Rethinking the ‘Canadian’ in Canadian Social Democracy: Does Nationalism Undermine Social Justice?
A recent collection edited by Keith Banting and John Myles, Inequality and the Fading of Redistributive Politics, documents the withering of the Canadian welfare state. Although no single reason for the ‘fading of redistributive politics’ is given, the book highlights the important role neoliberalism has played as an ideological and political force. Calls for ‘smaller government’ and ‘less taxation’ now pervade political discourse, and undermine the social democratic insistence on meaningful socio-economic equality.
A number of political theorists have long maintained that ‘bounded societies’ are essential for the realization of social justice. The argument proceeds as follows: the welfare state and national identity reinforce each other; individuals coalesce around a common political project that generates trust and solidarity, which in turn sustains redistribution. This simply means that when a sense of belonging exists, there is a greater willingness to share with or help fellow citizens.
Could a renewed emphasis on ‘national identity’ provide social democrats with the necessary political and moral tools to challenge neoliberalism? Social democrats have long maintained that all societies should ensure high levels of political, social and economic equality. But the universality of this claim may have more traction when used in conjunction with the exclusivity associated with a particular national identity. A poll conducted by the Broadbent Institute, for example, argued that high levels of income inequality are ‘decidedly un-Canadian’ (national identity) and sough to show that the majority of Canadians are willing to pay more in taxes (political values) to protect vital social programs. The Broadbent Institute's findings countered an earlier poll conducted by the Manning Institute, which showed ‘Canadian values are shifting to the right.’ This appeal to ‘identity’ and ‘values’ is not coincidental, and feeds off the idea that the welfare state – or conversely smaller government – seeks justification beyond a reliance on abstract principles like equality and justice.
Social democrats, however, should be wary of advocating for stronger welfare state policies by appealing to ‘Canadian’ national identity. Neoliberalism has gained prominence in Canada partly because it has found space within our national identity. Social democrats make a conceptual error when they argue Canadian national identity is wholly consistent with a robust welfare state, or with a strong proclivity toward redistributive policies. Gosta Esping-Andersen’s, The Three Worlds Welfare Capitalism, perhaps best characterizes Canada as a ‘liberal’ welfare state, less committed to the more abundant redistributive polices favoured by Nordic states. We may never have truly been as social democratic as some claim. Many Canadians, in fact, embrace neoliberalism and its support for smaller government and less taxation. It is thus neither surprising, nor contrary to Canadian values, that neoliberal policies have gained intellectual and political prominence.
In sum, the Manning and Broadbent polls show that Canadian values are complex and heterogeneous, and can embody a commitment to social democratic or neoliberal political objectives or both. Moreover, the too-easy appeal to a comprehensive national identity fails to account for important regional differences, which quite often translate into distinct political agendas. Are Albertans less ‘Canadian’ because they tend to favour smaller government and less taxation? How can social democrats craft a message that does not create divisions by insinuating those who don’t support greater redistribution are somehow ‘un-Canadian?’
Most importantly, social democrats further a political argument where egalitarian principles are promoted and contingent on a version of Canadian identity tangentially linked to active citizenship. The neoliberal emphasis on individual ‘choice’ and ‘responsibility’ contains an important moral component, which necessarily decouples the state from the individual. The social democratic thesis, by and large, defines Canadian identity through its relationship with the state. Choice and responsibility are given less prominence in this version.
This does not mean that the neoliberal argument is morally better, empirically accurate or more feasible politically. But it is easier to make because it presents simple versions of responsibility and choice, easily aligned with a crude definition of autonomy. When social democrats engage in a debate about identity, they ultimately detract from the more fundamental issue of why social justice is essential for our common political project in the first place.
Further insights can be gained by considering the so-called ‘progressive’s dilemma.’ Many on the left claimed that the public recognition of distinct cultures (multicultural policy) would inevitably threaten social solidarity, and undermine the ‘collective imaginary’ required to sustain redistribution. The claim, however, especially in the Canadian case, has not withstood empirical scrutiny. Instead, increased ethnic diversity and official multiculturalism in Canada have neither eroded social cohesion, nor have they directly led to an assault on the welfare state. Much of the empirical work to date has shown that multiculturalism and redistribution co-exist in the Canadian model because both represent ‘Canadian’ institutions that give value to political life. But these institutions are not accepted uncritically within Canadian political discourse.
This is where a subtle, but important, distinction emerges between the nationalist claim that Canadians support particular values, and the social justice claim that particular institutions are valuable for achieving equitable societies. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but their conflation can be problematic. The former fails to challenge adequately the neoliberal model because it relies too heavily on the erroneous assumption that Canadian values are consistent with strong redistribution policies. The latter claim forces a rigorous and, perhaps, more problematic enterprise for it requires a tangible engagement with some of the moral strengths (and weaknesses) of the neoliberal project.
Social democrats must shift the debate away from identity and values toward what accounts for just and equitable societies. The challenge for social democrats, then, is to show that equality-seeking institutions are just in and of themselves and, while they may occur within particular contexts and take different forms, they do not require a national identity for their sustenance. This is no easy task, and requires a re-thinking – and possibly re-articulation – of concepts like citizenship and equality, which can’t be explored here.
But I want to suggest that the use of national identity to bolster the social democratic argument is symptomatic of larger problems that I’ve hinted at. An appeal to nationalism is at best anachronistic, implying that Canada has somehow moved away from its ‘historic’ identity as an equality-seeking nation. At worse, it fails to account for the changing nature of liberal democratic societies and avoids important questions contemporary social democrats must confront: how has the emergence of ‘identity’ politics complicated/challenged the social democratic thesis; how are national identity and social justice related; does the fluidity and heterogeneity of ‘national identity’ challenge traditional social democratic notions of citizenship; can social democrats make the argument for active citizenship without an emphasis on state involvement; can social democrats learn something from multiculturalism – which also complicates our understanding of national identity?
The suggestion above has been to avoid using national identity as a means to extend social democratic principles because it presents a neutered political project. This does not mean national identity is unimportant. Rather, advocates and opponents of social democracy have used nationalist language in a knee-jerk manner without a full consideration of how it relates to a larger understanding of citizenship and state involvement. Social democrats would be well served to re-examine how nationalist language undermines, rather than strengthens, the case for social justice.
Nazeer Patel is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Queen's University.