Behind the Mask of the ‘Moderates’
TORONTO—Pity Canada. Its citizens watch the stages of U.S. decline and then, a few years later, inflict on themselves the same cruelties. It is as if the snuffing out of democracy across the globe and the rise of authoritarian regimes are a preordained Greek tragedy and all of us, in spite of our yearning for liberty, must ominously play an assigned part.
Canada is currently in the Barack Obama phase of self-immolation. Its prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is—as Obama was—a fresh face with no real political past or established beliefs, a brand. Trudeau excels, like Obama, French President Emmanuel Macron, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in empty symbolism. These “moderates” spew progressive and inclusive rhetoric while facilitating social inequality, a loss of rights and the degradation of the environment by global corporations. They are actors in skillfully crafted corporate advertisements.
“Liberal democracy is bifurcating, giving rise to two new regime forms: ‘illiberal democracy,’ or democracy without rights, and ‘undemocratic liberalism,’ or rights without democracy,” writes political theorist Yascha Mounk.
The “moderate” politicians espouse “undemocratic liberalism.” Lifestyle choices and expressions of personal identity are respected, even championed, while we are politically disempowered. The focus on multiculturalism and identity politics is anti-politics. It is accompanied by sterile reforms—such as more professionalized policing—that never challenge the underlying structures of corporate power, which has turned the workers of deindustrialized communities into surplus or redundant labor. We no longer seek to eradicate poverty; instead we applaud ourselves for not stigmatizing the poor. Only when the corporate forces cannibalizing nations are named and fought, as Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is doing in Britain, can we prevent the rise of protofascists such as Donald Trump who seek to implant an “illiberal democracy.” The recent elections in Germany, which saw the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) take 94 seats in the Bundestag, making it the third-largest party, spell not only the imminent demise of Merkel but the demise of all who engage in the pantomime of “undemocratic liberalism.”
Trudeau, Macron, Turnbull, Merkel and Obama, because they appear to champion liberal ideals, discredit not only political “moderates” but also the core values of a liberal democracy. When the public rejects feckless politicians it also rejects the supposed values they represent. Fascism rises out of failed democracies where elites mouth the feel-your-pain language of liberalism while selling out the public. This was true in 1917 Russia, in Weimar Germany and in the former Yugoslavia.
Canada, like France, Australia and Germany, will never descend to the levels of nihilistic violence and mass shootings that plague the United States. There is enough of a residue of its socialist programs, such as universal health care and public education, to prevent it from becoming as cruel and heartless—although there will be efforts to steadily defund and destroy these programs. Canada, France, Australia and Germany will not crash their economies trying to maintain an empire they can no longer afford. But they are, nevertheless, steadily marching toward the new authoritarianism, toward joining the despotisms rising up in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe. The model for the future is not Liberté, égalité, fraternité—it is China’s ruthless corporate totalitarianism. Where is Tommy Douglas, the great Canadian socialist who once described the free enterprise system as giving elephants the right to dance among chickens, when you need him?
Trudeau, Merkel, Turnbull, Macron and Obama, along with the Clintons and the United Kingdom’s Tony Blair, represent the last desperate phase of corporate capitalism. Once their sunny faces are spurned, the face of hate rises to take their place. The con artists and thieves, no longer hiding behind the curtains, come out to pillage in the open, actively making war on the anemic democratic institutions, from the press to the courts, all of which long ago surrendered to corporate power. These protofascists rely for control on the array of undemocratic tools legalized by their “moderate” predecessors—wholesale surveillance, militarized police, the criminalizing of dissent, the primacy of “law and order” and the revoking of due process and other rights by judicial and legislative fiat.
These “moderates” substitute personal style and esthetics for politics. They offer no real solutions to the assault by corporate capitalism and to growing social inequality. They preach fatuous bromides, like Candide, about “the best of all possible worlds” while ignoring the disasters and suffering around them. They call for tolerance and civility while empowering corporate machinery that creates an intolerant and uncivil society. They are mountebanks and charlatans. Their singular skill is to peddle in political form the drivel of positive psychologists. They make us, at least temporarily, feel good about ourselves. They use gestures—Trudeau kayaking down the Niagara River for World Environment Day—to mask their collaboration with corporations in the exploitation and poisoning of the natural world. Trudeau, despite his progressive rhetoric about climate change, is facilitating the building of new pipelines through Canada and the United States to export more oil out of Alberta’s tar sands, one of the world’s most catastrophic assaults on the ecosystem. Obama’s environment record looked as if it was lifted from Sarah Palin. Turnbull and Merkel are no better. This rank hypocrisy, extended to all issues, is what dooms the proponents of “undemocratic liberalism.”
The “moderates,” like those on the far right, refuse to acknowledge reality. They speak and act as if we live in a democracy rather than a system defined by Sheldon Wolin as “inverted totalitarianism,” one where the consent of the governed is a joke, elections are legalized bribery and public policy is determined not by popular will but by corporate lobbyists. It does not matter, as illustrated by the Republican tax plan now before the U.S. Senate, what is just or what the public supports. There are no institutions left in the United States that can authentically be called democratic. The end result of this elaborate charade is embodied in the rise of the grotesque spectacle of the Trump administration or the protofascism in Hungary led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Stoking the fires of our decline and this political fantasy are useful idiots such as writer/blogger Andrew Sullivan, who argues that our problem is that we have too much democracy.
The novelist and social critic James Baldwin wrote, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
Nations have surrendered their economies to global banks, corporations, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. This has created political paralysis. The longer this paralysis continues, the more governing institutions and “undemocratic liberalism” are discredited. The inability of the “moderates” to protect democracy, along with their attempt to redirect democratic aspirations to the culture wars, means they and traditional liberal and democratic values will vanish and the door will be flung open to the right-wing proponents of “illiberal democracy.”
We must build mass movements to defy the “moderates” and overthrow corporate power or be frog-marched into a corporate dystopia ruled by narcissists, generals, racists, conspiracy theorists, misogynists, con artists, xenophobes and bigots. The “moderates” are as dangerous as the protofascists. Their “liberal” rhetoric about social issues disempowers the left and often makes it their accomplice. We cannot reform the corporate state. It must be destroyed. Trudeau is as much the enemy as Trump. Time is running out. It may be too late to save the United States, although we Americans must try. Whatever our fate, it would be heartening if our national tragedy provided a lesson of salvation for others.