March 2006: The Big Business Bang Theory (III)

A Canada with Scandinavian-style equality is achievable
March 1, 2006

Several e-mails have reached me from readers who agree with my “Big Business Bang Theory” and with my call for a united civil society crusade to curb corporate power. But nearly all of them ended by asking how I envisioned a society freed from neoliberalism and how, in a practical way, it could be achieved. A few of the more pessimistic correspondents were skeptical that such an egalitarian system could ever be created—that corporate power has now escalated to the level of invincibility. To think that the bastions of Bay Street can be successfully challenged, said one reader, is to “live in a world of fantasy and wishful thinking

I wrote back to remind her that the same gloomy view prevailed not too long ago about the invulnerability of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. Victory in a struggle against the might of corporatism will be elusive, but surely not pre-doomed to failure. That sort of thinking can only lead to apathy and despair.

It’s not as if we need to obliterate capitalism. Properly regulated, taxed, and forced to operate in the public interest, business firms can fit constructively into a just society. The wealth that their workers produce can be more fairly distributed. This is evident in several parts of Europe, notably in the Scandinavian nations, where capitalism still thrives. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland may not have developed idyllic societies—but their economies are far more equitable than Canada’s and far less blighted by poverty, hunger, and homelessness. (See the article on Finland on Page , written by a visiting American journalist.) Business firms operate freely and profitably in these countries, but under constraints that make them good corporate citizens.

Nor do the benefits of more generous social programs make such countries “uncompetitive” in the global marketplace. On the contrary, the Scandinavian welfare states are among the most effective economic competitors in the global marketplace.

The trouble with Canada stems from our proximity to the United States, arguably the most socially and environmentally backward industrialized country in the world (as well as the most bellicose). We have allowed our economy to be dominated by U.S. corporations and our natural resources to be pillaged by them. We have bowed to American pressure to “harmonize” our social programs with their far less generous U.S. counterparts. In the process, much of our sovereignty has been eroded, and, with the business Quislings among us pushing for even more subservience to U.S. trade and security demands, we stand in danger of becoming a de facto colony of the American empire.

We can be grateful that the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives did not win a majority in the January election. If they had, the Americanization of Canada would probably have passed the point of no return before their five-year wrecking spree could be halted. The Liberals did a lot of damage in their decade-long majority tenure, too, but a made-in-Canada-for-Canadians approach was still achievable, and will remain within reach even under minority Tory rule.

The tragedy for Canada is that a more equitable Scandinavian-style society has always been achievable, given the resources, the skills, and the values that we share. Ours is—or used to be before U.S. neo-colonialization—a self-sustaining country. Now that we have become one big resource grab-bag for the Americans—shipping them so much of our oil and gas, for example, that we have to import nearly half of what we need for ourselves from abroad—our self-reliance has been lost. It could be regained, of course, but only by political leaders with the requisite courage and patriotism.

Politically, the biggest barrier we face is our outdated, undemocratic, first-past-the-post electoral system, which effectively disenfranchises the millions who cast their ballots for losing candidates. The ensuing allocation of seats in Parliament distorts voters’ intent. Had we voted on January 23 under some form of proportional representation (PR), the NDP would now have 59 MPs instead of 29, and the Greens would have a dozen instead of none.

It is no coincidence that, in the Scandinavian and other European countries with the most equitable societies, elections are held on some PR basis. This democratic system produces parliaments that truly reflect the wishes of all voters, not just the majority or plurality. And the governments that emerge tend to be coalitions of the more progressive parties and movements. (Green MPs have even served as Environment Ministers in several European countries.)

A switch to PR in Canada is long overdue. Ours is one of the few major Western nations that still cling to the undemocratic winner-takes-all system. A PR process would open the door to the formation, sooner or later, of a strong left-of-centre coalition government in Ottawa.

How far and how fast such an administration could remodel our society along Scandinavian lines is debatable. Undoubtedly its proposed social and economic reforms would be warmly welcomed by most Canadians, but they would be fiercely opposed by the business community and the wealthiest among us wanting to maintain their privileged status. The commercial media could be expected to fulminate against “tax-and-spend socialists” and cradle-to-grave coddling. But the most formidable and hostile reaction would surely come from our next-door neighbouring superpower.

The United States would not meekly accept the rise of a strong, independent, decidedly left-leaning government sharing its northern border. Especially not one bent on wresting control of its economy and resources from U.S. corporations and creating a Scandinavian-style welfare state that could make low-income Americans envious and politically restive.

