Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Has Canada Become a Post-Democratic Petro State?

Tell me it isn't so Joe.  No can do.  Sadly, over the last 40 years Canada has morphed into a mere shadow of its former self, a nation where prosperity was once shared widely and where hope for the future did not depend on the chance of birth.

If asked what did it mean to be Canadian, most of us would mention something about the creation of our social programs that increased the quality of life for the vast majority of Canadians, the demos.

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Clearly, as we approach the 150th anniversary of our confederation, we have passed the zenith of our development as a caring society.  Neoliberal values have taken hold and, as could be expected, economic inequality has increased, meaning that the rich are doing extremely well while the lower and middle classes struggle to make ends meet.

What happened?

According to Colin Crouch, professor and author of the highly acclaimed,
Post-Democracy, Canada, like other English settler states, made significant democratic gains during the first half of the twentieth century, but has subsequently moved on, not to pre-democratic period of the nineteenth century, but to something different, to a society that has not entirely relinquished the social gains provided by the welfare state, but where the provision of social services has become so modest that they have lost much of their efficacy to address the social ills which gave rise to their creation.

Essentially, the idea of post-democracy helps us describe situations when boredom, frustration and disillusion have settled in after a democratic moment; when powerful minority interests have become far more active than the mass of ordinary people in making the political system work for them; where political elites have learned to manage and manipulate popular demands; and where people have to be persuaded to vote by top-down publicity campaigns.

In Crouch's analysis, democracy is an ideal, something we either move towards or retreat from, which is important because it moves the discussion about the quality of our political institutions out of the simple binary whether we have or don't have democratic institutions.  As well, moving back towards the pre-democratic period does not mean we have come full circle.  We retain some elements of the democratization phase.  What changes is the manner the elites are able to avoid democratic rule.

For Crouch, two societal developments are largely responsible for the move towards post-democracy: the diminution of the importance and number of skilled manual workers and the rise of the global firm.  In short, we no longer live in a society where mass production and mass consumption within national borders bring about shared prosperity.  Instead, wages are now spread across international production chains and the benefits of enterprise accrue disproportionately to executive officers and shareholders.

As a result, those at the top global firm have the resources to bypass what had been the traditional political process of making decisions through the people's elected representatives and lobby with great success for whatever policies they need to add to their wealth. 

Politicians are very eager to respond to their wishes since those with the cash in hand have the means to finance the electoral campaigns that get our politicians elected.  In this symbiotic relationship, the common folk, the demos, are outside the loop and have very little say in matters that affect them.  Their role in politics is simply to respond to the public relations campaigns that have replaced any meaningful discussion concerning real political choices during elections and place their "x" beside the name of the candidate that represents their favored marketed brand, commonly referred to as a political party.

In my opinion, Canada has been in the post-democratic phase for at least thirty years;  corporate interests trump the interests of the people; a media circus has replaced informed political debate; and a disillusioned public, sensing it no longer has much say in what gets done, has lost interest in politics and has to be cajoled to even cast their ballots.

Given this state of affairs, Canada is moving towards becoming a petro state, meaning that although our economy does not rely solely on fossil fuel extraction for the creation of wealth, it is the focus of those global corporate interests that lobby the hardest for favourable government intervention and the focus of our federal government.  In other words, we are moving in that direction.

For instance, the power base of the ruling Conservative Party is the oil producing provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the Tories hold all but two ridings; our currency has become a petro dollar: its value in lock step with the fluctuations for a barrel of crude oil; Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Accord which would have placed limits on the greenhouse gas emissions, thereby exonerating oil producers for not respecting the limits the Accord placed upon Canada; the government does everything it can to get the pipelines built that would bring oil sands oil to a seaport; in the meantime, unable to overcome resistance from the environmental lobby opposing the construction of the pipelines, oil producers began shipping oil by rail at record levels (a 4000% increase from 2009) which combined with an insufficient oversight of the safety of this method of transport led to the incineration of 47 unsuspecting Canadians in the Lac Megantic derailment disaster.

It is important to note that is the post-democratic state of our political institutions that has allowed Canada to move towards becoming a petro state.  Once political power has been transferred to the political/corporate elites as a result of our archaic electoral practices, the demos just stands by and bears witness to the decisions that have been made in their name but not on their behalf. 

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