In the field of Canadian history, Ian McKay is considered a dangerous man. The professor and chair of the L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University in Hamilton has spent his career recasting national myths about the country’s past, in a way that illuminates transformative possibilities in the present.
In 2000, he published a journal article innocuously entitled “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History.” It was an intellectual grenade lobbed into the midst of Canada’s staid historical discipline.
A Gramscian-inspired analysis of the origins and trajectory of Canada, it argued that the country was a project of liberal rule, a radical attempt by a few men to remake one of the world’s biggest territories in the image of individualism, private property and capitalist accumulation. His intervention spawned new scholarship, drew a generation of young left-wing historians to his teaching, and inspired begrudging respect, as well as resistance, from liberal and conservative quarters.
McKay has expanded his approach in a long-term project to write a comprehensive history of the Canadian left, of which Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History and Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists And The People’s Enlightenment In Canada, 1890-1920 are the first installments.
Martin Lukacs spoke to McKay last week about the contested past and “stormy future” of Canadian liberalism, and what he thinks of the task ahead for Canadian leftists.
What do you mean when you write that Canada is a liberal order?
Liberalism is almost so pervasive now that you can’t see it, unless you’re not a liberal. It permeates so many spheres of discourse, as our automatic unthinking fallback position on everything. The force of liberal assumptions in Canada is enormous: the acceptance of corporate enterprise, conventional property relations, as well as ideas of equality that come down to the individual.
Liberalism, to my mind, is a philosophy and praxis centred on the propertied individual, geared to ensuring their continued capacity to accumulate and enjoy property: what the theorist C.B. Macpherson called “possessive individualism.” Liberals, often responding to grassroots pressure, have undoubtedly stood up for “rights” generally seen as valuable. Some of these rights, like the right to public healthcare, can, if pushed, challenge the individualistic core of the liberal worldview.
Yet once those challenges emerge, you will notice Canadian liberals immediately mobilize to thwart any challenge that might put the “rights of property” in jeopardy. Hegemonic since the 1840s, liberals in Canada have consistently argued passionately for individual rights with little regard for the social networks required for the nurturance and development of such individuals.
What does “hegemonic” mean in the Canadian context?
Antonio Gramsci’s famous term has been subjected to a wide diversity of interpretations. In some treatments “hegemony” is so all-encompassing and totalizing that no one could possibly stand outside it. I prefer to think of it as that ongoing, conflictual process through which our rulers struggle to align our ideas with their strategies. This alignment is never perfect and total and, in fact, can be and has been effectively challenged.
Although challenges to the liberal order in Canada have often generated valuable changes, none have succeeded in fundamentally transforming it. Consider that, since the 1840s, no party has ruled federally that does not espouse a form of liberalism—remembering that today’s Conservatives were in many of their early years the “Liberal Conservatives.” This holds whether one thinks of John A. Macdonald’s Liberal Conservatives, Laurier’s and Mackenzie King’s Liberals, John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives, or the Liberal Party of Pierre and Justin Trudeau.
At the provincial level, there has been more diversity—but not that much more. Here, too, we find a strong tendency to elect governments focused on protecting the propertied individual, notwithstanding some interestingly divergent experiments on the right (Union nationale in Québec, Social Credit in Albert and British Columbia) or the left (the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan of the 1940s-50s and some of the early provincial governments formed by the New Democratic Party). And when you look closely at those divergences, you’ll notice a consistent concern to uphold the rights of property and the interests of business. Quebec’s Maurice Duplessis, for all his Catholic authoritarianism, made his province a paradise for big business; and even Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan waxed eloquent about the virtues of small business and worked hard to commercialize his province’s uranium deposits.
In the election we just had in 2021, it was striking how all the major parties orbited around a confined cluster of shared core assumptions and images, so much so that it was hard for seasoned commentators to tell their programs apart, even during a pandemic when liberal assumptions about the beneficence of markets and the virtues of free enterprise were plainly implausible. Approaches that infringe on the “rights of property” and the choices of free-standing individuals strike most Canadians as coming from the fringes; in the Cold War, they even came to be identified with anti-Canadian treason.
