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Canadian Politics

The Return of David Anderson’s Liberal Party: Class in the BC Election – Part I

The wildcard in BC politics, from the mid-1950s until 1996 was the old Liberal Party of British Columbia. In the 1953 election, the Liberals were reduced from governing party of rump party, eking out a small space in nearly every BC legislature until their unexpected transformation into, to paraphrase Roy Romanow, the Social Credit witness protection program and, consequently, the new right-wing government in waiting.

The Liberals’ forty-nine years out of government, from their defeat in 1952 to their triumphant return to power in 2001 are often narrated as a time of failure and irrelevance, which is fine as far as it goes. But what such a story misses is what the Liberal Party was during those long years in the political wilderness. Why did the party keep going? Whom did it represent? What was it for? And how is it that we needed that thing so badly that we made this weird little party all over again, out of the unlikeliest raw materials.

In many ways, it was just like its third-party namesake in the United Kingdom, a perennial electoral bridesmaid, whose MPs hail from, as one commentator eloquently put it, “university towns and the Celtic fringe.” Such a description is a useful starting point for describing the old BC Liberals led by David Anderson, Arthur Laing, Pat McGeer and Gordon Gibson. The Liberals’ ridings were always the whitest in the province with a particularly Celtic aesthetic, containing either a university or one’s bedroom community.

The party’s leaders typically had advanced degrees; they were lawyers, medical doctors, university professors, as were most of the party’s small caucuses, which, until 1991, never represented more than four ridings at once. The core BC Liberal vote, which usually fell between 5% and 20%, was only sufficiently concentrated in a few places to produce sustained victories that lasted more than a term.

The party’s longest-held area was, of course, Oak Bay, followed by Vancouver-Point Grey, Victoria and then Vancouver’s North Shore. That is because Liberal voters could best be described as too rich to vote NDP, and too educated to vote Social Credit. Being a Liberal in BC during the Cold War, when the two main parties battled for the heart and soul of BC’s mining and logging towns and its volatile, populist proletariat, was not really about policy or political ideology. It was about class, a very particular performance of class.

Liberals could be spotted on sight, festooned in their Celtic tweeds and corduroys, with their fine white features and soft hands. Electing a Liberal MLA constituted the ultimate political assertion of secure, old money, the same way a Vancouver Lawn Tennis or University Women’s Club membership might. To be a Liberal was to be above the fray, so secure in one’s privilege as to tut dispassionately at the indecorous rubes who dominated the legislature.

Of course, in dire emergencies, it was sometimes necessary to make common cause with the coarse boozers and used car salesmen who kept the province in order for the companies whose shares the Liberals owned. In one rare emergency a couple of caucus members had to join the Social Credit Party’s cabinet. But that was the exception, not the rule. As long as the coal and timber flowed out through the port, privilege was about effacing one’s relationship to the populism and rentierism that structured BC’s economy and politics, showing one’s security by remaining above the fray, one’s job unconnected to boom-bust rentierism but instead of family trusts, the VSE, the local hospital or the UBC and UVic tenure streams.

When the BC Liberal Party was suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to shoulder the burden of running BC’s government for the province’s robber barons, the party chose a leader whose personal style and record could keep this constituency on board. Gordon Campbell, anointed by the Grande Damme of BC Liberalism, herself, May Brown, was the logical choice. While not a son of privilege, himself, Campbell was steeped in the values, culture and, of course, civic associations, of the BC Liberal tradition. In the hands of another, Campbell’s orgy of sweetheart deal privatizations and fire sales of the province’s assets might have been seen as simple corruption but he had that curious Liberal dignity that allowed him to invest this exercise with technocratic legitimacy, to redescribe simple looting as an esoteric experiment in the technocratic management of public assets.

Ironically, despite her much deeper roots in the BC Liberal tradition, Christy Clark lacks that gift and so, consequently, something of a seismic shift has been taking place in BC politics.

The old BC Liberals are back, led by a roiling mass of tweed, corduroy and messianic intellectual grandiosity, a man who, if they could have, would have been engineered by the old BC Liberals. Andrew Weaver, the incumbent MLA for the safest true Liberal seat in BC has everything: the tweeds, the corduroys, the elbow pads, a real, live proper British accent, a PhD, a professorship and a propensity to lecture his perceived inferiors on how to do their jobs. Not only that; he appears to decide how to vote on the government budget by tossing a coin, his reasons always unfathomable and obscure, conveying that he deems himself and his party above the fray when it comes to such small things the amount of money allocated to public schools.

Foolishly, my party has decided to field a prominent environmentalist against Dr. Weaver, as though the people of Oak Bay elected him based on his environmental credentials, as opposed to his perfect haute bourgeois aesthetic. What we needed was a candidate in an ascot, preferably owning both a yacht and a horse, and one with a higher-class accent than their opponent, managing their family trust’s nature conservancy. Then, we might have had a fighting chance!

But, as British Columbians adjust to the new meaning of “Green Party,” this will place limits on the brand’s appeal, as much as it might open opportunities, even in the party’s heartland. On the Island, north of Shawnigan Lake and Cobble Hill, people’s British accents don’t keep getting thicker every year as they do further south. In Nelson, even working class English accents are too snooty for an MLA candidate.

More fundamentally, performances of haute bourgeois indifference to the minutia of political economy are in shorter supply these days because of people’s very real, material insecurity, both environmentally and economically. The old BC Liberals are back, in the form of Weaver’s Greens, but does not so much signify their graduation to the status of contender as much as it does their entrapment in the most gratuitous, irrelevant part of electoral class politics in BC.

The Ailing Left and the Geopolitics of Cruelty

In the six years since I started this blog, I have tried to render upsetting social and political events in abstract terms and subject them to some level of analysis. Last year, for instance, I wrote a bit arguing that by showing that he was sexually violent and abusive to his daughter Donald Trump’s was successful in portraying himself as an omnipotent strongman figure to his base. I want to continue with that theme and unite it with some of my observations about the institutional failure of Canadian left politics at present.

But in doing so, I want to simplify things. My ability to wrap syllables and analysis around hard realities is sometimes useful. But sometimes it distances us too much from the horror we face and the simplicity of the problem before us. Great work has been done to re-legitimate the word “lie” after decades of obfuscating terms like “mis-statement,” “alternative facts” and “journalistic balance.” I would like us to do more with another necessary word: cruelty.

Simply put, our problem is that every day, more and more people in our societies embrace cruelty and other people’s suffering as a necessary moral good. And that, readers, is, in my estimation, evil.

 

The reason Americans have chosen a confessed rapist and proud child molester to lead the greatest empire the world has ever known is because the ascendant social and political movements, in state after state, around the world, are those that celebrate cruelty and the infliction of suffering on others.

There have been many devastating consequences of pragmatic socialists aligning with liberal utilitarians over the past half-century, from the Third Way (neoliberalism with a human face) to the conflation of socialist thought with a nebulous, incoherent progressivism, to the replacement of socialist internationalism with foreign policy Taoism. But perhaps the most devastating is this: people who have believed themselves to live in an unjust society, who feel the palpable injustice of neoliberalism with its bloodless technocracy, heritable privilege and collision course with the carbon cycle have been offered nothing by the left. No large-scale leftist political movement has stated with clarity “this social order is fundamentally unjust and must be replaced with a just one.”

Instead we, on the left have offered short-term tactical alliances, strategic retreats and technocratic fixes. We have been so focused on trying to save the vestiges of the twentieth-century Keynesian welfare state that we have become the defenders of the status quo, promising desperate people that, with us as junior partners, things will get worse slower.

As a result, we have stood back and given free rein to the worst forces in our societies to offer the only theory of fairness on offer. By submerging socialism in liberal utilitarian discourse, colloquially known as “progressivism,” we have quit the field. We have chosen not to offer any competition to those saying “everything is fucked. The world is just as unfair as you feel it is. We must take drastic action to change everything.” At the very moment when climate science tells us unambiguously that this is actually the only position an intellectually responsible person can take, we continue to offer incremental change that no one is looking for.

So, who is saying that? Those speaking with the most clarity on this issue are American conservative evangelicals and Salafists. They have a simple message: God is trying to punish people. He is trying to scourge humanity and the institutions that comprise twentieth-century states are standing in the way. There are too many earthquake survivors, too many cancer survivors, too many people living through famines and droughts, too few homeless people freezing to death, too few asylum-seekers drowning on the high seas. The consequences of climate change have been effortlessly repurposed by these movements. Droughts, famines, floods and fires are God’s traditional tools for scourging the unjust and the just alike. And once again, government stands in the way, thwarting God’s judgement at every turn.

Day after day, I read well-intentioned but confused liberals and socialists on social media bewildered that Trump’s supporters are so foolish as to think that Obamacare’s repeal will make things better. Such a position arises from a failure of imagination about what “better” can mean, the inability to understand that the way its repeal will make things better will be by causing more people to die, people who should already be dead, were it not for the hubris of Barack Obama to try and interpose the state between God and his judgement.

Such a worldview is cruel. The theory of fairness that is on offer is that God is trying to punish us and we, arrogantly, are trying to dodge that punishment. But, at the same moment, it is altruistic. Many of the people fighting to repeal current US healthcare law or keep their town in the hands of ISIL or the Lord’s Resistance Army or Boko Haram are willing to sacrifice their own lives in the name of this monstrous theory of justice. People are willing to lay down their own lives to make sure that there is more suffering and death in the world, in accordance with God’s plan.

