Every revolution needs a vanguard elite. The proles are usually too distracted by religion, nationalism or the NHL playoffs to have developed a revolutionary consciousness. Elite, forward-looking thinkers must define a vision and mobilize the masses to make it happen.
Previously in history, the vanguard elite needed to work in secret to avoid getting arrested, tortured and shot by the secret police. However, this is modern Canada, so our vanguard elite has a website and some telegenic leaders. Instead of getting ignored by the state-funded media, the CBC gives them loads of free publicity.
So, after hearing about the Leap Manifesto incessantly for a few weeks, I decided to actually read it. By choosing the name “Manifesto” the vanguardists are clearly making a reference to the Communist Manifesto, one of the most influential political documents in history. The latter is a carefully argued text about 17,500 words long. I was looking to see what Canada’s leading anti-capitalists would come up with in a 21st century version of such a revolutionary document.
Reading the document left me extremely puzzled. It seems our vanguard elite may not be so elite. The policy proposals read like a first-year political science student’s essay, just using the climate change menace to trot out the same old left-wing ideas that have failed to get traction for decades.
Notable by their absence are many of the more innovative ideas that leading anti-capitalist thinkers are putting forward these days. The whole thing is not much longer than a Yukonomist column, not much space if you’re really trying to lay out a convincing alternative to the status quo. It’s one-tenth the length of the Communist Manifesto. I don’t think Karl Marx or even a demanding professor at a graduate seminar would be impressed.
In terms of political strategy it also seems amateurish. Justin Trudeau’s advisors must be barely able to believe their luck now that the Leapists have convinced the NDP to debate essentially phasing out the Western Canadian resource economy in all 338 ridings across Canada over the next year or two.
The Yukon Liberals must be hoping the local NDP has a session here before the territorial election where Naomi Klein visits and elaborates on Leap’s sections about the “profit gouging of private companies,” carbon taxes and higher royalties on mining companies. Anyone interested in the future of the Yukon mining industry will have some questions after reading the bit about Canadian-owned mining projects.
In fact, if the Liberal Party hired some freelance ex-KGB deep penetration agents to infiltrate the NDP and destroy it as an electoral force, they would probably come up with a plan very similar what the Leapists are doing. Leap has a good chance to shatter the NDP electoral coalition of working people, often in resource-rich areas, and urban progressives.
Nor is the vanguard elite succeeding at mobilizing the proles. So far less than 40,000 people have signed the manifesto, not many in a country of 35 million considering it was launched with lots of free publicity six months ago during an election campaign with relatively high public political engagement.
On the policy side, Leap begins with the statement: “We start from the premise that Canada is facing the deepest crisis in recent memory.”
This might make a good opening line, but it also shows the authors’ tenuous relationship with reality. Just consider a couple of facts. The life expectancy for Canadians was 82 years in 2011, up an astonishing 25 years from 57 years in 1921. Income per capita, as measured by gross domestic product adjusted for inflation, has almost tripled since 1960 with significant rises for lower income groups. Workplace injuries have plummeted. Leaded gas, acid rain, PCBs, asbestos and all kinds of things have been regulated almost out of existence. On the social policy side, over the last 50 years religious and racial tolerance is the expected standard, aboriginal self-government has been instituted in the Yukon, and gay marriage is now the norm.
Canada continues to face serious issues and there are many things we can and should do better. If the Leapists said that the country was enjoying good times from a historical perspective, but that our prosperity masked a coming climate change crisis, that would at least be a debatable discussion reasonable people could have. But we’re hardly in crisis. Ask the people of Greece or Venezuela what crisis looks like.
They also claim that “austerity” is a threat to life on Earth. It’s another snappy line that’s great on television. But do they really think Canada is facing “austerity?” Andrew Coyne of one of the big Outside papers pointed out that of the 10 biggest-spending budgets in Canadian history, adjusted for inflation and population growth, nine of them occurred since 2006 (under Stephen Harper, no less). This is well known. The data is on the Internet and the intellectuals like the Leapists have no excuse for getting these basic facts wrong.
On their more specific policy proposals, let’s look at one sector as an example: finance. They propose a tax on financial transactions. This sounds nice, but if a small, open country like Canada did that then all that would happen is our bond traders and hedge fund managers would move to New York. That wouldn’t help anyone much, other than New York’s tax department. And they don’t mention leftist policies that a national government could actually implement, and which top anti-capitalist thinkers are writing about these days, such as breaking up the banks and replacing them with co-ops, ending fractional reserve banking or using the Bank of Canada’s money-printing powers to finance progressive investment.
Their environmental policy, like the finance proposal above, seems not to understand that Canada is a small country in a globalized world. Even if we completely shut down the Canadian oil, gas and mining industries and all heated our homes with windmills, the impact on temperatures on the planet would be a rounding error compared to what China, India, Europe and the United States are doing. We need a concerted international effort here, not economic self-harm in a small northern country.
The country needs thoughtful policy proposals from left and right. The NDP is selecting a new leader. I would recommend skipping over people who are good at generating publicity for themselves and selling books, and picking someone who can develop policy proposals that can actually be implemented to make Canada a better place.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won the Ma Murray award for best columnist in 2015.