Thursday, November 24, 2005

Conservatism and Nihilism

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a series of conferences hosted in Edmonton by the Association for Canadian Studies. The conference, and my trip to Edmonton are part of the reasons I'm writing this entry. I wanted to say very clearly, however, at the beginning of this entry that my comments are about conservatism. They are not about regionalism, the west, Alberta or Edmontonians. Instead, it is a question about the ideological character of Canadian conservatism today. At one of the conferences I attended, the Alberta Deputy Premier and Minister of Finance made a speech during lunch hour. In her speech, she engaged in a fictional dialogue designed to address the question "why has Alberta been successful?" There are many grounds on which one could claim Alberta as a success , but the Minister was clearly talking about provincial finances and the large surplus Alberta runs. This surplus — as we all know — allows Alberta to maintain the lowest taxes in Canada, to not have a provincial sales tax, and to not have a provincial debt. Why? What makes Alberta so successful.

Most of us would immediately say "oil" (which would be, btw, a drastic simplification) but the Minister did not. In fact, she rarely mentioned oil. She did note it briefly near the very end of the speech, but clealry wanted to marginalize natural resources as a factor. I found this interesting but it became more interesting when other conservatives discussed this same issue in exactly the same way. Quebec, another conservative (an anglophone from Montreal, just to make the point again that I am talking about conservatives and not Albertans), has the same potential for natural resource development so natural resources alone can't be the reason for Alberta's wealth. So ... what is the reason?

According to two conservatives I heard speak, the reason is the Alberta mentality. The Minister called in a "maverick" attitude. I forget the exact term the other conservative used but it was basically the same. Albertans, the Minister said, trace their history back to pioneers who rolled up their sleeves and did their work. Alberta's success is a matter of will. It is a matter of thinking differently and working hard to accomplish goals. Anyone, the Minister said, who brings this view is welcome in Alberta and will succeed. You will recall that Stephen Harper took a lot of heat — and rightly so — for suggesting that the Maritimes needed a change of attitude.

This is an interesting discourse. Other examples might be piled on but they would illustrate only the same thing. All of these conservatives presented financial success — in one way or another — as a matter of will. It was a matter having the right attitude, of not accepting no, of hard and determined work. Success could be willed. Now, obviously this type of explanatio nof regional economic success or failure is so simplistic as to be silly, but whether this view is right or wrong is beside my point. What fascinates me about it is that it has nothing to do with conservatism. It represents, instead, an form of nihilism. It is philosophy that portrays individual will as the basis of, in this case, economic success but I suppose it could be used in any other situation or for any other policy. What is required is determination, commitment and effort commensurate with those. It is an intensely individualistic perspective - those who have the necessary will power succeed; those who don't are simply weak and will, ergo, fail. And, we should not make any apologies for this. What was equally interesting was the number of times the Minister said something like "I make no apologies for X." Apologizing is not part of nihilism. To apologize is to lower standards. It is to pander to the weak. If we think about other elements of conservative discourse, we can find in it what I see as disturbing elements of a dark-sided nihilism. The most evident example is conservative support for military spending and frequent concern about Canada's weakness on the international stage. Increased military spending, of course, is not necessarily conservative. In fact, neo-cons with their focus on a balanced budget might be disturbed by spending on the military (in the US, of course, military spending has thrown the national budget into disarray). Yet, Canadian conservatives talk endlessly about military spending and not just increasing spending but dramatically increasing and expanding the military. The concern is that to make Canada stornger. Why? To what end? What role will Canada's military serve? For nihilists (and many Canadian conservatives) these questions don't need to be asked let alone answered because the answer — strength — is so self-evidently good that the idea of discussing or explaining a matter of public policy is not even considered to be needed.

One can think of this what one will. It has never been a particularly strong influence on Canadian politics. I'd go so far as to say that it has been of almost no political importance whatsoever and of a very limited cultural importance. Nihilism is, of course, not conservatism. This is what is surprising to me. Canada has a long tradition of conservative thought. Conservative philosophy was embedded into the original confederation agree that created Canada. It underscored John A Macdonald's national policy. It formed the basis of George Grant's thinking. Why would Canadian conservatives abandon their own intellectual traditions and embrace nihilism, an intensely problematic philosophy support of which will actually do more to keep the conservatives out of power at the federal level than any new policies the Liberals can come up with.

There may be other reasons that the Alberta Finance Minister prefers to talk about will as the key to success (as opposed to oil). Perhaps it might make her feel good. The Albertans I met at these conferences who were not conservatives laughed at this. They should because its simply silly. No one is poor because they lack will. No region of Canada is less wealthy than Alberta because its resident are weak. And, problems can't be solved by will. Environmental problems, child poverty, homelessness, crime will not be solved by will. They will be solved by policy. The United States — if it ever does win its war on terror — will win this war by military strength; not by will. Among conservatives this type of argument might be accepted but, what is clear, is that the vast majority of Canadians don't believe.
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