Social Licence and Political Process: Democracy in the Streets, in the Media and in Electoral Institutions

Social Licence and Political Process:  Democracy in the Streets, in the Media and in Electoral Institutions

What does democracy look like? Protest and Legitimacy

When America was engaged in a murderous, immoral, vicious, “undeclared” war against the communist government of North Viet Nam in support of a government the USA characterized as “democratic” South Viet Nam, I, in my teen wisdom, knew the USA was an evil empire. I knew communism was more legitimate than capitalism for the Vietnamese peasantry. I knew the Viet Cong in the South was more deserving of support from true democrats in the West’s rich nations. I knew my moral obligation was to demonstrate against that war.

Did I know these opinions as carefully-reasoned political stances, arrived at by studious accumulation of facts and logical ordering of the facts into conclusions? Candidly, no, I did not. I was a teenager; I made no claim to be someone with access to all the facts, but I trusted the opinions I received from university student organizations, radical journals, pop-culture stars, the lyrics of rock songs. Give Peace a chance. All you need is Love. It was the zeitgeist in which I was immersed. But there were people who disagreed with my opinions.

The anti-war movement/peace movement in Western democracies like Canada, and its close ally the draft-resistance movement in the USA, were not political parties. They were not instituted by legal process, there were no elections for leaders of the movement. The movements were not in any way part-and-parcel of the institutions (e.g., unions, parliaments, non-profit societies, co-ops) of politics as practiced in the democratic societies of the Free World. They were extra-parliamentary, unorganized collectives of self-selected “activists”.

But no authorities then or now that I recall voiced opinions asserting that the people in these movements were not legitimately practising democracy, so long as their demonstrations were not destructive of property nor threatened the agencies of law. Street demonstrations were accepted as entirely within the norms of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. Still, the laws could be used to break up demonstrations. In Canada, after the reading of the Riot Act to declare an assembly “unlawful”, the police and armed forces are mandated to clear the streets and make arrests.

“This is what democracy looks like!” is how political demonstrators shout their right to be in the street, addressing media and police on the scene. It is not the only face of democracy, but it is one face.

Must politicians comply with the opinions of masses of street demonstrators? That is one political choice they can make.

Politicians have a difficult job to act in a way that accepts the legitimacy of protest but not to let it determine political action. The political activists in the street are not legitimate politicians mandated by democratic election; no one argues otherwise. The street constituency hopes to influence the decisions of the politicians but does not expect to be the equal of all voters in legal status.

Legal protest activities are determined in courts. The courts determine if a protestor, an activist, a demonstrator, has broken a law and must face penalties prescribed by law. Political leaders must determine whether to let the street change their minds -- or not, regardless of what the courts are saying about any specific street activism. Protest can be legitimate, meaning valid and justified, without being legal, within the existing law. Civil disobedience is accepted as legitimate in democratic societies and the courts of said societies.

Pipelines, fossil fuel, and consensus economics

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, during the election that empowered him to be the leader of Canada, spoke a fair amount about “social licence.” He did not create the phrase, but it was apt to his use. He wanted to signal his awareness that government is not only about passing legislation through Parliament, but of finding a course in government policy that would have a foundation in social consensus.

He was particularly aware that the discourse in Canada pitting the Economy against the Environment was fatally polarized during the tenure of the previous Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Trudeau’s strategy of positioning himself as the moderate candidate seeking middle ground worked well.

We recently witnessed Trudeau assert in Ontario that “we must phase out the oil sands” and then say in Alberta that he “mis-spoke” when he said that. He hews to his line that it is simply wrong to say government can choose between the economy or the environment of Canada; both equally demand that the P.M. balance the need for employment with the need for protecting our natural environment. He insists it is not either/or, it must be inclusive of both spheres.

A ruling class in a ruling economic order

It is a long, deep argument to persuade anyone that in an electoral democracy, the votes of the people are not enough to decide who has ruling power. That Canada is a class society, and that there is one class at the peak of the stratified pyramid whose economic power in capitalism makes it the ruling class, is, for me, an axiom of our political system. I cannot attempt to persuade readers of that in one column.

