As we enter the second month of the federal election campaign, political pundits and various defenders of the current order promise us chaos and instability if a progressive New Democratic Party (NDP) government is elected. And yet, though the NDP is polling higher than ever in recent history and could well form the next government, they have no reason to worry. The NDP has gradually shifted to the right on the political spectrum, abandoning many of its past progressive stances. This is nothing new: the deradicalization of progressive parties is something of an unbreakable rule in the history of liberal democracies. Voluntarily or not, these parties always end up capitulating to the pressures of the ruling class in the capitalist order, shattering the hopes of millions of people and demonstrating the limits of electoral politics.
The is plenty of examples of the NDP’s shift to the right. One worrying sign was the party’s decision to abandon any and all reference to socialism in its constitution. In doing so, it surrendered a powerful symbol of opposition to capitalism – an economic structure that has as its sole guideline for success the rapid accumulation of profit, which sees natural resources and human life as disposable for the sake of larger bank accounts and has brought us time and time again to the brink of ecological and human catastrophe.
The NDP has also abandoned its hardline anti-austerity position, leaving us to wonder whether this will pave the road for future dismantling of public services. The NDP promises a “balanced budget” in its first year in office; in so doing, it condones the discourse of austerity, and shows that it would have no issue enacting policies that worsen the suffering of the most disadvantaged people in our society, as they disproportionately affect women and marginalized groups. Tom Mulcair himself, the leader of the NDP, has been quoted as praising the “winds of liberty” of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s brutally neoliberal Conservative government.
Those with economic power wield enormous influence on electoral politics, and so the consequences of not falling in line would be disastrous.
Importantly, the provincial NDP in Alberta sees no problem in the extraction of tar sands and the construction of pipelines that accompanies it, and thus has no problem denying the most basic rights of Indigenous people in Northern Alberta, allowing the continuation of extreme environmental degradation, the pollution of water sources, and ultimately the undermining of Indigenous autonomy. The NDP’s increasingly staunch support for the State of Israel’s violent policies toward Palestinians is also problematic. One NDP candidate from Nova Scotia holding a critical stance toward Israel, Morgan Wheeldon, has already been forced to resign during this campaign, showing that there is no space in the NDP for critical analysis of Canada’s complicity in Israeli settler colonialism. Is a party overall so willing to shift around its policies and concede to capitalist pressure at all qualified to help bring about a better, more equal, democratic, and flourishing Canada? I say no.
Worst of all, no progressive party is immune to such a disintegration of its ideals. Capitalists, as a class, own all the means of production and all the mainstream media, and have instrumental control of the state through lobbying. They also have access to class weapons such as the capacity to relocate entire industries at the cost of thousands of jobs, as well as the simple yet disastrous tool of capital flight, whereby capitalists move valuable assets and capital to another country because of political events. It is then not surprising that progressive parties are so eager to negotiate: those with economic power wield enormous influence on electoral politics, and so the consequences of not falling in line would be disastrous for them.
We can see this dynamic consistently throughout history and in recent years. For example, in Greece – a country that is suffering a humanitarian crisis and a drop in the quality of life akin to the effects of a war on its soil, caused by the austerity policies imposed by the European capitalists and technocrats – a progressive (and maybe even radical) party arose, known as Syriza. Its members came from the countless pockets of grassroots resistance in Greek society, and they were determined to end austerity once they gained control of the state. A series of bitter and intense negotiations began with the European Union, which continued throughout the summer, culminating in a referendum on what national economic policies should be pursued. The result of this referendum was an astounding expression of support for a break from austerity politics, and possibly a departure from the fundamentally anti-democratic European Economic and Monetary Union. And yet the party surrendered, abandoned its progressive policies, and let austerity through the gates. It is now facing party implosion, and is fishing for support in the older centre-left and centre-right political spaces.
European labour parties are another example of this phenomenon of rightward drift. They all began quite like the NDP, as a group of socialists and social democrats hoping to achieve a break from capitalism through elections and the use of state power. Until 1995, the UK Labour Party even had a clause in its constitution listing “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” as a goal. Without exception, these parties became supporters of neo-liberalism. Nowadays, they sometimes even play on racial lines and anti-immigration stances, as in Sweden or France, to help maintain a fragile status quo. Their surrender has left the field wide open for right-wing, anti-immigration, and xenophobic parties to turn the European continent into a fortress.
As for the NDP, it is not even waiting to be in power to capitulate – it is doing so now, in the hope of broadening its voter support, by appearing reasonable and legitimate to the economic elite of the country.
As for the NDP, it is not even waiting to be in power to capitulate – it is doing so now, in the hope of broadening its voter support, by appearing reasonable and legitimate to the economic elite of the country. What can we do, then, if we believe in the potential to organize ourselves to bring about a more equal, non-oppressive society? If our collective understanding of politics is carefully limited to participating in electoral campaigns, voting, and then ceasing all political participation, it all seems quite bleak indeed. With such an understanding of politics, one can only reach the conclusion that we are doomed to choose between Capitalist A and Socially Minded Capitalist B, and that there are no solutions to entrenched exploitation and environmental destruction.
And yet, there is hope. Change, progress, and human emancipation can be spearheaded into existence. Working and disenfranchised people have claimed major victories throughout history, but let me be clear: it was never due to a vote. Their successes were the fruit of occupations, mass protests, demanding immediate concessions from those in power, lest everything be blown up, to be reconstructed again by the people – in other words, direct action with the aim of scaring the shit out of the bourgeoisie. Women didn’t win their right to vote through the conscientious voting of others, they did so by carrying out militant actions throughout the first part of the 20th century. Black people didn’t end the Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation by voting, but by rioting, by organizing, and by prefiguring a better society. Low-income workers didn’t gain minimum wage laws and state protection by voting, but by occupying their workplaces, striking en masse.
The solution is simple and yet so complicated. It lies in direct action, in direct-democratically managed spaces, in international solidarity. It lies in breaking away from the state and from capitalism, and taking care of ourselves and each other instead. It lies in refusing to let representative politics co-opt our movements. There are people waging this kind of struggle in Canada: Indigenous peoples and environmental activists blocking the construction of pipelines; student unions here in Quebec organizing themselves on a radical and democratic basis; community members holding neighbourhood assemblies and support groups; unionized workers getting ready for a fall strike.
I am not telling you not to vote – do vote if you wish to, pressure the NDP and other parties, and resist their inevitable rightward shift. Engage in reformist struggles – which, after all, can coexist and interplay with revolutionary organizing in a mutually beneficial relationship. But as you cast your ballot, remember that there is much more to do, and that if you aim for real change, it must be forcefully taken and not politely requested.
Gregoire Beaune is a U3 Philosophy and Political Science student. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.