Welcome to rabble.ca’s 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 2011 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.
I have a dream about the end of Harper, in which he is driven from office, a reviled figure.
His will be a name invoked by parents to scare their little children. He will live on as a historical footnote in the style of R.B. Bennett and Calvin Coolidge, his ideological predecessors remembered for doing exactly the wrong thing in the face of a global slump, in Bennett’s and Coolidge’s cases the 1930s Depression.
His legacy will be the movement built to defeat him, a network of vibrant community-labour coalitions in cities and towns across the country and new informal connections between neighbours, co-workers and cultural community members forged through petitioning, marching, occupying or simply sharing analysis in conversation.
Harper also has a dream about how his time in office ends, and it could not be more different. In Harper’s dream, the Tories have built a new majority party, rooted in superb fundraising and a highly sophisticated system of micro-matching messages to specific communities. The new Conservative majority will be unassailable, dominating political discussion and debate and backed by a thoroughly pro-Tory media consensus.
Whether my dream or Harper’s ultimately prevails will depend primarily on the effectiveness of the Left. And if you look honestly at the state of the Left at this moment, you might find my dream improbable.
Quite simply, the Left has lost much of the social weight it had up until the late 20th century, as our capacity to shape public debate and influence policy has withered. At one point, the Left has a real presence in neighbourhoods and workplaces, and was a serious reference point in union meetings, movement activism and broader political discussion. The perception that there was a socialist alternative meant that the persistence of capitalism was in question. Now, it is taken for granted and, to be blunt, the Left is largely marginal and fragmentary; stuck in old modes of thinking and infected with a sectarian ethos that seeks out the enemies on our side rather than focussing on solidarity against the real enemy.
It is clear that the Harper government will force people into fighting back, and indeed is already doing so. These fights will not automatically rebuild the Left, but they will provide conditions in which it is necessary and possible to do so. However, the Left must engage in a conscious transformative process if a new Left capable of defeating the Harper agenda is to emerge out of the these fightbacks. Specifically, it is crucial to build a new anti-capitalist Left, oriented ultimately to overturning the whole system from through mass democratic insurgency and founded on the premise that our power lies in our capacity for collective action in the streets, workplaces and neighbourhoods.
Effective collective action doesn’t just happen. Sure, militant protests can erupt quite spontaneously, but to be effective in facing down determined opponents like the Harper government, activists must develop strategic spaces and methods of democratic decision making. Wisconsin activists Andrew Sernatinger and Adam Breihan described a moment in the occupation of the State Capital building in Madison, when protesters were figuring out how to control the building. All it took to derail this action was for high-profile activist Jesse Jackson to come along and lead folks out of the building to hear a speaker. There was no capacity among the activists for analysis or decision making to resist this “friendly” tactic for breaking up the occupation.
Effective collective action is nurtured by the infrastructure of dissent, the range of formal and informal organizations through which we develop our capacities to analyze (mapping the system), communicate (through official and alternative media channels), and take strategic action in real solidarity. As ways of life and work change, the infrastructure of dissent that thrived in one set of conditions can wither.
For example, a particular kind of solidarity was nurtured in pre-World War Two communities such as Drouillard Road in Windsor, Winnipeg’s North End or the Spadina/Kensington Market area in Toronto. In those places, your neighbours were often also your co-workers, creating a certain kind of solidarity. Further, the struggle for basic democratic and social rights (ranging from unionization to human rights protection to social assistance) led to the development of a wealth of organizations ranging from cultural halls to radical bookstores, and from anti-capitalist political organizations to sports and leisure clubs.
After the war, real though very partial victories led to widespread unionization, very real gains at the bargaining table and the expansion of social services, changing the political agenda. Work was relocated away from heavily unionized areas and the service sector began to grow dramatically. Suburbs expanded and automobile use increased, so that work and home became geographically distant and the likelihood of neighbours being co-workers declined. The networks and organizations that had thrived in a particular political and social situation eroded.
The 1960s saw the emergence of new forms of infrastructure of dissent, grounded in new struggles and ways of life. Militant liberation movements, such as those in Algeria, Vietnam, the Caribbean, Latin America and southern Africa inspired new forms of solidarity activism. The national struggle in Quebec and new levels of indigenous activism redefined the political agenda. Political communities forged around anti-racism, feminism, environmental activism and sexual liberation mobilized powerful struggles. Students became more prominent in activism, based in part on the increased participation in post-secondary education which brought in more students from working class and diverse ethnic backgrounds. Young workers played a key role in defiant activism in plants and offices, and much of the public sector was unionized.
The 1960s New Left spoke a new language, created new symbols, danced to different sound and organized a wide range of new publications, political and cultural groups, and networks. It revitalized elements of the old left and forged new political projects. Ultimately, it took a deliberate counter-offensive to demobilize these movements and erode the gains they made.
This counter-offensive began in the mid-1970s and cohered as the neo-liberal agenda to slash public services, strengthen market forces and reorganize work along lean production lines, which included a “just-in-time” workforce in which more employees were hired on a part-time and contract basis. The counter-offensive, waged by corporations and the state, had a number of dimensions which I cannot trace out here.
This counter-offensive, combined with significant changes in work and life, eroded the infrastructure of dissent that emerged out of the 1960s or survived from earlier struggles. One of the key tasks of the next New Left is to identify, nurture and learn from the infrastructure of dissent that is currently in formation.
Migrant rights struggles have been a crucial site for new forms of effective militant action and organizing capacity across North America and Europe, including vibrant groups like No One is Illegal and Migrante. The Palestine solidarity movement has been highly effective at using the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israeli goods and institutions to build alliances and reframe discussion and debate around the Middle East. Anti-poverty organizing has been an important source of resistance to the neo-liberal agenda, and the 20th anniversary of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty marks the durability of new forms of dissent infrastructure. Indigenous struggles, globally and within the Canadian state, offer a crucial challenge not only to the neo-liberal state, but also to a Left that has often framed politics so as to marginalize first peoples and their nations. Finally, there are hopeful signs that the anti-capitalist Left is finding new ways to work together in organizations like the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, bringing together activists from a range of movements and organizations.
An anti-capitalist Left seeking to engage with broader layers of the population must find ways to engage with the NDP, the largest mass organization with roots in the Left. Certainly the recent electoral success of the NDP in Quebec poses a new the challenge of building a pan-Canadian radical left that is committed to the principle of Quebec self-determination as well as indigenous sovereignty.
However, we must also be very clear that the NDP is focussed on presenting itself as a responsible alternative government in waiting, and will not provide any leadership in challenging the Harper agenda through militant activism in our streets, neighbourhoods and workplaces.
The renewal of the infrastructure of dissent in the anti-Harper fight will not just happen through our activism, but will require that we make time for serious discussion and debate. We need a new ethos for these discussions, thoroughly anti-sectarian with a genuine commitment to learning from each other even where we strongly and openly disagree. A spirit of open-endedness must set the tone, in which we admit we are seeking answers to emerging problems that are not already covered in the great books. We need to sharpen the anti-capitalist frame, making it truly integrative: ecological, queer, feminist, anti-racist, and anticolonialist. If we can do that, then it is possible that my dream for Harper’s fall will come true.
Alan Sears teaches at Ryerson University. He is an editorial associate with New Socialist webzine, and is active with Faculty for Palestine and the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly.
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