Going, Going, Gone: Dismantling the Progressive State

“An Auction”. William Pyne and William Combe (1808).

Now that some time has passed since the federal budget it might be useful to step back and assess what it says about where the government is taking us. Reaction has been pretty muted. The “centrist punditry” generally see this as an incremental budget, business as usual, “balanced” and “mature”. For our Globe editorialists, for example, this was not the transformative budget the government promised and a majority government supposedly made possible. According to them, the budget was OK; it earned a passing grade but had no vision, not much transformation. Canadians, according to one poll at least, did not much like the budget but found it benign. No matter how often the government tells us it is changing the game, we seem reluctant to believe it.

To some extent the apparent indifference can be attributed to the success of the time-tested techniques of strategic leaks and hints of even more drastic measures. Apparently that trick never gets tired; we are always relieved that things are better or at least not as awful as we feared. And of course, cuts to the public service probably always play well – this is easy politics, if costly policy – and scant detail is provided on the implications of those cuts for citizens. What information we get is in dribs and drabs and so we still don’t have an overall view. And budget debate was to some extent eclipsed by serious allegations of voter suppression, electoral misconduct, and misleading Parliament and the electorate on the costs of jets.

Governments rarely move an agenda through big dramatic acts such as the Patriation of the Constitution and the creation of the Charter, or the great Free Trade debate, or the 1995 austerity budget, all dramatically visible, divisive and fiercely debated. Rather, a government’s agenda, even if it represents profound change, is more often achieved in increments, small steps which gradually reshape what we perceive as acceptable and normal. Often it is only in retrospect that we get a sense of how far we have moved, how much what is in Overton’s Window has changed, how far “the centre” has shifted. The danger, absent debate, is that we will sleepwalk into the future, that a very different Canada will have crept up on us, a Canada we would not have chosen.

Smashing the Progressive State

This budget gives pretty clear signals of a different Canada, perhaps hard to get at because it is not about building but about dismantling: not dismantling the state – witness the expanded use of the coercive criminal law power and the build up of our military and security apparatus – so much as rolling back the progressive state. Some conservative pundits have been continually disappointed in this government for its readiness to spend for its purposes or to intervene in the market when it suits. No, this is more about redefining the purpose of government and undoing, brick by brick, in the slowest of motion, but inexorably, the institutions and programs built over decades following the second world war, by governments of quite different stripes.

Some will say that the cuts in this budget are not big enough, deep enough or sufficiently targeted to justify such a conclusion. After all, the cuts in the mid-1990s were deeper and unquestionably consequential. And today’s cuts do come after a few years of sharply increased spending. But these arguments obscure the differences between now and the 19990s when there was a broad consensus that we were in a dangerous fiscal crisis, over a third of every tax dollar was going to debt servicing, and taxes were much higher. And whatever one’s views of that period of austerity, and there is much to criticize, cuts were treated as a necessary evil, witness how quickly after achieving a budget surplus that money was poured back into health transfers, science and education, child benefits, and infrastructure. And yes there were tax cuts – huge tax cuts – which reinforced the growing anti-tax, small government rhetoric, but at least they were funded by budget surpluses and not increased borrowing.

The current government inherited a double-digit surplus that created room for transforming outdated programs, considering new investments, helping struggling provinces, responding to crises, and lowering taxes. There was no spending crisis. And while we have a deficit now, it is relatively smaller than those of our colleague countries – we are certainly not Greece – and the service charges are nowhere near where they were a decade ago – this is not the 1990s. This deficit was caused by deep and unaffordable tax cuts, necessary and inevitable recession spending which is now finished, and increased spending in some areas such as the military and security apparatus, punishment of criminals, and layers of bureaucratic control.

No, this round of cuts is not the result of a fiscal crisis. It may rather be exactly what the government has told us, a milestone in transformative change. Monte Solberg, an ex-Cabinet Minister for the current government, and generally a moderate voice, gives us a glimpse of the new contract between government and citizen this budget implies:

Thursday’s federal budget was another important step in fulfilling Stephen Harper’s hidden agenda of making Canada recognizable again.

For 40 years “progressives” called the shots in Canada, and their influence affected and infected everything. They left big bruises on the economy, social policy, immigration, the armed forces, law, foreign affairs, cultural policy and, of course, the Constitution. Much of the Canada that we grew up with was indiscriminately swept away, good and bad alike.

Well, maybe not completely swept away. That old middle-class Canada could still be found hanging around Legions, hockey rinks and the kind of coffee shops where the only coffee they serve goes by the name “coffee.” But make no mistake — that Canada had been kicked to the curb and anyone who believed in it was expected to shut up and pay their ever-increasing taxes while their progressive masters turned their country inside out….

Anyway, that whole way of thinking must be smashed and Flaherty has made a start on it, but only a start. By definition, prudent governance means that cutting ineffective programs should be a yearly occurrence, not a once-in-20-year event….

In the end, paring away unnecessary positions and programs is about much more than just balancing budgets, efficiency and making accountants and economists happy.

Really, it’s about showing a little respect for those regular people who like the old Canada and just want Ottawa to live within its means, and to stay out of their face and wallet.

Solberg suggests that the cuts to spending are part of a new vision, and that the budget does indeed contain real transformative change. I agree – but these changes go to the heart of our sense of this country and need to be debated. The transformative change to Old Age Security, for example, will have an impact on the poorest and the provinces will have to pick up the pieces but it affects only the next generations of retirees and so slips by. The federal withdrawal from health care policy and the transfer of more of the responsibility and risk to the provinces could have profound implications for our public health care but the changes do not kick in for a few years. And again slip by. But the federal withdrawal here signals big change indeed. The federal government seems to be retreating to a much narrower Constitutional set of responsibilities. Gone, apparently, is the cooperative, and yes sometimes combative, federalism that built the progressive state. The process was messy, imperfect, many were left out, but the results, medicare and the social safety net, did become part of our shared citizenship. The national child benefit, employment insurance, student loans and grants, investments in university research and science, the OAS and Guaranteed Income Supplement, which along with the Canada/Quebec Pension Plans helped to almost wipe out poverty among the elderly, all these are part of this social citizenship – what each citizen could expect no matter where in Canada they lived.

As John Ibbitson wrote, though I think approvingly, this budget signals to Canadians that they should expect less from government or at least from Ottawa. The consequences of such a shift are never immediate or obvious; they are subtle and slow burning, inevitably hitting the most vulnerable first and hardest. Writing of the consequences of similar cuts in the U.S., Paul Krugman noted that when the federal government seemed incapable of responding well to Katrina, few linked that to the cuts to government operations decades before – but the link should be made. If we want to imagine the consequences of crushing the progressive state and who benefits and who does not, we might want to have a look at the twenties and thirties, a time of massive inequality and personal vulnerability which presaged the Great Depression.

Bargain Basement Citizenship and the Erosion of Civil Society

But what is clear even now is that these cuts imply a different view of our shared citizenship, of what ties us together as Canadians across language and region and community. They offer us what I have called elsewhere “bargain basement citizenship”. The new deal, the contract, seems to be that less will be asked of us – less taxes, no mandatory long census, no requirement to register firearms – and less will be provided in services and entitlements. Take, for example, the pick-and-choose approach the government has adopted in standing up for Canadian citizens abroad facing the threat of capital punishment. Part of the progressive state that Solberg wants “smashed” is the notion of shared citizenship that came with these national programs. While that state was being built, Canadians had new reason to engage in national politics and a vibrant civil society developed around this. And this strong civic society, engaged citizens and non-governmental organizations, changed and enriched our understanding of democracy, always pressing for improvements, giving voice to the powerless, and demanding collective action on new and emerging challenges. Is this too to be smashed?

