December 4, 2023 - 11:45am

Canadian leader Justin Trudeau recently launched a new suicide hotline. Internet jokers wondered whether its aim is to dissuade or to find new takers for Canada’s notoriously liberal state-supported euthanasia programme. Surely it is paradoxical for the same government to offer both pro and anti-suicide services? 

But what if this isn’t a paradox? Then it becomes clear that, for Canada, the meaning of death is now less a moral question than a bureaucratic one. This in turn offers insight into the trajectory and ambitions of the post-democratic, managerialist politics of which Canada is a leading exponent, and which is now spreading throughout the liberal West.

It should come as no surprise that the legalisation of euthanasia in Canada arrived via extra-democratic means. In 2015 Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting physician-assisted suicide contravened the country’s founding managerialist charter, the 1982 Canadian Charter on Rights and Freedoms, and gave the government a year to draft legislation. 

Passed in 2016 and titled Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD), the resulting law legalised euthanasia, initially restricted to cases with a “reasonable foreseeability of natural death”, which is to say to those already terminally ill. It didn’t take long for this to expand, though, again via extra-democratic courts in 2019. Since being broadened, the eligibility criteria have since given rise to well-publicised cases suggesting that assisted suicide is increasingly a cheap substitute for Canadian state welfare, for example making up shortfalls on disability support, veterans’ support or even suicidal ideation or threats

On the face of it, then, there is a dark irony to the same nation launching a service whose aim — we have to assume — is trying to persuade Canadians to stay alive, all while another department is busily bumping them off. But this is less paradoxical when one realises that the key innovation of MAiD is the ongoing colonisation by management of terrain once understood as the domain of morality.

In Canada’s Christian-heritage past, suicide was forbidden. In the country’s now firmly post-Christian present, no such restrictions apply. Instead, as emphasised in the initial ruling that legalised MAiD, the governing heuristic is “autonomy”. Thus the managerial, court-mandated push to legislate in a field so profoundly moral as the end of life metastasised into an elaborate architecture for the state regulation of despair. No longer a sin, despair is now only forbidden to the extent that it has not been regulated, tabulated and conducted in the designated locations and according to the proper procedures. 

This in turn correlates with a broader trend in which Canada has been a pioneer: the expansion of administration into the field of personhood. The ontology of physiological sex, and of “identity” more broadly, has long been annexed by Canadian bureaucrats as an administrative competency. In one recent case, a father was sent to prison for refusing to comply with Canadian administrative truth over material falsehood where his daughter’s sex was concerned. Similarly, when Trudeau ended Covid-era trucker protests by freezing truckers’ bank accounts, this revealed that the capacity to spend money may now be revoked for non-compliance with other regulatory requirements. 

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed in The Transparency of Evil that the point at which something is designated a “human right” is the point at which it enters the regime of scarcity. The extension of Canadian administration to humanity, dignity, and autonomy reveals him to have been prescient: the subordination of these qualities to the domain of technical management affords the managers the power not only to grant these goods, but also to revoke them. 

Thus are revealed the emerging contours of the real post-liberal order: not, as some theorists had hoped, a re-instantiation of Christian morals within public life, but instead the wholesale displacement of a moral order by the impersonal one of management. Embodiment, personhood, citizenship, even life itself: under actually existing post-liberalism, all of these are now in the process of being re-invented as subscriptions. And under this regime of “citizenship as a service”, the administrative bestowal of “rights” is also, implicitly, the power to take those things away again.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.