The ruling class in a democracy is not kept in power by force. In democracy, it is not by police and army that the power of the ruling class is exercised, it is by the operation of liberal-capitalist institutions. The ruling class in democratic capitalist society consistently disguises its existence and persuades majorities that it does not exist. In particular, it is able to frame political discourse as if there are no social classes, and therefore no class struggle. We are all middle class, in the understanding of democratic citizens. That is of course ideology.

To sustain this hegemony of ideas, the ruling class has the unconscious support of classes of society who are not the rulers but are an elite nevertheless, of professionals, of cultural producers, of people earning very affluent sums from “white-collar, intellectual work”. Any reader of Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges or Howard Zinn knows what I am talking about.

Social peace is the result of ideology. As reward for maintaining the system and generating the culture of social harmony, one social class of well-educated, well-paid, consciously-cultured people are able to enjoy a very fine quality of life indeed. And the ideologists of Canada are journalists, the legal profession, writers, educators, film-makers, clergy, media workers – anyone whose labour is mental, not, physical, and consists of communicating and proliferating ideas.

Liberalism, elite opinion, the ruling class, the ruling ideology

Liberalism, for lack of a more hard-edged noun, is the ruling ideology of our democracy, and of all the democracies of the West.  The political pendulum may swing along the left-right spectrum, but capitalist democracy is pervaded by a liberal understanding of the human condition.

The key liberal idea is the benevolence of humans allowed to live in liberty, and its corollary is that Humanity in general is evolving upward to ever-better iterations of humanity. Increasing liberty is the appropriate course in which political leaders intend to guide people toward an improved future. Progress is an essential, not incidental, ingredient of liberalism.

Secularism; rationalism; agnosticism; scientism; atheism; materialism; humanism; individualism; consumerism: these are some of the other nouns frequently applied, to capture important aspects of the modern democratic state, upon a unquestioned foundation of market capitalism. Each reveals significant aspects of what a modern democratic society contains.

Separation of religion from politics is an axiom of democratic politics since the American and French revolutions. A liberal state will not be found with one, single established religious institution sanctioned and sustained by the political order. There are no liberal democracies with an Established Church. Israel, Vatican City and Saudi Arabia, are examples where religion obviates liberal government. Liberal principles might be features of such states in some aspects, but the fact that the State upholds only one religious community with special status is the fact that argues against calling the State “liberal”.

It is liberalism that underlies democratic political institutions and the Constitutions of nations like the USA, Canada, France, Ireland, and Germany. Rights and freedoms of expression, religion, assembly, and so forth, are integral to the democratic state.

All these ingredients of democracy (the nouns I cited above) are compatible with how capitalism operates to enrich a ruling class, offering no obstacle to the accumulation of enormous capital in private, individual possession.

The fact that eight people now possess wealth equal to that owned by the bottom half of humanity is not incompatible with liberal thought. Liberalism sees no disharmony with its key tenet in this distribution of wealth.

Global free trade, free movement of capital, the treatment of corporations as fictive individuals with the same rights as individuals, and the de-regulation (i.e., non-interference from government) of operations of capital within a global market, are all liberal ideas. The global economic order established since WWII has become known as the neo-liberal order; it is “neo” because it is new, but it is not new as an idea. Liberals of the nineteenth century advocated these ideas, but it has taken a century of technological changes to create the global market.

During the last two centuries, one of the greatest immaterial obstacles preventing the establishment of the neo-liberal order over the globe was socialism. Liberalism has now won its struggle with that intellectual obstacle.

Liberalism lives with Capitalism, and Socialism with Democracy

This is the key point: liberalism is not a threat to the fundamentals of capital in the economy. Socialism is.

Liberalism rooted in capitalism reigns victorious across much of the globe, politically, legally, culturally. Where it fails, capitalists can still flourish, under military fascism or one-party dictatorships for example.

