Canada’s Federal Election 2011: Should Radicals Care?

The 2011 federal election in Canada is taking place at a crucial moment. A massive wave of austerity is heading this way, after sweeping across Europe, the United States and much of the Global South. You just need to look at the attacks on pensions in France, the tripling of tuition fees in Britain, the devastation of public services in California or the elimination of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and a number of other states to see the kinds of attacks that are on the way.

The austerity agenda is basically neoliberalism hyped on speed, though it’s being presented as the necessary and inevitable response to the economic turbulence following the financial meltdown of 2008. The mantra of neoliberalism, which has been the core of the pro-capitalist policy agenda since the mid-1970s, is that the resources of the state must be focused on supporting the market system and corporate profitability, pushing people into the market to meet all their wants and needs.

The main feature of the austerity agenda at this point is a withering attack on the public sector. The rights, wages and working conditions of public sector workers are being pummeled. Massive layoffs are on the horizon. At the same time, governments are slashing or privatizing a wide range of public services (in areas such as health, education, welfare and transit) that have already been weakened through years of underfunding.

We can see that we’re entering the so-called “age of austerity”, and yet there is no way to vote against it in the upcoming federal election on May 2nd. Since the 2008 financial meltdown, governments of all political stripes have attempted to restore corporate profitability by taking over bad private sector debt and making the population pay through cuts to social spending and services. All the major parties in Canada are completely committed to austerity approaches, focusing government on strengthening market forces and enhancing private profits while cutting social programs and services, such as education, health, public transit, social assistance and unemployment insurance.

No one is promising to reverse the cuts to social programs, or to restore taxes on corporations and the rich. Simply raising welfare rates in Ontario to match 1995 levels would require a 55% increase at this point, as the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has pointed out in the Raise the Rates campaign. Of course, social assistance rates are provincial and municipal issues, but the overall context is set by federal transfer payments. Meanwhile, corporate tax rates have fallen from just over 42% to 16.5% since 2000. All major parties are committed to continuing along the same path, though at slightly different paces. The NDP and Liberal parties are both talking about a slight rollback in corporate tax reductions, so as to level off but not reverse the huge reductions of the last decade.

This is not to say that there are no differences in policy, but these are variations within a very narrow range. The big story is the fundamental agreement of the major parties on the inevitability of austerity. It is as if a hurricane is approaching and all the parties are saying we have to batten down the hatches. But the economy is not a weather system. It is an arrangement of relations between humans, and between humans and nature. Unlike a weather system, the economy is something people can (at least potentially) shape. But this election, there is no serious debate about economic issues, as all parties are competing to show that they favour responsible administration, which they define as balanced budgets and low taxes.

So should we hold our noses and vote for one version of the austerity agenda over the others? It is a stomach-turning choice. No wonder a lot of people are not inspired by the election. There has been virtually no substantial discussion of how to address housing needs, racist immigration policies, indigenous issues, foreign policy and Canadian imperialism, or racial profiling and the criminalization of the poor. Syed Hussan recently wrote: “Canada is a settler state on Indigenous land and has no moral authority to impose a government. Elections are the means by which this colonial project claims legitimacy for its aggressive policies of cultural and material appropriation and murder.”

It is not difficult to come up with reasons to avoid elections. Party platforms offer more of the same or worse, leaders are uninspiring and media coverage tends to obsess over meaningless squabbles. These trends are not surprising, as a key part of the neoliberal agenda since the mid-1970s has been to narrow the realm of politics by claiming that the only role of government is to support the penetration of commercial relations deeper into every corner of life. This has not resulted in “less” government, but a refocusing of policy on policing the population and stripping away non-market means to meet our wants and needs (such as public transit, social housing, social assistance or unemployment insurance).

This neoliberal view of politics was clear in the English-language leaders’ debate, when Harper requested a majority, asking: “Do you want to have this kind of bickering, do you want to have another election in two years? Or do you want a focus on the economy?” According to Harper, politics is just so much noise distracting from the key role of government, which is to focus on the economy and be the guardian of corporate profitability. Harper was challenged by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who said, “There he goes again with this word ‘bickering’…This is a debate, Mr. Harper. This is a democracy.” But in reality it was a pretty thin debate, and a very narrow version of democracy, as no one presented a substantial alternative to Harper’s economic or social visions.

Clearly, elections are not sufficiently democratic, in all kinds of ways. The real issues facing us are presented as extra-political, beyond the realm of debate. So there is a very real question about whether those of us fighting for radical social transformation ought to care about elections at all. Does participation in these elections, voting for one version or another of the austerity agenda, simply foster illusions in the democratic character of the system, or might it increase a sense of power over the world and challenge the view that we simply watch the world unfold like a television show?

