At the time this article was
written Pat Lorjé was a member of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly and
Chair of the Government Caucus Committee on Employment and the Economy and
Chair of the Crown Corporations Committee
Communitarianism is a modern social
movement consisting of individuals and organizations who have come together to
promote the view that individual liberties depend upon bolstering the
foundations of civil society: community consensus on social and moral values;
emphasis on the responsibilities of citizenship; and a focus on the community
rather than on individuals or the state. Communitarianism is a non sectarian,
and non partisan movement which held a Forum on February 16, 1996. Speakers
included Professors Amitai Etzioni and Charles Taylor, Father Bill Ryan, Andrew
Coyne and Pat Lorjé.The Forum was held on Parliament Hill through the co-operation
of the Deputy Speaker, David Kilgour. In this article the author examines some
of the new and creative approaches found in Communitarianism and offers some
cautionary and practical notes.
In the excitement of embracing a
"new movement", we must not forget a basic truth embodied in E.B.
White’s Charlotte’s Web. Parents will recognize this cautionary tale of
a curious and deep friendship between Wilbur, the very innocent pig, and
Charlotte, the very wise spider. One line speaks to me and my ilk: "Wilbur
ran again to the top of the manure pile, full of energy and hope."
My re-election to a once honourable
profession makes me keenly aware of the need to mix idealism and practicality
as we trumpet the New Jerusalem. We need whisker-sharp antennae to know how
far, and how fast to implement our ideas. If we are too far ahead of people, we
lose. If we are too far behind, we atrophy. So, like Wilbur, politicians
constantly run to the top of the manure pile, full of energy and hope.
Indeed, many communitarian ideas
certainly fill me with energy and hope that the partisan debate can be
transformed to a discourse on effective improvements. Nevertheless, I have been
around the political game long enough to be wary of the shifting nature of the
pile where I stand. Our modern task, to move the public agenda from the central
level to the community level, will be most effectively accomplished if we
engage the public in dialogue and action on the important and compelling notion
of stewardship, the balance between citizens’ rights and responsibilities.
Simultaneously, the discussion needs to move beyond individuals and also focus
on the duties and obligations of our systems in this objective. This means we
need to be acutely aware of some of the practical problems associated with
devolving power and enhancing and enriching communities.
Although ideals and ideology are
the elemental soul of politics, beliefs must be balanced with practicality.
It is wonderful, as we move beyond an
international duel of command versus market economies, to come across fresh
ideas that shift our thinking into completely new directions. My only caveat to
the lure of communitarianism is one expected from an unapologetic social
democrat: this movement, to succeed at all, must not rely simply upon
attitudinal change. Economic change is equally important. Otherwise
communitarianism will be seen as mere middle-class moralizing, and pompous
rhetoric from those who already have their oar for the lifeboat. Enlightened
self-interest is a tacky excuse for a social movement.
Governments today come in two forms
- maintenance, or change. The former simply props up the status quo of the
privileged. This leads to bitterness, cynicism, and disdain for the political
process. The logical consequence is demands for direct democracy (which surely
is the most easily manipulable tool of all) and government by referendum. In
Saskatchewan, we try to buck the trend, and be a government of change - by
design not default. It is not easy. Our key job is to involve people in a
meaningful communal fashion, and to make sure that the politicians stay out of
the way as much as possible.
These strategic changes aim to
ensure that everyone feels a sense of stake. Citizens cannot be meaningfully
engaged in change, or even in the day-to-day maintenance of systems unless they
feel a sense of urgency and involvement. Who cares about their country’s
economic or moral health if they do not feel a sense of belonging, of stake? It
is not only the direct owners or shareholders of economic assets who have a
legitimate interest in how those assets are used. For example, the weekly
transfer of electronic funds equal to or greater than the 4 trillion dollar
American debt is something that effects all of us directly.
It is too easy to get caught up in
day-to-day political crises and titillations. We then tend to forget the larger
context. Issues like the continued drift and anomie of our citizens. Issues
like simplistic calls for boot camps and long gun registration to combat
violence. Issues like work-for-welfare against a back-drop of tax write-off
business lunches. What about the children born into poverty and despair, who
have no voice? Or those who have no ears because of the clack-clack-clack of manufactured
Debate about future approaches in
Canadian politics has to acknowledge current economic realities for Canadians.
Skipping the easy rhetoric about concentration of money, I will simply focus on
two inescapable realities. First, reported recently in the Globe and Mail,
the average earned cash income of poor Canadians was only $925 per year. That
is all they garnered from our chest-thumping "World Number One"
position. $925! Of course, that is not what they actually received. Thanks to
our shrinking social safety net, poor Canadians eked out a First World income
with Third World earnings. Whew! Saved from international shame by programs
that some consider frills.
The second urgent fact balances the
first. Over the past few years, while provincial governments tackled their
deficits, and the federal government belatedly joined the parade, middle income
Canadians saw their standards of living decline. Not theoretically. Actually.
