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Choose Your Tactics Well

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

 

"Electoral politics must be viewed as a tactic, a means to an end, not and end in and of itself."

--- "Support the People of Gaza: An Analysis by Solidarity Halifax"

 

Blowing stuff up is a tactic—one that Nelson Mandela favored (it's what got him imprisoned on Robben Island). Turning yourself into a human torch is a tactic—it's what kick-started the Arab Spring. As suggested by sex activist Annie Sprinkle, giving complimentary blow jobs to politicians, whose projection onto society of their own libidinal frustration and repression causes them to act repressively, is a tactic. Praying; sending out positive karmic energy; offering libations or burnt offerings to the gods—all these are tactics.

I could go on (and on) but I trust I've made my point. To describe a particular action as a tactic, and leave it at that, tells us precisely nothing. At a minimum what we need to know is: (a) if there is a reasonable expectation that it will be effective at all; (b) whether it is likely to be more or less effective than alternate methods; (c) how much of an investment of time, energy and other resources it requires compared to other options; (d) if it is ethical.

Since last fall I have been at pains to demonstrate that—not in all places or at all times, but in the current conjuncture—electoral politics is an extremely poor choice of tactics for the Canadian left on all of the above counts. In making my case I have offered logical analysis, empirical evidence and moral intuition.

By contrast, the framers of Solidarity Halifax's statement, referenced by Evan Coole, on the 2013 provincial election, seem to believe that merely stating their opinion that "elections are important" makes it so. They assert that "[t]he outcomes of elections have real consequences in people’s lives," but the only justification given for this contention is the further assertion that organizing for progressive change is facilitated by having the NDP in power, as opposed to the Liberals or Conservatives. We are given no basis for this claim, as if it were simply self-evident, yet the most cursory glance at recent history throws it in doubt. For example, a vibrant anti-war movement grew up in the United States during the George Bush, Jr., presidency—and promptly melted away on the election of Barack Obama. In the United Kingdom, the energies that had been building against Thatcherism collapsed with the election of Tony Blair's New Labour. The MST in Brazil was very successful in its land reclamations under the military dictatorship but when the Workers' Party came to power it was largely demobilized.

The Solidarity Halifax statement is not only short of arguments for the importance of electoralism; it is also guilty of special pleading. The document makes it clear that it is not elections as such that matter—rather, it is electing the NDP. Here, too, the reasoning is presumptive. We are told that while the Liberals and Conservatives "only serve the interests of the ruling class," the NDP are different "due to the make up of its membership and candidates, due to its relationships with labour and social movements, and due to its founding mandate."

Hm, all of those attributes apply (actually much more strongly) to the African National Congress, to take one example relevant to Evan Coole's article. That hasn't stopped the ANC from ruling as brutal neoliberals (with the full support, what's more, of the South African Communist Party) so that the economic and social conditions for most black South Africans today are worse than they were under apartheid.

The special pleading shows itself in Evan Coole's differential treatment of the NDP's stance on Gaza. He roundly condemns Conservative and Liberal support for Israel. Meanwhile, he notes that while the response from the New Democrats has been inadequate and disappointing, they "have called for a ceasefire and expressed concern at Palestinian casualties."

It is interesting to note that, the day before Evan Coole's essay appeared on the Media Co-op site, another Solidarity Halifax member had posted on the same subject, but with a rather different perspective. Judy Haiven ends her piece "30 minutes every day at noon" with paired quotes from Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair on the assault on Gaza. As Judy Haiven observes: "It’s astounding how similar the Tory and NDP position are."

For far too long right-thinking leftists have felt that they could simply assert the importance of participating in elections without making any serious attempt to justify their position. They have been able to get away with this because, from our earliest years, all people who grow up in European or settler societies are incessantly bombarded with the message that it is our right and our duty to vote. Proponents of electoralism don't need to offer any arguments for their position because they know that the vast majority of Canadians—including most left-wing Canadians—will simply accept it as common sense, because that's what mainstream society has drilled into our heads. Well, mainstream society also accepts as common sense the idea that humanity is incapable of any higher form of social organization than capitalism. Does that make it so?

The conventional arguments in favor of electoralism are classically liberal. They take it for granted that nothing could be fairer than one person/one vote. What makes Solidarity Halifax's position on electoral politics so peculiar is that the organization grounds much of it in socialist analysis. That is to say, unlike liberals, Solidarity Halifax draws attention to context, particularly the existence of antagonistic social classes which (by definition) have unequal access to resources—including, notably, political power. Commendably, this leads the group to state, in Evan Coole's words, that: "electoral politics can never bring about deep change in society...[c]hange must come from below."

