Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with Andony Melathopoulos

Andony Metathopoulos is a fellow in the Platypus Affiliated Society, and he begins a section of interview for the Marginalia on Radical Thinking concerned with various forms of the left world-wide.   Andony and I speak on the North American left, particularly Canada, and the problems and tensions of Canadian left relationship to both the European and US as well as possibilities and possible problems emerging out of Occupy.  We also talk about the process of Andony’s politicization. 
Skepoet: How would you describe your early politicization?

Andony Melathopoulos: I would describe them as pretty unremarkable. I was raised in a conservative Greek immigrant household in a conservative Canadian province (Alberta) during an unprecedented economic boom (the late 1970s). Alberta’s expanding oil and gas sectors translated into considerable upward mobility for a family like mine. The one irritant growing up was that I could not experience this wealth as freely as my friends did because my household was strict. But the economy crashed in 1980s and with the onslaught of double digit interest rates we lost our house, I left private school and my parents divorced. When my family split up it translated into a lot of freedom for meand I discovered California punk and hardcore. I can trace back much of my interest in oppositional and radical politics to this teenage disaffection and corresponding drive to belong to a counter-culture.

I graduated from high school the year the Berlin Wall fell. I had left Alberta for university in Vancouver on the Canadian west coast which was a larger and much more cosmopolitan city with more explicit forms of radical politics. This move coincided with increased interest in the activism of the time, which focused on protesting against the first Gulf War and NAFTA, punctuated by a series of dramatic environmental and First Nation’s blockades. I encountered Marxist groups selling newspaper at events, but that was the only extent to which I interacted with them. By the end of the 1990s it would be fair to say that my sympathies lay with the anti-WTO protests in neighbouring Seattle and the anti-globalization movement more generally. At the same time I solidly placed my electoral support behind the Canadian social democratic party (New Democratic Party, NDP) and was very supportive of the attempt, at the end of the decade, to have activists exert more influence over the party through the New Politics Initiative (NPI). In other words, by the beginning of the 2000s my politics were a bit of a jumble and I lacked any theoretical, historical tools to reflect on this.

In hindsight, I think my later politicization has always been in response to my early experiences. I felt a sense of political possibilities in the early 1990s that I yearned to take up again in the 2000s. This has been mixed more recently with my awareness of the failure of these politics and their lack of seriousness. These very contradictory aspects of my engagement with the early 1990s has subsequently lead me down some very confusing directions, including, what I would later considerto be some quite conservative detours.

S.: What do you think are some of the specific pathologies of the Canadian left?

A.M.: A few are prominent and may have no analogies elsewhere. There is always a current of Canadian nationalism on the Left – expressed as anti-Americanism – that frequently surfaces in some pretty abject ways. It is an anti-Americanism, as a friend recently pointed out to me, that lacks the specific historic grievances of a country like Mexico. It is connected to a sense of imperialism that is very unclear and seems to function to keep old forms of Left politics alive. There is also the question of national self-determination for Quebec and Canada’s First Nations that have also functioned to reproduce old and failed Left political projects. My focus most recently, however, has been on the way the radical Left regards Canadian social democracy. This is an issue has been prominent in the last few years.

Social democracy in Canada, unlike in European countries, has never held power nationally and, as such, it could safely function as political home for many on the radical Left. The party has always tolerated this because the stakes were never that high. Until recently, for example, the International Marxist Tendency (Fightback) was active on the executives of a number of the Party’s youth wing organizations. I also recall in Alberta working with Party staff members and candidates who privately would identify themselves as anarchist.

This has begun to change as the party professionalized under its last leader, Jack Layton. Consequently in the last election it moved from being a fourth place party to becoming the official opposition, which was the first time this has happened in its history. This process has been going on for a number of years and it has generated a number of disgruntled social democrats, most prominently from the NPI era in people like Judy Rebick or Jim Stanford. Through the 00s they had drifted from the party and began advocating for a focus on extra-parliamentary activities, which in some ways brought them in line with anarchists.

