Renewing the Left By Thom Workman Canadian Dimension May/June 2010
Renewing the Left in Canada BY THOM WORKMAN WHEN WE DWELL ON THE PLAGUES of Europe, armed as we are with a better understanding of epidemiology and public health, we often wish we could shout back in time and warn OUT ancestors: "It's the rats! It's the rats! Get rid of rats!" We cannot help but suspect that as our descendants reflect on the horrors of our age they too will want to yell: -It is capitalism! It is capitalism! Get rid of capitalism!" Sadly, indeed negligently, the mainstream Left in Canada harbours no such suspicions about capitalism. Capitalism qua capitalism is not taken to be the problem. It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of contemporary life that as human suffering and catastrophe has risen sharply the good sense that capitalism itself might be to blame has tended to wane. And so this "Canadian left" is utterly unable to respond to the onset of the socioeconomic crisis that was well under way by 2007, and which began to peak in the fall of 2008. It does not suspect that capitalism and crisis go together, and that most crises tend only to reflect the worsening of genera trends. This conventional left fails to sense that the problems that define the present crisis, like the spike in unemployment and poverty, market instability, glaring corporate corruption and the general rise in working class anxiety, are normal features of capitalism itself. Lacking a critical insight into the inner workings of capitalism, and faced with the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, the mainstream left could only call for large stimulus packages, tighter regulation across industries, and a relaxation the unemployment relief program. It could not link the features of the crisis to the long-term generic features of capitalism. As Jack Layton boasted at a rally for change in Toronto in December of 2008: "We have a prudent, competent and effective plan to kick-start our economy, create jobs, and boost consumer confidence_~ of the supposed disappearance of the middle class he could speak, but of capitalism "in itself" Layton dared not surmise. Just as the mainstream left cannot respond thoroughly and effectively to the onset of acute crisis, so it is poorly positioned to respond coherently to the neoliberal rollback of the last four decades. The post WWlI covenant between capital and labour, the Great Compact as it is sometimes cited, was a historic trade off that contoured public policy and class relations for the three decades after 1945. The broad outlines of the Great Compact included the grudging toleration of unions by capital (after almost a century of
struggle!), universal labour laws, a federal unemployment relief program, and social programs in the provinces. In return, capital retained the right to organize the labour process, and it was confident that organized labour would do its part to purge radical political elements, viz communists, from its movement. Although the incidence of strikes during the '50s and '60S shows that the period was anything but trouble free, both sides benefited from the post-war compact. Working people saw their real wages almost double between 1945 and the mid-1970S, and capital enjoyed high rates of profitability while opportunistically gorging itself on the accumulation opportunities that attended Cold War militarization and rapidly rising household consumption. The mainstream left drew its optimism and inspiration from this post-WWlI era tradeoff. A more suspecting attitude towards capitalism atrophied, and the founding ideology of the NDP ratified these prevailing sentiments. Capitalism Misunderstood For the mainstream left, capitalism was both workable and here to stay. And it believed that post-WWII covenant between the classes was carved in stone. In stark contrast, capital believed that the compact was scratched in sand, and that it could be renegotiated if the need arose. Thus, when the profitability crisis hit hard in the late 1960s, the business community, with transnational capital taking the lead, began to amend the Great Compact unilaterally. The mainstream left, lacking insight into the basic exigencies that bear down on capital in its drive to accumulate, was poorly positioned to sec that t his unilateral amendment by capital- a phase that could easily be dubbed The Great Rollback - was inevitable, or, at least, hardly surprising. The outlines of this rollback are clear. On the production side of things capital restructured operations, relocated facilities to zones of cheaper labour, extended its sub-contracting arrangements, shortened supply contracts and re-vamped the shop floor, all with the goal of weakening unions and lowering labour costs. And In the realm of public policy the neoliberal paradigm took hold by the early 1980s. It included privatization, deregulation, government downsizing, t he restructuring of social programs, business-friendly tax reforms, and changes to labour laws. Neoliberal policies are essentially designed to weaken working class resistance and optimize the opportunities for capital accumulation. As we enter the fourth decade of the Great Rollback its effects are also clear. Working people find It more difficult to secure decent jobs and find it more difficult to organize. The rate of unionization in the private sectors has been in decline. The Incidence of strikes has fallen sharply since the mid-19l0s, and is down by more than 75 percent in several provinces, a statistic that reflects the depth of working class fear. Real wages have stagnated for three decades. It is sobering to note that real wages rose more in the depression decade of the 1930s than they have in the last fifteen years.