Not only does the contemporary mainstream left fail to validate the feelings of those who believe the world is fundamentally unfair and must be reordered to restore justice, it also rejects the efforts of people who wish to be heroes—valiant people who have that intuitive consciousness of the injustice of the present order. The world is, and always has been, full of people who are willing to put everything on the line to fight evil. There are incipient heroes in every family, in every neighbourhood, town and village. Many people have been surprised by the thousands who put their bodies on the line at Standing Rock last year, the thousands who faced off against the state in the streets in the early days of the Trump regime. Many people were stunned by the Syria-wide protests against a monstrous, homicidal regime following the bombing of Aleppo. I was not.

The problem is that the mainstream electoral left has a place for you if you can represent yourself as a victim, an aspiring technocrat or a classically liberal rational actor and benefit-maximizer, and, ideally all three, if you care to look at the BC NDP’s candidate selection procedures. But what about people who want to denounce injustice, call out evil for what it is, and march out into the streets to challenge it? The fascist movements around us are winning because they have a place for those people and we do not. The leftist mobilization we have seen in recent months has taken place in spite of the prevailing thinking of the left, not because of it.

Our present political moment arises from the fact that there is only one compelling narrative for vanquishing injustice that people are being offered. And it is the one that celebrates cruelty, that eggs on climate change, that revels in torture, that cheers “LET HIM DIE!!! LET HIM DIE!!!!” like that 2012 Republican primary debate audience when candidates were asked about the uninsured. In opposition to this, we offer an imagined past of tolerant twentieth-century welfare states, accommodation with global capital and the investor class, investor rights regimes like the EU and NAFTA, and small-scale technocratic change, provided the investor class gets its cut.

It is a testament to the fundamental decency of the human race that, in democracies around the world, a slim majority continues to reject the politics of cruelty and conservative religio-political eschatology. In the absence of a visionary left, that decency is all that is holding human civilization in place.

“If I only had a brain,” One Crisis of Many in the Canadian Left (Culture and Institutions in Canadian Politics – part IV)

One of the reasons the political right has been ascendant since the 1970s is that it chose to invest in systematically rebuilding its intellectual elite. In my lifetime, organizations like the Fraser Institute have both multiplied and developed closer, more robust ties to right-wing movement activists. Events like Civitas, the annual gathering of conservative activists, donors and intellectuals have no parallel on the left, despite recent, sincere efforts by groups like the Broadbent Institute and LeadNow to foster such a space.

Outside of the venerable Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, most of what passes for thinking aloud on the left is little more than brainstorming over campaign priorities and messaging. And whereas, in order to engage in deep, prolonged, verbalized thinking, the right bars media from its major conferences, the left is so publicity-starved that it compulsively live-tweets its counterfeits (here, I am referencing the term’s original meaning, last deployed by JRR Tolkien) because it is so desperate for attention.

While the right hashes-out the major ideological conundrums it faces, the Canadian left has yet to stage a serious debate between its Keynesians and advocates of balanced budgets. Whereas the right expects to think aloud together in major debates at Civitas or the Manning forum, or in the hundreds of microcosms of this culture of debate, the left is unable to do so because we imagine that the thinking has already been done before we arrive. Left debates around ideology and policy are generally bloodless and insincere. People are sent to microphones with pre-rehearsed, conclusive remarks because we imagine that we have thought all we need to think and know all we need to know.

As others have discussed, this unwarranted assumption of intellectual superiority and complete information alienates working class voters and others not culturally steeped in the coded language and mores of liberal academia. But in discussing how off-putting this kind of socio-intellectual deportment is, we often miss one of the most profound harms it creates: it robs us of the ability to converse intelligently with one another, to imagine the future we want to create and to strategize about how to achieve it.

This malaise does not just affect left politics in the electoral and civil society spheres; it is something I first detected in my workplace culture. When I first entered graduate school in 2004, academic conferences and other gatherings were places where one could score points as an interlocutor by challenging, even dismantling the claims made by another scholar. But, over the past twelve years, I have found that this sort of behaviour is less and less acceptable. The question period following a conference paper is filled not with substantive engagements with the evidence and reasoning of the presenter but rather with brief public service announcement-style statements by audience members advertising their own work. The only question with which one can reliably score points today is to ask, “So, I’m wondering, could you elaborate a little more fully how your paper is really about me and my work?”

We are gripped, today, almost by a fear of engaging in substantive intellectual debate. Instead, Canada’s left comprises a set of siloed spaces where foregone conclusions are reached by circumscribed cadres, self-selecting union executives, unanimous think tanks, self-appointed civil society boards and personality cults.

Sadly, even when this profound deficiency is recognized, our intellectual ossification becomes even more evident. We tend to blame cultural shifts in the upper middle class or, worse yet, we engage in a kind of non-analysis that used to be the sole province of conservatives: we blame the world. “Oh no,” we say, “people just aren’t as good as people at other places and times. Woe is us.”

A left that was awake, a left that was alive, would, instead ask this: how is the structure of labour producing this reality? What are the systems whereby labour is controlled, deployed and remunerated that condition our present state of affairs? How have we reconfigured intellectual labour in such a way as to deprive ourselves of the capacity to think aloud?

First and foremost, we need to acknowledge the ascendant power of lineage, both physical and fictive, in our institutions. In universities, always a bastion of leftist, jobs are increasingly referral-based; interviewing candidates for most positions is, increasingly, a formality. More and more teaching positions are delivered by people with titles like “adjunct professor,” “sessional instructor” or “postdoctoral fellow.” It is not merely that people like us are hired entirely based on whether we are personally connected to the person hiring us (typically such positions are filled by fiat by a single department chair, not by a hiring committee); our contracts end and are renewed annually, in many cases, every four months, solely based on our ability to maintain that personal connection. These personal connections are typically established by way of academic lineage. One’s doctoral or postdoctoral supervisor is a friend of the chair in question or is, themselves, that person.

The medieval patron-client character of academic lineage has been empowered by the neoliberal economic environment in which it is now situated. As the labour market is glutted with desperate people, as a larger and larger portion of new work is shunted to the precariat, highly vertical labour relations obtain. People like me fear filing grievances or using our labour power to obtain concessions because we understand that the state is no longer our ally. One maintains work in this environment not through public performances of dissent or disagreement but through public performances of submission and gratitude. If tenure made people safe to express novel views or challenge orthodoxy, one should not be surprised that firing and rehiring your labour force every four months does the opposite.

Yet, people still have tenure. Are they not free to engage in intellectual debate? Leaving aside the ways in which challenging orthodoxy was institutionalized by newer scholars being rewarded for doing so, one must look at what happens to people with tenure when most teaching is done by members of the precariat existing at the periphery. Increasingly, those possessed of tenure are managers, the collegiate equivalent of high school vice principals, enmeshed in endlessly increasing adminsrivia.

Meanwhile, things have also changed in the civil society sector. A generation ago, most major civil society organizations on the left were funded through small, individual donations received through direct mail, phone or door-to-door canvassing. But a combination of factors has undercut this.

With changes in communication technology, door-to-door and phone canvassing and direct mail have become less effective. But our expectations of how work is done has also changed. Work that was the province of volunteers or children in the past has become “real” work, as more and more wages converge with a declining minimum wage and as more and more jobs are converted into entrepreneurial endeavours in which one must locate clients as well as serving them.

But this desperation for work has also become enmeshed in a synergistic process similar to what we see in academia: as relationships become more vertical and exchange becomes more unequal, performances of control and submission matter more. Whereas a volunteer phoner or canvasser might go off-script or might view their voluntary contribution of labour as entitling them to some sort of joint control of a political or activist enterprise, a paid canvasser presents no such challenges. They too, can, mostly be fired at will for expressions of dissent or difference.

At the same time, as these individual donations constitute a smaller share, other forms of highly vertical authority assert themselves. A generation ago, the small-donor charity was the norm in much of Canadian civil society. Today, far more civil society organizations function, de facto or de jure as family trusts. One or more wealthy lineages decide to fund an important charitable or activist enterprise and, presto! there is most of the money. Often, this is tied to the employment of members of this wealthy lineage as the key decision-makers and spokespeople of the organization.

Sometimes these wealthy, influential families will self-fund the enterprise through an annuity or regular donation. But, just as often, these wealthy individuals will function in a role that US political jargon calls “bundlers.” Small, informal gatherings will be held in which other key people or organizations will be invited to join the family in staking this civil society organization, with the understanding that real decision-making power will rest in the lineage not the formal corporate organization.

And how could it? The fundraising arm of the organization are precariously employed people living in poverty, whose job is contingent on performances of submission and accord. Because the funds they raise are typically supplementary to large donors, even the withdrawal of their labour in a unionized context presents little threat. And such organizations’ boards of directors similarly understand that they are being consulted as a courtesy by the family representative whom they are there to support.

