Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Neoliberalism's Green Foil, Part 1: the Climate Crisis and the Old Left

My oldest daughter, Veronica, has started to speak in ways that I don’t always understand. Having turned 3 years of age this past summer, I've noticed that she has picked up numerous phrases, vocal intonations and songs from sources that I know nothing about. Undoubtedly, some have come from her exposure to television, and others come from relatives or friends of the family. It may be that some of it even comes from me, but I’ve just failed to recognize it as such, seeing my own self in her, thinking that it’s “normal”.

Words and Ideas

Words and terminology are powerful forces which help frame our ideas. Some say that an idea can’t exist outside of the framework of the words we use to describe them. In the same way that an electron’s behaviour is influenced by the very measuring devices we employ to observe the electron, so too are our ideas shaped, in part, by the way in which we describe them.

That’s why I wanted to take a moment to talk about words and ideas, and specifically, some of the words and ideas that I’m going to employ throughout this series of blogposts, because the ideas conveyed by the words which I’ve selected to describe them may be interpreted by readers in ways which I had not intended, due to my own shortcomings with their employ. In short, I’m hoping that by providing a brief glossary, we all might find ourselves on the same page, so to speak, when it comes to the ideas that I’m going to express.

The Populist Left and the Climate Crisis

But before I get to that, I feel the need to provide you with a bit of an explanation about what these posts are intended to be about. I’ve been mulling these ideas over in my mind for some time now, but a few things have happened which have led me to want to sit down and share these ideas with you this evening.

In a recent blogpost, I took to task Ruth Farquahar, a local columnist who appears weekly in the Sudbury Star. Specifically, I was less than impressed that Ms. Farquahar decided to frame her most recent condemnation of the McLean’s Mountain wind project on Manitoulin Island around the idea that this energy project is receiving unsustainable subsidies from our provincial government through the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) program (see: “Cynical Politics, Bad Economics: Feed-in-Tariffs and the Political Left”, August 30, 2013). Usually, attacking wind projects by proxy through objections to FIT programs are the realm of the right-wing of the political spectrum. Here in Ontario, the Progressive Conservative Party has been telling voters that FIT is a waste of money. As a result, I was a little surprised that Ms. Farquahar, who based on the the wealth of evidence in her past columns is clearly not on the right side of the political spectrum, would choose this line of attack.

But, as I pointed out in my blogpost, the fact of that matter is that increasingly, the left-wing side of the political spectrum has found itself less than thrilled at embracing the politics of renewable energy, and frankly, at wanting to meaningfully address the climate crisis. Part of this has to do with a reluctance to discuss climate change, which continues to be seen by the left as a vote-losing proposition. Another part of it has to do with the left’s lack of ideas on how to approach energy politics in any way except to be in opposition to rising rates, so that the “little guy” doesn’t get burned at the pump or on electricity bills.

The NDP's Poor Policy Mix

Addressing climate change in a satisfactory way, however, requires having a serious discussion about energy – and that’s where energy politics comes in. Here in Canada, the NDP is indisputably the champion of the left wing of our political system. Also indisputably, the policies of the NDP as they relate to climate change and energy are not on the same page. The NDP would have voters believe that the climate crisis can be addressed through market mechanisms, while energy prices are kept affordable, often through market interventions, such as capping the price of gasoline. This contradictory policy approach so grossly ignores the reality of climate change that it is an embarrassment to suggest that the NDP is the champion of any form of coherent policy development at all.

I don’t say that lightly, either, as the matter of the climate crisis is intimately woven through the other issues which the NDP considers itself to be a champion of: fiscal responsibility, fighting for the little guy, social justice, wealth equality and environmental justice. Without a coherent policy framework which addresses the reality of the climate crisis, all other policy initiatives will be negatively impacted. To be clear, any energy policy which does not recognize and address the underlying principle that the majority of fossil fuel reserves in the world today must remain in the ground fails to recognize the 21st Century reality of the climate crisis. The NDP, by embracing policies which continue to promote the profligate use of fossil fuels, clearly fails in the test of having a coherent policy basis.

