The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: history

Looks Like History Didn’t End After All

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ALMOST TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO IT BECAME a literary sensation. I devoured the book in three days on the coast of Nova Scotia. The premise of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was provocative, if not audacious. He reasoned that it was clear that capitalist democracy has basically beaten back every other form of government and stood pre-eminent over history itself. He viewed history as a winding experimentation of various forms of governance that eventually fended off unworthy contenders to claim democracy itself as the ultimate victor. In that sense, history needed to look no further; it had reached the most free, refined, and prosperous political management system that would likely never be transcended.

Admittedly, it was a heady time. Communism had fallen. American imperialistic democracy appeared unassailable. And capitalism? Globalization was supposedly spreading its prosperity around the world. All looked good; why look for anything better?

Looking back at it now, it all seems so naïve. The attacks of 9/11 brought all that to a screaming halt. Though armed conflicts between official state actors has been in decline for decades, the rise of terrorism and the lack of accountability of non-state actors has made the world seem more dangerous. The Great Recession put the lie to the simplistic belief that capitalism would lead us to some kind of Nirvana. And the impending catastrophic reach of climate change, driven largely by the insane penchant for modernization without the proper understanding of the consequences, might very well bring us to the edge of catastrophe. So, no, history didn’t end up in the ideal, but in a toxic soup of challenges that civilization hardly seems prepared for.

In a real sense history hasn’t changed much at all, but our perception of it clearly has. It’s never been easy and progress has always been excruciating. Democracy is now being challenged by numerous hybrid-like systems of government, such as China’s. Our comfortable Western view of humanity is under assault and our political structures are sagging under the strain. The great consensus between democracy and capitalism is no longer a sure thing.

In a very real way the concepts of both the democratic and capitalist experiments have to be reinvented if they are to endure. A financial system that can make individuals billionaires overnight while leaving billions in grinding poverty over decades can hardly claim legitimacy. And a political system that can’t overcome the huge gap between itself and the citizenry makes it less likely to be trusted. Both systems were meant to provide prosperity and equity for the masses, neither of which has materialized as hoped.

If everyone truly possesses potential and equal dignity, then what are we doing allowing systems that bring us neither? History should have taught us that you can’t sustain a system that gives you everything but kills the planet, but we haven’t learned that reality yet. Refined history informed us that men and women are truly equal, but we still behave as though we didn’t get the memo. It reminded us that any nation carrying too great a gap between rich and poor eventually squanders its prosperity, but we were too busy with our credit cards.

While believing the self-interest is the way ahead, we forgot that without the collective interest nothing is truly achieved.

History isn’t about economics or governance, but ultimately concerns the pursuit of a respectful humanity. Fukuyama told us that the fulfillment of money and politics would make us happy, effectively ending history’s pursuit, but what we have learned is that they have impoverished and isolated us because we forgot that history itself cannot progress without empowered humans themselves. Time to get back to shaping history for all rather than leveraging it for the few.

Basic Income and Transforming a Generation

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THE CONCEPT OF A BASIC INCOME ISN’T ONE simple construct but a wide range of ideas of which all or some could end up in a final policy proposal. Even its name isn’t a sure thing. In recent years it has been labeled a Guaranteed Annual Income, a Guaranteed Income Supplement, Basic Income Guarantee, a Social Wage, or even a Citizen’s Dividend.

While many have fought for such an initiative for various reasons, it has been primarily its potential for eliminating poverty that has become the focus for recent Basic Income activity. The ability to provide low-income Canadians with a guaranteed level of funding, proponents say, would eliminate the need for the heavy programming and bureaucratic expenses related to administering initiatives to help the needy. Some maintain that the sheer savings on programming alone would be sufficient to get Canadians out of poverty. There is much debate on this at present, but the possibility of lifting so many Canadians to a secure economic level through one comprehensive initiative has proved remarkably appealing.

Proponents from the Left say it will eradicate poverty; those from the Right maintain it will save governments money. Yet the potential of a Basic Income is intriguing in other ways perhaps far more compelling. Since Canada’s founding a woman’s economic status has been directly linked to that of her father or her spouse. As philosopher Carole Pateman writes: “A basic income would, for the first time, provide women with modest life-long independence and security.” For new Canadians the possibilities of starting from a secure economic base would provide them great potential for settling in a community, accessing educational opportunities, and provide them some status.

