Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

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.

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Take this Overdetermination and Shove it!

September 2, 2010

While struggling through Althusser’s “Contradiction and Overderemination”, I was trying to come up with an actual example the illustrate the idea that a single event can focus and filter the energy of a host of complex “secondary contradictions” inherent, but not immediately visible in the larger cultural and economic structure. Then former flight attendant Steven Slater got hit in the head by one too many pieces of overhead luggage, grabbed a couple of beers from the galley fridge, deployed the inflatable emergency chute, and slid his way to freedom and unemployment. Heralded almost immediately as a folk hero whose spontaneous act of resistance spoke to the secret pain of service industry employees everywhere, Slater became a minor celebrity, and was even given the VIP treatment at a Barry Manilow concert he attended the next weekend. CBC called the episode “one of the most awe-inspiring and cathartic resignations in labour history“, while the National Post pointed out that his reckless deploying of the chute could have injured workers on the ground.

What gets left out of most of the available media coverage is that, according to Mr. Slater, the woman who had attempted to retrieve her overhead luggage before the plane landed had fought with another passenger over use of the space at the beginning of the flight. On the other side, there are accounts from passengers claiming that Slater had been short with them over trivial matters, as well as insinuations that he may have been drinking before the flight. For the most part thought, Slater’s exchange with the irate passenger is presented as the “final straw”, the factor that tipped a background sense of alienation, exploitation and abuse over into the realm of demonstrative action. His protest was rendered all the more effective by the smooth, cavalier manner in which he pulled it off, skipping past airport security to his car which got him home before the police had even been notified. He even had enough presence of mind to collect his own carry on baggage.

The media response to this event is instructive in itself, producing a blogosphere debate over whether Slater should be considered a hero or felon. But the either/or construction of this discourse acts as a mythologizing screen for the complexities of actual social contradictions and relations which can be seen as overdeterming this event. For instance, the focus on the potentially harmful or emancipatory effects of Slater’s actions, the debate on whether Slater or the passenger was ultimately at fault, distracts from the fact that both the passengers and employees on airlines are placed in a position of discomfort and possible peril by an industry that packages the need for dangerously overcrowded flights as a response to consumer market demand.

As one might expect, an ad hominem attack has been launched by the press against Slater, but his request to have his job back is the appropriately political response to his action. By registering what was the hidden reality of his actual employment situation and making it visible in an immediately understandable way, Slater entered into what Ranciere calls the realm of properly political thought and action. Due to structural but largely invisible factors, Slater the airline employee was already excluded (along with the passengers themselves, and the pilots and ground staff) from the systems that would secure and maintain his well being (a properly historical understanding of this state of affairs would have to look at the massive deregulation that restructured the aviation industry in the late seventies and early eighties, with this development itself being placed in context of the state-corporate-union perpetuated monopoly that developed prior to this). His flamboyant gesture simply made this concealed estrangement a reality with mass-media visibility. His request to be reinstated in the airline industry is not a concession, but the proper culmination of this political act: by seeking to be included within the given social field as a radically excluded individual, Slater becomes a concrete figure for a universal situation of disenfranchisement produced by modern service industry (for both its employees and consumers in this case).

The wrong thing to do would be accept the offer to host a reality TV show based on the whole experience.