To many radicals, however, this affinity and common origin of the various tendencies of the extra-parliamentary Left appear asa real political difference, instead of what I take it to mean; the diminishing influence of the Left in Canadian politics. What I hear a lot of is that now that the NDP is now clearly not on the Left, Rebick et al. appear as reformists who inherit the fight for the Canadian social democratic safety net and the diversity of tactics anarchists are the new revolutionaries. Where people see considerable political difference I see none. We don’t have reformist or revolutionary politics in Canada, only various facets of a type of political resistance. In other words, what appears as reform or revolution really boil down to a set of tactical questions about how best to resist; “violent” versus “peaceful”. With reforms no longer possible the Left in Canada has habituated to the idea that all social transformation only comes from the Right. In turn it has completely given up on, and in fact openly opposes, any political project focused on directing this change consciously.

It has been my experience that when I raise this point with other Leftists in Canada they are quick to assert that I am wrong and that their politics indeed has a political vision. I think these objections need to be explicated. What are they resisting for? Are these possibilities for the future or just spectral images, ghosts from the past? Are they not “resisting” for a social democratic welfare state of the 1960s (as striking students in Quebec currently are), a New Deal of the 1930s, a workers democracy of the 1920s, or yet further back, some imagined anthropological foundation?

S.: Do you find the Canadian left’s anti-Americanism particularly ironic given the influence of many American leftists who immigrated to Canada during the Cold War–the mid-Western “sewer socialists” and the Vietnam draft dodgers being prime examples?

A.M.:There is this irony for sure. In many key respects the Canadian New Left draws considerable inspiration and direction from movements in the US. This continues to the present. Take Occupy. While the call to form the encampments came from a Canadian magazine (Adbusters), what made this become more than just a hollow declaration was its reception and development in the US. True, encampments later emerged in Canada, but their growth and decline (and possibility for restarting this spring) depended fundamentally on what happened (will happen) in the US.

Some on the Canadian Left would maintain that they provide a unique perspective from being “on the edge of Empire” that ostensibly could function to reenergize a Left in the US. I find this to be backward as well as an accommodation to defeat. What is missed in this formulation is the reality of how dependent the Canadian Left is on the emergence of a US Left. There can be no prospects for a Left in Canada independent of developments in the US. It isn’t so much xenophobia that underpins Left Canadian nationalism as it is a certain smugness and comfort associated with knowing better than Americans. It is a political abdication that is worn like a badge. Maybe what I find most troublesome with this is that it never recognizes itself as an essentially conservative stance regarding the possibilities for transformation in the present. It amazes me that anyone would see the prospects for the defence of the 1960s Canadian welfare state being a clearly domestic issue and not dependent on the failure of a Left to emerge in the US. I mean this is obvious but it continues to block the question of what a better relation between a Canadian and US Left look like.

S.: Also do think NDP consolidation against the LiberalParty will spell an end of historic attempts to radicalizethe NDP?

A.M.:One thing I think needs to be cleared up before we begin on this question. The fates of both the Liberal Party and the NDP are unclear. Unlike many countries around the world that saw social democratic or Labour parties displace “Liberal” parties (or as they are called in British parliamentary tradition “Whig”) after World War II, Canada never experienced such a transformation. Although the NDP has held power in the provincial legislatures, with its forerunner (the Canadian Commonwealth Federation, CCF, A GOOD IMAGE FOR THIS IS THIS CAMPAIGN IMAGE forming the first social democratic government in North America in 1944, it was the Liberal Party that enacted all the legislation of the modern Canadian welfare state. Part of this is a legacy of Quebec separatism, in which the NDP lacked a provincial base in the large electoral base of Quebec because it had formed an independent separatist social democratic party (Parti Québécois (PQ)). A growing tide of regionalism in Canada in the 1990s lead to the formation of a federal political wing of the PQ (the Bloc Québécois, BQ). The early 1990s were also the time of the disastrous Ontario NDP provincial government, whose austerity measures alienated the labour movement for decades.

In the election last year something quite unprecedented happened. The BQ, which had tied up the federal social democratic vote in Quebec, collapsed. Quebec, who had hitherto never voted for the NDP, shut out the BQ and Liberals and elected almost 75% of its representatives from the Party. Now Quebec voters are inordinately fickle and it is unclear whether this will have any lasting political legacy.

