Something Much Darker

Stephen Harper and the Conservatives have run a clever campaign. They have hammered at Liberal corruption and capitalized on high-profile Liberal mistakes. At the same time, they’ve combined policies with broad appeal – like a reduction in the GST – with policies targeted at specific chunks of Canadians, like a reduction in taxes for people who take public transit.

An examination of the broader Conservative agenda has been largely absent from the national discussion, which has worked out nicely for the Conservatives. The “new” Stephen Harper isn’t scary any more, they claim, because he smiles more, delivers better speeches and announces feel-good policies that “stand up for Canada”.

But the real reason Stephen Harper isn’t scary any more is because Stephen Harper has stopped saying what he really thinks.

In an article entitled Rediscovering The Right Agenda originally published in June 2003 that can be found on the website of Christian Coalition International (Canada) Inc., Harper, leader of the Canadian Alliance at the time, lays out his strategy for uniting the Right. In the process we learn what he really believes.

Harper begins by dividing conservatives up into two groups: “economic conservatives and social conservatives”, and then describes the common enemy that helped unite them: “radical socialism”, which to Harper is “public ownership, government interventionism, egalitarian redistribution and state sponsorship of secular humanist values” on the domestic front, and “fascism, communism and socialist totalitarianism” on the international front.

According to Harper, the root of the problems facing Canada’s conservatives in 2003 was that conservatives led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had defeated these common enemies by “permanently underminin[ing] the traditional social-democratic/left-liberal consensus in a number of democratic countries” and causing the fall of Soviet Communism (unsurprisingly, he doesn’t mention that Reagan also permanently undermined democracy in a number of democratic countries).

The loss of common enemies meant that Canadian conservatives “must rediscover the common cause and orient our coalition to the nature of the post-Cold-War world”. This required a new enemy, which Harper identifies as “the social agenda of the modern Left”:

Conservatives need to reassess our understanding of the modern Left. It has moved beyond old socialistic morality or even moral relativism to something much darker. It has become a moral nihilism – the rejection of any tradition or convention of morality, a post-Marxism with deep resentments, even hatreds of the norms of free and democratic western civilization.

This descent into nihilism should not be surprising because moral relativism simply cannot be sustained as a guiding philosophy. It leads to silliness such as moral neutrality on the use of marijuana or harder drugs mixed with its random moral crusades on tobacco. It explains the lack of moral censure on personal foibles of all kinds, extenuating even criminal behaviour with moral outrage at bourgeois society, which is then tangentially blamed for deviant behaviour. On the moral standing of the person, it leads to views ranging from radical responsibility-free individualism, to tribalism in the form of group rights.

Stick your face two inches from the monitor and look at your reflection. What you’re seeing right now isn’t just your average run-of-the-mill moral relativist. You’re seeing something “much darker”: a moral nihilist.

Which, if you’ve watched The Big Lebowski, is even worse than being a Nazi. To quote Walter, “Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos!”

This hatred of the norms of Western civilization doesn’t just appear when resentful post-Marxists “trapped in their framework of moral neutrality, moral relativism and moral equivalence” craft social policies. It has foreign policy implications as well, most importantly in the US-led war on terrorism:

The clearest recent evidence of this phenomenon is seen in international affairs in the emerging post-Cold-War world – most obviously in the response of modern liberals to the war on terrorism. There is no doubt about the technical capacity of our society to fight this war. What is evident is the lack of desire of the modern liberals to fight, and even more, the striking hope on the Left that we actually lose.

You can see this if you pay close attention to the response to the war in Iraq from our own federal Liberals and their cheerleaders in the media and the universities. They argue one day that there are no weapons of mass destruction, yet warn that such weapons might be used. They tell us the war was immoral, then moral but impractical, then practical but unjustified. They argue simultaneously that the war can’t be won, that it is too easy for the coalition to win and that victory cannot be sustained anyway. Most striking was their obvious glumness at the fall of Baghdad. But even previous to that were the dark suggestions on the anniversary of September 11 (hinted at even by our own prime minister) that “we deserved it.”

Harper doesn’t beat around the bush: conservatives “have answers” to social and foreign policy issues because of their understanding of “historic values” and “moral insights on right and wrong”. They “understand, however imperfectly, the concept of morality, the notion that moral rules form a chain of right and duty, and that politics is a moral affair.”

This may seem like a foreshadowing of Conservative attacks on Liberal ethics during this campaign, but this is something far different than promoting honest government. Harper’s “moral insights” are instead at the root of policies such as placing “‘hard power’ behind our international commitments” (i.e. backing America’s war on terror and invasion of Iraq with our military, a policy he explicitly supports).

And unsurprisingly for a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, to Harper making money is also a moral issue, citing the “moral and civilizing importance of markets”. Trade, he implies, is invented and sustained by conservatives.

Why is there such a difference between Harper then and Harper now? The common wisdom of January 2006 is that Harper has become more centrist and more pragmatic, a transformation all the more startling given it happened in the space of two-and-a-half years.

Perhaps Harper’s own words are a better guide. His strategy for the Right’s political success advocates “careful political judgment” and the realization that “real gains are inevitably incremental”.