I have not gone through every page of the budget or subsequent announcements to chronicle every cut to public information but even a partial list tells a story. Gone – the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy. Established by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, this was the only agency devoted to engaging experts and the public on sustainability. Gone – the First Nations Statistical Council. Still relatively new, this agency recognized that aboriginal people are often underrepresented in the census and that systematic information is essential to aboriginal communities to assess needs and what is working and what is not. Gone – the National Welfare Council. For over forty years this agency produced essential information about the poor in Canada, about the working poor, and child poverty and women in poverty. It was the only federal agency of its kind and is and has been an enormously valued source of information not readily available and all too easily ignored. Long gone – the mandatory long form census, several other Statistics Canada surveys and now additional millions in cuts. The United Nations urges all developing countries to establish a national independent statistical office because we have learned how vital credible and publicly available information is to democracy. Not yet gone but under continual assault – the Parliamentary Budget Office created by this government to help Canadians, through their parliament, to hold governments to account for how they spend. Long gone – the Law Reform Commission that no doubt would have provided a trusted independent challenge to the claims behind the government’s Omnibus Crime Bill. Going – research essential to food and environmental monitoring, to First Nations and Inuit health, the CBC, and who knows what else.

It should be said that every government has been annoyed by these kinds of agencies. They produce information that allows citizens to take governments to task, to demand more or better. They help citizens to better understand their shared needs, to assess, independently of the latest government spin, what is working and what is not, to participate in solutions. They help citizens to hold their governments to account. No doubt every government has wished, at least from time to time, that one or other of these organizations would just disappear. But independent and credible sources of information, information not available anywhere else, are vital for a strong democracy and so they generally survived.

The Budget also takes aim at another essential ingredient of a strong democracy, the charitable sector. Essential to civil society are the many non-governmental organizations that give voice to people otherwise not heard, including future generations who will inherit the consequences of what we decide. These organizations, which so often challenge and criticize, are never much loved by governments. They always struggle for survival. Decades ago governments decided to stop core funding, to limit funding to the purchase of services, to make it hard for charitable organizations to engage in advocacy. But they survived, even if weaker. This budget and some of the chilling rhetoric around it takes the next step, as environmentalists are treated as a bigger problem than climate change and non-governmental organizations are warned that they better be careful about their advocacy if they want the advantages of charitable status. This and the cut to the small but effective Court Challenges Program in a previous budget rob our democracy of the dissenting voices that give it strength. Remembering this cut is yet another way to acknowledge the anniversary of the Charter and the essential role it and an independent judiciary continue to play in creating the progressive state.

If there is not much more to a country than the market, individual interests, and local communities, and the territory within which all that takes place, then citizenship and civil society lose much of their meaning. Little wonder that Margaret Thatcher proclaimed that there is no such thing as society. Little wonder that we ask so little of our citizens and provide less and less in return. But this hollowing-out of citizenship and civil society leads to an impoverished democracy in which we vote every once in a while if we so choose and otherwise retreat to our lives as consumers, producers and private citizens. This leads to something of a paradox. With the weakening of civil society, we demand less of our governments and demand that government interfere less. Instead we are on our own and we look to government to protect us and our community and our territory from terrorists and criminals. But with the hollowing-out of civil society it becomes harder to constrain government, to protect civil and human rights when government does act, and so, in the end, government becomes more powerful and less accountable.

More Democracy

So what is the alternative to the relentless decline of the progressive state? It is, at least in part, the demand for a more robust democracy, more transparency, not less, more public education and information, not misinformation and deception, more citizen engagement, not voter suppression, more diversity of views, not the chilling of dissent. It is the recognition that essential services have to be organized around the citizens they serve rather than be “marketized”, converted to commodities sold to consumers who can afford them. Above all it means a renewal of our sense of the common good and our capacity for collective management of the future rather than retreating to our private interests and fears and surrendering our future to the vagaries of the market.

In many respects, this choice – more democracy rather than more markets – is a far more demanding path. It is much easier to say “let the market do its magic” or leave things to each community than to come up with policies that help shape our future. It is a hard sell to get people to believe that we can act together to achieve something better, that government can be a positive force if it is balanced by engaged citizens and a vibrant, independent civil society.

The pessimism about our collective capacity to make things better flies in the face of how successful interventionist governments, such as in Northern Europe, have been in improving the well-being of their citizens or how successful active governments in Canada have been in sharing opportunity and improving quality of life for the many not just the few. It also ignores the growing evidence that austerity and privatization are hurting economies, allowing inequality to grow at an unprecedented rate, and giving corporations free rein.

Nonetheless, there is no “big idea” that will fix everything. We are right to be wary of grand plans. We are right to be wary of promises that come with no price tag, that pretend that we can have Swedish levels of service at American levels of taxation. And we are right to be wary of hubris. We never do know enough to act with certainty. And we are right to be wary of promises that are always looking backwards, steeped in nostalgia for what worked at another time and only worked for some. All policy is a beta version that will inevitably have to be made better and be adjusted to the times, and progress requires that we learn from our mistakes – and stop over-promising. Taking back our democracy is hard work and comes with costs.

The path of more democracy is also a harder path because it can only work if we make greater equality a national priority; democracy cannot flourish in the face of extreme inequality – and inequality is on the rise.

Perhaps this path starts from outside our formal political institutions. That is, after all, where all big change starts. The path of more democracy, greater equality, is challenging for political parties for many reasons – because there is no single perfect answer, because robust democracy makes things harder for governments, because we will inevitably have missteps and each of those will be seized upon as yet another example of wasted taxpayers dollars and misguided hope than we can make things better. At a time when we have made a fetish of efficiency, the messiness of robust democracy comes with political costs.

We are seeing the extremes of this conflict between more market and more democracy playing out with horrific consequences on the streets of Greece and to some extent throughout Europe. We are seeing this play out more or less throughout the world and closer to home in the Occupy movement. In Canada, we have it pretty good relatively speaking. We are not in crisis. That ought not to mean that we continue to drift to this impoverished view of citizenship, civil society and democracy. This budget ought to generate a bigger discussion than we are seeing. We ought not to wait for crisis to take our democracy back. Canadians deserve an alternative. The growing political polarization recent polls are picking up suggests that Canadians want clear choices and many want something new. Perhaps the increasing number of young Canadians taking power into their own hands and rebuilding civil society will renew our sense of the common good, focus us on the future, and force the kind of reinvention that we need.

Comments
91 Responses to “Going, Going, Gone: Dismantling the Progressive State”
  1. Ralph says:

    Too Long! Also use Headings

    • himelfarb says:

      What can I say – I have been saving up – but I have bolded the headings if that helps

    • Clay says:

      Too long, you say?
      You, sir, are what is wrong with this country. Not willing to do the necessary research to get at the truth. You want everything handed to you in easy to absorb sound-bytes, to match your limited attention span – just like you have been conditioned to do.
      This is not ‘too long’ – it makes it’s point in the amount of words necessary. It is a well written and well thought-out piece, and I am glad to have read it.
      I wish all Canadians would take the time to read this, but (alas) I fear they will give the same pathetic response as you.

    • I think it’s well worth the read!

  2. Mark Hammer says:

    Personally, I am never sure if the tip of the iceberg that people like me get to see is a reflection of some grand plan, or the reflection of the complete total absence of one. You know how the Taliban wanted power but never really wanted the burden of operating a nation and establishing a true public administartion in service of that? Sometimes I’m not sure if the present government has some vision for reshaping the nation in a coherent direction, or is simply harbouring a bunch of grudges and is checking things off a list that annoy. I don’t mean that in any snooty way. I really honestly cannot tell.

