Why the NDP Victory in Alberta is a Disaster

When the NDP party triumphed in the Alberta provincial election last week, there were three primary responses: conservatives inside the province declared that they no longer recognized Alberta and were going to move to Saskatchewan, such was their collective shock at the end of a 44-year conservative dynasty; progressives in Alberta and across the country seemed ecstatic by the NDP victory, convinced, apparently, that a progressive government had conquered the conservative heartland of Canada, despite winning only 41% of the popular vote with a moderate election platform; and finally, environmentalists inside Alberta and anti-Keystone XL pipeline liberals in the United States seemed convinced that the expansion of the Alberta tar sands was over, and a new era of anti-pipeline politics could begin under a female premier, no less.

The problem with all three of these positions is that the Alberta NDP is not a socialist threat to Alberta’s petrostate (sorry, conservatives), nor is the NDP a progressive party (sorry, progressives), and the NDP victory certainly does not represent a containment of the Alberta tar sands (sorry, liberal environmentalists). What the reaction to the NDP victory in Alberta demonstrates more than anything else is how fundamentally naïve the so-called progressive Left in Canada and abroad has become, and how infinitesimally diminished are the collective expectations of this demographic. The gap between the ecstasy of naïve progressives and the grim reality of what is necessary to transform Alberta, especially its oil patch, into something close to a sustainable and egalitarian society terrifies me.

More grounded understandings of the NDP victory have been published by Chris Turner in The New Yorker (of all places!), Matthew Brett at Briarpatch Magazine, and Herman Rosenfeld at Jacobin. All three writers note that the Alberta NDP’s platform was not opposed to the expansion of the tar sands; in fact, while NDP leader Rachel Notley opposes the Northern Gateway pipeline proposed to run from Alberta through northern BC, her opposition is not a principled one but rather based on the pragmatic understanding that the pipeline faces too much opposition from First Nations and probably won’t be built. Notley is agnostic on the Keystone XL pipeline into the United States; she won’t be advocating for it, but this doesn’t really matter because ultimately the decision lies with the U.S. government.

She supports the Energy East pipeline project, which will run 3,000 km from Alberta to refineries and ports in Quebec and New Brunswick. As Chris Turner suspects, Notley may provide the oil industry in Alberta with a “friendlier face” for its primary export: “To the surprise of fusty P.C. stalwarts inside the province, and likely to the dismay of many environmentalists across Canada and beyond, the N.D.P. may well help Alberta sell the rest of the world on how the province makes its money.”

The day after the election, Notley publicly assured the oil patch that she wasn’t going to tamper with business as usual. Sure, she wants to increase the corporate tax rate from 10% to 12%, but as some have noted this new rate is still lower than the rate was when uber-conservative premier Ralph Klein left office in 2006. And, yes, Notley wants to open a debate about the oil and gas royalty rate, which she should since the rate is among the lowest in the world and provides oil companies in Alberta with a legalized form of larceny; however, again, even if she wins a mandate to increase the royalty rate on oil and gas, the rate increase will likely be marginal and therefore cosmetic. Alberta is not going to become Norway, not in a few years, not in a few decades.

The NDP is not the socialist saviour portrayed by so-called leftists, or the boogeyman scorned by conservatives. As Herman Rosenfeld summarizes the NDP:  “They in no way oppose the entire oil and gas extractive economy, challenge the power of the financial sector, or look to end the free trade regime which facilitates much of Canadian neoliberalism.” However, I disagree with Rosenfeld’s assessment of the recent election. He writes:

This is a very positive victory, and a breach (albeit probably temporary) in the monotonous control that Conservative parties have had in Alberta, since the old days of prairie populism was supplanted by a more right-wing populism tied to oil and gas elites. One would have to be pretty cynical and hard-boiled not to feel good about this election.

I guess I’m very cynical, then, because I don’t “feel good” about this election, for several reasons.

First, the election superficially validates the naiveté of Canadian liberals and progressives, by announcing a significant social change where there is only a cosmetic one. Already, I can imagine contented liberals sipping champagne over an election they had very little part in, resting comfortably because they now do not have to do the hard work of radical organizing that they were not doing in the first place.

Second, when so-called progressive candidates win an election, it typically results in forms of demobilization for radical interests. As Matthew Brett writes, the incremental reform made possible by an NDP victory “stifles militancy, grassroots movements, and creativity.” People who might have organized outside the electoral system for radical social change often become convinced that the so-called progressive party will now do the heavy lifting. This is especially problematic in Alberta, which is geographically insulated and seems to produce a political naiveté I have not witnessed in other provinces. What little radical organizing exists in Alberta will certainly not be assisted by the appearance of progressives in power.

Third, the dictatorship of capital cannot be voted away. Only a radical mobilization from below, transformed into a social revolution, can displace capital. For more information, see history.

Fourth, we don’t have time to hope that a political party whose energy policies were no different from the other parties somehow zigs instead of zagging and miraculously produces a containment of the tar sands. The most recent climate science tells us that 90% of the remaining oil, gas, and coal, as well as almost all of the Alberta tar sands, must stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic global warming. The NDP’s energy policy is no different from the other Alberta parties: its basic assumption is that the existence of human life on earth does not matter. The NDP will expand the tar sands, just like the other capitalist parties in Alberta.

Sometimes doing something, if it’s a minor reform in a situation that demands timely dramatic social changes, is worse than doing nothing. More important, as I wrote above, what social democrats are doing in Alberta is contributing to the troubling delusion held by many progressives that elections can transform capitalism into a just and sustainable society. Only militant grassroots social movements can accomplish the necessary overthrow of capitalism, and the NDP detract from such efforts and provide a false sense of comfort to bourgeois liberals. The NDP victory in Alberta is an exemplary form of capitalist recuperation.

Michael Truscello, Ph.D., is an associate professor in English and General Education at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. Read other articles by Michael.