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Initiating Movement Towards Socialism in Canada: Part 2

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.



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.


Lessons from Latin America

Latin America is the only area of the globe where left-leaning parties are in power in a majority -- or, come to that, even a significant number -- of states. True, by the standards of the Fordist era most of these regimes would be considered little better than right-wing social democrats. However, in a time when, e.g., the French Socialist Party -- with its regressive economic retrenchments, cynical xenophobia and ravening militarism -- can be outflanked to the left on a number of issues by the proto-fascist National Front, nearly all governments in Latin America appear remarkably progressive by comparison. More to the point, in a handful of states -- Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela -- capitalism and imperialism are under genuine (albeit deeply contradictory) challenge.

Up until just before the turn of the millennium, the political fortunes of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela were not greatly different from those of most Latin American states. During the Fordist period all of them were subjected to military dictatorship for some considerable length of time, in each instance installed under the aegis of the United States to crush socialist activity. After the radical left had been sufficiently passivated, each of these countries saw a return to electoralism. Social democratic parties soon reasserted themselves but their leaders, with a weather eye on Washington, dutifully comported themselves with the new orthodoxy of neoliberalism. It soon emerged, however, that voters were less willing to accept structural adjustment than even ostensibly left-wing members of the political establishment.

At first the people of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela placed their faith in the canonical processes of liberal democracy and strove to channel their demands through one or other mainstream party. In short order, however, it became apparent that handsome but empty rhetoric was the most that would be forthcoming from even the supposedly leftist parties. For example, Carlos Andrés Pérez, in his 1989 bid for the presidency of Venezuela, described the International Monetary Fund as "a neutron bomb that killed people, but left buildings standing." Yet, once safely elected he imposed neoliberal fiscal and financial measures of unprecedented scale and severity.

In each of the three countries the masses slowly came to the realization that all of the established parties, including those that represented themselves as left-wing, were too deeply embedded and invested in the status quo to ever truly serve as instruments of the people's will. The response of the popular classes was not to make the best of a bad situation and see what small benefits could be obtained from sedulously attending on the local lesser evil. Yet neither did they allow the betrayals of the institutional left to transform them into embittered cynics convinced that anyone who wouldn't admit that he was only out for himself was either a liar or a fool. They realized that their plight was due not to inherent defects of human nature but to the domination of politics by the elites. They saw that it would be necessary to alter the social order before anything could be accomplished in the electoral realm.

Consciously or otherwise, the people of these countries recognized that they could never expect representation so long as capital was able to give the impression of holding all the power in society. The people had to prove that they too were a force to be reckoned with. Accordingly, they took matters into their own hands outside of the polite forms sanctioned by the system. The result was the Caracazo in Venezuela, the water and gas wars in Bolivia, the massive anti-neoliberal mobilization of indigenous Ecuadorians in 2000.

Four main elements were present in each of these instances. First, an implicit and often explicit engagement with a non-partisan socialism: without an ethic of solidarity and mutual aid, the people could never have mustered the necessary resolve. Second, a commitment to autonomous mobilization along with a rejection of the political establishment tout court: any notion that the institutional left was an ally would have weakened and divided the popular movements. Third, a resolute determination to employ all appropriate forms of direct action: had the people accepted external judgments of their tactics they would either have underplayed or overreached their hand.

The last-mentioned item deserves special notice. Certainly, the willingness to use methods not sanctioned by polite society (e.g., blockading roads with burning tires; violent confrontations with the state security apparatus) was an important aspect of these insurgencies. However, more crucial still was that these actions were not undertaken to persuade or even compel the government to take the part of the people. The masses did not engage with the organs of state as though this institutional apparatus was the sole (or even a) legitimate means for the expression of the general will. Rather, the people acted directly to accomplish their own ends, such as expelling private utilities and forcing the resignation of chief ministers. They said, in effect: if we want something done, we need to do it ourselves.

To be sure, these mass mobilizations did not undertake the truly revolutionary project of seeking to overthrow the state as such (which was likely for the best if for no other reason than that this would almost certainly have led to intervention by the US). Rather, by showing that they were capable of exerting power autonomously over against both state and capital, the people forced a genuine opening of the political process. The activity of the popular classes made it impossible for elected officials to carry on with business as usual.

Central to the success of these uprisings was their refusal to be bought off by the parlour trick of changing the personnel but not the policies of government. For example, Lucio Gutiérrez became president of Ecuador on the strength of his work with Pachakutik, an association of Ecuadorian indigenes that had played a key part in organizing popular struggle. When Gutiérrez moved to the right on assuming power he was given no quarter, despite having been a veteran of the people's struggle, but instead was driven from office by massive mobilizations of his erstwhile comrades.

It was only after all the established parties had been discredited and rejected through mass action in the streets that the popular classes of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela created new political formations to contest elections: the Movement Towards Socialism; the PAIS Alliance; the Fifth Republic Movement (later merged into the United Socialist Party of Venezuela). What is more, in each case new instruments of governance, such as the communal councils in Venezuela, were created to vest power, authority and autonomy vicinally amongst ordinary citizens, thus creating an equipoise against the centralized state's inherent liability to capture by elite interests.

The results have been remarkable. Poverty has been halved and illiteracy eliminated in Venezuela, and even the poorest of barrios now has a community health clinic. Bolivia has nationalized its oilfields and Ecuador shut down a key military base of the United States, and in both of these countries the welfare and status of the native peoples has been greatly advanced. All three polities have also been instrumental in establishing progressive initiatives embracing other parts of Latin America, including a regional public service television broadcaster.

