Friday, March 16, 2007

On Freedom & Violence

One of the central arguments of this blog in the past few months has been that the disconnect between elite and public opinion on issues of economic, foreign, and military policy are evidence of a systemic deficiency entrenched in the heart of American (and, by no coincidence, European) democracy. Sociologist William I. Robinson has called the American system "low-intensity democracy"; the democracy America "promotes", by means diplomatic and military are, therefore, correspondingly superficial.

Perhaps it is obvious at this point to most of my readers that the bromidic self-infatuation of neoconservatives and their like-minded "liberal internationalists", who have, quietly, pushed out most opposition in the executive and legislative halls of power could not possibly be sincere. Sovereignty and democracy couldn't be goals of the Iraq invasion. Any kind of democratically-elected Iraqi government, free of foreign influence, would see a law like the one governing Iraqi hydrocarbons, designed by foreign oil companies and the US and British Governments, as detrimental to the country's already poor economic situation, not to mention its sovereignty. The response to a democratic election in Palestine, yielding a victory for Hamas, has also been instructive: democracy is only valid when it benefits US (and, where applicable, Israeli) interests. All other democracy is unacceptable, and should be crushed.

This approach is not specific to the Middle East. Low-intensity democracy, as per Robinson, is not only a domestic reality--it is the model that elite US interests would like to impose on all other countries. The veil of popular participation is a boon to interests that would like to separate all true decision-making from the democratic process, allowing, as it does the vague sense of a better future--thus the important role played by liberals, as I have noted. Some real manifestations of this system would be a government that responds to public disgust and rejection of an illegal war by escalating that war, or a government that, in times of expanding wealth divides and crushing poverty, furthers the very policies that created the situation in the first place.

For instance, a $9 trillion national debt, a good portion of which finances the aforementioned unpopular and illegal war, will indeed have to be paid over time at some point in the future. Like a previously hidden flat tax (by amount, not rate), servicing such a national debt have dire effects imposed on a population that with already negative savings (this is not to mention the coming period of stagflation which many believe to be unavoidable). Flat taxes (by rate) are seen by many as among the most regressive forms of taxation possible. A flat tax by amount isn't even discussed, because it would be even more crushing on non-wealthy classes, and hence politically suicidal (even in a low-intensity democracy). But, by stealth, a national debt functions as just such a flat tax. Did anyone ever vote for it?

The economic future of the West seems grim, and that is largely caused by the lack of meaningful democratic choices on economic issues. If voters think that the billions in tax cuts, loopholes, and subsidies for particular industries with little public accountability or transparency should instead go towards meeting employment, environmental, educational, and health care needs, for whom can they vote? What effect can be expected of a Democratic Congress? What reward can they expect? A slightly higher but still sub-poverty minimum wage?

If a voter does not support the uncontested flow of taxpayer dollars into the violation of international law, by the state itself and its most prized allies, for whom can they vote? If a voter doesn't like paying for a war in which his/her child, or neighbor's child, is killing and dying, for whom can they vote? Or should they just shut up?

Decision-making, the province of true democracy, cannot be accountable to public will for the corporate project to proceed. For economic (and foreign) policy to be molded to the generation of ever-higher profits at the expense of the environment and human lives, at some level people can't have control over their governments. Votes are no longer for economic or foreign policy (if they were, most western countries would be significantly further left than the left wings of their avowedly left parties), thus the rise in import of "cultural" issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the like. The focus of political debate on bigotry, from Islamophobia to the emergence of nativist anti-immigration sentiment, homophobia, latent institutional racism in the criminal justice system and so on can be connected quite effortlessly to this decline in democratic choice, as it was in the interwar period in several European nations (current far-right parties may overtly draw inspiration from these precedents). The focus of political discourse on hatred is a common diversionary tactic in times of incompetence, impotence and corruption. Neoliberalism and racism, corporate interests and violence are umbilically connected.

In some possible world, all of this would perhaps be acceptable if the current economic model, empowering private tyrannies, were capable of creating economic and international stability. Thus far, contrary to the pretensions of free market devotees, the track record is one of minimal success. Why? Scholar John McMurtry says this:

The deepest confusion is the equation of private money stocks to “capital”. Real capital is wealth that produces more wealth - from ecological services and social infrastructures to scientific knowledge and technologies that produce life goods. All have been subjugated to private money-capital which produces nothing. Few recognize that money-capital is not real capital, but demand on real capital by private money-stocks seeking to be more. So every form of life capital is sacrificed to the growth of money capital concentrated in in the possession of about 2% of the population who always have more than the bottom 90%. This is not an economic order, but a system of predatory waste called “wealth creation”.

