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Building A Grassroots Opposition to Harper

Canadian Politics

It hardly needs saying, but it should be acknowledged in any case: The coming period is not going to be an easy one for the Left in Canada. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper has been settling into Ottawa for the long haul. Harper has been exercising power calculatingly, confidently, ruthlessly. The spring budget was revealing. Cheered on by business associations and the mainstream media for its sober fiscal stance, it was critiqued by hard-right neoliberals for alleged fiscal prolificacy, even as it cut over twenty taxes and continued to bring down program spending in relation to a growing economy. An image of moderation was presented, even as neoliberalism was deepened. Addressing an alleged fiscal imbalance sometime in the future was enough to gain the support of an increasingly opportunist Bloc Québocois and to get the budget through the minority Parliament.

Harper followed this success with a surprise motion to the House in late May to extend the Canadian combat mission in southern Afghanistan for another two years (because this is coupled with taking over NATO command, it in fact extends the Canadian intervention even longer). In this case, the Liberal Party split its vote, allowing the motion to pass. Splitting the opposition on an issue-by-issue basis; pushing the Canadian polity further to the right; integrating Canada deeper into the U.S empire; rebuilding Canada’s military capacity; and trying on a new hawkish posture - such is the agenda of Harperism. It should not be underestimated.

Parliamentary Opposition

Both the budgetary and military interventions were opposed by the NDP. This opposition was as revealing as the rather sad electoral effort of the winter. The NDP critiqued the budget mainly for its specific failures on environmental spending and daycare - all to the good. But this can hardly be called getting to the root of economic matters and developing an alternative agenda to neoliberalism. While voting against the extension of the Afghanistan mission - in part on the procedural grounds of how the motion was brought forward - the NDP (along with the BQ) failed to break from the all-party consensus in the House in favour of the military deployment. This hardly adds up to a vigorous alternative to the government of the day, never mind a case for a socialized economy to address inequalities, or for democratic sovereignty against globalization and U.S. imperialism.

Calls for a “centre-centre” alliance between the Liberals and the NDP (with the Green Party sometimes thrown into the mix) to block Harper fail to account for this realignment of party forces. Such an alliance would not break with neoliberalism. Any analysis that suggests otherwise has simply turned a blind eye to how these forces have evolved over the last decade. They are seeking to undo what no longer can be undone.

Building an alternative to Harper will have to begin with what are now constituted as extra-parliamentary forces - an impressively large number of self-activating groups, many of them new. These are an immense resource to build upon.

An Oppositional Agenda

It is possible to signal the basics for an initial oppositional agenda in Canada. On foreign policy: complete withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East; re-establishment of funding for the Palestinian authority and a “boycott Israeli apartheid” campaign; opposition to American military interventions; rejection of the “Washington consensus” economic and trade agenda; raising and deepening Kyoto and other international environmental protocols; abrogating NAFTA; and withdrawal from bilateral military and security accords.

On domestic policy: support for Quebec and Aboriginal self-determination, with the latter moving from the Kelowna accord to a sustained agenda of lands-claims settlements; opposition to privatization, particularly in the health-care sector; a universal, publicly provided daycare system; a concerted “living wage” campaign, with a clear objective of pushing up rates of unionization; a comprehensive approach to a panoply of immigration issues to ensure equity; democratic electoral reform; and a clear expansion of resources committed to the education and cultural sectors and to combating global warming.

This analysis of the existing political forces in parliament, the need for left renewal for the long haul, and an agenda for structural reforms and campaigns raises the question of political agency. While other countries have been moving on in terms of attempting new political formations, or reforming activist centres pooling resources and agendas, the Left in Canada has been fragmenting and spinning its wheels in frustration for some time, now. The central fact is that the Left, social movements and organized labour are marginalized today. The focus of an effort at renewal must be the working class and the social movements as a whole, not merely organized labour, which represents only a minority of working people and encompasses only one (very important) dimension of their lives. There needs to be a sense of a class and a movement with a wide range of community concerns building an oppositional political alliance and pursuing an alternative agenda to the current social order.

Peoples’ Assemblies

One step some within the CD collective have been discussing is establishing local “peoples’ assemblies.” They could be organized at the city level, at the county level in rural areas and on reserves, and linked through a national coordinating committee. They would be permanent structures with representatives from various community groups in struggle across issues of racism, immigration, child care, health care, the environment, living wages, policing, land claims, anti-war, globalization, union locals, etc. The assemblies would exchange reports, move to solidarity across their struggles, connect electronically, do pamphlets, organize forums and develop the resources for full-time organizers. The central idea is to create a local space for regular cooperation, discussion, strategizing. Learning across these separate struggles is a chance to make the whole larger than the parts, and it might contribute to some revived hope against the costs of fragmentation and demoralization that does affect many groups and which leads to such great turnover within them.

Especially important, they would work together to develop a political platform around which struggles could take place and electoral intervention would be possible (supporting progressive candidates or running as independents). Though its orientation would be local to start, larger issues would be raised, but would in any case emerge organically (for example, environmental issues could not be addressed locally without addressing issues of free trade, redesigning cities, production issues, living wages and hours of work, and so forth).

It seems clear from both historical experiences and current struggles that such assemblies (or councils) are necessary expressions of the political capacity of the Left to advance social struggles.

Judging from the experience of similar efforts in the past, the prospect of success in bringing people together lies in working on specific struggles or campaigns. That is why we propose as an initial project a mobilizing campaign against Stephen Harper and his ultra-neoliberal, militarist and pro-imperial agenda.

But beyond this specific campaign, we need to acknowledge that where we have had campaigns like this in the past - like the Days of Action and the fights against free trade and missile defence - they seldom combined an agreed-upon alternative agenda, a national or a provincial coordinating centre and organically developing local assemblies. In fact, nothing remained after the campaign was concluded. That is why we are proposing permanent assemblies.

It also seems clear that, based upon both Canadian and international experiences, some organizational capacity needs to be formed independent of the assemblies in order to hold them together. Such a capacity has been inevitably linked to some quasi-party formation. It will have to be something quite different from the vanguardist and social-democratic parties that some are still blindly holding onto in the face of all the complexity of the present period. These now clearly belong to the socialist movement’s past.

All the attempts of the last thirty years to bypass the organizational question - via social networks, a “politics of chaos,” discursive invocations of “multitudes,” pleas of “anti-power” against the powers of the state, and the infamous “diversity of tactics” - have sputtered badly. Neoliberalism and Western imperialism have marched on. In developing our individual and group capacities to resist, we also need to start systematically developing our collective organizational capacities of solidarity, resistance, creativity. This certainly requires us to reassess our complacency, re-channel our anger, put solidarity and democracy before individual agendas, and reform our political and social imaginations.

This article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Oil Sucks!).

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