Monday, November 26, 2007

Why Them-Who-Own Like the Harper Minority Government

Generally speaking, I don't write a whole lot about mainstream electoral politics, but a few nights ago as I was trying to get to sleep it occurred to me that, as far as that tiny segment of Canadians with the most power is concerned, this whole Harper minority government is a pretty sweet deal.

Now, depending on how you read that statement, it might come across as kind of a bold one -- what do I really know about that particular tiny segment, after all? -- or as incredibly obvious. While I make no claims that it is a particularly deep insight, I don't think it is quite as immediately dismissable as either of those reactions would have it.

First of all, I should define a little more clearly who I mean to include in that tiny segment. I don't mean the entirety of the somewhat larger minority of people who stand a shot of benefiting materially or ideologically from a government formed by a party committed to shifting towards an even more open attack than recent Liberal governments on gains won in decades past by communities and movements that struggled for social justice -- that is, at least theoretically, those who are included in one or more likely several of the following: people of the middle class, people who are socially understood to be white, people who are assigned from birth to the gender box "male", and so on. That is, I don't mean all people who accrue benefits of one sort or another from relations of power being made more stark, but rather that subset who at least potentially have some significant sway over how things work in this country in more than a member-of-a-large-group kind of way. I mean the people who own the place and, probably, their highest ranking functionaries. I mean those people who might qualify for the label "the ruling class", though it isn't vocabulary I commonly employ myself.

Now, it is entirely correct that I have no direct knowledge of this class of people. I am pretty privileged in a lot of ways, and certainly there are some people that I know who in the conventional, distributionist way of understanding class would be categorized as "upper-middle class". I suppose, given my primary partner's profession, I'm on the edge of fitting that bill myself, and likely will in a few more years if I don't already. But I'm not sure I've ever met a gen-yu-eyn capitalist or even a leading lackey. One person I did anti-poverty stuff with years ago was born into an owning-class family in the '30s, but had taken a different path from that several decades before we met. There was a summer program I did one year as a teenager that had a few mighty privileged youth in it, but I have no idea where precisely they might fit into things. Generally speaking, it just isn't a part of my experience.

Direct interpersonal interactions isn't the only way to build this kind of understanding, of course. According to sources that I respect, it is possible to get a fairly accurate picture of what those in charge are saying to one another by reading the elite business press.

Of course, I don't do that either.

No, I base my guess on a rather more roundabout route: I read lots of books about how the world works and in particular about how the corner of it currently understood as "Canada" works. I spend lots of time thinking about it all, too. For incentive to do a decent job of it, I have the fact that I am trying to write a book and other things that I want to stand a chance of getting published and then read and then regarded as having said things that are at least a little bit interesting and useful. None of this is to strike a pose as some sort of expert when it comes to these things, because I'm not, just to point out that my gut reactions are at least the product of some effort and so are no less likely to contain some insight than any other regular person.

The other reaction that statement might get is that it is so obvious as not to be worth saying -- of course the (mostly) boys in charge like the Conservatives. But I think it's more complicated than that. Actually, given the history of the twentieth century, it seems pretty obvious that them-who-own in Canada like both the Conservatives and the Liberals, and much of the time have probably, on balance, preferred the Liberals for various reasons. Many of the more progressive members of the Liberal Party seem pretty adept at convincing themselves that their organization is 'anti-establishment', which is a neat trick given that the Liberal Party has been the establishment in most ways that matter, in most of the places I have lived, for most of my adult life. The most generous interpretation of how things actually work is that the Liberal Party has historically been a somewhat less unfavourable terrain for pushing for ruling class acceptance of particular kinds of compromises that benefit non-elite segments of society, but that approval from at least a significant proportion of them-who-own is necessary for such compromises to be considered admissable (though where that approval falls does depend on the state of struggle and the location of current inertia outside of the confines of political parties).