    On the one hand, we see turning over more responsibility to the provinces. On the other hand we see the Immigration Minister usurping Manitoba’s power to run immigrant settlement programs as it sees fit (and as are working well), and the Pubic Safety and Justice MInisters doing what they can to prevent one province (Quebec) from having a firearms registry of their own.No clear pattern there.

    Similarly, there is a sense of urgency publicly conveyed about deficit elimination, through reduced government spending, but most public servants will tell you that they haven’t the foggiest idea what *exactly* is happening in their organizations. There may be cuts, there may not be, and whatever happens won’t kick in for a year at least. In many instances, people will be competing for their own jobs, so it’s not immediately clear who is going to be doing the work, or which work in particular. leasner, yes; more efficient and value for money…I’m not so sure.

    Sometimes I get the sense that the loudest “smaller government” voices come from those who aren’t really quite clear on what ought to be there instead.

    Monte Sohlberg’s piece, cited here, was a bit of a shocker for me. It read more like a promise of vengeance against everyone who ever wronged you in high school than any sort of political commentary. What runs through it, however, appears to be ire over lack of consultation. I understand the historical basis of that, but the solution is not the seemingly nihilist one being adopted.

    • Mark Hammer says:

      Incidentally, welcome back after a long absence.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Mike – yes there is always more confusion than plan but I think you seriously exaggerate here – most change happens two steps forward, one back – and the direction is often only clear in retrospect. Some of the confusion you cite results from a lack of transparency and communication and to some extent from interpretations of Constitutional responsibilities eg immigrationwhich is an explicitly shared responsibility vs health care which is viewed as primarily or exclusively provincial

      • Mark Hammer says:

        You’re probably right. The day I wake up and don’t exaggerate is probably the day I *don’t* wake up.

        Still, there are times when the “direction” of the present government feels a bit like that scene in “Monkey Business” where the Marx Brothers don’t deliberately set out to remove the officer’s moustache, but keep trimming on this side, then that side, then the first side again, trying to get it just right, and eventually take the whole thing off….while the gentleman being “trimmed” sits back in the chair and relaxes unaware.

        The two steps forward and one back that you describe *might* have a direction to them, which will be eventually revealed in the hindsight of history. But what if all those steps are merely reactive, and policy shifts are simply trimming a little here and a little over there, while searching for voter share? What if it *seems* like a plan in the medium term, but in the long term is much less coherent than one thinks, or than is envisioned? The dismantling you describe *might* be intentional, but maybe there is less than meets the eye, not more. You know, a random walk ALSO has a direction.

        As always, I like to pass on references I think might interest you. The current issue of Academy of Management Review has a thought-provoking paper on the psychology of stewardship and how it arises. You can get a copy here: http://faculty.washington.edu/morela/Hernandez%202012.pdf Worth it just for the reference list.

        I think a lot about stewardship these days, what it means, what it looks like, what might masquerade as it, when it gets rewarded and when not, the degree of certainty (naive or vaild) that individuals have about their stewardship of institutions….and sometimes nations. Anders Breivik is unshakeable in his sense of “stewardship” about Norway; so clearly HAVING a sense of stewardship and acting on it is no assurance of positive outcomes. Nor can we simply rest easy when someone persuades us that they are acting in stewardship on our behalf. *Validity* of stewardship matters. The challenge for citizens is to be able to detect when others’ declared stewardship is valid. And as you point out, “we are right to be wary of hubris”.

        And I am also constantly reminded of Larry Terry’s wonderful book “Leadership of Public Bureaucracies: The Administrator as Conservator”; an always-inspiring paean to staying true to the mission, the essential importance of doing so, and how one accomplishes it.

        I don’t know where you got the picture for this blog entry, but it says so much.

      • himelfarb says:

        The Marx Bros reference is great but in the end whether they wanted it off or were simply careless with it, the mustache disappeared.

  3. Excellent, Mr. Himelfarb !!! And thank you for putting these concerns out so coherently and cogently. I am posting them on my Facebook page.

  4. Timothy O'Malley says:

    Mandatory voting could elevate citizenship from the basement to the gound floor were it a condition of citizenship.

    Active, participatory citizenship.

    • himelfarb says:

      I would love to hear others views on this. I have rather hoped than if ur parties took on the big issues that more people would vote.

      • Timothy O'Malley says:

        Free trade, national unity, child care and the green shift — all “big” issues that failed to bring 25-40 percent of voters to the polls.

        Perhaps the most meaningful issues are those debated between elections…

      • himelfarb says:

        Do you have at your fingertips the voting numbers for, say, the Free Trade election?

  5. cjet says:

    As a young adult, I find a lot of inspiration in this article. Very well written.

  6. diamondwalker says:

    Well expressed, very very thoughtful & civilized.. informative. But I believe you think there is a sort of hope .. ‘order’ or progressive humanity or worthwhile value system to come from the Harper Regime. As if the raggedy sum of the regime’s parts might somehow include at least one or more exemplar within its disparate pack. There may be several ‘Conservatives’ in fact.. and upstanding citizens in this ‘government’ but I fear they are few and far between.

    Mr Hammer also makes valid points.. tho the iceberg reference leaves me thinking of the Titanic, sunk on its first and ill fated voyage, women and children to the back of the line, thanks. You are bang on mr himelfarb re the tiny step by tiny step process.. I call it the shades of gray process, where you suddenly realize you have somehow moved from daylight into total blackness.. via almost imperceptible gradations. Read up on Laila Yuile’s frightening analysis.. ‘Playing With The Dragon’ to see where Harper is steering Canada.. either by design as an incompetent ‘economist’ or out of some sort of bizarre and omnipotent personal ideology.

    This is not about Politics or Parties or responsible Governance unfortunately.. this is about Power. He who rides the tiger – dare not dismount – I’m afraid Canada will have to extricate Stephen Harper, and the churlish bunch surrounding him .. saving them from themselves.. and from the Chinese tiger.. and saving Canada in the process. We need good men and women.. exemplars .. leading this exceptional country. Baird, Kenney, Clement, Oliver, Fantino .. and obvious riff raff such as Rob Anders, Toews, Lecce, Carson, Del Mastro, Poliviere et al .. all face an impossible climb to earn such respect.. They are not Exemplars, they are far from ever being so.

    I am waiting patiently for one exceptional & honest Canadian to step out of the Harper Regime ranks.. and state that they cannot accept the behaviour or practices or deceit of their own government. Its obvious to most anyone with a shred of common sense that this emperor and government is naked. Haida Elders attacked as radicals, Canadian Elders as ‘targets’ for electoral fraud. Yankee service bureaus ‘volunteering’ in Canadian electoral ridings .. Oh we could go on and on and ‘in/out/ then on re the ethical tar sands, evangelical stakeholders, F35’s, family values, dying or carcinogenic salmon, the killing of the wolves.. canceling internet service in Canadian libraries and tailing ‘ponds’ visible from outer space.. but I think it better to examine the transparently thin veneer of our government’s ‘values’ .. and complete lack of honour. Nothing of consequence or value comes from such flawed behavior or belief systems.

    This a coalition government running on poisonous fumes of bitumen, evangelism, bluster, manipulation and complete disregard for Canada, its people and its environment.

    As a Canadian, I’m embarrassed, mortified, frightened .. and very very angry..

  7. diamondwalker says:

    My apologies.. I’ve somehow echoed my own comment, in part..
    I very much admire your excellent article and trust you will delete my comments as required.

