This year the Fightback editorial board is presenting our perspectives document as a tribute to our dearly departed comrade, Camilo Cahis. This document is traditionally published unattributed; but we are revealing that Camilo was the lead author in 2015. This is a testament to the abilities of the man, that he could be so creative while being so very ill. This document was discussed and ratified at the 15th annual congress of Fightback on 16-18 May, 2015.
It has been seven years since the beginning of the “Great Recession” and yet, no recovery is in sight. In fact, it looks like we’re set to enter a new round of crisis within the short term. Seven years ago, workers were told that if they put their noses to the grindstone and accepted sacrifice, good times would return. This has proven to be patently false. The inability of capitalism to provide improvements for workers for a prolonged period of time must form the basis of our perspectives.
Around the world, the patience of the workers is quickly running out. The inability of the ruling class to present a way forward is leading to significant sections of the working class to openly question the capitalist system. The stunning political developments in countries like Greece, Spain, and the UK are evidence that an increasing number of workers and youth are rejecting anything that stands for the status quo.
As bad as conditions may be for the general working class, they are especially rotten for the youth — and this is why we must pay special attention to developments amongst the youth. This is the generation that is most open to revolutionary ideas. Unlike older workers, today’s youth have had no experience of the reforms of the post-war period. Today’s working-class youth only know a capitalism that provides no real future for them. The inability of the ruling class to provide decent employment, decent working conditions, or even a pension, will eventually push the youth to draw revolutionary conclusions. This is a danger that even the bourgeois are beginning to realize. David Stewart-Patterson, the vice-president of the Conference Board of Canada, said, “Our report provides some pretty persuasive, quantitative evidence that yeah, there really is a systemic pattern here. These aren’t just stories of individuals — there really is a pattern that’s unfolded over a prolonged period, a pattern which has some disturbing implications going forward…. Before long, the younger generation is going to ‘get fed up.’”
Although we cannot predict exactlywhen events are going to happen, it is looking fairly certain that the relative calm of the past few years will not continue. In the relative short term, the instability and upheaval of the class struggle worldwide is likely to arrive here in Canada.
Is the Canadian economy headed for a new downturn?
The class struggle has proceeded at a slower pace in Canada, with the country escaping out of the depths of the immediate 2008-09 crash more quickly than many of its competitor nations. Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) dropped by 2.7% in 2009 — an amount almost identical to that of the USA. But, the Canadian’s economy recovery since then has outpaced that of many of the other advanced capitalist countries, including the USA, the UK, France, and the southern European countries. However, this is not to say that the Canadian “recovery”, or the general state of the economy, is healthy at all. It is akin to being the least sick patient in a hospital ward. And now that much of the world looks to be re-entering into recession — largely dragged down by China and the so-called BRICS countries — the underlying problems and contradictions within the Canadian economy may mean that Canada does more poorly than the typical country this time around.
The Conservative government trumpets Canada’s low unemployment rate, but says little about an employment rate (66%) that is at its lowest point since 2002. The percentage of the population that is currently in the jobs market is the lowest it has been in Ontario since 1998 and in British Columbia, since 1990. Mike Moffatt, an economist with the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, says, “It is indicative of a weak economy, no question.” Year-over-year employment growth has been under one per cent for 15 consecutive months, as of April 2015, which is the longest such streak (outside of recessionary periods) in the 40 years that Statistics Canada has kept track of this measure. Just as worrying is the fact that within these miserable numbers, temporary jobs have increased by 2.3 per cent while permanent employment has only grown by 0.1 per cent. The number of self-employment workers (which is often a desperate way out for out-of-work workers to gain some form of income) has grown by 2.2 per cent, but employment in the private sector has only increased by 0.2 per cent. And these numbers reflect an economy that is supposed to be in “recovery”!
The slowdown in the Chinese economy is being acutely felt in a number of countries, including Canada, which have benefited from the rise in the price of commodities, especially oil. Scotiabank’s commodity price index has seen a drop of nearly 28% from one year ago, and is now lower than in the depths of the 2008 crisis. This weakness in commodity prices has already forced the Conference Board of Canada to reduce their GDP growth estimates for 2015; overall growth across Canada is now expected to only reach 1.9% this year, down from the 2.4% estimate that the Conference Board had expected as recently as November 2014. The Conference Board also expects that the drop in oil prices is going to take $4-billion out of revenue for the federal government, and up to an additional $10-billion from the coffers of the various provinces across the country.
