Plus ça change: Renewing Discourse in the Age of Aquarius

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose …” said nineteenth century French journalist, Jean-Baptiste Karr; and such may be the feeling of many sixty to seventy year-old citizens of western democracies who have watched the disposition of our societies evolve over the past several decades.

As wide-eyed students in the 1960’s; scores in our cohort felt connected to the ascendance of a cosmic new era. In the early years of that decade, “the progressive movement” spoke to young people in the language of personal liberation, human equality and “social justice.” In the USA, Martin Luther King’s non-violent campaign led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In Canada, a charming young bachelor prime minister promised a “just society” in a united, bilingual, multicultural nation.

In the young ranks of the working and lower middle-classes we felt our stars were rising. In 1969, uniformly turned out in tie-dyed T-shirts and bell-bottom dungarees, we sang along with the 5th Dimension. “Let the sun shine in” we intoned: “Harmony and understanding …sympathy and trust abounding …no more falsehoods or derisions …golden living dreams of visions …mystic crystal revelation …and the minds true liberation.” It was the dawning of the “Age of Aquarius” and the universe was unfolding as it should.

By the late 1970’s, however, a decade-long reality check raised some disturbing questions about the conventional wisdom of our time.

“Strange feverish years …”
The sixties appeared to be full of possibilities for the improvement of the human condition. But in a turn-of-the-century look at American culture, Canadian-born journalist, David Frum argued that, “for better or worse” it was the seventies that ushered in the era of modern life. That decade was dominated by radical ideas supporting the long march of an adversary culture though the lives and institutions of the boomer generation.

“They were strange feverish years” said Frum. “They were a time of unease and despair, punctuated by disaster. The murder of athletes at the 1972 Olympic games. Desert emirates cutting off America’s oil. Military humiliation in Indochina. Criminals taking control of America’s streets. The dollar plunging in value. Marriages collapsing. Drugs for sales in every high school. A president toppled from office. The worst economic slump since the great depression followed four years later by the second-worst economic slump since the great depression.” And finally, at the apex of the West’s ultra-progressive era: “The US government baffled as its diplomats are taken hostage.”

The seventies were troubling years for a lot of reasons. But among the most damaging was the disturbing sense that liberty’s fiercest and best equipped defender, the USA, was going to hell in a hand basket.


Neo-conservative movement
By the end of the 1970’s concern over social and economic setbacks at home and fears about the global expansion of Soviet power spawned a neo-conservative movement in several western democracies. Neo-conservatism combined the features of classical liberal individualism with free market economic principles, a strong aversion to communism and a general distrust of the new age counter-culture of the sixties and seventies. Conservative thinkers and politicians in the West were encouraged by significant dissident movements which shook the confidence of eastern communist regimes. On the heels of these developments came historic shifts to conservative political leadership in the free world and a series of relatively bloodless events that led to the dismantling of socialism’s ultimate achievement, the Soviet empire.

In the North Atlantic triangle the victories of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney appeared to vindicate the ideas of neo-conservative intellectuals in their efforts to roll back the dominant culture of the nanny state and restore classical liberal policies in their respective nations. Business activity rebounded, confidence returned and Reagan’s “peace through strength” initiatives helped to free millions from the grip of totalitarianism.


Supply-side economics and “The End of History”
The supply-side economic revolution of the nineteen eighties set the stage for some twenty-five years of prosperity and confidence in the west. Leaning forward into the new millennium the zeitgeist of the times was captured by Francis Fuguyama, a young Japanese-American political-economist from George Mason University. In his 1996 book, The End of History and the Last Man, Fuguyama argued that the ongoing success of democratic capitalist societies pointed to a new vision for human sociocultural evolution. “What we are witnessing,” he said, “is not just the end of the cold war or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Throughout the nineteen eighties and nineties popular exegetes of free-market economics like George Gilder, Arthur Laffer, Madsen Pirie and Michael Walker criticized the fundamental principles of socialism and celebrated the productive energy of the entrepreneurial spirit. “The most important event in the recent history of ideas” said Gilder, is the demise of the socialist dream. Dreams always die when they come true, and fifty years of socialist reality, in every partial and plenary form, leave little room for idealistic reverie. In the United States” he said, “socialism chiefly rules in auditoria and parish parlors, among encounter groups of leftist intellectuals retreating from the real world outside, where socialist ideals have withered in the shadows of Stalin and Mao, Sweden and Tanzania, gulag and bureaucracy.”

