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Monday, June 13, 2011

Opposing the #HarperRegime: thinking strategically over the next four years

Sorry, dear friends. This is going to be one of those times when I try to get cerebral, but not too cerebral, and end up sounding like a wanker. Business as usual, in other words.

In the context of last week's Twitter exchange with @thekeenanwire over the question of what we deserve, I admitted that I hadn't thought through all the implications of what I was saying or where I was going. To the extent that we could arrive at common ground in 140-character bursts, we managed to agree that "need" was probably a better word than "deserve" when we're talking about a police force, or a society, or a government. At least that's the impression I was left with; if I'm wrong, Ed, please feel free to correct me.

It's that whole "deserve" thing that's been bothering me ever since. At the time, I wondered, rhetorically, whether those of us who take the obligations of active citizenship seriously and consider ourselves progressive really deserve to have a government of corrupt thugs and pale U.S. Republican teabagger wannabes foisted upon us because of the dysfunctions of our current electoral system.

In truth, I still don't have an answer to that, but if I'm going to generate and/or invite discussion, then the least I can do is acknowledge that we're entering a minefield here. This goes beyond Harper and involves fundamental questions of democratic legitimacy. Over at his own place, thwap's been addressing just those questions and while I'm not sure he and his guests have arrived at any conclusion, at least it's a start.

Land mine number one is the fluidity of the argument. Like it or not, Harper won a majority under the rules everyone agreed to. I'm not talking about the dirty tricks or the robocalls or the penny-ante astroturfers or all the myriad ways he and his minions debase our politics – I'm talking about the fact that he won a majority of seats in Parliament. We can argue about the distortions and unfairness inherent in the archaic First-Past-The-Post system, and indeed, fixing it might well be one of the most important things we need to work on, but we can't use those dysfunctions to argue against the legitimacy of Harper's mandate without exposing ourselves to the same line of attack should the shoe ever be on the other foot.

I don't want to put words in thwap's mouth or misrepresent his arguments (and of course if I'm wrong, thwap, the same invitation applies), so let me make sure I've understood his argument: the illegitimacy of Harper's mandate lies not in how fucked up things are under FPTP, but in the assertion that he and his minions have displayed contempt for democracy and torn up the rulebook.

And this is where I differ. Suggest that the Harperites have debased our democracy, poisoned the body politic and diminished the whole idea of Canadian citizenship, and you won't get any argument from me. Argue that we need to work against them on multiple fronts and focus on every possible way of bringing them down and I'm with you. I have nothing but disgust for their view of Canadian history, their contempt for the Canadian character and the warped and mean-spirited program they hope to enact. But suggest that they have no right to govern, despite their electoral victory – and you lose me. There's a great deal of emotional power in saying they tore up the rulebook, but it's a subjective assertion, and I'm just not sure how strong a foundation it is for a strategic program of undermining their legitimacy.

That doesn't mean we can't raise questions about how representative this government really is. That doesn't mean we can't use the mathematical facts to question just how strong that mandate really is, based as it is on less than 40 per cent of the vote in an election where only 60 per cent of eligible voters even bothered to show up. That's a message we can keep repeating. I'm not suggesting for a second that we shouldn't be engaging in politics at the tactical level as well as the strategic; it's more a question of how much energy to devote to day-to-day tactical battles as opposed to long-term strategic ones. Steve's got his majority now. Despite Brigette DePape's amazingly awesome symbolic action, Parliament isn't going to be the place to stop him.

Which brings us to land mine number two. One of the obvious implications of that is that opposition to the Harper Regime is going to need extra-parliamentary focus and extra-parliamentary roots. Demonstrations, workshops and marches will have to be part of that, as will effective outreach and bridge-building strategies, but sooner or later we're going to encounter situations where it becomes necessary to risk legal sanction. If we're questioning the Harper Regime's mandate, then at some point we'll have to question the legitimacy of its actions.

And that's tricky ground. It's not always easy to distinguish the legitimacy of any particular government, no matter how odious, from the legitimacy of the measures enacted by that government. In his post and in the subsequent comments, thwap discusses civil disobedience as one of the options available to opponents of the Harper Regime:

... the task of civil disobedience in this country is even more justified because the government that is going whole-hog to help destroy civilization is completely illegitimate.

This is where it gets interesting. I don't pretend to have a comprehensive knowledge of the underlying theory, but I do remember reading something to the effect that if you're going to engage in civil disobedience, you have to be prepared to face the consequences – and that's got its own internal contradictions as well. If you want to argue that this government is illegitimate, that's your right, but then you have to turn around and accept that the sanctions the system hits you with for your unlawful actions are legitimate. Yes, you can argue that certain aspects of the existing structure are legitimate while other aspects, enacted by this bunch of bastards, are not, but those are subtle distinctions. And they may not be grasped by everyone you're trying to convince. (Not to mention that you're dealing with people who've already demonstrated their contempt for civil liberties and civil society itself.)

