May 9, 2011
‘Beyond capitalism’?: Québec Solidaire Launches Debate On Its Program For Social Transformation
by Richard Fidler
At a convention held in Montreal on March 25-27, Québec solidaire (QS) concluded the second round in the process of adopting its program. More than 350 delegates from party associations across the province debated and adopted the party's stance on issues in relation to the economy, ecology and labour. And they reaffirmed their determination to build the party as an independent political alternative, rejecting proposals by QS leaders to seek “tactical agreements” with the capitalist Parti Québécois and/or the Parti Vert (Greens) that would have allowed reciprocal support of the other party's candidate in selected ridings.
This was Québec solidaire's sixth convention since its founding in 2006. Faced with two general elections within the party's first three years, QS members had adopted election platforms in their first conventions addressed to major issues that could be dealt with in the course of a Quebec government's term of office, but left the elaboration of a more sweeping program – outlining the party's overall orientation and strategy “within a perspective of social transformation” – to a more prolonged process of debate.1
That process was launched at the party's fifth convention in November 2009, when delegates adopted positions on the national question, secularism, electoral reform and integration of immigrants.2 Future program conventions, to be held over the next two years or so, will address such topics as health and social services, education, social and legal justice, culture, agriculture, and international solidarity and altermondialisation (anti-capitalist globalization).
Go Beyond Capitalism?
The debate on the social and economic issues that were the subject of the March convention promised to reveal an underlying tension within the party that has existed from the outset – one that is familiar to virtually all broadly based organizations and parties of the left. The QS policy commission put the issue directly in its “participation booklet,” a preliminary document posing questions for discussion by the membership:
“As we work on our program, we should spell out the nature and limits of the system, and ask ourselves the following question: isn't the capitalist system, based as it is on maximizing profit and irresponsible exploitation of nature, the main obstacle to social progress and a healthy relationship to the environment? We need a serious debate on the question so we can determine whether our social problems can be corrected by reforms that respect the logic of the system or if we need to adopt the perspective of going beyond the system.”3This was also the question put by the Québec solidaire leadership in a Manifesto they issued for May Day 2009, entitled “To emerge from the crisis, should we go beyond capitalism?”4 Although the Manifesto's specific proposals to overcome the crisis generally failed to go much beyond a timid social liberalism, its anti-capitalist rhetoric met with a very favourable response in the QS ranks. Some members were more critical, however. Among these were François Cyr and Pierre Beaudet.5 In an article published just as the debate was getting under way, with the suggestive title “Québec solidaire must remain a rainbow coalition,”6 they argued that the task of a left-wing party is “to fight for immediate changes, realizable within the framework of the present capitalist state and system.”
“The very essence of a large mass party,” they wrote, is that it is “a permanent coalition capable of carrying out the compromises and arbitration that are necessary both in terms of program and the internal equilibrium of its networks.” Québec solidaire should “avoid confining itself to a terrain that is too limited.... it is necessary to unite all those who want to oppose neoliberalism and reaction....”A few QS members responded to Cyr and Beaudet with their own articles. Roger Rashi, a member of the party's theme commission on environment and energy and of Masse critique, a recognized collective within QS, wrote:
“It is necessary to deepen the basis of unity of Québec solidaire by exploring the ultimate goal of the struggle against neoliberalism, by outlining the basic framework of an alternative, ecological, democratic and self-managed society without social inequality and without poverty, in other words an ecosocialist society. This does not mean eliminating Québec solidaire's character as a political united front, or if you prefer a rainbow coalition, but it does mean getting this united front to evolve toward going beyond the capitalist system. The objective and subjective conditions are favourable to such an evolution.”7QS members André Frappier, a Montréal leader of the postal workers' union (CUPW), and Bernard Rioux, a member of the Gauche socialiste collective, argued the case for programmatic clarity around a clear class line:
“...we must seek to attract broader layers of activists to Québec solidaire, in the popular, feminist and trade union movement. But will we do that by making programmatic compromises? And at what level, on what aspect? [Cyr and Beaudet] do not say. They argue that socialist ideas and practices have few roots among the people. That does not hold water. History is full of examples teaching us that the workers' movement learns from the struggle.... Whenever parties claiming to be on the left have not indicated clearly where the class interests of the workers' movement were situated, where the program confused mass struggle and class struggle, where the ruling classes' interests were not identified, on each of these occasions the workers' movement experienced a terrible defeat.... “What have we learned from the Popular Unity [government] in Chile? From the Popular Front in France? In neither case was the defeat of the workers' movement due to an exaggerated radicalism, and certainly not to a lack of broad alliances, but rather to the programmatic confusion that deprived it of all its resources and enabled the bourgeoisie to survive and regain the initiative.”8
A “Serious Debate”?
