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The Perfect Safety of Young White Men: Part II

In the heat of the federal election, I dashed off a blog post about what I termed “the perfect safety of young men,” when Liberal strategists took to the airwaves to let us know that nobody should saying anything bad about their leader’s dad because doing so might hurt his feelings. It has been my intention to link this piece back to my series on how sexual and gender-based violence is debated in the public square.

So, I am going to wade back in by writing about another political event, on a much smaller scale, many years ago.

In March 2000, I attended a meeting that still stands out as one of the worst political meetings ever to take place in British Columbia: the BC Green Party provincial convention at which Adriane Carr seized control of the party through antics that still shock. The signature moment of this horror show was when candidates for the party’s provincial council were making election speeches and, in the middle of one candidate’s remarks, a party member rose on a point of order and accused him of rape. Once he had lost the internal election, she rose later in the meeting and retracted her allegations of sexual assault because they had done their job; his days as a Green Party organizer and strategist were over.

Generally, when people tell stories like this, they are offered in support of some kind of nonsense about how we should avoid talking about our belief or suspicion that a man has committed a sexual assault unless he has, himself, confessed to it, about how, given the existence of false and malicious allegations like the one I just described, it is irresponsible to speak about one’s suspicion that someone may be a rapist. That is not why I am telling this story. I am telling this story in order to get our discussion of sexual violence in the public square past an unhealthy impasse that favours sexual and social predators. I am trying to grab the opposite kind of cred: to throw down the gauntlet and say “so what?”

When we debate sexual violence in the public square, we are quickly stampeded into taking one of two unhelpful positions: (1) that the damage done by allegations of sexual violence is so damaging and women and children who claim to have suffered this violence are such unreliable witnesses that we must contain and silence their claims so they do not damage the reputation of potentially innocent men; or, (2) that no one, or, statistically, almost no one ever falsely claims to be a victim of sexual violence and that, therefore, the probability of a false allegation is so vanishingly small that silencing and containing these claims is unnecessary because they are only made about the guilty.

What underpins, what frames both of these positions is the sinister assumption that protecting the reputation of men is more important than protecting the physical safety of women and children. If we silence a rumour, a suspicion, an accusation and someone else is raped or beaten or abused because of our silence, because someone who could have been warned was not, this is a less grievous offense than if a man loses a job, a relationship or a political position because we did nothing to silence the rumours and accusations.

I can say from experience that it is obscene to draw an equivalence between the crippling, lifelong effects of abuse and the transitory damage of a personal or political smear. But what is clear from public discourse around sexual assault, a discourse that feminists, survivors and their allies must shoehorn themselves into, is that, according to our society’s values, a man’s reputation is worth more than physical body of a woman or child.

These values are, of course, constitutive of any patriarchal society, values that link genteel Canada to the violence of Russian homophobia, to the honour killings of Pakistan, the conversion rapes and child rapes of South Africa. That is not to say that there is no difference between our society and those that are more violently misogynistic. Rather it is to remind us that there exist in the world a spectrum of patriarchies, each of which offers different kinds of relative privilege to different men and different kinds and degrees of safety and liberty to non-men.

While it is true that all patriarchies prize male honour above female bodies, where ours is exceptional is in prizing the physical safety of men, especially young men, as well. And not just a physically achievable safety but an idealized, unattainable safety.

When it comes to understanding patriarchal societies, it is useful to remember that the main power dynamic that shapes such a society is the contest for power between old, rich men and young, violent men. A patriarchy is a society in which young, violent men are subordinated to old, rich men. While women, children and non-humans may bear the brunt of the violence and oppression generated by a male-dominated society, they are typically conceptualized as minor constituencies in this contest of power, resources to be exploited, prizes to be gained, minor players in a social contest among men.

For this reason, most patriarchal societies have, as I discussed in the previous article, sought to reduce the social power of young men while grooming a portion of them for eventual leadership through processes of winnowing, encouraging high-risk, high-mortality activities both recreationally and professionally, and deploying young men against one another in wars. The nineteenth century conscripted young men into wars on an unprecedented scale; it sent young men into mining, logging and whaling in new versions of these professions that maximized risk and encouraged a recreational culture of high-risk stunts, drinking, drug use and bar fights.

