Thursday, September 12, 2013

Neoliberalism's Green Foil, Part 3: The Green Party, the New Left, and the Greening of the NDP

In my earlier blogposts, I looked at the dual nature of change, and what that means for a left-wing political environment which is wedded to the current economic status quo. I wrote about some of the challenges facing the emerging alliance between labour and environmental movements, but concluded that not only is such an alliance necessary, it is also inevitable; only the pace of the emergence remains in doubt. The key challenge, however, for both movements will be the need to reject our current neoliberal hyper-capitalist economic system in favour of a truly “green” economic system – one which is co-operative, community based capitalist system. I wrote that moving from the current hyper-capitalist economic paradigm to the emergent green economic paradigm will require “reformational change”, which is almost certainly going to include a realignment of governance structures and institutions.

In this post, I’d like to explore what I believe to be an inevitable realignment of interests, brought about the emergence of the rejection of neoliberalism and the hyper-capitalist economy by those who may currently identify with the “left” of the political spectrum. In my previous post, I suggest that the a “new left” will emerge from the ashes the of the current liberal-focused left – and that the “new left” would be better called “green”, except for the baggage associated with that term. For the sake of consistency, I will continue to refer to the “new left” throughout this post, but it is worth keeping in mind that the values of the new left are the same values as today’s green movement.


To me, and to many others, it is self-evident that an economic system which requires perpetual growth, and which can only tolerate zero or negative growth for short periods, is doomed to failure on a planet with finite resources. Even if energy needs are to shift from non-renewable resources to renewable ones, the fact is that energy represents only a single, if significant, input into our hyper-capitalist economic system. Other resources are projected to be in short supply in the coming decades, and the extraction of more abundant resources will also only get more expensive, thanks to rising energy prices and more difficult extraction processes (such as the remoteness of deposits). In short, we’ve largely exhausted the (relatively) inexpensive extraction of resources; from here on in, things are going to get more costly. Innovation and technology will bring prices down somewhat, but we can’t rely on magic bullets for our long-term planning.

The world is going to get more expensive.

Oh, and about that energy issue: there is no evidence that the world is ready to make the necessary shift to renewable energy sources – certainly not while our elected governments continue to subsidize the fossil fuel industry to the tune of billions of dollars a year. With both left-wing and right-wing political parties in Canada championing the current hyper-capitalist economic system, with the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives all talking about zero tax increases and the need to keep energy prices low, it’s guaranteed that something has to give – because the hyper-capitalist system is unsustainable in a world where perpetual growth isn’t an option.

Canada’s right-wing political parties, the Liberal and Conservative parties, have barely acknowledged the existing of the climate crisis, and certainly seem devoid of meaningful ideas regarding how best to address it. The NDP, which over the years has transitioned from its social democratic routes into a political party which embraces populist liberal ideals, has little more to offer. All three of these political parties have embraced neoliberalism to varying degrees; the Liberals and Conservatives because they believe it, and the NDP because they believe neoliberalism remains popular with voters.

Whither the NDP?

Believing that electoral success lies in the centre of the political spectrum, the NDP, first under former Leader Jack Layton, and now under current Leader Thomas Mulcair, continue to move the NDP to the right. While this may have alienated some traditional left-wing supporters of that party, others, including the labour movement, have largely bought into the idea that small-scale populist policy proposals are more likely to win over the electorate – and deliver power to the NDP – than some of the more grander, social democratic visions which the NDP used to offer. That this strategy might ultimately prove to be a vote-winner in the short term might appear to justify the move to the middle. Unfortunately for the NDP, longer-term thinking is needed.

Old-Line Support for Fossil Fuel Subsidies

Right now, all three old-line political parties are impediments to the emergent green economy, because their policies continue to promote favouring fossil fuel use over renewables. Green energy is a necessary component of the emergent green economy, and if the green economy is going to emerge, existing market place distortions which preference fossil fuels must be removed, and green energy projects must be allowed to compete in a fair and balanced market. Right now, the market is far from balanced, with fossil fuels receiving massive government subsidies and interventions which allow prices to remain low.