Stephen Harper in 2006 recognizes that real gains are at hand. Winning requires “careful political judgment”. It also requires that Canadians in 2006 forget the Harper of 2003.

One Response to “Something Much Darker”

  1. I read Harper’s essay in full, and was struck by how profoundly Straussian it is.

    Harper writes, “the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the collapse of Soviet Communism as a driving world force, depriving conservatives of all shares of a common external enemy.”

    This hearkens to neoconservative granddaddy Leo Strauss’s belief, “Because mankind [sic] is intrinsically wicked he has to be governed: Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.”

    Harper celebrates the “Reagan revolution,” neglecting to mention that Reagan ran up massive government deficits, vastly increased the federal debt as a share of GDP, and left federal fiscal affairs in disarray. (The Harris Tories did the same thing in Ontario; governing through eight years of continuous economic growth, the Tories only managed to balance the books when they sold off part of Ontario Hydro and when they sold the 407 ETR.)

    Harper may agree with the Reagan administration’s policy of running government into the ground so it cannot maintain social welfare apparatus, but his unwillingness to take ownership of this crucial phase of the “Reagan revolution” signifies either confusion (highly doubtful since Harper is an economist) or chicanery.

    I read the following passage with amazement:

    But the modern left-liberal economic philosophy has become corporatism. Corporatism is the use of private ownership and markets for state-directed objectives.

    Every single time conservatives have gained power in the past two decades, they have quickly – in some cases immediately – become the biggest sponsors and handmaidens of corporate power, giving no-bid contracts to friendly companies, outsourcing properly public functions (even to conservatives, like law and order, defence, and so on) to corporate contractors who turn around and lobby the government for laws that increase their business (see private prisons), sell off public assets and give the profits to the wealthy via tax cuts, using state power to protect corporate power against public accountability, subsidies, incentives, tax cuts, scaling back regulations that protect the public, reducing public funds for enforcement, dismantling environmental protections, dissolving workers’ rights to organize (a union is essentially a corporation of workers), centralizing decision making authority in a top-down executive structure (remember how Harper and Flanagan forced the populist Preston Manning out of the party), growing secretive and aggressive toward those who challenge authority, colluding with the newsmedia to provide favourable coverage by promising to eliminate laws that prevent monopolies, and so on.

    That, folks, is precisely corporatism, even by Harper’s strict definition.

    Now listen to this:

    There are real limits to tax-cutting if conservatives cannot dispute anything about how or why a government actually does what it does. If conservatives accept all legislated social liberalism with balanced budgets and corporate grants – as do some in the business community – then there really are no differences between a conservative and a Paul Martin.

    There is, of course, much more to be done in economic policy. We do need deeper and broader tax cuts, further reductions in debt, further deregulation and privatization, and especially the elimination of corporate subsidies and industrial-development schemes. In large measure, however, the public arguments for doing so have already been won. Conservatives have to more than modern liberals in a hurry.

    What he’s saying here is that conservatives can’t simply accept government programs that work. He’s not opposed to inefficient or counterproductive government programs; he’s opposed to the idea that government can be efficient or productive. He challenges the very legitimacy of government seeking to provide a service or pursue a socioeconomic goal.

    A government that works well and balances its books is dangerous, because it’s the threat of a good example. That’s why conservative parties start trashing government operations when they gain power. It’s why President Bush stacked US government agencies like FEMA with incompetent assholes and starved their budgets – he wanted them to fail so people would become more self-reliant (or die trying).

    Harper claims that he also opposes corporate subsidies. If that’s true, then at least it indicates he’s consistent in his support for the free market. However, since it’s corporate power financing his campaign, I highly doubt he’ll be able to stand up to his corporate sponsors once he’s in charge.

    That means the subsidies for the poor will go while the subsidies for the rich remain in place.

    Harper argues that the real battle will be fought and won over “values”, not economics, since liberals and progressives have already accepted the need for fiscal responsibility.

    He decries the government’s efforts to discourage spanking as government intrusion into the sanctity of the family, but then pulls out a laundry list of ways he thinks the government should intrude on the rights of families: banning child pornography (it’s already banned, and was so when he wrote this essay), raising the age of consent (so much for individual and family rights), providing “choice” in education (which for him means private education, and given his audience is a code word meaning tax vouchers for private religious schools), and “strengthening the institution of marriage” (meaning banning same-sex marriage – again, so much for individual and family rights).

    Moving to foreign affairs, Harper charges that “modern liberals (with the exception of Tony Blair) have no answers: they are trapped in their framework of moral neutrality, moral relativism and moral equivalence.”

    “Moral equivalence” in this case refers to the ghastly practice of regarding both attacks and retaliatory attacks as morally reprehensible. Pacifism, ironically, is a form of moral absolutism much more consistent than Harper’s “right [and duty] to stand with our allies … and put ‘hard power’ behind our international commitments.”

    Make no mistake: Harper is not moving to the centre. He’s positioning himself as palatably as possible so he can begin to take “the incremental approach” to reapplying the “conservative agenda” in Canada.