So what does this tiny segment want? Well, there are lots of things you can read that talk about it in very complicated ways -- competition among them, different historical dynamics, relationship between that tiny segment here and elsewhere, blah, blah, blah. I think it is possible to say some useful things that are pretty simple, however: Those who are in charge wish to stay in charge. And, given that "in chargeness" at a social level is not a binary thing where you are or you aren't but instead depends on the state of relations among people that no single group controls and that in some ways is created constantly by all of us, they generally wish to increase their level of "in chargeness". This can be read as increasing their ability to expropriate the fruits of making and doing -- that is, to make a profit -- and also as refining and expanding the capacity of organizations acting largely in their interest to exert other kinds of control.

Now, because the effective level of elite "in chargeness" depends on a whole bunch of complicated relations and is not solely dictated from on high, these two imperatives can actually pull in different directions. For example, efforts to squeeze a bit more profit out of a bunch of workers can prompt those workers to heightened levels of resistance, which in turn can threaten to push back the level of profit extraction of those workers farther than it was to begin with.

This brings me to why I think a Conservative minority government is particularly useful to them-who-own in Canada today. One thing that them-who-own depend on to retain their position as benefiting most from how things are is to maintain a sense of legitimacy for how things are. One component of that is that the collection of functions and practices and relations we call "the state" are seen as legitimate. And one component of that -- an important one given that most people really think more in terms of "the government" -- is that the party in charge has to have some legitimacy. In Canada, though the Liberals have historically been useful more often than the Conservatives in stitching together that perception of legitimacy to rule, their long stay in power under Chretien and Martin plus the corruption scandals they faced mean that, at the moment, they are less useful for providing this veneer of legitimacy. Sooner or later they will be resuscitated and Liberal majority rule will return, but we're not there yet. Perhaps even more troubling to them-who-own is the idea that a Liberal minority government would most likely depend on the NDP to function. The NDP is hardly a radical influence, but with the last Liberal budget they did demonstrate a capacity to push for minor reforms that would mildly slow the implementation of the ongoing project of neoliberalism (which largely translates to "the ongoing project of enhancing the ability of them-who-own to be in charge and to benefit from being in charge"). While this is not something that would be intolerable to them-who-own under all circumstances -- for instance, if social movements were in a more active state at the moment, and it was important to shore up the legitimacy of how things are by showing a capacity to respond to certain kinds of needs -- it really is not something that is necessary for them at the moment.

On the other hand, I think there may be reasons why a plunge into a Conservative majority at the time of the last election might have been something that them-who-own would have been ambivalent about as well. On the one hand, Conservative willingness to be more aggressive in implementing neoliberal reforms would have been seen as welcome, but there is always the spectre of resistance from ordinary people. The Liberals, starting especially with the draconian budget of 1995, showed remarkable skill for implementing such reforms in ways that did not result in a whole lot of sustained resistance. Had they won a majority a year and a half back, the current crop of Conservatives, depending as they do on a base that cares passionately about certain issues that are connected less directly to the class interests of them-who-own but that really don't sit too well with a lot of ordinary Canadians who have done very little to oppose neoliberalism, might have jumped right in and done things that got people in Canada all riled up. This opposition to certain aspects of red-meat social conservatism could easily have spilled over into obstacles to neoliberal reforms that enhance ruling-class power. But what have we seen with a minority government? We have seen a process in which the public fear of rule by the new dominant clique of Conservatives is being eased, making resistance less likely if they get a majority and are able to pursue some of their pet projects with more vigour. And it is also a process in which the new dominant clique of Conservatives are being socialized into the role of being a suitable government, so that if they do ultimately form a majority government then they will be more subtle and skilled, and perhaps even a bit more restrained, in throwing blood-drenched red meat to their base. And if the way out of our current Parliamentary impasse ends up being a return to majority Liberal rule, well, then, they've been shown that Canada is capable of electing this new flavour of Conservative, so they'd better be doubly devoted to neoliberalism if they wish to remain the usual party of choice of them-who-own.

All of which probably makes it sound as if my understanding of how things work is a lot more class-determinist than it really is. As neatly as all of the speculation above fits together, at least to my way of seeing it, I think it is entirely likely that the relationship of the explicit interests of them-who-own to party politics is a step or two farther back, as long as the main contenders pose no threat to their interests (which is the case in Canada today). But there is still something I find useful about this back-of-napkin, thick-chunky-crayon, outliney kind of sketch of some of the context of electoral politics in Canada today.

No comments: