On Remembrance Day, we think about the sacrifices made by those who fought in the world wars that enveloped the globe in horrors unthinkable to those of us who came afterward. We remember, and we hope that we’ll never go through that again.
This year’s ceremonies also mark the 100th anniversary of the poppy as a symbol of that remembrance. The fact that the world went through a second mass war after the War to End all Wars, the adoption of peace efforts and the recognition of a symbol of the sacrifices of war tells us that we don’t always learn our lesson. On the upside, we’ve not seen something on the scale of the Second World War since that time.
That said, what would those who died in that last big conflagration, and indeed those who served in general, make of the world they’re credited with saving in the name of democracy and freedom?
I’m thinking specifically of the corporatism that has eroded the middle class, subverted democracy, fostered inequality, stolen billions of dollars and led to an unproductive economy where money and power is increasingly held by a small minority? Sound harsh? Not when you think that wars were fought to stamp out fascism, but today we’re getting more of just that. How’s that, you say?
“Fascism should rightly be called Corporatism, as it is the merger of corporate and government power.”
Not the words of some take-it-to-the-streets activist or the myriad groups that aim to counter undue corporate influence in politics, but of one Benito Mussolini, written in 1935’s The Doctrine of Fascism. He’s someone who knew a thing or two about such things – as veterans of the Second World War could tell you.
The burgeoning middle class, equitable society and philosophy of the common good that developed in the postwar years were a testament to the values of those who came through war, financial excess, Depression and another great war: they were eager to do away with the scourges of the past and to create a better society for themselves and, more pressingly for their children. The next three decades saw that happen. The last three have seen that steadily eroded by the rise of corporatism, including its wholesale purchase of the political system, particularly in the U.S., an undemocratic trend that has become increasingly prevalent.
Canada has been spared some of the economic impacts seen south of the border and elsewhere, but that’s nothing the current government can take credit for. We’ve been sheltered by the fact previous governments refused to go along with the kind of deregulation we see in the States. Canada is also a more tolerant society with social values more akin to Europe than our southern neighbours. It’s a divide that grew clear under the previous U.S. administration and the fallout of incidents from the killing of George Floyd to the attempted insurrection in Washington.
“We understand the direct link between austerity, racist violence and the erosion of democratic processes. The U.S. is bearing the fruit of decades of cruelty – breaking up unions, cutting public services and siphoning public resources and wealth into the hands of the very elite. These policies, also present in Canada, inevitably deepen racial divisions because our systems already marginalize Black, Indigenous and people of colour. Combined with explicit scapegoating, this creates fertile ground to justify political power for white leaders while targeting state and communal violence toward racialized peoples,” writes the Council of Canadians’ Christina Warner in an analysis of the threats to democracy in the aftermath of the attempted coup in Washington last January.
That view encapsulates the ground we’re on today after decades of rolling back the gains of the great prosperity that followed the Second World War – the economic boom that came as production shifted from wartime needs to consumer goods, jobs were plentiful and suburban homeownership blossomed.
Some of that prosperity was a natural result of an expanded economy, one that grew in part due to the expansion of the workforce to include underrepresented groups, particularly women. And some of it was due to the corporate types attempting to counter the growing support for socialism in the immediate postwar era: plenty of jobs, good wages and an increasing standard of living went a long way to bolstering the capitalist status quo.
By the mid-1970s, however, there was a concerted effort to undo all of the gains, with attacks on everything from market regulations to labour unions.
What’s clear – or should be – is that democracy and liberalism in the West are under threat from without and within, the latter being the greater threat, particularly in places as diverse as Hungary, Poland and the United States.
Just as the great prosperity that followed the Second World War came under attack a generation later, with the eventual rolling back of many of the gains, the freedoms won in the intervening years are also under attack, often by the same elements of corporatism and fascism that look to drive down wages, pollute the environment and strip away civil rights.
Likewise, the social contract we’ve forged over time is being wilfully eroded, attacked by those who see fomenting strife – along racial, cultural and economic lines – as a way to divide and conquer. It’s working.
In the course of a couple of generations, we’ve undone centuries of efforts to create a society based on the common good. Much of the we’re-all-in-this-together ideals that came out of the Great Depression and the Second World War, for instance, has been replaced by relentless individualism.
The deregulation that fuelled the corporatism of the last few decades – think of the rise of globalization, monopolies and oligarchies and the resultant decline in our quality of life – followed a postwar boom that was shaped by a market system that was devised with the broad public in mind. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but far more equitable than is the case today.
Increasingly, however, we’re seeing direct threats to democracy, albeit more pronounced in other countries than in Canada. Our neighbours to the south provide a notable example.
“The last decade has witnessed a growing debate over the prospects of democracy around the world. Most scholars agree that a regressive turn has occurred in many regions, a phenomenon increasingly called ‘democratic backsliding.’ Indeed, this is even true in the older representative democracies of the North Atlantic world, shocked by the rise of Donald Trump, advent of Brexit and resurgence of populism in general. Major surveys have indicated decreasing popular confidence in democratic government to provide effective governance, a greater willingness to elect strong executive leaders, and the rise of parties that represent ‘the people’ at the expense of liberal values and minority rights,” writes Ryerson University political scientist Sanjay Ruparelia in recent piece for Policy Options.