Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Canadian Left Needs a New Party

Posted 28 November 2012
The Canadian left needs a new party because although the NDP has done many beneficial things for Canadian society, the NDP is no longer a party of the left. The party’s transformation is largely due to its repudiation of two salient values of the left, namely, economic equality and a predominant role for the state in economic affairs.

It is unrealistic, if not absurd or irrational, to contend that a contemporary leftwing political party should blindly adhere to the prescriptions advocated by leftwing theoreticians and writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, or that it should slavishly imitate the attempts that occurred in the 20th century to implement leftist ideas. Nevertheless, a party that considers itself leftwing needs to have some continuity with earlier leftwing thought. The NDP has extremely little in common with the early left. The beliefs in the desirability of extensive state intervention, nationalizations and some form of employee control of the workplace, which were commonly held by the old left and members of the NDP’s forerunner, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), have now a only a modest or minimal adherence within the NDP. The NDP’s conception of the state’s role in economic affairs is not significantly different from that which is advocated by the other major political parties. The party now contends that the market is essentially ethical and only requires a greater regulation in order to decrease the frequency of future recessions; the notion that there is something inherently unjust, if not wicked, about the market is now almost never proclaimed by any NDP politician or political candidate. There is, to be fair to the NDP, also a widespread view on the global left that the former radical solutions favoured by the left cannot be replicated in today’s societies. Further, the left, despite its incessant utterance that another world is possible, cannot convincingly articulate how any significant change to the current wretched economic system is to be attained.

However, it is the second political value that has often been used to define the left, economic equality, that is the focus here. The early Canadian left believed that large economic inequalities were immoral and the CCF initially wanted economic equality, but this desire gradually faded and the retreat from economic equality has continued under the NDP. It is the NDP’s disavowal of economic equality as a goal, and the party’s acceptance of immense differences in income and wealth within Canada and between Canada and the poorer nations, that compromises the party’s claim to be leftwing. It is difficult to see how a party opposed to economic equality, or at least some approximation thereof, has a legitimate claim to be regarded as leftwing.

Nevertheless, there remains a widespread Canadian political misconception that the NDP is a socialist party devoted to significant economic redistribution and economic equality. The NDP is a social democratic party of the centre consecrated to the maintenance of huge economic inequalities. The evidence clearly supports that claim. No provincial NDP government has ever ensured that everyone, employed and unemployed, has had a basic income at least equal to the absolute poverty threshold, or has implemented rigorous maximum limits on income or wealth. The economic inequalities under NDP governments have been almost identical to those under provincial governments led by other parties.

Although NDP governments have in practice essentially maintained the economic inequalities that they inherited when they took power, there was a current in NDP thought that still longed for some form of economic equality. Ed Schreyer, as NDP premier of Manitoba, said that ideally no person’s income should be more than 2.5 times that of the average of the industrial composite wage. But even this egalitarian ideal has almost completely vanished from the NDP. There are those within the party who advocate that a very small percentage of the rich should be taxed at a slightly higher rate, but such a proposal would leave the grotesque economic inequalities virtually intact. The NDP now adheres to the view that there are rights to be rich and to own and earn more than one needs, yet many leftists formerly regarded these alleged rights as pernicious and reactionary. A dominant value of Canadian society is the rejection of meaningful limits to income, wealth, production or consumption; the NDP’s attachment to that value reveals that the party has reconciled itself to the selfishness, the acquisitiveness, the individualism, the hoarding and the possessiveness that the other major parties and so many Canadians display. The NDP now states, similarly to other parties, that it is simply responding to the wishes of the majority of Canadians who reject economic equality and is therefore reflecting Canadian values, conveniently omitting to ask whether those values deserve allegiance.

A call for a reduction in disparities in income and wealth is simultaneously a plea for a decrease in class differences, but the word class has almost become a dirty word within the NDP. The issue of class, which formerly preoccupied and often obsessed the left, is now only one of the myriad competing concerns within the NDP. The party now maintains that huge class disparities are unavoidable. The party, insofar as it still has an interest in class, is now focused on maintaining the rights and privileges of the middle class.

It is a mistake to consider the NDP’s support for, or sympathy with, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement as indicative of the party’s commitment to economic equality. The OWS movement does not want economic equality or any approximation thereof; it wants, at most, an unspecified reduction in income of a tiny minority, and its claim that only the top 1 percent has excessive income is self-serving and reactionary because those who have unnecessary income constitute vastly more than 1 percent. The OWS movement, although often referred to as progressive or leftwing, is more accurately described as populism.

