Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The NDP: In Need of Rehabilitation

(This article appeared in the July/August issue of This Magazine.)

Whenever I see my friend and former colleague who had a liver transplant twenty years ago, I always think for a second about Tommy Douglas and the CCF-NDP, without whom this man who is now in his earlier seventies would be dead. On the night of the transplant at the Toronto General Hospital, I accompanied my friend down to the operating theatre where about a dozen doctors, technicians and nurses were gathered to do the twelve hour long procedure. The donor liver had been flown in from New Brunswick earlier that evening and from the airport to the hospital by helicopter.

Since the operation, the Ontario health care system has paid for the anti-rejection drugs my friend needs to remain healthy, and to enjoy the active life he has led for the past two decades. In the United States, few health care plans would cover such an expensive procedure and its aftermath. Many Americans who were faced with the same medical condition are dead because they lacked the coverage and the financial means to finance the surgery and the drugs they desperately needed.

Without the NDP and its predecessor the CCF, Canada would not have a universal health care system that is so superior in its coverage to its American counterpart.

I have less positive thoughts about the NDP when I think back to the spring of 1972 when Ontario party leader Stephen Lewis and his followers threw the Waffle movement, to which I had devoted much of my energy for the previous three years, out of the party. (We were not expelled as individuals, just told that if we kept up our activities----campaigning for public ownership of the major foreign owned oil companies, for the recognition of Quebec as a nation, and to halt the erosion of Canadian manufacturing industries---we would have our memberships torn up.) Much has been published this year about the fortieth anniversary of the youthful political movements that confronted governments, universities, political parties and trade unions in Europe and North America. When the NDP threw out the Waffle, and showed that it could not accommodate sixties radicalism, the party lobotomized itself, a procedure not covered by medicare, from which it has never fully recovered.

For me, the NDP is an indispensable Canadian institution, which ought to be critiqued, challenged, nurtured and supported. I believe the party has fallen on bad times, the consequence of too narrow a conception of politics, too great a preoccupation with parliament, and too little connectedness with what is happening in our society.

On election night in January 2006, Jack Layton declared that Canadians had “voted out of hope for change” and expressed the conviction that the NDP caucus, 29 MPs as compared with 19 in 2004, would help place working people and seniors “at the front of the line” where they belong. Layton has been proved stunningly, embarrassingly wrong, however. The Harper minority government has turned out to be more insistently, stubbornly right-wing than anyone predicted.

On childcare, Harper did exactly what he said he would do—he scrapped the national program. On the Kelowna Accord, the Conservatives have scuppered a historic deal that had been years in the making, and that would have provided billions of dollars in development capital for Aboriginal peoples. On relations with the U.S. and on foreign policy issues, Harper has overtly aligned himself with George W. Bush. Meanwhile, the Liberals have been stumbling around, not daring to challenge Harper on the basic direction of the country, promising even deeper corporate tax cuts than the Conservatives, and siding with the government on the extension of Canada’s military mission in Kandahar until 2011.

Harper’s priorities are unswervingly clear: cut taxes; increase military spending; impose no environmental regulations that will inconvenience the petroleum industry; decentralize Canada and win the votes of soft Quebec nationalists in the process. Anyone who now imagines that if Harper wins a majority he will not decimate the social state in Canada has not been paying attention. Following a Harper majority government, Canada would not be the same country, and the NDP ought to come clean about that.

If there was ever a need for a socialist party, allied to broader social movements, whose goal is to provide a critique of what is going on and a program aimed at transforming our society, it is now. That party, though, must never shrink from telling Canadians the truth because it fears that in doing so it could harm its quest for votes in the short-term.

This summer, social democrats celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding convention of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in 1933 in Regina and the adoption of the Regina Manifesto as the new party’s program. The Regina manifesto advocated widespread public ownership of key sectors of the Canadian economy. Its clarion call was that “no CCF Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full program of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.” A cursory glance at the document reveals that the founders of Canada’s social democratic party—the NDP is the successor to the CCF—were prepared to critique capitalism for what it was, and they advanced a program aimed at making fundamental changes.
If none of this seems at all like the mild-mannered NDP of today, there is a reason for that. When the CCF-NDP was founded, there was a creative tension between movement and party. CCFers cared about the long-term struggle to win people to socialism as well as about the short-term effort to elect members to the House of Commons and provincial legislatures. That tension has ceased as a consequence of the total, or near total, victory of the party side of the equation. Socialism, anti-capitalism, and the commitment to a fundamentally altered society have been dropped from the NDP program, and are nowhere to be seen during election campaigns. Socialism is a kind of friendly ghost that haunts a party whose program and whose outlook are no longer socialist.

The fundamental reason the NDP needs to be rehabilitated is the same reason the country needed a socialist party in the first place. We live in a highly unequal society, which is rapidly becoming more unequal. It is the rapacious capitalism of our era that makes a socialist movement and party a necessity. The NDP needs a different conception of the role of the party, of its members, leaders, members of parliament and provincial legislatures, and its relationship with the broader progressive communities in the country. The NDP leadership has always tried to put off demands for basic debate about the role the party plays by insisting that “this is not the time for it.” In their eyes, it’s never the time for it. We need to insist.

