In order to understand what is to come it is necessary to understand what came before. In January and February 2020 the Fightback editorial board drafted the following perspectives document. This piece outlined the general processes in Canadian politics and economy in order to orient the activity of revolutionaries. Most notably it detailed the coming economic crash that would impact Canada especially hard. We said that all this crash needed was a spark to set it off, but we didn’t know what that spark would be or exactly when it would strike. Now we know that the spark was the COVID-19 pandemic.
While much of the document has been superseded in the space of a few weeks, it forms a very educational overview of the situation right before COVID. The British Marxist Ted Grant was fond of saying how sharp turns and sudden changes radically alter the consciousness of the masses. In this introduction we shall attempt to update the perspective up to the current situation in the first few weeks of the crisis.
Together with the rest of the international capitalist class, Canada enters the pandemic woefully unprepared and with a complacent leadership. Decades of austerity have gutted the ability of the healthcare system to weather this assault. Hospitals frequently reported being at 105 per cent capacity in normal times, with patients treated in hallways. Guidelines stipulate that hospitals should run below 80 per cent of capacity precisely to be able to react to situations like the one we are now facing.
In the 1980s Canada had over 6.5 hospital beds per 1000 people. Now that figure is barely over 2.5 beds when the World Health Organization recommended level is above 5. This puts Canada below Italy, Britain, and the USA. If the pandemic takes off in Canada to the same extent as in Italy, and the government cannot turn around this statistic, then thousands upon thousands will be left to die without treatment.
There is also a massive shortage of personal protective equipment and ventilators necessary to treat the sick. This in turn puts the limited number of healthcare workers in peril. Right-wing governments such as that of Jason Kenny in Alberta, and Doug Ford in Ontario, were in the process of implementing a new round of cuts to healthcare and public health. Here we see how capitalism puts profits ahead of the lives of working class people.
On top of the chronic mismanagement of society is the criminal negligence of governments in the face of the outbreak. Western states were woefully unprepared despite having months of warning. And in the weeks when infection rates were beginning to rise all the concern was for the maintenance of profits and the economy. Two weeks ago Doug Ford was even telling people to travel and enjoy the March break school holiday. The BC NDP government was telling people that there was no problem with skiing in Whistler.
“Profits before people”
If capitalism could be said to have a motto, “profits before people” would aptly describe their philosophy. The banks, the corporations, and profits are sacrosanct, and people are expendable. This was clear from Justin Trudeau’s first bailout that gave $10 billion to corporations and only $5 milion to workers in a minor reform to Employment Insurance. Workers in this scenario are worth 0.5 per cent of the corporations. This meagre crumb excluded the 70 per cent of workers who don’t qualify for EI, plus the so-called self employed and gig economy workforce.
The delay in introducing supports for ordinary people was due to the government and corporations not wishing to give a single penny to workers who might demand the continuance of those reforms once the crisis is over. It wasn’t until the following week that any further measures were announced, in which time thousands more were likely infected due to being forced to work for economic reasons. But even those measures were insufficient and delayed. For those not qualifying for EI the maximum support is $1800 per month. In our document we note that the median rent of a 1-bedroom apartment currently on the Toronto market is $2300! And to add insult to injury, people may not receive this money until May and many will likely be disqualified due to bureaucratic restrictions. This puts lives at risk as people are forced to work when they should be isolating.
Again to underline the priorities of the state, twice the level of support has been given to tax measures as to wages and benefits. Tax deferrals and corporate welfare overwhelmingly benefit the rich and leave the poor with little help.
There has also been talk of a bailout for the oil and gas sector that has seen oil prices plummet below $8 per barrel. The sector was already in crisis before COVID as we detail below. It is totally criminal that these billionaires who decry socialism and demand that the free market prevail when workers face bankruptcy now all have their hands out for government support. Where is the invisible hand of the free market now?! Market methods have shown themselves to be precisely useless. This is a lesson for all workers in the coming years.
It remains to be seen how long the pandemic-triggered slump will last. On March 24th it was announced that almost a million workers had applied for unemployment benefits, representing a 5 per cent jump in unemployment. These figures were twice as bad as the worst month of the Great Depression. Early estimates predict Canada will experience a slump at an 11 per cent rate in the second quarter of 2020. At the time of writing, one third of the value of the TSX has been wiped out; eradicating eight years of growth. But the true depth of the slump will only become clear in retrospect.
However, as can be seen from Canadian Perspectives, coronavirus was not the underlying cause of the crash, which was on the verge of being triggered by any number of factors. This is a classical capitalist crisis of overproduction. Debt also plays an exacerbating role, which will only be increased by the current bailouts. This gives us insight into the world after COVID.
Lenin said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” These weeks are such a turning point. Marx explained that social conditions determine social consciousness. In these weeks consciousness is developing not on a weekly, but even on a daily or hourly basis. People are seeing that the bosses and the state care more for profits than for workers. Paramedics are asked to share a single mask as they provide care. Workers on a condo construction site are told to report for work despite the lack of even the most basic hand washing amenities. Parasitic landlords demand their rent promptly on the first of the month.
People were encouraged when the Ontario and Quebec governments announced the shut down of all “non-essential” workplaces, but this hope was dashed when it was revealed that the overwhelming majority of the economy was deemed “essential”! Yet another example of profit before people. This has led to spontaneous walkouts by workers and calls for a rent strike. People will not forget the actions of the bourgeois in the years to come and millions are radicalizing.
But this radicalization has had no assistance from the labour bureaucracy. The Canadian Labour Congress issued a scandalous statement with no content except to say that they were working hand in hand with the business council and the government. The federal NDP wasn’t much better, writing a congratulatory letter to Trudeau on the bailouts, with only the mildest of suggestions to give extra help to small business! The BC NDP government has been one of the slowest to react and could not even issue the same ban on evictions moved by Doug Ford. These betrayals by the reformists will also be remembered by the workers in the years to come.
Depending on the depth of the crisis there may be a move towards a national unity government of the Liberals, Conservatives and maybe even the NDP. Despite his vitriolic language in the recent Wet’suwet’en uprising (which is explained in full in Canadian Perspectives), Andrew Scheer has said that he will have to tone down opposition. The NDP could be brought in to cover the left flank of the government. Alternatively, given the NDP leadership’s inability to give any opposition, it may not even be necessary to bring them into government. To counteract the growing anger of the workers there will be a message of national unity. We are all supposedly “in this together” and should wrap ourselves in the Maple Leaf.
