Bargain Basement Citizenship and the Decline of Democracy
We ought to be outraged. Just about every day our media provides a new account of the decline of our democracy: the inadequacies of our electoral system and allegations of electoral fraud; the high-handed treatment of our Parliament through inappropriate prorogations and overuse of omnibus legislation; a government ever more authoritarian and opaque, resistant to evidence and reason, and prepared to stifle dissent. Adding weight to the urgency of these issues is that they are being raised across the political spectrum, left, right and centre, and among critics with very different models of democracy Even given these significant stirrings of outrage, why do so many still seem not to care? Has democracy lost some of its lustre?
Part of the answer lies in the preeminence of markets and market thinking over the last three decades. We are not simply talking about our market economy, but more our conversion to a market society in which money can buy almost anything, we are more consumer than citizen, and inequalities and their corrosiveness grow, undermining solidarity and any sense of a common good. With the market society comes a thinned out “bargain basement citizenship” – Canadians expect less from their government, give less, and get less. In this world, citizen takes a backseat to consumer/taxpayer, and democracy takes a back seat to the market. While few would be comfortable with American economist and libertarian Bryan Caplan’s statement that what we need is more market and less democracy, he captures well the bleeding of market thinking into our social and political relationships. How did we get here?
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in what philosopher Michael Sandel calls “market triumphalism”. The genius of market mechanisms for organizing the economy and generating prosperity held the key to the good life. The common good was no longer a matter of citizens contesting ideas or governments shaping the future; common citizenship, civic virtue, collective engagement were the old way. The new way was to pursue our individual interests in “free and voluntary” market exchanges.
Nothing captures better the imperialism of this view than former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement that there is no such thing as society. Only individuals and their interests and fears are real. To the extent that one is looking for more – meaning, purpose, solidarity – that can be found in church and the communities into which we are born and which give us structure and comfort. Government, in this view, is part of the problem unless it restricts its role to protecting the market and, inevitably, those who benefit most from it. Caplan worries that our woeful understanding of the laws of economics – as if there were laws – makes democracy a dangerous thing. This is just a bolder version of the worries of market fundamentalists that when we interfere with the market we jeopardize its efficiency and thereby its capacity to deliver the good life. Those less sanguine about markets are warned about the economic imperatives in a globalized economy which, the argument goes, severely limit the scope for government action. Less government, less taxes, more market. Lost is the understanding that the job of democracy is to define the good life and harness market forces to shape a better future. That this market preeminence persists even after the recent financial meltdown and current meltings is testament to its powerful hold over us.
At the same time as we have taken the common good out of politics and transfered it to the market, the growing inequality of our society makes it almost impossible to imagine ever formulating a shared sense of the good life. The very idea of the common good becomes a stretch given the profoundly different ways in which the super rich, the poor and the majority experience life. They breathe different air and especially as social mobility dries up they lose touch with each other. In an increasingly privatised world, they do not meet as fellow citizens. Their kids go to different schools. They live increasingly in different neighbourhoods. In Canada the last place that is meant to accommodate all of us in shared experience is our public health system – and no wonder the pressure to privatize is relentless. Money always matters but in an increasingly privatised world where everything has a price, it has never mattered more.
At the top, the extraordinary gains of a small global elite have given them an outsized capacity to shape the agenda while at the same time allowing them to secede from much of society. They need the state far less than ever before. And even as extreme inequality undermines equality of opportunity, the myth of meritocracy emboldens many to believe that they are entitled to all they have and that their interests are best served by keeping it. Down the economic scale, just as the very rich want to see taxes cut to hold on to what they have, so too do the majority want to withhold their money from a state they no longer trust. Even if the financial meltdown and its aftermath have shaken confidence in the promise of markets, they have not restored confidence in governments – and why should they given lost manufacturing jobs, tainted meat, deteriorating institutions, and an inability or unwillingness to tackle the big issues. And, in a perfect self-fulfilling prophecy, taxes are cut, the state shrinks and becomes less trustworthy, the services it provides less relevant and increasingly shoddy, and the distrust grows and curdles into cynicism about the idea of progress.
The result: a ?marketized” politics of propaganda and pandering and an impoverished democracy that treats us as consumers and taxpayers, not citizens, and prefers to obscure the issues rather than engage us in defining the kind of society we want. Interesting that our government eliminated the direct public subsidy to parties, a subsidy that made every vote count for something, yet another demonstration that politics is a private affair. Increasingly those who want more, who want to take their future back, are looking outside of conventional politics for expressions of the democratic spirit: to their communities, or global causes, or to the streets. It was striking how many of the participants in the Occupy movement and the Quebec student protests found a new solidarity in their activism. Through action together these young people are taking a shot at rebuilding civil society and rediscovering the common good. Perhaps it is only ever from the outside that we can hope to find the answers of what kind of country and what kind of democracy we want.
So, perhaps the answer is that many Canadians do care about democracy but many, especially young Canadians, have given up on Canadian politics and the impoverished version of democracy on offer. That is both understandable and dangerous. The new activism and rebuilding of an independent civil society are essential but not enough.
Student leaders from Quebec have recently launched a cross-Canada tour to promote political activism, to help Canadians learn how to build social movements that offer a richer kind of democratic experience than provided by contemporary politics, but also to explain to those who feel disenfranchised why voting and political participation still matter. They understand the dangers of leaving any government to its own devices, unconstrained by a vigilant citizenry. These young Canadians seem to be looking for a new politics tuned into the voices in the community and on the streets and one that at least begins to offer some real engagement on the issues that matter – inequality and poverty, jobs and youth unemployment, climate change and environmental degradation. And they continue to express the hope that a renewed democracy will allow us to take back our future. It is now up to our political leadership to take up the challenge.
A shorter version of this article was first published in the Toronto Star.