Globally, the wealth gap between workers in poor countries—many of them women and children, who produce the imports for the first world—and the tiny elite that sits atop the global system, is as wide as was the gap in the pre-capitalist feudal order in Europe. Forget the soft sounding term “neo-colonialism,” often used to depict relations between the developed world and the poor world. The level of exploitation that exists today matches that of colonial times.

Closer to home, a 2007 report for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives concluded that the income disparity between the rich and the rest of the population was rapidly widening. By 2004, the richest 10 percent of families were earning 82 times as much as the poorest 10 percent. By comparison, in 1976, the difference was 31 times. In the United States in 2007, the relative income gap between rich and poor was wider than at any time since 1929, the eve of the Great Depression. Seventy years ago, the remuneration of a top American corporate manager was 68 times that of a typical employee. Now the top manager makes 170 times as much. The American figures may be somewhat worse than ours, but we’re moving in exactly the same direction.

In addition to the sorry state of things reflected in these figures, there is the hard fact that the world is headed into a major economic crisis, from which Canada will not be exempt. Working people, the unemployed, immigrants, single mothers and their children, and native people will pay the highest price. Meanwhile, financial institutions will be treated to lavish bailouts, paid for by the taxes of wage and salary earners. At the helm is a government whose approach to the social order is summarized by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s insistence that the solution to bad economic times is ever-steeper corporate tax cuts. Flaherty is the John McCain of Canada, a believer in supply-side economics and the Tooth Fairy.

The social democratic critique of the Liberals and Conservatives is that they are both business parties, the Bobbsey Twins of Bay Street. The critique is not inaccurate, but is altogether too broad a generalization to be of much use except as a rhetorical vehicle.

The NDP suffers from Liberal envy. NDP leaders have long wanted to replace the Liberals as a major party to make of the Canadian political system what social democrats have always seen as “natural”—a system in which a major party of the left takes on a major party of the right. The model social democrats had in mind was that of Britain, where the long-established Liberal Party had shrunk into minor party status, to be replaced by the Labour Party as the alternative to the Conservatives. Nothing has annoyed Canadian social democrats more over the past 75 years than the failure of the Liberals to give up the ghost, which was the original aspiration of people like Tommy Douglas. In its battle to replace the Liberals as one of the country’s two major parties, the NDP has watered down its socialism almost to the vanishing point.

There were two ways in which the social democrats failed to understand the Liberals. First of all, the Liberals had their own progressive roots in the failed rebellions of 1837-38 in Lower Canada and Upper Canada. In those struggles, the reformers and would-be revolutionaries could point to the American and French Revolutions and to the radical British Chartists as being among those from whom they drew political and intellectual inspiration. They came by the colour red honestly, to the unhappiness of the social democrats who got stuck with orange, having flirted with green before abandoning the colour (much to their chagrin today).

For their part, the Liberals have made strenuous efforts to put their radical history behind them, especially in Quebec, where the rouge heritage put them up against the enormously powerful Roman Catholic church.

The other thing the social democrats did not understand about the Liberals was that in the late 19th century, the party managed to reinvent itself as a European-style Catholic Centre party. During the 20th century, the great achievement of the Liberal Party was to make itself the more or less permanent home of Catholic voters, not only of francophones, but of Irish Catholics and later of the post-World War II Catholic immigrants from Europe, notably the Italians.

For most of the 20th century, the religion of voters was a much surer indicator of the party they would support than social class, rivalling language and region. In a country that has become nearly 50 percent Roman Catholic (though not necessarily practising Catholics), this correlation gave the Liberals enormous staying power.

Meanwhile, the CCF-NDP suffered from the fact that among the midwives at the party’s birth were Protestant clergymen. Despite the best efforts of social democrats, they could never succeed in removing the scent of Protestantism that Quebec voters found so off-putting. In the end, Pierre Trudeau, who was attracted to social democracy and was an admirer of the CCF-NDP, decided that if he wanted to have a serious political career it would have to be as a Liberal, a party he scorned until the early 1960s, rather than in the marginal NDP.

If social democrats have never wanted to take a clear look at the Liberals, because they want to replace them, they also have avoided being realistic about the Conservatives, because they’d rather not acknowledge how right-wing their own party has become.

Under the leadership of Brian Mulroney in the 1980s, the Conservatives dropped the nationalism and Red Toryism that had been important elements in the party’s past, and opted instead for neo-conservatism. This meant that the adherents of the Canadian right took on the role of uncritical enthusiasts for the American socio-economic system and for the tightest possible alliance with the U.S. in global affairs. The Conservatives represented the segment of the Canadian population that had little or no fundamental attachment to the idea of Canada as a country separate from the United States, a stance that leads inexorably toward the elimination of basic differences between Canada and the U.S., certainly including the euthanizing of the social democratic tendency in Canada.

There are times in history when truly reactionary political formations come along. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is such a formation. While thankfully, it is not overtly racist in the manner of the far-right parties in Europe, it shares all of the other views and instincts of such bodies Harper himself, as his speeches and writings reveal, would be very much at home in the Republican Party. His government threatening all of the societal innovations the NDP and the CCF before it have inspired. It is not foreordained that the neo-conservatives will succeed in imposing their philosophy on us, but because they have has the support of most of the business class in Canada, it’s highly possible. It is, therefore, overwhelmingly in the interest of social democrats to prevent this outcome.

