Monday, 26 April 2010

PM Debate No.2 - After Cleggmania.

Since the first TV debate between the candidates for Prime Minister, we have witnessed the rise of "Cleggmania" and the way in which the Liberal Democrats have surpassed the Conservatives, as a viable alternative for a new government. Though, it seems more likely that the public are now flocking to Nick Clegg out of pragmatism, better than Conservative or Labour, rather than a liberal sentiment reawakened by Clegg's performance last week. It seems as though the "popularity" of the Lib Dems has yet to sink into the minds of Labour and Conservative. The best David Cameron could muster was an attack on the possibility of a hung parliament, failing to notice that people probably couldn't care less about "hanging" the parliament. At the same time, Gordon Brown has tried to make himself look like the "Economist of the Year", a last ditch grab at all he has left to run on. But in all fairness, the three candidates do not differ so greatly in their economic policies and even on domestic policies regarding immigration.

 The central issue of this TV debate was international affairs and some more general issues, it was televised on Sky News and chaired by Adam Boulton. The debate was held in Bristol and the audience consisted of people from the South-West. The set up should be noted for it's nationalistic symbolism, the use of the Union Jack was reminiscent of the way the Old Glory has been used on Fox News. There was also a potential for a conservative bias as Cameron has met with Rupert Murdoch numerous times in the past. Though, Nick Clegg was placed literally at the centre of the debate, instead of Cameron in the last debate, literally giving him the middle ground between Cameron and Brown. In the opening statements, Brown was keen to criticise the possibility of a hung parliament and present a "majority Labour government" as the best way to solve Britain's problems. Cameron, on the other hand, brought up his idea of the "Big Society" again. Whereas, Clegg hit Labour hard on the Iraq war and alleged human rights violations, implying that Labour had betrayed the ideals of British society.

The first question raised was on the European Union. David Cameron put a great deal of emphasis on Britain, keep the pound and maintain sovereignty, as he insisted that we should be in the EU but not controlled by Brussels. Nick Clegg used his past experience with the EU for leverage, while criticising the lack of "democratic efficiency" in Europe and pointing out that there are certain things we as just one country cannot deal with alone - international crime being a main example. Gordon Brown stressed the importance of jobs, trade and business; the way in which British economic growth is partly reliant on European economic growth. Brown also pointed to isolation as particularly bad, as strength in numbers is the only way to deal with international crime. David Cameron flashed his Eurosceptic credentials and attacked Labour and the Liberals for "handing over" power from Westminster to Brussels.

Cameron moved on to advocating referenda on instances where yet more power might be "handed over" to Brussels. Though, it should be pointed out that the comfort Cameron showed, in permitting the people to determine British policy in relation to the EU, is not reflected in other areas of Conservative policy. For instance, the Conservatives do not favour extending democracy to economic issues, as they prefer to let the public make decisions which they approve of. Nick Clegg could have capitalised on this, but instead he attacked the Conservatives for backing off on their guarantee of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Though, Clegg thinks that we need a referendum on whether we should stay in the EU and he is openly for Britain increasing it's presence in the EU. He made that clear as he praised an operation, in which the EU was instrumental, that brought down a paedophile ring.

Essentially, the candidates all came out as for the Union, only David Cameron opposed greater integration and specifically Britain entering the Euro zone. Though, in practice the Labour Party are not exactly enthusiastic at the possibility of swapping the pound for the Euro. Brown attacked Cameron, for taking such a stance on the EU, on economic grounds. To which Cameron quickly reacted with a populist assault on the Lib Dems and Labour, accusing both parties of lacking "trust" in the people. But Gordon Brown soon attacked Cameron and the Conservatives for leaving Britain isolated and mixing with "right-wing extremists". At which point, Nick Clegg also attacked the Conservatives for associated with the Eurosceptic Right, which he sees as homophobic, anti-Semitic and in denial about climate change. As Cameron and Clegg began to bicker, Brown compared them to his children squabbling at "bath time". He went on to accuse Cameron of being "anti-European" and Clegg of being "anti-American".

At this point the debate moved on to British interventions in far away lands. Clegg made it clear that he supported the war in Afghanistan and opposed the war in Iraq, highlighting strategy and equipment as major issues, leaving open the possibility of intervention under a Lib Dem government. Brown launched into the kind of rhetoric reminiscent of the early half of the last 10 years. Describing al-Qaeda, in neoconservative terms, as a highly sophisticated network of terrorist cells stretching across the world, that could strike at any moment. Brown pointed to Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan as countries where al-Qaeda is active. Thus, military intervention can never be ruled out completely. Cameron reverted to the issues of strategy and equipment, stressing that if we are to intervene in the future it should be done "properly" - with better equipment and strategic planning. Just like the first debate, the real issue of the war's legitimacy is marginalised in favour of "safe topics" like resources, strategy and terrorism.

The following question was on climate change, the question was given a personal framing to trigger a wave of anecdotes, and bring the personal qualities, of the candidates to the forefront of the debate. Brown immediately claimed to be travelling mostly by train and to have installed a solar panel on his home in Scotland, the "bad weather" of which he emphasised. Cameron stressed the importance of insulation of houses and showed off his opposition to the third run-way at Heathrow. Clegg claimed to travel by train, but made sure that the audience understood he wants to do more like most people. He went on to criticise taxes for punishing people, with a notable reference to "plane tax". Where the Labour and Conservative candidates agreed on nuclear power and renewable energy resources, Clegg argued that nuclear power is too expensive and the transition would be too slow. Insulation and efficient energy use is a better way to curve climate change according to the Liberals.

On the Pope's upcoming visit to the United Kingdom, all of the candidates essentially welcomed the visit and emphasised "openness". Though, all three of them attacked the Catholic Church's track record and policies on gay rights and contraception. David Cameron and Nick Clegg pointed to religious tolerance as important, while trying to appear understanding of the "anguish" of Catholics. Prime Minister Brown focused on the abuse and stressed that the Church has to deal with the failure to protect the young, though as pointed out previously, he too welcomed the visit. Though, this is a complicated and difficult matter as Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church in the world. And Christianity is the biggest religion in the world. The Pope being a deeply controversial figure does not help the situation, let alone the horrors of paedophilia and Ratzinger's disgraceful role in the cover-up.

When voting and faith in politics came up, Nick Clegg was all to "eager" to stress his party's dedication to reform and proportional representation in Parliament. Brown and Cameron were also keen to emphasise their "eagerness" for reform, namely the decentralisation of power, sacking corrupt MPs and referenda to decide the future of the House of Lords. Where Brown stressed that voting matters, Cameron attacked the idea of a hung parliament. This is where, the populism of the Conservative campaign came in. Cameron spoke of giving "power to the people" and how the government has been "treating the people like mugs". Brown appeared weak by comparison, only expressing "shame" at the actions of MPs. But Clegg may have appeared the most calm and focused of the three, as he had to bring the debate back to the issue after Cameron and Brown descended into a round of bickering.

On pensions, Brown talked about linking pensions to earnings to deal with poverty among pensioners and ensuring that every woman should have a pension. Cameron argued that his party would "uprate" the pensions to earnings, insteads of just prices, increase the retirement age and put a great deal of emphasis on desert - as in what people deserve - as opposed to need. We should not be asking the question, do old people deserve pensions? As to do so misses the point of pensions completely, most retired people need a pension to fall back on. Whether or not the government deems a person worthy of a pension is an irrelevant matter. Clegg argued to restore earnings link and cover the fuel costs of pensioners. At this point, Brown attacked Clegg and Cameron on fuel allowances. But not on the grounds that one's fuel costs should be covered by the pension system. Cameron accused Labour of fear mongering and tries to appear "trustworthy" by comparison. Once again, none of the candidates proposed a method of resolving or preventing the pensions crisis.