The political Left has been in steady retreat since the 1970’s, the last time socialism had any chance of becoming a ruling system in major Western nation-states. Socialism had been relentlessly building strength ever since the 1880’s in the advanced rich nations of the Western world, but two world wars, and the manifest failures of the Stalinist USSR and Maoist China to create societies Westerners would want to copy, spelled the deterioration of socialist possibilities in Europe, South America, and the Anglo-sphere.

Proponents of capitalism have successfully convinced millions of minds that the economic “free market” of capitalist models alone supports democracy. That is not true. Democracy thrives with socialism in a few small favoured societies.

Socialism with democratic politics in the Scandinavian nations, in Finland, in the Netherlands, is peripheral to the main current of Western economics; none of these socialist nations are in the G7. They are, to me, a shining example I wish Canada would follow. But I am not holding my breath waiting for Canadians to wake up to the better way. Latin American “socialist” nations have never proven to be truly comparable with Northern socialist democracies, and I would not advocate for Canada to emulate Cuba or Venezuela.

Canada’s politics and our economy are firmly determined by our historical and cultural position between the two greatest global capitalist empires, the British and American empires; Ireland is another nation in that position. We simply cannot drift very far off the course our ruling class requires. Northern social democracy on the European model is not even fractionally probable for Canada. Iceland can be socialist, Ireland and Canada cannot. (But I would argue that the province of Quebec within Canada is quasi-socialist in major aspects of government policy.)

The best author on the might-have-been of a Canada not subject to the global order is the late Mel Hurtig. Canadians read him less than we read Chomsky.

Free-market Capitalism, said Margaret Thatcher, is the only path for England and the democratic world. There Is No Alternative – TINA  -- was her slogan, and it appears to many to be true. We can more easily see in our imagination the collapse of a livable climate, and resulting global cataclysm with vast human mortality, than we can call forth a vision of an economy that is not a capitalist market.

Charles Eisenstein works tirelessly to give us a better imagined future for our economic model – The Sacred Economy of the Gift – but I see little evidence his visionary message is becoming anything other than a fringe idea.

Francis Fukuyama called this vision of only one future –i.e., liberal capitalism ruling the globe and political democracy as the typical state design – “the end of history.” No one agrees with his thesis now, but his point about a capitalism-without-alternatives is holding true for the political leaders of the world.

More about fossil fuels

Politicians serve the ruling class, and the ruling class is not ready to surrender the fossil-fuel energy which has made massive profits for it. Trudeau, Obama, Merkel, Trump, all Western leaders are faced with that truth. Small nations are moving more quickly to phase out fossil fuel, but the giants of the G7 will not.

France, as a prime example, despite electing Socialist-Party governments with a declared anti-capitalist agenda and design, has seen its explicitly socialist governments (Mitterand, Hollande) forced to institute parts of the neo-liberal globalist agenda of free trade and unregulated financial industries. Greece is another example of the failure of socialist government. France’s mighty  labour unions are no longer dependably socialist in political action, so feeble has socialism become. “There is no alternative” to markets is becoming a reality.

Trudeau will use language describing this capitalist reality quite different from Trump’s language, but the two leaders will share relative harmony in oil policy, allowing pipelines to be built, fracking to continue, and production to expand. There will be mass demonstrations against this in the streets of both nations. BC will witness energetic protest by environmental activists against the Kinder Morgan Pipeline, and I will take part in those, as I have against the Site C dam.

Does Trudeau have social licence to continue a fossil-fuel agenda? Perhaps. We are in a classic conflict situation of very-nearly-equal forces in opposition.

Many Canadians do not see any other way to a prosperous Canada and a steady, reliable reservoir of employment opportunity without Albertan oil reserves being brought up from the ground. Those of us who say leave it in the ground have no sure answer to those who say, “What will we do for jobs?” The rapid shift from oil to alternative energy in Canada, with new jobs in the new energy economy, is not calculated to happen by those who claim to be expert on the subject of industrial transformation.

In another example of Trudeau’s appraisal social licence, our P. M. probably has calculated correctly with regard to his rejection of designs to fundamentally reform our electoral system. He announced February 1st that his government would not attempt any alteration to our first-past-the-post system of voting for federal M. P.’s. He knows this a complete betrayal of his promise during the election of 2015, yet Trudeau anticipates that Canadians are not going to come out into the streets in their angry masses to protest this betrayal of his election commitment.