Naturally this process has been uneven, not least because of the enormous and unrelenting response by the forces of reaction. Efforts by the right to defeat this left-wing turn have included massive propaganda campaigns, capital strikes and coup attempts. Support from the region's less radical but still left-leaning regimes (such as the ruling Workers Party in Brazil, South America's powerhouse) has helped to limit the impact of this reaction but the real key has been enormous and ongoing popular mobilization within Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Undoubtedly, it is this factor that will ultimately determine whether these countries continue on a progressive path or fall back under the command of the comprador elites. Moreover, since the people simply cannot be in the streets all the time, a key question is whether the experimental openings to participatory democracy pioneered in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela are fostered or allowed to decline.



The Fordist fixation

Above all, what the recent history of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela demonstrates is that meaningful social and economic improvement is now contingent on the ability and willingness of the popular classes to assert themselves as autonomous agents. What this entails is shifting the struggle from ground that has been prepared by the elites for their own purposes into radically new territory. This requires a thoroughgoing rejection of the entire established political order along with the capacity (and the resolve) to make society ungovernable, since nothing less can force the hand of what Marx called the "executive committee of the whole bourgeoisie."

In some ways it is odd that we need to learn this lesson anew. After all, Frederick Douglass pointed out over a century and a half ago that power never concedes anything without a struggle. Why then do we suppose ourselves exempt?

The answer seems to be that the Canadian left cannot escape its fascination with the entirely atypical Fordist moment. Contemporary leftists, instead of recognizing that the extent of working class advances made during the Fordist era was entirely due to the exceptionally propitious conditions of the Cold War, fantastically interpret these developments as evidence that governments at the present day can be prevailed upon to enact progressive measures.

Naturally, not all leftists are so naive or so ignorant of history as to suppose that the compromises of the post-war settlement indicate that our ruling classes have been permanently domesticated. In particular, there can be few leftists delusional enough to imagine that ordinary citizens can continue to reduce capital's privileges through the simple expedient of instructing politicians to legislate such measures.

Yet, what most Canadian leftists do seem to believe is no less counter-factual. Doubtless they would agree that it is puerile to suppose that any response will issue on our simply telling our elected representatives that we want them to derogate the power of the elites. Words are not enough, these leftists would say: we have to back up our statements with action.

The problem is that all the forms of action they encourage -- lobbying; letter-writing; press conferences; rallies -- boil down to the same threat: do what we tell you to or we won't vote for you. As explained at length above, politicians of all persuasions have long since worked out that, unlike in the anomalous Fordist era, they now have nothing to fear from such commination.

The issue then is not that the majority of leftists suppose that struggle has ceased to be a requirement for positive change but that they fail to recognize that the forms of contention in which they engage, while perhaps appropriate enough in the Fordist period, are completely inadequate to the challenges of the present day. Capital has gamed the political system so as to preclude any serious challenge to ruling class hegemony from within it but right-thinking leftists persist in trying. Some do end up admitting that they cannot win such contests and ultimately quit the field. Others just lower their expectations and redouble their efforts.

As the people of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela have shown, however, our options are not limited to either giving up on politics or doing the same thing over and over thinking that one day it will all work out differently (the very definition of insanity, according to Einstein). After the brief interval of the post-war compromise during which capital had to draw in its horns to some extent, the ruling class once more has matters firmly in hand and scoffs at forms of dissent carried over from the Fordist era. As recent South American experience has shown, the only way forward is by taking the struggle outside the parameters deemed permissible by the political establishment.



The mass strike


A critic could fairly respond: this may sound very well in the abstract but what would it entail in practice? You draw attention to the centrality of riotous popular activity in the success of the left in Bolivia and elsewhere. Should we perhaps issue a general summons to bring cobblestones and incendiaries to the market square sometime next week?

Direct action on a huge scale played an integral role in the left's triumph in South America but of course these operations were very largely spontaneous. As Rosa Luxemburg observed over one hundred years ago in her discussion of the mass strike, activity on this order is not like "a kind of pocketknife which...according to decision, can be unclasped and used." What is more, she advised that it would be "idle and profitless and absurd" to attempt to build a constituency for such activity through "methodical agitation."

In so saying it might seem that we are already at an impasse. If direct action by masses of people was required to secure change in Bolivia et al., yet such activity cannot be deployed at the pleasure of the organized left and nor can it be hurried into being through preaching, does this not leave progress contingent on the ex tempore eruption of civic unrest?

The answer is both yes and no. Certainly, without mass direct action by the working class it would be impossible to bring about the kind of fundamental reorganization of social priorities seen in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia (a fortiori a truly revolutionary reordering). This is as it should be for, as Marx repeatedly emphasized, it is only through revolutionary praxis -- which is to say, reflective participation in the class struggle -- that people are transformed from creatures of capitalism into socialist comrades. If socialism could somehow be delivered from the skies this would prove ineffectual since the people, habituated to capitalism and with no emotive ties to the new dispensation, would find it very difficult to enter into novel relations with one another and certainly could not be expected to defend the system against the inevitable capitalist reaction.

