In this paper I argue that socialists in Canada will remain both ineffectual and morally compromised until we break decisively with all established political formations, notably the New Democratic Party. In Part 1 I review the historical developments that have transformed the electoral sphere in almost all countries, including Canada, into yet another mechanism of capitalist hegemony. In Part 2 I discuss certain progressive polities in Latin America that constitute an exception to this pattern. Drawing on the example of these states, I propose an alternative approach to politics that has the potential to revitalize socialist struggle in Canada.
The mystifications of liberal democracy
The foundational myth of liberal democracy is that where suffrage is free and universal, the outcome of an election must provide an authentic expression of the will of the voters. On this view, if elected governments everywhere prove always to be at the service of capitalism then this must mean that ordinary people the world over favour right-wing policies.
Many left-leaning supporters of the New Democratic Party subscribe to some form of this basic premise of liberal democracy. Typically, however, they recognize that the issue is complicated by the massive propaganda resources disposed of by the corporate sector. This apparatus unremittingly immerses the public in a narrative that proclaims not simply the essential rightness of capital but that capital is rightly essential to modern life. In general, leftist partisans of the NDP understand that this barrage systematically undermines the electorate's ability to make informed choices at the polls.
Under the influence of this outlook, a goodly number of progressive New Democrats conceive the real essence of their political work as finding ways to change the minds of electors so that they become disposed to vote for the NDP. To be sure, most of these left-leaning New Democrats are also aware that the NDP, as it stands, does not represent a particularly progressive choice -- so, in addition to wooing electors, these left-wing New Democrats also see their mission as requiring them to bring about a sinistral shift within the party through lobbying and debate.
While the impact of corporate special pleading on perceptions of capitalism should not be underestimated (notably in its effects on those occupying adjuvant positions of power within society), this does not get to the heart of the matter. The really fundamental problem is not that the public is being misled into supporting the wrong policies or parties -- though this certainly happens -- but that the system is structured in such a way as to preclude the very possibility of authentically progressive politics. The issue is not so much that voters are making bad choices as that no good choices are available to them. What is more, this lack of choice is not accidental; that is to say, the situation cannot be remedied simply by putting forward different candidates or by reforming the NDP or even by founding a new and avowedly progressive party. The point is that electoral politics are now structured in such a way as to systematically preclude the possibility of a good choice.
To the extent that left-leaning NDP partisans acknowledge this reality they typically respond by pointing to their efforts to reform the party. Yet this is but another expression of the same liberal fallacy that, under conditions of informed and uncoerced choice, any given outcome must be deemed to represent the preferences of those making the decisions. What this convenient myth ignores is the myriad ways in which institutions limit and constrain the alternatives on offer. In the present case the internal make-up, procedures and culture of the NDP strongly determine the type of person who can rise to leadership positions within the organization and such people will not, in general, be receptive to progressive ideas (never mind radical ones). More importantly, as explained below, a host of exogenous factors place insuperable limits on the party's effective range of policy options. Before discussing these constraints, however, it is important to consider the historical developments that gave rise to them.
Too much democracy
The present state of affairs is the culmination of the capitalist reaction to the gains achieved by the working classes during the Fordist era (roughly, 1945-75), a period characterized by the tacit settlement or compromise between capital and labour. Following the Second World War the leading capitalist countries adopted Keynesian economics and state provision of welfare benefits as preemptive measures against potential revolutionary ferment amongst their working classes.
For the balance of this Fordist period politicians considered it necessary to take some account of the needs of ordinary citizens and not simply the wishes of the capitalist class. Mollified by high economic growth rates and wary of doing anything that might push workers towards socialism, the corporate sector initially acquiesced in these arrangements. In the 1960s, however, as labour and the new social movements became increasingly assertive, various magnates in the United States decided that something had to be done about what the Trilateral Commission later summed up as an "excess of democracy."
Plutocrats began to pour huge sums of money into right-wing think tanks with a view to persuading policy-makers that regulations on business should be loosened and restrictions on workers tightened. As a result, when the stagflation of the 1970s put Keynesianism under a cloud, these think tanks had to hand the intellectual armamentarium needed to drive their upstart rival from the field and restore the doctrine of laissez-faire to its rightful place at the heart of economic policy, where it has remained ever since.
