On the face of it, an election in which the NDP defeated the Harper Conservatives would seem to signal a welcome shift to the left. A lot of social justice and union activists would wake up on October 20 with some sense of expanded possibilities. The Harper government has embraced an austerity agenda, attacked federal public sector unions and enthusiastically participated in the so-called “war on terror.” The Tories have worked to restrict voting rights, massively attacked the rights of migrants and worked deliberately against the basic needs and sovereignty of indigenous peoples. This government is Israel’s biggest cheerleader and a hard core opponent of policy changes to address climate change. So social justice and anti-austerity activists should be happy to see Harper off.
But the platform the NDP is running on in this election is not very different than Harper’s. The party leadership is tightly policing this NDP campaign, to the extent of firing candidates on the basis of their expressions of solidarity with Palestine. If the NDP forms the government is quite likely that the initial elation of October 20 will lead to a sense of bitter disappointment as the politics of austerity continue in much the same form with a supposedly more left-wing government. Indeed, the fact that an NDP government is doing the cutting could contribute to a deeper sense among activists that there is no alternative.
The NDP’s promises
The NDP campaign has highlighted some important policy promises, like raising the federal minimum wage, dramatically expanding childcare by making $15 a day services available across Canada, and repealing the Harper government’s Bill C-51 – a piece of legislation that is a dramatic attack on freedom of expression and basic human rights in the name of national security.
But there is no bold break with austerity and cuts in the NDP platform. The NDP has committed itself to a balanced budget, leaving it with no resources to mount a serious fight against poverty, meet needs for health and education, develop public housing or properly fund human services. The 2% increase in the corporate tax rate promised in the NDP economic plan is insufficient to shift the policy frame. NDP leader Mulcair praises small business and manufacturers, indicating that their economic strategy is but a slight variation on Harper’s bluntly pro-business agenda. Though they might reverse the worst of the Harper attacks on First Nations, the NDP has not seriously addressed indigenous sovereignty or migrants’ rights.
So the impact of a major NDP breakthrough will likely be contradictory: the elation of the victory party followed by the crash of realizing we are being offered more of the same austerity politics. Some activists try to protect themselves from this up and down pattern by simply denouncing the NDP for its tepid demands and inevitable sell-out. I am not convinced we can end the story there.
The NDP and social democracy
The NDP as a political formation has certain characteristics that have historically distinguished it from the other mainstream parties in Canadian politics. This has meant that the NDP has been worthy of special attention from movement and trade union activists. This special attention does not necessarily mean endorsement or approval.
The NDP, like similar social democratic and labour parties around the world, grew out of the struggles of the working class and others deprived of their rights. Members of the working class, women, people of colour and queers fought their way in to democratic participation in Canada and elsewhere. This democratic participation included both the right to vote and wider social rights such as access to education, social assistance, health care, human rights codes and the elimination of certain specifically repressive laws.
Social democratic parties basically grew with the specific project of representing the working class (and allied groups) within the bounds of capitalism and official democracy. This is necessarily a contradictory project. On the one hand, it developed a class politics distinct from that of the traditional ruling parties, such as the Liberals and Conservatives in Canada. On the other hand, it yoked the ambitions of working-class people and others resisting the system to bureaucratic rule and the limited horizons of reforms compatible with capitalist profitability.
A vote for the NDP can be seen as preferable to a vote for the parties organically linked to corporations. The NDP is formally tied to the trade union movement and a class vote can be seen as a small step forward in consciousness. Further, an NDP vote can be connected to an orientation towards broader layers of the working class, reaching beyond the very small minority already radicalized.
Radicals face the challenging strategic task of moving between the militant minority, who are already committed to activist mobilization, and the much wider layers of the working class who are not already engaged in protest or resistance. A successful strike, for example, requires a genuine mandate from the workers or students involved and real mobilization of the base, including those not previously supportive of any kind of collective action. This means radical activists need to understand the concerns of those who are not already radicalized or committed to fighting back, and be able to credibly offer a strategy that will contribute to change.
The official political system is deeply bound to capitalism at every level. Parliamentary democracy is not a route to socialism. Yet this system is not simply a trick invented by the ruling class to hoodwink workers into believing the system is just. It is also the outcome of long struggles by working people and others who were excluded from the system to fight for participation.