The spirit that lay at the heart of renewed economic freedom provided means and incentives for individuals to work, create, innovate, take-risks and invest. The nineteen-nineties saw one of the longest economic expansions in the history of the United States. There was a renewed confidence in the air and despite short recessions in 1987, 1991 and 2001, the reduction of volatility in the business cycle starting in the mid-eighties and continuing to the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 was described by mainstream economists as “The Great Moderation.” In a pivotal 1996 state of the union address even Democratic American President Bill Clinton declared that the era of big government was over.


Free market think tanks
Much of the credit for the success of the supply-side revolution can be attributed to the founders and supporters of free market and conservative think tanks. These organizations acted independently and efficiently to: by-pass the conventional wisdom of established universities, provide alternative platforms for scholarly research, market classical liberal ideas and challenge the dominance of the left in the public square.

Pioneers of the free market movement, like British entrepreneur, Sir Antony Fisher, inspired free thinkers throughout the world. Their purpose was to recapture western culture; which they felt had been betrayed by; what Austrian economist, Freidrich Hayek had called “the treason of the intellectuals.” Organizations like Fisher’s Institute for Economic Affairs in the UK as well as the Fraser Institute in Western Canada became models for homegrown neo-cons who sought to influence public opinion and shape public policy development.

In Montreal, during the late 1970’s, a small group of teachers, academics, journalists, professionals and businessmen coalesced around a free market organization known as the St. Lawrence Institute. Generally, our members valued the power of ideas and sought to exchange opinions in the public square. We stood for freedom of speech, personal freedoms, religious liberty, free enterprise, the rule of law and the advancement of learning. All of us were concerned by the increasing growth of Quebec statism and the decline, or outright dismantling, of intermediary cultural, civic and educational institutions.

Throughout the nineteen eighties and nineties members and friends of the St. Lawrence Institute supported community organizations and political campaigns that opposed the statist and socialist policies put forward by Quebec’s Parti-Quebecois. For the most part our members supported the maintenance of a united Canada within a strong and confident free-world alliance led by the United States of America.

Core SLI activists published opinion pieces in established newspapers, wrote books or articles for scholarly journals, acted as contributors to radio and television programs, hosted public seminars, participated in political campaigns and, in some cases, ran for public office. In the nineties we also published several editions of an SLI review know as Discourse. Through this publication we sought to encourage young writers to submit articles dealing with timely economic, political and cultural issues.


Mission accomplished?
In the final years of the nineteen-nineties, most SLI members came to believe that our public mission had been largely accomplished. The final collapse of the Soviet empire, the widespread disappointment with socialist economies, a second referendum defeat for Quebec separatism and the election of centrist or center-right administrations in Canada, the United States and the UK all mitigated the urgency of our civic endeavours. As a result, most of us stood down and returned to the fulltime business of raising families, advancing careers, seeing kids through university and planning comfortable retirements.

By the early years of the twenty-first century we felt secure in the knowledge that our valued ally, America, was richer and more powerful than ever. The “trickle down” effect on her trading partners and allies was welcomed around the world. On the global stage, the cold war with Soviet communism had been won and the threat of Maoism in Asia and caudillism in Latin America had abated.

Even after the horrendous 9/11 terror attack in New York; swift military victories over the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq gave the early impression that we were in a position to deal with almost anything that came our way. In fact, scores of people in democratic countries went on enjoying the benefits which accrued from economic freedom, the rule of law and protection by a strong US military.

In the USA, the UK and Canada the entire quarter century that unfolded after the electoral victories of Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney had produced an atmosphere of confidence which few of us thought would ever be taken away.


