Sunday, November 22, 2009

Janine Krieber's Liberalism

Janine Krieber does not like the "Toronto elites" or Michael Ignatieff ... who does? OK, that's too quick of a quip. The "Toronto elites" surely exist but they are also a convenient boogie man, dragged out of the metaphorical closet as a way of explaining X or Y, a sort of value elitist, economic group who secretly controls of the levers of power, at least, it seems, within the Liberal party. Focusing on unnamed Toronto elites is a good way to mobilize regional grievances. I live in NB. This kind of thing has been going on for years. Heck, my grandfather used to complain about "Upper Canadians."

The target of Ms. Krieber's vindictive, then, must be a bit less real and a bit less tangible then it first seams. The objective of her concern -- the supposed disintegration of the Liberal party -- is not. What I want to do in this blog is pick up on Ms. Krieber's concerns and suggest a different way of looking at them. What I want to suggest is that what is looking more and more like the slow death of the Liberal Party cannot be easily blamed on Paul Martin, the media, Toronto elites, Michael Ignatieff, or any other cause. Instead, what I want to suggest is that problems through which the Liberal Party is passing reflect a change in the dynamics of Canada. The Liberal Party "made hay," as it were, as the guardian of one particular vision of Canada. Because we don't often think in terms of visions beyond what are reported as feel-good, motherhood issues (everyone for world peace, put up your hand), the idea that vision is important is usually neglected in public commentary.

Perhaps the word "vision" is not the right word. Pick another one that you like better because understanding the idea behind what I say is more important than agreeing with my language. By vision I mean conception of Canada, a philosophy of nation, as it were: an ontology of the state or polity or civil society and state, an image of a different way of organizing public life.

The Liberal Party was the vehicle through which a specific conception of Canada naturalized itself as "the" Canada, except among those people who disagreed in some fundamental sense it. I don't have space to go into this here, but the Liberal party defended a conception of Canada that Michael Ignatieff called "civic nationalism": the ideal of a small l liberal polity. The logic of this ideal of Canada leads -- more or less directly -- to a series of policy reforms designed to transform Canada from the country that it was into ... well ... the country we have now. Multiculturalism, official bilingualism, regional economic development, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, universal health care, and other such reforms follow logically from basic "civic nationalist" ideal: individualism, equality of opportunity, etc.

For right or for wrong, for good or for ill, the Liberal Party defended this conception of Canada against alternatives to it: ethno-linguistically based nationalism in Quebec, socialism, conservative traditionalism, etc., and did so mainly with the support of middle-class suburbanites, whether they spoke French or English at home. This Canada had much to recommend it. It had serious weakness and I don't have space to get into these either (suffice it to say, I've never been a supporter of this particular vision). But, it did appeal to a wide number of Canadians because it was committed to justice, equality, capitalism, and those are things that middle class Canadians like. They have some reason to. The point system for immigration - -whatever its appreciable weaknesses -- was better than the racialized system that preceded it. Canada remains deeply mired in sexism but at least there is strong protection for gender equity in the Charter, and on the down the line. The civic nationalist Canada of today is, in marked ways, a more equal and just place than was the pre-civic nationalist Canada of the century before the 1960s.

What is going on, I think, and the reason I offer this admittedly rushed history lesson, is that the liberal or civic nationalist order appears to be running into its first serious challenge in some time. Civic nationalists -- in an admittedly odd coalition -- were able to defeat the Mulroney mega-constitutional reforms that would have changed the character of Canada (or, at least maybe). They were able to rule Canada with only that one exception, virtually without stop from the mid 1960s to the first decade of the new century. Why? Two reasons: (1) on some level middle-class Canadians shared the Liberal's philosophy of nation are were willing to turn out and vote for it, and (2) the opposition was divided. Those who rejected the ideal of the civic nation could not agree among themselves on an alternative and so were willing, for the sake of power, to make some form of peace with liberalism. The promoters of Quebec independence abandoned Marcel Chaput's discourse of "separatism" and instead adopted referenda, talked of "interculturalism," and "associations" with Canada, and promised to wait for "winning conditions" and be a good government in the meantime. Canadian socialists ditched the "waffle" and "industrial democracy" and talked vaguely about the "ordinary" Canada and slowly shift their economic policies to the centre (indeed, it appears a third of the NDP's federal caucus now feels so comfortable with the abrogation of socialism that they can openly reject gun control).

As to the Tories ... well ... they just stopped being Tories. No one really knew what a "community of communities" was anyway and, as George Grant noted forty years ago, most conservatives no longer subscribed to anything that could actually be called conservatism, at least of anyone had the faintest idea what the term meant in a philosophical sense. Mulroney tried, to be sure, but he either failed (Meech Lake), backed away (de-indexing pensions), or promoted reforms that were consistent with liberal political-economy (free trade). In other words, by the time he was done, Mulroney's government ended up representing -- perhaps against its will -- a variant of liberalism as opposed to an alternative to it.

What is going on in the Liberal Party today is something other than bad political management or bad leadership politics. What is going on is that the Liberals are losing their base of support. Is this because the Liberal ideal of Canada has become so naturalized that Canadians no longer feel it necessary to vote Liberal? In other words, are liberal ideals -- equality, multiculturalism, bilingualism, a role for the state in the economy -- so common place that Canadians feel that what we can do is debate the merits of this or that policy by voting for parties that represent one or another trend of civic nationalism?

This is an interesting idea. But, I don't think that this is the case. I think the massive self-disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Canadians -- those Canadians who chose not to vote -- is the thing we should look at to explain the demise of Canadian liberalism. After all, the Liberals have not changed much. Michael Ignatieff may be beholden to the Toronto elites but he's really just an anglophone Pierre Trudeau in terms of his ideology. I'd argue, instead, that the civic polity in Canada has been affected by two forces: (1) it has reached its outer limits in terms of improving Canada. The Party itself, in this sense, has succeeded in its mission but that mission cannot accomplish all its goals (or, at least the goals Canadians would set for it). And, (2), the balance of class power has shifted. In this sense, Ms. Krieber has isolated something important. She's just not explained very well why this important thing is occurring.
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