Every election there is at least one issue that social democratic supporters of the electoral system claim is a reason for every member of the progressive camp to participate in voting for the “lesser evil” so as to get the Conservatives out of power at any cost. The truth, of course, is that supporters of the NDP and the electoral circus will always find some excuse—some supposedly crucial issue—to endorse the system as a whole: these issues are always MacGuffins used to justify an ideology of systemic support. This is not to say they do not possess some truth, or that they are not crucial in and of themselves, but only that those who would like us to support a rightward drifting NDP cynically latch upon these issues so as to justify what they would always like to see justified: participation in business as usual, electoral voting as the greatest democratic good.

In these elections, one of the issues of significance appears to be Bill C-51. Security legislation designed to give the state more leeway in surveillance and pacification, this bill: i) provides the government with broader surveillance rights, where a thorough sharing of individuals’ private information is legally permitted simply if such information is perceived to threaten Canadian security (i.e. just to be an anti-capitalist activist might, and probably will, allow one to have their information mined and shared); ii) an expansion in the Criminal Code that includes the criminalization of anything that is deemed “terroristic” propaganda; iii) increasing CSIS’s powers to control and repress Canadian citizens; iv) a Secure Air Travel Act which will increase airport and airline security; and v) more draconian measures applied to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

We need to ask, then, whether or not Bill C-51 is a game-changer for these elections. That is, does the spectre of Harper’s recent anti-terrorist legislation necessitate uniting all of progressive forces, of every shade of red and black, around the NDP? In a context where an ever-more-liberalized NDP is outflanking the Liberal Party—and indeed using its stance on Bill C-51 to draw in former Liberal Party supporters––and thus alienating itself more and more from its traditional social democratic supporters, its position on Bill C-51 might be the cause célèbre that can unite both its old rank-and-file with its new neo-liberal allies.

A “vague and ineffective” piece of legislation

First of all, the NDP’s reasons for opposing Bill C-51 are not the same as those in the progressive camp. Although this might seem like a bland and obvious distinction to make, it does mean something very concrete. Until early spring 2015, when the electoral parties were beginning to consolidate themselves for the election, the NDP flip-flopped over its support or non-support of the bill. Initially there was silence and then, in order to avoid alienating itself from the more progressive faction of the petty-bourgeoisie that forms the backbone of its voting population as well as pulling in Liberal voters disappointed by Trudeau’s capitulation on this matter, [1] it opposed the bill.

Mulcair was clear, however, to qualify this opposition: the bill was “vague and ineffective… without addressing serious deficiencies in oversight.” [2] Hence, despite claims to oppose the bill, Mulcair has in fact said that, if elected, his party would not necessarily scrap Bill C-51 but would instead attempt to reform it, [3] perhaps by fixing those areas that are “vague and ineffective.”

In this sense, it might be the case that the NDP’s opposition to the bill, far from being a support of anti-systemic movements, is instead closer to the opposition evinced by free market liberals and survivalist libertarians. Indeed, a group of “principled conservatives and libertarians” wrote an open letter to Harper, echoing Mulcair’s criticisms by calling the bill “reckless, dangerous and ineffective.” [4] And “a group of prominent executives from many of Canada’s tech companies” also posted an open letter to Harper with the same demand and criticism: “scrap this reckless, dangerous and ineffective legislation.” [5] In the second case, opposition to the bill was framed in market language: the bill would hamper out-of-country trade and imperialist super-exploitation.

It is important to note that Mulcair, who keeps away from grass roots anti-capitalist movements, went out of his way to meet with the business leaders who drafted the second letter, assuring them that the NDP was sympathetic to their concerns. From this we can infer that the NDP’s intention regarding Bill C-51, far from opposing the broad suppression of dissent, is more in line with “fixing” its supposed “vagueness” to secure the civil liberties for those who protest within the proscribed limits of the state as well as, more importantly, making sure the legislation doesn’t over-police market exchange. We can thus imagine a more comprehensive and less “confused” (since apparently, this is its problem) version of the bill that is effective only in making distinctions between “good” and “bad” protestors and, above all, protecting the liberty of the market.

The context of securitization

Of course, Bill C-51 is something of a red herring. While it would be ludicrous to dismiss the dangers it represents to organizing (and indeed its implementation should cause all of us to fix our security practices, figure out creative ways to build united fronts, and avoid the kind of messy activism that leads to unnecessary risks) we have to recognize that, as many activists and security experts have already pointed out, this legislation: i) is designed to dampen anti-capitalist opposition, to cast a chill over the progressive camp; ii) is simply a rejigging of already existing security legislation by continuing down the path of securitization that is part and parcel of the War on Terror (which, it must be noted, the NDP does not oppose) and creating a problematic of “oversight” where private information can be legally shared with governmental bodies (which, it also must be noted, is the NDP’s only problem with the Bill—its vagueness on the threat to individual privacy).

In some ways the bill has already succeeded in creating this chill, despite militant anti-capitalist groups such as the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (among others) correctly noting that we must resist this attempt at fear-mongering. Since increased security and the problem of oversight are not simply empty threats—the fear-mongering contains a core of truth—we have witnessed, in the months following Bill C-51’s implementation, this very chill that OCAP warned against. Activists have dropped out of various organizations, there has been a reticence in adopting a revolutionary line, and those who found it easier to involve themselves in a movement that seemed to enjoy less explicit suppression are now reconsidering their activism. [6] In this context, the NDP’s supposed opposition to the Bill appears like something of a holy grail to those who would like a return to the good old days of activism (which were never very “good” for the most exploited and oppressed strata of society) where they can have their demonstrations and open anti-capitalism without worrying about state terror.