“What thought did …”
Today, we know what thought did. We thought we could rely on past accomplishments. But, for senior opponents of the left; intellectual discourse in the second decade of the twenty-first century appears to be “déjà vu – all over again.”

Our contemporary world is, once again, a disordered and dangerous place. Suspicion of business abounds, even among business people. Failed socialist and Keynesian practices, once again, undermine the production of wealth and our capacity to lift people out of poverty.

Islamic terrorism is shaking the confidence of western democracy. Despite the end of the cold war, the anticipated “peace dividend” appears to be well beyond our reach. Former ideological adversaries like Russia and China remain geo-political foes and a debt-ridden America is significantly less committed to the protection of her friends and allies.

Much of middle and working class domestic behaviour has become increasingly self-destructive. Declining marriage and birth rates appear to forecast the gradual disappearance of once free and prosperous societies.

In short, the mood of the 1970’s has returned with a vengeance. David Frum’s account of wild “alarms and panics” in the seventies are almost comically parallel with popular “casus bellis” invoked by progressive icons like the current President of the United States or the popular new Vicar of Rome.

Then, Frum reminded us, all talk was of impending disaster often brought on by our own doing: “The ice age was returning. Killer bees were swarming up across the Rio Grande. The world was running out of natural resources. Kahoutek’s comet was hurtling toward the planet. Epidemic swine flu would carry off millions of elderly people. Karen Silkwood had been murdered for trying to warn us that nuclear reactors were poisoning the earth. General Motors was supressing the patent on a hyper-efficient engine. Food shortages would soon force Americans to subsist on algae.”


More outrage on the left
Like the seventies, outrage is once again directed at the pernicious forces of capitalism, conservatism, patriotism and traditional religion. All are blamed for strangling the authenticity of the young, resisting the spirit of our time and exploiting the tattooed masses. Once again, we are invited to surrender our futures to the vision of charismatic politicians and secular prophets who promise to take from the undeserving rich, give to the poor and create “middle class” paradises on earth. Once again, we are told that the production of wealth can be taken for granted and we have only to be concerned with its fair and equal redistribution.

And once again, significant numbers of young people with history-free educations have been invited to join the dance. Thanks to our enormously over-rated progressive schools and universities scores of otherwise intelligent citizens have been conditioned to believe anything and nothing. That is: “anything” supporting the wildest and weirdest proclamations of Marxists, post-modern deconstructionists, radical environmentalists and other conspiracy theorists; and “nothing” in the form of hard evidence, experience or rational discourse that contends with the politically correct assertions of the libertine left. This cosmic gullibility combined with intractable cynicism is the product of more than half a century of education dedicated to “critical thinking.”


Missing the good times
Many of us remember the period between the early nineteen-eighties and the great recession of 2007 as good years. Our personal lives were filled with decent jobs, business and professional opportunities, generous health and pension plans, comfortable homes and, perhaps most important, hopeful futures for our children.

The eighties opened with promising political developments for those who looked forward to the restoration of free-market economies. In the Anglosphere, the election of Ronald Reagan followed by the re-election of Margaret Thatcher, the retirements of Rene Levesque and Pierre Trudeau, the election of Brian Mulroney and the re-elections of Reagan and Thatcher for second and third terms created the impression that we had turned the page on the distrust of capitalism that had dominated preceding decades.

Over the good years economic deregulation increased in the developed world. Wealth began to migrate to newly industrializing economies. In 1989 a longstanding symbol of communist domination, the Berlin Wall, was toppled. By the early nineties the failure of the USSR contributed to delegitimizing socialism and breathed new confidence into the purveyors of laissez-faire economics. In 1994, Canada, the USA and Mexico signed a North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement while a dot-com revolution gave birth to a new generation of entrepreneurs who transformed the media and communications industries.

