Response to the CPC’s Unauthorized, Unofficial Statement on Arts Policy

(This letter is written in direct response to Daniel Karasik’s semi-satirical(?) post about the CPC’s arts policy. Which was in turn a response to Fannina Waubert de Puiseau’s open letter to the CPC.)

 Dear Sir,

Thank you for your missive of September the 10th, re: the Unofficial, Unauthorized Conservative Party of Canada’s Policy Position on the Arts. It was an absorbing read, and, typical of the CPC’s remarks on such issues more generally, rather dazzling in the sheer volume of misremembered facts and obfuscated issues. In this, your party is truly Canada’s leader.

This is not to say that there is nothing of value or truth in the letter; far from it. I myself have long complained of artists’ general complacency in terms of advocacy or activism. It is certainly true that the artistic community at large has alienated itself from the political process for a long time. We have not made our case to the Canadian population with anywhere near the necessary urgency or verve. We do not pay attention to the key elections that can have the most meaningful long-term influence on the Canadian art scene – school trusteeship. In fact, the absence of artists who run for school board trustee positions is doubly glaring; it’s a well-paid, part-time job, after all, and who would say there’s abundance of those?

I concede that general point. It isn’t a small concession on my part. Nevertheless, the ensuing bouts of free-association in the, say, latter 3/4 of your statement require my attention as a Canadian citizen. Though I did not vote for your party, I feel an unfamiliar – if not unwelcome – stirring of patriotism in my gut, and believe it is my Canadianly duty to correct you on certain points with respect to the existing facts. My hope is that this will improve your governance overall.

You claim, “[W]e’re really not so anti-democratic that we feel it’s proper to make the majority submit to the will of a very, very small minority.” This is a pretty remarkable statement, and deserves lengthy consideration. For one thing, the presupposition that it is the government’s job, in a parliamentary system, to reify the general whims of the unelected masses is a fairly obvious departure from sense (to say nothing of history). Vox populi, vox Dei might have been a tenable approach to governance in the halcyon democracy of the Athenian city-state, but is clearly not suitable to a modern, industrialized nation-state. Since you seem to be acquainted with the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, I’m certain you know what he had to say about “tyranny of the majority.” At any rate, majority opinion can’t be the only (or even most important) criterion for “legitimacy” in a just society. To elaborate any further would be patronizing.

Not that any of this matters to the CPC, since it has been (as you know) policy for many years to ask the majority to submit to the will of a small minority. (Actually, there has been very little “asking” at all). Minority groups and – since this is the salient point – industries are routinely given hefty government subsidies despite relative irrelevance to the public at large. The most notable is the agricultural sector, which like, the oil industry (which you spend considerable time on in your statement), receives billions of dollars in government subsidy while contributing relatively little to the national economy. The agricultural industry tends to hover around the 2% of GDP mark. Mining, oil, and gas extraction contribute 4%, all of which make your contention that “Canada has for a long time been a resource economy” fairly bewildering. Canada has, in fact, for a long time been a service economy, which comprises a whopping 70% of annual GDP.

While it is true that Canada is one of the world’s largest exporters of energy and agricultural goods, it is a mistake to infer from this that either of these sectors are crucial to the Canadian economy in the way you suggest. This isn’t to say they are unimportant – 2% of GDP still signifies billions of dollars, after all – but it does beg some rather pointed questions about whether these industries are necessarily worth the estimated $6-8 billion USD (agriculture) and $34 billion (mining, oil, gas) these industries receive, each year.

That these comparatively small sectors of our national economy enjoy such enormous taxpayer patronage is doubly puzzling since the sheer numbers of actual farmers is shrinking every year (Mckenna, op. cit.). With 200 farms vanishing every year, the political clout these farmers carry is clearly disproportionate. Researchers from Duke University who studied this bizarre phenomenon concluded with admirable terseness:

The most consistent predictor of support for agricultural protection is the proportion of a legislator’s constituents who are farm owners or farm managers. But those voters can only play an important role in the policy-making process if other voters are in the dark about the costs they shoulder…[emphasis added]

 In other words, these subsidies are permitted because no political leaders, including your “small government” champions, are willing to talk openly about the fact that they are essentially forcing the majority to submit to the will of the minority for a small political advantage. This has nothing at all to do with the relative merits of green energy versus oil, which strikes me as a red-herring.

