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  • Socialists and Elections: How can we participate?

    By Maurice Carr

    Every election, those of us on the radical left in Canada face the same challenge leftists face around the world. We, for the most part, identify and reject the limitations of what passes for democracy in this country. While a large part of the country does identify in some ways with this (as evidenced by the ever-increasing levels of voter non-participation in modern elections), the informal consensus is that elections are the be-all and end-all of democracy, forcing us to either participate in some sense or risk missing opportunities to connect with others.

    This is an attempt to work out some of the problems associated with electoral participation for revolutionary socialists and other people with similar goals. It does not offer perfect solutions; modern Canadian politics does not allow us to participate in electoral politics in the way we would like to. Ideally, we would want what we do around elections to be an element of a larger political whole that would include robust extra-parliamentary political action and strong movements, genuine workers' organizations (including parties), and a politically-aware public. However, we are painfully far from that ideal, and need to act in the present conditions as they are. Our participation requires an alternative to the rote ranking of party platforms, an alternative that acknowledges the long-term goals we have as radicals - but an alternative that also acknowledges the fact that many people do attempt to meaningfully participate in the election. The reason for this article is to try and reconcile these two goals, and as such, will hopefully serve as a guide for other genuinely left-wing people (regardless of their political stripe).

    There are two basic questions radicals must struggle with during an election, broken down between individual and collective actions: the first is how we, as individual radicals, should act during an election (specifically in regards to voting); the other is how groups of radicals (such as those in formations like the NSG, but also including unaffiliated and otherwise-affiliated Marxists and anarchists) can work together to further our common goals during the election. Whether those goals will be realized or not is based upon a relatively short list of factors: the number and quality of political networks we can rely on in our organizing, specifically the existence of a strong, militant and anti-sectarian network of those on the left; the willingness of the public to be politically active in left politics; and the organizational strength of the NSG and other left groups. This wishlist of factors would allow us to make significant inroads in public consciousness, and should be kept in mind when organizing.

    Individual Action

    Radicals deciding how to vote during an election have few good options. Neither the pro-business Liberal and Conservative parties are particular attractive to anyone anti-capitalist; the New Democratic Party, while closer to us in some respects, continues to frustrate us by capitulating to some of the basic ideological foundations of advanced capitalist states. For those of us in Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois suffers from some of the same problems as the NDP, but their position as sole Quebec nationalist party on the federal level additionally means it is the natural home to the nationalist right as well as the nationalist left - a situation that has led to some internal divisions and resistance to the already-mild social-democratic leanings of the Bloc. The Green party, while connected to the ecological movement, has unfortunately had its ecological reputation with leftists tarnished by the eco-capitalist orientation of the party in both the previous and current federal elections as witnessed by their support for the creation of self-defeating carbon taxes and pollution markets; while there is a left-ecologist perspective in the Greens, it is in the minority and is not an organized force. There are a host of so-called 'fringe' candidates as well, all of which have essentially no chance at success. In addition, there is (as always) the choice of abstention or, far preferably, spoiling or refusing your ballot.

    Who, then, to vote for? As an organized voting bloc, the radical left in Canada is woefully small; although we may have influence beyond our small numbers within the movements, it does not translate well into elections. We cannot expect to significantly influence the election with a coordinated voting plan, although our votes do count as much as the next person’s. Whether we vote NDP, Green, or for some smaller left party should largely be up to politics of the individual candidates in the riding. A progressive NDP candidate (i.e. one on the left of the party) should be supported; progressive Greens should also be supported. Likewise, a left-wing Bloc candidate should be supported. Of course, whether or not the individual candidate will be able to express and act upon their political beliefs in a Parliament tightly controlled by the political machines is debatable. The real benefit is in pushing these parties to the left, which helps to open up space for radical left politics (but is far from the only solution for this). As an alternative to mainstream party politics, smaller left parties or independents may also deserve our support depending on the individual candidate, especially if the 'party' candidates have particularly unattractive politics.

    Strategic non-participation (as opposed to non-involvement) is another option. Since it really takes an incredibly small amount of effort to go and vote, if individual radicals genuinely feel that no candidate comes anywhere close to being progressive enough in their particular riding, the logical step to take is to show up to vote and to spoil your ballot in some fashion. This is, unfortunately, illegal under the Canada Election Act, and unlike in some provinces, there is no option to 'refuse' a ballot, or to vote for 'none of the above'. This does not mean this is not an option, of course.

    So-called “strategic voting” (really tactical voting) typically for the Liberals, has had some significance in this election. It can have a peculiar draw for some radicals, especially if they believe the electoral system is completely irreformable and so the only logical option is to vote in a way that tries to avoid the worst-possible outcome – in this election, a Conservative majority government. However, this (at best) may result in a few minor 'victories' at the cost of supporting the right-wing Liberals.

    Collective Action

    However one votes individually, our major influence as radicals will not come from voting - instead, we should attempt concerted, collective action that utilizes elections as a vehicle. In this election, there are two major goals: to build capacity for the post-election period (both within and outside organized socialist organizations like the NSG as well as other radical organizations) and to influence the debate in particular directions, regardless of the positions of specific parties. Building capacity for the future is important, as we should see elections as an interlude between periods of 'real' organizing.

    Canadian elections inevitably result in 'entertainment politics' based on image and style (Layton's mustache, Harper's sweater vests, et cetera) instead of real issues - witness the lack of discussion of Afghanistan in this election. When people consider political theory and action outside of election cycles, it results in better political education without the election drama to dilute it. As a result, we are better off building capacity for the post-election period - especially when the new government inevitably disappoints, and new opportunities for showing the limits of capitalist democracy show themselves.

    Capacity-building can take different forms: it can include organizing around election issues and building the experience and skills of socialists and their allies; it can also include building political relationships and networks with potential and existing allies; it can even result in recruiting new members. Whatever form it takes, it should be geared towards improving our ability to effect change and build for the future.

    Likewise, influencing the political debate can also take different forms. These attempts should be collective actions, such as coordinating to ensure difficult questions are asked at election forums, direct actions targeted at particularly offensive candidates, or organizing public discussion events around electoral issues from a socialist perspective. These should be geared towards trying to get socialist perspectives 'on the map', so to speak, and to make sure the parties don't get to set the tone of the debate themselves.

    One form of collective action that would have been ultimately self-defeating in this election is running candidates of our own in the election. Neither the NSG nor any other radical organization in this country realistically has much reason to do so other than tradition. It would drain our resources without anything to realistically gain from it. Running genuinely left-wing candidates, be they socialist or otherwise, may be an option down the road - but for now it would be nothing but a waste of time.

    Guiding principles for the electoral participation of socialists

    Regardless of what is done, any political action should try and fulfill some basic criteria to ensure it is an effective use of limited resources. Any action planned should:


    •    be geared to making a genuine impact and not done solely on principle - we need to be realistic about what we can accomplish and not needlessly overextend ourselves.

    clearly represent the political beliefs of the participants, without making that the overwhelming focus - we want to be public and proud as radicals, but not beat anyone over the head with it.

    •    support issues and organizations that are ignored or routinely marginalized by the various political machines - our struggles do not exist in a vacuum! Other groups and causes are ultimately tied with radical left politics, and their lack of attention is as much a problem for us as it is for them.

    •    work towards the goal of continued political work post-election - socialism will never be voted in, and organizing must continue on October 15th.

    •    incorporate both political theory and practice that are rooted in our politics - the NDP and their allies will sufficiently cover off the social-democratic style of organizing. Let's leave them to it, and use the election to organize in ways that flow from our principles.

    •    be wary of co-optation by existing mainstream political machines - critical support for a party does not mean we allow ourselves to be content to be used as expendable labour during elections only to be tossed aside post-election. By all means, participate, but do so with eyes wide open.

    If we follow these basic principles, our actions will hopefully lead to some genuine progress, both as a movement and in the immediate future. The long-term goals mentioned above (political networks on the left, public militancy and interest in left politics, and organizational capacity of left organizations) are best accomplished through these guiding principles; they will not be accomplished by blindly endorsing and voting for a party, nor by washing our hands of mainstream Canadian politics. Involvement and participation are desirable - but on our terms.

    Maurice Carr is a member of the New Socialist Group.

  • Election 2008 and Beyond: Radical-Left Strategy in a Time of Right-Wing Consensus and "Centre-Left" Illusion

    By Nathan Rao
    October 29, 2008

    In these difficult times, those of us on the radical Left have learned to be grateful for tender mercies. And so it goes with the results of the October 14th federal election. A few bits of good news immediately come into view: the hard-Right crew around Stephen Harper was denied a majority government; and the main beneficiaries of the majority rejection of the Conservatives were not the centre-Right Liberals, whose crisis continues unabated, but rather the nominally social-democratic NDP, the sovereignist Bloc Québécois and the vaguely left-liberal Greens.

    The Conservatives overplayed the limited hand they were dealt in the 2006 elections. In a context of growing capitalist economic crisis - played out spectacularly during the campaign itself - and US-led imperialist overreach in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Caucasus, there is real disquiet, especially in Quebec, about their hyper-neoliberal and militarist agenda. Conservative strategists felt they had a small window of opportunity to secure a majority government - before the economic slowdown hit and before their American neo-con counterparts were thrown out of office. In the event, the window was even smaller than they thought and the opportunity perhaps not so great after all.

    Beyond this, though, there is little to celebrate. The radical Left has arguably hit a new low within the period opened up by the mobilizations in Seattle (1999) and Quebec City (2001), especially outside Quebec.  Indeed, it is very timely that the long-awaited film The Battle in Seattle should be released in theatres just as we digest the results of the federal election. The juxtaposition enables us to contrast the tremendous hope and dynamism and the serious political discussion of that not-so-long-ago period with the virtual absence of the radical Left during this latest electoral contest. This absence is all the more striking given the crisis the project of corporate-led globalization currently faces on so many fronts. If ever there were a time for forces representing a forthright, visible and activist alternative to capitalism and imperialism, surely this is it.

    This article is a modest contribution towards understanding the outcome of the federal elections and presenting a framework for the debate on radical-Left strategy that must now take place. Here are the main arguments put forward in the piece:

    1. The nature of the current threat from the Right has been misconstrued. The threat of a hard-Right Conservative majority was overblown. The real right-wing threat is a bipartisan one, given the vast swathe of common ground shared by the hard-Right Conservatives and the centre-Right Liberals. With the scale of the financial crisis and the prospect of a deep recession rattling ruling-class forces at the highest levels, we are likely to see a strengthening of this bipartisan right-wing consensus in the coming period.

    2. The forces and ideas associated with the cycle of protest and debate inaugurated by the events in Seattle and Quebec City have not evaporated into thin air. However, they have been on the retreat since the massive protests against the Iraq War in 2003 and 2004. These forces now find themselves in the same strategic impasse that afflicts the small and dispersed forces of the social-movement, trade-union and party-political radical Left. In a context of Conservative advance and Liberal disarray, this strategic void has been filled by forces stretching from the Layton leadership of the NDP across to the Green Party and a variety of left-liberal media personalities. These forces advocate a shift to the political centre and, implicitly or explicitly, the creation of a durable Liberal-dominated "centre-Left" alliance in Canadian politics.

    3. The current context presents enormous challenges to the radical Left and our natural audience among workers, youth and other marginalized sectors of the population. We are still reeling from the effects of years of neoliberalism and now the economic downturn will make things worse. We will also find little space in a political and media landscape dominated by the hard-Right, the centre-Right and, to a lesser extent, the "centre-Left". However, the depth of the crisis and public anger, the impasse of the mainstream political formations, and the ongoing resilience of our scattered forces, are such that we also have an opportunity to break out of our current impasse and achieve an elementary level of common purpose and visibility. We can seize the moment and -- playing catch-up with similar developments in Western Europe and Latin America in particular -- lay down the foundation for the medium-term project of building a viable democratic, activist framework for anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist politics in this country.

    Harper's Party and the Right-Wing Consensus

    The threat of a hard-Right Conservative majority in these elections was overstated. If anything, it is surprising that the Conservatives did so well. This relative success has more to do with the ongoing crisis of the centre-Right Liberals. Except for the Greens, every party lost voters from the 2006 election. But only Liberal supporters stayed away from the polls in such large numbers; and the haemorrhaging would have been far worse had the anyone-but-Harper wave in Quebec not carried some voters onto its shores. The Liberals are still reeling from three self-inflicted blows: the aggressive neoliberal turn from 1995 onwards; the patronage and corruption employed to "rebuild" the Quebec wing of the party after nearly losing the 1995 referendum; and the fratricidal scramble for the apparatus of the party that accompanied the end of the Chrétien era -- itself the inglorious last instalment in the history of the post-war party of St. Laurent, Pearson and Trudeau.

    But the Liberals remain the largest opposition party in Ottawa and are woven into this country's fabric of power at all levels. In the party-electoral-institutional sphere, the danger does not come as such from the threat of a Conservative majority, as real as that threat remains. Rather, it comes from the deep commitment of both the Liberals and the Conservatives to exercise power within a staunchly neoliberal policy regime and authoritarian institutional order, with only very slight differences between one political family and the other on the key questions of the day.

    More than anything else, the Conservatives have run up against both the limits of their own project and the constraints imposed by the fragmentation and centrifugal forces at play in Canadian politics. These tendencies have been present throughout Canadian history, but have been exacerbated by the neoliberal transformation of socio-economic and political life over the past quarter century.

    The Conservatives have been transparently trying to rebuild the Mulroney-era alliance of Western elites, Bay Street, social conservatives, Thatcherite ideologues and disgruntled Quebec nationalists. They have made real inroads into Bay Street and Toronto-based media, whose main concern is to be on good terms with whichever right-wing party has the wind in its sails. But there continues to be even elite-level resistance - in urban areas outside Alberta and Saskatchewan and in central and eastern Canada more generally -- to a political movement with origins in the western-regionalist and religious-populist Reform Party and strong ties to the Calgary-based oil industry. This is one key explanation for Liberal resilience in many areas, but it also accounts for the grudging support Harper receives from former nominally Red Tory sectors of the defunct Progressive Conservative party. Indeed, the tenuous gains the Conservatives have been able to make among immigrants in suburban areas by appealing to religion and "family values" are more than offset by the allergic reaction of many women in particular to the fireside patriarch Harper. No wonder then that avowedly Red Tory and feminist figures such as iconic writer Margaret Atwood came out strongly against the Conservatives during the campaign, going so far as to advocate a vote for the BQ in Quebec. Such are the sands upon which Conservatives must build.

    However, Conservative designs have floundered most strikingly in Quebec, where they were unable to consolidate and expand the electoral foothold gained during the 2006 campaign. Despite a greater proclivity to embracing the cause of decentralization favoured by their old Reform base in the West, the Conservatives ultimately share the Liberals' strong commitment to the institutions of the Canadian central state. Taken together with their class and English-Canadian majoritarian antagonism towards the Francophone mass base of Quebec sovereignism, they are unable to go beyond symbolic accommodation of Quebec's national aspirations, which continue to shape attitudes toward federal politics in that province. Repealing the interventionist Clarity Act, for example, is on the agenda of neither its Reform-Conservative masterminds nor its Liberal sponsors. Not surprisingly, then, no political force of any weight in Quebec is willing to cast its lot in with the federal Conservatives in the way that disgruntled sovereignists such as Lucien Bouchard did with Mulroney in the mid-1980s. And the neoliberal gutting of the post-war federal redistributive regime of social programs and transfer payments has substantially reduced the appeal that the modernizing federalist project of the Liberals once held for traditional federalists in Quebec. When combined with the relatively stronger position of Left-progressive organization and opinion in Quebec, that key province will remain a tough nut to crack for any pan-Canadian party - and therefore an ongoing source of institutional instability of the federal system itself [1].

    The Conservatives will now have to regroup and rethink their strategy for securing a majority in Ottawa. Despite the current predicament of the Liberals, the Conservatives are in no rush to hurl themselves yet again against the limits of their own project. What's more, with the scale of the financial crisis and the prospect of a deep recession rattling ruling-class forces up to the highest levels, the Conservatives will be in damage-control mode for some time. While the partisan posturing will continue, the backdrop will be a growing right-wing consensus in the coming period - with the Conservatives shifting a little to the centre and the Liberals dutifully shifting even further to the right for a sickening display of "national unity" in the search for (neoliberal) solutions to the economic crisis. The gentlemanly sparring that characterizes relations between the McGuinty Liberal provincial government in Ontario and the Harper Conservative government in Ottawa - as both prepare to confront recession with cutbacks and initially modest deficits - is the likely model for Conservative-Liberal relations across the country for the coming period.

    In this sense, and for what it's worth, the specific danger of the hard-Right project has retreated for the time being. However, given the ongoing volatility in mainstream politics and the absence of any alternative to neoliberalism, things could get very ugly if the recession is deeper and longer than expected. The Conservatives could very easily reactivate the groundwork they have already laid to more aggressively court those sectors of the crisis-besieged middle and upper-middle classes that have thus far remained out of their reach, and likewise nurture a right-wing populist base among working-class and other disenfranchised sectors with hateful campaigns about unionized workers, the poor, Aboriginals, anti-war forces, Quebec and non-whites - campaigns of a kind not seen since the days of Mike Harris in Ontario. The Conservatives would be encouraged down such a path by developments south of the border, where the reactionary passions whipped up by the McCain-Palin ticket will coalesce around an unsavoury assortment of right-wing-populist and even far-Right ventures if the economic crisis dramatically deepens under a neoliberal Obama presidency [2].

    But this is speculation about the medium term. For the time being, the dominant features of mainstream political life will be the stalling of Conservative efforts to secure a majority in Ottawa and the building of a right-wing consensus between Conservatives and Liberals on a response to the economic crisis. If nothing else, such a configuration quite clearly undermines the fanciful and misguided idea of a "centre-Left" alliance between the NDP, the Liberals, the BQ and the Greens advocated in some left-wing circles (with the activist and radical Left presumably playing the role of fast-fading rump). In that purely party-political-institutional sense, at least, the Left broadly speaking now has a little bit of breathing room.

    The Radical Left

    This new context, rich with danger and opportunity, cries out for a truly left-wing force in the country, rooted in the realities and struggles of working-class and marginalized sectors of the population and intervening in mainstream political and media life. Just a few short years ago, it seemed that such a goal was within reach for the first time in a generation. What happened?

    It isn't that the Seattle-era radicalization - the first broad youth radicalization in a quarter century -- has disappeared without a trace. In fact, many of the people who entered left-wing politics at that time today play key roles in the small and dynamic activist projects that are sprinkled across university campuses and the bigger urban centres - whether around support for war resisters, opposition to the war on Afghanistan and skyrocketing post-secondary tuition fees, solidarity with struggles in Palestine, Latin America and among Canadian aboriginal peoples, the defence of undocumented immigrants, migrant and casual workers, or service-sector union drives, just to name a few. The sustained appeal of the subversive work and public personality of Naomi Klein, an emblematic figure of the Seattle-era radicalization, also speaks to the influence those heady days still exert within Canadian society. And while older generations of the radical Left are far weaker and more fragmented than their recently resurgent counterparts in many parts of Latin America and Western Europe, it is not the case either that we are entirely absent from the social-movement, trade-union, intellectual and media landscape.

