I was waxing philosophical with a co-worker this evening, and describing to him the ways how various political parties understand themselves as groups, how they actually operate, and the humorous differences between the two. So bear with me for a minute.
First we have the responsible, autonomous, disciplined Conservatives and their preoccupation with personal freedom, but particularly the “freedom” to impose their quasi-religious values upon others with the full force of the state. Then the Liberals, with their sense of conviction that they are the natural governing party of Canada, always on a mission to “restore” the colonial government to its former middling glory. (Yes, they’re self-identified “progressives” totally convinced of the fundamental goodness of the Canadian status quo.) The NDP, my dear NDP, the party of idealism and social progress, somehow always choosing to re-enact a militant past – a past that never really existed in the first place – instead of actually embracing social change and maybe occasionally winning elections. (Why ruin a good ideological purity contest by actually campaigning to win? It’s not like the pure of heart can win, right? …right?) And then there’s the Greens… oh, the Greens. The “party of science” run by an apocalyptic church minister convinced that humans are doomed because they are stupid… and are content with this, as long as the Eschaton arrives in short order so they can say, with absolute sincerity, that they told us so.
Of course it’s not exactly a secret that politicians of every stripe tend to say one thing, and then do another. The error, in my view, is that we’ve always blamed this behaviour on politicians being a uniquely morally dubious class of persons willing to lie, cheat, and steal to advance their own self-interest. They’re not like us, we tell ourselves. They’re not regular people.
But what if they are?
Let’s do something radical here and give our politicians the benefit of the doubt. What if the contradiction between how our politicians understand themselves and how our political parties actually operate, both inside and outside of government, is due to structural, rather than moral failings? In that case, wouldn’t the problem become slightly less intractable? Wouldn’t we then no longer require divine intervention to rescue democracy from itself?
Consider the failings of each party-form. The Conservatives, torn between economic libertarianism and religious conservatism, find themselves in this position because they’re dependent on the business class for fundraising but retired xenophobes at the ballot box. The Liberals, those progressive aristocrats, want to “open up” the party at every available opportunity, but are dependent on an institutional memory of Canadian government which inheres in an unbroken dynastic chain of proud and wealthy Ontarians. (As a result, the latest destabilization of their political culture has triggered a push for a series of reforms that will open up voting to non-members, while rendering much of this voting almost purely symbolic. Simultaneously, the party leadership is moving to eliminate almost all remaining forms of internal party democracy beyond nominations.)
Then there’s the NDP. Our little band of merry and nostalgic proto-revolutionaries. Revolutionaries that are structurally dependent on working-class and student volunteers during election time, but on a national network of retirement clubs in all other seasons. The result is a constant tension between the “lifers,” tightly-knit social groups convinced they know how things ought to be done, and the volunteers and staffers, a large group of strangers, usually new to the party, who emerge from the woodwork for nominations and campaigns, and actually need to get things done. As these very disparate groups attempt to work together, as they must in order to succeed as an electoral operation, we constantly confront paternalism, alienation, paranoia and hostility, and sometimes even violence.
And the Greens, well, they’re a radical grassroots movement that’s also a personality cult with no formal internal hierarchy that extends beyond the leader’s dinner table. Next.
Within the context of these formal structures, is it any surprise our politicians rapidly lose their minds? Or at least, appear to lose hold of their principles? The contradictions are unmanageable. Unmanageable, that is, for those within these systems. The result is a uniform chaos which proceeds as the strange anti-history of Canada.
There is a hegemonic character in how party members think about party structures: “well, this is just how things are done” is a natural and technically true way of thinking about a party’s procedures and constitution. But it isn’t a sufficient to understand how these systems produce the wacky results they do, as they operate on subjects specifically, and through them, on the general historical situation. These structures are arbitrary and formalized, but they didn’t come from nowhere. They are designed by humans (as all technologies are). Like any technology, design choices early on later shape the users’ own decisions, and ultimately over time, mold their values. An ideology (or often many conflicting ideologies, built up over time) are buried within the system. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
It doesn’t matter if you aren’t aware of them. If you’re in the system, they are shaping you. For better or worse.
So what does that all mean for those of us who want to confront problems as they arise within our political processes and actually *solve* some of them? Maybe even enough to produce a better world for a majority of people? Well, while the situation I outline is admittedly dismal, I’d argue it’s substantially less dismal than the typical conspiracy theories which leftists tend to raise as the cause of the present situation, and as insurmountable obstacles to the achievement of a truly democratic social movement. Instead of blaming external factors for our failures, things are now decidedly within our control.
Some of these problems seem pretty big, I admit, but they’re not the cartoonish supervillains we’re used to. They are still major challenges. Organizational renewal is going to be challenging for any of these parties. It will mean confronting our own assumptions, our traditional values, and challenging ourselves to change the way we have learned to think about ourselves, our party, our community, and our government. But the problems I’ve outlined above are not intractable. And in the case of the NDP, I think they have the clearest path to resolve the contradictions inherent in the party structure. Demographics are on our side. Material conditions are, too.
But we’ll need to face our demons. And believe me, we have demons. If we were perfect, we’d have been elected by now.
So instead of blaming our politicians, let’s consider that maybe, our politicians might need our help. Maybe they need to be rescued from the madness of tradition. And if we can emancipate democracy from tradition, democracy can emancipate us in turn.
This isn’t an impossible work – not for my party, not for any party. Political consensus is a fragile thing. Just ask Stephen Harper. Or Rachel Notley. Or Thomas Mulcair.
I hope I’ve given something for you to think about. While I can try my best to name some problems I’ve seen, I don’t pretend, or hope to pretend, to have all the solutions.
Nobody does. That’s why we organize together.