On the possibility of a coalition government, Cameron and Brown appeared to prefer a "decisive government" as opposed to a coalition between two parties. Though, Cameron pointed out that the parties should work together when they have to and Brown stressed that it was up to the voters. Clegg praised bipartisan politics and appeared to favour a coalition government on the grounds of "openness". Cameron tried to make himself appear unique by clarifying that his party would make the "best of a coalition" but that he disagrees with the other parties. If we take this debate as accurate of the three main parties, they do not differ so greatly on many issues. On pensions all of them agreed that the link to earnings should be restored. All three claimed to favour firing crooked MPs and reforms. Neither of the three condemned the Afghan war and instead focused on issues of resources, strategy and counter-terrorism. On the EU, only Cameron openly opposed greater integration into the EU. But apparently, a coalition wouldn't work as they "disagree" on so many "issues" and a coalition would be "inefficient" as a consequence.

Nick Clegg went on to point out that the "world is not going to end" if there is a hung parliament, the public deserves a government which represents them and puts their interests first. Whereas, Gordon Brown tried to appear bipartisan, pointing out that he has worked with Liberals and business people in the past. David Cameron bragged about the support of over 1,000 businesses, in other words the support of  over 1,000 rich white men, and attacked Brown on national insurance or the "jobs tax" as the Conservatives call it. It is this kind of nonsense rhetoric and deceptive sound-bites that is furthering the descent of the electorate into apathy. If a politician dared to stop attacking their rivals for a moment so they could deliver an honest and intelligent message on their policies.

Immigration was the final issue and the cherry-picked question was asked by a woman of foreign ancestry, obviously to ensure the avoidance of any racist connotations. Clegg proposed tightening border controls and spoke a lot about his regional policy, to avoid putting "strain" on public services. Though, it should be pointed out that out of the 300,000 migrant workers from Eastern Europe, less than 1% have gone on benefits. But you won't read that in the right-wing press. Neither will you read that 2% of housing in the last 10 years went to people who are referred to as "foreigners" by Daily Mail columnists. Brown reacted by attacking the Lib Dem policy of amnesty, in it's place he advocates the point system which acts as a filter letting only immigrants who have skills needed in Britain to settle here. Later, Brown went on to come out in support of ID cards for immigrants, which is indicative of the Labour Party's right-ward shift. Cameron talked bluntly about putting a cap on immigration and also attacked the Lib Dem amnesty.

During the closing statements, Brown emphasised pragmatism, the importance of the recovery, and the "responsibility" he takes for Afghanistan. He went on to attack Cameron and Clegg as risking Britain's recovery with deep cuts and putting Britain's national security at risk on foreign policy. Cameron attacks Brown as a "desperate" fear mongerer, presenting his party as "new" and "fresh". Cameron put a great deal of emphasis on values and the right leadership, references to 'One Nation Conservatism', while topping it off with talk of a "clean break" with "30 years of failure". The implication being that the breakdown of society and politics goes back to the early years of Thatcherism. This is more than likely a purely populist assault on the woman he hopes to emulate. Clegg came out with a more optimistic vision of how "we" can make Britain a force for good in the world, emphasising the "different" behaviour of his party. Clegg referred to the Conservatives and Labour as "old choices of the past". This debate was littered with the usual buzzwords and soundbites, but it was far  less interesting than the first, but it will no doubt contribute to the electoral turnout. Whether or not that contribution will be positive remains to be seen.

Friday, 16 April 2010

PM Debate No.1 - A Liberal Victory.

On Thursday 15th April, Gordon Brown met with David Cameron and Nick Clegg in a debate televised live. This was the first ever televised debate between the candidates for Prime Minister, who are competing for the hearts and minds of the British public. There has been these kinds of debates in the United States for the past 50 years, the first being in 1960 in which Nixon took on Kennedy and lost. The debate was televised on ITV and chaired by Alistair Stewart, it should be kept in mind that ITV News could be viewed as having a thoroughly right-wing slant and possibly a leaning towards the Conservative Party. In regards to that, David Cameron was placed at the centre of the room, in between the Labour and Liberal candidates, putting his comparative youth and dynamic appearance at the centre of the debate. However, it seems that Cameron failed to "woo" voters and the debate appears to have been a success for Nick Clegg. There is disagreement over how successful, the percentages in the media ranging from 36% to 51%.

The opening statements of the three candidates tended to emphasised "change" and "fairness", though Brown also emphasised "prosperity" as he cannot practically stand for "change". Of course, the specific word "change" is being used by candidates to associate themselves with Obama's Presidential campaign in the minds of voters. Though, it seems unlikely that the optimism which ushered Barack Obama into office can be recreated over here as the three candidates do not convincingly portray themselves as three real options. Instead, they appear to the public as three versions of the same old deal. This is the reason that voting turnout has been in decline in recent years and will probably continue to decline. The embarrassing fact that more people voted for Joe McElderry than they did for Tony Blair in 2005 has not been mentioned in the mass-media. Hopefully, we are not going to end up like Lithuania where the dominant party consists of Lithuanian celebrities, who are so loved by their people that their policies are barely scrutinised in the media.

The first question that was raised revolved around immigration, with the candidates all trying to appear "moderately" opposed to immigration. Brown used the specific phrase "control immigration" and emphasised the importance of "tolerance". Cameron was more specific, stating that he wants to decrease the amount of immigration, he spoke of immigration quotas and welfare reform. Clegg spoke again of "fairness" and restoring "entry controls". After this question, the debate was moved to law and order. Cameron took the "tough approach", seeking to capitalise on the repute the Conservatives have as the "nasty party", he spoke of harsher sentencing and greater policing. Clegg also spoke of greater policing, but also of prevention. Brown defended his party's record, claiming that crime is falling but we need to maintain the current level of policing and increase parental responsibility. The debate soon turned to the issue of spending cuts as Brown pushed Cameron for answers on how he aims to supplement his tax-cuts.

This was really the recurrent issue of the debate, public spending and taxation, as it seemed to marginalise the difficult topics raised by the audience. This isn't a coincidence either, as the questions were more than likely "cherry-picked" by ITV. Brown pushed Cameron for answers on this issue repeatedly, and stood to his pragmatic position of continuing the rate of spending to avoid risking the recovery. Cameron dodged the question, accusing Brown of not being honest about the cuts that might be necessary to the NHS and the police. Ironically, this may have made Cameron appear dishonest and opportunistic. The lack of honesty among politicians, their constant avoidance of difficult questions and reluctance to self-criticism, is another reason for the great deal of disillusion with the political class. But Labour is also a perpetrator of this perceived dishonesty and opportunism, which has contributed to the declining belief in the democratic process.

When it came to the issue of the MPs expenses scandal, a real issue, Clegg came across as the strongest on the issue and attacked Labour and the Conservatives for blocking reform. Though, it isn't exactly hard-headed and radical to oppose such a scandal, as corruption is opposed even in the private sector as corruption disrupts in the system. Largely, the MPs expenses were brought up in the media to turn the public eye away from the issue of bonuses in the financial sector. Brown claimed to "agree with Nick", he then went on to speak of reforming the political system and attacked the Conservatives. Cameron then proceeded to bicker with Brown over reforming the House of Lords. Cameron ended the discussion by acknowledging that all candidates support the right of recall. It should be noted, in practice Labour and the Conservative Party have opposed attempts at reform. The way in which Cameron and Brown dodged that issue is evident of the reluctance to self-criticism they demonstrated during the debate. This is yet another reason for the prevalence of apathy, as most politicians appear disingenuous and self-interested.

On the question of education, Cameron slammed bureaucracy and expressed his desire to "set the schools free", while also presenting himself as the "family man" as he promotes greater discipline. Predictably, Brown defended Labour's past record and advocated "higher standards" in education. On the other hand, Clegg highlighted the importance of creativity and also condemned the amount of bureaucracy in schooling. The major buzz-words of their answers were "discipline", "creativity" and "standards", which are vacuous and were used repeatedly. Again, the debate was turned to the issue of public spending and taxation. David Cameron compared the state to a business, the point being that costs are a threat to profits, not seeming to notice that the state isn't a business it does not make profits and often has to spend beyond it's means for the sake of the welfare state and the people who need it. The analogy Cameron used is the major assumption of those who attack the government's fiscal policy over the last 2 years.