The collapse in oil prices is expected to hit Alberta particularly hard. At one point last year, Alberta was responsible for nearly 90% of all net jobs created in the country. This has now turned into its opposite. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) expects that the industry will slash $23-billion in capital spending in the western provinces as a response to low oil prices. This includes a 30% reduction in the number of oil wells drilled. One economist with CIBC World Markets expects Alberta’s unemployment rate to jump from 4.3% all the way up to 6.8% by the end of this year alone. Already, Alberta premier Jim Prentice has been warning Alberta workers, “We have been living beyond our means in this province.” As this document is being written, most economists are forecasting that Alberta could be headed towards a $7-billion deficit next year, with multi-billion dollar deficits to follow for a number of years, even if the price of oil slightly recovers. Furthermore, any recovery does not solve the issue as projections base oil price increases on reduced production rather than increased consumption.The implication is clear; cuts and austerity are on the horizon.
While the western provinces suffer, oil’s collapse is supposed to, in theory, benefit the manufacturing heartland of central Canada. Indeed, for the first time in over a decade, Ontario is expected to lead GDP growth amongst all the provinces, with the Conference Board of Canada expecting the Ontario economy to grow by 2.9% in 2015. Certainly, we should expect to see an increase in Ontario’s economy, but the question for us (as Marxists) is what benefit will the working class see from this bump in economic growth. Will we see a return of the well-paid, unionized manufacturing jobs that have disappeared across Ontario over the past two decades?
The fact is that neither the Ontario nor Canadian economy exist in an isolated bubble, and are subject to the same pressures and forces as the rest of the world. As has been stated repeatedly in both our national and international documents, this current crisis is not a simple cyclical downturn; it is a fundamental organic crisis of overproduction that goes to the heart of the inherent contradictions of capitalism. There are far too many commodities, goods, and services on the world market, and which cannot be consumed at a price that will generate sufficient profit to the capitalist. The global crisis of overproduction will necessarily contain the limits of manufacturing’s return. This is evidenced by the capitalists’ own hoarding of cash, worth nearly $700-billion in Canada alone. An IMF report from late last year even took the bourgeois to task, encouraging them to “take more risks” — investing in production rather than simple speculation on the stock markets, in order to escape the depths of the economic crisis. However, the bourgeoisie are not a charitable lot and are not about to simply throw their dollars carelessly to the wind; they would rather sit on record amounts of “dead capital” than risk investing in production, and having no market to which to sell their goods.
Worldwide, this is the weakest economic “recovery” that has ever been seen. The International Monetary Fund is now predicting a fourth consecutive year of worldwide economic growth that is below its “trend line”, which actually suggests that the global economy is growing weaker, not stronger. World trade volume has only grown by four per cent per year since 2010, compared to seven per cent growth in the period between 1996 and 2007. Even the more far-sighted members of the bourgeois understand that this is not a crisis that will resolve itself quickly. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) last year issued a report that foresaw stagnant worldwide economic growth until at least 2060! And at the root of this crisis is overproduction, or as the bourgeois call it, overcapacity:
“The bottom line, economists say, is that the global economy still has excess capacity. While many economies, especially in the developed world, shed substantial capacity during the recession’s deep downdraft, there is more capacity to produce than there is demand for that output. The IMF estimates that the world’s advanced economies are still operating at about 2.5 per cent below their capacity – and chronically below-normal global growth means demand hasn’t been sufficient to close that gap.
“The continued overcapacity has meant little need to hire more workers. The International Labour Organization reported this week that the global labour market still hasn’t fully recovered what it lost in the 2008-09 crisis. It said global employment is 61 million jobs below its long-term trend line, reflecting the gap that opened up during the crisis and has never closed.” (The Globe and Mail, 23 Jan. 2015)
Furthermore, capitalism’s logic means trying to generate the greatest degree of profit possible. The boss is not going to simply reward workers with higher wages or benefits out of benevolent generosity. One economist warns that despite lower oil prices and an apparent bounce-back in the US economy, Canadian workers (particularly those in the old industrial heart of south-western Ontario) should contain their expectations of the old manufacturing jobs and conditions suddenly re-appearing:
“Manufacturing employment declines in Ontario are not a made-in-Canada phenomenon. The twin pressures of automation and globalization are causing assembly-line jobs in the developed world to become extinct.
“The largest integrated steel mill in North America is the Gary Works in Gary, which has been producing high-quality steel for over a century. In 1950, the plant employed 30,000 workers and could produce six million tons of steel per year when running at full capacity. Today, the plant houses only 5,000 workers and has a maximum capacity of more than seven million tons. Automation has brought forth extraordinary increases in productivity and product quality. It has also ended the career of many a manufacturing worker.
