Friday, September 09, 2011

To Supporters of "Progressive" Parties: You Need Movements

Part of the unprecedented outpouring of emotion after the recent death of federal NDP leader Jack Layton was about the loss of a good man who had done lots of good things and was poised to do more -- I differ from him politically in many ways, but I fully admit that he was all of those things and that his loss matters. However, another part of the widespread grief was less about the man and more about what he represented in this moment.

There is a significant minority of the population that sees how this country has changed in the last fifteen years and wants a shift in direction. Let's set aside for a moment that the narrative of nostalgia for a lost "good Canada" speaks to the experiences of some but not others (who have always felt Canada's oppressive weight) and recognize that even if the before was not as good as in (often privileged) rosy hindsight, it was better than today in certain ways that matter to the lives of ordinary people. For many folk out there, Jack and the unexpected surge of the NDP in this past spring's election represented hope that maybe that change could really happen after all, after many years of it seeming impossible. It's not clear how realistic this is, and I think more generally this hope is often detached from any tools to figure out how it might be realized -- indeed, part of the victory for those forces pushing things to get worse in the last three decades is systematically disconnecting such hope from material mechanisms to realize it and from grounded language to talk about it. But the hope is real and it is important, as is the grief it has spawned. It illustrates a reservoir of values and of energy that can combine with the hard-to-see potential of everyday resistance to everyday oppression to produce significant change.

In light of all of that, I want to make a narrow argument to a specific constituency. I want to speak to people who attach such values and hope to the NDP, to the Greens, even to the left-liberal wing of the Liberal Party (though I think a good hard shake is perhaps more appropriate for that last group, given the dominant role of the Liberals in making things worse since 1995). I want to argue that whatever I think about the pros and cons of your political choices in other ways, on their own working in support of those parties will not and cannot be enough to realize the core elements of the values and hopes that motivate you.

Before I get into that, I want to emphasize what I'm not saying. I am not, for example, trying to argue anyone out of their social democratic aspirations or their green politics or their "progressive" values. Do I see limits to all of those? Well, yes. Might I point out those limits in other posts at other times? Yes, yes I might. But I see limits in my own ways of understanding and acting in the world too and I don't claim to have all the answers and, anyway, that isn't the point of this post. Vote how you vote, donate how you donate, volunteer how you volunteer.

What I'm arguing is that even as you have the vision that you have, even as you do the things that you do, in order to really realize that vision you are going to have to do other things as well.

Limitations of Parties

The idea that there are things that limit the kinds and amounts of change that can result from the electoral process is not an original one, and I think most of us have a sense of at least some of them. For instance, one that receives some attention in the mainstream is the first-past-the-post electoral system that we colonially inherited from Westminster and the way that it limits options and inhibits the growth of new parties and new politics. I think this is actually pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, but it is real.

Then there is the nexus of the electoral system, money, and the media -- campaigns require money, media access requires money, and money is highly unevenly distributed. Therefore the ability to shape electoral politics is highly unevenly distributed. Beyond that, there is the social organization of the media (along with other dominant organizations concerned with producing and disseminating knowledge, like schools), which results in the filtering out of non-elite voices, particularly of more oppressed people, and profoundly shapes our sense of the world and of what is possible and desireable. There is also the phenomenon of "capital flight" or "the capital strike," in which those with money pull it out of a territory if they don't like what the government or the population are doing, as a way of applying discipline and wrecking the peoples' ability to survive until they start behaving more to the liking of elites. Perhaps most importantly, there is the social organization of the state form itself, and its place within broader social relations. These limit what any government can do in ways that maintain the status quo and benefit elites (and, in a less spectacular but no less significant way, ordinary people with privilege).

These constraints create a range that defines what is possible electorally in any given era. The great trick of the electoral system is that differences within this range, even when it is quite narrow, do matter to the lives of ordinary people. Electoral hype from progressive parties often exaggerates this difference and works hard to erase the broad underlying similarities, but that doesn't mean that the difference isn't real or doesn't matter. I think an NDP government, for instance, would do certain things better were it to replace the Conservative government in Ottawa or the Liberal government in Toronto. Not everything, not enough -- not close to enough -- but a few things.

Constraints on electoral possibility like this have always been part of liberal-democracy and I think they are inherent and unavoidable in the context of social relations thus organized -- only a substantially transformed vision of democracy in the context of transformed social relations offers a way out, while tinkering with details of the system does not. However, the breadth and specific content of the range varies a great deal with time and place.