Economic growth was the next issue, taxes and spending were bound to come up here and they did. Cameron immediately brought up the issue of national insurance, which he described as a "kill job" tax, and bragged about the support he is receiving from the business community. Support which is indicative of the Conservatives appeal, not to the majority of the population, but to a minority of rich predominantly white men. Clegg tried to communicate with the audience by addressing people by their first names, while bringing up the possibility of doing away with Trident. Brown defended his past record on the economy on pragmatic grounds, we must continue spending a while to avoid a double-dip recession and so on. It should be noted that a double-dip recession has not occurred for many decades. And it is unlikely that we will go into another recession, but the reason for that is an expansionary fiscal policy. The Conservatives would have implemented such a policy regardless of the free-marketeer rhetoric they propagate. What is vital, and what none of the candidates offer, is the restructuring of the financial sector and the economy.

Then the war in Afghanistan came up, framed around the specific topic of army pay and equipment. The underlying assumption being that in war British soldiers should not die, only the Afghans should die and not just insurgents but civilians.  Gordon Brown was quick to express his pride in the troops and claimed to have increased funding and equipment in recent years. This is contrary to the popular belief that soldiers are underpaid and poorly equipped. Brown went on to claim that the war is to stop terrorists in Afghanistan. There was no mention of the fact that the Taliban offered to hand Osama bin Laden over to the US, if the US provided evidence, that George Bush refused to do so and the invasion came soon after. The invasion turned into a war against the Taliban, and an exercise in state craft, after it became apparent that al-Qaeda were not in Afghanistan. 

On the issue of the Afghan war, David Cameron also expressed his pride in the troops and stressed that his pride was in their brilliance. He went on to point to China, Iran and North Korea as potential threats to British national security and the justification of Trident. This isn't anything particularly surprising as North Korea and Iran are part of the "Axis of Evil". But Cameron's mentioning of China is interesting, as China is a superpower in waiting. The war in Afghanistan is valuable to Western powers in strategic terms, it's close to the major energy providers of the world, and can used to further ostracise disobedient states like Iran. The control of energy resources is also a way for the US government to maintain it's status as the world's leading superpower. Though, the decline of the US as a international hegemon seems inevitable, it looks likely that China will surpass them in future decades and Britain may have to reassess the "special relationship".

The debate regarding the war in Afghanistan was constrained to the safe realms of paying and arming the military sufficiently. As opposed to the real issues of the legitimacy and the morality of the Afghan war. Naturally, the fact that the UK and the US invaded Afghanistan with the full knowledge the war could kill several million Afghans went ignored. None of the candidates mentioned that the war in Afghanistan could be seen in the same light as the Iraq war. The Iraq war was also ignored as an issue, even though the Conservatives and Labour voted for it while the Liberals opposed it. The war in Iraq has now killed over 1 million Iraqis, but the politicians in Westminster prefer to bicker over national insurance and spending cuts. This is not only a dishonour to the anti-war movement, who have been campaigning about these wars for almost a decade now, it is an insult to the innocent human beings killed in these conflicts.

The next two topics were on health-care and the elderly, Cameron used his "experience" with the NHS to reassure the audience that his party will not cut spending to the NHS. This is where the debate once again led back to taxes and spending cuts. Brown and Clegg attacked the Conservatives for their tax-cuts for the rich and the cuts to the NHS that could come with such tax-cuts. Strangely, the Conservative Daniel Hannan who is opposed to universal health-care was not mentioned. In the past, Hannan has referred to it as a mistake and has even slung mud at the NHS on American TV. Labour and the Liberals could easily capitalise on the fact that Hannan's attitude, towards a vital aspect of the welfare state, is out-of-date and in direct opposition to the view of the British population. The existence of a national health service and the acknowledgement of health-care as a right, should not be a matter of debate today. But politicians who challenge the right to health-care are rightfully scorned by the British public.

On caring for the elderly, none of the candidates proposed a method or policy to prevent or ease the coming pensions crisis. The fact that the amount of old people in this country will surpass the amount of young people, particularly those working and paying the taxes which support the pension system, is a serious issue. There are methods that could have at least been discussed, but are not popular. One option is increasing taxes, which Labour is already being attacked for, the Conservatives and Liberals oppose outright. Another option is increasing immigration, but The Sun feels there is already too many immigrants in the country, that's not even a realistic proposal for politicians to even acknowledge. The remaining option is privatisation, which is not only unpopular it would probably be a disaster as private pensions are dependent on the stock market and are vulnerable to the chaos of the market. It should also be noted that a private pensions system would mean that working people would have a stake in the undermining of their own interests, lowering wages and increasing work hours.

In the closing statements, Nick Clegg presented himself as something "new" and "alternative", he was sure to recall the names of all audience members who asked questions. The emphasis of his statement were on  "change" and "fairness" as offered by his party. Brown stuck to his position on the economy, a pragmatic vision featuring "fairness" and painless spending cuts, his attacks on the Conservatives for their lack of guarantees. Cameron tried to portray his party as exemplifying "hope" not "fear" and made reference to his vision of a "Big Society" - a notably vacuous phrase. He stressed "values" and "change" in his statement. The comments made by political figures, the likes of William Hague and Alan Johnson, were interesting. Johnson pointed to Brown as the winner as he presented the public with "substance", something which Johnson claims Clegg and Cameron lack. This is an interesting claim as it assumes there is a lack of "substance" in the political system and that a "man of substance", like Gordon Brown, is unique and rare.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Vote with Your Mind, Not Your Wallet.

In the days since the Chancellors debate, we have seen major captains of industry come out in support of the Conservatives. The mass-media coverage of this recent development is particularly informing of the nature of British politics. That's an interesting theory in itself, upper-class people backing the Conservatives must mean that the working-class do too. They tell us, we the people are supporting the Conservatives because the rich are supporting the Conservatives. They have even compared the support of the Tories to the support New Labour received in the run-up to their victory in 1997. The dependency of the political class and the establishment on "Big Business" for power, this is reflected by the way the media has claimed that corporate support is reflective of mass-support from the working-class. This is just like the scandal surrounding Lord Ashcroft and Lord Paul, the political class is reliant on wealthy backers and that is a major problem. The difference is that we are told this instance is a positive sign that we should embrace, as it means the Conservatives have our best interests at heart apparently. The fact that the Conservatives are aiming to demolish poor estates in West London doesn't seem to register.

It should be noted that a few of these businesses used to support New Labour, while the most have been staunch supporters of the Conservative Party all along. And that all of this just days after Tony Blair popped up out of nowhere to support Brown, which may suggest the publicity of the rich backing the Tories is in reaction to Blair's appearance. Though, support from a war criminal like Blair is hardly going to gather much support. It is also significant, that the wars for oil have been largely ignored and the focus has been on the economy, taxes and public spending etc. It is insulting to the 1 million dead Iraqis and the thousands killed in Afghanistan that our politicians choose to bicker over taxes than confront real issues like war and mass-murder. The same was done during the run-up to the 1993 Presidential Election in the US, the debate was turned towards the tax system. In which, Bill Clinton ran against George HW Bush. The Republicans accused Clinton of intending to raise taxes, but ultimately lost the Presidency because Bush had raised taxes in direct contradiction of his electoral manifesto. Bush had publicly stated "Read my lips: no new taxes." Never mind the thousands slaughtered in South America.

The discourse around the upcoming election has been shifted toward aspects of the tax system. The Liberal Democrats are running on a claim of being the only party that intends to cut taxes for those who deserve it. This is a traditional Conservative claim, though it is widely believed that the Tory Party cuts taxes for the wealthy. Whereas, Labour is stuck with the reputation for raising taxes to "unjust" rates. Of course, what no one is saying, what no one dares to say, is that people abhor taxes because they have no say in what their hard-earned money is spent on. It is perfectly understandable that the public hates the idea of their money being used to cover MPs expenses, bail-out banks and provide bonuses for Canary Wharf. And the idea that our money is being spent on wars that corporations benefit from is even more unsettling and unpopular. If we lived in a truly democratic society, most of us would view paying taxes in a positive light if we felt politicians were actually representative of us and that our money is going to a causes which are beneficial to our society. But the right-wing media needs something to exploit in order to further the country's descent into neoliberalism.