The short answer to the question of whether there will be any attempt in the foreseeable future to radicalize the NDP is no. What is clear is that any attempt to radicalize the party, in a way that could be registered, would have to come from Quebec. Anglophone Canada has a very poor understanding of the political currents in the province, and I am certainly no exception to this, but I see no evidence that the radical Left in Quebec would be interested. It is worth noting that what might be traditionally considered the “radical Left”is certainly more present in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada. For example, where the NPI failed to bring elements of the 1990s activism into the NDP, the political group Québec solidaire (QS) has succeeded, forming a semi-viable political party that was able to win a seat in the Quebec legislature. In addition a city like Montreal has the most vibrant anarchist movement in Canada and is the base for the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (not affiliated with the RCP USA), arguably the fastest growing and most militant Marxist group. But all these groups are completely disinterested in federal parliamentary politics and I cannot foresee them spearheading something like the NPI, or the New Left’s attempt to radicalize the party in the early 1970s (termed the “Waffle”). What is more likely, they represent the most visible element of a militant extra-parliamentary politics that many radicals in Canada now almost exclusively orient towards. This is clearly seen in the two month long provincial student strike which has dwarfed any other anti-austerity movement since the downturn of 2008.

But to return to your question in a roundabout way, radicalizing the NDP seems off the table and it has less to do with whether the NDP ends up overtaking the Liberals or not, but rather a general political orientation away from parliamentary politics, back to what seems like a rehashing of the alter(anti)-globalization movement.

S.:What do you think the Canadian left can learn from the fate of Occupy in the last few months?

A.M.:I should begin with a general observation about Occupy in Canada. It was generally much smaller than it was in the U.S. and never gained the same momentum. Consequently after the evictions it has had considerable difficulty organizing events or holding General Assemblies. What is clear is that much of the future of Occupy in Canada is directly linked to the fortunes of the movement in the US this summer. Occupy in Canada has no independent motion. This connection is rarely grasped in the conversations I have had with people in Occupy. In the city where I live, Halifax, I have not seen much effort made to connect with Occupy efforts in the US; it seems like an essential strategy to its survival.

Many people with existing Left projects either kept their distance or did not immerse themselves in encampments. In Halifax, a visible exception was a notoriously Left-leaning District Labour Council that was present throughout, although again, in a hands-off kind of way. This division never really dissolved in a way that I sensed it did in NY, for example.

Having said this, I think Occupy dovetailed well with theexisting“consensus” around building an extra-parliamentary Left in Canada. It seemed to confirm the strategy, whether it originated from groups did not participate in the occupations or were even hostile to them. The lesson is that the Left has been correct and its moment for reemergence is approaching. I find this problematic.

An interesting remark at the roundtable Platypus hosted on Occupy in Halifaxin November underscores this point. One of our panelists, someone in his early 20s drew parallels in Occupy to the NPI, which coincidentally passed its 10 year anniversary when Occupy was going on. Such parallels were also drawn in a series of articles on (the equivalent of Democracy Now in Canada) by the founders of the NPI to mark its anniversary. As Judy Rebick would note, the NPIs attempt to “create a new kind of politics”, to make politics “more participatory, more engaging, more open and more diverse” was “ten years ahead of its time”. The fact that Rebick herself inherited such ideas of grassroots extra-parlimentary movement from the 1960s New Left’s attempt to overcome the problems of the Stalinized party politics of the ‘old’ Left (of the ‘20s and ‘30s) however seemed to go unremarked. What appears as ‘new’ in Occupy, in fact, is the repetition of what has become stale about the Left.

What the Canadian Left has failed to do is think through what Occupy means in the context of the history of the Left. Rather than throw up questions it has simply affirmed this history as one of progressively working through problems. It therefore confirms existing practices and,in the process,makes them appear newer than they actually are. It allows for exhausted political practices to have another hearing with a newer generation. Consequently as Occupy wanes and is followed by thestudent strikes in Quebecor a recent wave of labour unrest, including a recent wildcat strike at the national airline, Air Canada, itappears as signs of real development, rather than the prolongation of the last potential gasps of Canadian social democracy or a largely defeated labour movement.