In Quebec, the move towards “national unity” behind premier Legault is defended by the left party Quebec solidaire, who recently said that the reactionary CAQ government is the conductor and QS would act as second fiddle! The public sector unions have also offered their full collaboration with the government. After agreeing to pause the current public sector negotiations, they now seem to be ready to sign a 3-year agreement that offers no gains to its workers, all in the name of unity in the fight against the virus.
We will see which side predominates in the battle between national unity and those who recognize that we are not “all in this together” as the bosses prioritize profits over people. There will be spontaneous explosions of walkouts and rent strikes. We should promote such actions whenever possible. But whether or not such actions become generalized during the lockdown period, the seeds of mass opposition will be planted.
There is a desperate need to shut down all non-essential work. The delays and reckless exemptions from this rule show that the capitalists cannot be trusted. Decisions as to what is actually essential need to be decided by workers’ control and management. In classical fashion politicians and the media have focused their criticism on misguided individuals who do not isolate, but totally ignore corporations and the state who demand people needlessly work. Notwithstanding the confused directions from the top, everything is reduced to bad personal decisions while those who actually run society get away scot-free.
Instead of partial measures and bureaucratic delays, there needs to be full guaranteed pay for all workers. Those in essential services such as grocery store workers should get double pay as a hazard bonus. Any bosses who say they cannot afford this should be forced to open their books. Supermarkets are currently making massive profits. If they are genuinely unable to pay they should be expropriated to assure the delivery of essential services. Similarly, all plants that are capable of producing ventilators, personal protective, and other medical equipment, must immediately be taken over by the workers and production ramped up to maximum. The barrier to this is overwhelmingly the profit motive, and patents which need to be ripped up so people can live. Everything needs to be retooled as if we are in a war – which we may as well be.
While Liberal, Conservative, and NDP governments focus most of their resources on corporate bailouts and tax measures that disappear into the plunging markets, we demand no bailouts, only nationalizations. There are two periods in this crisis. At the moment we are in the first stage of lockdown where the state tries to contain the outbreak. They will add billions of debt during this period and many people will fall sick and die. The length of this stage is dependent on the success of containing the virus, which is always and everywhere hampered by the profit motive. The only methods that will be truly effective are those that violate the sacred rights of private property and the free market.
While in the midst of lockdown it can seem like the crisis will never end. But sooner or later the situation will thaw. Humanity will survive even if millions die due to the negligence of the capitalists. But it will not be the same humanity that survives. At this point the question will arise, “Who pays?” Billions will have been added to the debt rolls and somebody will have to pay back all that money. The question of who pays is often the key driver in past revolutions.
Some bourgeois economists are talking about a quick rebound after three to six months of contraction. This is frankly wishful thinking that has no basis in reality. In Canadian Perspectives we outline the structural weaknesses of the Canadian economy. The housing bubble will burst and throw hundreds of thousands of construction workers out of work. There is no hope for the oil patch and low oil prices are probable for the foreseeable future. And manufacturing will likely be pummelled by growing protectionist tendencies internationally. All borders are currently closed and with Trump in the White House they are not going to be opened any time soon. Even the movement of goods in the European Union is collapsing, such as when Germany refused to sell protective masks to Italy in the crisis.
Canada is particularly vulnerable to a rise in protectionism. Exports represent 32 per cent of Canadian GDP, compared with just 12 per cent in the United States. We shouldn’t forget that the 1929 crash lasted from 1929 to 1933, but the Great Depression lasted for a decade due to trade barriers and competitive devaluations. Protectionism seems a likely perspective in the coming period.
Debt will be a millstone around the neck of an economy attempting to recover. In healthy times, capitalism can utilize credit to dedicate resources to a new sphere of production with a higher rate of profit. This debt then needs to be paid off as the sector matures. But now all sectors of society – state, business, and family – will be drowning in debt at precisely the wrong stage of the cycle. Instead of dedicating resources to new production, any surplus will be sucked up by clearing past loans.
The experience of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is instructive with regard to the pernicious effect of debt. The Haitian revolt of 1791-1804 by the “Black Jacobins” was the first successful slave revolution. But they were attacked in the following years and were literally forced to buy their freedom by French imperialism. They took on a debt to the value of all the freed Haitian slaves. It took Haiti almost 150 years to pay off the balance of this debt plus interest. Instead of dedicating resources to develop the country, money is dedicated to foreign bankers. This is why Haiti is in a condition of constant crisis.
The question of who pays will be explosive. Governments will attempt to put the burden on the working class and take away all the emergency measures implemented during the crisis, and then continue to claw back all reforms gained in the post-war period. But having seen the selfish actions of the bourgeois the workers will not quietly submit. The spectre of sickness and death changes psychology and people will be much more willing to fight than in previous times.
We demand full pay for workers, but no bailouts for the corporations. But like 2009, it is likely that all the bailouts and tax referrals will be written off as a gift to the capitalists at public expense. These gifts will be paid for by austerity, regressive taxation, or printing money. The reformists, who are allergic to taking the fight to the bosses, will likely prefer printing money over the other unpleasant alternatives. But whether they do so via the present method of “quantitative easing” to the banks, or a “people’s quantitative easing” proposed by some lefts, this is no solution. It merely results in the standard of living of the workers being eroded by inflation.
The only answer to “who pays” is to make the bosses pay. They have shown themselves totally incapable of running society and have brought humanity to the edge of the abyss. We detail below how they have amassed over a trillion dollars of uninvested dead money sitting idle in bank accounts. These funds, which are the product of the unpaid labour of the working class, should be immediately seized to defeat the virus. Society can only move forward out of the present impasse when we expropriate the capitalist class and dedicate productive resources to need and not greed.
Massive fights are in preparation. A fight for survival during the lockdown, and a fight for our future after. Rosa Luxemburg explained that the choice before humanity was socialism or barbarism. Never has this been more apparent. It is necessary to hold together the revolutionary forces in this time and resist the forces that would atomize the working class. The International Marxist Tendency has built an important base amongst Canadian workers and youth, and needs support now more than ever. If we can unite the most class-conscious and self-sacrificing fighters in these terrible times then there will be a strong force to assist workers and the oppressed win the post-pandemic struggles. We hope you find our analysis educational and useful in the struggle. If you agree with our perspectives, please get a subscription, sign up for one of our online discussions, and join us in the fight against capitalist barbarism.
March 24, 2020
Canadian Perspectives 2020
The world is burning. Due to a combination of failed local and global environmental actions both Brazil and Australia have faced devastating wildfires. But the conflagration is not just literal. Country after country has been set ablaze with mass struggle. Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, Colombia, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Hong Kong, Sudan, and Algeria have all faced some form of revolutionary uprising, while India and France have been engulfed by general strike action. Many other countries could be added to this list which are in the midst of a mass struggle or on the verge of one. This is the global reality of capitalism today.
