Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

End Times for the Liberal Party?

What if the Liberal Party is on its last legs?

In a 2000 special chapter for *The Other Davos* ("Beyond Neoliberalism," Christava Sahitya Samithi, Thiruvalla, Kerela, India, November 2000), British socialist and founder of The New Left Review, Perry Anderson lists three lessons to be learned from neoliberalism:

1) "Do not be afraid of opposing the dominating political current in a certain period."

2) "Do not make compromises concerning ideas."

3) "Do not accept as immutable any established institution." (cached on the internet).

  The Liberal-Conservative coalition can be broken by eliminating the federal subsidy for poltical parties, but it will take courage.

This is not the place to deconstruct Anderson's argument in detail, but each of these points deserves attention. For my money, the first lesson is pure inspiration. "Do not be afraid of opposing the dominating political current in a certain period." This means that we learn from the neoliberals, if not from elsewhere, that in addition to resistance, a long-term commitment is required. Without one, the long-term is (manifestly) getting shorter and shorter. If the next election is held in the summer time, will there be any arctic ice? What big employer will go bankrupt and/or need a bailout next week?

Ignatieff is said to be rebuilding the Liberal Party. In fact, he is rebuilding the aristocratic tradition of noblesse oblige rebranded as liberalism.

Use of the word liberal and its derivatives is especially frustrating. It is not clear to everyone why liberalism is now seen as a right-wing philosophy, why neoconservatives are neoliberals--and so are liberals--or why neoliberalism has found its most earnest expression among governments commonly characterized as extreme right-wing governments. We thought liberals were left.

Canadians try to salvage this debased terminology by talking about "small el liberals" and "capital L Liberals." A more fruitful approach entails recognizing that the description of political positions as "left" or "right" is both anachronistic and one-dimensional. Anachronistic because it is rooted in the parliamentary seating arrangements during the French Revolution. Those who sat on the right supported the monarchy and aristocratic privilege, especially in land tenure. Those sitting on the left opposed the monarchy and supported reform, power to the workers.

Organizers of the First International (Wobblies, IWA, 1864) saw themselves as the revolutionary successors of the French parliament's left wing. The terms "left," "leftist," and "left-wing" are most closely associated with socialism, communism, anarchism, and to a lesser extent social democracy and social liberalism.

In the United States and Canada liberalism is seen as "left." Government intervention is regularly described as "socialism."

But *Liberalism* (aka The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth) is also the title of a book by now influential economic thinker Ludwig von Mises who bases his liberal ideology on property rights. Once the exclusive domain of monarchs and the aristocracy (i.e., the right wing), property as a privatized real estate commodity becomes, in von Mises' hands, the foundation for liberal freedoms, peace, social harmony and the general welfare. This is related loosely to the notion that capitalism = democracy.

Unlike the New Deal liberals of the US, von Mises and neoliberal followers of the Austrian school oppose government intervention in the economy. The concept of economic liberalism (also via liberate to economic freedom) was also formulated by Adam Smith and finds most ardent support today at Vancouver's conservative Fraser Institute, though we also encounter earnest market anarchists--who are not left-wing. (So there is left-wing anarchy and right-wing anarchy.) Economic liberalism is described as both conservative or right-wing although it is neither monarchic nor aristocratic.

We could go on, trying to salvage what is a way of speaking practically devoid of meaning, useful only for purposes of propaganda and emotional manipulation. If corporations are the new aristocracy, monopoly could be seen as an economic version of monarchy, etc. This may temporarily redeem the terminology, but it won't change the reality that this particular body of political language is on life support.

In addition to being anachronistic, the left-right axis is, as Political Compass website demonstrates, a one-dimensional concept that systematically oversimplifies what we really need to talk about with greater, not less, precision and accuracy.

Political Compass offers an interesting interim solution because it opens the door to a second dimension of political discussion. What if other dimensions were to be explored as well? There a many implications to the addition of even this second dimension.

