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The Last Field of Battle?

Reinventing Progressive Politics in Canada

by MURRAY DOBBIN

We are so accustomed to the connection between political parties and democracy that to question the relationship between the two might seem absurd. But for those who recognize the multiple crises faced by humanity — the destruction of our environment, climate change, the ravages of unfettered finance capital, the undeniable limits to growth — the failure of our liberal, multi-party democracies seems increasingly obvious.

To many people, the millions who can’t even be bothered to vote, they are simply irrelevant.

Of course for the elites and the corporations that feed off it, the current system is working fine. Deregulation, privatization, high-end tax cuts and the Orwellian security state now being exposed in the U.S. all contribute to wealth and political power of the One Per Cent (actually more like the Ten Per Cent). While they still have to breathe the same polluted air as the rest of us, the elites believe they can somehow achieve immunity from the global forces now in play. Of course they are wrong. But so long as they believe they are right, the crises will continue to worsen and the rest of us will continue to suffer.

The tragic irony in all this is that in most democracies the majority of people actually share values that, if they drove government policy, would begin to address the crises. But there is a persistent disconnect between what people want and what the system can deliver. The multi-party system is designed to be dominated by money and increasingly sophisticated marketing, micro-targeting and data-mining. Disengaged citizens haven’t a prayer in dealing with the modern election machine.

Left wing parties try to play this game but inevitably come up short. The “game” has been designed not to represent the needs of people or communities but to manage capitalism in the interests of the elites. As soon as you accept the rules of this game, that is what you end up doing. The electoral contest is inherently corrupting of genuine democracy.

Reflective of this decay of democracy is the recent British Columbia election in which a totally bankrupt Liberal government won re-election against an NDP which thought it could stroll to power using the conventional machine approach to elections. But to truly draw upon people’s progressive instincts you have to engage them at the community level year round. Just think of the odds against winning in the conventional B.C. contest: a totally hostile media which effectively operates like the propaganda arm of the Liberal Party, live-streaming neo-liberal ideology into every home every day of every year.

Elections as we experience them are themselves apolitical. People are supposed to suddenly become informed citizens — for one month every four years. There is no substantive dialogue with the citizenry. The parties are like alien entities that suddenly arrive in your living room, not to engage you but to somehow coax you into voting for them. Even working in elections is apolitical. The NDP insists that its callers and door knockers not talk to people off script — because they fear their own members are so ill-informed about its policies that they might say something to harm the campaign.

The inevitable result of a progressive party adopting the election tactics and operating principles of its right-wing opponents is that it has to move to the right to be competitive. If you don’t trust your support base or even your members to be progressive you have little choice. At the federal level a single policy area fatally reduces the NDP’s capacity for progressive positions. The NDP refuses to seriously address the revenue/tax issue. Conservative and Liberal tax cuts have lopped off between $50 and $80 billion a year in revenue without which the NDP can do virtually nothing to reverse the dismantling of the social democratic features of the federal state.

To be fair to the NDP the other missing element in national politics are robust, grassroots social and labour movements whose role it is to move the ideological and political goal posts to the left. With the aforementioned media ready and willing to trash any policy or party that steps outside the bounds of what is acceptable to Bay Street, it is not difficult to understand the NDP’s reluctance to provide bold leadership on critical issues. Without social movements creating the political space an electoral machine party is vulnerable when it comes to taking bold positions.

Two recent examples of the NDP taking advantage of political space created by social movement organizations demonstrate how it should work. Last year the NDP alarmed social activists with statements suggesting broad acceptance of corporate rights (“free trade”) deals, including the odious CETA deal with the EU. But recently, both Don Davies the NDP trade critic and Mulcair himself have come out clearly against the investor-state provisions of these deals — provisions that neutralize government’s capacity for legislation by allowing corporations to sue governments directly for laws that affect their profitability. That change followed effective grassroots campaigns against CETA and FIPA, the 31-year deal with China.

On the tax front the NDP has taken a strong position on the issue of tax havens. While this is an easy one to lead on (not even the Taxpayers Federation can find a way to defend crooks), the party’s position is strongly reinforced by an effective campaign by the group Canadians for Tax Fairness. It remains to be seen if the party will take on tougher tax issues like increasing personal and corporate income taxes and whether the fair tax movement is there to back it up.

While these are positive signs for progressive politics, they are rearguard actions aimed primarily at stopping things from getting even worse. There is another political world out there that is the elephant in the room — the need for a steady state, low growth economy, bringing finance capital to heel and dealing with the rapidly unfolding climate crisis. The formal political scene still operates as if it is business as usual, incapable in its current state of seriously addressing the most important issues facing humanity. At some point progressive forces are going to have to come to grips with the need to change the way they do politics both at the party level and the civil society level. Both branches of progressive politics are in desperate need of fundamental change though at this point there is little appreciation of this fact.

It will require an enormous effort in both camps which have institutionalized their approaches to politics to such an extent they cannot see the need for change. It is difficult to imagine the NDP suddenly returning to its CCF roots and once again becoming a movement rooted in community. History does not move backwards and there is no grassroots push within the NDP membership for developing a movement/party that actually engages ordinary citizens on a year round basis.

Similarly, the remnants of what were once robust and effective social movements are (with some important exceptions) increasingly weak, demoralized and isolated. Small wonder. The context for the creation of these single-issue movements was the early Trudeau era when governments actually listened to citizens’ groups while expanding the social and economic role of governments. The efficacy of this kind of civil society organizing has however been in a steady decline since the signing of the FTA with the U.S. What is now needed is a broad social movement which incorporates all of the issues now dealt with by hundreds of disconnected organizations.

It all has to do with recovering community and the commons. The destruction of community has been the great success of the right. When Margaret Thatcher stated there was “no such thing as society” she was not describing current reality — she was describing her goal. It has been largely achieved in English-speaking developed countries. If we are to even begin to address our share of the global crises we will have to do it by creating a political culture that reinvents the commons and ends people’s isolation from each other.

It’s a difficult and long-term task — likely as long as the right has been dominant. There is at least one reason for optimism on this front — the recent coming together the CAW and CEP unions to launch Unifor, billed as a reinvention of unionism “for the unemployed and self-employed, a union for women and young workers — a union for everyone.” That sounds a lot like a union rooted not just in the workplace but in the community. It will, we can hope, be a challenge to the rest of the labour movement which finds itself in a state of embattled relevance in the struggle for a better world.

But, how, in the next five to ten years, can civil society organize in such a way as to reverse the decline of community and transition from “silo” politics? A key to this goal is to be found at the level of civic politics. It is the level of government closest to people in their daily lives and presents a scale of politics with the most potential for community building. There are scattered efforts across the country to elect progressive councils but the left needs to focus serious resources and planning if civic politics is to become the battleground for changing the political culture.

The right has already thrown down the gauntlet. Preston Manning’s Centre for Building Democracy announced this spring that it is putting major resources into civic politics to help conservative candidates take over city and town councils across the country. It’s the last field of battle for the hearts and minds of Canadians. We had better show up.

MURRAY DOBBIN, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years.  He now writes a bi-weekly column for the on-line journals the Tyee and rabble.ca. He can be reached at murraydobbin@shaw.ca