I read George Grant’s 1965 book Lament for a Nation for my Canadian politics core seminar. In it, Grant describes what he sees as the inevitable process of the disappearance of a sovereign Canada, driven by economic interdependence with the United States and a form of liberalism focused on technological development and consumerist individualism. In particular, he laments the downfall of the Diefenbaker government: an event he interprets as a noble conservative standing on the principle of sovereignty and then being beaten down by North American elites unwilling to tolerate an independent Canadian defence policy.
Perhaps I am too young, but I find it hard to understand what Grant is talking about. Perhaps that is because the political assumptions he challenges have been dominant for the entire span of my life. His view that Canadian independence is desirable in and of itself hasn’t gone away – witness how many Canadians feel driven to define the country as distinct from the United States – but the kind of Anglophile community-focused conservatism he describes isn’t something that I feel a personal connection to. Nor do I think it is something that is given much importance by Canada’s contemporary conservative politicians.
Grant is convincing in writing about how science and capitalism can erode the particularities of different geographic regions of the world, and about how a rapidly changing world is unlikely to include many stable institutions. Grant argues: “The practical men who call themselves conservatives must commit to a science that leads to the conquest of nature. This science produces such a dynamic society that it is impossible to conserve anything for long” (p.65 paperback). Grant is particularly critical of capitalists, civil servants, and the Liberal Party for abandoning what he sees as distinctive and valuable about Canada in exchange for increased continental trade and integration. Speaking of policies that favour continental integration, Grant writes: “The society produced by such policies may reap enormous benefits, but it will not be a nation. Its culture will become the empire’s to which it belongs. Branch-plant economies have branch-plant cultures” (p.41 paperback). His is an oddly socialistic form of conservatism, in which individuals are expected to restrain their desires and work toward a common good.
My response to Grant’s concern about the homogenization of culture and political institutions between countries would be to say that the country-scale is the wrong scale for each of Grant’s two concerns. I don’t see any special reason why the particularities of culture should be defined by national borders. Indeed, defining culture in that way can become frightening when the national government then uses it to legitimate policies that treat outsiders as morally unworthy. Rather than ascribe high political and moral importance to the national level, I would argue that we should see all human beings as our moral equals and thus as equally deserving of good treatment. As for culture, I think it may function best as a phenomenon that emerges naturally from interacting groups of humans, not something to try to imbue with a specific national character or link to particular national symbols or institutions.
While his book is mostly a celebration of the particular, toward the end Grant does acknowledge an argument that seems very convincing to me – namely that the lesson of the two world wars was largely the moral bankruptcy of nationalism. Insofar as pride in one’s country makes non-countrymen less human, I see nationalism as a frightening and destructive force. By trying to get the state to do everything, I think Grant is ascribing too much power and importance to an institution that the 20th century has shown to be profoundly flawed and dangerous. For that reason, I find it difficult to share his concern about the passing of Canadian nationalism. Grant is mostly concerned about destruction of a different kind, in which tradition and a spirit of community give way to excessive individualism and hedonism. The excessive focus on the individual which he highlights may be worrisome, but I don’t see the kind of old-fashioned respect-for-institutions based conservatism he values as a plausible counter for it at this stage in history (neither does he, hence his focus on the inevitable character of the changes that concern him).
If we are to curb the dangerously self-interested focus of those in today’s society, I don’t think it will be through appeal to tradition or through religion, which is another important element in Grant’s political philosophy. Rather, it seems likely that it will emerge in response to a realistic fear about the universal consequences of ignoring the big picture. If we come to accept some limits on hedonistic individualism, it seems likely to happen because of an individualistic concern about the consequences of such behaviour. Whether such concern can win out over the promise of immediate satisfaction remains to be seen.