The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: public space

The Partisan Mind (2)


It seemed like a sincere enough request.  I was being asked by an MP from another party if I’d like to have a drink with other MPs just to be social.  “Sure,” I responded, and that evening, following a late vote in the House, we retired to a favourite watering hole in Ottawa.  Nine of us had gathered, from every party but one.  I listened in fascination as we all complained about how impossible it was to accomplish any cross-party cooperation because our party positions were so rigid.  Government and opposition MPs that evening bemoaned the decline of democracy but we were all stymied as to what to do about it.  When it was suggested that we take a public stand in the House for more cooperation and less animosity, the response was muted.

This is an all-too-common occurrence in our modern political structure, and not only in Canada.  The majority of elected representatives that I knew during my brief sojourn in politics were decent and hard working.  They easily could have worked together in a company or a non-profit organization.  Instead, all of us were stuck in a partisan world that brokered little innovation. We were as varied as a field full of daisies but, in the end, we had an essential likeness that spoke of timidity and the odd scent of barrenness.

This is ever the problem when partisanship has gone off the deep end.  Individuals caught in its tentacles steer their course by the lesser light of their prejudices.  Their convictions run by instinct and their thoughts run in an endless feedback loop.  There are endless assertions but few enlightened arguments.  Such individuals, wandering in their limited possibilities, always require some kind of prophet – a leader who can fill in the gap between their own emptiness and a hoped for ideal.

We have all experienced this in one form or another.  Our very narrowness and lack of public spirit make those better angels of our respective natures all the more futile because they can only function in conformity.  We achieve a kind of sure trust and yet its field of vision is so narrow.  If we aren’t careful, such tendencies can create a kind of sterility of which we are not conscious – a kind of inner lack that robs us of the kind of comprehensive compassion required to efficiently manage the public space.  And it perverts our conduct in a fashion that can sadly lose the public trust – a reality all of our political parties face at present.

These three blog posts are designed for the average person who is interested in politics but who can feel the temptations that limit public possibilities when private passions are followed. There are always those with rabid opinions who seek to divide citizens and those who desire to stay so neutral that they have little to offer in the way of actionable items in the public space.  These blog posts aren’t for such voices.

Good people function in every political party and seek the best for their communities and the country.  We aren’t guns for hire, nor do we have the wish to defile the public space.  And yet powerful forces are at work in both politics and human nature that can draw us into swirling side eddies by offering us quicker paths to power and influence.  It is in our own best interest, and those of our communities, to take the more complex route of deliberative dialogue and the willingness to compromise.

The reason for all this is simple: the white-hot nature of partisan politics makes it impossible to function on our public streets – the very thoroughfares of community that we all care about.  The public rejects such displays outright.

Modern democracy doesn’t seek to carpet bomb nor demean someone of a different viewpoint. It requires a dedication to the method of inquiry, a certain intelligent detachment, and free exchange of views in respect.   Such an attitude, without our intention or even awareness, is capable of creating a series of mini-revolutions that bring about a catalyst in our politics – a refinement that brings about change through process instead of brinksmanship through major revolution.  Should the political order fail to provide for such possibilities, then it is only a matter of time until more violent solutions are pursued and the moment of opportunity for nuanced progress is lost.

Such possibilities must ever be in the mind of the well-meaning partisan.  If we were honest, we would admit that it is almost impossible to maintain a blind loyalty to a political party if we always seek new research, ideas and renaissance.  It is our enlightened minds that should claim our ultimate loyalty, not a group or an individual with a guidebook of simple equations and answers.  The very fires that rage in our minds and seek change for the betterment of people must never be permitted to burn their own path through the public space, destroying decades of investment in their wake.  Reasonable partisans are better than that and permit their hard-won convictions to be moderated by the well-meaning views of others.

As Chogyam Trungpa put it: “Personal enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment.”  Our communities demand our better selves – the part of us that delights in shared accomplishments over private prejudices.  Partisans have a key place in such a world, but only when they understand their respectful place in the broader community.

Bar Code Generation

Face it.  All this talk about citizen engagement presumes there is one relationship that really matters – that between citizens and their political representatives. Great effort is put into cobbling enough citizens together to make the political process take note. It all becomes a convenient exercise because it rests on the premise that politicians aren’t listening when citizens are speaking – politicians “bad,” citizens “good.”

But there’s more to it. At its essence, citizenship involves a sense of solidarity, a reciprocity between citizens meant to infuse the democratic exercise with a sense of urgency and purpose. They must view themselves as partners in an enterprise far greater than themselves, and which entails costs as well as benefits. While it’s common to bemoan the rotting relationship between citizens and the political order, it is actually the decline of citizen-to-citizen partnership that represents a more serious threat.

