Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada

rabble.ca is today launching an extended series on the Canadian left -- Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- a look at where it stands after the recent federal election, and what the future can hold. The series will run in this, rabble.ca's 10th year, and is curated by journalist Murray Dobbin.

As progressive Canadians struggle to come to grips with the prospect of four years of a Stephen Harper majority government, rabble is launching a series that aims to start a broad dialogue about where the "left" has been and where it needs to go. We will be inviting the country's most respected activists, thinkers, writers and researchers to address what we think is a crisis on the left -- a crisis of confidence and effectiveness. And we will be inviting rabble readers to join in, too, over the course of this, our 10th year.

Is there a crisis? Just the fact that Harper has a majority is evidence of that crisis. That 40 per cent of Canadians have been persuaded that there is no point in voting is more evidence.

Things are not nearly as bleak as they might have been. The Harper Conservatives gained only two percentage points over their 2008 count. The Liberals, the other party of the corporations, was decimated as the "orange wave" of NDP support humiliated the former natural governing party. As Jesse McLaren wrote in rabble on May 10, 2011: "Over the past decade ... the combined corporate vote inside Parliament [declined] from 78 per cent to 58 per cent, a significant drop of 20 per cent." Comparing the last two elections, the NDP gained votes in 293 of 308 ridings, saw declines in just five and came in second in more than 110 other ridings. For better or worse, Canada seems headed in the direction of having a single corporate party and a single, genuinely progressive party, vying for power.

But why did this surge happen and is it the beginning of a trend? Equally important, what role or influence, if any, did Canada's social and labour movements have in this unexpected electoral shift? The organizations that used to speak for us with powerful voices have been greatly diminished over the past 15 years. It's hard to argue that we prepared the political landscape for this important change.

We know that the vast majority of Canadians share our values -- they share the conviction that government can and should be a force for good. They support the expansion of universal social programs to include childcare, home care, Pharmacare and more. They are appalled at the level of poverty in the country and ashamed of Canada's new, aggressive foreign policy.

Yet too many have been convinced that their expectations of what is possible from government are too high. The right has succeeded in demonizing government, and Stephen Harper has made matters worse by making politics so offensive that many people no longer have the stomach to get involved. The right, through ownership of the media and think-tanks, and the recruitment of academics, have managed to frame many of the critical issues -- the deficit, economic policy, taxes, public investment -- from their perspective. They have perfected the use of language to induce people to support policies that are against their own personal and community interests.

It is not that people have not been politically active -- there are thousands of activists across the country working incredibly hard. Things would be much worse without this political response. But we have been on the defensive for over 20 years -- since the historic fight against free trade in 1988. Young activists have with rare exceptions, experienced nothing else but negative campaigning -- stopping the next outrage, trying to anticipate the next assault on our values, defending social programs and the environment, fighting the WTO and IMF. We have been so preoccupied with fighting off the right, we have taken little time to imagine the future we want.

I originally thought of the idea of this series as the economic crisis developed and exposed neo-liberal ideology as bankrupt and destructive. Yet just when the system we have been fighting for decades seemed exposed like an emperor with no clothes, we seemed incapable of responding in a manner that suggested a progressive way out the crisis and into a future that would leave savage capitalism behind. We had no Big Ideas. While the right is expert at taking advantage of "useful crises" we were not. The crisis is still with us and while new ideas are appearing -- for example, prosperity without growth -- we are not yet engaging the public in considering them.

Those fighting for a better world are still fighting in what has been called issue "silos" -- single issue organizations or movements fighting for discrete, seemingly disconnected (except that they are socially desirable) causes. This reflects a period when governments actually listened and were engaged in activist governance. In the 1970s and even into the 80s and 90s, this method of organizing produced real results. Stephen Harper and even Paul Martin before him have done their best to end this era of civil society political engagement. Victories have been increasingly rare but we haven't come up with a different way of organizing for change.

We face globe-threatening crises -- climate change, species extinction, a looming water shortage catastrophe, more economic disasters created by finance capital, peak oil, and the relentless growth of consumer culture. But we have not created organizations or movements that can address these issues effectively. It seems that only the equivalent of a cultural revolution -- a movement to counter consumerism -- will address many of these issues and make political change possible. But it is unclear how that will happen.

Perhaps at the root of our decline in effectiveness is simply our inability to motivate sufficient numbers of people to affect real change. We need to ask why millions of people find more meaning in a hockey game, in the death of Michael Jackson, or at the shopping mall, than they do in defending their communities or becoming active citizens. As Michael Lerner says in his writings, including The Politics of Meaning, we have, in our efforts to engage people politically, failed to offer them greater meaning to their lives.

Another positive outcome of this election and the previous two, is that our democracy is now on trial. Never before in Canadian history has there been so much attention paid to the fatal flaws in our parliamentary form of liberal democracy. That attention needs to lead to a fundamental debate about democracy -- one that goes beyond the need for proportional representation to look at banning television advertising by political parties and making attack advertising of any kind illegal.

But it also means exploring how to democratize how government itself operates, how the delivery of services can be democratized. The title of the series includes 'reinventing democracy' because it is so obvious that our current version fails the people it is supposed to serve. If any part of our national life deserves the exploration of Big Ideas, it is our failed democratic system.

The other part of the series title is reclaiming the commons and it suggests cultural change. The success of the right in the past 30 years is reflected in the destruction of community as well as the diminishing of the role of citizenship. Consumerism is anathema to community, it isolates people, distracts them from aspects of life that are more nurturing and more satisfying. As such, consumerism is a threat not only to the planet and its ecosystems but to the natural functioning of human society. Reclaiming and rebuilding the commons -- that is what we share and do together -- is fundamental to fulfilling the World Social Forums' declaration that "a better world is possible."

The series is not meant to be an exercise is blaming ourselves for the political dominance of the right. It will be a reflection and dialogue on the recent past and how we have reached this point. We will be examining various movements to analyze their history, calling on activists and writers best placed to provide us with the insights we need -- and asking them to put forward their best ideas of how to rebuild civil society.

But beyond looking at where we have been we want to focus most of our attention on where we need to go, searching for the best ideas about how to communicate our values, how to motivate people to become intentional citizens, how to rebuild community and resist the seductive power of consumerism -- and put forward a vision of genuine prosperity without destructive economic growth. And yes, for millions living in poverty or near-poverty, consumerism is not an immediate concern -- though it could be argued that chasing the consumer dream also dis-empowers the poor.

We will also be examining the exercise of political and corporate power and the neo-liberal ideology that tries to justify it. That ideology lies exposed and discredited in the wake of the financial meltdown -- yet it does not die easily and is still being promoted as if nothing had happened.

And in the wake of the NDP surge, we need to examine the divide that has plagued progressive politics in Canada for so long -- the gap between extra-parliamentary politics and party politics. Building on the leftward shift in voting patterns is the job of both branches of progressive politics.

Of course progressives In Canada are hardly alone in dealing with the assault on democracy and equality. In the English speaking developed world Canada is actually the last country to fall prey to neo-liberalism. With that in mind, we will also be drawing occasionally on writers and activists from around the world where they can assist us with examples of successful resistance to neo-liberalism through positive alternatives that might have application here.

We invite writers, thinkers and activists to make their own contributions to the series. We will also have a rabble page where those not inclined to contribute articles or mini-essays can contribute their thoughts and experiences to the conversation.

Let the dialogue begin.

Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for rabble.ca, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's bi-weekly State of the Nation column.

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