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There is no "Lesser" amongst Intolerable Evils

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Of what do we think when we think about fascism? Amongst the first associations that come to mind are likely to be indiscriminate government surveillance of the general populace and the arbitrary use of lethal force against ordinary citizens by agents of the state. As events of the past year have made clear, both of these conditions obtain with respect to the contemporary United States. On the one hand, Edward Snowden's revelations of the mind-boggling scale of the spying that is conducted jointly by the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (the "Five Eyes"); on the other, the release of a white paper by Barack Obama's administration promulgating the US president's right to order the summary execution of any person in the world, by fiat.

The Canadian state directly serves this despotic apparatus in an adjuvant capacity -- inter alia, Canada's signals intelligence agency helps supply the data used to draw up targets for drone strikes, the US government's preferred method of assassination. In my essay "Speak Now or Forever Renounce Peace" I insisted that the only morally acceptable response to this state of affairs is uncompromising opposition. In particular I argued that since the New Democratic Party has offered only the most limited objections to Canada's work with the Five Eyes, and has had nothing at all to say about the global murder policy of the US, supporting the NDP in any way would be deeply unethical.

The logic of the case seemed straightforward to me. The regime in Washington now satisfies the definition of fascism, sensu stricto. The Canadian government, meanwhile, is deeply implicated in Washington's global machinery of surveillance and repression. The New Democrats, for their part, have not presented a serious challenge to this arrangement; have, indeed, indicated their approval of its general outlines.

A vote for the NDP must therefore be seen as effectively being a vote for collaboration with fascism; and if, hitherto, there was one point on which Canadian leftists and liberals were all agreed, it was that fascism is evil and must be combated. Accordingly, it would be wrong to back the NDP: Q.E.D. -- or so I thought. Much to my surprise, more than one politically progressive individual has expressed general agreement with the analysis in "Speak Now or Forever Renounce Peace" only to add that s/he will likely still cast a ballot for the New Democrats in the 2015 federal election.

There seem to be two main factors at work here. One is that Canada's radical left has a long and inglorious history of using extreme language to denounce anyone further to the right on the political spectrum. For example, for a period in the 1930s the Canadian Communist Party routinely referred to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (a formation later refounded as the NDP) as "social fascists." Over the years, certain far left elements have employed epithets of this sort so profligately that their use in a North American context now tends to be dismissed more or less automatically as hyperbole.

Further complicating matters, in the United States the so-called libertarian right has for some time denounced any and all public interest legislation as evidence of a "socialist/communist" plot to impose a dictatorship. Since leftists have grown accustomed to dismissing such talk as a bizarre and paranoid fantasy of the far right, any claim that the US actually is a police state (even if not a socialist one) is apt to be treated with about as much seriousness as the report of a sasquatch sighting.

Given all this, NDP supporters can be forgiven for rolling their eyes on hearing fresh talk of how the party is in league with fascism. That being said, they need to bear in mind that the entire political establishment within Canada -- indeed, across almost the whole world -- has moved inexorably to the right over the course of the neoliberal era; and if you keep going right, you must eventually end up on fascist terrain. More to the point, as outlined above, we now know from US government documents that Washington claims the authority to spy on, abduct, torture and murder both its own citizens and anyone else it chooses to target. To call this fascism, or a police state regime, is not to engage in histrionics, but to apply these terms as they would be used if the government in question was headquartered anywhere more remote than the United States.

The second principal consideration is also historically conditioned. Ever since the NDP repressed the Waffle movement in 1971, and with it any prospect of the party toeing a socialist line, the best that left-wing Canadians have generally been able to say about the New Democrats is that they are better than the alternatives (i.e., the Liberals and Conservatives). With neoliberalism's colonization of the body politic this has increasingly become: the NDP is not as bad as the others. In other words, we have largely given up looking for even minimally positive action by the New Democrats; the limit of our hopes now is that an NDP administration will inflict less damage on the polity than would a Liberal or Conservative regime.

