He came to us with a vision of what he called a "just society." We listened and we liked what we heard and we supported him as he enacted the laws focused on taking our Canada, leading us, to a new and better place. We saw, first hand, the power of vision.
Over the last decade we saw the legacy of that earlier vision as we were ruled - not led, not governed but ruled - by an authoritarian who utterly eschewed vision, perhaps knowing that whatever he might offer up as vision would be roundly rejected. His entire approach to governance - incrementalism - was the classic modus operandi
of poachers and sneak thieves. We were ruled by a man who had no vision but boundless ambition to remake us and our country in his image. He attempted to do this and might have succeeded but for the legacy of that earlier vision manifested in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that restrained him and held his impulsive instincts at bay.
Pundits have observed that Stephen Harper left no lasting legacy and that's why. He was a visionless ruler, a technocrat who wielded the levers of power to no particular end, no goal beyond the exploitation of corrupted hydrocarbon energy.
There are still some who consider that earlier leader, Pierre Trudeau, autocratic and there may be an argument to be made. The important thing, however, is that Pierre Trudeau did not exercise his control to the advancement of neoliberalism. To the contrary, his governance was focused on the advancement of Canadian democracy, liberal democracy. He curbed the rights of the state against the individual and elevated the rights of the individual over the state. He enshrined rights and freedoms within constitutional instruments. What a fascinating man. What a time to be a Canadian, empowered. Heady stuff that.
Brian Mulroney put Canada on a somewhat different course. Like Reagan, he was well to the left of what passes for conservatism today. Still he ushered in the era of globalization, the economic engine of neoliberalism. It began with the FTA, the free trade pact with the US, that was quickly followed when NAFTA added Mexico to the deal.
Mulroney bought the theory that was in a matter of years disproved, discredited. He believed what he preached - that free trade would benefit the country and all Canadians. There would be more economic activity, more jobs, better pay. He failed to foresee that free market capitalism would turn predatory as corporatist forces, their restraints broken and their powers elevated almost to quasi-nation state levels, exploited their gifted freedom and powers. Industries were gutted, jobs were outsourced, wages stagnated or declined.
You might have thought our leaders would have cried, "Whoa, wait a second, this isn't working. We've got to scrap this and go back to square one." But they didn't. Instead they inked one free trade agreement after another, in each instance yielding just a little more state sovereignty to a corporatist rival that was largely unaccountable, amorphous.
Why did it keep going? Why is it with us today and growing rapidly? Because that's what a malignancy does. It keeps growing until the host dies. It's both predatory and parasitic. As it continues it gives back ever less and much of what is given is tainted. It began as a corporate, commercial interest that metastasized into neoliberalism, a political power. Neoliberalism is the muscle of corporatism. It doesn't seek to destroy the state but to wrest effective control of the state and it works through people like our last prime minister.
A detailed and extensive exploration of this phenomenon can be found in Galbraith's, The Predator State
. At one point he examines the stampede of neoliberalism during the Bush/Cheney regime when every important regulatory body was taken over by industry shills. Industry, commerce, capital became self-regulating, almost sovereign, giving rise to a genuine predator state. As for Canada, take a look at the makeup of the industry-friendly National Energy Board
. Is it any wonder that the public interest gets such short shrift?
Harper is gone, praise Odin, but his NEB appointments still rule the roost. Harper is gone but Justin Trudeau has retained Harper's board. That seems incomprehensible. Is it, really? What is that telling us?
After three decades under the yoke of neoliberalism, what is Justin Trudeau's vision of Canada? What does he seek to make it other than, perhaps, a bit more pleasant, a bit less in your face?
The fact is that I haven't heard any stirring vision come out of this Trudeau, nothing that even remotely resembles our experience during his father's tenure. That wouldn't be enough to declare him a neoliberal but he is. The sorry fact is that every party in Parliament, including Tom "balanced budgets" Mulcair's NDP, is neoliberal. Oh I realize Tom, at least Latter Day Tom, comes across as a bit more progressive than Justin but it's a distinction of very limited difference.
There is no vision on offer from any of Canada's mainstream political parties. Electoral reform is, at best, a tweak - not a vision. Those who claim otherwise need to lift their eyes, look out to the horizon. We haven't done that sort of thing for decades, far too long and our country is the worse for it.
