The New Politics Initiative: Ten Years After
Rabble.ca is running a series of reflections on the tenth anniversary of the New Politics Initiative, which sought to create a more democratic politics in Canada ideally as part of a revitalized NDP. The vision statement is here; my piece follows, and there are also contributions from Judy RebickÂ andÂ Jim Stanford. Altogether these make for a timely reflection on directions for the Left, given our challenging political times.
The New Politics Initiative: Reflections on the 10th anniversary
When I first read the New Politics Initiative’s manifesto I thought it was one of the most visionary and exciting things I had read in a long time. Re-reading it a decade later, the NPI’s vision of a more fundamentally democratic society and its ideas for a new type of politics still ring true. They also have a tremendous resonance with the current political moment, though in ways not intended by the drafters.
As a call to action to progressives inside and outside the NDP to transform into a new kind of political party, the NPI was a failure. While Jack Layton’s campaign for leader resonated the most with that sentiment, and he became the candidate of NPI supporters, the Layton decade made little progress towards the NPI vision. Layton did make some early attempts to build party linkages to social movements, but before long the party fell back into its more traditional mode of legislative battle.
Indeed, the NDP’s recent (and, to most, unanticipated) rise to Official Opposition status under Layton’s leadership was good ol’ election politics, albeit well timed to the implosion of the Bloc Quebecois. It is only fair, after so many decades, that the NDP has a voice in Parliament in proportion to its broader public support. But the party’s longtime looking in from the outside speaks directly to the deficiencies of representative democracy in Canada. The flipside of 2011’s gain for the NDP, a Harper majority government, only re-asserts the need for a new politics to replace a system that conferred massive power on a party that got only two out of every five votes cast.
The NPI’s vision of more participatory democracy underpinning a broader social movement clearly seems more at home in the also recent and unanticipated rise of the Occupy movement. The practice among (primarily young) activists to make decisions differently through consensus-based participatory methods is central, and linked to smaller-scale attempts at collective decision-making a decade ago, such as in grassroots protest against the World Trade Organization and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (where political and corporate elites met literally behind the walls of Quebec City’s medieval fortress at the Summit of the Americas in 2001).
Ten years on, the NPI manifesto hardly looks dated at all. The underlying challenges of a growing gap between the rich and the rest of us, and a deteriorating global environment are even more acute. It was a great decade for capitalism.
Now, the NDP leadership is again being contested, this time with a chance for the winner to become prime minister and the NDP to become the Government of Canada. This is sure to set up barricades of risk aversion from within the party. With real power in sight, would the NDP open itself up to the type of new politics proposed by the NPI and practiced by the Occupy movement?
In this, the NDP should heed a warning of the NPI that political power is constrained by economic power, that one cannot win power just by winning an election. Without a vibrant and deep social movement that’s got its back, the NDP has little hope of implementing even modest reforms should the next election paint Canada orange.
If the NDP wants to really win, it needs to offer a bold vision that challenges capitalism, but more importantly it must be rooted in the day-to-day struggles of social movements. The NDP could still evolve to become a party bigger than itself, one that fought elections, but between elections helped build the capacity of social movements. Championing participatory democracy for the 21st century means more than supporting proportional representation in parliament. Embracing the democratic principles of the Occupy movement, there is an opportunity for the NDP to change the way it practices politics by becoming a new kind of, er, democratic, uh, party.
The 10th anniversary of the NPI could not come at a better time. Imagine a coming decade of Canadian politics where growing social movements, using democratic processes mediated and amplified by networking technologies, coalesce into a progressive political force that could actually make Canada a more equal and fair society, where we remade our economy to meet the needs of everyone while living better lives in harmony with the planet.
I’ll give the last word to the NPI vision statement:
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. … 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 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.
Are any of the PEF authors planning on attending the Degrowth conference in Montreal in May?
I too agree that Canada and the world need an elaborated movement politics if real economic and political reform is ever to occur. The problem is, looking to the NDP or (any electoral party) to be the driver of movement building is worse than putting the cart before the horseâ€”itâ€™s giving up before getting started.
Like the other parties, the NDP is a party that relies on votes to get elected. As such it is not allowed the luxury of getting too far out ahead of public opinion on any issue. Still, the NDP is by far the best thing going in mainstream Canadian politics, and is still able to accomplish a great deal worth accomplishing, even in a world where Moodyâ€™s and S&P oftentimes exorcise more power over how governments formulate financial and economic policy than governments themselves.
No, if a movement is to be built that will ultimately bring real reform in this country, it will have to be built outside of government. Otherwise, the crucial cover that a party like the NDP will need to implement said reforms will be missing.
