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Weekend reads: On collapse
Quality of life has fallen off a cliff, a generation has been priced out of a stable home, freedom of expression is in peril - and our elites plow ahead, oblivious
There has been much discussion lately about the state of our nation — and whether or not we, as a society, are in decline.
Former journalist and Justin Trudeau speechwriter (and current Substacker) Colin Horgan published a provocative essay at The Line last month, arguing that our country is vulnerable to extremists who believe that “the current system of liberal democracy is inherently corrupt and corrupted, verging on collapse, and that, in the extreme, its downfall can and should be hastened by acts of violence.”
Horgan worries that Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre — who’s been actively speaking to this ambient vibe of distress and dissatisfaction — could accelerate such destabilization.
Poilievre does not say extreme things, Horgan concedes, but Poilievre’s message is “still poison” because “what he telegraphs is the vision of a social order at a tipping point, with the suggestion that it can be easily pushed over.”
In short, Poilievre has tapped into “an Internet language of decline.”
The message Poilievre is delivering is … actually about societal decline, or even collapse. This is the meta-message Poilievre projects if you listen closely enough. And it aligns with the general tone of online discourse currently, and of the past few years. The positivity of the early days of social media — flash-mobs, dance sequences, marriage proposals — has been long buried by the algorithmic favour for negativity engagement, a much more powerful force, that engenders a more global negative chaos mentality created by how it presents information (confused, disorganized, and immediate) and via its default sentiment framing for maximum reaction (pessimistic, cynical and bleak). As anyone online will tell you, everything is terrible now, which is always.
Aside from just being fundamentally pessimistic about the public, Horgan’s analysis strikes me as profoundly out of touch with the everyday concerns of Canadians struggling to make ends meet.
If a “negative chaos mentality” exists, it is because there is negative chaos. And because, during the past two years, this has become impossible to ignore.
Our quality of life has been eroded for some time now. Wages have been stagnant for decades. Precarious work is the order of the day, both for the working class and professionals. Rents and property prices are through the roof; according to the Globe and Mail, since 2000, domestic home prices have increased by 420 percent. Inflation is high. Gas is expensive. Food costs are up. We are coping with a crisis of social isolation. Our opioid epidemic rages on.
Meanwhile, pandemic policy has benefited the laptop class and harmed the most vulnerable among us. (See lockdowns and school closures, for starters.)
Indeed, there has been extreme winners and losers during the COVID era, which saw a massive transfer of wealth upwards. Billionaires in this country, in fact, saw their wealth increase 68 percent during the pandemic.
Should we be surprised that those on the losing end are expressing their frustration?
All of this is why it was interesting to read Line co-founder Matt Gurney’s own meditation on the theme of decline, responding to Horgan and asking the crucial question: “What if we are in decline?”
Decline is a difficult thing to pin down and measure, Gurney points out, but our perception of it is not:
Even though we’ve all agreed to leave the final judgment and the precise definition to the historians, it’s certainly fair to ask ourselves if we believe we’re in decline. And a lot of us do. Ipsos polled Canadians (and many others) last month; 57 per cent of us said they felt Canada was on the wrong track. This was actually a fairly cheerful finding; Canada was among the more upbeat nations surveyed — a full 73 per cent of Americans felt their country was going in the wrong direction, for example, and there were even grumpier populations out there. But this feels like an incomplete measure — being on the "right track," or off of it, isn’t a perfect proxy for what I’m looking for.
What does come closer is asking people whether their children will be better or worse off than they were. That feels closer to the mark — are things getting better or worse on the timescale of a generation? It also seems to capture, in raw form, what most of us would probably agree is “decline” — a falling standard of living, with fewer among us able to enjoy a lifestyle more could once access. Pew Research has been tracking that metric for years, and reported last month that Canadians are pessimistic — notably so. A full three-quarters of us say that children will be worse off (financially) than their parents — and that number has been rising steadily in recent years. Perception is not reality, but that’s a pretty stark perception.
A stark perception, indeed. And I think Gurney hits on something significant here:
Horgan worries that Poilievre speaking in the language of decline will make everything worse. It’ll add to the toxicity. It very well might. But is there not danger in politicians refusing to talk about this, especially when almost three-quarters of us already believe it’s happening?
This is a question we should all be asking. Along with this one:
If you believe that we’re in decline, who are you more likely to support — the politician who seems to get it, and talks in language you find familiar, or the ones that don’t want to talk about it at all?
If I were to name one of the most pressing issues that I have as a Canadian — one that’s shaped my life in utterly profound ways — it would be housing affordability.
I have lived my adult life out in two of Canada’s most expensive cities, Toronto and Vancouver, paying sky-high rents that have often eaten up half my take-home pay. I have navigated the instability and volatility of the rental market, moved frequently, delayed putting down roots, lived in one bedroom suites too small to have people over for dinner, postponed getting a dog for years due to apartment bans on pets, and watched as property prices outpaced my savings year after year.
And I am — it must be emphasized — one of the fortunate ones. Very much so.
