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Africa first-hand

January 25, 2010

Have ideas about how to alleviate poverty in Africa? How about some first hand experience to enlighten your research. See here for an opportunity to travel to Africa to report about issues related to African poverty.


The link between the decline in political poles and the decline in essay writing skills

January 22, 2010

Upon the end of my last semester, on of the requirements was to write an essay for a class devoted to discussion on ideology, democracy, and the state. This was an engaging class, and therefore I chose one of the more challenging questions that was provided  as a basis for the essay ‘for the fun of it’. The question being, ‘Insofar as a decline in Left and Right is apparent in contemporary Europe, what is being lost?’.

I am taking the risk of posting the entire essay (it is a short unassessed essay) in hopes of engaging a discussion. That said, I embraced the question for the purposes of this essay, and I think that a separate discussion can be had about what the question itself is flawed. However, I found that while there has been much written about what has replaced (or may replace in the future) a strong left and right, little has been written from the perspective that I was asked to take in taking on this topic. Debating what has been lost turns this idea in a way that (as far as I have found) remains relatively unexplored.

I have made a very simple attempt at beginning to explore this idea in extremely broad strokes, with abandon and many risks taken. What I have written is incomplete and a hesitant first step in exploring a very interesting topic; I welcome any views that others might have in where I am wrong, where I am right, what I have missed, and what ideas should be stretched, narrowed, or deepened. Really, this particular topic left me stumped and asking many more questions than I was able to find answers to, and I remain perplexed although the paper is long since submitted….

Insofar as a decline in Left and Right is apparent in contemporary Europe, what is being lost, and does it matter?

The assertion that the strength of the left and right has declined in Europe is accepted by some, rejected by others, and debated en masse. Absolutes on either extreme aside, acceptance of some level of shift or decline invites consideration of what has been relinquished in this evolution. Likewise, this invites reflection upon what the existence of strong poles of left and right contributed, in that the question of what has been lost in the decline of the left and right implies that their former strength offered advantageous gains whose fruits are no longer wholly on offer, leaving in its absence a void that rests unaddressed. It is within the space of this void where arguments regarding what has been lost are wistfully sired, rooted in nostalgia for the clarity of binary divisions.

The polarization of ideology into clearly defined political camps of left and right coupled with the establishment of linked objectives within each, with a view to an idealized future, differing ideals either entrenched within tradition or sustained by progress. Proponents of both left and right, each presuming domination of a monopoly upon an ideological purity that would present an improved future society, held a shared understanding of the advancement of time and the ability for political will to shape an amelioration with temporal linearity.

As an example, a view of stages of time and a recognition of its rhythms is apparent in The Communist Manifesto, where Marx outlines his view on stages of history as mirrored through societal structures in an evolutionary type of progression, to culminate on “the decisive hour” upon which “the revolutionary class (would hold) the future in its hands”. It is interesting to consider that Marxist-Leninist thought was bred upon the interpretation that the stages over time foreseen by Marx had not been realized, and thus an altered evaluation of the unfolding of progression of society over time led to an offshoot of the original baseline of Communism in response.

In contrast, traditional views from the right defended a view of the future bound with tradition, thereby infusing the progression of time with the essence of the past, binding all tomorrows to a secure known. In so much as arguments from the right were defined by their contrast to the left, acceptance of stages of time was held constant.

This premise of an understanding of the bounds of time and the realm of possibilities within those binds, was hence based within the foundations of a world that afforded a certain level of predictability, allowed for the presumption of possibility to attain mastery (Giddens, 1994), and thus ultimate control. Hence, struggle for ideological power embodied in the political represented a mechanical view of the future, where the tools provided by either left or right may be used to tweak and adjust the predictable machine of society. Realization of ideological dominance was an aspiration whose achievement would harken ‘the end of history’ (Fukuyama, 1992)

Conceit of the ultimate achievement of either left of right, to acquiescence of the decline of the left and right in contemporary Europe in favour of centrist tendencies, is paralleled with a condensed or sporadic time-scale, in which the application of ideology through policy has been in many ways reduced to a reactive state. Furedi states that the “right’s abandonment of the past is matched by the left’s refusal to embrace the future”. (2005, pp.61)

The result of this myopia upon the present is a delinking of objectives within both traditional camps, left to be disputed on an issue-by-issue basis. Giddens (1994) attributed this to a reduced level of predictability in what he terms as ‘manufactured uncertainty’, suggesting that certainty and predictability are central to what has been lost in the decline of the left and right in contemporary Europe.

