Primary Concerns, Democracy, and Conservative Ideology


The Hour: Stephen Harper and U.S. style media control

Bob Denham`s article on Frye and Kierkegaard, recently published in our journal, shows the importance in Frye’s later work of the Danish philosopher’s emphasis, among other things, on concern. Frye first develops the idea in terms of the tension or dialectic between freedom and the myth of concern, as most fully worked out in The Critical Path. There it is argued that the imagery of literature is ultimately the language of concern. This insight becomes the basis of his later formulation of primary concerns in Words with Power, where he makes the distinction between primary human concerns and secondary or ideological ones. One of the books of Frye`s now famous Ogdoad (famous at least among amateurs of Frye) is entitled Liberal, and it strikes me that this indicates another source of Frye`s concept of concern, and in particular his formulation of the distinction between primary and secondary concerns.

It would be of great interest to examine this idea of primary concerns as a genuine contribution to socio-political thought, specifically liberal and social democratic thought. Certainly there have been essays touching on the liberal humanism of Frye`s critical position, or what I would prefer to call his critical “vision.” It is often a stance he has been attacked for. More sympathetically, Graham Good, for example, has a particularly discerning article on the subject. Years ago I presented at a conference a very preliminary stab at such an examination, but I have not had the opportunity yet to follow it up. Involved in such a study would have to be a comparison, ultimately, of Frye`s concept of primary concerns with such theories as John Rawl’s idea of basic goods, and even more with Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s idea of basic human capabilities. These ideas are a different way of talking about human rights and are very close to Frye`s primary concerns, focusing as they do on those universal human needs and wishes that can be regarded as essential to the dignity and fulfillment of every human individual. It is worth emphasizing that it is this kind of thinking in the liberal and social democratic tradition that has given us, among other things: universal health care (now severely threatened); legal access to abortion; gay marriage; serious efforts to ensure gender equality and protect minority rights; a less punitive system of law and order aimed at restoring the incarcerated to reentering and contributing to society; a more welcoming policy to refugees fleeing persecution or unimaginable hardship in their own countries. The list could go on.

These great benefits have derived from an often invisible or inarticulate social norm, not in the normative sense, but as an ideal the departure from which makes irony and the grotesque ironic and grotesque. This ideal is “the vision of a more sensible society,” of a world that actually makes human sense. Such a vision works outside literature among individuals in their daily lives and workplaces, giving meaning to their work and actions beyond any need for a pay-cheque. As Frye writes: “one can hardly imagine, say, doctors or social workers unmotivated by some vision of a healthier or freer society than the one they see around them.” The same could be said of any member of society who contributes in a meaningful way, who has, in other words, a social function, this being, as Frye views it, the real significance of the democratic ideal of equality. In a true democracy, everyone is potentially a member of an elite, and no-one`s social function is more worthy of respect than another’s.

This idea of a social vision, ultimately the vision of a world of fulfilled primary concerns, is particularly useful in defining the issues we face in the current Canadian election campaigns. Any genuine social vision of a healthier or freer society is precisely what the program of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are devoid of. It is telling that Harper almost always speaks of the economy, never of society. It is as if it doesn’t even occur to him. Contrary, however, to the famous tag-line, it’s not the economy, stupid: it’s society.

Frye`s primary concerns — food, water, and air, shelter, sex and love, freedom, and those things that a person (and not a corporation) has the right to call his or her own — are based on the individual. This is because only individuals have feelings, desires, hopes and fears; only individuals suffer from hunger and disease and the humiliation and sense of hopelessness that comes with the loss of dignity when one has no social function. This is why it is so appalling to think that in the United States of America, that bastion of liberal democracy, the Supreme Court has decreed that corporations now have rights that pertain to individuals. How can a corporation be conceived of as having rights in this sense, or in any sense that makes sense. Does a corporation have affections or passions; is it subject to disease; if you strike it does it feel pain; if you prick it, does it bleed? There is something grotesque and scandalous about the idea. Unfortunately this is where we seem to be heading in this country as well. We will head there all the more rapidly if the Conservatives continue their rule, and there seems little doubt that it is rule and not democratic government that they have in mind.