Even though it is a pretty remarkable standard from which we are declining, the
cold shower reality is that this trend creates a sense of entrenchment and
mean-spiritedness in middle Canadians. We used to band together to battle the
problems of poverty. Seduced by affluence, we have overconsumed and
under-invested. Now our children’s future is squandered and we blame the
underclass who have been treading water or sinking all these past years.
This issue needs attention. But not
with political parties callously appealing to the worst in people. The
challenge for everyone on the political spectrum who believes in the timeless
values of citizenship and stewardship is to discover ways to appeal to the best
in people. That is the beauty of communitarianism. It offers a map out of the
maze of viciousness.
Saskatchewan has started with some
practical approaches to communitarianism. We began with an analysis of where
and how the traditional political process has gone wrong, and shut out the
"citizens". For example, although Canadians have made tremendous
advances in our quest to eradicate poverty, we have merely kissed the wounds.
We have not healed the sores. Similarly, universal health care has become
debased to mean hospital construction and local jobs.
We can do better. The means will be
different. But for politics to work, our principles and values have to remain
timeless. Tactics change. Morals and values do not.
Back in the "good old
days" of an expanding economy, we believed anything was possible. Trudeau
told us we could solve any problem if we tossed around enough money. In my
party we felt if only we had enough strong state institutions everything would
be fine. The result? People looked outwards to the state for salvation. They
stopped looking inwards to their own communities. And, quite honestly, we never
did successfully bridge that gap between state and community. Our task now is
to redefine interventionism. We need to move it away from statism, to where it
should be - the community.
It is a critical time in Canada -
time to stop talking and theorizing. Discourse must lead to doing. In this
respect, I am immensely privileged. I am part of a million people in a province
actually doing something to create consensus to enrich and strengthen our
communities. The debate has moved from blue print state socialism or chaotic
individualism to a more meaningful level where people feel excited and
involved. Saskatchewan is working, reasonably effectively, to refocus the
public agenda on the interests of the community at large, instead of individual
agendas or particularistic groups.
We do things slightly differently
in Saskatchewan. We were the first province in Canada to balance its budget in
the past decade. In four short years, we progressed from a province with the
highest per capita deficit to one with a small surplus. We did this without
cutting back our social safety net spending, and without major riots or
demonstrations. Indeed, the one major demonstration we had - 10,000 angry
farmers protesting changes to trim support payments - turned out to be the
pivotal defining moment for a more communitarian orientation in the province.
Part of the reason we have
accomplished positive change is that we have, with some success, moved the
debate away from the time-honoured notions of Left and Right. These labels have
become extremely tedious. Not the least because the media consistently and
willfully use the wrong labels, the wrong definitions, and the wrong words.
For example, when an NDP government
announces, as we did recently, that we will overhaul a welfare system that has
grown like Topsy, and never been reviewed for its efficacy and efficiency, we
are denounced by the media as moving to the Right. This in spite of the fact
that we are categorically NOT proposing Work for Welfare. We propose real cash
and benefit incentives for people to move off welfare - supplements to the
working poor, and the first tiny steps towards a Guaranteed Annual Income for
children. This is not right-wing, no matter what the media says.
In fact, Left and Right have become
short-hand for Us versus Them. That is a fluid debate, and one well worth
enjoining. But not with hackneyed labels, please. I am an unrepentant social
democrat. I would prefer slightly more accurate colours hoist on the mast. How
about Pluralistic and Inclusive versus the Old Establishment? Or Public and
Democratic Power versus Private or Transnational Power? How about Community and
Moral Values versus Subjective Self-Indulgences?
That is where the notion of
communitarianism becomes very helpful. The reality is many politicians, and
much of the electorate have moved past the old words and labels. Granted, we
can still goose-step to the old tunes. Frankly though, most people are looking
for action-oriented approaches, rather than meaningless thought-stopping
I want this polemic to be more than
a Saskatchewan commercial. Nevertheless, some of the ways that we have devolved
power and worked to strengthen communities can be instructive. I will simply
touch the high points. A more detailed exposé of the modern strategies we have
used to create a more communitarian sense of connectedness in the province is
beyond the scope of this current presentation.
The Saskatchewan way has been to
work incrementally, bit by bit, sector by sector. Not the whole society at
once. We strategically targetted areas that have naturally, like cream, floated
to the top. In our first term, we tackled health care reform - a sacred cow
that we barbequed with mixed compliments to the Chef. Despite the changes,
people stuck around for "seconds". We also took steps to reverse the
nonsense of job creation through sexy mega-projects funded by government
largesse. We belled the cat that both the right and the left purr about - the
quixotic notion that job creation is a government responsibility. We set up
regional economic development authorities. The goal is not mere profit. It is
community enhancement and inter-community cooperation.
It is working. Now we are turning
our attention to reform of governance structures, educational institutions, and
the social welfare system. We are also developing a creative, meaningful budget
consultation process, using multi-media, town hall meetings, 1-800 lines and
Saskatchewan people are intensely
politically literate and astute. And the New Democrats in my province have
twice tasted the bitter bile of defeat, so we tend to be politically patient.