In stating this, however, it by no means follows that what my counsel ultimately boils down to is that leftists should "cross their arms and stop wasting time in political and economic movements," as Marx once wrote with dripping sarcasm. In the same article Marx noted that, at the beginning of the 19th century, "social conditions were not sufficiently developed to allow the working class to constitute itself as a militant class." Conscious of this point, contemporary socialists condemned as futile strikes and other militant actions by workers. Marx observed that, "[W]hile we cannot repudiate these patriarchs of socialism ... we must at least avoid falling back into their mistakes." So at our own day, if the conditions for a general mobilization of the working class are not in sight, this does not indicate that we should abandon activity and meekly await the coming of the kingdom; yet neither does it mean that we should give no thought to potential developments.

Luxemburg, in her writings on the mass strike, characterizes it as "the indication, the rallying idea, of a whole period of the class struggle lasting for years, perhaps for decades." Luxemburg says further that: "[T]he mass strike is inseparable from the revolution...and the revolution [is] above all a thoroughgoing internal reversal of social class relations." Here then is the key: socialists, as Luxemburg notes, cannot prepare the way for the mass strike by "house-to-house canvassing with this 'idea' in order to gradually win the working class to it." However, this does not mean that no preparations are in order.

In Luxemburg's day, the prestige and the organizational strength of the parties of the Second International were such that she could take it for granted that the working class instinctively looked to Marxist formations for support and guidance in their contests with capital and the state. Accordingly, she advised that the leading members of these organizations needed to ready themselves "to regulate the tactics of the political struggle in its every phase" and that these tactics must always be "consistent, resolute and progressive." This, she felt, would produce in the masses "a feeling of security, self-confidence and desire for struggle."

The situation today in Canada is very different. There is no mass socialist party in this country and none is in prospect. Yet, strange as it might sound at first, this is all to the good. The left has grown too used to fitting itself to the autotelic organizational priorities of the NDP and the last thing we need is to simply transfer this mentality to a novel formation. As the experience of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela clearly shows, the proper order is for the insurrectionary ferment of the people to call into being and maintain control of new political bodies and forms; not the other way round.



What we have to do

So what, finally, would I have socialists do? I have said that it is absolutely essential for us to break with the NDP once and for all but that in isolation this act can achieve nothing positive. I have said that only mass direct action can set the ruling class back on its heels but that the path between recognizing the need for such interventions and causing them to happen is obscure and full of contingencies. The question remains: what, if anything, can we do now?

The answer, I would suggest, is that we must take seriously Luxemburg's insistence on the need to provide a "consistent, resolute and progressive" example. True, unlike in her era no central organ of socialism exists in contemporary Canada but, far from being an obstacle, this can be looked upon as a fortunate circumstance that affords scope for greater dynamism.

What socialists must do is commit ourselves to achieving concrete objectives that are not merely ameliorations of harms inflicted by capital but in some measure reflect the world we wish to see. Furthermore, we must undertake to achieve these objectives not through the mediations of the state and the canonical political process but over and against them.

The left looks to the state to perform two principal functions: providing public services and keeping capital in check. When the left perceives a deficiency in one of these areas its first -- and often only -- impulse is to lobby government to fix the problem.

The left must abandon these efforts. As I have been at pains to demonstrate, attempting to compel the state to undertake progressive action is an almost completely ineffectual approach because, within the confines of the political system as it has evolved, the left has neither a carrot nor a stick. What is worse, by continuing to play this rigged game the left destroys its own credibility as both a moral and an intellectual force.

If we are to swear off asking the government to act on our behalf, then we can only rely on ourselves to bring about that the changes that we are seeking. Since there is so much that needs to be done, and as yet so few to do it, the left needs to be strategic as well as principled in the tasks it assumes.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of activity in which we will need to engage. One, which I shall term obstructive, includes all efforts to prevent capital -- or the state, acting on behalf of capital -- from conducting operations that we oppose. The second, which I will designate as constructive, comprises the various ways in which we can make positive contributions to the common weal by meeting genuine needs.



Union workers in union

Any discussion of obstructive activity must reckon with the current huge imbalance of power between capital and the working class. The capitalist class can dispose of vastly greater sums of money, it has the backing of both mainstream media and elite opinion, and it has the judiciary and the state security apparatus on its side. By contrast, the sole advantage of the working class is superiority in numbers. While this factor has the potential to be decisive, it is only meaningful if the multitude can be mobilized.

Trade unions are the only significant working-class organizations in our society. They have considerable financial resources and an enormous membership base but they are severely restricted in their activities by law. They are strictly enjoined from calling on their members to strike in any circumstances other than where a collective agreement with a given employer has expired and a new contract has yet to be signed. Moreover, of late even this highly circumscribed right has become increasingly imperilled.

Canadian unions are of sufficient size that legal restrictions alone would not be enough to hold them in check were the leaders and a large proportion of the general membership disposed to militant action. Unfortunately, union officials have a very long history of protecting their own sinecures by discouraging rank and file involvement. In consequence, even if the upper echelons of the labour movement were suddenly to become enthusiastic about sharpening the struggle -- in itself quite an unlikely development -- their ability to entrain ordinary members would remain limited.

If left-wing unionists are serious about addressing this situation they need to find ways to activate the rank and file. It is crucial to understand that this does not mean "getting ordinary members involved." Leftists need to overcome the habit of thinking of unions as entities into which atomized individuals are integrated and understand them anew as a form of association in which all members stand in the same relation to one another.