Experimentation with Basic Income initiatives have been going on around the world in places like Germany, Brazil, France, Britain, and even Mexico and Columbia. And it’s happening in all the places for the same reason that it’s gaining traction in Canada: poverty is systemic, growing, and won’t go away. In tomorrow’s post we’ll deal with the negative implications of what it all means, but for the present support for a Basic Income is compelling. Outside of changing the entire financial order, transforming the flow of funds between political jurisdictions, or permitting Canadians cities and communities to have more powers of taxation, it would be challenging to find another initiative so all-encompassing and comprehensive as a Basic Income initiative.

By way of possibilities, consider what took place in the appointing of the new federal cabinet yesterday in Ottawa. Advocates have been saying for decades that we should be reaching gender equality by now in our politics, but the sheer dominance of the male-dominated political order was content to eke its way towards such a target over the course of many years. Justin Trudeau’s appointment of a 50-50 cabinet showed just how inured we had become to political and gender renewal. In a welcome instant he turned the possibilities of politics on its head.

As we tinker increasingly with inter-generational poverty, what is to keep us from alleviating it in one broad sweep of creativity, legislation, and civil society support? Nothing, except our own lack of resolve and the paltriness of our expectations. Trudeau’s cabinet selection reminds us that history is of little use to us if can’t transcend its barriers to find a better place. Crippling poverty can be vanquished but only if we resolve within ourselves to finally do it. In such a setting, the Basic Income might be the way forward.

Basic Income: An Idea With a History

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ARTIST ANDY WARHOL OFTEN EXHIBITED FASCINATING INSIGHTS into the human condition that, at times, became colloquialisms. At one point he noted, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” And that is true. Yet there are those occasions when time itself can be of assistance.

Take the concept of a basic income as a measure of that truth. Yesterday we noted how the idea of some kind of baseline income could be of great help to the marginalized. Many progressives are shocked when they discover that libertarian economist Milton Friedman threw his support behind early efforts of what was then called a “Guaranteed Annual Income,” but which he preferred to label a “negative income tax.” From across the political and economic spectrums came support. Left-learning economists like James Tobin and John Kenneth Galbraith got behind Friedman.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. a few years previous who brought the basic income concept to more popular attention in his book Where to Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective – the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

Even in 1972, as George McGovern challenged Richard Nixon for the presidency, one of his key proposals was the implementation of a more generous basic income. Nixon won and the initiative was lost, at least for a time.

It seems to have been around forever, but it is only in recent years in Canada that it has come to the fore as the nation deals with the complexity and incessant growth of poverty itself. Former senator and Mulroney Chief of Staff Hugh Segal has pushed the concept for two decades, acquiring along the way some key support. In frustrating fashion, however, it languished interminably in that spot between good intentions and decisive action.

The Great Recession of just a few years ago created significant fallout in everything from shrinking government resources and unemployment to general distemper among the citizenry. Poverty itself was quickly being vaulted to the front of the line when it came to policy matters. People began talking about the urgent need for a housing strategy for the homeless and more effective poverty reduction initiatives in Canadian communities. Increased talk moved through political circles about other nations that had practiced various forms of basic income for decades and there was an openness to explore such options within the Canadian context.

And now it seems that time itself has created a ready audience for the concept of a basic income in Canada itself. It was slow in coming, but now that it has arrived, Warhol’s observation that things won’t change unless we change them ourselves seems achievable. Canadians themselves are increasingly impatient over the poverty situation in the nation, and especially the growing gap between the rich and poor. The idea of a basic income is emerging again, only this time to a more willing audience. Breaking ground and instilling a willingness to move forward on the concept may have taken decades, but those years weren’t wasted or lost. They accomplished their work and prepared us for something not only innovative, but perhaps revolutionary.

Tomorrow:  Basic Income – How it Works

Election 2015: What in the World?

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IT WAS SUPPOSED TO REMAIN CONFIDENTIAL, and was even marked “secret” on its cover page, but the contents were obtained by the Globe and Mail. It wasn’t pretty. Neither was it inconsequential.

In a presentation prepared by senior Foreign Affairs officials for a high level meeting two weeks ago, the analysis could be wrapped up in one sentence: “Despite Canada’s reputation as an active player on the world stage, by many measures, its relative influence has declined or is under threat.” It wasn’t a conclusion the government would have liked to hear, and so it sought to keep it quiet.

And yet we know it; Canadians have felt the slippage over recent years, but because these issues are at a global level they have felt there is little that they, as citizens, can do. And it appears they may have been right – until now, that is, when their vote could make the difference to whether Canada reclaims its traditional place in the world or continues in its decline.