Instead of seeking to reform the political system, the mainstream media focuses in on taxes that effect the well-off. The stated reason for the corporate backing of the Conservatives is the increase in national insurance by Labour. But what goes unsaid is that part of the Conservative Party's economic policy is to "incentivise" business. "Incentivise" being a euphemism for subsidies and tax-cuts for the wealthy, combined with deregulation. The subsidies will be paid for with the funds cut from spending on the public sector. There has been no mention of this, as "Big Business" has flocked to the side of Tories, which says something we all already know about the Conservatives. It says the "need" the wealthy have for tax-cuts, subsidies and deregulation are not only imperative, but that "need" does not even require commentary. As "incentivising" business is so essential it cannot be challenged or even mentioned, nor can the dedication of the Conservatives to these policies. The practices of the Labour Party over the last decades, which have been nothing out of step of the Thatcherite orthodoxy, are also ignored by the commentators and the media.

This election is not going to result in a government representative of the populace if the real issues go on ignored. Thus, the debates should not be personality driven and the media's focus should not be on the campaign posters and the populist slogans, essentially spin cooked up by a public relations firm. The parties may use rhetoric about fighting poverty and building community spirit and so fourth, but where is the substance behind the rhetoric? The media should be pushing for the details of policy. The parties are still hiding the substance of these policies behind deceptive language like "incentivise" turning subsidies and deregulation into a something which no one would oppose. But sadly, it would seem as though this is going to lead to yet a lower voting turnout than in 2005. There is no optimism around this election or any of the parties. It could be said all that is being offered to the public is austerity and more of the same that we've seen over the last 30 years. If anything these elections may accomplish the continuing devaluation of the right to vote.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Scapegoat for Hitlerism.

Better Dead than Red.

The American Right has been desperate lately to promote the view that fascism, particularly the notorious Hitlerite variant known to us all as Nazism, was and is a left-wing movement. There is a tendency on the American Right to try and scapegoat the Left as the source of all problems. And the motivations of this, appear to be strictly partisan as usual and are probably part of the "culture war" that conservatives have waged since the early 1990s. Though, it could be more than just partisan politics, this could be an attempt of the American Right to distance themselves from the "dirty word" of fascism and turn the word against the liberals, who are all too enthusiastic to hurl it against the likes of the Bush administration. Some have even gone as far as distorting the political spectrum, so that left and right are determined according to the statism and individualism of the ideology. This would mean that fascism and socialism are both left-wing, as they are ideologically statist, whereas conservatism and libertarianism are right-wing because they are supposedly anti-statist and individualistic.

There are more flimsy arguments in favour of this view, such as the fact that the Nazis' full title was the National Socialist German Workers' Party and from that we should conclude that the Nazis were socialists. According to that logic, North Korea is democratic as it's official title is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The Nazis viewed communism as part of an international Jewish Bolshevik conspiracy. Though, it is true that the national socialists were opposed to laissez-faire capitalism, as they regarded it as "decadent" and associated it with Judaism. It should be noted that fascist movements tend to utilise socialistic titles, slogans and rhetoric in order to gain popular support from the working-class. This is particularly true of the fascist movements of the 1930s, as socialism still carried a considerable moral weight and appealed to many working-class people. The same can be argued in regard to national syndicalism, the labour movement associated with the Italian Fascists, the official ideology of the Falanges in Spain.

It was in 2008 that a conservative writer named Jonah Goldberg published a book entitled Liberal Fascism. Since then the pundits at Fox News, as well as radio hosts Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh, have jumped on the idea. Though, Michael Savage once called George Bush a "fiscal socialist" and referred to the Republicans as Mensheviks, the smaller faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party that ultimately lost to the Bolsheviks. So it's not surprising that Savage has leaped on this argument. Whereas, Rush Limbaugh has used it to attack Obama's health-care reforms drawing a comparison with the National Socialist policy on health-care. Though, what Limbaugh neglected to mention in his rant is that every developed country in the world except for the United States and South Africa has some form of a national health service. The same can be said of Glenn Beck, who has even promoted a documentary The Revolutionary Holocaust which draws comparisons between Stalinism and National Socialism.

In regards to the arguments that draw analogies between fascism and communism, based on the similarities between the actions of fascist and communist states, there is a major flaw which is often overlooked. According to Marxist theory, revolution could only occur within developed capitalist societies and this would exclude Tsarist Russia, as it was not a fully developed capitalist society when the "October Revolution" took place. Lenin was well aware of this, but the "Revolution" he led in Russia was not intended to take the country into socialism, it was intended as a "holding action" to prepare the society for the "Revolution" which would take place in the most advanced capitalist country. To Lenin, Russian society required a vanguard which could "push" society through capitalism to socialism and eventually to communism. This is the reason that Lenin utilised tools of oppression to crush political opposition and to destroy instruments of workers' democracy such as unions, worker councils and even soviets ironically. Therefore, it could be said that Marxist-Leninist regimes are not communist states.

In a rebuttal to his numerous critics, Jonah Goldberg has claimed that no one has successfully "rebutted" the argument that fascism is left-wing as it rejects traditionalism and laissez-faire capitalism, while embracing statism. First of all, to claim that fascists rejected traditionalism is a simplistic generalisation. Goldberg is ignoring the way in which fascists "intervened" in culture. In the case of Nazi Germany, this included the banning of so-called "degenerate art" and the creation of "Positive Christianity", which was a form of Christianity compatible with national socialism. Let alone, the persecution of homosexuals, banning of birth control literature and abortion that was typical of fascist states. Though, abortions were permitted and "encouraged" as part of Nazi eugenics for the stated purpose of "racial hygiene". Under fascist governments, women were marginalised to the role of housewives, the importance of child-bearing was emphasised greatly. Surely, these practices only differ from traditionalism in that they are more extreme.

Better Blue than You.

This may be because fascism is more of a palingenetic ideology, which Roger Griffin differentiates fascism from the rest of the Right, palingenesis is the "rebirth" or "reincarnation" of something. In fascism, it is the rebirth of a glorious imperial past, with an emphasis on cultural, military and racial superiority. This is the reason that Nazi Germany was referred to as the Third Reich as it was seen as the Third reincarnation of the Holy Roman Empire, the Second Reich being the German Empire. It could be argued that Italy's invasion of Ethiopia was palingenetic, as it was an attempt to recreate the Roman Empire in the 20th Century. The same could be said of Franco's struggle to hang onto the remnants of the Spanish Empire. There is no such palingenetic characteristic among socialist and anarchist movements. The only exception that comes to mind, is the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. Though, it should be noted that the Khmer Rouge ideology was more of a radical combination of communism and nationalism than communism; the aim of the Khmer Rouge was to return Cambodia to it's glorious past as an invaluable part of the Khmer Empire.

In the symbolism of the fascist movements, which is typically nationalistic, there is evidence of this palingenetic tendency, as it relates to the past of the country. The colours red, white and black that are used in Nazi symbolism originate in the flag of Imperial Germany. The Swastika has it's roots in pre-Christian mythology and folklore of Europe. The word fascism derives from the Latin word "fasces" meaning "bundle". But the symbol fasces, which consists of a bundle of rods tied around an axe, which was included on the Fascist Italian flag, was a symbol of authority in Ancient Rome. The symbols of the Falanges, a bunch of arrows tied together by a yoke, and the Greek Fascists, a double-headed axe once used in Ancient Greece, are also palingenetic. Communist symbolism like the hammer and sickle carry connotations of the industrial and agricultural working-class. The colour red was chosen for communist flags as it is symbolic of the blood of the working-class spilt in the class struggle.