But, in the second half of the twentieth century, things changed for young, white men of a certain class. As the Vietnam deferments piled up, the new plan for young white men became to infantilize and warehouse them until such time as there is a space for them in patriarchal authority. Gone is the collective social hazing and its staggering body count. In its place is a seemingly interminable, infantilized, pathologized, basement-dwelling unpaid internship accompanied by a series of useless degrees and certificates. And with this new reality of an endless minority, one that even the Affordable Care Act has now legally extended to age twenty-six, is an unprecedented expectation of young male safety.

But there is a problem, a deeply gendered problem that now besets the society of these infantilized men: a safe man is an unattractive man.

Today, many misguided individuals, of whom I was one until an embarrassingly short time ago, bemoan the ways in which young men on university campuses seem to be set up for violating university rules around sexual consent. Posters at nearly every university at which I have taught warn young men that if they have sex with a young woman who has been drinking or is otherwise impaired by substances, they have committed a sexual assault and could, at any time, face discipline by the university or even by law enforcement and the justice system. Similarly, they are warned that ambiguity in communication, enough unclear responses from their sexual partner, too many “no’s” mixed in with “yes’s” and this may, at any time after the event, trigger accusations, discipline and expulsion. And given the popularity of agency effacement as a sexual fetish, this appears to transfer the risks associated with one party’s sexual satisfaction onto the other.

To which I say, “so fucking what?”

What kind of insane society do we live in where a young man trying to sleep with a young woman should not expect himself to be risking genuine harm in order to do so? Every time women contemplate a sexual activity with a man, we expect them to take on a burden of physical risk, to know that this activity might result in them being beaten, raped or killed. And, in most patriarchal societies, men are expected to know and voluntarily assume real physical and reputational risk in order to meet their sexual and romantic needs. It is only in this society where risk to women is normative and risk to men, unacceptable.

In most traditional patriarchies, the current or former sexual partner of the woman in question is the main purveyor of risk, well, he and his friends are. And it is expected that, even if the woman has rejected and dissociated herself from this former partner that he still enjoys the right to assault and defame her next sexual partner, a right important enough for law enforcement and other authorities to look the other way. And then, of course, there are the male blood relatives of the woman who present a physical risk; premarital sex is packaged, in your average patriarchy, with the real chance of being assaulted or murdered by your future in-laws, again important enough, that law enforcement might actually give those in-laws a hand.

And then, in the absence of ex-lovers and honour-driven family members, there is the law itself. In most patriarchies, law enforcement officials can usually do something about young people having, in their minds, too much fun. Not to mention a suitor’s competitors who might be trying to best him at the assumption of risk or the enactment of violence, often through direct violent confrontation, through that society’s version of a duel.

In every other patriarchal society, young men have been expected to take physical risks in order to court women. While this society offers a form of patriarchy that is more benign to non-men than most others’, it underwrites this with a steeper inequality in the valuation and expectation of safety depending on one’s gender. And this is, I think, where our hand-wringing over men’s reputations and silly, puritanical university policies come into play: we must talk up minor and improbable risks as though they are as life-threatening as dodging musket-fire while fleeing your sweetheart’s parents’ house. Irrespective of their creators’ intent, the real function of the posters is not to warn young men of real consequences but rather to create the false impression that young men are experiencing danger they are actually not.

Suddenly, we act as though sexual assault allegations that never appear on a police docket, much less a court registry cripple a man beyond all repair and make him lose all his friends and maybe even his job. Hell, overwhelming evidence, even a criminal conviction on the basis of such allegations doesn’t even rid a celebrity of most of his fans, never mind friends. “I know that guy. He didn’t do it,” remains the default position of any social group sufficiently proximate to an alleged abuser or rapist.

But we talk those risks up in order to make it look like men are still braving real danger in order to gain sexual access to women. So we wring our hands and tut about how hard it is to be a young man these days, what with all these rules. As though being safe and obeying the rules is what being a young man has ever been about.

The world is a dangerous place and having sex and creating romantic relationships is one of the many dangerous and worthwhile things in it. And it is time that men stopped shirking our share of that danger and grousing about minor hypothetical dangers as though they are real threats; because continuing to do so is not only unjust. It is unmanly.

