Beyond Trudeau’s Charm Offensive: a social movement guide to cooptation

Justin Trudeau is providing people in Canada with things to celebrate. For starters, he is temperamentally the anti-Harper. Trudeau was seen shaking hands with passersby in a Montreal metro station, took (gasp) unscripted questions from journalists, and announced the withdrawal of Canadian bombers from Iraq and Syria. He reiterated election promises, and there’s some decent stuff in there.

Likely to deliver real change?

It’s hard not to see these changes as a tremendous relief. And it’s perfectly understandable that a lot of people want to take a breath and celebrate the end of the Harper decade.

We’ll see a lot more stuff like this in the first few months of Trudeau as Prime Minister. The charm offensive will include a lot of positive changes. Some of them will be symbolic, some will have a real impact on peoples’ lives.

There are essentially two ways to respond to Trudeau’s charm offensive.

The first, we can call “give him a chance”. On this account, the role of Prime Minister is that of a leader who will work better if we give him some breathing room. Folks with this perspective are exhorting us to not be so critical, enjoy the fact that we got rid of Harper, and wait and see what Mr. Trudeau has in store.

The second response sees Trudeau’s charm offensive as a window of opportunity for an agenda that has objective measures. Measures like “are we addressing climate change adequately to stop ecological collapse?” or “is our society become more equal and democratic or less?” The underlying assumption is that achieving those things is a matter of a battle between competing social forces — roughly oil companies and banks vs. people who want a just and sustainable future. Or the ruling class vs. the working class. We can call this response “eyes on the prize”.

Three objective measures provide clear yardsticks for evaluating progressive changes in Canada. One is “are the tar sands (and other extreme extraction like fracking) expanding, staying the same, or reducing their rate of extraction?” A second: “is corporate wealth and power –and the resulting level of inequality–expanding, staying the same, or reducing relative to the power of the people?” And perhaps most importantly: “do Indigenous nations have more or less ability to determine what happens on their territories?”

To justify itself, “give him a chance” needs to argue the unlikely: that Trudeau is different and through sheer force of personality, will defy every recent historical precedent of governments elected using progressive rhetoric.

The Liberals in ’93 ran on the “red book,” a series of progressive promises including renegotiating NAFTA. It wasn’t long before Paul Martin (who was then Finance Minister) got irritated and told complaining backbenchers: “screw the red book” as he served up the biggest cuts to government spending in decades. Several provincial governments have done followed the same pattern, including Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, who won a campaign on progressive rhetoric and promptly used their new powers to privatize Hydro One.

In his first hundred days, Obama rolled out a whole series of symbolic initiatives aimed at breaking with the Bush administration’s practices. But the same people who “gave him a chance” didn’t mobilize to expand the range of policy options on health care, and the compromise that became the Affordable Care Act didn’t just insure people’s health care coverage — it ensured that parasitic corporations would continue to reap massive profits at their expense. Let’s not speak of the $700 billion spent to bail out banks and corporations with little change in ownership structure.

Even if Trudeau is a path-breaking historical figure (and not, for example, the dangerously unprincipled legislator who voted for Bill C-51 and the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act” a few months ago), it’s hard to imagine that he can do it by himself. Justin Trudeau’s authentic progressive impulses will run into limits very quickly if he doesn’t get serious help. A more cynical take would say that the charm offensive will fade once people are paying less attention to politics, and then the real policies will be pushed through the house.

The point is that Justin Trudeau’s real intentions don’t matter. Regardless, people like John Manley, CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, will come knocking, and expect to be able to dictate policy to the Liberals the way they did to at least the last three elected federal governments.

A quick guide to cooptation

To counter the influence of the CCCE and other corporate players, political pressure needs to be brought to bear on the new government. That means we need people in the streets, in the media, in meetings — and yes, on the internet — pushing the envelope and demanding that the government go beyond a largely-symbolic charm offensive.

If we do that, things will be really different from the Harper government. Unlike Harper, Trudeau cares what Canadians think of him. But he also has corporate interests breathing down his neck. What to do? How to resolve this contradiction? The traditional Liberal answer is: cooptation.