    Rather, the problem would seem to be the radical Left's inability to structure itself around a common strategic vision and organizational project. Indeed, the recent election campaign reveals that the radical Left has arguably hit a new low within the period opened up by the mobilizations in Seattle (1999) and Quebec City (2001).

    The appeal of the call for "strategic voting" came from the understandable impulse to stymie the Conservative quest for a majority government. And it is a truism that the first-past-the-post system gives the radical Left very little room for manoeuvre in as much as we are individual voters scattered across a huge number of ridings with wildly differing local characteristics and relationships of forces. We lack a presence in an electoral arena whose rules in any case virtually guarantee our total marginalization. As a result, individually, we always vote tactically - and even strategically in those rare cases of consistently left-wing and activist-oriented NDP candidates and (even rarer) cases of credible non-sectarian candidates running to the left of the NDP.  It is hardly surprising then that, collectively, we would be on the lookout for short-cuts around the daunting long-term endeavour of fashioning our own strategic-organizational project and pursuing radical electoral and institutional reform.

    But this understandable impulse has now gotten caught up in a much larger slide to the centre and right of the political spectrum, a trend over which we have little or no influence - especially in the heat of an election campaign. In response to fears of a Conservative majority government, and in the absence of any viable radical-Left framework for debate and action, we have seen growing calls to embrace the centre-Right Liberals as a viable last line of defence against Conservative advance - either implicitly through support for online "strategic voting" initiatives such as voteforenvironment.ca and avaaz.ca, or explicitly through endorsement of the (largely illusory in any case) idea of a Liberal-led accord or coalition government involving the NDP, the BQ and the Greens [3].

    There are bigger questions here about the accountability and transparency of maverick websites with pseudo-scientific pretensions launched by a small handful of individuals with their own political agendas and little or no connection to democratic, transformative politics; and of individual personalities whose influence the mainstream media projects far beyond the limited mechanisms for discussion and decision-making currently at our disposal. These important issues are beyond the scope of this article.

    However, for the activist and radical Left, the embrace of "strategic voting" and broad governmental alliances marks a shift from the previous period. Following the collapse of both Rebuilding the Left under the weight of the ultraleft ultimatums of some and the organizational conservatism of others (1999-2002); and the undemocratic dissolution of the New Politics Initiative into the Jack Layton NDP leadership campaign (2001-2003), we have lacked a framework to debate and approach these matters in any sort of coherent and unified fashion. Two broad streams emerged in the wake of these two failures. Schematically put, the larger one has tended to supplement its activist work with varying levels of support for the NDP; while the other has tended to focus exclusively on single-issue activist campaigns. A small number of people from both streams have additionally tried to build small independent political organizations and currents, with very little success.

    While both options were certainly inadequate to the challenges of the day, they shielded us to some extent from the rightward drift of mainstream political life and public opinion that followed the terrorist attacks of September 2001. They appeared to provide a viable framework for activist organizing efforts, such as the large short-term mobilizations against the war in Iraq. The problem is that, as far as the debate on the broad Left was concerned, this approach ceded the political initiative entirely to the Layton leadership of the NDP, the Green Party and broader left-liberal sectors gravitating toward the centre-Right Liberals following the elections of June 2004 - which produced a minority Liberal government in a context of a resurgent hard-Right and the discrediting of the Liberals in Quebec.

    This trend rapidly accelerated with the disgraceful events surrounding the May 2005 NDP-backed rescue of the doomed Martin Liberal minority government; and with the subsequent panic and demoralization that followed the Harper victory in early 2006. The result since then has been a pronounced marginalization of our issues and forces within left-liberal opinion, never mind on the broader stage, in a way not seen since the period immediately preceding the protests in Quebec City and Seattle. And as greater attention has turned to illusory "centre-Left" electoral and parliamentary responses to right-wing attacks, it has become increasingly difficult to organize extra-parliamentary campaigns and mobilizations, while space for the efforts already underway has grown narrower and narrower.

    The "Centre-Left" Alliance Strategy


    Thoughtful left-wing proponents of the "centre-Left" strategy argue that such a perspective would create a context favourable to mobilizing the social movements and trade unions, as they seek to secure the best possible terms for any alliance with the Liberals. But which social movements and trade unions in particular are they talking about? How much mobilization and pressure was there under the Liberal minority government from 2004 onwards; or even after the oft-touted NDP-Liberal accord that rescued the Liberals from defeat in May 2005? To ask the question is to answer it: it was all quiet on the social-movement and trade-union front during this period. And once the doomed NDP-Liberal accord came crashing down later that same year, and the Conservatives won their first minority government in January 2006, shell-shocked social movements and trade unions were even more demobilized and divided than they had been a year earlier.

    After a quarter century of neoliberalism, if ever we could we can certainly no longer speak of compact blocks of social movements and trade unions that can be easily called upon to mobilize and to pressure social-democratic, left-liberal and progressive representatives in the institutional sphere. On the one hand, the movements themselves have been beaten back and fragmented; on the other, the institutional sphere has massively narrowed, virtually inoculating it against pressure from below in any immediate sense. While the NDP-Liberal federal and Ontario accords of the 1970s and 1980s are cast in far too positive a light in most of today's discussions on the Left, it should be obvious to everyone that the relationship of forces and policy context of the time were radically different from today's configuration. It is a gigantic stretch to imagine that the progressive reforms associated with those accords could be reproduced today under the umbrella of an alliance with the Liberals. Today, far from offering a perspective for rebuilding and remobilizing the labour and social movements, calls for an alliance of the "centre-Left" further disorient and demobilize these already fragmented and weakened forces.

    The NDP and the Greens

    The NDP has accompanied and exacerbated the drift towards the centre and right with a purely electoralist strategy aimed at occupying ground in the centre of the political spectrum freed up by the crisis of the Liberal Party. In this latest campaign, this meant strongly asserting the NDP "brand" through the promotion of Jack Layton as a candidate for prime minister, while simultaneously waging an extremely timid campaign on the issues. While certainly welcome, promises to roll back Conservative corporate tax cuts, withdraw Canadian troops from the US-led war in Afghanistan and kick-start a countrywide childcare program were the most radical features of an NDP campaign that remained silent on the key pillars of neoliberalism - corporate power, privatization, financial deregulation, free trade, precarious work and the radical transfer of income from labour to capital. All these questions took a backseat to appeals to the media-defined political "centre". We were even treated to the absurd spectacle of the NDP leader -- in the midst of a historic meltdown of financial markets and credible predictions of the worst economic downturn in generations -- refusing to countenance the very idea of running a government deficit, just as neoliberal governments themselves here and abroad prepared to do just that.

    While making sure to mobilize its core working-class and lower-income electorate in held and winnable ridings, the NDP pitched its pan-Canadian campaign to the disaffected Liberal middle-classes and to the emerging "opinion-leading" left-liberal electorate in gentrifying urban areas. In Quebec, this appeal to disaffected Liberals was carried even further. The centre of gravity of the party's campaign was their lone MP in the province, Thomas Mulcair, a staunch federalist and former cabinet minister in the right-wing provincial government of Jean Charest.

    Numerous commentators have correctly noted that the party executed this strategic orientation quite capably in both Quebec and the rest of Canada. But even in crassly electoralist terms, it is hard to take the results as a ringing endorsement of the party's lunge towards the political centre -- especially given that the Liberals cannot be counted upon to remain eternally in crisis. Outside Quebec, the share of the vote remained level and the number of votes actually dropped by almost 250,000. And in Quebec itself -- where the party's share of the vote rose from 7.5 percent to 12.2 percent (or by almost 63 percent) and total votes rose by 165,000 - it is difficult to imagine how the NDP can substantially improve on this score given its rigid approach towards the national question and the intense competition in that province for the votes of the federalist and soft-sovereignist political centre. The return on the party's investment in this campaign is poor, but the small breakthrough in Quebec and the increased number of seats in the rest of Canada provide the party with leverage in Ottawa for negotiations in view of some sort of accord or coalition with the Liberals. That will be a cause for satisfaction within the party leadership. Though it is premised on the marginalization the radical Left and leaves the bulk of the party's electorate in a blind alley, in purely electoral terms this perspective is sustainable for the time being but will run into the wall of a revived Liberal Party sooner rather than later.

    It will be interesting to see what rumblings emerge in and around the NDP. Though the leadership is trapped within the policy and institutional framework of neoliberalism, the party's core support continues to come from working-class and lower-income sectors. While more detailed analysis is required, the election results appear to be quite clear in this regard. And though they have weakened in recent years, the NDP still has ties to labour, the social movements and the ideological Left, especially outside self-identified middle-class-dominated urban areas such as Toronto. Large sections of the trade-union leadership continue to look to the NDP as an expression of their interests in the institutional sphere - with even the CAW by and large returning to the party fold in the wake of Buzz Hargrove's departure and the Liberal-hugging theatrics that marked his final years at the helm.

    Given the terrible effects of the coming recession that will rain down on an already seriously weakened union movement, and the impasse of the NDP's present strategy, it seems probable that a debate will open up within both the unions and the NDP itself. Given the moribund state of the party on the ground between elections and the low level of participation and political debate in most union locals, it is hard to see what form this debate will take, and what possibilities there will be for the radical Left to intervene in any meaningful way. But these are the principle fora for something resembling class-based politics in this country, and the radical Left would do well to follow developments there very closely in the coming period.

    It is certainly hard to say as much for the Greens. While their profile around the all-important question of the environment gives them a youthful and progressive gloss, the party's positioning within the political spectrum is to the right of the NDP's on both economic and social questions (such as abortion rights); and they more aggressively target small business, the self-employed and higher-income urban professionals. The party has very little sustained appeal within the NDP's core working-class, unionized and lower-income electorate, not least because of their embrace of regressive taxation and market-based approaches for solving the ecological crisis. With no presence as an activist, campaigning force even around environmental questions, the party's success can only be measured in purely electoral terms. As such, it is hard to see much future for the Greens, whose fickle electorate and lack of institutional presence will make it very difficult for the party to resist pressures to support the Liberals. Elizabeth May has already brought the party into the orbit of the Liberals and has been touted for a role within that party somewhere down the line. However that plays out, the party itself will continue on as a bit player in elections.

    While the present volatility of the party-electoral-institutional sphere makes forecasting a perilous enterprise, the arguments of this piece point to a shrinking of the space for a putative "centre-Left" strategy in the coming period. The Liberals will tack right to join a right-wing consensus on confronting the economic crisis; and the NDP and Greens will be stuck at current levels of support. This "centre-Left" peaking and faltering opens up some potential space for more radical voices. The radical Left has an opportunity to propose an alternative to tail-ending the rightward drift of the mainstream political formations.

    Strategy for the Radical Left

    Seizing this opportunity will not be easy. For the same reason that thoughtful left-wing proponents of a "centre-Left" strategy for government are misguided in thinking that social movements and trade unions are chomping at the bit to mobilize and pressure a supposed NDP-BQ-Liberal government, the radical Left also has no clearly defined foundation for putting an alternative strategy into practice. While there are numerous examples of interesting campaigns and organizing efforts across the country, taken individually they are small and isolated and do not play a catalyzing role as far as the broader dynamics within the given union, campus or community are concerned - let alone on a provincial or pan-Canadian level.

    We can all attest to involvement in campaigns and organizing efforts which, though sometimes successful in terms of their own modest objectives, do not lead to enduring mobilization and politicization on a broader scale. This predicament stems from both the weakness of social-movement forces on the ground and the absence of a credible political perspective on the broader stage. Any solution must therefore address both areas. There will be neither a spontaneous sustained upsurge of social struggle nor a sudden shift to the left of the NDP leadership -- let alone a leap forward in the size of one of the existing tiny political organizations of the radical Left. There is no shortcut around the long-term project of simultaneously building a new political organization of the anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist green Left while building, unifying and broadening labour and social-movement struggles. The two go hand in hand today in a way not seen since the early days of the working-class and socialist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century.

    It goes without saying that such a venture cannot hope to find expression in the electoral arena in the short term. That "space" is comfortably occupied by the NDP for the time being. Similarly, a radical-Left project cannot hope to secure majority support within any of the unions in the foreseeable future nor substitute itself for the role these institutions play for the working class. What it can do, though, is provide a framework for debate and action for the currently scattered forces of the radical Left. It can build among sectors entering politics and activism for the first time and participate in broad campaigns, while weighing in on the fault lines that appear within the established segments of the Left.

    Such a strategic project is in line with developments on the anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist Left that we have seen in a number of Western European and Latin American countries. Much closer to home, Québec Solidaire (QS) was founded on the basis of a similar perspective - the need to combine extra-parliamentary struggles with a serious intervention in the party-political sphere. In addition to providing an example for the rest of Canada, QS also provides the radical Left with a historic opportunity for a serious exchange on pan-Canadian strategy. Indeed, such an exchange with a strategic partner from the radical Left in the rest of Canada might also revitalize QS itself and weaken the electoralist drift of many components of that party since its foundation in 2006 [4].

    Inadvertently perhaps, left-wing voices rooting for the "centre-Left" option are at least conceding that questions of political strategy and political power are now back on the agenda in a way not seen for a generation. This was one major weakness even in the debates surrounding the movement identified with Seattle and Quebec City: the question of governmental and state power took a back seat to directionless and ephemeral movement-building inspired by post-modern notions of networks and multitudes. In that sense, while there are very serious disagreements, at least now the terms of the debate are much clearer than they have been for a long time.

    Nathan Rao is a supporter of the Socialist Project. He lives in Toronto.


    NOTES


    [1] Nathan Rao, "Canada, Quebec and the Left: Outflanked Again?," Relay, January-February 2007.

    [2] Mike Davis, "Can Obama See the Grand Canyon? On Presidential Blindness and Economic Catastrophe," TomDispatch.com, October 15, 2008.

    [3] Judy Rebick, "Here's a modest proposal: Grit-NDP-Green-Bloc accord," The Globe and Mail, October 7, 2008. For variation on this theme in the post-election context, see Murray Dobbin, "Left coalition badly needed," rabble.ca, October 27, 2008; and Lloyd Axworthy, "Unite the left," Ottawa Citizen, October 28, 2008.

    [4] For an interesting account of the debate within Québec Solidaire during the federal campaign, see Richard Fidler, "NDP or Bloc? Quebec Left debates election tactics," The Bullet, September 26, 2008.

  • The Engineering Construction Workers’ Strike

    By Gregor Gall

    Introduction

    The engineering construction workers’ strike has been the most significant instance of workers’ resistance to the recession and its effects so far. Its significance is not just to be found in that it was a strike taking place in a recession – when conventional wisdom suggest workers do not strike because of their weakened labour market position. Rather, its significance is to also be found in the militant and successful collective action which took place and the dynamics of this which were driven primarily by the grassroots. It threw up critical issues of workers’ collective leverage, how labour markets operate, xenophobia, neo-liberalism and state regulation of labour.

    Origins and Background

    Redundancy notices were issued in late 2008 at Lindsey oil refinery for Shaws’ workforce after Shaws lost part of a Total contract at the site. Just before Christmas holiday, Shaws’ shop stewards were informed this work had been contracted to IREM, an Italian non-union company. Stewards explained to members that IREM would employ its own core (non-union) Portuguese and Italian workforce so the redundant workers would not be re-employed on the contract. This precipitated meetings with IREM to press the case for re-employment. Stewards were also told that IREM would pay the national rate for the job but this was met with suspicion.

    Meanwhile, the National Shop Stewards Forum for construction met in early January to discuss Staythorpe power station where Alstom was refusing to hire local labour and relying upon non-union Polish and Spanish workers instead. It was decided that all ‘Blue Book’ sites covered by the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI) should send delegations down to Staythorpe to ramp up the protests against Alstom. And, since last October, Unite – under pressure from stewards – had organised demonstrations at Staythorpe for the employment of local labour

    Then, on Wednesday 28 January 2009, Shaws’ workers were told by their stewards that IREM had definitely stated it would not employ local labour. Between 800-1000 workers met and voted unanimously to take immediate unofficial strike action. In this meeting, calls for striking were met by the stewards’ committee recommending to workers to stay within the national disputes procedure. But when workers voted for a strike anyway, the entire shop stewards’ committee (on advice from Unite officials) resigned to distance the union from unlawful action. The following day over 1,000 construction workers from Lindsey, Conoco and Easington sites descended to the refinery’s gate to picket and protest. This was the spark that ignited the unofficial walkouts of construction workers across the length and breadth of Britain, amounting to over twenty groups of workers and involving up to c6,500 workers for a week.

    On Monday 2 February, the Lindsey strike committee put the following proposals to the strikers to be adopted as their demands (which they were): no victimisation of workers taking solidarity action; all workers in Britain to be covered by the NAECI agreement; union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available; government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers – fight for a future for young people; all migrant labour to be unionised; union assistance for immigrant workers – including interpreters – and access to union advice to promote active integrated union members; and build links with construction unions on the continent.

    Dynamics of Revolt

    The internal dynamics of the revolt were complex and intriguing. The dispute was driven by stewards and activists in terms of the Lindsey strike and how it spread. Yet, it seemed that the two unions involved (GMB, and Unite in particular) were giving support to it, publicly representing the strikers and negotiating on their behalf despite the strikes being unofficial and unlawful. What happened was that the strikers were pushing in an industrial direction while the unions were pushing in a political direction in a way that played to their respective strengths and objectives. However, while there was compatibility with this, there was also friction over means and ends.

    In the absence of threats of injunctions (and thus the options of compliance or defiance) and lawful dismissal of strikers (for unofficial action) because the employers knew this would inflame the situation, the unions worked with the strikers – as opposed to strenuously and seriously calling on them to go back to work – even though they distanced themselves from it in other ways (see below).

    Sympathy walkouts and the congregations of protestors and strikers were coordinated by grassroots activists through mobile phone, email and the web, and the Bearfacts website. Given the degree of support flying pickets did not seem necessary given the technologies deployed. Mass meetings at sites took place with show-of-hand votes on what course of action to take.

    The reason why these means of organisation have been so effective was because of i) the prior and heavy unionisation of these workers, ii) the inter-site network of shop stewards as an authentic and organic voice of members, iii) the intermingling of these workers through working together on different projects, thus helping to create a common shared sense of interests and grievances. Also of note was that many unemployed construction workers took part in the protests, indicating that the gap between being unemployed or working or not is not a great one given the nature of the projects and employment in the industry.

