Politics in the New Normal

One of the major stories of the “new normal” is the expansion of economic rights and freedoms parallel to a contraction of the sphere of political and civil rights and freedoms. Democracy is being recast and redefined as an economic system, rather than a political system.

This isn’t just an accident. It has been deliberate policy. And it reflects the reactionary mood of Late Modernity.

What is a reactionary? In political terms, and in the context of Modern history, a reactionary has always expressed someone with a strong antipathy to the principles of the French Revolution, and has ever sought to roll back those principles — to reverse history.  Generally, Edmund Burke has been considered to be the father of modern Conservatism, and his antipathy to the principles of the French Revolution, expressed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, has been a cornerstone document of Anglospheric Conservatism, along with the writings of Joseph de Maistre on the European continent.

The cornerstone of political conservatism has been repugnance and disdain for public participation in the political process, which generally has gone by the name “liberalism”. Politics should be left to the “adults”, who, of course, conservatives consider themselves to be. Neo-conservatism is, if anything, an even more radical attempt to rollback history, reflecting William Buckley Jr’s sentiment that a conservative is someone who stands athwart the railroad track of history yelling “Stop!”.

That sentiment is equally expressed in Margaret Thatcher’s TINA principle (“There Is No Alternative”) and her controversial statement that “there is no such thing as society” as a political unit in its own right. Standing athwart the railway track of history yelling “Stop!” was the sentiment behind Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” too. And even more reactionary neo-conservatives or neo-liberals, like Robert Kaplan, would prefer to see the last 2,000 years of history rolled back along with the restitution of something akin to the Roman Empire, which is, of course, fascism (see his “Was Democracy Just a Moment?“)

The antipathy towards public participation in democratic decision-making, assumed to be a principle and a human right since the French Revolution, is also reflected in the musings of neo-imperialist Niall Ferguson, who advocated a system of maximum economic freedoms but with no political or civic freedoms. In effect, that is the “Pinochet model” as it was implemented in Chile with the help of the Friedmanites of the Chicago School of neo-liberal economists.

My first encounter with the terms “New Right” (or “New Left”, for that matter) was in studying the rise of fascism in Europe after the First World War. The “New Conservative” in post-war Germany was a reactionary movement that blamed all of Europe’s troubles on the French Revolution and sought a means to roll it back. Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy both rose to power aided and abetted by these “New Conservatives” who believed that they saw in Hitler or Mussloini the instruments and agents for accomplishing this and for restoration of an ancien regime, a “natural” political hierarchy and orders of rank, or what Edmund Burke had called “the natural order of things” that the French Revolution had ostensibly disrupted and had produced, instead, political and social chaos with its premises of “liberty, equality, fraternity”.

The role of these “new conservatives” in enabling Hitler’s rise to power — serving as “useful idiots” themselves, as it were — is fairly well-known, if frequently denied and deflected. Even the appeasement policy of English conservatives was largely owing to their own antipathy to political democracy and their hopes for a restoration of the old order of things.

The “New Left” emerged in Germany as a counter to the New Right, but also as a critique of Stalinism. “The Frankfurt School“, as it is also generally known or “Critical Theory” is largely known in the names Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, or Max Horkheimer. With the rise of Hitler in Germany, the Frankfurt School was relocated to the United States, where these authors became very influential during the sixties, while another German exile, Leo Strauss, became very influential in neo-conservative and New Right circles.

At the root, though, is the continuing controversy about the French Revolution. “Left” and “Right” (as well as the term “reactionary” itself) emerged as terms in the context of the French Revolution. They referred to the seating arrangements on either side of the Speaker of the French National Assembly. Those on the “left” of the speaker thought the revolution had not gone far enough, while those on the “right” of the speaker thought it had already gone too far. Ever since, the “left” has been associated with those who wish to continue la Revolution and the political role of Le Peuple, and the right with those who wish to roll it back.

Nietzsche was ambivalent about democracy, and that ambivalence expresses the ambivalence about the value of democracy in contemporary politics. The faith of the liberal or the left was that political democracy would ennoble the individual, elevating the individual above a mere “state of nature” the more the individual assumed responsibility for “self-governance”. The conviction of the conservative was that, instead, political or liberal democracy would vulgarise or “level” the “higher” ideals and values of civilisation that was made manifest in hierarchy and orders of rank. In other words, instead of ennoblement, political democracy would debase and corrupt.

The experiment in political democracy and “self-rule” appears to have had mixed results, in those terms, but a large part of “post-modern thinking” is the conviction that the Modern Project — the experiment in political democracy — has been a failure. And this is very much the political controversy being played out in Canada right now.