One reason small donations have slipped through the fingers of non-profit civil society organizations in recent years, even as the availability of wealthy elite patrons as grown, as an inevitable consequence of the New Gilded Age, is because of competition from political parties. As I have written previously, the 2003 Elections Act reforms of Jean Chreitien have had paradoxical and far-reaching consequences. One such consequence is that, because corporate and union donations are prohibited, political parties must obtain small, individual contributions because their lives depend on them.

But like civil society groups, political parties have come, increasingly, not to be co-governed by volunteers but professionalized. Whereas the intellectual labour of political parties a generation ago was largely carried-out by volunteers employed outside the party, seconded during campaign periods but continuously generating strategic and policy ideas while outside the organization, the same bloat in administration that we have witnessed in universities has taken place in political parties.

As I discussed in previous pieces, the rise of “vetting” processes has meant that paid political staff design an exhaustive process that requires the payment of a deposit (to weed out people of the wrong social class) and the completion of a questionnaire that typically requires that the potential candidate make false or incomplete claims. One is asked to enumerate all comments ever made on social and conventional media since birth, and other such silliness. While this might have begun as a surveillance project, it has undergone an identical metamorphosis to welfare fraud legislation. The point is to establish a set of criteria that every potential candidate will violate, thereby permitting the arbitrary exercises of absolute authority by party staff. As 100% of candidates will have committed an offense meriting disqualification, any candidate may be disqualified at will at any time.

And, as morale declines in left parties, as decision-making power is stripped away from members, a growing proportion of work during elections is carried out by temporary employees hired by the permanent staff cadre, temporary staff who can be dismissed at will. It is in this context that performing unremunerated intellectual labour for the party becomes just as transgressive as in the academic or civil society spheres.

Individuals who hold and express opinions about the party’s strategy or policies fall into three categories: (1) the staff cadre, (2) dependent temporary employees or (3) ordinary members. But as ordinary members have never really possessed the de facto power to actually make policy, except through their selection of candidates, reducing them to a rubber stamp for pre-selected candidates effectively deprives them of any power or relevance in the system. Dependent, temporary employees are selected, as is inevitable in such a vertical, authoritarian labour system, based on their capacity to perform submission, accord and deference. And this leaves the staff cadre to make decisions.

Of course, this staff cadre retains its robust and consistent character because of the interpenetration between the New Democratic Party and what Vladimir Lenin termed “the labour aristocracy.” I think I will leave that relationship for a subsequent post.

Instead, let me just conclude that the Canadian left is unable to think its way out of its present predicament because we have fallen into a set of interlocking labour systems that are all producing highly vertical, authoritarian relationships, relationships that are inhibiting our capacity to think together at the very moment when our very survival depends upon doing so.

 

What if #ElbowGate Isn’t About Canadian Politics At All?

In January 2013, I wrote a blog post on Tom Mulcair and the politics of Canadian masculinity. My basic thesis, premised on the seemingly reasonable, yet ultimately discredited, assumption that Mulcair would run for Prime Minister as “Angry Tom” from Question Period, was that the NDP had a real chance of winning the 2015 election because of the way English Canadians think about the masculinity of French Canadian politicians.

Anglos, and especially Anglo men, have accorded a special cultural role for prominent Quebecois politicians in our bicultural national political dynamic: they are permitted to express more aggression, physical violence and rage than Anglo politicians. Because middle and upper-middle class English Canadian masculinity remains entangled with Victorian ideals of reserve, continence and restraint, Anglo expressions of aggressive masculine behaviour has ambivalent, self-limiting effects on the national stage. The kind of physical aggression displayed by Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien or, most recently, by Justin Trudeau would be far more problematic and elicit far more criticism and concern if expressed by a politician of an equivalent class position coming from English Canada.

The roots of this double-standard are complex and multifaceted but it is worth noting that until half a century ago, Quebecois and Acadian Canadians were underserviced, unequal, racialized populations in this country, over-represented in unskilled, seasonal and migrant work, dominated by Anglo elites, and ruled by despotic, violent, theocratic regimes like Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale. (Indeed, one might want to rethink the politics of the niqab in Quebec in 2015 in the context of the province’s own experience of secularization and the role that religious dress played in that process.) In the US, a consolation prize for such historical wrongs is cultural permission to enact a more aggressive or macho performance of one’s male gender, including over-representation on the teams of the nation’s preferred professional gladiatorial sport.

Anyway, whether in Pierre Trudeau’s actions during the FLQ Crisis or his actions at the St. Jean-Baptiste Parade of 1968, Jean Chretien’s “Shawinigan Handshake” or pepper-spray remark, or in Justin Trudeau’s successful boxing match against Patrick Brazeau or his recent parliamentary gaffe, part of the appeal our French Canadian leaders have for English Canadians is that they are authorized, culturally, to participate in a more violent, macho, unproblematically aggressive masculinity than their English counterparts. In this way, one of the functions such leaders have is as people through whom voters, but especially male voters, get to vicariously participate in kinds of masculine behaviour, in which barriers of culture or power prevent them from engaging in daily life. And we need to place this understanding uppermost in our minds to understand the bizarre national debate that has been engendered by the events in parliament last week.

Last week, the Liberal government was attempting to rush some progressive legislation on end-of-life medical care through parliament. Whereas only the Conservative Party actually opposed the substance of the legislation, all opposition parties were upset that it was being rushed through the house without normal opportunities for MPs’ input. In response to this, NDP and Tory MPs used some venerable delaying tactics to slow the passage of the bill. In fact, these parties were so united in their concern over process issues around the legislation that they collaborated to effect this delay.

Visibly angered by these antics, the Prime Minister physically intervened, first by shouting at the NDP MPs who were failing to take their seats and then pushing his way through them to physically grab the Tory whip and drag him to his seat so that voting could commence. During the tussle, a small female NDP MP was elbowed in the chest, in an incident very similar to Toronto mayor Rob Ford knocking councillor Pam McConnell to the ground in 2013. Like McConnell, Ruth Ellen Brosseau had not been the intended target of the physical altercation but, as my friend Jeremy says, “accidents happen when people throw things.”

Almost immediately, the Speaker of the House and, to his credit, the Prime Minister himself, recognized that charging across the floor and inadvertently striking an MP in an effort to coercively manhandle another who protested “take your hands off me,” was all-out wrong. And so, the Speaker ruled that the PM had fucked-up and the PM apologized. To many of us, it seemed that the sorry, tawdry story of the most powerful man in Canada losing his shit was over.

But then, about a day and a half after the incident, it became clear that the story had entered a second, and far more unpleasant phase. My Liberal MP and several others began to suggest that Trudeau had been wrong to apologize, that he had been “set up” to elbow Brosseau in the chest and drag Gordon Brown to his seat because they were deliberately delaying a process. In this re-narration, Trudeau was understood to be a frustrated boss at a workplace with recalcitrant, attention-seeking employees who had provoked him, unjustly, into justly putting them in their place. It soon came to be suggested by many on social media that MPs moving slowly or standing still when a vote was being called was, itself, a form of violence and probably a criminal act. Soon a “defense of necessity” argument was being put forward that Trudeau was engaged in something like a citizens’ arrest in which we was heroically using his body to fight against “violent” opposition MPs engaged in an illegal act. And in all the social media posts and mainstream media comments pages I have read, this latter view comprises the overwhelming majority of opinion.

Now, many people are suggesting that this consensus around the fundamental rightness of the PM’s actions arises from high levels of support for the Liberal Party and a willingness to excuse any action by its very popular leader. In the minds of many of my long-time NDP friends, this is just the cynical old Liberals ginning-up public opinion in their favour, or people so attached to the idea of the PM being a “progressive” or “feminist” that they will justify anything he does. But this interpretation is inadequate and fails to answer some obvious questions:

  1. Why are so many NDP and Tory supporters still siding with Trudeau and against their own parties’ narratives of events?
  2. Why are Trudeau’s supporters not agreeing with Trudeau’s own interpretation of what took place and talking about what a big, generous, dignified man he is for apologizing so readily?
  3. Why are Trudeau’s supporters disbelieving the account of events offered by the Liberal Speaker of the House which is in accord, not just with that of the opposition parties, but with that of the Prime Minister himself?
  4. Why are Trudeau’s supporters not touting how progressive the legislation was whose vote was being delayed?
  5. And, most bizarrely, why are so many pushing a conspiracy theory in which the Tory whip was not colluding with the NDP to delay the vote but was secretly betraying his own party and begging Trudeau to help him to his seat, even though this entails disbelieving everything Gordon Brown has said both during and since the incident about what happened?

Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that this debate is no longer about partisan politics at all. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that this is about something bigger, more universal and more disturbing than the gong show that went on in parliament this week.

What if what matters here is not Trudeau’s function as Prime Minister but rather his function as a means of experiencing vicarious masculinity for English Canadians? Haven’t we all, white collar, blue collar, service sector, all of us been in some meeting at work where we wanted to get something important done and it has been stymied by attention-seeking asshats who want to slow everything down for their own stupid, self-serving purposes? Haven’t we all been working on a project that ends up being late because some asshole is deliberately dragging their feet for some bullshit reason? And haven’t we all wanted to shout at those attention-seeking, self-serving little shits to get out of our way?

Haven’t we all been at work and seen a co-worker standing next to their desk or their tools instead of getting on with the job? And haven’t we all wanted to shove them down into their chair or push their tools into their hands and just fucking make them get to work?

