So­cial­ism Is Back

In­stead of fight­ing for the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre, the ndp should re­turn to its prin­ci­ples

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Ira Wells

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.

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