William D. Gairdner, On Higher Ground: Reclaiming a Civil Society (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 1996), 224+xiv pp.
William D. Gairdner is a rare bird in Canada: a well-known conservative critic who writes and thinks clearly and, consequently, whose voice is heard. His combination of athletic, academic and business achievement is also rare. This is Gairdner’s fourth book. Although he could certainly write in a more scholarly style, he prefers a popular mode of expression accessible to most “decent, ordinary Canadians.” In 1994 Gairdner became a regular columnist for The Edmonton Journal, when its publisher sought to provide some balance for his newspaper’s “left” perspective. On Higher Grounds is a collection of these columns. Given the circumstances of their original appearance, it is not surprising that it turned out to be a work in which serious insights are articulated in terms of a weak and underdeveloped theoretical framework, precluding translation into a politically viable program.
Gairdner does not mince words. In the book’s “Preface” he writes: ” … my complaint about all so-called social democracies is that relinquishing personal and community responsibilities to governments has the dangerous effect of softening the mind and will; of turning of what ought to be enduring moral debates and standards into disposable opinions, values, or perspectives, as the state leads us toward one bankrupt utopia after another” (p. xiii). This sets the tone for the entire book and its critique of an “infantilizing” managerial-therapeutic regime. Its main theme is the rise of the managerial state in Canada and the consequent disintegration of Canadian “civil society,” which leads Gairdner to characterize this society as “A Tyranny of Individuals” mired in a crass materialism. The main points of reference are “the Ancients” and Louis Dumont: “when respected sages spoke of the eternal rhythm of things and the need to be good, everyone agreed that there were, in fact, such things … When they asked themselves what purpose life had, they came to the general conclusion that it must be more than mere pleasure. It was the pursuit of those higher things, for oneself, and for society” (pp. 3-4). A libertarian well-known for his defense of the market and of free enterprise, Gairdner relies on Dumont to avoid overemphasizing abstract individualism — a typical libertarian occupational hazard: “A ‘holistic’ society … — a real, natural community — is uniffied by an ideology of hierarchical values. There is a shared notion of good, better, best, and bad … praise and stigma flow accordingly, unifying all in the same moral bond. What [Dumont] terms an ‘individualistic’ society is the opposite. At the core of its ideology is ‘equality,’ the idea of freedom from all oppressive authority … eventually, the equal freedom campaign had to go on a search-and-destroy mission for ever-diminishing authority targets. Even ordinary praise and stigma would have to go, in the name of moral neutrality … More of this freedom means less community” (p. 4). Recycling an outlook going back to Plato, Gairdner writes that without virtues “democracy would soon deteriorate into soft, then hard tyranny. For only a citizenry rich in the manly virtues could possibly stave off the equalizing tendencies of democracy that will always … destroy … heroic notions of the good … raising the unworthy and lowering the worthy” (p. 21).
Such a traditional outlook will have nothing to do with today’s feminist chatter about the abolition of all differences — first and foremost those engendered by patriarchy — and the reduction of human beings to interchangeable statistical units endowed only with whatever rights the state is willing to bestow on them. With uncomon verve, Gairdner writes: “We sicken, too, of the silly, maleness-dissolving notion that our opposite genders are ‘socially constructed’ and not an obvious, wonderful, and very exciting natural fact of normal biology around which all human life revolves; we especially sicken of the message that men and their manly values are bad” (p. 22). In a piece titled: “Which One Is the Wife?” — a pointed quip against homosexual marriage (attributed as a comment to Gairdner’s twelve-year old son, after watching a TV debate on the issue) — he provides a sharp defense of civil society and privilege (which he considers inextricably connected). The objective is to safeguard local autonomy, particularity and freedom against an omnipotent state seeking to homogenize everyone by destroying whatever institutions escape its grasp. After all, “Reclaiming Civil Society” is the book’s subtitle. But here is where problems begin to creep up.
