Friday, July 10, 2015

Reconfiguring Progressive Politics Part I: Something Other than Socialism

In Reds, Rebels, Radicals, Ian McKay argues that there are a variety of ways to be a leftist in Canada. Leftism is less a specific and unchanging set of doctrines than an historically evolving political philosophy that moves to address different issues at different times as these gain importance because of changed circumstances. This much, one supposes, might be said about all political movements but McKay's point is a useful reminder because of the tendency in the media to treat the left as a single perspective that never changes: once a socialist, always a socialist. Exactly what it means to be "on the left" these days is, however, a matter of discussion (although not necessarily debate), the changed historical circumstances in which the political left finds itself operating, and its own efforts to define a meaningful politics and set of public policies that can produce stable alternatives to what it sees at the misguided policies that have reigned over Canada for longer than a decade.

A few blogs ago, I tried to address the confusing mish-mash of Canadian conservatism and what it means as a political option for Canadians. In this blog, I'd like to look more directly the NDP, and to some extent the Liberal Party, to try to engage the other options Canadians will have before them when they turn to the polls this fall. One of the mistakes that the political right has made, has been to assume that the Liberals and NDP are basically the same. Taking a page from American conservatives, Canadian conservatives got into the habit of referring to everyone who was not conservative as "left." Indeed, there was even some discursive connection of the liberalism with socialism.  No less a figure that Stephen Harper, in fact, made such statements. It would be difficult to overstate how wrong this perspective actually is. What I want to do here is trace the development of what I will ultimately call "progressive" politics to set the stage for a further consideration of its current manifestations, which I'll likely address in a blog after this one.

Socialism and Civic Nationalism

Part of this connection of liberalism with socialism (the Liberal Party with the NDP) was political.  It was a cheap effort to get votes by calling opponents names. Deployed against liberals, it became an odd sort of red baiting. Another part of it was political blindness. For a variety of reasons, commentators on the left simply did not understand the distinctions between post-WW II Canadian liberalism and the socialism (or, social democracy, if one prefers that term) of the NDP. There were, in fact, important and appreciative difference on the level of policy and philosophy even if individual supporters of one party or the other could periodically move fluidly between them. The distinction between liberals and socialists was not who was more progressive (or, who was the "real" progressive, or words to that effect) but distinctions of ideology that were, on some level, fundamental.

In the past, I have called the liberalism that came to dominate Canada after WW II "civic nationalism" and the name remains as  good as any name. It was organized around a series of beliefs that focused on the individual and its protection in society. This included equality of opportunity, Charter rights, regional development programmes, a commitment to accepting diversity, and other measures, such as bilingualism. I am not saying that all these different policies fit together seamlessly, but they were, more or less, a coherent policy framework that was implemented in a reformist measure with the broad support of middle-class Canadians and which served to re-tool Canada. Voting Liberal, in other words (and I will have more to say on this later), meant something specific. It meant supporting a specific vision of the country and its future.

Voting NDP (or, for a socialist or social-democratic option) meant something else. Again, for purposes of analysis, we should put our views as to which perspective is better on hold. In other words, we should not be partisan and array a hierarchy of ideological perspectives.  Canadian socialists -- who by and large inhabited the NDP -- did not reject diversity politics or oppose bilingualism or Charter rights, but were, simply, interested in different matters. These included labour codes, workplace health and safety, industrial democracy, limiting connections between the state and big business, finding mechanisms to address the social inequalities of power in Canadian society, working-class wages. In other words, they were different; not better; not worse. Different.

The confusion between the NDP and Liberals, between socialism and civic nationalism, then, arose from a variety of factors including: conservative politics and an effort to win votes by lumping their opponents together; an inability of right-wing commentators to understand the distinction between civil nationalism and socialism; an imported American rhetorical framework that divided all politics up into "left" and "right" in a way that broached no further diversity. And, I would also argue that they NDP confused matters themselves because they fished off the same pier, as it were, as the Liberals. For example, they were passionate defenders of minority groups. Indeed, they were likely more passionate than the civic nationalists who looked to find means to protect minorities as individuals who faced discrimination. And, they could use the same mechanisms (Charter rights) as liberals to make their defence. Economically, Canadian socialists -- sometime after WW II -- stopped talking about supplanting capitalism, made their peace with it, and looked to modify and manage it. There were important differences between the civic nationalist and socialist view of the economy but both believed in some form of management via the state. If liberals continued to believe in capitalism (which they did) ... oddly, so too did the NDP in practice. Theoretically, Canadian socialists argued against capitalism; in practice they accepted it and used liberal economic management tools.

Progressive Politics in Practice

What did this mean? A number of things:

1. Canadians who were looking to cast non-conservative, more progressive (for lack of a better word)  votes had different options and those options were not a question of who was more progressive than the other. They were different visions of the future.

2. In practice, however, this difference could be confused and compromised both because of the politics of manipulation and because of some degree of convergence on means (even if the ends remained distinct).

3. Long-term success for the federal Liberal Party of Canada. As is well known, the federal Liberals ruled the roost for most of the last half of the twentieth century. If we begin after WW II, we have Liberal governments in power from 1945-57; 1963-84 (with the Clark interregnum), and 1993-2006.  We don't need to get into this history. Civic nationalism did not "win over" Canada. It was clearly buoyed by the idiosyncrasies of the First Past the Post System. This allow it translate its support among a plurality of Canadians ... into majorities of working minorities in Parliament.

4. NDP -- socialism -- remained a minority option for Canadians. While drawing committed support from an not insignificant number of people, the NDP tended to succeed provincially in areas where liberalism was weak, class politics increased political polarization, and  the middle class tended to look to conservatism (as opposed the liberalism) as its political home.


I mention all of these points because, for a long time, I was rather down on the idea that the NDP and the Liberals could be anything other than temporary allies, which, historically, has been precisely the case. Even when they might have competed over the same voters, they saw the world differently. They could cooperate, now and then, because they each saw the politics of conservatism as something to be avoided, but this did not mean that they parties could or would merge or even work together (say, via strategic voting).  The reason for this was patently evident to most of the activists in both parties: they could not merge because they were different. Resistance to abandoning the NDP, for instance, was not just a dislike of Liberals (say, Martin or Chretien, each of whom could talk a progressive game) or personal political ambition. It was a sense that there was a fundamental incompatibility to the parties.

And, I think, by and large this was right. This is what I have tried to explain above. Supporting the NDP meant something different form supporting the Liberals.

A question that we have to ask, I think, and an important one, is this: is this any longer the case? If there was, say, a fundamental incompatibility between, say, industrial democracy and civil nationalism, does this type of incompatibility still exist today. Is the NDP a socialist political party any longer or ... if it is ... what is 21st century Canadian socialism? Can -- will? -- the civic nationalism of the Trudeau-Chretien era still appeal to Canadians? Are the political circumstances of today so different that its appeal might be more or less moot, as the need to address other issues and different problems becomes more pressing for the electorate?

There are no easy answers to this question. I will argue in my next blog, however, that the NDP is moving toward trying to address them by defining what we might call (and, what they do call) a "progressive" agenda for Canada. What this entails, is what I'll next address.
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