To this end, workers on the shop floor should be encouraged to analyze and solve workplace issues through their own collective endeavours instead of relying on the isolating, alienating remedies provided under labour law. Union staff and activists would provide a far greater service to the general membership if they concentrated on facilitating this process as widely as possible instead of trying to induct likely members of the rank and file into the bureaucratic machinery of the labour movement.

Were such shop floor articulations pursued, workers could begin to address workplace issues outwith the mandate of the certified bargaining agent (while still retaining the advantages of such representation). This would build the confidence of the workers, improve their awareness of class conflict and instil solidarity. This in turn could create a basis for concerted action with other elements of the working class. Ultimately, it offers the possibility of mass mobilization.


Failing to defend public services

If unions must undergo significant changes before they become capable of engaging in effective obstructive activity, there is in principle nothing to stop them from undertaking constructive projects right away. Organized labour is not short of either cash or competent individuals. All that would be required is the redirection of these resources.

The Canadian left has long looked to government for solutions to societal problems. This tendency became especially pronounced during the Fordist era when the main pillars of Canada's welfare state were put in place and there was a general sense that this would be the trend of the future. However, neoliberal reaction followed on less than a decade after the establishment of Medicare, the centrepiece of the new dispensation.

The return of laissez-faire caused great hardship just at the moment when government began scaling back its social spending. One result was the Canadian debut of the food bank during the 1981 recession. At the time it was imagined that this would be a temporary measure but instead food banks have become a permanent feature of our society.

The Canadian left rightly understood as retrogressive the change from state provision of social services to a private charity model. The left's principal response was to fight against cuts to social spending while occasionally optatively musing about an actual expansion (e.g., by instituting a national child-care program).

While understandable and even principled, this approach was decisively flawed in several respects. To begin with, it was swimming against the tide since, as outlined earlier in this paper, it was at this very time that governments everywhere began to routinely set at naught the wishes of the general population wherever this conflicted with capital's priorities.

A second problem was that the left's approach overlooked the implications of the underlying socio-economic conditions. While the overall economy has never ceased to expand, since the advent of neoliberalism all of the net gains have been captured by the elites. This has led to an objective worsening of the financial situation of most households in Canada and thereby an increase in both the absolute and relative needs of the general population.

To have any prospect of coping with these growing problems, government spending would have had to increase in lockstep. However, such a trend could only be sustained by constantly increasing imposts and this would have flown in the face of a central requirement of neoliberalism: the dramatic reduction of the tax burden on the wealthy. Naturally then, maintaining service levels in the face of deteriorating socio-economic conditions and increasingly regressive tax policies has proven an impossible task. For a time the left did argue for a return to a social democratic approach to both taxation and economics, but without effect; and before long the New Democrats too accepted the new dispensation. In such circumstances, trying to hold the line on public services is quite simply impossible.

Another problem with the left's response was that it was forced into defending bureaucracies that not long before it had criticized as out of touch with the real needs of the population. For example, given the choice between receiving welfare benefits and having no income at all, few people would forgo the benefit. However, almost everyone who has ever been on welfare would describe the experience as deeply humiliating -- not least because of their treatment at the hands of the government employees charged with dispensing benefits.

Yet, having no say in the administration of these services, the unions and parliamentary opposition could only fight to maintain existing programs with all their deficiencies. Indeed, government could go further and deliberately shape policy so as to make public services as rebarbative as possible to those requiring them. The upshot was that even to the extent the left was successful in blocking or reducing cuts this did not necessarily do anything to preserve (and certainly could not enhance) quality of service.



Constructive unionism, for a change

Rather than continuing the losing battle against cuts to social spending, the labour movement should confront these problems directly. The left has long deplored the downloading of responsibility for social service provision from the public sector to private charity; but these are not the only possibilities. Non-profit, co-operative community institutions have the capacity to be more democratic and humane than either of the other two options. They also possess the great advantage that they can be established at will by those who value them as opposed to being dependent on successfully lobbying government -- already a virtually impossible task -- to provide a service on terms over which the public will in any event have no say.

The desuetude of rural Nova Scotia is proceeding apace. It is well established that a major contributing factor is the loss of schools, doctors' offices and other facilities. Exacerbating the existing trend, governments often shut down such services in the name of fiscal probity. Residents in some small communities have responded by striving to make their own arrangements but naturally such efforts are severely hampered by lack of funds and personnel.

Unions, as noted above, have ample reserves of both. Instead of wasting effort on fruitlessly lobbying politicians, or campaigning for nominally progressive candidates who are magically transformed into neoliberals on being elected, the labour movement could connect directly with country people who are striving to revitalize their localities. The unions could offer funding and the skills of their members (carpenters, e.g.) to build or renovate essential infrastructure. Perhaps even more significantly, the Canadian labour movement could draw on its international connections.

Cuba has developed a medical system of astounding excellence that, on a Third World budget, produces health outcomes equal or superior to those of First World countries. This success is in large part due to the prevalence of integrated clinics in which nurse practitioners, nutritionists and other medical professionals combine their skills in ways that encourage patients to take an active role in maintaining their own physical and mental wellbeing.

Canadian unions with ties to Cuba could sponsor the pioneering of a similar approach here under Cuban supervision. This would at once bring real and immediate benefits to rural Nova Scotian communities, build links between the labour movement and the general population, foster internationalism and provide ordinary Nova Scotians a salutary introduction to socialism.