“The days of the large-scale manufacturing plant are coming to an end…. Labour-intensive manufacturers that could automate did so, and firms that could not moved their operations to countries with much lower wage costs…. The decline of factory jobs, through both automation and globalization, has given manufacturers the upper hand in negotiations with workers and governments.” (Tyler Klein Longmire, “Reforging Ontario”, reviewcanada.ca)
So, any increase in manufacturing jobs (at the expense of jobs in the commodities sector) must be seen through this lens. It is unlikely that the uptick in manufacturing will be enough to make up for the losses that will be seen in the commodities sector of the economy. At best, low oil prices and a weak dollar will merely slow the decline of manufacturing, rather than lead to any growth in employment.
No sector of the Canadian economy is immune to this crisis. Even those employed in precarious, low-wage jobs are suddenly seeing those jobs disappear. This has been most evidenced by the crisis in the retail sector. This is particularly concerning because according to Stats Canada’s latest National Household Survey, retail jobs are now the largest source of jobs in Canada, accounting for nearly 12 per cent of all employment in 2011, and one of the few sectors of the Canadian economy (aside from oil and commodities) that was creating new employment in the most recent period — even though many economists admitted that these jobs rarely provided a good wage or standard of living for workers. Earlier this year, 17,600 retail jobs were eliminated when Target shut down its Canadian operations, one of the largest mass layoffs in Canadian history. But this wasn’t the only retail outlet to put thousands of Canadian workers out of a job. Future Shop, Mexx, Jacob, Smart Set, and Sears have all recently shut down operations, or significantly curtailed their presence in the country, due to the lack of confidence in the weakening Canadian economy. According to the Bank of Canada, hiring intentions in the private sector has reached the same depths as following the initial financial crash in 2008-09, and extends to most sectors of the economy, not just oil. The crisis in retail, reflecting the broader growing crisis of the Canadian economy, will only add to the hopelessness and despair facing Canadian workers.
Compounding the problem of joblessness is the record levels of debt that is being carried by the average Canadian family. According to a recent report by the credit-monitoring agency Equifax, total private Canadian debt has now climbed to $1.529-trillion at the beginning of 2015. Debt now represents 163% of the average family’s annual income. Since 2008, the only country in the world that has seen private debt increase at a higher rate than in Canada is crisis-stricken Greece. As of yet, we have not seen the wave of bankruptcies that have plagued the Greek banks, but an increasing number of bourgeois sources are worried about where the situation in Canada could be heading. For instance, the Canadian Payroll Association reported that more than half of all workers reported living paycheque to paycheque — i.e. that it would be “difficult to meet their financial obligations if their paycheques were delayed by a single week”. Amongst those below the age of 30, 63% reported living paycheque to paycheque. Based on these numbers, it would not take much for a large number of working-class Canadians to be unable to sustain the massive amount of debt that they are carrying.
Underlying these historic levels of debt is the housing bubble, which has yet to burst across most of the country. Aside from a brief blip at the beginning of the latest financial crisis, housing prices in most major Canadian cities have skyrocketed, fuelling a boom in construction and jobs, but also record mortgage debt that has made Canadian housing some of the most unaffordable in the world. A common benchmark to judge affordability is that the average household should spend no more than one-third of monthly income on housing. One study by RBC found that level to be surpassed in most Canadian cities; in Toronto, the average household spends 56% of monthly pre-tax income on housing while in Vancouver, it is 84%! Overall, Canadians spend the third-highest amount of income on housing on the planet. The IMF has even estimated that the overall Canadian housing market to be overvalued by anywhere between seven and 20 per cent, and that it is due for a “soft landing” in the next few years.
The bourgeois may attempt to use euphemistic terms such as “soft landing” instead of housing crash, but the effect could be quite dangerous for the Canadian economy. Even though the difficulties resulting from the drop in oil prices are only just beginning to hit, there are already serious concerns about what effect it will have on the overheated Canadian housing market. Calgary has been one of the strongest markets driving the construction of new homes; in 2014, housing prices in Calgary increased by 8.8% over the previous year, the second-highest percentage increase in the entire country. But already, there is serious concern that the good times are over. Total annualized home sales have fallen to their lowest level in five years and the total number of unsold homes on the market has more than doubled. Furthermore, because of the nature of work in the oil patch, the working class in Alberta tends to be much younger than that in the rest of the country, with many young families, and who are heavily indebted. There is serious concern that if the oil crisis is prolonged and that mass layoffs take place in the oil sector, many people will be forced to default on their debts. Immediately following the 2008 crash, the federal government bailed out the major Canadian banks to the tune of $175-billion to cover bad debts; because of the massive build-up of the Canadian housing bubble, the total cost of a bailout this time around could be much more significant. Deputy bank of Canada governor Lawrence Schembri recently wrote a paper contending that the Canadian government is too exposed to the housing market via its mortgage insurer CMHC. Schembri said the government-owned Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s $546-billion exposure was “unsustainable”, especially when it is compared with the total federal debt of $615-billion.
