Harper's Canada: What have we become?

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Does it ever feel like you've just woken up and found yourself living in a country you don't recognize? How did Canada get to where it is today -- a more militaristic, nationalistic, free-market-at-all-costs place that seems to have shed its world-renowned reputation as a land of peacekeepers, multiculturalism, social responsibility and scientific advancement?

It hasn't been by accident. In fact, as Donald Gutstein points out in the opening phrase of his book, Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada, this is exactly what Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised he'd do.

And he did it with a little bit of help from his friends.

With an academic thoroughness that is admirable and rarely tedious, Gutstein systematically tackles the central themes of the neoliberal agenda and how they were "incrementally" incorporated into Harper government policy. These themes, laid out chapter by chapter, are: winning the battle of ideas, rejecting unions, countering the environmental threat to markets, and fashioning Canada as a "great" nation.

In essence, support for these various themes have been nurtured and promoted from within a well-financed cabal of right-wing think tanks that continue to spew out policy papers and ideas to support a specific worldview at odds with most progressive national and international movements and thought.

From so-called "economic freedom," to "dead capital" on First Nation reserves, to the undermining of scientific knowledge and a denial of the existence of income inequality, Gutstein takes readers deep within the thinking behind many of the decisions made by the Harper government. And the thinking has firm roots in the "unique blend of neoliberalism and socially conservative family and cultural values" that came together so successfully in former leaders Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (at least, successful from their perspectives).

Gutstein argues that the "ism" appended to Thatcher and Regan were due to the wide influence of their ideas beyond their own rule. Harper, posits Gutstein, is no different -- and he couldn't have done it without the persuasive powers of the right-wing think tanks.

"The combined firepower of neoliberal think tanks over 40 years has reshaped the Canadian climate of ideas to such an extent that it will take years -- perhaps decades -- for those views to change again. On top of these ideological underpinnings, Harper has fundamentally modified the relationship between state and society," writes Gutstein, as he prepares to take the reader through a landscape littered with notions of market transactions, demolition of trade barriers and the removal of any and all obstacles to economic success (for some).

It's a depressing scene for those who view the role of governments quite differently.

As Naomi Klein so thoroughly explains in her 2007 book, the Shock Doctrine, much of today's neoliberalism and neo-conservative thought trace back to Milton Friedman. Gutstein also points to Friedman's 1962 classic manifesto, Capitalism and Freedom. But even before the 1960s, such ideas were financed by businessmen who had a clear stake in the promotion of a "free market" at the expense of all other political or social considerations.

Indeed, the aim in the early days for free-market liberals was to prove that "political freedom depends on economic freedom." Gutstein traces the movement to 1947, when the Austrian economic Friedrich Hayek brought together leading free-market intellectuals to meet in Mont Pelerin, Switzerland.

Rather than acquiesce to the expectations that governments would take an active role responding to the post-war demands of economic and social rights and the creation of a welfare state, the free-market liberals created the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) to promote a market state that would be "an individualistic, non-egalitarian society, governed by market transactions."

Mont Pelerin, Switzerland, in 1947 seems far removed from Ottawa, Canada, 2014, and yet Gutstein methodically makes the links between the neoliberal, neo-conservative agenda and the current government's handling of a number of high profile issues.

Gutstein also finds support for a suggestion by columnist Rick Salutin that Harper's ideology finds inspiration in the teachings of German-Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973). In a nutshell, Strauss, who would teach at the University of Chicago, promoted a worldview in which people must be manipulated in order to push forward a neo-conservative agenda.

In the here and now, the manipulation manifests in various ways.

For example, Canada's ranking on economic freedom indexes keeps improving. And yet the Harper government has set out to weaken unions, remove statistics-based research in the form of the mandatory long-form census and paralyse scientists and researchers from being able to report their findings.

In fact, such indexes and rankings (think Fraser Institute school rankings, for example), highlight and blur statistical numbers in order to create a "constructed reality" that measures what it wants, in order to support its raison d' ètre. Freedom House, for example, an American-based NGO that "supports democratic change, monitors freedom and advocates for democracy and human rights around the world," would produce an economic freedom index that would actually measure the freedom to earn a living and "bargain" over wages. Other indexes like the one developed by the MPS would not.

This is just one of the myriad of examples in the book of think-tank manipulation in order to promote ideas to the public consciousness that would eventually gain widespread support.

By the end of the book, after a convincing and detailed account of the links between a clear and defined agenda that can indeed be described as "Harperism," one can't help but be impressed at the rigour, determination and well-orchestrated nature of an ideology that has so transformed this country.

Whether it's the way in which the country's narrative has shifted away from one that celebrated social justice, equal rights and a cultural mosaic, to one that celebrates war, no-holds-barred free markets and lower taxes, or the manner in which the government has shirked its environmental responsibility, Harperism has done what it was always meant to do -- make Canada unrecognizable.

But can Harperism be undone? The answer is there, but you'll have to read the book right up to the last phrase to figure it out.

Amira Elghawaby is a contributing editor at rabble. Follow her on twitter @AmiraElghawaby

Interested in more writing by Donald Gutstein? Check out his Follow the Money series on rabble.

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