For a considerable period after the initial neoliberal turn of the late 1970s, politicians still considered it prudent to pay lip service to such goals as full employment and a strong public service sector. All the same, somehow it was never quite the right time to actively pursue these objectives: inflation or the deficit dragon always had to be dealt with first. Then, in the early 1990s, the "actually existing socialism" of the Soviet bloc collapsed and Francis Fukuyama famously announced the End of History. That is to say, Fukuyama declared that the outcome of the Cold War had shown that socialism was doomed to fail and, concomitantly, had demonstrated that capitalism is the highest form of social organization to which humanity can aspire.
Almost overnight, any position to the left of the most right-wing form of social democracy was reduced to an intellectual laughing-stock amongst the planet's chattering classes. Politicians were not slow in recognizing the implications of this epochal change. With the spectre of socialism exorcised once and for all, elected officials could safely ignore the working class and get back to their natural role: serving the dictates of capital. As a measure of the new zeitgeist, before the turn of the millennium Canada's Liberal Finance Minister (later Prime Minister) Paul Martin already felt secure enough to make a boast of how he had reduced government spending to a level not seen since the 1950s.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States served to shift the entire spectrum of political discourse still further to the right. Revealingly, even though George W. Bush's bellicose response to 9/11 served to mobilize global popular opinion against the repressive actions of the United States, this ultimately changed nothing. An unprecedented number of people rallied worldwide in a bid to stop the US invading Iraq in 2003 -- but the assault went ahead regardless. At the time, certain political leaders found it expedient to publicly distance themselves from Bush but in private they made it clear that they supported the US. For example, Canada's Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien expressly declined to join Bush's "coalition of the willing"; but behind the scenes Canada served as the third or fourth largest contributor to Bush's war effort.
Pressure groups that don't matter
A decade later and Canadian politicians of whatever stripe no longer find it necessary to dissemble their support for US imperialism any more than they feel the need to pretend that they have the slightest intention of inhibiting capital's economic and ecological depredations. After all, why would they? These policies are enjoined on them by big business, which bankrolls election campaigns and employs legions of lobbyists to promote its interests. As well, virtually all elite sources of opinion -- the bulk of the mainstream media, most of the academy, the greater part of the civil service itself -- are captive to the same ideas.
Any aspirant to high office who dared depart from this received wisdom would be condemned across the board as a dangerous fool and would never receive the nomination of an established party. This principle holds for all of the major formations in Canada but it perhaps applies most strongly to the leadership of the New Democratic Party. For while the subservience to the interests of capital of the traditionally bourgeois formations is taken for granted, the New Democrats must constantly prove anew their "credibility" on this score.
An interesting case in point was the 2013 by-election in Toronto where the celebrated author Linda McQuaig, standing for the NDP, dared to suggest that the New Democrats were in favour of raising taxes on the rich. Much to the satisfaction of the country's political commentators, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair speedily weighed in to say that his star candidate was mistaken: the party had explicitly resolved not to do this.
Organized labour is the only institution of any significance that could serve as a counterweight to this massive pressure from the right. Yet the larger part of the trade union bureaucracy fully embraces capitalism and seeks only to secure a share for workers within the system. As for security and foreign policy issues, trade union leaders, where they do not stoop to outright jingoism, typically deem such matters to be outside their remit.
What makes it so difficult for the labour movement to contest the political influence of capital is not only that the latter has by far the deeper pockets, with all the advantages that accrue thereto. It is also that capital has a coherent world view while the trade unions do not, divided as they are between those who think capitalism is fine as it is, those who want to reform it, and a small minority who want to get rid of it.
An additional factor that makes the contest still more unequal is that while there is only one major party that has any tradition of supporting unions, capital can take its pick from several mainstream formations -- including organized labour's sole hope, the NDP. In consequence, the New Democrats dare not shift to the left for fear that capital, which has other options, would withdraw its favour. If the NDP moves right, however, the unions can only grin and bear it, since for them there is no other game in town.
