Thursday, January 05, 2006

Election Post #3: Elite Consensus

In colloquial speech on the left it is not uncommon to use metaphors of rate or degree when talking about differences and similarities among elites. You heare things like, "The Liberals say the Tories are going too fast, but really they're both headed in the wrong direction." Or, "The Conservatives are bad, sure, but the Liberals are almost as bad."

I would argue that these figures of speech convey important truth, but at the current point in history they also oversimplify the nature of those divisions that do exist within English Canadian (and North American) elites.

Representing divisions among elites as matters of rate or degree, and small ones at that, captures the truth that there is immense underlying consensus among English Canadian elites. The evidence for this statement can be found by examining the history of how elites have positioned themselves with respect to the hierarchies of power and privilege on the basis of class, racial background, gender, sexuality, ability, and other factors that shape every aspect of Canadian society (and which, admittedly, many or even most non-elite English Canadians buy into in some way, shape, or form as well even if they are harmed by one or more axis of oppression).

The liberal wing of the elites is more likely to say things that recognize the existence of these hierarchies, or at least of some of the less easily deniable impacts of them, and is also more likely to take rhetorical positions in favour of doing something about those impacts. There is no evidence, however, that this should be taken to indicate an underlying commitment to abolishing the hierarchy or hierarchies in question. If such a commitment were to exist, you could count on the devotion of significant resources to making fundamental changes necessary for such an outcome by the state when under the control of the liberal wing of elites, and by non-state elite liberal institutions. But there is no evidence at any point in Canadian history of such resource expenditure. Elite-controlled resources tend to be expended to address the impacts of hierarchies of power and privilege, and perhaps even to reduce the steepness of such hierarchies in limited ways, only when such expenditures are useful to ensure the legitimacy of the underlying system (with its very modestly reduced but still intact hierarchies of power and privilege) and when popular movements force them to make such expenditures. They do not tend to go beyond what is necessary to address one or the other of those things.

Have you heard any significant block of elite voices in any elite-controlled political party or other institution demanding that we do what's necessary so that we cease to have an economy that depends on people going hungry? Have you heard any block of elites call for a new approach by settler-dominated institutions to indigenous nations in northern North America that goes beyond just another tired reworking of colonialism? Have you heard any block of elites with institutional power seriously address the changes that would be necessary to give women the power to free themselves from the spectre of male violence without having to appeal to individual male consciences? Did any elite think-tank recently (or ever) release a report calling for a radical reworking of Canada's place in the global political economy so that we no longer depend on the deprivation, exploitation, suffering, and death of untold millions for our prosperity?

To the extent that these issues get addressed it is because (a) rhetoric more strident than any intended action is useful to one faction of elites in competition for power with another faction; (b) social movements and/or political parties outside of elite control are threatening elite control in some way; or, (c) elites have judged that such a threat could realistically develop and it is easier and cheaper to make concessions before they do rather than waiting for acute conflict.

Appeals by apologists to practicality, to possibility, to justify why liberal elites haven't accomplished these things are nothing more than passive endorsement of an oppressive status quo. They haven't accomplished them because there is no evidence of them trying to do so. If short-term reforms are not complemented by serious, risk-taking efforts by large numbers of elite individuals and a significant subset of elite institutions to create fundamental change in systems of power that are at the heart of these issues, why should we believe that elites as a group care even a tiny morsel more about them than the struggles of oppressed peoples force them to care?

(The one partial but significant exception to this in Canadian history has been, I think, the women's movement, where a block of elite women supported, at least to a certain extent and in certain periods, a social movement that has a sizeable non-elite base as well. The importance of solidarity among women across class at certain points in Canadian history is a great accomplishment of the Canadian women's movement, and was a source of strength that contributed to some important victories. Of course there has been much less evidence of practical solidarity across lines of race and ability. The defunding of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in the mid-'90s can in part be blamed on the rise of neoliberalism, but I have also heard (and believed) that another factor was its abandonment by a significant proportion of elite white women in the civil service and the Liberal Party as a vehicle for their interests after reasonably successful efforts to transform it to put anti-racist feminism and women of colour at the heart of its functioning in a meaningful way. And in any event, while this cross-class unity was certainly important to the course of Canadian history, there has been no sustained institutional demonstration by elite women of commitment to the kinds of changes that would be necessary for the liberatory transformation of the full spectrum of hierarchies of power and privilege that shape our society. And, needless to say, it isn't even a question for elite men.)

Here's a concrete example:

After the neoliberal restructuring of the Canadian state picked up serious steam in 1995, many experts predicted an increase in homelessness because of the changes being enacted. These experts were soon proven right. There was quite a bit of activity from a wide range of groups and organizations to get the state to do something about increasing homelessness, including urban Aboriginal communities, mainstream social service agencies, social movement configurations like Homes Not Bombs and OCAP and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, and even the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The feds, after much pressure, announced a program called the Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative. It was initially a one-time-only, three year program, though it is close to entering its third generation now. This was touted by politicians as being The Answer. Yet its main purpose was to address infrastructure needs of emergency service providers related to homelessness. In other words, the same Liberal government that made many of the policy and spending changes which caused a spike in the levels of homelessness was responding to the pressures caused by that spike not by undoing any of the changes that caused it but by ensuring that communities had the emergency services infrastructure to somewhat more humanely respond to a new higher endemic level of homelessness. The more mainstream sources of pressure were coopted, and most either did not see that this was the functional impact of SCPI or they chose not to talk about it. In other words, the state responded to pressure, and there were homeless people who had better access to services that they needed because of SCPI than they would have had in its absence. But the state response was minimal and showed no actual commitment to getting at the root causes of homelessness, and therefore of the suffering and death that it leads to.

To recap: English Canadian elites demonstrate a great deal of consensus, via the institutions they control, about what Canadian society should look like and how it should function. To that extent, it is reasonable to characterize the differences among them as being slight in degree or rate. But I would argue that, at least at the current juncture, a purely quantitative shorthand to characterize the difference between the principle elite factions in Canada omits some information that could be important in understanding our political environment and guiding our decisions.

I had intended to say all I had to say about elites in this post, but I have decided to make the rest of this discussion a separate post. Stay tuned!

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