Possessive individualism, a.k.a. liberalism, is so hegemonic in Canada that those who want a different social order with a far more capacious sense of liberty have to reckon, not just with the parties that articulate this ideology, but with the fact that the majority of Canadians seem to favour their core values. That to my mind is the core message of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony: in their capacity to shape the common sense perceptions and values of the public they supposedly represent, our modern rulers can remain in power thanks not just to coercion but to their ability to persuade most people they “speak their language.” That doesn’t mean they can’t be fought, but the notion of a short, sharp break, a classic revolution on the French or Russian models, is pretty much off the table.
How does liberalism function with unique characteristics in a place like Canada, a country that is both a colonizer and colony, whose liberal order was energetically implanted by its rulers across an entire continent but whose politics and economy have always been simultaneously dominated by an external empire?
The variety of liberalism undergirding our political order was British liberalism—articulated by the likes of Adam Smith on economics, William Blackstone on law, J.S. Mill on liberty, Henry Maine on history, and—I suspect I am rare in this emphasis, though evidence for it seems strong to me—Herbert “survival of the fittest” Spencer on social regulation, who to my eye was one of the most widely-cited and influential of them all after the 1870s. There is much about Canada that doesn’t make sense unless you factor in the presence and strength of this Victorian Liberalism.
One of its most important traits was resistance to democracy, a theme well developed in many of the pieces in Julian Mauduit and Jennifer Tunnicliffe’s pathbreaking new collection on democratization. Many of the “Fathers of Confederation” thought democracy a form of “mob rule” and the Liberal Party’s patron saint Wilfrid Laurier even warned of the “virus of democracy.” To paraphrase historian Anthony Arblaster, in the phrase “liberal democracy,” the word “liberal” exerts a strong force of qualification over the term “democracy.”
Consider that, in terms of international law, there was no such thing as a “Canadian citizen” until 1947, but rather, subjects of His or Her Majesty normally resident on Canadian soil (as contemporary texts had it). And consider the absence in any of the founding acts of the Dominion of Canada of any republican passages exalting “We the People” with their self-evident rights. In this elitism, Canadian liberalism was British liberalism overseas.
In its origins Canada was a conservative experiment in top-down liberalism, designed to contain democracy and lacking the resources or the will to constitute a “Canadian people.” It was conceived as an organic component of the British Empire and dedicated to transforming northern North America, a vast subcontinent, into a society governed by possessive individualism. It was not about the formation of a “Canadian people” upon whose behalf the state should act and to which it was answerable. As Denis Pilon suggests, and he’s building on an observation by Francis Dupuis-Déri, it was only during the First World War that the notion that Canada itself was a democracy—a heretical notion in the 19th century—come to be widely disseminated, and not in a way that really changed the country’s core institutions.
Governance over this vast subcontinent, its “liberalization,” meant transforming it. With respect to Indigenous peoples, it meant transforming lands saturated with spiritual and collective meaning into alienable properties, commodities for sale on the market; it also meant the establishment of such institutions as residential schools, where conscripted kids were indoctrinated in the new truths of the religion of possessive individualism, often at grave and lethal cost to their wellbeing, and a vastly expanded carceral apparatus. With respect to Québécois, it entailed the strategic containment of nationalism and pre-capitalist property regimes and the spheres ruled by the Catholic Church (which remained considerable within Québec, which was the price of the colony’s inclusion in the project). With respect to the outlying hinterland regions gradually absorbed by the project (from Prince Edward Island in 1873 to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949) it meant the absorption of political elites once obliged to attend closely to community opinions and pressures.
In my view, this was a kind of revolution—in the Marxist sense, entailing the rise and consolidation of a class-based program for building a country wherein capitalist property relations and the political institutions safeguarding them would prevail from coast to coast to coast. The “country” that emerged from this process in the mid-twentieth century was a curious beast. It was both a colony (first of Britain and then the United States) and a colonizer (of the vast, primarily Indigenous territories of the North, and more recently much of the Global South); both a self-proclaimed autonomous “middle power” and a state whose primary role on the world stage has been to serve as the subservient servant of empire. An authentic policy of “Truth and Reconciliation” would need to acknowledge the heavy legacy of this liberalism—the core doctrine that assured those embarked on cruel projects of cultural assimilation that they were fulfilling the demands of propertied individualism.
