fantasy of Canada as a petro-superpower at a time when the future of our species and our ecosystem hinge on decarbonizing our economies and our societies. Perhaps afraid of angering the Wild Rose/Big Oil cabal, we don't even press for a renewal of our manufacturing sector on alternative energy generation. That we leave to the Chinese who are now the world leader in wind turbine development and production and are positioned to also dominate the solar energy sector.

We need to recall that government, Parliament is the place of the people. It is there to serve us and our fellow Canadians first and foremost. Parliament also exists to assist industry and commerce but not in their own right, only as best befits the interests, short and long-term, of the Canadian people. Parliament doesn't exist to accommodate industry and commerce as our fellow constituents.

Like the Americans, Canadians are being harmed by a corporatized mass media that operates in thrall to the emerging oligarchs. The media, as any other institution in Canada, owes its troth to the people for, without that faithfulness, it is transformed into a instrument of manipulation. We see this in rank partisan propagandists rewarded with senate appointments. That was Canada's John Boehner moment. We urgently need to dismember the media cartel, strip newspapers of their television stations and radio frequencies, severely restrict both concentration and cross-ownership in all forms. We need to remember that the frequencies of our television and radio networks are public property, merely licensed out for a term of years to the networks. We need to hold them accountable to the public, recognizing that they have abused the remarkable freedoms we have given them.

I believe the times that are upon us and the challenges Canadians will have to meet during the 21st Century require our own "New Deal." We have to break the bonds that lash us to Industrial Revolution capitalism and move to a new, more responsive form of capitalism that is subordinate to the interests of our citizens. For the Liberal Party, now being steered to the centre-right by Ignatieff, this necessitates a move back to the centre/centre-left. The Liberal Party has to serve Canada again, not the interests of its own ruling elite. That is the only path back to not only power but genuinely good governance of the kind our country and our people so badly need.

We need to do this now if only because we may be unable to do it in twenty or thirty years from now. Our world is undergoing a grand transformation - economic, political, military and environmental - to which we're going to have to respond and adapt. These are challenges not of our choosing and no longer under our control. How well we respond to them, how ably we adapt, will depend in great measure on the strength of our governance, the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. This is no time to take our democracy for granted. It is no time to tolerate that which subverts it.


LeDaro said...

MoS, good to see you back.

Scary stuff, eh! US Supreme Court decision sounds like beginning of the end of democracy in US. In Canada we are more and more owned by US as our businesses are being taken over. How can we escape the same fate?

A PM being able to unilaterally prorogue parliament, and get away with it, is not a good omen for Canada.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi LD. Back, sort of.

Going back to the Clinton years I've had nagging concerns about the health of Western democracy. The economic chaos we've endured these past three decades - bubble economies, the collapse of institutions, deregulation, the massive wealth gap - have not been recognized as the warning signs of democratic decay.

Many years ago the CBC did a multi-part documentary about democracy that showed it to be an insitution anything but uniform or even capable of simple definition.

Our own experience of democracy has been evolutionary with political power devolving first to the aristocracy, then to the petty nobility, on to the merchant classes, the landowners, male citizens and finally universal suffrage. These advances were not always achieved peacefully.

For us it's been pretty much a one-way street, always advancing. It has been accompanied by the advancement of rights and freedoms - human rights, political rights and so on.

We've known that some rights and freedoms can be transitory. The differences between peacetime and wartime stand as clear examples. Freedoms temporarily surrendered are not always restored without struggle.

I just don't know that we were prepared for the ascendancy of corporatism which Hedges notes now stands between the American people and their elected representatives. It was corporatism, after all, upon which Mussolini built his Fascist state and it also served Hitler's purposes. This rival structure has no political power save for that which it takes from the electorate. As it grows, the voters' control and influence wanes and legislators turn to serve different masters.

On this score I have a worrying distrust of Ignatieff. I've seen little from him to allay my fear that he would like nothing better than to transform the LPC into a northern mirror of the Democratic Party - and what a fiasco for Canada that would be.

While I've been away I have taken time to scan ProgBlog and LibsOnline from time to time and, seen from a safe distance, they're sort of demoralizing. Among these bloggers there's a seriously unbalanced focus on partisanship, petty politics, polls and ridiculing the government. That stuff is all well and good but only in part. For that business does nothing to look at the weaknesses and flaws in our own party, the needs of our nation and countrymen, and what our party can and must do to better serve them.

Liberal bloggers seem absorbed in why Harper's misdeeds justify him being ousted rather than on why the Liberal Party deserves the trust of the public. It's as though the Canadian public should vote Liberal because we're not Harper. That's pathetic. Even I wouldn't vote Liberal on that basis. The party still has to earn my vote every time I walk into a polling station.

I want to look at issues that are going to shape our country in the course of this century and that will define our political parties. Issues like democracy, federalism, 21st century capitalism, the social compact, the environment, Canada's role in the world.

I want to discuss ideas. I want to find the best possible vision for the future of this country. In my mind, these are the sort of discussions we need, not the crap being repeatedly and incessantly churned out on these blog aggregators.

Figuring out where we want Canada to be in the next election is really quite irrelevant if we don't give equal or even greater attention to where we want our country, our society to be two, even three generations from now.

It's time to shake ourselves free of this narrow, self-serving, obsessive focus. I'm pretty sure we will do that, eventually, but in the meantime I think we're going nowhere - whether in power or out.

LeDaro said...

MoS, I agree with you on all accounts including Michael Ignatieff and his abilities or lack of them. In Canada we need a leader who can steer us out of the current dilemma and I see none on the horizon.

US supreme court decision is a strong doze of poison to the health of democracy or whatever is left of it. As you know if US sneezes we get pneumonia

Out of ashes phoenix may rise. And that phoenix could be in the form of awareness of masses as to what is happening. I suppose we should keep our hopes alive.

I don’t know what more to say. I am at a loss for words.

LeDaro said...

Another sign of hope could be an election resulting in a coalition government made up of Liberals ad NDP. The collective actions by two caucuses and a cabinet drawn from these two caucuses may improve matters somewhat.