Know-Nothing Conservative: Canada's PM, Stephen Harper, shocked responsible opinion across the political spectrum by making the completion of the Canadian Census voluntary. Harper's decision is emblematic of Capitalism's turning away from inconvenient scientific knowledge and critical thinking in the twenty-first century.
IT WAS A DECISION which stunned Canadians across the political spectrum. To protect the individual privacy of its citizens, Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was making the Census voluntary. Canada’s knowledge of itself: of how well, or how badly, it is doing in the fields of health, education, employment, income distribution, economic opportunity, and the preservation of its environment; was to be fatally compromised.
According to Stephen Marche, writing in the New York Times, Harper’s decision was protested by nearly 500 Canadian organisations, “including the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Canadian Catholic Council of Bishops.” All to no avail. In spite of the fact that the conducting of censuses has been a feature of advanced civilisations since biblical times, Harper refused to budge. Canada is now flying blind.
Which is, presumably, what Harper intended all along. Marche’s NYT article is called “The Closing of the Canadian Mind”, and it paints a very grim picture of the consequences of nine years of what he calls “know-nothing conservative” rule. As the party of big business (particularly of big Albertan oil) Harper’s Conservatives have done everything they can to prevent the facts from spoiling their wonderful story. If the evidence points to the Harper Government’s policies generating worrying levels of inequality, injustice and environmental degradation – just stop collecting the evidence. If playing to the racial anxieties and petty prejudices of provincial Canada is what gets you re-elected – then, by all means: “Play on, Maestro, play on!”
With Canada’s general election still in progress, the world has yet to learn if the music has stopped for Stephen Harper, or whether, in spite of a late surge by the Canadian Liberal Party, his Conservative orchestra will play on for another four years. Win or lose, however, Harper’s prime-ministership has much to tell the world about the nature of contemporary capitalist politics.
A century ago, the parties established to represent the controlling interests of the new industrial societies placed enormous stock in science and the expansion of human knowledge. These were, rightly, seen as the driving force behind technological, economic and social progress. By 1900, the publicly-funded education systems of the two leading industrial economies, the United States and Germany, were pumping out university graduates by the tens-of-thousands. An economy driven forward by science and technology, serviced by a well-educated workforce, was the sine qua non of capitalist modernity.
Throughout the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century, Capitalism’s faith in science and education did not falter. Scientific research and technological innovation, backed by the state, both supported and encouraged the most extraordinary changes in human existence. By 1969, the United States had sufficient technological expertise to put a human-being on the surface of the Moon and bring him back to Earth. In the industrialised nations of the West, the contraceptive pill was revolutionising gender relations.
It was only in the final quarter of the Twentieth Century, when science turned its attention to the environmental consequences of industrial capitalism, and a new generation of highly-educated citizens began to investigate its increasingly destructive social side-effects, that the parties of capitalism – and their financial backers – began to look at science and education through narrowed eyes.
What has emerged in the first quarter of the Twenty-First Century is a peculiarly equivocal capitalist approach to science and education. The mature industrial economies are as dependent on their products as ever. Whether in the form of Apple’s latest smart-phone, or the algorithms of the most recent financial derivatives, capitalism continues to be driven forward by the innovations of its supremely-skilled engineers and mathematicians.
Less welcome, however, are the social scientists and ecologists who look ahead and see only the looming planetary catastrophe of capitalist-induced global warming, with all its attendant social ills. For these scientists, Capitalism’s more aggressive defenders offer only scepticism, challenge and/or outright ridicule. The effect on the public mind is pernicious. Increasingly, science is seen as the bought-and-paid-for handmaiden of ideology and propaganda. Her quasi-religious status, over two centuries, as the illuminator of Truth and deliverer of Progress, has been traduced.
Across the Western world, the institutions of higher learning have been similarly debauched. Pure knowledge, pursued for its own sake, is increasingly downgraded, and the development of critical intelligence institutionally discouraged. With the exception of Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, and all the other great seats of learning (which are, once again, reserved for the children of the elites) the world’s universities have been transformed into dreary knowledge factories. Overcrowded workshops, where standardised paradigms, purchased at ruinous expense, are imprinted upon the minds of the indentured young.
So, win or lose, Stephen Harper has already earned his place in history. In Twenty-First Century Capitalism’s great turning away from Science and Education, he already stands amongst its first and most shameless exponents.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 October 2015.
The standard of education is somewhat worrying to me, I write from the viewpoint of a liberal education that included language, maths, science, arts etc you name it we had to do it all.