Sadly, the NDP has evolved into a party much like the others. There is little political ferment. Riding association meetings, party conferences and provincial and federal conventions are not occasions for basic debate and education about the state of society and what needs to be done, but rather focus on fundraising, holding raffles and showcasing the leader for the media.

The only time when there is genuine democracy in the NDP is during leadership campaigns. At least during these intervals, real debate becomes possible. Once the leader is chosen, however, party policy, decided on at conventions, is ignored. That has been the case for decades. Between leadership campaigns, the leader, surrounded by his or her inner staff and pollsters, determines the political course of the party.

The campaigns of the party establishment to replace the Regina Manifesto with the Winnipeg Declaration in 1956 (which effectively replaced socialism with the humanization of capitalism as the party’s objective, to suppress the Waffle in the early 1970s (to eliminate a grassroots movement that sought to move the party to the left) and to contain the New Politics Initiative a few years ago were episodes in a decades-old effort to make vote winning the paramount, almost exclusive, legitimate activity of the party. The historically successful drive to drain party membership of any real political content and to vest almost all power in the hands of the leader and his or her operatives has had the effect of making the tactics of each election campaign the only thing that really matters. And since the success of leaders is judged almost wholly by how many seats they win, ambitious NDP leaders have reached the not surprising conclusion that the party will tolerate virtually anything as long as it promotes the winning of more votes and more seats.

Instead, the NDP needs to evolve into a movement-party dedicated to promoting the interests of working people and the interests of Canadians as autonomous actors, as free as possible from the constraints imposed by the American empire. Winning people over to the NDP’s point of view is often, but not always, in line with the tactically optimal way to win more votes for the party. The tension between building the movement and winning converts, on the one hand, and winning votes, on the other, is necessary to the success of social democracy. This is true, not least, because in pursuit of fundamental reforms, social democratic governments cannot act without the support, indeed the leadership, of social movements. Without serious mobilization of large numbers of people to counteract the weight of business, nothing important will happen, and social democrats will be condemned to being little more than cleaner Liberals.

In the 1930s, social democrats understood that they needed to nurture a political culture and an intellectual climate in which socialist ideas would be embraced. CCF meetings were serious occasions for learning, discussion and debate. Under the aegis of the League for Social Reconstruction, socialist thinkers wrote books on the future course of Canadian social and economic policy. In 1935, the LSR published Social Planning for Canada, a penetrating analysis of what ailed Canadian society during the Depression. Some of those active in the LSR were F.R. Scott, Frank Underhill, King Gordon, Graham Spry and Leonard Marsh. It’s been a long time since anyone looked to the NDP for ideas. The trouble with encouraging thought and creating a culture where ideas can flourish is that ideas come with controversy and searing debates about what the party stands for and what its tactics should be.

I’m not sure whether the leadership wanted controversy during the 1950s. Having lived through it, though, I am sure that it didn’t when it got it during the Waffle years from 1969 to 1972. When the party threw out the Waffle, they made it clear that thinkers were not wanted in the party. Subsequently, many artists and writers gave the NDP a wide berth; some of them voted for NDP candidates, but they did not feel at home in the party itself.

While social democrats believed they could dispense with ideas, the right figured out that they could not. The neo-cons installed the far-right Conservative Party with the help of media conglomerates and the right-wing intelligentsia. For example, Conrad Black, once described by Margaret Thatcher as the most right-wing person she’d ever met—she meant it as a compliment—established the National Post a decade ago as a journal of combat whose task was to rally the right, feature its most effective voices as columnists and help bring to power a party that would move Canada sharply to the right. (Considering the millions he lost on the National Post, the launch of the paper may well have been a factor in propelling him to the Big House in Florida.)

The Aspers stepped in as Black withdrew and now run a media empire that is Canada’s “Fox lite,” committed to shifting the dialogue in the country dramatically to the right. David Frum, Robert Fulford and—until recently—Andrew Coyne at the Post and Tom Flanagan at Stephen Harper’s elbow, along with the rest of the neo-can wolf pack, actually care about ideas. They don’t merely want to hold office, they want to change the country (something social democrats used to care about). The fact that they aspire to the destruction of virtually all that is progressive in Canadian life does not detract from their seriousness. They are not content to become members of a centre-of-the road Canadian government.

J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and David Lewis were also not interested in merely simply sitting at a cabinet table. They were determined to create a Canada in which the power of the capitalists to exploit workers was sharply reduced and the lives of wage and salary earners were dramatically improved. If they had simply wanted to hold office, they could have signed on with Mackenzie King, St. Laurent or Pearson and they would have been welcomed with open arms.

And there is an important difference between those on the right and those on the left who seek fundamental change. The right can achieve crucial changes that are exceptionally difficult to reverse because they speak for the leading elements of the business class. When the members of the Mulroney government, with the overwhelming support of business, signed a trade deal with the United States, they locked measures into it that meant that no future Canadian government could reintroduce the elements of the National Energy Program without seeking the repeal of the FTA and NAFTA. Future steps by a Harper government would have the same weight and historic consequences.

