Through the curiosities of circumstance, Nigel Clarke finds himself marooned in Ottawa, the capital of the socialist haven of Canada. Thanks to The Progressive Army and co-conspirators who must remain nameless, Nigel is able to smuggle his thoughts on life behind the curtain to the outside world each week.
To read last week’s correspondence click here.
This will be my last correspondence to you from “Socialist” Canada. Shortly, I will leave Ottawa and head who knows where. I am beginning to get nostalgic about my time here already.
Long before I ever came to Ottawa, I watched the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders with great fascination, and, if we’re being honest, immense pleasure. His ideas and proposed programs were unusual enough within the American political spectrum to be somewhat radical, and, for myself and many others, invigorating.
Opponents of Sanders, those who did not “Feel the Bern,” repeatedly and voraciously derided him as an “avowed socialist,” and criticized his programs as “socialism” – The term being used in a way that was dripping with decades of American red-baiting propaganda; as if the rise of Bernie Sanders was akin to the reanimated corpse of Lenin smashing out of his glass display case.
Perhaps, then, I should have been concerned coming to the capital of Canada. If the programs proposed by Bernie Sanders were “socialist,” with the term intended to subconsciously reference an evilly romanticized version of the Soviet Union, and Canada already had many of these programs in place, then perhaps I was walking into Moscow circa 1962, or 1936 for that matter.
And yet, I have been here now for 12 weeks, writing somewhat seditious material, and I have not once been visited by the secret police. I have not had to subsist on spoiled potatoes, or even had to present my papers to an armed soldier on the street corner. I can listen to American music on the radio and buy a pair of blue jeans at the store.
What kind of “socialism” is this?
A glance at the list of things Canada already has – universal healthcare and a host of additional robust social programs, impending marijuana legalization, university which costs about 1/10th (or less) what it does in the United States, and so on – is like examining a “greatest hits” of Bernie Sanders’s, and the U.S. political system’s, most disparaged political ideas. Canada even has a number of representatives in national government from the democratic socialist party (the “NDP”) and one from the Green Party.
I am not entirely sure that things like healthcare, education, the Green Party, and legalized pot are, in a strict sense, part of the ideological canon of Socialism. These things seem less about workers owning the means of production, and more to do with how George Orwell, an “avowed socialist,” interpreted Socialism – as “justice and liberty.”
Really, the way “socialism” is used in the United States is not as much about ideological Socialism v. Capitalism, as it is simply about the role of government.
I wonder, for the “small-government” types who use “socialist” as an insult – just how little government do you want?
Are you anarchists? I don’t mean it mockingly, rather, literally. Is a small-government utopia a place where the government is so small it is non-existent?
If not, then it seems there would be a baseline of services most people would expect the role of government to include. Laws and law enforcement might be part of this baseline, as might the military (interestingly the small-government types are usually in favor of these things).
But I think that many people might include in the baseline things like providing care to the sick, injured, or infirmed, and accessible education for all. They might include protecting the most vulnerable in society or ensuring the upkeep of crucial infrastructure.
The inclusion of these things is not, of course, explicitly socialist. Personally, I would think of it more as Teddy Roosevelt progressivism; with government “as the steward of public welfare.”
Regardless of the relation between the popular usage of ‘socialism’ and orthodox socialist ideology, it seems that a different subconscious reaction to the term than the red-baiting based response most common in the U.S. is needed.
Consider, the United States now consistently ranks below the Scandinavian countries most associated with the ideas Bernie Sanders, along with Canada, across a variety of global indices.
- The Quality of Life Index – Norway (3rd), Sweden (4th), Denmark (5th), Canada (9th), Finland (11th), United States (16th)
- Income Inequality (lowest to highest – OECD nations) – Norway (2), Denmark (3), Finland (5), Sweden (10), Canada (20), United States (34/36)
- State of Democracy Index – Norway (1), Sweden (3), Denmark (5), Canada (6), Finland (9), United States (21)
- Press Freedom Index – Finland (1), Norway (3), Denmark (4), Sweden (8), Canada (18), United States (41)
I could go on, but it would be more of the same.
Perhaps then, the imagery which comes to mind when the word “socialism” is used should not be of Lenin’s goatee and Stalin’s icy glare, of broken tractors and black bags in the night. Perhaps instead the imagery should be a group of people with a relatively high quality of life; healthy and happy (and potentially a little stoned).
As I leave you for the final time, a thought on what I have learned these past 12 weeks:
Certainly, as I have discussed throughout these correspondences, Canada is far from perfect. But it appears to me that the things people here most enjoy, that most contribute to a positive quality of life – their universal healthcare, their accessible education, their social safety net; strong to the level of being a point of pride, their progressive attitude to gun control, drug laws, and reproductive rights – are the things which within the American political spectrum are most often condemned and/or written off as radical.
Conversely, the things which people appear to dislike most here – the exploitation of unpeople, oil pipelines and military expenditures, the surveillance state, government ‘pay to play’ corruption, and so on – are the most impregnable parts of establishment political canon in the United States.
Perhaps, then, what I have really learned is that it is possible, even imperative, for the United States in its current condition to learn from neighbors and allies, regardless of the term used to describe their political ideologies. To do so, Americans must look beyond the worn-out cliché of the Bolshevik boogeyman. There is no iron curtain, except the one President Trump intends to build.
Read More: Correspondence from Socialist Canada