In his book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity will Remake American Politics Thomas Byrne Edsall argues that shrinking public and private resources will make politics leaner, meaner and less civil. It’s not just that right and left disagree on how to distribute resources, it is a fundamental rift in the understanding of the purpose of the state itself. It’s also not just a fight over ideas: it is a battle for survival. The supporters of the right, to paraphrase Edsall, are ageing, embattled, middle to upper class whites living in decimated and depopulated suburbs who are increasingly bitter about the direction of the redistributive state. In the past, the right’s call to arms was a kind of negative freedom (‘Don’t Tread on Me’) which fought to preserve the individual’s ability to choose their own forms of happiness unimpeded by state regulations. The premise of this, we know now, was the expectation that everyone could gain from a growing pie. No more. Programs for which supporters of the right are the primary recipients (including Medicare and social security) are considered sacrosanct. Programs from which others benefit (read black, immigrants, poor or public sector workers) like Medicaid, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or income supports, are untenable ‘entitlements’. On the left, there is a counter-move to protect the public sphere from erosion while simultaneously trying to remain coherent in the face of a fiscal crisis and an unrelenting personal attack on Obama during an election year. The left is increasingly turning to middle class minorities, immigrant and young voters who are far less steady in their support and are on the whole less well-established and more vulnerable both economically and politically.
These kinds of politics reveal rifts that have historically deep-seated roots but which linger below the surface until austerity and crisis reveal them. What rifts lie below the surface of Canadian society that have been eroding the social consensus gradually and unrelentingly? Could Canada go down a similar route? Recent battles paint a picture of the possibilities. With vitriolic flourishes the Harper government and environmentalists are fighting an increasingly pitched battle over oil resources. The push for a pipeline to expand foreign markets for oil, whether through a Northern route or Keystone, has as its root a long-standing fear that overproduction of oil will drive the price down and shrink profits. This is a real fear, since the flattening of oil prices will make the billions of dollars already invested uneconomic, and capital will flee. On the one hand, it seems more like an embarrassment of riches than a problem of austerity: oil consumption is maintaining a steady stiff pace overseas and is set to grow, along with its negative climate impacts. On the other hand, it has all of the set piece features of a zero-sum fight over a shrinking resource. As anti-fossil fuel efforts grow, and as more bitumen-type oil production facilities are being developed in Latin America and more unconventional oil is prospected in the Arctic and other areas, the chances of oil revenues becoming restricted in the future is higher and higher. If this happens, look for politics here to follow a similar path to those in the US, with the centre of the storm being the role of the state as a (re)distributor of resources. With potentially shrinking state revenues due to tax reductions and few other signs of growth outside the resource sector, the temptation to retrench at the expense of the poor, immigrants, the disabled and other marginalized groups may well be irresistible. On the other hand, another fight between regions in true Canadian fashion may be brewing. I want to end on a positive note here. Everything I’ve learned in teaching young people about politics in the last 15 years has taught me that if anything, youth are more accepting, welcoming, compromising and diverse than ever. I can only hope that these qualities will enable the cultivation of a middle ground in the future in Canada that seems increasingly elusive in the divisive and paralyzing politics down south in the US. If we are to believe Edsall, however, austerity could bring out the worst in all of us.