Questions for the Canadian Left

The Canadian left must rally opposition to the Trudeau government and chart an independent course.

Stephen Harper is now gone, but (as a friend only quarter-jokingly said) Canada got the second worst outcome sold as the best — so now what? The election of Justin Trudeau raises as many questions as answers. And there are no easy ones.

In 2015, the Liberals once again showed that they are masters at campaigning to the left. But as we now wait for them to show how equally apt they are at governing to the right, it’s clear that it won’t simply do to say “told you so!” in four years time. It is not by accident that the Liberals are Canada’s “natural governing party,” for if anything, they know how to govern. They are experts at balancing competing interests — or, more accurately, appearing to balance competing interests all while promoting those of the elite, and the upper middle class.

Still, we have to recognize that things will be different and that this affects where people are and how they relate to politics. On the one hand, the Liberals do open up some space on the Left by making symbolic gestures here and there; at the same time, they close off this space by drawing the limits of respectable progressive politics. They don’t fill the void created by a weak left like the Conservatives, who try to appeal to the working class on the basis of an exclusionary, pocketbook politics. In fact, they speak to a broader cross-class progressive segment of the population in a way that can be disorienting.

The new government has already shown itself very adept at picking off the low-hanging fruit of progressive demands. Take the long-form census. It is a relief to those (me included!) who care about the worthy goal of increasing social knowledge. This is an opening: new data could add a stamp of officialdom to the growing inequalities and stagnation we see around us. Yet more fine-grained social data is also an extremely useful tool to further undermine the universal welfare state using micro-politics and ever-finer targeting of benefits.

Or take climate change. Recently, Canada joined the “ambitious” group at the COP21 summit in Paris, advocating for a maximum 1.5° C rise in global temperatures. This goal is laudable; it is what many left green groups have demanded. But it also looks to be largely rhetorical. The Liberals even took Harper’s old targets to the summit — targets that couldn’t be called “ambitious.”

The question is how to turn the openings, both the genuine and rhetorical ones, into entry points into the public discussion and public life. And to do so without fostering any illusions about the Liberals while also eschewing a purely critical engagement that closes off those who (rightly) celebrate Harper’s defeat.

Then there are then those who are alienated from the political process, concentrated among the more exploited and discriminated segments of the population. How do we organize, talk to, and listen to them?

Or, to put it another way, how do we push against the boundaries set by technocracy? Technocracy is the natural terrain of the Liberals and also of parts of the professionalized and bureaucratized social democracy. Theirs is a battle purely of ideas: if we could convince elites that our ideas are better, they would listen.

The Left should be at the other pole. Left politics is not technocratic; it cannot be the rule of experts from scales small to large. This is just rephrasing the old (and difficult) saw of taking people where they are, while developing together through common action, thought, and struggle.

If the first theme is one of communications, the second is political economic in nature. We need to see how the Liberal victory fits into the search for a way out of stagnation not just in Canada but around the globe.

In the present environment, Trudeau’s campaign promise to deficit spend was an adroit move against the social-democratic New Democratic Party. The form it will take is key, however. And it looks to be roughly limited to public infrastructure spending amid an effective investment strike by private capital.

Sure, Canada sorely needs new infrastructure. The question is what infrastructure the country will get and whether there will be any expansion of public services. Building what capital won’t and what it needs while leaving unchallenged its right to an ever-greater share of the social surplus is an elite project. And ultimately balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and working classes while reducing the ability of the state to create universal services appears to be part of that.

Not harboring illusions means recognizing that the Liberal program will most likely be one that further entrenches the state at the service of capital. There will be some spending in light of the new low-interest, low-investment, underemployment conditions, but it will be mixed with further curtailing of the welfare state.

Consumption support will occur only via targeted cash transfers, without any attendant universal programs of state purchasing (child benefits versus child care, for instance). Here too, though, there are some disorienting elements, including the initial commitment to limiting public-private partnerships — an unexpected positive sign to follow and use as a pressure point.

The bigger question is, where are the weak points in which we can intervene, with an eye toward today’s political economy? What are the social struggles in which we can have outsized influence, especially given that capital is constantly looking for the crutch of the state, but a state reformed in its interests? Where are the places to build alternative thought and action that opposes the elite project without a purely negative coloring? And who are the groups, constituted or un-constituted, that can put up these challenges?

Here’s the final, perhaps most challenging question: that of organization. If there are important pressure points that the Liberal victory exposes, but the old left formations (unions, social-democratic parties, social movements) are either weak and fragmented or resigned to the status quo, where and how do we rebuild? This — the question of on-the-ground strategy that goes beyond “just act!” — might be the most important. And it has to be answered quickly.