In other words, the Prime Minister believes he has social licence to act this way. I would love to see him proven wrong, and to see his government pay a high price for his dishonesty. But I think the Liberals have carefully weighed the consequences of it, and found them bearable for their public support.

Liberal Journalism and Private ownership of Media News

Having said Trudeau and Trump are in harmony on permitting fossil-fuel capitalism, I hasten to note that Trump is not portrayed in news media in any way similarly to Trudeau, since Trudeau is a liberal and Trump is not.

Liberal media in Canada and around the Western world is still very positive about our Prime Minister. He is still the man of “sunny ways” and tolerant image. Corporate media has a general political perspective; one must in fairness acknowledge it is a liberal perspective, amounting to a self-imposed intellectual filter. Neuroplasticity, a theory about how we create our neural pathways by repetitive thought, explains how we become predictably and consistently formed in one perspective. We are unconscious of our limitations most of the time. The Dalai Lama might know, but most of us are blithely unaware of how we have shaped our minds by our thoughts.

This is part of the education and culture of our intellectual elites, and media workers in both the news and in wider cultural spheres have imbibed liberal views as part of their professions, during their cultural maturation.

Yet the media by which the liberal professional classes are employed are corporate entities. The giant media corporations are owned by private capitalists. Media generate profits for their owners. The media therefore stop their critique of capitalism short of fundamentals, and merely attack surface issues that will not call the system’s basis into question.

There are radical alternative media. NPR in America is such a media, and co-op news outlets such as Nelson’s own KCR radio (full disclosure – I am a programmer at KCR) are other alternatives. But there is a mainstream media, it does have a variety of what Orwell would call “newspeak” and “group-mind” – and to criticize it for that suffocating consensus about news is valid criticism.

I am not in basic harmony with Trump or Breitbart, Sarah Palin or Kelly Leitch, when I assert there is a liberal mainstream. They abhor the fact, I do not. Liberalism is my ideological home, adeptly co-habiting with my socialism.

What is the strongest opposition to liberal capitalism? Socialism.

Liberalism is harmonious with capitalism. So is fascism. In China, so is communism… China’s Communist Party decided to jettison Maoism and allow a capitalist bourgeoisie to flourish there. “Enrich yourselves!” was the slogan.

I think identity politics are less profound than politics which attack how capitalism operates; socialism is more radical than the politics of the lgtbq camp. Nor is the light-green political agenda, which wants alternate energy in a market economy fighting out a basic conflict with capitalism; that kind of green politics is merely putting a new face on the old economics. “Deep-green” environmentalism which opposes assumptions of humanity’s control over natural ecology to dominate other species, is anti-capitalist.

Feminism now, as compared with its agenda in the 1950’s to the ‘70s – is not socialist, but capitalist. Feminists are not generally socialists now. The right of women to be as rich and powerful as men in capitalism is not a subject that excites me. I kind of like the Victorian ideal of women being more moral than men… Maybe I should shut up.

Trump outrages many people for his illiberal views on issues of women, race, the environment, and sexuality. But his basic capitalist values are not an issue for the mainstream, for Trump’s capitalist values are shared by the likes of Obama and Trudeau.

True, Trump, unlike Obama or Trudeau, is factually a member of the ruling class by virtue of his ownership of immense corporations and his billionaire status. But Donald and Justin are in the same camp on the basics; Trump’s nationalist (America first) opposition to global neo-liberalism clashes with Trudeau’s continuing anti-nationalist perspective, but they both want capitalism to live on and on indefinitely.

An unpopular president and the streets

President Trump now faces democracy in the streets, vociferously opposed to his policies, his ideas, and his very character. The people in the streets like to call their activism “a resistance movement” while their opponents note that Trump won the presidential election legitimately and by all the institutional measures of validity, he is the properly-constituted chief executive in the Constitution.