    • himelfarb says:

      Not a problem – I would just as soon leave both in unless you would prefer me to delete onehttp://afhimelfarb.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php#comments-form

      • diamondwalker says:

        I prefer the 2nd and complete one, thank you.. but at your discretion
        Would appreciate if you deleted the first incomplete one posted accidently.
        Bye the bye ..
        I just came across a warm, bright and complimentary review of your essay.
        ‘trenchant analysis’ ! sez http://drdawgsblawg.ca/ .. well deserved praise.
        Canada needs far more astute, credible and experienced insight
        from exemplars who have served our country .. and continue to do so..
        Thus I’ve added you to my reading A-list .. and will dig into your previous posts gratefully
        I’m just a farm boy from Ontario .. somewhat growed up ..
        ever thankful I got to do so in Canada..
        want the same opportunity for future generations
        not at all tolerant.. when I see that potential, that wondrous opportunity.. at risk

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks for the link and your kind words. Glad to connect. I have done as requested and am pleased that you have joined the conversation here.

  8. vicki saunders says:

    thank you alex. it never ceases to amaze me how insightful you are and how important your voice is …and why we don’t hear anything else like it in the “media”. i know the media is being redefined…wishing for a large following or your work. it’s greatly needed. i’ll share it through my networks.

  9. Beijing York says:

    Maybe it’s my own jaundiced perception but I note a tone of weariness in this thoughtful reflection on the recent budget and its implications, Alex. I know I am weary of keeping tabs of every incremental change Harper has introduced, usually with slight of hand, for the past 6 years.

    I describe this budget as the anti-knowledge budget for much the same reason you so carefully laid out. Whether destroying specialized knowledge or denying Canadians access to knowledge (here I include the CBC, Computer Access Program, Katimavik, Environmental Assessment Review Process or Lifeline for ex-convicts), it really comes down to promoting disengagement in civil discourse and preventing any meaningful accountability. Knowledge is power and democracy is based on sharing that power.

    The ramifications of many of these cuts will be to further isolate and impoverish the most vulnerable in our society and erode the gains made by the middle class in the last half of the last century.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks, and eloquently put – and your list just hammers home the risks – I am asking myself whether you are right about the weariness but even if you are it will be short-lived because I am congenitally optimistic, because the alternative is destructive and because, from Occupy to Leadnow, there are people building civil society and engaging and inventing new non-traditional means to do so.

      • Beijing York says:

        Optimism genes are a good thing, Alex :-) I vacillate between anger/despair and energy/optimism. But knowing there are so many people using what little resources they have to inform and inspire us all is very uplifting.

  10. Sol says:

    Well, Alex, whatever you were up to while you were saving this up, it was worth it. Or from this reader’s perspective, it was worth the wait.

    Like a couple of the preceding commenters, though, I’m detecting a bleak and weary undercurrent in your post, thoughtful and well-considered as it is. Perhaps I’m reading too much into what’s here, or perhaps I’m projecting, but in your own diplomatic and soft-spoken way, I wonder if you’re really trying to convey an indignant “j’accuse.”

    Either way, a comprehensive and detailed indictment that lays bare the malignant sentiments at the heart of the Harper agenda. I’m just wondering what it is we can do about it, because if we stick to politics as usual, it’ll be too late to repair the damage by the time the next election rolls around — assuming they even deign to allow one.

    • himelfarb says:

      Well, Sol, I am wondering if indeed my mood has shifted, but that notwithstanding there does seem to be some reason for hope. A couple of poll (have a look at Ekos and Frank Grave’s analysis) indicate that inequality is becoming a top issue for Canadians and views on taxes are changing. I attribute that to the Occupy movement and the work of people like you that help open up the political imagination even if that is a slow and uneven and occasionally disheartening process. By the way, Sol, are you tracking the Occupy movement in Canada? Do you know where it is at? In any case, thank you for your comments and your constancy.

      • Sol says:

        Several good questions there. I’ll work up a more detailed reply tomorrow morning …

      • Sol says:

        Hi again Alex:

        Several of us have written about the inequality gap, and as you point out, Frank Graves has suggested that it could be the trigger for an effective pushback against not only the Harper agenda, but against the 1 per cent that that agenda serves. I’m completely on board with that, although I’ve gotten some unexpected feedback in that regard.

        Your question about Occupy in Canada is tied to that but the response is a little more involved. In all honesty, I don’t know where it’s at. I follow several Occupy-related accounts on Twitter, but I’m not aware of any current direct or concrete actions. It’s worth a little investigation and perhaps a post that updates and centralizes whatever’s going on. I don’t need to tell you how I feel about it, of course, but I’m a little anxious about it as well, given this government’s evident antipathy toward dissent, and its predilection for characterizing such dissent as as threats to national security …

        Sol

  11. Dave Bennettt says:

    Thanks Dr. Himelfarb for another perceptive essay.

    The phrase you used in another context comes to mind:
    “A meaner Canada.” [Junk politics and the omnibus crime bill]
    “Whether through our active support or our indifferent silence we are all participating in a watershed moment for Canada without so much as a tough conversation.”

    As you point out above, “the “budget debate was to some extent eclipsed by serious allegations of voter suppression, electoral misconduct, and misleading Parliament and the electorate on the costs of jets.” Add to that our P.M.’s embarrassing performance as Obama’s puppet at the 2012 Summit of the Americas.

    In my view, meanness of spirit is driving the Tory ‘ Every-Man-for-Himself’ vision.
    You draw attention to the targeting of CBC, libraries, NGO charitable status, StatsCan etc. It seems that every day a new ‘budget casualty’ is revealed, such as the cancellation and clawback of funding for Katimavik, the highly acclaimed program that puts youth where they learn about and perform community service. Another is a prison rehab program that has proven to be very successful, saves millions of taxpayer dollars but requires only $10 million per year.

    As you say “Taking back our democracy is hard work and comes with costs.”
    Let’s get cracking!

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Dave, to the examples you cite I might add Lifeline, another small cost but important corrections project. Junk politics is a term I borrowed from an American journalist (DeMott) that describes a politics that is personal, pandering, rejects information and has contempt for experts. I should have referenced that work here.

  12. panda says:

    WILDROSE PARTY STABLE FUNDING: Do away with the current patchwork of wasteful and bureaucratic infrastructure funding programs and replace them with a single, legislated long-term funding formula tied to provincial revenues plus royalties. Prasad Panda Northern Hills, Calgary, Canada.

  13. Maggie says:

    It blows my mind how easily people are distracted by red herrings and straw men. I remember when Michael Wilson began preparing the public for the GST. It was going to be 9%. Then, after the firestorm that followed, he graciously lowered it to 7%. Anyone who believes that it was ever going to be anything but 7% is dreaming in colour. Nothing has really changed.

    Harper is a master at pitting one group against another as a way of diverting attention from the fact that he is whittling away at the institutions of democracy. It is so much easier to destroy than to build, and Harper is the Great Dismantler. I sincerely hope that a majority of Canadians are on to him in 2015, and I worry about the effort that will be required to undo some of the damage.

    I feel cautiously hopeful that the Harper regime will end in 2015, and I think it will be the author of its own demise. Even as we speak, satirical essays on Harper and Co. are surfacing, and I think satire is one of the best weapons against incompetence and misguided ideology.

    But, that’s just me … I am a cockeyed optimist. Cheer up, Dr. Himelfarb, it is not over yet.

  14. neilmuscott says:

    Hey Alex, leaving aside the issues raised in your writing, how about giving the photographer credit for the use of his image? It’s the least you could do since you are using his copyrighted material without paying him. I love how everyone uses photographer’s images without consideration, but would be pissed off if someone copies and pasted their writing without giving them credit.

