Fighting Mayor Ford’s Austerity Regime (Part II)

Such a Left has an important role to play, in coordinating political organization, learning strategic lessons from the movement and popularizing ways of seeing the world that challenge the dominant perspective from politicians, business leaders and the media. Unfortunately, the Left now has little of the social weight it had through most of the 20th century. There is, of course, exciting and important activism going on. Crucial struggles are being waged and sometimes won. But the Left is currently in a relatively marginal position, mobilizing relatively small numbers and reaching few with its ideas. It needs to move out of the margins to begin to show through activism and through engaging in the battle of ideas that another world is possible.

To build a new anti-capitalist Left with real social weight, we need to strengthen the strategic capacities, communication skills (both talking and listening), political analysis and effective solidarity that are the basis of our counter-power from below. It is our collective ability to take the streets, to grind workplaces to a halt, to occupy schools, offices or plants, and to counter the dominant ideas that enables us to win reforms in a capitalist society and to ultimately overturn the system. Solidarity and collectivity are not automatic, but need to be built and rebuilt through the development of our capacities to communicate with each other, to understand the way the system works and to act together with increasing effectiveness.

If the Left is on the margins, it means the ability of the working class (in the broadest sense, including all those who do not own or control key productive resources such as companies or patents) to build a counter-power through solidarity is at a low ebb. This is a time when we need to re-establish our ability to win, overcoming the widespread resignation that means that attacks on workers, migrants and the poor are seen as inevitable and irreversible. We need to reestablish a presence in public debate, influencing the way key issues are framed and countering the dominant viewpoint at every level.

Building a new Left with social weight means transcending the inherited Left politics that have got us to where we are today, including the sectarian ethos of seeing other Left groupings primarily as enemies and the lack of an integrated analysis that genuinely includes ecological consciousness, feminism, gender and sexual liberation, anti-racism, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. We will not move beyond the legacy of 20th century socialisms and anarchisms by casually dismissing the knowledge built up over the last 150 years of struggle, which provides essential resources for the future. But we need to recognize that the programs of previous Lefts do not provide straightforward answers to the challenges we face.

The Left politics we now inherit developed in particular places under specific conditions. Changes in ways of life and the organization of work undercut the foundations of an old Left that grew in particular conditions. Political victories and defeats change the agenda and the defining issues of the day. As we learn from the shortcomings of previous Lefts, new Lefts must emerge more attuned to the possibilities and challenges of the times. This happened in the early years of the 20th century and to some extent in the 1960s-70s. It needs to happen again now.

There are signs of this new Left in current struggles against poverty, for migrant rights, in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and in solidarity with Palestine, among others. But the Toronto Left is relatively fragmented and often fractious, which is an obstacle to working together on a new scale and collaborating in the development of new political frameworks for education and activism.

There are many legacies that need to be overcome to build a new Left with social weight. The weakness of Left politics has led to a separation of analysis from action, leaving theory to become academic and therefore incomprehensible and useless, while activism is too often uninformed by serious strategic thinking and honest self-reflection. Too often, the existing Left has adapted to working mainly with other radicals, and has only limited capacity to reach out and engage others. We need to be able to offer a compelling explanation of events that does not reduce the world to simple slogans or rely on complex academic terms, communicating to the widest possible range of people including those who are not already anti-capitalist.

The current Left is imbued with a profound sense of pessimism that the mass of workers might become radical activists, leading some (like the NDP and union leaders) to simply pander to workers as they are, while others (in radical organizations and movements) casually write them off or imagine that they are already radicalized and just waiting for the right call. Finally, there are patterns of tactical inflexibility, where seriousness about an issue is measured by adherence to a single style of activism, and debate about effectiveness is blocked.

A New Left

To build a new Left, existing radical forces need to come together with an anti-sectarian ethos and an outward orientation towards engaging with others and building a broader project. This outward orientation needs to be transformative, meaning that we learn as we engage, and we are changed by the experiences and perspectives others bring with them to the movement. It is not a question of simply recruiting to our politics, but also learning and changing the character of our movement as it broadens.

Activist cultures develop in specific circumstances, so that the characteristics of the movement match the conditions of work. The slow, patient organizing and capacity building of the Workers Action Centre and other community organizing programs (focused on a locality or a specific group, for example) has its own rhythms. Union activism requires a long-term perspective, as people develop formal and informal networks among co-workers often in difficult circumstances. Student activism, in contrast, allows for and indeed requires some degree of haste, as the school year is short and there is an ongoing turn-over of activists as they graduate. And these are just a few examples.

A Left with social weight must span these various environments and combine these efforts, engaging activists in a range of situations. That means tremendous openness and patience as we learn from one another, understanding that what works in one milieu might not work in another while at the same time recognizing that we are responding to the same system that frames all of our work.

The anti-capitalist Left will need to work towards developing a learning and listening culture in which Left pluralism is really nurtured. The 20th century Left tended to develop a winner-take-all approach to political interchange that short-changed genuine engagement with those who disagreed. Often, real progress in Left mobilization relies on interchange that allows people to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of recent actions, the effectiveness of our tactical repertoire, and the fit between our ideas and the realities we face.