How do we escape the clutches of neoliberalism? How are we to rehabilitate liberal democracy? Who has that so desperately overdue vision?
In case you're wondering, not me. There are, however, things I believe we must do and things I am convinced we must absolutely stop doing. In no particular order, here are a few.
Let's take a look at Teddy Roosevelt's "Square Deal" speech
of 1910 in which he laid out the foundational principles of a progressive order. There is so much in there, truly timeless wisdom, that I urge you to read it in its entirety. It speaks to the essential paramountcy of labour over capital. It calls for government in service to the populace, not powerful narrow interests. It champions conservation of national resources, control of corporations and consumer protection of every variety. Read it, absorb it and you'll have a pretty good start.
Let's recognize, in every aspect of policy making and planning at every level of government, the unprecedented perils and uncertainties that confront every nation and will overwhelm a good many in the course of this century. We cannot know what our nation and our world will look like more than a decade, two at the outside, from now. Why then are we entertaining thirty year, "locked in" trade deals? Where do we think Canada will be over that term? What about the partner nations we will be relying on? What if they can't fulfill their obligations to us? What if we default on our obligations to them? Will force majeure
become the lingua franca
of free market capitalism? What then?
It is this very uncertainty, unpredictability that so strongly argues for the restoration of the paramountcy of the public interest in every aspect of our governance. That will hinge on the recovery of our national sovereignty. We cannot have fetters, especially not decadal shackles, on our sovereignty. That denies us the ability to freely respond to the needs of our people when difficulties arise. There are contingencies in which we may need to be able to jettison trade baggage as our partners may well do to us for the same compelling reasons.
What use is there for a vision unless it can be conveyed to the people it needs to reach? To achieve that level of communication you must have an informed public, not a public manipulated by spin and guile. Re-establishing those lines of communication begins with the restoration of a vibrant, robust and free press in Canada. That necessitates breaking up today's corporate media cartel. This corporate media, exemplified by the PostMedia chain, doesn't disseminate information. It peddles messaging, information so heavily sculpted by omission and interpretation for the purpose of manipulating the reader.
It doesn't make much difference which system of voting is in place if the corporate interest is able to confound the voter and steer that vote. A voter who is misled, confused, angry and/or fearful defeats the whole notion of an informed electorate freely consenting to how they will be governed. A corporate media cartel is a powerful instrument of neoliberalism. Curious that none of our parties, not even the NDP, is calling for that cartel to be taken down.
We need to rebuild, re-empower our society. We have held on, at times by our fingernails, thanks to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms but that's not nearly enough. Look at Canadian society today. Look at how divided we have become. We're corralled into camps that view each other with suspicion, fear, anger sometimes bordering on paranoia. There is no vision to unite us, to afford us the common ground we have found, despite our differences, in times past. We can live with our differences and still enjoy the benefits of social cohesion and common purpose.
This failure of social cohesion weakens all of us in every camp. It distracts us, it saps our resolve, it turns us into easy pickings for the forces of neoliberalism. It facilitates the transfer of economic and political clout into the hands of the elite which partly explains why every major party today is neoliberal.
Societal rehabilitation is called for and this can begin by tackling inequality in all of its forms - inequality of wealth, inequality of income, inequality of opportunity, inequality of access and influence - the list goes on. We cannot restore conditions as they were from the 50s through the 70s, at least not without surviving another major war, but there is much we can do to re-upholster our society, so that everybody gets a nice seat at the table.
We must commit to government's role in balancing the ever conflicting interests of labour versus capital. That is part and parcel of any viable progressive democracy. A thoughtful exploration of how to restore organized labour in Canada opens most if not every can of worms. It's messy, daunting but that is no excuse for continuing to ignore it.
One final idea that I would suggest is to revisit the issue of posterity, long ostracized from both policy making and planning. We must be willing to make sacrifices essential to the well being of future generations of Canadians.
Pierre Trudeau's vision looked to the future. It fully addressed posterity. We've already seen, first hand, what a wonderful thing the power of posterity can be when you most desperately need it.
Change, it seems, is never universally welcomed except in the wake of catastrophe. Neoliberalism has us on the path to catastrophe. It's inevitable. Our choice is to remain divided, confused, distracted and powerless and await our fate or to find that vision that all of us truly want and turn that vision into reality.