Thank you to those readers who have contacted me to express my view on the Freedom Convoy. Thank you to those in Canada from rural Manitoba, from Southern Ontario, from Alberta, from Nova Scotia, from New Brunswick, and from Quebec. Thank you to those international people from Ireland, India, Thailand, Holland, South Korea, China, the United States, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Australia, England, and South Africa. While my opinion has been requested by mainstream media outlets provincially, nationally, and internationally, I am nervous to write about such things because I do not think my views will be favoured by many, even some of my closes friends. The totalitarian forces of which I speak are very close to home. Thus, I hope you will read the following with an open mind, and I welcome discussion.
The present political realities need to be unpacked lest we misplace our current fear of totalitarianism, a fear in which all those on the left and the right participate. I share this fear. And you, the reader, will need to admit that there is a lot that is ambiguous and which we do not control in the midst of present totalitarian forces. We don’t feel in control of our individual lives, our employment, nor do we, as historical Canadians, feel like political control is easily established. We may feel tempted, like the honourable Brian Peckford to avail ourselves to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a quest for the security of “law and order”, of the gun, or of our freedoms. But here too, the answers are ambiguous. In the following, let us get to ground level, for the ground upon which we are walking is shaking as if a convoy of trucks is rolling past.
The Honorable Brian Peckford spoke to the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa and, in a flowing piece of rhetoric suitable to a man of his standing and political experience, he interpreted sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for his willing listeners. Posted on YouTube on February 15, 2022, the former premier of Newfoundland advocated that the rights of the individual are primary. He said, “as an individual, you come first; the groups come second (that you form with)… When an individual gets submerged, by a group or something else, that’s the beginning of the decline of our democracy.” I have to admit, I was a willing listener. I am even agreeable to his pointing out that the employment of the Emergencies Act may have been done unlawfully because the legitimacy of it was not demonstrably justified by Prime Minister Trudeau as is required. But, if I may address Mr. Peckford, the grounds he has given for his outrage will undercut the standing of the whole group of protestors because 1) it is the very same ground as the Liberal Party; 2) it is based on a wholly indefensible sense of who individuals actually are, and 3) it instrumentalizes the individual in such a way that may destroy the very existence of individuals (and thus accelerates the coming of totalitarianism).
The Shared Ground of Liberals and Conservatives
As to point #1: Yes, both the protestors and the Liberal Party live with the fear of a totalitarian society, with each accusing their opponents of leading us towards one, but that is not the shared ground we need to identify. The shared ground, rather, is the march towards a certain kind of individualism that may indeed make us the most susceptible to totalitarian control. Mr. Peckford has identified it, embraced it, and advocated for it – naming prosperity first. Contrary to Peckford’s assertion that “the primary individual” is sacrosanct, this primary individual is a distortion of the real, and it is a distortion shared by the Liberal Party. In fact, this distorted primary individual is, at present, widely uncontested in Canada on both the moderate political left (the Liberal Party) and the moderate political right (the historic Conservative Party of Canada).
Take Mr. Trudeau. People on the political right have accused Mr. Trudeau of talking a good talk, but failing to walk a good walk. Unfortunately, this criticism has missed the mark. Trudeau laid it out plainly for us. As an example, four years ago, the lack of recognition he admitted to the Indigenous people of Canada was quickly turned, like Mr. Peckford has, into a gospel of prosperity. In February 2018, Mr. Trudeau claimed that the sin of lack of recognition of Indigenous people was missing out on “prosperity and opportunity” for each of them. The common goal of the prosperous individual has been adopted as the model of the ideal Canadian. And Mr. Peckford and Mr. Trudeau, share this common ground. The primary individual (Mr. Peckford) is conceived by both as an economic unit whose value exists in her contribution to an economic chain of being (Mr. Trudeau). This has been the model upon which neo-liberalism is founded, and it makes us truly susceptible to total domination.
This may seem counter-intuitive from both those on the right and those on the left. On the right, a person who has the right to make their own living, and does so, seems to be a model. On the left, a society of such individuals makes for an economically strong nation. In fact, both left and right have flat-out stated that the type of individual that makes for a strong society must fit into an economic chain of being. How could the concept of the prosperous individual be the fertile ground of totalitarianism? In The Stormy Future of Canadian Liberalism, McMaster University historian Ian MacKay argues using the concept of “possessive individualism,” a concept taken from C. B. MacPherson. “…Consistent liberals cannot challenge capitalism’s right to despoil the world—doing so would mean a philosophical transformation they have shown no interest in undertaking. Changing this humanity-threatening trajectory means overthrowing the power of capital and rethinking the ideology of possessive individualism that tells the planet’s inhabitants that their worth as human beings relies upon their acquisition of more and more things.” He argues that people on the left need to be clear about their conception of freedom. I agree because Peckford and Trudeau are consistent neo-liberals.
A word of caution, the language of possessive individualism and arguments towards “prosperous individuals” garnered by both Peckford and Trudeau are different words for the same thing: the happy individual who is ripe for manipulation and control so long as the individual can see prosperity on the horizon (e.g. the right of truckers to ‘earn their living’) or experiences it already (e.g. I received my CERB cheque!).
In the climate of political polarization, once a government supporter or supporter of the freedom convoy recognizes that their opponents stand on the same basic ground for their experience of freedom, they instinctually should know it is worth questioning.
The “Primary Individual”?
