Justin Trudeau deploys the politics of hype. Jeremy Corbyn offers politics of hope
You know Justin Trudeau from the Buzzfeed photo-spread or the BBC viral video: the feminist Prime Minister of Canada who hugs refugees, pandas, and his yoga-mat. He looks like he canoed straight from the lake to the stage of the nearest TED Talk — an inclusive, nature-loving do-gooder who must assuredly be loved by his people.
Then there’s what the columns of trans-Atlantic punditry told you about Jeremy Corbyn: the rumpled, charmless leader of UK’s Labour party whose supporters are fringe lunatics and his stances out-of-date utopianism. If he dared run an election with his political program, he would just as assuredly be rejected by the electorate.
But last week Corbyn pulled off the biggest political upset in modern British history. The Labour party, rather than undergoing a widely-advertised demise, is within striking distance of forming government. Millions, it turns out, are ready to embrace radical policies that take on vested interests, put services back into public hands, and spend massively on education, clean energy and healthcare.
Now that Corbyn has upended the rules that govern electoral life in the west, it will help us see Trudeau in proper perspective: as a smooth-talking centrist who has put the most coiffed gloss yet on the bankrupt and besieged neoliberalism of the age.
Trudeau’s coronation as a champion of everything fair and decent, after all, has much to do with shrewd and calculated public relations. I call it the Trudeau two-step.
First, he makes a sweeping proclamation pitched abroad — a bold pledge to tackle austerity or climate change, or to assure the rights of refugees or Indigenous peoples. The fawning international coverage bolsters his domestic credibility.
What follows next are not policies to ambitiously fulfill these pledges: it is ploys to quietly evacuate them of any meaning. The success of this maneuver – as well as its sheer cynicism – has been astonishing.
In this manner, Trudeau has basically continued, and in some cases exceeded, the economic agenda of Conservative Stephen Harper: approved mega fossil fuel projects, sought parliamentary power grabs, cut-back healthcare funding and attacked public pensions, kept up the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, undermined the prospect of universal childcare, maintained tax loopholes for the richest, and detained and deported thousands of migrants.
Out of breath? He has also broken an electoral reform promise, initiated a privatization scheme that is a massive corporate handout, left un-repealed a Tory political spy bill, launched air strikes in Iraq and Syria despite pledging a withdrawal, and inked the largest-ever weapons deal with the brutal, misogynistic Saudi Arabian regime.
Not exactly what those who voted for “real change” were expecting? Before you answer, here’s something titillating to distract and disarm you: Justin and Barack Obama rekindling their progressive bromance at an uber-cool Montreal diner. Jeremy Corbyn has shown us the meaning of a politics of genuine hope: what Trudeau has deployed has only ever been a politics of hype.
Trudeau’s latest progressive posturing is over foreign policy. Last week his government announced, to wide-spread acclaim, a brave course for their military that is independent of the reviled US administration. Except they will boost wasteful military spending by more than $60bn, a shocking seventy percent budgetary increase, and are already entertaining new NATO missions — exactly as Donald Trump has demanded. The doublespeak seems to have escaped the naval-gazing pundits: this is utter deference masquerading as defiance.
Jeremy Corbyn has shown what real courage looks like: he called for Trump’s visit to the UK to be canceled; and he has been a consistent critic of the UK’s disastrous, illegal wars of intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya — many of which Canada directly participated in and Trudeau supported.
In the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in London, Corbyn dared to connect foreign wars to the inevitable blowback on civilians at home. Such truths are considered heresies as much in the political and media bubble on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill as in London’s Westminster. They are common sense to majorities in both countries.
But the gap between Justin and Jeremy, between symbolism and substance, is perhaps greatest on the environmental front. Labour’s platform laid out an industrial revolution that matches the scale of the climate crisis: an investment of £250bn over ten years to create renewable energy and green jobs, insulate millions of homes, and lower energy bills as well as carbon emissions. The energy system would be pried back from private vultures to public, decentralized control. Fracking would be banned. Trudeau’s method, on the other hand, has been to style himself a proud climate champion, while brazenly selling Canada’s enormous deposits of oil and gas to any willing buyer.
Justin Trudeau is a counterfeit, while Jeremy Corbyn is the progressive. Their way of doing politics is the difference between real change(tm) and transformation: not an empty spectacle orchestrated by elite technocrats beholden to bankers and oil barons, but an electoral program, pushed for and shaped by a mass movement, that would concretely improve the lives of millions of people.
The election of Trudeau, despite the illusory facade, shows that in Canada as much as in the UK there is a huge appetite for a genuinely activist government. Just as young people in droves voted for Bernie Sanders and Corbyn, they turned to Trudeau. As his shin wears off, they should not merely be disappointed or angry: they should be fighting for a real, radical alternative.
In Canada, the closest parallel to Corbyn’s positive program, as well as its media vilification, has been the Leap Manifesto. Canada’s elite opinion-makers wheezed that this broad coalition’s agenda – public ownership of key sectors, taxing corporations and the wealthy, and respecting Indigenous rights as a way to combat climate change - was electoral hemlock, beyond the shade of reasonable opinion. Polls showed the opposite: that a majority of people support it. Now Corbyn’s success proves beyond a doubt that, in these volatile political times, it can form the basis for a winning electoral program.
For that to happen, this political vision will have to be accompanied by face-to-face grassroots organizing on a massive scale, which is what propelled Corbyn to PM-in-waiting. Whether that’s the Leap’s new organizing initiatives, the New Democratic Party drawing bold lessons from its UK cousin, or a flowering of campaigns like the successful fight for a $15 minimum wage, the broader left must seize the moment: it must activate and connect and embolden, as the movement has in England, tens of thousands of people.
Nothing else will fully and truly puncture Trudeau’s progressive image. Even if the international press never catches on, people in Canada are surely ready.