The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Populism Part Three: Treacherous Elites

In Part One I explained why I don’t like the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and why, although I agree with many of the specific policies they support, I don’t much care for the populist “Tea Party”. In Part Two I objected to the core concept of modern democracy – that the will of the people is sovereign – as being a version of “might makes right” and to populism – the kind of movement which attempts to gain influence by the strength of numbers through accusing elites of betraying the public interest – because it unleashes the violence and domination through force which is inherent in the concept of popular sovereignty. Not wishing to be entirely negative, I have briefly mentioned a few of the things I, a traditional Tory, support. These include the classical idea that good government consists of harmonizing the good of the whole with the good of the parts and balancing the good of the individual with the good of the community, the good of the few with the good of the many an idea enshrined in the concept of a mixed constitution, of which the British/Canadian parliamentary monarchy is the outstanding example. Populism, which makes the democratic “will of the people” the dominant principle, is the enemy of the harmony and balance enshrined in our tradition of parliamentary monarchy.

There is a question, however, which needs to be asked. If populism is defined as a movement which purports to speak for “the people” against “the elite” and accuses the elite of betraying or conspiring against the public good, what should our response be when the populist is right about the elites?

This is very important question. Elites are easy targets for ridicule, attack, and outright scapegoating. This is partially due to the fact that the numbers of the elite are by definition few. It is also due to the fact that there is a widespread if ethically wrongheaded notion that it is “fair game” to attack the very rich, the very powerful, the very skilled, and the very strong in ways that would be considered unfair and even bullying if done to the poor and the weak. For this reason, we would do well to take populist accusations against elites with a grain of salt. In doing so, however, we must not fall into the mistake of thinking that elites can never be guilty of the accusations populists level against them.

This is especially important today because we live in an era in which evidence of elite betrayal abounds on every side. An obvious example can be seen in the way several large banks and corporations, which were on the verge of failing three years ago when the American economy did a nosedive following the bust of the housing bubble, asked for and received bailout money from the American government, then turned around and gave large bonuses to their executives, even while laying off thousands of employees.

As annoying as this example of collusion between arrogant economic and political elites to enrich themselves at the expense of the public is it is by no means the worst example of elite betrayal. Other examples include the inflation tax, the outsourcing of jobs, the mass importation of immigrants, the attack on traditional moral values and culture, and the loss of national identity and sovereignty due to official multiculturalism policies and the construction of a new world order.

The inflation tax is an effect of the expansion of the money supply. When the money supply is expanded the value of money per unit decreases relative to the goods and services which can be purchased with money. Since takes a while for the market to adjust to the expansion of the currency the first people to use the new money – governments and banks – are able to spend the new money when it has the purchasing power per unit of the old currency. As it circulates it loses purchasing power - and so does the money in your wallet and in your bank account. This amounts to a transfer of wealth from you to politicians and bankers.

The erosion of the value of our money and savings which is inflation is most noticeable to people when prices of consumer goods which everybody purchases on a regular basis begin to rise. If these prices do not rise – and even go down – it will take longer for people to notice that their money is not worth as much as it used to be. There are ways of keeping the prices of consumer goods down in periods of inflation. You could find a way of increasing production for example. Or you could move your factory to somewhere where there is an abundant supply of cheap labour and few regulations. Or you could import an abundant supply of cheap labour into your own country.

The first option is the best. In the right set of circumstances a businessman can introduce new technology which speeds up and increases production in his factory by so much that he can lower his price per unit, while increasing both his overall profit and the wages of his workers.(1) There are limits, however, to when and where you can do this. In recent decades corporations have opted for the other two methods with the help of governments who have made free trade agreements and passed liberal immigration policies. Academic elites have joined political and economic elites in this because if there is one area where “capitalists” and “socialists” come together it is in support of free trade and liberal immigration.

Liberal immigration policies tend not to be received well by the people of the country whose government introduces them. And for good reason. Such polices look suspiciously like an attempt to put into practice Bertolt Brecht’s bad joke about “dissolving the old people and electing a new one”. (2) To prevent widespread discontent with large scale immigration from threatening the entire program the political, academic, and media elites have engaged in a decades long campaign of positive and negative propaganda. The positive propaganda in favour of multiculturalism presents “diversity” as a good to be desired for its own sake. The negative propaganda uses terms like “racism” and “xenophobia” to intimidate critics of wide scale immigration and multiculturalism.

Here is how the negative propaganda works. To most people the term “racism” conveys the meaning of an irrational dislike of somebody else for no reason other than that his skin colour is different from your own. Similarly, the term “xenophobia” means an irrational fear of strangers, of people who are different from you. When the government, schools, and media constantly use these terms to explain away opposition to liberal immigration and multiculturalism they are taking what is in fact a perfectly healthy, normal, and rational way of thinking and pathologizing it, i.e., declaring it to be a mental disorder. Thus the fact that people have an entirely legitimate right to be concerned that their government is actively trying to replace them, their children, and their grandchildren with immigrants is buried under mountains of abusive name-calling.

