Jagmeet Singh, Prison Abolition, and the NDP Leadership Race

A big “on the other hand”: I’ve been supporting Niki Ashton for the NDP leadership because she seems to push hardest against that party’s drift to the neoliberal centre, but I believe deeply that prison abolition and restorative justice (defined a bit more below) are essential to any genuinely radical left politics, and Jagmeet Singh’s criminal justice reform positions are hands-down the best in the race, and probably the best I’ve ever seen from a Canadian politician.
Singh is a criminal defence lawyer, so he knows and targets in depth the issues that blight Canada’s penal system: cruel and ineffective mandatory minimum sentencing laws, bail policies that keep people behind bars for the crime of being poor, the criminalization of the mentally ill and of racialized persons, and an overall tendency to favour punitive/retaliatory over rehabilitative/restorative forms of justice (despite lip service to the contrary). Other, related issues in Singh’s platform are under-theorized by comparison: concern for unfreedom at home should be matched with care for unfreedom abroad, and Singh, unlike Ashton, tends to sideline questions of international solidarity with oppressed peoples.
But his explicit, detailed refusal of conservative law-and-order politics is a huge deal, unmatched by any of the other candidates (Ashton comes closest). Prison abolition is an important conceptual framework because, as theorists like Angela Davis argue, it’s about so much more than prisons: to ask what would be necessary to render prisons obsolete, as a thought-experiment and a horizon, is to identify the social and cultural determinants of harm, to strategize concretely about how those harms can be limited, and to think carefully about non-violent approaches to individual and communal restitution, healing, and repair. In the Canadian context, prison abolition and restorative justice also imply a transformed relationship to Indigenous peoples, insofar as restorative justice adopts Indigenous principles (and practices!) of reconciliatory dialogue in place of the liberal utilitarianism that says that certain persons — the criminalized, the disabled, the mentally ill — are disposable.
I’m not moving my vote to Singh without more reflection, but the essence of socialism is the absolute unwillingness to accept that human beings should abide in cages and chains, and I have a lot of time for anyone who cries out against that horror, whether or not he calls himself a socialist.

A Distinct Left Alternative, Not Kitchy Slogans

I’ll support him if he wins the NDP leadership, but the consolidation of leftish Canadian support around Jagmeet Singh on the basis of that (actually pretty weird and troubling?) viral video speaks to the #1 problem with what passes for the left in Canada: a tendency to privilege heartwarming optics and performances of virtue over coherently expressed visions of social transformation. That video, at very best, is pure Trudeau. At worst it’s a progressive man literally shouting over a right-wing woman with kitchy slogans, which is the right’s stereotype of how the left deals with its critics among so-called ordinary people.

I worry that Niki Ashton doesn’t have the union and other elite NDP backing to win the leadership, but in a match-up with Trudeau she’s electable because she represents a distinct alternative, a different way of saying and perhaps of doing politics. Angus and Caron maybe less so, on the surface, but at the last debate they spoke with an assurance and a nuanced take on the issues that I found less marked in Singh, who seemed more often to speak in generalities (i.e. generalities I found less subtle and precise than the others’ generalities).

His policy positions seem to be better than Trudeau’s, so, again, if he wins the leadership I’ll support him, but if he wins it’ll also increase my fear that the modern NDP, rather than representing a genuine left alternative in Canada, instead colludes in producing the depressive state that Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: the sense that there *is* no thinkable left alternative, that all that exists is market logic and less or more woke, less or more cheerful technocratic modifications to it.

Fascists and Democrats are Both (Often) Petty Bourgeois, and Other Little Facts that Liberal Class Analysis Ignores

A few thoughts about fascism and class — some of them probably obvious to any theory-steeped Marxists in my orbit, but maybe useful for anybody working through these questions as I am?
Liberalism’s major analytic deficit is that its understanding of class is profoundly inadequate. Liberals don’t deny class, in fact; liberalism has a class analysis. But this analysis takes class to be a simple binary tension between rich and poor, haves and have-nots. It presumes that class is just one form of privilege, like race or ability, and if anything rather simpler than those.
The problem with this analysis is that class isn’t only or mostly about money, about having and not having, though this can be an important part of it. Class is a whole subjective and objective formation, comprised of values, tastes, modes of association, etc., and defined ultimately by its members’ roles in the process of production. The petty bourgeoisie is not the proletariat, which is also not the peasantry. All may be “poor” (or not), but their class interests are wildly different.
Fascism’s traditional base, and that of authoritarian dictatorship in general, is the petty bourgeoisie (those “small business owners”!) and the peasantry. This is Trump’s base. The proletariat or “working class,” which Marx and Engels and Lenin and Luxemburg considered to be the revolutionary class, is distinct from these groups. It’s distinguished from them by the far greater degree of association among its members. The proletariat is that group of workers exploited most directly, most bodily by industrial capitalism — but industrial capitalism brings those workers physically into community with each other, and depends on their uninterrupted labour, and so creates the conditions of possibility for them to unite against it, first of all in the form of the labour strike.
It’s this group, to repeat, that Marx et al. saw as the base for socialism.
But what happens to this class analysis when an ever greater part of capitalism is post-industrial? When the factory no longer brings the workers together, but instead they remain atomized in their diffuse digitized workplaces? How do we then distinguish between white-collar proletarians (if that can be thought) and white-collar petty bourgeois? To what extent does the proletarian class, as Marx understood it, disappear with the rise of so-called immaterial labour?
A nation of clerks, where the clerks are relatively poor, isn’t thereby a proletarian nation. It’s a petty bourgeois nation. And such workers, by nature liberal democrats if not turned fascist (the same people contain both potentials!), lack the leverage to derail capital that associated industrial workers have or had in the form of the strike.
The petty bourgeois can strike, but in their fragmentation, their isolation, to do so causes minimal disruption to capital. In the eyes of capital, they’re dispensable in a way that industrial workers became but once were not. Thus they lack revolutionary capacity, though they may act briefly with a semblance of unity to install a strongman who can represent their interests by proxy. (This is a version of Marx’s class analysis in the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.”)
The new working class, today’s proletarians, seem to me to be mostly not in offices but behind counters and grills and steering wheels: low-wage service workers. This isn’t Trump’s base. This is a group that feels its exploitation as such, that doesn’t believe itself to be “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” actual or potential “small business owners” in need only of lower taxes and smaller government for their success.
It’s these people who must be brought into effective coalition with the left. They, and the unemployed and disabled, late capitalism’s wounded veterans, its human sacrifice zones. And if the petty bourgeois can be won over, that’s good too. But it should be remembered that their class interests are served, to a great extent, by a leader like Trump. Which is why liberal class analysis, which de-centers and simplifies class conflict, is so often in fact petty bourgeois class analysis, the ploy of a class that wants to obscure its own parasitic relationship to authoritarian state power. Which is why we should reject it.
Happy Labour Day.