Aren’t we all too sick of bullshit, meaningless process at our jobs, slowing everything down and rewarding shitty, lazy people at the expense of good industrious people? And haven’t we all wanted to grab those lazy people and drag them along with us whether they like it or not?

On top of that, there are some less universal experiences that insecure young and middle-aged men have, like frustration at how they have to accommodate the sensitivities and bodies of young women, especially young women they feel were accidentally and unfairly promoted into their jobs? Is Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, the paper candidate who made good not the epitome of that, one of only two NDP MPs who increased their margin of victory in 2015 due to good constituency work but who continues to be dismissed as “Vegas Girl”?

At this point, what Trudeau and the other politicians in Ottawa say about this issue is now irrelevant. Our Prime Minister is not part of this debate as an interlocutor; he is part of this debate as a symbol, whose words are now irrelevant. Our national #ElbowGate conversation is about the expression of universal and widespread frustration with our workplaces, homes and civil society organizations, and our flirtation with increased physical force as a solution to what ails us.

Like most people reading this, I too have come home from meetings and privately expressed to my close friends or romantic partner about how much easier some meeting would have been if only people were allowed to hit one another more. But let’s remember why we have those no-hitting rules, no matter how much they inconvenience us.

What If the Liberal Win Is About Parties But Not About Policy? (Culture and Institutions in Canadian Politics – Part III)

In recent days, left and labour activists have been piling on the NDP criticism bus, offering their views on how we lost over half our seats in last week’s election. This is a good thing to be doing right now, with the election campaign still fresh in our minds. But I have to say that I am, for the most part, pretty disappointed by the criticisms I am hearing. Already, they are converging into two or three themes and various bloggers and columnists are turning into a fairly bland chorus that rehearses a series of predictable points about the NDP’s air game, mainly involving niqabs and balanced budgets.

It is only in one paragraph of a recent post-mortem by Bill Tieleman that we begin to see some serious thinking when he indicts the NDP for “an inability to pivot as circumstances changed during the election.” What many critics of the NDP campaign are quick to forget is that the Liberal Party’s messaging and general scheme of running as a centre-right challenger to the Tories fell flat in the first half of the campaign, as our safe frontrunner campaign seemed to steamroller over a shrill and fickle Trudeau. And so, at the midway point, Trudeau and his campaign pivoted.

Nor was this pivot graceful. To any remotely serious observer, the Canadian public was treated to a fight between a centre-right war room run by Gerald Butts and a centre-left Ontario government that proceeded to derail Butts’ narrative and replace it with their own. The conflict between the “run right” strategy of Butts and the “run left” strategy of Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne broke into public view on July 26th, when the Ontario government’s forces defeated the central campaign’s at the Eglinton-Lawrence nomination meeting, as star candidate and Tory defector Eve Adams went down to defeat.

For the next month, Canadians watched Trudeau vacillate between presenting himself as a “true progressive” in rallies and other appearances with Wynne and her allies and Trudeau as Keystone XL shill, childcare foe and general proponent of business interests in other campaign events directed from the war room. But on August 26th, the logjam was broken. Butts and Trudeau’s other advisors recognized that the Wynne strategy was superior and the fateful promise of three consecutive deficits was trotted out. Thenceforth, Trudeau followed the New Brunswick and Ontario Liberal formulas for majority wins by tearing up their party’s original platform, mid-campaign, and replacing it with a progressive one, once the NDP had staked-out fiscally conservative turf.

While most New Democrats have used a policy-based optic for analyzing this turn of events, one that either defends NDP fiscal conservatism (as I have done twice) or upbraids the party for renouncing Cold War Keynesianism, nobody seems to have focused on the thing that really made the Liberals the superior adversary here. Nobody seems that interested in why and how the Liberals were so much more flexible than we were. Because their ascent to first place was not content-based. Had we, the New Democrats, promised three consecutive deficits, the Liberals would have wheeled our Paul Martin to attack us as “tax and spend socialists” whose “reckless policies” would inevitable lead to future austerity, like the strong medicine he had to apply to the Canadian economy in the 90s.

What allowed the Liberals to become the choice for the majority of anti-Harper voters was not a specific policy difference between us and them; it was an organizational difference that rendered one party nimble and the other flat-footed.  And that is going to require some unpacking that will probably span a post or two.

 

Let us left- and labour-aligned activists consider for a moment just how disinterested we are in the system of labour that undergirds our election campaigns, the systems that mobilize and focus the labour of people to produce political outcomes. Why do we insist on maintaining this blind spot, on not considering the possibility that how we locate, mobilize and compensate labour in our campaigns does not just condition the total amount of labour we can use but how we make decisions and what we think is important.

The reality is that a political party is not made out of policies or ideas. It is made out of human beings and their labour. Indeed, the ephemeral character of policy, once a party is elected, should signal this very obvious fact to us. Policy is just a thing made out of people’s labour; the labour itself is the underlying, ontological reality of politics.

Since Jean Chretien’s election finance reform of 2003, Canadian politics has been on an unexpected and bad track: professionalization. Every political party, the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives have embraced this direction, developing an economic structure similar to that of the Screen Actors’ Guild, a steep, monetized pyramid with desperate penniless careerists at the bottom and “stars” at the top, with money flowing based not on need or utility but structured to conform with the hierarchy.

This shift nearly killed the Liberal Party, which has, historically, been based on “big man” systems of gifting and reciprocity. It was only in the Liberals’ rediscovery of this system over the past three years that they were able to ascend to their traditional place in Canadian politics, once again able to out-gun the progressive, professionalized modern labour structures that Stephen Harper and Jack Layton built.

In the NDP and Tories, one’s ability to exert power based on one’s professional rank, represented in one’s salaried remuneration by the party. In the Liberals, one’s ability to exert power is based on one’s ability to engage in gifting and the dispensation of favours. This doesn’t just make the Liberals able to mobilize more labour, more effectively with better morale. It also makes the party feel more trustworthy to Canadians, especially younger and newer Canadians. A labour system underpinned by generosity is not just more effective; it is more appealing.

I will say more about how this works in my next post.

I’m Proud of LeadNow and Tom Mulcair: Part 2: Stay on Tom Mulcair!

While I am sure that there are a bunch of people on the right of my party saying “we need a more centrist leader who will pull an Andrea Horwath and call big business and the investor class ‘job creators’ and promise them tax cuts instead of tax increases” or “we need a more centrist leader who will pull a Mike Harcourt and demonize people in poverty and throw tens of thousands off social assistance into the streets” or “we need a more centrist leader like Dominic Cardy who will attack Liberals and Conservatives for being willing to negotiate with native protesters instead of tear-gassing them.” I’m confident a bunch of other members of the party’s far left will take those clowns on.

Instead, I want to take on those who claim that Tom Mulcair’s leadership moved our party dramatically to right and that this cost us the election. I’m not saying our leader is perfect or that some of his decisions were not errors that cost us seats but a dose of realism is needed here.

One of the curious things I find about the anti-Mulcair left is their belief that highly ideological oligopolies are not capitalist, agenda-driven actors but are instead rational honest brokers in a global system that, if not fair, is stable, non-arbitrary and rationally profit-seeking. In the world of the anti-Mulcair left, the media are fair and unbiased reporters of news who would naturally treat a position or statement by the NDP in the same way as they would an identical one by the Liberal Party. In the world of the anti-Mulcair left, international banks, bond-raters and investor groups rationally react to changes in government policy without regard for what kind of social contract it creates or what party is implementing it and who their friends are. In the world of the anti-Mulcair left, the preamble to a party’s constitution shapes voters’ understanding of the party, along with the platform and policies.

That’s not to say that they believe these things all the time. They believe these three preposterous notions only when criticizing the NDP. The rest of the time, they think about these things like sociologically-informed socialists.

The story, with many of these individuals, is that if only the NDP had started announcing that we would plunge Canada back into deficit for at least three years before the Liberals made that announcement, we would not have been caught flat-footed and painted as centrists because we wanted to balance the budget. In order for this claim to make any sense at all, at least two of the crazy premises I enumerated above would have to be true.

But let’s be realistic. Liberal Party shill media, CBC and the Atkinson Foundation papers (the Toronto Star et al), would not have praised us doing this and “distinguishing ourselves as true progressives” – half the nation’s provincial premiers would not have leapt to our aid – they’re Liberals. Paul Martin, the 90s austerity czar would not have talked about how it is sometimes reasonable to run deficits and been featured in newspaper spreads about how we were being “serious” about the economy – he’s a Liberal! Here is what would have actually happened: our vote wouldn’t have collapsed in the final ten days because it would have collapsed in the first ten days as Liberals sold a deficit-free, fiscally responsible future for our nation, based on a highly conventional campaign narrative.

Other than Greg Selinger, the most hated premier in our nation, no government, no newspaper and no TV station would have greeted such a position with anything other than derision, eye-rolls and “same old NDP” rhetoric. The Liberals would have run on our balanced budget platform and surged into first place with it immediately as Liberal and Tory think tanks, finance ministers and governments piled-on the old “the NDP can’t run a corner store” narrative.

Instead, efforts to paint us as financial wingnuts and maniacs fell so flat that Tory Twitter trolls stopped using the “SpeNDP photo memes the party built them for the campaign.

