Friday, September 08, 2017

Attacked from Within, Attacked from Without.

After four decades the impacts of neoliberal governance are pretty clear. The message is that neoliberalism fetters or weakens liberal democracy. It surrenders vital aspects of state sovereignty essential to the health of liberal democracy to special interests, the private sector. It diminishes the bonds between the voting public and those they install in high office and the public is usually none the wiser. As those bonds stretch and slacken other interests manage to insinuate themselves between the electors and those whom they elect.

The United States is the poster boy of the neoliberal order. Lesser states, such as Canada, trail at a distance but are drawn in the same direction.

The American example illustrates that the neoliberal order is a process of political capture. It begins with legislative capture manifested in today's "bought and paid for" US Congress in which legislators are said to spend more time chasing campaign funding for re-election than dealing with the business of the nation. They know where to find that funding and they know what's expected of them to secure it. Those corporate and individual benefactors provide that funding in order to insinuate themselves between the legislator and the public they're supposed to serve. It's how they "capture" legislators and put them into serving the private interest, not the public interest. It's an act of blatant corruption.

Of course this sounds exactly like some conspiracy theory but it's not. It's absolutely true. That was documented in the 2014 report out of Princeton by Gilens (Princeton) and Page (Northwestern). The paper began with a few pointed questions: Who governs? Who really rules? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semisovereign, or largely powerless?

The authors reviewed Congressional voting patterns over two decades on votes where the public interest clashed with special interests and found that special interests prevailed overwhelmingly, concluding that the US was no longer a democracy but had transformed into an oligarchy.  The report was roundly criticized in the corporate media leading Gilens and Page to write a spirited rebuttal of their critics in the Washington Post.

These oligarchs don't seek to destroy government. They're not out to gut government. They seek instead to control it, to harness it into their service and to use the powers of government to enhance their prosperity which inevitably must come at the expense of the greater public.

The logical progression from legislative capture occurred during the Bush/Cheney era in the form of regulatory capture.  This is the process by which regulatory boards and tribunals are stacked, rigged if you like, by allowing the boards to be dominated with appointees from those same regulated industries.  We've had this experience in Canada when first Harper and then Trudeau indulged the energy giants by stacking the National Energy Board with industry insiders. Who can forget when Captain Listeria, Harper, allowed packing plants to become self-regulating? How many Canadians paid for that with their lives? Our governments elevate these parties, calling them "stakeholders" as some sort of quasi-partners in governance inevitably diminishing the public interest.

Theodore Roosevelt denounced this incestuous relationship in 1910: the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics. That is one of our tasks to-day. Every special interest is entitled to justice — full, fair, and complete — and, now, mind you, if there were any attempt by mob-violence to plunder and work harm to the special interest, whatever it may be, that I most dislike, and the wealthy man, whomsoever he may be, for whom I have the greatest contempt, I would fight for him, and you would if you were worth your salt. He should have justice. For every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation.

...There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.

What follows from legislative and regulatory capture? In the United States there has been the evolution of a corporatist Supreme Court that gave rise to such outrages as the Citizens United decision that bestowed political rights on corporations. 

What remains? Oh yes, the executive branch. Executive Capture. This is where special interests assume the executive power. Appointing Scott Pruitt, an industry lawyer who for years battled the EPA on behalf of major polluters, to head and to dismantle the EPA is a telling example. So much for the greatest threat facing America, climate change. 

This is how we have allowed our national sovereignty and, with it, our liberal democracy to be degraded from within. I had great hopes that, in the wake of Harper, Trudeau would move quickly and effectively to implement democratic restoration so badly needed in Canada. You might have noticed that, once enshrined in power, Slick lost his taste for that sort of thing.  Whether it was electoral reform or parliamentary reform or even the restoration of a free press in Canada, there's been no one in the wheelhouse. We won't be getting any of that from Trudeau which means the forces that stand to benefit from a weakened democracy will prevail.

This is how democracy has been attacked and weakened from within. What about the other attacks, the attacks from without? What about those foreign and private interests who work to skew our elections their way, to defeat the will of the public? What about these upset wins - Brexit, Trump? What about Aggregate IQ or Cambridge Analytica?

Facebook finally admitted that it was exploited by Russian interests to manipulate the November elections. We know that American billionaire Robert Mercer did the same. They've managed to scan and analyze your social media activity to discern your interests, your biases, your fears and prejudices and your vulnerability to messaging. It's a form of mind control and it's very effective.  Why do they do it?

For billionaires the objective is plain - a more billionaire-friendly government amenable to their wishes. For Putin? What he's after is chaos. The hurdle the Soviets were never able to overcome was a broad-based, robust middle class. Now that we're dismantling that internally, they're ready and eager to exploit this Achilles' Heel.

So what is Russia's strategy in such influence campaigns?
According to experts in the matter, it's not the seeds of a political revolution the Kremlin wants to sow in the West - it's nothing less than chaos.

And from US President Donald Trump to Australian senator Pauline Hanson, chaos is already, apparently, taking hold.