Giddens declares also that ‘manufactured uncertainty’ is “a result of human intervention” and that contemporary attempts to mitigate the impact of risk are “as much about damage control and repair as about an endless process of increasing mastery.” (1994, pp.4) This enterprise of damage control and repair suggest a reactive stance, indicating that in the decline of left and right the realization of ideology through policy or agenda becomes unable to incorporate a linear temporal logic to formulation and implementation, and is therefore subject to greater vacillation. The limits that this introduces are significant: possibilities for long-term planning reduced, best practices become overlooked in favour of ‘good-enough governance’ (Grindle, 2004), and introduces an intensified uncertainty.

The consequences of this heightened level of uncertainty are articulated by Furedi in ‘The Politics of Fear’  (2005), who premises his argument on the convergence of the left and the right and the irrelevance of these terms in contemporary politics.  He asserts that in absence of a clear alternative of principles and objectives offered to influence the status quo, “politicians self-consciously manipulate people’s anxieties in order to realize their objectives” and “regard fear as an important resource for gaining a hearing for their message.” (2005, pp.123) Thus, according to Furedi, the use of fear in the political world is a phenomenon that can be ascribed to the decline of the left and right.

However, the role of fear in politics is far from new. The 20th century’s examples of the most heightened polarizations between the left and right established threats of great magnitude. Yet, though menacing in nature, threats were limited in scope. The origins of these threats were largely external and defined according to ideological lines between the left and right. This enabled parties to establish themselves as an option of certainty and reliability. Therefore, the fears of the past bolstered the strength of positions held on either side of the ideological divide.

Contemporary threats, as noted by Beck (1999), who labels our contemporary world as a ‘risk society’, are more all encompassing and mutable. Mouffe’s interpretation of Beck states that contemporary politics “puts at the centre of the political arena all the things which were left aside and excluded in the left/right axis.” (Mouffe, 2005, pp. 40) Topics that once presented a quandary in regards to policy implementation have been transformed into threats of great magnitude, encompassing almost every area of life; while issues of authentic threat are magnified and stretched to appear greater in their risk. Moreover, issue advocates compete in the realm of fear mongering, introducing a commercial flavour to the manner in which fear is ‘sold’ to the public in an attempt to gain support.

The spread of fear is a reaction to the decline of left and right in that “it absolves its practitioners from having to formulate what it actually stands for.” (Furedi 2005, 124) Thus, the ‘politics of fear’ sidesteps the need to address the ideological void that remains as a consequence of the decline of left and right, in creating a sense of urgency and panic about everything, and a sense of direction and principle about nothing.

When practitioners and parties do not develop or express what they stand for, than from the point of view of the voter it becomes difficult to ascertain with which party their affiliations lie – if with any at all. Traditionally, clarity of alliance to either the left or the right was bolstered by perceived threats of the opposing camp combined with a clear ideological stance as expressed through party mandates and manifestoes. Voters had little to no ambiguity in their choices; party affiliation was generally accepted as fixed and lifelong.

Fixed affiliation with a party based upon ideological affinity is in the interest of the voter from a rational choice perspective, in that the costs associated with becoming informed are reduced. As stated by Downs, “voters distinguish between parties on an ideology basis, and can vote by means of ideologies to save from informing himself about specific parties.” (1957, pp.141)

Thus, in face of the decline of the ideological divide in contemporary times, voters do not have at their disposal clear choices of parties who subscribe to a specific ideological stance over the long term. The tendency of parties to attempt to win-over voters on an issue-by-issue basis results in a higher cost for voters, in that a greater amount of time and effort are required in order to distinguish and weight the relevant areas which are aligned or misaligned with their individual interests.

A consequence of increased costs to the individual voter is reflected in the decline of voter turnout. A lower level of voter turnout is related to the diversity of issues and a lack of issue grouping, as compared to the relatively static and predictable stance taken by parties who are associated with a clear left or right position. In that the ‘menu’ of issues that must be addressed by a politician has expanded significantly, so is the task of the voter further expanded in the necessity to become knowledgeable about each issue on offer. The demands that this requires are often prohibitive or de-motivating, thus discouraging participation in the electoral process.

In contrast to a decline of voter turnout exists the prevalence of electoral volatility, in that stability of voter party preference has diminished greatly. Given such a wide variety of choice, without the principled stance of an ideological framework available to “provide important direct access to comprehending the formation and nature of political theory” (Freeden 1996, pp.1) voters have become much less attached to a particular party and are far more willing to ‘shop around’ for the party or politician who will best represent their interests. This departs from a traditional view of elections, in which a large proportion of voter preferences are fixed according to the left/right axis, inducing parties to target the median voter.

With weakening affiliations and greater volatility, the theory of the median voter – traditional conception of a specified target of voters whose positions lie in the centre – is no longer applicable in the same way in that the target is now a moving target along a fuzzily defined spectrum. Being that strategies employed by parties must adapt in their efforts to succeed in obtaining the confidence of the votes that will be most crucial in determining outcomes, the loss of a defined target is problematic for parties.

