By Stuart Parker
In 2001, I decided to give progressive politics a try and for the next seventeen years, I subscribed to a utilitarian political project. By that, I mean that I stood behind organizations, electoral and non-electoral, that made sense in what is called the “hedonic calculus.” Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the authors of a particular theory of liberalism, argued that our choices should be based on choosing the course of action that causes the least harm and the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. So, I joined the NDP and worked to elect candidates who had a shot at winning with the policies that did the least harm and the most good.
In 2006, when Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, I joined the “cooperation movement” which argued in favour of a united front among New Democrats, Liberals and Greens to dislodge one of the few neoconservative regimes in the world. This movement made me an active member of LeadNow and an organizer for Nathan Cullen’s NDP leadership campaign to succeed Jack Layton. Even after I was barred by the party from running for it, I continued as an activist for the NDP and as part of a larger multi-partisan progressive movement for the better part of a decade.
But in 2018, this stopped working for me: the hedonic calculus of progressive politics failed. Back in the 1980s and 90s when I had rejected this calculus, I articulated its inherent problem: progressive politics articulates that which we can reasonably expect to be done, not what needs to be done. Every day that passes, the gap between these things widens. Now, in the second-biggest extinction event of the last four billion years, with human beings having killed half the life on the planet in my lifetime alone, what we can reasonably expect to be done is to kill the planet ten to fifteen years later than our current trajectory will kill it. It is little more than making sure that we pay ourselves $15/hour for murdering all creation rather than $11/hour.
But there is another reason I have abandoned progressive politics: as long as progressive politics constitutes the primary alternative to the new conservatism of accelerating global omnicide, that new conservatism will continue to make gains. Why? Because the politics of a Donald Trump, Doug Ford or Jason Kenney, which proposes to use an increasing portion of the state’s resources to burn fossil fuels faster and more needlessly, which proposes to actively attack knowledge, itself, is a more relatable politics than what progressives generally propose.
The new conservatism offers people two things progressives fail to: a sense of agency and a theory of blame. As I have stated before, voters do not and never have cast their votes in elections or joined citizens groups based on the pursuit of personal financial advantage. While people’s behaviour often resembles this to the untrained eye, movements that people generally support, electoral and otherwise, are movements that sell the most compelling theory of society’s moral order. Low-income conservative voters are not “voting against their interests” as constructed in theories of rational choice and financial advantage; they are voting for a moral order for society that makes the most sense and seems the most fair. People also look for heroes and villains in their stories and conservatism offers both—liberals, urban elites, atheists, trans people, gay and bisexual people, racialized people: they are to blame for our problems. People of faith, rich and poor, marching against sodomy and moral degeneration: they are the heroes.
The new conservatism also offers a compelling future state, one of unfettered financial and sexual freedom for financially solvent married men, close-knit communities bound by shared adherence to the local Abrahamic faith and the extirpation of society’s enemies, etc. This may be a bleak and unrealistic utopia but what, from the progressive side, is it up against?
The Pearl River Vision.
In the fall of 2018, I was asked to be a panelist at a day-long conference at the Surrey Guildford Sheraton, sponsored by Composite Public Affairs, the lobbying firm founded by former NDP cabinet minister Sue Hammell. The conference was worth every moment of my time because, prior to my panel, I got to watch something unfold that I realize I had never seen: the enthusiastic description of a Third Way future. Central to today’s progressive project is the defense of liberal and social democratic Third Way parties and yet, I realized, progressives actively try to avoid ever picturing the future that these parties imagine.
As I have written elsewhere, Third Way politics arose from social democratic parties redefining themselves to remain relevant in the post-Cold War world. With no external communist threat, the sole purpose of these parties is to enact policies that financial elites demand but that conventional free market parties are unable to deliver due to opposition by social movements and the general public. In this way, social democrats and liberals are permitted to enact some modest reforms in exchange for delivering on big ticket items that parties of the right could not deliver.