Moreover, in this blend of disorder, there is no overarching political idea to the influence campaigns.

Olga Irisova, of the Poland-based Intersection Project, says: "The Kremlin has no ideology to promote, since illiberalism itself is not the ideology, neither is it a certain system of values."

To do this, such propaganda must play up the "opposing other".

That's evident in Facebook's recent disclosure that Russian sources spent $US100,000 on ads that "appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum".

If there is any common thread in the propaganda, says Irisova, it is a profoundly negative one for the liberal values that underpin Western democracy.

"In general, we can see a promotion of an idea that liberal values can't confront modern threats," she says.

To be sure, that is a theme echoed by many Putin-friendly politicians, from Hanson - who has made alienating comments to Muslims - to Trump, who came to power declaring the US in decline.

Poisoning the Well of Democracy

In this way, the use of propaganda is not to win the battle of ideas, such as was seen in the 20th century, but to prevent productive discussion from happening in democracies at all.

Call it the "poison the well" approach.

Russian propaganda is "destructive, not productive", the Rand Corporation's Christopher Paul told Fairfax Media.

"They [the Russians] want to tear down truth, trust, credibility, discourse, and democracy," says Paul, co-author of the landmark "Firehose of falsehood" analysis, which details how high volumes of misinformation and fake news are used to distort and disrupt political debate.

"Sometimes they are seeking to create specific effects, but often they are just undermining the credibility of any and all information," he says.

Divide and Cripple

If a nation can't understand its own politics, the wheels of its democracy slow or even stop.

Rather than a longer-term strategic propaganda that relies on an alternative vision for the world, the propaganda effort today is more tactical, with the crosshairs moved to whatever controversy is likely to divide and confuse citizens.

The internet lowers the bar for entry to anyone with the will to use controversy and division to deceive and demoralise.

But unlike communist times, there is little to no alternative positive future to the messages promoted by Russia about democracy.

Instead, it is a relentlessly negative vision of the present, with citizens who need unity in the face of political challenges being constantly divided.

It may be too late for the United States where democracy is reduced to a fairy tale conveyed to grade school children but we may still have time to implement a democratic restoration in Canada. It would take a prime minister capable of perceiving the threat and with the vision and courage to respond to it in time. I wish the current prime minister had that stature and courage but what we've seen from him so far gives no cause for optimism. To suggest alternatives could be seen as counselling sedition so I'll go no further, not yet.


Jay Farquharson said...

A must read

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm pleased you found it worthwhile, Jay.

Jay Farquharson said...

It's an excellent, concise summary.

It should be manditory reading across Canada.

the salamander said...

.. as always, thanks Mound .. its been very evident for quite a while now, that you're likely the most significant indy 'lighthouse' warning Canadians of dangerous shoals, wicked rocks and truly confused weather.. amid disastrous climate 'evolution' - and that in fact we are all headed into uncharted waters..

I am measuring your disheartening message .. and wondering where the solution.. or even, what our 'heading' should be.. Since we don't know where our destination is.. how can we navigate there? What should we bring? Hell, should we be sailing on an ark? !

I will try to refind an interesting essay I came across recently. It was by an American professor and its thesis was that the Americas will need to drop the pretense of states and provinces etc.. or individual countries per se - and instead evolve toward geographic regions, determined more by realistic function, resources, realities - a more organic structuring. Thus there would be 6 or 8 loosely defined regions. I can't off the top of my head expain better.. but must say, it made a lot of sense.. or better said, it seemed a more likely distant reality. Forget trade deals, NATO, political parties and the like. This was about the reality that the eastern seabord bore little connection to the midwest or the west coast overall. The Great Lakes was about Americans & Canadians jointly. The Carribbean was just that. And so on.

I believe more and more we are at the abstract black tragi-comedy nadir of political parties.. They are so over, they are over.. toast.. they just don't realize how mutant, distorted & frightening they are becoming, no, have become. This is the of those of naked greed.. pissing in public on our leg and telling us its raining.. but what a fine day it is, and btw - can we count on your vote & please donate? They have our data, our voting record, & the police are onboard with them of course.. as are the government spy services, & in fact any agency they would like to employ secretly or via mainstream media to manage, massage or 'control the vote'

I have more dark thoughts about this Mound.. and must say as I head off to work on a Saturday to help a client & help pay my bills.. that your comment about 'sedition' put a smile on my face.. I am likely nearing 15,000 tweets, many of which are extremely critical of the status quo.. and my related comments via blogs I find invaluable.. are on the record. I do wish to study and if possible, butress the Charter of Rights.. the idea and reality of Canada & Canadians.. and at the very same time understand & defend those who came before us.. ie The First Nations .. and at the root of it all.. especially in that vast complex region known as 'Canada' understand and defend the astonishing life supporting complex of Environment, Habitat & Species ..