Yet, Solidarity Halifax somehow seems to lose its bearings when it comes to the NDP. Abandoning the laudably socialist—which is to say, materialist—approach that allowed the group to recognize the fundamental dynamics of social change, Solidarity Halifax suddenly switches over to an idealist conception in which the NDP will do what the Left wants because of the party's founding mandate and because it fields many candidates from organized labour and the social movements.

Have we learned nothing from Marx? At the level of analysis that is meaningful for social change, what counts is not the ideas that people claim to subscribe to but what they perceive to be in their material interest.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that cupidity is the sole or even most important motivator of people's actions. Unlike neoclassical economists, I don't think that even politicians are all "rational optimizers" out to maximize their financial returns with no regard to other considerations.

Here, Marx's idea of socially conditioned needs is of crucial importance. Marx observed that merely to live all humans must have access to certain necessities such as oxygen, water and food, but that people have a much broader range of needs that will vary depending on such factors as the distribution of wealth and the level of technological progress in a given society; and furthermore that the latter constitute requirements scarcely less real than the former.

Doubtless there are as many reasons why people go into politics as there are for why they enter any other occupation. Some, no doubt, will be motivated by the pay, the prestige or other perquisites. Some will be attracted to the job as an invigorating challenge. Some will be drawn to it as a medium for public service.

It is probably not outrageous to suppose that the NDP will attract more candidates of the third type than will the Conservatives or Liberals—though the proportion even of the NDP caucus that fits this description is another matter (something tells me that Thomas Mulcair, for one, does not belong in this category). Be that as it may, the public-spirited NDP politicians know as well as their less saintly colleagues that if they want to be effective in their jobs their first priority is to keep them. In other words, the policies they advocate must be acceptable both to the electorate and to officers of their own party—such as the members of their constituency association and, of course, the leader—who will determine whether they are nominated as candidates.

What determines the limits of the acceptable? Well, the unrelenting barrage of pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist propaganda that passes for mainstream news, for one. What capitalists find to their liking and are therefore willing to fund through political donations, for another. What does not come into the picture is whether an individual politician is a nice person with a background in social movements or a mean old devil who went into politics after retiring from the RCMP. Both will vote as their party leader dictates and the party leaders themselves will decide on the basis of what will please Bay Street, always, and Main Street, as necessary.

Here we see how Solidarity Halifax's position is not only illogical, but plain counter-productive. In its statement on the 2013 provincial election, the group notes that it is only "with pressure" that the NDP "can be better swayed [than the Conservatives or Liberals] toward progressive decisions." How, pray tell, does Solidarity Halifax expect to exert effective pressure if it has committed itself in advance to supporting the NDP? "If you don't do what we want we'll still work to get you elected next time—but we won't do it with smies on our faces!" Yep, sounds like a scary threat to me. I'm sure Thomas Mulcair is quaking in his boots.

Actually, what it puts me in mind of is the Pentagon procurement process: only accept one bid on a given contract but sternly warn the chosen firm that there will be repercussions if they don't hold up their end. The company then proceeds to deliver shoddy goods well after the scheduled date and with a 100% mark-up. How does the Pentagon respond? By sending the firm a strongly-worded memo expressing its displeasure—along with an invitation to submit a no-competition bid on a different contract.

As I have argued at length elsewhere, whatever minimal good can be obtained from participating in elections is decisively outweighed by the negatives. These include the displacement of valuable resources into feckless activity, the moral and intellectual degradation that its attendant Faustian bargains visit on activists and the disaffection from socialist values that it instils in the wider public. In short, I see it as deeply objectionable from an ethical standpoint as well as worse than useless in practical terms, since it is not just that socialists could better employ their energies on other projects but that electing social democrats inevitably results in public cynicism about the possibility of progressive change.

Solidarity Halifax espouses electoralism but has provided no real rationale for this position. To the extent that the organization does offer a discussion of electoral politics it seems completely at variance with the group's allegiance to the NDP.

Oddly enough, I agree with much of Solidarity Halifax's statement on the 2013 provincial election. This makes it all the more disappointing that I find the conclusions they draw to be utter non sequiturs.


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1856 words

Comments

OMG, what a tendentious lecture

OMG, what a tendentious lecture.

So I have a question for the Media Co-op Eds.

Why does this get elevated to the status of 'featured post,' as opposed to other blog posts that languish invisible on the sidelines?

===

I see that the author also has another very long piece written about the same time that was not elevated to featured post. But the clarification question about process still stands.

tendentious lectures

 

It is rather absurd to castigate a polemical intervention -- which is manifestly what "Choose Your Tactics Well" is -- for being "tendentious." Um, that's the whole point?

Obviously I can't speak to why the editors chose to highlight "Choose Your Tactics Well." One thought, however, is that since the question of whether to engage in electoral politics is central to determining leftist strategy, and that the default answer is that of course the Left should do so, there is something to be said for granting space to strongly dissenting views.