On the other hand, Canada is set apart by virtue of its anomalous position on the edges of two great empires, to borrow a phrase from historian Adele Perry: the British Empire so many Canadians revered and the emergent US Empire which, from the 1840s on, offered an alternative source of ideas, to which millions of Canadians emigrated in search of employment, and which from the 1880s set the terms for Canadian industry, much of it bought up by Americans. So, although there are not many “We the People” moments in Canadian history, and outside some interesting insurgent experiments (the rebellions of 1837, the Red River resistance of 1870), not much in the way of grassroots republicanism, many Canadians actually did think they were citizens entitled to hold rulers to account. Yet, such democratic sentiments surfaced in a land in which, by design, as Peter Russell has powerfully demonstrated, “the people” never constituted themselves as a sovereign political community.
One could even say that throughout their history, Canadians have lived, not so much in their own country, but in a complicated condominium. The location of sovereignty—where the “buck stops”—has been, and remains, often hard to locate (but, historically, it has never in the mainstream really been thought to reside with Canadians as a people). In Confederation’s early years, this was obvious—British jurists even had the final say over our constitution, and economically Canada was tightly integrated with the empire.
After the turn of the twentieth century, the locus of sovereignty gradually shifted to the US, although an historian like me could lose a university position for saying so. The Second World War led to a change in co-ownership, which has taken more and more pronounced forms of military and economic subordination ever since, to the point that Canada’s own parliamentarians were denied access to US-controlled military facilities in the Arctic. Here’s the point: in both frameworks, there is a demonstrable sense in which Canadians did not exercise the powers normally associated with a free-standing country. It is interesting these days to notice how the very concept of “sovereignty,” since the 1960s the goal of Québec’s nationalists, has become a major concern for Indigenous activists. Today, if you want a democratic socialist society, you also have to reckon with another big obstacle: the transnational neoliberal trade and financial regimes that, largely behind closed doors, make decisions more consequential for working Canadians than most of those of our parliaments.
So, to return to your question, I think this “condominium” status—in which Canadians have always shared whatever democratic powers they enjoy with another state that imposes strict limitations on them—does set us a bit apart. (I’m sure intrepid international scholars could find some parallel cases). And an effective left will have to reckon with this legacy, which reaches far beyond the formal limits of politics to influence what people think is, and is not, possible.
The omnipresence of liberalism can make it seem impervious to challenge, but you’ve argued that Canadian liberalism is in some ways especially vulnerable to challenge.
Yes. True, it often does feel all-encompassing. On the CBC, supposedly the country’s unifying broadcaster, the range of opinion runs from A to B (to use a phrase attributed to Dorothy Parker), i.e., from business-liberal to social-liberal. When you hear a voice outside this narrow ideological spectrum, it is almost always treated as “fringy” and “eccentric.” There is an almost suffocating atmosphere of compromise and conciliation, so that any authentic voices of dissent come to be regarded more as problems to be managed than as voices to hear and respect.
The legal system enshrines notions of sweet reasonableness and conciliation and is so designed that those rich enough to hire a good lawyer experience very different outcomes than those unable to do so. And although “property rights” never made it into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they hardly needed to be: they are staunchly defended in all the provinces and territories. In the last federal election, in the midst of a pandemic, 56 percent of Canadians voted for the two venerable liberal parties, and you would be hard-pressed to find compelling evidence that the other four in the field presented starkly different programs than theirs (although the NDP does shelter some persisting and sometimes distrusted socialists).
But remember what I was saying about the country’s lack of a foundational “democratic” document. This has actually opened up ideological room for the left, in that it makes it harder for rightists to cry “treason!” when combating radical ideas. (True, the Red Scare and the Cold War offer us examples of the tactic, but the notion of the “un-Canadians” never quite caught on). A good example is provided by medicare in Saskatchewan, explored in compelling detail by historian Esyllt Jones.