Or maybe it isn’t. After all, according to the IMF, $19 billion or so of fossil fuel subsidies are incurred to cope with “externalized” costs, including air pollution, traffic accidents, reduced human health, infrastructure, etc. In other words – the majority of fossil fuel subsidies go towards solving the problems that fossil fuels themselves cause. For some perspective, consider that Environment Canada’s annual budget is roughly $20 billion total. This fact does not appear to enter into your calculus about the costs of green energy.

So you ask, “How is this different from any other situation where a minority tries to impose its will on the public at large, without consensus?” Well, in one fairly obvious sense, increased arts spending won’t directly contribute to what nearly every climate scientist in the world agrees would lead to the virtual extinction of the human race. Let’s not forget that the reason the number of farmers is shrinking is because major agricultural corporations are consolidating farms into vast, industrial meat-producing machines (it is telling that the farmers who receive the highest subsidies are the meat, poultry, and dairy farmers), which contribute 18% of global C02 emissions, second only to energy production (21%). Contrasted to the scientific studies which routinely demonstrate that art is very, very good for us, this seems a fairly decisive factor.

If you’re “not convinced it’s the government’s role to create an industry-specific safety net in high risk, high reward sectors,” why, then, do you create just such a safety net for farmers, who are in the very exemplification of a high-risk, high-reward industry?

You further worry that “a reduced dependence on oil and gas will mean less money in government coffers .” This implies that a) money in government coffers is in and of itself always a good thing, regardless of where or how that money is raised (an obvious absurdity), and b) that there are no other possible sources of income that could be siphoned into the arts.

I’m delighted to set your mind at ease. For one thing, the arts are far less capital-intensive than their analogues in agriculture or extraction. To give the average Canadian artist the same standard of living as, say, a Canadian poultry farmer would not necessarily require subsidies as high, nor would it incur the kind of apocalyptic consequences that particular industry invites. So a win-win all around, no?

Secondly, there are plenty of inefficiencies in government spending which could very easily be corrected, leaving your administration (or any other) with ample surplus to give, either in whole or in part, to the arts sector. There are many, but I would suggest that a major one – if the not the major one – is to in future avoid illegal wars of aggression in Third World countries and subsequent decades-long occupations of those countries. The war and occupation of Afghanistan has cost Canada at least $18 billion dollars, and many billions more if one factors in the costs of caring for veterans and their families. That’s an extra $18 billion (at least) in your pocket! Such a policy – i.e., a policy of not bombing and killing hundreds of innocent men, women, and children – would also have the added benefit of sparing the lives of some 162 Canadian citizens, and the maiming of 1800 more. That sounds like another win-win to me, sir!

Heck, why stop there? We could also stop getting involved with boarder disputes that have nothing whatever to do with us. We could stop sending military aid to governments who take power through anti-democratic, violent coups. We could stop spending money and labour on helping our “friends” torture people.

It is unfortunate that you’ve opted to join the US in military intervention against ISIS. Especially given everything we’ve learned about the use of military force against targets we don’t understand and largely created. As a Canadian artist, it’s disappointing to know that money which could be going to fund my projects is instead going to kill more poor, brown people in far away places.

In fact, let’s take this thought-experiment even further: why does Canada need a military at all? Armies are notoriously expensive, especially if you don’t need to use them. There are no credible threats of foreign invasion, and counter-terrorism is conducted by paramilitary organizations like the RCMP. Perhaps a small, highly specialized unit of peacekeeping forces is sufficient for doing the work of keeping aid workers in Syria safe, or ensuring the safety of refugees.

Now that we’ve settled the plausibility of the costs, I’d like to address some of your concerns regarding the positive effects of “private wealth” and “open global markets.” I can only assume you use that phrase – “open global markets” – in some kind of specialized, specific sense that I’ve heretofore been unfamiliar with. After all – and I’m frankly sorry that I have to keep bringing this up – Canada has notoriously rigid protectionist policies for those industries which are politically convenient to protect.

