The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Populism Part One: Dissent, Left and Right

On September 17, 2011, a mob descended upon Zuccotti Park in the financial district of Lower Manhattan. Calling themselves “the 99%” and declaring their intention to “Occupy Wall Street”, they have been squatting in the park ever since. Their actions have since inspired malcontents elsewhere and “Occupy” protests have sprung up in other cities in the United States, Canada, and indeed around the globe. Here in Winnipeg, “Occupy Winnipeg” has set up its tents in Memorial Park across from the provincial legislature building on Broadway.

Certain friends and family members who have asked me my opinion of these protests, expressed surprise at the strongly negative terms with which I spoke of the “Occupy” movement. They thought I would have been in support of it. This, in turn, surprised me. These are not strangers but people who know me and my opinions on most matters. What could possibly make them think I would be in favour of the “Occupy” movement?

The “Occupy” movement is all image and no substance and it is an ugly image to boot. When its members say “we are the 99%” they are representing themselves as being, or at the very least speaking for, 99% of the population as opposed to the extremely wealthy “1%”. The membership of the “Occupy” movement does not consist of anything remotely close to 99% of the population, nor, according to polls, does its support run anywhere near that high. If their membership does not consist of 99% of the population and their professed supporters and sympathizers do not add up to that amount what gives them the right to self-identify as the voice of that percentage?

The term “99%”, of course, is a gimmick chosen for its rhetorical effect not its statistical accuracy. The “Occupy movement” is a movement with a negative focus. It is much clearer about what it is against than about what it is for and what it is against is the “1%”. What is the 1%? If you arrange the population into percentiles according to wealth with the wealthiest at the top and the poorest at the bottom the “1%” is the top percentile. It is a completely arbitrary number. It does not mean anything. While there is a large distance between the top percentile and the bottom percentile in terms of wealth, as one would expect wherever there is freedom, to say that there is a huge gulf between the top 1% and the remaining 99% would be far more accurate if we were describing a country organized in accordance with the ideals the “Occupy” movement seems to admire – a country like the former Soviet Union for example.

Now I don’t much care for the concept of “too big to fail” and the way governments have bailed out large corporations and financial institutions in recent years. I do not think governments ought to reward bad management with bailouts on the principle that when you start paying for something you get more of it. And yes, I too was quite annoyed with the arrogance of banks and companies who had been bailed out by government with the taxpayer’s money then turned around and gave their executives large bonuses.

The anger of the “Occupy” movement, however, is not directed towards bad concepts like “too big to fail”, towards politicians who voted to bail out big banks and corporations, or executives who arrogantly recorded large profits and awarded themselves large bonuses after having been bailed out. It is directed rather towards “the rich” or the “top 1%”. The two are not synonymous. “The rich” and “the top 1%” are defined solely by the extent of their wealth and not by their business practices, ideas, arrogance, or whether or not they have received government bailout money.

By turning legitimate complaints against specific ideas, business and government practices, and politicians and executives, into an attack upon the wealthy in general the “Occupy” movement is engaging in what is called “class warfare” – pitting one social layer or social group against another – and what is known as “scapegoating” – placing the blame for all of the problems a society faces upon a particular class or social group.

While the “Occupy” movement is clear about what it is angry about, and who it is opposed to, it is notoriously vague about what it stands for and what its specific demands are. It claims, of course, to represent a broad spectrum of viewpoints. Progressive and left-wing groups, to whom “inclusiveness” is an ideal, frequently speak of themselves this way, although one sees little evidence of it in their boring, repetitive and redundant ideas and causes. When interviewed, the “Occupy” protesters will often say that it is “change” they are demanding – bringing to mind the vapid, substance-free, rhetoric of the campaign that swept Barack Obama into the White House in 2009. The placards and t-shirts of the movement carry anarchist and socialist slogans. The closest thing to a legible demand on the part of the movement is that government confiscate and redistribute the wealth of the “1%” through “Robin Hood” taxation.

There is no way I would ever support such an agenda. While I believe firmly in the concept of noblesse oblige – that the privileges enjoyed by the upper classes in society come with duties towards the lower classes attached to them – I do not accept the idea that a modern state should be taxing one part of society to pay the expenses of another part. The purpose of taxes is to raise the revenue of government and one of the most fundamental roles of government is to administer justice. Taking money from middle-class, working class, and poor people to bail out bankers and executives who made bad business decisions is not justice. Neither, however, is taking money from the upper and middle classes and giving it to the poor, no matter how many people falsely label this “social justice”.