As Bruce Cockburn has acutely observed: "The trouble with normal is it always gets worse." Choosing the lesser evil has become so habitual for the Canadian left that we cannot see that, past a certain point, it makes no sense to ask which evil is worse because they are all intolerable. If a concentration camp commandant presents as alternatives one diet that provides 500 calories per day and another that affords 750, but a person actually needs a minimum of 2000 calories daily to survive, it would be lunacy to describe the 750 calorie regimen as the preferable option.

Fair enough, an NDP supporter might reply, but what is there to suggest that the electoral diets on offer have all fallen to a point that must prove fatal to the body politic? In reply I would say that for liberals, social democrats and democratic socialists alike it has always been considered axiomatic that fascism and democracy are mutually exclusive. I do not say that Canada is a police state (yet). The tyrannical nature of the regime in Washington, however, is fully proven by the combined evidence of Snowden's whistleblowing and public statements from the Obama administration; and Canada is not merely aligned with this regime but plays an active part in its despotic activities through the Five Eyes network.

If concrete collaboration with a police state of global reach is not the point at which we stop acquiescing in the "lesser evil," what will be? Will we keep supporting the New Democrats until the day they run on an explicit platform of killing out of hand those people of whom they don't approve? After all, that is what our allies in Washington -- against whom the NDP have not said a word -- have openly announced as government policy.

If our consciences are lenient enough to let us quietly abandon our previous resolve not to countenance fascism, will they also prove so yielding as to feel no compunctions about betraying Edward Snowden? Here is a man who has thrown over his whole previous existence and risked everything for the sake of exposing the machinery of Washington's global police state; a man who must live not only in exile but in hiding; a man who cannot obtain asylum even from left-wing governments; a man who receives fresh death threats every week from high-ranking members of the US political establishment. Have New Democrats saluted the heroism of this individual and hailed his great service to all the world's peoples? Have they called for him to be amnestied or offered one word in his defence? Of course not. Yet leftists would propose to support such spineless, callous creatures?

If betraying the most fundamental values we have hitherto espoused is not reason enough to set our faces against the NDP, can we as blithely disregard the imminent peril that we face? In one of the documents released by Snowden the US National Security Agency boasts of its intention to be able to fully monitor every person in the world by 2016. While it is impossible to know to what degree this is merely wishful thinking, the confirmed capabilities of the Five Eyes' signals intelligence operations are terrifying enough. Combined with the US government's newly announced doctrine of extra-judicial murder, the Five Eyes represent the most devastating threat to liberty that humanity has ever faced.

For a glimpse of its present power one need only look at how the European Parliament, which had proposed to offer asylum to Edward Snowden, was cowed by US pressure into refusing to even discuss the idea. Equally one may consider how the governments of various European countries could be marshalled by Washington into violating the diplomatic immunity -- and, indeed, endangering the life -- of Evo Morales, a head of state, because he was believed to be harbouring Snowden.

Dissent has already been severely circumscribed within Canada, and still more draconian measures have been put in place in the other Five Eyes polities. The legislative framework and the technological apparatus of surveillance of the Five Eyes are hurrying us towards a point where resistance can be squashed before it starts. Now is the time to act. If we do not immediately, resolutely and uncompromisingly denounce this whole edifice of repression -- from its high command in Washington to its New Democrat camp followers -- we are not likely to have a second chance.

The power of the Five Eyes network is monstrous beyond conception. It is anything but certain that popular resistance can place it in check, to say nothing of overcoming it; but we can be sure that any chance that we might have of succeeding becomes less the longer we leave this regime uncontested. What is perhaps worse: we deprave our own selves when we stand silently aside as institutions that purport to be progressive express their craven support for this globe-spanning evil.


Dixi et salvavi animam meam. [I have spoken and saved my soul.]

-- Karl Marx, "Critique of the Gotha Programme"

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