    • himelfarb says:

      You are of course entirely right. I owe the photographer an apology. It is a great pic. I could not figure out how to contact the photographer (we normally take our pics from a “commons”) so we have taken it down for now, hoping we can track photographer down.

  15. Ian says:

    Nice piece Alex.

    I’ll say what you can’t. The Harper Reform party Conservatives are driving the country into the ditch. They are a bunch of ill mannered, small minded people who don’t give a shit about anybody but themselves and the corporations who sponsor them.

    My sons attended a rally with hundreds of thousands of other students protesting government irresponsibility. They brought me back a small square of red felt. I pinned it to my coat.

    P.S. – Tom Flanagan, your wife called, and wants you to go home.

  16. John Neilson says:

    I hope I see this article on the pages of the Globe & Mail soon. We need more comprehensive analyses like this one and greater exposure to them.

  17. dreessen says:

    Thoughtful comments, as always, Alex. The question is, though: What to do about this gradual erosion of our progrssive state, besides supporting LeadNow, sympathizing with the Occupiers (where are they now?) and endlessly signing petitions and writing to politicians? (Are you aware of the scandalous amendments in Ontario’s budget bill, changing environmental laws, bypassing the Environmental Bill of Rights? Refer to ECO’s [Gord Miller's] blog on this.) Surely we must be working towards a more substantive strategy to turn the Harper government’s direction around? It was heartening to see Cullen gain substantial support — the one NDP leadership candidate who put forward a concrete plan to pragmatically unite the “left” for the 2015 election. It’s not a new idea, but electoral reform appears to me the one “big” strategy that can break the back of politics as we know it. Other than that, I’m just beavering away at the local level, trying to make a difference for more sustainable land use, countering the greed of developers and the politicians and bureaucrats who facilitate it. But that isn’t going to stop Harper.

    • himelfarb says:

      Beavering away is not a bad thing. In any case have a read of my earlier Overton’s Window blog to see how conservatives worked for years to change the conversation.

  18. Thucydides says:

    I think the author totally misses the point.

    The summation contrasting “more democracy” with “more markets” is totally false; markets are democracy. You choose what you want and what resources you will use to get it, you engage with other citizens on a continuing basis in a market.

    In contrast, the programs and mindset being mourned here are products of a mindset which refuses engagement, and which demands only obedience to the dictates of the “empowered”. If you don’t like what the empowered want ,or the crumbs they are willing to throw you, there is very little effective recourse.

    Post progressive society, in contrast will reward people who choose to be engaged, and who are willing to be masters of their own fate. The poor and disadvantaged will finally be empowered to act on their own, not exist as wards of the Progressive State (and many will certainly rise to the challenge). Claiming the Progressive State has any interest in actually helping the poor and disadvantaged can be refuted by taking a real look at the statistics; despite billions of dollars spent over more than a half century of the life of Progressivism in Canada, poverty statistics have hardly changed, indeed we constantly hear that poverty is increasing! The equally shoddy results in the fields of healthcare and education should be convincing arguments against the Progressive model, and for much more market participation.

    The Progressive State model is financially and morally bankrupt, we can close out that era of history with a controlled draw down, or we can attempt to continue with the progressive state and suffer through a cataclysmic collapse. Far better to continue with a controlled drawdown, and to create a bright future for our children

    • Ian says:

      “Claiming the Progressive State has any interest in actually helping the poor and disadvantaged can be refuted by taking a real look at the statistics….”

      What statistics are you talking about? Can you cite your reference(s)?

  19. Thebawmer says:

    Thucydides…show me examples of ‘conservative states’ that have really been successful for the majority of people over the long term? I would argue that Canada’s ‘natural state’ is liberalism and in the US it’s conservatism. Sure, for the select few the low tax, low services model works. In globalization it works wonderfully as the top tier can push labour out to foreign countries in a much lower cost structure and hollow out their domestic middle class.

    Then take countries that are managing well throughout this great recession. Germany has incredibly strong trade unions and is one of the countries that consistently maintains a very robust trade surplus and a manufacturing economies with a middle class despite globalization. Sweden, Norway, France, Canada etc. etc. have all made it through relatively unscathed.

    Are you really arguing that healthcare and education are better in non-progressive or conservative societies like the US? Take any data point you wish, and you can’t be further from the truth. I’m not saying in Canada we don’t have room for improvement in both those areas, but all evidence shows that keeping ALL your people healthy and educated grows the entire economy as a whole. Take any ranking of global healthcare systems and you will see the US in a free market model performing terribly, with France, the UK, Singapore and Sweden taking the top positions
    .
    For education, take the US….thousands of unfilled, high skilled technology jobs that they bring foreigners in to fill while their domestic labour force from the US education system asks if they want ‘fries with that’. the income divide between the top and the bottom is simply unsustainable.

    The notion of healthcare and education for profit misses the purpose of both. They are cost centres that are investments in the future of a just society with economic prosperity. This isn’t the dreaded ‘income redistribution’ that conservatives fear…it’s an investment, but with a mid to long term ROI horizon. But because of the length of that investment profile it can’t be served by the ‘market’ alone. The market is far too short term return on investment focused to deliver long term care and strategy. Specifically you’ll also find that the US’s private, market-driven health system costs substantially more to the government and tax payers on a per capita basis than these ‘progressive’ and universal systems like France and Canada.

    The investment in the just society feeds and ensures the health of the ‘market’ you seem to hold so dear.

  20. Joe DiMaggio Gretzky says:

    If you really want a progressive state, then you should really think about the idea that Canadian provinces join the United States, with Quebec having an open border with a new enlarged US, in a Schengen like border arrangement. The Canadian identity no longer needs the Canadian federal state to survive, and Canadians would be the most powerful people in the world if they were to vote in US elections. Would dramatically shift world affairs for a century. Hogging Canada to a rump population of 35 million people in an 8 billion and growing person world is selfish and bad for everyone, including Canadians.

    Be progressive and build a more Canadian America.

    • Ian says:

      Hey Joe,

      Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Reform party, the Fraser Institute or the National Citizen’s Coalition? ;)

  21. ryder mckeown says:

    Thoughtful piece. I agree with much of this – especially the frustration with the Government’s seeming allergy to independent rational analysis and information (eg. long form census; parts of the omnibus crime bill, etc…).

    That said, I’m not sure if your view that a bigger, more progressive state contributes to a more engaged and active civil society makes sense. Actually, I think you could probably argue that shrinking the state is just the ticket to foster a more engaged and active civil society. This is where the conservative (small c) philosophy seems superior to a ‘progressive’ one; it encourages you to ask what you can do for yourself and your country, not always what your country can do for you. It recognizes that we have obligations as citizens and not only rights. It recognizes that the state will not always fix everything so we need to take responsibility to fix things ourselves…This is the philosophy between Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ in the UK which is actually quite inspirational in a lot of ways.

    As an aside – and I say this as someone who is very frustrated with many aspects of our current government – I do think there is a tendency among progressives to suggest that anything this government does is somehow a betrayal of Canada or unCanadian. It is not unCanadian or duplicitous of a Conservative government to go about shrinking the state (after years of growing it it must be said!), anymore than it is unCanadian of a Progressive government to grow it. There is much to criticize this government for (mostly the way it does politics as you point out above) but the force of the criticism is weakened when the critique takes for granted that EVERYTHING the government does is unnecessary, mean-spirited, small-minded, ideological, etc…and a betrayal of Canadian values. This somewhat insulting to the millions of Canadians (not all stupid) who voted for them….