When the left is in office and seeks to legislate basic change, it does so in opposition to the power of the business class. The classic example was the implementation of medicare by the Saskatchewan CCF government in the summer of 1962. Tommy Douglas, who had led the CCF to its fifth consecutive electoral victory in 1960, had pledged that he would regard re-election as a mandate from the people to introduce a universal, comprehensive medical care program to cover every person in the province. After passing the required legislation, the government announced that medicare would come into force on July 1, 1962. (By then, Douglas, who was elected leader of the newly founded federal NDP the previous summer, had been replaced as premier by Woodrow Lloyd.)

On July 1, a large majority of the province’s doctors went on strike to combat medicare. The strike, watched closely across North America, had the full support of the Canadian and American Medical Associations, the continental insurance industry and most of the wider business community plus the backing of the editorial pages of almost all of the continent’s daily newspapers.

Three weeks later the strike ended and the doctors returned to work, and within a few years, the federal Liberals had offered funding to any provincial government that agreed to sign onto the principles of medicare. All of them did. Medicare changed Canada. Even though right-wing governments have tried to undermine the public health care system by opening the door to private hospitals and clinics, they have not been able to challenge medicare head on.

With this campaign, Canadian social democrats achieved what American liberals during the Clinton administration never could. They had presided over a profound change in the political culture, and they did it because the Saskatchewan CCF was a genuine people’s party. Few members were business executives, and not many were direct owners of small businesses, with the exception of family farmers (and these were a small minority of the Saskatchewan party membership by 1960). While the business community could put external pressure on the CCF government in the province, as it could on any government, the party itself was quite impervious to its coertion and that made the CCF very different from the Democrats in the United States and the Canadian Liberals.

Not accidentally, the median breakthrough came in at the high point of the progressive era of the postwar decades. This was no nirvana, but in Canada, the United States and in Western Europe, this was a time when trade union membership was on the rise, social programs were being established and access to higher education was widening. Europe was the most advanced in this process, followed by Canada, but these were also the great years of the American Civil Rights movement, as well as the Great Society programs.

In today’s neo-conservative environment, it is dauntingly difficult to achieve social policy breakthroughs—for instance the establishment of a universal, comprehensive early childhood education system beginning at age two, along the lines of the system that has existed for many decades in France. There is a strong movement in Canada that has struggled for many years for such a program and the NDP supports this aim. What is needed, though, is a much more powerful connection between movement and party, so that the NDP is committed to advocating this childcare program and is prepared to fight for it in the public arena, as well as in the House of Commons.

A becalmed political party like the NDP is of limited use to working people in a mean-spirited time such as ours. We don’t need a party that no longer knows how to fight and has lost the combative edge of the social democrats of earlier decades.

On the issue of Afghanistan, for instance, the NDP does call for Canadian troops to be brought home, a position that recognizes that Canada’s military mission is in support of an American invasion and is not a struggle for human rights and democracy. The NDP’s stance on the issue is admirable and Jack Layton and other party MPs have been subjected to considerable abuse for it in the media and by government ministers. Remember “Taliban Jack”?

The party needs to take its position out of Parliament, to organize the struggle against the war, along with others. An NDP that saw itself as a party of social and political combat could bring the issue home to the detriment of the Harper government. (I’m not knocking the NDP here. Jack Layton and his caucus have done much more on this issue than the Liberals who pulled Stephen Harper’s chestnuts out of the fire when they voted to extend the mission to 2011.)

Canada’s social democrats need to use considerable acumen in the way they steer their vessel. In the 2006 federal election campaign, they made the serious error of failing to warn Canadians about the dire consequences of a Harper government for progressive causes in Canada. Party strategists insisted that they were not going to help the Liberals by “demonizing” Harper. To this day, the NDP has been unwilling to present a broad and accurate critique of how dangerous Harper, his party and the business interests for whom they speak are for Canadians and for the viability of Canada as a sovereign state. Absurdly, one is more likely to get a sweeping assessment of the implications of neo-conservatism from Liberals, who will do little to reverse Conservative policies if they are elected, than from the NDP.

The consequence of the NDP’s tactical stance is that the party ends up as just another liberal party, operating from a somewhat more progressive vantage point. The lack of a compelling vision has left the NDP looking much like the other parties, which is why so many people who are searching for something genuinely different are opting for the Green Party.

There have been moments in the history of the NDP when the party has stood on principle, leaving shabby tactics to the side. One came during the October Crisis of 1970. After cells from the Front de Liberation du Quebec kidnapped James Cross, the British Trade Commissioner in Montreal, and a few days later kidnapped Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte, the Trudeau government proclaimed the War Measures Act and dispatched soldiers to the streets of Montreal. The next day, the body of the murdered Laporte was discovered in the trunk of a car. The draconian powers of the act allowed the government to arrest people and hold them for weeks without charging them. The night the Act was proclaimed, the Montreal began rounding people up. Never charged, several hundred people were arrested and held. The Act also allowed the government to censor the media. In the course of a few days, the government acquired dictatorial powers and public opinion polls showed that about ninety per cent of Canadians approved.

