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.