It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.
As that brilliant, complex hero and villain of the 20th century implied, democracy is seldom pretty, let alone inspirational, but it has the virtue of providing for a change of government without blood flowing in the streets.
We've had almost a week to digest the results of our recent federal election, so let's take a deep breath, then open our eyes to our new situation.
Stephen Harper, Prime Minister ...
A lot of those whose philosophies run more or less parallel to mine woke up on January 24th hoping the above phrase had been nothing but a bad dream. In my internet travels and in the letters pages of my daily newspaper, I saw terms like "scared," "sickened," "depressed" and "disappointed in Canadian voters." More than once, I saw the term "fascist" tossed around like a schoolyard epithet.
Stephen Harper, Prime Minister.
No, I don't like the sound of that either.
Did I suggest we take a deep breath? Let's have another, shall we? And ponder for a moment the fact that Stephen Harper came to power accompanied neither by the pounding of jackboots nor by the shattering of shop windows.
Listen. I grew up a socialist. I believed in public ownership of natural resources and large-scale industries. I still do - or would, were it not for significant historical evidence suggesting such an economic structure leads over the long run to stagnation at best, to corruption and dictatorship at worst.
I graduated from socialism to anarchism as an ideal towards which I believe we should struggle. I hold to that second long-term, goal, but in the meantime, we must deal with the world as it actually is.
Historically, changing a government without violence is almost as rare as a virgin birth. So let's take a third breath, and consider the possibility that our new, democratically-elected government is not led by Attila the Hun, nor even by Bush III.
* * *
Like capitalism, an economic system with which democracy is often, wrongly, causally associated, representative democracy has as its central strength creative destruction.
Capitalism's genius as an economic system is that it makes a virtue of what Plato considered a fatal flaw: that human institutions inevitably run down. A once dynamic and creative company - take Ford or General Motors as current examples - grow bloated with history, with acquisitions, with debt and with managerial greed, and eventually fall, either gobbled up by a hungrier competitor or, if too large to swallow, simply disappear.
Under a controlled capitalist system, the demise of such entities would be almost entirely to the good. Under the semi-monopolistic capitalism in which we are currently saddled, the collapse of such companies would be both a human and a societal disaster, leaving tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people without income, pension or (in the US) health care.
Monopolistic capitalism's short-term strength is society's weakness. Beyond a certain size, it is politically almost impossible for any government to allow such a behemoth to fail, thus leading to even greater pains somewhere down the road, when the economics of sustaining the unsustainable become simply too great a burden to bear. Monopolistic capitalism ignores Plato's partial truth, and so threaten to make it a whole truth.
Controlled capitalism does not abide monopoly. When a firm grows old and tired, it dies, replaced by younger, hungrier competitors and descendants.
And so too with bourgeois democracy, even as flawed as our own. Unlike dictatorships, in a democracy the fact that political parties grow fat and lethargic, unimaginative and corrupt, is expected.
Rather than revolutions, democracy regenerates itself through the ballot-box, tossing out one set of "managers" in favour of another, more energetic, creative and dynamic set. Those with any sense of history know too that, sooner or later, the new bunch will, deservedly, be sent packing.
This system is neither orderly nor, usually, particularly inspiring. It favours incremental change, and even worse for zealots, compromise. It can lead to what Plato foresaw as inevitable - the devolution towards oligarchy - but I don't believe it necessarily does
Stephen Harper may prove to be a destructive ideologue along the lines of Ontario's former Premier, Mike Harris, but he'll have to spend at least 2 years pretending to be something quite different if he wants the chance to govern with a majority and wreak the sort of havoc on Canadian society Harris did to Ontario's.
On the other hand, he may prove to be another of those surprising, flexible conservative politicians who are willing and able to learn new tricks and, to some extent, to learn to respect the (general and inchoate) "will of the Canadian people".
I say again, take a deep breath and calm down. The sky isn't falling yet.
Let's get one thing straight. I don't agree with much of what the Reform Party stood for, and I don't believe Harper's Conservatives have changed as much as he would have had us believe during his recent, very strong, federal campaign. Strictly on the merits of that campaign, and on the weakness of the Liberals',, the Conservatives deserved to win more decisively than they did.
Nevertheless, Canadians in their "collective wisdom" have not given the Conservatives the keys to the store. (Yes, it is inane to take seriously the idea that "Canadians have chosen" a government, as if Canadians are a psychically-linked hive-mind that has decided anything, but it can be a useful metaphor - but please remember that I use it as such.)
36% of the vote is hardly an overwhelming mandate and Harper's reign will be short-lived indeed if he doesn't understand that fact. As it is, forced to deal with a stronger NDP, along with the Bloc and a Liberal Party that will soon renew itself, Harper's government may find that the Progressive element in his party was not entirely subsumed during the Reformers' take-over. Whether he can keep his core supporters - many of them religious-right zealots - onside but relatively quiet will go a long way towards determining whether this minority government will have a chance to form a majority when it eventually falls.
While we are breathing deep and not panicking, keep in mind that Paul Martin's Liberals were initially in favour of joining the US pogrom in Iraq, of joining the US in its missile "defence" program, were opposed to the legalization of gay marriage and that it was Martin, as Jean Chretien's Finance Minister, who hacked away at this country's social programs during the 1990s. (When NDP leader Jack Layton, during the 2004 campaign, infamously noted that Martin was responsible for the death of a homeless man in riding, he was only speaking an uncomfortable truth: that there is a direct correlation in between cut-backs in government "welfare" programs - including such frills as education and public transportation - and the quality of life on our streets.)
The point is, Harper is in no position right now to enact worse legislation than the Liberals have actually done during their past 3 terms in office. And with only a very weak minority, there is an opportunity for relatively progressive forces in Parliament to deal with him.
With a little imagination and a willingness to exert pressure, not only may the progressives among the Canadian people be able to block the antediluvian visions of Christian (and other) fundamentalists, we may be able to set the stage for an even stronger stage next time, while pushing through some acceptable reforms this time around.
So cheer up, have a drink, then get back to work. We have before us an opportunity, not a disaster.