Up Against the Neoliberal Parties: What Should the Left Do? Four Views


The Question 

There’s no doubt that the federal Conservatives government is a vicious right-wing enemy that needs to be defeated. But, regardless of who wins the leadership race, the Liberals are also a right-wing party. The Liberal record in office from 1993 to 2006 makes it clear that a Liberal government would also be a government of austerity that supports ecologically destructive tar sands and mining development, employer-friendly immigration policy, and giving business more access to indigenous lands. An NDP federal government would be a historic first. However, Mulcair’s NDP in office would be desperate to show Bay Street that it can be relied on to govern in the interests of capital and to continue down the same neoliberal path as its Conservative and Liberal predecessors.

Faced with this situation, what should supporters of social justice, indigenous self-determination and ecological justice do?


Cindy McCallum Miller 

A comrade once said “don’t vote; it only encourages them.” Faced with today’s federal political choices, it is tempting to follow his advice. The Harper Conservatives are anathema to traditional Canadian democratic beliefs; the Liberals are capitalist chameleons who slither in and out of society leaving in their wake, betrayal and broken promises. It is unclear where a Tom Mulcair NDP government would lead Canadians as we have seen the conflict between party policy and provincial NDP government actions in the past and Mulcair hasn’t been a party member long enough to learn any lessons from those experiences. Elizabeth May has a sincerity and courage that is very appealing; however, as the lone Green MP she does not yet have a caucus to control so we can’t predict how they would govern given the opportunity. Other parties could add to the national debate if we were interested in debate, but Canadians are content to absorb whatever can be crammed into a thirty second clip before losing interest. Elections become a war of spin, leaving us dizzy and disoriented as we lurch toward the polls.

Electoral politics has consistently ensured that wealth and power remain in the hands of few at the expense of many. Trained to be compliant and polite, few Canadians have felt comfortable in open resistance, allowing capitalists to capitalize on our hesitation, thereby perpetuating a very destructive power cycle.

First Nations people involved in Idle No More are challenging that destructive power cycle and if you listen closely enough, you can hear the pounding of their drums in your own heartbeat. It is a call to humanity to embrace a new path, one that redefines the criteria for all people to live well on this earth and to let this earth live as well. The corporate media has tried marginalizing this movement in the hope of diminishing its momentum, but the heartbeat has not been stifled.

This is the example that could fuse disparate groups in society into a real movement promoting an equality and environmental priority agenda. We first have to determine if there is a will to build an extra-parliamentary coalition to create new social discourse and counter the message from spin doctors. A coalition based on direct action, civil disobedience and non-compliance. A coalition of all the progressive forces, local and national, who stand and say they will not accept further degradation of our rights or our land. Can we muster the common will and courage to form such a resistance? Idle No More could be that catalyst if we join in solidarity but success requires that organizational leaders put aside their egos and their ambitions and build a movement that will inspire people, not create additional bureaucracies to weigh us down.

We must acknowledge that a crisis exists and we are running out of time. Entrenched trade deals that supplant democratic decisions, increased erosion of civil and labour rights, gagging  scientists to keep us ignorant of increasing dangers to our environmental health, and the growing list of affronts that besiege all of us should force us to put aside many of our differences  and work together to push Harper back.  Push him back, reverse the damage and rebuild.

Liberal Joyce Murray is promoting the idea of a one-time cooperation between political parties to defeat the Conservatives, but who can trust Liberals to change anything based on their track record? Without a defined agenda of what to expect in a post-Harper Canada, we should be wary.  Any strategy to get rid of Harper has to include plans to revamp the electoral system so the next election would allow real representation instead of the current manipulation that supports the status quo.

Cindy McCallum Miller is an activist in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in Castlegar, BC.


David McNally

Anyone looking for easy answers to the challenges of radical politics today is sure to be disappointed. The terrain on which the Left operates at the moment is messy, complicated and full of contradictions. On the one hand, the traditional institutions of the Left are in severe decline. On the other hand, new left movements with genuine social weight have yet to emerge.

We confront circumstances of the sort described by Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s when he observed, “The old is dying and the new cannot be born.” In such situations, he continued, “there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.”

We can see those morbid symptoms all around us. Trade unions are faltering, particularly in the private sector, and are less and less able to protect the wages, benefits and job security of their members. Just as troubling, the union movement is aging, growing increasingly disconnected from young workers. Meanwhile, the traditional electoral party of the Left, the NDP, continues its gallop to the right, abandoning even the timid politics of reform it preached in the past. The recent decision by delegates to the federal NDP’s convention to remove a commitment to “social ownership” from the party’s constitution is yet one more symptom of the NDP’s transition from a social democratic labour party into a social liberal party.