This initial public debate, however, unfolded largely outside the formal structures of Québec solidaire, in a few left journals and on-line blogs.9 Within the party itself, the “serious debate” on capitalism invited by the QS policy commission did not develop in the preconvention discussion. One reason lies in the obstacles to conducting general discussions on perspectives within Québec solidaire.
Under the complex procedure the party has chosen for conducting its program debates, initial written submissions by the members (or by “citizens' circles” composed of both members and non-members) must not exceed 800 words in length. The policy commission then compiles a “perspectives booklet” presenting concise demands based on what it considers the “principal orientations” in these submissions. These are discussed and amended or added to by QS local associations and general assemblies, following which the policy commission produces a “synthesis booklet” that arranges the revised demands by topic and, where appropriate, lists differing resolutions addressed to a particular issue as “options” (up to six, in some cases) for debate and decision at the convention – first in topic workshops, then in plenary session, where delegates are limited to two or three minute interventions from the floor.10
Whatever the democratic merits of this procedure – and there are some, to be sure – it effectively precludes lengthier written contributions within the party structures that could outline a general strategic or programmatic framework on the given subjects and allow a broader debate among opposing approaches.11 Moreover, the party has no public or internal discussion bulletin or even an email discussion list that would allow such debates. And in this round, unlike the previous public debate leading up to the fifth convention, none of the members' commentaries were published either on the intranet or public websites. (The website itself is dominated by statements on issues of the day by the party's joint spokespersons, Françoise David, the QS president, and Amir Khadir, its sole elected member of the National Assembly.)
Despite these constraints, on many topics the delegates to this convention revealed a readiness to link demands for immediate reforms to a longer-range perspective of radical democratic and social transformation.
A Green Energy Agenda
At this convention, Québec solidaire voted for a major turn to green energy, including:
The convention voted by large majorities that the mining and forestry industries should be placed under “public control,” with up to 100% nationalization “as needed.” In both cases, the demand for outright nationalization received substantial support but was defeated. In addition:
Trade Union and Labour Rights
Among the programmatic demands adopted by the convention – usually by large majorities, in some cases unanimously – are the following:
The radical thrust of the positions adopted on the ecology and labour questions – many pointing, at least implicitly, in an anticapitalist direction – was not matched in the debate on the economy, which necessarily addressed fundamental issues of how Québec solidaire envisages its proposed “democratic transformation” of the economic organization of society. In the plenary debate on “general orientations,” delegates voted by a large majority for a statement declaring, in part:
“To allow collective and democratic control of the principal economic levers of Quebec, QS ultimately intends to go beyond capitalism. It seeks to establish an economic and political system promoting the common good, with greater respect for communities and individuals, that allows us to define the objectives of our lives in respect for the surrounding environment. We propose a plural economy, based on values of equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, liberty, in conditions of ecological balance and efficacy, including the exploration of alternative economic systems.”Another resolution proposed to abandon “the dual (private-public) economic model” in favour of adopting a “quadripartite model,” composed of
The emphasis on the “social economy” is a reflection of Québec solidaire's social composition, its membership, and their activities – heavily weighted to professionals, social workers, and marginalized working class layers unemployed or precariously employed, with very limited trade-union membership. The attention to the “domestic economy” reflects as well the traditions and roots of many QS members in the feminist movement and its recognition that many important economic functions of society go unpaid or underpaid relative to other economic sectors.
Important as these economic sectors are – a recent study found that more than 80,000 people are employed in Montréal alone in the “social economy” of charities, NGOs, and volunteer social agencies – they are at best a complement to the fundamental competitive and exploitative wage-labour dynamic of capitalism.