As if all that isn't enough, capital's star is clearly in the ascendant while the labour movement's is declining: for NDP strategists, the former has the sleek allure of the future while the latter is seen as the dead weight of a bygone era. The upshot of all this is that NDP policy ineluctably becomes ever more regressive on whatsoever matters are of interest to capital.
The mechanics of oligopoly
Many left-wing voters deny this obvious reality and continue to believe, against all logic, that the NDP may yet return to its social democratic roots. On top of the various factors enumerated above what this fond hope overlooks is that the NDP, in common with established political formations the world over, now has but a single overriding objective -- and this goal is not, as the canons of psephology would lead us to expect, that of securing the maximum number of votes by hook or by crook.
This development is not an indication that today's politicians have become more scrupulous about their methods than were their forebears. Rather, it is that electoral victory has ceased to be an end in itself and instead has become only one possible means to attain the real prize: securing the favour of the power elite.
In the Fordist era, all politicians, even conservative ones, were apt to make populist promises during election campaigns (which, of course, they would then do their best to disavow if actually elected). To the immense satisfaction of the political establishment, neoliberalism has largely put an end to such practices. Under the current dispensation a party will lief go down to defeat at the polls by cleaving to unpopular policies that benefit only the rich sooner than advocate measures that would please ordinary citizens but incur the disapprobation of big business.
While this preference may seem odd at first it is actually entirely rational. Where liberal democracy has been in place for some time, and particularly where proportional representation is absent, established political parties stand in the same relation to the electoral system as do the major firms in a market under monopoly conditions (usually defined as a situation in which four or fewer firms together possess a market share of 50% or more in a given sector). In either instance the natural and logical way for the dominant players to protect their privileges is to agree (usually tacitly but sometimes explicitly) that they will refrain from vying with each other on precisely the basis that would constitute their most fundamental form of rivalry under conditions of free competition.
This is not to suggest that internal strife has been eliminated from either the corporate or the political sphere. Rivalries are often as fierce as they ever were and reversals of fortune still occur. What has changed in each of these sectors is simply that the traditional form of combat has been quietly set aside in recognition that the primary interest of all players must be to ensure that the game keeps going according to the existing set of rules.
In the case of the oligopolistic firms, it is price warfare that is banned. Under monopoly conditions the major companies will continue to jockey for market share through advertising campaigns and other means. However, the one stratagem they will almost certainly not deploy against one another is that which, from the earliest days, was considered the sine qua non of capitalist business practice; to wit: cutting prices. Oligopolistic firms seldom or never try to undersell one another because this might lead to a price war that could bring about the ruination of one or more of the competitors and that, at the very least, would be likely to result in lower profits all round.
Under monopoly conditions, the risks of competing on price will virtually always far outweigh the potential gains for any of the established players. Economic theory acknowledges this but blithely supposes that new entrants will disrupt the game. Of course, in the real world one sees just the opposite. Most new entrants are crushed before they get out of the starting gate but even if some upstart is able to obtain a piece of the action the equilibrium is quickly restored by the acquisition of the new entrant by an established firm.
An analogous mechanism is at work in contemporary politics. According to the textbooks, competition on the basis of price constitutes the very essence of the capitalist marketplace but in reality monopolistic conditions, with their contrary dynamics, are now much more salient. A similar disjunction can be observed in the political realm. "Bribing voters" with so-called tax and spend policies -- that is to say, enacting measures at least partly for the benefit of ordinary citizens rather than exclusively in the interest of corporations -- came to be seen as the stock in trade of liberal democracy during the Fordist era. However, under neoliberalism the logic of the cartel has come to dominate political parties in the same way as it has monopolistic markets. All the mainstream political formations have determined that they share a greater interest in maintaining the overall stability of the system than in changing their own particular place in the pecking order. Accordingly, they have sworn off "bribing voters" as a means of winning elections.