Now let's assess the notion that fascism is left-wing as it is a statist and totalitarian ideology. If we define the Right as focused on individual liberty and a small government consistent with a market economy, where does this leave right-wing dictators like Augusto Pinochet on the political spectrum. The Pinochet regime in Chile stood for individual liberty and small government when it came to the economy, but socially the regime has often been compared to fascist states. The Chilean people were totally oppressed, unions were crushed, dissidents were tortured and killed. All the while, Pinochet pursued the privatisation of state-industries, the dismantling of the welfare state and the liberalisation of the markets. On one hand, Pinochet was a monster who killed thousands of his own people; he brought about an economic miracle. In a sense, there is no point at which Pinochet can be placed on this spectrum, as he can be seen as both a fascist and a liberal. It would seem that the Left-Right spectrum, as defined simply by individualism and statism, is overly simplistic as it cannot accommodate neoliberal dictatorships.

On a more sophisticated spectrum fascism could be placed near on the centre-right economically and socially on the authoritarian far-right. There was a great deal of central planning under fascist regimes. However, there was a place for private property and corporations, whereas trade unions and the labour movement were harshly repressed, under such regimes. An exception being Fascist Spain, where there was room for unions but they were subject to state-control.  These fascist regimes had typically corporatist economic policies, which they promoted as a "third way" to capitalism and communism. These policies, some of which today would be regarded as Keynesian, were directed at boosting demand and decreasing unemployment. Mussolini was adored by the business community, the same was true of Hitler and Franco. In fact, corporations like General Motors, Ford, BMW, IBM and Coca-Cola flourished in Nazi Germany. Coca-Cola launched Fanta for the German market and IBM created a traffic management program for the concentration camps.

Perhaps, the American Right are worried about the similarities that can be drawn between the Tea Party Movement and the fascists of the 1930s. Though, we should not mock them, for they are people who have legitimate reasons to be angry, just like the people of Weimar Germany. But the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Glenn Beck are not spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Instead, they are telling them that there is a "liberal elite" - which have infiltrated the government and the media - that is "clogging" the functions of the free-market and preventing the whole country from flourishing. This is similar to the 2006 demonstrations against the Socialist Party in Hungary, the participants of these demonstrations believed that Hungary had yet to achieve "true capitalism". For them, the only way to realise capitalism is to "purge" society of all communists posing as captains of industry. Just like the Hungarian populists, which aimed at repeating the "Velvet Revolution", the Tea Party Movement aims to embody the spirit of the Boston Tea Party and the "American Revolution" through palingenesis.

Significant Links:

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Tyranny of the Individual.

In JS Mill's 1859 piece On Liberty, which is essential reading for any liberal today,  Mill presents and explores the concept of the "tyranny of the majority". The gist of this concept is that democratic procedures can lead to tyranny over minorities, who disagree with the majority but cannot oppose them as they lack the sufficient voting power. As a concept, the "tyranny of the majority" reflects the individualistic tendency of Classical Liberalism. To liberals of Mill's ilk, it is the rights and freedoms of the individual that face potential threats from society, as a collective, in a democracy. The concept itself predates On Liberty and was probably borrowed from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, which Mill reviewed. Though, de Tocqueville called it by another name, the despotism of the majority. Regardless, it remains a popular concept with right-wing intellectuals, the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand and her followers being a typical example. Whereas, the majority of liberals today, who are social democrats or at least have social democratic leanings, are not so fond of the concept.

Mostly due to the Chicago School of Economics as well as the Austrian School, who have influenced right-wing politics in the West, there has been a resurgence of Classical Liberal ideas. Though, the return of laissez-faire politique over the last 30 years has been in relation to the global economy and has come in the form of neoliberalism. Even as Thatcher and Reagan "rolled back" the state and "liberated" the markets they still kept to "moralising" social policies that restricted gay rights. These reactionary social policies clashed with the permissive economic theories they preached. The economic theories that came out of the Chicago School and the Austrian School were laissez-faire - in the sense of libertarian and even anarcho-capitalist in some cases - in content. These theories were characterised by an overwhelming trust in private-power and distrust of state-power. But within these theories there is also a deeply cynical view of human nature, that we are fundamentally selfish and ego-driven creatures. This is why the trust of private-power only makes sense if one assumes that private vices reap public benefits. It's easy to see how such a permissive attitude to economics can clash with the repressive vision of a "good way" to live.

This assumption originates in Bernard Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees, in which he argues that private vices reap public benefits in the sense that even a libertine's indulgent behaviour has the potential to employ tailors, servants, perfumers, cooks and prostitutes. The spending of these individuals in turn employs more people like bakers and carpenters. In this sense, private vices are publicly beneficial as a whole. Though, JS Mill's writings on the economy became more left-wing, than anything Chicago School ever produced, it was On Liberty that would be his most influential work. Nevertheless, this assumption has been combined with the simple idea of individual liberty, as laid out by JS Mill, without any regard of the corrosive effects on society. The idea that we can all contribute to society by living life to the full, while at the same time assuming that the market functions best when left to it's own devices, is naive. For one thing, it fails to take into account externalities, which is when the true cost of an act is left for others to pay for. Like pollution, the true cost is being externalised for our descendents to pay for.

Thus, the ideal of individual freedom, of the untrammeled variety pursued by Friedman and Hayek, may be more suitable to an environment of isolation and desperation. A desert island, perhaps, on which one man is stranded and has to fend for himself. He must pursue his own self-interest in order to survive against all odds, the perils posed by the local wildlife and the forces of 'Mother Nature'. It is imperative that he build something that can shelter him, he must also find food and drinkable water. There is no nanny state to coddle him and no society for him to consider. His needs are the only needs that matter and his desires are the only desires that matter. Under these circumstances, greed is good and the alternative may mean death. But Western civilisation is not a network of isolated islands with desperate individuals stranded on them. We all know, our civilisation is more than that. It is an collection of complex and diverse societies, in which there is an intermingling of individual wants and desires. Worryingly, this may mean that the most primal view of humanity may rest at the centre of neoliberal ideology.

There is a tendency in liberal thought to view society as a mass of atoms, an arrangement between individuals, all of which are pursuing their own separate needs and wants. This is ignorant of the importance of society and that individuals play roles in society. Society is not subject to the whims of individuals, it is made up of individuals that interact with one another constantly. Since all actions concern oneself and others in society, it seems far too simplistic to view individual liberty as the paramount ideal of our civilisation. According to the concept the "tyranny of the majority", this ideal should even be placed above the ideal of democracy in our civilisation. Because democracy may threaten the freedom of the individual it should be restricted, so that democracy is extended to the things that don't really matter. Milton Friedman once lambasted democracy with a "straw man", in which 49% of the population are shot just because 51% of the population voted for it, to support his argument that individual freedom ought to be put above liberal democracy. Though, there appears to be something more being said here.

It could be that the concept presented in Mill's work is a "straw man" argument, used to attack what could be influenced through democratic procedures e.g. private property. We would all agree that Mill is right to argue democracy should not be extended to the personal tastes of individuals, a point he made using the example of the banning of pork in Islamic states, or the lives of individuals as Friedman argued. But these are ridiculous points, as no rational human being would extend democracy to such vital aspects of human life. Even with the example of banning pork, politicians may enact legislation to outlaw certain products and services, but they are usually not acting as representative of the majority of people in society. So it does seem logical, that the "tyranny of the majority" is really about protecting the wealthy minority from the kind of policies the poor majority would enact. Of course, this refers to the redistribution of wealth and the construction of the welfare state, which would benefit the poor majority. In this sense, the individual liberty that Mill and de Tocqueville wrote of is a bourgeois freedom - conceived of for the wealthy few.

