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Don't Shut Down Leap, Embrace Its Discontents

Manifesto a chance for real debate, something democracies should prize.

By Michael M'Gonigle 2 May 2016 |

Michael M'Gonigle holds the EcoResearch Chair in the Faculty of Law and the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria.

Almost everyone seems intent on shutting down the conversation that the Leap Manifesto wants to open up. This is at odds with the claim that a ''liberal'' society prizes democratic debate. Lengthy and intensive debate will provide the only real opportunity to craft innovative solutions to climate change. We should embrace the deliberative opportunity that Leap provides.

Consider Leap's infamous forebear, The Communist Manifesto. There are obvious similarities. The recent book This Changes Everything, by one of Leap's founding forces, Naomi Klein, links climate change to capitalist imperatives. The Leap founders also want their manifesto to inspire a global movement to address those imperatives.

In 1848, The Communist Manifesto was a response to government inaction for workers wallowing in the depths of the Industrial Revolution. Despite that manifesto's immediate and revolutionary demands, its mobilization of people and ideas led to labour unions and social welfare reforms that, in the 20th century, saved the modern capitalist state. Leap's 21st century manifesto addresses that other historic victim of capitalism, the planetary environment.

Unlike its predecessor, the Leap Manifesto is not really that radical a document. After all, by reforming economic practices, Leap anticipates saving both the planet and capitalism. With their anger and denial, however, many respondents treat it as if it were a new Communist Manifesto. And maybe it should be. The problems now are as great as then, as is the resistance to appropriate action.

Struggle for legitimacy

Times have changed in the century and a half since the revolutionary manifesto, but maybe not as much as we might think. Consider the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They flourished on a scale not seen since the worker uprisings of the 19th century. Their target was the very state-supported capitalism that evolved in response to the earlier protests but that now produced DDT and the Vietnam War, apartheid in Africa and class divisions in the West, multinational corporations, and rampant Third World exploitation.

The renowned German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, described those decades as in the throes of a ''legitimation crisis,'' that is, a crisis of democratic legitimacy for governments sustained by their dependence on the capitalist accumulation of wealth and profits. To govern today is still to walk that line between legitimacy and accumulation. For Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley, that line is a tightrope -- promise political legitimacy by addressing climate change but deliver economic accumulation by building a pipeline to tidewater.

In the 1980s, making accumulation the basis for legitimacy temporarily diffused this tension. Make money and the electorate will be happy. This neoliberal strategy has dominated politics for 40 years now -- globalization, free trade, financial deregulation, cheap imports from poor countries, limitless consumption of cheap energy and resources, rising inequality but wealth for the voting classes. The 1990s that had been heralded as the ''turnaround decade'' instead ushered in the age of McMansions, a consumer society on steroids.

So successful has neoliberalism been that policy makers mistakenly now take it as the one and only world that is or could be. If so, it promises disaster. On a crowded planet, the success of neoliberalism increasingly undermines its own foundations -- climate change and crashing biodiversity, global inequality and joblessness, endless proxy wars in the Middle East. Financial wealth on Wall Street is indifferent to jobs in the Rust Belt. Anxiety is the global disease of the 2010s.

Embrace contradiction

But who is to speak thoughtfully for the alternative? Recently, the U.S. political theorist Wendy Brown argued in Undoing the Demos that the prime goal of neoliberalism is nothing less than remaking everyone in the image of a pure self-interested, economic actor without even the memory of what it means to act democratically.

This is actually an old story, one of maintaining power by asserting cultural hegemony over popular discourse. Advertisers discovered the profit potential of hegemony a century ago. With the rise of mass media in the 1950s, political spin-doctors cottoned on. Maintaining control of the conversation motivates carmakers and airline companies, climate change deniers, and the oil industry. It brackets the writing of editorialists not wanting to offend the elite consensus. It filters the words and the thinking of political leaders wanting to win the next election.

Both capitalism and democracy now seem to be about less debate, not more. That's the neoliberal secret for harmonizing accumulation and legitimacy. Stifle the conversation. Leave it to the managers.

A recent column by Barrie McKenna in the business pages of the Globe and Mail inspired this article. It contained the usual rhetoric of dismissal (the Leap Manifesto being ''a prescription for ruin'') but it backed up its judgment by highlighting the contradictions in Leap's proposals. Such criticisms merit attention.

What McKenna's article neglected to mention was that these criticisms would beset any democratic society that takes climate change seriously. It is less of a problem, however, where the state can keep to its overriding economic imperatives. In today's world, recognizing these contradictions is not a ''prescription for ruin.'' It is the antidote.

In today's world, success will come to the society and economy that can embrace a critical ''dissensus'' about the future and not just reinforce a tired consensus inherited from the past. That dissensus means talking about an economy, and a democracy, and a discourse very different from the ones we have inherited.

We live today on a full planet, and ''this changes everything.'' Premier Notley has her turf to defend, and this has trumped her vision. She now even tries to get her way to a pipeline by buying dirty (if ''renewable'') energy from B.C.'s Site C dam. One must wonder what's next.

But what about the rest of us? Are we part of the demos or not? It is past time to take ''real'' (not just political) reality seriously. It is time to make space for democracy's discontents.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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