Partisans of “participatory democracy” are arrayed on the left, while partisans of “executive democracy” are arrayed on the right, in the new “Conservative Party of Canada” under the leadership of current Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In effect, “participatory democracy” and “executive democracy” are in stark contradiction. “Executive democracy” is only a euphemism for authoritarian styles of politics, and Mr. Harper’s relative political success reflects a growing disillusionment with political democracy itself. The purging of the “progressive” faction from the old Progressive Conservative Party is proof enough of the reactionary character of Mr. Harper’s style of politics. And although Mr. Harper pays lip-service to principles of democracy, it’s not political democracy (which he despises) — it’s economic democracy or “wallet” democracy.

Mr. Harper is gambling that most Canadians won’t miss their political and civic rights as long as they have “bread and circuses” and expanded economic freedoms instead. But, in this respect, Mr. Harper and his Conservative Party are simply a symptom of a broader malaise at our “end of history” — the end of “the Modern Project” of its “Grand Narrative” and a renewed effort in “the new normal” to rollback the broader political principles established in the French Revolution.

A loss of confidence in political democracy and in the actual possibility of true “self-government” is the fuller meaning of the “end of the Modern Project” — the devaluation of the term “liberal”, the devaluation of the term “citizen”, the devaluation of Reason itself, and the devaluation of the European Enlightenment, even the devaluation of the humanities. The “nihilism” of our time, expressed as so many devaluations of values, is largely a reflection of the disdain for the experiment in political democracy.

And whether the “new normal” is just an uncomfortable hiccough in the course of events or the real end-game of the historical experiment in political democracy and “the Modern Project” is difficult to discern at the moment.

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4 responses to “Politics in the New Normal”

  1. davidm58 says :

    I like Peter Pogany’s framing of the stages of recent world history as Global System 0, Global System 1 (GS1), Global System 2 (GS2), and Global System 3 (GS3), as I have discussed here. Each of these can be considered sub-epochs within modernity or the mental-rational stage of consciousness. Pogany saw these world systems as self-organizing systems, and the people embedded in them are so embedded socially, culturally, spiritually, etc. that it becomes their ‘myth of the given’ or ‘fallacy of mis-placed concreteness.’ They can’t see other ways of being or organizing and the system itself reinforces what contributes to the system and squeezes out opposing forces and ideas. Therefore it’s very difficult to change the system. As per Gebser, system change only happens when the existing system goes into decay, and through a chaotic transition the next oncoming system “overdetermines” the previous system.

    Also, you can see a kind of progression or cultural evolution through these different stages, gradually becoming more like an evolved, mature, dynamic ecosystem where dominator species do not thrive, and collaborative species thrive more and more. Though it’s not a gradual progression, it is more like a series of abrupt bifurcations, along the lines Gebser outlined.

    GS0 is prior to the establishment of a Global System, but some trends in that direction were beginning to show.

    GS1: “By the end of the 18th century, cultural evolution demanded global-scale organization to maintain its accelerating mode. The chaotic transition began with the French Revolution…,” according to Pogany. It appears that folks like Edmund Burke were more inclined to favor staying with GS0 rather than continuing the turmoil observed during this time of chaos. Ultimate outcomes of these chaotic transitions are never certain. However, this chaotic transition ultimately “led to the establishment of the world’s first global system (GS1), characterized by laissez faire and metal money. It lasted from approximately 1834…until the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914.” (Pogany quotes from his paper on Fifth Structure Emergence in Economics).
    This was a step forward for its time, but it eventually became deficient.
    GS2: “The period 1914-1945 was another chaotic transition [two world wars and the Great Depression] that brought the second and current global system (GS2) –mixed economy/weak multilateralism — into existence.”

    This was another step forward, where Keynes’ economic ideas incorporated by F.D.R’s administration helped put the brakes on un-restrained (“free market”) capitalism and put in processes that cared for the less fortunate, providing a social safety net, etc.

    However, GS2 has been in a deficient state since the mid-seventies (see Erik Lindberg’s article). Pogany again:
    “At present, physical limits are beginning to slow cultural evolution. Its demand for free (accessible) energy (in the form of low entropy matter and energy carriers), and capacity to absorb pollution are coming into conflict with nonexpendable terrestrial constraints. As a consequence, the world has either entered or is on the verge of entering another period of chaotic transition.
    A new global system (GS3). two-level economy/strong multilateralism, will be needed to create a sustainable balance between culture and humanity’s ecological niche. Micro-activities will have to be made legally subject to globally-determined and nationally allocated macro-constraints. The required transformation of individual behavior and institutions will be vast.” [Here referring to integral consciousness.]