What complicates the story, however, is that the transformation of the NDP is only partial and incomplete. There are still places – mining and industrial communities, long-standing union towns – where local NDP organizations retain something of their working-class roots. In addition, one still finds handfuls of NDP candidates at municipal, provincial and federal levels who are prepared to align themselves with progressive social movements. So while it is no longer true that a vote for the NDP represents a vote for a party based on the labour movement, a case can be made for offering support to certain NDP campaigns and candidates.

At the same time, it is obvious that anti-capitalists desperately need to build new social institutions – coalitions, unions, associations, and party-type formations. While there are many dedicated activists doing vital work organizing movements against poverty, racism and much more, the capacity of the Left to project socialist politics beyond small circles remains quite limited. Without enhancing that capacity, the number of people committed to systemic change will shrink, weakening all struggles for social justice, as well as the influence of anti-capitalist politics more generally.

This is one reason why it is important for radicals to engage the terrain of electoral politics. True, elections alone cannot change the world. But election campaigns represent a moment in which, as millions of people consider politics, parties and the debates among them, socialists need to be part of the public conversation about the direction of society and the need for radical change.

If we look at the severe crisis sweeping Greece at the moment, we can see why this matters. As unemployment mounts – now over 25% and more than twice that level for young people – the traditional parties of the center-right are disintegrating. Voters are searching for more radical alternatives. Unfortunately, one of those is on the far right, in the shape of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which now has elected members in both municipal government and the national parliament. Golden Dawn is also stepping up its activities in neighbourhoods, schools and on the streets, including violent attacks on migrants, queers and people of colour.

Fortunately, significant forces of the Left have rallied to contest the sphere of electoral politics that Golden Dawn is trying to exploit. The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), an alliance of left-wing groups and parties, is a credible and growing force, having most recently taken 27% of the national vote. In so doing, SYRIZA has been able to reach millions of people with a left-wing program for resolving the social and economic crisis in Greece. Their work is crucial to building an anti-capitalist project.

Throughout the Canadian state, with the partial exception Québec, where Québec Solidaire has established a small (and insufficiently radical) presence, the Left has nothing similar. Yet if a new Left is to be born, anti-capitalists urgently need to begin digging a meaningful foothold in political life. That will require years of work to build active solidarities and new forms of organization. But it needs to be a central part of our political strategy today. Without that, we will fail to build the wider socialist presence that is a prerequisite to any and all radical change.

David McNally is active with the Toronto New Socialists and is the author of Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism.


Leanne Simpson

The first political protest I attended was in 1989 in support of the James Bay Cree’s opposition to hydroelectric development. I was just barely old enough to vote, but I chose not to. I still haven’t, although many Indigenous People I respect choose to do so. I don’t vote in part because I don’t readily recognize Canada’s colonial claim to my person as a citizen, in part because I’ve never met a Canadian politician or political party that could see me, my nation, my history or my experience as an Indigenous woman and in part because I’ve never seen my politics or values reflected in any party platform. I’ve never viewed electoral politics as an avenue for the kind of change that inspires and motivates me. I’m not sure you can fundamentally change the system from within.

Recently, moved by the Idle No More movement, the Nishiyuu Walkers completed a 1600 km journey to Ottawa. They were doing more than walking. They were engaged in a deeply rooted journey intimately reconnecting their young bodies to their landscape. They visited with youth in communities across their nation and across the land of the Omamíwínini (Algonquin). They created a culture of ceremony living and breathing Cree teachings along the way and inspired other youth to do the same. They walked in the footsteps of their ancestors travelling ancient routes, and to those of us who witnessed their actions, the pride and inspiration was overwhelming.  

Now I’m guessing here, but I’d bet these youth are not particularly active in electoral politics, yet they are deeply committed to change within themselves, their communities and Canada. Walking 1600 km takes considerably more effort and commitment than casting a vote. Far from being apathetic or lacking literacy in electoral politics, many Indigenous Peoples choose not to vote because the kind of change we are looking for comes from investing energy in re-invigorating political practices that are Indigenous at the core – change that comes from a profoundly different relationship with the state. Change that is based upon a just relationship between nations. 

Having spent the last four months immersed in a movement led by Indigenous youth, I can tell you our youth are tremendously engaged in our nation-based political traditions. This gives me hope. Yet Idle No More has demonstrated that the literacy of the vast majority of Canadian politicians around treaties, Indigenous nationhood, decolonization, violence against women, Indigenous legal systems, political systems and education is extremely low. There is little excuse for this in my mind. There are literally hundreds of books written by Indigenous Peoples  discussing everything from our history to politics, Indigenous feminisms, resistance, social issues, languages and telling the stories of our peoples.

