The Lonely Planet Guide to Democratic Retreat: Parts One & Two

Smoke and Mirrors

I

These days, when the intrepid journalists and NGO press release writers (is there a difference?) who “cover” SE Asia talk about the “Retreat of Democracy” hereabouts, they almost always mean the retreat and/or failure of liberalism.

But that doesn’t matter to these people because, in the western chauvinist view, any regime that isn’t liberal is, by definition, not democratic– no matter how much support it has from its people– because what makes a regime in the old colonial world “democratic” is the support of western journalists and NGOs.

And they say we live in a post-colonial world!

Thailand, which as anyone will tell you was once a “beacon of democracy” in the region, is sliding down the league tables for everything from democracy to freedom of the press to simple all-round freedom. If there is anything a western liberal hates more than a military junta it’s hard to say…

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The Suffering of Media Corporations

Well, the Wa Lone & Kyaw Soe Oo verdict is finally in and they have been sentenced to 7 years in prison.

The most apt response thus far from the outrage generator that is journalist twitter is this:

So two young men- likely underpaid by Reuters because that is how these news services work in SE Asia- and their families will suffer for 7 more years and an AP journalist analyzes this as the Myanmar government “wreaking revenge” on Reuters.

The stupidity of the media in this part of the world is never to be underestimated.

We Are All Liberals Now Part II

When I was a high school student, back in the 60s, I used to trot out the “but that wasn’t real socialism/communism” canard whenever anyone threw Stalin and Soviet Russia in my socialist face. I was probably just being a good son to my father who often lamented that “socialism is probably the best theoretical system of government but people are not really capable of applying it” whenever I asked him about Russia and the Soviet Republics.

50 years later and the same thing is happening everywhere you look. Right-wingers and self-identified liberals fling Venezuela and Pol Pot into the ring whenever they feel a “democratic socialist” coming on. And the “left” is still trotting out the canard.

The particular spin put on the classic canard by many of America’s contemporary “millennial socialists” and their slightly older confrères involves naming Norway and Denmark as real exemplars of socialism, in spite of the frequent denials by Norwegians and Danes that such is the case.

So the rule on the American left is: if a nation has undergone a socialist revolution and calls itself a socialist or people’s republic, it is absolutely not really socialist but two tiny constitutional monarchies, the Kingdoms of Norway and Denmark, are.

The point of this absurdist exercise is clear: whereas the history of capitalism and its ugly backside imperialism is fair game when it comes to debating the merits of systems, the history of socialism is yet to be written so all we can refer to are the tracts and tweets that make up socialist reality.

Plus the Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway of course.

Besides this utterly American tendency to prefer the fantasy of discourse to the discourse of history, this denial is related to the contemporary American left’s inability/unwillingness to distinguish itself from the liberalism that pervades the atmosphere of all American “democratic socialist” discourse.

According to much of the American left, democratic socialism is going to both “deepen democracy” and “make people free”. This sounds good until you begin to ask yourself what sort of “freedom” a “deeper democracy” is going to grant to communities of evangelicals and fervent Trump supporters. Will a democratic socialist America grant regions the “freedom” to ban abortion and institute racial discrimination in schooling and employment if local majorities support such policies? Will some localities be empowered to ban the hijab and the building of mosques?

The liberal answer to all such questions is to simply equate the individual rights doctrine of liberalism with “real” democracy and dismiss the preferences of the demos as bigoted reactionary ignorance.

What will the “millennial socialist” answer be?

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting to hear. There are some questions that are better not asked because the answers are all equally unwelcome.

We Are All Liberals Now

On social media you can always tell when you are dealing with a liberal when they call for reasonable discussion and then proceed to label any and all fundamental disagreement as “evil”, “insane”, “brainwashed”, or simply “right-wing”.

And since we know that “right-wing” is next door to “literally Hitler”, that ends the “discussion”, because who in their right mind discusses anything with Hitler?

Anglospherean “leftists”, specifically those who identify as “socialist” or “democratic socialist” take a different tack. They tend to label any and all fundamental disagreement as “in bad faith”, “concern trolling” or (and this is my favorite) “crypto-reactionary”.

And since we know that “crypto-reactionary” is next door to “crypto-fascist” (and the ever-popular “literally Hitler”) that ends the “discussion” because blah-blah-blah-dee-blah.

I have come to believe that this is because whatever their self-identifying strategy, these people are all liberals. And if there is one thing that characterizes what remains of liberalism in the 2nd decade of the 21st century it is its utter refusal and/or rank inability to imagine “otherness”.

