Dr. Dawg

Harper rises from his political grave, offers dead thoughts

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Guest blogpost from reader Jim Owens.


Had I remembered to pick up tinfoil the other day, I might have escaped the latest emanations from the mind of Stephen Harper, as radiated by his book excerpt in yesterday’s National Post. To judge from the online comments following the article, most NP readers must have an ample supply of aluminum, since their thoughts appear to be completely shielded from what he actually said. For example, they fail to notice his claiming the credit for Canada’s relative stability during the 2008 banking crisis, when in fact it was the previous Liberal government’s refusal to deregulate Canadian banks that preserved us from the extreme over-extension of capital. They also fail to appreciate the irony that, in the same article, Mr. Harper explicitly acknowledges the crucial role of nation-state regulation against the destructive effects of globalization.

But let us begin at the beginning. In this excerpt from his new book, opaquely titled Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption, Stephen Harper argues that the world has become split into “globalists” and “localists.” Globalists live “anywhere”; their lives are more or less independent of nation-states. Localists live “somewhere”; they are profoundly affected by the conditions of their nation-state.

Apparently globalists are doing much better than localists, but in Mr. Harper’s argument this remains a hidden premise, which spares him the trouble of explaining it. How globalists came to be independent of the nation-state, and how exactly this confers invulnerability from the woes affecting localists, is left to our imagination. One supposes that perhaps they are wealthier, and that there might be a class conflict between a wealthy globalist elite and a dispossessed state-bound proletariat. Certainly Harper employs the claim, in explaining the West’s restive populism, that “incomes of working people have stagnated or even declined over the past quarter-century.” But, curiously for an economist, he does not clearly connect the growing wealth gap with the dominant form of economic activity in the West, that is to say, a capitalism that actively resists state regulation.

In fairness, or perhaps paradoxically, he does nevertheless see a need for state regulation. “Left to its own devices,” he writes, “globalization would be an economic world of massive and persistent instability — as it was in late 2008, until the major nation-states stepped in.” But this is only to suggest that the purpose of regulation is to provide the stability required by globalizing forces. One supposes that this allows the lamented division between globalists and localists to be perpetuated more reliably. The matter goes unexplored, and is left for those whose tinfoil does not shield them from such unsafe thoughts.

Mr. Harper is instead in a hurry to explain that disaffected localists are turning to populism, as evidenced in the election of Donald J. Trump and the yearning for Brexit, not to mention the widespread rise of anti-immigrant movements in the West. He largely approves of this populism, but he wants to manage it using a particular ideology he has brought to the table. He calls this ideology “conservative populism,” and explains that “It is about putting conservative values and ideas into the service of working people and their families.” But he adds that “conservatives should remain pro-market, pro-trade, pro-globalization, and pro-immigration at heart. Going in a completely opposite direction in any of these areas would be a big mistake with serious ramifications.”

It is a regrettable trait of ideological thinking to start with an answer, and then apply it to whatever problems one observes. Stephen Harper has correctly identified a growing class conflict between the well-to-do and “working people” — an idea he might have encountered in another form during his studies in economics — but has made the colossal blunder of failing to work from this observation towards a rational and unprejudiced course of action. Instead he clings to a set of “values” that must guide us, notwithstanding their suspicious resemblance to the very principles that he says got us into the mess in the first place: pro-market, pro-trade, pro-globalization, pro-immigration. More than this, he says that any unnamed alternatives would be “a big mistake” without offering any reasons why, at least in this excerpt.

Rounding out the puzzle of Mr. Harper’s thinking is the fact that the very populism which elected Donald Trump, with his clearly anti-globalist, anti-trade, and anti-immigration attitudes (and anti-market, in the sense that free market deals are supposedly reached without the coercive application of superior power that marks, say, feudalist societies or mafia dealings) — this vicious populism is the same populism that Stephen Harper hopes to leverage with his pro-market basket of ideas.

There is more to be said about this book excerpt. Its analysis of the Make America Great Again movement in terms of the international politics of Iraq and Afghanistan is regrettably shallow. According to Mr. Harper, these misadventures incurred “enormous human and financial costs…with very little success.” As a result, “global security deteriorated,” which fed the populist America-first movement. One longs to explore the failures of these initiatives, and to trace the concomitant deterioration of security, in order to learn what mistakes were made and how they might be prevented.

Some might also want to compare Mr. Harper’s record as Prime Minister of Canada, with its pronounced anti-democratic tendencies — whether to test his current conservative theories against his previous Conservative behaviours, or simply to discuss his current attempts at political intervention. But I will leave it to others to recall the details of his dictatorial reign, and to explore whatever implications they may have for his populist political vision.

For my part, I wish only to portray Stephen Harper’s ideas in this book excerpt as they might be experienced by a reader whose mind is not thoroughly shielded by the tinfoil of a certain ideology.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on October 11, 2018 9:35 AM.

Everything You Need to Know About Canada's Newest Political Party in Just Seven Words was the previous entry in this blog.

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