This may seem strange, given that Canada ostensibly has a “conservative” government in power. Conservatives have long railed against the policies of the left, which they see as interventionist. The fact of the matter is that Canada’s Conservative Party is not much of a “conservative” political party at all – and Canada has suffered from their economic mismanagement – short and long term – as a result. In the short term, we’ve seen taxes cut ostensibly to support job creation, but jobs have failed to materialize, leaving us only with massive government deficits, after years of surplus. In the long term, the government’s boosterism for and subsidy of our fossil fuel industries will prove a disaster for Canada’s economy, as taxpayers are left to fund the climate change tab that industry was let off the hook for having to pay.

From all indications, the Liberal Party, if it were to form government, would do things little differently than the Conservative Party, due to the Liberal’s continuing support for the fossil fuel industry.

Mulcair’s Incoherent Climate Plan

Which brings us back to Thomas Mulcair’s NDP. A close look at where Mulcair is taking the NDP has led me to conclude that, despite all of the talk about sustainability, the NDP would be little different from the Liberals and Conservatives in power, because Mulcair’s NDP either doesn’t seem to understand the magnitude of the climate crisis, or if it does, it doesn’t want to do anything much about it. To wit, the NDP continue to promote a market-based carbon pricing mechanism which has proven to be an abject failure at curbing emissions. Cap and Trade has floundered in Europe and in the United States.

More than cap and trade, however, the NDP has on offer an incoherent policy platform which, on the one hand promotes conservation, but on the other hand seeks to keep the price of fossil fuel energy low, which will lead to more consumption and more emissions. Clearly, the NDP lacks a serious policy direction on climate change – but the NDP believes that their current suite of policies is a vote-winner. And they may be right.

Where Does the NDP Go From Here?

Going forward, the NDP will find itself in a difficult situation, no matter whether it forms government in 2015 or drops back to being Canada’s 3rd Party. The NDP is going to have to wrestle with the emergence of the “new left”, which is increasingly going to draw attention to the NDP’s climate change policy deficiencies and continued support of the hyper-capitalist economic system. The NDP is going to have to make a tough choice: will they continue to pursue electoral success by positioning itself in the middle of Canada’s political spectrum – essentially becoming a version of the Liberal Party – or will the NDP begin to adopt the ideology of the New Left, which means a serious “greening” of the NDP?

It’s not at all clear to me which way the NDP might go. Certainly, nothing is going to happen quickly, but already there exists tension within the Party between those who seek to move to the middle and those who understand that the needs of the nation lie with the rejection of our current hyper-capitalist economic system. As the environmental-labour alliance gains traction and adherents over the next decade, that tension within the NDP is only going to become more pronounced.

Interestingly, I think that the NDP’s hand may be forced one way or another by means which are not of their own making. The success of failure of the Liberal Party over the next several years may be the deciding factor. If Justin Trudeau falls on his face before the next election, and the NDP’s electoral success is significant, then it’s quite likely that the NDP will opt to solidify its position in the centre, and disparage the new left. If, however, the Liberals beat the NDP back into 3rd place, it may be that the NDP will go through a period of self-examination, ultimately emerging as the champion of the new left.

Whatever the NDP decides to do, the emergent environmental-labour alliance of the new left is going to be need a political champion. A green reformation requires the buy-in of political power and leadership in government. The NDP may yet prove to be the champion of the New Left, but if it continues on its present course, the labour and environmental movements will have to look elsewhere for leadership.

The Climate Crisis

We know that to avoid the most significant impacts of runaway climate change that the vast majority of the Earth’s fossil fuel deposits must remain in the ground, unburned. If we are to leave our children with a planet which somewhat resembles the one on which we grew up, we are rapidly running out of time to transition from fossil fuels to green energy. Runaway climate change, if we allow it to happen, could lead to the planetary collapse of natural systems, and economic and governance structures. Our long-term health requires us to take significant action now. For too long, political leaders have paid lip service to this notion. While the majority might agree, as they did in Copenhagen in 2008, to holding warming at a level of 2 degrees Celsius, there has been little evidence that they’ve taken this target seriously. The level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere continues to rise. Instead of beginning the process of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels, many world governments, including Canada’s, have instead invested heavily in extracting even dirtier deposits, such as tar sands bitumen and methane-releasing shale gas.