As Orwell pointed out, caution about political language, especially euphemism, is always justified. In a post-budget article (NDN Jan 27 09), Stockwell Day describes the condition of the US economy in the most unctious terms: "when buyers in your biggest market start to ease off of their buying because of a slow down...", he says. But buyers in the US aren't "easing off" because of a "slow down." The folks that reckoned they had a rich tycoon on the hook who wanted to send them money just found out that the rich tycoon, while not broke, is out of business and may have left the country. People like us aren't "easing off;" we are hunkering down. Poverty can be paralyzing. We are deciding not to buy, not to borrow, not to trust the wheelers and dealers at all--not again, not in the least. Opposition to the political current may be about to bear fruit.

I view Anderson's second lesson with a weary eye. He presents "Do not make compromises concerning ideas" as a strength. But that doesn't mean we should imitate all of what brought neoliberalism to power. Anderson admits that the neoliberals' ideas were extreme and lacking in moderation. "They were iconoclasts for good thinkers of that time." Certainly, after eight years of George Bush, we may need to remind ourselves not to "mis-underestimate" neliberalism. Anderson begins by recalling "its energy and its theoretical intransigence, its dynamism....It is a formidable adversary that has obtained many victories in the course of the last years, even if it is not invincible."

Certainly, the refusal to compromise made Friedman, Greenspan, Clinton, Bush--and Harper--tough opponents. But it is also the basis for much of the damage they caused. The tragic failure in Iraq is coming to an end only to the degree that the Americans are finally ready to leave. That is the ace of trump in any occupier's hand. Military intransigence in Afghanistan has had the effect of giving the Taliban an enemy to defend their homes against--just about the only thing they do well.

It's not an uncommon lesson. The embrace of uncompromising military power produced Israel's failed rampage against Hezbollah in 2006 and elevated Iran as a regional power. Then, as if to demonstrate that he had learned only the trivial and insignificant lessons of that humiliation, Olmert refused the compromise of extending a ceasefire and overestimated the value of raw military might with yet another tantrum--this time against Hamas. Intransigent belligerence may occasionally lead to pyrrhic victories, wish-fulfilling illusions of victory. But in the end, it is the bough that bends that does not break.

For everyday Canadians, Ignatieff's acceptance of the Conservative budget means salvaging unregulated corporate globalism by reestablishing the Liberal party as a gofer-in-chief for Canada's big corporations, that is the ones that haven't already gone bankrupt. Full dependence on the failing American economy is fine and dandy.

But the real crisis in the Liberal party isn't just leadership; it's money--and more. The Liberals have constructed themselves as the main magnet for big corporate donations which (mercifully) aren't legal any more. A further problem is that increasingly, the surviving big corporations aren't Canadian--or in business--any more either. It is one thing for a corporation to be governed by its shareholders. It is another entirely for the whole of any country to be governed by them as well. Ignatieff has chosen quicksand.

The coalition of everybody else need not be a coalition of political parties or blocs. It will be good enough for our long-term plan to build a coalition one vote and one voter at a time. Who among all the parties--Bloc, NDP, Green, Liberal and (new) Conservative--is ready to work for grassroots funding and a more representative democracy? Who wants to know what are the real issues? It's high time they were brought forward.

The new alliance of Liberals and Conservatives is a alliance of Toronto, Alberta, and Saskatchewan with cheering sections in Newfoundland, Labrador, the Yukon and a handful of federalistas in Quebec. It is, in other words, a alliance of new tar and the old manufacturing elite. That makes a coalition of everybody else critically responsible for the future--economy, environment, the several sovereignties, democracy, Canada-US relations, the Arctic, the poor--the works.

And that brings us to Anderson's final lesson: "Do not accept as immutable any established institution." Especially not the Liberal Party. The Greens above all should keep that in mind, both regarding the Liberals and themselves as well. If the (old) Libs go the way of Mulroney's PCs, why would all those voters be voting for someone else? We may find out. A political debate that the Liberals cannot dominate will evolve a new dynamic. That could be a welcome development to anyone willing to accept that the unpredictable may be preferable to the certainty of long-term economic and environmental decline. What hope is there in that?

The plan to eliminate the federal subsidy for political parties was really aimed at the Liberals, but it attacked the Greens too, at least in the short term. For nearly three decades now, the Greens have scarcely been able to elect someone to a school board or municipal council. The environment is in need of defence, almost as desperately as the Green Party is in need of an effective strategy. The Liberal-Conservative coalition can be broken by eliminating the federal subsidy for poltical parties, but it will take courage.
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