Monday, July 13, 2015

Reconfiguring Progressive Politics Part II: Something Other than Socialism

Last blog I argued that it would be a mistake to see the NDP and Liberals, historically, as the "left" and that the discursive linking of socialism with liberalism is, in fact, politics and bad analysis. I think, however, that the chances of a greater connection between the NDP and the Liberal Party is better now than it has ever been. This is not a product of learning to cooperate. This is the result of a political reconfiguration through which both parties and Canada have passed. The Conservative Party of Canada was, in fact, a product of this reconfiguration. Whatever conservatism has come to mean, what became evident some time ago is that the variants of conservatism that had existed historically in Canada did not work in the sense that neither had the capacity to create a national political movement that could challenge an ascendant liberalism.  Does the same thing apply to the NDP and to the Liberal? Are we in a different historical moment?

I will argue yes. This does not mean that the parties will merge. I actually think that unlikely. But, it does mean that both parties are working on a very similar policy groundwork. The NDP's movement -- which has been underway for some time -- away from socialism and toward "progressive" politics is a case in point. Likewise, the Liberals have not abandoned civic nationalism but find that last generation's reform agenda is no longer a winning formula. The issue, however, involves more than winning. Political parties want to win. Let's take that as an assumption. But, political parties (as I've explained before) are not just vote getting machines. Yes, there are people in parties who don't really care too much about ideology. (I have a theory that these increase over time and I'll articulate that in a different blog.) But, by and large there are reasons why some people are Liberals and others Conservatives; some people are NDPers; others Bloc or Green. And that reason, I as suggested in my last blog, is that the ideological space of each party is not the same as the others. There may be moments compatibility or spaces of commonality, but by and large parties are different because the people who organize, staff, and maintain them are think differently about public issues. Hence, the supporters of political parties want to win but they are also drawn together out of common cause. Political re-organization occurs when that common cause is rethought. It could fracture a party (the PCs in the 1990s); broaden it (the CCF's transformation to the NDP). See its demise (the movement of progressive into the Liberals, what became the CCF, and the Tories) or its project defeated (Labour-Farmer in NS). Often, however, parties retool internally, shifting their focus through policy congresses, leadership, the weight of circumstances. This, I would argue, is what has gone on with the NDP over a fairly long period of time.

Retooling the NDP

The NDP has retooled at different point in its history ... and failed to retool. Originally, the NDP started as the CCF, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, a social gospel inspired form of socialism that called for the democratic displacement of capitalism and the development of a different type of government and economy ... you guessed it: the cooperative commonwealth. The CCF was only one of a series of leftist political parties in Canada at the time it emerged in the 1930s and, in fact, was fairly late on the scene.  There is a great deal of very good scholarship on this subject so we don't need to go into it in detail but socialist parties and movements of various sorts had existed in Canada for a couple of generations by the time the CCF arrived on the scene. Some of these were revolutionary; others milder, but all believed that capitalism was an odd an a-moral economic system that created deep social divisions, economic dysfunction (poverty), and social conflict. In other words, a capitalist economy was a socially bad type of thing that promised conflict, divisions, dysfunction, and social harm. What the CCF did was pick up on this idea, firmly link the displacement of capitalism to democratic processes, and connect the problems of farmers and other small producers to working class conflicts. In effect, if you worked ... you were in the same boat. Being a socialist did not require one to be revolutionary, except perhaps in one's vision of the future.  Fundamental reforms could be won through the regular institutions of electoral democracy by contesting and winning elections.

Exactly what a non-capitalist economy looked like is challenging to both describe and, in this day and age, to envision. For CCFers, however, it took the form of de-commodification.  The objective was to progressively expand the range of services and goods, etc., that were not subject to the logic of the market. This is an important consideration because the logic of the market is different than most people think it is. We live, today, with a feel good view of capitalism that is not really what capitalism is all about (which is why people are often dissatisfied with it). If you want a quick refresher about the character and nature of capitalism as an economic system, you might want to have a look at the "myths of capitalism" series of blogs I penned a while ago. A good example of commodification might medical care, because it is one with which Canadians are familiar.

