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A look at Canadian toryism vs. American neoconservatism

By Mark Wegierski
web posted August 27, 2007

Canadian Political Culture and Spectrum in Chaos
(This piece written in 1994; the extensive endnotes in 2007.)

In his article, "Neocons: Young Bucks of the New Right" (The Globe and Mail [1], February 5, 1994, pp. D1/D5) Miro Cernetig celebrates the coming into existence of a smart, hip group of  right-wingers known as "neoconservatives" – in contrast to the "yahoo" paleoconservatives.

Cernetig's article demonstrates the extent to which the political culture and political spectrum of  Canada are in chaos. As the neocons all-but-admit themselves, they are a seemingly alien growth in the Canadian social body. They are also suddenly expressing disenchantment with Brian Mulroney [2] and his policies – when one can point, for example, to a number of articles by David Frum [3] aggressively defending the Mulroney record. In the January/February 1991 issue of Saturday Night [4], Frum praised Mulroney's policies of high immigration – which had been raised to a quarter-million persons per year, from the 54,000 or so of Trudeau's [5] last year in office (1983-84). This actually puts the neocons at curious variance with Reform Party policy suggestions – where they supposedly represent the more rightwing movement-within-a-movement. Indeed the Reform Party (founded in 1987), and Canada's main right-wing party from 1993 forward, has called for decreased immigration. It can also be supposed that the neocons all probably vociferously supported the centrepiece of Mulroney policy, the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, over which the 1988 federal election was won by the Mulroney-ites. It is a curious Canadian "movement" – remote-controlled from David Frum's perch in the Wall Street Journal or Forbes magazine (the former which proclaims itself the voice of Wall Street big-money, and the latter which unabashedly call itself a "capitalist tool").

Cernetig's article also probably marked the first prominent use of the term "paleo-conservative" in Canada, needless to say in a pejorative way. Cernetig's proferred short, humorous quiz set up the paleocons as the idiot-reactionaries, with the neocons as the smart-set intellectuals. Leaving aside the fact that the term "paleocon" originates in America (doesn't everything in the neocon vocabulary?), it may be instructive to intelligently comment on the paleocon-neocon distinction in American politics. In America, there actually is a paleocon political and intellectual tendency -- as opposed to the presumed country-bumpkins in the boondocks -- which is engaged in sharp battle with the neocons. Interestingly enough, American paleocons probably have more in common with certain social democratic tendencies (as evidenced, for example, by the alliance of Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the American trade unions against NAFTA). Three major thinkers representing the paleoconservative/social democratic convergence are Christopher Lasch, Amitai Etzioni, and Jean Bethke Elshtain. The anti-establishment paleocon intellectuals such as Paul Gottfried (virtually unknown in Canada) understand, as do their allies on the Left, that neoconservatism simply represents the hard, "right-wing" side of the managerial-therapeutic regime and the corporate state, which is particularly eager to carry out the retrenchments against American workers (the various cutbacks and plant-closings) necessary for the perpetuation of the system.

In Canada, the last prominent "Tory of the old school" -- somewhat similar to American paleocon intellectuals -- was the Canadian traditionalist and nationalist philosopher, George Parkin Grant, who had an abiding respect for the social democratic tradition in Canada, a respect which was reciprocated by certain thinkers of the Left, such as Gad Horowitz. It may be argued that the real problem with Canada today is that one-third of the country's political tradition and history, that is, true toryism (as opposed to liberalism and social democracy) has been lopped off from contemporary Canadian society -- removed from popular memory, from the education system, and from presence in the mass media. Social democrats today (as in the case of Ontario Premier Bob Rae [6]) are too busy acquiescing to the neoconservative economic agenda, establishing casinos, and running the lucrative lotteries, to take notice of what has been lost.

Thus, Canadians are forced today to perceive and take their cues from social and political vocabularies that are largely American -- America being both the most powerful system of domination in the world, as well as the centre of all the various forms of philosophical liberalism, including neoconservatism. As Canada becomes increasingly Americanized, neoconservatism is bound to gain in strength, particularly with the telling lack of a countervailing right-wing tradition native to Canada.