Some people, evidently, are disinclined to question conventional wisdom. Others follow Marx in seeing the necessity for the "ruthless criticism of all that exists." It is in the nature of the first sort of individual that he will be unable to see the point of what the latter is doing. 

 

Step 1: Protest the

Step 1: Protest the NDP

Step 2: Get accused of being too pro-NDP

Step 3: ???

Step 4: PROFIT!!!

misplaced sarcasm

John Hutton's sarcasm is misplaced. As anyone who is not entirely obtuse can understand, that Solidarity Halifax has protested the NDP's handling of one issue hardly frees the group of the charge of  "being too pro-NDP." Indeed, given that Solidarity Halifax is on record as explicitly backing the NDP, it is frankly bizarre that Hutton would imply that it is unfair of me to attribute this position to the group.

Secondly, is this the way mature adults respond to ideas they disagree with? The crudity of Hutton's response suggests an inability to provide a reasoned defence of his position. 

 

not hating on Solidarity Halifax

I don't use Facebook but a friend has informed me that "Choose Your Tactics Well" has appeared there with the tag line: "Antoni Wysocki believes there are inconsistencies in Solidarity Halifax's position on Gaza." While this is true as far as it goes, focussing on this aspect could easily give the misleading impression that all I was doing was playing "gotcha!" -- in other words, that I was trying to cause embarrassment to Solidarity Halifax.

I want to make clear that this was not my purpose in posting this piece to the Media Co-op. Rather, I mentioned the inconsistency in passing as a way of underscoring my main point, which is that Solidarity Halifax's own political analysis -- as shown in its 2013 statement on the provincial election -- logically leads to the position that I have been arguing for some time: viz., that it is time for the Canadian Left to get out of electoral politics.

I salute Solidarity Halifax for taking the NDP to task over Gaza. However, for me the statement that Evan Coole offered on this issue on behalf of the group brought to the fore the necessarily self-contradictory and self-defeating nature of doing so while continuing to stand foursquare for the NDP.

The fundamental idea I was trying to get across is that the current state of our political economy systematically precludes the possibility of a truly progressive (never mind radical) electoral politics. Surely there are enough liberal and social democrats around who are willing to muck around with such compromising (in both senses of the word) activity. Do socialists really need to do likewise?

Antoni has laid out extensive

Antoni has laid out extensive arguments against the trap of electoral politics and most particularly about failure of the NDP to adequately deliver on the demands of progressives and socialists. So far, there has been no adequate demonstration by Solidarity Halifax, collectively or from individual members, that the NDP has responded with any meaningful, actionable results when its more progressive and ostensibly socialist members and supporters have clamoured for them, with the present Gaza case being another example.

Much stock has been put by Solidarity Halifax into the following of the social relations of the NDP (from their statement on the last NS provincial election):

"The Lib/Cons only serve the interests of the ruling class, the 1%. The NDP, due to the make up of its membership and candidates, due to its relationships with labour and social movements, and due to its founding mandate can be better swayed – with pressure – toward progressive decisions.

And, more recently, Solidarity Halifax made the following, more specific comment about how the NDP is supposed to act, referenced on the blog post of member Evan Coole:

"The NDP is supposed to stand for international human rights, justice and against war."

Looking at the NDP's track record during their recent reign in Nova Scotia, one finds sharp contradictions with both the idea that the NDP is supposed to be against war and with the theory that its progressive and socialist members are effectively able to influence the party's policies.

In September 2009, former Halifax- based peace activist Tamara Lorincz pointed out how the then new NDP government had not only misplaced its expected -- from progressives and socialists -- priorities, but had also fully colluded with the federal Conservative government in its militarization mandate:

"The federal government gave Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest weapons manufacturer and producer of nuclear weapons, cluster bombs and hellfire and PAC missles, $2 billion dollars (our tax dollars) to upgrade the combat systems on the frigates in Nova Scotia, and then the provincial NS government gave Lockheed $1.8 million dollars for a payroll rebate on those jobs. We could have hired nurses, child care staff, teachers and energy auditors instead."

This militarization was all a prelude to the awarding in 2011 of the $25 billion military shipbuilding contract to the Irving Shipyard in Halifax, a deal nurtured by the loud support and financial backing of the NDP Dexter government. In opposition to this deal, Tamara engaged in weekly pickets against the shipbuilding contract between December 2012 until well into 2013. She was not alone in voicing concern. There are numerous critiques by progressives and socialists of the NDP's support for the shipbuilding contract. Yet, they were all to no avail.

As Antoni correctly points out in his Initiating Movement Towards Socialism in Canada essay, there is a consensus between the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives on all major economic and military concerns.