The toxic combination of the overall crisis of production, the slowdown in China and the effect it is having on oil and commodity prices, the Canadian housing bubble, and the massive debt load carried by ordinary Canadians means that Canada may end up being more heavily affected by a new downturn in the world economy than many of its competitors. This will be a sharp difference than what we saw during the first stage of the current capitalist crisis. The type of austerity measures that have shaken many countries in Europe may have to be implemented sooner, rather than later, by the Canadian bosses.
The political front
There will be federal elections later in 2015 and as this document is being written, it is completely impossible to predict which party will be forming the next government. All that we can tell, at this point, is that there has never been more disgust and disillusionment in bourgeois democracy. Any of the three national parties — the Conservatives, Liberals, or NDP — could conceivably win the election under the right circumstances.
The federal NDP made a historic breakthrough in the 2011 federal election. Prior to that point, most of the pundits and so-called “experts” had said that the NDP had a “ceiling” of about 20% support amongst Canadians. However, the general crisis, both in the economy and in politics, and which has arguably been felt most acutely in Quebec, pushed a historic number of Canadians to reject the two status-quo parties that have dominated federal politics since Confederation. In Quebec, the NDP won 58 seats in the 2011 election, a historic breakthrough.
The NDP’s success in 2011 came because of its connection to the working class rather than its platform. This was evidenced a few months after the election upon the death of party leader Jack Layton. Tens of thousands of mourners attended his funeral, and later covered Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square with messages of condolence and solidarity. In fact, many of the scribbles inscribed in chalk contained quasi-revolutionary messages — many of which ran counter to the rightward policies that Layton was pushing in the NDP at the time of his death! However, often, the working class may ascribe in their party, or their leader, their own hopes and yearning. This is the connection between the working class and their party.
After the election, we wrote that the NDP had a historic opportunity to polarize the federal political scene if it presented itself as the political voice of the workers, youth, and other oppressed sectors of society. The Liberals, acting as the “human” face of the Canadian bourgeois, could be swept into the dustbin of history, much like the British Liberals were following the 1929 general election in Britain, as Bay Street would be forced to coalesce its interests behind the Conservatives.
Unfortunately, the NDP leadership has largely squandered the opportunities that opened after the 2011 election. Rather than presenting an alternative to the crisis of capitalism, the party tops moved to remove mention of social ownership from the preamble of the party’s constitution. In response to spending cuts by the Harper Conservatives, newly elected leader Tom Mulcair responded by saying that an NDP government would use a “scalpel” instead of a “sledgehammer” when looking for spending cuts — not exactly the message that workers and young people are looking for when they are seeing a continued decrease in government services!
Even in the realm of foreign affairs, which had always been an easy area for the NDP to present a left-wing face, the party’s leadership has come under intense pressure from the ruling class to stand for the interests of Canadian imperialism. In both Ukraine and Venezuela, for instance, the party aligned itself with reactionaries, which even included aligning itself with fascist forces in both countries! However, it was the leadership’s siding with the Israeli invasion of Gaza in the summer of 2014 that finally broke the inertia and emboldened the rank-and-file to finally confront the rightward shift of the NDP.
It would be incorrect to view the current leadership of the NDP as Blairites — trying to sever the labour movement from the party. Rather, the NDP bureaucracy are the worst type of opportunists who believe, wrongly, that by trying to present themselves as responsible “managers” of capitalism, this will curry favour with the Canadian ruling class. Furthermore, they are mistaken in the belief that by moving towards the right, they will be able to broaden their electoral support. The opposite is true. Why would anyone necessarily bother voting for the NDP if they can get a similar program by voting Liberal? Moreover, by moving towards the positions of the two main bosses’ parties, the NDP is ignoring that 40-50% of the population that no longer sees any reason to vote. These tend to be, overwhelmingly, the youth, the working class, the poor, and other oppressed sectors of society.
