Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Smoke Screens

        Mr. Harper is at it again: making cheap appeals to his populist base (one wonders if this is a conscious strategy on the part of him and his handlers or an simply unconscious political reflex). Be that as it may..

        Here's how it works. You appeal to your base: their vote has to be assured. Québec, on the other hand has probably been written off as a lost cause by the Harper team (more on this a bit later..)  Seeing the rightward shift in political and social attitudes taking place in Western societies, Harper and co. seem to be betting that mean-spirited, hairy chested populist demagogy will probably pick up more votes from the soft Right  than will be lost on the Left. And they are probably right..

        In the present context, Harper's most recent appeal to the populist base lies in his fufilling his electoral promise to eliminate the long gun registry - ONE promise he manages to keep at least!  His recent gaining of a parliamentary majority assures passage of the bill..

         Planified coup or savy political instinct, this vindictive move strikes deep into a core of resentment burning in the heart of the Canadian electorate. Lest we be accused of "Left wing bias", it is instructive to recall that the gun registry program, instituted by a Liberal government in the wake of the Montréal Polytechnique Massacre (6 Dec, 1989), soon degenerated into an obscene boondoggle, racking up unprecedented cost overruns during its implementation. To rub salt in the wounds of the taxpayer, no heads ever rolled over the cost overruns but the voters - and especially conservative, gun-owning rural voters - remembered. They remembered..

           Here is an example of the masterful manipulation of the rural / small town / suburban voter's smoldering resentment at being ripped off and imposed on by "big city crooked politicians". Note, especially, the tone of righteous indignation (justified) and deep sense of victimization (a perennial theme of populist militants): "These are good salt-of-the-earth people".

“They’re upstanding citizens who work hard. They take their kids and grandkids out hunting and shooting and those kids, by the way, probably aren’t involved in gangs in the streets,” she said.
“These are good salt-of-the-earth people and for so long they have had really nobody in government who has been able to make any changes on their behalf. So it really was very gratifying to know how thankful they were and how much it meant to them to have someone who was going to be promoting good policy, policy that was fair and wasn’t targeting them.”

                The depth of the anger and the sense of betrayal of the conservative, grassroots voter is probably reflected in the meanspirited, pyrrhic vindictiveness of the proposed legislation: Harper wants not merely to suspend the long gun registry but intends to destroy the data bases..

                As seems so often the case these past few decades, conservatives (especially neos) and reactionaries have reaped the fruits of years of liberal (small "l" liberal here) corruption and incompetence. Truth be known, neither the Right nor the Left in modern Western societies has much of a clue what to do next. All parties are in bed with the plutocrats who rule the world. Before the unfolding economic, ecological and climatological meltdown of our planet and its life support systems, they can offer nothing but platitudes ("economic growth", "fighting for democracy"), symbolic gestures ("Millennium Goals" of the United Nations), improvisation and - at the limit - the outright delusions of Magical Thinking:

“God is not capricious. He’s given us a creation that is dynamically stable. We are not going to run out of anything.”

               What the heck is he talking about: what does "dynamically stable" actually mean in the present context?? Can anyone tell me..

                 Since neither Left nor Right has a clue how to get us out of the quagmire (since both are products of the system that created the quagmire), they both lack any coherent Strategy ("game plan"). But the forces of reaction have one huge, short term advantage: Tactics. The Right knows no better than the Left what to do next but they are past masters of the fine art of public opinion manipulation. Lefties are - to strike a caricature - college profs and garrett intellectuals from the Arts and Humanities. They are not the real shakers and movers of modernity. They do not possess the tools, intellectual or otherwise, to effectively jerk the strings of the increasingly frightened and disoriented "masses". The real shakers and movers - the technicians, engineers, programmers, business types, PR men, admen, bureaucrats and technocrats - are basically, by blood and breeding, men of the Right. They understand the tools of mass manipulation: they invented them in the first place!

