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“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.


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