The “Occupy” movement describes itself as a “leaderless” movement. This is nonsense, of course. There is no such thing as a leaderless movement, never has been, and there never will be. The “Occupy” movement is clearly organized – however poorly. Its organizers, and the people who speak for it from behind pseudonyms on its website, are leaders, whether they wish to acknowledge the fact or not. The movement’s claim to be leaderless is intended to bolster the image the movement wishes to present of itself as a spontaneous protest on the part of “the people” themselves.

The “Occupy” movement contradicts itself in its language. It describes itself as a “peaceful protest” yet its call to its supporters is a call to “occupy”. Its use of the word “occupy” evokes the military sense of the term – to take possession and/or control of something by force. It is an ugly and violent term – and perhaps the most honest term in the movement’s entire vocabulary. The idea that society should obey the “will of the people”, the concept that is the foundation of both modern democracy and populism, is a form of violence, a form of the idea “might makes right” which Plato refuted in The Republic 2400 years ago. I discussed this in my review of John Lukacs’ Democracy and Populism and will go into it at length in Populism: Part Two.

Now conceivably someone reading the last paragraph might respond with the question “What about the Tea Party? They are also a populist movement, demanding that government obey the will of the people. Would you say the same thing about them?”

My answer would be that I dislike this in the Tea Party as much as I dislike it in the “Occupy” movement. Perhaps even more.

In other areas I have much more sympathy with the Tea Party than the “Occupy Movement”. Rather than pretending to be the voice of an artificial construction like the “99%” the Tea Party purports to champion the interests of a real, if endangered group, the American middle class. Its agenda is clear and simple – less taxes and less government spending. This is an agenda I heartily approve of. Furthermore, while this is not central to the Tea Party’s platform, it is a movement which has shown itself sympathetic to the concerns of Americans who object to the cultural revolutions which have transformed their country in recent decades – liberal and illegal immigration, forced secularization, the inversion of traditional moral values, etc. These are concerns I share with conservative middle Americans because the same cultural revolutions have taken place in my own country.

Some Canadian conservatives have expressed a desire for a Canadian “Tea Party”. While I would certainly like to see taxes lowered, government spending cut, and a reversal of the social, moral, and cultural revolutions that have taken place in the name of “progress” since World War II, the thought of a Canadian “Tea Party” is unappealing to me. The biggest problems, Canada and the United States are facing, have been brought upon by revolutions conducted in our countries in the name of social progress, revolutions aided and abetted by the new corporate elites. A couple of centuries ago, Joseph de Maistre in his Considerations on France wisely wrote that “What is needed is not a revolution in the opposite direction, but the opposite of a revolution”. What was true of France following the Revolution of 1789, is true of 21st Century Canada and the United States.

Both Canada and the United States are extensions of the British tradition, in which most of the fundamental concepts shared by both countries, such as the importance of personal liberty, are rooted. Canada is the more conservative country of the two countries. Our country was founded, not upon a revolutionary break from our parent country, but on continuity with it and its ancient tradition. (1) As George Grant famously wrote: “As Canadians we attempted a ridiculous task in trying to build a conservative nation in the age of progress, on a continent we share with the most dynamic nation on earth.” (2)

The United States, however, was founded out of a revolutionary break with the parent country. The Americans were fortunate that the “natural aristocracy” of which Thomas Jefferson wrote, took charge of their revolution, and prevented it from going to the radical excesses of the Revolution France succumbed to less than a decade after the United States won its independence. That natural aristocracy, kept the societies the American settlers had been building since the days of the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies intact, and confederated them into a country under a classical republican constitution that served them well until they began to ignore it in the late 19th Century.

The Boston Tea Party is part of the founding mythology of the United States. It can therefore be used as a symbol, by Americans wishing to call their country back to its roots.

It can never be such a symbol in Canada. Here it is not part of our founding mythology and can only symbolize rebellion and revolution, the Whiggish forces against which the counter-revolutionary conservative must contend.

Apart from the matter of symbolism, however, there is a similarity between the populist and democratic assumptions of the Tea Party and those of the “Occupy” movement. In “Part Two” I will explain what those assumptions are and how they are closely related to some of the most fundamental errors of the times in which we live and will consider the question of how legitimate populist concerns can be addressed without falling into the pitfalls populism poses.

(1) The Dominion of Canada was founded by the Loyalists – members of the 13 colonies that remained loyal to the British Crown when the colonies rebelled and fled to what is now Ontario/Quebec to escape American persecution, together with the French Canadians who had been guaranteed their language, culture and religion in return for allegiance to the Crown after Britain won Canada from France in the Seven Years War, and British North American settlements which had not joined the 13 colonies in their rebellion.

(2) George P. Grant, Lament For a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (Carleton Library Edition) (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1965, 1989), p. 68.

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