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Imagining Politics

If I were to kick off this closing commentary with a punchy pronouncement on imagining politics it would be, sadly, that they (the Harperites) have it and we (the broad but amorphous opposition to their policies) do not. That is not adequate as a commentary, but it is a realistic starting point. This does not of course mean that the Harper agenda is creative and sophisticated, imaginative and persuasive. For it is not. But it does mean that Harper and his cronies are willing to reach for their particular sky, even if it often seems to us to be a descent into the deep nether world of acquisitive individualism.

One problem with the overworked use of Benedict Anderson’s phrase “imagined community” is that those who employ it sometimes fail to acknowledge adequately that all nations are fractured into different and often contesting components. “Community,” in any meaningful sense, is never realizable within nations, ordered as they currently are, fragmented by powerful divisions. At least this is the way it looks from the history of “actually existing capitalism,” which, it can be argued, parallels the history of nations as we know them.

One of the purposes of the modern state has been to imagine nationhood, willing into being a sense of united peoplehood. Through the manipulation of representations, choices about what to commemorate and what to sidestep, and decisions defying and denying the contest and conflict that have occupied the ground of actual social relations, states “make” official quite particular readings of the past. In this project, history tends to be rewritten, crafted to create a sense of didactic History that serves the state and those dominant interests that orchestrate its work, however adroitly this is done. This state project of imagining the nation and its history is, of course, prefabricated and packaged in ways that antagonize academics (and many others) who rightly reject the simplifications, shortcuts, and stubborn sterility of much that is presented in the name of national heritage.

As our commentators above have suggested, the rebranding of Canada that is currently underway, pushed in particular directions by the ruling government of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, is not all that new. The state has always had its hand in History. There was a time when the ideological project of socially constructing Canada as a mythical land of multiculturalism, of peacekeeping, of social harmony and caring universalism was worked to good effect by states commandeered by the Pearsons and the Trudeaus. Their counterparts in the provincial wings, the likes of Ontario’s John Robarts or Bill Davis, or their challengers in the federal arena, such as Robert Stanfield, would have rewritten the script only slightly. Toryism in those times contained hues of pink and Red. Liberals sometimes shaded into radical nationalists or social democrats. The mainstream currents of political life in Canada were content [End Page 234] to offer a bow in the direction of social democratic icons (Tommy Douglas/Stanley Knowles) as long as their place in History was purely iconographic. Governing parties – Liberal and Conservative alike – picked and chose what they might utilize from the left, as long as these adaptations confirmed power’s ultimate hegemonic hold.

What is different now is that the political imagination of the state, with Harper at the helm, has gone into ideological overdrive, pulling absolutely no punches. It was a political maxim of Bill Davis during a long period of Conservative governance in Ontario that you could catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And so corporate rule was sugar-coated. Those were the days, however, when it was possible to bankroll the sugar with state revenues. Harper’s meaner and leaner agenda emerges out of an entirely different political economy. The maxim now is that you will catch more flies with shit than with anything else, and Harper and Company have been piling it on.

The shit storm we all find ourselves within spells not only the end of certain historical sensibilities but, arguably, the end of a certain kind of political culture. Promiscuous use of proroguing of parliament; termination of the right to strike; curtailing of structures protecting the vulnerable...