Socialism is Dead, Long Live Statism!
Over the past 45 years, the role of governments has increased significantly, particularly in the area of social policy....Canadians now expect their governments to provide or fund a broad range of services, many of which were previously unavailable or were provided by private, religious, and charitable organizations.
—A Canadian Social Charter, Government of Ontario, September 1991
The Ontario government, led by Premier Bob Rae, is finding out that it is a lot easier to be an opposition party than to be the governing party, especially when the treasury has run dry. Many may view the current muddled state of Ontario politics as proof that socialism is simply unworkable. But regardless of appearances, the socialist ideal of the interventionist state is making tremendous progress in Ontario.
Up against reality
The on-again, off-again social contract negotiations have become shrouded in a fog of contradictory signals and complex formulas that change just about every day. Yet the main features of negotiations are not at all unclear. With a deficit threatening to reach $17 billion, even the socialist government of Ontario realized it needed to make drastic cuts. It targeted $6 billion in total cuts, $2 billion of which would be carved out of the wages of 950,000 public sector employees. That decision presented the Rae government with the nasty task of confronting one of the mainstays of its support: the public sector unions.
The result was predictable: angry union leaders denounced the government and vowed to "shut the province down" if it orders wage freezes and rollbacks. Some accused Rae of betraying his socialist principles. Union spokespersons have insisted that no government—not even the NDP (an ideologically ally)—will be allowed to interfere with the sacrosanct collective bargaining process.
Despite the vehement opposition from the government's labour allies, Rae is sticking to his guns, insisting that the $2 billion in cuts is non-negotiable. Tactically, he has retreated and shifted side-ways a number of times. Deadlines have been set and rescheduled. At the time of this writing, the government has introduced legislation with an August 1 deadline. All participants must reach a voluntary agreement or face a government-imposed, legislated program.
These gun-to-the-head "negotiations" have only served to infuriate the unions. Top leaders such as Bob White, now head of the Canadian Labour Congress, travelled to Queen's Park to lay down their ultimatum: "Don't interfere with our collective agreements, or else we will cut our support for the party." Some unions have already cut their financial support to the NDP.
The elusive common good
Socialism is based on a class distinction view of society, that is, society is divided between the workers, the poor, the victimized and business, the powerful, and the privileged. Its theory and program is to reshape society according to the interest of the working class over against the interest of other classes. The dilemma for ruling socialists is their inability to reconcile this class-based view of society with the idea of the common good—an idea that lies at the core of a truly democratic and just form of politics.
To start with the premise of conflict and opposites presents an impossible dilemma for a governing party that, by the very nature of democratic statecraft, must appeal to all sectors of society. To be true to its own ideology, a socialist party has to belabour class differences and conflict and shape its policies accordingly. To be truly democratic and representative of the public (general) interest, it will have to abandon ("betray") a major tenet of its ideology. This is precisely the scenario that is now being played out in the current social contract negotiations in Ontario.
The NDP is confronted with a conundrum it cannot resolve and faces the worst of both worlds: failing to gain broad public support while alienating its own traditional "constituency." The result is a government in disarray, unable to competently deal with controversial and difficult issues.
While the socialist program appears to be unravelling in Ontario, the expansion of politics at the expense of the nonpolitical areas of life continues unabated. Socialism may be on the decline, but politics is a growth industry.
The reasons for this trend of increasing politicization are complex, but its most powerful stimulus comes from the secularization of modern life. This belief holds that there is nothing transcendant and eternal. All there is to human existence is what we encounter in this world; we are free to make of it what we will. It is up to us to construct the "good" society, one in which all suffering, oppression, and injustice can be eliminated. For many, the state is the agency to usher in this Utopia, a secular version of the Christian idea of eternity and heaven.
None of the three major political parties is posing a principled alternative to this drift. The only difference among them is one of degree and style, a fact that itself diminishes politics into a contest of personalities, strategies, and tactics, rather than of substance and principle. Politics is becoming increasingly superficial because it is not anchored to an abiding (or transcendental) vision of reality. But without firmly anchoring politics into a moral (spiritual) foundation, there is no longer a way in which the diverse and now often conflicting interests can become reconciled. Instead, they become institutionalized in the political realm, a fact that is the deepest reason for the growing impotence of modern politics.
Politics in the 1990s has become an area in which issues and problems are couched in terms of power and control. But power can be seen and used in different ways. It can be understood, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as authority exercised for the sake of justice, rooted in a deep awareness of divine sovereignty and human dignity. Or power can be exercised for the purpose of reshaping society according to the socialist blueprint. But the Ontario government's ambitious program is running stuck on the rocks of its own and all human limitations. It is trying to force politics into a role that is beyond its abilities and legitimate function.
Many NDP supporters, including the leaders of the major Canadian trade unions, are oblivious to this reality. Anyway, they are not real socialists. They hitched their wagon to the NDP because they too have identified trade unionism with the politicized version of a clash between two interest groups. Now these supporters are angry with Rae and accuse him of betraying his socialist ideals because he is interfering with their unions' collective bargaining rights. But they should not be surprised that the Leviathan of the all-powerful state they themselves are helping to put in place has a habit of devouring its own children.
The band marches on
Meanwhile, Rae, though no doubt disappointed by the backlash from his own trade union following, appears to be utterly convinced that he is doing the right thing. He claims that the NDP must show it can be responsible in governing by controlling deficit spending. At the same time, he seeks to persuade his followers that he is faithful to his socialist ideals by taking this particular course. Is he a fool or a farsighted and true believer, faithful to his political ideals?
In one sense, Rae and his government deserve credit for trying to control public spending. But they are ill-suited for this task, given their commitment to the interventionist state. The very policies that are so dear to the NDP are what landed us in our current financial mess.
Ironically, the Ontario government is using its deficit control program not only to interfere in collective bargaining, but as a means to impose a rigid system of state control over the public sector. Similarly, pay equity and employment equity legislation, regulating wages, hiring, and promotions, amount to a form of massive state intrusion in the private sector.
In addition, the government is expanding its control over education, health care, marriage and family matters, relations between the sexes, and human rights—to name only a few key areas. Witness the recently announced plans to develop a social contract on behalf of children and youth, a nightmarish attempt to make the care of children and youth a department of the state, with disturbing implications for the freedom of parents and the integrity of the family.
There are good reasons why Rae remains steadfast and secure in his conviction. Despite setbacks and the inevitability of having to deal with harsh economic realities, Rae can feel satisfied: the march towards a state-directed society goes on. And it will not be deterred unless an alternative to the secular faith in human self-sufficiency and the belief in politics as the instrument to reorder society begins to take root among the Canadian citizenry.