If this phenomenon was taking place in just one or two countries then it could be ascribed to local conditions. But the worldwide sweep of these mass movements shows us that there is a generalized crisis of the capitalist system. Internationally, the capitalist class does not know which way to turn. On one side it is faced by the masses, on another side environmental crisis, while a new economic crash haunts its dreams, protectionist trade wars loom, and war threatens the Middle East.
In the middle of this epoch of revolution and counter-revolution, Canada appears to be a lone island of stability. While many countries take the path of polarization between the populist right and mass movement from the left, liberalism still rules in Canada. It is the task of this document to explain why this is so, and how things are set to change, in order to orient the struggles of revolutionaries fighting the Canadian state and ruling class.
Fightback, the Canadian section of the International Marxist Tendency, has progressively analyzed the developments within Canadian capitalism. The roots of the global crisis can be found in the 2008-9 recession, which was the biggest slump since 1929. After this extreme shock, the majority of countries took the road of austerity and attacks on the standard of living of the working class. This explains the rise in polarization and class struggle globally.
But in Canada the slump was not as deep and the recovery was quicker. Canadian capitalism (for purely accidental reasons) was not as exposed to the subprime debt and housing bubbles in 2008. The Canadian economy was also buoyed up by the rise of China which consumed Canadian oil and minerals and pushed up commodity prices. Therefore, while in no way could the last decade be characterized as a golden age, Canada has not faced the same degree of austerity and attacks as other countries.
Marx explained that social conditions determine social consciousness. Elsewhere, Lenin said that politics is concentrated economics. Sometimes even liberals understand this, such as when Bill Clinton won election under the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid!” But this does not mean that Marxists are economic determinists.
There is a complex and dialectical relationship between mass consciousness and the economy. Slump does not immediately mean class war, and a boom does not mean class peace. For example, in the aftermath of the 2008-9 slump, strike statistics were at historical lows. There was a small wave of heroic factory occupations against closed plants, but these were the exception and not the rule. This lack of struggle in the aftermath of the last recession was due to the fact that the labour bureaucracy was telling the workers to keep their heads down, to accept wage cuts and job sharing, two-tier pensions and other rollbacks. Also, consciousness is generally conservative, clinging to the familiar past. Workers were told to look back to the reforms of the past and wait for things to “go back to normal”. In Canada this had the effect of depressing the struggle for a period.
However, while consciousness is generally conservative, after a period of resisting change, consciousness can catch up to material reality with a bang. The labour bureaucracy appeals to workers to wait until the “normal” times of the 1950s and 60s come back. These pleas lose their effectiveness over time and patience wears out as things keep getting worse. Viewing the last century since the First World War objectively one can only come to the conclusion that the reforms of the 50’s and 60’s were not the norm, but were in fact an aberration in a general period of decline, crisis, attacks, and struggle.
Nobody under the age of 35 has much of a memory of a capitalist system that brought improvements. Those under 25 only have an adult experience of crisis and stagnation. Anybody talking about the virtues of a “dynamic market economy” increasingly appears to be a raving utopian totally divorced from reality. In this decade of so-called “boom” there has been no benefit to the working class while a small minority has sucked up all the wealth. These facts have led to a burning anger amongst the younger generation that feels like its future has been stolen from it. This anger is beginning to spread to the working class. And all this is occurring even before a new economic crisis has a massive impact on consciousness.
Global slump on horizon
Contradictions within the global and Canadian economy are accumulating. In 2008 the spark that set off the crisis was the subprime mortgage bubble. In previous slumps there have been other triggers, such as the dot-com bubble in 2000, the oil crisis of 1973, all the way back to the South Sea and Tulip bubbles of 1720 and 1637 respectively. To continue the incendiary metaphor of this document, there is much combustible material at hand and many conceivable sources of ignition.
In our 2018 perspectives document we analyzed the possibility of the collapse of NAFTA. While this additional source of instability was mostly avoided, many more still remain. Trump’s protectionist rhetoric has been turned towards China with the real threat of a trade war. This could be the trigger for a new global slump. A hard Brexit could also play a similar role, or the collapse of the shakey banking system in a country like Italy. A war in the Middle East that shuts down oil shipments via the Strait of Hormuz would have devastating effects. However, no matter what initially precipitates a downturn, in the final analysis the underlying cause is the classical capitalist crisis of overproduction.
In late 2019 a series of indicators showed that a global slump was very likely in the near future. One such indicator that was seen in many countries was a “bond yield inversion”. Without being too technical, this indicator showed that bond investors believed that things in the short term were far riskier than the long term, the opposite of what one would normally expect. Ever since the Second World War, this indicator has been a fairly reliable predictor of a slump within a two-year window.
However, nobody can predict exactly when a slump will arrive. The capitalist economy is a chaotic and not a linear system. It is, however, possible to make general economic predictions. What we do know is that the current period of growth is the longest in the recorded history of capitalism. Capitalism has not eradicated the crisis of overproduction and the boom-slump cycle that accompanies it from cradle to grave. The question is not whether the slump will come, but what impact it will have on society and the consciousness of all the classes when it inevitably does.
How will Canadian capitalism be affected by a new global slump? Will Canada find itself in as favourable a situation as it did in 2008? We believe that the conditions that helped Canada escape the worst of the last recession will make it more vulnerable when the next one hits.
Household debt in Canada has ballooned to over 175 per cent of annual incomes, one of the highest in the world. This has occurred on the back of cheap credit advanced in the last decade. To put this into context, the figure for the USA right before the subprime crisis was 125 per cent. This was generally seen as unsustainable and US consumer debt has trended downwards since that time. The debt service ratio for Canadian families is the largest since records began. For every $1000 earned, $150 is paid out in interest payments and the debt load is rising faster than incomes. A rise in interest rates, or a sudden spike in unemployment, would make these payments untenable and lead to mass bankruptcy.
Related to household debt is the Canadian housing bubble. While Canada avoided a full-blown subprime mortgage crisis like the US, that just meant that the housing bubble continued to inflate in the following years. Toronto and Vancouver are listed as the second and sixth worst housing markets in the world according to the UBS Global Real Estate Bubble Index. Housing speculation has had knock-on effects and has led to unsustainable rents in many major cities. Feverish condo construction in large urban centres has also provided an employment boost – a boost that will turn into its opposite as soon as the bubble bursts and crane operators have nothing to build.
