It’s the Regime, Stupid!: A Report from the Cowboy West on Why Stephen Harper Matters. Barry Cooper. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2009.
Only a political theorist like Barry Cooper could peer into the heart of darkness that is the 1970s Calgary punk rock scene and divine the rotten spiritual core of the Canadian establishment. Combining philosophical, literary, and historical analysis, social science, and personal anecdote, Cooper analyzes the “logic” of the Canadian “regime,” which, borrowing from Plato and Aristotle, includes not only the offices and laws of a nation, but also its way of life, and with it the moral character types the regime calls forth to rule it. While the book focuses on Canada, Cooper’s analysis shows how Canada’s regime is in many ways typical of all modern regimes, since the end-point of Canada’s regime is in a sense the endpoint of a fault-line in modernity.
Since the 1950s, Canadians and their leaders have ignored basic aspects of their constitution to override the distinction between federal and provincial responsibility, and the distinction between political representatives and bureaucrats. The result is a bloated “embedded state” that, instead of helping people out (the purported function of welfare), has created a culture of entitlements that has transformed what is left of citizenship into a “culture of grasping and seizing” (41). Canadians and foreign observers used to viewing Canada as a “kindler and gentler” America will be surprised to see how the embedded state’s top-heavy attempt to create political friendship has left Canadians fragmented, dispirited, and resentful. All the incentives are in grasping for the levers of power.
While their subject matters vastly differ, Cooper’s analysis of Canada is structured similarly to that of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism because it traces a line of historical antecedents that culminates with a final chapter that crystallizes the core of the regime. Our review starts with the conclusion and moves backward.
From May 2004 to June 2005, the “Gomery Commission,” set up by then-Prime Minister Paul Martin investigated massive fraud within the federal bureaucracy that was the result of the government’s “Sponsorship Program,” started in 1994 to promote the federal government’s interests in Quebec. The 25,000 pages of testimony, including that by Martin (whose seat was in Montreal), former Prime Minster Jean Chretien, other cabinet ministers, and several bureaucrats, “reveal a great deal about what the Canadian regime had become at the end of the millennium. Not only do the witnesses describe an institutionally corrupt organization but they do so in such a manner that their own personalities, which are central to any regime, are clearly exposed” (207-8).
The character revealed in the testimony was mendacity and fraud, supported by a sanctimonious belief in one’s own benevolence toward those purported to be “helped.” Two politicians seemed to avoid being this bad: Martin himself (when he was Chretien’s Finance Minister) and Stephane Dion, the other “Quebec lieutenant” who ended up Martin’s successor as leader of the Liberal Party. While they were not actively involved, they certainly knew what was going on, “like the piano player in the cathouse who had no idea what went on upstairs” (211, citing Senator William Saxbe’s observation of the Watergate conspirators).
Cooper traces the roots of this fraud to the accumulation of hypocrisies and lies that have choked up the polity since the 1950s, when the federal and provincial governments accepted the view, asserted in the 1954 Tremblay Report, that the Crown – represented by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet – has “gift-giving” powers that, it seems, have no need of constitutional limitation. In practice, this meant the federal government (with the consent of the provincial governments) ignored a 1935 decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC), the precursor to Canada’s Supreme Court, that ruled federal spending in provincial jurisdictions unconstitutional. Tremblay gave both federal and provincial governments the excuse to break the constitution; since then, a byzantine mess of double-talk, hypocrisy, and obfuscation has supported that lie. The benefit of the Gomery Commission was to reveal the lie for what it was.
Cooper’s description of the Gomery Commission, in Chapter Six, concludes his discussion of the roots of the crisis, which can be traced back past Tremblay, to the failure of Canadians (or rather, Canadian political analysts) to recognize that, culturally, Canada is composed of a collection of regions and is not a “nation” in any sense of the term. Following Plato, Aristotle, Schelling, and Voegelin, who argue that political societies are founded in their myths, he considers “Can lit” and argues that such a thing actually does not exist, for the imaginative realms of authors – and Canadians – are based in the regions (e.g., Maritimes, prairies, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, North, etc.). Thus, “national unity” is fraud. The Gomery Commission, which revealed the rot at the heart of the bureaucracy, is also the result of efforts to falsify the Canadian experience, namely, to “unify” what is not “unify-able.”
Cooper provides a provocative comparison of the Canadian and American Foundings, pointing out how the American Revolutionaries and the Loyalists, the losers of the Revolution who went to Canada, derived from the same core of classical liberalism. Canada and the United States are products of “the pattern of revolutionary political change and conservative or liberal response” that originated in Europe (e.g., England’s Glorious Revolution) (98). Whereas the disruptions of the Glorious Revolution could be corrected by a constitutional rebalancing of that mixed constitution’s “equipoise,” that same mixed constitution was ill-equipped for empire (101-4). The “corruption” and “influence” that helped grease the wheels of the British constitution at home (and had a certain legitimacy because they were counterbalanced) was simply corruption to the Americans, whose ideas about political order were shaped by “the opposition elements in English politics” (103, quoting Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution). “What produced harmony in Britain produced discord in America,” and the Loyalists, who would go on to found Canada, while agreeing with the Americans about the principles of politics and the general meaning of liberty, disagreed that British colonial practice amounted to tyranny.
Another difference between American and Loyalist understandings is that, in the United States, the rejection of the British constitution entailed an “engrossing of the ‘democratic element,” while the Loyalist belief that the Crown had retained its commitment to freedom has “resulted in centralized, non-responsible power” (105). Scholars including David E. Smith have argued that the “invisible crown,” equipped, as we saw, with its “gift-giving” powers, is the centerpiece of the Canadian regime, at least in terms of what Voegelin, in the New Science of Politics, called elemental representation. One wonders whether the Americans got it right after all.