Why don’t we work closer together? It’s a good question, and at least two clear answers emerge. The first has to do with the increasing fragmentation within the political order itself. Without effective political oversight, citizens correctly sense that their combined or individual efforts have little effect – the politicians will just do what they want anyway. And yet citizens continue to vote in a way that magnifies such divisions instead of minimizing it. It’s an ongoing paradox.

The second reason is more troubling and has to do with the slow evolution of citizen-to-consumer transformation that has come to look on the State as a provider of goods and services we want instead of the great social enterprise which is surely is.  Economist John Kenneth Galbraith worried about this over three decades ago, when he noted that a growing group he titled the “contented majority” was becoming more ambivalent about the public space and politics in general. They were displaying the growing tendency to refrain from investing in those public benefits from which they only benefitted indirectly. In a word, they were “shopping” – selecting what they directly desired and bypassing those things others might require for a sustainable life.

Despite all their generosity towards their children, this is where the Baby Boomers failed in their commitment to the young. They overlooked that a great part of the costs required to educate, heal and equip their children were actually subsidized by other citizens through the State. Despite putting money aside for post-secondary training, parents suddenly discovered that it was far more expensive than in previous times. And even if their kids did graduate, the availability of jobs or benefits were quickly eroding, leaving the children more dependent on their parents for longer periods of time than in previous years.

Put simply, while we provided for our children in a private fashion, we failed to follow the example of our parents by using tax dollars and joint citizen efforts to invest in a compelling infrastructure that would be there when the next generation required it. By promising companies ever lower tax rates, and by offering some of the lowest individual tax rates in the country’s history, we left little on the ledger to fund universities, colleges, research, manufacturing, research and development, training in opportunities for international positions in diplomacy and aid, and we cut funding to the arts. The result is that we have companies and embassies closing, post-secondary institutions more reliant than ever on tuition, and the emasculation of research opportunities that strip research teams of personnel and future opportunity.

By being turned from citizen into consumer, we focused most importantly on those things we desired for our daily lives, neglecting the long-term investments that permitted other citizens to invest in our children’s future, just as we did in theirs. The troubled mix between democracy and capitalism has at least produced this – the emphasis of the wallet over the welfare of the citizenry.  We treat public policy and its benefits as an option instead of a necessity, and now that it’s time to pay for our kids’ future we find that without the accrued investment of other citizens we actually can’t afford it. Add to that a government that is working every day to pass omnibus bills that cloak the true intention of stripping the public space to the point where it can no longer rise and fight for itself, and you have a future for the next generation that is significantly smaller than what preceded it.

In providing for our children and not for the children of others we overlooked the one essential that could ensure a better future – public policy. We have permitted capitalism and partisan politics to define democracy for us. The truth is that neither of these really has much to do with a healthy future, especially taken in isolation. If we wish to make our more equitable values the true essence of our democracy, then we must pay for them and collectively guarantee their sustainability. They are the true products of democracy, not derivatives, stocks, or hedge funds.

If we wish a truly prosperous future for the Gen X’ers and Gen Y’ers, then must pay the bill collectively that we can’t hope to cover individually. Our parents provided for us by building bridges, hospitals, universities, funding peacekeepers, backing researchers, and placing public duty over private delights. The Baby Boomers became the generation of bar codes and we are now paying the price in public benefits we can no longer afford. That future can be reversed, but only if we return to true investment in the public space and not a smaller Canada.

We Want In

The Nation magazine recently asked 16 activists and economists the following relevant question: “If you had the ability to reinvent capitalism, where would you start?” The responses were wide-ranging but a synthesis of how they viewed modern capitalism fell into three main categories: 1) surplus is distributed by those who own, not those who work and make; 2) more consumption is always better; and 3) anything “outside” the economy, like the environment, may as well not exist.”

Put in other terms, these three conclusions might say; 1) capital gleaned from production can be taken from the hands from those who make goods and placed in the sole possession of those who own; 2) in order to make more profit each year, as much has to be sold as possible, regardless of what’s left over; and 3) capital seeks its own level with little regard to destruction it doesn’t have to pay for.

What is important about these conclusions is that whether they are correct or not, they are now the perception of average citizens – the rule, not the exception. In any democracy this is capitalism’s major worry. If citizens couple action with their anger, confining legislation can result that seeks out a fairer equilibrium for the fairer distribution of wealth. This would be the figurative equivalent to capitalism having a root canal.

We all grew up with the idea the along with power comes responsibility. Yet it appears nothing possesses greater power and authority today than the multinational corporation – greater even than many sovereign states. No other group holds such influence, and it appears that none has been left with less responsibility.