When David Lewis and Tommy Douglas decided in the autumn of 1970 to oppose Pierre Trudeau’s blatant disregard for civil liberties when he proclaimed the War Measures Act, in Quebec these NDP leaders were not thinking about votes. Polls showed that 90 percent of Canadians were on Trudeau’s side. In the short run, what Lewis and Douglas did bled support away from their party. In the long run, however, the NDP not only took a stand for civil liberties when it was crucial that someone do so, but the party gained respect and reinforced the view of the NDP as an institution to which Canadians looked for leadership.

Today, those who see the need for the party’s rehabilitation must provoke an upheval—I suggest an upheaval because the entrenched leadership of an organization can rarely be expected to generate basic changes that would include reducing its own authority. There is always talk in the NDP about how the party should draw closer to social movements and to trade unionists. For the most part, though, this is just talk.

I haven’t given up hope about Jack Layton in all this. Whatever his shortcomings, Layton is by far the most accomplished leader in federal politics today, with a program that makes far more sense for Canadians than the alternatives. Admittedly, the competition is not impressive. Stephen Harper represents all that is reactionary; Stephane Dion has squandered his reputation for being a man of principle; Gilles Duceppe has dispensed with progressive ideas and has taken to inciting suspicion of immigrants, the hallmark of old-style ethnic nationalism; and Elizabeth May rides a wave of sentiment in search of a party. Layton’s political activism over many years before he became NDP leader shows that he understands, or once understood, the importance of social movements and the way movement politics is needed alongside electoral politics. An upheaval could do him good, but don’t count on him to start it. That’s up to the rest of us.

At 75, the social democrats are worth rehabilitating. Young movement activists, who have been inclined to give all political parties a wide berth, should take a hard look at the NDP. While youthful activists have placed issues on the agenda and have had an undeniable political impact, their proclivity for avoiding party politics has kept them at the margins.

They should consider joining the NDP en masse, respecting its traditions, but insisting on making it their party. The leadership of the party won’t like it. What else is new?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It’s Time to Rethink Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan

(This piece was published on the Oped page of the Globe and Mail on July 22)

The Harper government has hunkered down on the issue of Afghanistan and is committed to keeping Canadian troops on the frontline there until at least 2011. The government has constructed its own sanitized version of events in Afghanistan while steadfastly ignoring reality. Tragically, Canadians continue to die in the conflict---88 soldiers to date with the latest a few days ago---earning us the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita death toll of any NATO member in the conflict, including the United States and the United Kingdom.

In January, in response to a request I filed under the Access to Information Act for records from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, I received documents that made clear what the Harper government wants Canadians to think about the mission in Afghanistan and exposed its strategy for managing the public relations campaign.

At what are called “message events” where journalists are updated on developments in Afghanistan, officials from DFAIT, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and the Department of National Defence present the government line following “dry runs” to make sure the briefing motivates journalists to adopt what is called the “desired soundbite.” The soundbite includes a reference to the restoration of “the rule of law” in Afghanistan as a primary Canadian objective.

The “key messages” the government wants conveyed to Canadians via the media include the following:

· We are making steady progress on the ground.
· Afghanistan is Canada’s largest recipient of bilateral development assistance and we are among the top donors in the world with over $100 million in annual development assistance and a total pledge of $1.2 billion until 2011.

In the aftermath of the deadly bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul earlier this month, as well as other developments, Canadians need a reality check to counter Ottawa’s soothing message that steady progress is being made.

The Afghan government was quick to point the finger for the murderous assault on India’s embassy at Pakistan’s intelligence service. While the Afghan authorities did not name Pakistan directly, their not very subtle message was received in Islamabad where it was sharply denied by members of the Pakistani government.

The bombing calls our attention to Pakistan’s duplicitous role in the conflict. Although Pakistan is depicted as an ally of NATO in the war, Canadian soldiers in Kandahar are constantly being hit by new recruits or refitted Taliban units that can slip back and forth across the border. Although from time to time the Pakistani military undertakes missions against the Taliban on their side of the border, for the most part they leave the Taliban alone in the semi-autonomous regions next to Afghanistan. Moreover, both the Pakistani government and the Karzai government in Afghanistan have been negotiating with elements of the Taliban to reach their own peace settlements.

The truth is that the regime we are supporting in Kabul is not committed to a version of the rule of law that is remotely compatible with our own. The post-Taliban constitution of Afghanistan is based on Sharia law. Under the law, rejecting Islam is punishable by death. When to the theory of the Afghan regime is added the practice, the picture becomes much worse. The Kabul government is the author of repeated atrocities against prisoners who fall into its hands. It is riddled with corruption, and its officials have been repeatedly linked by reputable observers to the country’s poppy trade, the source of over ninety per cent of the world’s heroin. For instance, last month the respected Times of London referred to the repeated accusations that President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, who is the head of the provincial council in Kandahar province, is involved in the narcotics business. While the brothers Karzai deny the allegations, they are constantly reiterated in Kandahar, and have even been the subject of humour on Afghan private television.

