The Failure of Politics: Canada’s Dysfunctional Democracy

There’s nothing like a democratic election campaign to bring out the very worst in people. There’s nothing ennobling or virtuous about it. Post-Enlightenment politics is a vicious, nihilistic blood-sport — a tasteless, brawling mob politics. On these occasions (and year round) you begin to see clearly the ways in which truth and falsehood are made subordinate and servile to power-seeking conspiracies.  For that’s what a political party is or finally becomes — a power-seeking conspiracy against the whole. And since power-seeking politics in a democracy is a constant affair, the desecration of the truth never stops. It is constant. Winning or losing, which is the issue of power, will always subordinate truth and falsehood as either useful or unuseful to power.


You probably have already heard or read the quip: “Don’t bother me with the facts. My mind is made up!”. That pretty much describes the situation.

The growing disgust and revulsion which so many people feel for Late Modern politics and political campaigns expressed in the precipitous decline of voter participation rates is a symptom of the failure of politics — and not just in Canada, which is experiencing something of a crisis of democracy in a dysfunctional system of governance selection. Just a very few short years ago, voter participation rates in Canada were among the highest anywhere. Now that participation rate has plummeted to being amongst the lowest. Some pundits, seemingly anxious to prove that the party-system and democracy are working satisfactorily, not failing, have attributed the decline in the participation rate to a happy public complacency and a general satisfaction with the status quo. “I’m OK, Jack.” While there may be some modicum of truth to that, I suspect that revulsion has a much larger influence than is acknowledged.

Someone has taken the “polite” out of politics and the “civil” out of civilisation, not to mention the “parlez” out of parliament. All you need to do is compare the exquisite politesse of the chivalrous politics of the High Middle Ages to realise that Late Modern politics, especially since the First World War, is decadent, ignoble, and barbaric by contrast.

That contrast, though, is very instructive. It is not politics per se, but the failure of politics that is the issue, and that also is a further symptom of Jean Gebser’s mind of “deficient rationality” — the decadence of the ideal of a univeral reason which has come to think only in dualisms and antagonistic pairs of opposites — an exclusive “either/or” logic. “My way or the highway”. “You’re either with us or against us”. “Winners and losers.” The first past the post party-system is also a symptom of deficient rationality, and the failure of politics is equally symptomatic of the post-Enlightenment decadence of the ideals of “Universal Reason” and a civilisation of the dialogue now held in contempt, particularly by reactionary conservatives.

This is the rather more significant meaning of the Harper government’s being cited for contempt of Parliament recently, in a situation the precipitated the most recent vote of non-confidence which brought down the Conservative government. Contempt of Parliament means contempt for the principles of the civilisation of the dialogue.

“War is politics by other means”, wrote the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz.  It’s repeated so often now that it has been taken as a truism and as a justification for “total war”, and democratic elections and the contest of competing power-seekers have come to resemble total war. But the phrase “other means” hides something that is seldom made explicit. War and civil war is the failure of politics, and the failure of politics is the failure of dialogue. As Rosenstock-Huessy also described it, war is a disease of speech, a failure of language. This seeming utter inability to discern between politics and warfaring is another aspect of the mentality of “deficient rationality” — which is to say, mind become demented.

Violence, in other words, is the failure of politics, and the failure of politics is the failure of mind to master its circumstances. Consequently, the greater the sense of a “loss of control”, the greater the propensity to violence as a means of regaining a sense of mastery and control. This is one reason why Gebser (and Nietzsche, too) foresaw global catastrophe (or two centuries of nihilism) as the outcome of rationality and social institutions constructed by that rationality, now become defective and deficient in execution and performance.

Ultimately “demented” is what Jean Gebser wants us to understand by the term “deficient rationality” (and, indeed, Gurdjieff used the term “psychosis” to much the same purpose). And this has much the same significance as “the crisis of control” referred to in earlier posts about our present situation — mind no longer able to master the circumstances it has largely spun from out of itself. And under such duress and stress in the face of loss of mastery, mind reverts to deficient forms of magical thinking and myth in an attempt to compensate.

Fascism, which is less ideology than it is myth and magical thinking, has been the form this atavistic reaction has typically taken hitherto.

The problem of governance and governance selection is increasingly one further aspect of the deficient rationality of Late Modernity, and one that is presently particularly exemplified in the party formations and the deportment of the principal contenders for the government of Canada. It increasingly comes to resemble what the curmudgeonly H. L. Mencken once said of it,

“Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses” (from The Watchful Eye)

“[D]emocracy gives [the beatification of mediocrity] a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth. The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world – that he is genuinely running things. Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power – which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy. And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters – which is what makes United States Senators, fortune tellers and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy.” — (From the Wikipedia entry on H. L. Mencken)

Mencken, by the way, early appreciated the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and it shows in some of the quotes attributed to him. He even wrote a book about Nietzsche, which I have, but still unread. So I can’t say whether his appreciation of Nietzsche’s thought may not be as flawed as other interpreters. Some of his quotes, though, are priceless.

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