During the fight for medicare, Liberals certainly wheeled out every rhetorical weapon at their disposal to combat the heretical ideas that one of the core obligations of the state is the health of the public and providing accessible and universal healthcare is a human right. They were right to do so: public health is a concept that assumes “a public” exists and that its collective “health” is the legitimate concern of the state, overriding the claims of private property—and such revolutionary ideas were indeed active as the policy evolved. The messy outcome in Canada was a health system, somewhat answerable to pressures from below, that secures at least some of the basic requirements of Canadians—not as successfully as others in the world, because it still reveres the rights of property of medical professionals and Big Pharma among others, but not leaving ailing Canadians completely at the mercy of the market and insurance companies. Medicare remains one of the signature accomplishments of the Canadian left.
The same point can be made about Canadians’ relative freedom to dissent from the programs and policies of the US imperium. In the absence of a founding document subject to highly individualistic interpretations, leftists demanding things like gun control, or extensive supply management of agricultural products, or aggressive state policies to address the climate emergency can’t be easily attacked as un-Canadians. We do have some margin for maneuver. In foreign policy, for example, we did exercise the option not to follow the American Empire in its war on Iraq (even though the Canadian state provided minor aid to the effort by stealth). With substantial dollops of self-flattery and delusion, from the 1930s on we did exercise a certain independence from the reigning empires, as suggested by efforts to chart a somewhat autonomous course with respect to the United Nations and our policies regarding Communist states.
But notice all the qualifiers: a genuinely independent Canadian foreign policy is something glimpsed as a possibility, not a fully-realized actuality. We didn’t invade Vietnam, but we spied for the Americans and made weapons for them. We present ourselves to the world as apostles of human dignity and rights, while Canadian mining companies terrorize Indigenous communities and small property-holders worldwide. We are the poster-children of progressive humanism, or so liberals tell us so often when they go on about Canadian Values, all the while cozying up to states that execute gays and lesbians just for being who they are. (One can imagine the Canadian ambassador murmuring in the ear of his Saudi counterpart, “Don’t you think both crucifying and beheading gay men is, well, a teensy bit excessive?”)
So, in a way, the Fathers of Confederation, in their very narrowness, ironically bequeathed to socialists a certain freedom. The state they created cannot normally bludgeon its dissidents with accusations they have departed from the norms of our political community, since those norms were so opaque and property-focused from the beginning that they carry little symbolic significance. Canada as a liberal project is both strong and weak: strong in its alertness to any bottom up left wing challenge, yet weak because it is trapped in its historically-grounded elitist incapacity to constitute a sovereign people to whom it is ultimately answerable. Constructing that people—in all its cultural and linguistic heterogeneity, a people identifying with many nations and cultures and sharing a common history of struggling for full democratic rights—is the unfinished task of the left. Given the heavy burdens of colonialism, defended since at least the mid-nineteenth century by doctrines of race, it is not a minor one.
Our alert rulers stymie the possibilities for greater freedom. But this containment can be challenged and perhaps broken. In moments of crisis, the Canadian state has sometimes turned to coercion and authoritarianism to crush a left undertaking this task. But it never succeeded in creating a political community in a strong sense. And so, the country’s contradictions remain explosively unresolved.
It seems to me one of the powerful stories Canadian elites tell is that our political identity is quintessentially about compromise—that Canadians always want to choose the middle path and that our state, especially under Liberal governance, is perfectly geared to meet that need.
That’s right. You could almost call compromise the Canadian state’s civic religion. Even when we are discussing the painful and explosive issues generated by settler colonialism, we do so via a formula—Truth and Reconciliation—that places the restoration of harmony at the very centre. In truth, Canada is not a land based on sensible compromise and reconciliation, much as we are instructed that these are “Canadian values.” There was, and is, precious little “compromise” when it came to converting Indigenous land into property, for example: the liberal revolution imposed on Indigenous people was not undertaken in a spirit of compromise. In many ways, the image of sweet reasonableness and sensible compromise made attractive to many Canadians, an integral part of the process of liberal hegemony, is almost the exact opposite of what the historical evidence discloses. Today, we are undergoing a major moment of revisiting this history.
Liberals have only made compromises when they’ve had to, like when they think “We have to do this, or we’ll lose it all.” Take Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King in 1943. “OMG, the workers’ movements are striking, we better throw them something,” he remarks (or would have done, had he been a twenty-first-century social media guy). And even then, he throws them the least intrusive Keynesian measure he could have picked. That pattern I think endures and endures with the Liberal party. The compromises always occur on terrain favourable to the long-term health of the system.
