The Thirty-year Memory

by Glen

For many citizens, especially the progressive kind, there remains a deep and latent desire to rediscover a Canada that is not so divided along economic, social and regional lines. As the years pass, it feels as if it’s becoming more of a dream than a real possibility. Ottawa doesn’t so much reflect the divisions of Canada as it exacerbates them, willfully promoting the seeds of animosity as opposed to finding new levels of cooperation whereby we can all pull together to prepare for the gathering storm.

Enough money exists to solve our most basic problems – more than at any time in history. Yet an increasing amount of the wealth created has gone to the people at the top and this lies at the heart of our predicament. Our real challenge isn’t so much balancing a global economy, presently sailing too close to the rocks, but to actually restructure it so that its benefits are shared more widely by all Canadians, as it once used to be. It was never perfect, but it was more equitable.

Taken in historical perspective, those years in which the economy was on the move, and with it the prosperity of most Canadians, occupy merely a short parenthetical phase. From the very beginnings of humanity, at least as they’re recorded, it had always been that the power and wealth went to the few. Look at any age, even the glory days of Pericles and Greek democracy, and you’ll see the same principle holding true – a few benefitted while the rest made do with little. It went on century after century, millennia after millennia.

Although World War One was a global phenomenon and shook up the economic and global order, it shifted little from this practice of the few wealthy and the many poor. The seeds of the next great war were planted in this soil of wealth inequity. Science was bringing massive knowledge, not only of a broader world, but of the inner workings and possibilities of humans themselves. Efforts to attain this new era for average citizens were quickly tamped down by those who benefitted the most from wealth creation.

The financial mismanagement of those supposedly in charge of the economy eventually led to the Great Depression and opened the doors for Franklin Roosevelt to usher in the New Deal. We know all this already, but it’s important to see it in perspective. The fundamental restructuring of economies that took place in Europe, the U.S. and Canada in those years quickly elevated a small middle-class into the mainstream, lasted all but 30 years. Economists tell us that it ran the span from roughly the early-1940s to the early-1970s. Thirty years, that’s it. They were remarkable times and along with the money generated post-World War Two, there was the expansion of society in almost every dimension. An empowered middle-class bought the products, deepened their own potential, and voted for progressives in ways that kept the deeper enrichment of places like Canada growing.

Thirty years later we began the process of losing it. The new corporatism, global in scope, returned with a vengeance and used its influence wherever it could. Industrialization and manufacturing were suddenly on the decline. Economies sagged. Political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher waged war on the excesses of the earlier order but cut into the very sinew of the middle class in the process. From that point on, middle class families would watch as the greater wealth moved steadily beyond them. They made do with “things,” but their real purchasing power would remain stagnant until the present day. Cheap credit meant they could keep buying, but they have now ended with the largest private debt in the world.

Thirty years – that’s all it was. So when progressives talk about restoring a societal order that was as equitable as it was empowered they are really talking about a blip – a remarkable period where history was turned on its head, the wealthy were forced to yield up some of their riches for the benefit of society as a whole, and average citizens found themselves as co-creators of a new destiny.

Is that memory of those brief decades enough to recharge us again, to cause citizens to fight for the progressive track they once travelled but which appears to be slipping away? Will they begin to sit up and take notice that the flaws of our modern economy are imperiling our political and social order, and that large numbers of citizens now feel the game is rigged against them. And will they then serve notice that they refuse to support an economic order that calls for the privatization of everything public when it can’t even run its own shop?

It’s time we started focusing on the real economy and not just the financial one. Thirty years wasn’t a long time, but it was enough to build dreams and to remember them. People who can’t even run the world or national economies are purposefully and shamefully dismembering our public heritage in hopes that the days of Roosevelt will never be repeated. Our only real hope against that is responsible citizenship and even more responsible government.

Already things are stirring, with demonstration on Wall Street, in Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro and at some point in places across Canada. This is no way to run an economy but we as citizens were too busy shopping to notice. But that 30 years still burns in our memory and we must live more responsibly in an effort to get them back. It’s time we started talking and fighting for the real economy.