The quote above is drawn from the victory speech of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi who won reelection this week against a serious contender on the right. Nenshi had originally been expected to win handily but the race became closer than anticipated due to a variety of issues including what amounted to an attempt at political blackmail by the owners of the city's hockey team the Flames.
While seemingly mundane and very par for the course as a statement by a liberal, "progressive" or social-democratic politician in this era, its underlying narrative is fascinating and telling.
Nenshi could not possibly have embodied more the bankruptcy and politics of retreat and the constant pandering that aims towards the illusion that a polity can be "united" -- or that this is a worthwhile goal, which it is not -- that is modern "progressivism", liberalism and social democracy if he had tried.
Despite its pretensions at embracing the eschewing of ideology (or, more accurately, because of them) the comment is a deeply ideological one.
We see this kind of 'progressive' rhetoric all the time including from the once socialistic NDP. And it is a rhetoric that is entirely about diminishing the expectations of the workers and the powerless while also supposedly dampening the fears of the powerful and the business class.
Though there are a great many we can point to one need only look a little further north within Alberta to Edmonton to find a recent example of this.
After pulling off one of the great political upsets in Canadian history, the new NDP Premier Rachel Notley began her tenure by on her very first day in office going out of her way to strike an explicitly collaborationist and conciliatory tone with the business community and the energy sector.
"I'm going to be making phone calls today to leaders within the energy industry to begin those conversations. They can count on us to work collaboratively with them. I'm hopeful that over the course of the next two weeks they will come to realize that things are going to be just A-OK over here in Alberta."
Would the NDP government favour unions and workers over capital and big business? Of course not! Hence when "asked about the close relationship the NDP traditionally has with unions, Notley said there will be no fear or favour shown" because "my job is to represent all Albertans". To make sure there could be no misunderstanding she went on to say "there's no question that there's common cause on many issues with union leaders, but there's also common cause on many issues with business leaders. That's the kind of approach I'm going to take with governance."
This kind of quisling tradition within social democracy of reaching out to and wanting the approval and respect of the enemies of the working class and of people living in poverty goes back a very long way. It is deeply ironic that shortly after winning the election Notley also assured the media that "an Alberta NDP government will in no way resemble NDP premier Bob Rae’s controversial regime in Ontario between 1990 and 1995". Ironic given that one of the earliest steps that Rae took in backing away from the mildly radical "An Agenda for People" that he and the party had run on during the 1990 election was to reassure the Ontario business community that they had nothing to fear from him. He began framing his government in ways identical to how Notley would 25 years later. She could have almost been his echo.
As we know, Rae's attempts to court the business community and moderate the NDP's agenda not only did not placate Bay St at all (they waged a relentless and vicious campaign against his government from day one) it alienated his base and the party's supporters. Whatever was accomplished by the Rae government was very quickly undone by the reactionary Harris government in the years after Rae's defeat in 1995. A lesson social democrats, Notley included, either never seem to learn or draw the wrong conclusions from.
This notion of 'progressive' or social democratic governance is an explicit rejection of class politics and of the idea that a 'progressive', labour or left party or government is meant to represent the workers and, yes, to take their side and act in their interests.
To the great cry of "which side are you on" it answers with "both", which is no answer at all. The principle of "evenhandedness" is predicated on a quaint idealization of capitalist "democracy" where workers and their bosses are all parts of society who need to work together for the "common good" and "shared values", etc.
But power, wealth and influence are not at all evenly distributed in our society or economy. A party or politician that says they will seek to represent "everyone" is at best going to aim at a few token reforms that will attempt to "humanize" capitalism while keeping all of the fundamentals and structures of it completely in place. Workers and their bosses do not share "common interests". You cannot be a party of the working class or a party that claims to be on their side and acting in their interests and yet represent "everyone".
At times it is like the so many New Democrats and their supporters who love to share the 'Mouseland' parable that Tommy Douglas made famous have entirely missed its point. It is not going to be a government by and for the mice if it wants to find "common cause" with the cats.
The only way to push an agenda that will seriously combat inequality, poverty, precarious work, exploitation and many other social and economic injustices is to confront the corporate agenda head-on. This means fighting for economic and social policies that are not in the interests of the corporations or business owners at all and it does exactly mean favouring workers and, when they exist, their representatives, organizations and unions. It also means repudiating the neo-liberal ideological hegemony that has existed in North America for over a generation.