Suffer the little children to come unto me: How Mormon homophobia is causing an unintended theological crisis

On Thursday, November 5th, 2015, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), colloquially known as the Mormons, announced a new set of policies to reinforce the hard line it has taken against homosexuality. Since becoming the primary sponsor and proponent of Proposition Eight, the 2008 amendment to California’s state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, the LDS have jockeyed for position among conservative American religions to distinguish themselves as the most intractably opposed to homosexuality.

In those seven years, the LDS have engaged with questions of women’s access to priesthood and other offices in the church hierarchy in the same spirit, offering more vehement, robust and conclusive denunciations of gender equality that competing religious formations, such as the Roman Catholic Church under Benedict XVI.

While each round of anti-gay pronouncements and policies has elicited protest and criticism from more liberally-inclined LDS members, this new set of policies has immediately engendered far deeper and more broad-based opposition, going well beyond the usual chorus of liberal voices at the margins of the Church. Indeed, many opposing these new policies are, themselves, convinced, faithful Mormon opponents of same-sex marriage and female ordination. On social media, many of even the most orthodox Mormons are seeking to explain the policy away as an ephemeral error or mis-statement that will soon be cleared up.

Until this week, Mormons were encouraged to convert youths and adolescents in non-Mormon families. And they still are. Unless those families have two parents of the same sex. Children raised in Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist or even Satanist families are welcome to join the LDS Church but not the children of same-sex unions; they are specifically prohibited from joining until they reach the age of twenty-one and, even then, must swear special vows condemning their parents and voiding their family units. While the LDS declaration that living in a same-sex union is now understood to constitute apostasy, irrespective of its legality, might constitute a problem for liberal Mormons, it is the elements of the policy concerning the children of these couples that is producing a much more far-reaching outcry, rooted in the faith’s unique scriptures and foundational narratives. Thursday’s announcement appears to do considerable violence to fundamental aspects of the Church’s core theology.

Mormons distinguish themselves from other Christians based on scriptures that only their church recognizes (The Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants), scriptures that non-Mormons understand to have been authored by Joseph Smith in response to burning theological questions of the early and mid- nineteenth century. Mormons, on the other hand, understand them to have been translated by Smith but authored by various Hebrew prophets including Abraham and Moses, and, in some cases, by God himself.

There was a lot of controversy over infant baptism in Joseph Smith’s day and Mormon scripture responded with a detailed theology dealing with intersection between the age of majority/consent, free will, parental prerogatives and salvation. Mormon scripture, speaking with the voice of either God or Jesus, explains that children between the ages of eight and eighteen are absolutely free to make adult decisions about their salvation and religious affiliation and those decisions, for good or ill, count in eternity. It also explains that children under eight must not be punished, on earth or in heaven, for the decisions taken by adults, even if those adults are their parents or priests.

Upon reaching the age of twelve, according to current Church practice, young men are eligible to become priests, holding the “Aaronic priesthood” and receiving an ecclesiastical rank in the church. The “age of accountability,” of eight, from which time forward children may make decisions about their salvation as adults, Mormon scripture sources directly to God himself:

“And, behold, and lo, this is an ensample unto all those who were ordained unto this priesthood… And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents… And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands… Behold, I am Alpha and Omega, and I come quickly. Amen.” – Doctrine and Covenants 68

There is a long tradition of faith-promoting literature in the LDS tradition in which children of non-Mormon parents see the correctness of Mormonism and convert despite familial opposition and even disownment. Such stories have only grown in importance as the LDS missionary program has globalized and its missionaries—often themselves under the age of majority in the US—have reached out to adolescents the world over who are questioning their parents’ faith and familial religious traditions. Indeed, much of the appeal of the LDS missionary program, which seems structured in some ways as a reverse-Rumspringa, has come to inhere in the youth and sincerity, as opposed to seasoned proficiency of the faith’s global missionary army.

