Know-Nothing Conservative: Canada's PM, Stephen Harper, shocked responsible opinion across the political spectrum by making the completion of the Canadian Census voluntary. Harper's decision is emblematic of Capitalism's turning away from inconvenient scientific knowledge and critical thinking in the twenty-first century.
IT WAS A DECISION which stunned Canadians across the political spectrum. To protect the individual privacy of its citizens, Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was making the Census voluntary. Canada’s knowledge of itself: of how well, or how badly, it is doing in the fields of health, education, employment, income distribution, economic opportunity, and the preservation of its environment; was to be fatally compromised.
According to Stephen Marche, writing in the New York Times, Harper’s decision was protested by nearly 500 Canadian organisations, “including the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Canadian Catholic Council of Bishops.” All to no avail. In spite of the fact that the conducting of censuses has been a feature of advanced civilisations since biblical times, Harper refused to budge. Canada is now flying blind.
Which is, presumably, what Harper intended all along. Marche’s NYT article is called “The Closing of the Canadian Mind”, and it paints a very grim picture of the consequences of nine years of what he calls “know-nothing conservative” rule. As the party of big business (particularly of big Albertan oil) Harper’s Conservatives have done everything they can to prevent the facts from spoiling their wonderful story. If the evidence points to the Harper Government’s policies generating worrying levels of inequality, injustice and environmental degradation – just stop collecting the evidence. If playing to the racial anxieties and petty prejudices of provincial Canada is what gets you re-elected – then, by all means: “Play on, Maestro, play on!”
With Canada’s general election still in progress, the world has yet to learn if the music has stopped for Stephen Harper, or whether, in spite of a late surge by the Canadian Liberal Party, his Conservative orchestra will play on for another four years. Win or lose, however, Harper’s prime-ministership has much to tell the world about the nature of contemporary capitalist politics.
A century ago, the parties established to represent the controlling interests of the new industrial societies placed enormous stock in science and the expansion of human knowledge. These were, rightly, seen as the driving force behind technological, economic and social progress. By 1900, the publicly-funded education systems of the two leading industrial economies, the United States and Germany, were pumping out university graduates by the tens-of-thousands. An economy driven forward by science and technology, serviced by a well-educated workforce, was the sine qua non of capitalist modernity.
Throughout the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century, Capitalism’s faith in science and education did not falter. Scientific research and technological innovation, backed by the state, both supported and encouraged the most extraordinary changes in human existence. By 1969, the United States had sufficient technological expertise to put a human-being on the surface of the Moon and bring him back to Earth. In the industrialised nations of the West, the contraceptive pill was revolutionising gender relations.
It was only in the final quarter of the Twentieth Century, when science turned its attention to the environmental consequences of industrial capitalism, and a new generation of highly-educated citizens began to investigate its increasingly destructive social side-effects, that the parties of capitalism – and their financial backers – began to look at science and education through narrowed eyes.
What has emerged in the first quarter of the Twenty-First Century is a peculiarly equivocal capitalist approach to science and education. The mature industrial economies are as dependent on their products as ever. Whether in the form of Apple’s latest smart-phone, or the algorithms of the most recent financial derivatives, capitalism continues to be driven forward by the innovations of its supremely-skilled engineers and mathematicians.
Less welcome, however, are the social scientists and ecologists who look ahead and see only the looming planetary catastrophe of capitalist-induced global warming, with all its attendant social ills. For these scientists, Capitalism’s more aggressive defenders offer only scepticism, challenge and/or outright ridicule. The effect on the public mind is pernicious. Increasingly, science is seen as the bought-and-paid-for handmaiden of ideology and propaganda. Her quasi-religious status, over two centuries, as the illuminator of Truth and deliverer of Progress, has been traduced.
Across the Western world, the institutions of higher learning have been similarly debauched. Pure knowledge, pursued for its own sake, is increasingly downgraded, and the development of critical intelligence institutionally discouraged. With the exception of Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, and all the other great seats of learning (which are, once again, reserved for the children of the elites) the world’s universities have been transformed into dreary knowledge factories. Overcrowded workshops, where standardised paradigms, purchased at ruinous expense, are imprinted upon the minds of the indentured young.
So, win or lose, Stephen Harper has already earned his place in history. In Twenty-First Century Capitalism’s great turning away from Science and Education, he already stands amongst its first and most shameless exponents.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 October 2015.