The point of all of which is merely to say that you can’t have it both ways: you can’t claim an ideological fealty to “open markets” and “majority will” and “public’s belief” when it is convenient, and ignore them when it is likewise. Well, I guess you can, but you look like cunts.

I’m also troubled by your generally ahistorical perspective on the role of the private sector with respect to “innovation.” The idea of the lone inventor working in her lab and developing some incredible piece of technology – or art – is touching, and makes for enjoyable Hollywood movies. It is also extremely misleading. The relationship between the state funding apparatus, institutions of higher-learning, and individual scientists is far more muddled than that. For instance, much of the technological flourishing of the 20th century has been a result of state-subsidized high-tech industry. As Noam Chomsky remarks in Understanding Power:

[R]esearch and developement for high technology is very costly, and corporations don’t make any profits off it directly – so therefore the taxpayer is made to pay for it. And in the United States, that’s traditionally been done through the Pentagon system: the Pentagon pays for high-tech research and development, then if something comes out of it which happens to be marketable, it’s handed over to private corporations so they can make the profits.

It is just demonstrably false that universities are “privately funded.” Even I, who graduated from no university, who possesses no degree, know that universities rely on annual operating grants from the government. So if, as is clear, there is no conflict between innovation and state subsidy in the sciences, why do you assume there would be such a thing in the arts? What evidence can you adduce to support such a contention? Yes, state subsidies can be revoked, and a solution to that might be to “strengthen alternatives to private funding,” but another solution is to just stop spending money on death, destruction, and the industries which contribute to them, and instead subsidize the arts. Your argument here seems to create solutions to problems which it, itself, causes. A pattern is emerging.

The fact of the matter is that it isn’t simply “nice” for governments to fund its critics – it’s an essential and inalienable component of a functioning democracy. Government, after all, is not meant to be a monolithic institution which operates in antagonism with the constituents of the country it supposedly governs. In a democracy, communities of individuals elect from among themselves representatives whom they know and who are directly accountable to those communities. These representatives assemble and govern. Obviously, Canada is not a democracy. The existence of your party, indeed all political parties, demonstrates that. But if and until you realize that the politician’s goal is to make a better Canada, and not to simply get re-elected, we’ll only drift further and further from democracy over time. Your consistent underestimation of the influence of corporate power of the issue under discussion merely underlines this.

The idea that we are “insulat[ed] from market pressures” assumes that the market isn’t designed to benefit the designers. It assumes that major corporations who freely donate to your party don’t exert control over policy, and don’t have any influence over the paradigms of expression which delimit the ideas and thoughts ordinary citizens are capable of having. That’s a rather large issue, too large to get into here, but I trust you’ve read enough Marshall McLuhan (who wrote his books while working for a state-subsidized university), to have a sense of what I’m getting at.

I could go on in that vein, in particular, for some time, but I think I’ll end here rather than risk my readers’ (or your) patience. I should like to end by addressing the closing remark of your statement, in which you claim:

[A]ny political party, even ours, will be obliged to support artists wholeheartedly if you’ve won the vocal enthusiasm of a broad public.

This statement again falls into the “demonstrably false” category, and  is especially pernicious. Polls  show that the majority of Canadians support the death-penalty for violent criminals. Previous governments, in their wisdom, have realized that what the majority wants is not always what it ought to get, though it may yet prove to be what it deserves.

Yours cordially,

Alexander Offord

PS- At your advice I did contact the Real Conservative Party of Canada with respect to this issue. Their response was considerably less thoughtful than yours:

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1 Comment Response to the CPC’s Unauthorized, Unofficial Statement on Arts Policy

  1. Tara Mazurk

    Alexander, thank you for this thoughtful piece. The idea that funding critics for a democratic society is an essential topic (& point of contention) in funding reform. A mix of all avenues of funding is critical to survive – and arts organizations are darn good at making this happen with private and public funders. Lesley Bramhill & I are two volunteers of the Canadian Arts Coalition, and also had a reply to Daniels blog: http://bit.ly/1ORLAK9

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