May 05, 2005
Political no longer Personal
Briefly, there has been a social democratic party in Canada since 1932. Its original program was a cooperative, people-based, variant of FDR’s New Deal. Over the seven decades of its life, along with changing its name from the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) to the New Democratic Party (NDP), it has jettisoned much of its original program, including nationalization of basic industries. It has formed many provincial governments, but it has never gained enough seats in the Parliament to form the federal government. Still, Canada owes much of its social infrastructure to this party’s activity at the provincial and federal levels. These include a universal health insurance system, workers compensation, pensions, unemployment insurance, and so on.
The NDP has been Canada’s economic “system of checks and balances.” It has been the conscience of the Canadian political system, in that (1) it has helped to rein in the more outrageous tendencies of Canada’s various conservative parties, and (2) it has forced the middle-of-the-road Liberal Party of Canada to try to attract and co-opt the NDP’s natural constituency through imitating the NDP’s platform during elections, and returning to its usual do-nothing shift-with-the-wind posture once elections are over.
Canada’s conservative and moderate parties are guided by the NDP’s spirit, but they don’t enjoy being so guided. Still, they have no choice. The NDP represents the political, social, and economic aspirations of a very significant section of the Canadian population. In the same way that the NDP’s political activity is shaped by what it can wrest from the governing parties, the activity of the other parties comes to be shaped by political maneuvers whose aim is to avoid giving in to the NDP’s demands.
For instance, the former Reform Party (an ultra-conservative party, by Canadian standards) based its original platform around the notions of “fiscal responsibility,” and also accountability and recall of elected members of Parliaments. Such standards, although they sound fine, would in fact lead to paralysis of the federal government, making the realization of the NDP’s objectives impossible.
The Liberal Party, on the other hand, has always portrayed itself as the utmost in social progress that the country can afford, hence making the NDP’s platform appear unrealistic and utopian.
Until recently, the NDP fought its battles on two distinct fronts, against conservatism and liberalism. I believe the two fronts have recently merged with one another. In other words, a kind of collusion and collaboration seems to be in the works between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, with the aim of eliminating their “conscience” once and for all. What is even more significant is that each of the two parties seems to be willing almost to wager its own survival on the outcome of the contest.
In the latest federal elections, in 2004, the Liberal government was reduced to minority status in the Parliament. Currently, the Conservative Party is trying to bring the government down. The NDP, on the other hand, is trying to prop the government up, at least until the proposed budget, a very progressive ones by Liberal standards, is passed.
All this is normal politics. This time, though, something is curiously different about it. The Conservative Party’s leader, Stephen Harper, until last week a staunch neo-conservative, has suddenly developed a social conscience. On medicare, the Kyoto accord, and some other important social issues, Harper now sounds like an NDP’er. On the other hand, Paul Martin’s Liberal government, having proposed a budget that is almost like a hypothetical NDP budget, and having persuaded Jack Layton, the NDP leader, to prop up the government by offering to increase social spending, has gone back to stressing “fiscal responsibility” and tax cuts for big corporations as the lifeblood of sound economics. It is as if the two major parties had come to an agreement regarding what good governance entails, and hence there were no need for a third party to needle them on. They have managed to make the NDP seem redundant.
I do believe that a similar process is visible in many other countries, including the United States. The battles between mainstream political parties are pushing the truly progressive forces in society onto the sidelines. This, I suggest, is not an accidental outcome, but rather a purpose of the exercise.
Under these circumstances, the unity of progressive forces assumes primary importance. We can no longer afford to let the political establishment exploit the fissures within the progressive movement to destroy it. We cannot be just for medicare, or just for the environment, and so on. If we are divided, we will lose everything, because social issues, to the major parties, are just levers to get them elected. They have no deep abiding interest in anything that benefits the majority.
That is why I think progressive politics can no longer be personal politics. My proposed slogan for the current period would be: “I am not you, but we are both against …” The other side of the issue is that things are so desperate that we desperately need allies, and cannot afford to alienate anyone by our orthodoxy or system of priorities/preferences/issues.
The mainstream liberal’s prescription is: “if you don’t want to be a part of the problem, be a part of the solution,” that is, recycle and so on. But if one is only a part of the solution, one is in fact helping to perpetuate the problem, especially in an age when the possibility of cooperative social solutions to problems is being denied. What is needed is not piecemeal solutions, but rather the removal of the problematic itself. And that can only be achieved through unity.
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