There would be less cause for alarm if any governments (besides the oft-mentioned and sadly marginal Latin American exceptions) were attempting to turn back this tide of plutocracy and imperialism. Of course, they are not, and the elite fealty to the growth of corporate profit, which at the same time externalizes environmental and human costs, has only had the effect of deepening existing inequalities--accordingly, the future is not hard to forecast. State failure may indeed have a strong correlation to market failure

The absence of economic security does not bode well for the possibilities of economic and political democratization in the coming decades. Perhaps it is this very paradox that characterizes the aims of reactionary governments like that of the United States; its economic policy benefits its own "base", which also laying the ground for a further curtailment of the moribund American democracy/simultaneous seizure of power. In his January 11, 1944 State of the Union address, FDR said as much:

"True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made."

Something to think about.

14 comments:

Beneficent Allah said...

I love it when you talk tax.

The ACTUAL God said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alexander said...

Rod,
A really great post, but as someone that has lived for the last 6 months in Latin America, I'd be interested to get your elaboration on the marginalized latin-american exceptions to the American corporatist state. It seems to me that most Latin American governments, however nominally committed to populist agendas, are as self-interested as any low-intensity democracy. More to the point, voters under these governments are as ill-informed about the issues as American voters. What's the difference between a government that ignores its constituent demands (while sustaining the legitimacy of its "redress" in the form of broad platitudes) and a constituency that has virtually no practical policy information? Neither option offer the possibility of voters' policy preferences being transformed into policies.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the Latin-American case.

the actual rod said...

Alexander, of course you're right that voter input in the (generalized) case that I cite as an exception is still mostly a myth, but I think that comparatively there is are some movements at least along what are (or rather may be) the edges of participatory democracy. Examples that I have cited elsewhere, and others have described in lucid detail, include the Venezuelan government's communal council program and loan programs for cooperatives, especially in poor areas. I mention the latter (in the same breath as worker cooperatives in Argentina, for instance) because having democratic influence over economic life is essentially the issue at hand in the Global South (probably everywhere). Also, I've said before that I'm no expert on Latin American political movements, but from what I've read and researched, movements like MST in Brazil and the coalitions that have brought Morales and Correa to power do seem to have genuinely transformative aims. Internally, I don't know much about the structure of indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador, but I know that MST stresses that they won't operate where they have to direct land occupations, and that they just provide a framework for the landless to organize and coordinate expropriation. This sort of thing seems to be forcing a previously marginalized rural peasantry into political action. In Bolivia there also seems to be real political action taking place on the part of people who the European elite had written out of the political system before.

In the periphery of the Mexican state, namely Chiapas and for awhile in Oaxaca we also have examples of democratic systems functioning in a way that low-intensity democracy in the metropole wouldn't dream of--of course people in Chiapas are very poor, but that doesn't seem to have stopped them from taking control of their lives. These are all steps, obviously, and as I said they're at best just on the edges of participatory democracy...raising political/class consciousness and the confidence in a powerless group that it can govern itself takes time. The anarchist movement in Spain was going for 70 years before the revolution. And I'd stress that we can't expect deliverance from government (as is perhaps genetically engrained in among intellectuals), but rather in spite of it. I think that a number of Latin American movements prove that. They helped re-elect Lula in Brazil just as they were fighting against his complacency on land movement and a host of structural/monetary issues, for instance.

Maybe you can elaborate on the internal structures of political movements that appear to be agitating for more participatory democracy. Are they encouraging debate or are they controlled by elites?? &c.

Dan said...

Rod, we want commentary on the British hostage situation. well, at least I do

Mr.Wrongway said...

i do to.

KINGSPAWN said...

trained monkey
monkey train
run trains on a monkey
monkey train

train a monkey
go spelunking
rage

Benefic Allah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the actual rod said...

dude i'm on vacation, just chill

Beneficent Allah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beneficent Allah said...

I just wanted to point out that that was not me. But I have a poll for your (albeit semited) readership:

Who would make it rain the hardest in the Bush administration?

I think Condi.

But Cheney never make it rain...he like Southern California.

mr. wrongway said...

i think gonzales would make it rain harder than condi, but only if you got him really drunk.

Beneficent Allah said...

Cher rod,

S'il te plait, updater bientot! Je suis pas capable de me masturber sans avoir lit tes commentaires sur le monde politique. Au moins, met un photo...genre "cum-shot" si c'est possible

ben said...

I haven't checked your blog in ages, so I've got a bunch of reading to do. This is a pretty excellent article - if somewhat exasperating to read (the truth is painful). Anyway, FDR was right in principle, but he couldn't have seen it coming: pink is the new black, and manufactured consent is the new totalitarianism. You should keep updating this blog.