Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Reconfiguring Progressive Politics Part III: Something Other than Socialism

Recent efforts to the NDP to define and mobilize what we might call a "progressive" political coalition is not simply politics. It is not, for instance, just a political party looking to find some way to appeal to voters. I am sure that there are a few NDP partisans whose intentions might be less than noble but, by and large, the NDP is both part of and helping to organize a redefinition of the Canadian left, or what Ian McKay once called a "left formation." This begs two questions: what is a left formation and how does it affect Canadian public life?

A left formation represents an effort to define an alternative politics. It mobilizes a certain language the identifies problems and ways of responding to them. It involves political education: asking people to think about particular issues and raising questions for them. It involves political organization in an effort to win election (or, at least secure representation) that is intended to build a coalition that can challenge socially, economically, and politically powerful interests that otherwise organize state policy in their interests or, at the least, ignore issues that need to be addressed if the country is to improve.

There can - and should -- be a debate about what the word "improve" means. I have come of late to understand it means radically different things to different people and different political perspectives. (This is an important issue that I will address later.) But, in the case of the NDP and other "progressive" thinkers, there are specific considerations they take into account.

1) Society is riddled with inequalities that break down on a number of lines: gender, race, class, sexual orientation, disability, etc. These inequalities translate into various forms of social, economic, and political marginalization that deprives people of an equal voice in public affairs, imposes undue restrictions on equality of opportunity, and impedes the natural growth and development of people. For instance, it serves to perpetuate poverty over time. One goal of government is to address these inequalities in ways that break cycles of poverty or marginalization and which broaden access to the public sphere.

2) Inequalities also affect the character and scope of democracy. Because some people have an undue influence (by virtue of inequalities) on government, they misdirect government policies away from their proper end. Government should, for instance, be assuring high quality education, living and improving wages for workers, proper access to health care, and other like matters. It should not be providing tax cuts to already wealthy corporations or cutting needed and necessary public goods in order to balance the books.

3) The environment is important and we cannot have a false "jobs versus the environment" debate. The effect of this debate is to lead us to make decisions as a society that are not in the public interest. In particular, it leads us to continue to pollute the environment when there are alternatives that don't cost jobs. Canada needs to plan its move away from a carbon-based energy economy and toward a greener economy that provides for the future.

4) Canada is not playing a constructive role in international affairs. It used to. Its blind support of Israel, come what may, for instance, has led it away from its former ability to play the role of the honest broker and get a few things done. Canada did not bring peace to the middle east, but it is not  doing that now. In fact, its stance is more of an impediment to peace. But, its older approach was more humane and did positively affect people's lives. We need to find a way to regenerate that positive role.

5) There is a place for public goods in our economy. Whether it be roads, schools, science, or R and D, the state can and should play a role in society because it evens out the inequalities. There are financial constraints; no one says that there are not. But, we need to also acknowledge that there is more than one way to get things done and that some ways might have more social benefits than others. Everyone, for instance, benefits from higher levels of formal education, better roads, less waiting time for health care, and the like.

Now, we need, as always, to be careful.  Conservatives, for instance, might not disagree that there are problems with health care wait times. What they disagree with is solution to this problem. Their solution is (more or less) to expand privatization. We reduce health care wait times not by providing hospitals with the funding they need, but by allowing some people to buy their way to the head of the cue. This is a philosophical point. One either agrees with it or disagrees with it. Those who agree will say "why should I wait in line when ....?" Those who disagree say "why should a rich person have a small problem addressed, say plastic surgery, before a poor person's life is saved?" In other words, the "progressive" perspective favours need over wealth. It is, oddly, a very Christian perspective because it is about an ethics of care and priorities. Christians are (supposedly, at least) to be "their brother's keeper." One is supposed to be concerned about other people, their lives, their futures, their children, etc. One does not go in and boss them around, but one should help out if one has the chance. If it comes to a choice between the convenience of the wealthy and the health of the poor, we need (Christians say) to side with the poor.

What the NDP is part of, then, is an effort to build a specific vision of the country that will, in the event of a successful federal election, be implemented through policy. This is what the NDP is trying to do right now in Alberta. Where it does not do this -- develop ideas that can be implemented as policy as part of a vision for the future -- the NDP runs into problems, if it wins elections. It was, for instance, successful in Saskatchewan for a fair piece of time precisely because it knew what it was doing and where it wanted to go. Same thing in Manitoba (although there seems to be a bit of a loss of direction of late). In Ontario under Bob Rae and more recently in NS, the opposite was the case. The NDP won elections, but actually did not have a direction in which it clearly wanted to move. It had a bunch of ideas, philosophies, etc., and there were complicating factors (in the case of Ontario, an international economic downturn), but in both of those cases the party ended up alienating its own supporters.

I am not certain that these points I have articulated above amount to a "revolutionary" philosophy although I do think they are a reform agenda of serious importance that merits consideration. I can think of worse things that redefining Canada's role on the world stage to make the country more relevant. I can think of worse things that lower health care wait time as opposed to providing wealthy people with easier access to services that the rest of us will not be able to afford. What the NDP is attempting to do is to build a basis of support for these ideas by talking to people who, more or less, already favour them ... the ideas; not the party. The NDP, to be sure, reaches out to all types of voters as we saw provincially in Alberta. But, it particularly is interested in people who might share these ideas but who don't vote or don't support the NDP. The language of progressiveness is a rubric that both represents their ideas and defines a philosophy, a way to approach policy and public life.

This is, in my view, not socialism. Let me say that clearly: progressive politics is not socialism. If the CCF and the NDP were once socialists, the current NDP no longer is. A capitalist economy will continue to exist under the NDP. There will continue to be big business; markets will function. The stock market will not close down. If the CCF called for capitalism to replaced by the cooperative commonwealth, that was a long time ago. Those were ideas articulated as part of a transition to an industrial society and in the midst of a the great depression. If the NDP once thought about "industrial democracy," it gave up on that idea (for good or ill) over a generation ago. The type of progressive politics is different. And, that is not a bad thing. As I said in a previous blog, politics changes over time. Political philosophies and visions of nation should not be creatures of fad, but they also have to be right for the times. No one would hold any political movement to the ideas of the 1920s and rightly so because we do not live in the 1920s.

Other groups are attempting to politically organize "progressive" people as well. Here in NB, and also from what I can tell in PEI, the Green Party fishes in the same lake. While many Green supporters are people who, in fact, were not previously politically active, their message is a message that NDP supporters also like (particularly, in NB, owing to changes in the provincial party). In Quebec, QS supporters are more leftish, to be sure, but also reach out to a similar demographic. I do not know for sure, but I suspect the BQ will, as well, in the next federal election in Quebec.  NGOs, coalitions, lobby groups, and others may also be operative in the same political space. This is not unusual, but it does raise questions about how to proceed and whether or not people are willing to cross political boundaries or form temporary political alliances.

I do not know. What I do know is that the NDP has been far more successful so far than I imagined it would be, say, a number of years ago. Four years ago, in fact, NDP success was more or less laid at the feet of Jack Layton and, no doubt, he deserved a lot of credit. Regardless of what one thinks of progressive politics, his commitment should be admired. But, it is also clear that something other than a "we love Jack" movement was going on. It is evident that the success of the NDP represented a new coalescences of leftism, a potentially evolving new left formation. Where it goes from here ... is something that remains to be seen.
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