This is a script I presented on a Knowledge Network sociology telecourse in the early 90s. Still relevant today, maybe even more so than then:
Is Canada a Capitalist Society? Interesting question and not as simple to answer as it seems, I think. Generally, when this question comes up, people immediately think about Capitalism and Socialism or Communism. Canada isn’t communist, that’s clear…but is it socialist? Well, what does socialism mean? Many people think of socialism as government ownership and control. For some, socialism means no more free enterprise, no more freedom of choice and no more good life! For others it means Medicare, UIC, Canada Pension and Social Services. If socialism means government takeover of private business, then the W.A.C. Bennett Social Credit government of B.C. was one of the first socialist governments in Canada. It took over B.C. Electric and made it into B.C. Hydro, took over responsibility for ferries in the province and monopolized the sale of alcohol. Well, most people would never think of the Socreds as socialists, but there you have it… Just kidding of course… But it still leaves us with the problem of coming up with a way of deciding whether or not Canada is a capitalist society. Is it mostly capitalist with some socialist policies? Can we talk of shades of pink, or is it one or the other? Well, maybe there’s another way of approaching the whole question.
Let’s stand way back and check out the view from there. We are very accustomed in this part of the world to seeing things from the perspective of our countries. I’m not saying that we’re nationalists, necessarily, but that our frame of reference is our country. We think of “Canadian” society, the Canadian educational system, the Canadian political system, the Canadian legal system, the Canadian transportation system, etc. We view Canada as an entity, a thing in itself. We use Canada as “containing” our society.
There is another way of thinking about these things. It is very difficult, though, because we take our conventional view of things completely for granted. We have difficulty even conceiving of another way of seeing things. It requires a real perceptual shift. But let’s try this on. Think of the concept of Capitalism as a basic reference point rather than the idea of Canada. In this conceptual scheme capitalism has time and space dimensions but I want you to think about it more as a set of institutions or way of doing things, organizing ourselves and thinking. The primary institutions of modern capitalism are private property, business enterprise, the machine-process, the class system, wages, the division of labor, the market and the price system. Taken together, these institutions, along with others, make up what we might call the economic basis of capitalist society. I’m not talking about people here, but about the ways that have evolved by which we relate to each other in society. The primary institutions are those concerned with how we organize ourselves to make a living…that being the basis for the rest of social organization. We have to make a living as societies before we can do anything else. In order to survive…and this is an evolutionary perspective…capitalism generates a whole range of other institutions, or it appropriates them, borrows, begs or steals them historically from previous societies. These institutions we usually define as being political, social, legal, educational, etc… And they evolve themselves and together…like all the organs of your body evolve together.
From this perspective, the way we organize official learning, in classrooms with the teacher as authority and children conceived of as empty vessels to be filled with standardized knowledge is a basic educational institution of modern capitalism. Whole organizations, plants and facilities we call schools, colleges and universities are created to service this institution which itself serves to ensure the survival of capitalism. What kids learn in school is more important than just math and social studies. In the way the school is organized, in the way they are regimented and disciplined, kids learn their eventual place as workers within a capitalist society. It could hardly be otherwise. An educational institution that would contradict the basic way that we organize ourselves to make a living wouldn’t last long.
Countries as we know them are political institutions that arose in conjunction with the rise of capitalism in Europe. They are the products of the growth of capitalism: they exist to regulate the flow of capital and labour; to provide infrastructures such as roads for the movement of capital and labor (not always successfully); to defend capitalism, or sometimes the interests of a group of capitalists in competition with another group; to provide a context for law and order and the right “climate” for investment, etc… Once in existence along with the institution of citizenship, countries tend to legitimize the notion that citizenship is a status more important than that of worker. Citizenship, with all of its caveats and rights, is the political/legal expression of your right to sell your labour on a market.
Canada, then, is by definition a capitalist institution. It “fits” into a now global system of political institutions that exist to perpetuate capitalism…and make no mistake about it, capitalism is the more fundamental institution here. It makes little sense to speak of “Canadian” capitalism or even of “Canadian” society, for that matter. Canada, the political institution, is part of a global capitalist society. It makes much more sense to speak of the role of the Canadian state in the perpetuation and survival of the growing capitalist global system. If the government takes over the operations of a losing propositions such as B.C. Electric, then it does so to ensure that capitalism can still grow and prosper. Capitalism needs cheap power. There’s no money in it, but it is nonetheless necessary. Why not get workers, as citizens and taxpayers, to subsidize it? If the government sets up systems to train potential workers (i.e., the school system), to support unemployed workers, to nurse them back to health, to provide them with pensions upon retirement, it relieves the pressure from the capitalist to do so, a pressure that the slave master or the lord of the manor had in totality with regard to the well-being of his slaves or serfs. So, in a big way, the governments in our country help to manage the working class. And through the tax system arrange to have the working class cover the expenses for its own management and even cover the costs of capitalist risk-taking itself, again through the tax system.
This may sound cynical and negative, but I don’t think it is. Nor do I think that the system stinks and that all capitalists and politicians are lying, good for nothing exploiters of the working class. I’d rather be a worker with only half of my waking life in the service of someone else than a slave with my whole being and life in the service of someone else. Besides, capitalists and politicians are harnessed to the needs of capitalism as we all are…much as all the cells in a human body are harnessed for the survival of the body as a whole…and the whole thing will live just as long as it has not exhausted all the resources it has to keep it alive. Countries are one of those resources that serve the ends of capitalist survival. Canada is one of those resources.