And it may be that you're not trying to convince everyone, but then how do we reach those we need to reach? I know it's tempting, but we can't just write off everyone who voted for Harper as a zombie or a moron. That's what I'm alluding to with the outreach and bridge-building. (Might be best to stay away from terms like "education" or "consciousness-raising," because they may sound a little condescending, and in that regard, they're also susceptible to being turned against us by right-wing operatives accusing us of being elitist or fomenting class warfare. It's all about the memes, folks. Doesn't mean we should abandon the effort to win back the words – I'm just suggesting that we pick our battles.)

This isn't meant to be the last word on the subject, but for whatever it's worth, our game plan has to include a reassertion of the most fundamental first principles. Here's my first two cents' worth:

Ultimately, the only source of legitimacy in a democracy is a mandate from the electorate, regardless of the dysfunctions of the FPTP system or the ease with which institutions of governance can be captured and subverted. Certainly one can raise questions about the source of that mandate or the mechanics of how it is generated – in fact, raising such questions is at the very heart of civic engagement.

It's worth noting, for that reason, that the corporations and lobbyists and string pullers do not want engaged citizens – we just gum up the works and get in the way. Democracy, as someone once said, can be messy. But that is all the more reason to stress the obligations of citizenship, and the need for people to participate actively in the civic lives of their communities. (H/t cityslikr)

Of course, this isn't a comprehensive strategic guide. More to come. Thoughts welcome in the meantime.

Related posts:


  1. Part of the problem is that legacy solutions will no longer work. We need to go beyond consequences and embrace action as its own means. One thing I've learned from the DePape incident is that symbolic gestures have a devastating impact on the right. Non-violence still works; iconic events more important than gatherings or raised voices. If civil disobedience is to be effective, we must learn that slogans are what sells. There are no more rules of engagement, only images and media manipulation. I've watched my hockey team be savaged by the Toronto Star and hockey talking heads until the reality has become not what is real but what is being lobbied by the sports establishment. It's what any disobedience, however mild, will face. If you don't toe the line held by the media, you are a dirty fucking hippie. That's why what DePape did, so quiet and eloquent, is so powerful and so numbing to the right. That is how we must conduct the fight. The media can only be neutralized by the media, we must learn to use it to win. The words themselves no longer have importance, the image is what lasts.

  2. My position is based on the fact that harper himself believes that Parliament is a joke and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a useless obstacle.

    If the people with the power to make laws and to use all the other powers of the state don't believe in our system of government, then why should ordinary people who are subjected to it believe or respect their authority?

    You are either passionate about democracy or you aren't. And when entire voting publics decide it's all a sad joke, then guess what? Their democracy becomes weakened and debased. Useless. Empty. Pro Forma. And then, the elites who have been plundering us with increasing intensity for decades get to do so with impunity.

    The more steadfast we stick to the notion that harper has no authority over us, the more people will come around to that fact.

  3. I wanted to give this post five stars and I think I only gave it one. I apologize. I have to get the drift of this new voting system.

    Unfortunately, FPTP is what -- for the moment -- we're stuck with, and that will not change any time soon.

    In the end, there will have to be demonstrations, using the Depape model. Until it is obvious that opposition to this government is wide and deep, there will be no change.

  4. Regarding civil disobedience and non-violent protest - the only thing necessary for punishment to be levied is for the enemy to have the power and the will to do so.

    If the government is corrupt (and I would argue that it is), and the police forces employed by that government are corrupt (recent evidence suggests that they are trending that way more and more) then they cannot and will not be "legitimate" until both are changed. In the government's case, by removing them from power and replacing them with more respectful and honourable men and women. In the police's case, by instituting sweeping reforms to combat corruption and provide penalties for the lawlessness that seems more and more to be the rule and not the exception (see - G20, Stacy Bonds, shootings in Montreal, and so on, and so forth).

    Harper's government can be repressive, and protesters can accept the consequences of their actions peacefully without legitimising the Harper regime.

    As far as reaching Harper's supporters, there are some who simply can't be convinced. The kind of people who will happily swallow SunTV's and the Conservatives lies, the kind of people who simply will not listen or learn because they enjoy their ignorance and wear it like a badge.

    But there are also those who can be reached. I think the best way to do so is to simply drive home the point, over and over, of Harper's crimes against the people and the nation.

    Sadly, I think that means there will be more moments like the G20 protests, where good people will suffer to show just how evil and authoritarian Harper and his party have become.

    The basic difference between Stephen Harper (and Thwap is right, his contempt for our democracy poisons any legitimacy he might have once had) is that he doesn't want to govern.

    He wants to rule.

  5. Canadians stopped for now billing by byte, and we need more of this type of comment marshalling. If Con MP are getting millions of anti Harper agenda messages from real Canadians, they will pay attention and maybe some change in the margins. I mean do you really thing Rob Ford is against legal pot?

  6. Calls for massive civil disobedience and the like often seem like smoke screens for doing precisely nothing. They won't happen. Period. So if you define them as the only hope, you have a lovely shiny excuse to give up any activities except whining and ankle-biting.