Taking a Hit for Team Capital
A striking recent case is that of Iceland. The country was hit exceptionally hard by the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing public outcry brought down the government and led to criminal charges against the former prime minister (something that happened nowhere else in the world). The Social Democratic Alliance and the Left Greens rode this wave of popular protest to victory in 2009, becoming the first left-wing government in Iceland's history. The coalition initially took a hard line against the depredations of financial capital, repudiating some of Iceland's foreign debt obligations and nationalizing the banks. In no time at all, however, it was back to business as usual. Once the banks had been recapitalized at public expense they were gifted to tycoons while harsh social spending cuts were imposed on the general population.
Going into the 2013 elections it was clear that there was massive opposition to government policies yet this did not lead the Social Democrats and Greens to change course. After the coalition was routed at the polls the former finance minister loftily remarked: "I was always cutting spending and increasing taxes. It was clear that this was not going to be popular, but I thought the people would understand it better."
The political landscape is littered with erstwhile heads of government who were driven from office for staying the course of neoliberal reform: people like Gerhard Schröder, Paul Martin, Gordon Brown -- and, of course, Nova Scotia's own Darrell Dexter. Not one of them -- or of the plethora of other leaders who have gone down the same path in recent decades -- attempted to salvage his political fortunes through the Fordist gambit of "bribing the voters." Just as in the business world, it makes far more sense for a politician to accept the reliable perquisites of being a complaisant runner-up than to gamble everything on the problematical chance of proving overall winner.
In resisting the lure of the traditional tactic of tax and spend these politicians were being neither hard-headed nor short-sighted. Their determination to stay the neoliberal course was not a matter of principled conviction that they had to do what they thought was right for their country, no matter the consequences for themselves. Neither were they simply blind to the punishment that the voters were bound to mete out to them for blatantly disregarding the interest of all but the wealthiest elements of society. Rather, they understood that by immolating themselves in the service of capital they would be richly rewarded with lucrative speaking engagements and consultancies and other such emoluments. By contrast, any chief minister that attempted to cling to power by introducing populist legislation would, once out of government, be forever a marginal and vilified figure.
In the unlikely event of a national leader being unmoved by such considerations, there are other reasons why none is likely to contemplate adopting progressive economic policies as a means of currying favour with the electorate. Notably, the threat of a capital strike is not idle: corporations are forever issuing threats to pick up and move if governments prove insufficiently supine and in the epoch of globalization they can do just that if their demands are not met. Attempting to score points with voters by tilting against corporations is bound to incur economic hardship as capitalists retaliate -- hardly the best way to win lasting favour with the electorate.
A party blessed with good luck might win one election by taking this approach. Thereafter, however, the weight of the entire political establishment would be brought to bear on the recusants with a view to obliterating them. As the results of the capital strike became increasingly dire this unified opposition would spell electoral obliteration for the renegade party. Perhaps a chief minister with an excessive attachment to power might be willing to play fast and loose with her party's political fortunes for the sake of one more term in office but she would find herself overruled or undermined by other senior figures in the party, mindful of their personal career prospects and of the party's future electability. The inevitability of such a palace coup serves to provide a strong corrective of its own to leaders who might otherwise be tempted to resort to tax and spend.
Barmecide electoral radicalism
While the cartel effect ensures that no ruling party will ever undertake an economic program for the benefit of ordinary citizens it is true that politicians aspiring to form government still occasionally promise to institute progressive policies as a tactic to win votes. This stratagem, however, is more or less exclusively confined to systems of proportional representation where the bar to new entrants is much lower than that imposed by the first-past-the-post formula used in Canada. Even in those polities where proportional representation makes it difficult for a small coterie of parties to maintain a perfect monopoly, politicians will restrict their populist rhetoric to periods of acute social crisis.
In times of great unrest the corporate sector will generally find it expedient to countenance a certain degree of heterodoxy for the purpose of diverting popular resentment into safe channels and away from more potent and effective forms of resistance. Naturally though this toleration hinges on a sub rosa understanding that, if elected, the politicians who inveigh against capitalism while on the stump will actually rule as reliable neoliberals. Two recent examples from Europe nicely illustrate the operations of this Barmecide radicalism.
