The Cult of Impotence and The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen

By Linda McQuaig
By Murray Dobbin

In his latest book, John Ralston Saul argues that Canadians have always leaned to the political left. And while that left-right distinction (Linda McQuaig would rather say “popular” and “market”) may be artificial, it does help to highlight a public-spirited attitude still reflected in most opinion polls.

These days, the main target of the Canadian left is the ongoing consolidation of corporate power, both at home and abroad. The arguments are fairly easy to summarize. Large, transnational corporations dominate government policy, without any corresponding responsibility to individuals or communities. The new world economy, increasingly driven by speculation in financial markets rather than production, gives rise to growing inequality, job insecurity, and lower standards of living.

As corporations get bigger, the individual shrinks. Citizens become mere consumers, and democracy is undermined by a “cult of impotence” – a false belief that representative government is powerless. Of course governments aren’t really powerless, it’s just that they’ve ceased to use their power to promote the public interest. Thus a secretly negotiated foreign investment treaty (MAI) is almost passed without debate, while a measure for taxing currency exchanges (the Tobin tax) gets short shrift.

I found these arguments, made in depth in these two books, convincing. Furthermore, I am in complete agreement with Murray Dobbin when he says that “it would be difficult to imagine a more impoverished set of ideas, principles, assumptions about human nature, and goals for society than those promoted by the new right.”

Because they deal with current affairs, both books show signs of haste. Dobbin has collected a mountain of supporting material, but relies too much on a shotgun blast of statistics to make his case. I would have been interested in his analysis of more fundamental issues. If, for example, there is such a thing as a disease of corporatism, and I think there is, its effects are wider than Dobbin implies. Corporate minds are shaped by corporate structures, which exist in universities and labour unions just as much as on Bay Street.

McQuaig is a more engaging writer, and one not afraid to indulge her gift for narrative. Unfortunately, her book tends to wander through too many anecdotes and unfocused history. As a result, she spends a lot of time off topic, and ends up seeming less than objective.

Both authors do a good job exploding some of the commonly repeated myths of neo-liberalism (that is, right-wing economic theory). Among other things, they explain in clear terms how the government can play a dramatic role in job creation, why more regulation of the market only makes sense, and why the private sector is really no more effective or less bureaucratic than the public.

Of course, the mother of all ecomomic myths, at least in the ’90s, has been the debt. Not that the debt itself is a myth – only the blaming of it on government spending for social programs. In fact, social programs have contributed little. Government spending on programs and services has been falling for 10 years. What is growing are the interest payments on the debt.

McQuaig suggests that our real problem is neither globalization nor technology, but simply a lack of political will. Our impotence is selective. We could, for example, make fighting unemployment a higher priority without causing our currency to collapse. International markets do not take nearly as dim a view of Canada’s situation as our leaders do.

Technology poses a different, and I think harder problem. There can be no question that new technologies are making many fields of labour obsolete. Postal workers and bank clerks, to take a pair of obvious examples, are clearly on the endangered species list. And what are these people going to do when they are replaced by computers? Design software? We have yet to see how the information revolution will play out, but in the short term it seems clear that there will be more losers than winners.

While both Dobbin and McQuaig make impassioned pleas for democracy, their real thrust goes deeper than politics. What they are trying to affirm is a new humanism – one that places human concerns and values ahead of global capital, corporate interests, and abstract economic theories (like the absurd “natural rate” of unemployment). This is certainly a worthy goal, and part of a debate that we all should be engaged in.

Review first published April 11, 1998.


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