The extent of U.S. antagonism could be tempered if a less belligerent administration were to succeed that of the would-be world emperor George W. Bush. The Pentagon was recently found to have devised a detailed plan for invading and occupying Canada in the event of a communist or socialist revolution here. The strategy was first developed in the 1930s, but has allegedly been kept updated. This should come as no surprise. The U.S., under its infamous “Munroe Doctrine,” has long maintained hegemony over all of North and South America, and to enforce it has invaded or bombed almost every other country in the hemisphere (including Canada) at least once over the past 150 years.

Realistically, however, an American military attack on Canada in the 21st century would have to be regarded as highly unlikely. Even a Bush-like administration, no matter how provoked it might be by a government of Canadian “neo-commies,” would surely not incur the universal public and UN condemnation that such an assault on Canada would generate.

Or am I being naive? Perhaps. Widespread public opprobrium hasn’t had much deterrent effect on Bush’s other international escapades. But I think it’s still safe to assume that no regime in Washington would consider a military reprisal when it has such strong economic and financial weapons it can being to bear on an “unfriendly” and uppity neighbour.

Undoubtedly, the U.S. could make life very unpleasant for any Canadian government—and for most Canadians—without firing a single shot at us. The U.S. wields enormous economic power. It virtually runs the World Bank and the IMF. Its transnational corporations control global markets, and their takeover of key areas of Canada’s industry and resources gives them a stranglehold on our economy. Our options are also narrowly limited by the one-sided terms of NAFTA, which lock Canada into the role of U.S. economic vassal.

This huge imbalance in economic and military power has kept Canadian governments dutifully compliant with U.S. demands and needs--even at the expense of neglecting Canadian needs. None of our governments, federal or provincial, left or right, has dared defy Washington on major economic issues. The Americanization of our economy—if not our culture and values—has been accomplished with hardly a peep of protest from our politicians.

So a sharp reversal of this subordinate role and a repossession of Canadian economic control will be a formidable undertaking. No federal government, no matter how determined, will succeed in such a frontal challenge of U.S. might without a vast wellspring of grit, strategic dexterity, and public and civil service support. Even with all these assets, the struggle will tap the hardihood and nationalist spirit of Canadians to the utmost.

What we have going for us, in addition to these intangibles, is the potential economic self-sufficiency I alluded to earlier. We’re no longer self-sufficient in some essentials, including the vital resource of energy, because we’re exporting so much to the U.S., but we could reclaim our required domestic supplies by abrogating NAFTA and tailoring our exports to real surplus limits. Indeed, getting out of NAFTA would have to be the No. 1 priority of any genuinely nationalist national government.

A trading war with the U.S., once we were freed of NAFTA’s shackles, would not necessarily be weighted in Washington’s favour. The Americans need our oil, gas, electricity, lumber, minerals, and other resources more than we need their TV sets, oranges, and Hollywood movies. Most of the goods we import from the U.S. could in fact be obtained from Japan, China, and Europe, if not quite so cheaply. These countries would not hesitate to flout a U.S. embargo on Canada like the one that has been maintained against Cuba for the past half-century.

Where the U.S. could hurt us, and badly, would be by deploying the combined might of the banks, the money traders, the credit-rating agencies, the WTO, the World Bank and IMF, and of course—and with the most devastating impact—the American transnational corporations, which already own so much of our economy. We could expect an immediate threat of mass business shutdowns, layoffs, and outsourcing. If we stood firm and refused to buckle, our economy could be seriously detabilized, our currency devalued, our unemployment rate tripled. Capital strikes and flights could precipitate a crippling depression.

Could we survive such an assault? Yes, we could—if we had a government and a citizenry committed to defending our country at any cost, any sacrifice. We could, with some effort and some help from other countries, again become internally self-reliant. If Cuba could do it, with far less abundant resources than we have, we too could resist the worst American economic sanctions. Deprived of our oil and gas, which they desperately need to fuel their vast military-industrial complex, the Americans might even capitulate before we would.

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What I’ve been projecting here, of course, is a future that may never become a reality. But I’m convinced it could. In fact, if it doesn’t—if no such genuinely pro-Canada government emerges, and if no overpowering public demand for social justice, democracy, and national identity develops—then my pessimistic e-mail correspondent will be justified in her despair. Because that will mean that I am indeed living in “a world of wish and fantasy.”

Somehow I don’t think I am. I think that most Canadians believe in and yearn for a better country and a better world, that we favour fair-sharing over greed, compassion over indifference, peace over war, Canadianism over Americanism.

What we lack is a political system and a political movement that will give voice to our values and reshape our society to embody them.

This is a vacuum that must be filled. If all of us who hold these noble aspirations work together to harness and empower them, we could surprise ourselves with what we can collectively accomplish.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)