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Social movement organizing is Canada's only hope

Image: Flickr/Sally T. Buck

When Margaret Thatcher famously crushed the 1984-85 miners' strike, she symbolized the start of a new order that would be imposed on nations across the Western world: that the post-war pact between capital and labour, where co-operation and friction would create an equilibrium that balanced (some) workers’ rights with corporate prosperity, would soon tilt more and more in the favour of capital.

The Welfare State offered hope for working classes to exit poverty and have some access to power. It would be slowly unraveled over the next three decades.

Thirty-three years later, the West is fundamentally changed. We exist in a world where the fossils of the past remain part of our collective vocabulary, but are less and less reflected in our political and economic realities. What has emerged is a left that believes it can float into power using the tactics and the promises of the right. Confronting power is no longer our primary goal.

Social movement organizing should have transferred knowledge and experience across this divide. That, through multigenerational friendships and common organizing, we should have been able to resist the weaknesses that our opposing experiences have manifested. But our social movements were crushed during this transformation, too. Neoliberalism infected the institutions of the left and destabilized, confused and demobilized progressive organizing.

Today, this can be seen in every corner of the Canadian Left: strategic voting as a tactic to win less terrible governments, conservatized social democracy, very few province-wide movements and nearly no true pan-Canadian organizing, and so on. We all know this; it's fundamental to understanding the limits that we face as progressive Canadian organizers.

Rebuilding must include strategies to reach past these divides, whether regional, generational or jurisdictional.

I write this during a particularly incredible week that demands introspection -- the kind of introspection one engages in when one desires to develop the correct lessons to break past the limits listed above. Not the kind of introspection that paralyzes action, that leaves us so desperate and sad about the state of things that we decide to do nothing, rather than do anything, because if we can't do everything perhaps doing nothing is better for our own personal health.

Social movement organizing that educates average people in their workplaces, on the street, in churches, mosques or temples or in their schools, is the only way to create long-term social change. Literally: the only way. Collectively, we forget this.

And when social movements are weak, it's harder for political parties to keep their heads on straight. They fall into the abyss of the old political tricks that might offer short-term gains, but which will always fail, eventually.

It leaves progressive people in a double-bind: what comes first: an NDP that veers to the right, or a social movement that slowly dies?

The funny thing is that the answers to many of the problems facing us, are easy to see, despite what some will claim. You always go back to the social movements and take their lead.

This isn't easy to do when there's an old order in the driver's seat; an establishment comprised of individuals who are cynical about the power and strength of social movements. Criticism within the left is so often marginalized and then dismissed.

Jeremy Corbyn's win reminds us that Blairite politics are a dead end. That without roots to social movements and people on the ground, a progressive party will fester.

But part of the fake enlightenment of some on the left is an appeal to do things the way they must be done; to play the game the way it must be played: don't offer too much, the media will jump all over us; the Liberals are stealing our ideas; we can't get too radical: no one wants to be called a Communist, etc.

It's stupid obvious that these are the wrong lessons to learn.

At the heart of this problem is the misconception of our relationship to power. It seems that some think we can tango with power to influence it. But power always leads.

Progressive people, movements or parties must confront power, not chase power. When they chase power, they fall into the trap set by the traditional parties. They will always lose because that's how the game was designed.

I think we're in a revolutionary moment, and there are examples of revolutionary confrontation to power everywhere. And perhaps this is the litmus test to decide where you stand on the spectrum of this problem. Are you actively using your time, your resources and your social capital to advance these movements?

The old social contract has fallen away and we're left with a population that is deeply divided, struggling and disenfranchised. If progressive people's actions or campaigns further exacerbate this disenfranchisement, they're no better than Liberals. 

Last week, a student activist propelled into the public eye by a movement of hundreds of thousands, took his oath to Queen Elizabeth II as he assumed his seat in the National Assembly in Quebec. Before he took the oath, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois modified the oath by saying in French, "While waiting for the emergence of a free republic forged in partnership with First Nations..."

This is the new order that all progressive people must strive for: a New Canada that divests from Crown land and gives back traditional territory to Indigenous nations; that refuses to continue the colonial project that harms and kills so many people; that refuses to exploit land, air and water in the name of greed and profits; that refuses the racial and religious hierarchy on which the Old Canada was built.

Revolutionary times require a revolutionary reaction from the Left. If all we do is chase power, rather than reconfigure that power from the ground up, what exactly is the point of our work?

Image: Flickr/Sally T. Buck

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