As to point #2, that the primary individual is an indefensible view of who individuals actually are: I have extensively argued in other places, namely here and here, why the lone, primary individual is indefensible. I encourage you to follow those arguments as they spell out clearly, from both civic republican (Hannah Arendt) and social democrat (Charles Taylor) perspectives why such a conception is misguided. And the fact that so many Canadians espouse this errant notion makes it no less false. A falsehood, repeated en masse, does not make it real, but it may push truths, even ones we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears, away from being able to be noticed, as Hannah Arendt argued so forcefully in The Origins of Totalitarianism. But let me summarize it in the following.
Taylor argues for two basic kinds of realities that undergird the “individual”. Arendt asserts a space of action where individual freedom is really suited.
The first of Taylor’s arguments is that we belong to inescapable moral horizons, in other words, widescale ethical concerns that we can never escape. If we are to believe Trudeau and Peckford, such a widescale concern might be the economy. I think this is a vast mistake, as you will see in point #3 below. However, along with Taylor, I want to remind us of what an inescapable moral horizon means. It means there are ethical concerns, like our embeddedness in a warming climate, or a worldwide involvement in a pandemic that makes a demand on us both systemically and individually whether we like it or not. For Canadians, our inescapable moral horizons could include the results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the calls to action confirmed there. They are inescapable; that is, we exist as human beings in such contexts. We cannot simply wish ourselves out of them.
The second of Taylor’s arguments, which means so much to me, is that the identity of an individual is dialogical with significant others (our friends and family[ies] – even our significant enemies). We learn to be who we are through our relationships with significant people. Unlike Peckford, I want to call you, the reader, to reflect on this very assertion. Are you like Peckford in believing that you appeared as an individual on this planet without significant others? Do you think that you have become who you are without the help of a group of people or institutional support? Or are you like me, who knows that the most meaningful aspects of who I am have happened because of the people in my life. So, for example, I have learned how to love from a strong parental model, and from both my ex-spouse and my life partner. I have learned how to think through relationships with my siblings and good friends. I have learned how to live in a spiritually faithful way from both my mother and my late father. If we do not admit that our identity is dialogical, but instead willfully insist on a monological individual, like Peckford, then it won’t matter what rights we have – like freedom of speech, work, and freedom of association – because these rights require the presence of others to make them significant. They aren’t granted to us because we are solitary, but because our identity gains its significance because of a community.
If these two arguments are not enough, Hannah Arendt lights the match on the funeral pyre of the solitary individual. The exercise of freedom, where the individual publicly appears, requires the presence of others in plurality. This, of course, is markedly different from the realm of privacy (even the privacy of our own thoughts) where such freedom is experienced in contemplation only – and even then, there is a discussion always occurring with another, even if it is just the voice in one’s head. Otherwise, the solitary individual does not exist, not even in the hermit, who is alone with God, or the solitary artist, whose work is addressed to some future audience. Individuals, if they are to be significant at all, must appear amongst others. (This argument, by the way, is the only persistent reason for not wearing a mask.) The people of the freedom convoy should know this intimately, since they felt unheard and unseen when they were isolated, but are now significant in the realm of freedom.
Instrumentalized for Control
As to point #3, the individual has been instrumentalized as an economic unit by the neoliberal perspective. In a long history of arguments stemming from the Arts and Humanities, but more significantly from origins in Christian communities in both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds, we should understand that the person as a tool for some other end, whether it is the withering away of the state in Marxist terms, or the advancement of the superior race in Nazi terms, is the first step in a totalitarian establishment. And the “primary individual”, in Mr. Peckford’s terms, makes us powerless against a corrupt government who is sleeping with mass corporate entities who very much want us to enter the market as individuals where we too can perform our authentic, free selves. We can perform, and they can reap the profits and make us all the more subservient along the way. I again place the instrumentalization of persons as the key step in the arrival of totalitarianism. The instrumentalization of the human person is the turning of that person into a tool for some larger order. We saw this in Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union, where every human being who would fulfill a role in the party had a place within it, even though it was a very regimented place. It was not so much freedom as it was a role. And good family men, like Adolph Eichmann, found their place within it because otherwise their family (i.e. their identity) would be destroyed. Those who did not find a place in the Nazi system or with the Bolsheviks were either summarily executed, or forced into irretrievable exile.
Now if individuals are conceived as tools, prosperous and non-political tools, in a larger economic order, they may find a certain sense of pleasure. After having their food delivered, they may turn on Netflix, consume divisive news by mainstream news (let’s finally admit that the CBC is a mouthpiece for the governing party), follow Youtube rabbit holes, or algorithms governed by Google. They may be keyboard warriors, surrounded by snowflakes outside who think that tweeting is action, and that “calling out” inappropriate behavior is freedom (I am calling out you, Jordan Peterson). But in so doing any of these activities, they are not acting as individuals. Instead, they are finding their way in an economic chain of being that, as they search for letters to fill search boxes may spell out their own doom.
And so we will be prepared for totalitarianism in the economic great chain of being.
Thank you, Mr. Peckford and Mr. Trudeau, for standing on the same ground that grows this totalitarian economic outlook. We can now see it and the economic totalitarian aspirations of a neo-liberal order (and its parentage of British colonization and Anglo-American economic theory). Now, with the evidence of our eyes and ears, we can turn back to our significant others, embracing inescapable moral horizons, and democratically work again for a secure public world filled with democratic noise and necessary argument. That there is still a place for such noisy argument is worth preserving.