This month marks the 10th Anniversary of the New Politics Initiative, a coalition of individuals and organizations that called for the formation of a new and more activist progressive political party in Canada.
The NPI was concerned with the relationship between progressive social movements and progressive parties, trying to better understand and strengthen the links between electoral and extra-parliamentary left activism.
In light of the Occupy movement and the NDP leadership race, we at rabble thought this was a good time to review the themes and lessons of the NPI, and consider their relevance for the future directions of the left. We begin today by re-posting the NPI’s founding document. We have also invited several activists who were involved in the initiative to share their reflections with us in the coming days.
Additional contributions to this dialogue are also welcome, please send them to [email protected]
The left is at a crossroads. Conservatives and business leaders trumpet a new era in which the supremacy of the market and corporate power are as natural and self-evident as they are irresistible. We have supposedly reached the “end of history”, the “end of ideology”: an era of apparent consensus in policy and politics, a universally accepted reality in which business calls the shots and the rest of society adjusts itself accordingly.
Despite this, however, vast numbers of people insist on continuing to fight for their basic rights to security, dignity, freedom, and environmental sustainability. They insist on continuing to make their own history, even as the spin doctors claim that history is over — that there are no longer any alternatives. These grassroots struggles for a better world show no sign of letting up, despite the daunting power of the corporations and pro-corporate governments they confront.
To be sure, our goals of social justice, equality, and sustainability have endured many setbacks in this lean-and-mean world of privatized, globalized, business domination. Poverty and hardship are endemic, in Canada and around the world, even as technological change steadily enhances our capacity to meet human needs. Wealth and power accumulate around us, yet thousands of Canadians live on the streets, and millions more are just one pay cheque away from being there too. Canadians work harder and longer than ever, yet private incomes stagnate and our “social wage” (the value of public services and protections) erodes. Millions experience a chronic lack of time, torn between the demands of paid work and unpaid family responsibility, and our ability to enjoy the good life we work so hard to build is compromised. So-called “trade” agreements deliberately undermine governments’ ability to regulate economic conditions in the public interest. Meanwhile, human society careens out-of-control towards horrific environmental catastrophe — a crisis that is increasingly evident and predictable, but that the powers-that-be continue to ignore because the necessary solutions might undermine corporate profits.
But despite these setbacks, we reject the idea that the sun has somehow set on the ideals of egalitarianism, solidarity, redistribution, community responsibility, and socialism — ideals that have motivated generations of human beings to fight to limit the economic and political power of private wealth. If anything, as the incredible protests from Vancouver to Seattle to Quebec City have shown, this is a time of opportunity for the left. We celebrate the victories of our global movement: the defeat of the MAI, beating the pharmaceutical giants in South Africa and Brazil, the strength of the Zapatistas, local victories around the world over water and waste, the rejection of neoliberalism in New Zealand.
And it is significant that many in this new generation of activists embrace the term “anti-capitalist” as a defining feature. The left has a huge opening to honestly and forcefully challenge the underlying precepts of a market system that perpetually generates hardship and inequality. Far from retreating defensively and adopting so-called “moderate” values, we have an opportunity to loudly call out that the emperor has no clothes: decades of pro-business policies have not delivered better life prospects or a healthier environment for the vast majority of Canadians (let alone those in the Third World), and it is time once again to think about fundamental changes in the way we organize our society and our economy.
The gap between the potential of our society to meet human needs, and the grim reality we see around us every day, is larger than ever. And wherever and whenever people are treated badly and unfairly, they find a myriad of ways to fight back and demand a better way. So long as this happens, the left has an important and influential role to play: speaking truth to power, challenging the right of the wealthy and powerful to oppress and exploit, demanding that our collective knowledge and talents be used to rise up human standards rather than enriching the few, mobilizing and inspiring people to fight for their rights.
The NDP has experienced serious electoral setbacks — and more importantly suffers a historic lack of direction and enthusiasm. Left political parties in some other countries are also in crisis — while a renewed left in other countries has experienced encouraging successes.
Canada needs a forceful, ambitious, outspoken, and progressive political party — to contest elections, but also to fight more broadly for humane goals. We need a party that honestly challenges the assumptions and the outcomes of capitalism. We need a party that supports and links the day-to-day non-electoral struggles of Canadians for justice, equality, and sustainability, at home and around the world. We need a party which raises the expectations of average Canadians, who have been told from all sides that they daren’t even hope for a better world.
The New Politics Initiative is being launched by a diverse assembly of Canadians — individuals from virtually every walk of life, leaders and rank-and-file partisans from a rich array of unions, social justice groups, and other campaigning organizations, as well as leaders and activists within the NDP. Together we see the need for such a party, and we are pledging to support its creation.
