What the NDP victory means for progress and politics in Alberta

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So what should we make of the NDP victory in Alberta? What does it mark politically and does it proclaim anything new about social democracy or democratic socialism? And what would Abe Rotstein -- U of T economics prof emeritus who died last week at 86 -- make of it?

Abe was the last person I knew who smoked cigarettes through a holder elegantly held between his fingers. He was an elegant guy who loved elegant turns of phrase (Every dogma has its day... Buddy can you spare a paradigm? ...). He sometimes seemed like a time traveller from 19th-century Europe, burdened with Hegelian dilemmas like the cunning of history, or from fin-de-siècle Vienna. He held out-of-fashion ideas like democratic socialism and economic nationalism, and proved how compelling the unfashionable can still be.

He grew up during the Great Depression wondering, like many, if these debacles could be prevented in the future. He went to Chicago to study economics, where a cold faith in free-market forces held sway, which has since triumphed nearly everywhere. He fled, he said, to Columbia where by accident he encountered Karl Polanyi, who'd fled Europe.

Polanyi is an economic thinker destined to be rediscovered in each generation. His book, The Great Transformation, written during the Second World War, has the potential to transform any reader. He said that in the calamitous, chaotic heyday of 19th-century capitalism, "society ... in some intuitive way" found the will to rein it in through public policies, and salvage human dignity. He was a socialist with special emphasis on "society." He didn't say progress was inevitable, as Marxists did. Abe became his student, then collaborator.

Their work together took a cosmic, philosophical, even metaphysical (Abe's term) turn. Polanyi used the word "soul" unashamedly. The human soul needed saving, though in a secular, unreligious sense. The joint human action he had praised, embodied in public policies, could also have dire results: surveillance, repression, genocide. So an active role for government was unavoidable but fraught with risk. Nothing was guaranteed, yet inaction was inconceivable. The suffering and need were too great. This is an adult view of collective action. The book was unfinished when Polanyi died, and closer when Abe died, but not done.

So what would he have made of Alberta's election? Rachel Notley's victory speech was largely what outgoing Conservative Jim Prentice might've said. There are clear differences between them, like a hike in the minimum wage and vaguer ones that mean life may get a little less mingy for many, if you want to call stuff like that "socialist." But in fact, Abe was an iffy kind of thinker.

He was a founder of the left Canadian economic nationalism that crested in the 1960s-70s. Yet even when it got washed away by the tides of free trade and globalization in the 1990s, he was thoughtful rather than despairing. If resistance to this renewed barbaric capitalism must be collective, he said, and if collectivity is embodied in nations and nationalism, and if nations must express their aspirations through governments ... The end was never particular policies or nationalism, it was always actual people and their needs. It was humanism, really. So if Alberta's election provides some impetus for people to act together politically to create a nobler future, then maybe it's somehow socialist, too.

You don't measure progress against abstract standards like GDP or public ownership. You assess in terms of the ability to work collectively toward mutual social goals, formulating them together as you go.

And it's all uncertain. We may prevail, though we probably won't; but we have to try. We're doomed to hope despite experience. He quoted Polanyi, who wrote an essay on Hamlet, ending: "Life is a missed opportunity." Abe made his own brave forays onto the terrain of missed opportunities in his final years. When he was honoured by the Karl Polanyi institute in Montreal last year, he said, quoting Frank Scott, that he felt like he was at a pre-mortem. He was in good health then. The cigarettes didn't get him, by the way. He abandoned them much earlier. He was smart and vital till the end, then he died, as everyone and everything -- including our most finely sculpted ideas -- eventually will.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Don Voaklander/flickr

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