The Source of Our Values Are Around Us, Research Time, 13/06/2014

I love watching a horse race. And by horse race, I mean election. For one thing, I’m very impressed with Kathleen Wynne’s victory,* happy that Tim Hudak is leaving the leadership position of the Ontario Conservatives, and pleased that Andrea Horwath got her comeuppance for losing some very good MPPs, gaining some other very good MPPs, and forcing an election that cost the New Democrats their voice in the provincial budget process. 

* I refuse to make THAT pun. Everyone, intentionally and unintentionally, makes THAT pun.

I’m an NDP member, and I have been for seven years now. I was proud to have supported Nathan Cullen and Tom Mulcair in the 2012 federal leadership convention. I was proud to have marched on strike in 2009 with CUPE local 3906 alongside David Christopherson (federal MP, Hamilton Centre) and Paul Miller (provincial MPP, Hamilton East). I’ll proudly support the federal NDP in next year’s federal election. I live in Horwath’s own district, but I voted Green as a protest against the blatantly triangulated campaign she ran this month, which reminded me of the abandonment of principle that brought the duplicitous fanatical Catholic Tony Blair to power in Britain in 1997.

Andrea Horwath thought she understood the lessons of
Jack Layton's political legacy. But she missed its most
profound aspects.
I got into a couple of arguments on twitter about my distaste for Horwath’s campaign because it struck me as engineered solely to take seats from otherwise Conservative-leaning supporters, presenting a purely electoral ideology. After all, that was the complaint of the NDP old guard against Mulcair and Cullen, who I supported in 2012. I even saw an interview with the re-elected MPP for Windsor-Tecumseh, Percy Hatfield, in which he gave the traditional definition of his party as the conscience of Canada. Horwath positioned herself as an heir to Jack Layton’s legacy, someone who understood that the NDP were capable of winning elections. Surely, the backfiring of this perspective is a sign that the New Democrat traditionalists were correct?

I actually think that Horwath has badly misunderstood Layton’s legacy, which Cullen and Mulcair have carried on. Layton carried himself as if he was running for Prime Minister, which any self-respecting leader of a political party must do. Horwath understood this much, as do Mulcair and Cullen. 

But there was another, even more important element to Jack Layton’s subtle revolution in the NDP. Layton’s last electoral breakthrough from fourth party to official opposition in 2011 did not come from a baldly ambitious focus on electoral victory. It came from understanding a new movement in Quebec society that was rising against the obstructionist sovereigntist ideology of the federal Bloc Quebecois. Layton offered Quebec a vision of a political party that would represent leftist ideas and policies they could support which would engage in the Canadian project as a partner, no longer as an opponent. Not enough people realized, when Layton won so much of Quebec, that this was a new social force among that province’s people saying that Quebec would no longer sit outside the Canadian conversation and wanted to rejoin the federal system on its own terms. Basically, Quebec wants in.

Layton won an election by tapping into a political force that emerged immanently from the people of Quebec. What impressed me most about Mulcair as a person was that he quit the provincial Liberal party of Quebec over an environmental issue, the destruction of a park and nature reserve in the name of a construction project.** He took a very risky move for his career in the name of his values, the source of which was the continuing environmentalist movement. These are not only values I share, but they are the values of a social movement, a force that emerges from people acting in their daily lives. 

** And we all know how transparently and ethically construction projects are undertaken in urban Quebec.

What impressed me most about Cullen’s 2012 leadership campaign was how much he foregrounded reconciliation and reparation with the First Nations of Canada. He tapped into the same power that would manifest over the next two years as Idle No More, a political movement that emerged from people themselves whose goal, difficult though it might be, is to forge a contract of the many First Nations of the Canadian land on equal terms for the first time with the Canadian state, provinces, cities, and settler or immigrant peoples. Social movements can give life to electoral politics such that they genuinely transform the status quo. Engaging the ideas of new social movements is how electoral politics avoid growing too bureaucratized.

As I explore more of Gramsci, I realize that,
no matter your political affiliation, you can
benefit greatly from reading his work.
As part of my research for the Utopias project, regular readers will have noticed that I have lately been reading Antonio Gramsci. One section of The Prison Notebooks discusses the nature of ideology. Quite often, even today, we refer to ideologies in terms of their being true or false. A false ideology is a lie, usually conceived as a conspiracy or a creation of the ruling class, a framework of political thinking that deceives the oppressed into believing that a social order that oppresses them is somehow good. A true ideology, in contrast, is the political thought process that awakens people to recognize the use of false ideologies to oppress them. For a modern statement of this way of thinking about ideology, read Noam Chomsky’s political works.

Gramsci considers this way of thinking inadequate, because frameworks of thought are not designed specifically for purposes. They are complex cultural, cognitive, and philosophical creations that develop from the aggregate historical interaction of millions of people over the histories of nations and civilizations. 

The best way of thinking about ideology does not distinguish the true from the false, which is a poor question to ask. Instead, distinguish what he calls the organic from the arbitrary. An organic ideology is, precisely, a framework of thinking that develops in a community or nation over time, through the daily interactions of people dealing with their political, economic, social, and environmental problems. 

An arbitrary ideology is developed abstractly, entirely conceptually, without necessarily any input from ordinary people dealing with problems. It does not grow from people, but is imposed on them from positions of authority. People chafe against arbitrary ideologies because these frameworks are not necessarily adequate to their practical concerns. Unlike organic political ideologies, the arbitrary did not emerge from the practical engagements of life, but from, perhaps, the speculations of an ivory tower, the insular machinations of a cabal of extremists, the shining walls of a think tank, sometimes the sweat and tension of an electoral war room or the harsh fluorescents of a focus group.

Andrea Horwath did have a vision in this campaign, but it wasn’t a vision crafted to deal with people’s problems and concerns. It did not connect with any political desire of people in Ontario, not even a small or especially vibrant sector. Horwath campaigned on a political framework designed in isolation for the sole purpose of ideological triangulation to incorporate progressive state politics and far-right, small-state ideology to capture votes from fiscal conservatives and right-leaning Liberal sympathizers. 

Horwath’s ideology was arbitrary. Even the most subtle revolutions must emerge organically from the movement of people.

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