    Cheers

    Ryder

    • himelfarb says:

      Thank you Ryder for your thoughtful comments. I agree that there is something inspiring about the ideas behind “big society” and people at the community level taking back control not only of their private interests but their “communal interests”. I had the good fortune to meet and debate Philip Blond, the architect of ‘big society”, and key advisor to Prime Minister Cameron. I would be interested in your views on the piece I wrote just prior to that debate on Blond’s Red Tory. Of course there is much merit in these ideas and especially the critique of remote government and the worship of the market. The emphasis on local initiative must be a huge part of where we are going. But how much of this new approach is nostalgia for a time that never was, and certainly never for women or those who were different or worshipped differently or did not believe, or were poor and seen as “undeserving”. And many questions are never addressed: eg just how these renewed local communities will regulate multinational corporations, or how they will find the will to build infrastructure that joins communities, or how they will deal with the enormous differences in capacity across and within communities, especially given high and rising inequality. furthermore, implicit in much of this work is a rejection of the cosmopolitan community that increasingly characterizes much of the developed world – and it seems to devalue the diversity and creativity that come with that. Here’s the piece – let me know your reaction -ttp://afhimelfarb.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/red-tory-a-new-lament-for-a-nation/

  22. Thanks Mr. Himelfarb for your thoughtful piece on the agenda of the government. As a c/Conservative myself, I find that articles like these give me hope that we’re on the right path as a country – a rather different result than the one you were hoping for, but it got you a satisfied reader nonetheless!

    I have to take issue with your contention that there is a link between government cuts and a declining civil society, something which you yourself seemed to question in your response to Mr. McKeown’s comment above.

    As Robert Putnam documented in his book ‘Bowling Alone,’ civic engagement and social capital have decreased dramatically over the past sixty-odd years. I don’t think it is a coincidence that this period also saw a massive expansion in the size and scope of ‘progressive government.’ When the crucial institutions of civil society (the Church, the scout troop, the Rotary Club) have their raison d’être taken over by the government, they inevitably decline – as indeed they have. Robert Nisbet made this case quite well in his book ‘The Quest for Community,’ which took a long-view of social structures and concluded that (1) an expanding government was inevitably replacing the work of local communities and civil society with that of the mass-state and (2) that the mass-state could not fulfill people’s needs in as effective a way as more local and voluntary organizations. In my mind, strengthening civil society means reducing the size and scope of government as a step towards the restoring responsibilities and role of non-state institutions.

    My point is that while the term ‘cuts’ carries negative connotations, the effect of those cuts is to re-draw the boundaries of the state and civil society in a manner more favourable to the latter. In your response to Mr. McKeown, you almost seemed to agree, as you focused on critiquing the effectiveness of civil society compared to that of government in the modern era. Whether civil society is better than the government is a question for another day, but that made me wonder: do you agree with the basic notion that an expanding government is in part responsible for the decline in our civil society? If so, how much of the responsibility does the expanding government bear?

    Thanks again! I look forward to reading your response if you care to leave one!

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks For your comment and the reminder of the costs of mass society. You might be interested in reading Bo Rotstein, the Swedish social scientist, who has studied trust and the strength of civil society and linked both to how government is organized. He builds on but takes issue with Putnam’s work. He finds high levels of trust in social democracies and low levels in totalitarian states or in states with non- inclusive institutions. I cannot do justice to his work here, but I take from it that yes you are right that there is a link and yes the state can undermine civil society but it can also foster it. For us then the question is how do we reinvent the stAte to foster greater democracy and I do not think that the answer is in more authoritarian government focused on crime and security or in leaving things to the vagaries of the market, but rather in a state that fosters greater equality and sustainability as the means to greater empowerment and freedom. The evidence suggests that social capital is greatest in social democracies and the most successful examples do not stand still but adapt to changing realities. If you have the chance and the time have a read of his stuff and let me know what you think.

    • Mark Hammer says:

      Keiden,
      First, it is consoling and refreshing to have opposing views presented in a non-contentious and non-adversarial way. I hope my own comments to follow can stay true to your excellent example.

      In drawing links between “expanding government” and “decline of society”, I think you make an inferential error by focussing too much on the seeming chronological proximity and contiguity of what you assume to be occurring.

      First, let us distinguish between the decline of social supports for a civil society, and the collective will to have a civil society, as well as a distinction between the desire to have a civil society and the capcity to acheve what is desired. What austerity measures do is undermine the supports to achieve what I think most people want. Sometimes they CAN achieve those goals in the absence of such government supports, but all too often they can’t. If you’re willing to treat that chunk which cannot achieve the mutual social objectives as acceptable loss, then so be it. I’m not, and perhaps that makes us different. Is there a decline in society? Personally, I see some very bad habits in what appears to be greater abundance these days; impatience and impulsivity chief among them. But the general willingness of Canadians to value and do the right thing shows no hint of disappearing. There ARE some impediments to community, but I suspect these have much more to do with the challenges of the much greater mobility and diversity of Canadians, and the diminished stability of neighbourhoods, than with anything governments are doing or not doing.

      What exactly IS “expanding government”? I find people all too readily point to growth in the public sector and public service over the past decade or so, but conveniently overlook the many ways in which that growth was at their insistence. Hey, how come I have to wait for a passport to go cross-border shopping? Hey, how come there aren’t enough food inspectors? Hey, why aren’t you guys guardig the borders and airports against “terrorists” and illegals? Hey, how come my parents’ immigration application is taking so long? Hey, how come we’re still waiting for potable water out here? Hey, what are you guys doing to make sure that every penny of my money spent in government is audited? *Some* of the composition of government is at the behest of elected officials,but I think it is fair to say that the outcry for service over the years has been every bit as loud as the outcry for “making government smaller”. People tend to forget that.

      In some respects, the desire by many to HAVE or seek an expanded role for government in some areas is more a matter of economy of scale. In so many areas, poolng our tax moneys to let a central authority attempt to accompllsh something we all value but could never afford as individuals or small communities is the very essence of government, and maybe even a (small c) fiscally conservative one. Naturally, trying to do that, and assuring that fiscally wise decisions about how to do it are made at every step of the way are two different things.

      Perhaps it is an oversimplification, and maybe even a bit condescending on my part, but I think a lot of folks confound the efficiency of government with its size; thinking that if only it were “smaller”, and had less jurisdiction over more areas, it could be more efficient. Well, to that I would simply respond that one should look at the local school board. Much much smaller than “government”, but still generally incapable of easily arriving at frugal decisions that please all constituents and ratepayers.

      So, for my part, changing “size” is no panacea for anything.

  23. Mike Bleakney says:

    Great piece; I appreciate your insight. In response to one of your questions, 75% voted in the 1988 Free Trade election, 61% in 2011, third lowest ever (2008 was the lowest, 2004 second lowest). The winning parties had 43 and 40% of the respective votes cast in 1988 and 2011. Average and median turnouts are 70 and 71%, respectively. The lack of voter engagement is a serious issue, it is the means by which people voluntarily surrender their democracy, and it seems to be linked to the recent election results.

    A useful strategy may be to mobilize your own support while rendering your opposition’s indifferent. There are a variety of methods I am sure to achieve this, although I seriously doubt 10% of the electorate were simply sent to the wrong place to vote in 2011. They likely stayed home because they were indecisive, indifferent, or felt their vote would make no difference.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Mike. I agree with your take and am inclined to think that more people would vote if they believed that their vote mattered not just to them personally but to the future of their country. That means an electoral system other than first past the post, and elections that offer real choices on the big challenges, climate change, poverty and inequality, democracy, the future of manufacturing… We have one Party with a pretty clear vision of the country. Don’t you think that participation rates would look more like the Free Trade election if a Party offered a clear progressive alternative, one that saw immigration as a solution rather than a problem, that understood that public organization or pooling risk can be the most efficient way to handle uncertainty and that fiscal responsibility means looking at revenues, not just spending, that was unafraid of challenging the tough on crime rhetoric that makes us meaner but not safer, and that unabashedly made the case that we can achieve none of our objectives if we fail to address growing inequality. We know that many would hate all this but I am inclined to believe that many more would love to participate in building a fairer more equal Canada.

