Archive for April, 2011

Stephen Harper Wants to Spank Canada

April 28, 2011

The same Conservative government that shut down parliament twice and orchestrated one of the greatest human rights abuses in modern Canadian history, has also attempted to invalidate votes cast in an advance ballot by students at Guelph University. Elections Canada has decided that the 241 advance ballots were, in fact, valid, but that all subsequent advance ballots at universities, implemented to encourage students to more easily engage in the democratic process during the busy exam season, will be shut down for this election. The image of Michael Sona, the communications director for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke, barging into the student voting station and attempting to make off with the ballot box would be comic if it did not typify the conservative orientation to political practice, which is characterized by a flagrant disregard for the central tenants of participatory democracy.

“He tried to grab for the ballot box. I’m not sure he got his hand on the box, but he definitely grabbed for it,” said Brenna Anstett, a student, who at the time of the reported incident was sealing her second of two envelopes containing her vote. (The Record.com)

But what does Harperite cynicism and disrespect for due political practice indicate about the larger socio-political landscape of Canadian? John Meisel of Queen’s University suggests that the “Harperizing of our Minds” has its roots in a political culture based on a top-down model that implements policy from the ideas and mandates of a governmental elite. While Meisel’s article overlooks the way in which progressive agendas such as gay marriage or respect for diverse cultural heritages are grounded in the overlapping concerns of a large portion of the population, it does raise questions about the composition of our post-political society that minimizes democratic participation in favour of cultural or “lifestyle politics.”

This depoliticization works to the benefit of a strong, centralized state that cloaks its hold on power in the guise pastoral care for the population. The modern development that Foucault called the rise of “biopower” turns governance into a form of population management, casting the governed into a largely passive position as the recipients of various programs and policies aimed at fostering the flourishing and productivity of society as a whole. I would argue that this, and not political elitism, is the larger context behind the “top-down” structure of modern politics (political and technocratic elitism being just one of several ideological guises under which biopolitical structures manifest). If this is the case, how are we to understand the popularity of a leader like Harper, whose conservative policies serve to further dismantle social programs, labour protections and other guarantors of communal well-being?

This is where the biopolitical model needs to be coupled with an understanding of the anti-social, capitalist principles that attempt to cast the generation of huge profits for a small minority of shareholders into the guiding principle of economic, and hence social prosperity in current dominant discourses. The incompatibility of the neoliberal economic model with the basic tenets of biopolitics forms the central contradiction of what we might call “biopolitical capitalism,” and provides the ideological milieu in which the popularity of a dictatorial leader like Stephen Harper can be properly understood. For while neoliberalism champions the individualizing and personalizing of risk, it can only do so by liking this privatization — the shifting of the onus for social well being from collectively owned, governmental agencies to private institutions and individuals — to the greater flourishing of society as a whole. This is done by focusing on an image of a “free market economy” as the sole guarantor of social prosperity, and relegating all other issues to a secondary status.

Neoliberal economics demands the privatization and degrading of collectively-funded projects aimed at providing material well being for citizens, while simultaneously strengthening government’s surveillance and control of the people in the service of transnational capital. In place of social equity and security for the most vulnerable, neoliberal governments offer increased policing and incarceration for the growing poor, while the less poor suffer the radical instability of a volatile and irrational capitalist market whose “invisible hand” has been systematically reorganizing global politics for the last forty years in the interests of a tiny minority of extremely wealthy elites. In this context, the biopolitical function of government, coopted by capital, is focused almost exclusively on one function: guaranteeing the reproduction of a cheap, available labour force. The mounting sense of anxiety over loss of job security, erosion of living standards, compromised healthcare and familial support — not to mention degraded cultural institutions and educational systems — translates into a feeling of existential uncertainty and fear whose underlying causes are then disguised and deflected onto the ideology of the “free market” as the final term dictating the health and welfare of communities, countries and individuals.

This climate of fear coupled with ideological obfuscation encourages popular desire for strong, authoritarian leadership whose central platform of economic stewardship promises to lead the country through its difficulties. The cynicism and “realpolitik” exhibited by Harper’s government speaks to a concealed intuition, shared by explicit Conservatives and the merely apathetic alike, that democratic politics has been all but hollowed out by rampant economism. The belief that no alternatives are possible to global capitalism cements this cynism and anxiety, leading to a covert respect for authoritarian figures who are able to “tell it like it is.”