                 Thus, while Rome burns, our elites fiddle. The public's attention is deftly turned aside from the real problems our world faces: overpopulation, resource depletion, Peak Oil, the need to develop renewable energy sources and to learn to do things more efficiently, to learn to live with less in dignity and in justice.. Thus these pressing real, high priority, problems are never addressed. Instead, just as the Roman mob was given bread and circuses to entertain them, we too are given gory spectacles and entertainment. We are enroled in pseudo-crusades, so that we don't have the time or the courage to pose the really important questions. Instead we fight the terrors of abortion, family planning, gay marriage, the "liberal media bias", creeping secularism, humanism and socialism. Reality check: defeating family planning and abortion in Africa will likely lead to more deaths from malnutrition and the attendant political instability and warfare. We are provided abundant scapegoats to hate - liberals, "socialists", "secular humanists", "baby killers", "Islamofascists", "green nazis".. - all of course to divert our attention from the real issues and who really benefits from maintaining society on its suicidal course.

                  To return to the Canadian situation in conclusion, Harper's team have probably decided that Québec is a lost cause. The gun registry, let's not forget, was born in the aftermath of the infamous Dec 6, 1989, Montéal Polytechnique massacre of women students by a misogynist gunman who then took his own life. Québec will not therefore take the elimination of the long gun registry lightly. Above all, the province wants the info in the data bases referring to guns registered in Québec in order to create its own provincial registry. Harper's move to destroy the data bases may pander to the smoldering anger of his core constituents but can only outrage Québécois voters. Harper's legislation threatens to reopen old mutual incomprehensions between Québec and the rest of the country in order to obtain short term political gain. In the long run it may be the country as a whole that will have to pay the price of his political myopia.

Welcome aboard Anne!

Welcome aboard Anne. Please feel free to contribute: your ideas are surely welcome. And don't forget to suggest us to any friends you think might benefit from or be able to contribute to the discussion. The more the merrier - gotta break the apathy!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Budget Cutting: Cutting off your nose to spite your face

         Harping against the Harperites. Well, they are at it again, it seems. Breaking campaign promises. What is it this time?

          "Responsable government" - like they do what they say and what they do is relatively clean, honest, efficient, comptetent. Those are nice guide lines for responsable government.

            Does the current Conservative government in Ottawa live up to this definition?
             There is reason to believe the answer to this question is "no". A recent article from Canadians for Accountability points to a number of glaring inconsistencies in the Feds recent proposals to "reduce fat" in the bureaucracy.

               They propose paying a private accounting firm $20 million ($90,000 per day or the salary of about 45 people) to save money. On the surface it makes "sense", appealing to kneejerk populist anti-government sentiments. But, the author argues, does it really make sense, in either a financial, managerial or moral sense?

                 Firstly, private firms like Deloitte and Touche are, in reality, likely to be less responsible than the corps of professional bureaucrats who will have to live with the consequences of their policy choices. Outside "privateers" are more like to play the tune they know their clients expect and want to hear. They are therefore less likely to be objective and efficiency oriented than a duly delegated working group of  bureaucrats would be. 

"So why this expensive exercise? The most likely answer is the desire to give a veneer of validity, independence and authority to the findings... The government wants to be able to say, “Look, we don’t want to cut all these jobs. We don’t want to axe these programs. But the report says we have to."

                    In other words, "you gets what you pays for". Attempting to slough off what are essentially governmental functions on the private sector does not necessarily result in "efficiency", "savings", "performance" and the rest. Such decisions these days are - let's be honest - ideologically driven, not performance driven. We are being sold a used clunker with false papers that's been in a bad accident. Would you buy a used car from this man..

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fascism and optimism

            Fascism may seem a bit off topic. I do not think so, however. All indicators point to a dangerous Rightward shift in Western societies since the end of the second World War.  

             Following the dictum, "knowledge is power", I recently began an informal study of fascist / reactionary movements, both contemporary movements (the Christian Right) and those of mid-20th century vintage. The preliminary results of this research have turned out rather surprising, to say the least..

             In the first place, I never imagined that studying such an unpleasant aspect of modernity as fascism could possibly lead one to optimism (a "guarded optimism", admittedly, but still real optimism, however small).

