Is there a new (or revised) left?

Author:Mark Kingwell, and others

Last issue, Inroads published its first roundtable discussion, bringing together five key players from the then recently defeated Ontario NDP government. In the same issue, we published "Age Matters: Equity Between Age Groups in Canada," by Patrick C. Fafard, which focused on the exclusion of young people from a Canada created by their elders. We've decided to follow up both articles with our second roundtable discussion. This time, we've brought together five "youngish" "leftists," ranging from 24 to 34 years old. Their backgrounds and interests are diverse, as are their opinions and analyses. Their views on the NDP, the deficit, unions, the public sector and collective self-interest vary greatly but, ironically, the one thing they do seem to share is a lack of interest in "youth" as a specific class. Moreover, there is a perhaps surprisingly critical attitude towards any kind of identity politics. As one participant commented, "Five years ago I would have been shocked to hear this conversation, because identity politics defined almost everything. The tide has turned very quickly against it."

The following is an edited version of the discussion that took place, in Toronto on February 27, 1997. The participants were:

Mark Kingwell is the author of A Civil Tongue: Justice, Dialogue and the Politics of Pluralism (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995) and Dreams of Millennium: Report from a Culture on the Brink (Viking, 1996), and has been published in more than 40 journals, magazines and newspapers. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy from Yale University and teaches Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

Naomi Klein writes a weekly op-ed column on the politics of popular culture for The Toronto Star. She is a former editor of This Magazine, a contributing editor at Elm Street, and writes frequently for Ms. She lives in Toronto, where she is at work on a book.

Irshad Manji is the author of Risking Utopia: On the Edge of a New Democracy (Douglas & McIntyre). A former speech writer for NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin, editorialist with The Ottawa Citizen, and debater on TVOntario, she now hosts and produces "In the Public Interest" on Vision TV.

Tom Parkin is Research Director for the Amalgamated Transit Union. He has worked for the Saskatchewan NDP, the Ontario ministries of Labour and Housing, and the Canadian Peace Alliance. He serves on the Ontario Federation of Labour's Political Education Committee, the CLC's National Political Action Committee and the Ontario NDP Executive.

Alexandra Samuel is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Harvard University, where she is conducting research on European social democratic parties. She has been active in the NDP since 1984, and was special assistant to the Premier of Ontario from 1993 to 1995.

Arthur Milner (chair) is a member of Inroads' Editorial Board. He is a long-time member of the NDP and was, from 1986 to 1989, President of the Ottawa Centre Federal NDP Constituency Association.

INROADS: Let's start with this: do you consider yourselves on the left, and what does that mean to you?

TOM PARKIN: I do, and that means, I guess, a continual effort to try and build the structures--towards a more equal society, a fairer society, wealthier society. Nothing particularly mystical about it.

IRSHAD MANJI: In fact, the goal of equality and justice is very mystical. How do you define equality and justice?

PARKIN: When you're dealing with something practical--politically practical--I don't think a grand definition is particularly useful.

ALEXANDRA SAMUEL: I disagree. A grand definition is difficult but the fact that we don't have one is one of the big problems of the left. People know what the neo-conservative agenda is about--cut taxes and cut spending and every man for himself, literally. But people have lost what being on the left means.

MANJI: One thing that's happened is that visions have been trumped by agendas. Whereas an agenda can be very dogmatic, very exclusive, a vision embraces complexity and nuance and paradox. My greatest worry about the left is that it has grown hardened and fundamentalist. It's fallen into the same kind of us-versus-them paradigm that a lot of neoconservatives promote. And I don't think that is an alternative to neo-conservatism at all.

NAOMI KLEIN: I'm a big fan of "us versus them." The reason there is so much "whither-the-left" stuff going on is that, at least since free trade, there has not been a sense of what the next big fight is and what everybody is together on. When the left gets renewed it will be in the context of globalization, and it will be a more international movement than we have ever seen. It will, to some extent, transcend nations, and it will be us against the corporations, a popular uprising against the corporations.

SAMUEL: So who is us? I'm just curious.

KLEIN: People. The needs of people versus the needs of corporations. It will be people here making connections--like the fight in Toronto against Starbucks, and activists advocating on behalf of Guatemalan coffee growers. You make connections understanding how these global corporations operate, and out of this realization a new politics will emerge. And it won't have leaders in the traditional sense because we already know this stuff. We won't need anybody preaching to us the way previous generations did.

MARK KINGWELL: The interesting thing is that this is all just an intramural dispute among liberals--we are all liberals in the classical sense. Liberals have said since the early 1600s that each individual has a moral status which is to be politically protected. But this is where globalization becomes an issue. We have relied on government to protect that equal status--by regulating things like the power of corporations and the influence of markets. So what happens to the individual when those protections are no longer there, when the welfare state is lost? It's not even an issue of left versus right, because no nation of any ideological commitment can stand up to what's going on.

SAMUEL: That's one of the contentious issues in the NDP--that we've lost policy autonomy.

KLEIN: It's in contention because we've watched one NDP government after another unable to govern as an NDP government.

SAMUEL: There was a lot of anger about that. Some people in the Ontario NDP justified what the government was doing by saying there is limited policy autonomy. Other people didn't accept that. The problem is, those people aren't doing anything to prove that policy autonomy still exists. And people who accept that autonomy is constrained haven't come up with a new agenda.

KINGWELL: The problem is that neo-conservatives--who are just extreme classical liberals--are in favour of deregulation, which is what is happening anyway. If you occupy another position on the liberal spectrum, say the social democratic part, where I am comfortable, and you say, "no, we need regulation to protect the rights of individuals and not just toss them into a sea of market forces," you look like you're trying to halt the inevitable.

PARKIN: We got free trade in 1988 and an enormous recession in 1990. We had three provincial NDP governments at the time, but our ideology was stuck in the '70s. The social welfare argument of the '50s, '60s and '70s isn't working. We have to admit that we don't have the answers. We don't help ourselves by denying that the market has changed.

MANJI: That is a very important point: we don't have all of the answers and some of us don't have any answers. Humility has been lost, not just on the right. In that spirit, I want to challenge something Mark [Kingwell] said. A lot of people see government as part of the problem. If you talk to people in Regent Park here in Toronto, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada, a lot of them will say, "when I go to the social welfare offices I'm treated like crap. And when they hand me the cheque, they don't hand it to me with any dignity. They grill me, they interrogate me, they make me feel like a criminal. I will definitely take workfare over that kind of treatment." I'm thinking more and more these days about whether individuals--with new values--can reform governments or corporations.

KINGWELL: We need to start a conversation about what the political virtues are. What are the virtues of citizenship that we'll need in order to navigate the changes that are coming? Humility is probably a virtue of citizens...

To continue reading