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Michael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. Michael has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, was a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2010 and is on the executive of the newly formed Socialist Party of Ontario.

Dexter, democracy and disappointment: Why leftist principles matter

| October 12, 2013

Despite the hand-wringing of some commentators and the bewilderment of NDP types that one would expect to be bewildered, there is really no mystery to the fact that the Dexter government not only failed to get reelected, but in fact got crushed. 

It disappointed the people. 

Aside from all of its attempts, from almost the first day it took power, to dampen expectations and to tell citizens that they should only anticipate "good government," they still disappointed the people because, after in some cases decades of dreaming and of fighting against all the odds for a party that said it would do politics differently and that said it was fundamentally of a different type than the Liberals and Conservatives, in reality the Dexter government proved to be essentially more of the same. It often placed corporate interest ahead of public good, and after a four-year term did not deliver a single reform or change of any substantive or lasting meaning that would inspire anyone at all. 

Nothing. And it proudly intended to do this. It joins a long line of "social democratic" governments both in Canada and elsewhere that have sought to set the bar low, and have gone even lower. Governments whose minuscule "accomplishments," in so far as they even exist, are purely ephemeral, in that they will be simply swept away by whoever replaces them in government if they are so inclined.

Since these governments do not even attempt serious change, they do not accomplish it.

There is more that is at work than simply trying to "govern for everyone," be good "managers" or the nausea-inducing mantra of "practical" change, a type of slogan that means citizens can expect no real changes at all. One is forced, over time, to suspect that the reality is that social democratic politicians become the same prisoners of the desire to be in power, to lead and to hold and maintain positions that pay exceptionally well as do all other politicians.

There is an unfortunate transformation that people often undergo when they rise to positions of influence, power or, frankly, higher salaries, within what are supposed to be leftist or "progressive" unions, parties or organizations. This is especially true if they are elected to positions as MPs or MPPs, with the staff and financial reward that accompany that. Old ideals are easy to sacrifice on the alter of a salary of $160,000 a year and with the added claim that one is, after all, "getting things done."

Without being entirely cognizant of the process, "progressives" and leftists, once ensconced in positions of power, begin to adopt an attitude and a style of doing things that they would have laughed at and fought against had they seen it in others. Indeed, in the case of the NDP sycophants, you often see behaviour excused that they would have condemned in those who acted similarly or identically within the Liberal or Conservative Parties. 

Among many appalling recent examples, the case of the nomination of Adam Giambrone for a by-election by the Ontario NDP stands as a particularly egregious one, embodying the worst excesses of a seemingly rigged process, as well as blatant disregard for the left's supposed goals of trying to redress systemic racism and sexism.

Those going along with such practices cannot then claim any difference from others in terms of these principles. If principles like fighting systemic injustice are non-negotiable socially, then they have to be internally within our own organizations as well. Otherwise, there is no commitment to them that will not be sacrificed for political or personal gain.

Leader-focused, now more than ever, and hierarchically based, the left has parties and organizations with power structures and managerial "result" driven goals that are not only entirely analogous to those of the capitalists and bourgeois society as a whole, but that also subvert democracy internally by by their very nature facilitating the creation of a "social democratic" political class.

Due to the growth of bureaucratic elites and the subsequent institutionalization of these elites, organizations of the left often have their ideals subverted from within. This results in the all-too-familiar reality of leftist parties, unions or organizations developing de facto leadership cults, discarding meaningful internal democracy (and any organization in which the rank-and-file members are not a constant threat to those in power, and are not able to easily replace them, is neither democratic nor truly committed to ideals of equality or leftism), and failing to live up to the ideals that they foresee socially in theory but seem to be afraid of or eschew when applied within.

We begin, as the left, to fail by becoming what we purport to oppose, regardless of our continued radical rhetoric, or lack thereof. Instead of trying to build new collective governance  structures that are democratically inclusive and that seek to actively combat parliamentary ossification, centralization and bureaucratization, we simply mimic the power pyramids of the past and call it by new names.

It is the left's perpetual dilemma and its persistent albatross. We talk a good game in theory and yet play the same one in practice that is played by all the other hierarchically driven embodiments of bourgeois power.

In fact, by demanding a form of loyalty that is based on an alleged need to stand united against the right, corporations and the forces of reaction, a need that is true for social classes and groups under assault by the corporate agenda but that is falsely used to demand "solidarity" with a leadership and internal power grouping, left parties and organizations are often far less tolerant of dissent and apply far fewer brakes on the power of the leader and their immediate handlers than one would anticipate from people who claim to be fighting for equality.

When the goal is to achieve and maintain power at any cost, the cost will be principle. This is not an abstraction, though it is often presented as such. It is often framed as if "intellectuals" or "malcontents" are somehow simply sitting around whining. But that is nonsense, because in this case "principle" means the fight to end tremendous social injustices like sexism, racism, colonialism, inequality and poverty. These injustices destroy and impact the lives of millions of citizens every single day. 

There is nothing abstract about it. When "left" governments fail to act on these issues in any meaningful sense, they facilitate this suffering. It is that simple. One can make excuses all one wants. But excuses are no different when painted in orange. 

Even worse, when left governments (or parties, unions or organizations) fail to act according to their ideals they do something more insidious; they feed into the present right wing culture and climate of disillusion and indifference towards activism, politics and government. They play into the reactionary rhetoric of all those who say, "It makes no difference, they are all the same anyway," and into the notion that government is irrelevant to the lives of the people. They play into the notion that everyone is equally morally corrupted at the end of the day.

There are few greater enemies to the struggle to achieve a new society than disillusionment among those who need it. Unlike the other obstacles we on the left face, however, this disillusionment is almost entirely of our own making.

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Comments

Excellent argument, and the results of this election for the NDP was indeed sad for that province.

That said, while Michael runs a privately owned bookstore, which could only be done in a political environment which is not as leftist as he seems to recommend.

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