These ambiguities were reflected in other resolutions on the economy, including:
Some Important Omissions
The convention agenda did not allow sufficient time to cover all the issues before it and some items had to be dropped. Unfortunately, it was decided to postpone to a later convention the debate on some important topics. Among these were Banking and Financial Institutions, where the draft proposals on offer ranged from complete expropriation of the banking system and other financial institutions through to “socialization,” promotion of cooperatives and mutuals, competition by a state bank, or no nationalization at all.
Another postponed topic was Taxation. In its 2008 election platform Québec solidaire called, inter alia, for a 100% capital gains tax (except for family farms), an increase in personal income tax brackets, and exemption of necessities from the Quebec sales tax. Draft program proposals this year included putting salary levels 30 times the minimum wage in the highest tax bracket, reviewing consumption taxes as regressive taxes or even abolishing them outright, adoption of limited succession duties, and shifting the tax burden from individuals to corporations.
Banking and taxation were two subjects on the convention agenda that clearly posed the national question, since many proposals under these headings could only be implemented by a sovereign Quebec with full jurisdiction in these areas. But under Canada's constitution, many of the measures proposed in relation to labour rights and the environment, as well, could not be fully implemented within a provincial jurisdiction. Viewed on a larger canvas, as the development of a program for a newly independent country, Québec solidaire debates suffer no such inhibition. The entire discussion at this convention just implicitly assumed that the delegates were talking about a program for an independent Quebec. The party's support for Quebec sovereignty, adopted overwhelmingly at the previous convention, is the backdrop to the anticapitalist thrust of many of the proposals adopted at this convention. It is one of the most progressive features of the party, contributing to the coherence to its program. And it explains why, on many issues, QS delegates did not limit themselves to calling for changes “realizable within the framework of the capitalist state and system,” as proposed by Cyr and Beaudet in their article cited earlier.
A Party of the Ballot Boxes... And the Streets?
Yet another important omission from the agenda of this phase of program adoption was a decision by the party's policy commission a few months ago, in the midst of the party debate, to withdraw from discussion at this convention a proposal it had drafted on the relation between Québec solidaire and the social movements (including the trade unions). The draft text outlined a strategy by which QS, “as a party and as a government, should seek to strengthen the capacities of the social movements, encourage their unity in action and participate in them on the basis of a program of social transformation.” It proposed that QS members who belong to the various social movements be encouraged to “network” within the party – that is, coordinate their activities within the unions and other movements around a strategy of reciprocal reinforcement of the movements and the party. This draft text addresses an important lacuna in Québec solidaire's activities.
Up to now, this extraparliamentary and extra-electoral aspect of the party's intervention has remained largely under-developed. Since its founding, and particularly since Amir Khadir's election in 2008, the focus has been increasingly on a strategy of building the party through the ballot box, to the neglect of extra-parliamentary action “in the streets.” A “development plan” adopted at the last National Council meeting, in June 2010, summarized the objectives for the next two years as “advancing our ideas in the population, gaining a greater presence in public debates, electing more MNAs and appreciably increasing our percentage of the vote in the next general elections.”
Québec solidaire works alongside the unions and some social movements in a number of coalitions, such as the pro-independence Conseil de la Souveraineté. But its modest campaign in relation to the public-sector unions' negotiations with the Quebec government last year, labelled “Courage politique,” failed to mount a clear defense of the unions' demands and was largely confined to a defence of existing social programs and opposition to privatization. The party has no organized presence as such in the unions; its social base continues to be heavily composed of students and workers in unorganized sectors of the work force such as the “social economy.” This lack of experience in the union milieu no doubt contributed to some of the abstractness of the convention debate on economic models.
“Tactical Agreements” With Other Parties?