As noted liberal spokesperson Ben Affleck put it to equally noted bigots Bill Maher and Sam Harris on Real Time back in 2014:

“How about more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don’t do any of the things you’re saying of all Muslims. It’s stereotyping.”

No matter how well-intentioned Ben may have been in his defense of the world’s Muslims against the outrageous slander of people like Maher and Harris, his rhetorical erasure of the specificity and difference that makes Muslims Muslim (and his utterly liberal universalization of sandwiches) and not Anglospherean liberals is characteristic of the most egregious solecisms of the American version of Liberal Imperialism.

As Egyptian-American writer Shadi Hamid has put it:

Ben Affleck was essentially saying, “Muslims eat sandwiches too.” And I thought to myself, well, yes, Muslims do eat sandwiches, but you can eat sandwiches and still believe that Islamic law should be implemented, you can still believe in religiously-derived criminal punishment.

The same phenomenon permeates both journalism and social media “discussion” here in SE Asia. “The Thai people just want what we all want” is a common refrain when the subject is either democracy or military dictatorship. Of course the “we” being invoked as the universal citizen here is almost always a white middle-class man with a job that pays somewhere in the region of 10–20X what most of the “Thai people” they claim the privilege of speaking for earn.

And whenever those same Thai people evince a tendency to favor authoritarianism over liberalism, corruption over rule-of-law, or racist assumptions over middle-class university-educated white people’s posturing around race, the usual liberal march of villains is trotted out for our perusal: they are brainwashed, corrupted, mentally deficient or simply cowering in fear.

It just isn’t possible that they don’t share the universal values that liberals can no longer see as either culturally specific or contingent on wealth and comfort.

Nous sommes tous Americains never summed up a diseased ideology so well as it does these days in reference to liberalism as it manifests in the world shaped by American imperialism.

As Duncan Bell points out in the Coda to this broad-ranging, richly textured and masterly exploration of the relationship between liberalism, Empire and imperialism in nineteenth century British thought, it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking. In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld’ (371).

https://thedisorderofthings.com/2017/08/07/liberalism-in-and-out-of-time/

Trump(ets) of Doom: The Rifles Next Time

Smoke and Mirrors

Without question, the death of IWW member Heather Heyer at the hands of a Nazi-sympathizer while she protested Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia has put an end to the most recent phase of the far right’s struggle to gain traction in the mainstream of American discourse.

As Angela Nagle put it at Baffler recently, referring to the online horde of alt-right ironists that make up what was heretofore the most visible face of the movement, “But how many of these racist trolls are committed to the real-life violence and potential state repression that the movement’s goals will now summon forth? ”

I imagine “very few” would be the most likely answer to that rhetorical question. The ever-popular metaphorical “mom’s basement” may be a lonely place but it beats the hell out of bending over to pick up the metaphorical soap just dropped by that shaven-headed thug with the swastika tattoo in…

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Beacon of Democracy Moves to Malaysia

The journalists who cover SE Asia for the Anglophone world, aka “the international community”, are back on the “beacon of democracy” hobby-horse.

Malaysia has just shown the world that democracy is alive and well in SE Asia. And in much the same way as happened in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s overwhelming victory in the Myanmar elections just two and a half years ago, the poor, junta-ridden Thais are being twitted for their failure to keep up. If only Thailand could have an election, a genocide, and a widening civil war on multiple fronts, it could get the same sort of plaudits Burma got from the brain trust of white men that constitute the international media hereabouts.

There is precious little in the way of awareness of the gaping irony that Malaysia’s democratic phoenix is manifest in the form of a 92-year-old former demagogue who once imprisoned his closest party rival for being gay, who was accused of every kind of corruption in his almost 23-year run as the head of a one-party state that blatantly and unapologetically promoted the interests of one ethnicity over those of others, and who grew more illiberal, less democratic, and more anti-western as his time in office went on. And on.

When the “shock” victory was first announced, it was confidently announced that Mahathir would stay in office for only a month or two, until Anwar Ibrahim could be released from prison and seated on the Prime Ministerial throne. Two days later, Mahathir was in the media announcing that it would actually be a year or two. There is every possibility that this will turn out to be a lifetime position for the old demagogue.

Mahathir famously once said of Ibrahim that he “would make a good prime minister of Israel”, a very sharp jab indeed in an anti-semitic nation like Malaysia, but in SE Asian democracies there are no permanent enemies or friends, only bodies that can be stepped on to get that much closer to power. While Ibrahim really has been released from prison already, this is not the first time that such an amnesty has been granted the former student activist. And if he gets sent back in, that won’t be a first either.