Mainstream Politics – Going the Wrong Way

That being said, the NDP isn’t alone on the Canadian scene in this respect. The Liberal and Conservative prties also fail to recognize and acknowledge the over-arching issue of the global climate crisis in their policy approach, and to an extent much greater than does the NDP, in my opinion. That being said, with the data available now for decades, none of these three political parties can be forgiven for policy proposals which, if implemented (and they are being implemented) will take Canada down the completely wrong path, which sees the investment of scarce public resources into projects which will exacerbate the climate crisis rather than address it.

And that being said, it’s pretty clear that a significant majority of the populace is not motivated to cast their ballots for parties which promote a coherent climate change policy approach. If anything, it seems that those who do vote largely do not prioritize addressing the climate crisis as a major (and certainly not singular) ballot-box issue. Given this electoral reality, is it any surprise that the policies of Canada’s 3 largest political parties are not coherent on addressing the climate crisis, and instead offer voters a buffet of more populist policy fare, which frankly is much more easily digestible?

NDP – Not Doing Politics Differently

That the NDP has chosen to engage voters on populist policies should not be a surprise in this electoral reality. However, the NDP has long maintained to the public that it does politics differently, and would implement meaningful (if not comprehensive) changes to legislation if they were to ever form a government. To back-up such claims, the NDP can point to a slew of progressive, member-approved policies. However, when the NDP has found itself in power in a number of Canadian provinces, the degree of change has not been significant, and their track record for progressive policy implementation has been nothing to brag about.

Take, for instance, the NDP’s stated policy on electoral reform which favours replacing our current, archaic first-past-the-post electoral system with proportional representation, which is more equitable form of electing public officials, and which would have represented a transformational change to election processes. When in power in Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia, the NDP consistently failed to act on proportional representation. Indeed, in the latter two provinces, it was the Liberal Party which at least attempted to be seen to be paying lip service to democratic reform, by holding half-hearted referendums on proportional representation.

As for “doing politics differently”, there has been no evidence that the NDP has done anything other than to move away from ownership of that statement. First, under Leader Jack Layton, and now under the leadership of Thomas Mulcair, the NDP has made the conscious decision to engage the other political parties on their own turf, rather than the NDP's. Negative attack ads have become the NDP’s choice weapons in shaping electoral public opinion. Robocall phone scams which have earned the ire of the CRTC, the acceptance of illegal campaign donations – all of this shows that the NDP is more than happy to find itself in a race to the bottom with the Liberal and Conservative parties. Rather than talking about matters of substance, the NDP is content to engage in the gotcha politics of spin in pursuit of what has become the one and only over-riding issue for the Party: the attainment of power. In pursuit of electoral power, all else, including a coherent policy position on the climate crisis, must take second place. This isn’t doing politics differently.

The Left-Wing Adrift

And it’s a shame, really, for I know that I’m not alone in saying that I had come to expect more from the NDP. But this party, like the left-wing of the Canadian political spectrum which it champions, and the labour movement from which it arose, has been adrift for the past few decades. Again, I don’t say that lightly. Canada’s left has been fighting a war of attrition against the forces of change – and they’ve been losing, despite the recent electoral success of the federal NDP in the 2011 national election. The labour movement itself has been under attack from right-wing legislators, who view unions as impediments to the pursuit of the neoliberal economic doctrine of growth at all costs. Fighting such a war of attrition can clearly exhaust limited resources – resources which otherwise might have been used to forge ahead with new ideas and the expansion of social democratic pursuits. But the left has found itself in this scorched earth battle not simply because of having a limited reach thanks to scarce resources. In many respects, it is fighting this war on ground of its own choosing: in defence of the status quo.

Let me go back to Ms. Farquahar’s anti-FIT tirade, which I indicated earlier was one of the items which has motivated me to finally sit down and try to generate a coherent series of posts on this matter (which I’ve yet to name!). I understand that Ms. Farquahar doesn’t speak for the left or for the NDP, but I can’t help but equate her attack of the FIT program as being yet another example of left engaging in populist politics in pursuit of power. The thing is, I know that those on the left understand that programs like FIT are necessary in our current economic environment – which heavily subsidizes non-renewable fuels and generation. It’s because of the historic market interventions in the form of fossil fuel subsidies that renewable energy has been having a difficult time breaking through in the marketplace. FIT programs are designed to help level the playing field, making the marketplace at least a little more equitable. Of course, the removal of those subsidies for fossil fuels would probably be a better policy approach – and one I might add which the NDP purports to be in favour of – but given that’s not happening any time soon, FIT programs can and do help the green energy sector.

