Saturday, December 26, 2015

A new political situation in Latin America: What lies ahead?

‘Venezuela defines the future of the progressive cycle’ An interview with Claudio Katz

Introduction

Two recent events — the second-round victory on November 22 of right-wing candidate Mauricio Macri in Argentina’s presidential election, and the December 6 victory of the right-wing Democratic Unity Roundtable,[1] winning two thirds of the seats in Venezuela’s National Assembly elections — have radically altered the political map in South America. In the following interview, Argentine Marxist Claudio Katz discusses what these setbacks for the left mean for the progressive “process of change” that has unfolded on the continent over the last 10-15 years. My translation from the Spanish.

image6_thumb3Katz is a professor of economics at the University of Buenos Aires, a researcher with the National Council of Science and Technology, and a member of Economists of the Left.[2]

This interview with La Llamarada occurred just before the outgoing National Assembly in Venezuela called the first meeting of the “National Communal Parliament,” a new legislative structure of delegates from the country’s more than 1,400 communes, the grassroots bodies in rural and urban communities throughout Venezuela. President Maduro was quoted as saying “I'm going to give all the power to the communal parliament.... This parliament is going to be a legislative mechanism from the grassroots. All power to the Communal parliament.”

– Richard Fidler

national_communal_assembly_venezuela[2]

Communal Parliament meets in Caracas December 23.

* * *

Q. In your work on South America, you speak of the duality that has characterized the last decade. What exactly is that duality?

Claudio Katz. In my opinion, the so-called progressive cycle of the last decade in South America has been a process resulting from partially successful popular rebellions (Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador) that altered the relationship of forces in the region. They allowed us to take advantage of higher prices for raw materials and dollar income in a way that differed considerably from what prevailed in other periods. During this interval, neo-developmental and distributionist economic policy schemes existed alongside the neoliberal model. Politically, right-wing governments were now joined by center-left and radical governments. It was a period in which imperialism’s capacity for action was seriously circumscribed, with a retreat from the OAS and recognition of Cuba. David had finally defeated Goliath and the United States had to accept that defeat.

It was also a decade in which there were no Greek-style adjustments in almost any Latin American countries. And there were important democratic victories. It is highly illustrative to compare South America with Central America. The level of aggression that is current in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala contrasts with the public freedoms conquered in Argentina, Bolivia or Brazil, a clear indication of the scope of this change. And Chavismo rescued the socialist project. For all these reasons South America became a point of reference for social movements throughout the world.

In a recent article I pointed to a “duality in Latin America” because this change in the political cycle and in the relationship of forces coexisted with a consolidation of the pattern of extractivist accumulation located in the export of basic raw materials and Latin America’s insertion in the international division of labour as a provider of basic products. That is a natural situation for a neoliberal government, it forms part of its strategy. But for progressive governments of the center-left, there is a tension with that structure; and for radical, distributionist governments, there is a conflict of huge proportions.

There were successful rebellions, therefore, that resulted in distinct governments, some anti-liberal, but also a situation that sooner or later had to disappear, since they could not coexist with the extractivist model and the strengthening of the traditional dependent economic configuration of Latin America. It is that contradiction that has prevented them from getting back on their feet in recent months. And that is why the conservative restoration began, and with it the debate around the end of the progressive cycle. At year-end we are confronted by two crucial events.

First, the triumph of Macri, which is important because it is the first instance of a rightist return to Argentina’s presidency. Beginning with the cacerolazos [the banging of pots and pans in street demonstrations] the Right built its political power, defeated Peronism and formed a cabinet of the “CEOcracy” for a country now governed by “its proper owners,” a cabinet directly from the capitalist class.

The second event is more partial but more significant. In Venezuela the Right has won not the government but the parliament, in conditions of a brutal economic war, media terrorism, economic chaos generated by reactionaries. And Venezuela is the most complete symbol of the radical processes within the progressive cycle.

Q. What is the situation, in this new continental scenario, of the countries that far from duality have maintained not only the economic pattern but also the neoliberal policies?

A. One of the major information gaps in this entire period has been the concealment of what is happening in the countries governed by neoliberalism. You might get the impression that everything is going marvellously there and that the only problems in Latin America are in the other countries. But in fact this is a monumental media distortion. It’s enough to look at the situation in Mexico, a country that has extremely high levels of crime, destruction of the social fabric and huge regions rife with drug trafficking. Or to see the situation of Central American countries decimated by emigration, by the predominance of crime and with presidents like the one in Guatemala, who have been removed from office over corruption scandals. Or take the Chilean economic model, which is in a quite critical situation with significantly reduced growth and now the appearance of corruption in a country that has made a show of transparency. Family indebtedness, labour precariousness, inequality, and the privatization of education have begun to surface. And Bachelet’s government is paralyzed. Those reforms in pensions and education, which it thought it would carry out, are now delayed.

Looking at the neoliberal universe we also see the sole case of debt default throughout this period, in Puerto Rico, a country that is in fact a North American colony that has endured decapitalization, the pillage of its resources, the disintegration of its social fabric. For a time it was compensated with public financing but now this prop is finished and it has defaulted.

So in the countries where the raw material rents of this super cycle were not redistributed, the social, political and economic situation is very serious. But no one talks about that.

Q. In this new scenario that has opened, what do you think will happen in the neo-developmentalist countries like Argentina and Brazil? Will the conservative restoration in those countries tend to reconfigure the “blocs,” integrating them with the openly neoliberal bloc?

A. There we can be very categorical in our balance sheet of what has happened, and very cautious about what is coming. I would separate things, to differentiate what we know from what we can imagine. Clearly, in Argentina and Brazil the change under way is the result of an exhaustion of the neo-developmentalist economic model. That is not the sole cause nor am I sure that a greater impact can be attributed to it than to other factors, but it is the background to the problem.

In both countries there was an attempt to use a portion of the rent generated by the increase in raw materials prices in order to revamp industry and attempt to build a model based on consumption. But since we are operating within the capitalist system this type of processes has very strict limits, because what functions at the outset is later exhausted insofar as capitalist profitability is affected. The theory of reverse feedback does not work. It is an illusion of Keynesian heterodoxy to suppose that with a mere increase in demand a virtuous circle begins. The contrary happens. At some point those governments encounter a limit, and the classic process begins, with capital flight and pressure on the exchange rate — which is what has happened in both cases.

I think there is an economic erosion but also there has been a major political deterioration both in Brazil and in Argentina. That erosion was determined in both cases by the appearance of social discontent that neither government was willing to harness by responding to the demands. That was the climate in which Macri’s ascent and the expansion of the social base of the Brazilian Right was situated.

That assessment is clear, but what is to come is not clear. The big test will be the Macri government. We still cannot assess that. It is a classic right-wing government with all the reactionary characteristics of a right-wing government. But it is operating in a context of great combativity. Thus there is a contradiction between what it wants to do and what it can do.

Q. Going back to Venezuela, in a talk you gave you raised an idea that we think is important, noting the futility of always and everywhere applying the cliché that “what does not advance, retreats,” “what does not radicalize, turns back.” But putting this in concrete terms, we recall Fidel’s recommendation to Allende after the Tancazo, “This is your Girón.”[3] What prospects — not abstract but concrete, in terms of the political and social forces — do you see for a radicalization in Venezuela? What would be the measures to be taken in that direction?

A. Those phrases are heard repeatedly, but many of those who use them forget to apply them when it is necessary to do so, especially today in Venezuela. In Venezuela the progressive cycle and the future are being defined. It has been the principal process and its outcome will determine the context throughout the region.

It is obvious that imperialism has set its sights on Venezuela. The United States recognizes Cuba, has friendly relations with many governments, but not with Venezuela. There it imposes the decline in the price of oil, supplies the paramilitary organizations, finances conspiratorial NGOs, operates militarily. It has set in motion strategies for overthrow prepared for some time now. The elections unfolded in this context of economic war and in the end the Right achieved its victory. For the first time it won a majority in the parliament and is now aiming to call a referendum to revoke President Maduro’s mandate.