It is almost the entire Canadian left, not merely the NDP, that opposes economic equality. The Canadian left has adopted the ideology formerly employed mainly by the right to sanctify wealth. The views that there is a right to be rich, that wide disparities in income are essential to stimulate risk-taking and innovation, that limitations on income and wealth would require authoritarian or even totalitarian measures that would destroy personal freedom, that high income is an appropriate reward for talent and industriousness, that economic equality would result in an unacceptable level of economic inefficiency and that economic equality is impossible to implement have now few challengers among the Canadian left. The traditional arguments utilized by the left to promote economic equality are rarely enunciated by today’s leftists. The belief that there are rights to own and earn more than one needs is now so pervasive in all strata of society that the defense of that view rarely needs to be stated. The wealthy are often portrayed as models worthy of emulation and as possessing positive personal traits that enabled them to be rich. The manufacture of the desires to acquire and consume, the transformation of luxury items into alleged necessities, the failure to distinguish between needs and wants, and the status bestowed by wealth have all contributed to a rejection by many on the left of the idea of limits to income and wealth. A new leftwing party will have to undermine the ideological stranglehold that the sanctity of wealth maintains on Canadians.

The transformation of the NDP into a party that desires economic equality is improbable. There is no sizeable movement or faction within the party advocating economic egalitarianism that could theoretically attain majority status. The belief that there is a right to be rich is now so deeply entrenched in the party that it is unimaginable how the egalitarian idea could ever acquire pre-eminence. It is implausible that the shift towards the right in the NDP that has been occurring since its inception could be miraculously reversed. The metamorphosis of the NDP, from a reform party to an establishment party, has also occurred in other social democratic parties. The European social democratic parties have become parties of the centre, centre-right or even the right. It is sometimes advanced on the Canadian left that, although Canadian social democracy rejects economic equality, the Scandinavian forms are more egalitarian and worthy of emulation. However, the Scandinavian social democrats have also bowed down before the altar of wealth and reject any notion of rigorous limits to income and wealth within and between countries. The movement towards the right within social democratic parties has been elaborated in books such as In the Name of Social Democracy: The Great Transformation, 1945 to the Present (Gerassimos Maschonas, 2002), The Death of Social Democracy: Political Consequences in the 21st Century (Ashley Lavelle, 2008), and Social Democracy After the Cold War (Bryan Evans and Ingo Schmidt, 2012).

The party’s advocacy of enhanced regulation of the market fails to acknowledge that such a proposal will not diminish the hideous economic inequalities within the market. The moralization of the market, if it is even possible, would require, at a minimum, that the state imposes income limits within the private and public sectors (the ratio of four to one is proposed by some leftists – no person’s income would exceed four times that of another’s), but even the attempt to humanize the market by economic egalitarianism is rejected by the NDP.

A new party is needed because the retreat from economic equality has also occurred on the leftwing parties and organizations outside the NDP. These groups have also surrendered to the conservative ideas that wealth is legitimate and that there is a right to be rich; they engage in a ritualistic attack on the wealth of CEO’s in the public and private sectors but as CEO’s make up only a minute portion of the rich, those who have superfluous income or wealth, this criticism is basically symbolic. These leftwing organizations, like the NDP, reject the notion that many Canadians, perhaps even a majority, have gratuitous income and wealth from which they should be separated for the benefit of the poor in Canada and abroad. Further, both the NDP and much of the left outside the party desire economic growth, which will primarily benefit the middle and upper classes and will only increase economic inequality within Canada and between Canada and the poorer countries.

The result of the NDP’s opposition to economic equality is the impoverishment of the Canadian political process. The widespread disinterest in politics, the meagre voter turnout and the frequently heard lament that the ideological differences between the major parties are minimal are, to some extent, a result of the NDP’s refusal to adopt a leftwing platform that would clearly differentiate it from the other parties. The Canadian electorate, with respect to the crucial political question of “who gets what” is not presented with any meaningful choice, and the parties in Parliament resemble different factions within a single party.

The challenge confronting a new leftwing party would certainly be formidable, namely, how to ensure that such a party would not degenerate into a holier-than-thou, sectarian cult. But the intolerable economic inequalities require the creation of a new leftwing party in Canada.


  1. I remember when there was that whole problem of America having mixed up votes. I wonder if that could ever happen in Canada?


  2. So here we have three "centrist" parties chasing the same voter-the Liberals, Greens and the newly centrist NDP-result predictable-all parties got roughly a third of the electorate. No one on the left gets representation. All I feel I can do now is spoil my ballot. I'm going to write Communist Party until or if the NDP ever comes back to it's senses. I voted Communist and I am quite prepared to spoil my ballot in all upcoming elections.