Friday, July 10, 2015

Book review: Harperism by Donald Gutstein

Sid Marty

Donald Gutstein, a champion of progressive politics and an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, has brought out a new book entitled Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada. Available at the Pincher Creek Library, it offers new food-for-thought for voters raised on a monotonous diet of right-wing pap. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a politician who rouses a visceral sense of outrage among his detractors. To an impartial observor, the “Harperium”, (a popular term of late), with its official lists of political enemies and its conga-line of compromised apparatchiks hitting the exits, ––the latest being Dean Del Mastro, Tory ethics lecturer, in chains–– might look like a third world kleptocracy. But what explains the obsessive muzzling of federal scientists, who can’t even speak about the prehistoric Laurentide Ice Sheet without a watchful PR punk leashed to them? What arcane agenda led to the deliberate gutting of federal science libraries and the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area?

 We know that the Harper government is at war with ISIS, but there’s lots of evidence, in Donald Gutstein’s analysis and elsewhere, to support the view that Mr. Harper is at war with science, unions, environmentalists and any fact that contradicts his vexed white-bread world view or poses a threat to the hallowed god of the Free Market. On the plus side he is apparently at peace with many things, including asbestos imports, the one-person oil-train crew and climate change. To readers of the alternative press, such as the Tyee or DeSmog Blog, it can seem as if the country has slipped into the grip of a deranged despot who uses Orwell’s dystopian epic, l984, not as a lesson in political evils to avoid, but as an operations manual for planning even more attacks on parliamentary democracy.

Reading Harperism, however, I was reassured to discover that our 22nd Prime Minister is not deranged at all but is, in part at least, a product of his education, mostly at the University of Calgary, in the free-market-uber-allesstance of economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the brains behind Thatcherism and Reaganism. Mr. Harper, with his master’s in economics, is apparently a neoliberal (neocon if you must) of the same mold that sleep-walked the world into the last deregulated financial disaster, a time for “some great buying opportunities” as he first described it. Mr. Gutstein warns the reader that it will not do to simply focus on Harper as “…the lone wolf, the rogue conservative who marches to his own drummer.” He must be put in context, he is “…one side of an ideological coin: missing from the discussion is the other side of the coin—the network of conservative think tanks… working over many decades to change the climate of ideas that make sense to many of us.” These think tanks “..spend upwards of $26 million a year to promote neo-liberal ideas in Canada alone.” Mr. Harper has praised several think tanks, including the Fraser Institute for their policy advice and his former Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, was a trustee of Peter Munk’s Aurea Foundation which has previously funded the Fraser Institute to the tune of a million dollars, according to Mr. Gutstein.,

One of the most fascinating aspects in Harperism is the tracing out of the incestuous web of connections between these think tanks, hundreds of them world-wide, diligently pounding out the propaganda first posited for them by Hayek in a l949 essay. In the view of Hayek, we learn “…journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists” are “…professional second hand dealers in ideas” who take the holy writ handed down from neo-liberal economist gods and communicate it to the great unwashed in order that their minds are saturated with the Good News about the need for Economic Freedom, meaning freedom for big business. The funding for this “non-partisan”, (as Mr. Harper has cynically styled it), research and support for pipeline boosters and climate change deniers comes from those who benefit from deregulation. The Charles G. Koch Foundation, for example, which is a huge player in the Alberta oil sands, donated $414,000 to the Fraser Institute between 2010 and 2012. Apparently there are no ethical limits when it comes to fighting for free markets. “In one case in 2000,” notes the author, “the institute asked British American Tobacco Co. (BAT) for $100,000 a year to support its work attacking research that demonstrated a link between lung cancer and second-hand smoke. The CEO of BAT’s Canadian subsidy was on the Fraser Institute board at the time.”

Mr. Gutstein, however, makes it clear that neoliberal governance in Canada begins not with Mr. Harper but with the Mulroney free-trade government and was well entrenched with the Chretien and Martin liberals. Through thorough examination of the influences exerted by Hayek and Friedman on the field of economics and corporate enterprise, Gutstein presents what he sees as the ultimate goal of Harperism: “The theme is simple: we must remove obstacles to the attainment of a state governed not by duly elected officials but by market transactions, because economic freedom is more fundamental than political freedom. This will not be easily undone no matter who follows.” Economic freedom for neoliberals, however, does not imply the end of strong government as it does for libertarians. Strong government is there, not to provide succour to the under-privileged but to provide the muscle that protects free markets, and bail them out when greed and fear overwhelms common sense. Strong, or at least strong-arm government is what Mr. Harper does well. But who knew that beneath that bland armour and steel-trap ideology there beats the heart of a wild-eyed dreamer. Mr. Harper longs to turn this country into a Utopia ––a utopia for CEOs and their corporations, that is. Perhaps how much you like this Prime Minister depends completely on how much you own. But the rest of us should not hope for much from the Harperium. As the writer John Berger puts it, ”Utopias substitute dogma for hope.” Dogma is impossible to digest, and it offers no financial guarantees to people who make their living, not from outsourcing jobs and leveraging stocks, but from the daily labour of body and mind.

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