The Right will try to straddle two paths, that of Capriles and that of López.[4] The latter promotes a return to the guarimbas while Capriles favours a war of attrition against Maduro. And it is highly illustrative that in Argentina Macri first proposed an assault behind the screen of the “democratic clause”[5] although he later opted to postpone it. Macri is balancing between the two strategies (but note that Corina López, the wife of Leopoldo, was present at his electoral victory). He will follow the dominant tone. On the one side López and on the other Capriles, since the two complement each other. They are two lines of the same thing. And Macri is one of those orchestrating that conspiracy internationally.

Now there is strong pressure on Maduro to agree to negotiation, which would leave him overwhelmed without the ability to do anything. But he can also react and apply the famous phrase: a process that does not radicalize will regress. He can land a counterblow. A big conflict is approaching, because the parliament under right-wing leadership will demand powers that the President is not prepared to give it. The parliament will vote amnesty for López and the executive will veto it. The executive will bring out a law against hoarding and the parliament is not going to accept it. Either the executive governs or the parliament governs, a clash of powers that is very typical.

In that sense, since it takes a year to prepare a revocation referendum — they have to collect the signatures, they have to have them officially recognized,[6] they have to call the referendum and win it — that is going to generate a major conflict. And therein lies the dilemma. There is a conservative sector, social democratic or mixed up in corruption, within Chavismo that has no desire to do anything in response to that dilemma through a radicalization of the process.

That sector stands in the way of reacting against the Empire’s aggression. It is obvious that imperialism is waging an economic war on Venezuela, but the problem is that Maduro has not managed to defeat those attacks. The problem is that Venezuela is a country that continues to receive dollars, through PDVSA,[7] and those dollars are handed over to sectors of the corrupt civil service, and the capitalists, who recycle them and ruin the Venezuelan economy. Those dollars find their way into smuggling to Colombia, into creating shortages, into exchange rate speculation, and the country lives with queues and general irritation. Furthermore, Venezuela is now burdened with a sizeable public debt. It does not have enough dollars to pay for all the imports and at the same time pay down the debt.

In these conditions the social-democratic and conservative sectors of the government limit themselves to complaining about “the terrible situation imposed by imperialism” but without taking effective action to thwart that aggression.

And this conduct has consequences, because it increases demoralization. The Right was victorious not so much because it stole votes from Chavismo but because people did not go out to vote. That has happened before. It is a form of protest that some Venezuelans engage in. And much more problematic, more serious, is the attitude of leaders who say goodbye to Chavismo or return to private life. They express no opinion or criticize the government instead of proposing radical measures against the Right. That in turn is accentuated by the government’s conduct in preventing left currents from developing. Instead of encouraging them, instead of facilitating their action, it limits their possibilities. And it maintains the verticalist structure of the PSUV.[8]

So that’s the situation. And as many people say, this time it is the last opportunity. Now or never. And this last opportunity means making decisions in two very clear-cut areas. Economically: to nationalize the banks and foreign trade, and to use those two tools to define another way of using the dollars. There are many good economists who have been saying this for ten years now. They have devised programs that explain in detail how this is done. So these are not unknown measures. And the other pillar is political. To sustain the radicalization, communal power is needed. Venezuela now has legislation, a structure, adopted laws, that provide for administering the country with a new form of communal organization; from below and from above, with distinct authorities, in which democracy is a reality and popular power is not confined to being a set of defensive institutions. It is a decisive architecture for contending with the parliament of the Right. If Maduro and the Venezuelan leadership want to rescue the Bolivarian process, this is the time for communal power. We shall see. What I think is that the cards are on the table and decisions must be made.[9]

Q. It has become common for intellectuals, including activists, to place their expectations more in the protagonism of governments than in the protagonism of the mass organizations. What is the prospect that lies ahead for social struggles? What role should anti-imperialism and anticapitalism have in them?

A. It is very important, I think, in any discussion about whether or not the progressive cycle has ended to look not only at the governments but also at what is going on below. Many writers tend to assess a cycle in terms of who is exercising the executive power. But that is only one element. The cycle originated with popular rebellion and it is these rebellions that define the relationship of forces. The process over the last decade was novel because, through a partial redistribution of resource rents, many governments developed social security networks and consumption patterns that moderated social struggles. That is one of the explanations for why we have not had rebellions since 2004.

There is a change in the economic cycle that is going to put the social struggle back on the agenda, and in this process discussion of the left project will resume. Much depends on what develops in Venezuela, which has been the political reference in the recent period for the significant left, in the same way that the Cuban revolution or Sandinismo were at other times. The emancipatory references are continental. They occur in one country and become the focus of all the others.

But the big strategic problem lies in the fact that many thinkers are of the view that the left should focus on building a model of post-liberal capitalism. This idea blocks the radicalization processes. It assumes that being on the left is to be post-liberal, that to be on the left is to slog away for an organized, human, productive capitalism. This idea has undermined the left for several years now because being left means fighting capitalism. To me, this is ABC. To be socialist is to fight for a communist world. At each stage that horizon changes and the strategic parameters are renewed. But if the identity of the left is altered, the result is frustration.

Building the left means taking up again the idea of the later Chávez. A strong commitment to a socialist project that is linked with the traditions of Latin American Marxism and the Cuban Revolution. It seems to me that this strategic line of march has been distorted by strong illusions in the convenience of replacing this horizon through convergence, for example, with Pope Francis. The assumption is that with Chávez’s death we need another reference and it is thought that the substitute can be Pope Francis. I think this is a strategic error. I don’t think the Social Doctrine of the Church is the guide that we should adopt in our battle against capitalism. Pope Francis is being recycled with the intention now of reconstructing the popular influence of a much weakened Latin American church. And in my opinion it takes great naiveté to suppose that this reconstruction is going to favour a left that is situated at the polar opposite of the Vatican’s project. I think we ought to shore up our own ideals at this key moment in Latin American history.


[1] Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD). Argentina’s Macri was the candidate of a coalition, Cambiemos (Let’s change), formed to end an era in which various wings of the Peronist movement have governed for decades.

[2] For more in English by Claudio Katz, see http://isreview.org/person/claudio-katz. Also, The Cuban Epic.

[3] A CIA-sponsored counter-revolutionary military force invaded Cuba on April 16, 1961at Playa Girón, known in English as the Bay of Pigs. It was soon defeated, the invaders surrendered and their leaders were tried and executed or jailed. The remainder were later returned by Cuba to the United States in exchange for needed medicine and food. Just prior to the invasion, on April 15, after Cuban air fields had been bombed by eight CIA-supplied B-26 bombers that then returned to the United States, Fidel Castro declared the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution, which he was confident would motivate the Cuban masses to fight in defense of their country. For more, see Bay of Pigs Invasion.

[4] Henrique Capriles Radonski was the Right’s candidate for President in 2012 and 2013, when he was defeated first by Hugo Chávez, then by Nicolás Maduro. Leopoldo López is a right-wing politician who was sentenced in September to a jail term of 13 years 9 months for public incitement to violence in the guarimbas, the antigovernment street riots starting in 2013 in various parts of Venezuela.

[5] Argentina’s newly-elected President Mauricio Macri has threatened to invoke Mercosur’s “democratic clause” in order to get the trade alliance to expel Venezuela on the absurd allegation that Venezuela is not democratic and is therefore ineligible for membership.

[6] Katz is referring to Art. 72 of the Venezuelan Constitution, under which a demand for a referendum to remove a public official from office requires the signatures of 20 percent of the electorate. Here is an English translation of the Constitution.

[7] PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.) is the country’s state-owned hydrocarbons company.

[8] PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela) is the “united socialist party” founded by Hugo Chávez and headed by President Maduro.

