Sunday, November 26, 2017

Leacock speaks to the Canada of the Dirty Thirties

A 1929 stock market crash plunged the world into the Great Depression. In Montreal, Stephen Leacock was a public intellectual and a McGill economist, as well as a world-famous humourist. 

In 1933 the USSR, Josef Stalin ruled as dictator. Here in Canada, the newly Co-operative Commonwealth Federation established its platform, a welfare state with universal pensions, health insurance, child allowances, workers' compensation, and unemployment insurance. In 1935, this party would take 8.9% of the federal vote. Under Tommy Douglas, the CCF would be elected in Saskatchewan, and establish Canada's first universal medicare system. Under the same leader, the socialist CCF/NDP would earn a record number of consecutive mandates, lasting until 1961. Later, with Douglas in Parliament, the federal Liberals would enact universal medicare.

Written in the depths of the Depression, the words and ideas that follow offer a fascinating glimpse of the era as seen Leacock's eyes. He was 64 when he published them.

"The principle that my house is my own is the only true basis of society." However, in the "present distress," a movement has arisen "for a new co-operative commonwealth, as vague as it is sanguine." The danger here is that each person in the movement wants to "'socialize' the others, but not himself."  With tart cynicism, he describes socialism as "a bright soap bubble, light as ignorance and floating with its own gas," and says it would only work in the presence of "impossible people, guided by impossible leaders, and inspired by an inconceivable good-will." 

He then goes on to outline the failures of the Russian system, comparing the sufferings of the people there and in Canada. In both countries, people stand in long lines in the "bitter cold," while Canadians are "waiting to get into hockey matches," starving Russians are "waiting for food." As they wait, Canadians talk and laugh freely, unlike Russians, who dare not speak "lest someone might hear them," dare not laugh, "in case someone reports them." Here in Canada, even in "the humblest homes...there is at least freedom and hope. We will not let one another die. In Russia, even behind the best locked door there is fear. They will not let one another live."

Leacock acknowledges the challenges of our failing economic system, and suggests some ideas for alleviating them. "Short of socialism," he says, "lies the regulated state." One recommendation is for the government to organize slum clearance in the cities. This would offer employment and investment opportunities for citizens, who could participate in the rebuilding of livable neighbourhoods. But he admits that the "one crucial difficulty of the rebuilding scheme is the question of public honesty." The only way to get around this challenge is to turn "the searchlight of publicity" on "every square inch" of the government plan. Other ideas to spread wealth more evenly and "obliterate super-power" include the raising of wages and the shortening of hours. 

Yet Leacock admits that to re-start the economy using the same system is a temporary solution; the cycle that rises will fall again. In the meantime, though, "we can carry forward for at least a generation." Fortunately, says this believer in human progress, "We do not need to solve the problem. We only need to raise the kind of children who can solve it."

To explain how that may be done, he produced another pamphlet on the challenges of providing the young with a good education. Seven years earlier, British philosopher, logician and social critic Bertrand Russell had tackled the same topic in his famous work, On Education.

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