Mormon missionaries are typically eighteen- and nineteen-year-old men who have just received the ironic title of “Elder” prior to their missionary vocation are, as of Thursday instructed that they may not convert individuals their own age if they are being raised in a family rooted in a same-sex union. And, if approached by such individuals, unsolicited, must turn them down as unworthy converts.

These doctrinal changes, more than simply confirming a two-decade trajectory of social conservatism, eviscerate a core doctrine of the Mormon faith, that of “free agency,” which Mormon theologians proudly trumpet as distinct from and superior to mainline Christianity’s “free will.” Much of Mormonism’s seductiveness in gaining and retaining young members has come from its recognition of the capacity of children and youth to make real choices for which they are accountable. Today, for many Mormons, it appears that that foundational principle, on which so much Mormon culture and organization—never mind doctrine—depends, is now in retreat.

The impending crisis the Mormon world now faces may have been occasioned by bigotry towards same-sex couples. But the bigotry, itself, is no long the central issue. Rather, it is the over-reach, the hubristic effort to rewrite Mormon theology from the bottom up to serve that bigotry, that has thrown Mormondom into its biggest doctrinal crisis in more than a generation.

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.

Mulcair’s Social Democratic Platform Exposes the True NDP Imposters

In my new role of NDP moderate and regime apologist, I have to say that I am baffled by the sudden vociferousness of people marking the Tom Mulcair​ leadership as the moment the NDP abandoned socialism and joined the Third Way. The reality is that, depending on which province you live in, this event took place some time between 1989 and 1997.

The NDP joined the global capitulation of social democratic parties that culminated in the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour earlier than most SDPs did. In many ways, Mike Harcourt and Roy Romanow could be credited as the true founders of the Third Way; and Audrey McLaughlin can be seen as the first national NDP leader to focus more on limiting rather than building the power of Canada’s federal government to build a fair and equitable nation.

The reality is that whereas Jack Layton’s left turn ended in the middle of the 2004 federal election campaign, the party under Mulcair unflinchingly marks the high water mark for advocating old-style social democratic programs and policies. While I do not agree with all of them, like the Energy East endorsement, for instance, it is undeniable that Mulcair’s party is offering the most comprehensive social democratic national vision the NDP has offered Canadians since the 1988 election.

So, why all the whinging now?

I would suggest that current whining about the NDP abandoning socialism for neoliberalism comes from very problematic places and helps to reveal what has sustained the New Democrats, as a party, in the generation since the Cold War ended and global financial elites no longer needed to tolerate the existence of NATO-member welfare states as a bulwark against the Soviet Empire.

The New Democratic Party survived from 1989-2011 based on lineage and culture. Those connected to the party remained connected to it through family ties, union ties and ties to the non-profit QuaNGO sector that expanded vastly under Third Way ideology. In provinces where, to privatize services, shrink the state and deregulate and depress wages, Third Way governments delivered new programs or transferred delivery of old programs to state-patronized non-profits, the NDP-aligned institutional sector grew, as did the loyalty of those in the caring professions to the party. Family and extended family lineages, reinforced for a minority through access to trade union seniority or QuaNGO jobs, held onto their loyalty to the NDP not just through nostalgia, social memory and the making of a shared past but through governmental and trade union financial patronage.

Relatedly, the party survived, especially in the West, through the cooptation of the right-wing populism practiced by Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon and George Wallace, one that blames some element of the working class for the ills suffered by the rest of the working class. For the Third Way governments in BC and Saskatchewan, this group was welfare recipients. Draconian laws were enacted throughout Western Canada, cracking down on “welfare cheats and deadbeats,” and there was little difference between those of Tory Ralph Klein in Alberta and those of New Democrats Mike Harcourt and Roy Romanow. In this way, working class people distant from union, QuaNGO and other party-aligned patronage networks were offered a watered-down right-wing populism that lacked the financially suicidal character of its genuinely conservative competitors.

So, why is it that a minority of long-time NDP supporters and activists are so upset that Tom Mulcair, like most NDP leaders in most elections since the early 80s, is refusing to say he will raise taxes on individuals? Why are people so upset with Mulcair’s anemic climate justice platform, when the BC NDP ran for re-election in 1996 and 2001 trumpeting a five-fold increase in hydrocarbon extraction in the province’s northeast? Why are people so unimpressed with the most robust national energy, childcare and housing policies the party has offered since Audrey McLaughlin stepped down in 1994?

