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Canada: Elections: all we can hope for?

category north america / mexico | miscellaneous | opinion / analysis author Tuesday November 25, 2008 22:49author by Scott Neigh - Common Cause - Linchpin 6 Report this post to the editors

Election season. It's a sad time.

Elections are neither nothing nor everything. Within narrow bounds, we get to choose -- criminally narrow bounds that mean they cannot touch the things that mean life or death, more suffering or less suffering, for many, but can make small but real changes that mean life or death, more suffering or less suffering, for others. It would be politically foolish and morally dubious to ignore that.

In the U.S., the choice is between a neoliberal and a complete maniac -- not good and evil, but not quite tweedledum and tweedledee. It may not matter in exactly the way the hype machine claims that Obama is the first African American nominee for a major party – perhaps the first African American president, a single generation after the fall of Jim Crow – but it definitely matters. In terms of policy impacts, a modest drop in people who lack health care; management of empire that might result in a small decrease in body count; small efforts to safeguard the ability some women in the U.S. currently have to get an abortion when they need one; small but non-trivial efforts to reduce some kinds of poverty for some people; a few of the intrusions by the national security state (but only a few) rolled back; maybe even small reductions in the barriers workers' face in organizing: I doubt all of these things will happen, but I suspect a few will if Obama is elected. Small in comparison to the scale of the problems? Sure. Real impacts on real lives despite that? Yup. And because of that, it matters. At the same time, empire will roll on undisturbed, the bodies of poor and working-class people of colour in the so-called third world will continue to be sacrificed on the alter of capitalism, rising poverty will increase suffering and early death in the global north as well, workers and communities will still have little control over our work and the economy, sexual violence will remain endemic, and white supremacy and patriarchy will continue to be fundamental organizing principles of our lives even if Obama wins. And that matters too. A lot.

As for Canada, the election will score a bit less on the drama-o-meter. Minority government status has kept Harper from excessive rampage, memories of the dubious charms of straight-up neoliberalism are still quite fresh so the coat of greenish paint slathered on by Dion cannot disguise what is on offer, and Layton -- well, I'm not someone who has ever harboured illusions about the NDP, but even within my modest expectations I am not impressed. Though that's probably how I'll vote. But the same logic applies. Just to take one example, the difference between having and not having national, socialized daycare makes a real difference to people's lives. But even trading Harper's band of buffoons for a Liberal minority supported by the NDP -- generally the most progressive combination you can find in Canadian electoral politics, even if it never lasts long -- will never in a million years root out the fundamental injustices of our society if that's the only source of change.

So I'm not saying don't vote. I'm not saying don't care about who wins. I'm not even saying don't intervene in the election somehow. What I am saying is that we all need to take a good, long, critical look at our words and our actions and figure out what external cues they respond to. We need to ask, "What organizes my political life?"

Does your political imagination, your sense of the necessary, the target of your desire for a better world, and the process by which you make decisions for acting politically on a daily basis begin from the totality of the problems that face us, the experiences of those hit hardest by them, and a desire to figure out how to address them in their entirety? Or do they begin from the framing of the problems in the mainstream media, the narrow window of change that is imaginable in electoral politics, and/or the changes that can be made through paid work at social services funded by state or para-state sources? The question is one of imagination, of what shapes the horizon of your vision, the reference points that guide your actions.

For instance, if you are considering poverty, you could have an important debate about how critical allies within social services and the agency sector can be part of political projects aimed at ending poverty -- by sharing information, gaining access to resources, finding ways to un-erase the voices of people living in poverty, and so on -- and whatever the limits of such alliance might be. But if your entire political imagination on the subject is organized around using and winning more funding for social services and the agency sector, your politics are not being organized by starting from the problems (and you are ignoring how intrusive, controlling, and oppressive many people living in poverty experience even the more sympathetic agencies to be), they are being organized by relations of ruling.

Because that's what they are at least partly about: ruling. The dominant media, electoral politics, and the agency sector -- the three things that are most likely to bound the imaginations of self-styled 'progressives' -- are integrated into relations which rule us in practical, material, demonstrable ways. Elections and social service agencies especially take our energy for change, our desire for a better world, and they channel them in particular ways. I know good people who do good, important work in those areas, but work within those contexts is all the more effective if it is done with a critical consciousness that is not purely defined by them. At best these are terrains for struggle. But so many people seem to think that the channels of activity that were granted by elites in response to past struggles, in part as hard-won concessions and in part as attempts to co-opt, are all we need or even all that are reasonably possible.

It is in lowering our expectations, closing off our sense of possibility, making us believe that "this is it," that so much of our potential to make the world better is stolen from us. Or, as I tend to see it in my more depressive moments, how so much of that potential is simply surrendered by so many of us.


From Linchpin 6, published by the Ontario anarchist organization Common Cause
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