Yet, in Canada, the old-line political parties continue to treat climate change as an environmental issue. It isn’t. Climate change is a systems issue – it is THE issue – the single, over-riding issue of the 21st Century on which all other issues will take their cue. Climate change will effect global economies; it will reduce life expectancy. It will lead to resource conflicts. It will lead to the mass movement and relocation of peoples. It will have impacts on the natural environment. It is an economic, health, social, agricultural, physiological issue whose scope is unprecedented in humanity’s history, thanks to its global nature.

The New Left – A Natural Alliance

We know what has to be done to combat climate change. Our consumer-driven hyper-capitalist economic system is the gravest threat to planet. Neoliberal economic interests have done what they can to stack the system in order to keep it going – to feed the notion that “growth” is good, necessary and inevitable, despite the reality that it is none of those things. As energy prices rise due to the end of inexpensive energy, the maintenance of growth requires that other inputs be cut, and the cost of labour is the easiest and most obvious target. To ensure that growth continues, wages must be kept in check, unions must be busted and laws which curtail collective bargaining must be made. The labour movement has fallen firmly in the sights of the neoliberal interests which have erected barrier after barrier in the fight against climate change.

It is natural that the environmental movement and the labour movement join forces at this time, because of the significant overlap of interests. In fact the idea of an “alliance” doesn’t go far enough. What’s needed instead is an integration. The labour movement must infuse itself with environmentalism. In short, labour has to go green. And that’s exactly what labour has been doing.

In Canada, the NDP has long been the champion of the labour movement, but what we will witness over the next decade may very well be a divergence of labour from the NDP – a divergence which is actually well underway. As the NDP moves to the right of the political spectrum and continues the call for more supports to our hyper-capitalist economic system, and stymies the emergence of the green economy, the labour movement is heading in the opposite direction by greening itself and joining the battle against the climate crisis.

A labour movement which finds itself at odds with one political patron will be forced to look elsewhere for political support. If the NDP can’t reform itself into a green party, labour and the New Left will have to start reaching out in a significant way to the Green Party.

The Green Party – Canada’s Only “Green” Party

In Canada, the only federalist political party which champions the emergent green economy is the Green Party. Despite what you may have discovered on CBC’s Vote Compass, it is a stretch of the imagination to suggest that the Green Party is a left-wing political party. However, nor is it particularly right-wing. In fact, it’s not a good fit for the left/right political spectrum at all, and it should be no wonder that many Greens, including me, reject the whole notion of a left-right political spectrum (even though we may use it in blog after blog as a good short hand barometer).

While the Green Party has traditionally supported pro-labour legislation, some within the labour movement have viewed this party, my party, as being anti-labour due to the issues Greens raise over resource extraction, along with our support of carbon pricing. Wrongly, I believe, labour has equated carbon and resource pricing with threats to jobs and the health of the economy. As a result, labour has historically shunned the Green Party.

Some environmentalists, too, have taken issue with the Green Party, although usually not from a policy perspective. Often its because environmentalists have found homes in the NDP and Liberal parties and believe that those parties are the best vehicles to bring about pro-environmental political change, due to their past electoral successes and their relative prospects for future success. However, I believe that environmentalists are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their support of these parties, due to the lack of prioritization either the Liberals or the NDP afford to the issue of addressing climate change.

Change: Opportunities and Threats for the Green Party

As the labour movement and environmental movement move closer together, it will increasingly become clear that their primary issues of social and environmental justice are one and the same. The Green Party has long understood this, and as the Party continues to mature, it may very well continue to challenge the NDP for the support of the New Left. As the threat to social and environmental justice is clearly our hyper-capitalist economic system, the NDP’s continued embrace of that economic system very well could drive the New Left towards the Green Party.

Of course, the Green Party faces its own serious set of challenges, which all stem from a lack of past electoral success. For many voters, the Green Party just isn’t a serious option, whether that’s because there is an implicit understand that Green candidates can’t win elections, or because of concerns regarding policies with which voters may lack comfort. As I observed before, change, while inevitable, is always resisted. That we know we must change our profligate ways is one thing – actually acting on that knowledge is another thing altogether.

