Thursday, January 26, 2006

On Blackberries, Canada, and Conservatism

Yes, it's another one of those big, summarizing "on" posts. But see what's the connection this time? I don't have a Blackberry, I'm not Canadian, and my relationship to contemporary conservatism is complicated, to say the least, so why the post?

Well, the post came together in my head through a column by John Ibbitson in The Globe and Mail (via Laura Turner), written on the day of Canada's federal elections last Monday. I followed the contest between Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party and everyone else fairly closely, at least for an American; we have close friends in Toronto, and Canadian politics and political thinking has always interested me. But there was another reason why I followed the campaign news from Canada, one that perhaps only makes sense in the context of my relationship to the rather paltry political continuum which marks the limits of most politics in the U.S.: in Canada, there are Tories, and I wish we had some here.

Except that the Conservative Party in Canada today, though called "Tory," isn't really, at least not in the way I like to use the term. What am I looking for? I'm looking for Red Tories in the original sense--the noble, old-fashioned "conservative" mix of religion, egalitarianism, self-government and national populism, which goes back to Benjamin Disraeli and John MacDonald, and found strong expression in Canada through the Progressive Conservative Party of John Diefenbaker and Robert Stanfield. We don't have Tories in the U.S. Oh sure, someone will occasionally pull the term out of their hat, but it has no real meaning in the overwhelmingly liberal (philosophically speaking) terrain of American society: the number of people who identify their conservatism with a need to protect social goods and promote social justice and virtue through community and state action is vanishingly small. It'd be wonderful to be able to vote for such a candidate someday, and so whenever an election is called in Canada, I find myself watching the Conservative party, hoping to see someone flying my preferred banner. That hope is mostly in vain though. Sure, the Canadian Conservatives are a lot more comfortable with social programs than American "conservatives" are; it's a much more "moderate" or even, in a crude sense, "socialist" party as far as that goes, and good for them. But for all that, Stephen Harper didn't run and win his minority government as a Red Tory; the fact is, he barely ran as a Tory at all. The Ibbitson column I mentioned above explains why:

[Whoever wins,] the Canada that Canada is becoming will carry on. The immigrants will continue to arrive by the hundreds of thousands each year; hundreds of thousands of native-born Canadians will leave, or be driven from, rural life. The Conservatives cannot stop these exoduses. And so either Mr. Harper will continue the transformation of his party, seeking to infuse the urban reality of Canadian society with a dynamic conservatism--and yes, the two can co-exist--or he will let his party and his soul become hostage to the resentful, rural redoubt that still lurks in the wings.

There is a posture of inevitability in this passage, which carries the assumption that "dynamic conservatism" is the only possible, respectful conservatism these days, the only conservatism that isn't the refuge of "resentful" losers out on the farm. Of course, what Ibbitson really means by dynamic conservatism is the "conservatism" which has been polished into a bright sheen by Republicans (and Democrats!) in the U.S. since the Reagan administration, if not earlier: that is, neoliberalism with some nice communitarian and localist rhetoric thrown in. It's all about the suburbs and the corporations, tax cuts and law and order, growth and trade. The farm, the community, the nation: those are all well and good, but they need to be taught their place. And let's not pretend that isn't an attractive package! The majority of Americans, and with every passing year more and more Canadians as well, have embraced in practice (but perhaps more importantly in principle) a liberal and liberated and urbanized version of modern life, where commerce is quick and homes are interchangeable and borders are open and change is constant and the internet connects everybody anyway. What we want is our neighborhoods clean, our tax burden low, our civic obligations minimal and our government out of our business. Of course, for many liberals this would be the point where my analysis breaks down: a lot of the political muscle behind this "conservatism," in the U.S. and, again, increasingly in Canada as well, comes from various Christian groups that have very strong opinions about how the government ought to involve itself in our (moral) business. Fair enough; certain elements of what might be called Toryism survive. But since for the most part they are not combined with anything like a genuinely populist and egalitarian socio-economic platform, the whole package of "dynamic conservatism" fails, at least in my view. But when liberalism--as expressed by both Canadian Liberals and American Democrats--mostly fails to make much of a communal or moral connection with the people (much less actually offer an alternative to the ideology of growth), all the people for the most part have left is the question of who to blame for high taxes and high unemployment and high crime, and the "dynamic" capitalists will always have a persuasive answer to that question, at least.

