Canada, Matrix of Modernity
On the Sesquicentennial of Canadian Confederation, Mark Wegierski considers the emergence of the “managerial-therapeutic regime”
The Sesquicentennial (150th Anniversary) of Canadian Confederation is being celebrated in 2017 (July 1). Nevertheless, it is clear that Canada today is diametrically different from what it was in 1967 (the Centennial), let alone 1867.
Until 1896, Canada was dominated by an alliance of English Canadian Conservatives and Quebec “Bleus”. After 1896, however, the Liberal Party dominated the federal government. The success of the post-1896 Liberal Party was predicated on combining virtually every federal parliamentary seat from Quebec with a minority of seats from English Canada. It was a formula for power which manifestly worked. Until 1963, perennial Liberal rule did not have radical social implications, as all the three main parties (the other two being the “Progressive Conservatives” and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) shared a “traditionalist-centrist” social consensus.
The crucial 1963 election pitted the staunch Tory, John Diefenbaker, against the Liberal Lester B. Pearson. Pearson, who was supported by the U.S. managerialist classes, who resented Diefenbaker’s refusal to deploy U.S. nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, swept into power, as described by Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant in his Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965).
In 1965, Pearson engineered the change of Canada’s flag from the Red Ensign (a flag which had, like Australia’s today, the Union Jack in the upper-left corner), to the current Maple Leaf flag. This flag was seen by some critics as a “new Liberal Party” banner. Although it was not extensively debated at the time, some political theorists consider a change of a country’s flag as a marker of “regime change”.
Pearson was followed in 1968 by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, as “Trudeaumania” swept the country. However, in subsequent elections, Trudeau never received a majority of seats in English-speaking Canada. Nevertheless, he remained in power from 1968-1984 (except for nine months in 1979-1980).
Trudeau inaugurated massive, transformational change that continues to this day – official bilingualism (promotion of French); official multiculturalism; mass immigration; high deficits; official feminism; and multifarious social liberalism. In 1982, he brought the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the Canadian constitutional structure – which essentially enshrined virtually his entire agenda as the highest law of the land. The enactment of the Charter was seen by both its supporters and opponents as a virtual coup d’état and was quickly backed up by an “activist” judiciary and a Canadian Supreme Court in which it was difficult to find even one identifiable “conservative”.
In 1984, Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney won one of the largest majorities in Canadian history. However, he governed with unusual timidity, and was himself mostly a “small-l liberal”. Indeed, he brutally kept down “small-c conservative” tendencies within the P.C. party. Mulroney once said that you could fit all the ideological conservatives in Canada into a phone-booth. They were widely derided as “cashew-conservatives”, i.e., “nuts”.
Mulroney won the 1988 election by making it a referendum on Free Trade with the U.S. Ironically, Free Trade with the U.S. had in Canadian history been opposed by Conservatives (who looked to Britain), and supported by the Liberals. John Turner, the leader of the federal Liberal Party in 1988, was probably more of a “traditionalist conservative” than Mulroney. Mulroney had raised immigration levels to a quarter-million persons a year, whereas they had fallen to 54,000 in Trudeau’s last year in office. They have remained at a quarter-million persons a year, since that time. The immigration rate was about twice as large per capita as that of the United States. Also, Mulroney did nothing when the vestigial restrictions on abortion were struck down by the Canadian Supreme Court in 1988.
Finally, in December 2003, a merger was enacted between the Canadian Alliance, and the federal Progressive Conservative party. The new party was called the Conservative Party, significantly dropping the “Progressive” adjective. Stephen Harper won the leadership. In the 2004 federal election, the Liberals were reduced to a minority government (a plurality of seats in the House of Commons). Harper was able to win minority governments in 2006 and 2008, and finally the long-awaited Conservative majority in 2011. However, the combination of his unexpected timidity, and a brutally hostile social context in Canada, meant that Harper was unable to achieve much. Certainly, there was no massive, transformational change in an opposite direction.
In the October 2015 federal election, the Liberals came roaring back with a strong majority, under the leadership of Justin Trudeau (Pierre’s son). The coming to power of another Trudeau presages a further era of massive, transformational change in Canada. Indeed, immigration has already been raised to 300,000 persons a year, and there have been proposals to raise it as high as 450,000 persons a year. Abortion rights and same-sex marriage have been entrenched. Doctor assisted suicide is now legal, and the legalization of marijuana now seems inevitable.
However, unless the broader social and cultural context of current-day Canada is considered, it is not easy to see how difficult the situation for “small-c conservatives” and social conservatives, has become. In most Western societies there is now a “managerial-therapeutic regime”. This term is derived from a combination of the ideas of James Burnham (author of The Managerial Revolution (1941)), and Philip Rieff (author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966)). Similar critical observations were proposed by George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) – Canada’s leading traditionalist philosopher.
The “managerial-therapeutic regime” is based on relatively new structures of social, political, and cultural control that exercise power in a “soft” fashion. These structures consist of: the mass media (the promotion of consumerism and the pop-culture, not to mention the shaping of social and political reality through the purveying of news); the mass education system (an apparatus of mostly unidirectional instruction from early-childhood-education to post-graduate studies); and the juridical system (generally speaking, by way of the “judicialization” of important political questions and, more specifically, through restrictions on political and religious speech, and on freedom of religion, by human rights commissions/tribunals).
The diffuse presence of these structures in society throws into question longstanding conceptions of democratic self-governance. The right to exercise freedom of speech – a supposed bedrock of democracy — is no longer valued, even in theory – as opposed to the imperative of being “politically correct.” Democracy today is no longer understood as a vehicle for choosing between differing visions of politics and life – but rather as one, all-encompassing system of “democratic values” that must be upheld and imposed on everyone. The word “democratic” is usually used with the implied meaning of “socially liberal”.
The tendentious social and legal instruments of this regime are so deeply entrenched in Canada’s social/cultural fabric that they are more than capable of containing popular challenges, whether these stem from the resistance mounted by traditionalist enclaves or from more thoroughgoing and deeply rooted channels of ecological or social democratic thought.
The “managerial-therapeutic regime” is further strengthened by a “pseudo-dialectic of opposition” between an “official” Left and Right, which serves to exclude from the very outset many serious issues from public debate and consideration. Elections may bring different parties and candidates into office, but the system endures.
The end-result is “soft totalitarianism” – of which the best known literary foreshadowing is the dystopia portrayed by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932). In contradistinction to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), an apparatus of violent coercion has proven unnecessary. However, the points Orwell made about the importance of the use of language – “Newspeak is Ingsoc, and Ingsoc is Newspeak” — remain pertinent.
When a regime controls the mass media, the education system, and the juridical apparatus – it does not need to exercise massive coercion to retain power. Opponents are invariably derided as “haters” or “Luddites”. Unlike in the case of the former Eastern Bloc, there is no groundswell of tacit popular support for dissidents – indeed, quite pronounced feelings of popular outrage are directed against them and they have few public defenders.
Canada today is arguably one of the fullest embodiments of a “managerial-therapeutic regime” which is socially liberal but economically conservative. Or as George Parkin Grant aphoristically put it – “The directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor [Herbert] Marcuse sail down the same river [but] in different boats.” “Soft totalitarianism” can evidently arise within a supposedly free and democratic system.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and researcher