The concept of civil society is an integral part of precisely that liberal New Class ideology Gairdner so violently opposes. To the extent that it remains too modernist and therefore unable to deal with that precategorical lived dimension generating those traditions and custom which weld an otherwise mere aggregation of individuals into a people, it is far too weak, ambiguous and contradictory to support the devastating critique Gairdner wants to unleash. It is broadly described as follows: “Above us is the involuntary control of the state … In the middle is the social control of millions of voluntary groups that comprise civil society … And finally, at the bottom, there are millions of autonomous individuals exercising self-control (most of the time). I contend the egalitarian state has the effect (sometimes, the ambition) of breaking down the voluntary authority of civil society through its evangelical eagerness to equalize everyone under its own coercive influence. One way it does this … is through Charter-style attacks on our ancient social right to discriminate between those who opt into social groups, and those who do not (who nevertheless are left alone with all their normal individual rights). What we end up with is an … ideological war between the state and society, the end consequence of which … . is to weaken society and strengthen the state” (pp. 24-26).
This account is far too “bourgeois,” therefore one-sided, in restricting all institutions other than the state to “voluntary associations” constituted by autonomous individuals exercising their prerogatives to aggregate freely while marginalizing all other “individuals at the bottom” — presumably a new version of the old sanscoulottes of French Revolution vintage — to social and political irrelevance. But these latter day sanscoulottes systematically blotted out of the political spectrum are precisely “the decent, ordinary Canadians” Gairdner wants to address and whose interests he seeks to defend. Worse yet, in traditional 19th century treatises on the subjects, such as, e.g., Hegel’s Rechtsphilosophie or Savigny’s Von Beruf unsrer Zeit, the main components of civil society were primarily business corporations. Thus, it is no mere coincidence that traditional conservatives at the time, from BonaId and de Maistre to Donoso Cortes, were deeply suspicious of capitalism as a system which ruthlessly tore apart “organic society” (similar concerns, of course, resurface in some of today’s most profound critics of modern society, such as, e.g., Christopher Lasch). The upshot is that Gairdner’s uncritical appropriation of the liberal concept of civil society is too restrictive in that it excludes too many “decent, ordinary Canadians.” In recycling a problematic bourgeois notion, he opens himself up to the same charges Marx and other 19th century socialists hurled against the bourgeoisie: it forgot all about the fourth estate. At the same time, civil society is also defined in such a way as to include too much which, left unchecked, has historically destroyed precisely the sort of “organic society” Gairdner thinks his civil society is meant to defend.
At the same time, the concept of civil society as currently used is also too broad in that, in addition to large, impersonal business corporations which are functionally indistinguishable from the state and whose inefficient bureaucratic structure has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of entrepreneurship, it mostly includes aggregations which are by no means “voluntary” in the sense liberals and Gairdner understand the term. In societies such as Canada, many if not most of the groups in civil society define themselves along ethnic lines. These groups are by no means voluntary. Yet today ethnic identity is one of the most legitimate criteria for qualifying groups as integral parts of civil society. Similarly, it is well known that in the past various parts of civil society, groups constituting the so-called majority culture, systematically limited membership on the basis of ethnicity, i.e., in ways obviously not predicated merely on formal rational criteria. Thus, historically, civil society has never quite come up to the standards advocated by its liberal apologists. This should come as no surprise: since the formal dimension is never adequate to that which it seeks to formalize, its deployment must always be supplemented by recourse to the informal residue it leaves behind. This is why the entrepreneur is always a better decision-maker than the bureaucrat: while the latter is necessarily limited in his modus operandi to formal rules and procedures, the former can access the totality of his experiences, including hunches, feelings and intuitions which, far from being mere repositories of irrational prejudices, are actually invaluable cultural resources sedimented deeply within the very structure of personality. What this means is that the “voluntary” dimension is often inadequate and ends up unwittingly relying on this “politically incorrect” — consequently either unacknowledged or out-rightly repressed — pre-formal dimension routinely dismissed as residual irrational prejudices. Civil society is therefore possible only in historical contexts where it has not yet had the opportunity to weaken too much or altogether destroy traditional of “holistic” society which it parasitically relies on in order to function at all. In fact, the dialectic of the crisis of liberalism unfolds toward self-destruction not because it fails, but because it succeeds and thus destroys that traditional framework on which it depends, thus undermining the very conditions for its own reproducibility. This is why it is surprising to run into soi disant conservatives celebrating the virtues of civil society.
