28 Apr, 2024


Making space to critique progress


The annual Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit avoided critique of the ongoing genocide in Palestine in favour of platitudes of peace, good governance, and settler innocence

Phrases set in Bold by PAJU

The Broadbent Institute recently held its 2024 Progress Summit with the theme of “Making the Good Society.” I attended in my capacity as an academic working on building connections between sectors of the public—academia, media, labour—to address present crises. I am not naïve about the purpose of so-called progressive organizations such as Broadbent Institute; I did not expect deeply researched analysis or radical politics. But I subscribe to the old aphorism that all terrains are terrains of struggle. If there is potential for critical and generative dialogue and praxis within existing infrastructure, why not attempt it? 

The Broadbent Institute is an established and well-funded organization with foundational ties to the NDP and ideological investments in Canadian liberal democracy. Part of its stated work is to “encourage and facilitate open discussion about the policies and actions that will move us forward as a country.” Yet over the course of the Summit, I observed transparently colonial and imperialist gestures with little opportunity for participants to contest these through “open discussion.” I believe these gestures are worth identifying in this overt form to help us see how they manifest pervasively and perhaps more subtly in other spaces.

There is no present crisis that better embodies our current conjuncture, both nationally and internationally, than the ongoing and escalating genocide in Palestine. The Progress Summit’s sole panel on this topic was relegated to a small room packed with attendees. The panel’s title, “Speaking with Peace Seekers: Canada’s Role in the War in Gaza,” immediately circumscribed the conversation in a particular way. “Peace” appears as a power-neutral, universal good, and the acute escalation of a violent and decades-long ethnic cleansing in historic Palestine is reinscribed as a “war” concentrated in Gaza between equally culpable entities.

The composition of the panel also reflected this pretense: a self-proclaimed Zionist from the New Israel Fund (NIF) on one end, and a liberal Muslim formerly of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) on the other, replacing a Palestinian law professor who was unable to attend—a gesture that demonstrates a racist interchangeability within the conflated Palestinian/Arab/Muslim “side.” The panel also included a labour activist and an Oxfam manager sitting spatially and metaphorically in the middle.

The NIF speaker was given disproportionate time to speak in various bromides buttressing the Israeli state project and repeatedly engaged in a fundamentally antisemitic conflation of Canadian and global Jewry with the state of Israel. He fetishized Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, a tired anti-Arab and Islamophobic trope disavowing decades of occupation and apartheid. He described organizations like his own, which funds civil society work in Israel, as “enemy #1” of the Israeli government, an appalling claim during ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing.

This speaker spoke at length about discontent with Netanyahu’s “extremist” government, discounting those who believe Netanyahu is not “extreme” enough, evidenced by the post-October expansion of popular support for violent Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir. Referring to the unpopularity of Netanyahu’s “war,” he conveniently elided that the majority of Israelis think the IDF is using “too little firepower” in Gaza and broadly support the siege. He connected Netanyahu to Trump as both “extremists,” disregarding that they are both the (violent) distillations of their respective (violent) settler-colonial racial-capitalist state projects. This conflation—which with rigorous analysis could potentially be compelling despite Trump in his singularity posing nothing like the threat to life that Netanyahu does—is often used by liberals not only to disavow their own common interests with these figures but to recuperate liberal democracy as such whenever it shows its true violent face. In short, the NIF speaker’s main strategy was to criticize the government to save the state, one that is paralleled in liberals who hate Trump but support the same colonial border policies and imperialist foreign policies.

Just as the NIF speaker promoted the mythologies of the Israeli settler state, the liberal Muslim speaker did so for the Canadian settler state. He centred universal “Canadian values” and implored us to be compassionate to each other as Canadians, that violence has never solved anything—a blatantly ahistorical claim.

