Control the conversation, control the country

Canadian author Donald Gutstein is a friend of one of the members of our regular Monday morning ideas group, and recently we met with Donald to discuss his important book, Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada.

Unlike other books on Canada’s most conservative government, Harperism focuses on the political philosophy at the foundation of what to many is an alarming reversal of our country’s traditional role as an advocate of social justice and environmental responsibility.

It’s not that Harperism ignores these changes. On the contrary, Gutstein explains them in terms of the “neoliberalism” at their heart. This focus makes Harperism important far beyond Canada’s borders, for neoliberalism underpins the successful imposition of “free market” ideology into the policies of most of the world’s titular democracies.

Like “Reaganism” and “Thatcherism” before it, Gutstein argues, “Harperism” embodies the market-driven economic philosophy developed most influentially by Friedrich von Hayek in The Road to Serfdom and other works.

There are important insights in Harperism, but in this post I want to highlight just one: The neoliberal agenda is not so much to change governments as to change the context in which governments act.

That is, while it would be ideal to help elect another Reagan or Thatcher, the primary purpose of neoliberal activism is “to change the climate of ideas to such an extent that it doesn’t matter who forms the government.”

How to change the “climate of ideas”?

Gutstein shows that this transformation has been sourced to Canada’s cadre of what Hayek called “professional secondhand dealers in ideas” — “journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists.”

Harperism thoroughly and usefully chronicles conservative media barons and their influential empires, “independent” think tanks secretly funded by billionaires and big business, underwritten university Economics departments, and many more sources of endless, efficient, and effective free market propaganda.

When newspapers, magazines, broadcast media and the Internet are flooded with one side of every public policy issue, those of us who would like to engage our fellow citizens in an alternative dialogue find little opportunity to do so.

Doesn’t it seem that under the cynically-applied policy of “balance” every global-warming denier or anti-tax demagogue can find ample media platforms from which to spread his manure? But thanks to the big money monopoly of large-market, mass-audience media, anyone who suggests an alternative to the vision of a glorious global marketplace is demonized as a “radical” or a “communist” and swiftly marginalized. Were it not that there is still a somewhat-free Internet, alternative voices would go almost entirely unheard.

This level of corporate control over the public dialogue is genuinely and dangerously undemocratic. But, as Gutstein reminds us, Milton Friedman famously wrote that “economic freedom is more important that political freedom.”

If you want a one paragraph explanation for the often socially-irresponsible weirdness of Conservative policies in the last decade, you won’t do much better than a simple statement of this principle:

In the neoliberal universe, government exists to facilitate private profit. Promoting public welfare is a denial of the essential liberty, which is to make money. Almost all other government actions impose unfair restrictions on this liberty.


The notion that to narrow the words in the political an social conversation is to narrow the perceived range of options was an ideal closer to our group’s weeks-long exploration of the roots, characteristics, and outcomes of what George Lakoff calls “framing.” Harperism is at its heart the outline of an active, virulent campaign of “framing,” one that has had terrible consequence, with more of the same to come.

After all, to accept that the political dialogue is a conversation about the ways to manage markets, not a conversation about the utility or desirability of the market model itself, is to declare the winners and losers of the policy game before it’s been played.

As Gutstein tellingly recounts, after Reaganism, Bill Clinton did not – could not – dismantle the new political frameworks of the 1980’s. Nor could Tony Blair undo any but the most egregious parts of Thatcherism.

Both of these supposedly progressive leaders were severely constrained by the changed political climate, and both had to move their parties smartly to the right, creating within the “New” Democrats and “New” Labour not a revolutionary return to social justice and relative economic equality but little more than a “better than the alternative” continuation of the root policies of the worldwide market economy.

Gutstein’s key insight here is that if “everyone” – thanks to the corporate-backed “professional secondhand dealers in ideas” — is talking about lower taxes, no one of consequence can begin a discussion of the social and economic merits of a fairer, more enlightened tax policy. To do so would threaten, if not ensure, political suicide. Expand social services? No tax! Level economic opportunity? No tax! And thus the pigs among us coerce the rest of the animals merrily to chant along that “All animals are equal, but ….”

So here we are, with neoliberal ideologies driving everything from resisting government activism to moderate global warming, to eliminating public regulation and oversight of private business, to inventing “anthropcentric environmentalism.”

[There are other eye-opening insights in Harperism, to which I will return in an upcoming post.]

4 thoughts on “Control the conversation, control the country

  1. Given my hospital discharge diagnosis – pulmonary hypertension – I don’t have any room in my life for discouragement; I want to use my remaining time to take my full share of joy.



  2. Hello Ron,
    Humans are not in charge! Humankind has adopted the belief that it can control its destiny by concerted action applied through its inventions – civilization, science, religion, law, military force, and so forth. Humankind has developed its belief in this near-omnipotent power by its successes in altering the circumstances in which humankind lives – for better or worse. Humankind is collectively a tiny particle within an infinite universe and this universe is completely without concern about the circumstances of its parts.
    The foregoing is the basis for my belief that the time humankind spends worrying about contemporary events is wasted time in the long run. It is clear to me humankind has, by reason of its actions, set in motion changes in the environment in which we exist that cannot be predicted or controlled. The entire focus of the institutions of mankind will be shifted from the self interest of subgroups and dominance to survival of humankind and its evolved institutions. This truth is being forced upon us now. Evidence for this is presented to us constantly in the recounting of contemporary events.
    Regards, Mel Johnson, aka The Old Machinist

  3. Yes, the seas are rough.
    Yes, the lifeboat is leaky, maybe sinking.
    Yes, some of the people on the lifeboat are jerks.
    Alas, there’s only one lifeboat.

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