Aleksandr Soizhenitsyn, Nobel Prize-winning author, moved to Vermont to escape the horrific memories he shared in books like his Gulag Archipelago. To everyone’s surprise, a number of years later he returned to Russia to live out his remaining days. Asked why he would abandon the beauty and freedom of Vermont, he answered he had learned that the heavy emphasis western citizens placed upon materialism and the pursuit of things was ultimately stealing their soul. He eventually concluded, “the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits” – tough words, largely ignored.
Throughout the BBC series The Century of the Self the usual suspects were trouped out as having precipitated the movement from social progress to private pursuits over the period of decades. But, in truth, citizens can’t fully claim to be victims of misguided politics or of the rampant capitalism that drives them towards materialism. None of it would have been possible had citizens sought to hold the various economic and political institutions to the historic task of economic growth with environmental sustainability and social cohesion. Citizens bought and borrowed, moved or built extensions to their homes, voted or didn’t, desired entertainment over creativity, consumed without saving, and eventually arrived at this moment of vulnerability without realizing it.
Complain all we like about politics, most seasoned observers would say we chose our governments and then failed to hold them to account because we never built the kind of community cohesion required for responsible representation. We often moan at the amount of “stuff” flooding the markets, but our houses are nevertheless full of such things. Have we been pandered to by politicians merely seeking our vote? Definitely. Have we been duped and manipulated by a free market that at times seems to have run amok? Absolutely. Did we at some point have the opportunity to steer a different course, one that included our neighbours and our suffering world but chose our own individual path instead? Yes again, and therein lies the rub. We permitted a progressive and accountable society to sift through our fingers because we were distracted by our personal pursuits. So to stand back and criticize politics or capitalism for the cul-de-sac they have maneuvered us into is like blaming the roads when we refused to look at the map.
We are, in effect, captives of ourselves – trapped in our pursuits and barren of the resources to chart a new course. Excessivism has replaced excellence; greed has outflanked the good in modern society. Canadians maintain they want effective climate change legislation and an end to modern poverty. They want affordable university education, good social housing, and effective universal healthcare. But they will never condone the raising of taxes to pay for a better future. The politicians, knowing this, race to the bottom in order to capture the swing voters by cutting their taxes. The only option now is to take the money away from others to satisfy these key voters, creating more inequality in the process.
As a citizenry we are performing the proverbial “having our cake and eating it too,” and it can’t be sustained. We either build this country anew or we watch it wither. Politics is nothing without an effective citizenry; but how do we actually build and enhance that segment within our society? Furthermore, how do we citizens come together to accomplish what traditional politics is afraid to do? Has that opportunity passed or can we yet change course?
No politician desiring to win an election would dare propose increasing taxes to bring us back from the brink. Where then will the funds come from to help us in overcoming our poverty, environmental danger, growing inequality, the increasing costs of healthcare or education? Capitalists will tell us that we require ever-lower taxes in order to create the atmosphere for more investment, but how has that gone for us so far? Free marketers will tell us that we can grow our way out of our present predicament and no discussion of taxes is required. Again, we’ve seen where that has led us.
So where will the funds come from? We must all sacrifice if we are all to prevail. This business of pandering to certain voters to win elections, while taking opportunities away from others is only segregating us even further into the haves and have-nots. The blame game is no longer a sufficient excuse for our inaction. These are difficult words but they must be said.
We are a good people and our peaceable international reputation is merited. Yet we are losing our cohesiveness and we know it. It’s no longer enough to be nice people. As Aristotle put it: “It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen.” What will it take to get there? Can we count on the media? The Internet? Renewal within the political classes? Perhaps, but if we are not willing to be our brother or sister’s keeper then we will forfeit our greater calling as citizens. If these words aren’t suitable, you can always check out. But abandoning our first principles as citizens is something we’ve been in the process of doing for decades. There’s work to be done.