    The unions began to recommend returns to work by the sympathy strikers after the first two or three days but these were often rejected because the Staythorpe workers were still out. The argument of the unions concerned returning to work and balloting on official action as well as raising money to support the Lindsey strikers. The reasoning behind this seemed to be that the strikers had made their point, the Lindsey strikers were in meaningful negotiations, and, with the head of steam built up, the unions could take over and use this to push the political agenda.

    In the media, the unions made it clear that the action was not official and that they could not support it. That aside, they did not condemn it. But more than that, they as national unions were one of the main voices of the striking workers and their urging of returns to work were not particularly vehement. Practically, the two unions at their national officer levels were amongst the negotiators in talks aimed at resolving the Lindsey dispute as well as the political dispute over exclusive use of non-domiciled labour and the Posted Workers’ Directive.

    While one would expect national officers to be less involved on the ground, it was noticeable how involved regional officers were. Some reports suggest that there were meetings between union officers and stewards on constructions sites and that information about the strikes was spread between the sites via official channels, effectively encouraging solidarity action (although there seemed to be little coordination between Unite and the GMB).

    However, there were significant tensions at Lindsey between the striker and the national unions over the way to resolve the dispute and on what basis. For example, in the first meeting between Total and the strike committee, the employers kept looking at their watches. When asked why the meeting was being cut short, they said they had a meeting to go to with Unite officials and ACAS in Scunthorpe. This was news to the strike committee and they immediately organised to go up to the Hotel with other strikers and demanded to be let into the negotiations. Another report recounted: ‘The strike committee only found out through the management that two national officials from Unite and the GMB were in talks with ACAS in Scunthorpe. Fifty strikers set out for Scunthorpe, where the officials were ensconced in a hotel with ACAS. When the strikers got there they were blocked from the hotel by police. Only by smuggling a note past the police did the strikers get the national officials to come out and talk to them. As a result the strike committee forced their way to the table to ensure that no deals are done behind their backs.’

    Responses and Outcomes

    Politicians of mainstream parties (Tories, Liberals, SNP) by Friday 30 January repeated the lines like ‘strikes are not the best way to sort this out’, ‘you’ve made your point now so get back to work’ and ‘this will start to damage the economy’. None outlined just how the strikers could continue to exert pressure without striking. Only Labour called the strikes ‘indefensible’, ‘xenophobic’ and mounted an attack on them (although some ministers commented the strikers had legitimate concerns). The pressure the strike created led the government to instruct ACAS to investigate the claims of wage undercutting and to mediate in the Lindsey dispute as well as an investigation into the sector’s productivity.

    Total was involved in the talks despite the issue being with IREM. Initially, it refused to negotiate with the strikers until they had returned to work. However, it conceded and cajoled IREM into offering a third of the 198 disputed jobs to local workers. This was rejected leading to a new offer of of 102 jobs available for local workers of any nationality but primarily for the soon-to-be redundant Shaws workers, with no redundancies of the Italian workers and with all workers paid on NAECI rates. Two further aspects of the agreement were that stewards can check that the jobs filled by the Italian and Portuguese workers are on the same conditions as the local workers covered by the NAECI agreement, and that unionised workers will work alongside the IREM workers in order that further verification of NAECI rates being paid.

    Politically, a case was being built – and support gathered for it – for the government to revisit and revise its extremely neo-liberal 1999 interpretation of the Posted Workers Directive into national regulations. These stipulated that terms and conditions should not be below the legal minimum as per the minimum wage and the like rather than not be below the collectively bargained industry rates. It is this revision – to the collectively bargained industry rates – to the British regulations which seems more likely to be achieved rather the revising of the EU directive itself or the European Court of Justice rulings which mean that it is unlawful to prevent a company using the Directive to undercut union rates.

    Xenophobia?

    From the placards on the pickets and demonstrations, the one demand that stood out most clearly above all other was ‘British jobs for British workers’ . Indeed, at the outset of the strike it seemed to be the only demand from the workers, and due to the continued usage of these images by the media seemed to transcend more than just the first few days of the strike.
    Did this mean that some sections of the left (like the Socialist Workers’ Party) were right to say this was tantamount to a racist strike, the strike was playing with fire and that the wrong target of Italian and Portuguese workers had been chosen (rather than the correct target of the employers)? Or was the rest of the left (Labour left, SSP, Solidarity, Communist Party and Socialist Party) correct to say this was a strike for the right to work and was a strike against employers, neo-liberalism and recession?

    The original dispute at Lindsey concerned IREM’s practice of exclusively using Italian and Portuguese workers. In other words, IREM was bringing in new workers who were permanently employed by it to do the work and not permitting any other workers, whether British or non-British in the local labour market, to be eligible to apply for this work. So this was not a strike against the use of foreign workers per se. It was a strike against the exclusive use of certain workers at the expense of others workers in the local labour, or British, labour market. The strikers were not calling for the expulsion, repatriation or sacking of ‘foreign’ workers. And given the expanded nature of the labour market in Britain in recent years, it was not just British-born and British self-identified workers that were ineligible for the work but all other skilled workers already in Britain. The mistake by some on the left in the unions to criticise or oppose the strikes was down to their mesmerisation with the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’.

    Of course, this in and of itself is not conclusive proof as words and actions can diverge for a number of other reasons. The demand of ‘British jobs for British workers’ (and its other imitations) owes much to the attempt to make political capital out of the phraseology of the promise coined by Gordon Brown in 2007. The strikers did so in order to try to exert some leverage over the government by taking up its phrase and trying to put pressure on them to deliver upon it. After spending billions of pounds of public money bailing out reckless bankers and indemnifying them against their losses, the strikers were seeking to make the point that they too demanded government protection.

    So using the slogan was a tool of tactical leverage at the level of a single and simple slogan but which hid a much more complex phenomenon. The fuller demand that could not easily be encapsulated in a slogan and which would not fit onto a placard or banner, as alluded to above, concerned the right of workers in Britain – whether ‘British’ or not – to be eligible to apply for vacant work on construction sites in Britain (as opposed to demand the right to get the jobs). The strike by some 600 workers at Langage Power Station, which included hundreds of Polish workers, again indicated that at base the strikes were about a demand for the right to work for workers who are domiciled in Britain.

    Finally, and in recognition of the attraction of the BNP and the ability of the media to portray the strike as racist and xenophobic, some of the slogans began to change from Monday 2 February to demands for the right to work for local workers and workers in Britain. Thus, Bearfacts posters changed from ‘British jobs for British workers’ to ‘Fair Access for Local Labour’ where local meant existing workers in the local labour markets and was not a cipher for ‘British’ or white ‘British’ workers.

    But just as telling as any of these factors was that understanding how the strike began explains why the few placards of ‘British jobs for British workers’ came to such prominence and threw many media and commentators off the scent of the actual demands. The resignation by the stewards on Wednesday 28 January led to a vacuum amongst the workers in terms of leadership of the strike and it was not for a two or three days that the unofficial strike committee was established and began to exert itself. Consequently, there were then almost no Unite banner and placards initially because of the unofficial, unlawful nature of the strike to which the stewards had acted to distance themselves. In was into this initial vacuum-cum-leaderless strike that some workers downloaded posters from the Bearfacts website to use on the demonstrations and pickets. It was not until the Lindsey strike committee asserted itself and its demands that the openly displayed demands changed.

    Now, of course, none of this is not to suggest that there was no racism or xenophobia involved. There was inevitably some amongst the workers at Lindsey because these workers are a reflection of workers (and people in Britain in) in general who, in turn, reflect some of the dominant views that exist in society. The same can be said for the wider numbers of strikers and those out of work construction workers that became protesters.

    But where much more evidence of this was seen was amongst those people who left comments on newspaper websites and the like and who were not directly involved in the dispute as well as the attempts by the BNP through their specially created website, British Wildcats, to encourage and support the ‘little Englander’ attitudes.

    Conclusion: difficult next steps

    Having highlighted and created a political sensitivity to the issue as well as achieving a good compromise at Lindsey, the next difficult steps facing the activists and national unions is not just to maintain the pressure and profile but make genuine advance in achieving union objectives.

    The history of building up heads of steam only for them to dissipate is an age old problem. If we recall the Gate Gourmet dispute of 2005, the ability of the union movement to secure a change in the employment law that restricted secondary action was unsuccessful when the Trade Union Freedom Bill was rejected on several occasions in Parliament as a result of the Labour government’s opposition.

    Since the strike revolt ended, weekly demonstrations have continued at Staythorpe and Isle of Grain sites and there have been lobbies of Parliament, meetings of sponsored MPs in different union parliamentary groups and so on. Indeed, on one occasion, some 60 workers at Staythorpe walked out to join the demonstration despite being threatened with dismissal and were joined by 250 workers from Easington, East Yorkshire who struck for the day to join the protest. Of greater significance is that grassroots pressure is building for an industry-wide one day national strike and march on Parliament to stop employers from exclusively using foreign workers to undermine the Blue Book, and the GMB stated it is prepared to sanction an official strike ballot to that end if its shop stewards decided that was an appropriate course of action.

    So momentum has been maintained and may step up a gear or two. But the problem remains that the target of this pressure is a considerable distance away from it and thus any leverage or power over them from construction sites is diffuse. The Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour government as well as the European Commission and European Court of Justice are unaccountable to these workers in any direct sense.

    For the required changes to be made, the struggle needs to be generalised amongst all unions and progressive social forces. In other words, there needs to be a broad leftwing alliance against neo-liberalism which can mobilise the numbers of people in Britain that we’ve seen mobilised in recent years in Ireland, France and the Netherlands when their populaces voted against the EU treaty. Thus, the strikers and their unions need to make common cause with other progressive forces that oppose the other results of the EU’s neo-liberalism. And if they seek to change the EU position and the court verdicts another necessary component of this alliance has to be action with their brothers and sisters on the continent for the mathematics of the EU means one country cannot change things on its own.

    All this means Britain is going to have to see sustained and escalating demonstrations, protests, strikes and shutdowns of the like not seen since the poll tax and before. British workers will have to shed their conservatism as a labour movement and act more like their continental cousins who are schooled in direct, mass action.

    Gregor Gall teaches at the University of Hertfordshire.

  • The politics of anti-Olympics resistance

    By Harold Lavender

    Resistance and opposition to events such as the 2010 Olympics doesn’t magically appear. It requires the work of organized movements and communities and dedicated individual activists.

    In assessing the possibilities for resistance, the nature of the event itself and its negative impacts on communities are critical. But equally significant are the politics of the groups organizing against the Olympics. What are their goals? What types of organizing methods and tactics have been used? What limits the scope of the movement? Some limits may be self-imposed but many are wider problems external to the movement.

    At this point, it is quite premature to draw any balance sheet of the anti-Olympic resistance or its impact. However, important political questions are raised. Will the resistance help inspire and facilitate ongoing community organizing efforts, greater unity and mobilization in future struggles and the development of a new anti-capitalist left? Or will the uptick in struggle fade after the games are gone?

    Varied political perspectives

    In discussing the opposition to the Olympics, we should remember that it is not singular or uniform. Social movements and communities are not homogeneous. Opponents of the games have varied political perspectives, priorities and tactical responses.

    A good deal of the organizing efforts have come from the radical anti-capitalist left and the most affected communities. However, opposition and organizing is certainly not limited to this small milieu.

    Radical anti-capitalist and anti-colonial organizers have raised the banner of No Olympics on Stolen Native Land. This slogan has value in taking an uncompromising stand against the games and a principled stand on what people want to stop, including an end to colonial oppression of indigenous people and respect for their self-determination and sovereignty.

    However, there is a big difference between saying “No” and being able to stop the 2010 games. Given the vast security preparations, shutting down the games is not a possibility. One key lesson is that the best time to block the Olympics is before the bid is awarded.

    The early opposition

    The bid originated under the watch of the BC’s labour-supported New Democratic Party. However, the games are now firmly associated with the right-wing BC Liberal government of Gordon Campbell, who launched a massive attack on social programs, welfare recipients and the poor, unions and democratic rights in his first term from 2001 to 2005. Despite being re-elected in 2009, his government currently has very low approval ratings.

    Unions, tied to the very limited perspective of electing NDP governments, either explicitly or implicitly supported the games. The NDP and the unions failed to put forward any critique of mega-project developments, either in the Olympics or elsewhere.

    In a non-binding Vancouver referendum on the games (with close to a 50 per cent turnout), opponents of the Olympics polled a very respectable 36 per cent, despite being outspent by 100 to 1 and criticized by supposedly progressive politicians like Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell. The vote shattered any myth that Vancouverites were solidly behind the games. Resident of other municipalities in Greater Vancouver and the rest of BC were denied even this very limited democratic exercise.

    Today the warnings of the games critics ring depressingly true, unlike the many false promises of its supporters, whose trumped-up benefits are being daily exposed as nothing more than pie in the sky.

    The radical opposition

    Most subsequent opposition has generally taken on a non- (or anti-) electoral, non-institutional orientation, preferring instead to work through social movements and direct action. Many radical and young opponents of the Olympics self-identify as anarchist.

    Many have been influenced by the experiences and organizing approaches of the last wave of the global justice movement, which in Vancouver has declined in size and influence but never completely disappeared. A certain number of young people are being radicalized around anti-Olympic politics, anti-racist indigenous solidarity and ecological issues.

    Anti-Olympic organizing has been an important focus for much, if not all, of the anti-capitalist left in Vancouver. However, concerns around the Olympics extend far beyond the boundaries of anti-capitalist movements.

    Mitigation

    One reform-oriented approach has been to try to mitigate the negative effects of the Olympics and win some tangible gains in spheres such as housing and civil liberties. The Impact of the Olympics on Communities Coalition (IOCC) has worked on this front.

    The original Vancouver bid committee made agreements with stakeholders. The IOCC has attempted to hold people accountable by monitoring and reporting. It has done some quite useful work and held public activities to reach a somewhat broader constituency.

    However, the reality is that the so-called Vancouver agreement was worth less than the paper it was written on. The legacy of the 2010 Olympics in progressive reforms, contributions to social justice and respect for democratic rights is negative.

    The IOCC, for tactical reasons, started with a neutral stance, but it has become increasingly critical as the reality of VANOC, VISU and all levels of government has sunk in. The coalition is organizing a rally during the Olympics (with the backing of labour), focusing on Vancouver’s dire lack of affordable housing/homelessness crisis and demanding the federal government adopt a national housing strategy.

    Anti-poverty activism

    Anti-poverty activists are seeking to highlight the extreme disparity between the beautiful, sanitized, trendy image of Vancouver being hyped for the Olympics and the realities of life for many. But there are different approaches.

    One effective, if not radical, approach is the Poverty Olympics, which enjoys broad support among residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the city’s poorest neighbourhood, where some of the most extreme impacts of the games will be felt. The Anti-Poverty Committee (APC) continues to take a more militant and confrontational approach and is part of the Olympics Resistance Network (ORN).

    Scenarios

    At certain moments, direct action, creative protests and mass action may interact in very favourable ways. Despite inevitable tensions and differences of opinion, this was very clearly the case in Seattle in 1999 and Quebec City in 2001. These events saw large mobilizations of tens of thousands, including many from labour. In each case, roughly 10,000 people took things a step further to engage in more direct tactics of resistance. Such a scenario doesn’t appear on the agenda for Vancouver, either in terms of numbers or intersections between radical and wider movements. As a result, organizers and participants in smaller actions are potentially more vulnerable.

    Olympics Resistance Network

    Real advances in organizing, however, are taking place. For a number of years, opposition and resistance was sporadic and not well coordinated. This changed with the formation of the Olympics Resistance Network in 2008, which has held together despite some ups and downs.

    Participants include radical social organizations, the best known being No One is Illegal and the APC. It based itself on organizing concepts from the global justice movement, acting as a decentralized network rather than a centralized organization. It aims more at facilitating autonomous actions than leading actions in its own name. It has a clear basis of unity but this doesn’t mean everybody thinks and acts the same.

    Respect for diversity of tactics is one of the hallmarks of this type of approach. It reflects the reality that in any substantial movement a very wide array of tactics will be used. People don’t necessarily agree with every tactic used, but choose which activities they participate in and actively support. But there is a strong will to solidarize with all those facing repression for their activity against the Olympics
    The ORN has been successful in providing a framework for getting things done. It has provided a vehicle for criticism of the Olympics and for responding to ongoing developments. Its websites have a great of information. Its activists have organized speakers tours, made contacts with anti-Olympics organizers in other places, and researched and exposed corporate sponsors. They have organized some local actions.

    The ORN call for actions in opposition to the torch relay produced some successes. The movement was buoyed when 400 turned out in Victoria for the opening of the torch relay, forcing its rerouting. Numerous other actions took place in communities across the country, even if generally small in scale. Indigenous communities offered some positive examples showing that the torch relays were not welcome, forcing rerouting and drawing attention to key issues such as missing and murdered women.

    Anti-Olympic convergence

    The ORN is organizing an anti-Olympic convergence. Mass leafleting and postering is helping spread the word. The size of the convergence is not yet clear. However, it creates a potentially dynamic space where people from different communities from Vancouver and afar can link interrelated struggles and organizing efforts.

    Days of action could feature a variety of actions of different character and different levels of confrontation. Stop War will highlight Canada’s military participation in Afghanistan, while others will focus on corporate sponsors. Some actions will have a more openly defiant and confrontational character (reflecting the approach of some direct action anarchists currents), including a snake march to clog the arteries of capitalism.

    A good deal of advance preparation has gone into the possibility of a police crackdown during the convergence and days of action. This ranges from street medic training and organizing legal defense to promoting knowledge of legal rights and fundraising for people who may be arrested. The B.C. Liberties Association has helped train legal observers to monitor the actions of the police during games.

    The work of the ORN faces some limitations in reaching beyond the radical milieu. It has been subject to a campaign of vilification in the corporate press, which has made it difficult to get endorsements from moderate forces and community groups. The insular radical cultures and deliberately provocative style of some radicals can also further the separation from less radical milieus. However, there has been real outreach through some excellent community organizing work with affected groups, widespread education and considerable work in specific milieu’s including the campuses.

    Mass mobilizing

    Many organizers want a mass mobilization during the Olympics. How can this best happen?

    A discussion in the ORN led to the initiation of an independent group to organize a mass-oriented family-friendly festival and march. The 2010 Welcoming Committee came together in the fall of 2009. This arrangement has worked well and created a space where people involved with ORN can work with others. It has broadened participation to include groups such as the Council of Canadians and has facilitated endorsement for actions from a wide range of organizations. It is a positive step towards unity in action.

    Anti-Olympic organizing can have a positive role in bring together communities, uniting in action and fostering a new left. Many hope such organized efforts will strengthen efforts against the Campbell government in BC, but this is not self-evident.

    Labour

    BC’s Campbell government bought labour peace by signing long contracts with public sector workers, which expire after the games later this year. There is every indication that the government will try to fight its budget deficit by attacking public sector workers with a wage freeze and rollbacks, and substantial cuts to public sector jobs and services. There could be a significant confrontation later this year between the government and public sector unions.

