Last month, I received my MBA from Simon Fraser University. My family persuaded me to attend convocation, although my previous experience (BACS, UC Santa Cruz, 1983) had left me disinclined to attend
I am so very grateful that I was persuaded. After gowning, lining up, precessing, and waiting (since there were no doctorates to be awarded, we MBAs were the first of about 400 students to reach our seats), we were sitting and listening to what I expected would be the traditional boring platitudes about how wonderful we were, how fantastic our experience at school had been, and how we would now proceed to change the world, preferably through good capitalist means.
I had forgotten that I was in Canada.
Dr. Michael Stevenson, President of the university, gave a fantastic speech:
The movement over the last quarter century to lessen the size and cost of the state, and to liberate the market from bureaucratic regulation and inefficiency, has been characterized by many contradictory trends. For example, the promise of less government has been undercut by the continued growth if redirection of government spending; the promise of the free market has been undercut by “irrational exuberance” of poorly regulated capital markets; the assurance of better services has been undercut by the health and safety threats in deregulated water, power and food systems or the increased visibility of homelessness and drug addiction following the deinstitutionalization of mental health care. Domestic “wars” on drugs or crime are as ineffective in achieving their announced objectives as the international War on Terror. And claims to political superiority grounded in the defense of human rights and civil liberties are devalued by arbitrary arrest and the abrogation of legal rights in defense of “homeland security,” and by the more general pressure to liberate executive power from judicial restraint.
For reasons like these, the events of the last few weeks underline the limits of American and North American domination, whether economic, military or political. The world is a much different place than it was even a decade ago, when we celebrated the advent of a new millennium.
As new university graduates you know the world is a more complicated and dangerous place. You know that this is not only a question of the rapid restructuring of economic and political power in the global market and international order. It is also a question of the life of the planet itself…of fundamental changes in climate and ecosystems, the intensified risks of natural disaster and reduced biodiversity, and the hugely complex issues of adaptation to and mitigation of environmental change.
Despite the magnitude of these challenges, and despite the rhetorical drum-beat of electioneering calls for change, the political response is so far not encouraging. Governing and opposition parties still vie for the embrace of lower taxes, knowing apparently that most of us will favour a marginal increase in private consumption over any collective investment in public infrastructure or social services. Courageous leadership on climate issues is the exception rather than the rule, and it is met with opportunistic opposition to carbon taxes, unless they be levied on someone other than ourselves. Public investment in the arts as a means to building the creative economy and improving the quality of life is opposed as a sop to cultural elites and a subsidy to work that affronts the sensibilities of ordinary men and women, as great art tends to do when first produced. And public investments in education, which are so urgently required in order to rethink the fundamentals of our ways of life and to redefine long term strategies for social change, are increasingly targeted to the short-term demands of the existing labour market and to the shortest possible return on investment through the commercialization of research.
Serious discussion of these and other issues is muted by the forces governing our electoral politics. In the age of mass communications simple plurality, first-past-the-post, electoral systems force convergence on issues and differentiation on image. Trash advertising and spin, segmentally targeted to different “demographics,” manipulate political sentiment and undermine rational discussion.
This is a different place.