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Archive for January 2019

When liberal democracy means plutocracy

Western politicians and major news media say that the liberal democratic order is under threat. But what do they mean by ‘liberal democracy’? 

January 30, 2019

By Stephen Gowans

Early in a series of lectures delivered in 1965, the political scientist C.B Macpherson observed that, “Democracy used to be a bad word.” [1] Little did he know that in 2019 “used to be” would no longer fit, and that democracy, the concept, would become a foul thing in the pages of the United States’ newspaper of record, the New York Times, even if democracy, the word, would retain its favourable connotations.

In what is surely an extraordinary pair of articles, the first on 1 November (“The weaknesses in liberal democracy that may be pulling it apart”) and the second on 21 January (“When more democracy isn’t more democratic”), Max Fisher, whose job at the New York Times is to “explore the ideas and context behind major world events,” presents an essentially Marxist critique of liberal democracy, albeit in a non-Marxist idiom, and with the Marxist valorization turned on its head; rather than praising majority rule and the popular will as good things, Fisher presents them as evils.

The New York Times says there’s a specter haunting the West: the people’s will.

Fisher argues that democracy comprises “two conflicting imperatives: majority rule and liberalism.” Majority rule serves the interests of the majority (as the majority understands it) and liberalism protects the interests of the establishment, which the establishment defines as universal and equal to the common good.

Voting creates the illusion of legitimacy—that the system is responsive to the popular will, when, in reality, it resists it—while liberalism checks the popular will so that establishment interests remain ascendant in the face of the latent threat of the majority to elite interests.

In “recent years a series of changes, including the rise of social media and online fund-raising, have severely weakened the establishments’ power,” Fisher observes, undermining its ability to hold the popular will in check. This is the danger inherent in democracy, or its promise, depending on whether you come down on the side of the establishment or the majority. In Fisher’s account, the only tolerable democracy is one that isn’t a democracy—that is, one in which liberalism, the instrument of the elite, is used to negate majority rule, the instrument of the many.

Fisher doesn’t present all of his argument in quite these terms, but that’s the gist of it. And where a Marxist would condemn the check on the popular will exerted by the establishment through its institutions and representatives, Fisher treats liberal democracy as a system working as it was designed to work, namely, against the majority, and not on its behalf.

Here’s a summary of his argument, in his own words.

Liberalism, the columnist writes, creates “institutions and representatives” which “balance majority opinion against considerations like universal rights and the common good.” In a democracy “the people’s will is carefully incorporated but rarely intended to dominate” (emphasis added.) This invites the questions: Who established the system’s aims? Why shouldn’t the popular will dominate? And how is the people’s will incorporated, if it is not allowed to dominate?

Lurking in Fisher’s account of liberal democracy is the idea that it is not the people who define the common good but “institutions and representatives.” At the same time, evident in his view, plainly exposed on its surface, is the notion that in a liberal democracy the people’s will is not decisive; it is, instead, the institutions and representatives of the establishment that dominate.

Empirically, this is the case. In their 2014 study of over 1,700 US policy issues, the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page demonstrated that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests”—the establishment—“have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” [2]

The reality is amply evident to the majority. Since 1958 the University of Michigan has conducted a public opinion survey every two years in which a broad range of Americans are asked this question: “Would you say that the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?” In 2012, 79 percent said “a few big interests.” [3]

Canada’s global affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, says the liberal democratic world is under strategic threat.

In Fisher’s view, this is hardly a reality that needs to be challenged and transformed, but accepted, even celebrated, as the best of worlds. The people do not know the common good; they’re incapable of understanding it. The common good must therefore be protected from the people’s whims and misapprehensions. It is incumbent on those of mature judgment to define the common good and protect universal rights from majoritarian impulses.

To make his point, Fisher cites Edmund Burke, a giant of 18th century reactionary thought, whose concern was for the universal rights and common good of the aristocracy. Burke was an adamantine opponent of democracy, and Fisher’s citing the conservative icon in this context has all the persuasiveness of invoking Hitler to make the case that checks on democracy are desirable. Burke and Hitler belong to a reactionary tradition which regards democracy as an abomination. Fisher appears to fit comfortably in this trend—and it is fitting and predictable and hardly surprising that a major columnist of a major newspaper owned by the establishment of the major world imperialist power holds these views.

