Will Canadian politics be simply a continuation of the feudal and class struggles of the past, or have globalisation and the global Internet brought about a political sea change that will result in a radically transformed and more polarised political landscape?
Two recently-published books offer diametrically opposed insights into the nature of Canadian politics and the current state of our democracy. University of Toronto associate professor of political science Nelson Wiseman retraces the well-worn historical path In Search of Canadian Political Culture, while writer and feminist Judy Rebick believes that only by Transforming Power will environmental and social justice be achieved.
The contrast between them is rooted in the unique tensions of this time. The traditional view held by politicians, pundits, the media and much of the voting public, is that politics will continue to be an unpleasant but important, mostly boring but occasionally amusing activity that requires its loyal citizens only hold to their nose and vote once every few years.
Apart from the professionals and the political junkies, who joyously grant an election the same gravitas as a declaration of war, politics for most people is a remote blood sport of the affluent and intellectual that keeps society’s material benefits continuing to flow directly to the rich.
Rejection of conventional politics
Pundits, politicians and the public agree that there has been increasing and widespread rejection of conventional politics in recent years. Public participation in elections has fallen to an all-time low: in the 2008 federal election nearly 10 million voters, or 40.9 per cent of the Canadian electorate, chose not to vote — more than supported any one party.
But the lack of public engagement with the traditional political process may not be due entirely to voter apathy. A growing and perhaps healthy scepticism with the validity of the political process has turned millions of people world-wide away from conventional politics towards grassroots activism on local, national, and global social and environmental issues.
At the same time, the explosion in power and reach of the Internet has given anyone who can access and run a computer the ability to reach out to a global community of like-minded people. Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’ is now a reality; the global political arena has come alive.
Neoliberal global agenda
While technology has given new tools to peace, environmental, and anti-global activists, their adversaries have been outmanoeuvring them in the new global arena. Through the agency of the World Bank, the IMF, and Free Trade agreements between governments, the neoliberal corporate agenda has busily been harnessing entire nations to generate profits.
Starting in the 1970s, global corporatism planned to liberalise trade and reduce the power of governments to regulate their activities. In the 1990s, this took the form of the call for “reinventing government.”
The powerful trans-national élite has been very successful in promoting consumerism and unfettered economic growth by exploiting developing nations, the poor, the global biosphere, and now even the middle class. Since 9-11, its agenda has extended to increased security oversight.
What all this adds up to is that we are now passing through an historic political watershed in the life of the world. Never before, (as far as we know) has one species dominated this planet to the extent that homo sapiens is colonising its surface, destroying other species and their vital habitat, even to the point of changing the global climate.
Even while public disgust at the pathological nature of this essentially piratical planetary pillaging is growing, the instruments for the political and economic repression of any opposition are being put in place. The health of our so-called western ‘democracy’ is looking increasingly fragile.
These two authors come from the opposite sides of this literally Earth-shattering political discontinuity. Wiseman looks back to survey Canadian history from the comfortable position of an assistant professor at a major Canadian university, while Rebick looks to an indeterminate future as an activist in an unorganised resistance to a well-provisioned adversary.
Back to the comfort of the known and familiar politics of the past, or forward to forge a new way of organising ourselves for a very uncertain future—is this not the Janus-like moral contradiction facing every human being? These two books, side-by-side, represent this urgent dichotomy.
For not the first time in history, we live in interesting times.
In Search of Canadian Political Culture
By Nelson Wiseman
University of Toronto Press, 2008
ISBN: 9780774813884 (hardcover) $85
ISBN: 9780774813891 (paperback) $29.95
from the personal to the political
By Judy Rebick
Penguin Canada 2009
ISBN 978-0-8020-2 (cloth) $75
ISBN 9780143169468 (paper) $24.00