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We ought to be outraged. Almost daily our media provide new accounts of the decline of our democracy: the inadequacies of our electoral system and allegations of electoral fraud; the high-handed treatment of our Parliament through inappropriate prorogations and overuse of omnibus legislation; a government ever more authoritarian and opaque, resistant to evidence and reason, and prepared to stifle dissent. These issues are being raised across the political spectrum, left, right and centre, and among critics with very different models of democracy. And yet, even given these significant stirrings of outrage, why do so many still seem not to care? Has democracy lost its lustre?
Part of the answer lies in the preeminence of markets over the last three decades. Not just the rise of the market economy, but also our conversion to a market society in which money can buy almost anything. We have become more consumer than citizen. And as a result we have seen a thinned-out “bargain basement citizenship” — Canadians expect less from their government, give less and get less. Inequalities and their corrosiveness grow, undermining solidarity and any sense of common good. While few would be comfortable with American economist Bryan Caplan’s statement that what we need is more market and less democracy, he captures well the bleeding of market thinking into our social and political relationships.
So how did we get here?
The end of the Cold War ushered in what the philosopher Michael Sandel calls “market triumphalism”: the idea that the genius of market mechanisms for generating prosperity held the key to the good life. The common good was no longer a matter of citizens contesting ideas or governments shaping the future; common citizenship and civic virtue were replaced by the pursuit of individual interests in free and voluntary market exchanges.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher understood this when she said there is no such thing as society. Only individuals and their interests and fears are real. Government, in this view, is part of the problem unless it restricts its role to protecting the market and, inevitably, those who benefit most from it.
Some, such as the libertarian Caplan, worry that our woeful understanding of the laws of economics — as if there were laws — makes democracy a dangerous thing. This is just a bolder version of neo-liberal worries that when we interfere with the market we jeopardize its efficiency. We are warned about the economic imperatives in a globalized economy, which, the argument goes, severely limit the scope for government action. Less government, less taxes, more market. That this view persists even after the recent financial meltdown and current meltings is testament to its powerful hold.
At the same time, growing inequality makes it almost impossible to imagine ever formulating a shared sense of the good life. The very idea becomes a stretch given the profoundly different ways in which the super rich, the poor and the majority experience life. They breathe different air. Their kids go to different schools. They live in different neighbourhoods. Money always matters, but in an increasingly privatized world, it has never mattered more.
At the top, the extraordinary gains of a small global elite have given them an outsized capacity to shape the agenda and at the same time to secede from much of society. And even as extreme inequality undermines equality of opportunity, the myth of meritocracy emboldens many to believe that they are entitled to all they have. Down the economic scale, just as the very rich want to see taxes cut to hold on to what they have, so too do the majority want to withhold their money from a state they no longer trust. Even if recent events have shaken confidence in the promise of markets, they have not restored confidence in governments — and why should they? Look at the lost manufacturing jobs, tainted meat, deteriorating institutions and hollow politics. And, in a perfect self-fulfilling prophecy, taxes are cut, the state shrinks and becomes less trustworthy, the services it provides less relevant and increasingly shoddy, and the distrust grows and curdles into cynicism.
The result: a marketized politics of propaganda and pandering. It’s understandable then that, increasingly, those who want something better are looking outside of conventional politics: to their communities or global causes or to the streets. It was striking how many of the participants in the Quebec student protests found a new solidarity — and expressed a new sense of the common good — in their activism. Clearly some do care about our democracy, but many, especially young Canadians, have given up on the impoverished version offered up by our politics. That is both understandable and dangerous. The new activism and rebuilding of an independent civil society are essential but not enough.
Student leaders from Quebec have launched a cross-Canada tour to promote activism and the creation of social movements that provide a richer democratic experience than offered by contemporary politics, but also to explain to those who feel disenfranchised why voting and political participation still matter. They understand the dangers of leaving any government to its own devices, unconstrained by a vigilant citizenry. But they are also looking for a new politics, tuned into community and the streets, which at least begins to offer real engagement on the issues that matter — inequality and poverty, jobs and youth unemployment, climate change and environmental degradation. They seem to have found some hope that a renewed democracy could allow us to take back our future. It is now up to our political leadership to take up the challenge.
Alex Himelfarb is the director of the Glendon School of International and Public Affairs, a former Clerk of the Privy Council and a board member of the Public Services Foundation of Canada.