The first task: Building Canadian democracy
The 2000 Canadian federal election should be a wake-up call to those concerned with the erosion of meaningful democracy at home and elsewhere. Superficial antics dominated the campaign. Voter participation reached an all-time low, especially among youth, as cynicism and mistrust of the political process reached an all-time high. Meanwhile, the corporations and wealthy who bankroll this increasingly expensive but shallow process were laughing all the way to the bank. It hardly mattered which business party won the election: huge tax cuts, delivering $100 billion or more to corporations and the well-off, were assured in any event. The election became a phony rubber stamp for decisions that were already made.
The left can and must reclaim the moral and political initiative in exposing this increasingly corrupt process, and demanding reforms which not only make our electoral process fairer — but more importantly put real decision-making power into the hands of Canadians every day of the year.
Crucial changes must be made to our electoral system, and fast, to arrest the glaring decline in the quality of our elections and the level of citizens’ participation. We must follow most of the rest of the world in implementing proportional representation structures. Campaign finance reform, barring corporate entities from using their money to manipulate and control our elections, and strict control of lobbyists, as well as strong freedom of information legislation, is essential. Active enumeration programs must be reinstated, to reverse the alarming disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Canadians — most of them poor. Teenagers today are clearly more educated and sophisticated than most adults were a century ago; all Canadians over 16 years of age should have the right to vote. We can push for structural changes to ensure that half of our parliamentarians are women.
But democracy means much more than just holding genuinely free and fair elections. There are infinite other ways in our society in which the ability to discuss and debate, to make decisions and control our own lives, is increasingly constrained and compromised. Our system of governance fosters a stratum of professional politicians and technocrats on one hand, and an inactive citizenry on the other; it promotes hierarchical and bureaucratic forms of government administration; above all, it tolerates and even promotes the concentration of private wealth and power which undermines the ability of Canadians to control their own lives on a day-to-day basis.
This affects not only how the economy is run, but even the spaces through which politics and culture are expressed. For example, with the exception of the CBC and a few community-owned media outposts, a growing majority of Canada’s mass media is owned by billionaires — and it shows. We need limits on corporate media concentration, rules to grant wider media access to those who don’t happen to own their own newspapers, and public funding for alternative and democratic media.
Meanwhile, Canadian employees endure a virtual dictatorship in the place where they spend most of their waking hours: the workplace. Workers need more ability and more power to participate in workplace decision-making on issues that affect them, and to meaningfully enforce accepted workplace standards — whether they are members of a union or not.
At the local, provincial, and federal levels we must experiment with other forms of direct democracy. For example, participatory budget processes such as those in Porto Alegre, Brazil, would grant citizens themselves the right to participate in the allocation of scarce public resources and oversee the management of important public programs.
Another huge danger to democracy in Canada is posed by the growing power of unelected, unaccountable trade bodies to overthrow policies and rules which are enacted by elected governments. Indeed, the Quebec Summit of the Americas provided perhaps the most damning indictment imaginable of the state of Canadian democracy. Hemispheric leaders gathered behind barbed wire to celebrate the triumph of “democracy” in the Americas, while unprecedented and oppressive police force targeted thousands of Canadians who wanted to express their views.
Corporations bought their way into top-level summit meetings by providing cell phones, bottled water, and token donations. The U.S.-backed client rulers of Haiti, Panama, and Colombia were welcomed with open arms. Meanwhile, in contrast to our past independence, Canada compliantly aped U.S. policy by denying a summit invitation to Cuba, whose citizens enjoy better living conditions (even by the World Bank’s admission) than most Latin Americans. Indeed, the erosion of Canada’s capacity to challenge regressive U.S. policies which affect us (ranging from their hungry consumption of our resources, to their construction of missile defence systems over our heads) is another reflection of our diminishing capacity to control our destiny as a nation. Most brutally of all, the firsthand experience of thousands of Canadians who faced frightening violence (including the application of excessive force to peaceful protesters) at the hands of riot police in Quebec — violence which has been largely glossed over by a compliant corporate media — provides a serious warning about the descent of our democracy.
Other far-reaching reforms in our democracy must also be placed on the agenda. Canada’s Senate is a glaring vestige of an era in which private wealth and power exercised direct political control; it must be abolished. We should seriously consider abandoning our continued formal constitutional links to the British Monarchy. And the Bank of Canada — which all sides acknowledge to be the most important economic institution in society, yet whose lack of democratic accountability is actually celebrated by the rich and powerful — needs to be democratized through a new, broader mandate and a more representative structure of governance.
On all of these grounds, we demand a fundamental rethink of what democracy means to Canadians. Money and bureaucracy, not democracy, determines most of the important decisions in our lives. For too long conventional social democrats have not seriously challenged this corrupt process, and hence leadership in the debate over democratic reforms has been ceded, ironically, to the right. Challenging this frightening trend, and recapturing the initiative in the struggle to defend and expand democracy, can be a crucial spark for revitalizing the whole left movement.