    However, labour and anti-Olympics organizers are far apart, especially at the upper levels of the labour bureaucracy. A great many workers are fed up with the Olympics. BC paramedics waged a prolonged strike while continuing delivery of their essential service. Last year, the BC government recalled the legislature to force an end to their strike. These workers were clear about the link to the upcoming Olympics. But collective worker opposition has largely been squelched and is expressed mostly on an individual basis.

    Some currents in the movement don’t see this as important, but others have worked to make as many links as possible. Such links between labour and community activists will have to be forged and strengthened to defend public services. Otherwise, both the unions and those who rely on public services may well be defeated.

    For a non-sectarian, grass roots opposition

    Grass roots-oriented social movements have been the backbone of resistance to the Olympics. Strengthening the links between these movements and uniting behind common struggles is pivotal.

    But there also needs to be space for reflection, discussion, disagreements and debate. Unfortunately, today such discussions are often limited only to small pockets in which people work together politically and interact.

    Social movements are central to building resistance and fighting for social justice. However, it is a problem when social struggles such as the anti-Olympics movement are marginalized from the formal political system and no one will support the views of the social movement.

    In some other countries such as France, organizations such as the New Anti-Capitalist Party play an important role in providing a wider political framework for struggles. There is not yet a dynamic towards a new mass-based anti-capitalist party rooted in struggle in BC and the Canadian state. But efforts to build non-sectarian political formations could play a positive role in this direction.

    Harold Lavender is an editor of New Socialist.

  • Opposing the Olympics

    By Harold Lavender

    Movements opposing the 2010 Winter Olympics appear to be gaining momentum with the much-hyped spectacle only a couple of weeks away. While a campaign of intimidation and harassment by security forces has made Vancouver the front line in the criminalization of dissent, this has failed to quell opposition.

    A series of activities will be staged during the Olympics, including a February 10 to 15 convergence organized by the Olympic Resistance Network, and an opposition festival and march on February 12, the day of the opening ceremonies (see the end of this article for a calendar of actions).

    How wide is the opposition?

    Many in BC are not at all happy with the games. Despite a massive government, corporate and media propaganda campaign, recent surveys showed 69 per cent of BC residents felt governments had spent too much on the Olympics. Only 50 per cent thought the Olympics were good for BC, while 30 per cent thought they were bad. There is also considerable resentment in Vancouver about the disruptions of daily life imposed in the name of staging the Olympics.

    But will resistance be confined primarily to the radical left and a few affected communities? The still-to-be-answered question is the size, scope, public impact and future legacy of anti-2010 organizing.

    A multi-issue movement

    Organizing against the Olympics has raised a wide variety of issues.

    A strong critique has been developed against what is been described as the Olympic industry including International Olympic Committee, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) and their corporate sponsors. However, there are many other concerns related to capitalist development, social justice and ecological issues, democratic rights and the post-Olympic austerity measures and cutbacks.

    Many problems are recurring and common threads link past and future games. However, some issues are special to Vancouver’s Olympics.

    Indigenous exploitation

    These Olympics will be held on unceded Coast Salish territory. Olympic organizers have induced (with substantial amounts of money) the Four Host Nations to buy into the games and the Host Nations participation is shamelessly exploited. Their culture will be officially celebrated even as rampant social injustice, denial of aboriginal title and lack of control over resource development continues.

    The unnecessary $650 million upgrade of the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and the alpine events site in Whistler damaged sensitive ecosystems. Many old growth trees were cut down in the Callaghan Valley to construct the Whistler Olympic Park. Indigenous defenders of the land are opposed to a ski resort expansion that damages their traditional territories.

    Indigenous and social justice critics view the Olympic celebrations as a flagrant denial Canada’s long and unresolved history of colonial oppression. The ORN and others have raised the slogan, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.”

    Ballooning costs

    For many, the huge costs of the games, especially to the host city and province, are a major concern. The estimated cost of the games, swelled by cost overruns, is over $6 billion. The bill for the massive security operations, initially projected at $175 million, has now ballooned to over $900 million.

    Vancouver was forced to bail out and take over the Olympic Village and future condominium project, leaving the city finances very much exposed. Intrawest, the owners of the Whistler-Blackcomb site of Olympic skiing events, has gone bankrupt, raising the spectacle of an auction of its assets during the Olympics. Is another corporate bailout in store?

    What is at stake is the misuse of public money for priorities that don’t meet social and human needs. BC has a desperate need for increased government funding for a wide variety of social programs, including ending homelessness and expanding social housing; raising welfare rates to liveable levels; expanding employment insurance benefits and eligibility; child care; education; health; and public transit. BC’s post-Olympic budget threatens a vicious round of cuts from the federal, BC and municipal governments.

    A Cultural Olympiad will help welcome the world to Vancouver. But afterwards, arts organizations face exceptionally draconian cuts in BC government funding. Similarly, the city is cutting the budgets for parks, recreation and libraries. Funds were available for elite athletes, but it is now highly improbable that there will be any extra money for programs that promote physical activity, well being and local athletics.

    In a sign of what’s to come in a new “austerity decade,” 800 Vancouver teachers have just received notice of a potential layoff.

    Olympic history

    The Olympics themselves have a far from benign history. The most notorious case is the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the Nazis. While Canadians are endlessly encouraged to support the torch relay and it is portrayed as a positive force for national unity, the origins of the torch relay and its symbolism under the Nazis are willfully ignored. Students were massacred prior to the 1968 Mexico City games. The Olympics have also been associated with supporting racism, from failing to oppose apartheid in South Africa to the longstanding denial of indigenous rights in Australia.

    With Canada expected to do well in the medal standings this time, an upsurge of nationalistic Canadian sentiment is on the agenda.

    Recent history is thoroughly tainted by examples of corruption and graft. More and more, the IOC is an industry driven by nothing but dollars and big money.
    The IOC and VANOC are very much laws unto themselves. Recent court rulings have said that they are not subject to national laws or public scrutiny when it comes to venues and events inside the security zones.

    Corporate roles

    Living in Vancouver, I am struck by the dominant role of the corporate sponsors, which include some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the Canadian state and internationally.

    One of the primary roles of VANOC is to protect the marketing and property rights of the sponsors. It pressured City Hall, which literally bent over backward to amend its bylaws, as if private sponsorship rights had become the supreme public good.

    An examination of sponsors quickly contradicts any myths of green games, peace or cooperation. The Royal Bank, Bell, Hudson’s Bay Company, Petro Canada (taken over by Suncor in 2009), Trans Canada Pipelines, General Electric, MacDonald’s, Coca Cola and Visa are among the sponsors. A number of sponsors are major defense contractors and weapons manufacturers. Others are linked to the ecologically destructive tar sands development including Suncor and the Royal Bank, its number one financier.

    Property development and homelessness

    The Olympics brings benefits to some, primarily the rich, and temporary increases in employment, especially in construction jobs (although this includes the use of temporary super-exploited migrant workers). They have also facilitated an expansion of ski resort developments strongly opposed by indigenous defenders of the land.

    Real estate developers, among the prime movers and beneficiaries of the Olympics, are looking to further accelerate expensive condo developments and gentrification.

    Many people living in poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, next to the venues for the biggest events, loathe and fear the games. Gentrification and rising property values and rents threaten to displace them from the community they consider home. The number of SROs (Single Room Occupancy units) is fast shrinking. Although the worst housing in the city, SROs are often the only housing people on welfare can afford and are the last step away from homelessness. Homelessness has increased fourfold since the Olympic bid, with around 3,000 homeless in Vancouver and 14,000 in BC.

    Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson pledged to end homelessness by 2014, but so far his program has mostly involved band aids – an increase in shelter space and low-barrier shelters (changes that will reduce the number living on the street during the games).

    Earlier this decade, the BC government passed the Safe Streets Act, a move towards harassing and criminalizing the poor. A massive police presence will expand into the Downtown Eastside during the games. Fears were not allayed when the BC government recently passed the “Assistance to Shelter Act,” which could allow police to forcibly move homeless people to shelters.

    Vancouver is in many ways a very wealthy and attractive city. But it also suffers from shameful and grotesque levels of socio-economic inequality. Many boosters would like to keep the realities of this Vancouver from the eyes of the world.

    Security on the offensive

    Fundamental democrat rights are a key issue as national security apparatuses have been strengthened in the “war on terror.” Mega-events such as the Olympics give national security apparatuses a free hand.

    Early protests sometimes caught government and VANOC official napping, but now the picture has changed.

    During the games, 16,000 security personnel, including some 5,000 members of the Canadian Armed Forces, will be deployed as an occupying force. The number of video surveillance cameras and high-tech spying devices has increased massively.

    The Vancouver Integrated Security Unit (VISU) has conjured up the threat of potentially violent domestic protesters and is on the offensive, aiming to disrupt, intimidate and isolate resistance to the games. Some people have even joked that there is one police officer assigned to every core organizer. Key people involved in open public organizing and local anarchist radicals opposed to the games have received unwanted visits from VISU. Harassing visits have extended to their landlords, neighbours, employers, parents, families and professors. Police have actively recruited informers and the use of agent provocateurs is a concern.

    Recent years have seen considerable hardening of border controls, making it harder for those deemed “undesirable,” including migrant workers, racially profiled groups, refugees and the poor, to cross borders.

    Political dissent, especially anything anti-Olympics, is very high on the Canadian Border Services Agency priority list. The high-profile detention and interrogation of Democracy Now host Amy Goodman and seizure of her material has cast an important spotlight on the paranoid behaviour of the CBSA. An anti-Olympics organizer seeking to speak in the US was detained, extensively questioned and turned away the border.

    Free speech under attack

    Free speech and the right to protest are under attack. The Vision Vancouver majority on city council passed appalling bylaw changes, which could have been used to ban protests and signs in large areas of downtown Vancouver adjacent to Olympic venues, and could have empowered police to seize and remove anti-Olympic signs and art from homes and buildings. This prompted some division within council, with a partial disruption in the alliance between the dominant Vision party and its junior partner in a loose de facto coalition, the left-leaning COPE. A firestorm of criticism against these restrictions on liberty and a lawsuit filed with the backing of the BC Civil Liberties Association successfully forced council to amend and drastically restrict the bylaws.

    Protest will be banned inside Olympics site (and could get people ejected from city’s celebration sites) but lawful protest will be tolerated outside these areas. However, there is still uncertainty as to how police will react to any marches. Any “illegal” actions during the Olympics run the risk of a harsh crackdown.

    There are ample grounds to resist the Olympics. The next few weeks could see some real drama as people try to exercise their rights.

    Harold Lavender is an editor of New Socialist.

    CALENDAR

    The calendar of actions is filling up.

    The Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) is organizing an anti-Olympic convergence. A two-day conference on February 10 and 11 focuses on the Olympics industry and its impacts on indigenous people, the poor and many others, and days of action are planned for February 13 and 15.

    The 2010 Welcoming Committee (endorsed by wide variety of groups including the ORN) is organizing toward mass mobilization, with a February 12 festival and march to coincide with the opening ceremonies.

    The third annual satirical Poverty Olympics will be held February 7. (It has organized its own torch relay in BC to highlight poverty issues).

    Many will stand in solidarity with the longstanding annual February 14 women’s memorial march to commemorate the murdered and missing women (many indigenous) in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and across BC and the Canadian state. March organizers rejected VANOC’s request to change the route.

    Indigenous activists committed to defense of the land will hold their own gathering just prior to the Olympics.

    The Impact on Communities Coalition will hold a rally on February 21 to demand a national housing strategy to overcome growing homelessness and the lack of affordable and social housing.

    For more information, with links, see here

  • THE GREATER TORONTO ASSEMBLY: DEFINING STATEMENT

    This is the amended vision statement adopted by a majority at the Jan. 16, 2010

    gathering of a new organization of the Left. The Assembly emerged from an earlier

    gathering in October 2009. Members of Toronto New Socialists are among those

    who have been actively involved in building this fledgling organization. – NS


    THE GREATER TORONTO ASSEMBLY: DEFINING STATEMENT

    Capitalism is a barrier to human development. It has defined our successes
    as obstacles to progress and has deepened the grossest inequalities here and
    across the globe in the name of ‘competitiveness’. Its drive for profits at
    any cost has threatened the survival of the planet and narrowed the meaning
    of democracy as well as individual and collective possibilities. Never
    satisfied, it demands that working people and the poor pay for the crisis
    that the system itself created by further cuts to our quality of life and
    living standards.

    As the financial system teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, and we more
    clearly came to see the bankruptcy of capitalism itself, something else was
    revealed: our own inadequacy in challenging this staggered but still
    powerful social and economic system. Many of us have been involved in
    various impressive movements and political projects but whatever successes
    we might have had, we were pushed to acknowledge that our capacities to
    resist have not matched what we are up against. The Assembly is an attempt
    to address that failure.

    The Assembly calls on activists to join together in a democratic process to
    create a new politics. It is both a space for dialogue and learning within
    the popular left movement and an organ of common action. Seeking to move
    beyond coalition and network politics the Assembly is an organization that
    individuals belong to without giving up their membership and allegiances to
    community organizations, unions and left groups. We are committed to
    developing our understanding of what we’re up against, who our potential
    allies are, and to organize and act in new ways that will take us from a
    politics of resistance to emancipatory alternatives.

    We are united by an anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist, queer-positive,
    and anti-oppression politics. We are against imperialism, including Canadian
    imperialism, and rooted in a variety of struggles, ranging from the
    movements against Israeli apartheid to the imperialist wars in Afghanistan,
    Iraq, Latin America and the Caribbean, to solidarity work with Indigenous
    peoples, to the struggle for environmental sustainability, to fights to
    rebuild a democratic and militant labour movement. We want to build unity
    and solidarity amongst the working class defined in the broadest terms,
    throughout Canada and internationally: among unionized and non-unionized
    workers; those who have lost their jobs or are unemployed; those who live
    and work in Canada but have been denied full status; those who do paid or
    unpaid housework and childcare; all those who face discrimination because of
    gender identity, including queer and trans people; those with disabilities;
    and others who are living in abject poverty at the edges of society. We
    stand in solidarity with communities against racial profiling,
    anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of discrimination.

    While capitalism itself has created ongoing suffering and oppression in its
    “normal” phases, the crisis has made things worse. But crises do not just
    come and go; they bring both great dangers and significant opportunities.
    Historically, they have represented new openings for either the
    consolidation of, or shifts in, social power. The question is whether we can
    take advantage of the new openings and threats to build a new kind of
    politics. The Assembly represents one answer to that challenge.

    [The notes from minutes below are relevant to the statement – NS]

    Vision Statement:
    -a working document, will be revisited
    -both the language and the meaning we attach to them through our
    collective practices
    -we needed a statement describing the current political situation
    and to frame our intentions within it

    The Assembly can be contacted at workingclassfightback [at] gmail.com

  • Review: Strategies of Resistance & Who are the Trotskyists?

    By Daniel Serge

    Strategies of Resistance (2009) collects a series of essays on the Trotskyist movement, covering its history and the challenges facing today’s revolutionaries. Its author, Daniel Bensaid (1946-2010) was one of the chief theoreticians of the Fourth International, the grouping of revolutionary socialist organizations first established by Trotsky in 1938.

    From the above, it should be clear that Strategies is not an introductory booklet. It’s aimed as a primer for activists who want to understand the history of their movement. However, if you are a beginner, you will be lost among its constant references to Stalinism and anti-Stalinist revolutions, the dialectical movement of history and the trajectory of the USSR. But for someone who knows socialism, and who doesn’t mind embarking on unfamiliar terrain, Strategies is immensely rewarding.

    The bulk of the collection is taken up by “Who Are The Trotskyists?,” a tour through the murky waters of the left of the international communist movement. Bensaid guides readers decade by decade from the post-Russian revolution debates on “socialism in one country,” to the formation of the Fourth International and its bunkered history through the post-WW2 era, to the flowering of Marxist activity in the 1960s and 70s, ending with a sober assessment of the post-USSR era. It’s the story of a small group of revolutionaries who fought their way through inhuman conditions: firstly against the Stalinist bureaucracy of the USSR, secondly against capitalist imperialism and fascism, and finally against their own internal divisions. They established groups, sometimes thousands-strong, that intervened politically on the issues of the day. Trotskyists played a central role in supporting struggles against colonial powers, in Latin American revolutionary movements and in workers’ struggles in Europe.

    The emphasis is on “sober.” While Bensaid represents the Fourth International and not the political currents that left it, he is not drawing a red thread from his party back to Old Man Trotsky. He is critical of the post-war expectations of a new global war and the guerrilla adventures of the 1970s. However, his task is to situate all these developments historically, and not to fall into what he calls ‘the condescension of posterity’, judging the hopes and fears of a past epoch by our own. In the 1950s, given the nuclear build-up and the Korean War, it was quite reasonable to expect capitalism to enter another holocaust in the near future. With the upsurge of anti-colonial struggles in the 1960s, it made sense to consider forming armed struggle groups in poor countries. That history judged differently does not make the Trotskyists’ decisions the inevitable result of weaknesses in their doctrine, or of Marxism itself – although Bensaid condemns those who would take Trotsky’s words as sacred relics, rather than strategic pieces of the moment. Rather, their story is told through the eyes of participants. It’s up to the reader to find inspiration in people from earlier times trying to change the world.

    The first essay ends abruptly at the turn of the millennium, and the debates it refers to are so complex that Bensaid can only summarize their decisions, not how they worked at the time. To show this process, Strategies provides a helpful selection of political essays by Bensaid addressing a range of broad and complex questions. Again, casual reader be warned: coming to terms with the end of Stalinism, the rise of postmodernism and the idea of hegemony is not a task for the faint-hearted.

    For example, he tries to rescue the concept of hegemony from two extremes. Firstly, he refutes the caricature of Leninism, in which the party substitutes for the class, showing that both Lenin and Gramsci thought the working class had to have several political representatives, to prove ideas in practice. On the other side, Bensaid takes hegemony back from post-structuralist fracturing, in which fundamental social antagonisms are reduced to identities, and the focus for social change shifts from class struggle to democratic citizenship. Even if you don’t understand those terms, you can appreciate the awe-inspiring breadth of Bensaid’s vision.

    Bensaid outlines the central strength of Marxism: the ability to understand the world as a concrete whole. He describes this process in “The Mole and the Locomotive.” Marxism isn’t just a “good theory,” it’s a response to the very real fragmentation that capitalism creates: “the weight of defeats and disasters reduces every news item to a dusty powder of minor news items, of sound bytes which are skipped over as soon as they are received, of ephemeral fashions and faddish anecdotes.”

    Yet “we must seek both to understand the logic of history and be ready for the surprise of the event.” History is not written in advance, because capitalism is not one-way. It depends on people, and people always resist. Understanding, participating and shaping that resistance is a task for generations of Marxists, and Bensaid has nothing but scorn for those who abandon that task at the first hint of setback. Up till his recent death he remained a radical, not from some religious, messianic vision that only he held, but from an understanding of history itself that always contains the germs of multiple possibilities.