While Ottawa stresses the amount of aid Canada is providing to Afghanistan, the ratio of dollars spent on the military mission compared with aid is roughly ten to one. If Canada truly wanted to help educate girls, as Ottawa says it does, there are more direct ways to do this in many parts of the world than by waging war against an insurgency. And the government’s constant reiteration of the fact that we are members of a broad coalition in Afghanistan cannot conceal the fact that as of this week 83 per cent of the allied casualties have been suffered by the armed forces of only three countries: the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Contrary to the Harper government’s claim that the war in Afghanistan is going well, there have been repeated and authoritative assessments that reveal that the opposite is true. In February of this year, U.S. National Intelligence Director Vice-Admiral Mike McConnell told a U.S. Congressional Committee that the situation facing the U.S. and its allies is “deteriorating.” His assessment was that sixty per cent of Afghanistan was controlled by local warlords and that Taliban insurgents controlled about ten per cent of the country.

While Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, in their race for the White House, have been stressing the need for a greater emphasis on America’s so-called forgotten war in Afghanistan, there is every reason to believe that the fatigue of the American public with Iraq would quickly spread to Afghanistan if the U.S. military deployment was sharply increased there.

Although the Harper government has not yet leveled with Canadians on the situation in Afghanistan, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk did acknowledge this past weekend that Taliban attacks are increasing and that more troops are needed to counter the insurgency.

When a settlement does come in Afghanistan, and one is certainly possible between the Karzai government and elements of the Taliban, it will not create a country that is firmly on the road to democracy and a regime based on the rule of law and respect for the rights of women as the Harper government would have us believe.

Hasn’t the time come for us to end the bleeding of our soldiers in a conflict in which our vital interests are not at stake and the side on which we are fighting upholds values that are remote from our own?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Age of Reaction

“These are the glory days of global capitalism….This newspaper has long argued that a mobile society is better than an equal one.” The Economist, January 20, 2007.

In 2006, furniture workers in Galax, Virginia lost their jobs as gluers and sawyers, and received redundancy packages that were so mean spirited that it provoked a public backlash. Retailers had decided they could import furniture more cheaply from China. A few months after the furniture workers lost their jobs, Robert Nardelli, the CEO of Home Depot was replaced as head of the company by his deputy. His landing---a severance pay package of $210 million---was softer than that of the gluers and sawyers. Twenty years ago, the remuneration of a top American corporate manager was 40 times that of a typical employee. Now the top manager makes 110 times as much.

During the post-war era, a remarkable period often referred to as the golden decades, the real incomes of the mass of the population (adjusted for inflation) doubled in the advanced countries. For the first time in history, the majority of the population was no longer poor. The goal of full employment was enshrined in the policies of the industrialized countries. The gates of higher education were opened to admit an enormous number of people who never would have imagined that the experience of university would be available to them. Trade unions were stronger than ever before, and through them and political parties allied with them, the interests of wage and salary earners carried real weight in the establishment of national policies. Corporations were still dominant and those who controlled capital earned vastly greater incomes and accumulated much more wealth than those they employed. It was, however, that rare age in which the income gap between the rich and the rest of the population actually narrowed a little.

The details of the models differed from country to country during the golden decades. Continental European countries, principally Sweden and West Germany, established what they called “social market” economies in which wage and salary earners gained a share in the management of the firms for which they worked. In France, state planning and state ownership of important industries were used to boost economic output. In Britain and Canada, governments developed welfare states, with a wide range of social programs, and increased accessibility to higher education. In the United States, the civil rights movement and Great Society programs won the vote and other rights for African Americans and established anti-poverty programs to aid the most impoverished.

The golden decades extended from the post-war years into the early 1970s. A chaotic transitional period then began with the global oil price shocks of 1973-74 and continued during the years of economic stagnation and high inflation that followed. By 1980, a new epoch had opened, the “age of reaction”, an age which persists to the present day.

Political ideas, cultural assumptions, the role of government, relations between the employed and their employees and between the wealthy and the rest of the population have assumed a new shape. The values associated with citizenship have diminished in importance. What has opened is an age of market economics and the development of a market society that has relegated the proponents of social programs to the margins. In the developed countries, the real incomes of typical wage and salary earners have not increased for the past quarter century. In the advanced countries, particularly in the United States, democracy has been in decline, increasingly replaced by a plutocracy in which money dictates political outcomes.

Sometimes called the age of globalization or the age of neo-conservatism but more accurately we have been living through the age of reaction, a more many sided and all-encompassing phenomenon than is captured by the two other terms.

An age is a historical period during which there is a great convergence of tendencies that reinforce each other in driving the lives of millions of people in the same broad direction. When economics, politics, culture, religion, and societal relationships reinforce a common set of outcomes over an extended period of time, we are entitled to speak of the period as an age. Thus, for instance, we speak of the Victorian Age or the Belle Epoque (two terms that overlap in their depiction of life from about 1870 to 1914.) In the United States, the Roaring Twenties constituted an age. It was the first mass era of the automobile, a period of frenzied stock markets and industrialization, captured in the tragic romanticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other writers of the “lost generation”.

The term “reaction” requires a little elaboration. In the West, despite waves of disillusionment at various times, the underlying popular assumption has been that, over time, there is progress, that human life advances and people become better off not only materially, but in other important ways, in terms of their health and their life opportunities. While philosophers, historians, Freudians and many others have long discounted the idea of progress as simplistic or even as a fantasy, for tens of millions of people in the advanced countries, the quarter century that followed the Second World War was indeed an age of progress. For ordinary people, it was the most remarkable age of progress in human history. The idea took hold in those years that people could reasonably expect their sons and daughters to do even better than they had.

