Of 'illegal immigrants' and 'democratic socialism'

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It's been an interesting couple of weeks in the world of political phraseology. Now, if by some miracle you didn’t slip directly into a coma after reading that first sentence, I'll explain what I mean.

First of all, some genuine progress about which to be sincerely pleased: the Associated Press has announced that it will stop using the dehumanizing phrase "illegal immigrant." There are, of course, all sorts of different terms for someone who is in a country that they aren't legally supposed to be in, from "undocumented worker" to "member of the Israel Defense Forces." But for many years, the term "illegal immigrant," and its even more jarring, otherworldly cousin, "illegal alien" (inspiration for the perfect costume if you find yourself invited to a Halloween party at the corner of Racist and Lazy) were insensitively bandied about with the sort of ease with which, say, capital has getting over those same "illegally" crossed borders.


Somehow the phrase "multinational proletarians" never caught on, though the adjective is readily applied to the companies they work for. Jesus, I almost wrote "people" there instead of "companies."

Greedily, I'd hoped that AP was going to kick off a trend, launching a society-wide jubilee, freeing us from all sorts of oppressive political phrases -- my first hope being that we'd lose "corporate citizen." A friend wrote me a note asking "can we shitcan 'business community' while we're at it? Whatever happened to 'cartel,' 'robber barons,' 'the trusts,' and my fave, 'stinkbutts'?" And since we’re getting all editorial, maybe we could nix "humanitarian intervention" (or, perhaps more fittingly, we could just invade it and strip it for parts).

 But nothing doing. In fact, another tired old term we thought we'd lost, "democratic socialism," is getting a new lease on life ahead of the NDP convention in Montréal this weekend. As you may remember, back in the days before Pierre Trudeau’s son won a boxing match, when the media would sometimes cover the NDP, elements of the party found themselves embarrassed by an -ism stain left by the 20th century (sorry, I shouldn't have said "left"). At the 2011 Convention in Vancouver, delegates argued over whether or not the party should lose the references to "socialism" in its preamble. Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin gave a stirring speech from the floor, in which he likened the word to an anchor (but, like, a bad anchor). The three-and-a-half- minute speech will no doubt go down in history as the longest Pat Martin has ever gone without swearing. The discussion was shelved and the following year, the party went on to elect a new leader of a decidedly non-socialist bent, but who, as a sop to the party’s die- hard Marxists, is bearded and not particularly personable.


In the meantime, the party's Constitution Committee has taken a run at a compromise preamble, which reads, in part, "New Democrats seek a future which brings together the best of the insights and objectives of Canadians [...] within the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions..." Now, who could argue with that? We're not exactly socialists (I mean, who could be, with capitalism humming along so smoothly?), but we sure do like some of the insights and objectives from within that tradition. But only, you know, the best ones.

I suppose I should be happy -- I'm glad that the party isn't dropping "socialism," and even the old, anchor-like preamble qualified itself as "democratic socialist." And it’s certainly better than the recently-emptied-of-all-meaning term "progressive," a word that, in its Canadian context, has been stretched to include everyone not serving in Stephen Harper's cabinet or actively trying to reprogram homosexuals.

It's just that "democratic socialism" is such a fucking wienie phrase, is all. As Jack Layton told Canadian Dimension magazine back in 2003, "I'm proud to call myself a socialist. I prefer it by far to democratic socialist." I would submit that that's because Jack knew a fucking wienie phrase when he saw one. It's a Cold War anachronism -- "My name's Charlie, and I'm a democratic socialist" is the sort of thing you'd say at a 12-step meeting for Totalitarians Anonymous: "It'd start innocently enough. I'd just paint a little picture of a tractor. Next thing I knew, I was blacked out, collectivizing farms..."

Sure, in the days when the only countries in the world calling themselves "Socialist" were run by men with thick lists of political prisoners and even thicker eyebrows, it might've made sense. But in 2013? Why should people whose whole political project is the extension of democracy into the economic realm have to flash our credentials? As critic Terry Eagleton wrote in the most recent issue of Harper’s: "There are those who speak of democratic socialism, but this in Marx's eyes was a tautology [...] nondemocratic socialism was a contradiction in terms, rather like the phrase 'business ethics.'"

I guess what's really infuriating is that while we socialists are forced to trumpet our democratic bona fides and loudly signal our distaste for grey coveralls, our ideological opposite numbers in the capitalist camp are barely even pretending to be democratic anymore: bond markets lose their shit if voters choose the wrong dudes; elected governments cross their fingers that their policies won't run afoul of any free trade deals they've signed onto, or of the more powerful, German-speaking members of the monetary unions of which they're members; China by and large continues to be everyone’s favourite economic miracle; and I'd continue this list but it’s just been prorogued by Stephen Harper (that's if you haven't received a robocall informing you that this article has been moved).

I don't see why we should be more embarrassed than they are when it comes to democracy. So here's the deal I'm proposing: I'll call myself a democratic socialist once some of the democratic capitalists start coming out of the closet. The Liberals and Conservatives can add it to their preambles; CEOs everywhere can use their private jets to sky-write reaffirmations of their dedication to liberty. Until then, dasvidaniya, class enemies! My vas pokhoronim! We will bury you! (Or, at the very least, we will bury some of the best insights and objectives from within your tradition!)


Charles Demers is an author, comedian and semi-democratic socialist who lives in Vancouver. He can be heard regularly on CBC's The Debaters.

This article was originally published at RiotWire and is reprinted here with permission. 

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