My argument in this post depends on my sense that, right here and right now, it is impossible to achieve mainstream core social democratic and green goals by purely electoral means.

It is possible, by the way, that this has always been true, but it seems so starkly the case today as to be nearly irrefutable. Decades back, when social democrats could point to a steady stream of reform victories, I could see why an electoral path to stable realization of core social democratic goals would seem plausible to lots of people (though still far from certain, and I would reserve the right to be critical on other grounds). And today? Well, can you point to anywhere in the developed world where devotion to electoral process alone has resulted in reliable, predictable, stable improvements in the everyday lives of ordinary people in the last few decades? (*) In Ontario under the NDP in the early '90s? Partisans may be able to cherrypick examples now to paint a deceptively bold progressive picture, but the party was loathed by many social democrats by 1995, including some who continued to work in elections and mouth the appropriate platitudes, and the evidence is that the party's neoliberalism was going to go from tentative to vigorous (though still less vigorous than Mike Harris', most likely) if they had won. What about New Labour in Britain? Hardly. Or Obama with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress from 2008 to 2010? Please.

Remember, I'm not saying these things weren't better than the electorally available alternatives, just that they did not win steady, reliable reform victories. Many, in fact, hastened the erosion of reforms won by previous generations.

These and countless other examples I could cite can't be fully explained by appealing to the excuse of good people navigating tough circumstances or making accusations of betrayal by corrupt leaders. If the reasoning was so local and specific, there would be more exceptions. And there just aren't. I mean, both may have been true at moments, but they aren't enough. To really understand what is going on, you have to see that the range of what electoral politics on their own can accomplish no longer allows what social democrats (and, in different ways, greens) really want.

Expand, Shift, Transform the Range

To expand the range, to shift it in positive directions (and, for those of us who dream such things, to have even a hope of transcending the range and transforming the social relations that are its basis), you need movements. You need people acting in ways that aren't constrained by the electoral imagination and its fixation on the politics of the possible. You need people working together but not constrained by all the things that constrain political parties (and other forms of organization that are tightly tied into the state). That doesn't require renunciation of electoral involvement, it doesn't require puritanical disavowal of anything vaguely state-related, but it does require a commitment to a certain functional, practical autonomy from institutions (like any political party with any electoral viability) that are integrated into ruling regimes. It requires being open to tactics that are about goals grounded directly in the lives of ordinary people, not policy positions filtered through all of the constraints of acceptability, electability, and plausibility to elites. It requires a capacity to impose consequences (broadly understood) on elites and to constitute growing collective spaces where we can figure out ways to do things otherwise in terms of how our lives are organized and how we relate to each other given the ways that power perpetually divides us. That will mean working with people less interested in your specific goals and visions, perhaps, and some even with rather stern opinions about your favoured party. It might mean thinking about things in new ways, participating in new networks.

But it doesn't mean giving up your practical vision for a green and socially just future. Sure, transformation in the course of struggle is bound to happen -- you and the people you differ from but work with talk as you work together, build shared understandings, define differences. You will change each other, a little or a lot. But you can still stay you. And not only can you remain a social democrat or a green while participating in movements, if you want to realize the goals that are central to those political identities, you really have no choice. It's the only way to shift the range such that electing your party-of-choice has even a remote chance of implementing the core elements of your vision.

And you know what? Those streams of reform victories of yesteryear that are part of why you are committed to a social democratic and/or green vision? Whatever role the party may have played, if you look closely at the historical context, few or none of them would have happened without the existence of movements, and movements that refused (at least for a time) to be subordinated to a party or to purely electoral imaginations. It is only through contributing to the reinvigoration of movements in the present that even modest reform victories are likely to occur, let alone the kinds of transformations necessary for a truly just, free, and sustainable world.


(*) -- One obvious exception to this, definitely in Canada but certainly in other countries too, is victories in particular kinds of queer struggles. I'm not going to get into the whole argument here, but I don't think this example invalidates my point. Those victories are, without a doubt, extremely important to the lives of many ordinary people, but they largely involve extending a particular kind of liberal-democratic rights that have historically been denied to a certain population, in a way that is entirely consistent with neoliberalism. They are important, but they do not easily generalize to struggles -- including other forms of queer struggle -- that include less clearly liberal forms of redistribution of power and resources as important goals.

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