Elections activate large numbers of people around politics. This must be important for radicals, who seek to politicize life to show that the current way of doing things is not inevitable. For example, workplace activists seek to politicize work, mobilizing to build a counter-power to push back against management. It should be painful for radicals to be totally on the margins when masses of people are talking about politics and working to make change.
Neoliberalism and social democracy
This is why social democracy deserves a special engagement by radicals. For example, we should be particularly outraged that the NDP is stamping on Palestine solidarity to the extent of booting out candidates simply because they have expressed those views. If the NDP is the political expression of a wing of the working-class movement, it makes sense to make demands on it that we would not make on the Liberals or Conservatives.
But this engagement with social democracy must include a genuine assessment of the damage these parties do. Around the world, social democratic parties have played a crucial role in legitimizing neoliberalism and making the politics of cutbacks and a pro-corporate agenda seem inevitable.
In Ontario, for example, the NDP government of Bob Rae (1990-1995) actually prepared the ground for the overtly neoliberal Harris government in key policy areas ranging from trade union rights to education reform. In Britain, the Labour government that followed Thatcher’s Conservatives stuck to the same course, including full participation in the 2003 war on Iraq.
It can be hugely deflating for activists when the party that supposedly represents our hopes does many of the same things as our sworn enemies. Indeed, it is worth asking at this point whether the defining features of social democracy historically are still relevant in this neoliberal era.
Yes, the NDP is still rooted in the labour movement, but the movement has shrunk in important ways and most unions are relatively demobilized by low strike rates and an impoverished inner life, with low levels of membership participation and no organized currents of rank and file activists. Further, the party has no ongoing relationship with members of the working class outside the unionized minority, including low-paid temporary, part-time or contract workers who are disproportionately workers of colour.
The NDP itself has become a much emptier political space, increasingly dominated by the parliamentary leadership with reduced democratic participation by the membership. The level of debate inside the party has fallen, in part due to the overall decline in activist mobilization.
And the question of working-class majorities is a complicated one for radicals. This is not, for example, an argument for subordinating minority needs or rights to the biases of the majority. For example, a commitment to indigenous sovereignty requires a rejection of the ideas of social inclusion and citizenship that are the classic basis of social democracy, and the adoption of a different politics based on the recognition that settler colonialism is a crucial defining characteristic of the Canadian state that must be overturned with redress for the record of genocide, dispossession and destruction.
Transforming the mainstream
Ultimately, radicals who seek serious change must be committed to a politics of transforming the mainstream. This means avoiding either self-marginalization based on political purity or mainly accepting the mainstream as it is.
Transformation takes place as people enter into activism and begin to change themselves. Such activity can take a variety of forms, including participation in electoral politics. Real activism creates a new hunger for knowledge, as well as a sense of confidence and responsibility. It forges collectivity that provides the basis for a counter-power that can challenge parliamentary rule and the dictatorship of employers in the workplace.
It is unclear what the relationship between such a transformative strategy and social democratic parties is in today’s neoliberal times. For example, the recent election of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in Britain has been welcomed by many as a sign that some sort of activist renewal might be generated to challenge the re-elected Cameron Tories. Yet without a rebuilding of collective capacities within the working class, these hopes will be dashed on the shoals of the capitalist state that are always just beneath the surface of parliamentary democracy. And there is no reason to expect a Corbyn-like challenge to Mulcair for leadership of the NDP.
The transformation of work and life by neoliberal capitalism has weakened existing forms of activism and organization. The NDP and the trade union machines are the only mass organizations of the left. Yet these are generally deeply embedded in the neoliberal agenda.
The challenge for radicals is to carve out political space between the casual dismissal of the NDP and boosterism or tailing the party. Until we can actually create a radical political alternative to the NDP that offers a different way of engaging with mainstream political debate, we have to take the NDP seriously as the one party with a special relationship to organized workers (unless we conclude that it has been so transformed by neoliberalism that it no longer has any meaningful connection to working-class resistance).
In the absence of an alternative, I am voting NDP – hoping for that moment of celebration when we kick out Harper, and bracing for the shattering impact of the inevitable disappointments by building our resistance capacities.
Alan Sears is a member of Toronto New Socialists and the author of The Next New Left: A History of the Future.