Yesterday, Laura McKenna shared another one those stories she is so good at getting to the heart of: how her husband is being pressured to spend even more time at work and away from her and the kids so that he can "get ahead," and how his boss wants him to carry a Blackberry--because, of course, there's so much important work to be done that you really ought to make sure you can read the latest e-mails from The Man at any time of the day. A typical tale of high-pressure corporate life, you say; true, but also, as Laura notes, another bit of supporting evidence for her conclusion that "corporate life is the enemy of the modern family." My friend and frequent antagonist Nate Oman takes exception to this conclusion: he's no ally of those who embrace the "super-turbo-charged-24/7/365-at-the-office" ethos which characterizes so much of modern corporate capitalist practice, but doesn't think the Blackberry supports such--on the contrary, he sees the Blackberry, and the world of constant and interchangeable information which it is just one very small part of, as a triumph of networks over hierarchy, a liberation of energy and activity (and time) which has torn apart the old socio-economic contract in favor of a much more meritocratic one. He admits that a "a reward system based on results" is more competitive, less secure, and less forgiving that the old system, but as it is also more "flexible," perhaps it is, ultimately, even more friendly to families than all that came before. (Or at least, that's what I read you as saying, Nate; no doubt you'll correct me if I'm wrong....)

The modern world is, practically by definition, a flexible one. As political revolution, social atomization, and technological innovation makes for ever more options and opportunities, all we individuals want is to be better able to respond to it, to go with its flow, to bend with it. The old Red Tory idea--and it's not just theirs; it's an idea that existed at the heart of practically every serious populist or egalitarian movement of the past three hundred years--was that, of course, we need flexibility....but we also need to make sure everyone is guaranteed a place, a home, a society, a space beyond the pace of the market, wherein they can put down roots and so be able to bend without breaking or being bowled over. No one who isn't psychopathically libertarian can honestly deny this, not even the neoliberals who call themselves "conservative" today. And so in America the Republicans associate themselves with the religious right, and at manage to keep various family values issues on the table; and the Democrats (despite the wishes of some of their big-city blue-state mandarins) keep trying to keep farmers and unions and those concerned about consequences of globalization politically viable. And in Canada, the Liberals rightly defend their country's attempt to make health care a duty of the whole; while across the aisle at least the Conservative government will presumably put a stop (for a while, anyway) to now ex-Prime Minister Paul Martin's desperate last-minute promise to get rid of the "notwithstanding" clause in the Canadian constitution--supposedly a threat to rights of individual Canadians everywhere but in fact one of the truly and admirably localist (or at least regionalist) aspects of Canadian politics. So yes, there are still options for populists out there; some good compromises can sometimes be made, here and there. But for the most part, whatever their more superficial political differences, the way Nate sees the world is probably about the same way John Ibbitson sees the world--and, on the basis of the evidence, it's a way of seeing the world that Stephen Harper has little problem committing himself to. I bet he carries a Blackberry.


Jacob said...


Do you have any hunches about why the Tories of old were wiped out so devastatingly, and why Reform ate so much of their lunch until the two were finally merged? That's why there's such a liberal-inflected conservative party now, after all-- the center of conservative power shifted to the Reform part of that coalition.

But Reform was western-based. That is, conservatism in Canada became more liberal precisely insofar as it became more rural.

I have a hunch that I can't yet defend that the answer to that question has a family resemblance to the answer to the next question: do you feel the tension between "populist" and "Tory" as adjectives? In the kind of vulgar class terms thrown around in the nineteenth century, Tory conservatism was the alliance of aristocrats and farmers against the bourgeois Liberals-- but there was never any question of the farmers *leading* that alliance, right? "Tory" acquired a flavor of "aristocratic class privilege" that it's never entirely shed in Britain, even after Thatcher. Toryism and populism are both conservative in a way that differs a lot from contemporary neoliberal conservatism-- but that still doesn't make Toryism and populism the same, does it?

The Canadian relevance might be this: western rural voters lost any allegiance they mgiht ever have had to a PC party that they perceived as Ontario elite-driven... 