    Strategies of Resistance goes far deeper than this brief summary. The title essay, in particular, compresses huge debates on postmodernism and revolutionary strategy into opaque, paragraph-long theses. But read in the context of the opening history of Trotskyism, the reader sees what is at stake in this theorizing: understanding the world in order to change it. No transcendent event, no decisive moment in the far-distant future, should give socialists hope: only the fact that we possess a method, rich in history and depth, that allows us to understand and act upon the world. To that extent, Bensaid’s essays provide a task – and thus an intense hope – for the present. This is the real value of this excellent collection: to see where Trotskyists have come from, where radicals in the Marxist tradition might go, and most importantly how to get there.

    - – -

    The book is available in Canada for $13.50 (including shipping) by writing to: petirrojo@bell.net

    Copies can also be purchased from the International Institute for Research and Education

  • Proroguing and the Left

    By Kyle Buott

    January 6, 2010

    Proroguement: an Affront to Democracy?

    Across the country, activists from social movements, unions, and various opposition parties are moving quickly towards a day of action on January 23rd against the proroguement of the Federal Parliament.

    At the time of writing, events are being planned in 23 cities around the country and in Quebec.

    The rallies are framed as an action to protect Canadian democracy, which is said to be at stake because the Prime Minister evoked his powers to prorogue parliament, shut down debate, and remove various pieces of legislation form the order paper.

    While it is very true that using a parliamentary tactic to shut down debate on important issues like torture, the environment, economic recovery and the upcoming budget is totally anti-democratic, so-called “Canadian democracy” is in much deeper trouble than a simple proroguement.

    Democracy in Canada has been suffering for a long time – since about ummm… say 1867?

    Canada’s government continues to be based on the ridiculous First-Past-The-Post system. We continue to recognize a hereditary monarch as our Head of State. Money plays a huge role in our political process, and small parties are not given the opportunities to present their ideas to a broader audience.

    When politics is reduced to personalities (ie: whether or not Harper is a “Strong Leader” or if Ignatieff is “Just in it for himself”) the debate becomes meaningless. It is no wonder that record numbers of Canadians are tuning out, and not bothering to vote or get involved in the political process.

    Regardless of whether or not Parliament is prorogued, these issues must be contended with.

    What is the Role of Socialists in the Current Struggle?

    First and foremost, Socialists of all stripes should get actively involved and work to build the demonstrations on January 23rd. This is one of those rare opportunities that a broader audience is tuning into politics and there is a chance to engage more people.

    Second, Socialists should push organizing coalitions to continue working after January 23rd. Raising questions about the state of democracy in Canada and Quebec. These demonstrations can potentially be used to strengthen organizations like Fair Vote Canada, or build local coalitions working towards a more democratic country.

    Finally, we need to be presenting alternative policies that would allow for more democracy, choice and freedom for all, including:

    • Proportional Representation – including a two staged referendum, one which asks the question “Do you favour moving towards a system of Proportional Representation?” and a second which decides on the form that PR would take.
    • Abolition of the monarchy and the creation of an elected President.
    • Abolition of the Senate.
    • Economic Democracy – workers’ control and collaborative decision making processes in the workplace.
    • Further restrictions on political spending and increases in the public subsidies received by political parties. Restrictions must also be put in place on political advertising outside of the election cycle.
    • Lowering the voting age to 16.
    • Removing newly created restrictions that require multiple pieces of identification to vote.
    • Recognizing social rights like health care, education and freedom from poverty in the Canadian Constitution.

    Socialists have an opportunity to try and engage with social movement activists on these important reforms. While these reforms alone do not a socialist society create, they would open new, public spaces for dialogue and discussion of issues. The Left has allowed the Right to dominate the public sphere for too long. Creating space for socialism must be a major priority.

    Kyle Buott is President of Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council

  • Elections in Honduras: Pantomime Democracy and State Terror

    By Tyler Shipley

    December 4, 2009

    On my way home from Tegucigalpa I met Edward Fox, an elections observer sent from Washington to participate in the project of legitimating the June 28th coup and paving the way to a comfortable re-entrenchment of the Honduran oligarchy and the North American interests it protects.

    When I asked him about the 32 people killed by police and military since the coup, he scoffed and told me he didn’t have any ‘verifiable’ evidence of that. So I asked him where he was the day before the elections, when the five biggest and most respected human rights groups in Honduras presented an official complaint to the Electoral Tribunal, complete with the documentation of not just the 32 deaths but also the countless instances of repression, detention, beatings, rapes, kidnappings and other forms of state terror. He said he “hadn’t heard about that.”

    Instead, his report on the election said that “without exception, [Hondurans] expressed confidence in the electoral system, pride in exercising their right to vote, and a profound hope that their election is a decisive step toward the restoration of the constitutional and democratic order in Honduras.” Such is the level of misrepresentation being perpetrated by the coup regime and its allies.

    The U.S.S. Honduras

    Hondurans haven’t had it easy. In the 1980s, they were able to get out from underneath a series of military dictatorships only to find that their ‘democratic’ governments were every bit as brutal as their predecessors. The country was nicknamed the “U.S.S. Honduras” because it was the base of American operations in the region, used as a launch pad for attacks against Guatemala, El Salvador and especially Nicaragua. But in spite of the consistent and intimidating presence of U.S. helicopters, social movements in Honduras built themselves up steadily and, especially in the 2000s, began to bring serious pressure against the state to re-found the country on more equitable lines.

    The centerpiece of the project was the constituyente, an assembly that would be struck to re-write the constitution in a way that would be more responsive to the needs of the vast majority of poor Hondurans. After many years of tireless work, it appeared that the constituent assembly might finally happen when President Manuel Zelaya agreed to hold a non-binding referendum on whether the people would like to see a fourth ballot added to the usual three in the Nov. 29 elections. If the response had been positive, the Nov. 29 elections would have seen people vote for each of the three levels of government and also answer the question “do you support the striking of a national constituent assembly to re-draft the constitution?”

    But that non-binding referendum never happened because, of course, the President was flown out of the country in his pyjamas and the vote was cancelled. In the weeks following the June 28th coup, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans took to the streets in protest, only to be met by violence and repression. Tear gas and sonic weaponry were deployed against crowds, individuals were beaten and sometimes shot with rubber bullets and even live rounds. As the resistance began to take shape and formed into an organization, the Frente Popular de Resistencia, its leaders were targeted and harassed; many were followed and detained, beaten and raped in prison. Others were kidnapped from their homes, never to be heard from again.

    The police and military were given a free hand to terrorize people with impunity and, in the meantime, any criticism of the coup or its leaders was deemed to be ‘sedition,’ even if it came from the supposedly ‘free’ press. Those media outlets that refused to tow the coupist line were shut down. Radio Globo, Radio Progreso, TV Channel 36 and El Libertador newspaper, among others, were harassed relentlessly. Equipment was stolen or sabotaged, individuals were arrested and beaten, signals were interrupted or taken off the air – in the end, many of the directors and editors fled the country, one giving in only after his daughter and son-in-law were brutally murdered.

    Una ‘Fiesta Democratica’ / A ‘Democratic Party’

    In that context, it is hard to imagine how anyone could believe, even for a moment, that free and fair elections could possibly take place in Honduras on November 29. Certainly very few in Honduras are under that illusion; even according to official statistics, only 1.7 million people voted in a country of almost 8 million. Of those, only 1.3 million actually voted for one of the candidates and less than 0.7 million voted for the winner, Porfirio Lobo.

    A day that is normally as busy and boisterous as the world cup was powerfully silent. Civilians at polling stations were considerably outnumbered by soldiers carrying automatic weapons. All of the independent candidates in the election, including Presidential candidate Carlos H. Reyes, withdrew from the farce knowing full well that they could not possibly be guaranteed a fair election.

    And now, our government is rushing to recognize the results. Though it is deeply disheartening, it should not come as a surprise. After all, the coup was very much in the interests of Canadian and US enterprises in Central America. Earlier in his term, President Zelaya had ordered a moratorium on any further mining concessions to foreign companies in Honduras. He had raised the minimum wage. And his endorsement of constitutional reform could have begun the process of breaking the stranglehold on power held by the ten or fifteen familes that dominate Honduras, whose names – Facussé, Ferrari, Michelietti – are graffitied next to the words “golpe” (coup) and “asesino” (assassin) on walls in every barrio in Tegucigalpa.

    A re-writing of the constitution might have been a tool in the hands of people trying to insist that workers be given a fair share for their labour, that violence against women be challenged, that human rights be respected, that foreign companies be forced to pay taxes – none of the many dozens of fast food chains operating in Tegucigalpa pay any corporate taxes whatsoever. They simply suck as much capital out of Honduras as they can, set a little aside for the local oligarchs, and take the rest back to Wall Street.

    The Ongoing Struggle

    And so it shall be under Pepe Lobo (Pepe ‘Robo,’ as the graffiti in Tegucigalpa calls him) the winner of last Sunday’s ‘elections.’ The leaders of the coup, and the overwhelming majority of the international media, have called the event on Sunday a solution to the political crisis in Honduras. Quite the contrary, they have only ensured that the crisis will continue – the Resistance in Honduras is steadfast. Thousands of people took to the streets on the day after the elections to wave their un-inked fingers, demonstrating that they had boycotted the vote, and although they will surely face further repression, it is clear that they will continue to struggle for a re-founding of their country.

    In the meantime, it is incumbent on activists elsewhere, and especially in North America, to support them in that struggle. In the short term, we must demand that the Canadian government withdraw its support for the coup, reject the legitimacy of the elections (even the liberal Carter Center refused to participate in the observation process) and insist upon the reinstatement of the democratically elected president. To that end, the petition located here is a good starting point.

    But we must also recognize what Hondurans themselves have long acknowledged: that this is going to be a long struggle and it will require a sustained push in the face of a great deal of opposition. In Canada, we are deeply complicit in the destructive politics and state terror of post-coup Honduras. Most Canadians probably couldn’t place Honduras on a map, let alone explain our role in encouraging and supporting the coup. Raising that level of consciousness is probably the most important work we can do right now.

    My own personal reflections on the week of the elections can be found here and additional resources in Spanish and English are available here or here or from COFADEH, one of the leading human rights groups in Honduras. It is also likely that Rights Action, a North American human rights group, will be organizing another delegation to Honduras around the week of January 27, the date when power is to be transferred to the newly ‘elected’ government. Details will be posted here .

  • Defending Unions from Back-to-Work Legislation

    By Chris Rigaux

    December 4, 2009

    On December 2nd, Teamsters union officials ended the strike at CN Rail before the federal government passed the back-to-work legislation it had threatened to use. In typical fashion, the officials called an end to the strike before CN engineers had voted on the tentative deal, making it all the more likely that workers will see no alternative to ratifying it when a vote is held. While the strike is now over, the threat of back-to-work legislation changed how this situation played out. This strike demonstrates why such legislation should be opposed.

    Back-to-work legislation requires that a strike end and threatens heavy fines and/or jail time for workers who disobey. It is usually used against public-sector workers , but not always. The privatization of CN Rail in the 1990s has resulted in a farcical situation where the federal government was prepared to legislate away the rights of private-sector workers in the interests of the “national economy.” In the eyes of the federal government, CN is too important to be struck but not important enough to remain nationalized.

    There is a long history of using back-to-work legislation to end “troublesome” strikes. Recent targets of back-to-work legislation in Canada have included CUPE Local 3903 at York University (2009), the BC Teachers Federation (2005) and the Toronto public transit workers (2008). Railway workers have the dubious distinction of being probably the first victims of back-to-work legislation in Canada: in 1950, a pan-Canadian strike by railworkers was declared unpatriotic in the context of the Korean War and promptly made illegal.

    Back-to-work legislation is such an effective weapon against unions because it relies on the bureaucratic labour relations system in Canada. Since World War II, Canada has developed a system of labour relations that, in exchange for providing unions with legal recognition and some limited rights, has banned unions from fully exercising their power. Canadian unions must be in a legal position to strike, which means they cannot go on strike during the life of a contract. If workers defy the law, the union can face heavy fines and officials risk jail time for not preventing “their” workers from going on strike. The result is that union militancy gets to be seen as dangerous by the leadership — it gets built up for contract votes or during strikes, but is played down in-between negotiations.

    Without this system in place and the threat of fines or jail time for officials who fail to keep the membership in line, governments would have to rely on conservative union leaders to police unionized workers or resort to violent repression against strikes. Back-to-work legislation is part of this bureaucratic system. Everyone who supports social justice should oppose back-to-work legislation on the principle that it reinforces the control that the state has over workers. The more depoliticized and tame the labour movement becomes, the less it is able to act as a vehicle for mobilization and organization for social change. Unions solely focused on contracts and playing nice within the confines of what is “acceptable” are not what workers need, but back-to-work legislation is one of the weapons the state uses to discipline unions into doing just that.

    It is important to remember, however, that the strike by CN railworkers was not a wasted effort. While it is true that the state quickly brought back-to-work legislation to the table in order to intimidate the railworkers, it is also true that the 1700 railworkers managed to shut down large parts of the Canadian economy in only five days of being on strike, and in doing so managed to make CN back down on the job-killing concessions they had been pushing for. Had there been no back-to-work legislation, the railworkers would have undoubtedly forced a better deal on the company than what they got in the end.

    Socialists champion the self-organization of the working class. Among other things, this wordy phrase means we support, as a fundamental political principle, the right of workers to form unions and strike. The vast majority of the residents of this country are workers of one sort or another, and all have a fundamental right to organize collectively for their economic and political interests. Socialists have a duty and obligation to help assist this process where possible — and this includes defending workers’ organizations, such as unions, against attempts by the state to limit their power by imposing back-to-work legislation.

    Chris Rigaux is a Winnipeg worker, activist, and socialist.

  • Review of Yves Engler's The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy

    Engler, Yves. The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy. Fernwood and RED. 2009.

    Reviewed by Murray Cooke [mcooke@yorku.ca]

     

    Multinational corporations pillaging the developing world, a trail of human rights and environmental abuses, repressive regimes propped up by foreign economic and military assistance, leftist and nationalist governments undermined by imperial interference, aggressive military actions via gunboat diplomacy, secretive special forces and ultimately ‘humanitarian interventions,’ destructive structural adjustment programs that undermine local economies by enshrining free trade and the rights of foreign investors. For many progressive Canadians, these images bring the USA, and perhaps the American Empire, to mind. Fewer would immediately recognize that we are referring to Canada’s international role as detailed by Yves Engler’s new book, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy.

    Canadians have tended to embrace a much different image of their own country’s role in the world; an image of peacekeepers and foreign aid provided by an ‘honest broker’ and ‘middle power.’ This Canadian self-image (or delusion) has become increasingly untenable for a variety of reasons, most obviously Canada’s invasion and on-going occupation of Afghanistan. It has been relatively rare, however, for anyone to directly and methodically take on this Canadian delusion. Therefore, this is a book that has been desperately needed for a long time.

    Engler is an activist and journalist, rather than an academic or foreign policy expert. His previous book (co-authored with Anthony Fenton), Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority, explored one case of Canada acting as “an imperial bully” in overthrowing the elected Haitian government. As Engler describes, “Events in Haiti made me question Canada’s peacekeeper self-image…I began to question my assumptions of Canada’s role in the world.” He was also faced with the challenge of explaining the reasons for Canada’s role in Haiti.

    This new book presents a vast range of case studies on Canada’s foreign economic, diplomatic and military relations from the pre-Confederation period to the present. Within chapters covering the various regions of the world (the Caribbean, the Middle East, Latin America, East Asia, Central and South Asia, and Africa), Engler provides sections on various specific countries, over 50 by my count. Hidden amidst the country-specific commentaries, there are more general discussions of Canadian foreign aid, the arms trade, the nuclear industry, peacekeeping, missionaries, NGOs and the complicity of Canadian universities and researchers. There is also a chapter on Canada’s role within multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.

    Engler’s exhaustive documentation requires us to abandon the myths of Canadian foreign policy benevolence, both past and present. The historical and geographic sweep of the book discourages us from seeing Canada’s imperial role as only a recent development, perhaps due to the Harper government. Just as American imperialism cannot be reduced to George W. Bush, Canadian imperialism cannot be reduced to Stephen Harper. Engler summarizes his finding by stating that “Canada’s role in world affairs has been revealed as consistently pro-empire (whether British, U.S.), pro-colonial (whether British, U.S., French, Portuguese, Dutch, etc.) and serving narrow corporate interests.”

    Canada is a significant source of foreign direct investment, which the Canadian state encourages through the Export Development Corporation (EDC) and the negotiation of bilateral investment treaties. Increasingly, many of those Canadian MNCs, particularly the mining companies, have been encountering significant opposition to their activities due to their negative implications for local environments, indigenous communities and workers. The Canadian state has long sought to protect the interests of Canadian foreign investors and protect global investment and trade opportunities more generally. As a result, Canada has maintained friendly relations with tyrants such as Batista (Cuba), Pinochet (Chile), the Shah of Iran, Somoza (Nicaragua), Mobutu (Congo) and Suharto (Indonesia).

    Canada’s military record is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Canadian foreign policy. Engler provides examples of Canadian “gunboat diplomacy” from the Central America to Asia. Furthermore, he critically examines Canada’s military role in Korea, Egypt, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The peacekeeping mythology is widely embraced by Canadians. “Popularly viewed as a benevolent form of intervention” Engler writes, “peacekeeping missions have generally been motivated by larger geopolitical interests…Most often, peacekeeping was Canada’s contribution to the Cold War…Since the end of the Cold War…there has been a resurgence of peacekeeping in the interests of Western imperialism.” Similarly, rather than being altruistic, Canadian foreign aid policy is shaped by domestic economic interests, geopolitical aims and counterinsurgency strategies.

    In a book that includes so much, one hesitates to suggest that more is needed, but there are some notable limitations in terms of content, analysis and format.

    First, Engler understates the degree to which the Canadian state has actively pushed neoliberal corporate globalization by aggressively pursuing multilateral and bilateral agreements on trade (in goods but also, very notably, in services), investment and intellectual property rights.

    Second, despite a concluding chapter entitled “Why our foreign policy is what it is and how to change it,” the book lacks a clear theoretical analysis. The country-by-country focus works well, but the book lacks an overview of Canada’s role and its evolution over time. In particular, the nature of contemporary imperialism and North-South relations remain unclear. Is Canada an imperialist power? Rather than referring to Canadian imperialism, Engler repeatedly describes Canada as a “junior partner” to the US and argues that Canadian economic and military integration with the US explains our support for American imperialism. Is the problem “Americanization” or “capitalism”? Would an independent Canadian capitalism (whatever that means) be benign? These are issues that need greater attention. Engler provides valuable food for thought, but not the analysis. This remains to be done.