Canadian housing debt is insured by the government-owned Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). In the event of a wave of bankruptcies this debt will be transferred to the big banks, who in turn will transfer it to the federal government via CMHC. The federal government has been posting budget deficits in recent years, but the debt to GDP ratio has been steadily declining due to growth. However, in the event of a slump the federal government will inherit all this debt at the same time as GDP takes a downward plunge. At this point economics become very political. The minority Liberals would be faced with a choice of who to bail out while revenues are shrinking. Will they bail out working class families facing insolvency, or will they advance a lifeline to their Bay Street friends who run the big banks? The answer to this question is explosive.
In the Prairie Provinces, there is a specific crisis in the oil and gas sector. High oil prices and exports to China were major factors which allowed the Canadian economy to weather the storms of the global slump of 2008-2009. But this fairy tale of the Canadian success story turned into a horror story when oil prices plummeted in 2014 spurred on by increased production of shale gas in the USA. Western Canada Select (WCS) produced in Alberta is more difficult to process than the benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil, and typically sells at a $15 per barrel discount. This was not a problem when WTI was peaking above US$100, but when it collapsed to $30 in January 2016 WCS from Alberta only fetched a money-losing $16. Texas prices have since recovered to the $50-60 range, but the inability of Alberta to build pipelines and get its oil to market have kept WCS low. At one point in December 2018 Alberta oil was selling for under $6 per barrel! A new global recession is sure to depress demand for oil and exacerbate the crisis in the oil patch.
The final shakey pillar of the Canadian economy is the manufacturing sector. Younger Canadians living in the big cities may be surprised to find out that until recently, Canada was a major manufacturing hub. In the 1950s over 30 per cent of Canada’s GDP was in manufacturing, with similar levels of employment. This formed the basis of the postwar social contract. Militant strikes in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s forced the bosses to recognize unions and institute automatic dues payment via the Rand formula. This led to material improvements in pay, benefits and pensions. Union organizing in the strategic manufacturing sector provided a benchmark for the working class as a whole. The gains made by the best-organized sectors were generalized and led to real improvements for the working class in the postwar period.
Since the 1970s, manufacturing in Canada has entered into steady decline. Canada used to be the fourth largest car manufacturer on the planet, now it is twelfth with more and more plants closing. Free trade deals like NAFTA have accelerated the downward trend as bosses relocate to low-wage non-union jurisdictions. Employment in the sector went from approximately 20 per cent of the workforce in the 1970s to 9 per cent today. As a male-dominated industry, the decline of manufacturing has had a targeted impact. In towns like Windsor, which have been devastated by manufacturing plant closures, average wages for male workers plummeted by 14 per cent between 2000 and 2015.
Trotsky explained that an imbalance between economic and social relations is often the driver of revolutionary confrontation. For example, a section of the British working class gained certain privileges during the 19th century, as they were able to extract concessions from a ruling class rich with the spoils of empire. However, with the decline of the British Empire in the 20th century these concessions were no longer sustainable. While formally victors, British imperialism was incredibly weakened by WW1. They proceeded to pass the bill on to the workers, most especially the best-organized section in the coal mines.
Trotsky spoke about two equilibria in capitalist society, the social equilibrium and the economic equilibrium. Economically, in order to continue its rule British capitalism had no choice but to beat down the conditions of the mineworkers, as a prelude to attacking the workers as a whole. But socially, dismantling the class relations that had evolved over the previous period was not going to happen without a fight. Workers were not going to accept the consequences of the crisis of British capitalism that they had no role in creating. The efforts of the bourgeoisie to rebalance the economy served to disrupt the social balance, and any attempt to maintain the social equilibrium destabilized the capitalist economy. Such an insoluble contradiction was the driving force behind the 1926 general strike that had revolutionary implications.
Similarly, the crisis of Canadian manufacturing serves to destabilize the social contract implemented in the post-WWII period. While previously, advances in the manufacturing sector laid the economic basis for generalizing gains to the entire working class, the sector has now dialectically become an agent of the general deterioration of conditions, especially in traditional manufacturing areas in southern Ontario and Quebec. A specific slump in the context of a general period of decline will likely provide the pretext for a new wave of factory closures and a sharp drop in the sector. We will return to this theme later in this document when we outline how the working class can fight against plant closures in cities like Oshawa. This developing contradiction between economic and social conditions will lead to a social explosion sooner or later, just like we saw with the British general strike of 1926. A wave of Canadian factory closures in response to a global recession could provide an explosive outcome via a factory occupations movement and the demand for nationalization.
The parasitic bourgeoisie
Capitalist ideologues tell the fable of the good and benevolent “captains of industry” who sail the rough economic seas for the betterment of all. This fantasy becomes increasingly divorced from reality with each passing year, and it is the youth who are the first to see through it. The capitalist economy does not work for the common good; instead a small sector of rich parasites hoard all of the wealth. Even by its own criteria, capitalism is a failed system. The capitalists are not able to improve productivity, and growth in output has not been much better than population growth, even during a so-called boom. On top of this, the bosses refuse to invest and instead sit on mountains of unproductive cash. In the words of the Communist Manifesto, “it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law… Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society”.
The Financial Times released figures detailing productivity growth in a number of major capitalist countries. In the 1950s and 60s, output per hour in Canada increased at an approximate four per cent annual rate. This slowed to under two per cent during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. But since the turn of the millennium productivity has grown by less than one per cent each year. The Internet, mobile phones, iPads, etc, have had almost no impact on productive potential over the last 20 years. The productive forces stagnate and decline under the rule of big business.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the capitalists are incapable of developing the productive forces, they have massively increased their wealth at the expense of the rest of the population. The riches of Canada’s top 45 billionaires are now greater than the combined GDPs of half of Canada’s provinces and territories. Their fortunes sit at $153.1 billion, an increase of three per cent from the year before. A paltry one per cent tax on those with over $20 million, as proposed by the NDP in the federal election, would raise $6 billion every year to fund education, childcare, and pharmacare. Canada’s top 100 CEOs “earn” the average annual wage of a Canadian worker by 10:09 AM on January 2. This is 227 times average pay, up from 197 times the year before. And what did these CEOs do to gain such opulence? They laid off workers, shut down productive plants, and gobbled up government handouts and tax cuts, all while failing to invest in production.
