Friday, December 02, 2011

Conservatism: A New Historic Bloc

Conservatism: A New Historic Bloc?

A couple of entries ago, I tried to argue that we needed to treat the victory of the Conservative Party seriously. I recognize that a lot of people do. For a fair number of Canadians, the Conservatives are a threat to their vision of the country. They seem to want to cow tow to the US with a  "please sir, may I have another" approach. Key Conservatives have made some pretty questionable statements that leads one to believe they don't have much use for equality (whether on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity), and are skeptical that there is any need to do anything about environmental change. Add to this an odd fascination with the military that amounts to inventing history (as opposed to studying it or understanding it) and, for a lot of people, you have good reason to be concerned about the bunch in power in Ottawa right now.

What I am trying to do in these blogs (this one and a previous entry) is not to recite these concerns but to treat conservatism seriously on another ground.  There strike me as a couple of ways to look at Canada's now five year old Conservative federal government: as a much of malcontents who slipped into office by bamboozling Canadians and political context (the internal war in the Liberal party, for example, and ineffective opposition leadership). Or, as representative of something else: a new "historic bloc." An historic bloc is a particular alliance of social and economic forces that is relatively stable over a longer period of time. It can be a governing bloc (as I argued were the Liberals federally for some time in the 20th century) or an opposition bloc (as Ian McKay argues in his works on the history of socialism).  In a previous blob on this subject, I tried to suggest the outlines of those particular alliances as they applied to both 20th century Liberals and 21st century Conservatives.

Another key to an historic bloc is that it is not interested simply in holding onto power. This is one of the things I would argue differentiates Conservatives at the federal level in Canada from at least some provincial Progressive Conservative parties. The PCs in New Brunswick, where I live, want to remain in government but they are not very ideological. Indeed, what separates their actual policies (as opposed to their discourse) from Liberals is often not at all clear.  Political parties are looking to maintain power for a variety of reasons. The forces in an historic bloc are looking to maintain power to use it: their goal is not simply to stay in government so they can direct policy but refashion the country. The Liberals under Pierre Trudeau are a case in point.

How does an historic bloc refashion the country? The Liberals did so in a number of ways. First, we need to recognize that they cannot do it by force of will. Refashioning a country requires leadership but it is not a so-called "great leader" pushing the rest of us forward in history. Instead, historic bloc's refashion society through politics and education. In democratic societies (that is, societies that have some level of popular representation of which governing parties must take some account), the state cannot simply impose its will on society. Hence: politics and education. The ruling party will attempt to lead society in a different direction through suasion, leadership, good old fashion politicking ("our opponents are idiots who will destroy civilization as we know it"), and educational programmes that teach people the merits of particular political perspectives. The implementation of a new system of values associated with a new historic bloc is not easy.  It involves compromises and negotiations. To be sure, the state will use a coercive apparatus. The Harper government simply declared Canada's commitments to Kyoto at an end; they simply cut funding for groups of people whom they considered "troublemakers" (artists and French-speaking Canadians living outside Quebec). The blunt force of the state "here are the changes, we will not discuss them" is used. Most of the time, however, and for a variety of reasons, an historic bloc needs to "take what it can."

What this means is that historic blocs are constructive thing: they look to build as opposed to simply impose or tear down. The Conservatives, in other words, were never looking simply to "get rid of the welfare state" (indeed, they had and have big plans for it) or turn back the clock on gay rights. Instead, they are looking to build a new order. The question, then, is what might that order entail. And, our first conclusion is this: it will be established by fiat only at the margins, where the historic bloc thinks it can "get away" with the blunt use of the state. Our second conclusion is that it will involve an educational and political process that looks to push Canadians toward a different value structure. And, our third conclusion is that a Conservative historic bloc will negotiate. It will do so from a position of power but it will negotiate because it has to. It will have to compromise and accept things that it does not like. For instance, core supporters of Conservatism will need to put some water with their wine and accept the equality of gay people. That is an advance of the previous historic bloc that cannot be undone. They have to accept women in the paid workforce; they have to accept some role for the welfare state in society (it is pretty clear for instance, that key Conservative constituents don't like socialized medicine). In short, they will not be able to get everything they want. To accomplish some things … they will have to give on others. To challenge equality, for example, in some sort of head-on fashion means losing an election, something the Conservatives will not do.

The development of a new historic bloc is, then, complicated business. If the Conservatives can stabilize it, however, there is a payoff: long-term political success. This will not remove the need for politics (for electioneering and whatnot) but it will keep the Tories in a position of power. What is at stake then when I suggested we treat Conservatism seriously is something more then arts funding or equality. What is at stake is a new historic bloc. Both those who oppose and those who support c/Conservatism should bear this in mind.

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