PUBLICPOWER
By Howard Hampton and the NDP 80 pages. Free from http://www.publicpower.ca.

Publicpower, the NDP election platform, is a thoroughly post-modern anti-narrative. Opening with a personal letter from NDP leader Howard Hampton and ending with two poignantly blank pages, it is structured for the intervening bulk (in accordance with Barthelme’s dictum that fragments are the only trustworthy form) as an exhaustive list of “practical solutions,” bordered by quotations from sundry experts, journalists, parliamentarians and average citizens (including an intriguing character named “Young man quoted in Hamilton Spectator”) and boxed newpaper-style features about eco-disasters both nomic and logical.

Wading through this brief but challenging book, the reader uncovers a meditation on meaning, in general and specific terms. Generally, it’s about what it means (or would mean — but more on that later) to have an NDP government in Ontario. Specifically, it’s an exploration of the meaning of the word “publicpower,” a term given 48 explicit definitions throughout these 80 fascinating pages.

The neologism is, of course, an intertextual reference to Howard Hampton’s recent history of electrical utilities, Public Power: The Fight for Publicly Owned Electricity (Insomniac Press). We soon learn it is much more than that, for what other word yields enough elasticity to concurrently mean, “all Ontarians should have access to excellent public health care services,” and “seniors should not be rocked with unfair user fees,” and “moving forward to an energy-efficient, environmentally sustainable future,” and “putting people and clean air ahead of cars”?

This quest for definition, narrated in a voice best described as third-person point-form, is undertaken by the aforementioned historian and NDP leader, who appears here as a collective character named Howard Hampton and the NDP. His name always appears in bold type, a nod, perhaps, to Vonnegut’s Galapagos: typography-as-signifyer applied eccentrically to certain words in the book (like NOW — by which we assume he means “now!” — and No Enrons in Ontario.

The main thread of the story purports to outline the utopian future that would accompany the election of H.H.A.T.NDP. There’s something significant in the use of the word “would” here. In a nod to the difficulty of certitude in post-millennial Ontario, the author(s) abandon(s), in most cases, the polemical convention of using the simple future tense (“we will”) and rely instead largely on the conditional, as in “Howard Hampton and the NDP would make sure corporate Ontario cleans up its act.” There’s a fragility in the phrasing that contrasts with the bold platitudes of politics that is particularly evocative of the difficulty of meaning that is at the centre of H.H.A.T.NDP’s struggle.

It’s a struggle that produces compelling arguments, when the reader can decipher them among the relentless flood of details, in favour of publicly owned water and electrical utilities, more funding for education, lower university tuition, funding for public transit, a higher minimum wage, more affordable housing and a return to rent controls, among other things.

This future is described in contrast to a dystopian present: a state of institutional decay and mass discontent inflicted on the populace by the story’s primary antagonists, the Conservatives. Motivated by greed and corporate cronyism, these Conservatives have taken every opportunity to destroy that which is good. In two separate instances (Walkerton and Ipperwash), they are said to be directly responsible for the deaths of their citizens.

As a foil to the overwhelming malevolence of the Conservatives are the McGuinty Liberals, a band of waffling and indecisive henchman who pseudo-intentionally help to carry out the Conservatives’ devious plans.

But H.H.A.T.NDP does not only wrestle with these foils; a close reading reveals he’s stalking bigger game, existential tigers: profit, corporate corruption, privatization. It’s in this subtext that the higher truths about our protagonist’s motivations are revealed. Thrown together, the lists and fragments and definitions and redefinitions form a searing indictment of a culture of mass consumption and the greedy, pandering politicians who enable it.

Yet H.H.A.T.NDP is not immune to the culture, nor is he without his own, equally abstract demons: taxes, deficits, debt. These go largely unmentioned but, for followers of provincial politics, hover over the entire story like the spectre of death in DeLillo’s White Noise.

How is H.H.A.T.NDP going to pay for all of this? Our protaganist is against this obsession with the material world, but he is haunted by it. In his essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Frederic Jameson concluded that the question of whether postmodernism could resist the logic of consumer capitalism must be left open, and so it is here.

The climactic final chapter takes an unconvincing stab at squaring the circle of this social democrat bugaboo: there’s discussion of adding new tax brackets, closing tax loopholes, “fair corporate taxes.” And yet, given the obviously very expensive future that we have been told H.H.A.T.NDP would provide, we wonder, would it be enough? It’s a query addressed by the final, and most succinct, definition of publicpower: “publicpower means a balanced budget.” Perhaps it’s not for us to reason how.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on September 18, 2003.

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