    • Mark Hammer says:

      I’m not as convinced as many seem to be that declines in voter participation are purely a reflection of disengagement. There are certainly always reasons to be cynical about the electoral process, and I’m not so sure that folks in Laurier’s or Borden’s time had a blissful and unshakeable faith in the purity of the democratic process.

      So what’s changing, if not that? I think our answer can be found on the streets of Montreal this week. I would venture to say that a great many who have marched in response to the proposed post-secondary tuition hike (something I think has been handled well by the Charest government, though perhaps not by the communications team) did not vote. Some, obviously because they were too young at the time. But others because they look at policy decisions in an à la carte manner. That is, they don’t simply vote for a candidate or party and leave all subsequent decisions up them. Rather, they see themselves as having the means at their disposal to address, issue by issue, that which concerns them. It could be marches, it could be e-mails to MPs, it could be tweets, or blogs, or whatnot. The point is that when you perceive yourself as having the means to express a view that, in concert with the technology, can acquire the mass to make it compelling, voting becomes simply one other avenue to pursue, and not THE avenue.

      Like so many things, a lot of this technological capacity really only emerged over the past 6-8 years. Many will assume that, because this decline in voting is co-occurring with the present Government, that it is *because* of the present government. I would contend that, setting aside whatever legitimate beefs one may have, the present Government had the luck/misfortune to come to office at the same point in social history when all these other things were taking place. Remember, ALL governments are inserted into a history already in progress. They certainly shape history, but are also shaped by it.

      A bit of a digression, but U Man. prof Paul Thomas wrote a lovely piece on “communications at the centre” for the Oliphant Commission (the Mulroney-Schreiber thing, AKA “Airbus scandal”), that is now largely buried at the Library and Archives site, and only findable if you know it’s there. Much of the information he presents would come from the era that our esteemed host here presided over, and given Paul’s remarkable set of contacts (he seems to know *everybody*….even me), I would imagine our blog host is in there as well, if anonymously. One of the things he details is the sheer volume of incoming and outgoing e-communication at PCO and PMO; much ramped up from that earlier period where it all had to have a manilla envelope or a letter envelope and a postage stamp. The army required to manage the consistency of message outflow was vast. And all of that is BEFORE Facebook, Twitter, etc. Lord only knows how vast and heavily controlled it has to be these days (small wonder Angelo Persichilli decided his health was not up to the task).

      Technology HAS changed the manner in which citizens conceptualize the dialogue between themselves and their government. You don’t HAVE to vote to have influence anymore. You can simply have a Youtube video that ends up on the 24hr news cycle because it had 500k+ hits.

      The problem we are stuck with, of course, is that while there are ever-increasing ways to feel like you can influence government via technology, people only *become* the government by means of voting. What I think we will be forced to come to grips with over the next few years, with a majority government in place, is that all of that perceived alternate-routes-of-influence may have less impact than we thought it to have during the previous decade. If I’m right in my hunch, then voting should pick up again for the next election as more people tell themselves that maybe a vote counts for more than a tweet or CBC website post or Youtube video or angry e-mail. I guess we’ll see. You can get back to me in 3 years and tell me I was wrong, wrong, wrong, if I am. Of course, there’s still 3 years of social history to occur between now and then, eh? As Homer Simpson might say “Stupid future!!”.

      • himelfarb says:

        I am not sure I entirely buy your premise. Keane say something of the same in his life and death of democracy and makes a case that parties and elections have lost some of their hold on people but I am convinced that if people believed that they were being offered important and believable choices more of us would vote. At the very least we deserve the opportunity.

  24. Mark Hammer says:

    I agree with you. EVERYBODY is energized by being offered an authentic voice in “important and believeable choices”. I just don’t think that contemporary low voter turnout is solely a result of weather, misdirecting robocalls, or civil disengagement.

    I’m not suggesting that people are necessarily correct in assuming that alternate technological social-pressure means of influencing the national agenda are always as persuasive and powerful as they might think. But people make a lot of choices that they *think* have more impact than they really do (not the least of which is this very post!), and view voting as being on par, or at least not more effective or critical, than those alternate means. What I suggest may not account for more that 10-15% of the variance, on a good day, with the wind at your back, but that’s nothing to sneeze at. Elections ARE won or lost by that much. And as the 1995 referendum taught us, some VERY important national decisions are made on the basis of much much less.

    • himelfarb says:

      Somehow I just don’t think so. Sure that may be a factor for some but only in combination with other factors, so, for example, click becomes the preferred action because other actions seem pointless.

  25. John Neilson says:

    Finally some reference in the Globe to your piece Alex, today in Lawrence Martin’s column.

  26. Lorne says:

    Hi Alex,

    I’m so pleased to have found out about your blog, thanks to the Lawrence Martin piece. Reading your article should be mandatory for everyone, providing as it does a cogent, well-reasoned and well-illustrated analysis of the direction Harper Inc. is taking the country.

    I look forward to reading more of your work.

  27. Theo Geraets says:

    I also thank Lawrence Martin for having drawn my attention to your blog. As he indicates, in 2015, a progressive revival might take the form of a majority vote for the NDP. But that is years down the line and much can, and will change in the meantime.
    What can be done now? How can the many progressive Canadians who agree with you (or would do so if they had read your text) make themselves be heard?
    The only point where I disagree with you is that «the path of more democracy» might «start from outside of our political institutions». In this case, only explicit and concerted political action can be moderately successful.
    A focal point is needed and Bill C-38 provides this. A conservative pundit like Andrew Coyne calls the omnibus budget bill «disgraceful…an assault on Parliament, and an abuse of power» (The Citizen, May 26). If Thomas Mulcair, Bob Rae and Elisabeth May were to organize TOGETHER a series of orderly manifestations across the country demanding SPLIT THE BILL, more and more Canadians would participate.
    The until now much too silent majority that agrees with you and Mr. Coyne, would make itself heard, even by using the «tintamarre» that is being heard in Quebec. This would be, not just legitimate fun to do, but it would be much more effective than sending petitions drafted by each of the parties separately.
    IF PROGRESSIVE POLITICIANS DARE FINALLY TO WORK TOGETHER, THIS WILL SHOW WHAT THE MAJORITY OF CANADIANS DO NOT WANT: THE EROSION OF DEMOCRACY.

    Theo Geraets
    Professor emeritus, University of Ottawa

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Theo for your generous comments. I have been tracking the demonstrations across the country this weekend. More and more Canadians are getting involved and demanding better – and I continue to believe that we get the political leadership we demand.

  28. Garth Graham says:

    I value the clear and passionate rationality of your synthesis of present political agendas … as far as it goes. But you ignore something that stirs me to describe a deeper transformation of Canadian society, a transfomation that allows for an alternative explanation of current political intentions.

    Canada’s youth are anticipating a future that isn’t what it used to be.

    All of the political parties in Canada have an Industrial Age mindset that resists the structural implications of daily life in the Digital Age that Canadians now experience. The parties aren’t taking into account the degree to which a radical social restructuring has already occurred. I believe a very different Canada has already crept up on us, and that more and more of us are acting authentically but unconsciously in its presence.