Fisher shares Burke’s solicitude for the universal rights and common good of the establishment, and contempt for the right to self-determination of the majority. “Leaders have always needed the support of both voters and establishments to win elections,” Fisher explains. “Voters wanted popular rule, establishments wanted checks and institutions; the two held each other in balance.” And that—the negation of the popular will by a minority—is a good thing, if we’re to believe the Burke-quoting Fisher.

But voters have grown “skeptical of the entire idea of accruing power to bureaucrats and elites” Fisher warns, and now want (gasp!) “to replace institutions with … direct rule by the people.” Direct rule by the people would be a tyranny, Fisher warns—of the majority over “the common good” and “universal rights.” He doesn’t spell out what rights are universal, but we can be pretty sure he means the right to live on rent, profits and interest, the right to resist the people’s will, and the right of establishment figures “of mature judgment” to define the common good. In other words, universal rights and the common good are none other than the rights and common good of the economic elite and organized business interests.

In the Fisherian view, democracy as it is practiced in the West, creates a tension between the tyranny of the majority (majority rule, or the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Marxist vernacular) and the tyranny of the establishment (liberalism, or the Marxists’ dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) in which the latter tyranny almost always—and should almost always—prevail over the former.

Majority rule “feels democratic to members of the majority,” Fisher observes, but when the tyranny of the establishment checks the majoritarian impulse of the masses, it “can feel tyrannical.” It is, but that’s how the system is supposed to work, he explains.

Sometimes the inherent tensions within the system threaten to be resolved in the majority’s favor, and Fisher fears that the balance is tipping threateningly close to majority rule. Fisher discerns a specter haunting the West—“the vision of democracy as rule by the people.” It “persists.”

Railing against the people’s revolt against “the entire idea of accruing power to bureaucrats and elites,” Fisher reminds us that democracies “are not designed for direct popular rule.” They are “designed to resist” it. Sure, the “checks imposed on popular will can feel like democracy failing,” he explains, but that “is actually the system working as intended.”

The French Marxist Henri Barbusse defined liberal democracy as a system with “a President instead of an Emperor, an armchair instead of a throne” [4]—much the same as the elite tyranny which preceded it, if different on the surface. This is essentially Fisher’s view, but Barbusse rejected Fisher’s acceptance of elite tyranny as desirable.

Of course, what Fisher is really raising the alarm about is the growing refusal of the majority to allow liberal institutions and representatives to resist the popular will, reflected, for example, in the Brexit vote, or in the election of leaders of whom the establishment disapproves whose route to power has been through their promises to address the basic existential concerns of the majority: jobs, a liveable income, and economic security.

In the 1970s, the establishment’s Trilateral Commission defined the demand that government policy reflect the will of the majority as a “crisis of democracy”—a sickness originating in democratic “excess.” In the 1920s in Italy and in the 1930s in Germany, earlier crises of democracy were resolved by fascism, another instrument of the establishment.

Clearly, the New York Times, and the economic elite and organized business interests it represents, are not prepared to tolerate a democracy of the many, or simply, democracy as it has always been understood. A democracy of the few, one of which Burke would approve—namely, not a democracy at all but a tyranny of the economic elite, a plutocracy—is more in line with the newspaper’s, and the establishment’s,  predilections.

All the same, that won’t stop the New York Times, the US government, and the Western intelligentsia, from appropriating the good name of democracy to beautify and disguise their preferred system of anti-democratic rule, all the while defaming the people as democracy’s enemies.

1. C.B. Macpherson, The Real World of Democracy, CBC Enterprises, 1990, (1).

2. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Fall 2014.

3. H. Bruce Franklin, Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War, Rutgers University Press, 2018, (72)

4. Henri Barbusse, Stalin: A New World Seen Through One Man, Read Books, 2011, (50).

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Written by what's left

January 29, 2019 at 5:41 pm

Posted in Democracy

Chomsky Venezuela Statement: A Stronger Alternative

January 26, 2019

By Stephen Gowans

A lot of good people signed the statement opposing US interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs, posted at Venezuelanalysis.com on January 24, but one wonders whether they gave the particulars of the statement sufficient thought.

The Chomsky et al statement called on Washington to cease interfering in Venezuela’s internal politics, “especially for the purpose of overthrowing the country’s government.” Excellent. But it should have added a call to support the Maduro government’s project of overcoming Venezuela’s racial and socioeconomic oppression. And stopped there.