The problem here is with Gairdner’s uncritical appropriation of an ideologically-laden concept ultimately inimical to the rest of his political philosophy. Historically, the concept of “civil society” was developed in the 18th century to designate those social and economic domains the rising bourgeoisie had secured from lingering feudal elites. Although up to Hegel’s times “burgerliche Gesell-schaft” was understood is this sense, after 1848 the sharp distinction between state and society disappeared. Thus for Marx and subsequent writers it came to mean primarily “bourgeois” society and lost its earlier neutrality vis a vis the state. It is no accident that in the 20th century, with the possible exception of Antonio Gramsci, practically no thinkers ever used “civil society” in the earlier 18th century sense. The concept was successfully recycled in the 1970s by East
European dissidents frustrated by the seeming impossibility to reform communist regimes. At that time it once again came to designate a social enclave free of state domination. With the collapse of communism, however, the concept became once again meaningless — at least in liberal-democratic societies. It was kept in vogue only by emigree East European and other New Class intellectuals who had come to realize that state-imposed social engineering had failed in the West as much as in the East and that, if it was to work at all, had to be democratically generated and guided morally rather than “administratively.” This is why, in the age of post-communism, the infamous “five-year plans,” or their Western functional equivalents (such as the New Deal) have given way to “political correctness” — a much more effective strategy to reconstruct collective consciousness than by means of the old state police. Unlike “the party line” enforced by the state, political correctness can function only as the free expression of a seemingly autonomous “civil society.” As such, the concept is a “democratic” Trojan horse meant to relegitimate those very same totalitarian policies impossible to impose from above. That “conservatives” such as Gairdner have bought into such a bogus theoretical framework is only a symptom of the cultural hegemony these East European intellectuals have succeeded in establishing within the social sciences and the humanities in the West with the complicity of a Western New Class desperately in need to buttress its own flaccid brand of liberal ideology.
Following this liberal logic, Gairdner seeks to articulate his political philosophy by defending a civil society presumably being annihilated by the state. But, if anything, the opposite is the case. Already in the 1920s Carl Schmitt — probably the most perceptive critic of liberalism in the 20th century — argued that “the equation state=politics becomes erroneous and deceptive at exactly the moment when state and society penetrate each other,” i.e., liberal democracy leads to the identity of state and society. What he meant was that economic interests had become politicized and that they increasingly instrumentalized the state, to the point that it had ceased to be an autonomous political entity. One does not have to look very hard to realize how, e.g., trade has come to plays a greater role than ideology in foreign policy. Today “civil society” is the domain of multiculturalism, feminism, environmentalism, etc. making demands on a state increasingly unable to define itself as anything but an aggregation of all of these social interests. What Gairdner should have done in his vindication of a traditional Canadian identity is to have indicted the very concept of civil society as a multicultural construct useful for New Class bureaucrats and politicians to redefine Canadian society as a hopelessly fragmented, culturally heterogeneous Babel able to function only if held together by a state they alone can administer and from which they derive their power. In this sense, Schmitt’s analysis, developed in the late 1920s, long before the development of the New Deal and other European welfare states, has to be expanded along the lines he himself develops later, in his work on legal systems. It is no longer only or primarily economic interests that control the state, but a New Class intent on destroying any traditions or cultural particularity which could define “civil society” as anything other than an aggregation of manipulable abstract individuals which, even if subdivided into politically correct multicultural categories, remain nonetheless susceptible to direct or indirect social engineering into whatever kind of “New Man” the “experts” happen to deem desirable. Today, any defense of civil society automatically translates into a relegitimation of the New Class. When all is said and done, those groups constituting a “politically correct” civil society — from the advocates for the homeless, to anti-tabacco activists, welfare mothers or anti-racism organizations, but not the Klu Klux Klan, the militias or advocates for the legalization of drugs –cannot represent themselves. Thus they become the ward of experts and politicians allegedly safeguarding their interests through the state. Today the express lane to a successful political career begins with the advocacy of any one of these “causes.” Thus it is not a matter of defending civil society against the state, but of vindicating the sovereignty of real people, with all their traditions, customs and prejudices against the allegedly superior knowledge of the New Class entrenched in the state, in academia and even in the interstices of large, bureaucratized, business organizations. Conservatism cannot redefine itself as liberalism in its youth, since today’s New Class ideology against which it fights is that very same liberalism gone senile and thus forgetful of its earlier ideals. Rather, it must take up once again the radical critique of that liberalism — from both the conservative as well as the revolutionary camp — in order to prefigure concrete alternatives solidly grounded on long-standing traditions and customs.