The effects are two-fold. First, this may induce the hopeful elected to further widen the menu of issues in an attempt to influence a greater number of voters. Secondly, greater volatility amongst voters may motivate political hopefuls further in their employ of the politics of fear. This strategy, to induce confidence of the electorate by offering the promise of security in an unsecure world, may take place under conditions in which insecurity may be somewhat manufactured by parties whose interests are best served in creating an image of the role of a secure protector with a solution to the risk of threat.

Beyond the issues discussed above – of a shift of temporal political logic, an increase in the politics of fear, greater electoral volatility in face of decreased electoral participation – exists the most overarching issue of the left/right decline – that of a lack of alternative. Mouffe (2005) highlights various arguments for alternatives offered by others (Beck, Held, Falk and Strauss), but rightly dismisses these proposed alternatives to the traditional left/right divide as impracticable.

Those who argue in favour of the feasibility of alternatives, such as Archigus’ proposal highlighted by Mouffe of ‘cosmopolitical democracy’ rely upon shifts of monolithic institutions and norms that are deeply embedded within societies, and upon a global scale. While these proposals provide interesting concepts for theoretical consideration, they largely overlook the existing realities that would render these suggested alternatives to the trash-bin of idealism.

The off-hand suggestions of reform to the United Nations, as an example, listed as a precondition to allowing the advancement of these theories developing into practice, is in itself an incredible task that would require an unprecedented level of coordination and harmonization of interests of member states: perhaps a worthwhile endeavour, but one which is daunting in its magnitude (Mouffe discussion of Zolo, pp.100) Likewise, proposed alternatives introduce a democratic deficit into new formulations of institutions, thereby sacrificing notions of sovereignty and freedom (Mouffe, 2005)

While some might argue against the assertion that realistic alternatives do not exist, in support of Third Way politics (Giddens), this suggestion in many ways compromises between the left and the right in a patchwork effort to overcome the void that remains in face of their ideological decline. The call for an alternative to the left and right seeks revolution rather than reform.

Attempts to respond to this call are of interest and to be considered, however they lack the substance, applicability, and philosophical foundations that left and right ideologies offer, however imperfectly. Instinctively, suggested alternatives fall short of what is sought to take the place of left/right politics, with the remaining possibility that replacements are non-existent, and that what has been lost has been lost permanently.

This opens us to the potential permanent absence of that which has been lost in the decline of the left and the right: the linear temporal rhythm of politics, the limited definition of threats, and the stability of electoral participation and affiliation. Thus, true alternatives to the traditional left/right axis must be designed to attempt resolution of the effects that losses incurred by the decline of the left and the right have created, such as heightened reactivity, electoral volatility, and the politics of fear. In absence of such alternatives, centralist tendencies remain at the expense of innovation and of a defined ideological direction, left in the void created by the decline of the left and the right in contemporary Europe.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Europe: An Unfinished Adventure (Themes for the 21st Century). University Park, PA: Polity, 2004.

Beck, Ulrich. World Risk Society. University Park, PA: Polity, 1999.

Bell, Daniel. The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, with “The Resumption of History in the New Century”. 2New Ed ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Downs, Anthony  An Economic Theory of Democracy New York: Harper, 1957

Freeden, Michael. Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1996

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man Alive. NY: Free Press., New York, 1992.

Furedi, Frank. Politics of Fear. New York: Continuum, 2005.

Giddens, Anthony. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. 1 ed. Stanford : Stanford University Press, 1994.

Mouffe, Chantal. On the Political (Thinking in Action). 1 ed. Boston: Tf-Routl, 2005.


December 6, 2009

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the massacre at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montréal. Levine’s howled proclamation to female victims prior to their murder was, “I hate all feminists.”. The men were asked to leave the room, and the did unquestioningly, leaving their fellow students to their untimely, violent deaths.

The events of December 6, 1989 — as horrific as they were — are generally interpreted as an isolated event that does not reflect the general values of an egalitarian society such as Canada. What are perceived to be the embodiments of principles of equality and freedom in a society, with Canada as an example, are oft held up in relation to other nations and cultures in defense of a need to ‘protect’ Canadian society from these ‘less-evolved’ norms.

Yet, the memory of this tragic event – and specifically the recognition that this attack was a calculated attack specific to women — brings out the underbelly of what Canadians wish perceptions of their society to be, unearthing the reality that the roots of inequality burrow and twist underneath the surface of what we prefer to acknowledge as an accurate portrayal of society.

As usual, the comments section of this article elucidates the heart of the matter better than the article itself, highlighting the anger that certain individuals harbour towards any recognition of, or efforts of public policy to lessen, violence towards women. The rancor with which proponents of this view take on the premise that an effort to lessen violence towards women is an attack upon men defies logic, for these efforts are and should be interpreted as a movement towards extinguishing violence of all forms, toward all groups.