The “compromise” of Justin Trudeau on pipelines, for example, supposedly balancing the claims of environmentalists with those of business, is one that makes pipeline-construction a lasting commitment of the Canadian state, world opinion be damned. The classic Liberal technique is to identify the opposing poles on any question and triangulate them, but almost always in undemocratic and opaque ways: through corruption and patronage, or through a very selective acknowledgement of oppositional programs and piecemeal absorption of some of their ideas and their proponents—always with an eye to absorbing them all and shutting down the dynamism of the grassroots.
From the 1840s, with the transformation of fiery democrats into settled advocates of the established order, to the 1940s, with the forceful deradicalization of the labour movement and the elaboration of a system of industrial relations offering a semblance of recognition to workers, to the 1970s, with the arduous containment of self-determination struggles launched by the Québécois and Indigenous peoples through concessions only partially securing their objectives—this is a consistent liberal pattern. Gramsci called it one of “passive revolution,” and I think it goes right to the heart of Canadian political history. These techniques have come to be glorified in a philosophy of rule in Canada. They seek to rob radical positions of their sharpness and work to obscure how history is an unfolding of contradictory social and political relations. It aims to freeze social struggle, to contain its dynamics, to equilibrate contending forces. All the while, liberals react with incredulity to the thought they defend a coherent ideological orientation: to them, this is “just the way things work.” That is vintage hegemony.
How much has Canadian liberalism been willing to change under the pressure of crises?
Gramsci speaks of “organic crises,” times when fundamental socio-economic elements of a system must be reordered in order for that system to survive. (In my view, we’re in a pandemic-induced one today). One such crisis arrived in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Revealingly, the Canadian politicians were far more hesitant to abandon the revered principles of liberal political economy than their counterparts in the US and Britain. Here, weaponizing the venerable concept of “less eligibility”—essentially, determining who was entitled to relief, discriminating between the deserving and undeserving poor—took priority over the concepts of “social citizenship” emerging in Britain or Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” in the US, which included such non-liberal notions as a state mobilizing against hunger and deprivation.
In Canada, the overwhelming responses to the rise of mass unemployment were violent, even murderous, campaigns to eliminate left-wingers, deporting a good number back to regimes the bureaucrats knew were likely to torture or execute them; the imprisonment of unemployed men in carceral relief camps; and the forceful repression of strikes and other protests. Even when the coming of the Second World War meant the emergence of new forms of liberalism, Mackenzie King carefully modulated them to emphasize the least system-challenging of their elements: it is not surprising that Family Allowances, the signature “breakthrough” of the 1940s, functioned as bulwarks of the patriarchal family, not as beach-heads of a different kind of state centrally concerned with the welfare of the people. Keynesianism arrived late, and only partially and incoherently, in Canada.
In many respects—and here I am repeating an argument of historian Will Langford, who has just brought out a brilliant book, The Global Politics of Poverty in Canada—the 1960s and 1970s, not the 1940s, constituted the decade when it finally seemed within the realm of Canadian possibility that the state would function more democratically. It was under a lot of pressure—from Québec, insisting upon its right to self-determination, one not easily reconciled with liberal individualism; from New Leftists, demanding participatory democracy; from Indigenous activists, increasingly (as Scott Rutherford suggests in another important book, Canada’s Other Red Scare) demanding respect for aboriginal and treaty rights, again on terms not easily reconciled with the unfettered rights of private property; and from a host of new social movements, such as those of women, demanding social policies geared to transforming gendered definitions of power; and gays and lesbians, resisting age-old liberal categorizations of themselves as deficient individuals calling out for the corrective attentions of psychiatrists and prisons. So, to preserve liberal order, it had to be reinvented—and, to a limited extent, it was.
But only to a very limited extent. The regime remained firmly anchored in top-down principles of the old: British King and Queen still served as heads of state, supposedly universal social programs enshrined age-old liberal precepts discriminating between the deserving and undeserving, and with the rise of neoliberalism, promising experiments in state entrepreneurship were placed on the market.