New Politics, not just new policies
Just as democracy means much more than free and fair elections, so too does fighting effectively for social change involve much more than simply contesting those elections. We need an ambitious, principled party that participates in electoral contests. Elections should provide a rare opportunity, in our generally depoliticized society, to discuss and debate crucial issues, and to present alternative visions before Canadians. And parties that win elections, of course, subsequently enjoy some ability to implement their policies and visions — although that ability is crucially constrained and tempered by the dominant economic power exercised in our society by corporate power. As too many NDP provincial governments have found to their chagrin, you don’t “win power” simply by “winning an election.” Unless we are organizing and preparing ourselves to actively press for progressive change all the time, even winning elections may not advance our cause.
The most important task facing the broad left in Canada today is to nurture and build the myriad of campaigns and movements fighting for key improvements in society, the economy, and the environment, and to ensure that these movements have a strong and consistent political voice. To do this we need to simultaneously expose the growing failure of capitalism to meet our basic needs, but also raise hope among affected communities that better ways of doing things are possible. This will be a long-run, incremental process.
This central movement-building task is clearly complementary to the goal of electoral campaigning. When Canadians are motivated and mobilized, actively fighting for their rights every day of the year, they will be less apathetic and less subject to the shallow manipulation of electoral gimmicks. These movements can change the parameters of political debate. And they can win important victories, between elections, even from business-oriented governments.
After all, that’s how most important social programs in Canada were implemented: not by well-meaning social democrats who were elected to bestow good deeds on a thankful populace from on high, but rather thanks to passionate and engaged efforts by Canadians to demand and win better policies and programs. Consider the powerful victories that Canadians have won in numerous areas in recent decades — ranging from improvements in women’s legal and economic equality, to better health and safety protections in workplaces, to the cultural and legal liberation of gays and lesbians, to the development of a deeply-rooted environmentalist consciousness in many segments of society. These important victories did not come about solely due to benevolent actions by elected NDP governments. What was crucial, rather, was a willingness by workers, women, seniors, gays and lesbians, and environmentalists to stand up and fight for their rights, in communities, in courts, and at the ballot box. No matter who is in power, building active and hopeful social movements — in a myriad of forms, and using an infinite array of organizing techniques — is the crucial prerequisite for further social progress.
Then, when election time comes, Canadians who participate in these movements will naturally support candidates who have won their trust in working year round for their social and environmental goals. This requires that the demands of these movements cannot be sacrificed in the interests of short-run electoral positioning by the political party; these demands, rather, must be front and centre. And it means that progressive politicians need to be far more forthright, energetic, and consistent than they have been in fighting for these important demands, inside parliaments and out. When left candidates are elected, they should become the parliamentary voice of the active citizens’ movements that are the real engine of social change. Despite their current cynicism, social, labour and environmental activists understand clearly that governments make important decisions and that electoral processes are crucial to the evolution of society. They can be won back to engaging again in electoral politics, but only by a party that is seen to be an integral part of their struggles — not a paternalistic elite that begrudges their independent capacities to make demands.
This, then, is the core of the “new politics” that our initiative aims to promote. Politics is about the conditions of our day-to-day lives: how we live, how we work, how we relate to our environment, who has power, who makes decisions. Politics must change, and so must politicians. Our political leaders should see their main job as educating citizens about the failures of our system, motivating and organizing them to fight actively for redress — and then providing a parliamentary voice for the fightbacks we aim to inspire. Politics is not something we put on the back burner, until the time comes to gear up for another election. We don’t want a “representative” politics, where we chose leaders to manage our concerns; we want a participatory politics, where our leaders march beside us in our common struggles (as NDP Members of Parliament did in Quebec City). Our goal is to empower and organize mass numbers of Canadians to fight for a better world – every day and everywhere. When we succeed in this, the left’s electoral presence can only get stronger and more meaningful. Ultimately, this will lead to the election of a progressive government.
From local involvement to global change
Capitalism has extended its power and its influence to the global scale, like never before. Large corporations reach into virtually every nook and cranny of the globe, and the new power of institutions like the WTO, NAFTA, and the IMF is wielded very deliberately to reinforce and stabilize this system of global corporate capitalism. Our vision of resisting and rolling back the power of corporations and capital must be similarly global. We imagine a radical internationalism in our approach to issues like trade, the environment, and the appalling and immoral poverty that so much of the world’s population continues to experience. We call for enthusiastic solidarity with like-minded movements around the world challenging the same root problem: the greed and irresponsibility of private companies and investors, whose hunger for profit is running amok over fundamental human needs and our natural environment. Their victories help our struggles, and vice versa.