In memoriam of the victims of the massacre of Ecole Polytechnique in 1989 and all victims of violence, be they men, women, of any culture, race, religion, and so on.

Underwhelming Catalysts of Change

November 9, 2009

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and every media source has supplied the perfunctory article in reflection of the events, the precursors, and the results. I must say: my daily meanderings through the blogosphere and popular press, in search of a melding of erudition and aesthetic insight, have fallen short of what one might expect — dare I say demand — of such a landmark event. Various threads in the tapestry of events may be plucked and strained in an effort to  emulate an intellectual catharsis, to convince ourselves that the complexities that allowed, encouraged, forced these events are dissectable, capable of definition. It seems to me that in the effort to assimilate the complexities — be they the role of Reagan and Thatcher, Gorbachev, Walesa, Solidarnosc, Havel, the people, artistic movements, economic conditions, societal strains and pressures — that the simplicity of what we acknowledge today is overlooked. One man’s role  proved to be the unwitting spark to this great moment in history.

Günter Schabowski‘s role in this is an important one. In announcing new policy to allow travel between East and West, as a response to the effects of the Czech decision to allow travelers from GDR, Schabowski made an error. When pressed by journalists about the date that this new policy was to take effect, Schabowski improvised, and — incorrectly — stated that it would take place immediately. This flub was the final straw, the oversight that changed the world.

This is not to detract from the politicians and diplomats and artists and union organizers and citizens who, for so long, made such valiant efforts at survival and change. Each of them, in his and her own way, contributed to this change. Some of these roles inspire, some mundane but necessary. However every grand change requires a catalyst: that one moment where reality shifts and the unimaginable animates. Can we not, in the present day, take this as a lesson?

We have new challenges in front of us. None have the shape and substance of the Cold War, yet carry and importance and a defeatism of their own. A common line runs through the reflections upon ’89: We never imagined that it would happen, or that it would happen so quickly. Yet, aspirations of the seemingly impossible fueled action, over many years, sometimes in small ways, to lay harvest to fertile ground, so that conditions could allow for the slightest crack to be penetrable, and to send the whole thing crumbling down. Can we not apply these lessons to our current challenges? To terrorism? The environment? Poverty in the developing world? Human rights? Behind the Iron Curtain, patience and perseverance was imposed, because there were no other options for far too long; we, we have a choice, and too often we nurture cynicism, and forget that small steps are steps nonetheless, that do lead to a much desired destination.

Here is an excerpt from a lecture I attended last week, titled ” 20 Years After The Collapse Of The Iron Curtain”. I apologize for the poor quality of the taping, however the quality of the message – delivered by none other than Vaclav Havel – warrants overlooking the wobbles.

And they danced. Do we dance enough?

Crumbling Cast-Iron: Lisbon Has Been Signed!

November 3, 2009


Today, Europe is transformed.

While the ink has not yet dried on the final necessary signature from the final check on the treaty, the European Union’s ever-forward motion has solidified, while in Britain, Cameron’s ‘cast-iron’ guarantee crumbles. The ramifications for Europe — notably a new  European President, possibly Tony Blair — are significant. However, the holes that have been poked in Eurosceptic visions of a British referendum will also have serious implications for Cameron and his Tories, especially while looking ahead to elections in 2010. Not to be-labour the point — but today is potentially a serious coup for Britains current ruling party, past and present.


The Undercover Economist

October 20, 2009

1380566065_62336f4b80The Economist is the ‘to read’ magazine of most MPA students, but what are your favorite alternatives?

One suggestion: The Undercover Economist, providing articles by Tim Harford. 

Uncover it here…

Oui Don’t Have a Blank Czech

October 3, 2009

 The concerted effort to convince Ireland to deliver a resounding ‘Yes’ to the Lisbon Treaty has led to declarations of success, relief, and the welcoming of this development of the European Union. Yet, the treaty still requires ratification by Poland – who appear to be ready to do so- and the Czech Republic – whose intentions to sign are indefinite.

See Janis Emmanouilidis ‘s article for a succinct overview. An excerpt here:

Members of the Czech Senate have now twice taken the Lisbon treaty to the country’s constitutional court and could keep employing the same delaying tactic to enable the country’s famously eurosceptical President Vaclav Klaus to refuse to sign the Lisbon treaty into law. This could play into the hands of Britain’s Conservative opposition, which has said it would put the treaty to a referendum if it has not been ratified by the time of the next British general election — which must take place no later than May 2010 and which the conservatives seem poised to win.

If  the above possibility comes to pass, we are really in store for further political drama and further away from solutions.