Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Vive l'ADQ? Vive le Québec libre!

Sweet. Thanks to the kindness of Scott Lemieux, my contentless post crowing about the Quebec election result has sparked an interesting debate in the left American blogosphere.* As an ex-pat, Scott knows the shade of pleased crimson we Canucks turn when anyone in the Great Republic notices the happenings up here.

Of course, this moment was technologically determined. As Michael Kinsley noted, "Canada: Our Troubled Neighbor [sic.] to the North" is the article more Americans want to write than read. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty good definition of what the blogopshere is all about.

To boil it down, their progressive friends find it odd that Scott and Jacob Levy would prefer the "right-wing" ADQ to the PQ, a member of the Socialist International led by an openly gay man. The suspicion that Anglo-Canadian particularist bias might have infected their apparently universalist souls might have occurred to some of the comrades. Flatteringly, Scott hoped that I would add something more congitive to the discussion. So here goes.

• The English Canadian editorials and mainline pundits (exemplefied by Jeffrey Simpson, a mind so pedestrian he makes David Broder look like Michael Kinsley) will tell you not to overestimate the significance of all this, that separatism is as potent as ever, that there is less here than meets the eye. Ignore them.

The PQ is in a terrible position. Just a few days ago, a well-placed nationalist intellectual told me confidently that the Parti would emerge with a small plurality. Mario would fade at the end, as he always has. The Liberals' vote is inefficiently distributed. Now, the PQ has come third in both the popular vote and in its seat total. It will inevitably face a battle over leadership. And with this come difficult, inevitably polarizing ideological decisions. Clearly, the vast majority of Quebecois do not want another referendum about separation -- as long as the two-party system meant that unpopularity of the PLQ necessarily benefitted them, they could afford to ignore this. But smaller parties are usually more ideological parties, and there is no one with the authority of Levesque or Bouchard to tell the party faithful to postpone their dream.

Charest is in much better shape, at least in the short term. The ADQ has always just been Dumont. He needs time to weed out his nutbars, figure out if he has anyone who is cabinet material, etc. He's not going to be in a rush. And he isn't in a position to deny Charest his new centre piece -- using the new federal money for a big tax cut. Harper's shown that you can play a minority with strength if your opponents don't want an election. Charest isn't as clever, but the way seems clear.

The English-speaking media play it pessimistic for a couple of reasons. In some cases -- such as the Globe -- it is because they were burned when they tried to sell Mulroney's strategy of burying separatism by accommodating it. But mostly because English Canadians are really culturally Scottish, and have a pagan Calvinistic sense that optimism brings the wrath of the gods.

• Everyone in the American progressive debate seems to agree that ethnic nationalism is a bad thing. Scott ascribes this sin (reasonably enough) to the PQ, and gives this as a reason for his joy. The bad news crowd point out that the ADQ contains many an ethnic nationalist.

Taking a broader view, the Left has never known exactly what to do with ethnic nationalism in general and Quebec nationalism in particular. Two broad attitudes stand out. The first is Rosa Luxemburg's view that loyalties to any contingently defined subset of humanity is precisely the poison the left exists to fight. The second -- which can be traced to Engels' writing on the 1848 revolutions -- distinguishes the nationalism of progressive peoples (good) from that of reactionary peoples (bad). Embarrasingly, Engels thought Germanic and Magyar peoples were progressive and Slavs were reactionary, but the particular valences don't matter. The key point is that progressive nationalism contains a revolutionary kernel -- its victory will ultimately help destroy all particularisms.

The trouble is that real peoples turn out not to live according to some teleological historical script. When they fight, they fight for unprogressive things like blood and soil. So they go from being progressive to reactionary to progressive depending on the coalitional needs of the moment. The Poles were the most progressive of all nationalities to nineteenth century leftists, but became black reaction personified when the Bolsheviks battled Pilsudski. The Irish are always progressive when battling the British, but somehow managed to have the most socially conservative democracy in history for sixty years. In 1948, the world's most progressive people today, the Palestinians, were -- all right-thinking people agreed -- reactionary allies of fascism. It is often difficult to keep straight which peoples are progressive and which reactionary. The reactionary nature of the Scotch Irish of the American South and Ulster Protestants would seem to be a fixture. But we have recently been told to feel bad for white Rhodesians, and who knows what the election of Jim Webb as a Democratic Senator might portend for his redneck co-ethnics?

