Almost 50 years ago, economic guru Milton Friedman made an observation that was destined to have dramatic results: “Every act of government intervention limits the area of individual freedom directly and threatens the preservation of freedom indirectly.” Thus began the great campaign to begin the undermining of government’s reach and to offer capitalist forces a clear and open field for the redefining of democracy. One of the offshoots of that great transition, intended or not, was the redefining of what it really meant to be a citizen.

The age of privatization was upon us, as the belief expanded that private industry could extend our powers much farther than government itself. And for a time it appeared to work, as the ability for the average citizen to acquire more products than ever before grew exponentially. The citizen learned to double-clutch and shift gears quickly from the role of active citizen to passive consumer. The grand construct of the post-World War Two boom, and government’s vital role in its founding and expansive success, quickly gave way to a world where individual pursuits overtook the collective will of Canada.

These words are from a blog I wrote on citizenship last summer and they immediately sprang to mind as I thought of the Electro Motive situation in London and the crude lockout of its workers. Across North America there does seem to be a groundswell of support building against these rather dramatic attacks on working people. The corporate barons likely watch this with mild alarm, confident that their resources and political connections should carry the day.

The days when a person could get an education, find meaningful work, raise a family, afford a mortgage and build a community are quickly fading. From speaking with many, I am discovering that this passing of a way of life that has done Canada so well is not going to go quietly into the night. There is a general acknowledgement that the corporate and financial elite have used the economic crisis – created by their own making – to strip away from workers income and job protections and increase exploitation. While record profits are being accrued, along with significant financial reserves, corporate executives are using the yield to up personal bonuses. But we knew all this already, right?

The Caterpillar fiasco in London isn’t merely about one company’s decision to play hardball; it’s an opening salvo intended to put a final nail in an increasingly fragile way of life. When Milton Friedman (quoted above) talked about undermining government’s reach, he wasn’t just talking about gaining control of the political system to favour a corporate agenda, he was also talking putting in politicians who would actually resist any effort of government to at least take an energetic interest in the turbulent places like London. Corporations understand well enough that the only force that can curtail their future are governments willing to use legislative powers to reduce income disparity. To do all that they needed citizens and we obliged.

Because we live and function in a democracy we now find ourselves in the precarious situation where enough Canadians voted in a government at the federal level that openly supports the ongoing lowering of corporate taxes and the rights of corporations to do whatever they wish to do. That would work at a time when corporations invested long-term in communities and hammered out fair negotiations within a civic and economic context. Caterpillar is reminding us that those days are quickly passing, and for two reasons. The first is that it has the benign support of a federal government. The second is that citizens in Canada have let all this unfold, slowly building on their own watch, and aren’t likely inclined to kick up a fuss by either showing solidarity with the workers or by opting for new governments that would seek to address the present economic disparity – or both. In other words, they’re counting on you to keep the status quo.

This has been a plan a half-century in the making and after decades of trench warfare it has finally broken out into the open field. By co-opting governments and seducing citizens with things rather than long-term values of sustainable success, the corporate agenda has arrived at it glory days, and it’s not about to give it up. It asks only that we get used to it – part-time employment, few benefits, no security, the environment be damned, government as cheerleader. It changes employees like we change tires on a car and it has little concern for how they are disposed of.

Along with anger over what has transpired at Caterpillar, we also require a dose of humility. This all took place in a democracy, where the vote matters, and where citizens can look out for their future. But we grew so distracted by the baubles that corporatism provided us in the early years that we didn’t realize it was stealing our souls in the process.  It is we – citizens – who permitted this entire structure to be built on shifting sand. Goods replaced the good society. The opposite of distraction is focus, and it’s time we all centered our efforts in London to begin the decade-long process of turning back the tide. It will take concentration and a willingness to sacrifice for others – something our materialism has been slowly taking from us. We, too, must have a collective plan and be just as dedicated to its success – our success.

Tomorrow – What Can Be Done?