Instead, it proposed US intervention in the form of support for what it defined as “the only solution”: negotiations to resolve the country’s longstanding racial and socioeconomic divisions. Thus, the statement defined division (that is, conflict), and not racial and socioeconomic oppression, as Venezuela’s core problem.

The proposal that the United States sponsor negotiations is problematic.

First, the question of negotiations is one for Venezuelans to decide. If sovereignty means anything, then a people has the right to choose the methods by which it resolves its problems, free from outsiders telling it how it ought to be done.

What’s more, the proposal calls to mind Western-sponsored negotiations to resolve the so-called Palestinian-Israeli conflict. How well has that worked out? And what is the end state sought: justice for the oppressed, or only their quiescence?

Second, negotiation implies conceding ground to a racial and socioeconomic elite that wants to continue its exploitation of the majority. If that’s how Venezuelans, together, wish to proceed, fine. But the idea that all conflicts can or ought to be resolved through negotiation is naïve. The statement’s drafters appear to be more interested in averting violence than achieving justice.

Imagine a slave rebellion, in which the slave owners are supported by a foreign state, and the citizens of that state call on their government to end its intervention on the side of the slave owners, but at the same time call on their government to sponsor negotiations between the slaves and slave owners to find a solution to the ongoing crisis and the country’s racial and socioeconomic divisions. Would these foreign citizens be calling for an end to the injustice of slavery or an end to the violence of rebellion?

While it begins strongly, the statement ends by standing for nothing; certainly not for the Maduro government and its aims. Nor does it stand against anything, except (though importantly) against a US supported coup d’état, but not against all intervention. Intervention of the kind that leads to a negotiated stalemate in a struggle against racial and socioeconomic oppression and the continuation of injustice is deemed desirable.

The following statement would have been stronger.

o The US government should cease its efforts to overthrow the Maduro government.
o The US government should provide what reasonable assistance it can to the Maduro government’s requests for aid in carrying out its program of overcoming the racial and socioeconomic oppression that has afflicted Venezuela for far too long.

Stronger still would have been a statement that made these points:

o The Maduro government has worked to put the interests of ordinary Venezuelans ahead of those of foreign investors;
o The opposition, backed by Western governments, has sought to frustrate those aims;
o Now the United States and a number of other countries are encouraging a coup d’etat;
o If successful, a coup d’état will lead to a rightwing government that will implement policies that indulge foreign investors and treat ordinary Venezuelans harshly; Venezuela’s longstanding racial and socioeconomic oppression will continue;
o We stand with the Maduro government’s efforts to build a society and economy that puts the needs of the majority of Venezuela’s citizens first;
o At the same time, we oppose the efforts of the United States and its allies to impede, undermine and eliminate the Maduro government’s program to end the racial and socioeconomic oppression that has afflicted Venezuela for far too long.

Written by what's left

January 26, 2019 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Venezuela

US-Led Efforts to Overthrow Maduro Spurred by Business Interests, Not Democracy

January 24, 2019

By Stephen Gowans

The US-led and coordinated intervention to overthrow Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro by recognizing Juan Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly as the interim president, has nothing whatever to do with restoring democracy in Venezuela (which was never overturned) and everything to do with promoting US business interests.

Washington’s imperial arrogance in effectively appointing Guaidó as president, attempting to go over the heads of Venezuelans—who alone have the right to decide who their leaders are—is motivated by the same concerns that have motivated other US interventions around the world: toppling governments that put their citizens’ interests above those of US investors.

That Washington has a propensity to engage in destabilization operations against leftwing governments is hardly a secret. From 1898 to 2004, the US government undertook 41 successful regime change interventions in Latin America, an average of one every two-and-a-half years. And that excludes the unsuccessful ones, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In almost every instance, US regime change interventions around the world have been motivated either directly or indirectly by commercial considerations, and were undertaken to restore or protect the primacy of US business interests in foreign lands. And in many cases, the interventions paved the way for the installation of rightwing dictatorships.

One ultimately unsuccessful US intervention was the 2002 coup d’état against Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor. Washington immediately recognized the coup, hailing it as a victory for democracy, but privately recognized it as a major win for US business interests in an oil-rich state teeming with potential profit-making opportunities for US free enterprise.

Washington disliked Chavez because the charismatic leftist leader promoted the welfare of ordinary Venezuelans, rather than pandering to US investors. But the coup against Chavez was short-lived. In a blow against tyranny, the regime change was quickly reversed and Chavez, the country’s legitimate leader, was restored to the presidency.