The Harper government is genuinely disinterested in gaining literacy and building relationship with Indigenous Peoples. To me, this is a good thing because it frees us up from the false promises of recognition, from a more fully-funded yet still fundamentally dysfunctional system designed at its core, to dispossess and misrepresent us. The gift of the federal Conservatives is the opportunity for an Indigenous Nationhood Movement alongside broad-based coalition building predicated on decolonization, Indigenous nationhood and ecological justice. The NDP and the Liberal Party, while highly critical of the Conservatives, seem content on representing the façade of change, endlessly fumbling around but never committing to decolonizing their relationship to Indigenous nations and the environment. Indigenous Peoples are under attack from all angles right now. So are environmental groups that are organizing against pipelines and the expansion of the tar sands. So are communities concerned with the impacts of mining, deforestation and environmental contamination. So are scientists, artists, women, immigrants, new Canadians, and those living with low incomes. 

So what should supporters of social justice, Indigenous self-determination and ecological justice do?


Mobilize whether you choose to vote or not. Mobilize not just to defeat Harper’s Conservatives, but mobilize to force a deep examination of the foundations of settler-colonialism and environmental destruction in Canada.  We can’t vote our way out of colonialism but we can mobilize to give birth to alternatives. 

Leanne Simpson is a writer, researcher and activist of Mississauga Nishnaabeg ancestry.  She is the author of Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back:  Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (Arbeiter Ring, 2011), The Gift is in the Making (forthcoming Spring 2013, Highwater Press) and Islands of Decolonial Love (forthcoming Fall 2013, Arbeiter Ring). 


Cloé Zawadzki-Turcotte

The last decade has given the Canadian population enough reasons to be completely disgusted with federal politics for the next ten years, and I’m optimistic. Corruption, wars, devastating mining and resource extraction projects, dubious undemocratic conduct, police repression, austerity measures, threats to abortion rights – and I could go on. There is no need to recall that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper is in large part responsible for this right turn, this reactionary trend that marks Canadian politics. Neither is it necessary to note that the programs of the Liberal Party and the NDP – which are presented in the seductive language of sustainable development, economic growth and balanced budgets – scarcely hide their true allegiance to neoliberalism, their intention of governing at the will of the fluctuating market.

Faced with this sad scene, those who refuse to be demoralized and choose to not give up ask themselves: what is to be done? Some decide to fight for the lesser evil and get involved in a party with a view to the next election, with the hope of at least moderating the Conservative hurricane. Others who want to do more than “Stop Harper!” commit themselves to small activist groups – ecological groups, groups that defend the rights of First Nations, etc. – and organize educational events, conferences, publicity actions and the dissemination of information through social networks. Unfortunately, I don’ t think that these are the roads to take.

To invite people to simply vote against the Conservative Party or to direct all our energies against Stephen Harper is to miss the target. To do this is to content ourselves with cutting off only one of the heads of the neoliberal Medusa. The current situation demands more of us. It demands that we attack the roots of social, economic and ecological injustice. It demands that we mobilize ourselves upstream of what’s feeding the neoliberal politics of the Canadian government. More than fighting in a fragmented manner against each of its decisions and crazy and/or devastating schemes, we need to shine a light on their common denominator, the coherent logic that unites them: the imperatives of globalization and financialized capitalism. Then we need to counterpose to this an alternative of political counter-proposals stamped by progressive values: social justice, democracy, gender equality, ecological justice and so on.

Now, when it comes to how Canadian social movements should be organized, I can’t do more than offer a humble suggestion that comes from my activist experience in the Quebec student movement. Without pretending to have a recipe for guaranteed success, I believe there are two key elements that contributed to the building of the massive movement of social protest in Quebec in the spring of 2012. First, the presence of a structured democratic organization (CLASSE) that made it possible for each and every student to have a direct stake in the political situation in which they had been plunged. Second, this organization allowed dozens of student associations across Quebec to coordinate their actions and elaborate a common strategy – a strategy, communicated in a way that could unite a wide range of people, that emphasized a clear, achievable goal and was informed by a systemic global analysis.

This, I believe, is a road to take to get us out of the impasse in which we’re stuck, the impasse that we’ve been put in by the Canadian political elite under the approving gaze of their business friends and the other beneficiaries of the vitality of advanced capitalism.

Cloé Zawadzki-Turcotte, a student at the University of Quebec in Montreal, was a member of the Executive Council of CLASSE. Translation by David Camfield.