In any case, the neoconservative project could be seen as amounting to making the world safe for McDonald's and MTV, embracing fully the corporate, therapeutic, and consumerist technological dystopia that probably awaits us, which has been called "the air-conditioned nightmare". John Gray, a professor at Oxford [7], was once a classical liberal, a supporter of ultra-free-market philosopher Friedrich Hayek. Gray's recent book, Beyond the New Right: Markets, Government and the Common Environment (Routledge, 1993) establishes Gray as a "right-wing Green", as a social – not economic -- conservative, and a full-pledged conservationist, an ecological thinker.

Unfortunately, the neocon "young bucks" are too busy plotting the rise of their "movement" -- and of ensuring their places in it -- to look at such deep issues. The fact is that the recently-deceased Idler [8] could have been rescued with an absolutely miniscule fraction of American neocon foundation funds. The Summer 1993 (and last) issue of The Idler was (as described in the "Foreword") dedicated to David Frum, who wrote the magazine "a generous, unconditional cheque"; while it had been Devon Cross of the Donner Canada Foundation (a foundation considered by some to be very favourable to neoconservative projects) who had brought back David Warren as editor. But in the end, Mr. Warren was probably too much of an eclectic litterateur for the neocons' tastes, and deemed not worth the money. One suspects that the subordination of literary culture to economic policy had to be total.

The prospects of a neoconservative advance into Canada could be seen as frightening in their implications for the future of social democracy in Canada, and will probably not make the rank-and-file members of the Reform Party [9] particularly happy (given the frictions that will doubtless arise out of the dynamics of maintaining a movement-within-a-movement), while being unlikely to impress whatever few diehard philosophical "Tories of the old school" remain in Canada today.  ESR


[1] The Globe and Mail is one of the large-circulation daily newspapers in Toronto, Canada's largest city, and is usually economically capitalist, and socially avowedly left-liberal.
[2] Canada's Progressive Conservative Prime Minister from 1984-1993, elected with large majorities in 1984 and 1988.
[3] Already in 1994, one of the leading neoconservative writers in Canada, and a major figure in the U.S., as well.
[4] A major, Toronto-based Canadian magazine, which has gone through various ownerships and "incarnations" during the 1990s and today.
[5] Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada's Prime Minister from 1968-1984 (except for nine months in 1979-1980) was renowned as a left-liberal.
[6] Bob Rae was the New Democratic Party (NDP) Premier of Ontario from 1990-1995 and, by the end of his term, had managed to alienate almost everyone in the province.
[7] John Gray now teaches at the London School of Economics.
[8] A small-circulation Canadian literary quarterly of mildly conservative orientation, established in the mid-1980s, it was perennially plagued with financial difficulties. David Warren was the founding and long-time editor. He has been fortuitously able to parlay his editorial accomplishments into an established columnist position, for example, with The Ottawa Citizen and The Western Standard.
[9] The Reform Party of Canada – a far more moderate and popular party than the U.S. Reform Party -- won 52 of 295 seats in the federal Parliament in 1993, and 60 of 301 seats in the federal election of 1997. It transformed itself into the Canadian Alliance (whose full name was the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance) in 1998-2000, winning 66 of 301 seats in the federal election of November 2000. Finally, a historic merger agreement was reached in October 2003 between the Canadian Alliance and the "ultra-moderate" Progressive Conservative Party (overwhelmingly approved by both parties by December 2003). The vote-splitting between the two parties, as well as the widespread climate of contempt for the Reform Party, had ensured easy Liberal majorities in the federal Parliament, in 1993, 1997, and 2000. In the June 2004 federal election, a Liberal minority government came to power. The Liberal government was finally outvoted in the federal Parliament in late-November 2005. In the ensuing January 2006 federal election, the Harper Conservatives won a minority government – which has continued in existence until today. It remains to be seen whether "traditionalist toryism" can play some role in the new Conservative Party, and whether the elements of neoconservatism in the new party will tend in fact to lessen the Conservative Party's over-all appeal to many Canadians.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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