"Which version of the free market would you like us to beat you with?"


Under these circumstances, the biopolitical function of government gradually transmutes into a sado-masochistic relationship between the people and their leaders, a tendency that can be detected, not just in a figure like Harper, but in popular television shows like CBC’s Dragon’s Den and other reality shows. The popular draw of both Conservative politics and reality TV is grounded in the domination of a striving, utopian impulse by a stern and dictatorial “reality principle.” What has been described by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as “the politics of fear” might thus be more accurately characterized as the strategic management of ressentiment: convincing people to take pleasure in another’s domination as a form of consolation for one’s own unrecognized subjugation.

Slavoj Žižek characterizes the permissive post-modern superego which, rather than dominating by directly forbidding certain paths of action, allows one to follow one’s forbidden desires by displacing responsibility for them onto an authoritarian figure:

Although, on the surface, the totalitarian master…issues stern orders compelling us to renounce pleasure and to sacrifice ourselves in some higher cause, his effective injunction, discernible between the lines, is a call to unconstrained transgression. Far from imposing on us a firm set of standards to be complied with, the totalitarian master suspends (moral) punishment. His secret injunction is: ‘You may.’ He tells us that the prohibitions which regulate social life and guarantee a minimum of decency are worthless, just a device to keep the common people at bay – we, on the other hand, are free to let ourselves go, to kill, rape, plunder, but only insofar as we follow the master. The London Review

This characterization perfectly describes Steven Harper’s political strategy. By reducing the complexity of democratic governance to a single issue, Harper gives his supporters license to engage in the kind of anti-social — one might even say sociopathic — behaviour that the biopolitical model of contemporary society would not, by its own precepts, allow. With The Economy as their stern Master or Mistress, conservative supporters can freely indulge their desires to oppress women, the poor, immigrants and other vulnerable segments of the population by systematically dismantling the programs and protections whose democratic articulation and institution have been the product of centuries-long struggle.

Should we, then, look to the failure of Canada’s Liberal party to circumvent Harper’s strategic appeal to what is actually a structurally produced political disengagement as evidence of a Frankfurt School-type argument for the latent totalitarian character of modern Western rationality and culture? I would look rather to the strong tone of critique that is present in both the embattled left and in popular vocalizations of dissent circulating through the new media, in cafe and dinner table conversations, and on university campuses such as Guelph’s. Though the line separating liberal democracy from a totalitarian biopolitical-capitalist state may be difficult to draw, Canada’s historical socialist tendencies have seem to preserved at least the possibility for a position of critique that could save us from a Conservative majority in the coming election. The recent and surprising rise in NDP support is a strong indicator that socialism has not been entirely undermined by neoliberal economic fear mongering. The conservatives also seem to have underestimated the extent to which a younger generation, weaned on alternative media and perhaps inspired by the recent political upheavals in the Middle East, might sieze on this moment to flex their political muscle in favour of a more just and democratic Canadian society.

China’s Ban on Time Travel

April 14, 2011

The attention of Kulturbot surveillance satellites were called away from cataloguing some spectacular sunspot activity today by news that the Chinese government has banned television and film that feature plots about time travel. As explained in the China Hush blog, the decision to ban time travel was made by the Television Director Committee on April 1st, due to the “disrespect for history” demonstrated by the genre:

From the end of last year, the time-travel themed drama is becoming more and more popular. Most of these time-travel dramas are based on real historical stories but with many newly added, and usually exaggerated elements to make it funny and more attractive. Nothing is off limits in this television genre. While some find it hilarious, others think the exaggeration and even ridiculous elements added into the story is a real source of annoyance and is a disrespectful for history. (from the China Hush blog)

Though having all the characteristics of a good April Fool’s prank, the alleged declaration does not seem to be a hoax, and it raises interesting questions regarding the utopian and political potential of narrative in its relation to history. Echoing Plato’s criticism of poetry in Book II of The Republic where Socrates would ban any representation that does not provide a model of virtue for citizens to emulate, the Chinese government complains that “The producers and writers [of time travel stories] are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.”