This individual freedom, that liberals have fixated upon for centuries, could also be referred to as negative liberty. As negative liberty is the freedom of the individual from constraint, to live and act as one chooses. Though, liberals would propose the limits of negative freedom should be at the harm of others. It is this robust freedom for the individual, including a variety of rights such as the right to private property and the right to vote, which has made liberalism a prevalent political philosophy today. But it could be that this is an outdated political philosophy that panders to bourgeois needs, such as the right to private property, and is based on a atomistic and primal vision of mankind. In it's place, what may be needed is a positive liberty that encompasses the values equality and solidarity within society, as well as leaving room for the freedom of the individual on a social level. This would involve constraining the destructive capacities of individual freedom, which may lead to massive inequality and environmental disaster, while leaving room for the individual to live autonomously.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Bush Presidency: A Case of Polyarchy?

The purpose of this essay is to assess whether or not the United States is a polyarchy. We will look at the Bush Presidency and the characteristics it possessed which are suggestive of a polyarchical system, the media as a possible system of support for a polyarchy, and the economic structure as symptomatic of such a system. A single essay cannot prove conclusively that the political system is a polyarchy, but it will no doubt be thought provoking.

First of all, we need to accept a definition of polyarchy. James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution”, once said that the role of the government “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” In other words, the government should protect the wealthy from the poor. Madison’s vision is not far from it, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that Robert Dahl described the concept: polyarchy, a system in which two or more political parties – who represent powerful interest groups – who compete with one another to govern. These powerful groups usually exercise influence on the two parties through their capital and act egoistically. The public does have a role in this system, which it would not in a dictatorship, the role of voting. In such a system, politicians face a dual constituency – the needs and wants of the poor versus the needs and wants of the rich. Dahl’s theory of a polyarchy may explain why voters have to choose between the Democrats and Republicans and nothing seems to change no matter who they elect.

Although, it was in the 1950s that Dahl introduced the concept, it could be argued that in practice polyarchy is nothing new to the US. It has been said that the “Founding Fathers” feared dictatorship, but that they also feared democracy. A polyarchal system may have seemed more practical and realistic to the “Founding Fathers” than a dictatorial or a democratic system. The flaw of democracy, as Madison saw it, was that it might lead to the majority of the population, specifically the poor, using their voting power to initiate land reform. Such reform was viewed as an infringement on the rights of the wealthy minority to own and accumulate private property. This was not the first time that people had faced this dilemma. Aristotle considered the same dilemma. In his book Politics, Aristotle considers the different forms of government and evaluates them. He concluded that democracy was the “least bad” option. Aristotle noted a problem with democracy. If the poor of Athens could use their voting power, they might seize the property of the rich. But Aristotle proposed that inequality should be ended, so that the flaw of democracy would be no more. Madison, on the other hand, proposed that we should limit democratic procedures without becoming tyrannical.

It could be argued that a lack of political pluralism is symptomatic of a polyarchical and undemocratic, partly because it lacks the genuine political pluralism that is essential to democracy. Without a wide range of political parties, the people of the country could lack viable options in changing society in accordance with their needs and wants. In a sense, it is also more likely that the two parties are unrepresentative of the majority of Americans. Though, there is an objection to this claim.

Even though, the two main political parties appear to represent a narrow political spectrum, they are comprised of powerful factions, and thus may not be homogenous. It could be argued that, the Democrats consist of several factions, most famously liberals, social democrats and progressives, as well as moderates and a conservative wing. Similarly in the “GOP”, which is known primarily for its conservatives both fiscal and social, there are also libertarians, the Christian Right, moderates and neoconservatives. Therefore, the United States political system may not necessarily be polyarchal and could be representative of the American people. Because the two main parties consist of a multitude of factions, it could be argued that there is pluralism internal to the two main parties. It may be added that in an advanced democracy the political factions most popular with the civilian population may be lumped together into two or three main parties. The plurality internal of the two parties could reflect a degree of choice which would not exist at all in a totally undemocratic and possibly polyarchical system.

It could be argued that these two parties are not monolithic, but that does not mean the US isn’t a polyarchy. As the plurality of factions could exist in a polyarchy, these factions are not parties and are subject to the same influence of political donors as the rest of the party. Even when taking into account these factions, the political spectrum that is represented by the two parties is still narrow. Where the political spectrum in Europe would consider a politician such as John Kerry firmly right-wing, the American political spectrum would place Kerry on the centre-left. Most politicians in the US are labelled either “liberal” or “conservative”. Occasionally, moderates and libertarians are mentioned. Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader are deviations from this set of vague labels and are usually referred to as “far-left”. Labels such as “socialist” and “fascist” come up in discourse and are usually used by politicians to vilify each other. But the use of these terms in bouts of “mudslinging” is deceiving, leading many to believe that there is a great deal of diversity. Even if the likes of Ron Paul and Kucinich as examples of the “diversity” of US politics, such diversity may not contradict the concept of a polyarchy. But only two parties remain dominant and their members are predominantly “liberal” and “conservative”, it could be said that there is little diversity. In practice, it could be said, Bush and Kerry did not differ greatly on policy.

Before examining the actions of the Bush administration, it is imperative that we first look at the circumstances which ushered them into office and the similarities between the candidates of the 2000 Election. The Democratic candidate was Al Gore and the Republican candidate was George Bush. Both of them stood in opposition to universal health care and strict controls on environmental damages. Neither proposed a plan for extensive low-cost housing. Both candidates favoured a strong military establishment and protectionist economic practices. The death penalty and the growth of prisons were opposed by neither Bush nor Gore. Al Gore had made a name for himself as a supporter of environmental causes and chose Joe Lieberman, a well known conservative, as his running mate. For instance, Lieberman voted to limit punitive damage awards in cases of product liability. Lieberman was popular with the military industrial complex, which received $8 billion in contracts for a submarine during his stint as senator for Connecticut. On the other hand, Bush was primarily known for his connections in the oil industry and his unprecedented record for executing convicts while he was the Governor of Texas. Bush chose Dick Cheney as his running mate, who had been involved in the administrations of Bush I, Ford and Nixon.

A polyarchy would feature a skewed representation of wealthy groups, as opposed to being subjected to the will of the people at a grass-roots level. Because such groups have access to the capital required to have an effect on the political process, through lobbying and campaign funding. In the election of 2000, it could be said that, even the voting machinery was “skewed” in the favour of the wealthy. The electoral vote was so close that it was left to state electors to decide the outcome of the election. Gore had received hundreds of thousands of votes more than Bush, but this did not result in a landslide victory for Gore. Victory had to be determined by the electors of each state, due to stipulations in the Constitution. But many votes in Florida had simply not been counted, voting ballots and machines had been disqualified on technical grounds. Most of these votes had been made by poor African-Americans. There was a recount, which was rushed and did not take into account every one of the disputed ballots, which concluded Bush had won the election by over 500 votes. This is evidence of the inadequate representation of blacks in America, and a testament to the neglect of the poor in the country, which points to a system tilted to whites of wealthy backgrounds. The Republicans took the case to the US Supreme Court – which consisted of five conservatives and four liberals at the time – who in turn overruled the Florida Supreme Court and prohibited anymore recounts. Possibly, the conservative judges acted to elect the politician favoured most by “Corporate America”, as opposed to the candidate favoured by the people.

It could be argued that the American people have a disposition towards conservatism. It is imperative that we look at the Election of 2000 from a conservative point-of-view. What people have forgotten is that at that time Al Gore represented, what was widely regarded as a discredited administration. The Clinton administration had been elected on a mandate for “hope” and it was seen to have accomplished little in two terms. Not only had the administration failed the American people, but it was viewed as an embarrassment by many. This would have had an influence on the voters at the time. Even without the record the Clintonites had, it is a rarity in American politics to see the people give a third-term to a party. This is especially true when the candidate was a member of the administration throughout its tenure. Bush, on the other hand, was a “new face” and appeared folksy to the public. Bush ran on a platform of compassionate conservatism, which may have appealed to many moderate as well as conservative voters. At the same time, Ralph Nader ran for President and proposed far more progressive policies than Bush and Gore. It has been argued by the Democrats that Nader’s candidacy had created a “spoiler effect” during the election and may have cost Gore the election. Nader won a little less than 97,500 votes in Florida, therefore it could be that Nader cost Gore the election since Bush won by 500 votes. If the voting system had not been for the fiasco surrounding ballots in Florida it could be argued that there may have been a clear cut Republican victory.