    In the 21st-century, capacity for good governance is not “built.” It grows dynamically in relation to contexts that are specific to a society best descibed as “digital.” There is a contest occurring between 20th-century Industrial Age theories of control through management and 21st-century Digital Age theories of the role of learning in complex adaptive systems.

    Governance is concerned, in the first instance, with assumptions about where the rules for making rules are located. We have been in a world where we assumed that the rules for making rules were imposed on systems from outside and that scales of value are absolute. We are moving into a world where we assume that rule-making processes are inside systems and that scales of value are relational. Or, to put that another way, since every element of a system embodies the rules within itself, systems self-organize and are interdependent with other systems. As Lee Smolin, a founding member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, says:

    “The rule that governs the society we now live in is that things self-organize. What we can know comes to us only through networks of relationship. There is no place to put an explanation of something that comes from outside a system. Somehow the system makes itself. Natural selection only makes sense in a relational world, where structure arises through self-organization.”

    The Industrial Age way of doing things assumes that phenomena are absolute. Reality occurs independent of its observers, and thus causality exists and allows for predictability. The scales of value that measure phenomena are linear and external to the systems they measure.

    In the Digital Age, reality emerges experientially, from interdependencies among observers and events. Change of state occurs as complex adaptive systems relate directly to one another. Thus causality does not exist, and the future state of events can never be predicted in absolute terms, only in probabilistic terms. The scales of value that measure phenomenon are fractal and internal to the systems they describe. The assumption of institutional certainty is impossible to sustain in a relational world.

    Since artifacts and technologies are always expressions of socio-cultural contexts, it’s very useful to see the Internet as a symptom of the existence of a relational worldview, not a cause of it.

    We should be but aren’t making a distinction between individuals, and agencies that find themselves “in” digital society and those who are “of” digital society. The first set of people perpetuate organizational structures that consider the Internet as only a tool for the management of their organizations, rather than as an artifact of a social context to which the form of their organization must adapt. With vigilance and luck, those individuals and agencies that are “of’ the digital society will predominate over those that have arrived “in” it unexpectedly and still hope that radical changes in their practices are unnecessary.

    From a Digital Age perspective, the conservative dismantling of the progressive state is an attempt to return to a golden age of private individuality and moral certainty. But so too is the progressive desire to “take back our democracy” and to achieve “renewal” of a vibrant civil society where engaged citizens practice “a capacity for collective management of the future.” Both positions are the same in seeking a nostalgic return to a past purity that never existed as a means of negative resistance to unacceptable realities in the present moment. They differ only in the past that they imagine.

    What both positions miss is that, in relational democracies, actions are distributed among self-organizing networks or communities of interest. Action is not collective. Action is experiential, and the demand to absorb the individual into a “common shared vision” does not exist.

    We are heading into a kind of relational democracy, where the self-reference inherent in the organization of a complex adaptive system renders the concept of external leadership as meaningless. And the question of representation or participation never arises because you are either “of” the system or you are not.

    A radically re-defined concept of community is fundamental to an understanding of that relational worldview. In Jean-Luc Nancy’s “Inoperative Community,” to exist is still to coexist, but “being-together” never yields to a “being of togetherness” that submerges the individual’s self-organization into something larger than itself. Our individual autonomy and responsibility is never submerged into a collective “common vision” that transcends the essential dynamics of our self-organization.

    Community occurs at the edge of individual identity, where a singular being appears to other singular beings and communicates the passion to be “in” common, while never limiting that singularity through commonality. “Being in common is not a common being.” (Jean-Luc Nancy). It is a dynamic relational choice self-determined by individuals. An inoperative community “is a call to resist convergence, to instead form a community in which we can recognize the valiue and necessity of being-with those whose presence and practice forces us to consider the ethics of our actions.” (Bruce Grenville. The art of visual culture)

    People who are “of” digital society will not be moved by calls for “ a renewal of our sense of the common good and our capacity for collective management of the future.” They know there is strength in the web of resilient networks. Their continuing participation in any particular complex adaptive system (i.e. community) they have chosen to inhabit is conditional on that system’s reciprocity and self-referential integrity. The principles that structure it will be the same as, or similar to, Elinor Ostrom’s 8 principles for the organization and use of a common pool resource.

    You said, “It is a hard sell to get people to believe that we can act together to achieve something better, that government can be a positive force if it is balanced by engaged citizens and a vibrant, independent civil society.” But that separation of government from civil society also denies the operation of a relational democracy of open systems and networks. It perpetuates a view that allows government and business to marginally sustain the otherness of civil society in order to offload responsibilities they’d prefer to ignore. It separates society into three parts, on an absolute scale, where a relational worldview would scale relationships as fractal (i.e. the individual identity formed in relation to community has the same structural organization as community in relation to society … a web of interdependent complex adaptive systems).

    News media’s knee-jerk explanations of the Maple Spring street marches in Quebec as political collectivity and “spontaneous shows of solidarity” are mistaken. On the other hand, citizen media reflect the realities of the demographics of those marches from inside. The thousands poring into the street are there because individuals have determined for themselves that the external authority claimed by the institutions of representative democracy to address complex issues of systemic change from outside the boundaries of those systems cannot be trusted to work effectively. Each person is there because of an autonomous choice to embody and thus signify that determination.

    You said, “the increasing number of young Canadians taking power into their own hands and rebuilding civil society will renew our sense of the common good.” And, yes, young Canadians are taking power into their own hands. But it’s the power to connect, not separate. And they do have a sense of the uncommon good that is situational, thus those calls for inclusion. But many of them do NOT intend to ‘rebuild” civil society. They have learned from expereincing the Industrial Age mistake that mocked the democratic ideal of government of the people and by the people through its separation of civil society and government. There is nothing inherently radical in anticipating the consequences of a change towards a relational worldview that is already well advanced.

    • himelfarb says:

      This is compelling and persuasively rendered and I do believe that the transformation from the industrial age to the digital age is, as you say, well under way and provides the context and frame for much of what is happening here and elsewhere. I also agree that it is something foreign and outside for my generation and internal and organic for the young. At the same time I worry that this analysis too easily blinds us to the differential capacity to self-organize and to the play of political and economic power that are never really addressed by notions of the big society, voluntarism and networked solutions. In any case, I am grateful for your contribution and will continue to ponder the implications.

  29. Ian says:

    A well reasoned and articulate essay Mr. Graham.

    “From a Digital Age perspective, the conservative dismantling of the progressive state is an attempt to return to a golden age of private individuality and moral certainty.”

    I am not an expert in sociology or anthropology, but I’m not sure if there ever was a golden age of private individuality or moral certainty. Perhaps certain social groups fabricated that sort of reality, but I’m not sure that it ever really existed in the objective world.

    The ‘Digital Age’ is an age of communication. That’s what digital computers are – communication devices. Contrary to your viewpoint, I think that the ‘Digital Age’ will empower us to communicate together in order to reestablish the shared commons and the shared communities that we foolishly discarded.

  30. Theo Geraets says:

    The main question is: WHAT CAN WE DO NOW? So here is one answer: go to http://heroes.leadnow.ca/events/parliament-hill-ottawa-on/
    and come out. I’ll be out with this sign: SPLIT THE BILL – Respect Democracy.

  31. Austin Limos says:

    Alex – I think you’re right on point. Fact is there’s really no turning back at this point – more spending, more taxing – it’s never going to end! I’m just curious if this is all part of the plan- I mean think about this – are our govt. officials really this crazy? No – they’re all from respected universities and are not stupid.

    • himelfarb says:

      Sure there’s turning back – this is not about stupidity but about the dominance of an ideology that serves the most powerful, at least in the short term, but there are signs that the worm is turning.

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