In the not too distant past, Canada oversaw an economic order where the world of business was expected to accede to certain civic demands. For a time – Confederation up until the 1970s – free enterprise was viewed as a key partner to expanding citizenship and the key enabler of assisting governments in providing average families the ability to progress and learn. Previous centuries had taught leaders that wealth in the hands of the few meant privation in the lives of the many. Time proved them right, as it became clear that democracy was not the product of capitalism but rather it was the other way around. Recent history has shown that capitalism actually requires democracy to produce well-rounded and endowed consumers but actually has no idea how to promote either. In other words, markets are simply incapable of knowing how to build the public space or to furnish it with long-term sustainability. It used to know how, and was in fact a key partner in such pursuits, but has now forgotten its own history in the hurried pursuits of immediate profits.

Much as we have altered our view of corporatism, many corporate leaders have changed their view of us – from multi-dimensional citizens who were also consumers, to consumers solely. The big decisions are made on how we’ll buy and not on how we’ll progress. There are those who will toss out the standard retort that the corporate interest is only rationally pursuing the bottom line and efficiencies. But this wasn’t always the case, as past history has shown. Corporations have morphed from vital community partners to profit-driven entities, isolated and independent from the communities and countries in which they function. Our confidence in this model has become threadbare and in its place is arising the same derision many feel for the political order.

Are citizens ready to take action and insist on a new economic paradigm that no longer accepts that money is superior to people, that credit doesn’t cross-out community? Common goods and benefits are the result of common thinking. Civil society makes that possible, as does an effective form of politics. Private goods are primarily for those who can afford them and the benefits primarily accrue to those higher up the economic ladder. Whatever kind of reordering of the civic/capitalist partnership must plan for the reality that without a healthy public space there will be no sustainable private profits in our communities. Making space for citizens and giving them a choice in future public investments must be the overriding goal of any future strategy to win back our equitable prosperity and begin the shrinking of economic disparity.

By increasingly turning its back on the public right of citizens to say who invests in community, the market is cutting off its nose to spite its face – earnings will eventually fall into decline because corporatism will eventually run out of places to find low-cost labour and they will ultimately return back home to a domestic market that can no longer afford to purchase products.

Montaville Flowers, in his America Chained, predicted in the early 1990s that heading down the road of free market dominance would reduce workers from “the status of independence to that of hireling under humiliating regulations, thus lowering the spirit of communities and the nation.” Ask most citizens from London, Ontario whether they are experiencing that very subtle degradation right now and they’ll nod their heads in the affirmative. Why? One word: Caterpillar. Workers reduced by the mega-firm to having to accept half their salary virtually overnight has brought on an agitated community response of support for the workers themselves.

More than revenue derived from free markets, we require reform emanating from arduous citizens. It has to be about sustainability, not just sales. It’s more about civic progress than about capitalist profits. Thanks to Caterpillar we are slowly beginning to use such language, and in a shared vocabulary of citizenship there is hope.

Citizenship – “Government’s Animating Body”

Citizens are undertaking so many remarkable ventures across the country, at all different levels and with some interesting results. I learned from a friend of a terrific resource just this weekend called the Citizen’s Handbook. In laying out so many different dimensions of how people can make a difference, it might very well live up to its name. With two weeks left to go in this series, now would be the time for those who follow these posts to send in some links to projects you believe might be helpful in moving citizens in the right direction. A list of such resources will be compiled at the end of the series.

The purpose of these blog posts hasn’t been to outline such initiatives but to provide a context, a philosophical framework, for why such creative energies are necessary. Our world is changing, and with governments slowly forsaking public domains and the excesses of free enterprise placing our very financial foundations at risk, Canadians are going to have to enter the fray in innovative ways that might prove an inspiration to governments and businesses alike.

Let’s be clear. Citizen action is not a replacement for government. As Benjamin Barber forcefully put it: “Government is civil society’s common arm, just as civil society is government’s animating body.” Numerous comments to these posts have revealed the sheer angst people feel for government and politicians. Yet the belief that we can get by without it, or that we can run things better are just foolhardy. Managing a country is one of the hardest tasks to face, and when citizens themselves continue to vote for politicians and parties that continue to strip the public cupboard bare, politicians quickly run out of room for making serious strides in bringing back healthy democracy. It’s not jut the politicians that have failed; citizens at the moment seem to have little cohesive strength to band together and protect the public interest. So much seems to be about “me” and lowering my taxes. The farther we travel down that road, as Americans are experiencing at present, the public infrastructure will eventually decline to the point where it cannot be resurrected. Those who can afford services will get them; the rest of us … well, it won’t be easy.

Let’s think about what key areas we should concentrate our efforts on if we are to bring citizens into the public space. A city-sponsored democratic development group in Seattle has come up with this. Following months of interaction they concluded that the six main areas noted in the chart best represent the broader needs of their community and committees were established for each of them which included politicians, interested citizens, and researchers. It has helped to revolutionize Seattle and bridged the divide between politicians and citizens. Each has grown a healthier respect for the other as key problems are finding solutions.