Perhaps it is because, for what remains of the long-term NDP base, our most left-wing leader in a generation is not “one of us.” If what makes you a New Democrat, increasingly, has come to mean your descent from an old NDP lineage, your association with a QuaNGO or trade union patronage system, your access to a union job or your belief that the NDP will crack down on the indigenous and/or chronically unemployed Canadian underclass on your behalf, then Tom Mulcair and his crew are not New Democrats.

They don’t even act like New Democrats. No double-speak and cheap shots against indigenous people, no demonization of the chronically unemployed, no signals that the new regime will be run by the multigenerational party lineages with names like Notley and Woodsworth, no sign, even, that the career courtiers, like Brian Topp, and their hangers-on are part of this new crew. Not to mention the suspicion of Catholics, francophones and Quebeckers endemic in any Canadian party with Western roots.

Most troublingly, by standing for the kind of activist federal state that Svend Robinson stood up for when his party foolishly endorsed the Meech Lake Accord, the Mulcair leadership is offering an implied criticism of those who never questioned or spoke out against the ugly expediencies and terrible betrayals of the 90s and 00s. What, he is effectively asking, if being a New Democrat lives not in patronage, lineage or culture; what if it really does live in policy and principles? If that is the case, many of those expressing first-time qualms with the party after a generation of betrayal and capitulation, may actually be turning against Mulcair because, just by running on an old school 1980s social democratic platform, he is implicitly suggesting that maybe it is they who are not the real New Democrats?

Transit for Surrey (part 2): The False Choice of the Surrey Transit Debate: Inaction versus Corruption

The Skytrain for Surrey movement has done a superb job of framing the debate over the city’s rapid transit future. That is because they can constantly switch what, precisely, is being compared to what. For instance, the claim is made that constructing a Surrey Skytrain extension would cost only 10% more than constructing an LRT system. That is because of a study by Translink that found it would cost 10% more to construct one Skytrain line than it would to construct three LRT lines to serve the city. Whereas the study shows that LRT costs about 60% less per mile kilometre than Skytrain, the Skytrain for Surrey movement can, disingenuously, argue that the costs are actually the same.

But, as framing goes, there is a much bigger problem with the “LRT versus Skytrain” debate. And that is because “LRT” is descriptive of literally hundreds of different systems using a wide variety of different technologies, from the Eglinton subway being bored under Yonge Street in Toronto, to the Sugarhouse neighbourhood streetcar in South Salt Lake City. “Light rail” refers to the vast majority of mass transit on tracks, powered by everything from diesel fuel to an electrified rail, running on everything from a dedicated subway tunnel to a shared lane on a busy commercial street, with cars ranging in length from a city bus to half a block of continuous train cars, with frequencies varying from every three minutes to every thirty.

In contrast, “Skytrain” refers to one, highly specific technology with which Lower Mainland riders are highly familiar. In this way the “LRT versus Skytrain” debate might be compared, in private vehicle terms, to “‘a used car’ versus ‘this 2012 BMW M3.’” Think this BMW is too expensive? Check out this used 2014 Mercedes; it costs way more! Think this BMW is too small for a family? Check out this this SmartCar; it’s half the size! Think this BMW is too old? Check out this 1976 Volkswagon bug! Etcetera.

We see this in spades with discussions of LRT. When the slowness of LRT needs to be emphasized, Toronto’s King Street Car rears its head, moving through congested traffic on a busy commercial strip with no special signals or dedicated lane. But when it comes time to discuss how much roadway private cars will lose, the King Car is quickly forgotten and, in its place, Toronto’s Spadina Car appears in its place, with its dedicated lanes, special signals and wide medians on either side of the line. And, of course, those opposing Surrey LRT do not stop looking for some LRT system somewhere that is, in some way, inferior to Skytrain when they reach the Eastern Time Zone. Glitches, design failures and overstressed systems the world over are offered as examples. Surely no driver would want the kind of invasive temporary rail gating that they tolerate in Istanbul!

Those defending LRT for Surrey end up not defending any specific LRT system but, rather, the worst feature every conceivable individual LRT system.