By campaigning for a balanced budget, Tom Mulcair didn’t just force the Liberals and their allied media to adopt a much riskier, much tougher strategy and prevent a major poll-slide at the campaign’s outset, this strategy kept us in the lead for the first half of the election. And not only this help us look more financially credible, it provided us with a political narrative for why we needed to raise corporate taxes, something we struggled to narrate when the nation was in surplus and we didn’t care about borrowing.

But even if we leave aside the question of optic. Even if we decide that the Atkinson Foundation are an unbiased news source with no agenda of their own, that right-wing media like CTV would treat an NDP deficit promise identically to a Liberal deficit promise, that Paul Martin is no more or less credible and beloved than Floyd Laughren, there is another problem: it is completely insane for a socialist government to run large deficits in this day and age.

As I stated during the campaign in a full-length piece about this, it is grossly irresponsible for socialist and social democratic governments to subject themselves to punitive credit downgrades by Standard and Poors and their ilk. It is no longer the 1960s; the interest you pay on your national debt is not determined by bean-counters actually guessing the likelihood of you paying people back; it is determined by the global capitalist class based on an ideological agenda that is wholly opposed to new state-run social programs like a national childcare system. Any new money you try to make available through borrowing can always be clawed back immediately through a punitive bond or credit downgrade. Unlike Liberals, socialists and social democrats don’t have a bunch of friends on Wall and Bay Streets to stick up for us when we try to launch a new program. Unlike Liberals, we don’t plan to pay the financial sector back for new social programs through P3s and cutting them in by contracting them out.

So, if we wanted to be responsible and honest, we would have to have promised a balanced budget anyway, irrespective of the strategic acumen of the choice. In a thirty-five day election campaign, Mulcair’s balanced budget promise would have been hailed as the masterstroke to deliver and NDP minority government. Sadly, and I do fault our party for this; we were the most flat-footed of the national parties and were unable to adapt following the Liberals’ surprise deficit stimulus scheme.

The next criticism of Mulcair’s campaign was that they were non-specifically too right-wing and not ambitious enough. This is simply false. Day after day, long after this course of action ceased to be remotely advisable, our leader kept making new progressive policy announcements that amounted to the most comprehensive social democratic program our party had since 1993. In 2008 and 2011, we back-burnered our national childcare program. But in 2015, we placed it front and centre and offered an actual plan for getting it done, not vague expressions of principle. In 2006, 2008 and 2011, we back-burnered proportional representation after backing down on our demands for it in the Paul Martin face-off of 2005. In 2015, for the first time, we put forward a plan to make this election the last unfair election in Canadian history, ditching previous prevarication in the form of commissions and referenda. And, in 2015, we actually ran against an unfair trade deal for the first time since 2000, after running scared on trade during the Layton years.

As I have said elsewhere, people who accuse Mulcair of turning the party right are really upset not about NDP policy but about the inferior pedigree of the members we are now admitting into our private club. The fact is that we ran on the most left-wing platform in a generation. Any criticism the NDP left can make of Mulcair’s platform could be made more strongly of Layton’s last three. Like it or not, the reformed Thatcherite and ex-Liberal cabinet minister turned us left. Because that’s how lost and unprincipled we have been for much of the past generation.

Finally, there is this rubbish about the party’s constitution and how Mulcair backed us moving the word “socialism” from one paragraph to another. I don’t know why he did this or why we voted to do this. Given that this preamble has a long track record of total failure to, in any way, restrain our party from enacting right-wing policies, who cares? Neither the public, our member nor our parliamentarians and legislators has ever paid the slightest heed to the preamble of our constitution. So why would this have anything to do with our failure on the campaign trail?

 

The reason so many in our ranks are seeking to lay all the blame on our leader for the problems of the campaign is that he remains, for many New Democrats, an outsider. Not only can we blame him for this loss. We can, while we are at it, heap blame for all the centrist triangulation and sellouts that preceded his leadership, exonerating ourselves, our provincial governments and our sainted former leader for a generation of concession and cowardice.

This campaign was never going to be a slam dunk. We were never the natural or inevitable successors to Stephen Harper’s Tories. We were a group of interlopers who, through a combination of our good luck, Liberal bad luck and some smart choices, became the Official Opposition. By choosing a former cabinet minister for the most right-wing government to have run Quebec since the Quiet Revolution we thought we could allay the natural fear and disdain the heirs to Ontario’s Family Compact and the petro-fortunes of the West. And we did, a bit, but not enough for that tolerance to end the moment the Liberal Party of Canada once again became a going concern.

Did our leader make mistakes that increased the size of our defeat? Sure. Did head office staff make errors in our campaign strategy? You bet! But there have been more than half a dozen elections in which we have lost ten points to the Liberals over the course of the campaign and, in only three (1945, 1988 and 2015) of them did we start in a strong enough position for that not to call our very survival into question.

Also, contrary to the claims that were made after 2011, our transformation into a bilingual, truly national party with a solid base in both English and French Canada has been real and lasting. The Orange Wave could have been a flash in the pan, a one-time thing but instead, our leader and his team poured energy into people like Ruth Ellen Brosseau who transformed from an absentee paper candidate to a respected incumbent returned with a twenty-point margin. I can’t think of any other leader who could have done this as well as the one we have.

I wish our lucky streak had continued through this election and that we had a campaign that was more nimble and less pointlessly obsessed with discipline and control. I wish our leader had shown more of his combative personality and not let himself be so managed. I wish we had stopped saying “middle class” until my ears bled.

But let’s work with our leader to build a stronger campaign for 2019. And let’s thank him for a hard-fought, principled, social democratic campaign.

 

I’m Proud of LeadNow and Tom Mulcair: Part 1: Thanks LeadNow!

There is a lot of loose talk right now heaping blame and negativity on the toughest, most dedicated fighters against the Harper Tories in the election. The story seems to be that the tough and courageous things they did are the reason Canadian progressives got an election result that was merely good and not great. Instead of thanking and congratulating our most tireless fighters, we are blaming them for things working out imperfectly. In this blog post, I am going to rehearse some of the tiresome points that are being made and offer my take on why these criticisms are unreasonable and counter-productive.

“Those strategic voting web sites and groups just stampeded everybody into voting Liberal. If they hadn’t advocated strategic voting so hard, there wouldn’t have been such a stampede from the NDP to the Liberals in the last weeks.”

In this election, the Dogwood Initiative and LeadNow.ca poured unprecedented energy into polling and a ground game to reach anti-Harper voters and get them to vote strategically for the candidate most likely to defeat the Conservatives in their riding. And, because of the 3-4% Liberal-NDP swing on the final weekend gave some incorrect advice because no pollster captured that final weekend switch, in the same way nobody could capture the swing in the last two days of the 2012 Alberta election.

Supposedly, these organizations should have known this would happen and that there was no need to keep piling up Liberal victories, pushing us into a majority government where the NDP and Greens could not check bad Liberal policy. This is simply unfair. This is always a risk in elections but most elections don’t feature a final weekend switch that pollsters fail to capture. Betting that this election would be like 90% of elections and not like the 10% where this happens was a calculated risk these campaigns took. We—and I say we because I was in on the ground floor of this, writing Logistics of Cooperation back in 2012, before pulling back and letting less divisive figures flog this thing—would have been subject to a whole other round of criticisms if the final weekend swing had been a 3-4% shift to the Tories. Then we’d be being indicted for backing too many NDP long shots instead of too few.

Yeah, there was some wrong guessing and we got an imperfect result. Some dyed-in-the-wool New Democrats have concluded that this means nobody should ever make guesses again about who is going to win their riding, that guessing is, itself, an immoral act, that we should all “vote with our hearts.” Except on Vancouver Island. No Green on Vancouver Island should vote with their heart because… uh… strategic voting is only good when people vote strategically for us, not against us. The New Democrats flogging this nonsense are ungenerous and blinkered in their perspective. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi and Alberta Liberal leader David Swann very graciously encouraged strategic votes for Rachel Notley and the NDP in the final days of the Alberta election this year. And much of the Orange Wave in 2011 in Quebec entailed sovereigntists strategically voting for the federalist NDP and centrists strategically voting for the leftist NDP in a desperate bid to turf Stephen Harper.

If NDPers keep rubbishing strategic voting and telling everybody to just follow their heart all the time, my friends and I might just follow our hearts into the soon-to-be-founded Socialist Whiskey Party of BC.

As former Green Party city councillor Art Vanden Berg says, coordinated strategic voting under first-past-the-post is like performing precision surgery with a stone axe. But it’s the best we have got; we will often guess wrong and produce sub-optimal outcomes. That’s why we have to ditch our current voting system in favour of proportional representation. But it is grossly irresponsible to suggest that even trying to make guesses about who has a shot at winning your riding is somehow a morally vacuous and pointless act, that somehow we should vote as though we already have proportional representation. Sheila Malcolmsen will be heading to Ottawa because Green-inclined people chose not to live in this fantasy world thanks, in significant measure, to the Dogwood Initiative and LeadNow.

“By encouraging strategic voting, LeadNow and Dogwood made all those progressives in Ontario and the Atlantic vote Liberal because people are too dumb to understand the voting system and just voted based on national polls.”