             An informative, comparative analysis ("case studies") of three 20th century fascist movements is Roger Bourderon, Le fascisme, idéologie et pratiques, (Éditions sociales,  Paris, 1979). Unfortunately, I find no English translation. For an excellent empirical analysis of the psychology of authoritarianism / fascism see: Bob Altemeyer, The authoritarians (free, non-printable online version):

          In a nutshell, I consider "fascism" - in the most general sense of the term - one of the greatest dangers the world faces. It exacerbates all the other challenges we now face and is itself a source of great evil. I have always, even as a kid, wanted to defeat it and, to this end, seached for understanding (which never came). My "hypothesis" today is that most people - as Carl Jung claimed - are capable of both the highest good and the lowest evil. There are few exceptions: 1- those born saints and those "born evil": psychopaths / sociopaths (Lady MacBeth and Iago, the vilain of "Othello" are classical literary examples, Hitler is the stock historical example..)

           In reading Bourderon's text, I found the following - to me surprising - analysis (although in retrospect I got that delayed head-slap reaction: "Now, why the heck didn't I see that before! All the facts were at my disposal.. :-0) Bourderon, a historian, describes fascist ideologies as "un habit d'harlequin", a harlequin's / clown's costume, stitched together from disparate and often contradictory elements. This, of course, belies the apparent monolithic, absolutist, totalitarian face that fascism presents to the world. In effect, the party platforms of the three movements studied (Italian fascists, Nazis, Spanish phalangists) pitchforked together:

- borrowings from traditional Right and Extreme Right parties: appeals to "traditional values", Authority, nationalism, imperialism, militarism, appeals to church centered "compassionate conservatism"..

- contributions from liberal democracy (center Left / center Right of the political spectrum): defense of private property with special appeals to the small and medium sized business communities, importance of eduction as a means of upward social mobility (and "elite building")

- elements of "reform socialism" (Social Democracy, progressivism): exaltation of work and workers, denunciation of monopolies and profiteers, populist appeals to the "little people", public private partnerships for public services..

          The goal of fascist ideologues and militants alike is to appeal to the largest possible base of potential voters (populism). In this scam, everybody gets to hear something they want to hear! Inherent contradictions between the various positions and groups are papered over or simply ignored. This "patchwork quilt" nature of fascist platforms, in retrospect, fits well with long observed traits of the "authoritarian personality type" already noted by social psychologists in the years following WW II. Authoritarians are typically observed to lack internal psychological - and logical - consistency or integrity, for example in holding contrary views. Thus they are prone to "project" onto hated or vilified groups their own aggressivity and negativity. Antisemites warn us of the "dangers" of associating with the Jews they hate, fear and denigrate. "We gotta git 'im before they gits us"..

             Things get really interesting when you start to dig below the surface of the "harlequin's suit" motley of fascist movement party platforms. What positive program do fascists propose, for example? That is what are they trying to DO, what are their GOALS, what is their AGENDA (real or feigned)?

              Bourderon's convincing but surprising conclusion: nothing! There is at the heart, the core, of fascism and reactionary thinking a deep void, a vacuum, a nullity but this nullity is filled with hate and paranoid fear. (One can't help but be reminded of Neitzsche's puzzling but - apparently! - prophetic insight that the core of modernity was nihilistic "life-slander" combined with a toxic "psychology of resentment". It appears that reactionary / fascist thinking is not directed toward any positive goal but only against something.

              But what? "Marxism" (AKA "socialism", "social democracy", "liberal democracy", "liberalism"..) and "internationalism" (AKA "One-Worldism"). The goal of fascist populism ideology is to find -  or fabricate, if need be - hot button connections between "instinctive" mob behaviors and trigger words indicating targetted ethnic or social groups, political orientations, etc. Logical thought and serious critical analysis are to be avoided to the degree  this is possible. Thus rabid anti-intellectualism is cultivated as a public - if not "patriotic" - virtue: liberal college professors were denounced as "pinkos" (half-Reds) and "pinheads" (intellectually defective) by the extremist John Birch Society in the US during the infamous McCarthyite "anti-communist witchunts" of the 1950s and early 60s.

           Now, it is this very nullity of purpose at the heart of reactionary / fascist thinking that gives me room for a bit of hope.

1- the fact that they can propose nothing positive to the "Left agenda" is itself heartening. (It suggests there might not be any other serious game in town..)

2- the very intensity of their paranoia and vitriolic attacks tends to suggest that, down deep, they too intuitively understand that their horse is dead, that the race is likely over..