Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Our current situation – democracy under threat, civil unrest, racial tensions, economic woes, divisive politics and creeping authoritarianism, all underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic – requires the kind of gravitas only Leonard Cohen can provide.
Cohen’s 1992 album The Future, particularly the title track, ‘Anthem’ and ‘Democracy’, certainly provides an appropriate soundtrack to what we’re experiencing today. That’s not surprising given the turbulent events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Los Angeles riots that occurred as he was writing and recording the album.
His previous album, the comeback offering I’m Your Man, provides us with ‘Everybody Knows’ and “First We Take Manhattan’ as songs filled with imagery suitable for a time three decades removed from its release.
Known for his songs of romance and sexuality, of course, Cohen also explored politics along with depression, loss and death. The dark was contrasted with the light, his deep, gravelly delivery lending a sombre note to his nuanced words. A very good fit with the goings-on today, particularly as we head into a second wave of the coronavirus and get caught up in a U.S. election now only days away.
How the world emerges from the pandemic remains unknown, just as we don’t know what to expect on November 4.
What we do know is that democracy and liberalism in the West are under threat from without and within, the latter being the greater threat, particularly in places as diverse as Hungary, Poland and the United States.
Just as the great prosperity that followed the Second World War came under attack a generation later, with the eventual rolling back of many of the gains, the freedoms won in the intervening years are also under attack, often by the same elements of corporatism and fascism that look to drive down wages, pollute the environment and strip away civil rights.
Likewise, the social contract we’ve forged over time is being wilfully eroded, attacked by those who see fomenting strife – along racial, cultural and economic lines – as a way to divide and conquer. It’s working.
We need look no further than to the U.S. for confirmation, as many of us are caught up in the election campaign. The country is a demonstration of just how far we’ve strayed from governance in service of the public.
The American system may be beyond redemption, so far down the rabbit hole of moneyed corruption has it gone, but there’s no room to gloat in this country. Or pretty much anywhere else, for that matter.
While the presidential battle is more about slinging mud, there are occasional forays into actual policy, such as taxes and would-be economic fixes. As with such debates here, however, the topics are the subject of short-term thinking, an affliction that’s permeated all facets of our society.
Adopting the business model that’s taken hold in the last four decades – today’s stock price, shareholder value and this quarter’s profits above all else – our political system has been shaped by constant lobbying from those who see society through only the lens of finances. It’s what’s made citizens no more than consumers.
Politicians, of course, have a built-in capacity for short-term thinking: the election cycle. They make promises and float policies designed for immediate impact – spend for votes today. That’s problematic in and of itself, as it gives little regard to the idea that actions taken now will have impacts years, sometimes decades down the road.
That kind of thinking is what got us into today’s mess. That the very people who supported tax cuts to corporations even as government largesse filled their coffers are the ones leading the charge for austerity measures – not to themselves, of course – has been lost in the shuffle.
In the course of a couple of generations, we’ve undone centuries of efforts to create a society based on the common good. Much of the we’re-all-in-this-together ideals that came out of the Great Depression and the Second World War, for instance, has been replaced by relentless individualism.
Rapid urbanization whereby we no longer rely on family, friends and the broader community – indeed, we may not even know our neighbours – makes us forget just how interdependent we really are. A consumer-based society, pushed by marketing, focuses on individual pleasure. This comes at a cost to the collective ‘us,’ especially when it discussing matters of financing the common good: taxes are seen as taking money away from ‘my’ enjoyment. Increasingly, we’re encouraged to give rein to our natural tendency to look after number one. Couple that with an individual’s capacity to seek immediate gratification, and long-term planning for our collective future becomes even more difficult.
There’s nothing wrong with looking out for personal interests, but we’re in danger of forgetting that most of the middle-class gains of the postwar years stem from socially-driven ideas. In purely economic terms, the collective efforts are the rising tide that lifted all boats – some more so than others, certainly. Today, however, there’s an element that seems hell-bent on undoing precisely the conditions that allowed for the great prosperity now under attack.
Thanks to decades of concerted effort, many people have bought into a set of diminished expectations about the role of government and, more troublingly, the possibilities of shaping a better society. We’ve had democracy reduced to the occasional trip to the polls. We’ve seen government reduced to managerial functions, where debate is constrained to a few well-worn topics. We’ve seen the economy reduced to fiscal policy – deregulation’s the order of the day as the financial services industry sets the agenda. We’ve seen citizenship dumbed down to passive observation, at best.
That we’ve been reduced to the short-term interests of the most affluent gives lie to the notion that our system of government – our democracy – is based on the consent of the governed. Government policies that run contrary to the public interest – an increasing proportion of its actions – surely are the opposite of what we’d consent to.
Who is responsible for that? Certainly those who’ve benefited have fostered an unending propaganda campaign that’s been every bit as effective in sweeping aside citizenship as the corporate marketing has been in turning us into consumers. We’ve happily abdicated power and responsibility for the comforts of our lives. Excuses about being busy are just that. Still, we’ve opted for the distractions, and can’t even be bothered to show up at the voting booth for five minutes every four years. As a result, we’ve got the government we deserve, one that acts against our interests and against the common good.
If, in a time of unprecedented crisis such as we’re living today, we can’t see what’s going on and demand more, then we’ve seen the future, brother – it is murder. Everybody knows the deal is rotten. Or they should.
I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
As time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA
To the USA