There were two kinds of “strategic voters” in this election: the newer, younger, more ecologically-focused “stop Harper voters” who have come of age politically in the past decade. These people were located and mobilized by strategic voting groups focused on climate change. But they were not the majority.

The majority of self-identified “strategic voters” came from three far more venerable groups who have been shifting their preferences strategically for decades based on values and goals very different from those of climate action groups like the Dogwood Initiative. “Strategic voting” didn’t come into being because Jamie Biggar, Matthew Carrol, Lynn McDonald and Gary Shaul invented it after Harper won his majority four years ago. It has been a major issue in every election conducted under first-past-the-post since Canada ceased to be a two-party system ninety years ago.

For almost a century, huge chunks of the Canadian electorate have said “I’m voting strategically” every damned election, which makes sense, given that our voting system requires so much second-guessing and strategy to make one’s vote count. Most of the people who cast “strategic votes” for the Liberals in 2015, I will wager, are people who also claimed they were casting strategic votes for the Liberals in 2000, people whose voting strategy is radically different than that of the smaller, younger group of strategic voters LeadNow and company try to shepherd.

These older-school strategic voters fall into three broad categories:

Embarrassed Liberals: Especially in Toronto and Ottawa, there is a constituency of people, usually highly educated, associated with the arts, involved in the charitable sector, wealthier sorts who are actually Liberals. But they feel they should be New Democrats. Many were New Democrats (or even Communists!) in their youth and feel embarrassed about how their politics have drifted right as their hair has greyed and the Che posters on their university office or art studio walls have faded. These poor souls have to make up long, complex stories most elections about why they are reluctantly voting for the party that is actually their first choice. But sometimes, they get carried away, as a few did in 2011, and cast a nostalgic vote for the party they long ago abandoned.

To blame LeadNow and company for these voters’ “strategic votes” is absurd. This crew were doing this long before any leader in the contemporary Stop Harper movement graduated high school.

Benefit-Seekers: In huge swaths of Canada, whether you are represented by a member of the government makes a big difference, especially if you work in a key economic sectors like building trades, health care or social services or if you’re from a diasporic family who needs help from their local MP to reunite in Canada. Many benefit-seeking strategic voters stuck with the Liberals as long as the Liberals seemed to have a shot at governing but strategically moved to the Tories, at Jason Kenney’s invitation between 2008 and 2011. These voters comprise a significant portion of the now-famous 905 belt, as well as much of Northern Canada. And they, quite rationally, move their votes to align with state power. The risk to family-supporting jobs, immigration files and one’s reserve’s electrical and water systems is too great to do otherwise.

Again, this kind of strategic voting is older than Canada itself. Again, to associate these strategic voters with environmental and social justice groups’ strategic voting campaigns is ridiculous.

People Who Like Momentum: Because our current voting system makes one feel so powerless and one’s vote so useless, it is tough to get any significant emotional payoff from voting. One of the few ways one can derive such an emotional payoff is by deciding to be part of “the thing that happened.” A lot of powerless people align their vote with whatever force has momentum so that they can credit themselves with the Mulroney Sweep, Orange Wave, Trudeau Restoration (sorry – couldn’t resist one anti-monarchy joke) or whatever. Fortunately, our voting system provides them with a discourse to justify their fickleness. Rather than claiming constant changes of ideology, they can, quite reasonably, mask their desire for belonging and relevance with an ever-shifting set of post-hoc voting strategy rationalizations.

 

I am proud to have been an activist for electoral cooperation and strategic voting the past four years. Let’s hope that we have a chance, under the Trudeau government, to change Canada’s voting system to insure that high-stakes guessing becomes a less important part of our voting systems. But let’s not pillory the courageous souls who chose to help us guess how best to make our votes effective, even if our guesses weren’t as good as we would have liked.

People Who Say They Are Voting Tory Based on the Economy Are Lying

If this election is about any one thing, it is about bigotry.

Throughout the campaign, people who feel like supporting the Conservative Party of Canada have claimed that they are voting based on something called “the economy.” Over the past decade, it has become clear to me that everybody who says “I am voting based on the economy” is lying, either to themselves or to others.

That is because of a rhetorical style conservative media and conservative commentators have developed. That is because, in our present moment, where the mainstream political ideology lives in an empty jar called “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” one is expected to advance a single, unified political position that our society is a marketplace where people freely make consumer choices.

Contemporary conservative politics is an expression of anxiety over the choice-based liberal capitalist utopia we are becoming. The self-evident emptiness of a society of individual free agents, untethered from one another, whose identities are simply the sum of their consumer choices bothers people. There is something too dehumanizing, too monstrous about Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that “society does not exist.”

And so conservative movements have come to rely on social coercion as their distinguishing principle: “No. You can’t just marry whoever you want. No. You are the gender you were born with. No. I can decide, just by looking at you, whether you are black or an Indian. No. You can’t just pick what you get to wear…” Et cetera.

Contemporary Third Way and liberal parties, on the other hand, because we are usually (and legitimately) too afraid of challenging the global neoliberal economic order, tended to build our politics out of two things: defending the ways in which liberal capitalism, by rendering everything a consumer choice, can be used as a tool to achieve greater equality and accommodation for select groups in society. “Yes. You can wear what you want. Yes you can marry whomever you want…” Et cetera.

The other way these parties have retained political purchase has been by talking about values and phenomena that are exceptionally resistant to individualized commodification. Our destabilizing atmosphere, our acidifying oceans, whole countries where death rains from the sky onto almost-random targets. Even though our solutions to these problems, exemplified in “cap and trade” focus on how we can extend market instruments into the commons to produce a falsely atomized tradable commodification, we are forced to say “there are important things besides the economy” while conservatives are not.

Operating within our “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” mainstream, what this means is that conservative parties have come to own “the economy” as part of their identity, because it is often disadvantageous to focus on other issues in polite company. While liberal and Third Way parties, in order to maintain their legitimacy, have had move the subject of conversation off the economy, conservatives have been able to speak exclusively about this empty signifier “the economy” and have had to articulate their non-economic views through coded and targeted communication.

Because this has been going on for a generation now, conservatives are understood to be the people who know about the economy and run it correctly. A generation ago, Mike Harris had to make the case for the efficacy and reasonableness of his slash-and-burn economic policy. Today, a conservative politician demonstrating that he is the most competent economic manager takes place the moment the camera rolls, the moment he walks on stage.

Because conservative fiscal competence has gone from being an argument made in the public square to an ontological property of conservative identity, people whose votes are really motivated by the desire to attack others’ choices due to xenophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia or homophobia can express this in code by saying “I am voting based on the economy.”

Such individuals are often bewildered when people act as though they believe this to be true. “But if you care about the deficit, why would you vote for the party that ran the biggest deficit in Canadian history, turned our biggest surplus into our biggest deficit and doubled the national debt?” we ask, and our interlocutor seems bewildered. “But if you care about economic growth, why are you backing the party that has presided over two recessions in ten years, and the only G7 country to slip back into recession in 2015?” we ask and our interlocutor seems either antsy or bored. “If you care about a stable economy, why would you vote for a party that has completely unbalanced our economy by destroying tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs and instead tying our economy to the most volatile boom-bust cycle in the world?”

Now, the people who get antsy when we ask those questions are people who have not let themselves in on their little secret: that they are voting Tory because they are dealing with their anxiety about our empty market choice society by backing a party with a penchant for punitive and coercive action against minorities. Many people who say “I am voting because the economy” are not stupid; they have just internalized that these magic words are a polite euphemism. Because one no longer says “because I want to kill Arabs” or “because I want to smash out that gay guy’s teeth” in polite company.

By arguing with them, you are not engaging in political discourse about the issues; you are trying to force them to say something rude, something you will assail them for having said once they do. You are trapping them in a social double-bind where you will punish them for telling you a socially convenient lie like “I can’t make it; I’ve come down with food poisoning” AND for telling the truth. Having this debate with them is like arguing with “I can’t give you a ride; I’m not going that way” or “we already have house guests. You can’t sleep on my couch.” The claims they are making about Conservative fiscal management are not part of a debate they are having with you; they are a signal to those around them that they are respecting the social mainstream by not saying things that are offensive.

In this campaign, our government hired the world’s expert on locating and demonizing small minority groups who are despised by, if not the majority of us, a large plurality. Lynton Crosby mobilized Canada’s venerable nativist vote against the two women who have attempted to swear their citizenship oath wearing a niqab.

And, in our final weekend, Stephen Harper is finishing the campaign with Rob Ford, a racist, wife-beating, George Zimmerman-esque, a seller of murder swag on e-Bay from the hit he ordered on Anthony Smith and got away with. But let’s remember that while this pantomime of violence, racism and misogyny is being enacted through images and symbols, Harper and the Ford brothers are talking about how it’s really all about “the economy.”

This week, every daily newspaper in our country that is not run by the Atkinson Foundation is endorsing the re-election of the Conservative Party, supposedly in spite of the ugly nativism they have activated because… drumroll please… “the economy.”

We need to get clear on what that phrase now means. Just as “confirmed bachelor” once meant “semi-closeted gay dude,” just as “tired and emotional” means “high as a kite” in the British press, “because of the economy” means “because I am full of hate and want to see people who are not like me hurt.”

