Marc Lee, of the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, has proposed an excellent 12-part program for a reoriented and reinvigorated Canadian Left. He has done us a real service by identifying key themes that would define the Left and catalyze fundamental change:
• a universal guaranteed income program
• sectoral collective bargaining
• legal changes to rein in the power of corporations
• abolition of intellectual property (copyright and patents)
• public control of key economic sectors and infrastructures through regulation, nationalization or the creation of public corporations
• promotion of localized food production and distribution
• expansion of the public sector
• radical democracy — increased direct roles for people and communities
• public control over the creation of money
• higher taxes on “bads” including speculation, pollution, junk food, inherited wealth
• legalization of pot and most other drugs
• carbon quotas (reduction by regulation, not pricing, credits or taxation)
What this program needs more than anything is a strategic context: while some elements can be pursued within the “islanded” Canadian polity, many have broader international implications.
Take for example bullet number 4, the abolition of intellectual property. In the “digital age” and an era of massive technological change, this is probably capital’s most important strategic asset. It cannot be addressed meaningfully on a national level, but requires a change in international rules. Because of the impact of electronic technology on the dissemination of information, national borders play a decreasing role in the way information circulates.
The internet is already playing havoc with many aspects of corporate intellectual property-rights — look at the impact of file sharing on the music and film industries. The corporate world is reacting by pressuring China to crack down on software piracy, for example, and by tightening copyright laws, but ultimately they have no way of keeping the water in the sieve.
An effective regime to nourish the free flow and exchange of innovation, ideas and culture but which at the same time provides a means for artists and writers to earn a living requires a more fundamental change in international laws and institutions. Imagining Canada operating like an unlicensed broadcaster of proprietary material, or a haven for information buccaneers, may be entertaining but hardly addresses the problem.
This one example leads us to confront an issue that has been more the subject of polemics than hard analysis by the Left, perhaps the most important issue of our time, an issue which subsumes every other important problem humanity faces, and that is globalization. This is the most important strategic issue facing us, and it’s about time we addressed it squarely.
It is urgent that we recognize the distinction between globalization, as such, and the way corporations and national governments operate in a globalizing world. By equating the two we are abandoning control of a transformed world to the interests of capital.
Globalization — the trend toward global integration of economic and political forces and institutions — has been underway since before the emergence of homo sapiens. It is an objective historical process, involving the spread and integration of humans across the planet, which began with the emergence of proto-humans from Africa, and much later that of modern humans into the Americas. It continues in enormously accelerated form today.
Globalization is mainly driven by demographics and by advances in technology and technique.
Genghis Khan was one of history’s great globalizers, creating a political apparatus that ruled most of Eurasia whose impact is still very evident today. Advances in the deployment of armed horsemen — both cavalry and archers — at a time when the strategically vital economic link known as the “Silk Road” was vulnerable to a well-organized attack were key to this achievement. In later times, the development of large sailing ships capable of reliably crossing the Atlantic Ocean in either direction made possible the surge of globalization represented by Europe’s wars of conquest and colonization.
Electronic telecommunications and the massive availability of cheap bulk transportation systems lie behind the exponential intensification of globalization today.
Globalization is not a conspiracy: it is an inexorable historical trend which has reached a stage of development which is transforming nearly everything in our world. Like capitalism, globalization is not the product of intelligent design: it is an evolved system. Unlike capitalism, it is not in itself a specific set of power relationships, but rather the huge underlying theme of humanity from its very beginnings.
The problem is not globalization. The problem is the hegemonic control of the globalized world by private and state capital. The problem is the way that capital operates when the levers of globalized technology, infrastructures, and relations are in its hands.
So the biggest question facing the Left is this: how should the emerging globalized world operate? How should decisions be made, and in whose interests? It is more than a little ironic that two centuries ago, the Right was the defender of the nation-state and the Left was internationalist. To some extent, those roles have been reversed. This leaves the Left in the wealthy countries often fighting a backward-looking — literally reactionary — struggle to revive its somewhat fanciful notion of a happier and more egalitarian past dominated by the social-democratic agency of the autonomous bourgeois nation state.