We inherit from this fertile time half a century ago what is at best a half-assed welfare state, which in Europe would be counted a minor variant of the American system. Scholars Carlo Fanelli and Heather Whiteside point out that the OECD ranks Canada 25th out of 37, lagging behind even the US, when it comes to public spending on social services as a share of GDP. The present pandemic has caused many people to dream of a guaranteed basic income—an issue brilliantly explored by my old friend Jamie Swift in a new book with Elaine Power, and one made more plausible by the Liberals’ emergency response benefit—and the demand may have traction, but I’m already picking up loud and clear vintage liberal arguments that any such measure would reward the undeserving poor and inspire working people to turn down bad, poorly-paid jobs. For many others, strong, secure and aggressive trade unions are another urgent priority, which might seem a no-brainer for working people who through the pandemic have been asked to put their bodies on the line, partly on behalf of those whose property allows them to shelter in place. Once again, we’ll have to see—but the existing liberal order provides only some limited accommodation of labour and social rights. There has been some movement in the rhetoric; not much, so far as I can see, in political practice.
Can thinking about Canada as a liberal project help understand the particular dynamics of Canadian settler-colonial rule?
Individualism is really core to liberalism, and core to Canadian policies toward Indigenous peoples. Residentials schools can be seen as factories for liberal individuals—putting Indigenous peoples in there because you perceive them as “deficient individuals” in fundamentally constitutive ways. Insofar as the moment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has highlighted this problem, it has played an invaluable role. The risk of focusing on the schools, though, is that one might overlook the wider pattern of liberal colonialism they were built to safeguard.
Similarly, the settler-colonial paradigm has valuably focused on the ways in which European settlers strove to erase the prior Indigenous presence, especially in much of Southern Canada. It needs to be adapted for use here, though, in that one of the “pecularities of the Canadians,” and an indication of the limitations of the curious state crafted by the “Fathers of Confederation,” was the unevenness of this process.
Unlike in the United States, over the bulk of the land-mass claimed by the Canadian state and over which it exercises a (limited) form of shared sovereignty, Indigenous people are in the majority. Insofar as the logic of elimination was put to work by Ottawa, over time it can be seen to have run aground on stubborn geographical and demographic realities. Hence, to my eye, the far greater salience today of the Indigenous Question in Canada than we find in the United States.
One of the great ironies of liberalism is that liberals claim to speak the language of realism, claim to have a more realistic understanding of the workings of the world than anyone, and yet they seem least prepared to even perceive, never mind combat, some of the consequences—climate breakdown, racism, economic inequality—of their liberal capitalist order.
Yes, almost all our discussions of politics are pitched in this uber-utilitarian mode. We are supposedly the ones in command of the facts, the algorithms, the expert knowledge, that give us a privileged access to the world—so our liberal rulers proclaim. You radicals are dreamers, infatuated with vague and unrealizable ideals. This is, indeed, the very language of hegemony: stray from our core assumptions about reality at your peril.
Yet the self-proclaimed “realism” of our liberals is unpersuasive. Take global climate change. “Realistically,” Canada’s leaders hope to address the crisis largely by treating it as one of property and its effective management (this is very much the logic of carbon taxing), while safeguarding, as always, the right of business to accumulate capital and transform the planet. Thus far, even the modest targets they have specified have remained embarrassingly unreachable.
Why? In essence, because consistent liberals cannot challenge capitalism’s right to despoil the world—doing so would mean a philosophical transformation they have shown no interest in undertaking. Changing this humanity-threatening trajectory means overthrowing the power of capital and rethinking the ideology of possessive individualism that tells the planet’s inhabitants that their worth as human beings relies upon their acquisition of more and more things.
How do you think the left should contend with liberal hegemony?
Well, first, by probing the contradictions within the ideology itself. If you really want liberty and equality, and I am convinced many sincere liberals genuinely do, then how do you square that with the desperate precarity of the young or the oppression of the old—with the ‘senicide’ of 2020-21 in long-term-care homes, disproportionately a phenomenon of the privately-owned ones, offering us a horrible example? How do you square that with levels of inequality rendered even more grotesque by the pandemic?