Now, some people will get upset that I am calling millions of Canadians racists, misogynists and/or homophobes when they really do believe they are voting based on the economy. Well, let’s look next door to see how much of a shit I should give about this. For most of the Obama presidency, the majority of Republicans “sincerely” believed he was a Kenyan, closet-Muslim imposter, scheming with the Iranian government to destroy America. When middle and working class Republican voters received a major tax cut from Obama in 2009, the majority of them believed their taxes went up.

Was it the position of Canadians that these individuals should be treated fairly, that their racism should not be called out simply because they had piled an act of self-deception on top of the lies they were telling others? No.

Those who have deceived themselves into believing Harper deserves re-election because of his sound economic management are no better than the voters who are voting for Harper because of a clear-headed, self-conscious bigotry. And the Globe and Mail, National Post, Vancouver Sun, Edmonton Journal, etc. etc. are committing a crime, a hate crime, by shoring up the split consciousness that enables these acts of self deception. What editorial after editorial is showing us is that “record of sound fiscal management” has come to function as a euphemism for “racist/misogynistic/homophobic like me.”

As the National Observer opined this morning, our national press, through these endorsements, has transformed itself from bystander to participant in an ugly and shameful campaign of racism and misogyny. When the next Muslim woman is assaulted on the street by vigilantes, their legitimation of the 2015 Conservative election campaign as one worthy of support will make them, too, accessories to that crime.

The Munk Debates and the Perfect Safety of Young White Men

In the 1960s and 70s, Pierre Eliot Trudeau won the hearts of many socially conservative Western Canadians by rejecting a new politics of haute-bourgeois male emotionalism. When an interviewer suggested that Trudeau was dismissive of the “deep personal need” of many Quebeckers to “exist as an independent cultural entity,” he agreed. “Go feel your own way. I’ll feel mine,” was his response to those who felt that their emotional experience should be a basis on which public policy was decided. Defending his War Measures Act, he famously responded, “well, there’s a lot of bleeding hearts out there. All I can say is ‘go on and bleed.’ It’s more important to keep public order than pander to the feelings of a bunch of weak-kneed people who are afraid of men with helmets and guns.”

Most importantly, when Trudeau was attacked by rock- and bottle-throwing demonstrators during the 1968 election campaign, he refused to be whisked to safety by security and chose, instead, to hold his ground and endure the risk of projectiles striking him. Some see this as what clinched the first majority government in four elections.

As I have written previously, one of the things that makes Francophone Quebecois leaders appealing to male Anglo voters is the very fact that they are associated with a more conventionally manly cultural accommodation with violence. Justin Trudeau’s public boxing match against Patrick Brazeau, Tom Mulcair’s physically threatening confrontation with Peter van Loan fit into a grand tradition, leading back through Jean Chretien’s chokeholds and beatings, of repressed Anglos cheering on violence in Francophone leaders that they would not tolerate in one of their own.

That’s why I was initially so surprised by Justin Trudeau’s sudden pivot, echoed in pre-rehearsed, stage-ready tweets and Facebook posts from campaign surrogates, to immediately assert that his continued feelings of bereavement surrounding his father’s death a decade and a half ago required some kind of disability accommodation by everyone else in Canada. Gerald Butts and other Liberal surrogates instantaneously reacted to Tom Mulcair’s assertion that the NDP’s multi-generation track record of standing up for Canadians’ liberty was demonstrated in their opposition to the War Measures Act in 1971. Apparently, this implied criticism of Trudeau’s dad was dirty pool and had hurt the prospective Prime Minister’s feelings. The recent emergence of medically invalid but nevertheless popular “trigger warnings” on US college campuses had, somehow, leapt across the border and now, fifteen of the past fifty years of Canadian politics were off-limits for fear of causing one rich white man to experience hurt feelings.

But I am no longer surprised. This bullshit is totally working. All kinds of random people, veterans struggling with amputations and PTSD, precariously employed minimum wage workers, racialized populations being stripped of their citizenship rights—these people, ordinary Canadians, are getting really concerned about how Mulcair was insufficiently considerate of Trudeau’s hurt feelings. How is it that the feelings of one attractive, privileged, successful, white adult male could become the object of so much sympathy that the entire narrative of the campaign changed in one day? How could Butts and the other Liberal strategists have calculated that so many Canadians whose easiest day is tougher than Trudeau’s hardest would have become so concerned about another national leader being inconsiderate of his feelings?

I think it comes from their superior understanding of the politics of expected safety and anticipated vulnerability, a politics about which I have already written, at some length, in my posts about Jian Ghomeshi, a politics that is arising from the modern inversion of a long-held patriarchal tradition.

If we understand patriarchal society to be a society dominated by older, wealthier men, we must recognize that the main threat faced by such societies is not the transition to gender-equal or matricentric societies but is, instead, the reversion to a social structure dominated by younger, violent men. Indeed, it is the threat of politically empowering young, violent men that makes patriarchal social order so secure; given a binary choice between rule by old, rich men and rule by young, violent men, most women would, very reasonably, choose the former.

For this reason, patriarchal societies must, by definition, seek to disempower and diminish younger, more violent men, in favour of empowering old, rich guys. Young men are encouraged in risk-seeking behaviour, conscripted into war, taught dangerous sports and passtimes, etc., yielding a young, male population perpetrating most of their violence on one another. In the first phases of the post-Enlightenment modern world, these aspects of patriarchal society were intensified through new social technologies like conscription, producing an enormous body-count but also, paradoxically, through the increasing empowerment and enfranchisement of young women in the world outside the home, transferring jobs like teaching and secretarial work from young men to young women.

And this sort of thing has worked to keep our society’s basically patriarchal structure intact: the young men who survived the winnowing process of driving fast, shooting guns and drinking hard were accepted and promoted through what they understood to be an earned position as a major or minor patriarch. Older men, even if not rich, gained new forms of social power, acceptance and security having survived young adulthood and looked approvingly on institutions like conscription the way one does upon a hazing ritual through which one has passed.

But something has been changing in the past half-century, fifteen years of which we’re not to mention for fear of hurting Mr. Trudeau’s feelings. Today, while younger and more violent men remain disempowered in crucial ways, the character of this disempowerment has changed in some striking respects. Instead of our society thinking of young men’s teens and twenties as times to cull the herd, the opposite impulse has taken hold: the teens and twenties are such a dangerous time that privileged lineages want to make sure that their sons come to no harm whatsoever. Today’s young men must be warehoused in something akin to a state of suspended animation, lest even a minor harm come to their precious bodies and minds. And we see this from the outset, with the development of playgrounds on which no child should ever be able to fall onto anything hard.

When every iota of the Affordable Care Act that actually helps anyone get healthcare is stripped away, all that will be left of Barack Obama’s great reform will be that it makes the effective age of majority for middle- and upper middle-class people twenty-six instead of twenty-one. Of course, you should be on your parents’ health insurance at twenty-six like the dependent you are, working that unpaid internship or getting that graduate degree while you wait for the older men to age out of the job that is waiting for you.

Of course, not all young people are supposed to experience this perfect safety. In fact, most are not. Working class youth, young people of colour are having their age of majority chipped-away, with successive law reforms first permitting children to be tried as adults and then applying mandatory minimum sentences to them. Whether working legally or illicitly, remittance migrants face increasingly dangerous working conditions and fewer and fewer legal tools to address them. Girls and young women are also having their expectations of safety adjusted with constant reminders that the wrong decisions about their clothing, their etiquette, their recreation will place them directly in the path of inevitable sexual violence. And, even if one behaves just right, the risk of gender-based violence is presented as normative, a reality like the weather to which everyone must simply adapt. Privileged white boys, something Mr. Trudeau is still presented as being, are to expect perfect safety, to live in a world where no object, no person, no word, no emotion can interfere with their pristine state while this future elite is being warehoused. Just as we are taught to expect young black and aboriginal men to be in prison being raped and abused, just as we are taught to expect young women to be negotiating a dangerous and narrow path through omnipresent gender-based violence, we are taught to expect that, if our social order is functioning properly, nothing even slightly hurtful should ever happen to a rich, young white boy.

What we are seeing in Canadian politics right now is people responding with anxiety to the sense that the social order in which they make plans, form expectations and negotiate power is under threat, that if Mr. Mulcair does not know how to treat young Mr. Trudeau, how can he be trusted to maintain an ordered Canadian society, one with a place for everyone and everyone in his place? While it might be all very well for him to debate Mr. Trudeau, to engage in the dancing, parrying formalities of parliamentary debate, it is clearly off-limits for him to trigger his opponent, so to speak. Like sensitivity to depictions or descriptions of certain kinds of violence, bereavement has been transformed from a universal human experience to a permanent disability that everyone around a privileged young man must alter their speech and actions to accommodate, like the emotional equivalent of a nut allergy.

This belief in the perfect safety of the privileged, young, white man has become so natural, so normative, so much a part of our mental furniture that Canadians really did feel a sense of genuine sense of emotional outrage at that pivotal moment in the Munk foreign policy debate. And this group included people who would never experience the same outrage if the identical thing happened to them, because they, unlike Mr. Trudeau, are not understood to be deserving of perfect safety.

Next post, I will link this back to the rape culture posts with which this article is converging.