A successful fight against Ford in Toronto will require broad coalition building that pulls together a wide range of constituencies and organizing styles. Democratic and broad coalition-building is not easy, but it will be necessary to work together in new ways to challenge the austerity agenda. Specifically, it will be important to find ways to balance effective militancy with an orientation to drawing in new layers of activists. This will require sites for clarification on issues of strategy and tactics, encouraging wide-ranging debates about such issues as the character of union bureaucracies, the impact of precariousness on working class organization, and the effectiveness of various protest modes.

Finally, a new Left needs to find its voice in public debates about politics at all levels, understanding the role of cultural production, political education and activism in the battle of ideas. This means using the existing media as well as enhancing our own. An anti-capitalist Left needs to be able to explain in clear and compelling terms the way the system works, while at the same time engaging in ongoing public debate about the issues of the day.

A whole host of arguments are bound to come up in the context of Ford’s offensive, and we can begin preparing ourselves to face them now. How do we answer the challenge that others (for example, private sector workers) have already made sacrifices, and now it is the turn of the public sector? How do we explain in clear language the links between these cuts and a particular kind of capitalist crisis?

Towards a New Left: The Workers’ Assembly

The financial crisis of 2008 galvanized many on the Toronto Left to try to do things differently to prepare for the battles to come. Three important projects developed out of that impulse. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) launched OCAP Allies to get activists working together in new ways. A number of groups (the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, Toronto New Socialists, No One is Illegal, OCAP and Socialist Project) cooperated in the Popular Education and Action Project, which held a series of forums on the crisis. And the Labour Caucus of Socialist Project launched the Greater Toronto Workers Assembly (GTWA) process, engaging with a wide variety of individuals and groups in a consulta process before calling the first Assembly.

The GTWA has emerged as a sustained effort to serve as an umbrella for a new anti-capitalist Left. It has now established campaigns on public transit and G-20 defence, a series of educational coffeehouses, regular assemblies and a project to organize a network of labour activists. It has an elected coordinating committee. It is well placed to contribute to developing a new Left with real social weight that can build opposition to the Ford austerity agenda.

But the Assembly has yet to develop the needed spaces for collaborative work by Toronto’s radicals around strategic and tactical questions. It has not focussed on the challenge, for example, of discussing, debating and taking practical steps to build the kind of Left that can actually stop Ford and turn back the austerity agenda.

The GTWA can contribute to the anti-Ford struggle at two levels: engaging in the battle of ideas and providing a space for strategic reflection and movement-building. At the level of the battle of ideas, the GTWA could hold workshops on key questions with the goal of developing resources (leaflets or pamphlets or comics) that will help popularize an alternative analysis of the crisis and the Ford offensive. This means providing spaces for clarification through discussion and debate to address the varying analyses of the nature of the crisis, the character of trade unions and their leaderships, the importance of electoral politics and many other issues. A robust analysis of the austerity agenda is important for action, and for the development of materials that can provide a clear anti-capitalist take on events for new layers of potential activists.

The GTWA can also play a role in the development of broad, democratic and inclusive movements. The transit campaign can work with a wide range of activists around transit issues in the face of the Ford attacks, linking together mobilization for adequate bus routes in underserved areas with the defense of Transit City, raising the question of free transit while at the same time working to build a much broader movement. The GTWA Labour Committee is contributing to the work of building new networks of worker activists to respond to the coming attacks.

Overall, the GTWA can provide a site for some of the crucial discussions and debates that need to take place as we strengthen our movements to engage in the coming battles. To do this, the GTWA needs to continue to commit itself to working towards a real integration of class politics with ecological consciousness, feminism, gender and sexual liberation, anti-racism, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. At this point, participation in the assembly process has been disproportionately white men, many of whom are older with lots of Left experience (and I am one of them). The Assembly has not set a path towards a transformative process that can move beyond particular sections of the existing Left. Of course, this is no simple question, but it begins with a frank recognition of the problem and a firm commitment to working in new ways.

For example, when people counterpose “class” and “social movements,” they often imply that working class questions and those of race, gender, sexuality and indigeneity are somehow separate. Concretely, over the next year we are going to face the challenge of bringing together the defence of “good” working class jobs in the public sector with the defence of public services for the poor, and the battle against precariousness that includes migrant rights. It is a real political challenge to find the right political framework and strategic orientation to pull together active solidarity along these lines. The Ford team are already making it clear that they are going to try to isolate public sector workers as a privileged layer. We need to discuss ways to defend “good jobs” that are integrally linked to improving the situations of those with limited incomes or working in precarious situations.

The GTWA was launched in anticipation of precisely the kind of challenge Mayor Ford is bringing to the anti-capitalist Left in Toronto. The next year will be extremely difficult, demanding a great deal of patience and collaboration as we engage in urgent fightbacks. If the Assembly can begin to find a role in rebuilding an anti-capitalist Left with social weight, it will make a huge contribution to the anti-Ford fightback and building the next new Left.

Alan Sears is an Editorial Associate of New Socialist Webzine and a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Greater Toronto Workers Assembly.  He is an activist who teaches Sociology at Ryerson University.