Determined to eliminate leftist governments in Latin America, Washington stepped up its campaign of economic warfare against the South American country, aiming to plunge its economy into ruin and the Venezuelan people into misery. This was a game plan Washington had followed countless times before and since, in China, Cuba, North Korea, Chile, Zimbabwe, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, and Iran: ruin the target country’s economy, attribute the chaos to “the failures of socialism” and economic mismanagement, and wait for the people to rise in revolt against their misery.

The idea that Washington’s intervention in Venezuela has even the slightest connection to protecting democracy is laughable. The US government has notoriously supported a string of rightwing dictatorships throughout Latin America, including that of Augusto Pinochet, who was installed in the wake of a 1973 US-engineered coup against Salvador Allende. Allende crossed Washington by doing what Maduro, and a host of other Third World leaders, had done: put the interests of the local population ahead of those of corporate America.

In the Middle East, the United States’s closest Arab allies are a military dictatorship (Egypt) and absolutist monarchies, chief among them Saudi Arabia, whose abhorrence of democracy is absolute. Washington rewards Egypt with $1.3 billion in military aid annually, and robustly supports the Saudi tyranny.

Saudis regard their parasitical royal family as completely unacceptable. To protect itself from its own population, the monarchy maintains a 250,000 troop-strong National Guard. The Guard exists, not to defend Saudi Arabia from external aggression, but to protect the monarchy from its own subjects. The al-Saud family’s protectors are trained and equipped by the United States and its satellites, including Canada, which has a $10-billion contract to supply the force with armored personnel carriers, used to put down the frequent uprisings of disgruntled Saudi subjects.

The National Guard’s armorer, Canada, also recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, dishonestly attributing its decision to follow the US-lead to its purported commitment to democracy. Ottawa has colluded with the dictators of Riyadh in their crackdown on long-suffering, democracy-deprived, Saudi citizens, at the same time supporting General Dynamics Canada’s efforts to rake in Pharaonic profits from arms sales to the democracy-hating Saudi despots.

Let’s be honest about a few things.

First, the agendas of US and Canadian political leaders are set by the economic elites and organized business interests on which they depend for campaign contributions, policy recommendations, and lucrative post political career job opportunities, and with which they’re tightly integrated personally and professionally. Accordingly, they care about the profits of US and Canadian investors, not about the welfare, freedoms or democracy of ordinary Venezuelans. Indeed, they secretly harbor contempt for the bulk of their own citizens and wouldn’t, for a moment, tolerate the flowering of an authentic, robust, democracy in their own countries. The idea that they care about the residents of a distant South American land is a fantasy for political innocents and the weakly naïve.

Second, US-led campaigns of economic warfare do make people’s lives miserable, and many people may attribute their misery to the actions of their own government and wish to see it step down. Others may recognize that sanctions are the cause of their misery, and may support regime change as a way of winning relief from foreign-imposed misery. Indeed, the logic of economic warfare depends on these assumptions being true.

Third, governments threatened by foreign-sponsored regime change face legitimate national emergencies. Maduro is not a dictator. He is the elected head of a government confronting a genuine national emergency engineered by hostile foreign powers. Measures taken by the government to defend its citizens against the determination of the United States to impose on Venezuela policies which cater to the interests of corporate America at Venezuelans’ expense are wholly legitimate; they represent the actions of a democracy against a US-led international tyranny.

It is important to remember that Maduro’s government, like Chavez’s, has sought to put the interests of ordinary Venezuelans ahead of those of US investors. As a result, it has provoked Washington’s enmity. The US intervention in Venezuela in recognizing Guaidó as interim president is emblematic of countless other US regime change interventions. Invariably, these interventions are targeted at leftwing governments that threaten the profit making interests of US businesses. The interventions have nothing whatever to do with democracy; on the contrary, where successful, they are almost always followed by rightwing regimes that build US investor-friendly business climates and integrate their countries economically, militarily, and diplomatically into the US-superintended and Wall Street-led global order. Foreign investors are indulged, and the local population is treated harshly. Far from spurring transitions to democracy, US regime change interventions aim to reverse democracy, and strengthen US global tyranny. The latest US-led intervention in Venezuela is no different, and is just a repeat, with local variations, on similar efforts in Syria, Iran, Cuba and North Korea.

Written by what's left

January 24, 2019 at 11:15 pm

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