Anyone dropping by the home of Progressive Bloggers, a blog ring of progressive Canadian blogs to which this site belongs, might come to the conclusion that there is a federal election taking place in Canada at the moment. They would be correct, of course.
However, I tend to write more about "our" politics than "their" politics, so I have, as yet, had very little to say on the subject. But I have been plagued by a vague feeling of obligation to tackle it at least once before that fateful January day when we will find out that very little, even in the narrow context of the composition of Parliament, has changed.
I have made a couple of false starts in composing a post. These starts have been false because my general lack of enthusiasm for the topic has not stopped a surprising volume of relevant things from spilling out of my pen/keyboard, and I have soon run out of energy. To spare both myself and readers a single massive post, I have decided to break it up into five (at least) parts.
This post is the first part: my apology for the topic, and a general summary of my take on electoral politics. The second will be a fairly mainstream progressive non-partisan summary of the immediate circumstances of this election. The third will be a look at the substance, if any, of the division among Canadian elites at issue in this election. The fourth will turn to Canada's social democrats, the NDP, and argue that the current environment, while presenting them with rare opportunities, is also one of considerable risk. And finally I will talk about why the whole business is and should be extremely depressing for those of us in the diverse but sparsely populated territory to the left of social democracy.
Of course I reserve the right to change my mind, add parts, or delete them as I see fit, and I make no promises about how fast I'll be able to get them up here. Check back often if you're interested!
In any case, my general take on electoral politics is simple: The scope of potential configurations for society is this big (picture two hands, held five feet apart); the scope of change possible through electoral politics alone is this big (picture two fingers, held three inches apart). But if that three inches represents fewer deaths, decreased suffering, and increased space for organizing for oppressed and exploited people, then completely dismissing its significance and engaging in puritanical abstention from electoral politics is morally and politically indefensible and, often enough, an act of privilege on the part of a certain subset of radicals with middle-class (often white) backgrounds. I find it incomprehensible that someone would refuse to take 15 minutes out of their lives to vote for the least evil candidate in their riding on the basis that it won't bring the revolution.
However, I find it very difficult to recommend any particular level or kind of participation in electoral politics beyond the bare minimum of voting. I think that decisions of that sort have everything to do with the concrete situation on the ground in a particular community and/or movement.
For example, during our stay in L.A. over the course of the 2004 election, I encountered some very persuasive arguments for why progressives and leftists already grounded in social movement activity in working-class communities of colour in the United States should engage in electorally focused, pro-Kerry organizing that was independent of the Democrats. The arguments had to do with the small but very real differences between the parties that would have a clear impact on the lived realities of Black folk and other working-class people of colour in the United States, and with the opportunity for building independent left capacity and organizations grounded in oppressed communities. None of this suggested faking even an ounce of real affection for John Kerry, but rather presenting a realistic assessment of why voting for him made regrettable sense for the communities in question while at the same time taking the opportunity to provide solid left analysis of the issues.
However, electoral politics is also a spectacle that has the capacity to suck the life out of social movements -- to get us so focused on the three inches that we forget about the five feet. This is political suicide. One strength of social movements is that they can take that three inch window and push the whole thing in more progressive directions, or expand it slightly, or even, at rare moments in history, make it completely irrelevant and/or transform it altogether. The trick is to walk and chew gum at the same time: finding ways to acknowledge and respond to the impact those three inches can have in the lives of ordinary people, while never for a moment losing site of our broader transformative goals.
What does that mean in practice? Impossible to say, in abstract terms, though I like the idea of movements intervening electorally (when appropriate) not by individual activists turning themselves over as footsoldiers to hierarchically structured parties, but as autonomous, non-party, collective entities -- though I'm sure I could come up with scenarios where this wouldn't make sense, either. Anyway, what it means for me in this particular election, in my particular circumstances, is that I will take my 15 minutes to vote but not much else. The little energy I currently have for direct participation will continue to go to social movement activity that is extra-electoral. And I would say to others that however you choose to participate or not in the current election, it is social movements that can and will make positive change outside of the three-inch window possible over the longer term, so put your time and energy there!