    Related to the lack of theoretical clarity, his proposals for change are limited and lean toward a globalized version of social democractic, regulated capitalism. Engler is very critical of Canada’s relationship with the Global South, but he is not explicitly critical of capitalism per se. Understandably, Engler tends to focus on the most notorious MNCs. But if Canadian MNCs were not displacing indigenous people, smashing unions and destroying the environment, would their investments in the Global South still be problematic? Engler argues for improving the rule of law in developing countries so that MNCs are more constrained as (he argues) they are in Canada. He also recommends the strengthening of the rule of law at the global level, which raises a serious question about who will be setting and enforcing such laws. Engler argues that the influence of corporate interests over Canadian foreign policy needs to be counterbalanced by heightened foreign policy activism by domestic progressive forces. While undoubtedly true, what are the limits to this within a capitalist framework?

    Third, on a practical level, it is frustrating that such a detailed book has no index. This book is an amazing source for progressive researchers on Canadian foreign policy and Canadian MNCs. However, without an index it is more difficult to find all the references to Joint Task Force Two (JTF2) or peacekeeping or the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) or specific MNCs like Barrick Gold or the big banks. Similarly, Engler’s unorthodox and incomplete style of endnoting makes it a challenge to follow up his leads on specific topics. That said, Canadian activists/researchers would be well served to launch into Engler’s useful list of the 22 best books on Canadian foreign policy.

    These weaknesses don’t discredit the vitally important work that Engler have provided us. Does the world really need more Canada? Well, no. Engler clearly makes the case that Canada, the Canadian state, Canadian NGOs and Canadian MNCs have repeatedly played a destructive role around the world. This is a message that Canadians and, in particular, the Canadian left desperately needs to hear.

  • Where is the Left?

    By David Camfield

    In a June 13th Toronto Star article entitled "The Silence of the Left" columnist Thomas Walkom asks “Whatever happened to the left?” He goes on to point out that “Capitalism is facing its worst crisis in 70 years, yet the political movement that prides itself on its critique of the economic status quo is, to all intents and purposes, missing in action. Or perhaps missing in inaction.”

    Walkom points to the fall in support for social democratic parties like Labour in the UK and the Socialist Party in France in the recent elections to the parliament of the European Union. He acknowledges that in Canada the NDP has just been elected in Nova Scotia for the first time, but correctly points out that “with his promise to balance the budget next year, Nova Scotia premier-elect Darrell Dexter has positioned himself – fiscally at least – to the right of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.”

    In the 2008 federal election, the NDP proclaimed its support for balanced budgets (while bank economists talked of the need for deficit spending). As Walkom observes “in Canada, beyond calls for an improved employment-insurance system, the left has had little coherent to say about the recession. The NDP criticizes the government for spending money on the wrong things. It also criticizes it for not spending money fast enough.”

    Walkom correctly notes that “the left” – by which he means parties like the NDP — “in what it sees as a desperate attempt to modernize itself – has ended up parroting the old nostrums of those it once opposed.” How did this happen?

    After capitalism’s unprecedented three-decade period of sustained economic growth came to an end in the global recession of the mid-1970s, employers and governments launched an offensive on the working class and peasants. This worldwide assault included layoffs and attacks on wages, social programs, unions, workers’ rights, and regulations on capital. Out of these efforts to boost capitalist profits and power eventually came the reorganization of capitalism often called neoliberalism. New ways of organizing work to squeeze more out of workers, privatization, precarious employment (fixed-term contracts, temp jobs and the like) and investment and trade deals like NAFTA became the order of the day. So too did a host of economic policies that bled the people of the Global South.

    Social democratic parties accommodated to neoliberalism. In some cases, they enthusiastically embraced it. Parties like the NDP had never opposed capitalism, no matter what rhetoric some of their leaders occasionally used (or what some party supporters believed). They wanted a capitalist society with social programs and other measures that would improve the lives of working people and strengthen the national economy. During the years after World War II, big business parties like the Liberals and Tories in Canada came to share this broad welfare state agenda.

    As the welfare state agenda gave way to neoliberalism, social democratic leaderships made their peace with the more brutal form of capitalism that emerged globally. An alternative to capitalism itself was unthinkable to them. So too was any challenge to the power of major corporations. They were committed to playing by the legal and political rules that enshrine capitalist power no matter what party forms the government. They had no strategy other than trying to form governments to administer societies being reshaped by neoliberalism — a process they never challenged.

    In Canada, NDP provincial governments in Ontario, BC and Saskatchewan since the early 1990s have demonstrated this clearly. Now that capitalism is seized by a global crisis, the NDP is just as rudderless as the traditional right-wing parties.

    The main left alternative to social democracy in the decades after World War II was politics that looked to one or more of the “Communist” bureaucratic dictatorships for a model — Stalinism. But the appeal of this kind of politics (whether in a version that championed the USSR, China or another “Communist” state) was in decline even before the fall of the East Bloc and China’s shift to neoliberalism drove the final nails into the coffin of Stalinism.

    But why have the end of Stalinism and social democracy’s move to the right not led to the growth of a stronger left proposing a genuine radical alternative to capitalism?

    Walkom writes that “The so-called extra-parliamentary left has fractured into an array of groups focusing on specific issues that range from global warming to racism to anti-terror laws.” Although it’s misleading to suggest that in Canada the left to the left of the NDP was once united and is now fractured, it’s true that today there is no political organization that brings together even a sizeable minority of people who want deep social change.

    In part, this is a symptom of the fact that none of the main strands of 20th century left politics (social democracy, Stalinism, Third World national liberation, Trotskyism, anarchist socialism) today have much credibility with people who want to change the world. The global justice movement, whose high point in Canada was the Quebec City protests of 2001, and today’s economic crisis have nurtured anti-capitalist sentiments. But this is not the same as commitment to anti-capitalist politics.

    But the problem goes deeper. As Alan Sears has argued in "The end of 20th century socialism?" (in New Socialist 61)the current situation “is not just an organizational low point resulting from a lull in struggles. It represents, at least in the Canadian state outside Quebec, the exhaustion of a particular historical phase of socialist organizing oriented around a specific set of political coordinates (the Russian Revolution), emancipatory projects (full citizenship), regimes of work organization and ways of life for working-class communities.”

    As today’s social and ecological crises demonstrate, capitalism is a murderous, destructive system that must be replaced. Building struggles and new movements for social and ecological justice is an urgent task. So too is the nurturing of a new left — anti-capitalist, ecological and committed to liberation from all forms of oppression — that works to build resistance as part of a strategy for transforming society.

    David Camfield is an editor of New Socialist.

  • What’s Next? Evaluating the NDP Win in Nova Scotia

    By Luke Unrah

    So the NSNDP won the provincial election. It was landslide win really, over 45% of the vote and 31 out of 52 seats. Some of the districts won by the NDP shocked party members and supporters. Seats like Cumberland North, Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley and Kings North, which were not even thought to be in play, went to the NDP fairly early in the night. There were also several disappointments including losing two-term MLA Joan Massey in Dartmouth East to the very right-wing city councillor Andrew Younger and losing the working-class communities of Halifax Clayton Park to the incumbent Liberal and Cape Breton North to the incumbent Conservative.

    But the important question for the Left in Nova Scotia is ‘What’s Next?’

    The Right wing is cackling with glee with the results. The Chronicle-Herald, long the mouthpiece of the Halifax business community, had been predicting an NDP majority government for days. News Director and right-wing crusader, Dan Leger, wrote prior to the election, “All signs suggest we are ready for change and tomorrow night, Darrell Dexter and the New Democratic Party will become our new governors.”

    The morning after the election, Marilla Stephenson, another right-wing columnist, wrote, “It took years of patience and persistence, but ultimately it was Darrell Dexter’s softening of the New Democratic Party’s sharp socialist edges that boosted him into the premier’s office.” The Right is working hard to ensure the NDP become co-opted by the province’s business elite.

    But it was Ralph Surette, a comparatively more progressive columnist compared to his colleagues, who articulated the sense among many party members when he wrote that questions about the party’s direction were already “coming mostly from the left wing of [Darrell Dexter’s] own party.”

    It has to be said quite clearly that the NSNDP was never a socialist party. At best, it represents some vague social democratic and state capitalist policies – at worst it is a small-l liberal party. So on the one hand, there are high expectations of the new NDP government among various social movements, especially among labour movement activists and anti-poverty activists. On the other hand, the student movement and the environmental activists have been burned by the party too many times and there seems to be a sense that this will be business as usual.

    The election of an NDP government, despite its flaws, is a good thing. It means that the attacks on public sector workers’ Right-to-Strike will stop. It means that attempts to privatize public health care and education will stop. It means that various pieces of progressive labour legislation will be brought forward. But to achieve these gains and more will require mobilization from below.

    When NDP governments are elected, there ceases to be a left-of-centre voice in the Legislature. As a result the government only hears from two right-wing parties and a host of other business interests who meet with government regularly. In order to achieve even the most basic of social gains, the Left needs to be loud and active in pushing the NDP, proposing policy alternatives, and mobilizing the people.

    The progressive forces in Nova Scotia are not currently in a position to launch any kind of offensive. Major amounts of time and resources have gone into defensive struggles over the last decade and this has left our movements weak and disheartened by major losses. Reorganizing left-wing forces in Nova Scotia will take time. The Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, the Canadian Federation of Students, and the five District Labour Councils, have the biggest roles to play in rebuilding the left and preparing to mobilize on a progressive platform. These organizations are the largest democratic and popular movements in the province and they also have access to resources that smaller social movements do not have, including staff, print shops and money.

    The NDP win gives left wing forces in Nova Scotia time to pause, regroup and start thinking about what steps to take. The worst course of action would be to sit down and say that the NDP can handle all of the problems and we don’t need to lift a finger. The NDP win is a call to action to which the Left must respond forcefully.

  • Contract Concessions and the Crisis in Auto

    By Bruce Allen

    For years I have been writing articles and talking at a meetings concerning developments in the auto industry in Canada. I have consistently presented a set of arguments built around a longstanding observation that I have made concerning what is happening in the auto industry. I have argued that the multinational auto corporations have been using their control over investment decisions to systematically dismantle and take away all of the gains made by North American autoworkers since the United Auto Workers (UAW) was born in the mid-1930s. This means that these corporations have been withholding their capital in order to advance their agenda in a way not so unlike the way we as autoworkers used to either withhold our labour or threaten to withhold our labour in order to advance our collective bargaining agenda and make and build upon gains.

    But in recent years the tables have been turned. The collective bargaining process in the North American auto industry has been stood on its head. We as autoworkers no longer go to the bargaining table in order to win our demands. We go to the bargaining table in order to address the corporations’ demands in the hope of securing new work and remaining employed. Or at least that is what has been happening.

    In 2009 this situation has gone from bad to worse for autoworkers. As retired Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Research Director Sam Gindin recently observed, “It used to be that corporations promised jobs for concessions; now they aggressively demand more concessions alongside fewer jobs.”

    The brutal reality of the situation is that this is where the trajectory of concessions bargaining has taken us since it began to really develop in the industry in Canada in 1993 and more than a decade before that in the United States. In Canada that development immediately followed the announcement of a massive restructuring of General Motors North American operations in 1992 and logically coincided with auto corporations in Canada engaging in a concerted drive to extract contract concessions at the local level in order to gut local collective agreements and weaken the power of the union on the shop floor. Significantly and quite logically as well these developments also coincided with the North American auto corporations’ relentless drive to implement variants of the Toyota Production System and other lean work reorganization strategies in their operations.

    One set of concessionary collective agreements at the local level followed another throughout the 1990s in Canada and this phenomenon has continued into the current decade. This process has not only continued. It has has deepened. These concessionary collective agreements have crippled the power of the union on the shop floor of Canadian auto plants and beat the union into a state of increasing submission not so unlike what has happened in the U.S. since the beginning of the 1980s. This state of increasing submission has been reflected in the wholesale abandonment of an adversarial relationship by local unions toward the automotive employers. Consequently, the union’s agenda, particularly at the local level, has evolved and become more and more indistinguishable from management’s agenda.

    Locally managements have responded by consciously taking advantage of this weakening of the union’s power on the shop floor due to both this ongoing weakening of our local agreements and to workers’ pervasive fear of job losses by shrewdly and meticulously integrating shop floor union leaderships into the process of managing operations without compromising management’s agenda. Increasingly rank and file workers have found it harder to tell the difference between the message they hear from in-plant union leaderships and what they hear from the boss. As a result of this the corporations have increasingly prevailed in the battle for the hearts and minds of the automotive workforce. They have increasingly achieved ideological hegemony because the union no longer has an identifiable agenda of its own given that securing and retaining work at any price has increasingly become the sole priority of auto union leadership locally and Canada wide.

    This puts in context the efforts of the CAW leadership to constantly promote and encourage handouts of government monies to the auto corporations in order to attract new investment in auto plants in Canada. This likewise puts in context the conspicuous absence of any open criticism whatosever of these corporations by the CAW simultaneous with and reinforcing this advocacy of government handouts to them. Very significantly a fundamental truth has been forgotten along the way. Namely, that when the agenda of the union becomes essentially one and the same as the agenda of the employer the very reason for the union to exist as an independent entity is effectively called into question.

    This brings me to the developments of approximately the past 24 months. In addressing them I am compelled to focus on GM in Canada with some reference to developments in my own local union. I do this knowing that these local developments are typical of what is going on generally in the industry in Canada.

    The brutal truth of the matter is that the CAW has now engaged in four sets of concessionary contract bargaining with GM in approximately the last two years. In doing so this has born out something former CAW National President Buzz Hargrove said about two years ago when he remarked to the CAW’s national council that nowadays in the auto industry we are always negotiating. Significantly in saying this Hargrove displayed amnesia on his part by forgetting that such a practice has been in effect for many years in the U.S. where the United Auto Workers has been negotiating what are called Modern Operating Agreements. Modern Operating Agreements involve the continuous negotiation of contract concessions designed to enhance the competitiveness of local operations and to ostensibly improve their chances of survival.

    That said the first of these four sets of concessionary negotiations with GM were conducted at the local level in Oshawa, Ontario via what was termed a “shelf agreement” and then in St. Catharines, Ontario via what was called a “Competitive Operating Agreement”. Both of the resulting local agreements gutted and rewrote existing local collective agreements from start to finish giving the corporation almost everything it wanted locally in exchange for the promise of new work. In St. Catharines this meant new transmission work that has yet to arrive and which has been put off until 2012 and may never arrive give the state of the industry. In Oshawa this yielded work on a new Camaro.

    Next in March 2008 then CAW National President Buzz Hargrove opened the 2008 contract negotiations half a year early. He did so based upon a belief that collective bargaining would be tougher when the existing contracts with the Detroit 3 expired in the autumn of 2008.

    This was a pivotal turning point. We went from negotiating one set of concessionary local collective agreements to negotiating major contract concessions at the corporation wide or master level. Wages and pensions were frozen. Cost of Living Allowances (COLA) increases were “temporarily” suspended. A week’s vacation per year was given up. Starting wage rates were lowered from 85% of the established rate for each job classification to 70% of the established rate with the full rate to be paid only after three years of service. All the while the union leadership proclaimed that it had successfully resisted a United Auto Workers (UAW) style two tier wage and benefit structure involving drastically reduced starting rates of pay and benefit entitlements for new hires. Most importantly, co-pays for benefits were substantially increased with the amounts of money to be paid by workers increasing in each successive year of the collective agreements thereby setting the stage for continuous increases in these co-pays.

    Then came last year’s global economic meltdown. Following it and the ensuing global capitalist crisis the CAW was back at it again in March 2009 giving even more contract concessions. At GM the union conceded about $7.00 per hour in wage and benefit concessions. The contract was extended for another year with no wage or pension increases meaning we actually now had a 4 year contract. This effectively marked the end of the CAW’s long standing, very vocal opposition to long term collective agreements meaning agreements of more than three years duration. Our Xmas bonus was negotiated away. Additional co-pays on benefits were introduced. The door was open to a Canadian version of the UAW’s Voluntary Employeee Benefits Association (VEBA) which relieves corporations of full, direct responsibility for employee benefits and effectively guarantees the ongoing erosion of benefits via underfunding of this separate benefit fund. Coverage for long term care was reduced. Dental benefits were frozen at 2008 levels through to 2012.

    Despite all of these giveaways they were still not enough in the view of Chrysler and the U.S. and Canadian governments. Chrysler wanted $19.00 per hour worth of wage and benefit contract concessions citing labour costs at Japanese transplants in North America. The Canadian and Ontario provincial governments supported Chrysler’s position and put a gun to the union’s head saying there would be no government money for the cash strapped corporations in Canada otherwise. The CAW quickly gave in to them.

    With the resulting much more concessionary collective agreements at Chrysler in April newly hired employees will have to work 6 years before getting the established full rate of pay. New hires will now also have $1.00 per hour deducted from their wages to go to pay for their pensions if and when they retire. Their pensions will be capped at the amounts paid out for 30 years of credited service meaning you can work 40 years and will still get the pension of someone who has worked only 30 years. The waiting period for Sickness & Accident benefits was increased. Semi-private hospital care was eliminated. Refunds on education tuition for family members were reduced. A rebate paid to employees for new car purchases will end. The establishment of a VEBA to administer benefits went from being an item for discussion to a certainty.

    Worst of all contractual language was negotiated at the corporate wide or Master Level to allow for local arrangements where outside suppliers will be able to locate on site at and even inside Chrysler plants just like the experimental plants in Brazil developed by Ignacio Lopez formerly of Volkswagen in the 1990s. This supplier park concept will produce outsourcing of our work on a huge scale and devastate the power of the union on the shop floor of Detroit 3 auto plants in Canada.

    Then in a matter of weeks these sweeping contract concessions were suddenly deemed to be not enough for General Motors even though GM’s CEO had previously said that the contract concessions negotiated with the CAW in March were good enough. The Canadian federal and Ontario provincial governments adopted the same position.

    This brings us to where we are today. Namely we are faced with further concessions particularly affecting pensions at GM which have even exceeded those contract concessions negotiated at Chrysler. If these additional concessions are not subsequently matched at Chrysler then there will no longer be a pattern collective agreement in the auto industry in Canada ending a practice of negotiating industry wide collective agreements that has been absolutely critical to all of the gains North American autoworkers have made in the past. If they are to be matched then it will mean that the CAW will have to go back to the negotiating table at Chrysler. Ford of Canada meanwhile is sitting back waiting for the cascade of contract concessions to end at their competitors. Ford of Canada has publicly made it clear that it fully expects to get just as much and the CAW leadership at Ford is preparing to deliver similar concessions and will try to scare its membership into accepting them.