Most of the sectarians view the mass organizations in an empirical and superficial manner. They substitute the pronouncements and dictates of the Tom Mulcairs, Andrea Horwaths, Darryl Dexters, and Adrian Dixs for the entire membership of the party. They see what the party is today and believe that this will be its state for all time. In his seminal work, “The Class, the Party, and the Leadership”, Trotsky explained:
“A leadership is shaped in the process of clashes between the different classes or the friction between the different layers within a given class. Having once arisen, the leadership invariably arises above its class and thereby becomes predisposed to the pressure and influence of other classes. The proletariat may ‘tolerate’ for a long time a leadership that has already suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events. A great historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between the leadership and the class…. But even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilizing the collapse of the old leading party.”
Coming from the debacle around Gaza, and electoral defeats in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario, New Brunswick, Trinity-Spadina, and the Toronto and Winnipegmunicipal elections, the leadership quickly backtracked. The party leadership’s position around Gaza resulted in isolated occupations of NDP MPs’ offices, spontaneously organized by ordinary NDPers. The executive of the New Democratic Youth of Canada (NDYC), the federal party’s youth wing that is largely inactive, even wrote an open letter rebuking the leadership.
The NDP brass was given some breathing room after the death of Jack Layton. The continued rightward drift of the party’s election platform and speaking points were justified in the name of “modernizing” the party and making the party appear more “electable” to the general public. However, the opposite has been true. The leaders claimed that positioning themselves as “responsible managers” of the economy would lead to power. Instead, all it has done is deliver one embarrassing defeat after another for the NDP — Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Ontario, the Trinity-Spadina federal by-election, and finally Olivia Chow’s stunning collapse in the Toronto municipal election. There has been a general build up of resentment as ordinary NDPers have seen the party move away from the working-class principles it is supposed to represent, while being no closer to taking power.
Since this point, there have been several measures announced by the party, both at the federal and provincial levels, that seem to suggest that the party brass has realized that they have gone too far and need to turn the stick towards the left, even if marginally, to appease the base of the party.
At a federal caucus retreat in October, Mulcair announced two real reforms that would be central planks in the next federal election campaign — universal childcare, provided for no more than $15/day, and a $15/hour minimum wage for workers in federally regulated industries. Although we can argue that these reforms do not go far enough, they are certainly a step in the right direction (especially compared to what had been put forward by the party previously), and do speak to some of the real concerns held by working-class people across the country. The federal leadership has also taken a relatively good stand against the Canadian participation in the new war against the IS in Iraq and Syria, as well as opposing Bill C-51, the new so-called “anti-terror” act that would severely curtail civil liberties in Canada — and which is being supported by the Trudeau Liberals. In Ontario, after suffering a scare at the leadership review in November, Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP have been leading a vocal campaign against cuts to public-sector wages and potential privatization of government services by Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals. This is a marked change from the NDP’s atrocious campaign in the June provincial election where the NDP campaign proposed creating a “minister of austerity” that would be responsible for cutting $600-million every year!
This slight leftward turn by the NDP leadership could only occur if the party brass felt real pressure building from the working-class. The new promises announced by the NDP have led to a slight uptick in the polls, but it may be a case of being too little, too late to reverse the ground lost since 2011, as many workers may not notice the shift in direction by the time the federal election is called.
But, there is still an opening for the NDP to win the next election because of the ambivalence, incompetence, and outright hatred, for both the Conservatives and Liberals. The Conservatives have greatly disappointed Bay Street, who had expected a majority Tory government to put the jackboot to the labour movement. But, to remain in power, the Tories are also forced to appeal to their populist rural base, which has increasingly come at odds with the interests of Corporate Canada. Harper halted the sale of Potash Corp and Nexen after a nationalist outcry, and has continued to push for income splitting and the “Family Tax Credit”, which have even been decried by bourgeois economists as a terrible waste of money that will not benefit the economy one iota. Lately, the Harperites in control of the Conservative Party have decided that the keys to victory lie in appealing to their lunatic fringe — seeing terrorists in every corner and raising the spectre of 75-year-old criminals roaming the streets of Canada.
Unfortunately for Bay Street, Justin Trudeau has been a great disappointment and further discredits himself every time he opens up his mouth. The Liberals are continuing to hope that Trudeau’s name and hair will propel him to 24 Sussex Dr., but every day that passes further exposes how much of a dimwit the man is. In this scenario, any of the three parties could win — potentially a majority government, or more likely a minority one.
