Friday, October 15, 2004

Political Differences

I have been thinking for awhile of writing a post contrasting the space for political imagination in Canada in the United States, in my experience of the two countries. Or, perhaps, given the diversity within the two, it is more accurate to say that I would be contrasting Hamilton and Los Angeles, though I think aspects are generalizeable.

Mostly what I have been thinking about is the progressive side of the equation. I'm not convinced that I can articulate anything yet that comes even close to the essence, but I have at least come up with a few things to say.

In both places there is a small grouping that has a range of imaginative goals that might be simplified as "revolutionary consciousness." This would include Marxist grouplets, some anarchists, and others who don't necessarily claim a lable linking them to a classical left tradition but whose ideas and practice place them in the same overall camp.

Given my thus-far limited experience it is hard to judge, both are equally marginal but I think it might be accurate to say that this grouping in the U.S. is a bit better grounded -- there seems to be more effort, at least on the part of some, to not only link revolutionary consciousness with real, current, vital struggles on the ground but also include gender and race analysis in a more substantive way and make analysis responsive to new influences and broader communities (perhaps a result of differing political realities in the two countries in the early '70s). Of course this is a total generalization and might be meaningless, but it's a starting hypothesis.

The more interesting difference is with that range of political imaginative space that might be grouped as "reformist consciousness." This group varies in two significant ways between the countries: I think in Canada there is a greater infusion of leftist (generally social democratic) vision in this grouping, whereas in the U.S. it is more pervasively liberal. But there seem to be more people in this grouping in the U.S. who are more active than their counterparts in Canada, even when said counterparts have a nominally more progressive vision.

In a way, this totally follows from the material conditions in each country: In Canada, the political consensus is more generally liberal than in the United States. Though I hasten to correct any Michael Moore-esque romanticization of the difference, things like socialized medicine (however beseiged it might be) and greater recognition of the rights of queer people do create a little more space for people who are exploited and/or oppressed. (Though it is important to note that they remain exploited and/or oppressed in both places.) Though progressive policies and ideas are under attack in Canada, it's worse here. Also, there is a social democratic party and tradition in Canada to create a different shape of debate in mass public spaces, and the media is marginally more open.

In other words, there are historical and institutional reasons why there is more public space for social democratic ideas (even if they are under constant attack), which also mean that progressives with "reformist consciousness" don't feel (however shortsighted this might be) as threatened or, as a consequence, as much need to be politically engaged (or those with racial and class privilege don't, anyway). On the flip side, though it seems to be late and short-sighted and inadequate, privileged liberals in the U.S. recognize they are gettin' whupped and are therefore more likely to be trying to do something about it.

But it doesn't make sense to try and understand something while ignoring its context -- with respect to my musings in this area I knew I was missing something important but I couldn't quite articulate it. Then I came across this entry in Justin Podur's blog. He is also a Canadian, and in that post talks about the United States. Because I found it so striking, let me quote extensively from it:

[T]he difference between John Kerry and George W. Bush is not so much what they say or what they promise to do or what they will do once in office. The difference is that John Kerry is a slimy politician flailing around looking for a winning formula and George Bush is at the head of a massive, incredibly well organized, incredibly well disciplined, incredibly well resourced, truly revolutionary movement. And movements, radicals ought to understand, are serious business.

Movements can force governments out of power. Movements can constrain what elites can do even from a position of opposition. Movements can organize for the long haul and change the culture and context in which everyone has to operate. Movements can set the agenda even if they do not have majority support, compensating for that with ideological clarity, discipline, and organization. And that is exactly what the right has done in the US.


I realize I'm coming to all this a little late in the game, but that's part of the point -- people outside of the US have very little idea what an important development the coming to power of this movement is. Partly because the movement itself is so oriented towards the US and part of its ideology is contempt for the rest of the world. Partly because radicals in the rest of the world are so focused on neoliberalism as the enemy.


What's important for radicals to understand though is that the enemy isn't just elites and it isn't just the business class or corporations or neoliberals. It is an organized mass movement, including a huge number of poor people. Bush is so effective because he concentrates on his constituency and ignores the rest -- the majority of the population. Liberals might be more effective if they did the same: if they focused on blacks, latinos, women, unionists, immigrants -- on cultural, social, and political issues. Making moral arguments and writing off the hard right movement's constituencies the way the hard right has written off these constituencies. But they won't do so. What's left for them is to try to convince the elite that they can do the job better than the Republicans can. The trouble is that this movement is now a player in the game, perhaps every bit as powerful as the elite, and has to be taken into account in any equation of power. This is a new environment. Radicals have to understand this in order to figure out how to operate in the world.

Recognizing that the religious right in the U.S. is movement-like is fairly common, but I think we on the left don't really appreciate what that means. Contextualizing it as Podur does is vital. Movements can change how power works -- that's why we try to build them! And as he points out, the rightist movement in the U.S. is not a fiction manufactured by PR firms and CEOs; it is a full-fledged movement in its own right (no pun intended), with an agenda that overlaps extensively with but is not the same as business-based neoliberalism.

I've read a number of things recently debating terminology and historical precedents for the current authoritarian turn in the U.S., but I think Podur's observations are crucial to that discussion: a right-wing mass movement in an industrialized country that is "perhaps every bit as powerful as the elite." Though there are undoubtedly historical and institutional differences, the last time that was true in any powerful nation was before World War II. You can guess which countries I mean. And I don't do this to take a cheap, ahistorical shot with the term "fascist" as so many progressives do, but rather to reemphasize that "This is a new environment. Radicals have to understand this in order to figure out how to operate in the world."

And the lesson for Canadians in this should not be a smug "You have it, we don't." The builders of this movement haven't been as successful in Canada, but anyone who has been paying attention knows how hard they've been trying. This is our problem too, but we have a chance to do more, earlier. But of course when the powerful country next to you (the elephant on which you, the mouse, rests) has such a shift in political reality, figuring out what to do to be effective is complicated.

So I guess to tie this ramble back to where I started, a central difference in political imagination between progressives in the two countries is that it has been forced in the U.S. to include a keen awareness that goofiness doesn't preclude the righter-than-business-neoliberalism right from winning in a very profound way. Despite the Klein, Harris, and Campbell provincial governments, I don't think most Canadian progressives really appreciate this danger.

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