The most obscene example of avarice in the face of poverty is corporate Canada’s hoard of dead money. Back in 2015 former governor of the Bank of Canada Mark Carney caused a small scandal when he chided his fellow plutocrats for not investing and instead accumulating almost $700 billion in uninvested and unproductive money in bank vaults. Carney’s country club friends responded that there was nowhere to invest that would give any return, and that existing machinery was nowhere near the limit of its productive potential – so why invest in increasing that potential? They outlined the basic contradiction of capitalism: that the bourgeoisie does not invest to drive society forward, they invest to make money. And if there is no money to be made, then why invest?
Carney quietly dropped the issue before going on to an even more cushy job with the Bank of England. The useless journalists of the corporate media also completely failed to follow up on the question. The topic was a terribly embarrassing conversation for the bourgeoisie to have in public. This reminds us of the activities of the Victorian aristocracy shushing each other while saying, “one does not speak of such things in front of the help!” However, we can simply consult the Statistics Canada figures ourselves to find that the issue has not gone away. In fact, every year corporate Canada squirrels away an additional $65 billion that they do not know what to do with! $65 billion that could easily fund childcare, pharmacare, free education, clean water on reserves, social housing, and pensions. The pile of dead money no longer sits at $700 billion as it did in 2015. In the last five years it has ballooned to $1.03 trillion. Such facts demonstrate the uselessness of the ruling class, and have a radicalizing effect on mass consciousness.
The crisis and the class struggle
We have explained how a new global recession will likely hit Canada far harder than in 2008. We also explained how the labour bureaucracy was able to exploit conservative consciousness to suppress a generalized fight back in 2009. Just as the next slump will not be a repetition of the previous downturn economically, we do not believe it will be identical psychologically and politically. People have learned a lot in the last decade. Young people are becoming increasingly radicalized, and more workers are starting to question the capitalist system.
We have to ask ourselves, what would be the political result if half of Canadian manufacturing were shut down in a recession? We got a hint of what was possible during the last crisis when there were a series of factory occupations in closed-down parts plants. Bosses walked away and refused to honour collective agreement guarantees for continued production, pensions, and severance. In some instances they even refused to pay outstanding wages. While breaking these legally binding contracts with workers, the bosses had the full support of the bourgeois state, showing that there is one rule for the rich, and another for the poor. With no other choice, the workers occupied and blockaded a number of factories and stopped the removal of machinery and dies to out-of-country plants or for resale.
Sometimes these movements occurred purely spontaneously from the shop floor, and sometimes they had support from the union. But unfortunately, in no instance was the elemental movement of the workers to protect their jobs combined with a political program of nationalization in order to spread the movement and save their union. The workers were willing to fight, and with nothing else to lose, were willing to face down the repression of the police and courts, but they were leaderless. Union bureaucrats hurried to the occupied plants and typically negotiated some form of back-pay and severance to end the occupation. These concessions were more than what would have been gained had the occupation never happened, but at the end of the day all these workers still lost their jobs.
As we previously explained, in normal times consciousness can be very conservative. Workers with mortgages, car payments and kids in school can be very skeptical of the prospect of fighting. When you fight there is always a risk that you will lose. As a result union activists can be cynical about the willingness of their co-workers to fight. The leading bureaucracies of the trade unions then lean on this cynicism as an excuse for selling out.. But when the plant is closing and all is being lost, the factors that create conservatism (fear of losing what you have) turn into the main driver of radicalization. Occupy, or lose your job and your pension. Spread the movement, or lose your house. Call for nationalization, or lose your future. The fact that capitalism is a failed system sharply and suddenly becomes an intimately personal issue. This is why we need to build a revolutionary movement that can spread this analysis and popularize solutions to the workers when they desperately need them.
More recently the question of how to save good union jobs became the number one issue in Oshawa. In November of 2018 General Motors announced the closure of its Oshawa plant, together with four other plants in the USA. This was despite the fact that GM had signed a contract with Unifor guaranteeing production, and the union had given concessions in terms of lower wages and pensions for new hires in order to secure that guarantee. The Oshawa GM plant has special resonance for the labour movement as this plant was the site of the victorious 1937 strike that brought industrial unionism to Canada – paving the way for the postwar social contract.
In a spontaneous outbreak of anger the workers stormed out of the plant upon the announcement. The union leadership had no choice but to put itself at the head of this walkout for fear of being overrun by it. There was a fantastic opportunity to spread the walkout beyond Oshawa to the whole of GM in Canada, and from there to the entire auto sector and down to the US and Mexico. What happens to Oshawa workers today is sure to impact the rest of the sector tomorrow. But the union bureaucracy used all of their authority to get the workers back to work while promising that they would wage a massive campaign to save GM Oshawa.
Instead of demanding that the federal and provincial governments nationalize GM to save jobs, Unifor president Jerry Dias tried to come to a gentleman’s agreement with the company. The bureaucracy did everything in its power to limit the scope of the movement in order to keep control. It is scandalous that when faced with the loss of 2,500 direct jobs, plus approximately 20,000 indirect jobs, in a city of 170,000, there was no protest called in Oshawa. Dias then went on to wage a campaign to boycott cars produced in Mexico, which had strong racist overtones. This was also unsuccessful. The workers continued to show their desire to fight with more walkouts at parts plants that fed into GM Oshawa. But what is the role of Marxists in a movement like this?
Revolutionary expropriation vs reformist state capitalism
Fightback took the initiative to raise the call for plant occupations, nationalization, and workers’ control. No compensation would be necessary to GM especially, since they had gobbled up $10 billion in bailouts after the 2009 crisis, not to mention other handouts, corporate welfare, and tax cuts. We drafted a resolution which connected with a mood to fight in the rank and file. This resolution was passed by the Unifor Local 222 retirees, then at Local 222, the Durham region labour council, and the regional NDP riding association.
This resolution was meant to be the basis of a bottom-up revolutionary movement of workers. We based our demands upon an explosive movement of factory occupations that look to workers’ control, nationalization, and socialist planning for need instead of profit as the way forward. This was not utopian, but the only viable way to create a mass movement that would paralyze the bosses and the state. Unfortunately, instead of being seen as the political expression of a militant movement of workers’ power, our resolution got co-opted into a campaign for state capitalism.
“State capitalism” is the Marxist term for a company that is publicly owned while the state and the majority of the economy is in the hands of the capitalists. Canada Post and Hydro-Quebec are examples of state capitalist entities (sometimes called Crown corporations in Canada). These companies are owned by the state, but are run on traditional capitalist lines, with capitalist managers trying to maximize profit for a capitalist market. They typically lack workers’ control and management, and are not integrated in a socialist plan of production. Instead they are an auxiliary to the private sector, providing cheap services and investment where private industry cannot. Marxists oppose privatization of Crown corporations, but we also demand they be run under workers’ control as part of a socialist plan by a workers’ state.