But surely, Surrey is considering a highly specific LRT system that can be compared to Skytrain. Not really. The Translink study of at-grade LRT is pretty vague about precisely what kind of vehicle and what kind of guideway might be built. And neither Translink, the province, the municipal government nor the feds is, in any way, beholden to follow the few vague things the study does suggest about the right kind of LRT. And the Surrey municipal government’s commissioned study is absurdly amateurish and vague, rivaled only by the putative Broadway Subway study that KPMG appears to have asked one of its summer interns to produce for the City of Vancouver.

Indeed, the failure of both Surrey City Hall and Translink to put forward more precise, detailed, incrementally feasible plans has contributed directly to Skytrain for Surrey’s success in hiding a pro-car, anti-transit, climate change denying agenda behind what appears to be a demand for better transit.

So, given the enthusiasm of both Translink brass and the Surrey First council for affordable rapid transit that eschews the tunneling and elevated guideways required in more densely-populated centres with narrower thoroughfares, why the vagueness?

My theory is that the reason lives in the only kind of LRT that I do not support for Surrey: one financed using a public-private partnership or “P3,” as the cool kids say. Both the BC Liberal-appointed Translink and BC Liberal-allied Surrey First party area eager to sign off on another dodgy public transit financing scheme. And BC Liberal and Surrey First friends and insiders cannot engage in the kind of profiteering P3s enable if too many details and specifics are ironed-out before public money is committed to the project.

Once upon a time, when Ronald Reagan led the free world and the NDP was selling socialism on your doorstep, P3s were an exciting, innovative new way of trying to build public infrastructure. Thatcherism was not yet a word and the Chicago School economists were the Young Turks of economic theory. And it had been a hundred years since the last round of corruption, graft and failure associated with P3s during the national railway booms of the 1870s and 80s.

Back then, one could credibly claim that “big government” and “union bosses” were out of touch with how to make a buck and innovate and that, therefore, government departments, especially unionized ones, were somehow inherently inefficient compared to the private sector. Maybe, the proponents of Canada’s second round of P3s argued, government should just pay private companies to do things it was used to doing for itself, like building highways or managing facilities. Just by virtue of not being the government, these companies would be so intrinsically efficient, by their very nature, they would be able to pay for everything a government could and still take a bunch of that money and return it to their shareholders in the form of profits.

It has been nearly forty years since we had those naïve thoughts, when we innocently decided to re-stage the financial boondoggles that brought down the governments of John A. MacDonald and Ulysses S. Grant but with fancier tech.

Now, we know better: P3s can sometimes create savings but not by being more efficient, exactly.

  1. Depressing Wages

As we saw with the Canada Line P3, transnational infrastructure companies can employ low wage workers at a rate far below what any self-respecting government could get away with giving its direct employees. While unionized and government construction jobs might pay a decent, family-supporting wage, P3 infrastructure firms typically replace those workers with non-union employees and, increasingly, temporary foreign workers (TFWs) who can be paid significantly less than the minimum Canadian wage. And TFWs have the added benefit of being rightless; if a TFW complains about inadequate or unsafe working conditions, they can be repatriated by their employer before they can ever make it before a Canadian court or labour relations board. P3s can save a lot of money that might otherwise find its way into the pockets of Canadians or into the coffers of the local businesses Canadian workers support with their consumer spending.

  1. Avoiding Canadian Law

Beginning with the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, Conservative governments in Canada have, over the past generation signed agreement after agreement conferring special rights upon foreign corporations. Today, corporations from most countries in the world can sue Canada’s federal, provincial and municipal governments to be compensated for any financial losses resulting from environmental, labour, safety and health legislation that increases their costs of doing business. This means that corporations that do P3 projects can either skirt laws designed to protect the health and environment of Canadians or be compensated by governments for the increased cost of compliance. And because that’s a whole other branch of government usually, this compensation is never included in the cost of a P3.