Real Socialists Balance Budgets — Because We Have To

We, on the Canadian left, have to screw our heads back on when it comes to the interaction between the global financial system and the making of social democratic government budgets. We also have to screw our heads back on when it comes to the very real physical limits to industrial production and extraction. We need to talk sensibly and realistically about borrowing, economic growth and the legacy of liberal economist John Maynard Keynes.

And we have to hurry this up because, right now, we are carrying a bunch of water for Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper in their attempt to prevent the election of Canada’s first social democratic government. But don’t feel bad. As Antonio Gramsci says, this is just how hegemony feels.

Right now, the Liberal Party of Canada, whose main political asset these days is a kind of public discourse that David Axelrod has termed “the audacity of sheer audacity,” has decided to haul its last Prime Minster out of cold storage to say some outrageous bullshit. Apparently, Paul Martin, the finance minister who balanced the budget by declaring that shelter and food were no longer rights, stealing everybody’s Unemployment Insurance premiums and cutting federal participation in health care from 50 cents on the dollar to eight, has decided to lecture us on how deficit financing is the bee’s knees.

The NDP, Martin’s audacious tale goes, has lost its way, not in the usual ways, like letting petty personal jealousies paralyze a whole government and destroy a major national institution, or shoveling hundreds of millions of dollars into friends’ shell companies and crime lords in the name of combatting separatism, but by suggesting that our nation should go back to balancing its books. Apparently, that’s only a principled thing to do if you’re Paul Martin; and Martin is pretty clear that he and Tom Mulcair are not the same guy.

Of course, there is some good timing from which the Liberals are benefiting. An old video has been found of Mulcair praising Margaret Thatcher, allowing some sort of threadbare case to be made that the NDP is now an extreme right party.

Now, far be it from me to suggest that criticizing the NDP during an election is the wrong thing to do. Until recently, I was on the supply side of this sort of thing. Just last year, I spoke out against Andrea Horwath referring to big business and members of the investor class as “job creators” on the front page of her platform. And, lest the party get too enthusiastic and lift the ban on me seeking a nomination, I could do that again.

But right now, I am going to offer a full-throated defense of Mulcair’s commitment to balance our national budget and, if necessary, slow the implementation of our spending program in order to do so. After all, the 1933 Regina Manifesto, the founding document of our political movement, promised a program of public health insurance yet, it took Canada’s first NDP government two decades to launch that program. That’s because not only does the Manifesto say:

With the advance of medical science the maintenance of a healthy population has become a function for which every civilized community should undertake responsibility. Health services should be made at least as freely available as are educational services today. But under a system which is still mainly one of private enterprise the costs of proper medical care, such as the wealthier members of society can easily afford, are at present prohibitive for great masses of the people. A properly organized system of public health services including medical and dental care, which would stress the prevention rather than the cure of illness should be extended to all our people in both rural and urban areas. This is an enterprise in which Dominion, Provincial and Municipal authorities, as well as the medical and dental professions can cooperate.

It also says:

An inevitable effect of the capitalist system is the debt creating character of public financing. All public debts have enormously increased, and the fixed interest charges paid thereon now amount to the largest single item of so-called uncontrollable public expenditures. The CCF proposes that in future no public financing shall be permitted which facilitates the perpetuation of the parasitic interest-receiving class; that capital shall be provided through the medium of the National Investment Board and free from perpetual interest charges.

My grandfather Harry V. Jerome, father of the more famous Harry Jerome, attended that convention representing the railway porters’ union; and you can see him in those photographs of the front rows of the convention hall. For my granddad, saving pennies in a jar was a way he understood himself to be modeling socialism for me, not the capitalism of easy credit, instalment plans, company store accounts and payday loans through which he had lived in the 1920s before the Crash.

As a man whose family had escaped North from Redemption in the American South, my granddad had deeper reasons for distrusting such instruments. The Great Migration, of which he was part, did not take place immediately after the American Civil War, when black Americans achieved freedom. Reconstruction, the era from 1865-1880 was a time in which a new economic order was in effect in the South. With federal troops from the North occupying the Confederacy, freedmen struck new deals with their former owners, deals based agreements around credit. Sharecropping, the system under which land was rented on credit that was paid back through cotton sales during the harvest was not, initially, unjust and was a system under which former slaves could and did make money.

But something changed in 1876: the federal troops went home and sharecropping began its inexorable descent into peonage. Debt and credit agreements between tenant and landlord tied black people back to the land in ways that remade most of the institution of slavery. Legislatures, courts, sheriffs and marshals that had once been friendly and sympathetic in their reading of these agreements became punitive, draconian and biased. The spirit in which those agreements were interpreted was no longer the spirit of the Radical Republicans and their occupying army but the spirit of the proto-fascist, paramilitary irregulars who ran the “Redeemed” governments of the South, known as the Klan.

Agreements that, one year, said that a landlord could not prevent a tenant selling cotton to a competitor, the next year said the very opposite, not because their wording changed but because the interests of the people charged with their interpretation had.

If you want to understand how the left has lost its way when it beats the drum for big deficits to finance big, generous programs, it is in this way: we have lost sight of the danger of making deals with powerful people when the arbiters of the meaning of those deals are against us.

The reason leftists should not borrow from private lenders and right-wing governments; the reason leftists should not issue bonds that are to be rated by Standard and Poors and the various other private bond-raters whom even Germany’s conservative chancellor Angela Merkel indicts for their market fundamentalism and extreme-right politics is so simple that it does not even rate as a question of economics. It is just plain stupid to make agreements with people who are against you, especially when the jury of appeal for the meaning of those agreements are people who are even more opposed to you. This is not an Economics 101 lesson; this is the lesson you learn when you play Monopoly with your older cousin at the age of eight.

I once had the good fortune to enjoy a nice beverage or nine with the former finance minister of a social democratic government and talk about her experiences of meeting bond-raters in New York after her government began work on launching a childcare program. The economists at the table informed her bluntly that their jurisdiction’s credit rating would suffer a punitive downgrade if such a program were launched. So she quickly pivoted to explaining how her government had crunched the numbers and how, once established, the macroeconomic effect of the program would actually increase government revenues and repayment rates in the medium term.

The bond-raters and bankers were completely uninterested. Had she not heard them? They didn’t like socialist governments launching new entitlement programs. So why was she continuing to talk? These lenders and raters were financially secure, representing America’s “too big to fail” club on the eve of the second Bush presidency. This was not a conversation about what was profitable. This was not a conversation about what made economic sense. This was a conversation about what kind of society should exist, what kind of values people should live by. This was a conversation about ideology, not an essay in bean-counting.

Now, had this finance minister been a liberal and not a socialist, if her long-term romantic relationships were with Fortune 500 CEOs and not trade union leaders, if their kids were in the same college or prep school classes as the arbiters on the other side of the table, maybe things would have gone differently. Because even when social democrats manage to perform like Tony Blair or Mike Harcourt and mouth the correct words about sharing the values of the global capitalist class, questions of class, culture and lineage provide the structuring substratum for the conversation. A member of a multigenerational liberal lineage, representing a venerable liberal party can be understood as trustworthy in ways that a socialist doing downmarket right-wing populism is viewed with as much credibility as any other sort of apostate braggart, inevitably requiring concessions and abasement on the grand scale.

The delusional belief, on the part of the alleged left of social democratic parties, especially in Canada and the UK, that bond-raters, bankers and the investor class work to maximize profits and will choose good business over spite shows the extent of capitalist ideological hegemony. If you think those guys are honest brokers, the Kool-Aid Man is about to burst through your duodenal wall. There can be no more convincing sign of just how far up capitalism’s ass we have stuck out own heads than the members of various left fronts and socialist caucuses ranting about how, because Keynesian economics works, Standard and Poors will see what a good business case there is for borrowing to recreate a national housing program and will totally not bring down the hammer on the Canadian economy.

Even as we watch the global investor class destroy the Greek economy and, hence, any chance of getting paid their money back and, any chance of a healthy enough Greek economy for their other private investments to pan out, entirely out of spite, as some effort to make a global example of Greece, we cling to the outrageous proposition that those who hold the levers in present-day global capitalism are fair and dispassionate brokers who will happily facilitate the creation of a national energy program administered by an avowedly socialist party. And it is not like we need to look as far away as Greece. The efforts to destroy Ontario’s NDP government under Bob Rae, the capital strikes, the credit rating downgrades, the punitive FTA lawsuit against public auto insurance: we lived through those things just one generation ago.

Those who oppose socialism remind us all the time that “socialism never works,” by which they mean, “we will prevent socialism from working, through a program of interest rate hikes, capital strikes, media denunciations and dirty tricks.”

Now, some people will argue that it is really quite unfair that global financial elites are so mean and arbitrary and are willing to forego billions of dollars in potential profits and interest payments just to prevent social democratic parties from gaining too much power or legitimacy. I agree. Here’s my plan for what to do when somebody is planning to do something really unfair: come up with a scheme to stop or mitigate the effects of them doing it. But what I keep hearing from all kinds of alleged leftists is that the correct plan should be to pretend that the unfair thing isn’t going to happen and then act surprised and outraged when it does.

It’s almost as though those people don’t want the responsibility of taking power at the national level. Or something.