Given the weakness and concern over the Canadian economy, it is very likely that regardless of which party comes into power, there will be sharpened attacks and cuts to social programs and the public sector. As mentioned earlier, as bad as the situation has been under Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, the federal government has not been able to ram through the worst austerity measures. With the slump in oil prices and the potential bursting of the real estate bubble, there is a likely chance that the federal government could be returning back into a situation of deficit. There will be a push by Bay Street to place the cost of the upcoming recession on the backs of workers — through a combination of program cuts and layoffs in the public sector.
If the NDP does manage to form government, either by itself or in coalition with the Liberals, and it is unwilling to break from the confines of capitalism, it, too, will have little choice but to implement the demanded austerity. In this sort of situation, we could see the NDP go down a similar road as PASOK in Greece, the PSOE in Spain, or the Socialist Party in France. There will likely be a honeymoon period as NDP supporters celebrate the formation of government, but this will certainly be short-lived as the realities of the capitalist crisis quickly come to the fore. Just like the Bob Rae Ontario government was forced to do, a Mulcair federal government would have to quickly decide whether it obeys the dictates of Bay Street or meets the aspirations and demands of the working class.
If the NDP were to implement the cuts and austerity demanded by the bourgeois, there would certainly arise a significant opposition to this betrayal. What occurs next is hard to tell, but it is instructive to look at a few historical examples. When the British Labour Party government of the 1970s attacked the working class, this led to the rise of the left and the splitting away of the most right wing elements. However, with the betrayals of the Bob Rae Ontario NDP government, the unions were forced into opposition (especially CUPE and CAW), but no organized left emerged. Instead, the left became disillusioned and drifted away, while the abstention of some unions prepared the way for the Mike Harris Conservatives. It is also possible, especially in the event of a Liberal-NDP coalition, that the Mulcair clique will “go home” and fuse with the Liberals — leaving a party that is significantly weakened on the parliamentary front, but far closer to the unions and the workers’ movement on the streets. We cannot tell exactly which of these scenarios will play out, so it is necessary to keep an eye on events and be prepared for sharp and sudden changes. What is almost certainly ruled out is a peaceful period of reformist improvements.
Finally, what will occur if the NDP is reduced back to its traditional third place standing? Unlike with Jack Layton, there is very little love for the Mulcair leadership in the party. Mulcair was elected for one reason only — to win. If he fails to deliver the goods it will make his position very untenable and this may very well discredit the right-wing of the NDP. However, it is instructive to look at the wave of leadership crises within the party. Carole James, Adrian Dix, Andrea Horwath, and Greg Selinger, have all faced varying degrees of member and caucus revolts that, at its root, reflect the impasse of right-reformism. In the past, such as during the 1970s, these leadership crises would have led to the rise of a left-wing alternative leadership. But this has not occurred due to the extreme degeneration and demoralization of the left-wing of social democracy. The weakness of the left has led these failed leaders to hang on, or be replaced by equally right-wing individuals. In the previous period, the “soft-lefts”, despite being anti-Stalinist, gained a certain confidence from the existence of the alternative model of the USSR. The collapse of this model, and the prolonged period of relatively low class struggle, has led all of the lefts to give up on socialism, even in words. The Keynesian capitalist policies of today’s so-called left are frequently to the right of the policies defended by the party right-wing of the 1960s and 70s. All we can say is that in the coming period there will be plenty of opportunities for the discredited right-wing to be replaced by a bold left leadership. However, it seems almost certain that this leadership will not be found amongst the present pathetic “lefts”, and would have to come from an unsuspecting source — if it comes at all.
When will the social explosion come?
There is more than enough combustible material for a social explosion to erupt in Canada. Indeed, as this document is being written and discussed, a new social eruption appears to be forming in Quebec — and one that potentially could be larger than the student strike that shook the province in 2012. The pressure felt by the Quebec Liberals to restore financial balance, at all costs, is potentially provoking a new war with the province’s public-sector workers. Bill 3 has effectively ripped up existing collective bargaining agreements with unionized workers, in order to attack workers’ pensions. This is certainly not what Quebec voters were thinking when they rewarded Philippe Couillard and the Liberals with a majority government a year ago. This lie, this betrayal, has struck a nerve in the province’s workers and provoking the largest social crisis in Quebec since the 1972 general strike. Even the police, the coercive arm of the bourgeois state, have been affected. The president of one of the province’s police unions is on record of stating, “Only with difficulty can we blame people for not submitting themselves to the rules when we see the government tearing up agreements. In the current context, with this government, it is difficult to say to people to respect the rules and laws.”
