Austerity with a Smile: The 2014 Ontario Election

A Conservative government would have meant an immediate all-out assault on public services, poor people, students, and workers. Life would have gotten way tougher, and fast, for the province’s most vulnerable people and for unions, and activists would have been thrown into a panicked self-defence mode. Unless you subscribe to that bizarre sort of “the worse things get, the better” dream of social transformation, you have got to be pleased that radicals in Ontario now have a bit of breathing room that they would not have had if Hudak were in charge. Nonetheless the Liberal government Ontario did get is by no means a win for progressives.

Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government is committed to imposing Austerity-with-a-Smile. Yes, the smile we will get from Wynne is warmer and seems more genuine than Hudak’s evil chipmunk grin. Perhaps Wynne does remind people of their favourite aunt (this being the hard-hitting election-night analysis provided by one CBC commentator), and if you’re looking for a jogging partner you could do worse. But if you are looking for poverty relief, affordable schooling, decolonization, a fair bargaining process, migrant rights, environmental protection, a minimum wage that is above the poverty line or anything else that the vast majority of the people in Ontario want and need, you’re going to need to keep looking. Wynne will not make the Liberal government more progressive. She is but a kinder face at the top of a party whose core purpose is to help big business make profits at the expense of everyone else.

The Liberals have willfully adopted the Harris cuts to welfare and other forms of social assistance, allowed post-secondary tuition to skyrocket, and dismissed the right to collective bargaining by imposing contracts on teachers. Prior to the election, the Wynne government launched an attack on public sector workers that hurts younger workers especially. Unless Wynne’s government is shaken by a broad-based, militant anti-austerity movement, it will continue to oversee the further destruction of public services in Ontario. Even conservative pundits who criticize Wynne for not cutting fast enough say that it’s “plain as day that the Liberals would have to cut deeply… if they intend to make their balanced-budget target of 2017-18.” In fact, now that the Liberals have a majority government, Wynne won’t even have to smile so much as she does her dirty work.

Elections can be maddening… but they matter

So am I saying the election was meaningless? If all the main parties offered merely different flavours of austerity, why bother paying attention to the election in the first place and writing about it now?

Elections can feel like distractions from real political work. But even if you don’t like the electoral options and you hate the empty gesturing of campaigns, elections are significant. Not because real change will come through the ballot box — it won’t — but because elections are a uniquely powerful political arena that connects in all sorts of ways to the broad social struggles that radicals do care about.

For starters, elections not only reflect public opinion in the ways mainstream media suggest, but they also play an important role in shaping how people conceive of the world. During elections, people develop a sense of what is politically possible, what our fellow humans think, what is normal and what is outlandish. So, for example, in the recent election, the absence of a strong left pole or even a typical set of  New Democratic Party (NDP) reform proposals narrowed the collective sense of possibility that things could actually be different. Low voter turnout, while obviously reflecting political disaffection, can also create passivity and cynicism.

This is because to most people in Ontario, “politics” means electoral politics. It’s not that people have always felt this way or that they are incapable of seeing things differently. But at this moment, in the absence of vibrant social movements outside elections, Queen’s Park (along with Parliament and City Hall) is the core reference point on most people’s political compass.

For radicals to announce that elections are meaningless distractions that should be ignored is both condescending and strategically unwise. The social transformation toward genuine freedom and democracy that radicals dream of will not happen without mass participation. This requires taking seriously where people are at this moment, despite our hope that people’s politics will change as movements grow and flourish. Elections also give us clues about the strategies of the other side.

Learning from the 2014 Ontario election

If elections are political moments we can learn from, then what can we learn from the Ontario election? Recognizing that my viewpoint is partial, as all are, and that people with different experiences will see things that I do not, here are four points that I have been thinking about over the past few days:

1.The boundaries of official politics continue to narrow

This is not a new trend, but the NDP’s dash to the right in this campaign made for an even more restricted sphere of mainstream debate than usual. Nothing about a real plan to help poor people, nothing about lowering (to say nothing of eliminating) tuition, nothing about genuine environmental stewardship, nothing about affordable childcare and nothing about migrant rights. When all the main parties agree that politics is ultimately about doing what is best for business, it makes it very difficult for an idea to emerge that would threaten the mega-profits of corporations in order to raise people’s standard of living.

