Unlike the physical world studied by natural science, political reality is not simply given, but is in part the outcome of people’s beliefs, actions, and interactions. There are of course objective structures and forces in social life (laws, institutions, resources), but their effects on people are not like the force of gravity (which is indifferent to peoples’ beliefs). Instead, objective social forces change as beliefs and actions change and give rise to new patterns of interaction in the service of different goals and values. One way to understand political power is as the collective capacity to define and change the given reality in according to a guiding value system.
Struggles for institutional power always involve struggles to define the scope of possibility for political action. Mainstream politicians of parliamentary parties all define political reality in such a way that changes to the objective forces that currently structure social life and the existing money-value system that legitimates those forces appear unchangeable. The way they accomplish this goal is to not speak about these objective forces as social, political, and economic products of collective human action and interaction, but as permanent constraints on human life which must be accepted as limits within which “realistic” policies must operate.
Hence, to understand the deeper identity of interest that all mainstream politicians and political parties serve, we need to pay attention to what they leave unsaid. Their differences—always superficial—are disclosed in their policies, platforms, and pronouncements, but to understand what they are really about we need to bring to light the unstated assumptions about what they take the field of legitimate political action to be.
One of the most difficult, but also most important abilities, that critical social philosophy teaches is this ability to uncover and understand the relationship between the unsaid in political speech and the attempt to make changeable institutional forces appear as unchangeable natural laws. While understanding the way in which what mainstream politicians keep silent helps them make the historical appear natural does not in and of itself lead to the solution to key problems, it is a first step in understanding why parliamentary politics never solves the problems the different parties all claim to want to solve. They never solve the problems because they accept the real causes of those problems as unalterable structures of social life. The result is that the real issues never even get discussed, let alone systematically addressed. Let me illustrate my point with three examples drawn from recent history and relevant to the on-going federal election campaign.
A few months ago the Truth and Reconciliation Commission examining the history of residential schools and their destructive impacts on the lives of people of the First Nations submitted its final report. It made a number of far reaching recommendations about how the historically oppressive relationship between the Canadian state and the people of the First Nations could be transformed and equality and justice promoted. While all political parties are courting the aboriginal vote, there is complete silence about the report. Why? Because the testimony, analysis, and recommendations it contains all smash key elements of the myth of Canada: as a historic compromise between two founding nations, as the triumph of conservative (in the true sense of the word) pragmatism over mutually destructive confrontation, and of democratic accommodation over revolutionary violence. Judged from the perspective of the people of the First Nations, the truth of the Canadian state is the opposite on every score: not a compromise, but an all-out attack on First Nations’ societies, not conservative, but destructive of First Nations’ cultures and institutions, and not democratic, but a colonial expropriation of First Nations’ lands. All of that must remain unsaid, because all parties (with the exception of the Bloc Quebecois, which relies on a different myth of origins) tie their own legitimacy to the resonance this myth has with many Canadians.
As always, “the economy” is the focus of most of the arguments between the three major federal parties. Occasionally, mildly critical arguments erupt about the level and extent of inequality, about the disappearance of ‘good jobs,’ and the need for financial security in old age. What is always left unsaid in these arguments is an explanation of why our society is so unequal and growing moreso, what a good job is and why they are disappearing, and why the financial security of more and more people, and not only the elderly, is being undermined. To answer those questions would mean using the term “capitalism” and lead into an analysis of its class structure. An analysis of its class structure would provide strong evidence that poverty, inequality, menial and poorly paid labour, and financial insecurity for everyone but the very wealthy is not a function of bad policy-making by the government of the day, but endemic to an economy that produces profits through the exploitation of labour, that treats working human beings as disposable “human resources” and has tied personal income security more and more to volatile stock markets that work for major corporate investors but only rarely for working individuals. To raise these questions would again jeopardize each party’s election strategy: of positioning themselves as the best party to manage the economy. Instead, it would allow people to ask the question of whether we need to build a different economy on the basis of a different value system if the goods of equality, meaningful work, and life-security are to be served.
Finally, let us take an example from international affairs. The refugee crisis gripping Europe might seem to have little to do with Canada (beyond the debate about whether the Conservative government has allowed enough Syrian refugees into the country). While the government`s response thus far has been shamefully inadequate, there is again an unspoken dimension to the problem. In large part the refugee crisis is testimony to the failure of the neo-liberal political-military and economic agenda in Africa and the Middle East, a set of policies which is never exposed to view by any of the parties, (even if some its results are lamented by the NDP and Liberals). No one is exposing to light the destruction of African economies through IMF structural reforms imposed through the 80s and 90’s until today, or the way in which the collapse of stability in the Middle East is a consequence of Western intervention. Instead, all sing from the same hymn book about ISIS and wave the flag in support of our bombing missions and blind, unthinking support for Israeli colonialism, when it is clear that no solution that can restore peace to the Middle East be achieved through bombing and that a better future for everyone will require the end of the occupation of Palestine and the creation of democratic Palestinian state.
Bringing these unstated assumptions to light shows us that mainstream political parties accept as necessary the very structures that cause the fundamental problems of our world. Understanding these causes cannot on its own solve the problems, but there is abundant historical evidence to support the claim that unless we understand and address the causes of key social problems, solutions will never be found.