Nor would such missions need to be confined to the countryside. Urban food production is another area in which Cuba is a world leader; most of the vegetables consumed in Havana are also grown there. Here too the labour movement could facilitate the establishment of projects under Cuban direction, concentrating on inner-city neighbourhoods as well as integrating new immigrants with experience of farming or gardening in their home countries.

These examples are meant to be illustrative, not comprehensive; they could be multiplied many times over. It is not possible here to begin to enumerate the many kinds of constructive projects that unions could undertake. The point, however, is that such interventions could provide immediate benefits to the general population while disproving conservative claims that the labour movement (at best) only serves its own membership. All that would be required is a recognition that some three or four decades of fighting neoliberalism in the electoral sphere has produced nothing but an escalating series of defeats and that it is past time to adopt a different approach.



Obstructive resistance

As noted above, for the time being unions would do well to confine themselves to what I have called constructive activities since at present they lack both the internal resolve and the public support to be successful in confrontational practices in any but the most limited circumstances. Individual activists, however, are not bound by the same constraints and are in a sense freer to engage in obstructive operations. To be clear, though, this does not signify that the penalties meted out by the state are apt to be any less severe when levied against persons rather than organizations. Instead, the differences are first that unions are liable to collective punishment in ways that individual activists are not and second that militant action by unions requires the prior radicalization of a large number of people (ideally both within and outside the labour movement) whereas persons acting on their own account need not defer to anyone else.

All that being said, the fewer people who take part in any serious obstructive action the less likely they are to attain success (with the possible exception of certain operations intended to inflict injury on persons or property). Furthermore, given the inherently coercive nature of obstructive action the ethical soundness of such activity is typically bound up with the degree of underlying popular consent. So while in principle even a single individual may elect to act in isolation, both the morality and the likely effectiveness of her action are apt to prove highly problematic.

It follows then that since most people in our society have not been radicalized the general public would be unlikely to approve of widespread and serious obstructive action at this juncture, even were there activists prepared to undertake campaigns of this nature. This does not mean, however, that the left must continue to practice polite and useless forms of political activity such as holding rallies or conducting press conferences. Rather, it indicates that we need to be strategic in our resistance. This implies both determining when and how it is important for us to be obstructive and also that we understand that constructive activity too can be a powerful and fecund mode of struggle.

Generally speaking, obstruction is called for in one of two types of situation. One is where an immediate and irreversible harm is in prospect. In such circumstances there can be no strategic argument for inactivity since doing nothing guarantees the worst will happen. The other type of situation in which obstruction would normally be appropriate is when there is a high prospect of success. In such an instance the seriousness of the consequences attendant on not acting is relatively unimportant: when you need a quick burst of energy there's something to be said for picking the low-hanging fruit even if it isn't especially nutritious. In general the only consideration that might count against obstructive action in this type of situation is if it seems apt to arouse public antipathy.

The second type of situation is presumably more likely to occur when activists are confronting a relatively weak adversary such as a landlord or perhaps a small-scale employer. Beyond this it is difficult to say anything more general since the specific circumstances of the case will be all-important.

It is perhaps easier to speak concretely about the first type of situation. An obvious and topical example would be direct action to stop fracking. Hydraulic fracturing poses the threat of grave and irremediable harm to the environment, it is carried out almost entirely for the benefit of corporations and it is opposed by a significant proportion of the general public. What is more, it has the capacity to bring together First Nations and settlers in common cause.

If -- as has lately been the case in New Brunswick -- people are courageous enough to put their bodies in front of the machinery of capital and the violence of the gendarmerie in an effort to stop the poisoning of water and land, such action must be unconditionally supported without regard to calculations of its likely success. To begin with, in the absence of such obstruction the shale gas companies will certainly inflict ecological devastation. Furthermore, these actions are an assertion of native sovereignty. These reasons are sufficiently compelling in themselves as to make obstruction correct in this instance no matter whether or not it achieves its immediate objectives.



Constructive resistance

Operating within mainstream political forms is useless; indeed, worse than useless since this actually reinforces the system leftists purport to oppose. Serious obstructive resistance by unions is likely to be counter-productive under current circumstances. There is somewhat more scope for individual activists to conduct such activity but here too it would be wise to be circumspect pending a more widespread radicalization. However, as explained above, there already exists ample scope for the labour movement to undertake constructive action and much the same holds true for left-wing activists who wish to proceed independently.

Projects undertaken by autonomous activists would share at least two fundamental features with constructive activity by unions. One is the criterion that any proposed activity must serve to meet genuine and important human needs and the other that all action be undertaken in solidarity with the intended beneficiaries and not as a charitable endeavour.

However, the greater independence of action available to activists outside of the formal structures of the labour movement means that here two further desiderata come into consideration. One is that projects should, to the fullest possible extent, seek not only to supplant capitalist provision of goods and services but to do so in ways that expressly repugn the circuits of capital. For example, if socialists were in part to address the problem of how to meet our need for food by establishing a garden not only would the growers work cooperatively and share the harvest but ideally we would do this on reclaimed land so as to signal our rejection of private property.

The second consideration is a natural corollary of the first. If socialists are to undertake activities that contravene the formal strictures of capitalism then we must be prepared to encounter the discipline of the state. For example, if we were to plant our vegetables on vacant property without leave of the owner we could expect an eviction attempt at some point. Our ability to resist such action by agents of the state would depend crucially on the alliances we had created through the community garden itself.

