Realism and a New Politics

Some people in the peace movement believed that the Canadian Peace Alliance's Peace Pledge Campaign was unrealistic. The outcome verifies the view. The campaign failed in its major objective to make the major Canadian defence issues central to the recent federal elections. It also failed in its unofficial objective: to deliver votes to the NDP in the crucial provinces -- Ontario and Québec.

By Dimitrios Roussopoulos | 1989-02-01 12:00:00

Look at the history of such efforts. In the 1963 election, the Canadian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament also failed to defeat an initiative to import nuclear warheads for the Bomarc B missiles. The 1963 election was more clearly fought around the single issue of nuclear weapons than any election before or since. By contrast, during the 1988 election, the issues of nuclear-powered submarines and Canada as a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone were pushed aside by all political parties.

And compare this to the situation in other countries. In every country where a "peace pledge" type campaign was tried in national elections, it failed. There are no exceptions; the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, and Spain saw similar failures. In all these countries, there were massive disarmament movements and large left-of-centre political parties. Such failures took place in many countries with systems of proportional representation.

To be politically realistic is to question liberal or parliamentary democracy. This sytem's periodic exercise in federal consultation is not the opportunity for change that it appears to be. It is a 19th-Century political system designed for appearances, using universal suffrage to divert opposition into manageable channels. Even on the rare occasions when an overriding issue does become central (as the free trade question did in the recent election) our variant of liberal democracy is designed to defeat the majority opinion.

Some Canadians recently received a political education. To their surprise, whereas only 43.7 percent of the voters supported the Tories and the majority voted for parties that opposed the free trade deal, the Conservatives nevertheless won a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Furthermore, the Conservatives won a majority of seats in only three of the ten provinces. In five provinces, a majority of seats went to the parties opposed to the deal. In two, an equal number of seats went to those for and against the deal, while the "territories" gave all their support to the parties opposed to the deal.

Voting behavior studies show that, even when an issue such as free trade dominates an election, fewer people vote for the winning party specifically because of its stand on that issue than vote for the next most popular party, let alone by all other parties. Thus probably fewer than thirty percent of the voters cast their ballots for the Conservatives because they wanted to support free trade.

In our electoral system, even during a referendum-like election, a political party can form a parliamentary majority with a minority of votes. And very few elections are fought on the basis of such fundamental issues.

The parliamentary system must be questioned as a means of real change. What does this imply for the peace, ecology, and women's movements?

First conclusion: It is not enough for the peace movement just to educate the public about the issues, lobby the political decision-makers, or even to undertake civil disobedience campaigns.

Second conclusion: This movement must try to influence power as it is concentrated in our society; and, more important, it must become a politically powerful social force in its own right.

Third conclusion: The peace movement is not wholly without influence. It does not, however, have political (i.e. institutional) power of its own. This is the crux of the matter. The movement of the 1980s was larger than all past movements, was spread across all regions of the country, and was locally generated. These qualities offered potential strengths of a new kind. However, instead of building on these features, activists accepted the prevailing political myths, namely: concentrate organizational resources nationally; launch "national campaigns" because these are more "effective"; and focus all efforts on the national elections. These myths fit the prevailing political system and yield predictable results.

If, on the other hand, the movement were to go against the logic of the system and adopt a strategy that conforms to the real shape of the movement, we would "think globally and act locally." Peaceniks would work with other social activists to develop multi-issue programs for social change and seek to institutionalize these new ideas. At the local level of society, every institution - from schools and school boards to municipal councils - would be put on the agenda for change. Participatory democracy would be advanced and applied at the local level. We would have to take municipal politics far more seriously than now, and more seriously than federal and provincial politics. We would seek to empower ourselves and our local institutions by addressing the life-or-death questions facing our planet. Thus we would generate a necessary local power to counter the heavy hand of a centralized political system.

Of course, it is not enough that municipalities declare themselves nuclear free zones. They must become fully demilitarized zones. At the same time, these free municipalities must federate (e.g. an international federation of nuclear free cities and ports already exists) and take foreign policy initiatives (e.g. several U.S. cities already have their own foreign policy toward Central America).

Everything that Ottawa does not want to do, we will seek to do locally and across the country with other free municipalities. We will force the central political power to negotiate with a federation of local powers.

This will be an entirely new politics, one that goes to the root of power. Admittedly, it is an unconventional politics. But then, reversing the system of militarism and war which dates back thousands of years goes against what is normally defined as possible. To be realistic, we must no longer remain the helpless victim of orthodox politics and a system of power closed to our proposals. Like every significant movement in history, ours must either counterpose central power with a new political base or be absorbed or marginalized by the prevailing system.

Dimitri Roussopoulos has been active in the peace movement for over thirty years as an organizer, public speaker, and publisher.

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1989

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1989, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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