George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) is one of the most important Canadian thinkers. His various works are worthy of close study, for persons interested in political philosophy; in Canadian history, politics and culture; and in the philosophical critique of technology and late modernity.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the appearance of George Grant’s last major book, Technology and Justice. This was the coda to his three main earlier books, English-Speaking Justice (1974), Technology and Empire (1969), and Lament for a Nation (1965) (his best-known work). Grant pessimistically argues in Lament for a Nation that the defeat of Canadian Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker in the 1963 election, by the Liberal party led by Lester B. Pearson, represented Canada’s final integration into the American technological empire.
Diefenbaker had refused to accept U.S. nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, with the result that virtually all of the media instrumentalities and pollster expertise of the North American managerial capitalist classes were turned against him in the ensuing election of 1963. Grant’s book was a sorrowful lament for what he saw as the end of Canadian independence.
Indeed, George Grant embraces outlooks that, in today’s ever-narrowing spectrum of discourse, appear to be contradictory. As a conservative, Grant supported the Tory party and valourized the British roots of Canada. As a Canadian nationalist, Grant found much to admire about the Canadian left, and enunciated a nuanced criticism of America and capitalism that is far more subtle than that usually found on the left. As a Christian, Grant upheld traditional morality and wrote frequently against abortion – which he saw as evil, seeing it as the triumph of a Nietzschean-like exercise of radical will that would have terrible, dystopic consequences for the notion of human dignity.
He also considered that the only possible basis for maintaining the notion of human equality in the future – rather than giving ourselves over to maximizing our own pleasure and power – is the notion that all humans are seen as equal before God. Finally, as a political philosopher, Grant endeavoured to maintain the integrity of philosophy as a discipline that is permitted to continue to ask and give answers to great ethical and moral questions. In this, he struggled against such trends in philosophy itself as logical positivism and postmodernism, and in political science, of statistical and mechanical approaches such as those seen in administrative, managerial and international relations theory.
Grant could be called the leading “Red Tory patriot of English Canada” – using the term “Red Tory” in its best sense. (Of course, that term can also be applied to some of the worst tendencies in Canadian politics.)
Although Grant was very critical of America, there is much in his thought that could appeal to social traditionalists and conservatives in both America and elsewhere, as well as to various other tendencies, such as ecology and old-fashioned social democracy.
Some of Grant’s central themes include a profound critique of the social, cultural and ecological impacts of technology; a confident patriotism (it is only “by loving our own” that we can come to any further apprehension of a more universal good); a subtle defence of Christianity, seen as one of the last barriers against a technological dystopia; and a genuine compassion for human suffering and the negative effects of war, expressed especially through his reflective pacifism.
Grant’s example is also instructive as to how genuine traditionalists can appeal to the better elements of left-wing thought and the left. Grant remained strongly rooted in Canada for all of his life, offering a traditionalist version of Canadian nationalism, a tendency usually identified in Canada with the left. This clearly speaks to the idea of “loving your own.”
He also affords a concrete example of how the good man can live a principled life in the increasingly evil “city” of our late modern times – retaining a great deal of good humour and at least some optimism. Grant powerfully criticizes the multifarious, deconstructive, social and cultural impacts of technology and late capitalism from a Christian and conservative perspective, while avoiding the dangerous path of irrationalism along which, among others, Nietzsche and Heidegger had trod.
Grant had certainly found it easier to make an outreach to the left in an earlier period. It may be noticed that there has been, over the last few decades, the ever-intensifying transformation to a “post-Marxist” left focused on multiculturalism, “alternative lifestyles” and consumerist capitalism – which is far more anti-traditionalist than the Old Left ever was. While ferociously fighting for social justice for the working majority, a party such as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in Canada was mostly socially conservative, viewing traditional nation, family and religion as simply a prepolitical part of human existence, which it had no desire to challenge.
Current-day conventional politics in Canada – which is trapped in a narrow debate between a soulless, managerial, economic right and an antinomian, socially-deconstructive left, does not offer much hope for a re-instantiation of Grant’s communitarian philosophy.
In a few short passages in his best-known book, Lament for a Nation, Grant had correctly predicted that Canada was more menaced by American ideology than Poland by the Soviet Union. He had also identified the problematic situation of ethnic cultures in Canada, such as various Slavic groups, which were also doomed by relentless Americanization.
Some commentators see America today as “the Right Nation” – a bastion of Christianity – whereas Canada is seen as a country of irreligion. Grant would argue along the lines that America’s Christianity is superficial and that America has, generally-speaking, been “the world citadel of capitalism” (to use Marx’s term), which is in Grant’s view the fulcrum for the destruction of traditional societies everywhere on the planet. Western Europe’s, and Canada’s, irreligion today ultimately originates from America, Grant would argue.
It can be seen that Grant’s pessimistic outlook for the future is being ever-increasingly realized in many parts of the globe. At the same time, there are obviously the more positive (John Paul II) or the more negative (Osama bin Laden) types of resistance to it.
Grant’s main thesis is that the end result of technological corporate and therapeutic liberalism will be an ideationally homogenous, universal, hypertechnological, hypermodern world-state in which all sense of humanity and human ethicality will be lost. It would be a world perhaps similar to that of Aldous Huxley’s antiseptic, gleaming Brave New World – or to the “gritty” dystopias hypothesized in Ridley Scott’s haunting, dark-future movie Blade Runner, Antony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and generally in the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction.
Nevertheless, Grant’s profound belief in God ultimately gives him a sort of optimism. Because of this belief in an ultimate, unchanging standard of justice, he could say that, whatever horrors technological society has waiting for us, and however hopeless the situation appears: “At all times and in all places, it always matters what we do.” For him, the imperative to act morally remains very real. The nightmare age, according to Grant, does not lie in medieval Europe or in the period of the British Empire – the real nightmare age is now. However, he certainly never gave up his fight for Canada, which suggests a streak of optimism amidst all the gloom.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto author and historical researcher.