[9] La Llamarada Editor’s note: The interview occurred before the convening of the Communal Parliament was announced.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Canada as a plurinational state: A short course for a Bolivian audience

The following is a slightly revised text of a presentation I made two years ago to a seminar in La Paz, Bolivia, sponsored by the Office of the Vice-President. The overall theme of the seminar was “Perspectives for Transformation of the State.” As one of the international participants, I was asked to speak about “Canada as a Plurinational State.”

This entailed explaining the nature of Canada to a Bolivian audience that presumably knew little about Canada, with particular emphasis on Canada’s internal national questions (Québécois and Indigenous) and how their constitutional status might compare or contrast with Bolivia’s new Political Constitution of the Plurinational State, adopted in 2009.

Necessarily, within the time limits of an oral presentation, I had to condense the discussion of many aspects (and omit some altogether), simply highlighting what in my view was most essential to our understanding of these complex issues. However, it struck me recently that the talk might be of interest to readers of this blog, many of you likewise unacquainted with the Canadian social formation.

A short note with accompanying photo following this text, below, provides further information about a major evening event that opened the seminar.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

Quiero pedir disculpas por hablar en inglés. Aunque tengo un conocimiento del castellano escrito, siento que ustedes no se merecen soportar mi rudimentaria expresión oral, que yo espero mejorar durante los meses que pasaré en Bolivia.

[I must begin by apologizing for speaking in English. Although I have a good reading knowledge of Castillian, I feel you do not deserve to be afflicted with my still rudimentary oral expression, which I hope will improve during the months I am here in Bolivia.]

Canada is a country with several internal national questions. But constitutionally it is not a plurinational state. It could, in fact, with some exaggeration, be described — as Lenin described the Czarist empire — as a “prison house of nations.”

The Canadian state originated historically in the European expropriation of the lands of the Indigenous peoples, most of whom now refer to themselves as our “First Nations.” These nations include more than 600 communities of Indigenous peoples, with their 30 different languages, as well as the Inuit peoples of the Far North.

They are the survivors of genocidal colonial policies that for many decades herded most of the Indigenous into reservations and tore their children from them to be “de-Indianized” in mission schools.

Today, the one million Indigenous peoples represent barely 3 percent of the Canadian population although they are a majority in many of the sparsely-populated northern regions where their communities are increasingly threatened with destruction by massive resource exploitation projects. And more than one half of the Indigenous population now subsist in extreme poverty in the major cities of southern Canada.

Francophones: a majority in Quebec, a minority elsewhere

The French-speaking non-Indigenous population is much larger, constituting almost one quarter of the population of Canada. It is now largely confined to the province of Quebec, where more than 80 percent have French as their mother tongue. Another Francophone nation, the Acadians, make up about 30% of the population of the neighboring province of New Brunswick, and there is a substantial Francophone population in Ontario, the province adjoining Quebec on its west.

Like the Indigenous, the Québécois are not recognized as a nation in the Canadian constitution. A French-language enclave of eight million in a combined Canada-U.S. population of 350 million, the Québécois face a constant struggle to defend their language and culture, their primary characteristics as a nation.

In recent decades a powerful movement against national oppression and for national independence has developed in Quebec that challenges the very existence and structure of the Canadian state. It is the major source of political instability in the country.

Quebec is of enormous geopolitical importance to the Canadian state. It sits astride the St. Lawrence River, the main waterway between the Atlantic and central Canada, and separates the eastern provinces from Ontario, the manufacturing heartland. Quebec’s separation from Canada would provoke a profound political crisis and force a re-imagining of Canada with all that this could entail.

This prospect has enormous implications for socialist strategy both in Quebec and in the rest of Canada.

The oppression of the Québécois dates from the British conquest in 1760 of the early French empire in North America. In 1837 the English brutally suppressed an insurrection for self-rule by the French inhabitants of what is now Quebec, and then declared their aim to “assimilate” the French and eliminate them as a distinct nationality.

In 1867, in what is now termed Confederation, the British and their colonial politicians — including an accomodating Francophone elite in Quebec — joined Quebec with three English-speaking colonies to establish the “Dominion of Canada” under home rule.

The new federal constitution, an Act of the British Parliament, allowed Quebec its distinctive system of civil law, the privileged position of the Catholic Church in education, and recognition of French as well as English as the language of the courts and legislature, but otherwise treated Quebec as “a province like the others” with no recognition of its distinct national character.

By 1885, with the suppression of rebellions by the Métis (a French-Indigenous mestizo population), the French-speaking and Indigenous peoples in Western Canada were deprived of their land and language rights, their leaders executed or exiled.

Quebec’s national revolt

For almost a century following Confederation, Quebec was a conservative, largely rural, parish-based society, its provincial government closely allied with the Catholic Church. The Québécois fought to defend themselves against federal government intrusions on their language and culture. They resisted attempts to conscript them for overseas duty in both world wars.

Industrialization, as it developed, was largely the work of U.S. and Anglo-Canadian capital, much of it concentrated in mining production and electrical generation for export outside the province.

However, in the 1960s Quebec experienced a massive national upsurge, the so-called “Quiet Revolution.” With wide popular support from workers and farmers, a new Francophone professional middle class gained control of the province’s Liberal party and government and proceeded to nationalize electrical power generation, create a secularized public education system and a network of French-language universities, and establish universal health care and other social services. In some respects it was Quebec’s equivalent of Bolivia’s National Revolution just a decade earlier.

And the government used the huge sums accumulated to finance its new pension program for senior citizens to establish a public capital investment fund that in the years to come fostered the development of a Francophone bourgeoisie that became known as “Québec Inc.”

In 1968 the Liberal party fractured and a more nationalist wing founded the Parti Québécois to fight for Quebec independence. The PQ was not a socialist party but aimed to build a “sovereign” Quebec capitalist state through a “cold” non-revolutionary electoral process that might result in some form of supra-state “association” with the rest of Canada.

A divided proletariat

Because of its national oppression, the Quebec working class was an especially militant section of the Canadian proletariat in the post-WWII industrial struggles. In the 1960s Quebec unions grew exponentially with the expansion of the government bureaucracy and the education and healthcare systems. But although unions in English Canada had founded a Canadian labour party, the New Democratic Party, in the early 1960s, the NDP’s Canadian nationalism, its hostility to Quebec’s burgeoning national demands, alienated the Quebec unions; nationalist consciousness inclined them to tail politically the province’s Liberals and later the bourgeois PQ.

The result was a classic desencuentro, a missed encounter between the working classes in the two major national components of the Canadian social formation — an estrangement that has lasted, in one form or another, to this day.

The Canadian labour movement outside Quebec, with few exceptions, identifies its interests with the Canadian state and, while paying lip service to Quebec’s right to self-determination, is not inclined to support any movement that would jeopardize the territorial and political integrity of that state.

In this, of course, it simply echoes the stance of the Canadian bourgeoisie, a powerful imperialist ruling class with extensive global investments especially in resource exploitation and finance, as in Latin America. The Canadian ruling class bitterly opposes Quebec “separatism” as a threat to the integrity of its state, the protector of its class interests.

A movement for national independence

In 1976 the Parti Québécois was elected the government of Quebec. It enacted a number of reforms, enhancing the province’s welfare state, but its most popular measure was the adoption of the Charter of the French Language, under which French, now the province’s sole official language, was made the mandatory language of employment and service in public administration and in all major industries and undertakings.

In 1985, the Quebec National Assembly adopted a PQ government motion to recognize the existence of a dozen distinct Indigenous nations within Quebec. Quebec is the only province to have signed modern-day treaties with some Indigenous nations acknowledging their right to participate in development on their territories and to share in the resulting revenues.

But the PQ’s otherwise conventional record in office, over a total of 18 years, failed to elicit sufficient popular confidence in its leadership and program to win its two referendums on sovereignty, in 1980 and 1995.

From the beginning of Quebec’s nationalist upsurge, the Canadian bourgeoisie and its central government in Ottawa sought to trivialize, divert and defeat it. A number of strategies were deployed.

