May 05, 2005

Political no longer Personal

I am going to use the current political situation in Canada to illustrate a topic I have been thinking about. I hope my non-Canadian readers, who are in the majority, will stay with me, because I think this may interest you as well. In fact, the point I have been thinking about has to do exactly with the fact that, in the current political epoch, we can’t afford to let our personal interests and attachments, such as our nationality, dictate our political thought and activity, that is, our “praxis.” For the first time in recent history, the very notion of progressive politics itself may be under attack.

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.


The probligo said...

I suspect, Al, that the piece missing from your jigsaw is the one that has the words "self interest" written on it.

"Self interest" on the politicians' side is doing what is necessary to be re-elected.

"Self interest" on the side of the electors is the propensity that 40% of electors have to "follow the party"; that the next 40% of electors have to vote "for the best deal promised for me".

That leaves the 20% who either do not want to understand or can not; or whose cynicism has reached the point that they pick their votes with a pin.

What you are seeing is political ambition rampant, jobs are on the line at the next election and the queue starts here...

Immoral Majority said...

I share your belief in the need for unity, but who sets the agenda?

Here in the US before the election last year, many liberals took the position that the only way to beat Bush was to demand absolute loyalty to the Democrats. Air America radio was especially guilty of this. Callers who supported Nader suffered so much verbal abuse that I felt like I was listening to Rush Limbaugh.

I voted for John Kerry, even though I disagree with most of his politics. He was pro-death penalty, opposed to gay marriage, and demonstrated that he would continue the current US policy toward Israel and Iraq. Despite sharing few if any progressive goals, progressives united under him, allowing him to set the agenda.

I believe that for this reason, the kind of unity you suggest is dangerous, not only because progressive goals get lost in the process of trying to encompass everyone, but also because of the fact that this attitude seems to result in a very week candidate, one who is afraid of taking too strong of a stand for or against anything.

It would be great if everyone could unite under the most radical progressive agenda imaginable, but that just doesn't seem feasible, and even if it were, the conservatives would still be right there to do everything they can to stop any progress.

I wish I could suggest an alternative, but it seems that nothing short of a radical shift in the ideology of mainstream society would really be effective even to fight the conservatives, much less make actual progress.

I don't know much about the Canadian political climate, so maybe (I hope) the situation up there is not as bleak as it seems down here.

Sushi said...

Well all I know is that in the US our Liberal or "Green Party" is making it almost impossible for us to get a Democratic president in by swaying just enough of the votes to give Republican the edge.

And what really makes this an idiotic gesture is that the Green party is essentially the same as Democrat except on a few minor issues that the Liberals were, well too conservative to sway on, yes I know an oxymoron but that's how it's working.

And we really needed a Democrat president this term. We literally have an underground martial law with the INS, FBI and CIA and Police Agencies all having the power to pretty much murder entire families and sweep it under the rug. And it's happened, not in so many words, but it's happened, and is still happening, and is getting worse. We have the makings of a 3rd Reich Regime takeover and people are just too concerned with paying the bills to notice.

The Patriot act has enabled the extermination of anyone the Government sees as "enemy combatants". They use this word over and over and over trying to make little children born and raised here sound like terrorists. If the administration wanted to, it does right now have the power to start rounding up every Arab-American, or even American of Arab Descent, and murdering them down in Guantanimo bay and getting away with it clean.

We seriously have some problems in our country right now that is scary. And no one knows it's happening. They see the news refer to people as enemy combatants but what they really don't know is that those enemy combatants were 13 year old kids born and raised here, who go to school with their children, who wear billabong and hurley t-shirts, baggy jeans, and backwards hats, and listen to 50 cent, eminem and Missy Elliot just like any other kid.

I don't know what to do, our country has the power and is killing people and covering it up and I'm only scratching surface deep to find this stuff. Imagine what someone who knew what they were doing could uncover.

Food for thought, USA could very easily turn into the next Nazi party. With leaders targeting specific racial groups and calling them enemies to enable their new Patriot Act given powers to go out and kill or detain anyone who "Presents a Clear and Present Danger". It's terrifying knowing this is happening right now as we speak.

Al S. E. said...

There are some fundamental differences between Canadian and US politics. In any case, it would be presumptuous of me to offer specific suggestions to US progressives. I would just like to ask you to think back to the debates between Kerry and Bush. Forget the political content of the debates, and just think of the way these two men behaved towards each other as individuals. The genuinely cordial nature of their body language and gestures towards each other was curious and conspicuous, and went far beyond ordinary civility and the requirements of playing the political game. These two men acted like old friends! Whatever this behaviour may or may not have meant, it was, I think, a symbol of what we are up against.

As pointed out in IM’s comment, the US Left had no real alternative but to vote for Kerry, even though Kerry stood for many of the things that the Left is opposed to. The way I would put the same point is to say that Kerry felt the historical conjuncture and the power relations in society were such that he could get away with a platform abhorred by the Left.

For this reason, I think it may be necessary for US progressives, or perhaps progressives everywhere, to recall that the political battle is only a sideshow. The real battle is about class struggle and economic power. The real battle is not between Republicans and Democrats, but rather between progressives and the powers-that-be. It is for this reason that I have called for unity in this post.

Unity is needed so we don’t end up fighting the wrong battles, taking tactical targets for strategic ones. Also, the strategic target is, of necessity, inclusive.

atlien said...

While I agree with this post and that we need more REAL diversity and REAL coalition building between political parties instead of lip-service to accomplish economic objectives, I thought I would give a link to a blog by a soldier in Iraq for some pictures and perspective on what is actually transpiring down there.

chrisbaker said...

Nice blog. I didn't know that I was linked on here. Awesome! I guess I'll have to start posting again and come out of retirement.

Cris Peters said...


The problem with Canadian Government is that the minority leadership role of the Liberals is not strong enough to stop the parties from squabbling and promising everything to everybody. We see in Gomery the excesses of a party gone too far into its own balliwick to sustain its own political weight but that pales in comparison to the Neocons in Washington. It is interesting that the Quebec situation now becomes even more complicated because if the federalists try to promote unity it will be looked upon with derision but if they don't, Quebec may succeed.

jomama said...

Look for the Death of Politics
coming soon to a theater near you.

I'm of the opposite persuasion in
that I believe the old Discordian
saying will soon come true:

"We must all stick apart."

siouxee said...

glad to see a fellow Canadian so interested in our political structure and functions.

Thomas said...

A financially bankrupt society cannot prevent the moral bankruptcy of it's people. You must balance what you want your society to become with what you are capable of supporting once it becomes it.

We don't need a Democrat or a Republican in the White House: We need someone who isn't party slave and will act in the best interest of this country.

Democrats represent the most Stalinesque socialist forces in this country. Republicans represent the most facist. If you don't believe in either, then you cannot, must not, claim to be either. If you do, you are supporting the two bigest enemies of this Country.