Are you going to eat that last mozzarella cheese fry? It’s a valid question that graces the countenance of many an appy-platter participant. More dour, if not doughy, is a query that accompanies many a neophyte university student – what are you going to do with that? One response to this rejoinder would be to quote the famed sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf who claimed that “As the court-jesters of modern society, all intellectuals have the duty to doubt everything that is obvious, to make relative all authority, to ask all those questions that no one else dares to ask.”
With a pronounced horse-wink, given to others in the know who might note our lack of facility with prevailing pop culture trends, we thus can apply our fertile AU minds to even the noblest of current event debates. Then again, maybe not. History is on our side in the latter sense. A half century ago a group of Quebec thinkers decided to provide levity to the urgent and insistent demands of separatists: founding the Rhinoceros Party, they jokingly suggested preposterous political platform ideas as a means of countering the seriousness of the times. After all, if you can make people laugh you will open them up to further thoughts. Here’s an excerpt from the original Rhino manifesto:
“Repealing the law of gravity; Providing higher education by building taller schools; Making Montreal the Venice of North America by damming the St. Lawrence River; Abolishing the environment because it’s too hard to keep clean, and it takes up so much space; Selling the Canadian Senate at an antique auction in California; Declaring war on Belgium because a Belgian cartoon character, Tintin, killed a rhinoceros in one of the cartoons; Banning guns and butter, since both kill; Making the Trans-Canada Highway one way only; and last, but not least: Changing Canada’s currency to bubble gum, so it could be inflated or deflated at will.”
Reminding voters to keep their conscience clean by avoiding the pomp and seriousness of political animals, including activists whose brazen zealotry often masks a breathtaking sense of moral superiority (known to everyone in their midst, especially their spouses), was the common currency of the Rhino Party (who technically still exist to this day). But Dahrendorf, who followed up his 1963 suggestion that we thinkers think more like court jesters than studious buffoons, did have a career looking at the trying troubles of globalization as it effects citizens in a democracy.
His research into conflict took a new tack when dealing with market-based societies. And today, where the rubber of reality hits the road of public policy, there’s more than just squeaky tires and broken records of repeated broken promises that lead to conflict in Canada: underlying our times is a conflict between globalization’s pretense to progress and the hard facts that you can’t get a free lunch (or cheap Christmas shopping) from tyrannical foreign regimes without sweatshop conditions entering private pocketbooks. Dahrendorf saw all this coming and wrote about it in the 1990s – before Wal Mart graced many small towns in Canada with its presence.
Core to Dahrendorf’s thought was the belief that “unlike statist and autocratic forms of governance, liberal societies prevent conflicts from being bottled up. Instead, social and economic tensions become creative elements that allow societies to move forward.” Just as a food fight can relieve tension when no one really enjoys the dinner on offer, conflict can ameliorate growing discontent within a culture tired of lockdowns, bozo ex-Presidents next door, political-correctness, or a panoply of other concerns. Just as a conflict over a final cheese fry is emblematic of beliefs about a limited good within a seeming endless supply of productive potential, Dahrendorf in 1995 “argued that growing and globalizing economies would create ‘perverse choices’ for liberal democracies, which became known as the Dahrendorf Quandary: over time, staying economically competitive required either adopting measures detrimental to the cohesion of civil society or restricting civil liberties and political participation.” Any time we fuel our cars or buy groceries we’re faced in 2023 with the irony that amidst global plenty (for we in the developed world, that is) comes a depletion of accessibility due to high prices. Instead of passing the savings on to us, transnational companies tend to squirrel away the profits for themselves—like real squirrels raiding our wintertime bird feeder. As life gets pricier, the quandary is that the old tales of progress through free markets start to unravel and seem increasingly like an old Mother Goose story – only we’re the ones left chasing a golden egg long since boiled and devoured by the economic masters of the universe. As older folks will remind us, a hamburger really did once cost a nickel, and that price has risen far higher than the rate of inflation.
For Dahrendorf, providing access to free markets all over the planet is less about universal benefits and more about fulfilling a ruling class promise to its primary benefactors who control the levers of economic power. To be such a forthright court jester he needed the right resume – surviving the NAZIs and being appointed to the circus known as the UK House of Lords (akin to our Senate) gave Dahrendorf an open field to address reality and tell the emperors that their monetary policy was as nude as a naked mole rat. For instance, while in a bygone century temporary foreign workers were used in domestic service (think: Downton Abbey) these international workers today serve large corporations by working at Tim Hortons drivethroughs. And we all are left to do our own dishes! Kinda funny and unfunny at once, right – and what about the worker’s rights? A commentator nicely summarizes this process whereby citizens are immiserated by the very processes that theoretically enable prosperity: “While neomercantilist economic policies may strengthen the nation-state, even democracy, they may also ultimately lessen economic growth and competitiveness. By contrast, while open economies may benefit some parts of the population, usually those with higher socioeconomic status, they may at the same time undercut the prosperity of others, even entire regions, weakening social cohesion and commitment to liberal democracy, even though the gross domestic product increases.”
Answering the question of what we’ll do with that ethereal future slice of paper, a degree or diploma, that theoretically opens up mansions of opportunity for one’s future self and loved ones, allows us to describe life as a learner and how it applies to our whole existence. And then we can apply the court-jester approach: with taste and with a laugh we might suggest that instead of quibbling or bartering over who gets the last savoury treat amidst diminishing numbers we could perhaps simply make some more cheese fries and remember that we’re all students of life—with no end in sight!