Green Jobs Oshawa was a campaign formed by a coalition of left trade unionists from the labour council and the Oshawa GM local, plus some “Marxian” academics, with support from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. We don’t doubt the good intentions of those involved in this project, who genuinely wanted to save GM Oshawa and were frustrated by the inaction of the Unifor leadership, but their approach guaranteed failure. As academics they started with what they knew, and drafted “a feasibility study to come up with reality-based suggested products” [emphasis added]. This study proposed nationalizing GM Oshawa and retooling the plant to produce electric vehicles for crown corporations such as Canada Post. This retooling was set to cost upwards of $1.9 billion.
The problem with Green Jobs’ approach was that it was “reality-based”. By reality, they really mean it is based upon capitalism, on sales into a capitalist market, on a state-capitalist mode of organization, and on massive government subsidies. GM had been offered handouts, but the company made it perfectly clear that no amount of corporate welfare was sufficient for them to keep the plant open. Despite the fact that in terms of value-added labour productivity per hour the Oshawa plant had won awards for being the most productive on the planet, there was no capitalist business case to save the plant and its well-paid unionized jobs. If GM thought they could make money in Oshawa they would have. But a genuine reality-based analysis, a Marxist analysis, showed that capitalism had failed in Oshawa and any movement that based itself on capitalist “reality” was sure to face the same failure.
Our left academic friends object, saying, “What do you propose? Tell the workers to give up and wait for the revolution?!” Not at all. Instead of a top-down, feasibility study-driven movement, trying to convince the capitalists and their state of the eminent practicability and desirability of state capitalism, we advocated for an insurrectionary mass movement from below based upon the creativity of the working class to defy capitalist reality. This is not utopian, but was actually possible in the days after the closure was announced. Instead of terrible bureaucrats, imagine that Unifor was led by revolutionary Marxists (genuine Marxists, not the academic variety wielding feasibility studies). Imagine if the spontaneous movement to occupy was not discouraged but instead was spread. Imagine the reaction of the company and the state if after a day or so production had been shut down across all of GM and the movement spreading to the entire auto sector, demanding nationalization. James Connolly and Rosa Luxemburg both said that revolution seems to be the most fantastical of things until it strikes, and then it is the only practical reality. Nothing is more powerful than the mass movement of workers, but spontaneity needs to be united with a revolutionary perspective and organization.
We do not propose a state capitalist GM Oshawa, instead we propose to expropriate the entire auto sector and integrate it in a socialist plan of free public transit and environmentally sustainable transportation. We have no desire to recreate the corporate model of Canada Post for example, with its capitalist management, its capitalist suppliers, its need to sell into a capitalist market, and therefore the need to push down the wages and conditions of the workers. Our demand is revolutionary and based on workers’ control and eradication of the profit motive. Could the workers have achieved this starting from Oshawa? It is impossible to know – but they could hardly end up in a worse position than they are today with no jobs. However, if the workers make revolutionary demands, spread the movement, and paralyze production, they may in fact achieve state capitalism as a concession. GM could agree to restart production in Oshawa to gain back production at its other plants. The state could agree to nationalize so as to stop the movement from becoming generalized. State capitalism, like other reforms, will not necessarily be won by directly advocating it, but it may become a partial outcome of a struggle that questions the rule of the bosses. We must win the workers’ movement to this revolutionary perspective if we are to win partial successes on the road to the emancipation of all the workers. The only road to victory is a road of mass mobilization that defies capitalist reality and legality.
In the end Dias managed to negotiate to maintain a paltry 300 jobs producing after-market parts to help maintain previously sold vehicles. Even these jobs are likely in danger considering the fact that the present plant is far bigger than is necessary for the maintenance of 300 jobs, and therefore adds unnecessary costs. This was a miserable and ignoble end to a workplace with such a glorious record in Canadian labour history. Instead of fighting to the end in a struggle worthy of the memory of 1937, the union bureaucracy led the workers quietly to the unemployment line. This did not need to be so.
Following the defeat in Oshawa a new struggle broke out at Nemak, a GM supplier in Windsor. After signing a contract that guaranteed production until 2022 in exchange for a wage freeze, other concessions, and $4.5 million in government subsidies, the company closed the plant regardless. Workers occupied and blockaded the factory and defied court-imposed injunctions and police threats. This struggle was led by Unifor local 200, the very same local that led the fight for automatic dues payment, subsequently enshrined as the “Rand formula”, in 1945. Back then more than 11,000 workers blockaded the plant with 2000 parked cars and spread the movement with a month-long solidarity strike by 8000 other workers. They faced down government and police attacks to win an historic victory. A similar movement was required to win in 2019, blockading the factory and spreading the factory occupation to other plants across Ontario while demanding nationalization. Instead, in return for dropping fines, the union agreed to end the occupation and submit to binding arbitration on the job guarantee. Unsurprisingly, the arbitrator ruled that the guarantee was not worth the paper it was written on, of which we had warned. The workers had taken down their blockade for nothing.
The class base of bourgeois law is becoming clearer and clearer to workers. If the state is neutral, then surely a legally binding job guarantee for workers will be enforced with equal vigour as the property rights of a corporation facing an occupation. But the courts ignore one legal right while upholding the other with massive fines and police violence. This reality is starting to sink in with important implications for the class struggle. The old postwar social contract, with its gentlemen’s agreements and back-room handshakes, is over. In its place we have naked class struggle of the boss against the workers, backed up by scabs, cops, and injunctions. Legality is just a fig-leaf for the violence of the capitalist system.
One task of perspectives is to extrapolate possible focal points of struggle in the near future, in order to prepare today’s militants. So far before the slump there have been a few isolated closures like Nemak and GM Oshawa. These have already led to occupations and other actions that break the normal routine of legally regulated labour relations. Additionally, the demand for nationalization has already come forward, despite being diverted into state capitalist channels by the academic left. Each of these movements, despite falling to defeat, is an important step in the development of class consciousness. The limits of bourgeois law are being revealed in practice. The role of the courts, the state, and arbitrators in enforcing capitalist norms is also becoming clear. Every conflict leads workers to the conclusion that there is no middle path to victory, there is no negotiation or arbitration to be had with the bosses and their state. Only an all-out fight, that defies bourgeois legality, and spreads the struggle in a revolutionary fashion, can win.
As factory closures become more and more common in a slump there arises the possibility of a mass factory occupation movement along the lines of the great struggles of the 1930s and 40s. Quantity becomes transformed into quality. It is vital that revolutionaries do everything to help workers achieve this leap in consciousness and link this struggle to the need for expropriating the parasitic bourgeoisie, and make such a movement a component part of the struggle for workers’ control and a socialist plan of production.
