Occupy the NDP

There’s nothing quite like a global social movement to knock other stuff off the front pages and the Occupy movement has done just that. After ignoring it for weeks while it was being born in New York, the media has been all over it. I half expect this is because they assume it will fail and they are the eager vultures hovering over it. But in the spirit of hopefulness that imbues the movement, perhaps even the reporters and their gate-keepers are moved to pay genuine attention (they are, after all, part of the 99 per cent).

One of the things bumped from the headlines is the NDP leadership race. It is not just because the Occupy movement is unique and unprecedented in the past 20 years and more. It is because the themes that drive Occupy make the leadership race look puny and mundane by comparison. This movement is, whether stated or not, an anti-capitalist outburst that is demanding real social justice, real democracy and it is utterly independent of every political agency, institution and traditional organization that exists.

Part of the message is thus crystal clear: the occupiers are telling us — and the power elite — that whatever we and they are doing, it has no meaning for them. Labour politics, social movement culture, political parties, including the NDP, have all been declared, implicitly if not explicitly, defunct, irrelevant and for their purposes — social justice writ large — pretty much useless.

It will take a long time for this to sink in and it seemed unlikely that the NDP would get it any time soon with the existing batch of leadership candidates. Until this week that is, when supporters of Peggy Nash revealed she would announce her candidacy soon. But more on Ms. Nash in a minute. If the party chooses one of the frontrunners, Brian Topp or Thomas Mulcair, it will cement the party’s rightward drift and pre-occupation with tactical maneuvering at a time when world events will make drift of any kind a sideshow. As Chris Hedges wrote recently in a brilliant reflection on the meaning of Occupy: “Tinkering with the corporate state will not work. We will either be plunged into neo-feudalism and environmental catastrophe or we will wrest power from corporate hands.”

Where is the NDP leadership contest on this spectrum of possibilities? Are any of the male candidates even aware of the choices so starkly described by Hedges? We can quickly dispose of Thomas Mulcair as a possibility. He is an unrepentant capitalist and big ‘L’ Liberal at heart who is barely out of synch with the 1 per cent the Occupiers have targeted. In 2007, Kady O’Malley interviewed Mulcair and asked him to describe himself as a politician. He replied: “Above and beyond anything else, I’m a public administrator and a manager. I chaired Quebec’s largest regulatory agency and reduced staff there and brought in management schemes to make things more effective. … When I was minister of the environment, I reduced by 15 per cent the budget of the ministry.” Wow. I wish I could vote for Tom.

When Mulcair was NDP finance critic he rarely said anything critical of the government’s economic policies and virtually never had any progressive proposals that would counter the Harper “get out of the way of business” ideology. He rarely talked about economic policy in the House or, reportedly, in caucus.

But he has been musing lately about, amazingly, how he supports NAFTA. He declared this support in a recent interview and boasted of having helped draft the agreement, stating: “To some people, the NAFTA is an anathema. The NAFTA is the first international agreement that had provisions dealing with the environment. You can’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”

The FTA and NAFTA were the single most damaging political acts the country has ever had to endure — unleashing two decades of suppression of wages, the rapid depletion of natural resources, falling productivity, the loss of several hundred thousand of the best jobs in the country, and despite Mulcair’s naïve declaration, the virtual end to any new environmental legislation by the federal government (after it lost two NAFTA challenges).

Add to this right-wing economic stance Mulcair’s widely reported bullying, bad temper and terrible judgment (as when he exposed the party to humiliation by publicly attacking Libby Davies for her support of Palestinians) and one thing becomes obvious: If the NDP chooses Mulcair he will destroy what is left of its social democracy — something he has already implied he would do by moving the party closer to the centre. With free-marketeers in charge of both the Liberals and the Harperites, the NDP is already in the centre. Mulcair would move them to the right — straight into the liberalism he spent so many years endorsing and promoting.

Brian Topp is worrisome, too, for different reasons. There is no doubt that Topp is a very smart guy and knows his way around both government and running elections. But his leadership campaign is reminiscent of Paul Martin’s — though for sheer viciousness and overkill no one could match Martin, whose take-no-enemies style helped cripple his party. But Topp has been accused of trying to get so far out in front so fast that potential good candidates give up before they’ve even had a chance to decide whether to run. A former NDP heavy weight, Doug MacArthur, quotes a Topp campaigner as saying “let’s get this leadership campaign over before it even starts.”

Topp was Roy Romanow’s closest advisor. But Romanow was essentially a small ‘l’ liberal and his administration slashed education and health budgets almost as much as the previous Tory regime. I once interviewed Romanow just before he became party leader and asked him about the role of social movements and he replied they were “completely useless.” His government reflected that attitude. Maybe Topp disagreed with him — but if he did, he had little influence.

One of the weaknesses of the party under Jack Layton was its preoccupation with tactical maneuvering at the expense of policy development. The party had almost no policy people but a lot of communications flaks. Topp had enormous influence with Layton and we can assume he was one of the architects of this approach — one that moved the party to the centre. At the same time, the party was accused of putting its interests ahead of the country’s — with some going so far as to blame it for allowing Harper to gain his first minority.

Yet to give Topp credit, he seems determined to stake out new ground. He has come out forcefully in favour of increasing income taxes on the wealthy and corporations — the first candidate to do so. It is a stance his competitors must emulate if the party is to remain a viable social democratic force. Topp is also unapologetic about his union connections, telling the Canadian Press: “If it wasn’t for the labour movement, we’d all still be going to work at [the age of] seven.”

But we are facing possibly monumental social and economic change in the next few years. The leadership race is being judged by trying to imagine who can defeat Stephen Harper in four years — but just what are people thinking the world and Canada will look like in four years? Will Harper, the so-called strategic genius, still be as formidable or will the global Depression and increasing climate change disasters have left him in the ideological dust? Will the NDP need a manager and tactical genius or will they need a visionary with the courage to take risks and mobilize the 99 per cent? Do we need someone who will choke on the word capitalism for fear of frightening people or do we need someone who can connect with the only new movement in 40 years that targets capitalism explicitly?

The potential candidacy of Peggy Nash will inject a very interesting choice into this mix. Just the fact that she isn’t a white male is refreshing enough. And she is virtually the first finance critic of the NDP in my memory who actually understands the economy and has the intellectual chops to take on a finance minister. She has been eagerly challenging Flaherty successfully on a regular basis every since she started her position. She could single-handedly end the generations-old framing of the NDP as not to be trusted on the economy. And the economy will be the issue of the day for a long time to come.

But more than that, what distinguishes Nash from the other candidates is her long history of working with social movements and labour. If the NDP thinks it can win the next election on its own it is dreaming. The media and Harper will target the NDP and whoever wins the leadership in a way they never have before because the NDP is now the most serious immediate threat to corporate domination of the country.

A relationship with the occupy movement and whatever it becomes (in addition to traditional movements) will be mandatory and it cannot be based on political opportunism. Nash is quite simply the only leadership candidate capable of building an equal relationship with the social movements that will be the key to defeating Harper and challenging the corporate state. NDP members will hopefully put their imaginations on maximum and pay attention to her candidacy.

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