A policy of official “multiculturalism” was adopted that effectively treated Quebec as just one “culture” among many other immigrant cultures making up the Canadian “nation.”

A new policy of official “bilingualism” granted legally “equal” rights to French and English in areas of federal jurisdiction — while denying the need for special protection of French within Quebec itself.

Most notoriously, the federal government took advantage of a couple of kidnappings of officials in 1970 by small cells of a self-proclaimed Quebec Liberation Front to impose a military occupation of Quebec and arrest and jail hundreds of pro-independence militants.

In the wake of Quebec’s defeat in its 1980 referendum on sovereignty, the federal government under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau moved aggressively to produce for the first time a “made-in-Canada” constitution that would, it hoped, once and for all frustrate any further moves toward an independent Quebec.

The Anglophone provinces ultimately aligned with Ottawa to adopt, in 1982, a constitution with two major components directly aimed against Quebec.

An amending formula effectively precluded any legal secession of one province without the unanimous consent of the others -- a direct violation of the right of self-determination of Quebec, a nation still without recognition as such in the constitution.

And the new constitution included a “Charter of Rights and Freedoms” largely focused on abstract individual rights while empowering the courts to overthrow collective rights that might conflict with them. In the following years the Supreme Court of Canada has used the federal Charter to throw out many provisions of Quebec’s Charter of the French Language.

Major economic and demographic shifts

Over the last two decades, the economic and political centre of gravity in Canada has shifted westward as Canadian capitalism became increasingly dependent on exports of both renewable resources (e.g. wood products) and non-renewables, in the first place petroleum derived largely from the infamous Alberta tar sands.

Toronto finance coupled with Calgary-based petroleum interests now constitute the major axis of development, and the Quebec metropolis of Montréal has declined as a financial powerhouse. Major manufacturing industries in both Quebec and Ontario, once Canada’s industrial heartland, have suffered a sharp decline.

Bolivia’s dependency on resource extractivism can be and is criticized on many grounds, but there are some fundamental differences here from Canada’s extractivism. Your government aims to use the income derived from greatly increased resource royalties and taxes on industrialization, more equal redistribution of income, and strengthening of a sovereign state while respecting the country’s constitutionally recognized plurinationalism.

Canada’s petro-bourgeoisie, in contrast, are desperately seeking to export their oil and gas — via pipelines, railways, supertankers -- with little attention to balanced economic development and zero concern for the looming global climate catastrophe. Canada has quit the Kyoto accord and is now widely recognized as one of the world’s major climate criminals.

Indigenous rights get short shrift as an ad hoc “consultation” process that is largely entrusted to corporate developers and government tribunals is used to divide the affected communities against each other.

Meanwhile immigration, primarily from Asia, has concentrated in cities west of Quebec, and the latter’s relative demographic weight is declining within Canada. These trends contribute to the Québécois’ increasing sense of marginalization and exclusion as a nation within Canada.

Independence movement lacks adequate leadership

The 1982 constitutional “coup de force” against Quebec stimulated pro-independence feelings. In the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, the yes side almost won, polling 49.42% support. And even today, opinion polls register 40% or more support for independence.

This sentiment is all the more remarkable in that the Quebec nationalist movement has in recent years been almost bereft of leadership. During the last three decades the Parti Québécois has moved decisively to the right and virtually abandoned its quest for independence. There are many reasons for this.

The party always based its hopes for a successful “cold” independence process on the hope of support or at least neutrality of the United States. But Washington and Wall Street have repeatedly expressed their hostility to Quebec secession from Canada.

“Quebec Inc.,” the PQ’s anticipated corporate partner in its quest, is now firmly integrated within the interstices of Canadian — and global — capital and has no interest in a politically separate state.[1]

Like governments everywhere in the imperialist countries, the PQ when in office has implemented the neoliberal agenda, imposing budget austerity, supporting “free trade” agreements, and making deep inroads into the welfare state of an earlier era.

Most recently, the PQ government elected in September 2012 has expressed its interest in accommodating Canadian petro-capital’s plans to pipe tar sands oil from Alberta to Quebec and further east. Environmentalists are enraged at this new receptiveness to a pan-Canadian “national strategy” for ecologically suicidal fossil fuel dependency.[2]

Not least important, the two referendum defeats (albeit narrowly in the second) have demoralized the Parti Québécois leadership. In particular, they have lost confidence in their ability to win support for Quebec sovereignty among the population of immigrant origin or those without French as their mother tongue.

The PQ government no longer espouses an inclusive concept of citizenship that would recognize equal rights for everyone living on Quebec territory. Imitating the government of imperialist France, it is currently piloting a “charter of values” through the National Assembly that would ban “ostentatious” religious symbols and is targeted, for example, at Moslem women who wear the hijab.

This reactionary ethnic nationalism has aroused mass opposition within Quebec, and done much to discredit the PQ among feminists, students, trade union members and community activists.

A new left independentist party

The pro-independence movement is now fracturing, with the emergence of new parties.

A hopeful development is the appearance of Québec Solidaire, a pro-independence party founded during the last decade through a process of regroupment of militants in the global justice, community activist, feminist and socialist movements. The party polls between 6 and 10 percent and has elected two members[3] to the Quebec National Assembly notwithstanding an undemocratic electoral system.

Many features of Québec Solidaire’s program are analogous with Bolivia’s approach to building an “integral state” — but with this difference: that the axis in Quebec, a minority nation within Canada, is to build a national state that is independent or autonomous of the existing Canadian state.

Québec Solidaire holds that a new relationship with the rest of Canada can only be negotiated once the Québécois have clearly established their intent and ability to form an independent state.

A refounding of the Canadian state is in my opinion strategically contingent on a prior “separation” of Quebec — following which, to echo Marx’s famous formulation with respect to Ireland’s independence from England, “may come federation” with the former oppressor state.

Québec Solidaire supports the right to self-determination of the Amerindian and Inuit peoples inhabiting Quebec territory and, while inviting them to join in the independence project, pledges to honour their exercise of that right — whether through self-government within a Quebec state or through their own independence as Indigenous nations. Bolivia’s Constitución Política del Estado contains many useful pointers on how such Indigenous self-government could be organized.

Québec Solidaire aims “to build a democratic, social and national alliance” — a popular bloc — “that will bring together all of the trade unions, popular movements, feminists, students, ecologists and sovereigntist parties” in support of “popular sovereignty concretized by the election of a Constituent Assembly.” Party propaganda describes parallel “inspiring experiences” in Bolivia and Ecuador. Como se dicen en Venezuela, “Nuestra norte es el Sur.”[4]

Like the Bolivian constitution, in its articles 141 and 144, Québec Solidaire promotes an inclusive definition of citizenship. “Quebec nationality,” it states, “is essentially defined by living in the nation and participating in its life.”

The Quebec nation is “ethnically and culturally diversified, with French as the common language of use and factor of integration..., the Francophone community [being] transformed throughout its history by the successive integration of elements originating from the other communities who have been added to it.” This nation “is based not on ethnic origin but on voluntary membership in the Québécois political community.”

Québec Solidaire proposes a “model of secularism” that distinguishes between the need for state neutrality toward religious belief or lack of belief, and the freedom of individuals “to express their own convictions in a context that favours exchange and dialogue.” This position parallels article 4 of Bolivia’s constitution proclaiming the state’s independence of religion while guaranteeing freedom of religion and spiritual beliefs in accordance with their cosmovisions.

While not explicitly anti-capitalist or socialist, Québec Solidaire defines itself as a party “resolutely of the left, feminist, ecologist, altermondialiste, pacifist, democratic and sovereigntist.” This definition is not inconsistent with the values and ethical-moral principles set out in article 8 of the Bolivian constitution.

Like the Bolivian constitution (article 306), Québec Solidaire advocates a “plural economy” composed of communitarian, state, private and cooperative enterprises. However, QS is less clear about the importance of nationalization of strategically important industries to the functioning of the state economy as a whole.