Die Linke was established in 2007 as a notionally socialist breakaway from one of Germany's two main political parties, the Social Democrats. In last year's Bundestag elections Die Linke built its campaign around a commitment to a €10 minimum wage. When no party emerged with a majority and the jockeying to form a coalition government began, Die Linke straightaway announced that it would be happy to waive its €10 pledge if this would secure it a position in the ruling coalition (as it happens, Die Linke was rebuffed). Equally, Die Linke has always postured as anti-militarist but earlier this month members of the party voted in favour of deploying German troops abroad. As Germany's business press noted approvingly, this was a "real first in the history of the party."
SYRIZA, a newly-minted coalition of small, radical leftist parties, came close to forming government in Greece in 2012 based on its uncompromising stance against the retrenchments forced on the country by the European Union as conditions of debt relief. Though SYRIZA did not win in the end it is now widely considered to be the government in waiting. Yet despite having achieved its initial electoral breakthrough by taking a strong stand against so-called austerity, SYRIZA has recently become quite comfortable with the budget cuts mandated by the EU. Meanwhile the party's leader, Alex Tsipras, has busied himself meeting with officials from the United States government to assure them that he has no intention of doing anything that would upset the cambists.
Right-wing reaction against the establishment: the case of Europe
The prevalence of proportional representation has always made it difficult for political parties in Europe to establish the rigorous cartels that are endemic in countries that employ the first past the post method. As just discussed, this more labile institutional backdrop, along with the ongoing and acute social crisis throughout the region, has led to the emergence of new formations to the left of the traditional parties. For their part the elites were quick to recognize that, for all their radical posturing, these formations do not actually represent a challenge to the established order but instead help stabilize capitalist hegemony by canalizing dissent into harmless channels.
If the ruling class is liberal enough to tolerate an efflorescence of parties on the left it cannot be a surprise that capital has been at least equally accepting of the upsurge in new parties of the right. These recent arrivals tend to be one of two main types. The less common form largely accepts neoliberal orthodoxy but argues that mainstream political formations are too unimaginative, sclerotic and corrupt to be trusted with economic retrenchment. Parties of this sort place great stress on negative rights, such as freedom of speech, and take a liberal stand on lifestyle issues (e.g., legalization of marijuana and the promotion of energy conservation by individuals).
Formations of this type address themselves above all to the so-called "precariat"; i.e., young, well-educated people who have been trained for professional occupations but find it difficult to obtain suitable employment. To appeal to their youthful constituency these parties like to bill themselves as friends of innovation; in particular, they are always great aficionados of information technologies.
One of the most insidious features of these formations is that they dismiss any talk of class conflict as hopelessly outmoded. At the same time these parties consciously set up a tension between the interests of the precariat and older, less skilled workers (and sometimes immigrants), promoting the idea of a zero-sum game in which one group or the other can win but where it is impossible to promote the welfare of society as a whole. Prominent examples of such formations include the Five Star Movement in Italy, the the Internet Party in New Zealand and the Pirate Party in a number of European states.
The second type of anti-establishment party always has a nationalist cast, ranging from rigidly patriotic to violently xenophobic. Formations of this sort typically address themselves to people who find their skills outmoded or undervalued in an era of globalization: manual labourers; the lumpenproletariat in urban areas; the aged or under-employed rural population.
Since these groups comprise a far larger bloc than the precariat, the nationalist parties that seek to represent them generally constitute much the more common and electorally significant form of anti-establishment party. They range from formations which are somewhat coy about their fascist leanings, such as the Dutch Party for Freedom, the United Kingdom Independence Party and the National Front in France, on to those that -- like Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary and Svoboda and the Right Sector in Ukraine -- are unabashed in their Nazi sympathies.
The nationalist parties appeal to voters on two main bases. First, they posture as defenders of an age-old ethico-cultural patrimony that is under threat alike from the soulless machinations of big business and the alien customs of non-congeners (be these recent immigrants or settled communities such as Jews or Romany). Second, whilst the parties of the precariat hymn the glories of neoliberal globalization, the nationalist formations advocate dirigiste solutions that would once have been associated with the left.