In this narrow political context, even supposedly progressive proposals are tied to what is good for business: Raise minimum wage a buck or so, it’s good for employees AND it’s good for business! Don’t use up all the water at once, it’s good for fish and thirsty people AND it’s good for business! How about something that’s bad for business but brilliant because it’s good for everyone else? Laughable, right? It sure is within the existing bounds of electoral debate.

This raises at least two questions: Are there ways to expand the boundaries of political discussion during elections, knowing that we cannot count on the parties to do so on their own? And what are the best strategies for expanding the boundaries of “legitimate” debate — that is, the best strategies for cultivating radical common sense — in between elections?

2. There are significant divisions within ruling groups about how best to implement austerity

While the election did not include debate about real political alternatives, it did reveal a split within the capitalist class: namely, between those who think the best thing for capitalist profitability is a new round of aggressive austerity attacks (i.e. the Hudak plan), and those who think that what capital needs most right now is a moment to consolidate the existing gains of the austerity agenda (i.e. the Wynne (and kinda-sorta-Horwath) plan). Even from the point of view of capitalists, austerity has problems. For example, as infrastructure decays in Toronto and traffic gridlock ensnares the city, the circulation of capital slows, preventing smooth growth and the steady accumulation of profit.

Also, austerity pisses people off. It can lead to mass social unrest (a la Occupy and the Quebec student strike), and could force unions to mobilize aggressively during defensive struggles. Social unrest terrifies the powerful. It’s not just radicals watching anti-austerity movements and experiments in new left formations around the world. Business and state policymakers in Ontario are watching too, and working hard to avoid the same happening here. Wynne may spend a bit more on infrastructure in the short term and try to mollify some sections of the working class, but this is not a break from austerity. It is a strategy within the austerity agenda.

In contrast to the policy of smashing harder, demanded by some capitalists and governments internationally and embodied by Hudak in Ontario, Wynne represented the “rational” version of austerity: securing the relative advance of business interests in the short term before risking a new offensive. It remains to be seen how radicals and policymakers at other levels of government within the Canadian state respond to this victory of Austerity-with-a-Smile.

3. People rejected the macho version of Austerity-by-Sledgehammer

Perhaps it is an obvious point, but it’s an important one all the same. Given the choice between Hudak’s immediate, massive cuts and something that sounded less painful, voters overwhelmingly chose the less-bad, bad options. Nearly 70% of Ontario voters chose something other than the Conservatives. This is encouraging. I wonder what people would choose if they were given an even better bad option, or even a pretty good one.

4. The left is completely on the sidelines… or, if you like, more positively… there is a massive opening on the left

The Liberals ran on Austerity-with-a-Smile, and the NDP ran to their right. There was no left alternative in this election, not even the thin-gruel batch of neo-liberalized social democracy we are used to choking down in the voting booth. Structurally, the NDP remains different from the other two main parties in that it is not as dependent on corporate funding (and therefore not as beholden to corporate interests), and it also retains meaningful historical links to unions, rank-and-file activists, and progressive community organizations. But you wouldn’t know that from the platform the NDP just ran on.

This reflects the serious marginality of left ideas and organizations, which will not be overcome with a single clever gesture. It puts a fine point on the fact that we need to start working now, and working differently, in order not to be so marginal next time and not be stuck forever on the sidelines. This means helping to organize anti-austerity, pro-social justice mobilizations, as well as devoting time and energy to considering political alternatives. It makes sense, for example, that radicals will want to discuss whether it is possible to revitalize the NDP or if a better strategy now is to focus on new left formations elsewhere in order to build an alternative here.

James Cairns is a member of Toronto New Socialists and teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University. He is the co-author, with Alan Sears, of The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the 21st Century