At the same time, however, we recognize the continuing relevance of individual nations as the crucial playing fields on which political and ideological struggles are conducted. Nation states have not been rendered obsolete by globalization — far from it. In fact, without the concerted and powerful interventions of individual nation states, coordinated through international bodies like the IMF and the WTO, this system of global capitalism would long ago have collapsed. Our goal is to use the power of the Canadian state to help roll back regressive social, environmental, and economic trends, in Canada and around the world.
Meanwhile, some of the most important struggles in this overall campaign are being conducted at the level of individual municipalities, regions, and neighbourhoods. It is here that the most concrete demands of Canadians for a better future are expressed, through nitty-gritty campaigns for housing, public transit, schools, clinics, libraries, art galleries, and parks. It is here, too, that the hard, pragmatic work of building mobilized, hopeful coalitions to campaign for improved services and programs also begins. The fiscal dumping of right-wing federal and provincial governments has predictably heightened these conflicts. Trade rulings like NAFTA’s metal-clad decision further erode the power of local governments to make decisions in the best interests of their citizens and the environment. By taking on and winning as many of these local struggles as we can, we will not only start to reverse the broad negative trend in public sector downsizing. We will also engage and motivate people into active campaigning for things that are important in their lives, showing them why “politics” is important to their day-to-day existence. Moreover, experience shows that at the local level we can concretely implement new policies, and new decision-making structures, that are hard to initially imagine at a federal level. The left has a huge potential to rebuild its overall presence (including its electoral base) one neighbourhood at a time, by dedicating important energies and attentions to these local and municipal struggles.
There is no contradiction between supporting the goal of fiscal federalism (whereby resources are collected fairly across Canada, shared between regions, and then used to fund the provision of public services and programs which respect national standards), and simultaneously promoting a more localized and accountable administration of those public programs and services (to ensure that services reflect local needs and preferences).
Finally, we also recognize the unique history and political culture of Quebec. Any of our demands for the protection and establishment of federal-level funding arrangements and social standards will fully recognize and respect Quebec’s national rights to establish and govern its own programs, in the context of our general recognition of Quebec’s full right to self-determination . We strongly reject the heavy handed approach of the federal Liberal government in the so-called Clarity Bill C-20.
Core demands for a revitalized left
The New Politics Initiative will sponsor regional conferences this autumn, open to all concerned Canadians, to consider and revise this Vision Statement and propose policies to guide our effort to rebuild and reconstitute Canada’s left. This inclusive, democratic process will determine the NPI’s future specific policy positions. Indeed, we see the crucial contribution of the NPI as sparking the creation of more democratic and active structures and processes, and developing entirely new ways of “doing” politics — rather than in trying to provide a top-down recipe book of preferred policy positions.
We imagine, as this democratic process unfolds, that the following key issues will form the core of our Initiative’s policy approach:
Shepherding the planet: The list of acute environmental problems facing human society is frightening: global warming, habitat destruction, the loss of biodiversity, deforestation, smog and acid rain. Young people are perhaps the most concerned about the dead-end, nonsustainable path we are heading down — and with good reason, since they will inherit the mess we are creating today. But Canadians from all generations understand well that humanity’s current practices cannot continue for long. We must heed the warning of a coming collision between humans and the sustainability of our planet made recently by over 1,000 world scientists, including many Nobel laureates.
Yet even as scientific opinion regarding the unthinkable environmental consequences of current economic activity becomes more authoritative and unanimous, governments and corporations continue their blinkered ways as if there was no tomorrow. It’s hard to even contemplate the looming environmental catastrophes that will be the predictable result of present practices — continued suburban sprawl, continued fossil fuel reliance, the squandering of energy, continued neglect of our water. The short-term profits of land developers, tar sands miners, and other corporations are consistently advantaged over our collective long-term need for a livable environment. Canada now plays a shocking role in subverting global initiatives, no matter how timid, to slow down this runaway train — helping to subvert the Kyoto accord, and offering to feed the continuing U.S. addiction for oil and gas with limitless access to our own reserves.
We desperately need a sea-change in how we manage our interactions with the natural world. Tax-shift policies and other market-based “incentives” can help, but we also need more powerful and far-reaching measures, too: an end to destructive corporate activity, the integration of environmental planning into all major economic decisions (including land development and transportation), and big public investments in environmental education and quality. Resources must be allocated to the strict enforcement of environmental laws, with penalties including criminal prosecution and imprisonment for those (including corporate executives) who break these laws. Sustainability need not be “bad” for the economy. If we are prepared to invest heavily in new environmental technology and infrastructure, public transit and parks, energy retrofitting, recycling and clean-up, we can create millions of jobs — and a much higher quality of life in the process. Our new party must place a far-reaching environmentalism at the very centre of its politics.