As before, it is only possible here to offer the merest sketch of the forms that autonomous constructive activity could take. Clearly the specific circumstances of each case would be determinative. The point here is not to enumerate all possible ways of taking action but to describe principles that can be used to select appropriate forms.



Same as usual, except minus the NDP

Any critique of existing conditions tends to elicit questions like, "And what do you propose we do instead?" Certainly it has been my experience that most leftists have responded to my philippics against the New Democratic Party by asking what I would suggest they should do if they are not to back the NDP. As I have tried to make clear in the present paper, the question is not well put. For what I would say at a first approximation is: "Continue doing whatever political work you're doing now other than giving support to the NDP."

To be sure, I offer this response somewhat tongue in cheek. In truth I feel that a thoroughgoing renovation of left-wing activism is required, not simply a renunciation of active involvement with the NDP. What I am trying to express, however, is that I am not proposing a whole new menu of activity that no previous socialist has conceived of, but rather I am arguing for a specific approach to deploying some of the methods already extant. Furthermore, I want to drive home the point that there is no valid way to implement this approach without first and forever swearing off the NDP.

The baleful effects of the NDP can scarcely be overestimated. Whatever it may have been at the outset, it is now first, last and always a creature of the establishment. Accordingly, any energies directed towards supporting the NDP are not only lost to the struggle against the system but actually reinforce it. That is to say, they are fundamentally counterproductive.

This is far from the full tale, however. Since the NDP ineluctably becomes worse over time, this means that those who bolster its fortunes are not simply preserving present inequities but helping to deepen them. A staggering recent example of this is the unreserved embrace by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair of the Nazi-riddled regime that has seized power in Kiev.

In reply, right-thinking leftists will insist that no matter how bad the NDP may be, other parties are worse. Does the NDP support the fascists in Ukraine? Yes -- but so does Stephen Harper; and Harper has also gutted Canada's already inadequate environmental legislation, restricted voting rights, etc., etc. Either way one gets the sickening spectacle of collaboration with neo-Nazis but with Harper one receives an additional increment of nastiness in other areas. This is true as far as it goes but what the bien-pensant left fails to see is that the damage that the NDP does is more insidious and in some ways worse than anything that Harper could do.

To begin with, since the New Democrats must above all appear "credible" in the eyes of Canada's ruling class, any activist or group with links to the NDP is automatically hobbled by the need not to embarrass the party. The Canadian Labour Congress and its affiliates scarcely need urging to toe a conservative line -- but for good measure any rush of blood to the brain that might cause union leaders to consider militant action is quickly tempered by the necessity of shielding the NDP from charges of radicalism by association.

Another of the New Democrats' demerits is that they provide yeoman service in ensuring that "the ruling ideas of the age are the ideas of the ruling class." The larger part of the Canadian public looks to the NDP to hear political commentary from a progressive perspective that remains within the bounds of respectable opinion. This means that the New Democrats are crucial in setting limits to acceptable discourse. Any view more radical than the line taken by the NDP will (assuming it is aired at all) be treated skeptically at best; but more likely it will be made the object of open ridicule.

Since the New Democrats trade on the image of being progressive it would never do for them to admit that their position on any given issue will always fall well within the range of policy options considered acceptable by the power elite. In this way the NDP contributes to the suggestio falsi that Canadians who follow mainstream media are being apprised of the full spectrum of informed opinion, when in reality what the public is told is nearly always limited strictly to perspectives that meet with the approval of the ruling class.

However, the most grievous harm inflicted by the NDP is the anomie that it fosters. As explained above in the section on anti-establishment politics, pseudo-left parties by dint of their bad example are far more effective in convincing ordinary people that self-interest is the way of the world than openly right-wing formations could hope to be. When Harper panders to capital, the ordinary citizen can say, "He's a nasty, small-minded conservative who takes his marching orders from the rich," then cast about for an alternative. When the New Democrats pander to capital, ordinary citizens are apt to conclude that social justice is simply another confidence trick



Souls -- and a world -- at hazard

Rosa Luxemburg once wrote that the future of humanity would be socialism or barbarism. More recently, István Mészáros modified this dictum to: "Socialism or barbarism...if we're lucky."

Barbarism we now have, while the chances of our being lucky are looking mighty slim. We have, at the outside, perhaps 20 years in which to achieve carbon neutrality -- failing which the prognosis is unstoppable climate change tending inexorably toward the extinction of life on Earth. Meanwhile, Barack Obama's relentlessly belligerent stance towards both Russia and China strongly suggests that nuclear winter is his preferred remedy for global warming.

Mass direct action is the only force that could possibly overcome capital. The question then becomes: what, if anything, can the left do to encourage such a development? To be sure, the prescription I have offered for political activity in no way guarantees the emergence of insurgency while continued deference to the NDP does not absolutely preclude it. In practice, however, the latter option is so unpromising that choosing it is effectively to wash our hands of the fate of the planet.

I would not hesitate to claim that the program I have outlined in this paper offers far better prospects of success than does the business as usual scenario of supporting the NDP. However, even were the left to adopt the approach I recommend the outcome must remain highly uncertain in light of the monumental challenges we face. Be that as it may, on one point I make no doubt: to fail to break with the NDP is to destroy the integrity of our lives.

