Agenda for a Revived Canadian Left: Social Conservatism: Economic Radicalism

By Martin, Robert | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

Agenda for a Revived Canadian Left: Social Conservatism: Economic Radicalism


Martin, Robert, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


The Canadian left is generally irrelevant and deservedly so. Indeed, from my perspective, there is no left in Canada today. There hasn't been one for at least a decade. I am not happy about this. A left is sorely missed. We have been living through the most intense class struggle this country has known since the 1930s. Actually, it's been more of a rout than a struggle. Poor and working-class Canadians have taken a terrible beating. Social and economic gains which once seemed unassailable are rolled back almost effortlessly.

The absence of a left is also glaringly apparent on the ideological plane. Our public discourse is overwhelmed by rhapsodies on the wonders of the marketplace. The market is assumed to have magical properties which will lead it to remedy all social and economic ills, while any interference by the state in its workings is painted as the very embodiment of evil.

We need to recreate a left, but first we have to understand what "left" means and what a left would stand for in the Canada of the 1990s. This means going back to first principles, the two elements essential to a definition of left. The first is a refusal to accept the inequality built into our economic system. This requires a systematic effort to understand capitalism. The analysis of capitalism is then used to construct a politics which seeks to transform and, finally, transcend capitalism--to understand the world in order to change it.

Second, opposition to capitalism must be based in and seek to further the interests of those human beings who are the objects of capitalism, who are impoverished, materially, intellectually and spiritually, by it. The left must seek to understand economic reality from the perspective of this class. Left politics must be class politics.

What was once the left in Canada has not so much disappeared as it has abolished itself. It did so by forsaking opposition to capitalism and turning its back on class analysis and class politics. It embraced, instead, post-modernist thought and the politics of the self.

What masquerades as the left today--primarily, but not exclusively, the New Democratic Party--has long since abandoned any mention, let alone criticism, of capitalism. At the same time it avoids talk of class, devoting itself instead to advancing the interests of recognized victim groups.

Conveniently forgotten in all this is the unchanging reality of class, something postmodernist politics actively obscures. Great attention is paid, for example, to claims made on behalf of women. But women, like men, are not a socially homogenous group, they do not constitute a social monolith. Women belong to classes; their economic and social interests are not identical.

Thus, post-modernist politics has largely ignored perhaps the most fundamental economic change of the past quarter century. Only a generation ago a working-class family could survive, and even prosper, as a result of 40 to 45 hours of work per week. This is no longer possible. For bare survival today a working-class family must surrender 80 to 90 hours of work each week.

This reality has been obscured by the movement of substantial numbers of upper-middle-class women into the professions and managerial jobs. Women, it is said with some truth, have made great economic gains. But if we look at the matter in class terms, working-class women have simply been forced to work outside the home. This has not been a matter of choice. Working-class women are found in the most menial of jobs at the lowest pay, hardly the sort of employment anyone would choose. Working-class women don't have "careers" and they don't have nannies. Indeed, the idea that there is a commonality of interests between the successful lawyer and her nanny is simply laughable.

So what would a left which returned from post-modernist politics to class politics do? The first thing, unpleasant as it may be, is to look critically at the current state of politics in our country. …

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