Sunday, October 21, 2007

Canada's History of Routinely Setting Liberty Aside

Though they break the supposed universality of the standards of liberalism all the time anyway without admitting it, liberal-democratic states also tend to have formal mechanisms whereby in situations they define as emergencies they can temporarily and explicitly set aside some of their rules about process and democracy and individual liberty and so on. In Canada, it has historically happened by the government of the day invoking the War Measures Act.

It blew my mind yesterday to read that between 1914 and 1970, a period of 56 years, the War Measures Act was in force a whopping 40% of the time.

Now, a commenter could try to go through all of those years and point out that X made it acceptable at this time while Y made it acceptable at that time and then we could argue about each instance, but stand back a minute and think about it in its entirety. What does it say about liberal-democratic capitalism as a way of organizing our lives that, even though these standards of due process and democracy and individual liberty are so central to its claims to legitimacy, setting some of them aside in an open and formal way was so routine over such a large period of time? It doesn't say anything very complimentary, I don't think. Especially when you consider the role that dominant social relations played in creating some if not all of the crises to which the state was responding with the War Measures Act.

And, again, I want to emphasize that this is completely leaving aside all the nastiness inherent to liberalism as a matter of course but generally denied or ignored by liberals...this is open violations of their own standards of liberty and democracy, formally acknowledged and endorsed over almost half of a period of more than five decades!

[This fact was discovered in Myrna Kostash, Long Way From Home: The Story of the Sixties Generation in Canada, Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1980, p. 238. She in turn cites Richard Fidler, RCMP: The Real Subversives, Toronto: Vanguard, 1978, p. 15.]

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting way to look at that period in time. I'm wondering what you would make of the period of 1970-2007? No War Measures Act during that time. Does that mean Government has been more democratic? Respected rights more diligently?

I think the fact that we have a War Measures Act is in of itself an act of democracy and transparency. Our responsible governments were diligent enough to clearly state what they were taking away, for how long and for what purpose.

Scott said...

Hi anonymous!

"I'm wondering what you would make of the period of 1970-2007? No War Measures Act during that time. Does that mean Government has been more democratic? Respected rights more diligently?"

Don't think I'd feel comfortable trying to answer that in a definitive way off the top of my head. Off hand, I would say that it probably has something to do with a change in elite tactics in response to the cycle of struggle that peaked in the late '60s and early '70s...beyond the October Crisis, that cycle never reached a point of enough material significance in Canada for elites to need to respond so bluntly to defend their power. (And, frankly, it didn't in the October Crisis either, where it was regular police work that ended up addressing the real, material aspects of the FLQ's acts, while the WMA-based theatrics were more important as interventions to destabilize the momentum of sovereigntist and new left movements that had nothing to do with the excuse used to invoke the Act.) However, elites may have seen a need for increased attention to the sorts of legitimacy that not formally suspending liberal-democratic norms give the system. There was an open turn to cooptation as well, through various federal granting programs, which was quite effective. Violations of rights continued, of course, but were not announced.

More recently, I think it is an issue of a change in elite tactics globally. Particularly post-9/11, instead of using the 'special instance' excuse of the War Measures Act, more and more erosions of liberal-democracy's promises have been brought in as part of business as usual, though still with the exceptional circumstance of terrorism as the excuse. Legislation around immigration introduced post-9/11 as well as legislation around "terrorism" have done this in Canada, and similar things have happened elsewhere. (I think there's an Italian writer who has talked about this process at a global level, but I forget his name and I'm not 100% sure I'm relaying the essence of his arguments effectively...in any case, it is something about the current era being one in which liberal-democratic states try to enshrine 'permanent states of exception' into their ways of doing things.)

"I think the fact that we have a War Measures Act is in of itself an act of democracy and transparency. Our responsible governments were diligent enough to clearly state what they were taking away, for how long and for what purpose."

Well, yes, that does tend to be the liberal argument for it. I do have a certain measure of sympathy for that position. As famous English historian E.P. Thompson has pointed out, the fact that "due process" exists in a modern sense is because struggle by ordinary people forced it on our rulers, and that was a historic victory whose importance should not be underestimated.

However, that only goes so far. For one thing, I think asserting that the Canadian state was "diligent enough to clearly state what they were taking away, for how long and for what purpose" is a bit excessive. Yes, there was a formal notification that things were being taken away, but in practice, my impression is that it was not nearly this transparent.

And just because there as a certain amount of process attached to it, I'm not sure that necessarily makes it reasonable to use words like "democracy" and "transparency" and "responsible" and "diligent" to describe some of the things that went on in connection with the WMA. Should the detention, robbery, and deportation of Japanese-Canadians be described with these words? If so, what does it mean for the real-world significance of these words? What about the state's use of these powers during WWII to invoke the spectre of 'national security' in ways that ostensibly worried about Communists, but in fact was used to keep pro-war labour organizers away from their organizing as a favour to capital? Or the example mentioned above, in which the FLQ activity was used as an excuse to invoke the WMA and act under it against non-FLQ groups and movements while the FLQ itself was best dealt with through ordinary police work?

Measures like the WMA tend to be invoked in the name of the security of the nation. In fact, 'national security' is often more about preserving the power of those who are already at the centre of the nation while marginalizing and expelling certain groups from the nation. Better some due process than none, but even better how about a way of organizing our lives that do not depend on state enforcement of the privileging of some and the oppression of others.