The John Horgan government in British Columbia has held true to this form by gaining buy-in and demobilizing opposition to three necessarily interlinked energy projects in Northern BC: the over-budget and disaster-prone Site C dam which violates Treaty Eight, created to power the next project, the largest carbon-emissions source in BC history, a Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) plant in Kitimat to be supplied by five hundred new fracked wells per year in the Peace Region, and a pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory connecting these, that is currently disrupting trap lines and subject to civil disobedience. The previous neoliberal regime had been unable to push these through because of widespread public opposition to, among other things, the scale of the tax concessions Royal Dutch Shell, best-known for their stalwart support for South African apartheid and their genocide against the Ogoni people in Nigeria, had demanded. Horgan’s Third Way NDP regime was able to provide a billion dollars in subsidies and tax exemptions, including the carbon tax on emissions, and in addition to the existing $247 million annual subsidy to fracking operations in the Peace.
Uncharacteristically, because they were supposed to be speaking to an audience of lobbyists, fixers and corporate types, two of the panelists waxed enthusiastic about how this fit into a larger vision of British Columbia and, in particular, to Southwestern BC. They described how, with an LNG plant operating in Kitimat, it was just a matter of time before Squamish-Woodfibre LNG plant would come fruition, something naturally necessitating a massive fixed concrete link crossing Howe Sound, a ten-lane expressway connecting Squamish, Gibsons and West Vancouver. As their enthusiasm grew, this Third Way utopia began elaborating in what I might almost venture to call, as a scholar of religion, a collaborative theophany.
With Howe Sound paved, it would be only natural to have one or more even bigger expressways traversing the Salish Sea, making ferry traffic a thing of the past. Besides, they pointed out, the Salish Sea would be full of tankers from around the world, here for Alberta bitumen and BC natural gas. There was a model of this, one remarked: the Pearl River Delta in China, the megalopolis that has swallowed Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, among other cities, whose population now approaches sixty million people. This new metropolitan region would not just encompass Victoria, Nanaimo, Squamish and Gibsons; it would stretch east all the way to Hope and would comprise a population of at last ten million people, with enough transportation infrastructure to sustain not just rapid transit but private vehicles for anyone who could afford it and a robust ride-hailing culture providing round-the-clock service via Uber or Lyft.
What of the affordability crisis? Here, the panelists had some innovative thoughts, too. With more air travel in their Third Way utopia and, especially, more interurban helicopter travel, why should low-wage workers need to live in the megalopolis at all, especially those working with their hands? They spoke excitedly about how some BC construction firms were already showing the way, creating temporary company housing on construction sites, themselves. Such sites could function just like oil wells in the Peace, they reasoned. Workers could work two weeks on, two weeks off and spend their off-time with their friends and families in working class second-tier communities like Prince George, Kamloops or the city that pioneered so much of this, Fort MacMurray. This model, furthermore, could be expanded to anyone who worked with their hands. Were company barracks for baristas so far off, I wondered.
Because the Third Way offers only mitigation efforts, as opposed to a vision actually countering global trends of wealth concentration, proletarianization and environmental degredation, the question for progressives is not whether their politics will reach this destination but when.
While it is true that the new conservative future resembles that of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, the reality is that the progressive future is also one described in twentieth century dystopian fiction. William Gibson imagined “the Sprawl” a gigantic Atlantic Coast North American strip city from Boston to Atlanta. And the image that haunted me as I closed my eyes and tried to process what the panelists were saying came from the opening scenes of Blade Runner, a sweltering, grimy megalopolis, surrounded by a lifeless sea, battered by typhoons. I could even imagine arguing with my fellow Vancouverites in the decades to come about whether the city had always had levees and whether we had always had a typhoon season. That’s because, as Charlie Smith and others have suggested, there is a special kind of progressive climate nihilism, a mouthing of environmental platitudes nobody believes as the ribbon is cut on another highway expansion or petroleum development.
The primary difference between progressive politics and conservative politics is not, then, whether to embrace the extinction event but whether to pair that embrace with loud and cruel enthusiasm and brazen anti-science lies or whether to pair that embrace with a false sobriety, concern, mutterings about “pragmatism” and “balance,” and some carefully measured and well-timed crocodile tears. Ultimately, if one is leaning into a blizzard of death and destruction, it should surprise no one that the former is a more emotionally authentic, less cognitively dissonant experience and, hence, a more compelling one.
A left vision, one of heroism, shared sacrifice and, in the words of Tolkien “victory unlooked-for and sorrow long-foreseen” must move to the forefront. As Brian Fawcett reminds us, a life-affirming social movement must be able to remember its past and imagine a future. Imagining a possible future will require profound grieving and the confrontation of hard truths but these are necessary experiences to move past the covertly nihilistic and empty politics of progressivism.