Thinking about this, as we head into the last stretch of the election campaign, I recalled that passage in Words with Power where Frye succinctly summarizes the message that sooner or later becomes the dominant one of any ideology. Any party, of whatever political stripe, when it is in power tends to speak this way at one time or another. History is the story in part of how our primary concerns are inevitably deferred and sacrificed to secondary or ideological ones. But here we have, depressingly, a governing party that looks to such a mantra as the central tenet of its platform. As Frye puts it:

An ideology usually conveys something of this kind: your social order is not always the way you would have it, but it is the best you can hope for at present, as well as the one the gods have decreed for you. Obey and work.

The sentence that immediately follows in the same passage from Words with Power equally suggests what we may be confronting in the future, what we are already confronting right now. It was Frye’s belief that all ideologies ultimately turn demonic, and this is why anything that allows us to move away from ideology and party politics, left or right, is probably healthy and sane. Parliamentary democracy is based on the principle that one’s opposition is an adversary, but a loyal adversary, not an enemy. If you are in power, the opposition is there to provide balance, to keep you honest, to make you answer and not evade, to question you so that you question yourself, to force you to struggle with your own conception of how best to decide on and implement policy, to push you to include voices and concerns you would not, out of prejudice, normally include. But Stephen Harper seems to hate his loyal opposition in an almost visceral way: he treats them with contempt and regards them as evil. Here is the sentence that follows the one quoted above from Words with Power.

Persecution and intolerance result from an ideology`s determination, as expressed through its priesthood, or whatever corresponds to a priesthood, backed up by its ascendant class in general, to make its mythological canon the only possible one to commit to, all others being denounced as heretical, morbid, unreal or evil.

The ascendant class here is, clearly, the current plutocracy and managerial and professional class in charge of of corporate capitalism. The corresponding determination to make the ideology of that class, by foul means more than fair, the only possible one to commit to, is more than evident in the message we have been hearing from Stephen Harper.

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5 thoughts on “Primary Concerns, Democracy, and Conservative Ideology

  1. Bob Denham

    Terrific op-ed piece. As I read it I kept thinking of Frye’s warning that primary concerns had better become primary, or else.

  2. Veronica Abbass

    Thanks for another great article and analysis of the present government and its leader.

    Sam Harris’ latest book The Moral Landscape echoes Frye. Harris’ “book proposes that there can be a science of morality, one engaged in discovering which actions best promote “well-being”, which Harris sees as the true object of morality.”

    Harris’ definition of “well-being” is similar to “Frye`s primary concerns — food, water, and air, shelter, sex and love, freedom, and those things that a person (and not a corporation) has the right to call his or her own — are based on the individual.”

  3. Veronica Abbass

    See “Stephen Harper: nasty, brutish – and competent” at
    where Patrick Brethour says,

    “What is surprising . . . are the gains that Mr. Harper has made on trust and, of all things, his vision for Canada.”

    It is scary that voters may believe that Stephen Harper has a vision for Canada that shows concern for Canadians’ “primary concerns” and “well-being.”

  4. Joe Adamson

    Thanks for your comments, Bob and Veronica. And thanks, Veronica, for the tip about The Moral Landscape.

    Brethour is rightly puzzled at the trust and faith so many have in Harper. It is hard to know what egregious crimes Harper would have to commit for his poll numbers to drop even slightly. It boggles the mind.

  5. Michael Happy

    Here’s some lukewarm comfort, Joe: Harper’s poll numbers are down nationally 2 – 4 percent (depending on which poll you read). And this is at the time he ought to have received a bounce after the debates. This means there’s still a substantial swing out there that could continue to swing the last two weeks of the campaign. We are, in any event, now back comfortably into minority government territory, with the opposition parties representing over 60% of the electorate. It’s a dead heat in Ontario. And the Conservatives are completely finished in Quebec, in dead last place (no surprise there), while the NDP in Quebec are a strong second place (big surpise there).


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