The conflict between profit and sustainability is especially severe in our agricultural and food industries. As Maude Barlow puts it, the “culture” in agriculture has been replaced with “business”: an agribusiness complex dominated by chemical and biotechnology corporations, destroying the livelihoods of independent farmers, and risking our health, our water, and our environment through horrific profit-maximizing production techniques. These corporations, backed up by free trade bureaucrats, are more interested in protecting their patented life forms than in feeding a hungry world. The livestock epidemics and water disasters of the last year are just the first of the crises we will face until we find safer ways to manage and regulate agriculture.
For a just and safe world: A dozen years after the free-trade debate was supposedly decided in Canada, public concern and controversy over new trade agreements and our role in the global economy rages on unabated — and with good reason. More and more Canadians are appalled by the biased and anti-democratic nature of so-called “trade” institutions, at the unique powers that they grant to corporations (but not to citizens), at the failure of trade liberalization to produce promised improvements in living standards in North and South alike. Canada must stop being the cheerleader for free trade, and the advance PR agent for America’s vision of global corporate capitalism.
In the short term, we can press for abolishing the kangaroo courts of the WTO and NAFTA, dumping NAFTA’s infamous Chapter 11, and stopping trade agreements from impinging on the democratic rights of nation states to regulate their economy and resources and provide public services. Ultimately the current international economic institutions (including NAFTA, the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank) must be replaced with meaningful international efforts to promote trade, investment, financial stability, and international economic cooperation — without requiring member countries to follow the neoliberal straightjacket currently dictated by these institutions. We imagine international bodies which would energetically enforce international human rights and environmental conventions as well as the core labour standards of the ILO (routinely ignored now, even in highly developed countries), rather than the patent rights of multinational drug makers. Initiatives to regulate and limit international capital mobility implemented both in individual countries and in multilateral bodies, such as the Tobin Tax, will also be important.
The minions of free trade have no moral right to cry crocodile tears over the plight of the Third World, while banks and other private investors continue to extract hundreds of billions of dollars in interest charges on old debts. As AIDS and other health crises rage through the Third World, corporations and our governments seem more concerned with protecting the patent rights of drug manufacturers than with saving lives. The debts of heavily-indebted developing economies must be unconditionally cancelled, and realistic development aid reinstated. If the Scandinavian countries can exceed the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GDP, surely Canada can do the same.
With the end of the Cold War, fears of nuclear war and other global catastrophes were supposed to be put to rest. But it turns out that “defeating communism” was not quite synonymous with “ensuring lasting peace”. The U.S. is forging ahead with its unilateral and dangerous plans for anti-missile systems to be installed right over Canadians’ heads. Yet Canada’s ability to resist these plans, and to conduct an independent foreign policy, has been compromised more than ever by our government’s aping of U.S. positions on trade, environmental protection, and other international issues — not to mention our repeated rubber-stamp support for U.S. military actions. Canada was once respected globally as an independent voice for world peace and development; we can rebuild that credibility again, but only if we are willing to speak with an independent foreign policy voice. We should reiterate long-standing federal NDP policy to withdraw from NATO and NORAD, and to focus our international efforts on strengthening and democratizing the United Nations.
Equality and inclusion: Visible evidence of the extremely unequal distribution of income and wealth in our society has become all too commonplace. Humane, caring people will not tolerate the continued existence of poverty and deprivation in a country as rich as ours. Thus demands for greater economic, social, and legal equality along lines of class, gender, race, sexual orientation, and ability will continue to resonate in Canadian society, and will be a defining feature of a new left party — despite the constant but dubious economic arguments that inequality is somehow inevitable, or even desirable.
Large groups of Canadians are side-stepped by current economic and social structures: aboriginal peoples, immigrants, other communities of colour, people with disabilities. Women’s continuing fight for full equality is hampered by public service cutbacks, which have transferred vast demands for caring labour mostly onto the shoulders of unpaid women. By its very nature, the private market reproduces inequality and exclusion. We need a renewed role for progressive government at all levels, public service provision, and community empowerment to address growing cleavages in social and economic outcomes. Progress toward effective social and economic equality for all Canadians — including women; people of colour; seniors; the poor; gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people; and the people with disabilities — is a crucial priority, and a central measuring stick of our development as a just society.
No group has borne worse consequences from Canada’s historic pattern of development than aboriginal peoples. The shocking, genocidal conditions of life facing most aboriginal peoples provide a horrifying refutation of Canada’s traditional claim to be a humane, egalitarian society. As aboriginal peoples finally inch toward long-overdue structures and powers of self-government (through land claims negotiations and other avenues), even this small progress is placed at risk by a racist backlash — aided and abetted by private economic interests who fear lost profits as land claims are settled. The pace of land claims settlements needs to be stepped up, more economic and political support must be given for the establishment of democratic and accountable aboriginal self-government structures, and restitution must be negotiated for historic outrages. Meanwhile, programs and resources must also be directed at the unique problems faced by the growing proportion of aboriginal people living off-reserve. A firm and principled position in favour of righting this massive historic wrong will be a crucial test of the moral integrity of our new progressive party.