But the golden decades that came after 1945 have been followed by the age of reaction. The word “reaction” is used here as a counterpoint to “progress” or “progressive”, as in “reactionary.” It is not meant to convey the idea that this has been a period characterized by reactions against this or that, although there has been plenty of that as shall be seen.

During the age of reaction, it has been as though the film of the golden decades has been played backwards. Here is a telling example: in 2007, the relative income gap in the United States between rich and poor is wider than at any time since 1928 (the eve of the Great Depression.) The lives of ordinary people have grown more uncertain. During the past quarter century, most people have been on an economic treadmill, precariously attempting to make ends meet and to ward off the growing danger of crippling indebtedness. In all advanced countries, the gap between the rich and the rest of the population has widened.

The transformation has involved much more than economic outcomes. The idea of a society in which the marketplace is the central arena for determining priorities has pushed the notion of citizenship to the margin. Democracy, once thought to be advancing to include ever wider popular decision making, is in retreat. Political participation in elections is declining in almost all advanced countries. Plutocracy, the rule of society by the wealthy, is in the ascendancy.

The transition to the age of reaction began with the oil price crisis of 1973-74. It was then that the pebble was thrown into the pond whose ripples generated a transformed world.

Global oil price shocks brought the rapid economic growth of the post-war decades to a halt in both Europe and North America. After that date, full employment became an elusive goal on both sides of the Atlantic. The onset of long-term, large scale unemployment in the industrialized world imperiled the welfare state as tax revenues declined and programs to provide social assistance and unemployment benefits became more costly. National governments plunged into perennial deficits and their consequence was rising national indebtedness.

Unemployment tore away at the solidarity of wage and salary earners as those with jobs came to resent those who were often on social assistance, particularly when many of those people belonged to minority racial and religious groups. Tax payers rebelled against the burden of supporting those on welfare. Under these conditions the full-employment strategy of the Keynesians fell by the wayside in favour of the market-centred alternative of the monetarists. John Maynard Keynes and J.K. Galbraith, whose works were revered in the 1950s and 1960s were shunted aside. They were replaced by the rise in the economic pantheon of Milton Friedman and the other members of the Chicago School.

Major petroleum companies, whose top executives were alarmed by the populist outrage against much higher energy prices and oil company profits, took the lead in organizing effective new business lobby organizations such as the Business Roundtable in the United States.

In quick succession, the politics of neo-conservatism took hold in the United Kingdom with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the election of Ronald Reagan in the United States the following year. These elections opened the door to de-regulation which eased the way for the deployment of capital around the world in search of cheaper labour and raw materials. These political and regulatory developments were girded by the sweeping technological revolution that was underway and that made the deployment of productive resources on a world-wide scale much more manageable. Employment in the burgeoning service sector became dominant in all leading countries, further contributing to the elimination of income gains for wage and salary earners.

In all developed countries, even in social holdouts like Sweden, Germany and France, the income and wealth gaps between those at the top of the economic ladder and the rest of the population grew enormously. In the U.K., this trend was accompanied by a frightening rise in youth hooliganism, as a large segment of the younger generation ceased to be educated and became unemployable.

As the economy grew ever more global, the rise of a mass army of poverty stricken, unemployed, and underemployed people in the underdeveloped countries favoured the bargaining power of employers.

One signal that a new age exists is that a distinctive set of ideas becomes dominant. The “ruling ideas” of the age of reaction differ markedly from the ideas that underlay the golden decades. During the age of reaction, the idea not just of a market economy but of a market society has become entrenched. As a direct consequence, the idea of citizenship and the notion that there ought to be an essential equality among citizens has been dethroned.

During the golden decades, when one variety or another of Keynesianism informed the policies of the leading countries, public policy was directed toward the goal of full employment and ever greater social advancement for the citizenry. Full employment increased the bargaining power of wage and salary earners and pushed up their real incomes. In a time of low inflation, it became normal for unionized Canadian and American autoworkers to enjoy a real wage increase of three per cent a year, along with rising health, dental and other benefits to which the employer contributed. For such workers, this was a job for life, and there was every reason to hope their sons would follow in their footsteps.

In sharp contrast, during the age of reaction, real annual wage increases became rare. High levels of long-term unemployment created a reserve army of job seekers and this favoured the bargaining power of employers in holding wages and salaries down. As the economic muscle of wage and salary earners declined so too did union membership as a proportion of the work force in all advanced countries.

The economic doctrines that informed public policy during the age of reaction reinforced the power of employers against their employees. Monetarism, the key doctrine, rejected the idea that the state should play a role in promoting full employment. Monetarism was a classical market-centred doctrine that held that the state was responsible for balancing its budgets and for ensuring the provision of an inflation-free money supply. The market would take care of the rest, efficiently allocating resources, incomes, and profits and determining the creation of employment. With this doctrine, economic theory returned to the fundamentals of mid 19th century classical liberalism. It became accepted that unemployment was natural to the market system and that efforts to achieve full employment would drive up costs and lead to high inflation and reduced returns on investment.

