George Grant’s conservativism derived from skepticism about the religion of progress. He took issue with the doctrine that technological progress requires more educated and civilized participants in a global economy. Politicians no longer talk of progress. The current cliché is “moving forward.” To examine Grant’s writings in the 1960s, brought together in Volume 3 (1960-1969) of his Collected Works (Arthur Davis and Henry Roper, eds., University of Toronto Press, 2005) and ably edited by Art Davis and Henry Roper, is to gauge how much we have moved forward in the last forty years.
In the work of Canada’s leading conservative thinker we never encounter any contemporary slogans like “the brightest and the best,” given such currency by the Globe & Mail and the National Post, to foster global competitiveness in our era of free trade and investment. Rather, in An Ethic of Community Grant insisted on human equality. Moral choices “matter absolutely” and “this act of choosing is the ultimate human act and is open to all. In this sense all persons are equal and differences of talent are of petty significance.”
Grant maintained that it is spiritually bad for people to be either in a relationship of permanent subordination or unchecked superiority, and hence Canadians “must give economic content” to our professions of human equality. Grant never specified what industrial democracy entailed, and never took seriously Simone Weil’s detailed proposals for eliminating domination and restoring dignity in work. Although Weil was Grant’s supreme authority on things moral and spiritual, he accepted Weber’s, Heidegger’s and Ellul’s view that technological civilization requires hierarchical bureaucracies that block the promise of technological abundance and leisure. Since Grant did not attend to Weil or other thinkers who “gave economic content” to human equality, he did not provide concrete guidance to his principle that “the hierarchy of talents must always be subordinate … to the basic equality of persons.”
Contemporary conservatives prize freedom of consumer choices, the right of the wealthy to purchase quick medical treatment, of parents to find the schools and the kind of child care they can afford. Grant was not a proponent of a free market of consumer choices. Grant’s socialism was that of a Christian social democrat. Human equality is gauged not on the basis of equal intelligence, equal power, or equal susceptibility to suffering, but on the basis of our moral choices.
Wary of Liberal Notions of Unlimited Freedom
Grant thought egalitarians should attend to the truth of the doctrine of original sin - that the propensity to greed, self-centredness and domination is a historical constant - and thus socialists should be wary of liberal notions of freedom, which imperil both community and equality. By the mid-sixties, when Grant had published Lament for a Nation and Technology and Empire, he thought socialists unrealistic in espousing anarchic freedom and equality.
Conservatives and socialists have ideas of order and justice that, according to Grant, should limit or qualify their espousal of technological progress (surrogate motherhood, harvesting Third World organs for transplant, napalm, enriched warheads). However, socialists of the 1960s, Grant thought, were so taken by Marcusean doctrines that civilized restraints had become technolo-gically obsolete, that they espoused the liberal view that human beings are free to make the world as they choose.
Of particular interest in this regard are Grant’s interviews with Gad Horowitz and the article “Canadian Fate and Imperialism,” which Grant wrote for Canadian Dimension. Grant’s attraction to the Canadian Left in the 1960s arose from his spirited opposition to the Vietnam War, which he depicted as liberal imperialism and unlimited in its brutality. In Grant’s view, the absence of moral limits was the hallmark of liberal modernity; the acceptance of nuclear weapons in Canada was the occasion for his attack on L/liberalism in Lament for a Nation, and his insistence that the Vietnam War was initiated by the northern liberal establishment, rather than southern rednecks, made him a partisan foe of L/liberalism. Although he sometimes praised liberal adherence to human rights as informing protest against the Vietnam War and support for the civil-rights movement, he often held the civil-rights movement to be a front for liberal imperialism against the conservative political culture of the American South. Grant failed to foresee that the absence of unionization and welfare would place the American South as the dynamo of Wal-Mart imperialism.
Grant and Horowitz
Grant and Horowitz are the odd couple of Canadian intellectual history. Horowitz shared Grant’s emphasis on the role of the state in economic and cultural life. Grant’s Tories, who built Ontario Hydro, the CNR, the CBC, etc., have been replaced by “conservatives” who want to abolish crown corporations, public broadcasting, or what Northrop Frye and Robertson Davies called “aristocratic socialism.”
In response to Horowitz’s question about how Canada is better than the U.S., Grant replied, “a much greater use of the public good against private enterprise … in other words, you have to move towards something like a socialist society in which the public good takes precedence over the individual right to use the resources they want to build the society they want….”
Horowitz did not press him on the agents of a socialist nationalism; the civil servants Diefenbaker distrusted for their alliance with the Liberal Party, but which Grant insisted were essential to limit corporate power, have been tremendously tarnished by their participation in the sponsorship scandal. If Grant’s red Toryism seems obsolete, Grant’s suggestion to Horowitz that cities will replace nations as sources of identity and allegiance strikes a contemporary note.
Grant was much less optimistic than Horowitz about a counter-culture. While Grant found a religious dimension in the Beat generation and the Yippies, and he declared anti-war protest noble, he tended to merge Freudian Marxism with drugs, sex and rock music as “orgiastic gnosticism,” and thought the Left was fooling itself by parasitically dropping out of the technological society on which it depended.
The bond between Grant and the Left was forged in opposition to the Vietnam War and was broken when Grant later came to denounce its support for euthanasia and abortion. The question today is Canada’s role in the American empire. Is Canadian identity essentially the product of a dialectical extension/resistance to French, British and American empires? Is Grant of continued pertinence to the understanding of Canadian identity? Readers of this important volume will have to decide for themselves.
This article appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Women Speaking Out).