Corporate Colonialism And Our Fragile Democracy

One doesn’t have far to look for evidence of the fragility of our democracy (our nascent democracy, I should say, since it is hard to refer to Canada as a mature democracy). Our failure to address the climate emergency effectively, the parlous state of our major social insurance programs, from health care to child and elder care, to education and infrastructure, the dismissal of science in public health matters, widespread susceptibility to disinformation in the social media, and the dismal quality of our political leadership, all point to a poorly informed electorate, ill-equipped to fulfill its responsibility to vote wisely and to hold its representatives to account.

Instead, we have an electorate whose alienation from its own government is pathologically disabling. Government is experienced not as ours, a tool we helped craft to achieve common purposes, but as an alien and often parasitical or threatening presence.

The notion that politics is the art of the possible only holds water when the electorate is truly aware of its potency and agency and acts accordingly. In that case, imagination, not colonized thinking, sets the limit of the possible.

The current promotion of the idea that the state is first and foremost a threat, a potential enemy of the citizen, serves those who favour less democracy and who fear an active, informed citizenry. Alienation from the state leaves the public interest poorly defined, under-represented, or undefended, and the levers of state vulnerable to manipulation for special interests.

No group of special interests is happier with this unfortunate state of affairs than our corporate colonialists, supreme among them the fossil fuel industries and their financiers. Indeed, Big Oil has followed the colonial playbook to the “T”.

The theft of language, a key facet of colonialism the world over, is a case in point.  Like all successful colonial powers in history, Big Oil insists on its narrative, however anti-social it may be under examination. To do that, the industry corrupts and appropriates our very words, from the meaning of the term “development” to the current climate buzz-word, “Net Zero”.  

Generously funded by the public purse and by the fact of their monopolistic control over public resources, they snow us under with their partisan “research”, their partial data. That research suggests that we would be lost and powerless without their self-serving activities, that the alternatives are infeasible and uneconomic. Patently untrue, yet widely reported and repeated slavishly.

Worse still, as Geoff Dembicki so ably demonstrates in his recent book, The Petroleum Papers, the industry has been aware of the looming climate catastrophe for decades. However, it not only suppressed its own findings, but worked (and continues to work) to undermine public awareness and action to avert a disastrously compromised future for our children and grandchildren. Why else would fossil representatives be a part of a Canadian delegation to COP-27, an international gathering intended to curtail its own activities? They weren’t there for our sakes!

The final colonial presumption, nowhere more evident than in Canada, is the industry’s insistence in shifting its responsibility for its pollution and despoliation to the same public that gifted it preferred access to our resources. I have written in earlier posts about the madness of providing billions in public subsidies to the giants in the oil sands, ostensibly to help them achieve “net-zero” emissions on production, not the much larger emissions consequent to the consumption of their product. A perfect example of publicly supported “green-washing” as the former Trudeau cabinet minister, Catherine McKenna, has recently demonstrated on behalf of the UN.

In the last week, the Alberta drilling industry, while announcing a return to happy times with significantly increased activity, had the temerity to say that it had the know-how to greatly reduce its operational emissions, but would not so without public subsidies. The blatant recognition of the damage its externalized costs inflict on the environment and future generations, combined with the confident assumption that those costs would not be assessed as its responsibility, are the colonial hallmarks of the fossil industry.

The gall of Big Oil, enjoying record profits, demanding that the public share the cost of cleaning up its pollution and the remediation of its production sites can only be understood within a colonial framework. It is also impossible to understand the compliant response of our governments, who provide billions of dollars annually in subsidies to the fossils, abetting our own destruction, apart from our leaders’ acceptance of their colonial relationship to the industry.

Does it help to cast our contemporary social, economic and political challenges in a colonial framework? I believe it does. It helps us focus on the nature of our predicament in new ways, and lord knows, there is a wealth of experience out there, especially in the South, to help inform us of what we have to do to dig ourselves out of this hole. Of course, the first step is always to diagnose the pathology correctly.

As those who have successfully prosecuted anti-colonial struggles can tell you, the colonizers will not give up without a dirty fight. But the fight is ours. There is no saviour round the corner.

Colonialism is us.

In a healthy democracy, the sky’s the limit.

By Peter Puxley

Hi, I'm Peter Puxley, an economist, geographer and urban planner by academic training, and a political organizer/activist, development educator, journalist, policy wonk, researcher and political staffer by practice. I have tried my hand at poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing, some of which has been published.

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