In the last week of May, the federal Liberal government announced that it was spending $4.5 billion to buy the controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline. Condemnation was swift from all sides. Conservatives slammed the government for spending taxpayer money on what they feel would have better been served by the private sector. The NDP and Indigenous communities were upset over the projected environmental impact and impingement on traditional Indigenous land claims. Nationalists took umbrage with the hefty sum of money leaving the country.
To this chorus of opprobrium, it is easy to imagine Quebec intellectual Alain Deneault’s voice added to the mix. Deneault has been a vocal critic of neoliberalism in general and the mining sector in particular.
These subjects coalesce in Mediocracy, a combined polemic and manifesto arguing that western democracies in thrall to late capitalism have become enslaved to mediocrity, which Deneault defines as “the average stage in actuality.” The prerequisite for mediocracy, in Deneault’s view, is an unquestioning adherence to the dictates and principles of neoliberalism that allow a small minority to become fabulously rich while everyone else marches zombie-like in a kind of unacknowledged indentured servitude.
Deneault structures his argument around an examination of three broad sectors that together contribute to the continuance of our current state of economic enslavement: higher education, trade and finance, and culture. In the first case, university administrations sell out their students to multinational corporations providing money and endowments but restricting any intellectual pursuit that doesn’t advance their own agendas. In the second, the conflation of finance and the economy has created a system in which mega-wealthy oligarchs get away with storing untold sums in offshore tax havens while ensuring that their workers are paid just enough to remain subservient. And finally, the cultural marketplace has become a breeding ground for mass-produced diversions while anything remotely challenging to the dominant social order is suppressed.
It is difficult to argue with any of this, though Deneault struggles to find a convincing through-line to tie the various strands of his argument together. It is unclear, for example, where the concept of mediocrity ends and that of straight-up corruption begins, though in a late section devoted to the latter subject, Deneault implies that what we assume is corruption is actually a function of the political and social systems we have all blindly signed on to.
Part of the disconnect may have to do with the fact that Mediocracy is actually a conflation of two separate texts: the 2015 volume La médiocratie and its 2016 companion volume, Politiques de l’extrême centre. A translator’s note indicates that the former is also the second volume in a two-volume work, the first book of which, Gouvernance, expands on some of what appear to be the more off-topic elements of Mediocracy.
Another difficulty – at least for an English-language reader – may result from Deneault’s style of writing, aspects of which translator Catherine Browne admits “would not necessarily attract attention in French” but “may be somewhat unexpected in English.” This includes the tendency to “range over multiple disciplines and put forward abstract ideas using difficult philosophical terms.” There is a lot of this in Mediocracy, though the individual sections of the book seem sound in and of themselves.
Deneault ends with an epilogue that serves as a kind of manifesto for a radical reorganization of society along socialist lines. He argues that what appears like political polarization in our society is actually a retreat to the centre: all of the political arguments, whether on the left or right, begin from an unquestioned assumption that our current systems and structures are sound. A true revolution would begin with an acknowledgement that capitalism itself is flawed and would involve first tearing down that structure and replacing it with something more humane and equitable.