Monday, November 11, 2013

An Interesting Analysis Of The Recent Scandals

In reading the following article from Global Research: The "Scandalization" of Canadian Politics:  The Hard Truths of Neoliberal Conservatism,   I found myself agreeing with the author on some points, but substantially disagreeing with the extrapolations being drawn from the basic evidence.

If I were to distill this entire article down to its essence, it is very much the "Panem et Circenses" hypothesis applied to current neoliberal politics in Canada.  In short, the power players in (and just behind the veil) of Canadian politics are creating and using these scandals as a way to divert Canadians from the actual policies that are being implemented.
We are talking about much more than a few incidental scandals. More and more of what goes by ‘politics’ according to the media – statecraft, elections, parliamentary debates – is taken over by endless ‘revelations’ about individuals, their personal failings or corrupt practices. Political conflict takes the form of duels between individual establishment figures: politicians, newspaper editors, radio hosts, and police chiefs. We all fill social media sites with our own views about who we think are the good guys in this gladiator sport.
The metaphor of 'panem et circenses' is quite apt.  There can be no doubt that the Senate Expenses Scandal has provided months of high political theatre, and Rob Ford's implosion the last week or so has certainly been entertaining, if tragic on a human level.

The blogosphere has been alive with commentary on both subjects, and rightly so.

Why apolitical rebellion? Rimbert and Keucheyan argue that when media-fuelled scandals occupy our attention, the air seethes with schadenfreude about the powerful. Yet this resentment often remains passive: private rather than collective and focused on individual misgivings instead of systemic corruption. 
All this explains why scandal risks pushing politics into a conservative direction. This is particularly the case in times of deep economic, social and ecological uncertainty, such as ours. Scandal can hit the ‘left,’ ‘centre’ or the ‘right.’ Yet in all cases, the danger is that politics is reduced to morality contest while systemic corruption remains intact. Names and personalities change but policies and structures of power are not questioned.
I will partially agree with the authors here.  There is no doubt in my mind that when voters disengage from the political sphere, it is the far right which benefits.  We've seen this in Alberta for years where voter turnouts are chronically low at both the provincial and federal levels and the running joke on the street is that you can get a bale of hay elected if you slap a conservative banner on it.

The political right has been very successful in exploiting voter apathy since the early 1990s in Canada.  The rise of "populist" politics in Canada's prairie provinces (e.g. the Reform movement in the 1980s) plays very much on voter apathy.  These movements do not invite discourse, but rather they are the "religious fundamentalist" of politics.  They adopt hardline positions and push them constantly rather than engaging in actual discourse.  Sooner or later, more moderate voters disengage for the same reason that people don't discuss theology with fundamentalists.

More recently, we saw this in the CPC policy convention in Calgary, where the hardline base once again pushed through policy directives which play to their views - overriding more moderate positions that the party had taken in order to seem "appealing" to mainstream voters.

Interestingly, I disagree with the author's claim that scandal results in passive disengagement, at least in the situation in Canada.  The response in Canada to both the Senate Scandal and the Ford Implosion has been for the disengaged to start engaging and taking a closer look at what is going on and begin formulating actual opinions about what is going on.
What is worse, scandal evokes desires to ‘clean up the mess’ by means of authoritarian intervention. Problems with elected politicians? Bring in the RCMP or the Police Chief to restore order. Yes, the very RCMP whose legitimacy is actively in question because of their role in cracking down on political protests and clearing the path of resource companies when First Nations attempt to defend their land, as the Mikmaq of Elsipogtog have been doing. Yes, the same Toronto Police force that, Rinaldo Walcott urges us to remember, “constantly stops, questions and cards black people and aboriginal people with less evidence of suspicious activity than warrant documents concerning Ford and Lisi reveal.”[3] 
Here's the second place that the author's argument starts to go off the rails.   First, I think the author has misunderstood the situations that are cited as examples of why the police should be considered "suspect".  The G8/G20 protest handling was so clearly driven by Harper's authoritarian streak that we are far better to look at it as a function of the political power structure manipulating the police rather than the police themselves.  At lower levels, there is no doubt that the orders from on high were interpreted as a license to engage in much harsher terms than we have seen in the past, but I suspect strongly that if you followed it through, you would find that orders came down from the PMO, no doubt with a "carrot-and-stick" incentive thrown in for compliance.

I have little doubt that Elispogtog was much different.  In fact, I would argue that Elsipogtog is far better understood through the lens of Corrupt Neoliberalism:  Corporatocracy, than as a direct failure of the police.  We already know that Harper has exerted considerable direct political control over the RCMP's top levels, and as the G8/G20 events demonstrated, Harper would not hesitate to use those tools to suppress protesters.