De-commodification does not mean that no one gets paid. People still do. What it means is that the value of the product and its provision is not determined by the market. Thus, for instance, in a market-driven health care system, one pays for a service by negotiating a price. Don't like the price demanded by the provider, you don't get the service. From the perspective of health-care providers, the issue is who offers more for the service. You could, for instance, treat person X but since they can't pay, you treat person Y and person X goes without care, regardless of the relative severity of the illness in question. A de-commodified service organizes payment differently and prioritizes care differently. It prioritizes care, for instance, not be ability to pay but by need. It organizes payment not through a market by via non-market mechanisms.  Underlying this system is a basic value:  the a-morality of capitalism (whoever pays the most gets first in line) is not good enough in dealing with people's lives. Individuals should not be bankrupted after a lifetime of hard work because they, their partner, or child becomes ill. The lives of poor or middle class children are just as valuable as the lives of children who happen to be born into rich families.

We de-commodify other things in our society, too. This does not make them perfect. Attaining a de-commodified non-market basis for the provision of goods and services does not mean that history ends. We can still improve things, but we have found that some things are better provided on this basis. Education, for instance, is less expensive to provide on a de-commodified basis and fairer. Most roads do not charge fees or public parks or beaches. We don't have the competitive provision of police services or fire protection. In other words, there are many things that, over time, we have agreed to a socialist logic for.  The objective of the CCF was to extend this logic by using the stage to organize the provision of goods and services.

How far would the CCF have gone? That is not clear. The CCF, for instance, does not seem to have harboured any animosity toward small business people (particularly but not exclusively farmers) who, it believed, were harm by the logic of capitalism, too. There were, then, matters of debate and discussion. The cooperative commonwealth was likely never intended to displace all market transactions but to ensure fairness, impede conflict, and promote an alternative idea of a de-commodified approach to goods and services where this saved money, ensured higher levels of fairness, and improved society.


The development of the NDP, which replaced the CCF in 1961 by linking it more directly to organized labour, represented an effort to broaden the base of the CCF. In addition to a more direct connection to organized labour (which it hoped would provide votes for the party), the NDP also hoped to made inroads into progressive members of the middle class.  Exactly how this would be attained, however, was not clear. The most innovative idea was industrial democracy. Exactly what this entailed is difficult to specify and whether it ever would have worked in practice is unknown. But, it was an effort to rethink the economy and what a leftist economy would look like. If de-commodification addressed issues of the provision of goods and services, industrial democracy approach the economy from the other direction. Was it possible to organize a workforce in a large industry on other grounds. Could one create workers control, a long-time ideal of socialism, by having the same people work and run the business in which they work?

For one reason or another this idea just did not fly. As I will indicate, later, I think it might be time to rethink it. But, its failure left the NDP with good rhetoric, popular leaders, but something less than a platform that could appeal broadly in Canadian society. The NDP periodically garnered support for opposition to globalization, but had less success in translating that support into an agenda that they could carry into government. They also fell afoul of the identity politics that plagued Canada in the late 1980s and 1990s. Generally, NDPers were sympathetic to the concerns of Quebecers, but this sympathy harmed them in the charged atmosphere that produced the Reform and the Canadian Alliance. Likewise, NDP support for tolerance, diversity, and immigration did not "play well" in that climate. Moreover, those who opposed reactionary policies tended to rally under the banner of the Liberals, viewed as the only party that could actually maintain national unity and maintain traditional values (such as support for diversity), in the face of rising intolerance in other sectors of society.

Finally, the NDP did not necessarily score well with the general population on economic issues. This was not just anti-leftist ideology. The truth of the matter was that the NDP had a strong record of opposition to neo-liberal economic "reforms" that reintroduced some seriously harmful economic measures, but they actually had little idea of how to proceed if they were to attain power. The recent NDP government in NS is a good example. I don't think the NS NDP represents national trends. I think, in fact, they represented an older iteration of the NDP. After winning election ... they simply did not know what to do with the economy. Their policies, to be sure, were better than some of the alternatives but their inability to forge a leftist direction for the economy led them back into a peace alliance, of course, with the same large scale enterprises they were elected to oppose. In other words, in the absence of a clear policy, the NS NDP fell back on the ideas of other political parties.

Progressivism Today

The federal NDP is, I think, different because it has had longer to rethink its direction and longer to plan its and the country's future. I won't necessarily be voting NDP. OK, who am I kidding, we all know I won't be voting NDP, but the current shift to a language of progressivism -- again, a while in developing -- represents a step toward formulating a serious alternative to neo-liberalism. What does progressivism entail? Well, this blog is getting too long, to be sure. There are, I think a number of parts to it and so I'll save those for the next entry I make.
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