By Angus Reid (Doubleday, 1996, 337 pp., $34.95)
If Angus Reid is sweating right now, it is probably not so much a result of his angst-ridden state of mind as it is attributable to the pitchforks full of poll-generated information he tosses our way in his recent book. Shakedown suffers from the blinkered vision of its author as it traces developments in the Canadian economy from the 1950s through the present. While Reid admits to a Baby Boomer viewpoint, he cannot manage to round it out enough to provide a more spiritually-probing and historically-connected picture of the predicament he sees.
Instead, the book is focused on a convergence of socio-economic ills that make the author and, presumably, the entire post-war generation nervous. Reid sums up his theme as follows: “The crisis of Canada today is the combination of economic problems facing us and the increasing impotency of governments that lack either the will or the resources to do much about it. The tragedy of Canada today is that when we need a country that’s pulling together in common cause, we have one that keeps finding new ways to pull itself apart” (p. 273).
Reid gauges the implications of the globally-driven “shakedown” in Canadian society. Today’s young people are not going to have even the few good years that we partied through, he implies: just think of funding the CPP when the Baby Boomers retire. With hallowed programs such as medicare already in peril, what will happen then? Here the author suggests that the level of consumption and publicly-funded services have been more extravagant than sustainable.
Reid supplies a useful overview of public life in the mid-1990s; he rings truest when analyzing political prospects. He accurately articulates the new style. “The successful politician of the 1990s is more hard-nosed realist than idealist. Charisma, new spending and grand promises are out. No-nonsense is in, although it must be mixed with optimism because voters still live on hope” (p. 242). The author is also succinct when he likens 1990s politics and the recent fortunes of several parties to a game of Snakes and Ladders; he strays into dramatics, however, when he claims “the voting intentions of large numbers of Canadians are on a hair trigger, ready to explode at any moment, changing the course of elections and taking our lives into uncharted territory” (p. 245). Is democracy somehow revolutionary?
The author’s assumptions regarding a Canadian identity in public policy pose a difficulty. He readily subscribes to what he calls the “Spend and Share” social policies of the 1960s through the 1980s and bemoans amending this status quo as if it somehow constituted the Canadian character. He takes comfort in the fact that even in Alberta, “the most right-wing province in Canada,” people have protested health-care cuts, and he notes “that isn’t exactly a sign that we are ready to completely abandon our heritage of social compassion” (p. 248). Reid seems to believe that social compassion is most fundamentally rooted in government policy.
While for the most part he remains objectively glib, Reid includes a few popular snipes with respect to neoconservatism. For example, he portrays the economic thinking of Andrew Coyne and others as saying “the marketplace is a more efficient version of democracy than Parliament” and then attacks the straw man with a wall-eyed rebuttal: “In the marketplace, people without money don’t get to vote. People with money, on the other hand, get to vote over and over again” (p. 251 ). And an alarmism bubbles up when Reid characterizes the global conservatism as based on “unrestrained free market economics” and “unrestrained self-interest,” as if it were possible or desirable to implement such an unfettered ideology in Canada.
Shakedown falls victim to a typical misapprehension when it fears some form of “conservatism” as the source of a self-interested individualism at the expense of human compassion. What it misses is that truly destructive individualism is not economically driven, but is at heart bound to faith. And there is a growing faith that Canadians must rise up in righteous anger in order to enshrine a rights-based ideology. In fact, more damage will be done by Canadians seeking to assert individual rights at the expense of community and family autonomy than by a pack of neoconservative hounds baying for fiscal reform.
Reid offers his own prescription for the “crisis” and “tragedy“: that Canadians forget the global hype and focus on applying their social capital—trust, civility, fairness—and their belief in self-reliance as entrepreneurial launchpads. We can accept as inevitable fiscal conservatism and focus on imaginative private enterprise, he says. But we should avoid gutting government. Readers will agree that our social capital—an area where Canada exhibits cultural distinction—should prove an asset both domestically and globally. Of course, this is providing that these traits are not damaged in the meantime by an increasing politics of anger and rights. Yet, while a healthy individualism would surely provide the basis for viable associations and ventures, especially in unstable times, does a nation emerging anemically from the “Spend and Share” era really display a strong self-reliance?
Shakedown settles for a survival prescription, and so cannot get beyond its author’s limited post-war view of a once prosperous Canada gone haywire. A more profound analysis might have been possible, too, if Reid could have reached past his sociological disposition to view religion as mere want of security—an interesting statistical phenomenon—and grant that faith is, most profoundly, each person’s hope and motivation—the truly underlying aspect of reality. Placed within this Judeo-Christian kind of framework, a sociological account like Angus Reid’s might lead to an assessment of the deeply-seated spiritual and cultural hopelessness that is, much more than simple economic malaise, the true issue facing Canadians today.