We welcome the long-overdue attention that has been paid by social movements and activists in recent years to the multifaceted forms of inequality and exclusion experienced by so many Canadians: by women; people of colour; lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people; and the people with disabilities. But we also continue to see class as a crucial axis along which millions of working Canadians are systematically exploited and disadvantaged. The continuing struggles of working people in Canada for more economic security, safer jobs, more leisure time, and a decent degree of dignity and democracy within the workplace, will continue to be a central force for social progress in Canada. Hence supporting and empowering those struggles must be a central priority of the new party. We must be on the picket lines with trade unionists supporting their particular workplace struggles, while we advocate forcefully for working people on broader labour issues — such as anti-scab laws, health and safety protections, restoring UI benefits, protecting and expanding pensions, better holidays, and reduced working time. Our links with the labour movement must go far deeper than simply relying on top-down endorsements and financial donations; indeed, our vision of democratic political reform would prohibit political donations by corporate entities (including unions), and recognize the importance of public funding. And as has been abundantly proven in recent years, that top-level support will not translate into grassroots political support until and unless the party is seen to be fighting for workers’ interests in a more active, concrete, and consistent manner.
Culture, diversity, and freedom: Even as it projects an image of rugged economic individualism, corporate society simultaneously advances an increasingly homogeneous, name-branded, patent-protected, consumption-based cultural vision. The combination of concentrated corporate control and the globalization of cultural industries produces a shallow and demeaning cultural vision. We will work to better equip Canadians with the opportunity to produce their own culture, by Canadians and for Canadians — reflecting the global community that we are part of, to be sure, but not dominated by global capital. New technologies offer great potential for the development of new forms of decentralized cultural expression. But without energetic countervailing measures, private wealth will soon come to dominate these new forms, as surely as they already dominate newspapers, bookstores, and television stations. This effort to democratize culture will include placing limits and regulations on the concentrated power of commercial media and cultural interests. More importantly, it will involve ambitious efforts to create democratic, non-profit forms and spaces for cultural expression and production. Above all, Canadians need more time, if they are to become more engaged and active in their culture and their communities; for that reason, efforts to reduce working hours and enhance leisure time are an important democratic goal, not just an economic and environmental one.
No one experiences the lack of accessible and democratic cultural and recreation opportunities more severely than young people, who always struggle to create new spaces and mediums. Once again belying their commitment to “individualism”, conservatives are stepping up their oppressive efforts to regulate culture (especially youth culture), resuscitate a discredited notion of the “traditional” family, and otherwise promote a general culture of conformity. This reflects the overall conservative goal of regenerating a population of disciplined, compliant workers. Phony campaigns against drugs, hypocritical moral panics over rave dances and other youth activities, and other right-wing efforts to limit personal expression must all be turned back as part of our fight for an inclusive and egalitarian society. Canada’s absurd drug policy, in particular, has become an excuse for the needless criminal prosecution of mostly young and poor people. A health-promotion, harm-reduction approach should guide our policies and laws on non-medical drugs, replacing the ineffective and destructive tactics of criminalization. Marijuana should be legalized.
Renewing the public sector: Public programs make a huge contribution to the standard of living of Canadians — including income security measures like pensions, EI, and welfare, and non-cash public services like health care and education. Thanks to these programs, Canadians are guaranteed a certain quality of life by virtue of being human beings, not tied to their status as “commodities” in a private market. But public programs are in grave crisis: since 1992, public programs in Canada have been reduced by one-quarter relative to GDP, and this share is still falling despite the advent of budget surpluses in most jurisdictions. Now our schools and hospitals are at the breaking point: crumbling buildings, exhausted workers who haven’t had a raise in a decade, an inability to keep up with technology. The tremendous failure of the “free market” to provide decent, affordable housing for Canadians requires a huge re-engagement by Canadian governments at all levels, to supply hundreds of thousands of new units of quality non-profit housing. It is shameful that Canada has, under the Liberals, become one of the only industrial countries with no national housing policy. Homelessness is a national disgrace. And we need whole new programs in crucial areas, reflecting the changing needs of society: early child education, home care, pharmacare, and dental care.
We can well afford these and other initiatives, so long as our available fiscal resources are not squandered on tax cuts — the bulk of which, inevitably, benefit those who are already doing very well. The claim that Canadians are overtaxed (even middle-class Canadians) is a self-serving myth, propagated by the wealthy and powerful who have their own reasons to cut public entitlements. Despite years of cutbacks, most Canadians still receive more value in the form of public programs and services from government than they pay in taxes.