Notwithstanding his propensity to occasionally capitulate to the New Class’ cultural hegemony, Gairdner does manage to vindicate some traditional values. Thus, in “Don’t Nuke the Duke” (referring to Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II) he reaches way back in conservative theory, practically to ideas of”Throne and Altar.” The piece is prefaced by a defense of the hereditary principle: ” … to speak against inheritance is to speak against achievement itself, because people work hard and bum with pride mostly to help their families and offspring” (p. 32), and followed by some claims that have not been publicly articulated for almost two centuries — at least since the French and American revolutions: “The primordial model for monarchy, of course, is the natural family, the basic hierarchical social unit of all civilizations, and (despite the musings of the United Nations) the farthest thing from a democracy. This model forms a triad for all Christian societies of Holy Family, royal family, secular family” (p. 34). Here Gairdner’s classical Canadian pedigree shines through in his attempt to recycle a long-standing tradition attenuated in Britain and Continental Europe, fast disappearing in Canada and explicitly rejected in the US. Desirable as it may be to provide equal opportunity to all, inequalities not only remain but should also be preserved. The annihilation of the hereditary principle weakens families and destroys traditions. The result can only be the further impoverishment of people whose individuality, cultural identity and character structure can best be constituted within strong traditional families. The disintegration of the family leads to the disappearance of these individuals — the theme of one of Gairdner’s otherr books and of the classical 1936 study by the Frankfurt School.6 This results in the decline of citizenship and the reduction of individuals to mere clients of the welfare state, unable to sustain even minimally democratic institutions, thus paving the way for even more social disintegration and the triumph of the managerial-therapeutic state.
This project of generalized decadence is becoming increasingly associated with the New Class. Gairdner buys only part of this analysis. In another instance of capitulation to New Class cultural hegemony, he confuses the dramatis personae and ends up associating this New Class project with the New Left. This is precisely how the New Class would like to project its identity, thus inheriting by default the idealistic elan of a heterogeneous movement advocating lofty ideals such as equality, liberty and justice. But the New Left was not the New Class, even if some of its members did eventually become part of it. Similarly, the New Class only instrumentalizes New Left ideals to reproduce precisely the relations of social domination the New Left fought so hard to abolish. The New Class’ politically correct world of repressed, disembodied, abstract beings forced to behave in ways contrary to their nature and, e.g., unable to poke fun at themselves and others in ethnic, sexist, racist, homophobic or any number of otherwise forbidden ways, has nothing to do with the New Left seeking freedom from all forms of oppression. Any analysis — especially from conservative quarters -that does not distinguish the two ends up indirectly bestowing undeserved moral legitimacy on the agents of modem domination while delegitimating some of the strongest sources of resistance to it.
Among other things, this is why Gairdner’s “New Right Talks Like Old Left” is a problematic piece. By “Old Left” Gairdner means radical liberals such as Thomas Paine, who argued for minimal government and maximum freedom -positions which today would be identified as “libertarian.” Similarly, at that time, the Old Right believed in strong central government. Today, allegedly, the positions have been reversed. Gairdner’s arguments are not helped by his deployment of an idiosyncratic political vocabulary. The Old Left is not generally understood to be identical with libertarianism. The real Old Left was composed primarily of working-class movements — anarchist, social-democratic and Marxist — which fought for social and economic justice and misguidedly thought that these goals could be achieved by establishing a society regulated by the welfare state. According to Gairdner, after the 1960s what he regards as the New Left was able to establish the managerial-therapeutic regime, “the new-style welfare-state,” often consciously deploying earlier social democratic rhetoric. This is seen as part of that development associated with the rise of consumerism, megacorporations, the new media and a pop-culture spreading from North America to the entire planet. But this “New Left,” i.e., the managerial-therapeutic New Class, has nothing in common either with the Old or the New Left, and it certainly does not legitimate its power in the same way. Indeed, this technocratic New Class qua New Left typically promises “maximum freedom,” “maximum equality” and “maximum prosperity,” while introducing new and more pervasive modes of social domination. Mutatis mutandis, only parts of the New Right may be libertarian (most of it is composed of the dogmatic Christian New Right, which is anything but libertarian). To that extent, it is on a conflict course with the social conservatism of the Old Right and today’s few remaining traditional conservatives, who were always highly suspicious of capitalism as disruptive of established social relations. Gairdner is both a social and an economic conservative. Thus he is in favor of both a free market and traditional social relations. No wonder he sounds like both an old rightist and a classical liberal. Obviously, he cannot have it both ways: he must either stand for an abstract civil society which recognizes nothing but the cash-nexus, formalism and what the Frankfurt School called “identity logic,” or he must defend tradition and take a second look at the disruptive impact of translating traditional society into civil society — tertium non datur.