Behind Cooper’s political, literary, and historical analysis is his philosophical analysis of the modern regime. Here he follows Harvey Mansfield, who characterizes the problem of the modern regime (notice there’s only one) “as one of balancing pride and interest” (45). This is the regime established by Hobbes and Locke (who stand behind both Canadian and American constitutions). In a previous book, Cooper explained why modernity issues only one regime, and why it points to the “end of history.” Even so, the Achilles heel of the regime of rights is that you could ignore your pride in self-government by finding it in your self-interest to be dependent on the state.
This is why, for instance, Abraham Lincoln had to argue against southern slave-owners on Biblical, and not Lockean grounds, because the slave-owners rightly (at least from their premises) pointed out that slavery can be in one’s self-interest, as a slave gets cared for and need not take the risks associated with liberty. What at first looks like an ironic victory for the slave in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic ends up a victory for no one. And so the problem with Canada is that Canadians have allowed themselves to be cowed by what Tocqueville refers to as the benevolent despot that fulfils all the desires of its subjects. After all, is it not in our interest to have all of our desires satisfied? That is the crude understanding my students have of liberty before I correct them by pointing out that it is the liberty of the slave, as Locke observes in his critique of Filmer.
And so the modern regime crumbles in the false compassion of the “gift-giving” Crown, which is rendered possible by a decadent Christian culture that has forgotten the distinction between compassion, which benefits bureaucrats, and caritas, for which the language of costs and benefits are irrelevant. Subjects of the modern regime need to balance their interest-calculation with some pride, which Cooper describes as a “something that you hold on to without qualification as to whether it is in your interest to do so – otherwise there would be no ‘you’ to have an interest” (47). The greatest thing “you” can do, the greatest expression of character, is the “ability to fight and to win at war” (43, 75).
This understanding of pride requires clarification. First, as Angelo Codevilla never tires of reminding us, it is quite possible to win a war, which the Americans generally do, and lose the peace, which the Americans always do. War is a means whose end is peace. In other words, the character of the statesmen is greater than the character of the warrior, as classical philosophers have pointed out. The examples of Madison, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan, show that one need not be a warrior to be a great statesman (in fact, Madison served briefly in the local militia in western Virginia, and Lincoln served in the Black Hawk War (1832); neither seemed to have seen any action). But does statesmanship consist of pride in this sense (which is not the same as arrogance or libido dominandi)? More fundamentally, is it not the sign that the modern state is constricted, humanly speaking, if its “problématique” of balancing pride and interest is but a pale imitation of a Pelagian imitation of classical and Christian magnanimity on the one hand, and a pale imitation of deliberation and practical wisdom on the other?
Cooper rightly eviscerates the social scientists and economists for explaining interest but ignoring virtue, but what kind of virtue does this crisis of the Canadian regime, which is also the crisis of the modern regime, call forth? Lincoln’s example, of refounding the republic by appealing to Biblical religion and transcending the Lockeanism of the first founding, is closed to us. Canada is too secularized and individualized (in the Tocquevillian sense of pusillanimity) to follow this route. Moreover, treating Christianity as a civil religion produces dubious results at best. Perhaps one might consider David Walsh’s description of how modern pride and interest moves beyond its Pelagian manifestation to a more Augustinian grounding.
Following Mansfield, Cooper suggests pride in the constitution, which is the document of our self-government. Yet, he observes Canadians have rejected their constitution. Moreover, the constitution is limited because the rot of Gomery illustrates that the problem lies in the moral character of members of the regime, which the constitution cannot change.
Cooper includes a Postscript that explains his misgivings about political economy and the university. This is appropriate because it touches on the key ingredient of the Canadian regime: education. Think-tanks like the Fraser Institute, for which Cooper temporarily worked, are involved in educating the public about various public policy debates. Its effectiveness in communicating ideas through the means of “measurement” illustrates the shortcomings of public debate in Canada. If human beings are political by nature on account of their ability to share a common logos, then the effectiveness of “measurement” signals the corrosion of their capacity to be human.
Cooper’s day job is educating the young at his university. If I can unfairly criticize him for not writing the book he should have written, I would say that his treatment of the Canadian regime requires a discussion of Canada’s education of its young. This, of course, is the point of Plato’s Republic and books seven and eight of Aristotle’s Politics. Others, like his sometime collaborator Peter Emberley, have written extensively on the problem of education in Canada.
One of the big differences between Canada and the United States is that Americans get taught their founding; Canadians do not even know why 1867 is significant. Instead, as Emberley has argued, Canadian higher education has been significantly influenced by Hegelian notions of progress, which seem to have resulted in a belief that it is the future, not the past, that matters – to the point that the young in Canada seem not to be able to think in terms of anything other than progress. For example, one of my students responded with despondence to my criticism of this doctrine by pointing out that, without it, we would have nothing for which to hope. Such is our corruption that hope has become reduced to optimism. There is no doubt that the rot at the core of the Canadian bureaucracy is related to the belief of Canada’s political class, and its citizen-subjects, that they are laying the groundwork for the glorious future, which renders mundane and simplistic things like rule of law and honesty a quaint hindrance.
But as I indicated, this is an unfair complaint.
To borrow a phrase by Canadian political thinker George Grant, Cooper has “enucleated” the Canadian regime. Pitched at the layman, but still demanding of his concentration and intelligence, Cooper has explained the political core and fault-lines of Canada better than anyone else. Non-Canadians will see much of their own discontents here as well. This is a model of empirical political analysis.