Why The Left Isn’t Seizing The Day

Sometimes what’s most interesting is what isn’t happening. And what’s not happening in politics today is the left.

In the United Kingdom, an austerity budget introduced by the governing coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has done little to help Labour, which continues to muddle along in the polls. In Germany, Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats are unpopular but the left has fractured and the Social Democratic Party is weaker than ever. In the United States, the Republicans are intellectually bankrupt but the Democrats still managed to lose the House of Representatives last month and a Democratic president was compelled this week to accept tax cuts for millionaires — casting the American left into the sort of despair it felt during the Bush years.

And Canada? The Conservative government gets under the skin of left-wingers like no Progressive Conservative government ever did, and the Liberals have gone from the weak leadership of Paul Martin to the laughable campaigning of Stephane Dion to the incessant stumbling of Michael Ignatieff. This is the time for New Democrats to surge. They’re not surging.

This sure isn’t what anyone expected in 2008. A global financial meltdown. A terrible recession. Soaring unemployment. Free-market cheerleaders discredited. The headline on the front page of the Washington Post captured the mood perfectly: “The End of Capitalism,” it read.

So why has the left failed to seize the day?

“I think it’s because we need a more agile response than the old left was accustomed to,” Jack Layton tells me in his office on Parliament Hill. He then proceeds to demonstrate his agility.

“I would call it ‘gossamer economics,’ ” he says, adapting an engineer’s phrase used to describe bridges which are structurally strong but light in appearance. “You focus on letting small business, innovative sectors, local communities and municipalities, that often have very good ideas about things that could be done to get things going in their own local communities, use the central state, the national government, to empower that creativity at the local level.”

I hadn’t quite grasped the meaning of “gossamer economics” yet. So Layton elaborated. “If you look at the new approach to energy, for instance, it’s all based on decentralization, particularly around energy efficiency. My buddy Amory Lovins likes to talk about negawatts. If you can save a megawatt cheaper than you can produce one, then go out there and save it. And by the way, you’ll also create more work by doing that. And we’ve got lots of negawatts out there. We’ve got lots of homes, we’re moving into the heating season, and they’re turning up their furnaces, if we have people out there with caulking guns, insulation, and new tripleglazed windows, all over the country, people apprenticing, young people having jobs in their local area, you wouldn’t have to fly to the tarsands for a three-week shift or a two-week shift and then go back home for a week. You’d be able to work right there in your own community, upgrading the building stock.”

Now, I like triple-glazed windows as much as the next guy, but we were talking about global politics at a pivotal moment in history. This sounded like the third bullet point on page six of a really boring campaign brochure. Could there be a clue here about why the left is failing to seize the day?

I asked Layton about the old left. A message like “nationalize the coal industry” was easy to communicate because it was big, simple, and dramatic. What he’s talking about isn’t any of those things, is it?

“Sure it is,” he objected. “Well, maybe it’s complicated. But I’m saying” — he paused, as if drawing his biggest rhetorical gun — “let’s use the national government to empower citizens, businesses, and communities to make the changes that we need.”

“What does ’empower’ mean?” I asked.

“It means we want to support you in your innovation,” Layton said. “A national government should support people in their innovation.”

So in response to convulsions shuddering through global capitalism, the most important leader of the Canadian left calls on government to support people in their innovation.

“Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but the statutory and fiscal impediments to decentralized innovation!”

OK, I don’t want to be hard on Jack Layton. A lot of what he says is good, practical stuff. I really do like triple-glazed windows. But it doesn’t exactly sing. And truth be told, it’s not all that left-wing.

The problem is the same one that has plagued the left for 30 years: Nationalization and wealth redistribution vanished from the intellectual climate, leaving free-market thinking to dominate the unspoken assumptions which are the foundation of political debates. There was a time when a leftist who embraced those assumptions could still seem fresh and different but that was before Bill Clinton sold his soul, Tony Blair invaded Iraq, and “third way” became a punch line.

British historian David Kynaston noted that even if Winston Churchill’s Conservatives had won the election of 1945, “they almost certainly would have created a welfare state not unrecognizably different from the one that Labour actually did create.” That was the intellectual paradigm of the day. There was no escaping it.

The free-market paradigm was rattled in 2008 but it still stands. If the left steps outside the paradigm, it makes itself unelectable.

If it stays within, it has nothing more exciting to offer than minor variations on the status quo and tripleglazed windows.