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Of Trojan horses and crystal balls

Albertans prepare to take control of the future

These are some of the signposts on the road that Alberta must travel over the next few years. The road has several turnoffs. Which will Albertans choose? Trevor Harrison The Return of the Trojan Horse (2005) The future makes fools of us all. Or rather our attempts to predict the future invariably invite mockery. Either they are too vague to be of any real value (e.g. the nebulous warnings of 16th century physician Nostradamus the daily insights of newspaper horoscopes) too distant to be of any real interest (e.g. the inevitable death of the Sun some 5 billion years from today) or else so specific and subject to contingency that failure is almost certain (e.g. your chances of winning next week’s Lotto 6/49). Yet a predilection for prediction is probably hard-wired into the human condition. “There is no nation whatever” wrote Cicero more than 2000 years ago “which does not believe it possible that future events may be indicated and understood and predicted by certain persons.” And it’s easy to see why for we do not contrary to common belief really live in the present but rather in the future. The present — that impossibly fleeting moment which separates what has gone before from what has yet to occur — has no real existence at all. Once your senses have alerted you to some action sensation or emotion in the present it has already been dispatched to the dustbin of your memory. Rather our lives only gain meaning through the anticipation and realization of future experiences. Or as the poet Rilke wrote “The future enters into us in order to transform itself long before it happens.” In turn predictions of the future are really an attempt to fashion some control of our fate if only by warning others of the potential dangers that lie ahead. This concern has fuelled the tradition of utopian and dystopian literature stretching all the way back to Plato’s Republic a genre in which authors project into the future either their idealistic or nightmare visions of society. Common to the works of Francis Bacon Jonathan Swift Aldous Huxley George Orwell and Ray Bradbury among others is the plea that the future should not resemble the present. Twelve years ago University of Alberta sociologists Trevor Harrison and Gordon Laxer produced The Trojan Horse a collection of 21 essays that considered the impact of the then unfolding “Klein Revolution” and the dangers it posed to “a sovereign and democratic Canada.” In particular the book exposed the “myth” of Alberta’s debt that provided the raison d’être for deep and brutal cuts in government spending the rise of a new moral conservatism that denied any responsibility for the disadvantaged and the reasons for the absence of any effective opposition to the new regime. As such The Trojan Horse drew on the past to explain the present but the authors’ real intent was to alter the future or at least to direct it along an alternative path. (Significantly its subtitle was Alberta and the Future of Canada.) “Alberta needs a new social contract one that builds a spirit of community based on a sharing of economic opportunities for all” wrote Harrison and Laxer. “Democracy… is sustained only through the vigilance critical thinking and participation of ordinary citizens.” It was a bold book with each contribution providing a sharp critique of Klein’s policies. Harrison subsequently claimed it was “an instant success in Alberta and elsewhere” which had been adopted “as a textbook in university classrooms across Alberta.” Many of its predictions turned out to be correct Harrison later noted. “We warned against excessive faith in markets and privatization (and) issued a warning against authoritarian and undemocratic practices that were used to bring in those policies.” Yet if The Trojan Horse had accurately interpreted and predicted the shape of Alberta’s future it did little to change it. Klein went on to win three more elections even as the authors’ fears were borne out. Even Harrison conceded that the book hadn’t “dramatically transformed Alberta’s political landscape.” Thus it was that in 2005 10 years on from the original volume Harrison marshalled a new group of writers to explain the enduring popularity of Klein to re-evaluate the nature and impact of the “Klein Revolution” and once more to suggest an alternative vision of the future. Acknowledging that “Alberta and the world have changed a great deal since 1995” The Return of the Trojan Horse set provincial developments within the context of an “American Empire made manifest and… growing global disorder.” One result is that less focus is placed on Klein himself and more on the challenges left by his legacy. The Klein years are quickly moving behind us” Harrison writes in the introduction. “Ultimately what happens to either him or the Conservative party is unimportant. The future of Alberta and Canada is a different matter.” Klein is now gone of course a departure symbolized by the loss of his former Calgary riding to the Liberals last month. Yet recent opinion polls suggest that the Conservatives remain firmly ahead of their political rivals and would certainly win an election held in the near future. What hope is there that Alberta’s one-party rule might after nearly four decades finally come to end? In sociologist Dennis Soron’s essay on the “politics of de-politicization” in The Return of the Trojan Horse he outlines the scope of the challenge ahead. In language that Marx would appreciate he concludes that “challenging the current malaise of Alberta democracy” will require that “ordinary people… express their grievances in more constructive political ways develop their capacities as citizens and become subjects rather than objects of historical change.” It’s up to Albertans then to change their world. The philosophers and other writers have done their part in interpreting events. It remains to be seen whether all their efforts in restating the problems have improved the odds of making a different kind of future.