& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Michael Ignatieff: The crisis of liberal constitutionalism - 1

According to the 'civilised' west, democracy is the best form of political governance and capitalism is the best form economic governance.

Together, democracy and capitalism are supposed to ensure that the will of the people is reflected in the election of governments. The will of the people is also reflected in the economic policies that such democratically elected governments pursue to ensure economic growth and prosperity.

That is the theory. In practice, of course, that isn’t how either democracy or capitalism have ever worked.

Late capitalism is a term that has been frequently used to describe the economic inequities that capitalism has succeeded in creating in societies that have an abiding faith both in democracy and capitalism.

Two recent films expose the ills of both democracy and capitalism.

Officials Secrets (2019) exposes the hypocrisy of democratic consensus in the way the United States of America and the United Kingdom – both pillars of liberal democracy – lied, concealed facts and generally took the world for a ride to justify the second invasion of Iraq (2003).

Based on the 2017 Panama Papers expose, Laundromat (2019) dwells into the nefarious operations of the offshore tax havens that give a legal avenue to the rich to avoid (not evade) taxes. The film is a glimpse into the murky world of offshore holdings, hidden financial dealings of fraudsters, drug traffickers, billionaires, celebrities.

All of these worthies were connected to Mosscak Fonseca, a Panama law firm with offices in more than 35 locations globally, and one of the world’s top creators of shell companies – the corporate structures used to hide ownership of assets.

Western democracies have a great deal to explain for their falsification and outright fabrication of facts (about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) to wage a war on Saddam Hussein that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths (check this: Iraq Body Count).

Western capitalism thrives on economic neo-colonialism, and questions are being raised about its efficacy now only because rampant automation is causing widespread job losses in western democracies.

I frequently remember Winston Churchill when I'm bemused by western hypocrisy. Churchill, responsible for the genocide of Bengalis in 1943, had famously said, “History will judge me kindly, because I intend to write it myself.” 

Western democracies, and especially their leaders, often get away with murder and worse because they determine the contemporary narrative of the world that becomes tomorrow’s history.

Therefore, while we roundly (and justifiably) condemn the likes of Slobodan Milošević, we are unwilling to judge Bush Jr or Blair by the same exacting standards.

Similarly, no institutional efforts are being made anywhere to rein in the untrammeled run that technocracy has over global economics that is resulting in unimaginable income inequities everywhere in the world.

The world’s richest 1 percent, those with more than $1 million, own 45 percent of the world’s wealth. Adults with less than $10,000 in wealth make up 64 percent of the world’s population but hold less than 2 percent of global wealth. The world’s wealthiest individuals, those owning over $100,000 in assets, total less than 10 percent of the global population but own 84 percent of global wealth.

In his lecture earlier this week at the Munk Centre, Michael Ignatieff (Democracy versus Democracy: The crisis of liberal constitutionalism) spoke about the failure of liberal democracies to deliver on fundamental promises. 

He spoke both the trust deficit (bordering on resentment) that masses living in democracies have developed in democratic institutions, and the economic subjugation of the vast majority of the global population.

Ignatieff spoke about the challenge that populist democracy is posing to liberal democracies with specific reference to North America and Europe. 

The distinction between populism and liberalism is populism defines democracy as rule of we the people, which is basically majoritarianism, whereas liberal democracy tries to create a nuanced framework for democratic institutions to engage in interplay of of checks and balances. 

Liberal democracy, Ignatieff explained, “Is a system built for conflict, for disagreement. The whole point of this system is that politicians resent the power of the judges. The judges push you back to defend the empire of law from the empire of politics, the media sits there and drives the politicians crazy and I have the scars to prove it. And this conflictual system is the very essence of any system that has any chance of protecting our liberties, as individuals. And the legitimacy of this system is conditional and performative at any moment in democratic life.”

According to Ignatieff, conflict is at the heart of liberal democracies. “We may sit around a table over dinner and think this is not going well. We’re at loggerheads. We’re fighting with each other. The Parliament is standing up to the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister is riding roughshod over Parliament. The media are driving everybody crazy. The judges are interfering too much. We will take sides in these institutional conflicts that are built into the heart of democracy and at any given moment we will think this system is losing its legitimacy, the conflict level that we are having to live through here is just too high for our health. And our democracy is at risk.”  

People who experience the strengths of liberal democracy such as freedom of choice often despair at its inherent conflict, Ignatieff said, and then emphasized that a liberal democracy is, in fact, a “conflictual system constantly in tension, constantly in crisis. And that it seems to me is both its glory in its strength and its resilience.”

Continued below

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