A survey of the Canadian political landscape reveals a foreboding terrain. Across the country, right-wing governments lead most provinces with centrists making up all the rest, save for one New Democratic government in British Columbia. Even there, the New Democratic Party (NDP) is constrained by state and electoral orthodoxy. Their governance is better than the typical alternatives, but far from ideal.
In Ontario, after four disastrous years of pandemic mismanagement, market orthodoxy, and underspending, Progressive Conservative premier Doug Ford appears to be sailing toward reelection, perhaps with a majority of seats in the legislature once more. The NDP Official Opposition may drop to third place as the Liberals rebound in the polls. The Liberal government in Ottawa, with support of the federal New Democrats, looks likely to remain in power at least until 2025.
At a time when we are routinely reminded that the old ways are insufficient for dealing with the problems we face, the Left appears to be MIA. The federal NDP bought themselves some policy influence by way of their supply and confidence agreement to support the Liberal minority government. Nonetheless the political agenda in Canada remains fundamentally conventional and devoid of energy. The programs that follow, federally, provincially, and locally, are anemic half-measures that are barely capable of forestalling angry populist requital.
When they do exist, these programs are typically means-tested and often underfunded, from the upcoming dental care to disability supports. Austerity, the watchword of 1990s retrenchment, remains standing as a lighthouse in the distance, a point on the horizon to guide the ship of state. Wages and worker rights are decoupled from productivity and little is happening to transform relations of power in industry — including the essential need to transfer ownership from bosses to workers, despite a new employee ownership model for the country. Climate action is insufficient, resource extraction and export are nearly always a given.
Reviewing this state of affairs in Canada — and, more broadly, in the electoral history of the Left — it’s tempting to wish to abandon electoralism as a strategy for change. Such talk comes up in breathless critiques of the NDP, hands thrown up in the air, heads hung low and shaken slowly from side to side. The urge to flip the table and walk out of the room is strong. And understandable. Nothing seems to be working. The focus-grouped, TikTok-brushed, consultant class–led strategy isn’t working. What is to be done?
A Sober Theory of Change
The twentieth-century left had a revolutionary impulse that, to whatever extent it existed in Canada, has been dampened to near silence. The Bolshevism — and even the more moderate socialism — of movement and party leftists has disappeared or gone underground. Some have joined the Communist Party. Others have given up. Many have fallen into the NDP machine. Some hang on, driven to the sidelines of the party. The pervasive discontent creates a counter-impulse that counsels the abandonment of the ballot box. But this impulse should be thought through carefully. In the absence of electoral politics, what is our theory of change? Do we then rely on revolution? On mass struggle through civil society? One thing is for sure: decamping from the electoral milieu is to entirely relinquish the field to capital’s most canny operators.
A theory of change that rests on revolution in a twenty-first-century democracy trapped by the comforts of its liberalism, next door to the global capitalist hegemon, is not a theory of change. Likewise, relying on extant infrastructures of opposition outside the ballot line — unions, associations, organizations — is insufficient for the needs of the moment.
If, at present, this infrastructure is incapable of moving the party left, why would it do better in the absence of the party? Some will answer that such a move will short-circuit the ossifying forces of bureaucratization. But bureaucratization is an outgrowth of complex society. It isn’t going anywhere. Of course, at its worse, bureaucratization can create calcified forms of organization. But we should be careful about priorities here. The most effective way to battle against capital is the thing that matters. Handwringing about the bureaucracy required by the complexity of the modern state is less important than using the power of the state to beat back the market’s encroachment into all aspects of our lives.
Giving the Boot to Technocrats
For those who look to the years of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the radical prairie socialist NDP forebear, a return to previous form holds some promise. So does a more coherent two-track approach that commits electoral politics to an agonistic relationship with grassroots movements. It is crucial that these grassroots movements are separate from but sympathetic to the party.
We should double down on our efforts to force the NDP to stay abreast of the moment. The latent energy that is not being applied to electoral politics should be applied to ensuring that the NDP embraces socialist politics — and is unapologetic about it. The party should be forced to adopt a more democratized apparatus that ensures that radicals have a place to speak, to be heard, and to be listened to, from the convention floor to the riding association board room. That means less time for the consultants and the ad engineers. It means less time strategizing around social media quick-hits that produce plenty of adrenaline and staffer high-fives but next to no votes.
The party needs to be supported by a more robust external apparatus, too. This will require more cooperation with unions, tenant’s associations, academic support, think tank scaffolding, as well as international cooperation. These structures and relationships exist already, but they are insufficient and restrained.
Furthermore, they are confused and confounded by a politics that is caught between technocratic contemporary social democracy and grassroots democratic socialism. The two forces sometimes pull in the same direction, but oftentimes in opposite directions — and when they pull at cross-purposes, they fail to pull at all. The NDP needs to mobilize democratic socialists, bringing them inside the party and putting them to work.
Re-Radicalizing Party Politics
Outside the party, the NDP needs to listen to and better leverage grassroots organizations to both respond to and help shape a true mass politics. On worker rights, drug policy, housing policy, environmental policy, health care policy, Indigenous reconciliation, and plenty more, left movements are charting a course the party ought to champion. Instead, far too often, because of its commitment to technocratic tinkering, the NDP de-radicalizes its politics ahead of time.
The party prefers to rely on muscle memory that tends toward incrementalism, or a naïve belief that Canadians simply aren’t ready for more and better. But this presupposes that the big wins and structural shifts we need will come without a fight. The Left needs to remake the country, reset its agenda, and reframe how we talk about politics. It needs to do so while raising a generation of Canadians committed to building a new world. The party, because it is instrumental in raising expectations as to what is possible, is key to the success of this endeavor.
In the absence of electoral politics, no force implements change at the state level. Elector politics is the connective tissue between desire and outcome. But electoralism is insufficient on its own and no party, left or otherwise, is to be trusted without an external series of forces. It requires that labor, civil society, and intellectual apparatuses work to keep it honest. By the same token, insurgent popular actions are important, but they can’t replace the party.
We must criticize the NDP. We must demand that the party do better. The party must be forced to commit to a radical politics that is unabashedly, unapologetically socialist and grassroots. The alternative is more of the same: more disappointment, more half-measures, more waiting. It is a chicken and egg scenario: the longer we fail to leverage the party’s potential, the less appealing electoral politics will be and the more inclined we will be to squander one of the most important quivers in our bow. The challenges we face must be met — we cannot settle into decline and hopelessness. So, best to get moving now.