home > this article
On the Sesquicentennial of Canadian Confederation – the “managerial-therapeutic regime” in Canada, an insoluble dilemma for real democracy?
By Mark Wegierski
Examining the arrival of “soft-totalitarianism” on the Sesquicentennial of Canadian Confederation
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. Canada was founded in 1867 as a union of two, long-pre-existent, historic nations – English (British) Canada, and French Canada (centred mostly in Quebec). The Aboriginal peoples were included insofar as they had been traditionally considered under the special protection of the Crown.
Until 1896, Canada was dominated by an alliance of English Canadian Conservatives and Quebec “Bleus”. After 1896, however, the preponderance of federal governments were held by the Liberal Party. 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. Nevertheless, it was a formula for power which manifestly worked. Until 1963, perennial Liberal rule did not have radical social implications, as all three main parties shared in a “traditionalist-centrist” social consensus. The Conservatives had changed their name in 1942 to “Progressive Conservative” but the party remained home to many different conservative factions. The third main party was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which, although social democratic in economics, was quite socially conservative. They changed their name to New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961, and have successively become ever more “politically correct”.
The crucial 1963 election pitted the staunch Tory, John Diefenbaker, against the Liberal Lester B. Pearson. Lester Pearson, supported by the electioneering and pollster expertise of 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. The flag was seen by some critics as a “new Liberal Party” banner. Although it was not extensively debated at the time, many political theorists have considered a change of a country’s flag as a marker of “regime change”.
Pearson was followed in 1968 by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, when “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, dissimilar immigration; high deficits; official feminism; and multifarious social liberalism. In 1982, Trudeau brought in 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. The Charter was quickly backed up by an “activist” judiciary and a Canadian Supreme Court where 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” viscerally. Indeed, he brutally kept down “small-c conservative” tendencies within the P.C. party. The term “small-c conservative” refers to so-called “ideological” conservatives. Mulroney once snidely said that you could fit all the ideological conservatives in Canada into a phone-booth. Indeed, 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. Indeed, 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 basically 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.
“Small-c conservatives” had had enough, and in 1987, Preston Manning co-founded the Reform Party. Initially a Western Canadian regionalist party, it became a country-wide party in 1991.
In the 1993 federal election, while the Liberals won a comfortable majority, the Reform Party won 52 seats, while the separatist Bloc Quebecois won 54. The Progressive Conservatives were reduced to two seats!
In the 1997 election, the Reform Party won 60 seats (all of them in Western Canada). The Progressive Conservatives refused to fold, when Preston Manning launched the United Alternative movement, which culminated in the creation of the Canadian Alliance. (The full name of that party was the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance.)
Preston Manning lost the leadership of the Canadian Alliance to Stockwell Day, who mobilized social conservatives. However, in the 2000 federal election, Stockwell Day was pejoritized as a “fundamentalist Christian extremist” and Liberal Jean Chretien handily won another majority. (The CA won 66 seats, 64 in Western Canada, and 2 in Ontario.)
As a result of a caucus revolt against Stockwell Day, a leadership race ensued, which was won by Stephen Harper.
Finally, in December 2003, a merger was finally enacted between the Canadian Alliance, and the federal Progressive Conservative party. The new party was called the Conservative Party, significantly dropping the “Progressive” adjective. Harper won the leadership of the new party.
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 an unexpected timidity, and a brutally hostile social context in Canada, meant that Harper wasn’t able to achieve much. Certainly, there was no whiff of massive, transformational change in a different 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 another era of massive, transformational change in Canada. Indeed, immigration has already been raised to 300,000 persons a year, and there have been serious suggestions to raise it as high as 450,000 persons a year. Abortion rights and same-sex marriage have also been tightly entrenched. Also, doctor assisted suicide is now legal, and complete marijuana legalization appears to be inevitable.
Without considering the broader social and cultural context of current-day Canada, it is not easy to see how very difficult the situation for “small-c conservatives” and social conservatives, actually is.
It has been argued that there has emerged today, in most Western societies, something called (by its critics) “the managerial-therapeutic regime”. The 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 echoed by George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) – Canada’s leading traditionalist philosopher.
It could be argued that Canada today is among the fullest embodiments of such a regime – which is mainly socially liberal and economically conservative. As George Grant had aphoristically put it -- “The directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor [Herbert] Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.”
The managerial-therapeutic regime is based on relatively new structures of social, political, and cultural control. The structures of a regime of this kind are usually able to exercise power in a “soft” fashion. These consist mainly of: the mass media (in their main aspects of 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, classic understandings of government, politics, and democratic self-governance. The right to exercise freedom of speech – a supposed bedrock of democracy -- is no longer valued much, even in theory – as opposed to the imperative of being “politically correct.” Democracy today is no longer understood as a vehicle for choosing between somewhat differing visions of politics and life – but rather as one, all-encompassing system of “democratic values” – that must be upheld and imposed on everyone in society. The word “democratic” is usually used with the implied meaning of “socially liberal”.
The tendentious social and legal instruments of the regime are so deeply entrenched in Canada’s social/cultural fabric, moreover, that they are more than adequate when it comes to containing any popular challenges to the regime, whether these stem from the resistance mounted by residual traditionalist enclaves or from more thoroughgoing and deeply rooted channels of ecological or social democratic thought.
It could be argued that the regime is strengthened further by a “pseudo-dialectic of opposition” between an “official” Left and Right, which serves to exclude from the very outset many truly serious issues from public debate and consideration. Thus, elections may bring different parties and candidates into office, but the managerial-therapeutic regime endures.
The end-result of such a regime is a tendency towards so-called “soft totalitarianism” – of which the best known literary foreshadowing is probably 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 to maintain the regime. 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 mass education system, and the juridical apparatus – it does not need to exercise massive coercion to keep itself in power. Opponents of the system are frequently enough 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 seemingly popular outrage appear to be directed against them. Despite an ostensibly free society, they find very few public defenders.
Ironically, “soft totalitarianism” may in fact arise in the most ostensibly free and formally democratic systems.