Despite the controversy surrounding the election, Bush was inaugurated as demonstrations were held in Washington and Florida rejecting his victory as illegitimate. Once in office the Bush administration began pushing for tax cuts for the rich and opposing regulation which could limit environmental damage. The administration sought increases in the military budget, which is beneficial to high-tech industry as a lot of the funding for the military is used to subsidise the private sector. The administration made plans to privatise Social Security, to put the retirement funds of American citizens on the stock market. It could be said that these policies are not representative of the people. The majority of the white working-class voted on two areas gun ownership and religiosity, policies on abortion and gay rights. At the same time, upper-class voters tend to vote on economic issues related to taxes and health-care. This is the dual constituency, as indicative of a polyarchy, we looked at previously. Bush tried to appeal to both classes, by opposing gun control and abortion while seeking vast tax cuts for the rich. It would appear that even if Bush’s first term was legitimate, it would be predicated on many people voting against their interests. It would also appear that this may be the way politicians aim to resolve the problem of the dual constituency – the rich and the poor – by ensuring that the electorate vote against their own interests.

The amount of corporate support a candidate for public office has is reflected by the sum of funding which was received during their campaigns. The Bush campaign managed to raise $220 million in funding, whereas the Gore campaign received $170 million in funding. In 2004, when Bush and Cheney were campaigning for re-election they received just over $367 million and spent around $345 million. On the other hand, John Kerry received over $328 million and spent around $310 million. If we look at the most recent Presidential election in the US, we can see that this trend continues. Obama received around $745 million in funding, spent around $730 million, while the McCain campaign received $368 million and spent less than $350 million on his campaign. There appears to be a consistent pattern in American politics, particularly over the last 30 years, that corporate funding of campaigns has increased and the winners of elections tend to those who received the most funding. In the case of the 2000 Election, this may have meant that even a politician not supported by a majority of the population could take office purely on a firm base of corporate support.

Many members of the Bush administration had been successful in the private sector. The five years Dick Cheney spent as a CEO, of the major corporation Halliburton, is perhaps the most infamous instance of this, but not an exceptional example. The President himself had been involved in energy companies, Arbusto Energy, Spectrum 7 and Harken, in the late 70s right up until the 90s. Condoleezza Rice had worked for corporations, like the Carnegie Corporation and Hewlett-Packard, but most notably the energy company Chevron. Donald Rumsfeld became involved in the pharmaceutical corporation Searle after leaving the Ford administration. After playing the roles of CEO, President and Chairman, Rumsfeld profited from the sale of Searle to Monsanto in 1985. All the while, he remained a part-time role in the public sector. He was involved in a string of corporations up until 2001 when Rumsfeld was made Secretary of Defence. Andrew Card, a member of the White House Iraq Group, had been the President of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association until the trade association dissolved. Then he was President of General Motors until joining the administration in 2001. Henry Paulson had been involved in Goldman Sachs for over 30 years by the time he was appointed to Secretary of the Treasury. Arguably, it is likely for such a government, consisting of people who have worked in business for decades, to be swayed by elite interests.

American foreign policy could reflect the way in which state-power can be swayed by elite interests. Despite massive opposition around the world, the US government led the invasion of Iraq with the stated aim of removing a brutal dictatorial regime, to bring democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people. Iraq is a major oil producing country, second only to Saudi Arabia, and many members of the administration had worked in the private sector, some specialising specifically in the energy industry. Oil is often the most cited reason the country was invaded today, and we now know that around 80% of Iraqi oil went to British and American energy corporations. Facts like these are unsettling for many, as they seem to imply a conflict of interest on the part of the Bush administration and “Corporate America”, as many members of the administration had been involved in the energy industry.

Oil could have been one reason for the invasion, it could be argued that there were many other reasons. Once the invasion had been completed, and fighting continued throughout much of the country, the American government, through the Coalition Provisional Authority, initiated economic “shock therapy” consisting of a series of free-market reforms. The mass-privatisation of industries and services in the public sector, followed by the deregulation of the markets, the aim was to create an ideal market economy. The Iraqi people were denied the freedom to unionise, as they had been under Saddam Hussein. Corporation tax in Iraq was lowered from 40% to 15%, to encourage investment, and such corporations were also allowed to transfer 100% of their profits out of the Iraq tax free. Corruption had became a serious problem in the country, as over 10% of the $350 billion in funds allocated for reconstruction were siphoned off by American corporations. If there was a functioning polyarchy in the US, at that time, these facts could be viewed as signs of the exertion of state-power for the benefit of multinational corporations. Possibly, a further indication that the US is a polyarchy.

The awarding of no-bid reconstruction contracts, in some cases by executive agreement, have been viewed by some as a form of this use of state-power, for the benefit of private companies. Halliburton and Bechtel are two corporations that were awarded no-bid reconstruction contracts. Bechtel was awarded $35 million contract, a condition of the contract stated that it could provide for funding up to a sum of $680 million. Though, Halliburton is the most infamous case, as it was once run by Dick Cheney. Halliburton received numerous no-bid reconstruction contracts through executive agreements. By 2004 Halliburton had around $10 billion worth of contracts in Iraq. There were also allegations of corruption against Halliburton, as well as claims that the corporation had sought excessive charges from the government to cover costs. In 2006 the Pentagon’s auditors found over $250 million were potentially excessive or unjustified charges. Nevertheless, all but $10 million of those contested costs were covered by the American government.

The purpose of the media is supposed to be that of an impartial distributor of important information to the public on a daily basis. Unfortunately, it is possible that media can act as subservient institutions to private-power. The manner in which the media acted under Bush, in the run-up to the Iraq war is important, as the coverage appealed to the average American’s need for security and safety. The media widely disseminated the idea that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass-destruction” and failed to challenge the Bush administration on the accusations they were making – all of which later turned out to be untrue. In doing so, it could be said that the media supported the invasion, which would later see 80% of Iraqi oil go to the energy corporations. The behaviour of the media in the run-up to the war could be viewed as symptomatic of a polyarchy. This is so because political parties, in a polyarchal system, would have to at least appeal to the population on some level even though their policies are skewed toward serving the interests of wealthy groups. In a dictatorship there would be no need for even the pretence of representing the people, as government can do as it pleases and simply repress any dissent.

Fox News was the first news channel that declared Bush the winner in the contested election. Although, the Fox News channel is often criticised for it’s consistently right-wing slant on social and economic issues. Though, as Christianity has been politicised, the discourse has been turned towards “moral issues” like abortion, gay rights etc. and away from issues like health and wages. Rival news channels soon fell in line with Fox and declared Bush the President-elect. These news channels probably did so in order to avoid losing ratings and to avoid the common accusation that they represent a “liberal bias” in the media. In the early days of the war with Afghanistan, Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly called on the military to "bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble—the airport, the power plants, their water facilities, and the roads." Whether or not it is right to bomb the infrastructure of a country there should have at least been debate regarding this tactic, as opposed to simply its advocacy. We might expect this kind of conduct from Fox News, a channel with a reputation for supporting conservatives, but it is also media outlets that are often accused as having a “liberal” or “left-wing” bias that have behaved in similar ways to Fox in the past. It was the New York Times and the Washington Post that are supposedly liberal news outlets and yet they did not oppose either the Iraq war or the invasion in Afghanistan.

If we take the view that the American people tend to lean towards conservatism, and that this is the reason behind the lack of political pluralism rather than polyarchy, we should acknowledge that the same could be said of the media. The reason for the conservative slant on many stories, even in papers with liberal reputations like the Washington Post and the New York Times, maybe that the readers identify with the conservative viewpoint. Newspapers and news channels with right-wing dispositions are more popular. The forces of the free-market would remove any media outlets that are unsuccessful, leaving only the papers and channels providing the information that the public favours most. Consequently, media outlets with such leanings are more successful and outdo competing media firms that do not share these leanings. As a consequence, there are more channels with a right-wing perspective than there are with a left-wing slant. In this view, this is the reason left-wing commentary is confined to outlets dependent on public funding. On the other hand, right-wing commentary has flourished in the private sector since the late 1980s. But this begs the question, do the media reflect public opinion?

