Stephen Clarkson reveals political trade secrets
I’m the bearer of bad news. well,not news exactly. It’s been widely rumoured for quite some time. But University of Toronto political economist Stephen Clarkson’s new book, Uncle Sam And Us, details voluminously how a certain way of thinking about taxation and trade — neo-conservative ideology — combined with a certain amount of stupidity and bad luck, has transferred enormous power in Canada away from citizens into the hands of transnational corporations.But the first thing I discover as we sit down to a lovely lunch on a beautiful gothic balcony in U of T’s Hart House, overlooking the majestically silent, once-Great Hall, is that we are both sad about it all.
Adrienne Clarkson, the first wife who kept his name, may be more famous. But from the great corridors and quads off King’s College Circle, Clarkson has contributed his share to Canada’s identity.
During the Stop Spadina days in 1969, he was a reform Liberal mayoralty candidate. But by 1975 his activist and Liberal party days were over. As he explains, just before then “my marriage came to an end, my father died and my oldest brother killed himself. And I had two kids to be a single parent of. So I withdrew more into analyzing what was happening.” That, happily, turned out to be Clarkson’s real forte.
Highest-profile among his intellectual contributions are two volumes on Trudeau penned with his second wife, writer Christina McCall.
His new book, subtitled Globalization, Neoconservatism And The Canadian State, had its coming-out party at Hart House Theatre just two days before our munch, with Jack Layton and more globalization-positive Queen’s prof Michael Hawes sharing the podium.
Before he started his speech, Clarkson asked his daughter, who was in the audience, to hold up her nine-month-old, to whom he dedicated the new book. (Our Governor General is missing out on a good thing — little Talia is adorable.)
Though his book is weighed down by the dry, analytic language of academe, Clarkson in person exudes warmth, depth of feeling and an air of self-awareness.
After a hand for the granddaughter, he came to the point. “My primary argument is that the three supposedly economic treaties which Canada has already signed are so politically pregnant that they comprise a second external constitution.” The problem is that, unlike national constitutions that give rights to citizens, these new constitutions places the trump card well, you know where.
OK, that sounds like Maude Barlow. While we sip roasted parsnip purée, he explains. “The people who raised the alarm about Chapter 11 in NAFTA were dismissed as ignorant, which of course they were. They weren’t insiders and they hadn’t been at the negotiating tables, but they were right,” he says.
The thing is, Clarkson, a fixture of U of T Canada-U.S. relations undergraduate life for 38 years, is no simplifier. Yes, he has been a passionate advocate for Canada’s national interest since the days before globalization was a household word. But he is above all a serious student of the actual. The political matrix he follows is too complex and his grasp of historical context too rich to be easily reducible.
And there are nuances aplenty. Take the oft-reviled WTO. He argues that because its many members don’t have to deal one-on-one with the U.S. like we do with NAFTA, the WTO, “however warped, is a very substantial achievement of the global community. It is a form of global governance that does tell the USA that it’s violating the rules it itself has made.”
I try to feel consoled by this. Like everyone, we are watching and waiting to see how far the U.S. will go in claiming its right to world domination. The times have an apocalyptic quality that’s in our face as we sit, surrounded by the beauty, abundance and excellent service of this neo-conservative innovation, a university-based, sumptuous “boutique” restaurant.
Our current collective exposure to America’s hegemonic approach lends heft to Clarkson’s work. But the real story Clarkson uncovers is how elected politicians in the Mulroney-Chretien era — empowered by neo-conservative certainties and a legacy of out-of-control deficit spending — ended up making bad decisions by mandating poorly skilled negotiators to fulfill short-sighted political agendas.
“The most powerful example of the failure of NAFTA economically is that the Americans still kept slapping anti-dumping and then countervail actions on Canadian steel exports. After free trade, Canadian steel exports were still being harassed because our industry is more efficient than the American steel industry. The result is that Dofasco, Stelco and Ipsco have put all their new plants in the U.S., and there go the jobs.
“We didn’t get free trade, although that’s what they called it. So the WTO is better — even though the rules aren’t what I might like — than what we had just with NAFTA. It’s a better situation than our just fighting out every issue with the U.S.
“Which isn’t to say that the U.S. couldn’t use the WTO to get us over Sports Illustrated. We have done fairly badly in most of these cases. It has something to do with our people’s incompetence. It’s the trade law people in Ottawa who thought they could win these cases, and they didn’t understand the rules they had signed. The experts certainly were wrong, so the democratic problem is a substantial one.
“It’s a very complex question,” he pauses. “But I’m not bleak and black. I probably sound confused, but I’m not as downcast as I was with the first free trade agreement.”
Suddenly I realize that I’m sharing crab cakes with someone who can offer some advice about how to cope emotionally with these dark times. He already went through something like this after we signed on to free trade in 1988.
“So much has to do with one’s personality — if you’re an optimist or a pessimist. I guess I felt after (1988) I had to find a way to live with all these problems without being in a permanent gloom. If you’re too realistic about our problems you’d have to commit suicide, because they are pretty horrendous. So maybe there’s a certain amount of self-delusion that we have to practise in order to cope. Obviously, the world is a dreadful place for most people. And we have to set a certain double standard to be able to have a lovely lunch on the one hand and talk about what humans do to afflict each other on the other,” he says.
Like air and water, it turns out hope is one of life’s necessities. And the post-1988 attitude-shifted Stephen Clarkson can point to reasons to have it.
“I think there is a big gap between the elite and the public. It can’t be said too broadly it’s not as though it’s the bad elites and the terrific public — they voted for Mike Harris. But there are a lot of people who are concerned. If you say Walkerton it says a lot about neo-conservatism and cutbacks of the state.”
Of course, we get around to chewing over Paul Martin and Jack Layton. Both get a more-or-less thumbs-up. “I think Martin could be a prime minister who brings the country back toward some centre position. But he would have to stand up to quite a powerful business elite that more or less owns him. We’d have to wait and see, but when you’re prime minister you can’t just respond to the business community. I think he’d be an intelligent prime minister, and he deserves some credit for setting up the G20 group internationally. You can see I am not as negative about everything as I would have been 15 years ago.”
And Jack Layton might even tempt Clarkson to forgive the NDP for the “shameful” way they ran their 1988 federal election campaign, “which was to attack the Liberals instead of the Conservatives. In some sense, the NDP brought us free trade,” he says.
“But I could get poised to get involved with good leadership. I have a lot of respect for Jack, intellectually and politically. He’s the municipal equivalent to Lloyd Axworthy. It’s hard to think that the NDP could ever become the government, but they could become a force again.”
If that happened it would push the Liberal party left, and voilà. All in all, he says things could be looking up.
“I think the neo-conservative paradigm is in trouble,” he says. “That doesn’t mean the (WTO) Doha round isn’t pushing it further. And if they can manage it, the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) will make it worse. But everybody knows it’s not working, at least not the way they promised it would. The World Bank people themselves have said we need to take government more seriously.”
Bring on the peach ice cream, I say.