This proved to be so successful a method of silencing criticism that it was used elsewhere. All of a sudden, all sorts of ordinary, rational ideas were now given nasty labels and treated as mental defects. Do you believe that the most fundamental division of labour among human beings, between women who bear and raise children and men who protect and provide for them, arises naturally out of the simple biological fact that women are the ones who get pregnant and not out of an all-male conspiracy to oppress all women? If so, you are a “sexist” or a “male chauvinist”. Do you believe that the fact that men have external tube-shaped genitals and women have genitals that are openings which are the right size and shape to put the male genitals in and the fact that doing so is the means of propagation of the species means that men are made for women and women for men? Then you are now a “homophobe” or a “heterosexist”. At least in the eyes of the elites in charge of the news and entertainment media, the educational system, and the state.

To summarize the charges so far, the actions of banking and political elites have eroded peoples’ savings through inflation but corporate elites have kept prices relatively low by outsourcing jobs and importing cheap labour with the help of laws passed and treaties signed by political elites while academic and media elites have, with the support and backing of the other elites, attempted to sell this to people in the ideological package of “multiculturalism” and have browbeaten those who weren’t buying with accusations of “racism”. The actions of the elites in each of these cases is an unjustifiable betrayal of the common good of the societies to which the elites belong

What would motivate elites to turn against their own societies in this way?

Christopher Lasch, who was professor of history of the University of Rochester until his death in 1994, in his final book wrote that the American “privileged classes” had:

[R]emoved themselves from the common life. It is not just that they see no point in paying for public services they no longer use. Many of them have ceased to think of themselves as Americans in any important sense, implicated in America’s destiny for better or worse. Their ties to an international culture of work and leisure—of business, entertainment, information, and “information retrieval”—make many of them deeply indifferent to the prospect of American national decline. (3)

This is also true of the elites of other Western countries. It is notable that the decades in which everything described above has taken place saw the integration of economies on a continental (Common Market, NAFTA) and global (GATT, WTO) scale and the establishment of quasi-governmental bodies at the global level (the UN, the International Court, etc). While the kind of conspiracy theory that suggests that this 20th and 21st Century movement towards a new world order is entirely the result of plotting carried out in secretive meetings of the ultra-elite should be regarded as overly simplistic at best it would be erring in the opposite direction to absolve the elites of all active complicity in this new direction history has taken. The idea that the emerging new order on the global scale might be the means of achieving utopian goals such as world peace and universal prosperity is a vision far more common among the elites than among other people. Hence the transfer of elite loyalty that Lasch noticed, from particular communities, societies, and countries to this new international order.

Having pointed out several ways in which elites – political, academic, economic, etc. – have betrayed the common good of our societies, and offered the transfer of elite loyalty to the emerging international order as an explanation, this leaves us with the question of how to respond. I phrase it that way rather than “what to do about it” because I am not such an optimist as to assume that something can be done about it.

Populism, at least in the sense we have been looking at of a mass movement demanding that the will of the people be met, is not the answer. In parts one and two, we saw how populism and the concept of popular sovereignty are threats to prescriptive, constitutional order. Yet our objection to the new world order and the actions of the elites described above is based upon the fact that these things also threaten the constitutional order and common good of our societies. To use the one to fight the other is like trying to douse a fire with gasoline.

In the previous essay I distinguished between two senses of the word “democracy”. There is modern democracy, which knows of no mixture with other principles or elements, but which insists upon the will of the people being absolutely sovereign. There is also however, the kind of democracy in which the constitution prescribes that elected representatives of the people participate in the governing of the country alongside aristocratic and royal elements. In this kind of constitution, democracy is balanced by other principles which are just as important, and is one element of many.

It is the idea that the “will of the people” is sovereign which is the problem with modern democracy and it is this idea which makes populism a dangerous movement and a threat to constitutional order. Is a populism conceivable that does not include this element? A populism which confronts elite misdoings by insisting, not that the “will of the people” be submitted to, but that their rights within the established order be respected and not violated?

These questions are not mere exercises in semantics. When a movement is built on the idea that the will of the people is absolute and must be obeyed there are no limits to what the movement will demand. The will of the people must be provided by the leaders of the movement – for the people have no will of their own – and populist movements of this nature are the means by which one elite, deriving its strength from its skills in rhetorical manipulation of the masses, challenges another which derives its strength from its wealth. In such wars of the elites, the good of the community is likely to fall by the wayside.

When a popular movement is based upon the idea that a community and a society is established for the common good – the good of all its members – and is therefore based upon a set of mutually understood and respected rights, privileges and obligations between the individuals and the groups which make up the community, there are limits to what the movement can demand. When it charges elites with betraying the common good and demands that the rights of the people be respected it must itself respect the tradition and constitution to which it is appealing.

It is the common people who are hurt the most when the social and moral order of a society collapses. It is the common people who are most dependent upon the security and stability an established, permanent order provides. When law and order breaks down and crime rates soar it is not the elites who are the primary victims – it is people in the middle and especially the lower classes. When traditional morality comes under attack, illegitimacy rates soar, and marriages break up, it is again the lower classes who are hit the hardest because these things are major contributors to multi-generational poverty.