Moreover, a low -wage sphere now undergirds the Canadian economy. In most provinces 25 percent of all hourly wage earners hovered within a few dollars of the minimum wage. This picture is bleaker still for women. As families struggle with these low wages we have also witnessed a sharp rise in personal debt, a fall in personal savings, a growing incidence of moonlighting, sustained poverty, the rise in food bank usage and the desperate turn towards the gouging "fringe banking" sector by many families. For the mainstream left these neoliberal outcomes are not rooted in the operational nature of capitalism itself. They are understood as flowing from ethical or democratic deficits. Capitalism is not the problem per se. To worsen things. as the assault by capital deepened, the mainstream left abandoned the language of class and class struggle. It comforts itself rather with the shibboleth ~ â€œmiddle classâ€? This middle class, we are told repeatedly, was accidentally sideswiped by the neoliberal agenda. Sound economic management with a human face wilt restore its material wellbeing. A delegate a t the recent NDP convention in Halifax spoke truthfully to a CBC reporter when he declared that "there is not really any left /right politics in Canada any longer, just issues of sound policy management.â€? And after decades of neoliberal hammering, the labour movement Is no longer much of a "movement" at all. An iron law of buttoned down caution pervades the upper echelons of organized labour, and [t has yet to learn that bargaining concessions merely adrenalize the capitalist feeding frenzy on working people. Building a Critical Left How can we on build a more critical left in Canada? One strategy I have proposed is to promote a left culture. It might help to think of this as the cultivation of a left public philosophy. A left public philosophy will promote a discourse that speaks i) truth to crisis ii) truth to the neoliberal project and iii) truth to capitalism. In the present conjuncture the development of a left culture is prior to the revitalization of a meaningful left politics. It is precisely because politics matters that we must regard the contemporary political landscape with due contempt. To establish a left cultural ethos, I believe we must suspend our civics reflex. Voting, writing elected legislators, circulating petitions and party activism is destined to amount to little. This is largely due to the fact that mainstream politics (which includes the mainstream left) is inseparable from the world of t he entertainment media, an irrational world that includes Orwellian thought stoppers, magic words, sound bites, name calling, and mythic accounts of the past. This atmosphere is good for capitalist preservation, but bad for the development of a rational and critical interrogation of the world around us. The natural locus of leftism is the community centre, the pamphlet, the union library or the weekend retreat. low-key Saturday afternoon left assemblies across the country, with everyone discussing the same topic, could very well be the place to start. Why
the emphasis on fora that promote rational reflection on capitalism and its ills? Because the abuse and horrors of capitalism excite our emotions, and only a contemplative investigation of the world around us will permit us to gain control of these emotions, especially by demonstrating the direct and necessary connections between capitalism and the litany of sickening problems that make us angry. Take environmental degradation as a case in point. Issues like oceanic plastics and global climate change trouble us deeply. Green politics is now very much a part of Canada's left political horizons. Yet, without a solid focus on capitalism's inner-workings this political energy is bound to reinforce the very social processes that give rise to resource depletion and planetary abuse in the first place. To understand our planetary crisis we must recur to Aristotle's oft-forgotten distinction between "necessary" and "accidental" properties, and explore the ineluctable connection between capitalist accumulation (including its driving need to produce commodities as cheaply as possible and its inescapable push for unrestrained consumption) and ecological misery. Upwind accumulation will never displace downwind accumulation; capitalism of necessity has a putrid odour about it . There is no way of sidestepping its natural rapaciousness. These realities, quite literally, have to be â€œtalked out. â€œ The deepening of a left culture, moreover, would contribute to the recollection of our working class past, authentic memory rather than the state choreographed memorialisation of imperialist triumphs. Events like t he Winnipeg general strike, movements like the Knights of labour or the One Big Union, and names like Maurice Spector, Grace Hartman, Tim Buck, and Nadine Hunt would circulate widely. Among other things, our gratitude for past efforts would be stimulated, a sense of continuity would be formed, and we would come to feel that we were building a genuine connection with our past . The growth of an authentic left culture would give voice to working people, letting them share their stories and promoting a genuine labour lore. The standpoint of working people would shape collective social wisdom. In an age smothered by bourgeois sensibilities and standards, any strategy that taps the reservoir of working class experience and knowledge would constitute a radical act of narration. The deepening of left culture would also encourage a genuine worker internationalism, especially as the experiential similarities across the world were exposed. This renewed left would confront the nationalist dogmas that gloss over the nexus between the Canadian state, imperialism and worldwide abuse and exploitation. Lastly, an embedded left ethos wilt help to draw organized labour out of its shell. Labour leaders are understandably fearful about the future, but the promotion of a vital left public discourse should buoy them and inspire them with greater confidence, especially if confronted with an increasingly agitated rank and file. Then, perhaps, the latent capacity of organized labour to disrupt and press for changes would be exploited, civil obedience would morph into sustained political agitation, collective demands across
industries and across sectors could be forged, labour could reach out meaningfully to workers in other countries, and the agendas of federal and provincial governments would be shaped by the goals of labour from the start. The active development of a left cultural ethos would help to overcome the radical disconnection between the thin crust of left intellectuals and activists on the one side and the broader spectrum of working people on the other. At the moment this gulf impairs the growth of a. properly formed left attitude. The creation of venues to bring together intellectuals, activists and working people, venues deliberately engaged outside the clutches of the mass media, will do much to tease out the wisdom and accumulated experience of the working class and merge it with the analysis and insights gained from years of activism and research. Returning to the Foundation Many of us agree heartily on the extent of the problem. The decimation of the left in North America in recent decades is hard to overdraw. I think , though, that we tend to forget that weekend retreats, hootenannies, and study sessions were once a common thing on the left . Nowadays, in the face of the politically deadening impact of mass culture and the mass media on the one side, coupled with the absolute need to reinvigorate rationally open discussions about capitalism on the other, there is really no other way to go. We must refocus everyone's attention on the rats. Paradoxically, the most pedestrian political strategies, like the widespread circulation of pamphlets, nation-wide lectures, or left assembles, are likely to yield the most dramatic political results. In time a solidly grounded left culture will cradle the development of a vital political project on the l.eft, one that sets its own agenda, establishes its own polities goals, defines the wellbeing of working people on its own terms, and keeps the very question of capitalism itself on the table by promoting alterative production strategies and transformative practices at every turn.
Thom Workman teaches at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. He recently wrote If Youâ€™re In My Way Iâ€™m Walking, a book that surveys the neoliberal assault on working people since the 1970s.