Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Corporatism and the attack on Democracy

There is an inherent conflict at the heart of modern conservative theory between its social and fiscal elements. On the one hand conservatives want to hold on to certain supposedly traditional aspects of our social system, particularly those surrounding the 'family,' sexual preferences, child rearing, gender mores, ages of sexual consent etc. As a result many conservatives publicly lament the divorce rates, the abundance of single-parent or blended families, same-sex marriage, the sexualization of teen-agers, the absence of the traditional stay at home parent, etc. The problem is, of course,  that these social factors are being pushed forward by gradual changes in the market, changes promoted for the most part by. . . . conservatives. The most obvious element in this process and one which many sociologists and social commentators have talked about has been the growing necessity for both parents to go out to work in order to maintain an average family. Huge increases in housing costs (which has grown in large part by government's resistance to rent controls or the production and maintenance of decent social housing) has been a major element in this. In the Western countries, deregulation in trade has also put increasing pressure on households by making it easy for manufacturing jobs to disappear to third-world nations. Traditionally, if one parent went out to work it was the father because his earning potential was greater and this lead to an exacerbation of the power inequities between men and women at home and in the economy in general. As it has become increasingly difficult for one parent to stay at home during the early childhood years, women have ironically gained more economic and social power despite the negative pressure put upon them by conservative ideology which has fostered guilt for mothers who feel that putting their children in the hands of day-care workers is a sign of poor parenting. But the increasing financial power of women has also had the natural effect of increasing divorce rates as women who were once trapped in the bonds of marriage by their financial incapacity to act independently are now able to make more choices. Conservatives have begun to adapt to this reality at least in terms of their rhetoric, because you seldom hear mainstream conservatives condemning 'working women.' This shift in ideology has allowed conservative parties not to actually address these issues which could be done by giving significant tax breaks for families (particularly so-called income splitting), or by protecting the kinds of jobs that would make it easier for a live at home parent, or to institute living wage legislation. The conservatives essential pursue policies that push countries like Canada toward third-world economies while lamenting the disappearance of the traditional family (something which ironically existed for a very small group of middle and upper-class people for a very short historical period). This is why a conservative like Mike Harris, former Ontario Premier, makes more sense than a traditional conservative. Mike Harris essentially jettisoned the social aspect of the conservative agenda because at some level he knew that the forces of the Market that he was choosing to pursue were a major factor in the breakdown in traditional mores and it therefore made little sense to, say, attack parents for not staying at home to raise children. 

But the increasing power of the market, particularly as exercised through new technologies has also been a major factor in other aspects of social change. Marketing to children has been an important factor in the sexualization of teenagers, particularly teenage girls. The globalization of the entertainment industry, made so powerful through new technology, has given rise to a whole industry of sexualized teenagers that is evident in everything from Disney Television to music videos. Huge multinational corporations like Fox, Disney, Viacom, etc, have been instrumental to the globalization process and have also been major marketers to children. This has led not only to younger people exploring their sexuality but to the increasing profile of so-called alternative life-styles which traditional social conservative so abhor. Conservative parties, being largely allied to these very same forces of globalization are not about to put restrictions on such things as children in advertising or to the significant sexual content of music videos. Conservatism is more economically tied to multinational corporations than it is to a decreasing number of social traditionalists. As a result the ideology of conservatism is increasingly jettisoning its social aspect in favor of the rhetoric of the market and globalization in the full knowledge that its real power lies in the increasing strength of multinational corporations which will exploit any market to feed the insatiable greed of the casino economy. 

This is particularly evident in the agenda of the Conservative movement in Canada which has a decreasing interest in social traditionalism. While they attack recent increases in NGO strength to struggle for the rights of women, for example, they do so not because they are promoting a traditional family agenda but because their market model increasingly seeks to undermine the ability of people, particularly the most vulnerable, to fight back against the amazing increases in the market and the centralization corporate power. Meanwhile they make conscious, if entirely fabricated, efforts to hold on to their traditional base by paying lip-service to such issues as crime, which they know full-well has been on a steady decrease despite supposedly lax crime legislation which the aging population imagines 'coddles' criminals. 

Ironically this situation has lead to an increasing strength for Conservatives at the very time when the population in general is increasingly liberal in many ways. While multinational corporations have more and more power over the political agenda, people who are frighteningly ignorant of the economic processes at the heart of the very system they live in, become convinced of the inevitability of the corporate agenda at home and abroad. In fact, people become convinced that it is not an 'agenda' at all but a 'natural' and organic process of economy. This is an amazing display of Marx's concept of reification playing out at the heart of  modern capitalism. Meanwhile the traditional conservatives will not shift their vote to another party because their is very little space for the emergence of an actual conservative (in the broadest sense) party. These factors, coupled with the vagaries of our first past the post system and the splits in the Center and center-left means that conservatives can exercise an inordinate degree of power despite the growing liberalism of our age. 

The most problematic part of this process is that the majority of people remain woefully unaware of the actual corporatist agenda at the heart of the shifting conservative ideology. The neo-liberal movement has been remarkably effective at convincing people that the changes in the global economy are not the result of a conscious and concerted effort on the part of corporations and their political allies, but that they are an organic growth of an economy which they want us to believe that we have no power to influence. In this circumstance it becomes relatively easy to make attacks on democratic processes because the political system increasingly appears to be a simple administrative body which "administers" the economy rather than actively guiding society according to a general will. 

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