The dialectics of Jerry Dias
The Regina Co-op Refinery lockout is an example of the beginnings of this leap in consciousness with regards to the role of bourgeois law. Amazingly, in a living example of dialectics, the same Jerry Dias who sold out the Oshawa workers was arrested in Regina for organizing a workers’ blockade! He even quoted Martin Luther King, saying, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” How can this leap “from zero to hero” be explained? A formalist or sectarian will be at a loss to understand this development. For them, “good” and “evil” are mutually incompatible and discrete categories with no possibility of motion, development, or transition.
We don’t have access to Dias’ psychologist to determine what he really thinks, but the real difference between Oshawa and Regina is the mass consciousness of the workers who have assimilated some important lessons and who are putting their leadership under pressure. In the previous round of negotiations with Co-op, Unifor accepted concessions including a weaker pension plan for new hires. The company promised this was the last concession they would ask for. But the reality is that the weakness of the union leadership in the past invited aggression today. The company had no intention of bargaining in good faith and instead built a camp to house 500 scabs on the refinery grounds. They then used injunctions to make picketing all but irrelevant while the scabs were transferred in and out via helicopter. The workers understood that without an illegal blockade that they would be starved into submission and the union would likely be broken. This is the first union struggle in a generation where the law has been so blatantly defied, and therefore it represents an important turning point to defiance of the law becoming a more common occurrence.
Even after arrests and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, the Unifor leadership still did not understand the game the company was playing. They took down the blockade and gave significant concessions in bargaining to try and reach an agreement. The lead negotiator even said, “We just gave them millions of savings that we did not have to do. We might get beat up later when [the members] find out what we gave.” It is quite amazing that such a statement of bankruptcy could be made in public by a union leader. But management demanded not just concessions but total humiliating defeat. They utilized the removal of the blockade to resupply the scab camp and get oil out of the plant. They played the bureaucrats for fools, delaying negotiations to keep the supply lines open for the maximum amount of time. Therefore the blockade was reinstated. Every attempt to be reasonable is seen as weakness, in a class war the only option is to fight to the finish.
The fact that the bosses do not leave the union bureaucracy even a fig-leaf of a concession to give to the workers forces even the most right-wing union leader to fight. If they capitulate they will be removed and replaced by those closer to the rank-and-file. Pressure from below forces the bureaucracy to take far more radical actions than they would previously consider. It is important that the Marxists engage with workers to explain the processes at play. On the one side not to fall into sectarian denunciations when workers have illusions in a leadership that is expressing the will of the workers to fight. On the other side not to spread illusions in that leadership, which is merely bending to pressure. We demand bottom-up democratic workers’ control of the struggle as the best protection against a bureaucratic sellout. Occupy, defy injunctions, and spread the movement.
Just as the fight to uphold a real picket line comes up against bourgeois law, so does the fight for the right to strike. So-called “back-to-work” legislation has gone from a rare occurrence to being commonplace. It appears that workers in Canada only have the right to strike in the most abstract sense. As soon as a strike becomes successful or effective the bosses’ state steps in to tip the scales in favour of corporate rule.
Any tool will become blunted by over-use. In Quebec back-to-work legislation is referred to as a loi spéciale. But it ceases to be special if they use it every time. Back-to-work legislation was either used or threatened to be used in 12 of the last 13 public sector negotiations in the province. The bosses think they are very clever for resorting to state power to win economic contests, but what they are actually doing is linking every economic demand to the need to overthrow the capitalist state. At Nemak, the attempt by the workers to uphold production guarantees was broken up by the threat of state violence. At Co-op Refinery, the attempt by the workers to set up real pickets to stop scabs also came up against the state. The Regina police even compared the action of the workers to terrorism. And when the workers appear set to win just on the basis of withholding their labour, the state steps in with back-to-work legislation and the removal of the right to strike. Eventually the conclusion becomes clear to all workers: to achieve anything you have to be prepared to defy the law. This has inherently revolutionary implications.
One important missed opportunity was the 2018 Canada Post negotiations. This is an especially instructive example as the leader of the union at the time was a declared Marxist who was on record as being in favour of defying back-to-work legislation. The workers’ issues in the dispute were easy to understand and widely supported: pay equity for predominantly female rural mail carriers, and a health and safety crisis due to forced overtime. The union also had a strong strike mandate, and the federal Liberals had won the election saying they respected workers’ rights. Trudeau had even worn a “Save Canada Post” hat.
And yet, despite all the favourable conditions, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) capitulated in the face of a back-to-work order. The majority of the union leadership was opposed to breaking the law under any conditions. They restricted pickets to single-day regional rotations, supposedly in order to deter legislation, but when this did not work and legislation was tabled they refused to shut down the entire postal system. Failing to bring out the workers to the picket lines limits the ability of the rank-and-file to democratically direct the strike, as workers are too busy with normal work duties. Most scandalously, the legislation was enacted at the same time as the GM Oshawa walkout was taking place. There could have been a mass defiance of back-to-work by CUPW at the same time as a wave of factory occupations in the auto sector. Instead the union did not even call a mass demonstration in any major city.
The mantra that it is impossible to defy the law has been disproved by Unifor in Regina and by the Wet’suwet’en movement, which we shall discuss later. CUPW tried to skirt the issue by relying on community solidarity pickets. While heroic, such pickets by outsiders could never have the sustained power of the workers themselves. It also violates the principle that workers need to control their own struggle. Someone needs to bite the bullet and openly defy the law and explain the nature of the capitalist state to the mass of the workers. It really is a tragedy that this task was left to Unifor’s Jerry Dias after Mike Palecek from CUPW missed an historic opportunity.
The CUPW struggle shows that it is a mistake for militants to seek high office in the bureaucratic structures of unions without first building a base among the rank-and-file. Bureaucracy is not a personal characteristic, it is a social phenomenon. It is not a question of replacing “bad people” with “good people”. A social formation becomes bureaucratized when it becomes divorced from the bottom-up control of the working class. The bureaucracy has a special material interest independent, and often opposed, to the workers. It seeks to maintain its position, and special privileges, by balancing between the workers and the bosses. It attempts to mitigate class struggle as an unnecessary destabilizing force that can upset its dominant role as mediator. Only bottom-up control can upend the cozy relationship the bureaucrats maintain with management, bourgeois legality, and the state.