There are examples like this all over Canada, in cities like Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver. I would like to concentrate on something different, however. For our communities and our country to attain the economic, social, mental and sustainable health of which they are capable, citizens must find more productive ways to engage the political order instead of always sideswiping it. People living in towns, cities and rural areas must begin to work effectively to bring their political represents to start investing in civil society. And politicians themselves must instruct the voters on the complexities of public policy and how best to work through it.

To actually make such a venture successful, there are some overriding issues that must be addressed and led by community initiatives. First is obviously the protection of our local natural resources. The problem is that rivers, drainage, the air we breathe, and the natural species that live among us, don’t just stop at a community’s city limits. Regional accommodations will be necessary and that will take work and tolerance. Second, governments must find better ways to reinforce public spaces. As government revenue continues to shrink, our parks, art, music and drama venues, band shells, lighthouses, train stations, post offices, river venues, walking paths, will as well – leaving us with fewer places to gather. Third, there must be more legislative action that supports the fostering of civic uses of the new information technologies. Why not assist in establishing a “civic Internet” that promotes electronic town hall meetings, public policy sessions, access to educational materials, and the creation of a voice for those like the financially pressed who normally remain isolated in our communities. The technology is there, but when governments continue to shut down regional libraries that offer such services, we are obviously headed in the wrong direction. Fourth, we need to talk about productive employment – seriously talk about it. We have blindly supported economies that come up with oodles of money but which seek to demand fewer jobs as a consequence. It’s a zero-sum game. When you have millions of citizens working full-time and part-time in the service sector for minimum wage, you’ve got a severe problem. This is why unions and the small-to-medium business sector are so important for our future. The former reminds us of why labour is vital to society; the second is a better generator of the jobs of tomorrow. Finally, we need to talk about targeted taxes and why they are so important.

Naturally there are other areas of vitality that must be considered, but these themes aren’t just motherhood issues; they are direct challenges facing our communities and our nation which aren’t being sufficiently addressed at present and which will require citizens to move engagement to the next level.

Public Liberty Versus Private Control

You can see it creeping in everywhere around the edges of the public space. Just yesterday, the Senate of Canada presented its 300-page report on its plan for fighting the growing levels of poverty in Canada. In all, there were 74 recommendations on combating homelessness and poverty, but the Conservative government rejected the report. When the Senate produces something like this, it’s usually far more substantive than what most Common’s committees deliver, and the fact the Senate adopted the report unanimously gave it special weight.

The report, titled, A Call to Action on Poverty, concludes that a troubling 3.4 million Canadians are trapped in poverty by government social programs that are no longer functionally connected, but actually “substantially broken.” Things have been this way for years, but with six provinces currently supporting poverty reduction plans, it was hoped the federal government would finally assume its own responsibility to work with its partners.

But how can that happen in a realm in which deconstructing the highly successful federal model has become a primary goal of the present Conservative government? It is absolutely guaranteed that poverty will never be eradicated by corporate tax cuts or the privatization of services, but this is what we have in an age of extraordinary social challenges.

The rigid right-wing ideology of the age is bent on pitting private liberty against public power. In favouring private market forces against public collective accommodations, it effectively rips the sinews from the great Canadian compromise that so benefitted the middle-class. While the ideologues assail the intrusion of governments against private choices, they turn the citizen into a self-absorbed consumer and convince him, or her, that government would strip away your private liberties if it could only get the go-ahead. That such an outlook goes completely against the history of our nation matters little to such a view.

Public liberty demands public institutions that assist citizens in coming to terms with the fallout that frequently occurs when the free market is permitted to run its course unchecked. Poverty is one clear example. We have to deal with its presence in our national life as a citizenry and not a group of independent consumers. Asking what I want and asking what the community of which I am a part needs both involve my self-interest, but we are repeatedly encouraged to put our own individual interests ahead of anything else. The great defender of the collective and social interest is government; the champion of the individual is the free market. And we are being constantly encouraged to shrink government in order that we can acquire more.

Ironically, the results don’t match up. While a few get fabulously rich, middle class families increasingly struggle. The great public resources meant to be available to all of us – the environment, government services, healthcare, etc. – are increasingly falling into the hands of the few, leaving us with social decline on a massive scale. Public stewardship will never come from private companies or concerns. Done right, a balance can be struck, but rampant privatization inevitably ends up benefitting the few over the many.

The truth yet endures: private companies and interests can never be sovereign in a democracy; only citizens can. Hannah Arendt had it right when she argued that true political freedom is defined by participation in government rather than isolating ourselves from its reach. We are now discovering, hopefully not too late, that the right-wing ideology currently directing our state of affairs is actually diminishing our ability to shape our nation and find an appropriate place for Canada in the world. Privatization takes fighter jets over poverty eradication every time. Good citizenship chooses fights poverty and funds appropriate security at the same time. Our present schizophrenia is hardly adequate to address the great challenges of our time, including poverty.

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