S.: While I was guardedly optimistic about Occupy at first, I have become concerned that it is following the same pattern of repetition-compulsion of most of the North American left. What do you see as the promises of Occupy in North America as a whole, and what do you think the left could learn from it?

A.M.: Maybe I had the opposite response. The first time I encountered Occupy was in a coffee shop. About 60 people appeared out of nowhere to hear an activist from Brooklyn talk about how Occupy could get started in Halifax. The place was suddenly packed. When he spoke he sounded eerily like the political sensibility that I heard around the re-founding of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) when I was in Chicago in the mid-2000s. The new SDS itself, of course, was an attempt to go back to the 1960s.So this sense of repetition was something I was confronted with from the beginning. This of course was not the sense among most of the participants and onlookers I spoke with; they sensed something new.

Occupy was interesting to the extent that it could somehow be made to recognize itself, to deal with the past that it sincerely was hoping to break with. The Left was moribund to the extent that it did not to attempt engage Occupy on this ground, but rather looked to graft its old and tired political projects onto this new shoot of activity. Of course, in Canada, Occupy did not look like it did in the US and was in large part not taken that seriously by the activist and political Left. This was equally problematic for the same reasons; at the root of opportunistically allying with Occupy or ignoring it (or being disgusted by it) was a sense that the Left knew better. Perhaps then the lesson of Occupy is simply to point out that the Left was in no position to reflect or critically engage with much of anything, let alone itself. How does one draw lessons without such a capacity? How can the “Left” be a Left when this feature is not at the centre of its activity and self-understanding?

S.: Do you see the elections in Europe and the US clarifying or obscuring the issues at hand?

A.M. The question of Europe has been on my mind as I follow the student strike in Quebec. The strikers have expressed their interest in bringing to completion the promises of the 1960s “Quiet Revolution”, which means not only the extension of free tuition, but also the expansion of the welfare state. These demands are put on the table without recognizing how the political conditions that brought about the “Quiet Revolution” no longer exist. Underlying this is a naïve feeling that the Left is expanding and that reforms of old are like seeds that history can re-germinate as movements take to the street in sufficient numbers.

I sense a very similar sentiment in Europe. In Greece there is a sense that the Left has options; it can rip up the memorandum, it can default, it can exit the euro-zone. But the extreme weakness of the Left to actually guide events would become evident the very next day any of these options are exercised. Such posturing is rationalized in bizarre ways. I noticed, for example, that a few weeks before the election the Greek Communist Party suggested a default and exit from the euro-zone would renew the Arab Spring and initiate a revolutionary period. The Left is deluded to think that in the chaos that would ensue that it would be in any position to take control.

In Canada specifically an Obama victory and the electoral success of social democrats and eurocommunists in Europe will set up an intense sense that Canada is lagging. We presently have a Conservative government that will remain in power for the next three years. Rather than open necessary questions about the present state of the Left in Canada it will subordinate these concerns in an attempt to ‘catch up’. Ironically this will cause the Left here to fall farther behind; thefrenzied pitch to defeat the Conservatives will leave little room to ask why the same politics time and again appear to have no effect. All sorts of pathologies of the Canadian Left will heighten. The only saving grace is that the Obama Presidency has significantly dampened the Canadian Left’s anti-Americanism, a feature that has perennially blocked any serious consideration of how our prospects are ultimately conditioned by the emergence of the Left in the US.

I certainly see myself being very active trying to engage currents of the Canadian Left in the next few years. I want to hear how they would understand their politics connecting to the past in ways that do not fall prey to old problems. I would like to create a space to consider why we continue to reach backwards and seem unable to find a way ahead. These kinds of conversation are not easy to have, but the consequence of not doing it is to be caught up in the quite circular and purposeless political motion that has defined most of my political life. I want things to be different. I want revolutionary politics to be coming into view at some point in my life. I am tired of expending energy on projects that go nowhere and cannot sustain the inspiration of people without great effort. I see no other option than to continually press the Canadian Left to clarify how and in what terms it can still be considered a Left.


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