    In short Canadian autoworkers are being assaulted at a breathtaking pace. What is more the cascade of contract concessions will certainly continue because, as I indicated, the establishment of a VEBA for healthcare benefits means there will be an erosion of our benefits on an ongoing basis. This is due to the certainty of inadequate funding of the VEBA because when health care costs rise due to inflation additional monies to cover the additional benefit costs will not be put into the fund making reductions in benefits unavoidable. The downward spiral for Canadian autoworkers consequently has no end in sight unless and until the union’s rank and file finally says no to these corporations; corporations in the case of GM and Chrysler who will likely emerge from bankruptcy protection to become very profitable again.

    In short autoworkers never created this crisis. We are in no way responsible for it. But we are paying the price for this crisis in the auto industry with a cascade of contract concessions on a monumental scale.

    What is taking place is a quintessential example of Capital taking advantage of a crisis for which it bears sole responsibility in order to deal a historic and crushing blow to workers who have led the way for the entire working class. Accordingly the emerging outcome of these developments will be a historic setback for the entire working class in Canada comparable in its potential consequences to the defeat of the air traffic controllers in the United States in 1981 at the hands of Ronald Reagan and the defeat of the British coal miners in 1985 by Margret Thatcher. It logically follows that what we should be seeing is all of organized labour in Canada and beyond mobilizing to support Canadian autoworkers in the face of this enormous onslaught we are being subjected to.

    Accordingly in view of these things the relative silence of the leadership of almost all of the rest of the labour movement in Canada in response to this onslaught is worse than reprehensible. It is treacherous. Likewise the response from the leadership of the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) in Canada has been grotesquely inadequate with the leader of provincial Ontario NDP being virtually alone in coming to the defense of autoworkers and then doing so only to a very limited extent with regard to the issue of protecting autoworker pensions.

    Simply stated we are isolated in the face of this historic onslaught. The situation could hardly be worse. Disaster is staring us immediately in the face because we are in the process of being crippled and essentially all we are getting in response from our leadership are exercises in damage control and empty rhetoric about fighting again another day and possibly regaining some of the things we have just lost. Indeed it is absolutely impossible to take any of their claims about fighting again another day seriously given the duration, extent and acceleration of the retreat which has been taking place and the auto and labour leadership’s general unwillingness to mobilize the membership and confront Capital in response to its onslaught against us.

    To the contrary, as previously indicated, in the auto industry we have a union leadership very much in the habit of helping to scare the membership into accepting one set of concessionary collective agreements after another all the while stating that there is no alternative. They do this while knowing full well and sometimes even acknowledging that making government economic aid to the auto industry contingent upon workers taking contract concessions is a phenomenon unique to Canada and the United States. They know that even right-wing governments in countries like Germany and France would not dare to attach such conditions to aid for the auto industry. Workers and their unions in those countries would absolutely not stand for it and would be too likely to wage fightbacks that would terrify any government. Indeed Opel workers in Germany are not facing demands for contract concessions and Opel is subsidiary of GM.

    What is more the option of public ownership of the industry is not even being considered let alone being seriously advocated as an alternative worth fighting for. This is the case even while tens of billions of dollars of government monies are being poured into GM and Chrysler.

    In conclusion we are currently witnessing three related crises. One is the global economic crisis of capitalism. A second is the crisis specific to the auto industry. This second crisis simply would not exist in North America were it not for last year’s economic meltdown, the very costly privatized American health care system and the disproportionate number of retired workers relative to active workers in the plants; a phenomenon that exists entirely due to corporate decisions designed to lower the age of the workforce and avoid the training costs that would be generated by the layoff of low seniority workers and the retraining of those who replaced them on their jobs.

    The third crisis is a worsening crisis of leadership in the Canadian labour movement. This is clearly demonstrated by these events unfolding before our eyes, particularly in the auto industry, and by the wholly ineffectual response of the current labour leadership to it. In other words the crisis of the labour movement is a crisis of labour leadership.

    Bruce Allen is the vice president of CAW Local 199.

  • The Toronto Labour Council’s “Stewards’ Assembly”

    By Anonymous

    On May 7, 2009 the Toronto and York Region Labour Council (TYRLC) held a “Stewards’ Assembly.” It was attended by some 1600 shop stewards, officials, staff and some rank and file members of both public and private sector unions. Promoted in TYRLC communications to affiliated unions since the end of March as the “first ever mass stewards assembly” and an “historic event” needed to develop a “collective response” to the economic crisis, it flowed from an earlier large event, the Good Jobs Summit of Nov. 22, 2008.

    This event was a classic example of the kind of multiracial union-based mobilizing that takes place in some large urban centres in the US and, recently, Toronto and which is seen by many supporters of union renewal as “cutting edge.” It began with some economic education. This was followed by pre-arranged interventions from the floor, mostly by workers of colour who are struggling, with some limited successes, in the current crisis. In different forms, we heard “We can do it!”-style rallying cries from the front of the hall. Importantly, at the front of the room there was a multiracial panel of officials and staff that included some women of colour who are committed to the grassroots organizing of low-waged workers and workers of colour grassroots organizing (which their unions give little real space for).

    The fundamental problem with the event was that it was more of an audience than an assembly. All activity was tightly controlled from the front of the room. There was never an open mike, never a missed beat in the political process. CAW president Ken Lewenza had the opportunity to speak near the end of the event; this I can only characterize as offensive given his dedication to giving concessions to the auto companies and to union-employer partnership. The fact that the event finished with a speech by Toronto mayor David Miller (booed by a few of those present) was really quite something.

    We were repeatedly told to take both the TYRLC’s 6-point “Solidarity checklist” and the fix-EI petition back to our locals and to “mobilize our memberships.” The checklist includes vague but significant messages such as “put fair rules in place” and “don’t blame ourselves — or other workers.” Interestingly, TYRLC president John Cartwright regularly refers to this kind of organizing as “political bargaining.” If this is so, why do workers never even get to vote to ratify any of the various plans that Cartwright and the TYRLC leadership comes up with, as we would with contracts bargained with employers?

    During the event, participants all sat at round tables. At one point, we were given 12 minutes to speak to our table-mates with the goal of filling out a yellow piece of paper with our ideas on how to operationalize the “Solidarity checklist” delivered to us that night. We were also assured that all our yellow papers would be reviewed by Labour Council, which would use them to prepare an action plan, to be unveiled to us on Labour Day.

    On May 12 TYRLC affiliates were sent a follow-up letter calling this event a “resounding success.” The letter tells us about the four things that come next: getting signatures on the fix-EI petition and sending it back to the Council by May 29; posting the Solidarity Checklist on union bulletin boards; mobilizing for the June 13 rally planned jointly by the CLC, TYRLC and Good Jobs for All Coalition; and having focused discussions with members about these issues.

    I would say it might have been a historic event but I would also suggest that counting the heads of participants who have been sent off with vague tasks is not enough to measure an event’s effectiveness.

    Clearly, the TYRLC leadership has a political project that goes beyond what usually passes for “labour-community coalitions,” namely holding occasional events. The work done by people of colour to demand and achieve access to positions as union officials and staff is important. At the same time, a “mass” assembly is not the same as a “mass” movement. The ongoing activities of a campaign controlled from the top-down by a section of the union officialdom should not be confused by activists with a movement.

    The direction given by the TYRLC leadership at and after the event to discuss issues in our locals is not a bad one; we should be talking about them. But what if members in such discussions have some ideas about what to do? How do we connect with other locals? Where do we discuss our ideas, make plans and decisions? Or do we just talk among ourselves and then wait to hear top officials speak for us before we march into the Exhibition grounds on Labour Day? Fundamentally, in these isolating and difficult times, how do we learn to collectively tell the difference between participation and genuine democratic control and to demand the latter?

  • Charting the “Right” Course? The Nova Scotia New Democrats’ Platform

    By Luke Unrau

    The coming provincial election in Nova Scotia may very well go down in history. It could be the first time the New Democratic Party has formed government in Atlantic Canada. But the cost of forming government may be more than long-time party supporters ever thought they would have to pay. The cost of forming government in this election is the NDP’s principles.

    This election has seen the NSNDP emerge as a right-of-centre political force. Gone from the platform are promises around creating a public auto insurance company, reducing tuition, or advancing workers rights. The NSNDP platform reeks of populist, conservative policies.

    The key plank of the platform is to remove the 8% provincial sales tax in electricity, at an estimated cost of $28 million. While appealing to people’s anger at Nova Scotia Power’s rate increases, this policy doesn’t actually make sense. Instead of helping people who can’t pay their electric bill by cutting rates or conducting home retrofits, this policy gives an 8% tax cut across the board. This includes high-income households who will save the most as they also use the most electricity. A better policy would have been a call to return Nova Scotia Power to public ownership and place it under workers’ control, an immediate rate cut for those who need it most, and to transform the power company into an engine of economic growth.

    The second largest budget item is a 50% HST rebate when you buy a new home. This policy is estimated to cost $10.5 million. Instead of focusing on providing quality, affordable housing, the NSNDP has pulled a page from Stephen Harper’s handbook and now promises tax rebates when you buy a home. A far better option would have been to offer that funding as guaranteed loans to start community co-op housing, creating mixed income housing at no cost to the government. Another idea would have been to create a fund to boost home ownership, allowing working class families to get a publicly-backed mortgage at 1% interest, effectively cutting the cost of a home in half over the span of a mortgage.

    The third largest spending item is to provide new tax credits for students who graduate from community colleges and universities at a cost of $6.5 million. The Canadian Federation of Students referred to this policy as being “lifted” from the Conservative playbook. Previously, the NSNDP had committed to cut tuition fees by 10% and bring Nova Scotia’s tuition down to the national average. These tax credits do nothing to increase access to education and force students to continue paying the highest tuition fees in the country. A better policy would have been to eliminate tuition for community colleges at a cost of $18 million and cutting university tuition in half at a cost of $150 million.

    Overall, the NSNDP platform is projected to cost around $76 million. To pay for this, the NSNDP proposes an “Expenditure management review” which they suggest will cut 1% from all budgets result in $76 million in savings. To make matters worse, the NSNDP has said they will re-introduce the Conservatives budget if they are elected and that the first “NDP Budget” in 2010 will be a balanced budget.

    At a time when an economic crisis is devastating lives around the province and governments of all stripes are spending heavily to stimulate the economy, the NSNDP plan shows a major lack of leadership, vision and principles.

    What will the NSNDP tell a worker laid off from Eastern Protein Foods in Kentville when her EI runs out and she can’t find a job? What will the NSNDP tell a Steelworker laid off from Trenton Works when he wonders how he will pay his mortgage? What will the NSNDP tell the student who graduates with $65,000 in debt and no job?

    The economic crisis presented the NSNDP with a perfect opportunity to advocate for progressive public policy, to change the politics and economics as usual in Nova Scotia. Instead, they have decided to move even further to the Right of the political spectrum, leaving party members and supporters scratching their heads.

    An NDP government in Nova Scotia was the dream of thousands of workers across this province – the dream that if the NDP won power, there would finally be a government on the side of the majority, supporting workers, farmers and the unemployed. Darrell Dexter’s NDP is showing very clearly that if elected, their role will be to continue the destructive capitalist economic policies that have put thousands out of work, increased the gap between the rich and the rest of us, and allowed big business to dictate public policy.

    —-
    Interested in reviving socialist politics in Nova Scotia? Contact the Halifax New Socialists at halifax@newsocialist.org

  • The Winnipeg General Strike

    By Jim Naylor

    The Winnipeg General Strike is a landmark in North America by any measure. From mid-May to late June 1919 – for six weeks – about 35,000 workers – the bulk of Winnipeg’s labour force – walked off the job and risked hunger, blacklisting, and potential police and military repression. The event has often been commemorated by the labour movement in the city as it is this week; and sometimes more widely. There was, for instance, a tremendous exhibit in 1994 at the Manitoba Museum to mark the 75th anniversary, and a long-standing bus tour that many of you will have taken.

    My favourite, though, was a small event – the unveiling of a plaque at City Hall in 1986 (not the Steelworkers’ plaque, but one placed there by Parks Canada to mark the event). It was a wonderful example of what the strike means, or doesn’t mean to different people. The speakers were, if I remember correctly, Judy Wasylycia-Leis (now an NDP MP), who spoke about the Gainers meat packing strike that was going on at the same time in Edmonton and suggesting that they were, in essence, part of the same struggle for workers’ rights. This is generically true, I suppose (and raising the banner of solidarity was of course a good thing) but doesn’t really say anything specific about the events of 1919. Next up was Jake Epp, the Manitoba Tory MP and minister of health in the Mulroney government. He suggested that there was a time, long ago, when workers and bosses fought (although he managed to use none of those words), but we live in a more civilized society now. Then was Mayor Bill Norrie, who used the occasion to talk mainly about the rebuilding the Nairn Avenue overpass. Clearly, for these two, the faster the strike was forgotten, the better. The other thing I remember about the event was that they had dressed someone up in a period Mountie costume who stood around looking a bit self-conscious (although I may have been projecting that). Anyhow, I felt this was in considerable bad taste, considering that the RCMP was formed from the NWMP and the Dominion Police in the aftermath of the Winnipeg strike specifically and overtly to fight such uprisings for workers’ rights.

    Anyhow, the 1986 event was a clear example of the way the general strike lived on in Winnipeg as a touchstone of class conflict (or the kind of liberal denial of social classes and class struggle), but also without very much clear discussion of what really happened in 1919, and what specifically we might learn.

    First of all, 90 years is a long time. As we try to draw lessons, we have to be careful not to take events out of context. The general strike took place at a specific and extraordinary moment in world history, in the aftermath of World War I, at that time the most destructive war in history and by almost any measure, among the most pointless. A combination of factors – rapid industrialization before and during the war, full employment during the war that had given workers bargaining power that they had never had before, and of course the war itself, in which workers were promised democracy but received only greater and greater restrictions on workers’ freedoms, along with mass death on the front lines — were an explosive combination pretty much everywhere.

    This was an era of revolutions in Russia, Germany and Hungary, In US, there was a general strike in Seattle, a strike of over 300,000 steel workers (most notably immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who had been largely shunned by the official trade union movement), 400,000 coal miners struck, 120,000 textile workers, 50,000 men’s clothing workers. One in five of all American wage workers struck in 1919.

    In Canada, a similar wave of strikes took place in every region of the country. Without wanting to diminish the centrality or the drama of the Winnipeg strike, Winnipeg was hardly alone. At least 20 cities in Canada from Victoria to Amherst, Nova Scotia, experienced general or near general strikes in 1919. And, it is worth noting, these were not simply strikes in sympathy with Winnipeg, but generally were locally rooted struggles parallel to the one taking place here. To the extent that strikes did not develop successfully, it was because demands were often won, or electoral breakthroughs made in municipal elections (or in the case of Ontario, provincially, with the defeat of the Tories and the election of a farmer-labour government) and workers were willing to wait and see what might be achieved on that front. It is worth noting that industrial action and electoral action was not necessarily seen as opposed to each other.

    This context is important for many reasons, but it is crucial to understanding the strike itself. The mainstream understanding of the strike is that it was about collective bargaining and helped secure it for Manitoba workers. This is what it says on the Steelworkers’ plaque at City Hall. Well, it was sort of about collective bargaining. What prompted the strike was the refusal of employers to negotiate with federations of metal trades workers and of building trades workers. Interestingly, they had dealt before with individual craft unions, but were balking at the emergence of incipient industrial or general workers’ unions.

    I should point out that collective bargaining meant something different then, or at least had a different flavour than it does now. The collective bargaining system that we now have prohibits things like the Winnipeg General Strike. Sympathy strikes and strikes during collective agreements are banned. In 1919, that would have been seen as a restraint on workers’ power that prohibited true collective bargaining.

    By the spring of 1919, in fact, Winnipeg had come close to a general strike on three previous occasions over the preceding couple of years. Most importantly, in 1918, about 15,000 Winnipeggers had joined an escalating strike movement in support of the newly organized civic workers. The 1919 strike started after the local Trades and Labour Council (as it was called at the time) organized a referendum in which members of affiliates voted 11,000 to 500 in favour of a sympathetic strike.
    What is notable, though, is that well over twice that many, and probably three times, walked out. Most of the strikers were not even members of unions; certainly the possibility of forming a stable union, let alone achieving recognition from employers, was remote for many of them. At the very least, any direct (or even very indirect) benefits for huge numbers of the strikers are hard to glean.

    For this reason, I would argue that the event was in many ways more of a local (and potentially regional and national) revolt than a strike. It was both the product of pent up anger, but also of a broad and vaguely defined hope for a better world. This was, in part, rooted in the war itself. As the war progressed, governments and ideologues made increasing reference to the war having some greater purpose. Given the level of sacrifice and suffering, there was a sense that something new and better had to emerge from it. There was a sense, as one worker told a royal commission struck to study the 1919 labour uprising, that Canadian workers “were under the impression that something was promised them but they did not know what.” In part, workers began to take claims that the war was being fought for democracy seriously, but in their own way. To them, democracy meant not just formal processes, but a real (if in many cases vague) reorganization of social relations in the workplace and in communities. And they knew their bosses and war-time profiteering politicians well enough to understand that if democracy was going to come, they had to grab it themselves.

    So collective bargaining was an issue, but as much as anything else, it was the catalyst for a much broader struggle. This can be seen by looking at two key groups who stood outside of the officially defined trade union movement for the most part: immigrant workers and returned soldiers. Both, in their own ways, were wildcards in this struggle. They were workers, no doubt, but as we know working-class unity is potentially a fragile thing and could easily have fractured. Indeed, what is astounding about 1919 was the way in which it came together since both immigrant workers and returned soldiers had reasons to be resentful of the trade union movement in the months before the strike. How class identity was able to overcome these fractures might be something we can discuss, since 1919 is an important case.

    There is a tendency to think of the Winnipeg Strike as a battle between the working-class North End and the bourgeois south part of the city. This is not particularly accurate. Certainly the leaders of the strike committee, and most members of unions, did not live in the North End. They lived in the British working-class neighbourhoods of Fort Rouge, the West End, and Weston, among others. These neighbourhoods were where many of the incidents of the strike — conflicts over milk and bread deliveries, and so on — took place. There were, of course, organized workers in the North End but, significantly, a huge proportion of those unorganized workers who downed their tools were the largely Eastern European workers from the North End. And they did so in spite of the various exclusions they had faced. The last months of the war, in particular, had seen vicious attacks on immigrants and attempts to exclude them from the better jobs that many of them had moved into during the wartime labour shortage. Many such immigrants, politicized by the long struggle against Tsarism and against anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, and inspired by developments there in the previous two years, were able to look past this and recognize at least a common enemy in the bosses.

