Sometimes we get things right legislatively in Canada. Universal health care resulted from the vote-seeking jostling of three men with completely different political philosophies: NDP leader Tommy Douglas, Progressive Conservative prime mininister John Diefenbaker and Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson.
The voters’ effect on Canadian domestic and foreign policy has declined since the sixties, in large part because the Whigs and Tories became less distinct at policy level. (Brian Mulroney once congratulated Jean Chretien for “going further with our policies than we ever did.” ) For its part, the NDP bowed out of the Free Trade debate in the nineties, believing it was a fight they could not win. In 2011, the party proposed to remove the phrase, “democratic socialism” from the preamble of the NDP’s constitution, in an attempt to reach that sweet, centrist spot in the voter’s heart.
With the implosion of the federal Liberals under Ignatieff, with the NDP taking its place in opposition, Canadian politics has strayed that much further toward an American-style duopoly. But at least we’re not in some propagandistic hellhole like North Korea, right?
Certainly not, but then again, totalitarian societies don’t require much in the way of subtle propaganda. Unhindered by a free press, free elections, or an independent judiciary, tyrants can dispense force to keep people in line. Disappear a few intellectuals or trade union leaders, and everyone else quickly gets the message.
In his 1989 Massey lecture series, “Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies,” MIT media critic Noam Chomsky argued that democratic nations actually traffic in more domestic propaganda than totalatarian states. Public relations firms, foundations, think tanks, universities, and the media engage in what he calls the “manufacture of consent”. Chomsky insists that the citizenry of the industrialized west are propagandized constantly with sophisticated tools of persuasion from the crib to the coffin. We are inculcated with beliefs that we eventually regard as wholly our own.
This social programming was somewhat more effective when Chomsky delivered his Massey lectures than it is today. After decades of relentless spin, a combination of cynicism, apathy and disgust reigns over the electorate. Hence the slow rise of Banana Republic law enforcement methods in the US and Canada, to counter the restless doubts of a growing underclass.
These mass doubts are problematic for the managerial tier that acts as a buffer between the two solitudes of hyper-wealthy and working poor. If enough citizens refuse to believe they live in a true democracy, that means the gatekeepers are manufacturing contempt rather than consent. The health of the status quo depends on Larry and Louise Lunchbucket’s belief that we live in a meritocracy, if not a democracy. They don’t necessarily have to believe that leaders hold their vote in sacred trust; they just have to believe there’s still something left for them in a battered, broken system.
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” said author John Steinbeck in 1962. In Canada, many of us fantasize we are just one winning lottery ticket away from a Mcmansion and suburban assault vehicle. Freedom has been conflated with winning, if not in the Charlie Sheen sense, then at least in the quaint belief that the odds are not fixed in favour of the house.
In other words, democracy functions somewhat like a placebo, those sugar pills given to test subjects in clinical drug trials. Its success depends in part on our expectations. You could say Harper’s majority government has either abused a naive faith in Canadian democracy or liberated us from it. Serial proroguing, the contempt of Parliament charge, and the F-35 scandal, were never hinted at in the runup to the last election. And with Bill C-38, the agenda is no longer hidden; it’s right out in the open, ready to devour everything on the commons like a b-movie werewolf.
Elections are always a bitter pill to follow, but is there any real medicine left in Canada’s first-past-post, electoral process? Or is it all sugary PR and expertly managed deceit, from leaders we can hardly trust with the office supplies, let alone an entire nation?
Final thoughts next week,
Representative democracy is loud, messy, and inefficient. Needless to say, the process is often unpopular with special interests, unless the outcome is gamed in their favour.
The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” The philosopher John Dewey added a sobering proviso. He described government as “the shadow cast over society by business.” That last line certainly applies to present-day Canada, thanks to a regime in Ottawa that is divesting itself of regulatory powers, while extending the reach of transnational corporations.
Harper won his majority government with less than forty percent of the popular vote, but don’t expect mass protests from those who failed to vote Conservative. For one thing, Canada hasn’t seen austerity measures comparable to Greece or even Britain. That said, our law enforcement infrastructure certainly seems prepared, even if most of us aren’t, for the possibility of mass civil disobedience. It’s hard to believe the decade-long spread of CCTV surveillance technology across Canada, Britain, and the US is solely about crime detection in the streets. And do we imagine our proroguing Prime Minister, with a government ruled in contempt of parliament by the Speaker of the House, is incapable of criminalizing public assembly if he ever saw fit?
Since Canada’s inception, or nation has mostly been a “hewer of wood and drawer of water,” with comparatively little in the way of secondary industries. We are now also haulers of bitumen and drillers of gas, with most of the profits flowing to foreign interests. Harper did not invent this dynamic of production and capital flight, but he is definitely turbocharging it.
Like many other underdeveloped nations, Canada’s status as an export-driven, commodity-based economy is not a historic accident, or a climate-related contingency. It’s largely the result of decisions outside the electoral process. In other words, democracy and capitalism are by no means one and the same, in spite of reams of editorials and op-ed pieces telling you otherwise. In fact, a “free market” defined by monopolies, by and for a plutocracy, appears to be incompatible with a free, civil society.
The American screenwriter Paddy Chayefksy knew firsthand the various shades of populism and propaganda. Blacklisted during the McCarthy witchhunts of the fifties, Chayefsky anticipated the present age with eerie prescience. In his script for the 1976 film, Network, news is reduced to entertainment, reality TV series reign supreme, and an onscreen nervous breakdown is retrofitted as a career move, all thanks to the transnational broadcasting firm, UBS.
At the close of the film, the mad anchorman Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, is brought before the enraged CEO of UBS, played by Ned Beatty. The fictional harbinger of Rupert Murdoch thunders at Beale
“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear? You get up on your little twenty- one-inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today….. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale….. one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”
From students to seniors, from the streets to the executive suites, our lives are embedded in this Chayefskian control system, through personal debt, stock-riddled pension funds, and all the velvet handcuffs of high finance. If it’s a prison, it’s a mostly benign one, although the walls are now closing in for the middle class. To somehow free yourself from that which you cannot clearly see or are unwilling to acknowledge: that remains greatest challenge for the citizens of western democracies.
The Vancouver Courier, June 22 and 29