One could go on about the economic promise of that era, but all of us know how the story closed. The tale ended; not just in the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007, but in a political and cultural transformation that has shaken the confidence of Americans and their partners throughout the world. The crash of 2007 was not the only economic down turn in recent history. In 1991 and 2001 the US and world economies suffered notable setbacks and bounced back. Yet, US economic growth, between 2008 and the present, has been disturbingly slow and inconsistent. As the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer recently declared: “It has been the most anaemic recovery since World War II.”


Serious setback
The convergence of unforeseen events can alter the course of history for better or worse. In 2008 the world stood by while a financial shock wave converged with a dramatic resurgence of radical chic leadership within America’s Democratic Party. These developments led to the nomination and election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States and current leader of the free world. As a consequence, we are, once again, witnessing the entrenchment of liberal, political and social elites who are fundamentally opposed to the virtues that made America and her allies strong in the first place. This transformation has been a serious setback, not only for the USA, but for all the allied nations who rely on her protection.


Conservative complacency
These developments did not occur in a vacuum. To some extent, conservatives have only themselves to blame. On the heels of dramatic advances in economic, social and foreign policy over the final decades of the last century too many rank and file conservative thinkers and activists politely yielded their place in the public square to a thin line of like-minded journalists, policy professionals and up-and-coming politicians.

Here in Canada, a multi-party parliamentary system has allowed just over one-third of the country’s electorate to return a Conservative government since 2006. For Canadians, depending on where we choose to locate, the Harper administration’s generally free-market friendly policies have mitigated some of the worst effects of the global recession. But in America and much of Europe chronic welfare state side-effects like under-employment, domestic dysfunction and mounting debt threatens to drag the entire free-world to the edge of the abyss.

Yet, while facing daily media assaults from the left, contemporary conservative politicians constantly appear to be playing defense. Too many instinctively recoil from philosophical positions that won hearts and minds in the nineteen-eighties. In fact, most contemporary conservative politicians appear ill-equipped to explain policies that successfully won electoral majorities in the era of Thatcher and Reagan. As journalist, John Hawkins, recently put it: “Conservatism is more relevant than ever to American life, but much of the conservative movement has grown complacent, lazy, rigid, and out of touch.”

Despite the memorable quarter century of economic and political advances attributed to neo-conservative policy-makers it is disheartening to accept that western culture has been so thoroughly and permanently transformed that we no longer possess the necessary and sufficient conditions to maintain and defend free, productive and well-ordered societies.

Even while in positions of political or institutional power, conservatives have retreated from many of the ideas that challenged the conventional wisdom of the left. As ordinary citizens, we have been silenced in schools, universities, public service, established charities, theatre, film, entertainment, courts and churches. And we have, too often, become cowards in the face of opponents who succeed; not by winning arguments, but by refusing to allow a contending idea into the room.


A renewed call to action
For mature thinkers developments over recent decades should invite a renewed call to action. In the early 1980’s, the St. Lawrence Institute was founded around a shared concern about developments in education and culture in Quebec, Canada and the world at large. Members aimed to promote useful public debate and counter misinformation that led to the manipulation of public opinion. We sought to serve as a forum for independent thought. We believed in the power of ideas and we focused our attention on those institutions engaged in the circulation of ideas: schools, universities, the media and other forums dedicated to public discussion.

To several of our members writing and speaking came easily. But finding outlets for publication and venues for public seminars required time, organization, good will and money that were almost always in short supply. Discourse became our samizdat press. We created it, edited it, censored it and distributed it. Unlike Soviet dissidents, we didn’t get imprisoned for it but we certainly took our share of grief in the faculty rooms and bistros of Montreal.


Launching Discourse Online
This personal commitment to the development of Discourse Online is inspired by fond memories of friends and colleagues who rallied around the mission of the St. Lawrence Institute in the City of Montreal.

Going forward, Discourse Online will seek to become a renewed forum for independent thought. We look forward to publishing timely essays and editorial comment on a range of issues and to building an informative archive of earlier publications that will help place current trends in an historical perspective.

In all ways we will endeavor to be true to the venerable quote by Edmund Burke that appeared on the concluding page of the former St. Lawrence Institute’s founding document:

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”