It is perfectly true that Quebec nationalism is an ethnic nationalism, although it is the sort of truth everyone knows and no one says. Maître chez nous. Je me souviens. The first person pronoun does not refer to everyone who happens to reside in Quebec. French Canadians have no fundamental objection to people of other stock assimilating and intermarrying -- they have been happily led by three men named Johnson (from one family, but three political parties -- a fact you should bear in mind later.) Ethnic relations in Quebec -- unlike anywhere else in North America -- have long resembled the situation described by Amy Chua of the "market dominant minority." Anglophones (Scots and Jews) were basically analogous to the Chinese or the Maronites, while French Catholics were analagous to the Malays or the Druze. (Fill in your analogy.)

The Quebecois left (with the exception of the odd Bordigist** or two) has always been pretty sure that Quebec nationalism is of the progressive sort. WASP and Jewish socialists have never been as certain. (As with so many things, there were enthusiasts in the sixties, but little enthusiasm remains now that those who experienced it are in their sixties.) Not having access to history's telos, I am unable to resolve the controversy. I acknowledge Levy's point about Quebecois hypocrisy to the national aspirations of the Cree, although they in turn may prove disappointing.

I would, however, reject Rosa Luxemburg's solution. It turns out that it is really Capital that has no country. Ethnic loyalties are a universal part of human nature, and it is in fact one of the objections to the society of contract that it suppresses them. Obviously, the last century has many examples of dangerous and extreme forms of ethnic nationalism, but the record of universalism is not any better. To take parochial (and mild) examples, it was the cosmopolitan Trudeau, not the nationalist Levesque, who declared martial law after two kidnappings and convinced the Supreme Court that double digit inflation represented an "emergency" sufficient to suspend the ordinary constitution. No important Canadian politician, before or since, has been so doctrinaire or so sympathetic to totalitarianism. Perhaps what we want is moderation both in our particularists and in our universalists.

The trouble with the PQ is not that they have been ethnic nationalists. There have always been parties and politicians representing the French interest in Canada, and no doubt will always be as long as Canada exists as a binational country. And those politicians were right about important things like World War I. Part of the trouble is precisely that the PQ have been shamefaced ethnic nationalists. The post-sixties territorial definition of "Quebecois" -- supposedly a great improvement -- clearly excludes a million French Canadians living outside Quebec without really including the million non-francophones living within its borders. It is (provincial) state-centric.

The ADQ undoubtedly has a few nuts. The last representatives of a conservative tradition in Quebec, Caouette's creédistes, were completely loopy. But, sensitive as the relationship between the survivance and contemporary Canadian immigration patterns may be, issues of demographic change should be addressed by mainstream parties.

• Even though I disagree with him on the merits of ethnic nationalism, Scott is exactly right that the "left-wing" domestic politics of the PQ has a different meaning in the Quebec context than they would in contemporary America.

The Quiet Revolution left an interlocking set of nationalist elites in business, the labour movement, the intelligentsia, the PQ, the quasi-state (the Caisse and Quebec Hydro) and the bureaucracy. It's past time to open this up. Bringing in more market forces and lowering the tax burden is not, in the Quebec context, about decimating the welfare state. Maybe Dumont would someday like to get to that point, but Quebec is a long way from that.

Update: Professor Levy has a very generous response to this post here. He's clearly as far from a simple-minded "Luxemburgian" as it is possible to be. He was writing interesting things about the relationship between federalism, liberalism and multiculturalism before he got to Canada, things I thought had special relevance to Canada when I first encountered them. It would be fascinating to see how living in Montreal has affected his thinking.


*Taking libertarian Jacob Levy as a lefty for these purposes.

** And what other kind of Bordigist is there?