The panel framed the ongoing genocide, like many such “conflicts” before it—from Northern Ireland to the Balkans—as a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims, not just in its formal composition but in the content of the Jewish and Muslim representatives’ comments. A framing of religious conflict not only homogenizes diverse communities but crucially reduces what is a material struggle over land and life-making to identity and ideology. Representation here is merely aesthetic—and not just representative individuals on the panel but also the panel as a representation of this “issue” within the conference. Despite superficial pretenses to the opposite, multiculturalism here served its core purpose: the disavowal of settler-colonial, imperial, and racial capitalist structures in favour of individuated identities.

Essentially, the function of this panel was to reify and support the materially and ideologically entangled settler-colonialisms of Canada and Israel, to define democracy—the “good society”—not as justice or power to the people but as the smooth operation of the capitalist ruling class. This move launders internal colonialisms and external imperialisms through platitudes of peace, good government, and settler innocence.

After the panel, I approached the stage and introduced myself to the panel chair, who is also the Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute. As she had thanked the audience at the end of the panel, I asked her what the audience was being thanked for, as there was no opportunity for audience participation. I also asked why there had not been any pushback to misrepresentations on the stage, why the NIF representative was given so much space, and why they made this choice of replacement for the Palestinian academic—although I do not believe having the scheduled speaker would have addressed the structural problems. This panel was not merely a failed attempt at critique, but rather the framing and composition were actively anti-critical.

I emphasized that my questions and comments were not personal but that it was important for the ED, in her leadership role, to hear this feedback. Indeed, these liberal strategies don’t require “bad” individuals because they function systemically through incorporation rather than confrontation.

I am not singling out The Broadbent Institute but rather the opposite: the Institute, Summit, and panel are all symptomatic. I am asking us to think about how a “progressive” space—one whose principles include “dismantling structural systems of oppression” and “fully implementing the rights and title of Indigenous peoples and supporting their goal of achieving self-governance”—not only serves settler state projects but actively suppresses critiques. The Broadbent Institute purports to represent labour—one of its principles is strengthening “the fundamental role of the labour movement”—but this Summit largely ignored major labour mobilizations around BDS to foreground a speaker from an anti-BDS organization. And on the basic level of format, no input from the audience, especially during a panel on this crucial issue, is not in line with its own stated goal of making a “good society.”

In this context, what is progress? Is progress recuperable or even desirable, if the path of progression is circumscribed by the same structures of domination in new costumes? If progressive institutions such as these are capacious, what is that big-tent capacity building towards?

The support of so-called progressive institutions, media, and politicians for violent state repression is becoming increasingly explicit in response to mass mobilizations around Palestine solidarity. One of the most alarming local moments was the political-class consolidation around the demonstrable lie that a pro-Palestinian rally, including an anonymous climbing Spiderman, was specifically targeting Mt. Sinai Hospital. This false claim was repeated and uncontested on this panel and promoted by two of the most prominent participants at the Summit, Jagmeet Singh and Olivia Chow. The purpose of this lie is to repress dissent in the name of “safety,” a strategy that has justified police violence from protests to picket lines. Progressives attack conservatives as spreading misinformation, but close ranks across the political spectrum in service of colonial-imperial state projects.

Violent state repression here arrives via a liberal weaponization of peace, safety, and social justice language—universalizing concepts associated with “progress.” Against the gauzy platitudes of Canadian liberal capitalist democracy, we must heed Gilles Dauvé’s warning that “Democracy is not dictatorship, but democracy does prepare dictatorship, and prepares itself for dictatorship.” Consensus is often weaponized against critique. The urgency of multiple crises requires space for principled dissent and conflict within solidarity movements, along with a critical, not hegemonic, baseline from which to proceed. Those of us who have the space, time, resources, and positions within the imperial core to think through these issues have the intellectual and moral responsibility to act within and outside institutions to demand and build collective capacity for what Stuart Hall calls “a critical politics…which is always a politics of criticism.”

Shama Rangwala is an assistant professor at York University.

For feedback, questions, or tips email yeseverythingCA@gmail.com


Further on the NDP:

  • Why is Jagmeet Singh ignoring progressive voice on Palestine?


  • On Cartoon noses, anti-Semitism and the slaughter in Gaza


  • Ontario NDP’s expulsion of Sarah Jama is a flagrant betrayal


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