I think there is considerable potential among young people, raised to be good liberals and sincerely committed to much of the ideology, to gradually transcend the framework’s limitations. After all, the environmental crisis, of which the pandemic was but a sub-set, suggests that any realistic approach will demand dictating new terms to business, non-adherence to which will result in real consequences. Self-regulation and gentle persuasion, tried for sixty years, have led to a planet with ever-increased CO2 levels. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that a socio-economic trajectory likely to kill billions in the near future and render the planet almost uninhabitable is hardly the pinnacle of sensible realism.
Second, I have a lot of sympathy for veterans of past left formations who counsel a strengthening of labour. There are interesting new polls in many western countries, including even the US, suggesting much more support for trade unions. True, they will need to take a much more combative and democratic form than the ones absorbed by the system in the 1940s, but through the social movements of the 2000s and 2010s —such as alter-mondialisation, the climate camps, and Occupy—there has been a new appreciation for, and elaboration of, techniques to enhance grassroots democracy. Many people drawn by right-wing demagogues and conspiracy theorists have been shaken loose in this organic crisis from their conventional grooves; unfortunately, to this point, the most mobilized and aggressive forces addressing their pressing interests have arisen from the right. Yet this is not inevitable: one can imagine a left that draws upon older models and engages with working-class people with respect.
Third, all the social movements that arose after the 1960s, while often fighting causes that are not easily reconciled with each other (and that’s an understatement), can also be encouraged to develop their commonalities within the framework of a post-liberal politics of human survival. The “identity lefts” made a rich contribution to social and political struggle; feminists, for instance, inherited much of the mantle of the left in the 1980s; Indigenous activists today are forcing such issues as environmental despoliation and racism to the fore. Each of these movements, inspiring resistance on particular questions, may well come to see that its continuing capacity to do so requires a more general movement capable of ending the rein of capital, because without it, on dead planet, there will not be much opportunity to resist at all.
Fourth, and it relates to the first point, I think we leftists need ourselves to be much tougher and clearer about our own ideas of freedom. I exaggerate only slightly when I say that, 30 seconds into any conversation about “what might replace a dying capitalism,” liberals will introduce Joseph Stalin. “There Is No Alternative,” they seem to say, channelling Margaret Thatcher, unless you want to live in a society with secret police knocking on your door at three in the morning and millions of lives consumed by labour camps. Much of this rhetoric draws, of course, from the Cold War and its vanished certainties—although let’s not count out the possibility of Cold War 2.0.
Of course we can tell such liberals to look calmly and dispassionately at their own history—of many influential liberals’ enthusiasm for slavery down to the 1860s or Fascism in the 1920s, for example—but we also have to reflect critically on the legacy of left authoritarianism. If we are interested in building our own hegemony, we should realize that it can never happen if most Canadians believe they will have to sacrifice core civil freedoms—freedom of religion, association, the press, etc.—to build an egalitarian society. I take from Gramsci the precept that what distinguishes an authentic left inspired by Marx should be the capacity to subject one’s own practice to realistic critique.
What would egalitarian freedom look like in a post-capitalist world? How can we loosen the iron grip of property on our imaginations and our lives? Throughout the history of the left, there are many examples (dissident communist movements in the 1920s to the 1960s, anarchist experiments, intentional utopian communities, as well as many of the new social movements arising in the 1960s and 1970s) that did undertake exciting experiments in democracy. We’re not starting from scratch. And around the world, people are becoming re-engaged with this question. The coming generation, I suspect, will not be content with politics defined as a game undertaken by cynical professionals intent on manipulating the public and feathering their own nests. For them, we need a much more realistic and grounded sense of what the left has historically stood for.
For you, where does the New Democratic Party fit into this script?
As a long-term member, I see the NDP as a left-liberal party with a substantial social-democratic wing and a smaller socialist contingent. I incline towards the latter. For the last decades, the NDP has hitched its star to the politics of personality and run pretty middle-of-the-road campaigns, slightly to the left of the Liberals on some issues. Unless it undergoes some sort of fundamental change, NDP might be be part of a future politics of transformation, but it won’t be its driver.