There have been other explanations proposed, to explain the tilt in media coverage, one being the “propaganda model”. Propaganda was once used openly to refer to methods of manipulating the public. The term propaganda developed negative connotations because similar methods had been utilised by Nazi propagandists. The PR industry used to be referred to as propaganda, until Edward Bernays invented the term “public relations”. Bernays believed that humans are driven by irrational forces. Therefore, it is likely that people can make “wrong decisions” and want “wrong things”. To Bernays, the public is a “bewildered herd” and that the only way to deal with them is by appealing to their unconscious desires and fears. In his book Propaganda, Bernays wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” Plausibly, these manipulative practices are undemocratic. Bernays dubbed this “intelligent manipulation” the engineering of consent. Years before he had done so, Walter Lippmann had given it another label the “manufacturing of consent”. A phrase later borrowed by Chomsky and Herman, in their book which presented the “propaganda model”. This model consists of five editorial filters, through which information passes before being presented to the public as news. These filters include: 1. The size, ownership, owner wealth and profit-motivated nature of the mass-media. 2. The dependence of media firms on advertising. 3. The reliance of the media on the government, business and experts funded by these primary sources of power. 4. “Flak”, the means of managing public information, negative responses to a media statement. 5. Ideological bias, for instance anti-communism. We can’t cover all of these so let’s look at the relevant filters – the second and the fifth.

The second filter, the dependency of the media on advertising revenue as a way in which media outlets interact with the business community which can affect the content of news. Advertisements cover the costs of writing and producing newspapers, which ultimately drove down the price of the paper. Without the support of advertisers, newspapers and channels are not practical to run. As a result of the increasing dependency on advertising revenue, the radical press has been weakened considerably since the mid 19th Century as it could not compete. The readers of such papers tend to be of humble backgrounds, the newspapers that had more advertising were cheaper for them to read on a regular basis. Most of the working-class press has either gone out of business because of this or has become dependent on public funding. In a sense, it is true that the right-ward leaning of the media is a product of supply and demand, but only in relation to advertising revenue and not sales revenue. The bias of the media may not simply be a partisan agenda, like that which Fox arguably has with the “GOP”, but an ideological prejudice that transcends parties. This brings us to the fifth filter.

The fifth filter is anti-communism as a control mechanism. The widely publicised and documented history of abuse in communist states had made anti-communism an ideological principle in Western politics. It could be said that communism was portrayed as the “ultimate evil” over decades. Chomsky and Herman argued that it was anti-communism that was used to mobilise the masses against enemies. Thus, leftists could be vilified by commentators, as on the side of the enemy, but social democrats and progressives also became the subject of this vilification. Michael Dukakis was called a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” during his campaign for office in 1988. The term “card-carrying” implies membership to the Communist Party. Though, it should be noted Chomsky and Herman were writing in the late 1980s prior to the collapse of the USSR. Therefore, it may be fair to assume that the kind of ideological bias today may differ greatly to that of the media during the Cold War. The Republicans accused Al Gore of appealing to “class warfare” in the election campaign and more recently there has been a spate of red-baiting during Obama’s campaign. Arguably, this is part of an ideological disposition to notions of freedom and individualism in general. Notions such as the free-market and social mobility, on the basis of merit, also appear to be prevalent. In fact, this disposition has a long history, predating the Cold War and possibly back to the Founding Fathers. The depth of this ideological disposition is reflected in speeches made by politicians, one such instance is Bush’s statement “I believe freedom is the future of all humanity.”

We will now look at the economic system, as it has changed over the last four decades. The last 40 years are important as this was the time that a major change occurred, putting the social democratic ideas of Roosevelt behind and moving on to neoliberalism – which emphasises economic growth, a minimal state and a free-market. Milton Friedman, the leading monetarist economist, once said “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” Friedman’s words fit well with the ideals of the US, individualism and freedom, as well as his theories which have been highly influential in the years up to the financial crisis of 2008. This could be part of the ideological disposition we discussed previously. Debatably, this disposition may have left Americans ill-equipped to deal with the problems of inequality. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans shocked many, as the slow reaction from the Federal government drew accusations of negligence. Since a polyarchy is a system which functions to stifle radical political change and maintain the concentration of great wealth, from which the upper-classes derive their power, it would make sense that inequality would be a symptom of an economy suited to particular elites rather than the majority of Americans. The disaster highlighted the poverty rife, especially in the black community, in New Orleans and the lack of a sufficient safety net for lower class Americans.

John Maynard Keynes once said “that nothing less than the democratic experiment in self-government was endangered by the threat of global market forces.” As Keynes understood it, the deregulation of finance diminishes political pluralism and by extension diminishes the influence of grass-roots participation in elections, as greater power is placed in the hands of investors and lenders. Perhaps this is reflected by the consistent increase in corporate funding to political campaigns. But there are ways that corporations can exercise power over a state. Corporations have the power to abandon and ostracise a country where government policy is contrary to their business practices. The capital controls and fixed currencies of the post-war Bretton-Woods system, which was praised by Keynesian economists as it imposed financial regulation, served to enable political change such as the New Deal. The system was dismantled in the early 1970s under the Nixon administration. Since, the Bretton-Woods system was dismantled there has been a growing increase in the gap between the rich and the poor. Inequality increased during the Reagan years, slowing only slightly under Clinton, before increasing steadily under the second Bush administration. However, this trend began under Carter.

Over the same period of time, the implementation of neoliberal policies has led ultimately to the financialisation of the economy. Wages for people with a high school education have either stagnated or gone into decline over the last 30 years. All as working-hours have increased. Though, an economy based on consumption couldn’t maintain high levels of consumer spending as wages fell. This is the reason that household debts relative to income, doubled between 1982 and 2008. There was a massive surge in corporate profits from the early 1980s until the late 1990s, and by 2007 the ratio of financial assets to GDP had doubled since the early 80s. In 2000 that 1% of the population owned over 40% of stock, and the bottom 80% of the population own less than 10% of stock. This is indicative of the vast gulf between rich and poor in the US. At the same time, social benefits have plummeted and any attempt by American politicians to increase such benefits through government spending is dismissed as "socialism".

It was under Bush, that 1% of the populace made around $1.6 trillion dollars in less than a decade. Though, the tax cuts under Bush are not unique, they are part of a consistent pattern over the last five decades or so, which we might expect as a result of a polyarchy. The rate of tax on citizens earning over $400,000 used to be at 91%, until the Kennedy administration cut the rate down to 70% in the 1960s and increased tax breaks for those same high earners. After the Bretton-Woods system was dismantled, the rate was chiselled down to 50% by the Democrats in Congress and the Reagan administration soon pursued further cuts. By 1986 the rate of income tax on the rich had been chopped down to 28%. The common justification for such economic policies is the trickle-down effect, which was also utilised famously by the Reagan administration. The theory stipulates that by cutting corporation tax and the top rate of income tax, the government can encourage expansion by entrepreneurs, leading to job creation and thereby decrease unemployment. In spite of the popularity of this theory in Washington, these policies did not result in massive job creation. The result being the stagnation and decline of wages for working-class people, the loss of $840 billion in tax revenue and 1% of the population accumulating $1 trillion between 1978 and 1990.

After completing my research on this topic it would be easy to conclude that the US is a polyarchy rather than a democracy. As the intermingling of the political establishment, the mass-media and “Corporate America” appears to have resulted in an economic system structured to benefit a wealthy few. But a single essay cannot prove conclusively that the US is polyarchical. In spite of that, this has been a thought provoking look at American politics. We can say with confidence, that there appears to be a pattern during the Bush Presidency, as well as in the media and the economy, that elite interests are of great importance and may have been for a long time.



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Left Business Observer



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