Socialism Is Back
Instead of fighting for the political centre, the ndp should return to its principles
The first 2016 Democratic presidential primary debate had just kicked off when the moderator, CNN’S Anderson Cooper, summoned the spectre that, many assumed, would be the undoing of Senator Bernie Sanders’s candidacy. “You call yourself a democratic socialist,” Cooper said. “How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?”
The question was presented as its own answer: only a truly naive politician would stand on a Las Vegas stage and expound the virtues of Scandinavian-style welfare states. Surely, he would have no choice but to backpedal, reframe his politics as “progressive,” and mumble a few conciliatory words about hard-working American families. However, Sanders seemed to believe that he could win because of his socialism, that all he had to do was explain what his platform represented — an alternative to a “rigged economy” in which “the top one-tenth of 1 percent own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90percent.” It meant treating health care as a human right, and providing paid medical and family leave to end the travesty of separating mothers from their newborn babies. It meant strategically deploying Scandinavian solutions, and learning from “what they have accomplished for their working people.”
But Cooper didn’t seem interested in the details of Sanders’s politics; he was more focused on the label itself. He concluded his interrogation by asking whether any of the other four candidates on the stage was “not a capitalist.” No hands went up, which was, of course, the point. Sanders, viewers were to understand, was a political dinosaur. His platform — free post-secondary education, wealth redistribution, more regulations for Wall Street — bore the hallmarks of an unregenerate leftist. Had the Berlin Wall not been sledgehammered down, just as Reagan demanded? Had the Soviet Union not collapsed beneath the weight of its own bloody contradictions? Were we seriously debating whether asocialist of any kind could win the White House in 2016?
In fairness, Cooper was only channelling the collective wisdom of the entire American political establishment. Indeed, across the West, few factions are more ferociously committed to the “death of socialism” narrative than centre-left parties themselves. This was evident in the particular malice with which former British prime minister Tony Blair treated Labour Party leader (and unapologetic socialist) Jeremy Corbyn. For a centrist such as Blair, Corbyn represents a stale menu of policies that were rejected a generation ago: today’s voters “do not think their challenges can be met by old-fashioned state control,” Blair wrote in the Guardian, “and they realise that a party without a serious deficit-reduction plan is not in these times a serious contender.”
Over the past few decades, the assumed triumph of laissez-faire capitalism over socialistic alternatives has been the sine qua non of Western economic policy. Austerity, deregulation, de-unionization, trade liberalization, tax cuts — the freemarket fundamentalism underlying these policies is not, we are told, a contestable ideological position, but rather economic reality. Anyone who dares challenge the essential wisdom of the market is labelled an irresponsible fantasist, unworthy of the people’s trust. Indeed, with Corbyn leading Labour going into the UK election, pollsters predicted that the incumbent Conservatives would easily add to their majority.
We know how that turned out: significant gains (and political vindication) for Corbyn, and a hobbled minority government for Theresa May and her Tories. This outcome was just the latest instance in which a Western conservative party managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of presumptive victory. In 2017, widely assumed to be the year in which right-wing nationalism would go viral, its proponents have seen losses in Austria (Norbert Hofer’s Freedom Party), the Netherlands (Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom), France (Marine Le Pen’s National Front), and the UK, where Paul Nuttall’s UK Independence Party earned just 1.8 percent of the popular vote. Kellie Leitch, Canada’s contribution to this pantheon, never exceeded 8 percent of the vote through nine rounds of the Conservative Party leadership contest.
Instead of the ascension of right-wing nationalism, 2017 has seen a generational revival on the left. An increasingly educated electorate is capable of repudiating the atrocities perpetrated in the names of Marx and Lenin while also recognizing that specific, achievable goals — a guaranteed annual income, universal health care, reduced income inequality — are properly called socialist goals, and that their realization would enable better lives for more people. In Canada, with the NDP leadership race now underway, it seems inevitable that at least one candidate will look at the popularity Corbyn and Sanders were able to garner in a short period and say, “Why not here?”
The case for a socialist NDP platform finds support in the party’s recent electoral fortunes: when Thomas Mulcair manoeuvred the party to the centre in 2015, promising balanced budgets “come hell or high water,” the party lost fifty-nine seats and its official opposition status. The winners were Justin Trudeau and his Liberals, who campaigned from the left.
Yet the victory of an unabashedly socialist platform in Canada is far from assured. Corbyn’s success, some have argued, is inextricable from Theresa May’s failure, while Sanders’s popularity was grounded in the perception that Hillary Clinton’s priorities lie with preserving an unfair economic status quo. In short, the thinking goes, the socialist surge was animated by British and American factors that are mostly absent in Canada, where the politics of austerity are more muted and social programs are not under comparable threat. And it’s worth remembering that neither Corbyn nor Sanders actually won power.
However, there’s no denying that some economic and environmental anxieties transcend borders — particularly among millennials, who are rapidly becoming the largest voting demographic in the West. At a time when more young Canadians than ever are pursuing post-secondary education — and when more parents than ever are likely paying for that education — NDP contender Niki Ashton’s promise of free tuition could find broad support. Guy Caron’s plan for a basic minimum income may resonate with the estimated 42 percent of the workforce under threat from automation. And, as the dream of home ownership recedes further into fantasy, young voters might be receptive to platforms like that of former contender Peter Julian, who promised to build 250,000 new affordable homes.
If the NDP has anything to learn from Sanders and Corbyn, however, the lesson must include style as well as substance. Both of these seasoned socialists have shown the potency of class-conscious rhetoric, calling for political “revolution” and framing the interests of their constituents in direct contrast to those of the “billionaire class.” Not all NDP leadership hopefuls have taken note. Jagmeet Singh approaches Hallmark levels of mawkishness with his politics of “love and courage.” Charlie Angus’s web page on reconciliation manages to rehash both Justin Trudeau and George W. Bush by promising that he will deliver “real change” and that “no child... will be left behind.” Only Ashton, who vows to form a government that will end “corporate giveaways” to companies such as Bombardier and stop “padding the pockets of the one-percent,” comes close to the rhetorical brio exemplified by Sanders and Corbyn.
While the NDP should feel energized by the global revival of leftist politics, the truth is that socialism’s resurgence is not so much a repudiation of populism as it is another manifestation of it. Economic growth is declining in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development; household and governmental debt are continuously rising; and economic inequality, both in income and wealth, is spiking. These “crisis symptoms,” says economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, are now irreversible. The longer these trends persist, the more likely lower- and middleclass voters will be to seek political voices that address these systemic injustices.
Regardless of who emerges as the party’s next leader, the NDP must dispense with the stale canards that left-wing parties should accept market-based “realities,” scrub off that unionist stench, and fight for the scraps of the political centre. As the unstoppable forces of automation and globalization continue to create jobless voters, and as a growing number of citizens recognize the upward redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, a genuine socialist alternative will appear increasingly viable.
If the Liberal Party can’t address Canadians’ anxieties, its Trudeau dynasty could be cut short by an heir of Tommy Douglas who can.