Should anyone really be disappointed by the NDP's position on Gaza? Some apparently are. From Evan Coole's blog of Solidarity Halifax's statement on the Gaza massacre:

"The NDP membership has been frustrated by the party's silence towards Israeli aggression. NDP members have dissented against this silence, including a one-day occupation of Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar's office and a statement from the New Democratic Youth of Canada."

More frustrating than the party's silence or Mulcair's waxing about Israel's right to self defense is the unending expectation of something more from the NDP. Pressure has been applied on the NDP to shape up, as the blog post mentions, and the best that has been achieved thus far seems to be NDP MP Megan Leslie making a marginally stronger statement on Gaza than the official statement from Mulcair. Is it reasonable to expect anything more than the odd, somewhat better statement from more-radical-than-Mulcair MP's? No. Yet, all indications are that more time will be wasted on these efforts.

I also do not agree with Solidarity Halifax's position that meaningful improvement to the public discourse on Israel-Palestine can be achieved via pushing NDP politicians to make better statements. Far better results can be achieved through direct communication with the public through community events and actions, without the added effort of having to correct poor and counterproductive NDP points.

You can lead a horse to water...

As has been argued, there is little that can really be done to hurry on a social movement. In the absence of a strong social movement, is it any wonder why some on the left might try to squeeze what is possible out of a former socialist party? The initiated are stuck between a rock and a hard place; there is a moral responsibility to try and prevent harm as opportunities arise, while also obviously a desire to stick to your principles.

With much of what the NDP stands for today, it certainly is in part an affront to morality to support them. But does a vote for any party mean complete support for that party. The law has power, and it matters what the government does with it, so when no other options exist, I can understand why even the most well-intentioned person might undertake an attempt at lesser-evil voting.

It can obviously be argued that some of the seriously reckless policies of the NDP far outweigh whatever minor good they may do. I'm inclined to agree with this, personally, although I don't blame people who might argue for an NDP vote (or a vote for any party?) as long as they simultaneously speak out against their immoral policies whenever possible, and note the existing limitations of electoral politics. As long as someone does this, I'm not sure they can be accused of wrongdoing, really.

 

individuals and organizations

Thanks for your comment, Steve.

I think you're right on target in drawing attention to the question of what leftists can do in the absence of a strong social movement and, as you know, I've made a few suggestions of my own on that front (though I'd be the first to admit that the bare sketch I've offered to date is woefully inadequate). Like you, I too can well understand why leftists would, as you say, try to squeeze what is possible out of the NDP. Indeed, although it was never a focus of my politics, that was my own practice as well up until fairly recently.

You say that it is understandable that those who believe they have no other option might make an attempt at lesser-evil voting, and I certainly concur with that. However, being able to see why someone chooses to do something, and even to sympathize with her reasons for doing so, does not commit you to agreeing that what she's doing is right.

In the first place, remember Omelas: if you're not given any decent choices then morality requires that you refuse to choose. I think of it this way: how could I possibly explain myself to the people of Gaza if they asked me why I had supported a party that says that all the suffering Israel has inflicted on them is justified? What could I tell them? I suppose I'd have to say that I thought that the party might do some limited good for folks who live closer to me and, besides, I protested the party's policy on Gaza. Call me crazy but I somehow fancy that my interlocutors in Gaza would find such an explanation unsatisfactory.

Secondly, one can't justify doing something that is actually counter-productive, such as participating in elections in our current conjuncture, by decrying our lack of productive choices. Standing still is better than going backwards.

Finally, there are other options but they are strategies for the long haul that require patience. As I see it, the last thing we should be doing is undermining the possibility of real success over the far term by seeking some small (and probably illusory) but immediate gain through elections.  

I should also make clear that none of my remarks should be taken as impugning individuals. I leave it to the Deity to decide whose soul is pure and whose is not; I do not claim to have any such knowledge and neither do I aspire to it. While I maintain that at this time it is wrong -- both ethically and pragmatically -- to vote for the NDP, I would never say that X must be a bad person because she voted for the NDP.

An additional clarification is that my remarks were prompted by the subtitle of Evan Coole's post: "an analysis by Solidarity Halifax." Whatever one may say about individual choices and conscience, dealing with an organization is quite another matter. Solidarity Halifax has publicly stated its commitment to supporting the NDP. Apart from any other considerations this is a self-defeating stance since they thereby renounce any possible leverage over the party. Leaving aside that, as I have noted, their own published analysis points to the conclusion that the Left should stop wasting its energies on electoral politics, if they really expect to gain anything through elections it makes no sense to signpost in advance that they will back the NDP no matter what. If the New Democrats know that Solidarity Halifax is committed to them come hell or high water, what possible incentive could there be for the party to respond to Solidarity Halifax's criticism of specific policies?

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