I’m not old enough to remember, but the mostly-forgotten history of Canada’s almost-unbroken string of Liberal governments from ’63 to ’84 is one of highly effective cooptation of movement energy.

Chrétien-era Liberal advisor Warren Kinsella puts it this way: “find a parade, and get out in front of it.”. It’s what the Liberals do. And the metaphor is apt: they didn’t have anything to do with getting the people to the parade, nor are they leading it; they’re just there to enjoy the benefits of being in the front.

Cooptation takes a group of people that have a particular end in mind, and uses them to further a different end.

When someone gets in front of your parade, two problems can arise: people in the parade are either tricked into settling for less than they want, or they don’t ask for what they really want.

Movements accustomed to the unresponsive wall of Harper will have to rapidly adapt to maintain a lot of clarity about what they are demanding from the Liberals. Unlike Conservatives, Liberals will entice movement leaders with positions on blue ribbon panels, chairs of special commissions, funding for NGOs, and so on. The more momentum a movement has, the more the Liberals will try to entice leadership away or get it to accept something less in exchange for complicity.

Nothing divides movements more effectively than discussions about how far is far enough, and when it’s ok to cash in your political capital for a cushy position on the other side of the velvet rope.

What that means is that movements will have to spend time getting collectively clear on what the common goals are, and cultivate leaders who are in the struggle for the long haul, and won’t be tempted by trinkets, salary upgrades, accolades or dinner party invitations.

Naturally, there will be claims that we can accomplish more working from the inside. There will be some truth to these claims — but usually not as much as the ones who stand to gain would have you believe–and that makes them all the more difficult to grapple with. It can be helpful to have people on the inside, but if the centre of the struggle moves there, it usually means things are winding down regardless of whether the main goals have been achieved.

Here’s another difficult thing. To people who have their eyes on the prize, every movement win short of complete victory is going to feel like cooptation. The key is to maintain momentum and set new goals, rather than criticizing the people who celebrate the current win or complaining that it falls short.

What’s even better is setting long term goals while pursuing short-term demands. The Quebec student movement, for example, did an excellent job in 2012 of demanding the reversal of an immediate set of cuts while making it clear that the long-term goal was free post-secondary education for all. They did the work to educate movement participants, setting up a struggle against broad austerity measures in the following years.

Most people who seek an inquiry into missing and murdered native women know that the demand is just one step on the way to decolonization and Indigenous self-determination. But if Trudeau delivers an inquiry, will that lead to complacency? That depends on to what extent educational efforts are able to reach into the population, and how well casual participants in the movement have been set up for the next step of escalation.

The more likely result of that scenario — still quite hypothetical — is that Trudeau will take credit for the work the movement did, and take it to the next election. The movement leaders and participants who stayed on this side of the velvet rope will start to work on the next campaign. Those who have been prepared — or who know how power and politics function — will join them.

Once one accepts limits to one’s vision, it can be difficult to recover. Today, a whole generation of people with profound systemic critiques of international capitalism are sitting in NGO offices, doing the best they can within the limits of the system. Some of them still have the same critiques, but accept that they cannot act on them; some have simply changed their minds to align with their salaries. If movements grow as fast as they need to, a new generation will have to learn from the previous generation’s missteps — pronto.

If we accept that there are absolute measures to what we need to accomplish overall (starting with not rendering the earth uninhabitable), then we also accept that there are absolute measures to what we need to accomplish right now.

Trudeau’s charm offensive should never be allowed to accomplish its goal: to lull most of us into complacency before the real policies are implemented. Actively making demands and agitating for them is a great way to make sure that the Liberal advisors and corporate lobbyists have to wait a little longer to take the reins.

But no matter who steps in front of the parade, we can’t forget where we truly need it to go.

(For a longer illustration of Liberal cooptation techniques, read this excerpt from Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism, by Dru Oja Jay and Nikolas Barry-Shaw: Fortress Quebec City: Topple the Fence or March to Nowhere?)

(For an updated to this analysis circa August 2016, check out Liberal governments introduce nasty surprises in year two–here’s how we stop them.)

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