Part of the success of this hegemony has been the defeat of working class and socialist ideas and polices to such an extent that even many who call themselves socialists are confused as to what the word means anymore.
Nenshi, of course, neither is nor would ever claim to be a socialist, though he is very popular in the Canadian left. To many in the public and on the left the NDP, however, is still seen as some form of a socialist party -- even if vaguely -- in spite of the fact that the federal party itself has officially discarded the word. On occasion an NDP politician will even describe themselves as a "socialist", though more often it is viewed as a "rusty anchor" that needs discarding as former Manitoba MP Pat Martin so famously opined.
Nowhere was the confusion about socialism's meaning more glaringly proven then during the Bernie Sanders campaign (and he actually did call himself a socialist) in the United States where popular notions of what socialism is and isn't were shown to be hopelessly muddled. Hence we were treated to silly videos and internet memes with nonsense about how "if you are opposed to socialism you are opposed to the post office and public parks", etc., as if anything public or publicly funded is an example of socialism at work. This was even extended in some cases to trying to portray the army as a socialist institution and to call corporate bailouts socialism in action which is inane.
It is not that the post office, public parks and what have you are not "good things", it is that they have nothing at all to do with working class or socialist models of ownership or society. Socialism loses all meaning and becomes simply a term for radical liberalism unless it continues to have as its aim the overturning of capitalist modes of ownership and government and their replacement by worker ownership and control over both the economy and society.
Cheddi Jagan, who as leader of the Guyanese People's Progressive Party was a great popularizer of socialist ideas in Guyana from the 1950s through to the 90s, wrote of the differences between capitalist and reformist forms of nationalization, as an example, and socialist ones.
He noted that some forms of "nationalization" are not nationalization at all as with the armed forces or NASA in the United States which are publicly run and financed for rather obvious national security reasons but which also serve as a way to funnel vast government funds to big corporations through very lucrative contracts.
This is not socialism.
Further, in capitalist countries when enterprises or sectors of the economy were or are nationalized this is generally done to keep resources out of foreign hands or to provide services such as electricity to corporations and citizens more rationally and more cheaply. The workers of these new state enterprises do not control them and their new boss, the state and its technocrats, are not necessarily a more generous or benevolent employer.
As Jagan once put it:
The stress of socialist nationalisation was on the producer -- to stop the exploitation of the workers; the stress of reformist nationalisation is on the consumer -- to provide a cheaper service.The difference between a socialist program of nationalization versus a social democratic or liberal desire to nationalize or keep in public hands this or that industry or service consists not solely in the extent of the nationalization but in the very aims and goals of it.
Again as Jagan phrased it:
It is essential not merely to transfer ownership of the means of production (factories, land, machines, tools, etc.) from foreign-private to state, but also to change the relations of production with the aim of making socialist production relations predominant. Economic growth and nationalisation alone do not mean socialism. Although a certain level of economic development is a prerequisite for socialism it is not its content. Socialism is a class and political concept; its essence consists in the socialisation of the basic means of production, distribution and exchange and the establishment of the rule of the working people.This can be more broadly applied. A genuine socialist program may involve steps, polices and actions under capitalism akin on the surface to those that may be taken in some instances by liberal reformists, social democrats or even right wing statists or nationalists, but its desired destination is fundamentally different.
We can have debates about what methods and means are to be used to get to this destination, but if the social ownership of the basic means of production and the rule of the working class is not the ultimate goal, then the goal is not socialism.
This is not simply an academic point. By denuding "socialism" of its meaning, as was done with the term "social democracy" before it, the very idea of an actual alternative to capitalism as a system becomes dimmer. If "socialism" becomes about doing or creating "good things" or standing up for a nebulous variety of causes under capitalism then it is no longer an anti-capitalist idea and there is one less threat to the power of the corporations and the bosses.
If there is no coherent and organized anti-capitalist left, then there is no coherent and organized anti-capitalist left.
Those who seek to diminish or strip ideology of its importance under capitalism are either consciously or unconsciously turning politics into a narrative about who will be the "better", "fairer" or more "just" manager or show "leadership" under a system that is fundamentally unfair and unjust. They have conceded in advance that the economics, class and political structure and society of the future will look fundamentally the same as those of today and the past.
Socialists need to reject this politics of defeat and preserve the socialist vision as one of working class and human emancipation from capitalism. Socialists should always know which side of the class struggle they are on and would do well to build parties and movements that reflect this and will govern accordingly.