In his 1965 classic book Lament for a Nation, philosopher George Grant mourned the death of Canada as a sovereign state. With the hindsight of 41 years, it might seem that Grant was hasty in his judgment. Canada, after all, is still alive and kicking. Our athletes even won 24 medals at the Winter Olympics, Canada's highest total ever!
What Grant saw, however, was the withering away of the notion that, north of the 49th parallel, we could build a society that cherished the common good as more important than individualism, that social order was more important than liberty.
He saw the Canadian ideal blown away in the 1963 federal election in which Lester Pearson's Liberals defeated John Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives. But more than any passing election result, Grant believed there was an inevitability to the eclipse of an ethic of tradition and social order in a world which makes technology and efficiency its gods.
Technology has no ethics, he argued, and that made the very idea of Canada redundant. "Where modern science has achieved its mastery, there is no place for local cultures."
The capitalist system, so dependent on individualism and technological progress, made national boundaries "only matters of political formality." All cultures are being dissolved into a homogenized Pablum.
"Perhaps we should rejoice in the disappearance of Canada," Grant wrote sarcastically. "We leave the narrow provincialism and our backwoods culture; we enter the excitement of the United States where all the great things are being done."
To read this section of The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is to come face to face with Grant's lament under a new cover. The Compendium says globalization offers both "new hopes" and "troubling questions." But it is the troubling questions that take centre stage.
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Our new economy is constantly evolving and as a society, we must create a new social order.
International trade, the Compendium says, will promote development – "if properly oriented." That proper orientation must be rooted in ethics. As it looks around, the Compendium sees increasing inequalities, both within nations and among the nations of the world.
Countries excluded from the new financial markets do not receive any benefits, "but are still exposed to the eventual negative consequences that financial instability can cause for their real economic systems" (n. 369).
Pressured by international markets, "the traditional defensive measures of states appear to be destined to fail" (n. 370). Nation states are gradually losing their effectiveness, their reason for being. Meanwhile, the international community is hesitant to respect human rights.
Economic globalization and technological progress are strengthening each other, "making the whole process of this present phase of transition extremely rapid" (n. 362).
Like Grant, the Compendium is not only concerned with economic imbalances, but also with the loss of culture in this brave new world. "Local features and cultural differences" are threatened by an international economy without ethics, "that has only itself as a point of reference." Among the threatened cultural differences are people's religious beliefs and practices. To the poor, those religious beliefs are among "what remains most precious to them." Wealthy nations, on the other hand, suffer from "existential confusion."
"A sense of alienation and loss of their own humanity has made people feel reduced to the role of cogs in the machinery of production and consumption," the Compendium says, quoting a 1991 audience talk by Pope John Paul II (n. 374).
Once production and consumption become society's only value, as they threaten to become, the entire socio-cultural system is weakened.
But unlike Grant, the Compendium offers a glimmer of hope. That hope comes if politics can - just like economics - "extend its range of action beyond national boundaries" (n. 372). The expression of morality through some form of international governance may balance off the relentless drive for power and profits and protect human dignity.
More than pinning its hopes on world government, however, the Compendium also urges "organizations of civil society" to assume new tasks on a worldwide level. Ultimately, we must look to "globalization in solidarity" in order to redistribute wealth and fairly share the benefits of economic globalization.
Is there hope for Canada or any national culture in the face of globalization? Is it realistic to expect a worldwide redistribution of wealth? Can tradition and social order be reborn as guiding principles for society? The answers to these questions are beyond the scope of the Compendium.
What we can say with assurance is that the world is changing and will continue to change rapidly. Local cultures of the future will not be those of even the recent past. Our choice is between going with the flow or taking actions that can preserve and nurture human dignity. We can let individualism rule or we can build new bonds of solidarity.