Here it is important to note the impetus behind legislation such as Bill C-51 that exists autonomously of whatever bourgeois party is in power: processes of securitization that were initiated by the current phase of imperialism, the so-called War on Terror, and that were galvanized by the recent economic crisis. As Professor Colleen Bell noted in The Freedom of Security, we are now living in a period where “the reduction of civil liberties is justified by the proponents of the War on Terror not simply as necessary sacrifices for the sake of security but also on the ground that it will protect free ‘ways of life’.” [7]

In this sense, Canada’s participation in the War on Terror, as well as its commitment to protect crisis capitalism from those anti-systemic movements that might use the objective circumstances to strengthen their extra-parliamentary opposition, necessitates an increased securitization that the masses are meant to accept as normal.

Furthermore, many of the security activities licensed by Bill C-51 (such as information sharing and surveillance) were already being practiced before the Bill passed; now they have simply received legal recognition. Legality, though significant, has never been that much of a stumbling block in the past: the illegality of torture did not prevent the US from engaging in it during the War on Terror—they have simply “apologized”, now that it has been brought to light, and nobody responsible for implementing these decisions has been arrested; similarly, as the Snowden revelations have demonstrated, capitalist states have been breaking their own privacy laws for years, regardless of what the law says, and it was Snowden, not those responsible for breaking the laws, who was targeted by the state’s legal and repressive apparatus.

In any case, if the NDP remains committed to imperialism and capitalism, going so far as to fire those members who make anti-imperialist comments, [8] then it must also maintain a commitment to some form of securitization. If not Bill C-51, then a “reformed” version of this legislation.

The red herring of Bill C-51, then, functions like the red herring of austerity. Rather than recognizing the economic crisis for what it is—a moment to organize, to pull in those committed to getting rid of capitalism—we are often tricked into supporting an acceptable form of “anti-austerity” activism where we hope that a kinder and gentler version of capitalism can be salvaged… where we get the benefits of living in an imperialist country (that only has these benefits because of imperialist super-exploitation) and continue on with a low level anti-capitalist agitation where the state can tolerate our opposition.

Although Syriza’s recent failure in Greece should demonstrate that austerity measures cannot be rejected simply by voting in the right party, we are still tricked by the pittances offered to us by a party that, unlike Syriza, isn’t even committed to a plan of anti-austerity. And since the NDP is far from committed to anti-austerity, it is neither committed to a world without imperialism and thus a world without the securitization that imperialism (and the crisis) necessitates.

Avoiding co-optation

The comprehensive measures of Bill C-51 do not change the lived experience of the most exploited and oppressed layers of Canadian society. These are people who are surveilled, ghettoized, profiled, and controlled as part of their daily existence. Bill C-51 was not required to roll the tanks into Kahnesatake 25 years ago to put down an Indigenous uprising. Nor was it required to render Arab Canadians, over-police Black Canadian neighbourhoods, or protect abandoned property from homeless squatting.

These facts do not mean we should not oppose it, or pretend that it does not possess key distinctions from previous security legislation, only that we should recognize that those who have nothing to lose in the event of a revolution are most often those for whom this “nothing to lose” is proven by the fact that they are already living under intense securitization that Bill C-51 would not make better or worse. These are people who, on the whole, do not care if the NDP is in power because the NDP makes no difference in their daily existence—which is why they are also the people, when we look at the demographic breakdowns, who usually do not vote.

With this in mind we need to think as well of those revolutionary and anti-systemic movements around the world that experience worse forms of surveillance and repression than even a Bill C-51 form of securitization. We have to recognize that even with Bill C-51, or whatever kind of “reformed” version of state terror the NDP plans to offer, the Canadian left as a whole still possesses, at least for the moment, more autonomy and laxity than movements elsewhere. Rather than worrying about the ways in which this better freedom to organize (particularly to find ways to unite those of us who do not possess this freedom with those who do) is being narrowed by successive security legislations, and wasting our energy on channelling our resistance to state terror into electoral parties that we imagine will “save” us, we should instead be organizing against the system upon which this securitization is dependent. To do so means to stand with those who will be repressed and surveilled whether or not Bill C-51 exists and, in making this stand, to organize a total rejection of every bourgeois party in the interest of a sustainable, anti-capitalist movement.

Hence, rather than seeing Bill C-51 as an opportunity to organize around the NDP in the hope that fears of surveillance will defeat Harper (for again we must note that Mulcair, in taking a wishy-washy stand against the Bill has been able to pull conservatives and neo-liberals towards his party, and this will mean an even more rightward drift for the NDP), we should use it as an opportunity to create more sustainable united fronts, more creative grass roots alliances, with each other. While such alliances will of course necessitate also engaging in a variety of legal fights, and maybe even fighting to keep liberal reforms that currently benefit the movement as a whole, it will not make the mistake of allowing the energy of even the most radical reformist unity movement to be co-opted by the electoral circus and a party that is becoming less and less interested in protecting even social democratic reforms.

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