If you go into any corporate office you will be confronted by corporate "Jesuits" with MBAs, Commerce degrees etc, all very good you may think. These degrees they invariably paid for with student loans, which in itself should raise concerns: you are not likely to rock the boat and challenge the established orthodoxy if your own money is at risk. To pinpoint the difference between my generations education and today's mass "degree" factories you could say we have now experts of specific techniques who know more and more about less and less (and end up knowing everything about nothing). Technocrats in other words. And compliant, not free thinking as in past educational generations. Debt and certificated membership don't encourage dissent. More worrying is that this generation are afflicted by a deeper malaise: a lack of context and the knowledge to apply this to. How can you foment dissent if you know nothing, if you have no parameters to attach content to?
Recently I was in a well respected companies office and the people I was conversing with were doing a quiz. A geographic question stumped one individual who has masters in Commerce etc, she did not know that Peru was not in Europe. It got worse when a history and then a science question appeared: no lack of intelligence but a severe lack of content. This is what we have bred through user pays education for the benefit of capitalist enterprises: the Epsilon-Minus Semi-Morons of our brave new world.
The relationship between capitalists and science has always been a trifle fraught. The same with politicians. In theory science looks at the evidence and lets the chips fall where they may as the saying goes. But all capitalists want is "practical" science that makes them money. When in fact pure science can be just as big a moneymaker, just not as quickly often.
Politicians on the other hand just want the science that supports their political position. I once worked with someone who researched for politicians, and the usual mantra was, "I want to do so and so, find me the evidence that supports it."
I mean Peter Dunne is a classic example of this sort of thing. He ignores science when it conflicts with his (alleged) :-) cozy relationship with the liquor industry.
But now as Chris said, science is not only not necessarily geared towards making capitalist money, but the evidence on global warming seems to suggest that in the future they will make less. Now that's a red rag to a bull :-).
John Key is an intelligent prick who acts dumb, Steve Harper is a dumb prick who acts intelligent!
Today what matters is not scientific enquiry and discovery. It is a no surprises world and having little enquiry and managed discovery is the order of the day. And Nick J - don't forget about fit. There used to be a token hippy in most corporates in the 1970s. Now there isn't room for anyone who doesn't conform to the dress style and mindset of the set norm.
Pragmatically perhaps Stephen Harper decided that census was expensive and he would find out what he wanted to know using other means.
The voting system
The next Canadian parliament will be composed of 338 seats (expanded from the current 308) following the results of the latest census. The number of districts is reviewed every 10 years.
It's strange how hard it is for the media to present items that are factual. This one managed not to state that the elections are held four-yearly. So three elections have given Harper 12 years. Watching this progress in Canada is a good reason to not change from our three yearly ones. A term with a bad leader is like a prison term so no need to increase our pain with longer periods.
Well, it seems that Trudeau and the liberals are forging ahead. Oops , I do believe they've just won. What was it jigsaw said to me when the conservatives got in in Britain? Ah yes – crying in your beer?
I recall when the Russian School was closed at Otago University and the attendant outrage. Many of the academics in the department were global academic giants in their respective fields.
I once explained that situation with an academic friend from the UK and he nearly fell over with shock.
Those were the days...when the university thought that everyone should be doing commerce to get jobs etc
In a country with freedom of speech (which includes the right to remain silent) of course the census should be voluntary. Such surveys are not vital; some countries (e.g. Germany, if I remember correctly) don't conduct them at all.
Under an FPP system the Liberals win the Canadian election with 39.5% of the vote, and get 54% of the seats in parliament; with 31.9% of the vote, the Tories get 29% of seats.
Fine letter in The Press today from honest left wing academic Mike Grimshaw. Here’s a quote:
‘.. .. contrary to Trotter’s propaganda from a failed past, there is in fact a constant development and support of a critical intelligence within our universities – and yes, much of it is in fact from a leftist perspective. We who do teach and write from such a perspective actually have the institutional support to do so. For there is still academic freedom – even outside Trotter’s “great sets of learning” – and this involves both the pursuit of pure knowledge and the critique of capitalism and government.’ The rest is worth reading too.
Chris, too often you have an obvious agenda to state your perennial opinion, which is: ‘everything has now been subverted & ruined by capitalists and capitalism’. So you launch yourself, and grasp anything handy to bash home your otherwise unsupported thesis. Give it up man, you can and do write better.
The current essay is a fail, from the Associate Professor.
I have a son doing a couple of degrees at Canterbury and I assure you what he is learning is the exact opposite of what you made up in your latest, so obviously contrived piece to bash the outstandingly successful semi-capitalist system we thrive in, and it's thriving universities. They are way better than the Marxist dogma poisoned place I infrequented in the oh so dull late seventies.
There are numerous examples of right-wing supposedly democratic governments interfering in the pursuit of science, and of course dictators have done it too. Areas like climate science for instance, can be underfunded. The NRA has succeeded in stopping most of the government investigation into the role of guns in society simply by lobbying for severely decreased funding. There's more than one way of stifling or channelling scientific research.
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