I have written above of how the NDP, through its endless, ingravescent accommodations of capitalism and imperialism, instils anomie in society at large. How much more corrosive then must the effect be on those of us who purport to oppose these forces?

The New Democrats have long since abjured any aspiration to socialism; now, with their countenancing of the "Five Eyes" spy network, the Obama kill list, the Nazis in Ukraine and the prospect of World War Three, they have abandoned their quondam commitment to liberal democracy and, indeed, to any form of morality that merits the name. Under these circumstances we can uphold our values or we can throw in our lot with the NDP but we cannot do both -- and we are lying to ourselves if we pretend we can. 

Given the state of the world, none can say what time remains to us. If we can do no more, at least let us make meaningful those days that we do yet have.

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Another interesting

Another interesting essay.

It’s nice to read some positive words about the movements in the South American countries...it's not something that is often talked about even amongst the left in Canada, and sometimes given the constant media barrage etc., you begin to wonder if you’re losing your marbles by seeing any good in it. My understanding of the movements down south is limited myself, but after coming to know more about the movements there I wish more people here knew more about it all. The SA countries aren’t without their problems but I think people here might be a bit more hopeful about things generally if they could get some accurate information on events there.

My knowledge of Venezuela is a bit better than that of the other countries...one thing I thought was worthy of mention here was that the process of radicalization of Venezuelan society over the past couple of decades seems to have been fairly ‘asymmetrical’. Like most any country Venezuelan society is diverse; outside of an elite business class there is an urban middle class population and an urban poor, a smaller but substantial rural population of farmers outside of the cities, etc. The members of the general public who today support a socialist vision for the country, and who generally tend to now vote for the PSUV, didn’t all do so early on. While the established political parties were widely discredited after the Caracazo and other events, there wasn’t a unifying vision for the majority of the country either for some time. And, while there was of course a working class left in Venezuela before the MVR was first elected, it seems it was really after pragmatic steps at reform started to be taken by said government, and also specifically the undemocratic overwrought reactions of the business elite and corrupt elements of the political establishment had occurred, that a large part of the population began to radicalize in their views and figure out where their interests lay.

Different commentators have mentioned that a good part of the radicalization of Venezuelan society did come after the election of the MVR/PSUV and some of the more dramatic events, e.g. the 2002 coup attempt and 2003 oil industry lockout. Wilpert says that Chavez was basically originally elected by the middle class (a large proportion of the Venezuelan poor were never registered to vote at that time), and it was only later that the majority of the lesser advantaged and working poor came to support the party, or get otherwise politically engaged. It was only over time as well that the Bolivarian movement took on its specifically anti-capitalist character. This is a point that was also recently addressed in an interesting series of interviews here: http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=11723

I just mention these things because I imagine that if any potential socialist or specifically anti-capitalist movement were ever to take shape in Canada, it would presumably be similarly “uneven” in its development, where some segments of the general public / working class would come to certain viewpoints and possibly take certain actions at different times than others, and that some segments might only radicalize following the actions, or reactions to the actions, of the other segments of society.

Much as I wish otherwise, the possibility of an anti-capitalist socialist movement developing in Canada seems to me fairly remote for different reasons, not least of which I think is that the majority of Canadians, similar to the populations of the other more affluent capitalist countries of the globe, still live relatively well materially speaking under capitalism, post Fordist era regressions aside. If people are not strongly feeling the pinch personally, I think there is a lot less of an impulse to ask fundamental questions. And, perhaps in part due to this, among other factors, there really is a lot of right-wing thinking amongst the working class in Canada, and lack of understanding I think of just what capitalism is (don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly encountered my fair share of the “if only government would get off my back, things would be fine” type of mentality, as if to say the for-profit system left to its own devices will provide the goods).


prospects for a movement towards socialism in Canada

Thanks for your comments Steve.

Your observation about the large number of indigent Venezuelans who weren't registered to vote in the 1998 election is a good one. Because Chavez won with a majority of the popular vote and because he later became the darling of the masses I had always lazily assumed that he received a great deal of his support from impoverished voters in 1998. As you note, however, in fact it was the middle class and the "respectable" working classes that gave him the nod that first time round, while the truly indigent in the barrios didn't go to the polls at all.

While I once again appreciate your sorting me out on the details, my argument still stands: it was the mass action of the poor that cleared the way for Chavez, even if initially they didn't vote for him (or anyone else). Equally, as you note (and as we discussed in the comments section of one of my previous essays), it was the mass action of the poor in the streets that later defeated the coup and radicalized Chavez himself.

Needless to say, your skepticism about a mass socialist movement in Canada is entirely justified -- as matters now stand. As you point out, even most low-income Canadians are well off in comparison to the vast majority of people around the world. A notable exception is that most First Nations communities in Canada are subject to Third World conditions -- which goes a good way to explaining why the most radical resistance in Canada comes from indigenous people.

In my estimation it will not be overlong, however, before matters become decidely less congenial for all but the most elite stratum of the population. My point is that the left needs to begin preparing for that day, which I think is not far off (a couple of decades hence at most; possibly much sooner).

As for right-wing ideas amongst the proletariat: certainly there is some truth to this. Speaking as a blue-collar worker myself, however, I can attest that what often seems to the middle-class left to be right-wing sentiment on the part of the masses is in fact a truer socialist sensibility (albeit one lacking the requisite vocabulary).

