Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It's Time For "Just Society 2.0"

I was lucky enough to be around when Trudeau (the real one, not Junior) inspired us all with his vision of a "Just Society" for Canada and our people.

On winning the Liberal leadership in 1968, Trudeau put it simply: “Canada must be unified, Canada must be one, Canada must be progressive, Canada must be a Just Society.

Trudeau knew that for Canada and its people to achieve its potential greatness it had to be progressive.  That was a lesson lost on his successors and one repudiated with disdain by the current occupant of 24 Sussex Drive.


The Just Society will be one in which the rights of minorities will be safe from the whims of intolerant majorities. The Just Society will be one in which those regions and groups which have not fully shared in the country's affluence will be given a better opportunity. The Just Society will be one where such urban problems as housing and pollution will be attacked through the application of new knowledge and new techniques. The Just Society will be one in which our Indian and Inuit populations will be encouraged to assume the full rights of citizenship through policies which will give them both greater responsibility for their own future and more meaningful equality of opportunity. The Just Society will be a united Canada, united because all of its citizens will be actively involved in the development of a country where equality of opportunity is ensured and individuals are permitted to fulfill themselves in the fashion they judge best.


Note the emphasis on equality of opportunity, specifically for First Nations, and generally for all Canadians.  Equality of opportunity, whatever happened to that idea?  It's one thing to say it, they all do, but it's another, much harder thing to make into reality.

Equality of opportunity requires a strong and robust social safety net.  It is anchored in two things - education and health care.  On both fronts we've been backsliding.  Equality of opportunity also means taming inequality in all its facets - income, wealth and opportunity.  Yet, largely through legislative enactment, we have been fueling inequality.  An often overlooked but essential chronicle of this is in Stiglitz's book, "The Price of Inequality."  It's focused on modern America but read it and you'll recognize how pervasive this legislated inequality is in modern Canada also.

I am constantly dismayed at how many self-identified Liberals assume that simply being slightly left of the radical Right in power today somehow constitutes being progressive.  Far from it.  To call a Liberal progressive is to mock the word, stand it on its head, deny it meaning and significance.  Today's thoroughly Blairified New Democrats are scarcely better.

Three of these were Progressives.  The other, a general.

The heart of progressivism is preserved in a speech that I often reference given by Theodore Roosevelt to an audience of Civil War veterans at Osawatomie, Kansas in August, 1910.

In his speech, Roosevelt spoke of healthy democracy as a constant struggle tempered by balancing, but not necessarily equality, of interests.  Here are a few of his remarks:

It is half melancholy and half amusing to see the way in which well-meaning people gather to do honor to the men who, in company with John Brown, and under the lead of Abraham Lincoln, faced and solved the great problems of the nineteenth century, while, at the same time, these same good people nervously shrink from, or frantically denounce, those who are trying to meet the problems of the twentieth century in the spirit which was accountable for the successful solution of the problems of Lincoln’s time. ...

Of that generation of men to whom we owe so much, the man to whom we owe most is, of course, Lincoln. Part of our debt to him is because he forecast our present struggle and saw the way out. He said: —

“I hold that while man exists it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind.”

And again: —

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

...In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.

...At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.

Practical equality of opportunity for all citizens, when we achieve it, will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable. No man who carries the burden of the special privileges of another can give to the commonwealth that service to which it is fairly entitled.

Now, this means that our government, national and state, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests. Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics.  ...For every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation.

The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.

There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.

We must have complete and effective publicity of corporate affairs, so that the people may know beyond peradventure whether the corporations obey the law and whether their management entitles them to the confidence of the public. It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced. Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs.

...We have come to recognize that franchises should never be granted except for a limited time, and never without proper provision for compensation to the public. It is my personal belief that the same kind and degree of control and supervision which should be exercised over public-service corporations should be extended also to combinations which control necessaries of life, such as meat, oil, or coal, or which deal in them on an important scale. I have no doubt that the ordinary man who has control of them is much like ourselves. I have no doubt he would like to do well, but I want to have enough supervision to help him realize that desire to do well.

I believe that the officers, and, especially, the directors, of corporations should be held personally responsible when any corporation breaks the law.

...The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise. We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows.

...We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.

No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective — a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.

How did this sort of talk by a Republican president just a century ago become so discredited today that even advocating it probably would be seen as seditious by today's authoritarian rule? It's not difficult to canvas the past two centuries and observe the rise and relatively recent fall of progressivism.  It began with Reagan, Mulroney and Thatcher and the consequences of their handiwork has been cataclysmic on a global scale.  One thing is brutally clear - we can't, as a society, survive another thirty years of it.

Every word that Roosevelt spoke on a hot August day in Kansas, 1910, is as true and as valid today as it was then.  But how are we to get government back on track as, to use the American adage, "government of the people, by the people, for the people"?

How are we to restore the balance of labour over capital?  What party will, "take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows." 

Who will stand today and say something this bold yet so fundamental to the rehabilitation of progressive democracy?  "We must drive the special interests out of politics.  ...For every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation."

What leader, Mulcair or Trudeau, has the courage to make this stand?  "the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being."'

Many of us will throw up our hands and accept that something this bold simply can't be done.  We're too tightly bound by fetters of corporatism and supposed free trade and other shackles on our democratic freedoms.  Our aspirations, like our sovereignty, have been sold out long ago.  Who could even find their way back to the days envisioned by Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Pierre Trudeau?

It's a challenge you'll wrestle with at length, an intensely frustrating exercise. Yet there do seem to be answers if we're willing to change the way we consent to be governed.  We must have government focused on what we need and deserve. We must demand government dedicated to the restoration of our damaged democracy.  That's government that can break free of the mantras of neoliberalism that currently infect all of our political parties.

Maybe we need government that starts with a few questions and then devises policy that reflects the answers.

What do we need to build as robust and cohesive a society as possible that we can best meet the challenges of this century?

What do we need to do to ensure that the environment our grandchildren inherit will be no worse than it absolutely must be?

What obstacles stand in our way of meeting what we need to do to restore our society and prepare the country for generations to come?

What must we do to overcome or circumvent those obstacles?

How do we again think like Lincoln, Roosevelt and Trudeau?

There you've got the start of a matrix.  Now formulate the necessary policies.  Do it - while there's still time.

  

6 comments:

Purple library guy said...

"Equality of opportunity, whatever happened to that idea? It's one thing to say it, they all do, but it's another, much harder thing to make into reality."

Yeah . . . mind you, it helps if you're trying, rather than doing your best to undermine it as Harper and, actually, most modern political leaders are.

The Mound of Sound said...

The way I see it, PLG, the key to restoring equality of opportunity begins with a major commitment to health care and public education. We have to focus on our young people, ensure they're healthy and free from hunger, and invest in their education. We have to see these expenses not as costs but investments in the country itself, now and for future generations.

Owen Gray said...

It's sad to think, of what has become of TR's progressive Republican Party, Mound.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, it's manifest in the collapse of their middle class and the rise of the oligarchs, Owen. We're somewhat better off but perhaps less than we'd like to imagine. I wonder what Trudeau would make of the mess we're in.

Pamela Mac Neil said...

This is a great post Mound. It reminds Canadians that we once had an intelligent idealistic PM who was able to inspire us in creating a progressive and "Just Society". Contrast the one dimensional Hick we now have as PM and the difference is astounding. Intellectually Trudeau assessed the world through philosophic ideas. Harper assesses the world through a dogmatic belief in evangelical fundamentalist christianity. Ask yourself, which one of the two requires thought and pursues knowledge, the one holding ideas or the one holding beliefs.Trudeau and Pearson for that matter made Canada one of the most progressive countries in the world.I especially miss his intelligence.

Scotian said...

Good post Mound. I was also very impacted in my youth by the vision of the Just Society, I have the books on my shelves and have for many many years now, and they are not just dust collectors, although I admit it has been a few years since my last reread.

I agree with you on the over all issue, but until Harper is removed I really feel the tactical need overrides all else, but it would be wise to work on this over the next few years as we remove Harper and find out just how extreme the damage really is to our institution and political infrastructure. I haven't seen much of that sort of vision since PET left office, Mulroney's was a pale shadow at best, and turned on a policy that instead of unity gave us the BQ which further degraded pour political environment for a couple of decades. It went downhill after that in this respect.

I would caution you though, the term "progressive" to some extent has morphed politically speaking to mean the left/far left/NDP for a lot of people in this country. I prefer the definitions you use, and I agree, these days no-one is talking about these things. Will it happen though, I wish I were more optimistic on this than I have become, but the last decade in particular has left me more than a little pessimistic.

In any event, really well put together post Mound, loved reading it.