Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Conservative Canada

A Conservative Canada

For those of us in Canadian Studies, the electoral success of the Harper Conservatives raises important issues. The long period of Liberal domination of Canada gave us, in fact, a luxury. We were able to see and judge and unfolding national project and to teach and research that project. Moreover, because the Liberals were so successful, we could devote sustained attention to it year after year. Canada, in other words, steered a course, perhaps since before WW II and stuck, more or less, to that course. The details changed and there were, to be sure, policy shifts. The  country changed (demographically, in terms of gender relations, for example) but none of these changes either fundamentally challenged or were incompatible with the Liberal vision for Canada. The success of Harper is the first real challenge to this post WW II vision (which elsewhere I have called “civic nationalism” following Michael Ignatieff). What does this challenge look like? Will it retool Canada? Will it bring in (as Harper has suggested he wants to do) a new national vision? How different will that national vision be from what preceded it. These are complex questions that cannot be addressed in a blog. Let’s take a few key issues, then, to address and see if the discussion can be extended over time (that is, in other blog entries) or through discussion/comments if you want to send them in.

First, let’s begin with the Liberal vision for Canada. A great deal has been said about this so we can just hit the highlights. This vision for Canada was never a majority vision. Instead, it represented a particular “historic bloc”: a particular alliance of social classes, groups and forces, led by a set of “organic intellectuals,” as it were, who provided the philosophical arguments driving institutional, legal, and constitutional reform. The intellectuals are well known: Pierre Trudeau would, of course, have been the most prominent. The ideas that formed the basis of the Liberal reform project are also well know. They constitute the “common sense” of Canada today for a great many Canadians: the social welfare state (particularly socialized medicine), regional economic development strategies, human rights codes and the Charter, opposition to ethnic nationalism in Quebec, formal equality under the law, equality of opportunity, multiculturalism, the Official Languages Act, the decriminalization of homosexuality and abortion, the creation of new icons of Canadian-ness (the Maple Leaf flag, for instance). To a greater or lesser extent, all these reforms were intended to rebuild Canada: to push Canada away from its British (or, dualist) heritage and construct a new type of nation that was organized around the ideal of the “just society.”

The political/economic alliance that supported these reforms is less well considered. This might be because more time is needed for historical analysis, but the Liberal ideal of Canada drew together largely middle-class federalist Quebecers, new Canadians, and middle-class English-speaking Canadians in Ontario, some parts of Western Canada, and the Maritimes. The alliance included sections of big business (particularly but not exclusively finance capital) along with advocates for gender equity. These people’s allegiance to the Liberal vision of Canada was not “false consciousness;” they recognized themselves in this vision and subscribed to a Canada committed to these ideals. Some of them are powerful ideals. For instance, equality of opportunity and the decriminalization of abortion spoke to those people who believed in equality and that the state should not be in the business of regulating women’s bodies.

A key point to note, however, is that this alliance did not include all Canadians. Sections of capital involved in resource extraction, the supporters of Quebec independence, and many small-town and rural Canadians could not identify with this vision and were, in fact, hostile to it. Those who held different visions of Canada gravitated to other political parties. The Conservatives, for example, spent a great deal of time wondering about bilingualism and multiculturalism, questioned the meaning and implications of equality, and defended older symbols of Canadian-ness. They spent most of the time after the 1960s trying to find an alternative conception of Canada that  could be as encompassing as the Liberal vision but which provided an alternative to it. The PQ clearly had a different conception of the country, while supporters of the NDP argued initially for something called industrial democracy and suggested that the Liberal commitment to capitalism (however modified) compromised their fundamental commitment to justice. The nature of the Canadian political system (the first past the post system), ensure that the Liberals could translate what was in fact plurality support into a majority in the Commons.

The people who constitute the Harper Conservatives (by and large) are people who never reconciled themselves to the Liberal vision of Canada. They represented, at least initially, a different alliance of class and social forces united to a large extent only by their opposition to Liberalism. And, make not mistake, Harper and his supporters as well as the intellectuals of contemporary Conservatism see/saw Liberalism as the enemy. Who made up this coalition? A diverse lot. It includes conservative soft-nationalists in Quebec, primary resource capital, the remnants of the rural and small-town petty bourgeoisie, disaffected sections of the English-speaking working class, and the western Canadian middle class. More recently, the Conservatives have taken steps to draw in more conservative sections of immigrant communities and the suburban middle class in Ontario (with some measure of success). Like the Liberals before them, the Conservatives have benefited from a fragmented political spectrum and the FPP electoral system, translating a plurality into a Commons majority. In addition, the Conservatives have also represent a westward shift in Canadian political, intellectual, and economic power. The key intellectuals of Conservatism, for example, are based in Western Canadian universities.

What does this tell us? Well, at this point, one might say not very much. But, I’d suggest couple of things are important to note. The first thing to note is that the rise of a Conservative Canada represents not simply an electoral triumph (shrewd politicking) or the changing views of Canadians but a new “historic bloc”: a new political-economic alliance, as it were, that differs from that which sustained the Liberals is in power. Notable in this regard is the Conservatives lack of support among middle-class Quebecers, the tentative halting support they have among middle class English Canadians outside of western Canada, and concern voiced by those in the arts community as well as the advocates of equality. We need to understand a Conservative Canada, then, through the same analytic lens used to understand a Liberal Canada. We need to look at the balance of class forces, the vision it represents, and that we have entered into a different historic era, not because of an election but because of the shifting balance of class and social power in Canada. Moreover, those who do not recognize themselves in the Conservative vision of Canada need to understand that this is likely not a lacunae. They really are on the “outs.”

The other thing to recognize is that the Conservatives are interested in reforming Canada. After all … if they were not, why would they bother to run for office? The question is what form will this reform take. Will it amount to a fundamental change in Canada? Who will benefit from this change and who will not. These are questions that we need to address. In future blogs, I’ll make a first effort in this regard.

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