Put simpler.. to my last breath, I'll stand against the 'economics' espoused by political animals & related parasites. When my late great dog, a brilliant Bouvier de Flanders - The Mighty Quinn had fleas.. (hell we lived on a beach..) I might try a flea powder to provide so e relief.. but at some point I started at his head with tweezers & a metal comb.. and chased the clever cooties to the end.. the very tail. I belive that's where we are today Mound.. infested.. rats in the granary, mould on the bread.. and the water is rising..

John B. said...

A Russian who seeks power will eventually settle on a quest for the golden fish. Putin may have caught it.

Toby said...

salamander was probably referring to this. " the US really has 11 separate 'nations' with entirely different cultures"

This idea is an old one that gets rehashed every generation. Regardless, it does have merit. Alberta and BC seem to be on different planets.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sal, I think the way forward demands we first go back. Think of the neoliberal era as a deadend street that gets worse, more dangerous the further down it you proceed. The only way out is to backtrack. You have to imagine that earlier, better time before we were herded down this useless road. In my thinking that takes us back before the era of Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney, the trio who embraced Hayek and Friedman. Getting there doesn't bring us to some nirvana, anything but. It may be, however, the essential starting point for a restoration of progressive democracy.

Imagine the enormity of that challenge. Here we stand lashed to an economic system that doesn't serve the public interest and yet we double down on it. Trudeau acts as though he's never heard the warnings of the IMF, the World Bank and others that neoliberalism is destructive of democratic society. That boy has an endless capacity for cognitive dissonance or else he's much dimmer than we imagine. Yet it doesn't work. It has to go.

John Ralston Saul proclaimed free market fundamentalism a failed ideology back in 2005 in his book "The Collapse of Globalism." Saul noted that even flawed ideologies tend to have a shelf life of about 30 years. Neoliberalism is past due for a change. So, what's holding us back?

Our leaders are petrified of change, waiting for someone to serve up "the next great thing" on a platter. They're waiting for change but they're not seeking it. Taking that first step is made all the more terrifying by the difficult changes now setting in at home and especially around the world. And so we're stuck with the "devil you know" dilemma. Trudeau is immensely amiable but that should never be confused with either courage or vision. He is not his father.

I think we'll be waiting a very long time for the "next big thing" to arrive. That doesn't mean we have to abandon a progressive restoration. Whatever does come down the pike we'll be far better off if we rehabilitate liberal democracy before it arrives.

Part Two -

The Mound of Sound said...

Part Two

When I began this blog in 2006 I dedicated it to "the restoration of progressive democracy." I've come to realize that "progressive" is among the most misunderstood words in the realm of social and political sciences. It has a "feel good" quality that so many seek to cloak themselves in and yet many proudly self-proclaimed progressives treat it as a merit badge earned by not being as rightwing as the other party. They treat progressivism as a relative term adaptable to lists in the political keel. As Harper shifted Canada's political centre to the right, the Liberals and the New Democrats followed in trail. But, despite their pretensions, they didn't carry progressivism with them, they left it behind.

Progressivism is a collection of principles to guide political and social affairs. It's an instrument of good, popular government and social cohesion.

I've been delving into this subject in recent years, focusing on the Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin. Now I'm going back a bit further. I've just secured a first edition of the 1907 book "The Meaning of Modern Life: A Course of Forty Lectures" by Charles F. Horne. It's a lengthy tome in excellent condition for its 110 years and I scored it for a paltry $15. Something of a find.

The lectures or essays are by some of the great minds of that era - Theodore Roosevelt; Ira Remsen, President of John Hopkins University; Woodrow Wilson then President of Princeton; ax Nordau, President of Congress of Zionists; the legendary William Dean Howells, editor of "The Atlantic" and then "Dean of American Letters"; H.G.Wells; Grover Cleveland, Tolstoy; Andrew Carnegie; Caroline Hazard, Wellesley College; Simeon Baldwin and several others of that same stature. The level and diversity of intellect in this one thick book certainly seems daunting.

The lecture titles reflect the scope of what I hope to learn: The Danger, The Beliefs, The Birth of Conscience, The Soul in Beasts, Our Country, the Making of the Nation; Patriotism and Politics; Our Past; Woman; Universal Suffrage; Society, the Role of Women in Society; Manhood; The Toilers, The Soil, Land and Its Ownership in the Past; Anarchism; War; Arbitration, The Mysteries; The Will; Our Hope; and Our Goal among them.

The book is a time capsule of progressive thought before the advent of modernism - world wars, the Great Depression, the labour movement, modern capitalism, universal suffrage and the brief rise of the middle class. I hope this will make the writing uncluttered, perhaps less compromised. We shall see.

The Mound of Sound said...

John, remember how that fable ends.

The Mound of Sound said...

I suspect you're right, Toby. That does seem to be what Sal was getting at. There do seem to be lines of demarcation by regions but the regions are tightly integrated in some respects that would be difficult to unravel. For example in the US the Blue States essentially underwrite the Red States. Chuck Thompson has a tongue-in-cheek yet serious discussion of a modern America severed by Blue and Red lines in "Better Off Without 'Em." The South could exist as a single political entity but it's hard to imagine any further dilution resulting in viable mini-states. Even a Red State America would have its haves and have-nots.