Ever since its days as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the NDP has essentially accepted the old 19th-century industrial model in which wealth is created by extracting resources and then converting those resources into manufactured goods. The workers accepted that model. They were, in effect, just a group of disgruntled investors, demanding a bigger return on their investment of skill and labour.
Well, the recent ouster of Tom Mulcair shows where that model gets you in the 21st century.
In hindsight, peak NDP was probably 1972, when NDP leader David Lewis kept Pierre Trudeau's minority government in power. Ever since, the NDP and its supporters have been on the defensive, trying to protect what they won half a century ago: Medicare, better social services, more public education. Environmentalism is the only new idea they've embraced since then, and even that divides them: the greenies against the loggers and oil-patch workers.
Well, what now? Ditch Rachel Notley and her pipeline-loving Alberta government? Or ditch the Leapers who want to glide to a new green industrial model?
The NDP's fatal error was to fall in love with its heroic past. The Justin Trudeau Liberals' brilliant insight was to live in the present moment and see what Canadians want right now. (The Conservatives are still in a parallel universe.)
The only real territory left to the New Democrats is neither the past nor the present, but the future. If they can recognize that, they may do us all a great service -- not necessarily by taking power in 2019, but by encouraging Canadians to think beyond tonight's dinner, TV, and bedtime.
Another northern country shows how the NDP might create a real future for itself. Iceland, with a population of just 330,000, took a brutal beating in the economic collapse of 2008. But instead of bailing out its bankers, Iceland jailed them and let the banks' investors take the haircut -- not ordinary taxpaying Icelanders.
Iceland recovered impossibly well by the austerity standards of the European Union. But now it's in the midst of another political upheaval: the prime minister stepped down after the Panama Papers revealed he and his wealthy wife had set up an offshore company.
So the PM is out, the government is clinging to power, and polls indicate most Icelanders would love to elect a new government. And they want that government run by the Pirate Party.
Who are these guys?
As Butch Cassidy said to the Sundance Kid: "Who are these guys?"
The Pirate Party is an international movement largely inspired by the internet culture that believes in the second part of Stewart Brand's famous saying: "Information has value, but it wants to be free."
The Pirates started by liberating copyrighted information like music and passing it around. But they've now turned into a whole new approach to running a country.
Canada, like several other countries, has a Pirate Party, but Iceland's has three members out of the 63 in the Althingi -- a parliament over a thousand years old, elected by proportional representation.
What's more, polls say those three Pirates could grow to 29 if an election were held today. That would give them a chance to form a coalition and to change not just Iceland but also the world.
Power to the powerless?
When you look at the Iceland Pirates' core policy page, you'll find little that New Democrats (and many other Canadians) would object to.
Critical thinking and well-informed decisions? Shaping policy on the basis of data and knowledge, regardless of the source? Civil rights belonging to individuals, and the rights of every person remaining equally strong?
Transparency affording the powerless the power to monitor the powerful? Everyone having an unlimited right to be involved in decisions that relate to their own affairs, and a right to knowledge about how such decisions are made?
This is dangerous stuff. By comparison, the Bolsheviks were just franchisees of 19th-century Imperialism®, new management purveying the same old junk food. So are the Islamic State and all of Orwell's "smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls."
The Pirates, if I understand them correctly, impose a serious burden on the individual: look after yourself and your own interests. If you don't, you'll be exploited beyond all recognition. But they also offer more than a libertarian, devil-take-the-hindmost policy:
"Pirates believe that everyone has an unlimited right to be involved in decisions that relate to their own affairs.
"That right is guaranteed with the empowerment of direct democracy and the promotion of transparent governance.
"Pirates believe that centralization needs to be reduced in all areas and democracy needs to be promoted in all the forms that are available."
Means of production? Meh
Pirate policy has strikingly little to say about this or that economic principle. They don't seem to care who owns the means of production, or what they do with those means. They just want everyone to have an equal say in the way their country runs and to live with the consequences if things go wrong.
Iceland's Pirates have gained support because the other parties have discredited themselves. In an April 7 update on their Q&A page, they write:
"The confidence of the Icelandic people we believe rests in us, not only because we are a party that has not been a part of government, but also we think it is because people sense that we stand for enacting changes that have to do with reforming the systems, rather than changing minor things that might easily be changed back.
"Our policies therefore stand in stark contrast to what appears to be the pattern of modern politics; minor changes but always the same dysfunctional system. We do not define ourselves as left or right but rather as a party that focuses on the systems. In other words, we consider ourselves hackers -- so to speak -- of our current outdated systems of government."
The Pirates also say: "We want to be the Robin Hood of power: We take away the power from the powerful and give it to the general public of Iceland."
In a Canada run by Justin Trudeau in the spring of 2016, piracy politics may not look appealing. But Iceland's Pirates are poised to exploit the failure of the mainstream parties, and our own mainstream parties will eventually run out of ideas for dealing with future crises.
Not just a routine scandal
What kind of crises might they be? Not just a routine scandal like the Panama Papers. But think about a new economic implosion, especially the collapse of Canada's urban housing market.
Young families who've gone a million bucks in debt just to buy a house could find themselves suddenly underwater, like millions of Americans in 2008.
Or think about many sudden Attawapiskats across Canada, forcing the Liberals finally to confront the centuries-long genocide we have inflicted on First Nations and to put money where their rhetoric is.
Or think about a climate disaster that even Conrad Black won't be able to shrug off as just another Marxist scam.
Or think about yet more refugees, pouring in not just from Syria but also from Latin America and Asia. They wouldn't expect a personal welcome from Trudeau, just a place where they could bring up their kids without fear of violence and mosquito-borne pandemics.
Even social-democratic utopias like Sweden and Denmark aren't coping well with refugees. Maybe the Liberals would run out of warm jackets, and nerve, after a couple of hundred thousand Central Americans arrive.
Living in the moment, the Liberals will be unprepared when an uninvited future shows up. An NDP prepared by wide-ranging, forward-looking study and debate will be ready to respond to that future, however grim.
A New Democratic Pirate Party could explain this situation to us better than Trudeau ever could. But to do so, it would have to abandon its own glorious past and start looking not just at the next election, but also at the turbulent decades after 2019. And like any fire and rescue crew, it would have to be prepared to wait until the alarm sounds.
Author: Crawford Kilian