Should Trump alter any of his intentions in response to the opposition to him in the streets? The courts, political processes, the public forum of the media, all will be put to use to throw obstacles in his path, in the finely-tuned mechanisms of America’s checks-and-balances apparatus. He will lose some of the battles to enact his agenda, and he will win some. When he loses, he will be unable legally to carry his policies on immigration or defence, for example.

But in the extra-mural field of conflict, in the streets of US cities, where forces of the law will be sent to do their job of “keeping order” – must the President be compelled to change his political decisions? Do the streets and the activists possess the authority to compel such change? The short answer is No.

However, sufficient continuous disorder in the public spaces of America, such as was sustained against the Viet Nam War when Nixon was President, can and does compel a democratic system to change direction. That is the hope and the strategy of the street activists. They will demonstrate that Trump is totally without the social licence he must have to carry his policies.

Trump may, like Nixon before him, find a way he can gracefully retreat from his agenda. Nixon wanted to wage the war until he could declare victory. He could not; American social licence for his war was manifestly lacking, and even the ruling class turned against a war that might bring America into rebellion. Nixon signed a Treaty to end the war, and called this military failure “Peace with Honour” in Viet Nam, but it was clear the USA had lost that war.

Will Trump swallow a defeat, or will Americans enter a period of conflict similar to civil war in its streets, between Trump supporters and his opponents? I am not willing to make a prediction just yet, but I do not wish that upon them. I have friends who seem willing to celebrate if America tears itself apart. Not I.

Social Licence for Injustice: Canada’s Indian Policies, 1867 – 1967

To articulate the meaning of social licence with one more example from history, I will cite Canada’s historic Indian policies. There is absolutely no way that the policies of our Indian Reserves, our stealing of land and resources, our broken treaties and promises, our systemic discrimination against Natives in education, employment, courts and prisons, and innumerable racist cultural depictions, could have been so long sustained by government leadership if the Canadian public and electorate were not in harmony.

Racism was the norm in Canadian public opinion until relatively recently, and that was the social licence for government actions prejudicial to Natives. Red lives did not matter as much as white, in our recent past. Justice for Natives was not important to Canadians for a long time, and governments at all levels acted with social licence to oppress Natives with a battery of legislation designed to permit their cultural genocide and assimilate them.

Conclusions: interesting times for making the world better

Consumer addiction to the automobile is the very basic fact at the root of fossil-fuel demand. Until people are ready to surrender the kinds of free-choice lives we have enjoyed, pretending that the car (and the airliner) is our servant when it has become our master (like smartphones), meaningful change is unlikely to be carried by political means.

It is humans and our actions that have created this world we have. We made it by our appetites and choices. This fact is the social licence for a fossil-fuel economy to continue dominating Canada. To make the world a better place, to stave off changes in our climate that will mean death and destruction, to put an end to the planet-wrecking effects of our resource economies, are not easy acts. Canadians show no sign at all that they might actually revise their materialist notion of the good life. A private automobile is akin to a right, for most of us, or at least a necessity of life if we value our employment and our freedom. Canadians still regularly board airliners and luxury ocean liners for vacations. Our affluent citizens tour the world seeking experiences for their bucket lists. To Tibet for enlightenment, to Peru for ayahuasca insights?

We live in interesting times but the dilemma we face is not truly new. That the wealthy West might have to take less from the planet, that we might have to create an economy whose holiest sacrament is not Growth, is not an idea I encounter in our mainstream media; that is considered “fringey” at this time.

I am sure in my conviction that, indeed, the richest nations will have to change the pattern of the last two centuries of their economic history, and renounce materialism and consumerism as their passport in the pursuit of happiness. In getting to that future, however, there may be violence.

I understand better and better how my father felt as he neared the end of his life; he told me he would depart this mortal coil in good time to avoid seeing a dark age. Everyone I know who has children shares a feeling that we are not leaving the Earth in positive circumstances for our grandchildren.

My gloom is neither a summons to activism nor an endorsement of nihilism. I feel well-past the age of propagating advice. We all do what feels right for ourselves:  " -- in the noisy confusions of life, keep peace with your soul."


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