If the first form of anti-establishment party wants to be seen as the wave of the future and champions a meritocracy in which their over-educated, under-employed supporters can come into their own, the second type represents itself as a bastion of traditional values and a bulwark against change. The world view of these twain is fundamentally similar, however. Both types of party accept that contemporary society is the ground of an all or nothing war in which only one group can have its way; all that distinguishes the one from the other is their choice of constituency in this contest.
The widespread and increasing incidence of such views is no accident. The rise of anti-establishment parties in Europe, especially those of the nationalist strain, is a direct consequence of the institutional left's debasement of itself. In one country after another for decades now the left has made a mockery of its professed ideals wherever it has come to power. In consequence, an ever-increasing proportion of the electorate has come to see the whole sordid affair as a fraud perpetrated on them by elites -- and, of course, they are correct in this assessment.
When even the parties that purport to be on the side of the people inevitably show themselves to be capital's loyal servants, cynicism results. With no way to contest the privileges of the powerful, ordinary citizens see nothing for it but to turn on those who are weaker than they: in the case of the precariat, older generations, the uneducated, and so on; in the case of the nationalists, those who are marked as different by their ethnicity, sexuality, etc.
Running out of options
To date, anti-establishment parties like those seen in Europe have not achieved prominence in Canada. Doubtless the main reason for this is simply that the oligopoly effects of the first past the post system have limited the ability of new entrants to gain traction, in contrast to the more fluid dynamics of the proportional representation formulas common in Europe.
In this regard it is interesting to note that the only new formations that have been able to make headway in recent decades are the Action démocratique du Québec, and its successor the Coalition Avenir Québec, and the Reform Party. All of these formations derived benefit from unusual circumstances. The former brace was aided by the fact that, throughout the 20th century, Quebec had a pattern closer to one-party rule than to a cartel, while Reform received a great boon in the form of the adventitious implosion of the Progressive Conservative Party.
In any case, any resemblance between these formations and the anti-establishment parties in Europe is largely superficial. The most crucial difference is that the European parties represent one or other group that has seen its objective conditions worsen under neoliberal globalization, whereas from the outset the primary constituency of both the Reform Party and the Quebec formations was an affluent one seeking to extend its gains, not make good its losses.
In Canadian politics what probably comes closest to European anti-establishmentarianism is the so-called Ford nation -- the admirers of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. While in reality most of those in Ford's camp come from sectors similar to those which have supported the Reform Party and the Quebec formations, Ford undoubtedly also has a following amongst those whose socio-economic status would more closely resemble that of the constituents of the European nationalist parties.
It is important to note that Ford's predecessor, David Miller, was a protégé of the NDP, and that in office Miller ruled as a stalwart neoliberal. Miller granted concessions to big business and reduced the property taxes of wealthy landowners by piling user fees on ordinary citizens and gutting contracts with municipal employees.
Miller paved the way for Rob Ford by showing that Toronto would be governed from the right no matter who was sitting in the mayor's chair. Since the policies would be substantially similar regardless of who was in office, many voters plumped for Ford simply because they liked his bluff, banausic persona.
Ford's path to victory is reminiscent of what happened in the United States apropos George W. Bush. In both cases the failure of supposedly left-leaning politicians to provide a progressive alternative led voters to favour candidates that they perceived as outsiders, or anti-establishment. What is especially noteworthy is how the right is able to successfully represent its nominees in this light even when the individuals concerned are clearly scions of the ruling class (Ford is the son of a quondam provincial cabinet minister; G.W. Bush's father served a term as president of the United States).
This phenomenon suggests that voters who have come to expect politicians of all stripes to prostrate themselves before the corporate sector would at least prefer candidates to be honest about their predilections. Those who supported G.W. Bush or Rob Ford generally did so in the belief that, whatever their qualities or lack thereof, these men were not putting on an act -- unlike the slick Democrats or New Democrats, who posed as defenders of the people but in reality were no whit less subordinate to big business.