As it happens, this convention did debate “alliances” – not with trade unions and social movements, but electoral agreements with either the Parti Québécois or the Verts (Greens). Aware of the difficulty of electing more MNA's under Quebec's undemocratic first-past-the-post system, the national council had appointed a committee to study possible “tactical agreements” with other parties under which each party would agree not to run a candidate against the other in selected ridings. In its report to the convention, the committee favoured electoral agreements but was divided on which parties to approach. It ruled out a “strategic alliance” with the Liberals, ADQ and PQ which, it said, “diverge a lot from QS programmatically.” But it put two options before the delegates: (A) a possible tactical agreement with the PQ and/or the Verts; or (B) a possible tactical agreement with the Verts alone, a “strategic alliance” with that party being conceivable if based on the Global Greens Charter, but ruled out for “practical reasons pertaining to internal decisions of the Verts in Quebec.”
The danger in the proposed alliances, of course, was that Québec solidaire might well blur its programmatic differences with the other parties, a major problem in the case of the PQ, a decidedly capitalist party. The proposed agreement with the PQ was sugar-coated with the argument that the PQ might accept such a trade-off as a virtual recognition of the principle of proportional representation. But PQ governments have always resisted implementing any form of PR. Furthermore, the PQ is apprehensive of the growing popularity of QS among many of its traditional supporters. Both QS and the PQ are addressing much the same audience: a progressive working class electorate, which may well be more inclined to vote PQ as a “lesser evil” to the Liberal government. QS needs to find ways to counter that reasoning, not reinforce it.
A third option, of course, was to reject any such alliances. And that is exactly what the delegates did in the opening Friday night plenary session, rejecting appeals from both Amir Khadir and Françoise David, among others, in support of either option A or B.13
A CROP-La Presse opinion poll published March 28, the day after the convention ended, will have strengthened QS militants' hopes for electoral breakthroughs. It reported that both the Parti québécois and the governing Liberals had lost support – the PQ registering 32%, the Liberals 22% in voters’ intentions – while support for Québec solidaire had risen to 15%, far above the barely 4% support it registered in the last Quebec election, when it nevertheless managed to elect Khadir in Mercier riding.
Khadir's election brought welcome media attention to the party. His effective interventions in the National Assembly have given the party considerable media exposure, and he has been able to address many issues not previously associated with the left.14 Opinion polls have recently rated him the “most popular” MNA in Quebec, and no doubt this popularity is a major factor in QS's polling results. It remains to be seen how durable it will be in a general election, however, when voters usually vote to make or unmake governments – and Québec solidaire's support is strongest among young people, where abstention rates are highest.
“Radical Left” Marginalized?
No matter how many fine resolutions Québec solidaire members adopt in conventions, the reality in QS is that day-to-day policy – and the interpretation and weight given to the party's formal program – is largely determined by its two “spokespersons,” who virtually monopolize media coverage of the party. Both Françoise David and Amir Khadir took pains during the convention to rally support for their conception of a “plural economy” with ample room for a regulated capitalism. A party news release issued at the close of the convention stressed that the delegates had voted to support “a plural economy in which the social economy – cooperative, non-profit community, public, domestic and private – have their place.”
Addressing a news conference after the convention, David expressed relief that her positions, especially on the “quadripartite economy,” had triumphed. She had feared the influence of “a more radical left,” she said, but was happy that the more left-wing members of the party still recognized that QS was the only party that could truly “go beyond capitalism” and “create other alternatives.”15
At the convention itself, only hours after the members’ resounding rejection of tactical or strategic pacts with parties to the right of QS, David took a quite different stance in her closing speech. Centering her remarks on the just-declared federal election campaign, she issued a “solemn appeal” for a united front to defeat the Harper government: “My appeal is addressed not only to the members of Québec solidaire but to all the voters: You must not vote Conservative!” She left open the suggestion that a vote even for the federal Liberals was an acceptable option. A strange position for a party that purports to support Quebec independence! A QS news release explained that the party, while rejecting the Conservatives outright, will not advocate support for any other party, but will urge Québécois to vote for “progressives.”
This stance will not satisfy many QS members, of course. We can expect a debate to arise on these issues in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Québec solidaire is launching the third phase of its program debate later this month. It will be addressed to issues of social justice, education policy, healthcare and cultural policy. The party policies will be determined at a convention now scheduled for December of this year.
Richard Fidler is an Ottawa member of the Socialist Project. This article is based on a report in his blog Life on the Left. This article is reprinted with permission of the Bullet.
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