For example, you note the desire to "get government off our backs." I don't deny that sort of language comes from conservative talk radio and the like but in my experience the predominate reason that it resonates with the working class is that they have correctly concluded that government now serves none but the rich. I find that most of the people that I talk to who speak that way are civic-minded and concerned about others. It isn't that they don't want a fairer, more humane society but that they (rightly, in my view) don't trust government to deliver such results. To my mind, that is actually a very hopeful sign. 


A good point I think on the

A good point I think on the issue of how some seemingly right-wing sentiment may not actually be. Also I suppose the "I'm fed up with government" view which, no argument,  is held with good reason, is no more prevalent in the working class than the middle class (wherever the dividing line may be between those groups these days).

I think the proposed strategy you've laid out in the essay re: unions and independent activists is a good one. Luxemburg, whom you quote in your essay, criticized the tunnel vision of the labour movement, often fighting for reforms but otherwise losing the plot. I agree with these criticisms frankly. I've never been part of a union (I've often wished I have been, doing certain jobs) but think trying to hold the line within certain sectors is not happening, the movement is somewhat insular, and a wider strategy is needed. Given that much of the general public has an often quite negative view of unions nowadays (most people are non-unionized, much of the unions left out there are in the public service, and people have been beat over the head with the idea that they're a drain on the public purse etc), it would be better all around if there was a redirection of resources toward engaging in various ways with the non-unionized public.

I was curious what you thought about something like Common Causes? Bourgeois leftism, or potentially something more?

wider strategies

As you say, Steve, wider strategies are called for.

I had a brief look at Common Causes, necessarily cursory since it seems that one needs to register in order to view most content. I noticed promotions for a teach-in with David Suzuki et al. as well as for the NUPGE "fairness bus tour."

In my experience such events are attended by a relatively small number of progressive, educated, middle class folk. The main function of such gatherings, presumably, is to inform, but those in attendance are generally already knowledgeable about the issues under discussion. What is more, while the analysis offered at such fora may well be radical the solutions advocated are typically restricted to acting within the polite norms of liberal democracy (write to your MP; get out and vote against Harper, etc.).

I think this sort of activity is a misdirection of effort. Large amounts of money and significant organizational energies go into bringing off events that address the same basic audience (and one that is already on-side) and that, whatever excellent dissections of problems they may offer, advance the same futile measures for addressing these issues.

We don't need public education of this sort. It goes without saying that research, analysis and discussion are important but star-studded lecture tours are not the way to involve the masses in such endeavours. Small-scale projects imbued with a Freirean pedagogy of the oppressed would achieve far more and also be more consistent with the ethos of socialism.

Furthermore, at some level this sort of tuition is unnecessary. Working people do not need professionals to tell them that the system is unjust and destructive; they experience that every day of their working lives. What they need are concrete indications that a different way of life is possible -- and that intellectuals are willing to risk their own stake in the capitalist order in the cause of refounding the world on socialist principles.


Thanks for your reponses

Thanks for your reponses Antoni.

What do you think is the reason that avowedly socialist governments have not appeared in some of the European countries, where there have been mass mobilizations of the general public since the onset of the Great Recession? Is it because the impacts of the crises there have not been as acute as in Latin America over the past few decades? Is it simply because sufficient time hasn't passed since the onset of the crises, or do elites generally weild more control there perhaps, and are thus able to subvert entry of leftist movements into the political process? Or something else?

You mention the limiting impact of FPTP with regard to elections. The right-thinking leftist part of me (!) thinks PR would be a welcome reform in Canada if only because it would be a foot in the door for marginalized minority leftist / socialist voices, and would make majority governments rare. A worthwhile pursuit, amongst other things? Truth be told, perhaps it isn't much of a barrier to more leftist parties, given that the CCF at least managed to form the opposition in various provinces during and following the Depression with FPTP in place (or form government in the case of Saskatchewan, although it might be said that the CCF government there was reformist and social democratic only).

disaffection and PR

It seems to me that though your questions pertain to different parts of the world, Steve, a common answer is possible. What I would say is that each of the two situations brings out in its own way the inefficacy of electoral politics under neoliberalism.

I think it's highly unlikely that proportional representation will ever be adopted in Canada, not least because of the negative publicity from the several referenda in which it has already been defeated. Even if it was, however, I wouldn't expect a great deal to change. As I'm sure you know, New Zealand introduced proportional representation about 20 years ago because voters had gotten sick and tired of electing politicians who toed a progressive line on the stump and then turned neoliberal in office. The main results has been the effective obliteration of the (ostensibly leftish) Labor Party due to its refusal to change -- a prime example of my dictum that politicians will prefer defeat at the polls to defection from neoliberal orthodoxy.

The only European countries that come to mind where really large scale and ongoing protests took place are Spain and Greece. However, in neither case did anything occur that was remotely comparable in either size or militancy to, e.g., the encirclement of La Paz by three quarters of a million campesinos.

I'm sorry if I seem like a bit of a broken record but I can only restate my main thesis: electoral politics (with the possible exception of the level of local government) will remain a complete waste of time for leftists unless there is a prior shift in the balance of power between capital and the working classes. Obviously results will differ according to individual circumstances but the basic reality is that in virtually all liberal democracies capital is so plenipotent in the electoral sphere that it just doesn't make sense for leftists to put any effort into contesting that terrain. Instead, we need to figure out how we can strengthen our hand in a different way.

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