The threat that the rise of the Green Party poses to all three old-line parties means that Canada’s political vested interests will continue to do what it can to keep the Green Party down in an attempt to make it irrelevant to voters. However, if the New Left can’t convince the NDP to tow their line and get serious about the climate crisis, it may be that the New Left, led by the labour movement, could add its considerable resources to contribute to the Green Party’s success.

And of course, that’s a double-edged sword. Right now, the labour movement has little influence or presence in the Green Party, and as a result, there will be some trepidation amongst greens who may perceive labour’s interests to be out of alignment with their own. This may be mitigated to an extent by the coming together of the labour and environmental movements, and the gradual pace of their integration. I don’t expect union bosses to urge their members to buy memberships in the Green Party en masse on sunny April day next year – likely it will be an incremental process, although I certainly hope it proceeds a little faster than that.

Social Justice and Carbon Fee & Dividend

Of course the New Left might also leave its policy mark on the Green Party, too. An obvious target for labour and the New Left would be the Green Party’s carbon fee and dividend policy, which may be seen as being too right-wing for the New Left. A carbon price scheme which fails to invest returns into social justice programs may not be the best model to ease the emergence of the green economy. Good riddance, I say, as I don’t believe that the carbon fee and dividend approach to carbon pricing is the best option for Canada. A revenue-neutral carbon tax, with some carbon revenues going towards income supports for those less well off (perhaps in the form of a guaranteed annual income) would be a much more equitable carbon price mechanism. The New Left may demand that revenues be treated as investments, rather than returned directly to all Canadians, whether their income is $1,000 a year or $1 milion. In anticipation of issues related to equity, the Green Party should get out ahead of the New Left and seriously consider reverting back to a revenue neutral tax shift carbon pricing model.

The New Left and the Greening of the NDP

While I have an interest in the New Left investing in the Green Party, as a realist, I expect that of the two possible candidates for the New Left’s support, I believe that the NDP will likely prove to be the better vehicle. My rationale for this statement is as follows: one of the conditions for the NDP to maintain itself as a centrist party would likely be the relative loss of influence of the Liberal Party. That means that the NDP is going to have experience a high level of electoral success in the next election. Given the popularity of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau with the electorate, I just can’t see anything but Liberal gains in the next election at the expense of the NDP. Any scenario in which the NDP ends up as neither government or Official Opposition will lead the NDP towards a period of self-examination (especially if the Liberals or Conservatives form a majority government – political self-assessments are always more difficult to undertake in minority situations).

Any NDP self-assessment in this circumstance is almost assuredly going to lead the NDP to move away from the crowded middle, and to return to its more activist roots. With a labour movement which increasingly understands environmental issues at its back, what the ultimate outcome may very well be is a true greening of the NDP. In a circumstance of electoral defeat for the NDP, is it possible to imagine an outcome other than this? Shut out of the middle and flanked by a growing concern in the Green Party, it’s pretty clear to me that there would be only one route forward for the NDP – and that’s to become a “green” political party. And that would, I believe, pretty much mean a wrap for the Green Party.

Only the electoral success of the NDP could conceivably alter that scenario, and even then, it wouldn’t be a gimme. The NDP will have plenty of reasons to consider greening itself, either as Official Opposition or in government. The New Left in particular is going to be demanding it, and since many of the NDP’s members will also be involved in the New Left movement, the NDP is going to have to wrestle with this reality. Ultimately, however, the NDP might continue to hold its present course of embracing hyper-capitalism in an effort to retain its populism.

The Liberal and Conservative Parties: Not Green

What about the potential for the New Left to support either the Liberal or the Conservative Party? Why do I believe that a (much reformed) NDP is the best bet, followed by an energized Green Party? Well, I don’t believe that the liberal and Conservative nature of either of these two parties is compatible with the emergence of a green economy in preference to our hyper-capitalist system. Further, both the Conservative and Liberal parties are rife with neoliberal ideology. Unless either of these parties undergoes a fundamental reformation or is exposed to revolutionary change, I can’t see either becoming a real green Party. And since that sort of reformational change is simply too big to contemplate, well, I don’t think it could happen – not before the NDP, or the Greens in a significant way, get there and occupy the space first.

