As a couple of friends have pointed out, some of my recent blatherings about voting may seem inconsistent with my “brand.” You know, civic engagement, the responsibilities of citizenship, the obligations we have to society and to each other … yawn.
Can’t be too surprised that that’s not a huge part of the conversation these days. There’s a lot invested in making sure that isn’t, and that shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. The more people are all wound up and angry and yelly and distracted, the less energy and attention they have to focus on the underlying stuff. Fill the window with dead cats and all that.
But once again, maybe we step back and look at this within a larger historical context (dear god, I’m going to hit myself in the head with a hammer — ed.). Let’s reframe this over the course of the last 20 or 30 years. What’s been happening?
The gutting of the public sphere.
The devaluation of civil society.
The emasculation of public institutions.
The dismantling of the social safety net.
Austerity, privatization, deregulation, outsourcing, yada yada yada, all served up with noxious sides of deficit hysteria and tax cuts, and the attendant kneecapping of government’s ability to act.
All predating Stephen Harper, nasty though he is. Again, think back a few decades. Brian Mulroney. Jean Chretien. Paul Martin. Running through it all, like a river of toxic slime: the successive implementation of the same agenda. “Free trade” regimes that concentrate more and more wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. Nods to the knuckle-draggers aside, Harper’s just peddling more of the same. Seriously, can anyone point to a substantive change in the country’s direction over the past few decades?
All of this has been encouraged and paid for, of course, by the CEOs, the international investor class, their flunkies, and their cheerleaders in the corporate media, along with the Serious and Responsible People who guard the parameters of conversation and gaslight everyone else into thinking that whatever’s left of the “middle class” shares the same values and interests as the business elites. And always with the same themes: need to compete and obey the diktats of the market. Trade barriers need to come down. Labour flexibility. Capital mobility. Safeguard the rights of investors lest they take their money elsewhere. Anything that interferes with the accumulation of private profit becomes a target.
And what’s the effect? Well, what happens to anything that’s consistently attacked, demeaned, belittled, stripped of resources, and corroded? Gradually but steadily, the fabric of society wears away because the things that hold us together and allow us to act with common purpose are systematically undermined. We are isolated, exhausted, and/or distracted in the face of economic precariousness. What’s the point of acting collectively? What can we accomplish in the face of impersonal global forces which, we’re told over and over, are inevitable and irresistible?
Is it any wonder that the notion of citizenship starts to mean less and less? Is it a coincidence that the avenues for meaningful engagement are closed off while we’re distracted with the latest shinyshiny?
I’m not necessarily suggesting there are no differences among Harper and the opposition leaders in terms of policy or commitment to democratic ideals. But I do fear that the sustained assault on the things that hold us together has gone on for so long, and that the damage to our body politic has been so profound, that it may be too late to restore it.
This has been going on for decades. Does anyone really think a mere change of government is going to fix it?
Haven’t really crystallized this into a coherent argument yet, but I can’t remember feeling this disheartened about a federal election since 1997. Ever since then, there’s been a growing malignancy in our body politic — a malignancy that goes beyond partisanship.
Successive governments since then have, for whatever reason, surrendered more and more policy tools, and more and more of their innate capacity to advance the public good, in the face of supranational trade and investment regimes. Regardless of who’s been in power in Ottawa (and provincial capitals, for that matter), we’ve been watching the gradual but unmistakable enfeeblement of government, to the point where it may well be irreversible. As awful as Harper’s been on so many files — environment, the war on women, civil liberties, First Nations, the economy, health care, immigration, housing, veterans, integrity in government, climate change — this didn’t start with him.
What I still don’t understand is, why? Why is government, of whatever stripe, voluntarily abandoning its role? Free Trade, NAFTA, MIA, CETA, FIPA, TPP, whatever. Why are public institutions consenting to, and even participating in, their own enervation? Why are we, through our governments, surrendering our ability to protect ourselves and act in the national interest in favour of a few multinational corporations and allowing them to sue us for notional lost profits? Who benefits from this? Who’s looking out for the common good here?
And that doesn’t even begin to address the glaring faults in our current electoral system. The disfiguring effects of our antiquated, necrotic First Past The Post system have already been discussed, but if there’s any sustained discussion of alternatives or efforts to reform the voting system, or the so-called “Fair Elections Act,” it’s barely being heard above the manufactured controversies and distractions. The conversation’s being dragged into the sewer, and that’s no accident either.
It’s why I’ve been wondering, perhaps at odds with my arguments about the responsibilities of citizenship, about the efficacy of voting. If civic engagement is reduced to casting a ballot every few years for choices that have, in truth, been set out for us, then are we really participating meaningfully in our own governance? Is voting, even if it manages to end the Harper era, going to undo decades worth of damage to civil society? Is it going to put an end to this misguided fetish with austerity? Is it going to reinvigorate the notion of an activist government committed to using the power of public policy to cultivate the greatest good for the greatest number? Is it going to re-assert the primacy of the public sphere in the face of “free trade” regimes and investor-state protections? How likely is it that any government, even the best-intentioned, will move to roll back the damage in the face of the inevitable backlash from international finance, the small coterie of Serious and Responsible people who decide which ideas are “realistic” and which are “lunatic,” and their amplifiers in the media?
I don’t want to sound facile, but doesn’t it come down to the kind of government we want and the kind of country we want to be? Do we want to be governed by the people we elect, or by a small global oligarchy of unaccountable string-pullers? And is the simple act of choosing a brand on polling day going to affect that?