Why then attack FIT programs?

The NDP's Prime Directive

The answer goes back to the NDP’s prime directive: win at all costs. To win, a political party must make itself appealing to the electorate. One way of doing so is to engage in populist politics. If a party says that it will give voters what they want, well, that’s certainly an enticement for voters – and probably a better approach than having a serious, adult conversation about the real challenges and needs of voters in our 21st Century reality. With this in mind, it is a sensible electoral strategy for the NDP to tread a more moderate line when it comes to renewable energy, because growth for the NDP in Ontario means attracting more rural voters. The perception is that, thanks to an overbearing and poorly implemented top-down green energy strategy, coupled with misleading anti-wind campaigns and a compliant anti-wind media, rural voters in Ontario aren’t big fans of wind farms. And as a result, we’ve seen the Ontario NDP moderate its position on renewable energy over time to the point that during the last provincial election, NDP candidates said that they would slow down growth in the renewable energy sector – which is, by the way, the fastest growing industrial sector in the world!

So, it all makes sense, politically speaking. But it’s not “doing politics differently”. And it’s certainly not putting the needs of 21st Century citizens ahead of short-term political gain.

Naomi Klein and the Politics of the “New Left”

One of the other items which has motivated me to write this blog series has been my reading of Naomi Klein’s recent works, including a very interesting speech she made at the founding of UNIFOR, Canada’s largest private sector union (see: “Naomi Klein: Climate Change, Unions and a United Left Agenda”, posted at Climate & Capitalism, September 4, 2013). I’ll not go into any great detail on that right now, as I’ll be exploring my personal motivations related to these writings elsewhere in this series. Suffice it to say for now that Klein appears to be offering a legitimate way forward for society in the 21st Century which is coherent and which may be, frankly, the only realistic chance we have of addressing austerity and climate change issues.

The nucleus of this Kleinian ideology requires that the left be on board – something which, up until recently, didn’t seem particularly likely. However, over the past number of years, there has been a real revival in the vigour of the labour movement, emerging in reaction to the right-wing attacks on unionism. While this revival has been primarily focused on fighting the scorched earth battles I discussed earlier, out of it has also emerged is a growing sense of an intertwined fate with the environmental movement. There is still a ways to go – but if Klein is right, and I believe she is, the only way forward is for labour to fully acknowledge and embrace the idea that combating the climate crisis must be the over-riding priority of the “new left”. From this effort all else will flow, including what I am calling a “capitalist reformation”, in which the seeds for the rise of co-operativism will be sown.

Words Chosen Carefully

And when I start to throw around words like “co-operativism”, and people star to think of “collectivism” and the many negative overtones associated with that word, I know that it’s time that I return to that gloassary of terms I wrote about at the beginning of this post. I understand that I might use certain words in ways which may challenge your conventions and be outside of the framework in which you normally have seen them. I understand that this may lead to your questioning the legitimacy of my use of these terms, which is fair. I also understand that, based on your own beliefs related to these words, you may feel that I my misrepresentation may completely taint my arguments, rendering them so vastly incorrect as to be unintelligible.

I'd ask, however, that you keep in mind that I am coming to you from a particular perspective. To help you understand my own context, keep in mind that I am coming at this from the perspective of a Green, and as such, I can’t help but express ideas through a Green lens. That being said, to suggest that there is only one, single “Green lens” would be the same as saying that there is only one type of liberal – a notion which is patently absurd. So clearly my ideas, as seen through a Green lens, remain my own. I have, however, given a lot of thought to the terminology which I'll use throughout this post, and although I'm sure that I'm liable to be a little inconsistent in its application, I'll try my hardest not to be. Nevertheless, I expect that my lens may challenge some readers.