It’s likely that those senior officials who have held the vital responsibility for diplomacy and international development have been the most aggrieved in recent years, as they have witnessed Canada’s influence erode and struggled to get the Harper government to fulfill and build on its responsibilities. The Globe and Mail states that Foreign Affairs officials put it all plainly:

  • There has been a “loss of our traditional place at some multilateral tables
  • Canada is not a “partner of first choice” for foreign countries
  • We have a “declining market share in emerging markets” with fast-developing nations
  • Canada’s “official development assistance is declining,” as other countries like China enhanced their interests through foreign aid

This has been an electoral campaign full of issues that are vital to the Canadian identity. And although such contests tend to repeatedly focus on domestic issues, sometimes the world breaks in through realities that can actually affect how we live here, within our own borders. In the last few weeks we have faced an ongoing refugee crisis, tremors in the world economy, a sluggish major trade deal with Europe, a minor role in military action, and the urgent reality of climate change. In all of these things it is only by partnering with other nations that we can hope to overcome such challenges. And yet we are failing on this key point, opting to chart our own course and veer away from our tradition as a solid trade/development/diplomatic partner.

Last night a debate between the party leaders focused on international affairs, but the reality is that global challenges are part and parcel of every day of this long campaign. It is impossible for domestic politics to rule supreme during an electoral contest when the world is facing challenges on so many fronts. In such a setting, a secret report from highly qualified people telling of our global failings in this crucial hour is hardly comforting.

Canada has historically been a true international country and it’s time we starting act like it. As we lose track of time and our place in history, other nations in the world are emerging.  Perhaps the upcoming election will provide the impetus for us to recapture our status and effectiveness in the global arena once more. As Albert Schweitzer put it: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” It’s time that we, as citizens, helped Canada get back to a place of international influence.

Forgetting Our History

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My new Huffington Post piece talks about how we forget history in many fashions, not just through the kind of destruction we are seeing in Iraq and Syria.  The direct link to the column is here.
“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” said Winston Churchill — a great quote and just like him.

But what of those who seek to destroy history altogether, who endeavor to wipe the words from a page already written? The sight of historic relics preserved from humankind’s earliest era being purposefully destroyed forever by determined ISIS forces is jarring to our sensibilities and a sacrilege on almost every level

It’s happened many times in other centuries. The destruction of the Epang Palace great library in China in 206 B. C., or the massive Alexandria library torched five centuries later, left sizeable holes in the narrative of history that can never be recovered, even through modern technology.

But this is the modern era, where our understanding of the importance of history is virtually absolute. The pictures coming across our screens of statues being pushed over, stone carvings being hammered to oblivion, or symbols being spirited away to who knows where run the danger of imposing a form of cultural Alzheimer’s on the arc of recorded history. Some of these artifacts, and their significance to the human story, are likely gone forever and we’ll forget about them soon enough.

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history,” wrote George Orwell. That applies not only to the troubled people of Iraq and Syria, but to us as well as these vital “connectors” to our beginnings lie in ruins. As one Iraqi archaeologist put it: “No history, no culture, no past.”

Nothing else quite compares to this in the modern era. Groups that can sever heads would give little thought to severing our connection to the past. They are like cancer cells — disconnected, dangerous and clearly deadly. Something sinister awaits those who become better known for what they destroy than what they create.

History doesn’t exclusively disappear through a sword, a bomb, or a mallet. It can as easily be brought about through a lack of attention to detail as it can through explosives. The affluent countries of the West are showing disturbing signs of neglect for values that once were sacred to how they worked. We were once on a path for pay equity for women until we lost our way and the fight went out of us. Twenty-five years ago, every member of the House of Commons in the Canadian parliament voted to end child poverty by the year 2000 — a promise that has not only been forgotten but exacerbated as well. Social programs that were once so essential to the equilibrium and productivity of Canada are slowly being dismantled as citizens pay little heed. The great problem of climate change is a world of ecological decline where entire species disappear. Lakes have vanished, wells have run dry, the rains don’t come anymore in some areas, and our love of oil has overtaken our reverence for Nature.

Politically we have lost the art of respect and compromise, as rank partisanship severs every society it touches. Citizens are leaving the voting booth at the same time as politicians forego their commitment to authenticity. Even entire portions of government itself are disappearing through political gamesmanship and a destructive willingness to prefer the present over the future.

One only wishes we could be as horrified over such incremental obliteration as we are over the travesty of the actions of ISIS. Around the world, history is under assault, through brutality, greed, or neglect. It will be tougher to correct our present course if we can’t remember the road we took in the first place.

Shakespeare once noted: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” What happens when we can no longer remember who we were?

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