Yet in spite of all of this, populist movements which purport to speak for the common people against the elites, frequently embrace revolutionary rhetoric and conceive of themselves as being against the established order of society.

Populism, because of its revolutionary potential, is naturally a left-wing phenomenon. There have been right-wing populist movements in the 20th Century, but the kind of popular movement I am suggesting here must be something different. It would have to have a populist element – it is challenging the elites after all – but this cannot be the dominant element. It must be a very small-p populist, conservatism, rather than a right-wing populism.

Exactly what such a movement will look like in actual practice is something that remains to be hammered out. It will require a great deal of serious thought as to what exactly a counter-revolution, Maistre’s “opposite of a revolution” looks like. All of this is outside of the scope of this essay, as is the question of whether such a movement could possibly succeed. (4) We must not confuse the categories of “that which it is possible to succeed in” and “that which is worth doing”, however. Fighting for what is left of our civilization and the moral and social order it is built upon, is always worth doing, even if doing so permanently relegates us to the realm of what the late Samuel Francis, borrowing an expression from Leonard Cohen, called “beautiful losers”.

(1) Lets say you own a factory that employs 10 people and produces 500 units of product a day. That is 50 units of product per employee. You sell the product at $15 a unit receiving a total of $7, 500 for a days worth of product. You pay your employees $150 a day each, which works out to $18.75 per hour or $3 per unit of product. In total you pay them $1,500 a day, and you have $1,500 of other expenses a day. This leaves you with $4,500 profit per day. Now, imagine someone invents a machine that increases the productivity of your plant by 300%. Your factory now produces 1,500 units of product a day. You lower the price of your product to $10 a unit. You are now receiving $15,000 for a days worth of product. You triple the wages of your employees to $450 a day each which brings your payroll up to $4,500 a day. The cost of purchasing and running the machine causes your other expenses to go up to $2,000 a day. Your profit is now $8,500 a day. You have increased your profit, while becoming an unusually generous factory owner who pays his workers $56.25 an hour, and cutting the cost of your product at the same time.

While the numbers I placed into the hypothetical example above are absurd fictions the point remains valid. Under the right circumstances, through increasing productivity, you can make profits and wages go up while lowering the price of your product. This does not mean, of course, that it can be done under any circumstances, with any product. The great blindness of many present day liberal (capitalist) economists has been their belief that man’s science and technology will solve every problem and continue to lead us into a future of ever increasing prosperity for everyone.

(2) Bertolt Brecht was a 20th Century German poet and playwright of Marxist convictions. After the Soviets and the East Germans suppressed a popular uprising through force, he wrote a poem entitled “The Solution”, the English version of which can be read here: . The final sentence of the poem, the question “Would it not be easier/In that case for the government/To dissolve the people/And elect another?” is for obvious reasons, widely quoted among opponents of present day, large scale, liberal immigration.

(3) Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995) p. 45. In this book, which was completed while the author was dying and published shortly after his death, the author argues for a number of ideals, such as egalitarianism which I do not share, some of which I consider to be quite foolish, and against some principles, such as the principle of hierarchy which I would regard as essential to a functioning civilized society. He approvingly quotes Orestes Brownson’s call for the abolition of hereditary property on the grounds that it is incompatible with democracy. Lasch (and Brownson) may very well be right about this but the abolition of inheritance is even more incompatible with Lasch’s own view of the family as a “haven in a heartless world”. One of the main concepts of The Revolt of the Elites is that meritocracy and the ideal of “social mobility” are responsible for sidetracking America from its original vision of egalitarian democracy. What these concepts actually do, Lasch argues, is give the elites the idea that they are wealthy on the basis of their personal merit alone and therefore are under no obligation to contribute to the common good. While there is some truth to this, I, who do not believe equality to be desirable in anything other than a right to justice from before the law, would argue for social mobility precisely for the reason that it helps validate a stratified society, which is desirable for other reasons. Despite all this, Lasch’s argument that the detachment of current elites from any sense of belonging and loyalty to their societies has led to their support for liberal moral, social and cultural agendas that are against the common good of their societies, is a helpful one.

(4) Full consideration of this question must involve thought about the very nature of history itself. Modern thinking about history has been dominated by the concept of progress in various forms, from the Marxist view of history as a constant struggle between the “haves” and the “have-nots” destined to culminate in the classless, property-less, society of communism, to the Whig history of theory in which events are constantly moving towards universal, peaceful, liberal democracy. George Grant, in Philosophy in the Mass Age, described how this concept of progress arose through the secularization of the Christian view, inherited from the Hebrew, of history as time given meaning as the flow of events towards ends determined by God. In the modern concept of progress, man has replaced God as the determiner of the ends of history. To believers in this doctrine, it is foolishness to resist the flow of history, and wickedness to attempt to move against the flow. This is the doctrine held by the elites who are overseeing the dismantling of traditional, Western civilization and the construction of the new global order. While I do not accept the doctrine of progress, especially where it identifies historical inevitability with justice (“it has to happen this way therefore you are wrong to oppose it”) a mere negation is not enough. What is needed is an alternative understanding of history.

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