So, if I come back around to the Senate Expenses scandal, and the referral of it to the RCMP, I think what we really have is Harper attempting to bury the issue using the most expedient tools possible.  In general terms, police will not comment on an active investigation publicly, nor will a politician's office.  By creating a criminal investigation, Harper (theoretically) gagged every major player in the discussion ... except that he miscalculated Mike Duffy's response.  Harper assumed that Duffy would play along and be quiet in return for a bit of "hush money".  A poor assumption apparently, as Duffy has chosen to fight back after being thrown under the Harper bus.

With respect to the Rob Ford situation, I am much less familiar with the Toronto Police force and the politics of it.  I don't doubt that there are problems with implicit or even explicit racism in the actions of the GTO police force.  Ever since 9/11, racial profiling has become a tool of law enforcement agencies across the continent.  Yes, this does need to be addressed, and it does represent a serious problem.  However, it does not present actual evidence that the ability of the Toronto Police to carry out a serious criminal investigation has been compromised.  Again, I have little doubt that the Fords hoped (beyond reason, it would seem) that the police would carry out their investigation, arrest a few drug dealers and gang members and the whole mess would go away.  It didn't.  Instead, the police appear to have done their job quite thoroughly and the implication is that the Mayor himself is linked to illicit (if not outright illegal) gang activity.

While I agree that the events cited do mean that we have to be careful in our interpretation of police activities, I do not think that we can simply discount the Senate and Ford investigations as mere political chicanery based on those other events - it is simply an unreasonable extrapolation.  Every so often, attempts to bury things by creating an investigation backfire - both Harper and Ford have encountered this very reality, by their own hands no less, as the evidence keeps leading to their front doorsteps.
Scandalized politics is dangerous in more ways than one, particularly when it is connected to a surge of populist politics.[14] For progressives, radicals and the left, scandal is dangerous because it can keep popular anger passive and foster cynicism. Worse, it can deepen the desires for authoritarian solutions right-wing populism has been cultivating for decades. 
Again, the author is making a questionable extrapolation.  He is confusing the desire on the part of leaders like Harper to implement authoritarian solutions with the public's desires.  Harper has shown himself to be an authoritarian many times in the past.  His desire to use those kinds of solutions to "make a problem go away" is no surprise.  However, to assume that the broader body of the public believes that such solutions are the desirable approach is very questionable.

I think that in Alberta, we have seen the great irony of that populist authoritarianism come to the surface with the so-called "distracted driving" law that was rammed in a few years ago.  In theory, this law is supposed to stop drivers from doing things while behind the wheel that take their attention away from driving (e.g.  Using a cell phone, eating a hamburger, shaving, whatever).  This law is so overreaching that most people have long since tuned it out.  The definition of "distraction" is so broad, so imprecise, that just about anything except having your hands on the wheel is considered "distracted".  The result - compliance is low, enforcement is ... well ... spotty.  What does the province think an answer is?  Oh, well, they're going to stiffen the penalties.

Is it the public that is seeking stiffer penalties?  No.  It is the knee jerk reaction of a right-wing politic that seems to think that punishment is deterrent.

Does scandal result in disengagement?  Quite the contrary, I would argue.  After a long period of relative indifference, we are seeing Canadians taking a look at the issues in the light of politicians who are themselves corrupt, cynical and manipulative.  A quick survey of the comments sections in news sites shows more people critiquing Harper and his policies than we have seen since 2006.

Not being a resident of Toronto, I really don't see enough of what Ford and his allies are pushing to really comment on his policies.  What little I have seen simply demonstrates what I always thought about Alberta's Ralph Klein - a man of limited intellect who somehow manages to buffalo enough people into thinking he's a "right good guy" (in the 'I drink with people like that all the time' scheme of things).  Ford seems to be cut from similar cloth, although with a much harsher nasty streak in him that Klein didn't have.

At the end of the day, while there is a "bread and circuses" aspect to the current scandals, I do not believe that either Harper or Rob Ford and their power brokers are organizing these scandals as a means to foster disengagement or to distract the public from what they are doing in office.  I think that both of the current scandals represent the consequences of their activities escaping their ability to explicitly control all of the variables in the increasingly complex stories they are weaving.  Further, I do not believe that they fully understand the impact of the Internet's elephantine memory.

The author is correct about two fundamental points though:

1.  Far right politics gains the most from a disengaged electorate.  (why else do you think the HarperCon$ played the Robocall game in 2011?)

2.  Harper and his allies (like Rob Ford) have been diligently working to undermine our system of government for their own benefit.  

1 comment:

the salamander said...

.. Excellent.. simply excellent essay/article ..
Will review it again.. and absorb further .. !