One thing we should recognize is that elections matter to large numbers of people. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that elections are the core political reference point for huge segments of the population, whose radicalization is essential if we are going to seriously shift the terrain of politics. It is only a massive mobilization of people in demonstrations, strikes, occupations and other forms of activism that can build the basis for another kind of politics that addresses the real questions by opening up serious debates about the kind of future we seek. The lack of alternatives in the leaders’ debate was not simply a result of gutlessness among politicians, but also of the absence of a widespread activist movement in the streets, schools, neighbourhoods and workplaces that can contest the austerity agenda.

We need to seek out ways to use elections to build the movements that will ultimately transform society. And between here and fundamental social change there is a lot of movement building to do. People who do not consider themselves political will need to choose activism. New discussions and debates will need to be undertaken, as people become persuaded of their own potential power to change the world, both through activism and the struggle around ideas. The reason that elections are relevant to these processes is that they open up unique moments when more people than usual are thinking about, and prepared to talk about, politics.

Look at the number of people who watched the leaders’ debates last week. Around 4 million watched the English debate. It attracted more viewers than the last Grey Cup, and more than twice as many as the highest-rated Canadian television show does on any given night. It’s safe to guess that these same 4 million people are not watching parliamentary debate on a regular basis. Something about election time is different.

You can probably think of a time when you’ve had a political conversation during an election that you might not have had otherwise. Anti-capitalists face the challenge of becoming part of that conversation. We are not suggesting that the way to build radical movements is simply by having as many of these individual, random conversations as possible. Successful movements for social change are by nature collective, organized processes. But given that our movements aim to engage people in political conversations in the hopes of drawing them into action, and given that politics (albeit politics of a distorted form) are high on the public agenda during elections, election time would be an odd time for radicals not to reach out to folks outside the movement with the hope of drawing them in.

The argument to boycott elections on the grounds of their impurity excludes in broad strokes the political relevance of people who don’t already “get it.” This approach threatens to insulate today’s tiny Left from anything outside the small groupings of the already-converted, but it also goes against the radical assumption that people have the capacity to learn and to transform themselves.

Our challenge is to find ways to engage people at the very moment when many of them are thinking about their capacity to act upon the world. There are obviously problems with the youth campaigns to increase voter participation we’ve seen springing up on university campuses this election. They tend to fetishize the power of electoral politics in general, and the power of individualized actions in particular, and they reproduce white, middle-class privilege and flag-waving celebrations of all-things-Canadian in various ways. But we should presume that at least some of the students who joined a “vote-mob” or attended a political rally are seeking to develop capacities to change the world so they might have a better future. Sure, dedicated Young Liberals and Tories are probably too convinced of their party’s perfection to be interested in talking about the limitations of their approach. But many young people turn to electoral politics not because they find it especially honourable or exciting – in fact, many find it slimy and boring – but because they see no alternative way of making a difference in the world. Many are motivated by a sense of justice and want to see the world change. It’s just that at the moment their hopes are placed in a system that’s incapable of making real change happen.

Our aim must be to build a movement that expands the horizons of possibility and hope. The African-American historian Komozi Woodard has said that the foundation of emancipation is the widespread belief that we all deserve better than this. Unfortunately, there is no perfect recipe for fostering this feeling and building a movement to make it so.

The question of how radicals can use elections to help build such a movement is especially challenging at a time when the overall size of the Left is relatively small. There have been periods in the past when the Left has had significant social weight, and regularly influenced events and ideas in the mainstream. The strength and size not only of anti-capitalist political organizations, but of radical groups within unions, neighbourhoods, schools, campuses, and workplaces meant that radical activism and ideas had more influence on events and a more prominent public profile.

By contrast, the Left at this moment is fragmented and tiny. Most of today’s Left campaigns and demonstrations draw upon a relatively small group of dedicated radicals without whom the movement would collapse altogether. But the fatigue and frustration that is bound to result from tireless organizing on the part of these same people can lead to an inward-looking Left. It is difficult to reach out when capacity is so limited.

Yet reaching out is essential, and elections have the potential to be part of that process. The way to build a new Left with real social weight is both to build militant movements and to seek out every opportunity we can to engage with wider layers of the population. Specific radical groups have every reason to ask themselves what strategies or actions they might undertake within an election campaign in order to further their agenda. But as a whole, individuals and organizations to the left of the NDP should also be asking themselves and each other about what sorts of strategic spaces we need to be building in order not only to intervene in elections, but to make reaching out to yet-to-be-radicals one of our top priorities.