This also helps explain why the ridiculous foibles of both Bush and Ford did little to hurt them politically. Again, in contrast to the too-clever left-liberal types, one could scarcely impute the capacity for duplicity to such manifest buffoons. As such, Bush's eventual fall from grace was linked to the revelation that he was capable of guile after all in matters of policy (the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). Ford, meanwhile, has proven more resilient because his known deceptions have been mainly to do with his private life -- a situation sufficiently common as to elicit more empathy than condemnation.
The coming anomie
Many on the left make mock of the kind of person who is supposed to support Rob Ford and others of his ilk. The assumption is that, apart from anything else, such voters must be fools for imagining that politicians like Ford will benefit anyone but themselves and their corporate overlords.
Such supercilious judgments are mistaken, and dangerously so. As explained in the discussion of European anti-establishmentarianism, the growing political anomie of modern society is due to the betrayals of the left, not the stunted intelligence of the populace. Through their perennial compromises and betrayals, left-wing parties have done a far better job than Margaret Thatcher ever could of convincing people that "there is no such thing as society" -- only individual self-interest. Small wonder then that voters are apt to embrace those politicians who are least inclined to dissemble this point. ("Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me," as G.W. Bush once tried to say.)
Apart from tiny cadres of socialists, the overwhelming majority of Canadians understand "left" to mean the NDP (well, excepting those mossbacks who would toss in Justin Trudeau to boot). Accordingly, the average Canadian evaluates the idea of being left on the basis of the NDP's performance -- and for years now the NDP has done its level best to show that it is as fiscally conservative as any of its competitors.
While state economic policy is at least as interesting to the well-to-do as to the impecunious, the consequences for the latter are more serious, immediate and direct. It is hardly surprising then that working-class electors are increasingly disinclined to vote NDP. If a low-income voter believes that budgetary largesse is the key to a healthy economy then she will have no reason to prefer the New Democrats in this regard given how tightfisted they have shown themselves in office. Conversely, if she imagines that "free enterprise" creates jobs then she is likely to actively rule out the New Democrats given their historical association with those notorious encumbrances to commerce, the unions.
Right-thinking leftists find it hard to comprehend this mentality since for them it is an article of faith that the New Democrats are to be preferred to all other comers. In this they bear a strange resemblance to communists of the 1930s who considered it their duty to support The Party no matter what.
Actually, the communists perhaps come out looking better. For one thing, while the methods to which communist parties of the Third International resorted were often dubious, these organizations shared the clear and noble goal of bringing about a world where everything would belong to everyone; the NDP, meanwhile, stands for nothing much.
What is more, for all that communists were notorious for their party discipline, many baulked at approving the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact, even though it could reasonably have been seen as a necessary measure to safeguard "actually existing socialism." Today, by contrast, Canada's bien-pensant left does not waver in its devotion even as the NDP aligns itself with fascist putschists in Ukraine, and nonchalantly disregards the risk of igniting World War Three, merely to demonstrate its "credibility" to the pro-imperialist Canadian establishment.
The average Canadian voter, however, does not share the ideological parti pris of the right-thinking left, and also tends to have a less carefree relationship with empirical evidence. When the NDP fails to represent the interests of the ordinary citizen most people do not remind themselves: "Ah yes, but the NDP are social democrats and social democrats are on the side of the people in a way that bourgeois politicians are not!" Rather, they say: "We gave these jokers a chance and they blew it. You can't trust any of these turkeys -- least of all those who pretend they're different from the rest."
The recent election in Quebec exemplifies this point. The Parti Québécois (PQ) postures as social democratic when it suits them and, sure enough, this pose was reason enough for right-thinking leftists in Quebec to support the incumbent PQ administration. The electorate, however, looked at the facts and saw that the PQ's economic policy was pure neoliberalism and that the PQ was shameless enough to try to distract attention from this with their vilely bigoted Charter of Values. In consequence, the PQ were dealt their most devastating defeat ever.
The trouble is that while voters have the option of punishing a party for policies that they don't like, they have no way of electing any formation that will enact measures that they do wish to see. Thus Quebec voters for the most part slammed the PQ on account of their right-wing policies but to do this they had to deliver seats to the Liberal Party and the Coalition Avenir Québec -- both of them even more conservative than the PQ (albeit not as openly and cynically chauvinistic).