I like to point students of the Canadian left to Make This Your Canada by Frank Scott and David Lewis, their 1943 “review of CCF history and policy,” in part because it’s such a no-holds-barred critique of capitalism, based in large part, as they say, on the “mountainous” labours of Marx (so, not exactly the politics of today’s NDP, to put it mildly). But what I find even more inspiring about this text is that it is couched in such a down-to-earth language of a party that believed itself on the brink of taking power.
You could call it “hegemonic,” in the sense that the authors really were trying to suss out the peculiarities of Canada and how they might be changed. What would Make This Your Canada look like in the 2020s? It would surely have far more to say about reversing the results of colonialism, gender equality, the rights of sexual minorities—but I would hope it might also preserve that text’s grounded specificity and retain its respectful, optimistic and dialogical relationship with its audience. Instead of coming at Canadians from an elite position of supposed enlightenment, giving leftists the right to patronize ordinary people, Make This Your Canada speaks a language they can understand about the problems in their lives. Much of the contemporary left has a lot to learn from this example.
And then there’s the Regina Manifesto, which I love, because it combines a stirring call for the extermination of capitalism with the down-to-earth demand for level railway crossings. Not perfect manifestos, of course—especially on issues that matter a lot to most of us today—but not write-offs, either. And what I’m recommending are not the specifics of these documents, which are inevitably dated and partial, but their strategy of speaking to people in a language that doesn’t talk down to them.
Every Canadian election reveals a pretty consistent pattern (the moment of “Orange Crush” in Québec in 2011 was an aberration): vast swaths of the country invariably emerge in shades of Liberal Red or Tory Blue, with just a few pockets of NDP Orange in ridings where there is something left of the old labour and progressive base. Then the party goes into slumber mode, doing little to change the political-ecological patterns that will condemn it in perpetuity, if left unchanged, to the third- or even fourth-rate status. You can’t challenge liberal hegemony if you play so completely by the liberals’ rules. You have to change the political culture that repeatedly generates this pattern. Mere electoralism is radically insufficient, especially at a time when the planet is burning and young people are looking for something better than lifetimes of precarity and high anxiety.
How would you sum up the arc of Canadian liberalism, and where it might next be bent?
Predictions are hazardous, but I do think we are in the midst of an organic crisis of the neoliberal order—a transnational project initiated in the 1970s to defend liberalism against its collectivist enemies. Neoliberalism, some say, is now a “bad brand”—in our commercialized day and age, the ultimate insult! Both of Canada’s mainstream liberal parties embraced neoliberalism, the Liberals most emphatically in the mid-1990s with their dramatic ripping-up of their own Red Book, replete with progressive promises, and their enthusiasm for all those downsizing, outsourcing, and Public-private partnership strategies that work to make the state operate very much like a business. It was rather amusing to see how “progressive” both liberal parties struggled to appear in 2021, outbidding each other with their generosity. This pseudo-progressivism will not last, and already we are seeing the re-emergence of an austerity agenda. I wouldn’t put too much faith in “Build Back Better”—and, as lots of people around the world are saying, any return to “normal” will leave in place all those forces that have led us into this terrible crisis.
Although liberals bequeathed us a chaotic and confusing political system with no clear locus of sovereignty—though it certainly does not reside with the (as yet non-existent) Canadian people!—the great majority of Canadians still believe they live in a “liberal democracy” answerable to its citizens. In short, liberal order, when judged in the light of today’s values, falls far short. Canada’s elite have failed us terribly: they’ve given us a half century of an unresolved constitutional crisis, brazenly archaic political institutions, very partial and often doggedly resisted patterns of decolonization, and widespread economic misery and precarity. There are great opportunities for movements and a revived left that can show how deeply inadequate the vision is of these elites and how divergent it is from the “democracy” many Canadians think they inhabit.
Created in a passive revolution of the 1840s and restricted in another such movement of crisis in the 1940s, the Canadian state lacks the structural and ideological resources of many of its counterparts in the world system. It is especially vulnerable to the critiques of those who want something much different from their politics. I predict a stormy future for Canadian liberalism, as a legion of resistance movements challenge its hegemony. Success in that struggle will require those movements to come together to create a cohesive, disciplined and expansive force, grounded in Canadian realities, open to kindred movements around the globe, and determined to craft a radical democratic politics for a new era.