New alliances on a global scale

Finally, it is worth noting that defence of the global ecology is now emerging as a key mobilizing issue not only in Quebec but in the rest of Canada. Here, the Indigenous peoples in both nations are playing a leading role in building popular opposition to irresponsible resource exploitation by capitalist enterprises and governments. New alliances are being forged in consequence.

Québec social movements have initiated plans for a pan-Canadian Social Forum, modeled on the international Social Forums of recent years, to be held in August 2014.[5] This unprecedented gathering will bring together Québécois, Canadian and Indigenous activists and thinkers from throughout the Canadian state to exchange views and plan joint actions in the future. If a Bolivian delegation were to attend, I am sure we could all learn much from your experiences here in refounding the state in the interests of buen vivir.[6]

Mis agradecimientos especiales a mi interprete Eric Gomez.[A special thank-you to my interpreter Eric Gomez.]

Hall Vicepresidencia, La Paz, November 28, 2013

* * *

The weekend seminar was introduced the night before by a panel featuring Vice-President Álvaro García Linera and two other participants — Jorge Veraza of Mexico and Bruno Bosteels of the United States — critically examining interpretations of the Communist Manifesto. Among Veraza’s publications is a book published by the Bolivian government, Del Reencuentro de Marx con América Latina en la Época de la Degradación Civilizatoria Mundial, an anthology of texts by the author, whom García Linera says was instrumental to winning him to Marxism while he was doing postgraduate studies in mathematics in Mexico City during the 1980s. Bosteels is a translator of some of the texts by García Linera in the book Plebeian Power, recently published by Haymarket Books.

P1030182

photo by Richard Fidler

Left to right: Álvaro García Linera, Jorge Veraza, Bruno Bosteels. The PowerPoint photos, to the left of the panel members in the central auditorium of Bolivia’s Central Bank, featured various revolutionary heroes, ranging from Indigenous leaders in the wars against the Spanish colonizers to leaders of Twentieth Century socialism including Lenin and Trotsky (pictured here).


[1] An exception is Pierre Karl Péladeau, a Quebec media mogul who became PQ leader in 2015. It was a further sign of the PQ’s shift rightward, but has not elicited any significant support for the party from other capitalists.

[2] In April 2014 the PQ was defeated in a general election. The successor Liberal government is even more receptive to the Canadian petro-bourgeoisie’s projects.

[3] QS elected its third MNA in April 2014.

[4] Literally, “As they say in Venezuela, ‘Our North is the South’.” This is a pun. El norte, in Spanish, not only refers to the earth’s magnetic north but is a synonym for “compass,” a directional indicator.

[5] Today I would invite the audience to the World Social Forum scheduled to be held in Montréal in August 2016 — the first time this annual gathering, which began a decade and a half ago in Brazil, will be held in a country of the global North.

[6] Buen vivir, Spanish for suma qamaña in Aymara and sumaj kawsay in Quechua, refers to the Andean Indigenous philosophy of “living well,” not necessarily “better” in an ecologically sustainable sense. It is incorporated as a guiding ethical and political principle in the new Constitutions of both Bolivia and Ecuador. For a discussion, see Atilio Boron, “‘Buen vivir’ and the dilemmas of the left governments in Latin America.”

Monday, November 2, 2015

Bolivia’s vice-president on the challenge of a new left for the 21st century

by Álvaro García Linera

The following is a speech given in Athens by Bolivia’s vice-president on June 20, 2015, at the Eighth Resistance Festival. Edited for publication, the text appears in the current issue (No. 15) of La Migraña, a magazine published by the Bolivian government.

In a previous article I summarized García Linera’s comments, toward the end of his presentation, on the situation in Greece at the time, just two weeks before the Greek people voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to reject the moves by the Eurozone leaders to impose further indebtedness and austerity on them. This is my translation of the rest of his presentation.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Greece’s crisis: The challenge of a new left and the resurgence in Europe

I was asked to address the question, What are the characteristics of the left in this, the 21st century?

As Marx said, basically we have to recognize the movement that is unfolding before our eyes, the real movement that is developing here in Greece, and in Spain, Ecuadoimager, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and other parts of the world, that is revealing innovations and new themes in the construction of the processes of emancipation.

Given that no revolutionary process is definitive or a formula but instead is a flow with advances, retreats and uncertainties, we do not know whether the new left — or what we call a new left — will deliver humanity to a new destiny in the following century. Perhaps it will do so, or perhaps it will fail. What is clear is that there is a resurgence, a new debate and new experiences; and it is this that I wish to address, starting with five aspects,[1] and then reflecting briefly on what is happening in Greece.

Characteristics defining the emergence of the contemporary lefts

1. Social movement transformed into a drive for state power. Representative state governance and social governance

One of the new things, if we take into account what happened in the second half of the 20th century, but not so new if we go back to the early years of that century, is the relation between party and social movement.

The experience of the left in the 21st century has altered the debate that we inherited from the 1940s. Then the main issue was the vanguard, a party of cadres, of professional revolutionaries with their activists, their intellectuals, their central committee (which was the brain and the epicenter of the revolution) and collective actors (fundamentally, workers or peasants) who had to follow and support the decisions, the road traced by that vanguard — an armed vanguard, electoral vanguard or clandestine vanguard, but always the vanguard.

Today it no longer happens that way — and it’s not only that previously it failed but that today it no longer functions. The living experiences of the social struggles in the world at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century are showing us another type of articulation. They are showing us that in some cases the party structures arise from the social movement itself; that the frontier between social movement and party is very ambiguous, porous; and that the party structures (which provide a certain scope for cohesion, unity, principles and organization) maintain very direct, free-flowing and organic links with the social organizing structures and with the emerging social movements.

That is good because it breaks with the concept of the vanguard and an unconscious mass led by it. It shows us that the mass is not so “mass” and much less that it is unconscious, and that civil society is complex. It builds leaderships, thinks and sometimes needs centers of cohesion and control (a party). However, these centers of cohesion and control are not what is fundamental; in fact, they are only necessary and have leadership capacity if they are permanently fostering their organic link (their metabolism) with the social organizations, with the social movement.

Sometimes this shocks people who come from the old school, used to the discipline, the democratic centralism, the cohesiveness, the permanent militancy and the quasi-Jesuitical view of politics as a mission and commitment. But that’s the way it is.

Today, the party affiliation is more lax, more flexible, more ambiguous. And one has to know how to understand those new languages and begin to act in terms of those new spiritual predispositions of the people.

This ambiguous frontier between social movement and party — now not a vanguard but a party, more compact and unifying — while it is something new, something that can be appreciated in the distinct European and Latin American experiences, leaves us with two lessons. The first, that there is no new left that is detached from the social movement; and the second, that there is no successful social movement that does not have, by necessity, a continuity, an organic extension in party structures striving for state power.

That is, a political party will be successful in its proposals for social, economic and political transformation in so far as it has continuity, participation, and links with collective, plural actors. Moreover, the old political systems do not break down unless there is a strong social movement that bursts onto the scene, breaks or smashes the state domination and reconfigures social identities. In turn, if the social movement still wants to be something more than a protest and an indication of discontent it will have to have some extension at the level of the state, and to be able to translate itself into a determination to gain management and control over the state.

However, it is not that the social movement has to lead into a state, since in fact the social movement is more than the state, and confronts the state. Nevertheless, its effectiveness will be gauged in its capacity to work in conjunction with a state actor: to be a social movement outside of the state but with the ability to influence, affect and transform the state. Perhaps the new thing now in the left is that it is an actor of state transformation and simultaneously an actor outside of the state. That, in turn, is going to characterize the forms of government of the new lefts.

Electoral state legitimacy and representative governability: parliament, ministry, state institutions, parliamentary majorities and agreements; but parallel to this extra-state legitimacy, outside of the state — in the society, the streets, the factories, and the mobilizations. The revolutionary stability of a political party of the left will have to have those two pillars: representative state governance and social governance.