As an example, when I write about right-wing political parties in Canada, I will be referring to the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. I understand that some feel more comfortable placing the Liberal Party in the middle of our political spectrum, but I can’t, and I won’t, because I believe that there is no evidence in support of such an approach. Indeed, the very idea of a “middle” of the political spectrum suggests that there are clearly defined ends of the spectrum which lead to being able to pinpoint a specific middle ground. Since I can’t accept that there are clearly defined limits to the political spectrum, I can’t place the Liberals in its “middle”, because I don’t believe it exists. I can only define the parties in relation to one another on a left-right axis, and through approximation of what I think might be the balance of that axis, can I place the political parties. As a result, the Liberals fall on the right, but I concede that they inhabit a position to the left of the Consevatives.

Let me then end this first blogpost then with my glossary, so that you, my readers, and I might find ourselves on the same page as we move forward, together. My definitions are not meant to be comprehensive, but instead should act as guideposts to this discussion.


Political Terminology

“Left-Right” the political spectrum which arose in the 19th and 20th Century, which we continue to use today as easy short-hand for pinpointing the relative positions of political parties and their supporters between what are perceived as being issues of the left and right. An antiquated descriptive system which we would be best served abandoning in the 21st Century, but one which will likely persist for some time.

“Left” – the historic social democratic left-wing of our political spectrum, championed in Canada politically by the NDP, arising out of the labour movement of the 20th Century.

“Right” – the historic right-wing of our political spectrum, arising out of liberalism and conservatism.

“conservative” – an historic ideology in which change is managed in such a way as to maintain economic stability as much as possible, in pursuit of prosperity.

“neo-conservative” – a political ideology which embraces change to the maintenance of the existing status quo through neo-liberal economics and Conservative politics.

“Conservative” –a political orthodoxy which is motivated to break down most barriers to a hyper-capitalist neo-liberal economy, except for those barriers which favour the wealthy elite. In Canada, Conservative parties include the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party; in the United States, Conservatives are found in both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.

“Conservative Party” – a political party consisting of a coalition of neo-conservatives and libertarians.

“libertarian” – a political ideology which places the value of individualism above all else.

“Liberal Party” – a political party consisting largely of Conservatives influenced by liberal ideology.

“liberal” – a political ideology in which change is encouraged in pursuit of economic growth and prosperity, in balance with ideas related to social justice and equity.

“New Democratic Party (NDP)” – a political party which has evolved from the social justice and labour movements, which now largely embraces liberal political ideology.

“green” – an ideology which has at its heart the notion of sustainability and the long-term welfare of our physical environment.

“Green Party” – a political party consisting of liberals and greens which stands in opposition to neoliberal economics.

Economic Terminology

“capitalism” – the historic trade-based economic system of market-place transactions from which our 20th Century hyper-capitalist system has evolved.

“hyper-capitalism” – our current debt-based global economic system which requires economic growth and confidence for its continuance.

“neoliberal” – an economic ideology which embraces hyper-capitalism and values economic growth and the manufacture of confidence above all other considerations.

“green economy” – a co-opeartive, community-based capitalist economic ideal which has at its heart the notion of sustainability, powered by renewable energy, and in contrast to the hyper-capitalist economic system.

Change Terminology

“incremental” – change which is slow, planned or unplanned; often deemed by conservatives to be politically palatable. Example: in Canada, the acceptance of gay marriage was incremental, as it moved in small steps from homosexuality being illegal, to legality, public acceptance, tax equity to full scale constitutional protection.

“transitional” – modest planned change which moves from one system into another. Example: Windows users transition from one platform to another.

“transformational” – significant, but not systemic, planned or unplanned, change which truly transforms the conduct of business, sometimes with unexpected consequences. Example: the introduction of the Euro was a transformational change; the earthquake in Haiti forced a transformational change in society.

“reformational” – systemic planned change of entire systems which leads to the creation of a new paradigm. Often, reformational changes are implemented from positions of power. Example: at the end of the Second World War, Japan underwent a reformational change. Also, in the 1500s, German principalities embraced Protestantism and rejected Roman Catholicism – the “Reformation”.

“revolutionary” – systemic, unplanned, change, which leads to the creation of a new paradigm. Revolutionary change is instituted from the bottom up, and are often association with power struggles. Examples: the French and Russian revolutions; the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions.


In Part 2 of this series, I'll look more closely at the nature of change, particularly as it pertains to necessary changes to our economic and political systems in the 21st Century, and what this means for the “new left”.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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