At a recent public forum in Toronto, Adam Breihan and Andrew Sernatinger, fresh from the mobilizations in Wisconsin, were asked to reflect upon what their campaigns lacked during those days of militant protest. Both lamented the absence of preexisting broad-based, inclusive “strategic spaces” to discuss ideas about how to push the movement forward and to democratically plan actions. In spite of their pride in the resistance that emerged and their hope that it will continue to develop, they both talked about the serious drawbacks of working within a fragmented Left. This was clearest to them when protestors needed to make quick tactical decisions. Adam said plainly, “I wish we’d already had a space to work out these questions together.” This points to a weakness in terms of mobilizing in the streets, and also to a larger gap on the Left in general.

Building these strategic spaces is not easy. There are political differences that divide individuals and groups, and the difficulty of contending personalities is no small thing. The Left is not free from the systems of inequality that structure society, and building a Left with social weight means addressing head on privilege and exclusion within our movements. Doing so is often a source of deep pain – but it’s nonetheless essential. The challenge of all this is monumental. But to refuse to take it up is to admit defeat.

There is amazing work being done on the Left at this moment. To name but a few recent Toronto examples: The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, in collaboration with CUPE Ontario, has initiated a crucial campaign to raise social assistance rates and restore the Special Diet Allowance cut last year by the McGuinty government; Students Against Israeli Apartheid at York University and the University of Toronto have launched a divestment campaign that marks a major step toward ending these universities’ complicity in Israeli Apartheid; No One Is Illegal-Toronto is in the midst of organizing a community-based May Day march that puts demands for migrant justice and indigenous sovereignty front and centre; and the work of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly aims to pull together groups from different political traditions. But regardless of the outstanding work of these and other groups, none of them alone is capable of transforming society as a whole. That will only happen when masses of people collectively recognize the injustices of the present system, and through their own hands, work to bring about a better world. This process requires a large and growing pluralist Left that looks out beyond its borders.

Elections offer an important moment to reach outside the existing Left. Further, even if the range of alternatives is highly limited, the results of elections do matter. A Harper majority, for example, would be taken as a clear signal to move full speed ahead with the austerity agenda, just as the election of Mayor Rob Ford was in Toronto. People on the Left might therefore choose to work and/or vote for progressive candidates, hold alternative public forums to raise issues specific to the election context, and talk to people within their unions, neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces about the choices we face, as well as the limitations of electoral democracy.

The fact that election results matter does not mean that people should vote for the Liberals to forestall a Harper majority. The Liberals are a pro-business party that has been a crucial player in the implementation of neo-liberalism in Canada. It was a Liberal government in 1995 that delivered perhaps the sharpest single blow to health, education and social programs. The current Liberal leader has attacked free speech on campuses, calling Israeli Apartheid Week “a dangerous cocktail of ignorance and intolerance” and condemning this crucial form of Palestine solidarity work every chance he gets. It sows illusions in the system to suggest that voting for the alternative party of the ruling elite is in any way progressive.

Unfortunately, the Green Party in Canada has developed as a pro-business party that seeks to reconcile capitalism with environmental sustainability. At this point, the Greens seek to combine austerity with ecology in ways that are deeply problematic.

This leaves (in Canada outside Quebec) the NDP. Although the NDP today is not what it once was, the history of the NDP (and its predecessor the CCF) is different from the other parties in that it grew directly out of the workers’ and farmers’ movements. It arose as the representation of activist workers and farmers within liberal democracy and the capitalist system, just as unions represent workers within the existing corporate structure. Yet despite these origins, the NDP and similar social democratic parties around the world have become thoroughly neo-liberal and have embraced the austerity agenda. Provincial NDP governments in Manitoba and Nova Scotia make this very clear. The NDP has also never come to terms with the right to self-determination of First Nations people or the Quebecois.

We face a huge challenge when the Left is too small to have a real impact on the election but at the same time recognize that this election matters. There is no ideal choice on offer. One possible path is to vote for the NDP on the basis of its history, on the record of certain MPs who do speak out on real issues, as Libby Davies did on Palestine (only to get beaten down by the party leadership for doing so), and on the basis that the overall size of the NDP vote is often interpreted in the mainstream as a bit of an ideological measure of where people are at politically and what they are willing to tolerate. We think it is probably the best we can do in the short term, while we engage in building a new Left with real social weight – one that can begin to make a real difference in the larger social and political climate.

The upcoming election matters, then, for two main reasons. First, it matters in that the outcome will be important in shaping the ideological terrain for the next period of time, signaling the pace at which the austerity agenda might proceed. But second, and no less importantly from our perspective, it matters in the sense that it could help today’s tiny radical Left think seriously about the kind of organizing that would need to happen in order to develop a new Left with real social weight in the years ahead.

Alan Sears teaches at the Department of Sociology, Ryerson University, Toronto. James Cairns teaches at the Department of Contemporary Studies, Laurier University, Brantford.