The possibility of continuing to carry out changes in the institutions of government, of the state, the laws and the functioning of the parliament itself will always lie in the ability to have a force of extra-parliamentary social mobilization (outside of the parliament), which will be what drives transformations within the parliament and the executive and judicial organs themselves. This is, then, a new system of dual political governance.

image

Álvaro García Linera with Zoe Konstantopoulou, the Speaker of the Greek parliament. As Vice-President, he also presides over proceedings of Bolivia’s Plurinational Assembly.

2. New material and social condition of the working class. The plebeian form of collective and contemporary action

A second change that I note in the emergence of the new lefts — sometimes not so new because they include a lot of the past experience — is the quality of the social movement.

Two things are happening as a result of the recent processes of globalization of the economy of the last 30 or 40 years: a change in workers’ conditions, in the material conditions of the working class, and an increasing complexity in social conditions.

In the first case, the old composition of working class, big industry, huge factory, a worker stronghold, unionized, disciplined, that passed on knowledge from workers with more experience to younger ones, and that created loyalties on the job based on that transmission of knowledge and hierarchies, controlled by the worker, has disappeared.

Today there are more workers in the world than there were 30 years ago. There is an overwhelming proletarianization of jobs, including those we think of ourselves as middle class and professional. However, it is simply another means of proletarianization, fragmented, diluted, nomadic, without loyalties within the workplace structure and without transmission of knowledge from older to newer workers. Today, knowledge is controlled by the firms and not by the older workers who passed it on to the young worker, as in the case of skilled labour. There are no unions [or rather] there is a huge process of de-unionization, the unions are small and cover only a small part of the working class. We have the emergence of young workers with other mentalities and sensibilities, and a feminization of the working class, with another kind of concerns and languages, different from the classic male chauvinist and centralized language of the union in a big plant.

This is a process of transformation of the class, whose condensation in discourse, organization and collective myths capable of converting it into a visible political force will take decades. The working class that we knew in the Twenties, Thirties or Forties of the previous century took at least one hundred years to mature.

This new working class, which is still dispersed and fragmented in its political visibility, in its constitution as an acting political subject, has yet to go through a long and emergent process that corresponds to the new material composition of the working class, both continental and global. But parallel to this process, we have the emergence of more plebeian social actors or subjects, that is, who develop not according to where they work but according to their interests, and who are more plural and more flexible in the way they interconnect. I am referring, for example, to the mobilizations over the debt, basic services, education, that bring together workers, bus, taxi and truck drivers, shopkeepers, students, neighbours and professionals.

The structures of organization and control of those social subjects are also more flexible and more casual: they last for a time (a few months) and later dissolve after having achieved some result, in order later to convene again and mobilize around other subjects and with distinct hierarchies. There is no longer a unique center of mobilization or a single line of action. In one mobilization a particular sector will take the leadership; in another, another sector. In some cases, the unions will take the leadership, while in others it may be the students who bring together unions and neighbors, or perhaps the public employees in the transportation industry bring students and professionals together.

The processes of mobilization are becoming more complex, and we revolutionaries must know how to understand the quality, flexibility and concerns of collective action, which we have named the plebeian form of contemporary collective action, and which corresponds to the primary levels in the construction of the worker identity and the workers movement.

3. Concerning democracy in the sense of democracy as a space for achieving socialism

A third new aspect in the debate in the left of the 21st century is the question of democracy. The old school of party membership had taught us that it was simply a tool, a means or a route among many other particular means or routes for obtaining or arriving at an end: socialism. That is, one more tool, available along with other tools, that we could use or leave aside — because a tool is something that one can use or stop using on certain occasions — something circumstantial.

This conception of the democratic as a tool — elections, votes, parliament, representation — is being and must be modified by a conception of democracy as a space of accomplishment (and not only as a means).

The democratic in the full sense, the Greek sense of the word, must be viewed as the place for the achievement of socialism itself. We cannot have socialism, much less communism, if it is not like an expansion, like the radical surge in democratic practices in all conditions of life: in the university, in the college, in the street, in the neighborhood, in day to day life, in the party, in the economy, in the management and control of the economy, the banks, the factories, and in agriculture.

Democracy cannot be viewed as a temporary means toward an end, since it is really more the scenario or territory where the construction of the socialist horizon unfolds. And here we are referring not only to a democratic road to socialism — as opposed to the armed struggle or undemocratic road — but to the fact that socialism either is democratic or it is not socialism. In other words, socialism either is participation and increasing deliberation of society in all the circumstances of life, in the definition of public policy, in the control of the factories, the universities, the educational systems, the financial systems... or it is not socialism.

4. An alternative model of economy and society in the short and long term. The transitional program of the left

A fourth theme — perhaps the most urgent in the experience of the left in the 21st century — is the alternative model of economy and society in the long term, namely, the communist horizon; but also the alternative in the economy and society of today (2015, 2016, 2017), because the emergence of the new left or the resurgence of the left in Latin America or Europe is inexplicable without the need for some alternative. If neoliberalism were operating marvellously, generating well-being for the people, we would have no left; or, in any case, we would still have those “fake lefts” in charge that do not differ in any way from the European or Latin American ultraright, like the European Social Democracy.

The left emerges in the midst of neoliberalism because there are breakdowns, because there is discontent in the population, people are unhappy and their expectations are unfulfilled. So the left emerges in order to resolve today — not as some distant dream for 700 years from now, but today — the peoples’ problems: work, employment, growth, distribution, justice, dignity and sovereignty.

Accordingly, the lefts that are emerging now are obliged to think about a post-neoliberal economic program of transition (using the old language of the 20th century), a transitional program of democratization of public institutions, cleaning up public administration, which is full of corrupt scoundrels. The left is obliged to think about that.

And while each country and region has its own particular features and needs, in the case of Bolivia our transitional program — amidst an unchecked neoliberalism — was very clear. Economically, nationalization of natural resources; politically, an indigenous government; socially and institutionally, a Constituent Assembly to reconstitute the long-term social pacts.

We are talking about a very precise, concrete, viable and tangible program that was responsive to the expectations of the people. A concrete proposal to respond to concrete needs, because the people and the society have very concrete needs. However, we must not forget that the concrete is also the most complicated.

Of course we intellectuals can analyze things, but to make the synthesis of multiple determinations — what is concrete, as Marx says — is what is most complicated and difficult. The people have concrete needs, and as revolutionaries, intellectuals, committed academics, party members and activists, we have to be able likewise to have concrete answers....


[1] In this edited text, as in his oral presentation (pages 25-32), García Linera says he will discuss five aspects, but actually identifies and discusses four, the fifth possibly being what he goes on to say about the situation in Greece. – RF.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Canada’s election: Voters defeat Harper, but elect another Trudeau

Canada’s federal election October 19 was effectively a plebiscite of voter opinion on the decade-long rule by the ultra-neoliberal Conservatives (Tories) led by Stephen Harper. With some 70% of the electorate declaring for “change” in successive polling, the overriding issue was which of the main opposition parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP) or the Liberals, would emerge as the party best situated to replace the Tories.

The Official Opposition NDP entered the campaign in August with high hopes, leading the polls, buoyed by its recent victory in the Tory heartland of Alberta and enjoying new support for its principled opposition to the Tories’ repressive “anti-terror” bill C-51. But on October 19 it was the Liberals, with only 34 seats in the previous Parliament and led by a new leader Justin Trudeau, who were elected the new government, with a clear majority of the 338 seats. The NDP, winning only 44 seats, was reduced to third-party status. Its major losses were in Quebec, the province that had elected 59 NDP MPs in the previous federal election. The defeated Tories will form the Official Opposition, while the death agony of the Bloc Québécois (BQ) gets a further extension.