I am educated and have a profession (albeit in an imploding industry). I have enjoyed steady work, and have usually earned more than the median income wherever I’ve lived. I have zero debt (after paying off $60,000 in student loans, plus interest). I have no children. I don’t own a car. An unexpected expense won’t take me under.
Even so, in my forties, buying a home still feels like an impossibly lofty goal. And rents are beyond insane — according to one recent report, the average Toronto condo now rents for 43 percent more than in early 2021, at $2963 per month.
Housing affordability has enormous impacts on quality of life, with ripple effects extending out to numerous other pressing public policy issues, from physical health and mental health to social isolation and family formation.
I covered much of this in a recent book, Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life. Part of what drove me to write it was the failures of the press and the political class to take our housing crisis seriously.
And frankly, it’s not surprising that they haven’t.
Many are property owners, and to them, things are looking pretty rosy. Anyone who owns real estate in Toronto or Vancouver has watched their property values soar. Even with the current market cooling taken into account, people have made out well.
For them, the housing crisis does not feel like an emergency. It feels like a windfall.
But what is good for some is not good for all. And we, as a country, must come to terms with a simple reality: The crisis in housing affordability is unsustainable.
We need people to be able to afford to live and work in our cities (and towns!), in order to keep the economy going. We need people to be able to reproduce, in order to maintain our population and our tax base. And we need people to stay sane and get along, in order to preserve our peaceful, pluralistic democracy.
The health of our country depends on reasonable housing costs. Just as it depends on the gap between the rich and the poor not becoming a yawning chasm.
Business reporter Daniel Tencer, a Lean Out guest, warned last year at The Line that if we allowed this “unbridled real-estate frenzy” to continue, we risked populism.
If we want to avoid that fate, he told me, we should pay attention to the tremendous — and growing — anger of those who have been shut out:
People are incredibly frustrated. They’re scared. They’re scared that they’re not going to be able to achieve the standard of living that their parents and their grandparents were able to achieve. For the same amount of work, the same amount of effort, they’re going to end up with a lot less. That frustration is building and building. Every time you see one of those stories about house prices up 25 percent, you can be sure that tension is rising with that price level.
And yet no Canadian political leader has made any meaningful moves to address this.
Things have only gotten worse as the pandemic has dragged on and citizens have been hit with high inflation and rising interest rates (while also staring down other looming financial catastrophes).
According to an Angus Reid poll out this week, nine out of ten Canadians have cut their household budgets due to inflation and high prices. And 46 percent of Canadians say their personal finances are worse off now than they were at this time last year.
But if the material conditions in this country are dire, so too is the national mood.
In fact, there is a gaping wound at the centre of our national psyche.
Essential workers have laboured throughout the COVID crisis, endangering their health and that of their families, in order to keep society running. In return for their heroic efforts, the unvaccinated among them — many of whom previously contracted COVID and have natural immunity — have seen themselves ostracized and smeared as racists and misogynists. Their fundamental values have been mocked in the public square, and their basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, have been compromised. Some have lost jobs, social lives and more for declining vaccination.
To comprehend the human toll this has taken, one need only look to the grassroots #TrudeauMustGo campaign on Twitter.
The consequences of vaccine mandates should have been covered in great depth by our national press. But instead, the Canadian media largely fell down on this story, often generating coverage that uncritically reproduced the Liberal party line.
And judging from the reader mail I get, the Liberals’ decision to turn vaccine mandates into a wedge issue has had significant social consequences — tearing apart families, communities, and workplaces in ways that may take years to recover from.
All told, what we are witnessing is not merely a state of decline. It is a form of collapse. A collapse of the social contract. A collapse of the expectations we grew up with — that if you worked hard and respected the law, you could have a home, a family if you chose, and, crucially, a say in our democracy.
What we are living through is a collapse of life as we knew it in Canada.
What was once a stable, prosperous, diverse democracy is now a nation divided, rife with fear and anger, and financial and social instability.
Not only has our Prime Minister failed to grasp this, but he’s actively stoked tensions.
As a result, a backlash is now well and truly underway. The Conservative party has had a flood of new members, and Pierre Poilievre won the leadership in a landslide.
The Liberal party and its supporters will likely throw every tired political trick they can think of at Poilievre. There will be ad hominem attacks galore. They will double down on the messaging that Poilievre is a right wing bigot, despite, as Rahim Mohamed recently pointed out at The Line, his having one of the most diverse and modern families in Canadian political history.
What I suspect the Liberals won’t do is address the very real policy concerns held by Poilievre’s growing constituency.
One thing is certain: If the Liberal elites continue on this path of willful blindness, they pave the way for Poilievre’s victory.
If you’re interested in this topic, you might enjoy my interview with McGill public policy professor Andrew Potter on his recent book, On Decline. You can listen to that episode of the Lean Out podcast here.
A note to readers: Today’s essay introduces the talented artist LEV as a contributor to Lean Out. We’re thrilled to feature LEV’s illustrations here.
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