More than simple frivolity, the time travel genre allows for a form of escapism that might speak to needs and desires that contemporary Chinese social reality cannot satisfy for the majority of subjects, opening into what Fredric Jameson describes as the utopian class dimension of narrative. As Jameson argues in The Political Unconscious (Cornel UP, 1981), the feeling of “rage, helplessness, victimization, oppression by a common enemy” generated by the situation of subjugated workers produces a sense of class solidarity (289). It is the awareness of the threat posed by this “sullen resistance” that produces the dominant class’s own sense of solidarity as a kind of mirror image of the original and foundational subaltern consciousness (289-90). The affect that binds groups together, even when limited to a particular segment of the total population, has its roots in “the ultimate concrete collective life of an achieved Utopian or classless society” (291). Thus, alongside the “negative hermeneutic” that seeks to unmask the ruling class interests served by dominant discourses, Marxian scholarship must also practice a “positive hermeneutic” that identifies the Utopian promise within a text or practice.

"By the Key of Time! Where am I going to go now to get a decent dumpling?"

This element is “anticipatory” (296) in that it announces or prefigures the arrival of a post-class social order, even while the text in which it appears might coopt the utopian element by pretending that the hoped-for eventuality has already come to pass.

While the ideological-Utopian interpretive technique developed by Jameson is useful for deciphering the latent class dynamics of Western cultural texts, where everything from car commercials to TV sitcoms to Hollywood films can be seen as exhibiting these dual tendencies, nowhere are issues of class consciousness more pressing than in China, a country whose post WWII industrialization has seen the largest enclosure process (the capturing of previously rural populations in urban factory environments) in human history. By exploiting the hokou laws (the official household registration system implemented by the communists in the 50s to control the migration of populations) Chinese industry is able to create a system of migrational labour that employs the offspring of rural families without offering them the social services and resources available to urban families. Lured to the city with hopes of a better life, educated rural youth find themselves working ten or twelve hour days in large factory complexes whose working and living conditions have made suicide into a form of political and existential protest. (It should be noted that Western investors, manufacturers and consumers are prime beneficiaries of this exploitative labour system, and so the periodic token Western protest against Chinese human rights abuses constitutes a hypocritical and ideological position).

In this context, it should come as no surprise that Shen Hua (“Myth”), China’s first time-travel TV drama projects fantasies of political empowerment and social revolution into past history, and that this displacement of Utopian energies should be perceived as a threat to the current regime. As the China Hush blog explains, “The play depicts how a young adolescent travels through time to the China of 2000 years ago and becomes [a] sworn brother with Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, (both are prominent military leaders and political figures during the late Qin Dynasty period of Chinese history) and eventually ends up being an army general leading troops of thousands of soldiers. [At] the same time, his twin brother and [family] in modern [time] is fighting with a mystery man to find him.”

As Jacques Rancière points out in The Politics of Aesthetics (Continuum, 2004), “the word utopia harbours two contradictory meanings” (40), being both a “no-place” or the break-down of all accepted understandings of place, and a proper place of complete presence “where what one sees, what one says, and what one makes or does are rigorously adapted to one another” (ibid). Rancière notes how this ambiguity is exploited by historical regimes, who’s attempts to make reality conform with utopian impulses more often lead to the kind of ideological obfuscation that Jameson’s hermeneutics are designed to debunk. Rancière sides with the necessary unreality of utopia as a fictional “reconfiguring [of] the territory of the visible, the thinkable, and the possible” (41) which offers an imagined horizon from which to judge the present. This concept is similar to the Marxian vision of a (perhaps always to come) classless society that provides the coordinates from which to make effective political critique of the here-and-now. Projected into the past, as in the case of the banned Chinese television drama, Utopian critique points toward Alain Badiou’s concept of the political event whose eruption into actuality retroactively changes popular opinion about what is and isn’t historically possible. To this extent, the Chinese government is right to fear the power of fiction to harness and focus the energy of dissent, but there is a great irony to the fact that the Marxian analysis that best captures the political dimension of historical discourse should issue from Badiou’s revisiting of the very Maoist heritage that laid the foundation for the rise to power of the current Chinese regime.