Lofty though the goals of communitarianism are, you do not change the beast all
at once. That is a great recipe for a fallen soufflé, as Bob Rae recently
discovered. Rather, we work slowly, leading at the following edge of the
community, or vice versa, to involve and engage communities. The radical
alternative either is quickly voted out of power in a democracy such as ours,
or is strangled inexorably, like the former USSR. So we instill the idea of
collectivism, of community, of cooperation, slowly.
How do we do this? We have aimed
for greater participation in community decision-making and we increased the
flexibility of communities to deliver services to meet local needs. Most
importantly, we work to provide communities with support, skills and needed
legitimacy as we devolve power. Participation, flexibility and tolerance, as
well as acknowledged authority are essential pre-conditions if communities are
to evolve into real centres of stewardship. It is essential to activate
communities emotionally to get them going.
Change does not come about unless
people feel a real sense of pride in their community and their ability to
Obviously, this means the focus is
the caring aspects of the community, and a commitment to move things away from
distant bureaucrats. That has meant cutting across government departmental
lines, as we did with our Children’s Action Plan, or implementing bold ideas
that turn the problem upside down – such as our Victims of Domestic Violence
Act (it allows the women and children to stay home, and the men to seek
shelter!). Government is important, but it can not, and should not, do
everything for everyone. The problem with the structure of government is not
solely the expense. Too often, it simply is not producing the results.
Sometimes it is best for people to do it themselves.
However, though I do believe that
we on the left often tend to confuse the strategies of the 60’s with the workable
means of the 90’s, I do not renounce my basic belief in the power of all of us
– government and community in harmony – to achieve greatness and dreams.
Traditional leftist interventionism has run its course, but traditional leftist
thought has not. Our principles and goals are even more relevant today. Indeed,
the very core of communitarianism is the tap root of social democratic
thought-caring, community, social and economic justice. These values guide us
as we consider how to generate wealth and rights, how to distribute wealth and
Because, whether the proponents of
that mythical free market acknowledge it or not, the marketplace knows the
price of everything, and the value of nothing. Left may be meeting Right, but
it is for a handshake, not a love affair.
Traditional community structures –
church, club and coffee-klatch- are all breaking down or becoming more
irrelevant and impotent. That does not mean though that we should simply
despair and retreat into individual cocoons of counterfeit cyber-communities.
Breakdown of traditional structures has happened before in the past – imagine
the serfs and peasants bemoaning the loss of the power of the court! New
structures arose because of, or in spite of Cromwell. A move towards homeostasis
is an historical inevitability.
But the canvas of the new order has
not yet been completely painted. There is still time to look critically at the
nature of the new emerging structures. There is time to insist that they, as
well as individuals, balance rights and responsibilities. It is too easy to
blame the little guy when we shift our focus to duties and obligations. But
what about the biggies?
What about the media? Television,
for instance, can actually be used to encourage thought. Why do we let them get
away with pure entertainment shlock? Let us applaud, as we clearly did
recently, when it dares to present a moral message of the human condition. I am
referring here to Gulliver’s Travels. Simultaneously, let us encourage
more informed civil discourse on the tiny screen.
Similarly, businesses have
successfully convinced government to shift taxation from corporations to
individuals. The freed-up profits, they claimed, would generate new
opportunities for communities – not for the investment community, but for the
consuming community. Let us put their feet to the fire, so they will follow
through on their commitments.
One more example of a necessary
focus-shift: for all the sloppy political thinkers, just exactly what is meant when
a committed free-enterpriser nags a government like mine and complains that we
have not created enough jobs? The notion that the saviours of our economy are
Big Government, Big Business and Big Labour, should be put to rest. Governments
properly ought to facilitate job creation. However, except for genuine state
ownership in the form of Crown Corporations for public services, and the rare
kick-start investment, they really ought to stay very, very far away from
direct job creation. Politicians on the right ought to stop demanding that
governments on the left create more jobs.
One final point needs to be made.
Communitarianism is in danger of being very Eurocentric. When we talk about
common sense and values, what about the "Elders"? What about the
Indian and Metis communities? Many of them are a lot closer to the ideals of
communitarianism than the dominant society. But they are never acknowledged and
mentioned. These communities have something important to teach us.
It is not easy for anyone,
particularly politicians, to give up power. We thrive on it. We need it like a
drug. But if we truly care about our Canadian society, and want to ensure that
it does not descend into a disparate collection of rugged McCities, or roving
tribes, we need to listen to our communities, walk our talk, and devolve our
precious control structures. It is dangerous. It is risky. And it is
exhilarating. But as John McBride (author of The Careless Society) said
so well: "There are incredible possibilities if we are willing to fail
to be gods."
We have so much to learn from
citizens. They were the ones who first blew the whistle on the political shill
game of picking one pocket to stuff the other. They were the ones who said
enough to rotten-borough political construction of highways and hospitals. They
are the ones with the common sense. Let us learn from them.
Sure, there will be contradictions
and conflict along the way. But a truly strong democracy, the kind Canada
prides itself on, will survive, thrive, and prosper when it truly involves its