Instead of waging an endless succession of losing battles to restore the past, we need to imagine a future, and work to achieve it. We need to embrace the flowering of worldwide flows of ideas, culture, information and people, the deepening integration of the human race, and imagine how to make the emerging world a democratic place where the fruits of our collective economic and technical achievements are shared, and where the viability of our planet is preserved.
It is that failure of imagination, the missing dream that looks into the future instead of the past, that is the main reason why the Left has stumbled so badly over the past two decades — ever since the failure and collapse of the international Communist movement eliminated the Left’s principle vision of a new world.
The capitalist globalized world is run by a club of large corporations and national governments. Who would run a democratic globalized world? A club of democratized national governments? Is the best strategy to focus on democratizing Canada, and trying to exert what limited influence Canada could direct toward reforming the club? Or should we develop a different sort of vision altogether, where collective interests are not bounded by national boundaries, but fundamentally international in scope and solidarity?
The development of globalization has brought with it the evolution of structures and scales of government, from villages to cities — even in antiquity, there were a few truly large cities which were centres of wealth and political control — and relatively recently, to nation-states.
What we are seeing today is the beginnings of an inexorable trend where the bourgeois nation-state is losing its primacy to international — globalized — political and juridical systems and structures. This is a natural process: where our dominant technologies have the effect of making everything — people, money, ideas, pollution — spill ever more freely beyond territorial boundaries, carving up the surface of the earth into a patchwork of autonomous domains makes ever less sense and becomes ever less adequate a means to address our emerging issues and problems. Climate change is only one obvious example. Making things work, including saving us from our own environmental folly, requires globalized institutions and controls.
Meanwhile, cities and communities are beginning to re-gain political importance. Many of the flash-points and struggles against corporate globalism have been fought out by communities, not nation-states. The relationship between communities and global institutions will necessarily become increasingly significant in the emerging political dynamic of our era. In part this is because the scale at which people are most able to effectively motivate and organize themselves is the local one. Nothing startling here — the environmental movement has been saying it for years: “think globally, act locally.”
In terms of practical politics, we have to work with the tools and institutions available to us (or that can be made available to us). That includes advancing a program for a democratic world through our local, provincial and federal political structures. But we must not lose sight of the real objective — not the achievement of a tidy and perfect little Canada, but the achievement of democratic globalism. We need to create bonds of solidarity that bear no congruence with national borders, grounded in activated communities of interest, and develop an international strategy for fundamental change.
The pattern of national boundaries that carve up the world are the detritus of a history that is not ours. They were drawn by feudalism and colonialism. Canada, for example, and its outline on the map, are the direct products of the theft of aboriginal land by English and French colonialism, the triumph of English colonialism over French, and England’s desire to maintain its hold in North America in the face of the American Revolution and the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. Little more. So spare me the patriotic lump-in-the-throat when you hoist the flag.
The Left has to work with the mechanisms that are available to us, and that includes provincial and federal state institutions in Canada, but democratic globalism is not rule by a club of democratized nation states, but more fundamentally a dialogue of the people’s interests — class interests, regional interests, local interests, cultural interests — that drives the development of policy, institutions and rules that can achieve the wonderful potential that democratic globalization offers.
Back to Marc’s program
None of my observations contradict anything in Marc’s paper. All of the elements of his program for the Left would have a useful place in our strategy to democratize the way our world is changing. What they need is a strategic context. The strategy needs to be to build a movement that can unite as many communities and popular organizations behind a program to wrest control of the changing world from capital, and give human society to humanity.
Jim Quail is a Vancouver-based lawyer with a long background in social justice litigation, labour law and trade unionism, progressive politics, and rabble rousing. This article appeared on his eponymous blog.
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