Friday, November 13, 2015

Aesthetic Politics and the new (neo) Liberal Era. . . . .

In the modern era particularly since the Victorian times onward, politics has been a surprisingly aesthetic matter. This is because the rich and powerful people who overwhelmingly control government and politics in Western democracies are dependent on a largely lazy and ill-informed public to continually ratify and legitimize the continued dominance of an economic elite over the political establishment. Thus the political process has been one of creating the prevailing impression that the wealthy elites are somehow concerned with such trivialities as generalized prosperity, the well-being of the nation, jobs, education etc. If they don't effectively sell this package of benefits, they (as individual parties) risk being tossed from power. But more importantly, if the entire political class can't sell this illusion, they run a much bigger risk of actual social justice discourse intruding into mainstream political discourse, and that threatens the wealth and power of the small percentage of people who continually rule our democracies; democracies that are, I am sad to say, almost entirely illusory.

The Harper Government was a particularly graphic illustration of a failed aesthetic strategy. Over estimating public ignorance, racism, hostility, and nastiness is easy to do if your own attitudes tend in that direction. In the past decade we have seen this attitude become more and more public and explicit in the so-called 'Tea Party' phenomenon, a tendency that spilled over into Canada and found a home in Harper's Conservatives and Hudak's PCs in Ontario. But ignorance, racism, and religious fanaticism are much more widespread in the US, so as our Canadian politicians watched their southern cousins gain in popularity they over estimated what they could get away with here. Thus Harper and his ilk imagined that they could effectively sell an aesthetic of outright nastiness and contempt of democracy and still get reelected. In the weeks since losing power the Conservatives have dramatically illustrated the degree to which politics are about aesthetics and the degree to which they need to hide behind those aesthetics. So Jason Kenney tells us that the Cons got all the big issues right, but their tone was wrong. And in so doing he has failed to understand the central message of aesthetic politics, to wit: the illusion has to be complete, you can't admit that you are only pretending. By saying that they only got the tone wrong, Jason Kenney (entirely unwittingly) is like a magician who is revealing his secrets to the audience as he goes along. This is because the 'tone' that the Conservatives have now admitted to getting wrong was, at the core, a blatant contempt for democracy itself, so in this case their tone was their substance. This is why the Cons will be unable, in the short term, to renew their party. They have to come to grips with this sad fact; in a context in which most parties are still attached to the same socioeconomic model, politics is tone and little more! In admitting that they got the tone wrong, Kenney is admitting that they got the substance wrong too.

This is the strength of Trudeau, he understands that the illusion of modern politics has to be complete. You need to make people feel like they are stake-holders, like they are an essential part of the process and that the government is there to 'serve.' As long as you can sell this aesthetic, then you can continue to implement a neo-liberal agenda and make people feel that somehow it is just an inevitable, 'natural' outcome of democracy. But this brings up one of the real subtleties of modern politics, which is this - the great fear of the rightwing in this stage of capitalism is that an open, stake-holder political aesthetic will open up civil society just enough for people to realize the real practice behind the curtain. They fear that an open politics will gradually shift public discourse to things like climate change, economic inequality, the breakdown of the education system, the corruptions in the legal system, and the history of resource and land theft perpetrated against the indigenous population. In other words, what the rightwing fears is that by selling an open political aesthetic they must just end up creating the atmosphere of substantive change. The Liberals have taken another tack (a position taken by liberals for a long time in capitalism) - they realize that if they don't allow public discourse a degree of openness, an ability to slowly shift, the result will be a society so corrupt and unequal that revolution will eventually result.

In other words, the Liberals still know (like the Conservatives once knew but seem to have forgotten) that you don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. But the Liberals also know that if you don't give the people a little steak now and then they will eventually take it for themselves. The Conservatives seem to have forgotten that simple lesson altogether.


6 comments:

Lorne said...

Your analysis of the ultimate cause of the harper regime's failure is spot-on, Kirby. I do, however, want to avoid making too early a judgment on the future under the Trudeau government. While I don't dispute your observations about the political charade the West has been living under for so long, the strong message of openness and empowerment being sent in these early days by Trudeau may be more than just cosmetic or a small safety valve; as you point out, such a message could lead to a demand for substantive change by an empowered electorate, and at this point, despite the past practices of the Liberals, I am not willing to dismiss their efforts as largely empty ones.

While my cynicism is hardly dead, it has, for the moment, gone dormant.

Kirby Evans said...

Thanks Lorne - I agree with you. As I have said elsewhere, the best hope that we have is that an more open and equal civil society will give us, at the very least, an opportunity to change discourse. So regardless of Trudeau's ultimate goals, his open strategy certainly allows for greater possibility for change than Harper's.

Pamela Mac Neil said...

It will be interesting to see how much of the Neoliberal groundwork Harper laid and it will be just as interesting to see how much of that groundwork, if any, that the Liberals will reveal.

the salamander said...

.. great to see coherent post-election analysis.. The sleazy Harper Kenney embrace of Tea Party 'values' tactics etc should become case studies for political science faculties.. but as reflected by the likes of Ray Novak, Stephen Lecce.. or the hoary old school Tom Flanagans or Ken Boessenkools.. its within our centers of higher education that shallow demented 'political leadership' is being incubated.

We have little time.. as current events overtake us.. for effective forensic analysis, on how Harper et al attacked our judiciary, our legislation and Parliament. 10 years or so.. of safe haven in Canada Eh for Harper Inc, Big Energy.. with the Final Four Years, a majority opportunity to shove it down our throats inimpeded by protocol, process or permission.

Probably, the best we can hope for is The coronation of Jason Kenney - the ascension of Pierry Poilievre at his right hand, the dregs like Tony Clement Van Loan Ambrose Leitch.. gathered around him.. Perhaps then we'll see what was hiding under Stephen Harper's skirt and so loved by the precious Base. It won't be pretty.. but then there's the squeaky clean Peter MacKay to chooper in to the rescue.. n'est ce pas? Certainly it won't be Baird or James 'Ride me Wilfred' Moore thndering in to save the day

janfromthebruce said...

To go with my last post, rank and file "goes behind the current" to reveal the major players to do with "finance" and who actually "owns the purse strings".

http://rankandfile.ca/2015/11/13/charting-corporate-connections-in-the-new-liberal-cabinet/

"While the Liberals have a historical tendency of campaigning from the left and governing from the right, only time will tell whether Trudeau and his pack will follow suit. What’s clear is some of the Liberal Party’s leadership has clear connections to Bay Street and the 1%, as well as ties to Conservative politics. In the face of all the hoopla, it’s important that progressives remain realistic about the Liberal Party’s loyalties, and keep up the public pressure for progressive policy, against a government ridden with contradictions."

Sub-Boreal said...

The long-term restoration of the Liberals as the natural governing party would be greatly helped by having the wackiest possible successor to Harper as Con leader. Then we'll see something like the stable duopoly of U.S. politics, with the cool kids perpetually facing off against the crazies. This also conveniently puts a lid on any revival of the NDP federally. Each time out, they will be fenced in by strategic voting because of a credible threat: "Remember Harper - Never Again!".