The reception accorded Stephen Harper’s recent book, Right Here, Right Now: Political Leadership in the Age of Disruption, by leading columnists for Toronto’s two national newspapers was not friendly. Indeed, it reconfirmed the professional preference of Laurentian journalists for carping criticism of our 22nd Prime Minister. There was no chance that such certified knowers as they claim to be might ever learn from Harper’s reflections. According to one, the book revealed a mind that is “all too conventional, even banal.” It consists of “a mix of received wisdom and undergraduate shibboleths, many of them long debunked.” This from a journalist who (so far as I know) has never written a book or taught undergraduates.
Others were surprised that Harper showed so much scorn for “intellectually adolescent” progressives and liberals. None bothered to explain why such an attitude was inappropriate. Rather, Harper’s criticism was dismissed as “cartoonish.” A particularly “unappealing aspect” of the book was his “generous treatment of Mr. Trump.” In fact, Harper was agnostic on the possibility of a successful presidency owing to Trump’s “erratic behaviour” and “simmering scandals,” his “veneer of anger” and “tinge of darkness,” which was the source of “outrageous statements and outlandish conduct.” Anything other than insults, the uttering of anathemas or the casting of hexes passes for generosity among Trump-haters.
Granted, it is always difficult for some minds to understand new ideas, but several letters to the editor expressed gratitude at having learned from Harper’s insights. That is the real question: what can be learned from Right Here, Right Now?
The key is a phrase in his subtitle: “the age of disruption.” What does he mean? On the second page of the book, Harper identifies the current age of disruption as beginning when “conservatives won the Cold War.” In 1989, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and yes, John Paul II, quarterbacked the disintegration of the already moribund Soviet Union. A few pages later Harper summarizes Frank Fukuyama’s thesis, that this event launched “the new world of democratic capitalism and globalization,” which Fukuyama famously described as the end of history.
It’s a long story but Fukuyama was wrong – not about the significance of the event, but about the date he assigned to it. For those who use such language, the most accomplished of the end-of-history thinkers, namely Hegel, explained that history “ended” in 1806, after the battle of Jena, which stabilized the French Revolution as the Napoleonic Empire. That empire, in turn, was the first incarnation of what has come to be called the Universal and Homogeneous State (UHS). Today liberals evoke its memory by conjuring up a “global community.”
For two centuries (1789-1989) the ideals of the UHS, expressed in the French revolutionary slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity, were institutionalized in Napoleonic dicta regarding careers open to talent or corporals carrying a marshal’s baton in their knapsacks. So henceforth the primary job of the state was to enforce freedom, equality and brotherhood (or sisterhood or even comradeship). By this narrative, the Russian Revolution was the culmination of the French one. The disintegration of the USSR also meant the extinguishment of the ideals of the French Revolution. And so began the current age of disruption. Whatever one’s reservations concerning details, Harper’s recognition of this is an inspired political understanding.
Stephen Harper was trained as an economist, though he has acquired an enormous amount of political experience. So his focus is not on Hegel or the end-of-history language, but on the pragmatic and mostly economic consequences of 1989. These appeared with astonishing speed: within a generation, a billion human beings, mostly in Asia, and especially in China, escaped poverty. The economic aspects of liberty, equality and fraternity, namely markets and mobility, were universally inscribed as the new normal.
Harper stresses the unanticipated economic effects on the winners of the Cold War. That would be us: chiefly the Anglo-American liberal democracies, but also the Europeans and in some respects even Russia. When China became the major and global supplier of goods, this was not trade, which is reciprocal: the Chinese sell, the rest of us buy, and jobs move one way. The chief beneficiaries were not the Chinese people but the Chinese government whose tyranny has been enhanced by state-controlled economic prosperity.
More specifically still, the current Disruptor-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump, clearly grasped that the economic consequences of the end of the Cold War, particularly globalization, were detrimental not just to the economic self-interest of the United States, but also to the self-respect of millions of Americans. The same dynamic played out in the Brexit referendum. The European Union can be seen as another face of the Universal and Homogeneous State, but it too was undermined in the aftermath of 1989. The slogan of the Brexiteers might well have been: “Make Britain Great Again.”
Liberals and progressives have simply been unable to understand that those who did nothing to win it have disproportionately harvested the benefits of our victory in the Cold War. This blindness alone justifies Harper’s critical remarks regarding them. Paradoxically, today’s liberals are also today’s reactionaries, glumly sticking to a dogmatic understanding of markets, immigration, free trade, ethnic-based identity politics, and gender neutrality. Harper’s political experience, not his economic training, taught him the practical lesson, for example, that markets are a tool of sound economic policy, a means to an end. And so too is mobility of capital and labour. This includes immigration.
The notion that immigration is not a right to be claimed but a means available to governments to pursue the national interest assumes the legitimacy (and sovereignty) of national governments. Reactionaries on the left apparently still long for the now obsolete Universal (and effectively borderless) and Homogeneous (or secular and gender-neutral) State. But their nostalgia for the era that began in 1789 with the French Revolution and concluded with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989 grows quainter by the year. The latest “end of history” is over.
However one identifies it, post-Cold War globalization introduced an ecumenic order that was fundamentally new. Fine. But what did that event have to do with populism, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump? Harper is very clear that those who criticize populists as demagogues are themselves being demagogic because populism is a reaction to the suppression of legitimate questions by liberals, progressives and other left-wing (and in Canada chiefly Laurentian) elites. Examples of such “suppressed discourses” (Foucault) or “repressive tolerance” (Marcuse) would include the aforementioned issue of free trade, but also anthropogenic climate change, a gender-neutral and gender-fluid society, or the significance of illegal and irregular immigration. Populists are distinctive because they insist that these neglected issues, which remain constituents of social and political reality, be put on the political agenda.
In response, such persons are derided as sexists, racists, climate deniers and the like. Even so, normal persons can distinguish between arguments and abusive epithets.
Harper’s argument has another interesting implication for Canadian politics. It is true, as he notes, that no serious populist movement has arisen on the right – for which he credits his own government. Or rather, no such populism has appeared yet. But ask yourself: what have liberals and progressives in this country particularly ignored or suppressed and thereby invited a populist response as an available option? The question practically answers itself: the ascent of the prairie west as the resource-based centre of Canadian prosperity.
In this context we can consider the current refusal (not failure) of Laurentian Canada to permit pipeline construction to be a continuation of the progressive Liberal policy of a generation ago, the National Energy Program of the current Prime Minister’s dad. Recall the outcome of Pierre’s folly: a minor populist uprising that Harper eventually turned into a defeat for the Laurentians. This time more is at stake and more of us are fed up. So stay tuned: such repressive policies are an invitation to populist initiatives, right here, right now.