Take the US, for example. It would have been a complete waste of time for progressives during the Great Depression to have waited round for the FDR governments to reform the financial sector. Very little would have happened, in fact, were it not for the tremendous agitation taking place in the country, and around the world, at the time. FDR would not have been able to convince his own party to do much of anythingâ€”never mind the large sections of the population who ultimately supported him.
As an asideâ€”and Iâ€™m certainly not accusing the writer of this post of thisâ€”those among us who complain constantly about how the NDP fails to represent a party committed to changing our economy suffer from the worse kind of political naÃ¯vetÃ©. They fail to understand a basic dynamic of how political change occurs in the real world.
Instead of grousing about New Democrats, such people should be out in the streets, knocking on doors, organizing communities, publishing leaflets, working social media, doing the hard work of convincing large sections of the population that reform is not only the proper course of action, but urgently needed. As Chomsky has noted: building a movement isnâ€™t rocket science. We already know from past experience how to organize. All thatâ€™s missing at this point in our history are the numbers of people required to pull it off successfully.
The NDP moved to the right, abandoned its support for deficit finance, preferred Quebec nationalism to the inherent rights of first nations, and silenced many of its own opponents to the Tar Sands. The NDP muted its defence of national social programs and abandoned its defence of the Federal spending power. The NDP and Layton also facilitated the deaths of over 100 Canadian soldiers, by voting down a Liberal motion to end Canada’s participation in Afghanistan in 2009. Let us not even get started on the Party’s opposition to the Clarity Act, which set out simple democratic principles for partition, and it adopted the Sherbrooke declaration without even deeming it necessary to formally consult Quebeckers or the various nations that inhabit Quebec territory. Finally, the NDP fought against a carbon tax in favour of a completely discredited cap and trade system. So the party gets a failing grade on environmental policy, democratic processes, foreign and defence policy, national unity issues, First Nations rights, and macro-economic policy. A bleak anniversary indeed.
The general problem is that the NDP both at the federal and provincial level has adopted the basic agenda of neoliberalism. Is it possible to break with this? I see nothing so far in the campaign for leadership of the party.
In the recent election in Spain, one of the constant messages from the youth was “why vote for the Socialist Party and get more neoliberalism; why not try something new?”
On social democracy and the economic crisis:
I was somewhat involved in the NPI at the time. What struck me was that the NPI had an impressive vision but a lousy practice. An organization dedicated to bottom-up, grassroots participation, power and control apparently had no methods for allowing grassroots participants to influence the decisions made by the organization’s leadership. The leadership was well-intentioned, but self-appointed and in complete control. While there were methods for feedback it was kind of like the methods for rank-and-file worker feedback at my workplace. That is, you can give feedback and you will be patted on the head and told that’s nice; usually your opportunity to give the feedback comes after any relevant decisions have already been made and the results presented to you as the only alternative.
They were organizing all these grassroots kitchen table discussions (and an email discussion group), but these were just to talk excitedly about the idea of participation; there seemed to be no process by which they might actually participate in anything, or arrive at decisions about anything. I actually participated in attempts to turn the email group into a thing that could reach conclusions and convey them . . . somewhere, for consideration if nothing else. But there was strong resistance to any such idea.
There were two basic reasons for this problem as near as I could make out. First, there was a tension between the ideas and vision of the leadership and the fact of the leadership. The leaders were strong, articulate, intelligent people who might intellectually want the grassroots to be in control but who instinctively were sure that they knew best, so at some level it seemed they didn’t actually want grassroots decisions messing up their lovely organization for arranging grassroots decisions. So the organization suffered from a basic contradiction.
The second reason seemed to be that nobody wanted to sweat process. They wanted to think that the only reason there isn’t already participatory democracy is that it never occurred to anyone before to want it. They thought as long as everyone involved wanted the organization to function by participatory democracy, it magically would. That isn’t true.
Between these two factors, the NPI actually functioned as a less democratic organization than the NDP it wanted to influence.
Coming up with ways to organize that increase the ability of the rank and file to make the decisions is hard. You need to sweat the details, you need to pay attention to structural factors and where they tend to pool power, you need to notice not just who votes but who gets to set the agenda and define the alternatives. It takes thought and innovation. Scaling things up while staying grassroots-controlled is really difficult. IMO, practically every Green party or large organization in existence has fallen victim to this problem: They started off as bands of siblings and thought they could depend on everyone’s goodwill to make decisions. Then they had some success, got a little bigger, and quislings started taking advantage of their sloppy structures to turn the whole thing into a bureaucracy-driven greenwashing machine.
I have an essay on the subject, called “Scaling Participatory Democracy”, here: