Thursday, October 22, 2015

Going Forward after Harper's Destruction of the Public Sphere. . . .

In the 1960s the German philosopher Jugen Habermas wrote a book entitled The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. When this book was finally translated around 1990 it helped to spark significant debate in the Anglophone world about what we usually refer to as Civil Society. It is a vague, difficult concept the meaning of which has changed through various historical times but Civil Society essentially refers to the area of society where public debates about norms, standards, ethics, and social goals are discussed and formed through various forms of public discourse. Because of Karl Marx's own use of the term as well as an inherent skepticism about capitalist social realms, many progressives have been understandably dubious about the role that public discourse can play in change and reform, and instead often see civil society as a realm of hegemony, an area of society in which the capitalist order finds legitimacy through falsely portraying its openness and flexibility.

Though I share much of this skepticism, I also think that the Harper decade has taught us something important about the public sphere. Stephen Harper had a number of policy agendas, but in a sense they all revolved around a fundamental effort to shut down discourse in the public sphere. Witness, shutting down debate in the House, muzzling scientists, attacking environmental organizations, ending the court challenges process, effectively shutting down freedom of information, refusing to reveal government financial information, creating and atmosphere of fear not just among government employees but among NGOs in general, etc. etc. Harper knew that it would be very difficult to institute his extreme rightwing agenda unless he could effectively truncate and cripple public debate on as many important issues as possible. The more people could talk about his policies, the more experts, public servants, NGOs, MPs etc could engage in open public discourse, the more people would be aware of just how dangerous and devastating his policies would be to our freedom and our future. I think it is fair to say that Harper's effort to cripple civil society was the most important part of his entire political agenda because without that effort the rest of his agenda would have been simply impossible. Furthermore, Harper and his ilk were hoping to create long term effects of limiting debate and discourse in the public sphere so that corporations and rightwing politicians at other levels of government would be able to continue his agenda long after he was gone.

Thinking in these terms, the election of a Liberal is important not because of any particular economic or social policy, but to the degree to which they allow the opening of space in the public sphere. Though I don't share the basic socioeconomic outlook of the Liberals or the Conservatives, I understand that various kinds of social and economic progress has occurred under both parties in the past. These efforts have happened in part because, through efforts in the public sphere, progressive people have been able to exert pressure on governments in acts of active citizenship through rousing public sympathy to certain positions. This, more than anything else is what Harper wanted to stop, he wanted to put an end to the very notion of active citizenship itself, to end public discourse, and to undermine the most basic elements of democracy.

Perhaps the most obvious, and devastating, result of Harper's efforts to shut down the public sphere can be seen in his treatment of the Indigenous population. The Indigenous people have been the most startling example of our failure as a nation to treat people fairly, and the most obvious failure of our civil society to properly expand our discourse and understanding into real positive change. But Paul Martin, for all his faults, was trying to rectify those failures. Harper, on the other hand was desperate to put the issues and struggles of Indigenous people out of our collective minds and visions. His continual refusal to meet with Indigenous leaders, and his failure to respond to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, were part of a direct effort to undermine the possible positive effects of public discourse. Recognition of the legitimacy of Indigenous struggles (a legitimacy that has been slowly rising over time in many people's minds) would have undermined not only Harper's image of himself as the only expression of government in the nation, but would ultimately have undermined his efforts to strip all the environmental regulations in the country.

What we really need to remember and keep clear in people's minds is that the most dangerous element of the Harper years was not his policies per se (though God knows that those were indeed dangerous), it was his effort to replace Civil Society and public discourse with his voice alone. Let's try to remind not only the new government about their responsibility in this regard, but let's remind each other that civil society is our collective responsibility and that active citizens are the only way that we can move forward with any kind of progressive agenda.


the salamander said...

.. well said, well said ...
Seen from a different perspective.. or perhaps a naive & simplistic anaysis.. ie an urban backyard view.. Harper reminds me of a bi-polar Chauncey Gardener.. but substitue a sandbox for the garden. There you find Stephen Harper among the dinky toys, little army men, dumptrucks, pails shovels and other children. He's shouting 'you shut up' .. and throwing sand or toys if he does not get his way. He's the smartest & most cunning boy in the sandbox and a willful one. And if any of the children want to argue, they'll lose.. he's far too glib. For the most part children just want to play - not argue.. so they go along and play the game Harper chose. Flash forward and Harper is no longer in a backyard sandbox or school playground or cub scout meeting. Instead he's running into other young adults or peers just as smart as he js.. and far more adept socially. He's a square peg. Eventually he finds himself in an environment he fits among others who really don't fit either. From there just look at his little peer group.. the Boessenkools the Flanagans, Kenney Del Mastros.. Kent, Shea Stockwell Day, Peter MacKay, Giorno.. and da da .. Ray Novak !

So as much as its critical to examine the Harper fallacy as you do... its good to also view as a beat cop on the street would do when investigating a crime.. ie a theft or a threat or assault. it starts with door to door and asking blunt questions.. even drawing some blunt conclusions and chasing them down to see where they lead. I think Harper bedazzled himself.. and kep on going because nobody stopped him. Remember Brian Maloney - who stole millions and millions from the bank he worked at, to blow in casinos, gambling. His background is very similar to Harper's.. Incrementalism. Maloney stole a little bit at a time.. from many bank accounts he had access to, that were dormant. He was in a position of trust, was very bright & from an upstanding respected family.. good schools etc. Was caught by accident when he became too visible as a 'big spender.. who was losing a lot' .. hmmm

Of course Brian Maoney went to jail. and wrote a book.. stole millions of dollars..
Stephen Harper was stealing little bits of Canada's values.. then he started selling Canada itself

Bill said...

You may be right in what you say about Martin (for all his faults, was trying to rectify) and Harper (his effort to replace Civil Society and public discourse).

However, many Indigenous voices I hear are not speaking of "opening of space in the public sphere," but of land (give it back) and/or $$$ (give it up), because reconciliation needs restitution.

Kirby Evans said...

Of course Bill that is right. But short of force or revolution, such demands will only be meaningful and effective in the presence of a healthy and open public sphere.

Askingtherightquestions said...

Excellent post Kirby, as usual! Much is yet to be learned about what Harper has really DONE to our civil service (personnel, assets, programs). You are quite right that Harper seemed determined to completely stifle public discourse, debate and protest!!
Can you even think of ONE situation where Harper or his ministers actually debated a policy? I cannot, unless we stumble to include their typical ad hominem attacks when questioned about policy.

Five submitted questions (if the press was fortunate), absolute message control from the omnipresent PMO and the strangulation of access to bureaucratic sources and access to information files have radically changed how Canadians (and those who attempt to parse information for them) learn about THEIR government. Combined with the climate of fear created by his government (the "barbaric cultural acts" snitch line may have been an electoral last straw) public debate was stifled and Harper seemed fine with that. We must take that back! I also hope that there will be a clear accounting of what Harper has done with the books, programs and personnel of our country. Wouldn't it be nice to see Mr. Page hired to audit the books and give a full accounting??

Owen Gray said...

A truly excellent post, Kirby.