Canada’s Federal Election, 2015

 

2015

2011

Party

Seats

Votes

% of vote

Seats

Votes

% of vote

Conservative

99

5,600,496

31.9

166

5,832.401

39.6

Liberal

184

6,930,136

39.5

34

2,783,175

18.9

NDP

44

3,461,262

19.7

103

4,508,474

30.6

BQ

10

818,652

4.7

4

889,788

6

Greens

1

605,864

3.4

1

576,221

3.9

 

For details, see Canadian federal election, 2015

A typical reaction of many worker activists was that of Suzanne MacNeil, executive vice-president of the Halifax-Dartmouth & District Labour Council and member of Solidarity Halifax, who acted as campaign manager for an NDP candidate:

“I’m disappointed that we lost so many good, progressive MPs, and that an NDP campaign that proposed substantial reforms like national child care couldn’t succeed the way we needed it to.

“I am, however, feeling no small amount of relief that we got rid of a government that was particularly nasty and determined to attack union workers, the working class in general, women, Indigenous people, immigrants, folks who live in poverty, all manner of public institutions, our environment.

“Bear in mind, this is just a moment of relief. The work ahead of us changes, but still needs to go on.”

‘Strategic voting’

But why the Liberals and not the NDP? Superficially, the result reflected the vagaries of Canada’s grossly undemocratic electoral system under which the House of Commons is composed only of MPs who came first in their constituencies (“ridings”), irrespective of party. This “first past the post” system (FPTP) usually rewards the party scoring the highest number of votes overall with a disproportionately large number of seats.

Had the seats at stake in this election been allocated according to the parties’ respective share of the total popular vote, the Liberals would have formed a minority government with 133 seats, while all the other parties would have elected more MPs: Tories 108, NDP 67, Bloc Québécois (BQ) 16, and the Greens 11 — one short of official party status. (These numbers fall just short of the 338 total seats due to rounding.)

In the context of a concerted movement to rid the country of the Tory government, the FPTP system put enormous pressure on anti-Tory voters to “vote strategically,” i.e. for any other party that had the best chance of defeating the government. The Liberals won that wager.

So why the Liberals?

The reasons why will long be debated, and I don’t intend to canvass them all, but some things seem clear. It was not because of major programmatic differences between the NDP and Liberals. On the contrary, their election platforms[1] seemed very similar — and this allowed quite marginal factors or events during the long campaign to result in sudden and significant shifts in their respective electorates.

Both parties promised to reverse some of the most egregious measures of the Harper era[2] and each proposed new but generally modest social and legal reforms.[3] They differed significantly on a few key issues; for example, the NDP committed to repealing Bill C-51 while the Liberals promised only to “repeal problematic elements.” But neither offered any real change in major features of the neoliberal regime such as the inter-imperialist military alliance structures, the trade and investment deals,[4] or Canada’s dangerous dependency on petro-extractivism.

In fact, one of the weakest parts of the NDP’s platform concerned climate change, where it relies on a market-friendly “cap and trade” mechanism to limit greenhouse gas emissions, while avoiding any reference to the tar sands, the major source of Canada’s dangerously high carbon levels. Party leader Thomas Mulcair supports the Energy East project to convert the TransCanada gas pipeline to transport raw bitumen from west to east for shipment abroad — the major target of the mass environmental movement, especially in Quebec where the project entails construction of 800 km of new pipeline through ecologically sensitive farm and wet lands bordering the St. Lawrence river. On existing and new pipeline and production plans the NDP (like the Liberals) promised only tighter environmental regulations.

‘Balanced budget’ pledge unbalances NDP

Overall, the NDP campaigned slightly to the “left” of the Liberals on a lengthy platform (more than 80 pages) that for the first time in the party’s history was a program for government, including even an appendix on costing so detailed that it looked like a long-term government budget. However, the economic framework throughout fell short of even the neo-Keynesianism of classic social-democracy. And it was Mulcair’s promise of a “balanced budget” with no deficits during a five-year mandate that opened the way for the Liberals, demagogically, to outflank the NDP with a promised but vague “infrastructure funding” proposal that would entail a few years (they said) of budgetary deficits.

The NDP argued that its promised social reforms could be financed without a deficit through a 2 percentage-point increase in corporate taxes (while decreasing small business taxes). But the “balanced budget” fixation looked suspiciously similar to Tory austerity. Liberal fortunes rose quickly in the opinion polls as the corporate media, which had never warmed to the NDP primarily because of its still-existing ties to the unions, boosted the Liberals as a default option if needed, while in most cases editorially endorsing the Tories.

After the Liberal ascent began, the media obligingly collaborated with Harper when he cynically sought to cultivate anti-Muslim racist support through publicly denouncing a couple of women to whom his government wanted to deny citizenship because they wore the niqab, which conceals their faces. The Tories’ maneuver was most likely aimed at winning support from the pro-independence Bloc Québécois (BQ) that would otherwise have gone to the NDP. It seemed to work. BQ leader Gilles Duceppe pounced on the issue, the media blew it up, and NDP support in Quebec continued to decline.

But the BQ’s tactic, while it may have gained it some votes, reminded many Québécois of the xenophobic Charter of Values promoted by its provincial partner, the Parti Québécois, which had played a major role in the PQ’s defeat last year. And Mulcair, to his credit, stood fast on the NDP’s support of secularly inclusive citizenship (a position shared with the Liberals, whom the media ignored in this respect). In the end, the niqab politics probably did little damage to the NDP.

NDP now established in Quebec

The NDP’s “orange wave” in 2011, which boosted it to Official Opposition, was centered on its impressive and unexpected victory in Quebec, where it took 59 of the province’s 75 seats. On October 19 the party lost most of those seats. However, its results merit some analysis.

Quebec Results, 2015 and 2011

 

2015

2011

Party

Seats

% of vote

Seats

% of vote

Conservative

12

16.7

5

16.5

Liberal

40

35.7

7

14.2

NDP

16

25.4

59

42.9

BQ

10

19.3

4

23.4

Greens

0

2.3

0

2.1

 

Compiled from Wikipedia and Elections Canada

Although the NDP’s share of the Quebec vote fell to just over 25% (from 43% in 2011), and the Liberals more than doubled their vote, winning a majority of seats, the NDP came second, ahead of all other parties including the BQ — which thanks to the FPTP system increased its seats while registering its smallest support in its 25-year existence. Moreover, the ethnic divide in Quebec produces different voting patterns between majority Francophone and non-Francophone citizens. The NDP’s support declined most markedly among the non-Francophones, who voted massively for the Liberals. Support for the NDP was probably 30% or more among Francophones. A riding-by-riding analysis of the popular vote will likely confirm this.

In fact, support for the federal NDP remains strongest in Quebec. In British Columbia, the party won a comparable percentage of the vote (25.9%) but only 14 seats. In Ontario the party won 16.6% and 8 seats. Similarly, in the other provinces and territories the NDP’s results were worse than in Quebec: Newfoundland and Labrador, 21% and 0 seats, Nova Scotia 16.4% and 0 seats, Manitoba (where it is the government) 13.8% and 2 seats, and Alberta (elected to government in May) 11.6% and 1 seat.

In 2011 the NDP’s Quebec breakthrough could be attributed to a peculiar combination of factors: fear of a Harper majority in Ottawa; the crisis of the pro-sovereignty movement and decline of the Bloc Québécois, up to then the major party federally; and the NDP’s apparent responsiveness to Quebec’s national concerns, as manifested in its “Sherbrooke Declaration.” Since then, the party membership has not come near to the 20,000 Mulcair had hoped to garner when he became leader. Few of its Quebec MPs emerged as strong public figures; almost all were rookies, many in their 20s.[5] And yet...

I think it can be said that the NDP, for now, is well grounded in Quebec and will continue to be a major player in its politics. And this year, for the first time ever, none of the union centrals endorsed the Bloc. They instead promoted a “strategic vote” against the Conservatives in the seats held by that party. The largest central, the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ), called for a vote for the NDP in all other ridings.