    This was the case despite the difficulty the strike leadership had in addressing the specific interests and identities of Eastern Europeans immigrants. The strike leaders responded strongly to the overt bigotry of the anti-strike Citizens’ Committee of 1000 and the city’s newspapers although, frankly, they rarely articulated demands that specifically addressed the plight of Winnipeg’s non-British immigrant workers, beyond the somewhat dubious (given the history of the British empire) call for “British justice” for all. Still, in the context of the strike opponents’ attempts to paint anything such immigrants said or did as treasonous, it was a way of saying, in 1919, that “no one is illegal.” As well, we have to note that the fact that few non-Anglo workers were in the official strike leadership was the product of both prejudice and the fact that their official presence would have ensured their deportation (there is some evidence that “ethnic” leaders like Jake Penner were de facto participants in leading the strike). And the rough inclusion of immigrant workers (immigrants from Britain were not considered immigrants at the time) was important since the strike, I think, did help restructure relations between workers of different ethnicities in important and lasting ways. I should add that the role of socialists affiliated, for the most part, to the various “language” organizations attached to the Social Democratic Party of Canada, as well as other leftists, was probably central to the success of the strike in the North End.

    The returned soldiers were an even greater unknown. In January 1919 a full scale anti-immigrant, anti-“Bolshevik” riot had broken out in Winnipeg made up largely of returned soldiers. They marched to the Swift meatpacking plant to get them to fire immigrant workers (“enemy aliens”) and they attacked a socialist memorial meeting for Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and then spent two days roaming the streets of the North End, attacking immigrants, smashing windows, breaking into homes and stores, demanding to see naturalization papers, and making people kiss the Union Jack. The local daily papers supported them. Certainly returned soldiers were generally anxious about their jobs and futures and could be potentially set against those who hadn’t fought in Europe and particularly immigrants. However, in the strike, veterans split largely along class lines.

    Through the strike there were parades of pro-and anti-strike veterans. A major concern of the strike committee, which was concerned about avoiding excuses for military intervention, was to prevent these parades from ever meeting. It was a silent march organized by returned soldiers that was attacked by the mounted police and irregular “specials” on Bloody Saturday.

    The point I want to make is about the significance of class. Despite deep divisions, the common interests of workers were identified and allowed for a degree of unity that surprised, probably, everybody. I think that this is significant now, in an era when many sometimes think of class as simply another social identity, and a focus on class is sometimes seen as avoiding, denigrating, or marginalizing other struggles. But there is no reason to think of this as a zero-sum game. Common participation in a movement for working-class ends demonstrated in practice how diverse and complex class was. While not pretending for a minute that prejudice was adequately addressed, or that deep gender divisions and expectations were undone, the labour movement that came out of the strike was less narrowly Anglo and male that it was going in. An essentially class event enhanced, rather than undermined, the struggles of those who faced other forms of oppression.

    This is an interesting and important point because earlier generations of socialists, and particularly Marxists, have been tarred with the brush of working-class essentialism, of seeing only working-class struggles as important and ignoring others. The charge is not entirely unjustified, and is probably true the Anglo male socialists who led the strike. My point here is that real events tend to break out of that narrow box, by putting other issues on the agenda. And, indeed they were downplayed in many ways in 1919.

    Speaking of how we remember the strike, this is interesting and important, because in the labour movement our understanding of the strike is shaped, largely, by intervening organizations who, in a sense, remembered it for us. The strike lives today largely because every working-class current in Winnipeg claimed the strike as its own. The plaque I spoke of earlier, at least according to the website, points to the strike as leading to the CCF (and, by extension, I suppose, the NDP). Certainly the Communist Party, along with the picture of the North End as the home of the strike, similarly drew such connections. And, although it died out in the decades after the strike, the One Big Union – a significant union at least in Winnipeg, where it was led by R.B. Russell – has a strong claim for a connection since it, too, was a product of “1919.”

    Well, they are all right, and wrong. A clear genealogy can be found in each case, which is hardly surprising in that the Winnipeg General Strike was general, and no working-class political current could exist without a deep relationship to it. And, of course, the period was one of a deep radicalization, reflected in all sorts of ways. Attention is often drawn to several events. In Winnipeg, there were a series of meetings – the most famous was the Walker theatre meeting that took place the December before the strike. It was cosponsored by the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC) and the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, and one after another leaders of each, and of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as well, denounced the federal government’s suppression of civil liberties during the strike and expressed their solidarity with the Russian revolution. The 1700 people present (made up of both Anglos and Eastern European immigrants) passed a series of revolutions and cheered the Russian Soviet Republic, declared their solidarity with the German Revolution, and spoke of a working-class future.

    The other key event was the Western Labour Conference, held in Calgary just two months before the general strike. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council had sent two prominent SPCers, R.B. Russell and R.J. Johns, as its delegates (they played central roles at the Calgary Conference). This was a meeting, essentially, of the entire Western Canadian labour movement, which decided to organize general strikes against the imperialist attack on the Russian Revolution and in favour of the 6 hour day, and decided to begin the process of forming a separate revolutionary union movement, the One Big Union.

    What is interesting, though, is the connection between all of this and the Winnipeg strike. The strike leadership (including many SPCers) repeatedly played down the connection with radicalism, repeatedly stressing that the aims were quite limited in terms of collective bargaining. The strike’s opponents, the Citizens’ Committee of 1000, on the other hand, termed it a revolution, worse: a revolution led by foreigners. This has led to a rather odd dichotomy in its aftermath: a debate about whether the event was a strike or a revolution. The bulk of an earlier generation of historians of the strike (from the 1950s to the 1970s) came from the CCF-NDP tradition and argued that it was simply a strike for limited social goals. Indeed, the notion that it was an attempt at a revolutionary seizure of power soon disappeared from the agenda.

    As I’ve suggested, though, it was neither. During the strike, the strike leadership played down any broader socialist claims. In part this was a defensive reaction to the unrestrained red baiting of the opponents of the strike who attempted to use the foreign Bolshevik claim to delegitimize the claims of the original strikers, and to turn the returned soldiers against the strike. The extreme volatility of the returned soldiers added to the strike leadership’s defensiveness, as did the very real fear of martial law and military action against the strikers. The War Measures Act was still in effect; constructing the event as an uprising led by enemy alien revolutionaries was clearly a means of creating the conditions for repression. Consequently, strikers were told to do nothing.

    This, though, is only part of the explanation. The strike was led by socialists of various stripes. Prominent members of the SPC and SDPC played central roles. These parties were revolutionary parties in the sense that they saw capitalism as unreformable and that it was necessary to replace it with socialist society run by workers. It was unclear to them, though, how the general strike fitted into this process. For socialists of this era, the development of socialism was an organic process that required both the development of appropriate social conditions as well as the working-class education. Their goal was “making socialists” through education. The strike was, for them, potentially as much of a hindrance as an opportunity. In any case, there was little evidence to them that Winnipeg workers were ready for socialism. The general strike was perceived as a more narrowly economic struggle, as an ordinary strike writ large.

    It is easy to overstate this, though, since this perception was already changing. The SDPC, which surpassed the SPC in size in Winnipeg, rejected the refusal of the SPC to address issues of strategy. The Calgary Convention in March had raised the issue of striking for explicitly political ends, and the Winnipeg Strike was, in itself, a massive event in political education. Whether in Victoria Park, or around the city, an estimated 171 mass meetings took place. It was an exercise, in itself, of a kind of democracy that far outstripped the restrained, drop-a-piece-of-paper-into-the-ballot-box-once-every-few-years kind of democracy. But there seems to have been little thinking about how, strategically, the strike could be built and broadened to provide a real kind of political defeat for Canadian capitalism. The opportunity did, in fact, present itself. With broad strike movements across much of the country, and the possibility that the railway running trades could strike and carry the strike to even the smallest centres, an even broader challenge was quite possible. At times, it was even likely. But it was never clearly posed or discussed by the socialist leadership at the time (to be fair, the political parties, the SPC and SDPC were hardly national organizations). The SPC had never had a national convention and the SDPC was more or less a coalition of groups.

    This relates to the political legacy. Although all claimed it, the political organizations that formed in its wake were often formed in an attempt to provide a more effective political strategy. Ian Angus, in the May-June 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension argues, correctly as far as it goes, that the Communist Party was an attempt to provide that leadership. He is incorrect in suggesting that “most of the leaders” of the strike joined the CP, but the connection he suggests is quite real; the CP represented a new socialist strategy developed by those who had, in many cases, been socialist militants before the strike and, no doubt, many who had been radicalized by it.

    In fact the left in Winnipeg in the aftermath of the general strike was large, diverse, and fascinating; they drew many different conclusions about the strike. The socialist leadership of the strike ended up, in the short term at least, in the One Big Union and in the Independent Labour Party. It was the latter that made important electoral breakthrough as several of them were elected, from jail, to the Manitoba Legislature. The fact that the ILP was an electoral party and that it eventually joined the CCF when it emerged in the 1930s, does not mean that they should simply be dismissed as social democrats. They still talked about revolutionary change. They ran in elections, but, for a time in the 1930s, disaffiliated from the CCF because of what they considered its non-working-class composition and sentiments. The OBU played an important role politically and culturally. They brought in a speaker – Marshall Gauvin – who gave anti-religious speeches (among other topics) at the Metropolitan Theatre every Sunday night for decades. A Women’s Labour organization formed and debated the role of women and women’s activism in many fields. The CP, of course, had its whole range of activities. All of this was not simply the product of the general strike — Winnipeg had a healthy labour and socialist culture going into it — but this culture was stronger, and more pluralistic, coming out of it.

    So the strike didn’t, in some way, create either the CP (the Russian Revolution did that), or the CCF or NDP (contrary to Angus’s comments, current historians of the strike do not argue that it gave birth to the CCF). General strikes and NDP, of course, do not fit easily in the same sentence. And, the radicalism and spirit of revolt present in the strike were directed not just against capital, but frankly against the trade union officialdom of the day. This is not to say there are not connections. The strike lead to many things and its significance was hotly debated in the 1920s and 1930s just as we are doing now.

    In the aftermath of the strike, there were show trials that are worth commenting on. Those who were arrested and tried (some immigrants were simply arrested and deported under the new and rapidly passed immigration act), were not in fact tried for any activities during the strike. They were tried for their ideas. The Canadian state put socialism on trial. They were charged for possessing the Communist Manifesto, for having attended the Walker Theatre meeting, etc. The state tried to criminalize their ideas. And it blew up in their faces. Some of the parallels to today – of labeling ideas and organizations as “terrorist” and criminalizing them – are apparent. But the defendants used the occasion of the trial (and their imprisonment) to publicize their ideas. Pritchard’s address to the jury is a wonderful case in point. It was published and very widely distributed. Ironically, despite the socialist strike’s leadership difficulty in connecting the strike to the broader struggle for socialism, the strike was a breakthrough for Marxist ideas in Winnipeg and beyond. And the very example of the strike demonstrated that there was a political subject – labour – capable of taking over a city and perhaps much more.

    Jim Naylor teaches History at Brandon University. This is a slightly edited version of a talk presented on May 8, 2009 in Winnipeg at the “Rekindling the Spirit of 1919” event organized by MayWorks.

    - – -
    newsocialist.org welcomes letters. The following is a response to Jim Naylor’s article:

    2009.05.13

    Dear friends:

    Thank you for posting the thoughtful and valuable talk on the winnipeg
    Strike, by Jim Naylor. I agree with most of what he says — and the
    points on which he disagrees with my Canadian Dimension article are
    far from vital to the subject.

    But since he raises it …

    Naylor: “He [Angus] is incorrect in suggesting that ‘most of the
    leaders’ of the strike joined the CP.”

    If the “leaders” are defined only as the Anglo SPC and Labor Church
    people who were in the spotlight, of course Jim is correct. Few of
    them joined the CP. But if we include the Jewish, Ukrainian and other
    immigrant workers (many of them affiliated to the Social Democratic
    Party) who actually organized factory walkouts, built the rallies, led
    the picket lines, I think the picture is different. By the early
    1920s, many — I believe most — of the left-wing leaders of those
    communities in Winnipeg were in the CP or its associated groups. They
    were leaders in 1919 and they became Communists.

    Naylor: “So the strike didn’t, in some way, create … the CP (the
    Russian Revolution did that).”

    I didn’t say it did. I said that the Canadian Marxist left concluded
    from the Winnipeg Strike that a new party was needed, that the SPC,
    the SDP and the various Labour parties were inadequate to the task.
    But it is misleading to say the Russian Revolution created the CP. The
    revolution took place in 1917. The unity congress that created the
    Canadian CP was in the spring of 1921, four years later. In between, a
    host of experiences, including the Winnipeg strike, convinced an
    overwhelming majority of Canadian Marxists that a party on the
    Bolshevik model was needed.

    As I said, these are side issues that historians and activists can
    discuss and will probably disagree on for many years — the most
    important thing is, as Jim writes, that the strike showed “that there
    was a political subject – labour – capable of taking over a city and
    perhaps much more.”

    Let’s work together on the “much more.”

    Ian Angus

  • Is nationalization of the banks good for us? Is it socialism?

    By Yen Chu

    The financial crisis has prompted the nationalization of major banks in the United States and in several European countries. The move to nationalize has sent journalists proclaiming the arrival of socialism. “We Are All Socialists Now” was the cover story in the February 16th issue of Newsweek. The story claims that the nationalization of the banks by the Bush administration back in September is a strong sign of socialism.

    Unfortunately, socialism is not just around the corner. While nationalization can be an aspect of socialism, it has also occurred under capitalism. As George Bush said when he moved to nationalize, “These measures are not intended to take over the free market, but to preserve it.” But while the government works to preserve the free market, the working class is left to suffer the effects of the crisis. Although no Canadian banks are facing nationalization, the nationalizations in the US and Europe raise the issue of what consequences these measures have on capitalism and what potential it has for the left.

    Nationalization occurs when private firms are taken into state ownership. Traditionally, nationalization meant that an enterprise simply became state-owned and operated. The implication is that private interests lose out on the profits. Profitable nationalized industries can generate a lot of revenue for government coffers and some on the Left believe this can benefit the working class if the government distributes that wealth. However, the working class doesn’t always benefit; the political and economic reality of nationalization is far more complex.

    Capitalist Nationalization

    Under capitalism, nationalization sometimes occurs when the private sector is unable to operate an industry, service or enterprise profitably. But because some enterprises are considered an economic priority, the government runs and operates them, such as VIA Rail. The working class does not have direct input into how these enterprises are operated and as such do not directly benefit from them.
    Today, the term nationalization is often used loosely – the current “nationalization” of banks means that the government owns shares in these firms, but the capitalist owners still run them and receive the profits.

    In the mainstream press and among capitalist economists, reaction to the recent “nationalization” in the financial sector has been mixed. There is an ideological debate over the role of government in the capitalist system. There are those free market purists who believe that any tiny speck of government interference is a whiff of socialism. They believe that everything from social services to public infrastructure must be left to the free market and that the system will sort itself out on its own without any government intervention. But most feel that the government needs to do whatever is necessary to save capitalism.

    President Barack Obama is caught in the middle of this ideological debate. His administration has so far resisted calls for further nationalization and control of the banks. But there is pressure for further nationalization from members of the Democratic Party, some in the Republican Party and finance capitalists, including Alan Greenspan. They see nationalization as a temporary measure to overturn the crisis. Some point to bank nationalization in Japan and Sweden as examples of how bank nationalization can help overcome the crisis in capitalism. Once things stabilized in those countries, the banks went back to private ownership.

    The Obama administration has not ruled out more nationalization, but it recognizes some of its dangerous implications for the capitalist marketplace. A New York Times article on January 26, 2009, quotes a political adviser saying that if the government is seen as owning the banks “the administration would come under enormous political pressure to halt foreclosures or lend money to ailing projects in cities or states with powerful constituencies.”

    The key word here is political pressure. The government does not act in the interests of working people without significant pressure. With trillions of dollars going to the banks and financial sector, the US government can not avoid the issue of foreclosures without significant political backlash. It has implemented a foreclosure rescue plan that mostly subsidizes the bank into renegotiating mortgages. The plan, however, does not halt all foreclosures and does not address the issue of affordable housing.

    Political pressure was used last December by workers in Chicago who occupied Republic Windows and Doors. Bank of America pulled the company’s credit even though the bank was partially nationalized through a $25 billion injection of capital by the government to encourage lending. This partial nationalization of the bank by the government did not automatically mean that the workers would be given what was owed to them. Instead, it was only through the workers taking direct action in occupying the company that Bank of America agreed to restore the credit in order for the company to issue the severance and vacation pay owing to them. The workers’ victory was bittersweet as they have been left unemployed. The trillions of dollars given to the banks is not trickling down to workers and the poor.

    The current “nationalization” of the banks is not even a moderate social reform where there is the potential to improve the living conditions of the working class. It is the nationalization of the banks’ losses and not the banks themselves. Working people in the US are paying for the losses but receive no benefits.

    Banks’ decrees affect our lives, but we have no control over these decisions. We deposit our money in banks and get very low rates of return. We have no say in how they use our deposits. They charge us inexplicable user fees for every transaction. We borrow money from them at very high interest rates and can become homeless when the banks refuse to renegotiate our loans when we become unemployed. We can become unemployed when the bank refuses credit to the company we work for. If we are workers in a company that goes bankrupt, we lose out to the banks, who get first claims on the company. We’re left without severance and vacation pay. Furthermore the banks refuse to set up branches in lower-income neighbourhoods, where residents end up relying on services such as Money Mart, which charges exorbitant fees to cash cheques and ridiculously high interest on pay day loans.

    Democratic nationalization

    Credit unions exist as an alternative to banking and offer some ideas and possibilities of what a democratic nationalization of banks could look like if financial institutions were nationalized and turned into public utilities. Credit unions are owned by the members who use the service. Members elect the board of directors who act on their behalf to oversee the operations of the credit union. Profits are used to ensure members get a higher rate of return on their deposits and are used to keep interest rates low.

    Another alternative to the current banking system is participatory budgeting, which was first implemented in Porto Alegre, Brazil. There, the public was directly involved through public forums in the decision-making process of how public spending would be allocated and what projects to implement. In banking, the model of participatory budgeting would allow the public to actively participate in the decision making process of allocating credit, setting interest rates and determining the supply of money in the economy.

    However, both credit unions and participatory budgeting have their limitations. Neither model address the issue of workers’ control and both highlight the limitations of a democratic nationalization of banks within a capitalist system, as they must operate within the framework of capitalism. Credit unions, for instance, were hurt along with the commercial banks when the value of hedge funds plunged. In Porto Alegre, participants had to make decisions on where to make cuts to social programs. Furthermore, if other industries are still privately owned, workers’
    exploitation still remains.

    Democratic nationalization does not automatically lead to socialism. Socialism is not simply the redistribution of wealth; it is about building the capacity for workers to run the political and economic life of society. It is only through strong social movements that democratic nationalization and the move toward socialism is possible. The current way in which banks are being rescued through “nationalization” should not be endorsed by people opposed to neoliberalism. But these new circumstances offer an opportunity to challenge the neo-liberal orthodoxy of the free market – and the capitalist system that gave rise to it.

    Yen Chu is a member of No One is Illegal-Toronto.