Revisiting “Was Laurier Canada’s Obama?”

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By Elsbeth Heaman

In September 2016 I published at Active History an argument that the 2016 election in the United States was shaping up like the 1911 election in Canada. The previous elections had seen a diversity candidate (Catholic and French in Canada, Black in America) win the highest office. But instead of inaugurating a new and more equitable political life, the consequence was electoral repudiation of the progressivism and partyism that delivered such results, and a turn towards plutocrats who promised effective business-like governance.

Of course, the real interest in the piece, as in the book manuscript I had just completed, wasn’t what happened in 1911 but what happened at the next election in 1917, namely, the most racially polarizing campaign in Canadian history. The plutocrats couldn’t run on their record because they had too spectacularly enriched themselves—and had too obviously continued to do so amidst a global catastrophe, the First World War—that seemed to require better things. So they campaigned on racism. The dog-whistle was dropped and racism, along with voter suppression and a host of other nasty tricks, became the core of the Conservative government’s campaign. They claimed to repudiate “party” and embrace “union,” but this was party politics rebranded and intensified.

Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-727

“Good luck in 2020 guys,” I was warning Americans, should they elect Donald Trump.

My forecasting was dismayingly accurate. I didn’t predict either the pandemic or the economic collapse of 2020, of course, but the more predictable pattern of plutocracy and racism was confirmed. And plutocratic rule does tend to have catastrophic consequences.

Of course one can only carry the parallels so far: Robert Borden was no Donald Trump. I think he genuinely regretted handing his campaign over to the worst racist and crony capitalist in his party, Clifford Sifton. But Borden stood on the shoulders of the Canadian Trumps of his time and amplified their interests and projects, so the effect was the same.

The moral of the story was that racism delivers tax cuts. It delivers it in different ways at different times and places, but according to the same logic. Scratch an intense public debate about identity and you may find, surprisingly often, a plutocrat blustering “Don’t touch my wealth, you, you, you…”

Americans have been writing their histories that way since Charles Beard, and Robin Einhorn took the story more squarely into tax history, showing how slaveowners shaped the constitution to insulate their wealth from the federal government, and how wealthy interests reinvigorated that insulation after the Civil War. I learned much from Einhorn. (If you don’t have time to read the book, then do read the short overview she posted.) My book showed how distinct projects to protect wealth from confiscatory taxation were a major driver of Canadian politics during the first half century of national history, according to local and regional conversations that gradually lined up to become national ones.

It’s always a good time to reflect on that pattern. I think it teaches a great deal about the difference between American and Canadian postwar politics for example.

American tax resisters remained and remain at the forefront of racialization of politics in America, as Paul Krugman recently observed in the NYT.

But Canadians couldn’t be so overtly racist because Canada’s national minority was not Black. The crude analogies of a Nichols, identified in the first Active History piece, couldn’t be put to a white supremacist project in the same way.

Instead of telling their state to fuck right off, as American plutocrats did, Canadian ones began to hide their wealth offshore. The fact that they did so at the height of Canadian projects of postwar multilateralism is a rich irony but not incidental: the reasoning was always about the strengths and weaknesses of a state that had become “Tocqueville’s nightmare” internally, an efficient, bureaucratic entity with serious taxing capacity, but remained hamstrung on the international stage.

State weakness in Canada and the United States always took very different forms and tropes but they were always, nonetheless, deeply intertwined with the project of insulating wealth from its grasp.

Canadian historians have been doing wonderful work in recent years along such lines, digging deep into the “new tax history” and into the history of property confiscation projects more generally, including Indigenous dispossession, Japanese dispossession, and state relocation projects. But I believe there will be an episodic quality to the larger Canadian history field until we align such studies with analysis as to how wealth was busily making itself immune to the confiscatory state, effectively “privatizing” itself and fragmenting Canadian history in the process.

And it’s still a good time to reflect on that pattern.

People everywhere dream of waking up in a post-pandemic world where greater kindness and social solidarity prevail against austerity and naked self-interest. But I predict that we will be waking up to the same choices that all the other people in the modern world have always faced, according to scholars of inequality: either (according to Thomas Piketty) the continuing concentration of wealth at the top; or (according to Walter Scheidel) the kind of equalizing catastrophe that leaves behind serious death tolls (not forgetting the Tobin tax ignominiously scuttled by Stephen Harper); or (my own preference) an unyielding concentration on the right, need, and power of the twenty-first-century state to confiscate wealth. I don’t much care whether you openly call it a wealth tax or a death duty, or an “excess profits” tax or merely a progressive income tax that gets at savings as well as income (which is why so many economists want to abolish it for consumption taxes).

The post-pandemic state will have both the right and the power to tax wealth if the public gives it that mandate, and if we, historians, fuel that mandate by keeping our eye on the ball.

The greatest threat to social solidarity never emanated from middle-class self-interest or popular racism but always, first and foremost, from the strategic lobbying of great wealth. And if you aren’t following Adam Tooze for the latest data, you probably should be.

Elsbeth Heaman teaches history at McGill University and is co-editor with David Tough of a collection of essays, Who Pays for Canada? Taxes and Fairness, forthcoming with McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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