The 2012 movement was limited by the fact that the working class did not enter the struggle in an organized fashion. The potential was there, to build the links between the working-class and student movements, as evidenced by the spontaneous outpouring of working-class people during the nightly “casseroles” protests. But despite this limitation, the student movement was able to defeat the Jean Charest Liberal government and temporarily put a halt to the tuition increase. Unfortunately, the disconnect with the labour movement and the anti-electoralist position taken by the student movement leadership meant that the momentum of the 2012 student struggle was not able to be maintained, and the newly-elected Parti Québécois government was able to ram through the tuition increases.
This time around, the movement is based around the demands of the workers, with the students serving as the auxiliary. There is a potential that the workers could shut down the province, putting great pressure on the Liberal government. And this time around, the student leaders appear to be cognizant of the fact of having to unite with the workers’ movement if they are to defeat the government. The movement in 2015 could be longer lasting, and have a greater effect moving forward, as the class struggle heats up in Quebec.
Workers and youth of Quebec have shown great elan and a desire to fight. Unfortunately, they’ve been confronted with either timid or confused leaderships. On the one side, the trade union leaders have been trying to keep a lid on the movement and therefore tend to frustrate mobilizations of the rank and file. On the other side, some student leaders have just promoted escalating actions regardless of objective conditions. This has caused a backlash among some sectors of the student population. In response to the opportunism of the union leaders, the student activists tend toward adventurist individual actions and a boycottist approach towards the workers’ unions. These two poles are really just two sides of same coin and, in fact, compliment and reinforce each other. The disgusting opportunism of the union leaders pushes the youth in an ultra-left direction, but an ultra-left approach can only serve to isolate the student activists and strengthen the labour bureaucracy’s hold on the rank and file. Both sides are a barrier to the struggle moving forward successfully.
But whither the rest of Canada? The social conditions in English Canada are no better (and in many cases, even worse) than in Quebec. Largely, however, the industrial struggle has been very quiet with a few exceptions.
What has kept a lid on the class struggle in the rest of Canada has been the absolute bankruptcy and rottenness of the labour leadership. The extent of the backwardness of the leaders in the labour movement has almost been breathtaking at certain points. In an effort to prevent the right-wing Tim Hudak Conservatives from being elected, significant sectors of the Ontario labour movement came to the side of Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals in the last provincial election. A group of labour lefts even labelled the Liberals’ budget “the most progressive budge in 20 years”. The president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), Sid Ryan, even criticized the NDP for having voted down the budget and plunging the province into an election. This is despite the fact that bourgeois economists have even claimed that the Liberals’ austerity plan contains deeper spending cuts than were implemented during the hated years of the Mike Harris/Ernie Eves Conservative government!
Since the election, Ontario’s public-sector workers are quickly beginning to understand the effects of theunholy alliance that was made between their leaders and the Ontario Liberals. As one public-sector union after another enters into negotiations with the government, they are quickly realizing that the Liberal government is looking to extract their own pound of flesh in order to clean up the mess that is the province’s finances. (Currently, Ontario’s budget deficit stands at $12.5-billion, the highest in the country, and its public debt at over $300-billion, one of the highest sub-national totals in the entire world). Union after union is being told that the government has implemented a strict “zero-mandate” — i.e. the net cost of wage increases, benefits, pensions, etc., must equal zero. If wages are increased, then there must be sacrifices by the workers somewhere else.
At the time of writing, education workers at Canada’s two largest universities, the University of Toronto and York University, are in the middle of a brutal strike where the university administrations are demanding further cuts from what are already poverty wages. Both unions had initial offers below the poverty line which were recommended for ratification by the provincial and national CUPE leadership. Of course, this is all being done at the behest of the Ontario government that has placed austerity at the forefront of its agenda. But aside from some stronger language from the Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU), most of the labour leadership has yet to come out attacking the Liberals’ austerity agenda.
The pathetic display of leadership by the labour leaders in Ontario looks like it will be replicated in the rest of Canada in advance of the federal election in 2015. The mantra coming from most of the workers’ leaders is, “Anyone but Harper, anyone but the Conservatives.” At their convention in Vancouver, UNIFOR, the country’s largest private-sector union, called for strategic voting by their members; UNIFOR members should help elect Liberal candidates where they think they will be in a better position to defeat a Conservative candidate, even if it means voting against the NDP. The short-sightedness of the labour leadership is astonishing; it was the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin that brought in the harshest cuts and attacks in Canadian history, including massive cuts to social services (which have never been restored), and the sacking of a full-third of the civil service at the time. The betrayals of the labour leadership only help to disorient and demoralize the rank-and-file workers that are trying to fight back against the cuts, attacks, and austerity that the ruling class is imposing upon them.