All of this is more than just a problem of public finances. The bureaucratic and unaccountable nature of much public service provision, and the incomplete accessibility to those programs experienced by many sectors of society, have led many citizens to feel distant and alienated from government agencies that are supposedly there to serve them. Repairing and enhancing the quality of those services, and developing new ways to improve democratic control and accountability in public service delivery, will give Canadians even more value for their tax dollars and thus reinforce popular support for the programs that add so much to our lives.
Putting limits on capital: The cold reality we face is that 85 per cent of our economic activity is undertaken by private, for-profit companies. The economic dominance of business has grown markedly, due to cutbacks in public programs and the steady privatization of public agencies and corporations. Any strategy for improving Canadian social and economic conditions has to take account of the current dominance of private business as a real constraint. While we bemoan the lack of accountability and responsibility so evident in most self-seeking corporate behaviour, we clearly are dependent now on private investment and employment to keep the economy working, and in the short term our policies can’t help but reflect that dependence. But at the same time the left also needs to develop strategies and policies to ultimately reduce our collective dependence on private capital, and limit the ability of corporations and investors to undermine or sabotage the policies and programs that Canadians need.
The failure to recognize and address this long-term structural challenge is one of the greatest weaknesses of traditional social-democratic politics, which has often implicitly accepted the excesses of private capital simply because it has no alternative vision to offer. A major test of our effort to establish a “new politics” on Canada’s left will be our willingness and ability to confront and overcome this traditional failure. We will work to incrementally limit and challenge the incredible power that private investment and private capital currently wield over so many facets of our lives; as we do this, we will start to lay the basis for a longer-run project to organize society around principles of humanism, cooperation, and respect for the environment, rather than principles of private profit.
There are many ways in which this general goal of limiting the power of private capital can be advanced over time — and we will surely develop others as we go along. Direct controls on capital flows (like limits on international financial inflows and outflows, reserve requirements on private banks, and controls over private speculative activity such as hedging and derivatives) would help to insulate Canada’s economy from global financial chaos. Democratic control over financial and investment decisions could be further enhanced through community reinvestment requirements on private financial institutions, the development of non-profit community and industrial investment boards, the democratization of the Bank of Canada, and the investment of public pension monies with an eye to economic and social development — rather than just corporate profitability. Revitalized human services can be delivered through public or non-profit agencies. Direct public ownership makes sense in certain industries, both new and old, where private ownership is producing inadequate or irrational economic outcomes. Finance and banking, transportation, energy, new communications media, and pharmaceuticals are just some of the industries where a revitalized vision of public ownership could play an important role. Alternative non-profit economic institutions — ranging from larger and more powerful credit unions, to community investment funds, to producer and consumer cooperatives — can be built gradually over time. All of this will help to overcome our economic and political dependence on private capital, and to develop our own collective capacity to democratically, efficiently, and responsibly manage our economy.
Building a party that works
The effort to reconstitute an engaged and effective left party in Canada must emphasize crucial principles of democracy, participation, openness, and accountability.
Integrated Structures: We view the new party as constituting a well-rounded movement for social change, a task that includes but is not limited to contesting elections. We imagine a party structure that unites and organizes its members to carry on all kinds of political activities, including (but not limited to) nominating and supporting progressive candidates in elections. Local riding associations and other grass-roots party structures would be composed of like-minded activists and working people committed to campaigning on issues at the national, regional, and local level. Their work should be supported by central party resources that assist, teach, and facilitate such activities. Party members can then act as a badly-needed bridge between those mobilizing for change in broader society, and those working for change from within the political system.
Participation and Action: The primary task of the new party is to support the infinite variety of ways in which Canadians stand up for their rights and work in international solidarity, to give broader political coherence to those struggles (by viewing them all as part of a general effort to limit the power of corporations and markets), and to provide an electoral and parliamentary voice for those struggles. A crucial precondition of the party’s ability to fulfill this mandate will be the development of a mass base of members, and the education and mobilization of those members into day-to-day struggles for social change. We imagine a great and rich diversity of structures through which the party’s members could be organized — ranging from neighbourhood or riding associations, union locals and local labour councils, to issue-specific associations, to party committees and councils targeted at building activism and party support among particular ethnic communities. All would have full rights for input to party bodies and decisions. And all would aim to organize and mobilize party members and other supporters through ongoing educational activities, social and political activism of all forms, and other party activities (including but not limited to election campaigns).