The local media definition of ‘democracy’ seems to be little more than “election that can be spun for headlines”.  Given the state of the liberal-democratic world, they may be onto something. Either that or they have simply made it so by communicative fiat.

 

Empire of Empiricism

I just got called a “crypto-reactionary” for laughing at a “leftist” American for tweeting this bit of intellectual frippery:

“Capitalism is empirically unsound and can only survive in a culture hostile to empiricism. From a humanistic standpoint it is no less grounded in mysticism and dogma than any other reactionary ideology.”

Hard as it is to disagree with the notion that capitalism has attracted a set of intellectual apologists who indulge in “mysticism and dogma” in praise of their chosen subject, it’s even harder to see how “mysticism and dogma” are somehow unique to reactionary ideologies.

While there is little doubt that Marx used the word “science” in a way that is not precisely consonant with what most people think of when they think of physicists working on the A-bomb or chemists brewing up ever more clever plastics with which to destroy the environment, he was hardly a dogmatic mystic. This is absolutely not the case with all the varieties of “leftist” critique of capitalism-patriarchy-white supremacy that today claim to be downstream of Marx the social scientist. If there is an ideological faction out there in the world today that is not saddled with “mysticism and dogma” I would love to meet it in the flesh.

My real problem with this vaguely tautological bit of hollow virtue-signalling is the double whammy of absurd claims made in the first sentence.

“Capitalism is empirically unsound”: what can this even begin to mean? Empirically, capitalism has grown from its meager beginnings in 16th C England and Holland to a world-straddling colossus the likes of which has quite frankly never before been seen. “Empirically”, that is.

“[Capitalism] can only survive in a culture hostile to empiricism.” Now what this means seems rather evident even though it also seems to be referring to life on another planet.

Empirically, if we allow that something as reliant on textual interpretation as history can be called empirical, the opposite appears to be true. The earliest incubators of capitalism were also arguably nations where the cultures were far more accepting of empiricism than most of the rest of the world. Some writers might even go so far as to suggest that one reason capitalism was born in England of the 16th century, rather than 13th century Siam or even 15th century England, was the embrace of empiricism after centuries of intellectual enslavement to dogma and mysticism.

After a little hostile back-and-forth, it emerged that our interlocutor actually meant: ” my critique is that the theoretical basis for capitalism is empirically unsound”. So now we see that it isn’t capitalism that is “unsound” as stated ever so clearly in the initial tweet, it is “the theoretical basis for capitalism” that is “empirically unsound”.

It is my impression that capitalism was a praxis well before it ever gained such a thing as a “theoretical basis”. This would seem to me to mean that “theories of capitalism” are not remotely its “basis” but merely post facto rationales or analyses of its reality. Once this is taken on board it becomes rather mundane to point out that attempts to “theorize” a reality as complex and ever-shifting as actual existing capitalism fall short “empirically”. This would be as true of Adam Smith’s formulations as of Marx’s or Hayek’s.

Unlike socialism or communism, whose theorizations have always preceded and outrun and indeed usually denied its realities, capitalism is what it is and theories run around trying to keep up with its chameleon-like disappearances into whatever social and cultural background it inserts itself.

It’s almost as if Karl Rove or whoever it actually was had put it this way:

“Capitalism’s an empire now, and when it acts, it creates its own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—it’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. It is history’s actor…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what it does.”

This is the reality that anything calling itself “left” has to confront if it is going to further the cause of a socialist future rather than impress followers on Facebook and Twitter with just how apparently intellectual we can be in our little snippets of “anti-capitalism”, regardless of how actually inane they turn out to be.

The problem of course is the virtual impossibility of contemporary westerners, especially North Americans, attaining escape velocity from the liberalism that they stretch and crimp here and there to represent themselves as leftists. When identitarian left-liberals want to let their “leftist” flags fly, they say things like what I laughed at in that tweet exchange.

Looked at closely, these “leftists” rarely manage anything remotely close to a hard-edged critique of the bourgeois society and culture they so perfectly reproduce in almost everything they think and say.

If seeing and saying so makes me a “crypto-reactionary” in their eyes, I suppose I’ll just have to live with that. It sure beats playing middle-class revolutionary while scrambling to get a better job and taking my political stances from Column A, B or C of the contemporary left of neoliberalism.