Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 30 November 1997; on the web by permission, August 2003

There are two books here. The one I like sheds light on how large, mostly transnational corporations have come to dominate the making of Canadian public policy.

The domination itself is already documented: see David Korten's When Corporations Rule the World (1995), Gary Teeple's Globalization and the Decline of Social Reform (1995), or Peter Li's The Making of Post-War Canada (1997). That capitalism has escaped democratic control is not news. A multitude of citizen-actors, each one a stew of conflicting purposes, has given way to a small number of company-actors with one overriding purpose, profit. Many CNT readers may have seen the informative poster, Exposing the Face of Corporate Rule, from the Jesuit Centre in Toronto. By and large, corporations get what they want from governments. Otherwise they pack their bags full of jobs, equipment, money and expertise, and move somewhere else.

Actually, the trend toward concentrated economic power has been common knowledge for more than a century, and not just among Marxists. In his gem of a novel, Looking Backward, published in 1888, Edward Bellamy depicted the world as it would be in the year 2000. He premised the novel on the movement he foresaw toward a few, eventually just two, corporations owning everything.

Tony Clarke shows how this process is happening. The first two parts of his book chronicle twenty-five years of manoeuvres by which big corporations have taken control of Ottawa. The focus here is on the Trilateral Commission and the newer Business Council on National Issues, coalitions that have successfully lobbied for reduced corporate taxation, deregulation, openness to direct foreign investment, free trade, cuts in welfare spending, and the overall shift from Keynesian and Galbraithian economic policy to corporate libertarianism. Clarke does not deal in mysterious theories. Readers find here a detailed tracing of the overhaul of economic policy since the Trudeau era. Decisions are portrayed as resulting not from abstract forces but from real politicians responding to real pressures from really wealthy business executives.

Recent political history comes alive in the first parts of this book, which make it well worth the modest list price. In addition, appendices give lists of major companies, think-tanks, and CEOs, along with Clarke's critique of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the current giant leap toward consolidation of global corporate rule.

The other book here, mainly Part Three, is Clarke's political strategy "for dismantling the mechanisms of corporate rule in this country and rebuilding institutions for democratic control over our economic, social and environmental futures." Clarke would make corporate controllers "Public Enemy No. 1." His challenge to the democratic left is to make people aware of corporate oppression and build a resistance movement.

It seems to me that the good guys are not as good, nor the bad guys as bad, as this agenda makes them out to be. Corporations are not a foreign occupying army. Corporations are us. The enemy is not just the CEO making $5 million a year, but the five million Canadians who would like to take his place. The enemy is a culture of consumerism and marketization into which we all, to varying degrees, have bought. So long as the undemocratic, wasteful corporations provide the bulk of Canadians with tasty food, warm clothes, commodious housing, and diversions like casinos, porn, and cheap TV, large-scale citizen resistance is going to be hard to mobilize. In the subtitle to their book, Get a Life (1995), Wayne Roberts and Susan Brandum propose to "dance around the dinosaurs." This may make more sense than trying to fight them head on.

But maybe I have spent too long in apolitical universities. For two decades until 1992, Clarke was social policy advisor to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, of whose machinations he has published an illuminating exposé entitled Behind the Mitre (1995). He then chaired the Action Canada Network, and is associated now with the Council of Canadians. He continues what the CCF began. More power to him.