However, as was said in relation to the leadership of the NDP, the sorry state of the labour leadership is not going to continue forever. Already, we have begun to see the very beginnings of a change in mood and consciousness with the election of Hassan Yussuff as the new president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Yussuff’s election marked the first time in the CLC’s history that a sitting president was challenged for the leadership, and not re-elected. Yussuff was forced to campaign from the left, to differentiate himself from the concililationist and discredited policies of his predecessor, Ken Georgetti, that had essentially left the CLC toothless as a tool to organize the Canadian workers’ fight back. Unfortunately, Yussuff has done little to make himself any different from Georgetti since getting elected, and has helped to organize labour’s campaign to support the Liberals in the upcoming federal election.
For those who lament the “lack of consciousness” in the working class, we only need to look at the strikes at the University of Toronto and York University where the education workers, at the time of this document's writing, have repeatedly rejected bad tentative agreements reached by the unions’ bargaining teams. At both universities the strongest challenge was from rank and file members; at the University of Toronto, most of these members had little to no experience in politics. The bureaucracy is not stronger than the forces of history and undoubtedly, as conditions continue to deteriorate for workers, new challenges to the bureaucracy will arise.
The future rests with the youth
The paralyzed state of the labour movement in much of Canada cannot last forever. As mentioned earlier in the document, it is important to view things dialectically. The contradictions and pressures of the capitalist crisis will eventually force the working class to move, even though they are currently being blocked by their leadership. And leading this charge will be the youth.
The older generation, particularly the leaders of the labour movement, still have the old lessons and old experiences guiding their activity (or lack thereof). Rather than viewing the post-war boom as an anomaly in the history of capitalism, they are convinced that this is how the system is supposed to work and that it is only a matter of time before we return to a period like that of the 1950s, and 60s. As we have explained in all of our international documents and articles, the present crisis is no simple cyclical crisis; instead, it is part and parcel of an organic crisis of capitalism, one that goes to the very core of the contradictions built into the system. The OECD itself (not exactly a Trotskyist organization) is predicting up to 50 years of stagnation and crisis.
The youth of today, unlike the older generation, cannot remember a period when capitalism provided them a future. They don’t remember “the good old days” because they have never been able to experience them. From as far as they can remember, regardless of how much time, work, and effort that they have put in, all that they have been rewarded with is low-paid, precarious jobs — and that’s assuming they are even paid at all. They are forced to take on onerous student loans that often appear like they will never be paid off. Pensions and benefits almost appear to be a pipe-dream. And the most marginalized of youth are constantly harassed and threatened by state institutions. For today’s youth, it is not as difficult to imagine an alternative system because the current one offers them virtually no hope.
It can be the youth that can help spark the more generalized movement of the working class. Around the world, it has often been radicalized youth moving onto the scene of history that has helped to provide the spark and push to overcome the inertia that has plagued the labour movement worldwide. Even if we look at the developing mass movement in Quebec, which is mainly focused on the conditions of workers, it probably would not have come about if it had not been for the magnificent movement of the students and youth in 2012. Even the talk of a new “Quebec Spring” directly references the youth movement of 2012.
We should look forward to similar explosions of anger from the youth in the rest of Canada. As briefly mentioned, the strikes at the University of Toronto and York University are the first major confrontations by public-sector workers against the Ontario Liberals’ austerity agenda. It is indicative that these are young workers.The crisis in the oil sector could have a huge effect in Alberta, as many workers in the oil patch tend to be quite young. We do not know exactly when, or where, these movements will arise but the crisis is too deep, too severe, for young workers to stay at home. At a certain point, material conditions will force the youth to begin to take their own futures in their own hands. And, this can help awaken the general working class.
Around the world, we are beginning to see a rejection of all that is old, that represents the status-quo. Seven years after the financial crisis began, there is no hope in sight for the working class. Increasingly, the oppressed sectors of society are beginning to envision a future that does not include capitalism. The conditions that have given rise to this radical turn are now beginning to manifest themselves in Canada, and this country will not be immune to the wave that is sweeping the rest of the planet. However, in no other country has capitalism yet been overthrown, despite historically large mass movements. It must be our duty, comrades, to build the revolutionary tendency that can provide the ideas, methods, and tactics that allow the working class and youth to finally overthrow the decrepit system of capitalism.