Media @ McGill

Andrew Gibson - What we have yet Failed to Achieve: Interpreting Charles Taylor’s Critique of Canadian Society

Submitted by hive on

Most Canadians espouse the ideals behind the postwar project of cooperative federalism. Yet the ideals of collaboration and mutual benefit have proven difficult to sustain, especially given Canada’s regional and cultural differences. Leftist intellectuals attempting to grapple with these problems would benefit from a clear understanding of the relevant aspects of Charles Taylor’s work. Taylor is not only a student of democracy and historian of the developing moral order. He is also an attuned social critic: skilled in the art of elucidating alternative possibilities to collective disillusionment. My dissertation brings together two strands of his political thought: 1) his deep diversity thesis and 2) his views on Canadian social democracy. The first is a working out of questions of regionalism and ethnocultural belonging. The second is an analysis of democratic mobilization on behalf of the “non-elite” majority.

The dissertation combines these two aspects of Taylor’s work with the aim of at once furthering and concretizing the political vision behind them. The deep diversity thesis is nicely articulated in Reconciling the Solitudes, Taylor’s book of essays on Canadian federalism. But the argument remains abstract insofar as it is set apart from the workaday world of class politics. How, for example, would a deeply diverse conception of political belonging lend itself to the project of building more egalitarian forms of social, political and economic cooperation? Taylor’s analysis of social democracy is found in different parts of his work. Gaining a sense of his various insights on the subject has required connecting old texts with more recent ones. When correctly understood we see that while both it and the deep diversity thesis can stand alone, they also converge on important points. Taken together, they shed valuable light on the challenges involved in achieving the complex Canadian identity.

1. The dissertation is divided into five chapters. The first chapter paints a schematic picture of Taylor’s alternative view of Canada, including his ideas on both deep diversity and social democracy. The chapter begins with his analysis of the continued importance of a certain kind of nationalism in the history of democratic state-formation. It situates the Canadian case within the context of this history. The chapter goes on to explain why Taylor considers the model of deep diversity to be the most fitting if still embattled expression of Canadian political belonging. It then outlines his semi-republican view of Canadian social democracy as requiring a decentralized yet cooperative federalism. This broadly republican conception emphasizes the importance of a degree of conflict-based patriotism between elite and non-elite segments of the population.

2. Chapter 2 examines how political reform is today threatened by democratic disengagement among the lower and middle classes. Taylor links this to the postwar “consumer revolution”, a profound transformation entailing a heightened concentration on private space and material plenitude. The ethics inherent to consumer society are more solipsistic than those required of democratic common action. Perhaps this explains the decline in voter participation that has occurred since the 1980s. But Taylor’s assessment of ‘relative’ democratic decline is more encompassing than this. In contrast to ‘social’ and ‘institutional’ critiques that find cause in exclusion and institutional dysfunction, Taylor bases his interpretation on 1) the dissolution of working class communities 2) a shift from “broad gauge” to “punctual” forms of political engagement and 3) a new emphasis on personal authenticity and consumer practices of “mutual display”.

3. Democratic participation is often seen as a means of strengthening social and political ties. Citizens come together through the process of building democratic majorities around a package of reforms. But not everyone agrees that all forms of democratic engagement contribute to this end. There is an old argument which suggests that Canada’s traditional “brokerage politics” between Liberals and Conservatives is best able to bridge the country’s complex cleavages—the argument being that allegiance-by-number is better suited to Canada than allegiance-by-principle. Chapter 3 draws on the counterargument to this put forth by proponents of the “creative politics” school of thought. Contrary to brokerage politics, social integration is on this view best achieved through a contestatory politics that aims to usher forth a better, more just society. Taylor agrees that what this requires is the politicization of a singular class cleavage. He extends the argument by drawing on ancient and Renaissance republican thought, which enables him to link class conflict to a framework of civic patriotism.

4. Each chapter situates Taylor’s work in relation to a wider scholarly debate. Chapter 4 goes perhaps furthest in this direction insofar as it uses philosopher Joseph Heath’s critique of the market to argue against Taylor. The focus of the chapter is on consumerism and consumer society. It begins by elucidating the popular argument that links postwar consumer practices to the sensibilities passed down from 18th and 19th century Romanticism. Taylor is careful to distance himself from clear-cut “boosters” and “knockers” of such practices and sensibilities. He claims that consumerism is rightly understood as a debased manifestation of the romantic ideal of personal “authenticity”, but insists that this need not undermine the latter’s significance in the history of Western civilization. The chapter then introduces Heath’s analysis of consumerism and market failure. Heath claims that, beyond questions of moral reform, there are institutional constraints at work which are best understood from the perspective market-induced “collective action problems”.

5. Taylor’s assessment of the postwar dissolution of working class communities has a lot in common with what is known as the “embourgeoisement thesis”—the idea that the old working class majority has morphed into a largely apolitical middle class. Many leftist commentators resist this analysis because they see it as an argument legitimizing the abandonment of class politics. Chapter 5, by contrast, asks what a social democratic class politics can mean in the context of a relatively large and well-off middle class. Given Canada’s regional and cultural diversity, the chapter argues that pan-Canadian social democracy would certainly be facilitated if the impediments to deep diversity were overcome. But any such overcoming would be hollow unless a conception of class politics could prefigure a way of facing up to the dilemmas of global competition, while also diminishing the woes of consumerism. The chapter concludes by making the links between Taylor and Heath’s insights on these matters.