  1. Profitable Exit Strategies

As we saw with the building and alleged maintenance of Ontario’s 407 toll highway, P3s can save money by kicking costs down the road. The firm contracted by Mike Harris’s Tories to build and maintain this new expressway began with a reasonable maintenance schedule but, as the years of its contract counted down, maintenance was delayed or done cheaply with the knowledge that the run-down highway and its significant structural remediation would be the responsibility of the government that ended up owning the road. And news that the maintenance costs of the road had suddenly skyrocketed upon its return to government hands just seemed to validate the market fundamentalists preaching the gospel of P3s.

But the reality is that P3s are actually far more expensive than publicly-financed, publicly-build infrastructure. And that once a project becomes the subject of a P3, its costs typically balloon out of control. This is for a few reasons:

  1. Project Vagueness and Inflationary Demands

Governments that want to give their friends and campaign contributors piles of money through P3s follow the course of the proponents of the Canada Line: make a deal with the private company before the details of the project have become too concrete or fixed. Ideally, a P3 deal should be a combination of vague and unpopular elements. Where a project is vague, the process of inking it in more clearly will reveal hidden costs that will require an increase in the sum paid to the private contractor. It should also include unpopular measures like cutting down the Cambie Street Boulevard or Green Timbers Park trees that will enrage high-income, politically-connected people, requiring some vastly more expensive alternative that will, again drive up the amount of money that must be paid to the private firm. During the Canada Line process an initial sum of $300 million for the private partner ballooned to $435 million, nearly a 50% increase, while the overall project cost gradually crept from $1.35 billion to $2.5 billion.

And it is not beneath private partners to actively manipulate public debate to inflate project costs once the original business deal is approved. Such spending on public and government relations firms is, for them, a good investment.

  1. Closed and Secret Procurement

Whereas government procurement from subcontractors must take place in the full light of public scrutiny, P3 agreements typically include provisions that procurement must be secret, non-competitive and administered by the private partner. That way, not just the investors in the private partner but various local and international construction, real estate and manufacturing firms can be vastly overpaid, often based on alleged rush orders, for goods they would never be able to charge as much for through an open, government tender system. And any private partner who wants a return engagement knows which firms are aligned with the governing party’s campaign contributors.

  1. High Interest Rates

The private sector companies with the best credit in North America still typically have way lower credit ratings than the most disreputable state and provincial governments. States and provinces never go bankrupt; they have a captive group of taxpayers who can be forced to make payments in ways that no board or shareholders can. For this reason, private partners who borrow money pay higher interest rates than if the government had just borrowed the money themselves; or, in the case of money extracted from investors, much higher returns are promised than a government would need to promise on bonds issued for the same purpose. In this way, P3s don’t just subsidize investors and private contractors; they typically constitute a direct subsidy to the financial industry.

  1. Guaranteed Profits

The Canada Line is not unique in its provisions to guarantee the private partner an annual profit for every year it operates the infrastructure it has built. Any time Canada Line ridership dips below a figure that would guarantee private profits, Translink is required to provide direct cash transfers from taxpayers and bus riders to the private partner. In this way, your average P3 falls into the Thatcherite slogan “nationalize the risk; privatize the profit!”

  1. Free Ad-Ons

When governments choose to add spurs, stations, lanes, floors and other extensions or expansions to P3 infrastructure, these typically increase the profitability of the infrastructure without costing the private partner a cent. This will be the situation with the Ravco, the corporation that owns the Canada Line, a $2.5 billion public asset that it purchased for $435 million whose planned 57th Avenue and Capstan Way stations it will receive as free, taxpayer-financed additions to its already-lucrative, asset which delivers guaranteed profits every year at taxpayer expense.

It is in this context that we must understand the recent BC government announcement that it would provide funding for a Surrey LRT, in cooperation with the City of Surrey, on the condition that it find a private partner. Provincial and local politicians are being deliberately vague about the scale, technology and route of the LRT not out of incompetence but as part of the game of P3s, which requires manipulating and confusing the public and obfuscating the actual planning and purchasing decisions. A clear, honest, specific LRT plan might serve Surrey taxpayers and Translink fare-payers but such specificity and detail will not serve the hitherto-unannounced private partner.

Our city and our region are ill-served by the false debate that is now underway: between an unaffordable plan paid-for with magic beans and a premeditated agenda of inefficiency and corruption. We can and must do better.