If the Liberals flounder in the next election, and if the Green Party can put in a good showing and continue to build around a caucus of legislators, it may be at some point down the road Greens and Liberals might find it in their political interests to get together. Make no mistake, though: such an alliance would be considered unholy by stalwarts in both parties. The Liberals would have to undergo significant reform to make their party appealing to Greens, albeit I suspect that dropping support for hyper-capitalism wouldn’t be necessary (and it would be a complete no-go for Liberals). In the end, however, such a merger would more than likely just muddy the waters and what we’d end up with would be a kinder, gentler Liberal Party, still enmeshed in the spirit of hyper-capitalist consumerism. Sort of something like Thomas Mulcair’s NDP, only with better environmental and economic policies. Whatever a Liberal-Green hypothetical merger would be, however, it wouldn’t be the sort of political vehicle that could take meaningful action on climate change, as it wouldn’t recognize that the gravest threat to the health of the our planet.

And the Conservatives? Forget it. I fully expect that they’ll eventually get around to taking an active interest in climate change, but as far as recognizing it as an economic threat? I just don’t see it. The Conservative Party’s ideology is neoliberal.

Looking Forward

In 10 years time, the challenges of the climate crisis will be more immediately obvious to voters. The political parties which vie for their votes are most likely to begin putting forward more comprehensive and consistent platforms regarding social and environmental justice. Those parties which continue to support runaway resource development of fossil fuels will find an electorate that is well into a fundamental shift, largely pitting younger voters against older ones. It’s not clear to me that two political parties which continue to embrace tar sands and shale gas expansion can co-exist nationally in this changing reality, much less the three that we have today. I fully expect there to be a significantly altered political landscape 10 years from now, thanks to energy politics and the emergence of the New Left.

Whether my Green Party has a place in that political reality remains to be seen – but what is certain is that there will be more “greens” voting than ever before. David Suzuki once claimed that he didn’t see the need for a “Green Party” because it was his belief that all parties should be “green”. What’s clear in our current political environment is that there is only one “green” Party right now –but that may give way in the near future if the NDP finally figures out what “doing politics differently” really means.

A Green New Democratic Party – Good for Canada

I will continue to hope that the NDP will finally “get it” one day and abandon policies which will subsidize fossil fuel use. I will continue to hope that the NDP will get rid of its cap and trade carbon pricing policy, and replace it with one which favours a revenue neutral carbon tax. I will hope that the NDP, instead of embracing consumerism and our hyper-capitalist system, takes a longer look at what is in the ultimate interests of our nation and comes to the conclusion that economic reformation is needed in Canada, starting with abandoning free trade agreements.

That’s a pretty tall order for any political party, I know. It’s certainly not something which is likely to happen overnight. Or…maybe it would. The NDP has this chameleon-like ability to transform – of all of Canada’s political parties, it has done the best job of re-inventing itself throughout the past 50 years (unless you consider Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative Party to be the direct lineal ancestor of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party – and I don’t). It may be that at some future membership convention, the Party elite hands the Party back to its members, invigorated by the proposition that a New Left is best positioned to be the champion of social and environmental justice. Party policy could change overnight in that scenario, and the NDP that emerges from such a convention could be another green Party. Ultimately, that would be good for Canada.

So if it seems that I’ve been very hard on the NDP in this series of blogposts (and in many other posts that I’ve made), it’s only because the NDP has massively failed to live up to my hopes and aspirations at this point. However, I continue to have hope that the NDP might one day find its way again and put its political values at the forefront, rather than promoting its current prime directive, which is to win at all costs. If the NDP were to dispense with its populist policy buffet that is ultimately not helpful in combatting the climate crisis, it would be worth another look by voters, in my opinion. But, in the words of the theme music from Smokey and the Bandit (hey, I am a child of the 80s), “We’ve got a long way to go, and a short time to get there.”

(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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