The Federal Election

“It has been a long time since working people connected either their quality of life or their most deeply held aspirations directly to politics, because for thirty years politics has been about the diminishment of collective rights and how deep will be the cuts to the social wage. While the short and long term goals of labour and social movements have been pushed off the political stage, politics has increasingly been about perceptions of leadership, competence, trust and ethics.”

These observations by union staffer and Council of Canadians board member Fred Wilson in a column in rabble describe the situation pretty well (though we could quibble about the 30 year figure). We should go further: the reason official politics has been reduced almost completely to talk about politicians’ personalities and tiny policy details is because all the major parties (including the Greens) don’t just support capitalism (nothing new about that) but also agree about the fundamentals of neoliberal ideology: corporate profits are good for society and the role of government is to help corporations make higher profits, which means accepting the goals of eliminating the deficit and reducing the debt. These dogmas are unquestioned so they’re not discussed.

Some NDP supporters will disagree with the claim that the NDP accepts neoliberalism. But let’s remember the 2008 election, when the NDP campaign was “silent on the key pillars of neoliberalism – corporate power, privatization, financial deregulation, free trade, precarious work and the radical transfer of income from labour to capital. All these questions took a backseat to appeals to the media-defined political “centre”. We were even treated to the absurd spectacle of the NDP leader — in the midst of a historic meltdown of financial markets and credible predictions of the worst economic downturn in generations — refusing to countenance the very idea of running a government deficit, just as neoliberal governments themselves here and abroad prepared to do just that” (Nathan Rao, “Election 2008 and Beyond”). Of course, many NDP supporters reject neoliberalism, but the party leadership doesn’t. Its brand may be “neoliberalism lite” (what in Europe is sometimes called social liberalism) but it’s still neoliberalism. This doesn’t mean the federal NDP is a pure-and-simple capitalist party like the other parties (that’s another question), but its leadership does accept neoliberalism.

The neoliberal consensus among the parties is why Wilson’s claim that in this election “The choice will be between a Harper majority and a new government that stands for something fundamentally different” is absurd. Wilson, who supports an “everyone except the Tories” coalition, seems to have completely forgotten that it was the Liberals who in 1995 implemented the biggest package of cuts ever brought in by a federal government. It was the Liberals who sent Canadian troops into Afghanistan. While in government from 1993 to 2006 the Liberals pursued their own racist anti-immigrant measures too. The 2008 platform signed in the bid to form a Liberal-NDP coalition government supported by the BQ declared that it was “built on a foundation of fiscal responsibility” — a neoliberal profession of faith. A Liberal government or a Liberal-NDP government (which would most likely be dominated by the Liberals) would, of course, be different than a Tory government. But it wouldn’t be fundamentally different.

Anyone who doubts this can just look south of the border. The Obama administration isn’t identical to Bush’s (though there are a frightening number of ways in which its actions have been the same). But it has been a huge disappointment to all those on the Left who hoped it would take a different path, precisely because Obama and the Democratic Party leadership agree with the Republicans on so many things, as writers like Paul Street have documented.

What US radical writer Adolph Reed wrote about the US in 2007 is true here in 2011: “we didn’t vote ourselves into this mess, and we’re not going to vote ourselves out of it. Electoral politics is an arena for consolidating majorities that have been created on the plane of social movement organizing. It’s not an alternative or a shortcut to building those movements, and building them takes time and concerted effort.” The best that can be hoped for from this federal election is a minority government that’s in a weak position to implement the kind of large-scale attack on public sector jobs and services that’s underway in the US and many other countries.