By hypostatizing civil society as his key analytical category, Gairdner ends up generating a series of antinomies which periodically reappear throughout his otherwise penetrating critique of Canadian society. As a result, he often manages to shoot himself in the foot even before he can begin his critical marathon. His attempts to articulate his profound traditionalist instincts by means of de facto liberal concepts constantly lead him into frustrating positions. In this respect, he accurately reflects the predicament of conservatism today. This becomes most obvious in the section on “Separation Anxieties,” where he tackles probably Canada’s thorniest political problem today: Quebec separatism. Instead of analyzing the problem as a consequence of Trudeau and the Liberal Party’s historical strategy of attempting to homogenize Canada into a nation by means of disastrous policies such as bilingualism and generous transfer payments to the provinces to bribe them into falling in line with one of the most ambitious welfare states in the world, Gairdner opts to vindicate the New Class idea of a “Canadian nation.” But Canada is too big and too diverse to be a nation — and it never was. Rather, it was a loose federation so geographically dispersed as to allow, out of necessity, the maximum possible amount of local and regional autonomy. Under such arrangements there was no “Quebec problem.” Each province pretty well minded its own business and that was it. Only after the liberals sought to “Canadianize” every province into a homogeneous whole susceptible to the state’s social engineering and the redistributive practices necessary to bring it about did the Que-beckers find it necessary to vindicate their own cultural particularity. A truly conservative critique would begin by attacking the very concept of Canada as a “nation” — a paradigmatic liberal construct increasingly bankrupt everywhere in the world, originally invented by the French Revolution and having nothing to do either with conservative or revolutionary thought — rather than appropriating it and then forcing it not only on Quebec but on the equally culturally different western and maritime provinces.
If the problem of Quebec separatism is approached from within a nationalist framework, then Ray Conlogue’s conclusions are inescapable: Canada is one state with two nations — English and French Canada. Along with the liberals, Gairdner seems to assume that the Canadian state is coterminous with one Canadian nation. No wonder Quebeckers, who had no trouble living with English Canada for over a century as part of a loose federation, are not fooled by palliatives such as bilingualism and multiculturalism (which succeeded only in annoying to no end the rest of Canada) and resent being integrated as part and parcel of English Canada. If what is at stake is the constitution of a nation, then Quebeckers simply want their own. Despite his traditionalism, here Gairdner edits out of his consciousness the fact that many Quebecois nationalists want no more and no less than what Liberal Party nationalists want for what they have tried to appropriate as their (English) Canada — even if this has always been cleverly carried out by liberals from Quebec! In accepting the liberal pretense that Quebeckers are nothing but another irksome minority, Gairdner ends up buying lock, stock and barrel the worst features of liberal ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism. Worse yet, he unwittingly tums into a footsoldier in the internationalist, liberal, and federalist assault on Quebec. A traditionalist critique of Quebec separatism must be an extension of the critique of Ottawa and its New Class, its nationalism, welfare-statism and its pretense of higher moral authority.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, Gairdner has put together a very interesting and stimulating book touching on almost every important social and political issue confronting Canadian society. Yet the “higher ground” he wants to take tums out to be a swamp full of liberal mines ready to explode as soon as the critique ventures into practical solution. The tragedy with conservative thought today is precisely this: having long since yielded theoretical hegemony to liberalism, its insight are already pre-reintegrated into that system it wants to change. While Gairdner may be on “higher” ground, it is not at all clear that it is very solid. To be politically effective a truly radical critique of Canadian society needs to move to a theoretical ground much higher than Gairdner’s liberal plateau.
[Telos; Summer 96 Issue 108, p169, 10p]