Many of the New Democratic Party's more left-wing advocates would acknowledge the validity of much if not all of the exposition thus far. Socialists, whether they support the NDP or dismiss it as a lost cause, are generally cognizant of the reasons why little good can be expected of the New Democrats and of why there is no chance at all that the NDP can be used as an agent of system change. Where the two tendencies really diverge is on the question of how the left should act in light of this understanding.
In recent years the NDP has moved far enough to the right that leftists worthy of the name can now only support the party on the principle of preferring the lesser evil. Those who take this position allow that the New Democrats are likely to do very little that is positive but at least can be expected to do less damage than the Liberals or the Conservatives. At the limit, adherents of the lesser evil doctrine will go as far as to concede that even the NDP is apt to do more harm than good -- but at least the New Democrats will not do as much harm as their yet more baleful rivals.
There are socialists who have spent years, even decades, supporting the NDP. Granted, apart from those whose memories stretch back to the Waffle Movement of the early 1970s, there can be few who have ever imagined that the NDP might serve as a vehicle for the positive transformation of society. What is more, neither the Waffle nor the sooterkin New Politics Initiative that followed 30 years later was able to stymie the NDP's inherent tendency to shift to the right.
Nonetheless, the NDP has always stood out as the sole parliamentary formation with links to organized labour and roots in social democracy. These connections have ensured that in general the New Democrats espouse policies that are progressive relative to those of the other major parties. Yet, since the entire political spectrum has been following a dextral trajectory for well over a quarter-century, at the present day the NDP is able to advocate positions that would have suited Brian Mulroney's Conservatives while still remaining the most "left-wing" choice on offer. Small wonder that bemused socialists who have voted NDP all their lives now find it difficult to see anything worth supporting and yet, faute de mieux, find themselves compelled to back the New Democrats come election time.
The left, it seems, faces a Hobson's choice. The NDP is rotten and, what is more, must inevitably deteriorate further for the reasons explained above. Yet, all other parties are either worse than the New Democrats or they are electorally irrelevant (or both). Refusing to support any party in the 2015 election may seem conscientious but the practical effect will be to help return Stephen Harper's Conservatives to power, an outcome that no left-leaning individual can look upon with equanimity. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that leftists, no matter how conscious they may be of the party's deficiencies, feel there is no real alternative to backing the NDP.
On its own terms this fatalistic reasoning cannot be faulted; but that is precisely what is wrong with this line of thinking. As Marx once observed, philosophy is sterile if all it does is accept and interpret the world as it is: "the point is to change it."
If Hobson tells us we can hire the horse nearest the door or none at all, then instead of saying, "Well, maybe a broken-winded, spavined steed can make the journey all the same," we need to ask how we can accomplish our goal by other means. If none of the options the system offers us is acceptable then our response should not be to tell ourselves that we can somehow make do with the least bad of the alternatives presented but to set about fundamentally reconfiguring the system.
Perhaps the most famous slogan of the événements of 1968 was: "Be realistic: demand the impossible." From the great revolutions to restrictions on the length of the working day, from anti-colonial struggles to the decriminalization of the labour movement, virtually all significant progressive change that has ever been achieved was brought about by people who refused to accept the political limits set by the masters of the system.
In our current situation it is true that simply choosing not to vote is no answer: the only concrete result would be Harper's re-election. However, it simply shows how atrophied and impoverished our collective political imagination has become that we can conceive of no alternative to supporting some political party other than for each of us, as atomized individuals, to refrain from casting a ballot.
At the present day most countries in the world are liberal democracies. On the face of it this implies that the politicians in power must enjoy the support of the electorate. For reasons outlined above, however, this assumption is unfounded. This can be shown empirically by the fact that although most voters across the globe detest neoliberalism, it has, almost everywhere, proven impossible to elect a governing party that is willing to stand for the people and against transnational corporations.
A handful of polities in Latin America constitute an exception to this pattern. If the Canadian left is serious about getting past its Hobson's choice then clearly we need to establish what makes these countries different. As it happens, the answer is not far to seek.
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