In lockstep with monetarism came the concerted drive to privatize state owned industries, telecommunications companies, railways, airlines, energy utilities and water companies. It became accepted as matter of faith, not supported by empirical evidence, that private companies were more efficient than companies owned and operated in the public sector. Privatization typically undervalued public assets and ended up transferring vast wealth to private owners, the most extreme cases of this phenomenon occurring in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. The advanced countries also carried through massive privatizations of state owned companies.

As the drive for a market society gathered strength so too did the assaults on the economic models in countries that resisted the trend. The social market and state interventionist models in Sweden, Germany and France were subjected to ceaseless negative critiques by those who advised that these countries move smartly to adopt models more akin to those in the United States and the United Kingdom.

During the new age, corporate power mushroomed at the expense of the influence of wage and salary earners. This occurred in the crucial media sector with profound cultural and ideological consequences. In the new age, journalists found themselves on a much tighter leash than previously, expected to conform to the views of owners such as Conrad Black, as they rapidly discovered. Those who didn’t learn were soon out of a job.

While there had been considerable political, cultural and even media diversity during the golden decades, in the age of reaction media concentration grew ever more pronounced. Infotainment and frankly right-wing media giants, the leading one in the world being the sixty billion dollar empire of Rupert Murdoch, along with others such as the Asper media empire in Canada, replaced critical journalism with frankly right-wing fare. The most flagrant example of the trend was Murdoch’s Fox News in the United States, a propaganda machine that quickly dispensed with journalistic integrity.

This trend was offset to some extent by the rise of the Internet and the explosive development of blogging and other forms of mass expression. On the Internet, however, as was the case with previous new media, pluralism was challenged by increasing corporate control.

The drive to transform the ideological foundations that legitimated the changing social order occurred at the level of elite education as well as in the mass media.

In universities, in the advanced countries, pressure from governments and private corporations succeeded in reducing the priority given to departments of the arts and social sciences, the bastions of critical analysis, in favour of departments and schools dedicated to training graduates to work in business. Corporations and the wealthy have donated enormous sums of money for the establishment of schools of business on campuses. Such business schools design their own courses in economics, sociology and political science, typically shorn of critical material, to convey a business model conception of society to students. While business schools are bulging with endowments, traditional departments whose members carry out significant studies of society are starved for money.

The decline of hope in progressive social transformation made it socially acceptable for the rich to come out of the closet and to throw their weight around and show off their wealth. Donald Trump comes to mind. Early 20th century American sociologist Thorsten Veblen studied the rise of a new cohort of wealthy Americans in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. He coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to describe their behaviour. During the past quarter century, a class of wealthy individuals who enjoy unprecedented economic and political power has exploded onto the scene. The scale of their wealth in relation to the rest of society has created a gulf not seen in the West since the demise of feudalism.

In the advanced countries, birth rates plummeted so that in many cases without immigration, populations would soon decline. Meanwhile, in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, birth rates remained high. The world population was being recast. By the middle of this century, the global population is projected to be nine billion, up from today’s six billion. Only about one and a half billion of these people will live in the advanced countries.

This demographic change is transforming global politics. Struggles for resources, particularly petroleum, have become the flashpoints for the outbreak of wars. The environmental crisis, a seminal question for this century, threatens many parts of the world with disastrous consequences in the not distant future. Imperial powers, not only the United States, but challengers such as China, India, and Brazil have joined in the ruthless quest for access to ever scarcer resources.

In the advanced countries, fear of the mass migration of the desperately poor has become an ever more dominant political issue. This anxiety is closely linked to the effects of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the rise of militant Islam in the West itself. While first world people typically shun many low-level jobs, anxiety about the immigrants who take the jobs is on the rise in the United States and Europe. Such anxiety fuels movements of the political right.

While there has been much discussion of the spread of democracy to many parts of the world such as Latin America, in other crucial cases democracy has made a fleeting appearance and is disappearing. In Russia, under the authoritarian Putin regime, the brief spring of pluralism that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union has been replaced by the erosion of a free media and competitive politics.

In the first world, democracy is in decline.

Throughout the advanced world, mass political parties are waning in importance. In parliamentary systems, such as those in Canada and the U.K., presidential-style politics is on the rise. Voter turnout, especially among the young, is declining in almost all first world countries. In the United States, democracy is being replaced by plutocracy, a political system in which huge sums of money are necessary for the achievement of high office, both at the federal level and at the state level. While the decline of democracy is most extreme in the United States, a similar trend is underway in almost all advanced countries.

The age of reaction has an overarching unity but it is not a static system. It is everywhere in motion and this includes the emergence of new forms of resistance to the economics, politics, and culture of the present system. While one feature of the age of reaction has been the splintering of socialist and social democratic movements and the decline of unions in favour of the politics of identity, other political and intellectual developments insist on the need to develop a new politics of humanity.

From a wide range of sources---socialists, social democrats, progressives, humanists, environmentalists, non-fundamentalist religious believers, feminists, trade unionists, students and writers---a new politics of the planet has been taking shape. It is, of necessity, diverse, pluralist, and democratic. Its philosophical origins are ancient as well as contemporary. Its concerns and struggles are shaped within particular cultures and settings in quite unique ways. In many parts of the world, the struggles are anti-imperialist and nationalist. There is, though, in all of this, a search for what brings all peoples together.