    With the above frame we can characterize the Reagan Revolution republicans, Margaret Thatcher, tea partiers, neo-liberals and neo-conservatives, Donald Trump, etc. as groups of people who think that the way to solve the current deficient state is to get us back to un-regulated free market capitalism (GS1). They achieve success every time they roll back the New Deal/Great Society programs. They are quite mistaken in their goals – the way back is not the way forward.

    We can also characterize the vast majority of liberal/progressive thought as trying to shore up and restore the accomplishments of the New Deal and Great Society. This line of thinking is well represented by folks like Robert Reich and Paul Krugman in the U.S.. No, we don’t want the perfect to become the enemy of this good – we must acknowledge that this line of thinking is light years ahead of the GS1 stage. But they are also mistaken in thinking this move will reverse the current deficient stage we’re in.

    Lindberg again: “As Paul Krugman has exclaimed at the prospect of repeating the post-war economic miracle, “If they could do it then, we should be able to repeat their achievement.”[i] The logic is graceful but fallacious. None of this is necessarily true. At best, its falsehoods were held at bay for a couple of hundred years by vast ecological margins. As I will later suggest, these liberal and progressive fixtures of faith are true only when society is in a growth or expansion phase, when energy and resources are so abundant as to appear limitless.”

    Peter Pogany, Fifth Structure Emergence in Economics: http://www.humanthermodynamics.com/Fifth_Structure_Emergence_in_Economics.pdf

    Erik Lindberg, One and Half Cheers for Bernie: Decision 2016 and the (Deep) Sustainability Agenda:
    http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-09-18/one-and-half-cheers-for-bernie-decision-2016-and-the-deep-sustainability-agenda

    • Scott Preston says :

      “As I will later suggest, these liberal and progressive fixtures of faith are true only when society is in a growth or expansion phase, when energy and resources are so abundant as to appear limitless.”

      Lindberg’s comments here sort of anticipate what I was considering as posting as Part II of “Politics in the New Normal” while drawing in the old “nature versus nurture” debate. The enthusiasm of the French liberals for the Age of Reason was probably best expressed by the Marquis de Condorcet, who waxed eloquent about “the infinite perfectibility of man” and the notion of an endless progress that is contained in that sentiment. But it clashed with the conservative view of the constraints of what they took to be “human nature”, so there is certainly a long historical (and still unresolved) controversy about “nurture” or “nature”, which seems to be rather sterile today.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    From Robert Kaplan’s article: “Was Democracy Just a Moment”:

    “Democracy in the United States is at greater risk than ever before, and from obscure sources.”

    Oh, it’s far more than democracy that is at great risk in the United States.

    If not all of the developing and underdeveloped world, the vast majority of them, consist of most politically unsophisticated masses. Until not too long ago, the United States was the last formidable obstacle against the global grip of Money Changers on these masses; the last true trophy of which became the end of the British colonial rule in India, where from behind the scenes, the American government had been putting ceaseless pressure on the British government to end its colonial rule.

    But the United States can no longer claim that she still plays such a role. Just look at the latest nuclear deal between the West and Iranians, which basically did not ascertain any conditions on the violations of human rights in that country. What a slip and downfall for the United States from only some 70 years ago. But of course, it was an Ashkenazi, Caspar Weinberger, who did not give the order to tear up the regime of mullahs to begin with:

    So, Robert Kaplan is disingenuous to say that there are “obscure sources” that put the democracy at risk in the United States. Not only they are not obscure, they occupy some of the highest offices in the U.S. government.

    Kaplan then gives a vague quote from Reinhold Neibuhr:

    “The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also . . . brought us into a vast web of history in which other wills, running in oblique or contrasting directions to our own, inevitably hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire.”

    “Other wills”? What on earth is that supposed to mean? 🙂

    I mean I don’t have children. But if he had children and his children asked him about such things, what would he say? “Look kid, there are ‘other wills’ that are at play here.” 🙂

    No, seriously, Kaplan’s article is avoiding the main issue that politics, by its very nature of compromises and negotiations sidesteps challenging head on and defeating the network of “new liberals” and “new conservatives” (all of whom, by the way and interestingly, come from the same Money Changer cloth).

    Defeating anti-populace networks of any kind is a prerequisite for genuine politics of democracy to bear its fruit. But if “wallet democracy,” as just one of those anti-democratic networks, is not challenged and defeated first, the rest of politics of democracy becomes a wild goose chase, and the people shall have democracy when pigs fly.

    I saw “Pacific Rim” at least twice in Kaplan’s article. So, I ‘ve provided a link here to that very entertaining movie by the same name (Internet explore may not work with this link. Google Chrome is much better):

    Sorry, Chief. I couldn’t resist 🙂

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