Friday, October 2, 2020

Flame-out of the BC EcoSocialists

Barely on the scene for a year it looks like the party that was the BC Ecosocialists may have run it's course. Last fall when news of the party started popping up on social media (Like Geoff Berner's piece or Charlie Smith's in The Straight) it caught my eye as an interesting project. Here was a group of erstwhile socialists claiming to be real socialists and trying to establish themselves as a legitimate electoral party. It looked interesting.

Not until David Eby called the police on student protesters at his office in late January did I start to think seriously about the BC Ecosocialists as more than a novelty item on the news. Ironically, I had only recently rejoined the NDP. But the use of police to remove and arrest peaceful youth protesters in the context of the NDP's continued repudiation of Indigenous rights in favour of the petroleum industry led me to rescind my membership in the NDP.  In this context the ecosocialists seemed like an interesting possibility. Shortly thereafter I sent in $5 and became a member.

Between February and June I essentially heard nothing. Then I received a cheery message from the organizing chair of the party telling me that I was now the rep for Vancouver-West.  That was a step up, but likely the result of a lack of people able to volunteer.  It seemed like an opportunity to get one's feet wet at the ground level and maybe make a real change at the same time. But I wasn't able to actually participate in a meeting of the party until late August.  

By the time August rolled around it really seems like things were falling apart.  The first meeting I made it to followed close on the heels of what had been by all accounts been an angry exchange  transgressing all kinds of social norms. Several resignations followed. I think I should have packed up right then and there - yet I still felt there seemed to be something in the idea of the party that was remained attractive.  I was even considering running as a candidate (luckily a good friend told me to focus on the important things and I stopped the campaign before I began).

Then the acting party leader got themselves into a facebook comment fight that changed the debate from principles to people. Their intervention seemed gratuitous at the time and, after the fact, even more so.  It unleashed a storm of personal attacks (in multiple directions), the classic tactic of capitalist liberalism. It was becoming clear to me that the politics of the ecosocialist milieu was less a kind of socialism based on materialist conceptions of society and more of a left cultural politics.

One of the strengths of an historical materialist approach is that it focuses on social processes, structures of power, and how to change them. Capitalist liberalism (and, it seems, left cultural politics) is all about individuals, choice, agency, and ego.  

Once the terrain of discussion around the BC Ecosocialists shifted there was no going back - for the limited social milieu surrounding the BC Ecosocialists it had all become about the acting leader (it mattered little whether they resigned or not).  I read over some of the social media feeds that I could see - it was not pretty.  It was aggressive, unrelenting, and clearly a simple resignation by the acting leader would not placate the criticism. There was a demand for a kind of collective debasement of all involved one way or another. 

Meanwhile the search for a permanent party leader had been continuing. Someone was identified, they said yes, and were ready to run in the election. It looked like things were moving back toward principles. But here is where I think the ideas of what constitutes leadership should have been better thought out. It became apparent to me that despite the socialist ideals of collective leadership that would deemphasis cults of the personal, both the former acting leader and the potential permanent leader had operated in ways that drew heavily upon their own personal sense of 'brand' and the associated idea that leaders lead by acting and informing rather than following, facilitating, and collaborating as equals.

The new leader brought a document to the party to send out as a press release. It began by apologizing for the words of the former acting leader. It then continued to lay out and explicate the party's policies, intentions, and practices on policy development. An email just before the start of the meeting was the first time some of the meeting attendees had seen or heard about such a document.  Revisions were requested. Commitments were made to work out a revision and by late in the evening a new document was received. Personally I thought the revised document was tighter, clearer, and addressed principles more effectively than the original draft.  But it went no where. The next day I learned via social media that the person who was to be the new leader had withdrawn from the election and had changed their mind about being party leader. 

That was it for me.  I took my leave of the party the next day.

It's been an interesting journey into not quite fringe politics. I have spent a lot of time working with extraparliamentary left groupings, have moved in and out of the NDP (even serving on a riding association executive for a number of years), but this was the first time in a startup political edge group.  The idea had possibility. It still does.  There are some things that I think need to be changed. Primarily among these is finding a way to allow difference and dissent within left cultural politics in ways that avoid  personalizing or moralizing differences into a hierarchy of values. 

Left cultural politics is currently structured through a set of beliefs that ascribe priority to experiences and feelings of particular types of systemic and personal discrimination and prejudice. That is, given one's subjective location (defined by race, sexuality, gender, etc), one accumulates certain types of experience. These experiences structure how one feels and moves through society. This is popularly referenced as intersectionality. This approach is further entangled by popular notions of psychology that emphasizes ego's perspective - that is, if I feel something my interpretation of why and who/what is at fault is unquestionable: that is "If I feel poorly, I have been hurt, and to cause me hurt is a serious affront." In this context it's pretty difficult to engage in  discourse outside the parameters of the belief system. 

A dissenter is framed, not simply as disagreeing with a principle, but rather their disagreement is seen a repudiation of a person or a class of person.  There is no space for dissent beyond orthodoxy in this formulation. This would be (sort of) fine if the underlying beliefs and values were static, but they are not - they change over time, they change in relation to the subjective identities of participants,  and they change depending upon the specific individuals engaged.  Thus, and despite all the talk about feelings and appreciation of difference, there is no room for intellectual variation beyond a narrow band.

Of course there are somethings that don't require theories or elaborate principles, they are just good sense. For example there is no need to provoke people.  Some issues -like treating all people as people- aren't really debatable.  A lot of the mess created by the well intentioned people who created the ecosocialist party could have been avoided if they and their allies had placed a politics of care front and center ahead of a politics of power and the personal. But that is easy to say from the margins and as a latecomer.

Hopefully there will come a time when we have a real socialist party -able, willing, and popularly supported- ready to make real change. In the meantime I'll continue doing what I have always done - working in my place of work, my neighbourhood, and my community of origin to make the little changes that might make our world better.

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