Education and media: People do not develop their political and social opinions in a vacuum; they are powerfully influenced by the cultural and communications institutions around them. The increasingly pro-corporate bias of the mass media, and even of many educational institutions, is one of the more frightening and anti-democratic trends in Canadian society. It is not enough for a left party to bemoan the consistent and deliberate hostility of the corporate media and cultural industries, or even to demand (as we will) regulations to limit corporate concentration and provide more democratic accessibility in the mess media. The new party also needs to build its own capacity to challenge pro-business ideas, and communicate alternative news and commentary to our supporters and to the broader community. We must involve rank-and-file party members in ongoing grassroots political and social education initiatives; this will be key to motivating and mobilizing those members into social change campaigns of all kinds. The new party also needs to develop more ambitious regular communications vehicles, from traditional newspapers to cutting-edge internet services, which will allow us to engage more effectively in battles of ideas — to shape public opinion rather than just following it.
Self-governance: Capitalism promotes divisions among working people based on language, ethnicity, race, gender, and ability, and recent neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatization and downsizing have aggravated those divisions. We aim to narrow these gaps and provide inclusive economic and social equity to all groups. We need to respect the unique histories and institutions of these oppressed communities, and to provide them with independent platforms and spaces within our broader movement, so that they can organize most effectively within their respective communities. But we imagine our movement as more than a constellation of these different communities and struggles, drawing on the contributions of each in order to maximize our ability to build solidarity in a common struggle against inequality, greed, and social and environmental destruction.
Democratic finance: The ability of major funders to call the tune of the political parties they fund is one of the most objectionable features of Canadian democracy, and goes a long way to explaining why business has been able to win pro-corporate policies regardless of which party is in power. Other organizations also fund political parties, like unions. It is clearly wrong to assume that these countervailing powers are somehow equal in their effect (corporations have hundreds of times more resources, and hence far more influence, than unions). Nevertheless, it is crucial that our new party reflect (and be seen to reflect) the wishes and priorities of its base of individual campaigners. In the long-run, we need a broader democratization of campaign finance affecting all political parties in Canada — including the prohibition of all corporate-entity political donations, and expanded public financing of the overall political process (including elections).
Accountability: Too many times social-democratic parties have passed great policy at conventions, only to have those policies ignored by parliamentary leaders more intent on short-run electoral positioning than on our fundamental social and economic goals. Just one example of this unaccountability was the decision by most members of the federal NDP caucus to support the Liberal “clarity bill” (Bill C-20) despite the overwhelming opposition to that bill by the NDP’s elected Federal Council. This dubious history has contributed greatly to the current cynicism which so many progressives express about the prospects of electoral politics. We cannot allow this to happen in the new party, given our central focus on building, supporting, and empowering the grass-roots citizens’ movements that are the ultimate source of social change. Our parliamentary leaders and elected representatives would be subject to regular review and recall through regular party conventions, and/or through special petitions from party members. They would be constitutionally bound to carry through democratically-determined party policies in elections and other campaigns.
The way forward
The founders and supporters of the New Politics Initiative believe there is great potential in Canada to assemble a passionate, hopeful, and committed political constituency which rejects the cynicism of current electoral politics and the callousness of the market economy — a constituency which believes in the possibility of a better future. Thousands of young people in Canada are expressing their hopes and demands for a better future, in all kinds of ways: petitioning against sweatshops, riding their bicycles, organizing unions in retail stores and coffee shops, resisting racism and exploitation in their personal relationships, toppling fences at trade summits. At the same time, older generations of Canadians have maintained long-standing beliefs in goals of equality, security, and cooperation. This generational coming together of progressive values, combined with the failure of free-market capitalism to improve the life prospects of most of humanity or to protect the environment (whether in Canada or around the world), opens a unique opportunity for concerned Canadians to bring about great cultural and political progress. The apparent triumph of corporate capitalism rests on the assumption of continued popular acquiescence — and that assumption is looking more shaky all the time.
Many NDP members obviously share this vision of building a democratic and mobilized social change movement. But the NDP as an institution can no longer claim to represent the enthusiasm, the vision, and the moral authority of many Canadians who long for fundamental changes in the way our society works. Too many compromises have been made in the interests of short-run positioning and “respectability”.
We need a political party that concerned, progressive Canadians can support — without holding their noses, or needing to argue that it is the “lesser evil”. We need a political party that raises the hopes and expectations of Canadians demanding a better future, instead of explaining to them why their demands are not “reasonable” in light of modern realities. We need a political party which contests elections in an energetic and creative way — but which also understands the limitations of electoral politics, which fights for fundamental improvements in Canadian democracy, and which privileges the grassroots activism of average Canadians as a crucial force in progressive social change.
The NDP has reached a historic juncture. It is time to reconstitute this party, time to build on its legacy of progressive achievements and to learn from its past mistakes. It is time to reach out to the legions of social change campaigners who presently see no future in conventional party politics, but also time to harness and reorient the energies of the solid committed people who still work within the NDP. Together we can build a force that will move mountains — reinspiring a vision of a just and sustainable future, rejecting the selfishness and cynicism of the corporate-dominated model, and above all reaffirming the conviction that empowered communities can win great things for themselves.