What about Mulcair?

NDP strategists focused their entire election campaign around the personage of party leader Thomas Mulcair (now referred to as “Tom”). He was so central to the party’s appeal that he is an easy target in explaining its losses. But his real impact on the results is not altogether clear to me.

Mulcair was marketed as “experienced,” but what the party meant by this was his past experience as a minister in the Quebec Liberal government headed by Jean Charest, one of the most anti-worker governments since the days of Maurice Duplessis. Mulcair had served previously in various positions, notably as counsel to Alliance Quebec, the federally-funded Anglophone lobby group, and served for many years as a Liberal in the National Assembly, and a rather right-wing one at that. It was not hard for bloggers to unearth statements by him at the time praising Margaret Thatcher and her “There is No Alternative” mantra.

To pose as a real alternative to the Harper brand of neoliberalism, the NDP had to appeal to the many people concerned about the major issues of the day, many of them already involved in organized protest and social movements for change, including union struggles against capitalist austerity programs. Issues like climate change, the drift to militarism and military intervention abroad, the alignment with Israel and against the Palestinians, etc. This Mulcair was eminently unsuited to do. He supports hydrocarbon development and exports, he is a strong partisan of Zionist Israel, and he (like his predecessors as NDP leader) has never challenged the fundamental direction of Canada’s foreign policy under both Liberals and Conservatives. He barred prospective NDP candidates with known pro-Palestine positions, and he effectively censored Toronto NDP candidate Linda McQuaig when she admitted that Canada would have to stop tar sands development if it was to meet its emissions targets.

But Mulcair is the leader the party chose in 2012. At the time, it probably had little choice, given the majority Francophone Québécois composition of its parliamentary caucus. And the NDP is irrevocably committed to Parliament as its main if not only arena, and it puts a premium on the debating skills of its leaders and MPs — there, Mulcair was primus inter pares. But no attempt was made to develop a more collective leadership, one more attuned to the needs and concerns of the social movements that have always been the party’s base of support, if only in elections. The Liberals successfully campaigned as “Team Trudeau” to counter Tory charges that Justin Trudeau was too young and inexperienced to govern. Not so the NDP; it was the party of “Tom Mulcair.”

Moreover, Mulcair’s NDP was incoherent on some issues. For example, it called for abolition of the unelected Senate (as the social democrats had consistently done in the past), hoping to take advantage of the Duffy affair and related scandals involving Tory and Liberal Senators. But some provinces (and particularly Quebec) have historically viewed the Senate as the chamber representing the regions of Canada, and their unanimous support is required if the Senate is to be abolished. That would require reopening the 1982 Constitution — something the NDP fears as the Devil fears holy water, for that would again put front and center the national question in Quebec, where no government has to this day accepted the unilateral patriation of Canada’s constitution, with its limitations on Quebec powers, under the government of Trudeau senior (and with NDP support).

Where to now?

Underscoring the limited options posed by the political parties in this election, groups of citizens mobilized independently to publicize their interests and concerns. They included the scientific community protesting government suppression of their views, First Nations seeking development of their communities and full recognition of their indigenous rights, antiwar activists (especially in Quebec) protesting Canada’s military intervention abroad, immigrant and refugee rights groups urging Canada to open its doors to refugees from the Middle East, civil liberties activists campaigning against Bill C-51, and housing activists mobilizing to underscore the need for massive spending on subsidized social housing, etc.

A notable effort — although it was given little attention in the corporate media — was publication of the leap manifesto.org, “A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another.” Launched by Naomi Klein and other prominent names in the environmental movement, it was designed to offer “bold policy solutions... not on offer from any of the major political parties.” Its “justice-based energy transition” highlighted indigenous rights, “energy democracy” through community-based initiatives designed to help achieve an economy based 100% on renewable energy sources by 2050, ecology-friendly agriculture, skills retraining for workers in carbon-intensive industries, an end to trade deals that restrict environment-friendly national legislation, etc.

Optimistically summing up the lessons of the campaign on the eve of the election, the editors of the Quebec on-line journal Presse-toi à gauche made some important points that merit serious thinking by the Canadian left as a whole:

“What the social movements now intervening in this election show to us is that it is necessary to go beyond a narrow electoralism and to denounce the parties of Big Business for what they are and their role as defenders of the interests of the oligarchy.

“They also demonstrate to us that... the pan-Canadian nature of these struggles is obvious, and necessitates coordination and common initiatives at the level of the Canadian state as a whole.

“These battles [also] pose a central challenge to the anticapitalist left: the need to build a political alternative to the left of the NDP at the federal level, capable of presenting to the popular majority in Canada another social agenda [projet de société] that can take these struggles on to the political terrain....”

Appendix

The Bullet, an e-publication of the Ontario-based Socialist Project, published in translation (by yours truly) two views on the election by leading activists in Quebec, Roger Rashi and Pierre Beaudet. In a post-publication Comment posted in French by Marc Bonhomme (like Rashi and Beaudet a member of Québec solidaire, the Quebec left sovereigntist party), some important points were made about the election result. I drew on them in some of my analysis above. Here is Bonhomme’s comment, in free translation:

No “orange rout” among the Francophone Québécois

There was an “orange rout” in Ontario and in non-Francophone Quebec, but not at all in Francophone Quebec, where the NDP no doubt got close to 30% of the popular vote (its 25% overall reflects its low vote among non-Francophones) This compares favourably with the party’s 17% in Ontario. The NDP could build on this base instead of continuing to self-destruct through its centrist politics, which it will no doubt do, although being the second opposition party may allow a certain verbal radicalism.

As to the niqab politics, it was rejected by the Francophones. The combined vote of the Conservatives and the Bloc, the “blue” vote, is lower than it was in 2011. Be careful about the optical illusion of the higher number of MPs from these two parties, which is solely due to the deformations of the first past the post system.

If we consider that the Bloc had a more left populist discourse (pipelines, taxes, unemployment insurance and... independence) than right wing (niqab), we could say that the Bloc’s vote, like that of the NDP and the Greens, was a progressive vote and the Conservative and Liberal vote was not progressive notwithstanding the Liberal promise of a deficit for infrastructure spending. Judging by this, Quebec as a whole voted non-progressive by 52% and progressive by 47%. But if we consider the very strong Liberal vote among the non-Francophones, which conceals a high Conservative vote (e.g. Mount Royal riding, with 38%), it is quite possible that the Francophone vote was, by a slim margin, in the majority progressive.

Richard Fidler, October 28, 2015


[1] For the NDP platform, go here; for the Liberals’, here.

[2] For example, both NDP and Liberals said they would reduce the age of eligibility for government pensions from 67 to 65 and boost benefits; implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on indigenous residential schools; call an inquiry into the cases of the missing and murdered indigenous women; restore the Court Challenges Program; repeal federal antilabour legislation (Bills C-377 and C-525); ease limits on family immigration; restore Canada Post home mail delivery; limit restrictions on eligibility for employment insurance benefits; end some restrictions on Parliamentary procedures; and end the combat missions in Iraq and Syria (although the Liberals want to train local forces in both countries and maintain Canada’s military intervention in Eastern Europe).

[3] Most notably, the NDP promised to open one million new childcare spaces within eight years at $15 a day per child, modeled on the existing Quebec plan, while the Liberals offered simply to adjust the Harper government’s Child Care Benefit for individual parents. Both parties pledged to replace the FPTP system with some version of a mixed-member proportional representation electoral system.

[4] These include the new Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — both of which have yet to be ratified by Parliament — and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

[5] Incidentally, the NDP’s highest vote in Quebec on October 19 went to Ruth Ellen Brosseau, who achieved notoriety in 2011 when she was elected in Berthier-Maskinongé (between Montréal and Quebec City) without even setting foot in the riding and lacking fluency in French. Now fully bilingual, she won 42.2% of the popular vote: 22,942 votes, while the Bloc candidate who held the riding before 2011 came second with 14,037 votes.