Anonymous said...

Russell, I'd like you to comment sometime on how "social programs" fit into your conception of conservatism. The idea that health care is a public good or a human right is sensible enough and clear to me. But what about the specific programs intended to bring these rights (or other goals) into actuality? There is much to be debated about their bare effectiveness (e.g. J. Scott's _Seeing Like the State_), but what about the extent to which they strengthen and enrich our social bonds and connections? New Deal liberals are fond of saying that the New Deal and Great Society shows that we embrace the ideal of 'we're all in this together' and reject 'devil take the hindmost'. But it seems the you want social programs to do more than these people want them to do. And besides, it's possible for elites to embrace ideals which are still yet not actualized in the lives of the marginalized. Hegel's discussion of the rabble in the _Philosophy of Right_ is something like what I have in mind.

Don't get me wrong, I prefer welfare state to no welfare state. But then again I suspect I'm more a straight up and down liberal than you are (somewhat). How do "social programs" fit into conservatism, more particularly your kind.  

Posted by Jeremiah J.

Russell Arben Fox said...


"Do you feel the tension between 'populist' and 'Tory' as adjectives?"

Absolutely--and I freely admit that I've often elided that tension in many of my posts. Taking a hint from your comment about the differences between an Ontario conservatism and a western one, I suppose one could explore at least part of the Tory/populist tension by digging into different definitions of "rurality," and how the relevant understanding of country living was internalized and transformed, in both Canada and the U.S., from the era of the Jefferson yeoman farmer (which actually united the aristocratic and the agrarian) to our present era, in which rural living in the West translates into an individualism equal parts rugged and resentful. I've written before about how I think the egalitarian-agrarian ethic is one that teaches limits, and how those limits can be understood as a kind of conservatism--not a free market conservatism, but conservatism based around being contented and wanting to empower people within one's places, which has more than a wiff of Toryism about it. ("Keeping to one's place" and all that.) Within those limits, one can, I think, talk about a kind of populism and self-rule which is communitarian and settled--the Old Tory ideal. But maybe the problem with both Canada and the U.S. is that there was just so much  West--how could any vaguely hierarchical talk of stewardship and embeddedness and being settled contend with all that open land, with all that cattle and oil and so forth? Maybe the ultimate fate of Red Toryism was simply that we got so good at using our resources that the notion of limits faded, and with it a sense of place. And after that goes, the only thing left to "conserve" is the liberty of individuals--in other words, a "liberal conservatism," which is for the most part what the Republicans and the Conservatives are now. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Russell Arben Fox said...


"New Deal liberals are fond of saying that the New Deal and Great Society shows that we embrace the ideal of 'we're all in this together' and reject 'devil take the hindmost'. But it seems the you want social programs to do more than these people want them to do."

I've written some on this topic before, though I'm sure I have said could always be improved upon. I suppose, in reference to your last sentence, that it depends on how one thinks about the work which various social programs do--I actually tend to think that one of the great selling points for the sort of liberalism which gave us the New Deal was the fact that Roosevelt and others so often talked about what they were doing in deeply civic and cultural terms--FDR's constant appeals to the legacy of Jefferson, for example, and the whole progressive movement's frequent association with nationalists like Herbert Croly or social-gospel types like Jane Addams. In other words, in a way rather different from much later, more "liberal" thinking about social programs, I think those who designed and implemented the New Deal as very much involved with not just softening the excesses of capitalism, but actually working notions of solidarity into the national culture; they were fixing something historically flawed within our community, which is another way of saying they were tending to--or "conserving"--the extant community itself. (Martin Luther King talked the same way, which is one reason why some of those who were close to King suspect that if he were alive today he'd be talking about abortion and the breakdown of the family--in the way Jesse Jackson did back before he got presidential ambitions in the 80s--as much as about racism and rights.) So in that sense, you can see a certain kind of "conservative" argument for social programs--an argument that I tend to think is far more important in terms of popular legitimacy than one based for more purely liberal criteria.

alan said...

Red Tories are still around, it's just that they have found homes outside of the busted-up PC, for example the NDP in Sasketchewan, the Green Party and David Orchard's camp in the Liberal Party.

Posted by Alan Avans