The role of Marxists in the unions is not to take positions in the union without having built a base among the ranks which would defend those positions on a principled basis. The example of Palecek unfortunately demonstrates this point in the negative sense. Palecek, a long time Marxist, failed to build up a base of revolutionaries and a larger layer of support in the union but instead took a shortcut by taking a position on the executive and then the presidency. This left him isolated when it really mattered. No matter how “good” an individual may or may not be, no individual can overrule such an entrenched structure and material interests. To fight a social formation one needs a bigger social formation. The mass force of the workers needs to be organized to overcome the influence of alien classes within the labour movement. As Marxists, we must patiently build up our forces in the ranks to combat the bureaucracy, and not be prematurely pressured into taking on roles in leadership structures. Otherwise we risk being co-opted.
This is precisely what happened with Palecek as he instructed the workers to return to work. After this, the right wing maneuvered Palecek off the CUPW executive, and the union is now in crisis. However, there are positive signs of rank-and-file action, with the Edmonton local recently passing a resolution in favour of defying back-to-work legislation.
All the logic of the class struggle in Canada points to an eventual break with bourgeois legality. The fight for the right to strike, the fight for effective pickets against scabs, and the fight to maintain production and employment, all come up against the capitalist state. The relatively peaceful postwar social contract was built upon the violent struggles of the 1930’s and 40’s. However, this contract was only possible due to the unparalleled increase in productivity and economic growth of the postwar upswing during the 1950’s and 60’s, which gave the capitalists leeway to buy class peace. Now we are faced with economic stagnation and crisis, and the bosses have no room to provide reforms. In fact, even the maintenance of past reforms is untenable and a new slump will accelerate the move to austerity. More and more workers are coming to the conclusion that the only way to maintain their conditions is to defy the law. Even before the slump the old relations are fraying at the edges. Where back-to-work orders have become commonplace, soon defiance of injunctions and defence against police repression will be a normal and expected part of any serious struggle. The Marxists are doing everything in their power to educate the movement about this reality so that workers can beat back the attacks and go on the offensive. In the final analysis, there is nothing stronger than the organized working class if it is united around the correct ideas.
Weak Liberal minority
All the Canadian parties came out as losers in the 2019 federal election. The Liberals lost their majority and their political authority is significantly damaged. The Conservatives failed to take advantage of the Liberal’s weakness and scandals, have lost their leader, and are divided. The NDP lost almost half their seats and have no idea where they are heading. And the Greens failed to make a breakthrough and challenge the NDP as the party of protest. The only party that came out a winner was the Bloc Quebecois, which after a period of crisis returned to a dominant position in Quebec.
On paper, the federal Liberals could be seen as having a strong minority in the House of Commons. They only need the support or abstention of a single party to enact legislation or avoid defeat. However this logic only holds true if one sees the 338 seats in the misnamed “House of the people” as all that matters. Outside “The House” are 37.6 million actual people who largely hold their elected representatives in contempt.
Justin Trudeau enjoyed a lengthy honeymoon after 2015 on the basis of appearing as a representative of progressive “sunny ways”. But after 2019 his image has been significantly darkened. Trudeau promised a new relationship with Indigenous peoples, but he did nothing to end the boil water crisis and instead spent billions to force an oil pipeline across unceded land. He promised an end to the “first-past-the-post” electoral system, but this was a lie. He conducted backroom deals with SNC Lavalin bosses and fired his justice minister, showing that there is one rule for the corporations and another for the rest of us. And to top it all off, the blackface revelations were emblematic of the two-faced nature of the Trudeau regime and its tarnished reputation.
The reason this all matters is not due to the arithmetic of votes in the House, but due to how this weak minority government will react to the inevitable shocks that are set to shake society. An economic crash will raise the issue of corporate and bank bailouts. The bosses will need a strong government to force these through together with austerity against the workers. But they do not have a strong government. Any major strikes will put this weak government to a test that they may not be able to survive. The Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement completely paralyzed the government, which was caught between right-wing demands to crack the heads of “radical activists”, and fear that doing so would just spread the movement.
The only thing that potentially keeps the Liberals in power is the weakened state of all the alternatives. The Conservatives are in crisis because they cannot decide whether to focus primarily on the fiscal conservatism and attacks on the working class that big business prefers, or to try to tap into the anti-establishment populism which catapulted Trump into power. The prevailing opinion among the party establishment seems to be that Scheer lost the election because he was too socially conservative on questions like gay marriage and abortion, which opened him up to attack from the Liberals. The main establishment candidate, Peter MacKay, is now saying that he will march in Pride parades. There is however a wing of social conservatives who are upset at Scheer because they believe he was not socially conservative enough. One of them has already been blocked from the leadership race.
As explained previously, the process of polarization is still in its early stages, and currently there is not the same appetite for far-right, identitarian politics in Canada as in some other countries. When the Liberals highlighted Scheer’s homophobia, it cost him. What was even more impactful was pointing to the unpopular Doug Ford regime in Ontario as (an accurate) model of what to expect from a Tory federal government. People may be disappointed in the Liberals, but the alternatives were even worse.
Peter MacKay appears to be the likely new leader of the federal Conservatives, but this does not look like it will solve their identity crisis. MacKay comes from the old Progressive Conservative camp of the PC/Reform fusion that created the current party, putting him on the side of establishment “moderates”. But he has also played with Trump-style politics, such as when he praised alt-right vigilantes who tore down a Wet’suwet’en blockade in Edmonton, before deleting the tweet in response to backlash. This approach is set to disappoint every faction and lead to future splits.
The liberal establishment raises the spectre of “populism” as they feel their support slipping away. This is an unscientific term which merely means an appeal to ordinary people vs so-called “elites”. It is closely associated with demagogy, a manipulation of the prejudices of the masses. Liberals try to equate right and left populism, when in reality there are far more scientific terms for left-wing tendencies (reformism, left reformism, centrism, Marxism, anarchism, etc.). However, due to the lack of an alternative we have been forced to use the term “right populism” to refer to the phenomenon of attempting to create an “anti-elite” mass base outside the normal bounds of establishment conservatism, that is not fascism. This terminology is not ideal, but it is clearer than the alternatives.
Right populism is a phenomenon that will not go away as the crisis intensifies and polarization increases. However, it is important not to blow the threat out of proportion or raise the spectre of the imminent victory of “fascism”. The weak state of right populism in Canada is demonstrated by the abject failure of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, which only got 1.6 per cent of the vote. Bernier himself could not even hold on to his own seat. Conservative premiers like Doug Ford and Jason Kenney who have flirted with right populism have also seen their popularity plummet as they betray their promises and the reality of their rule becomes apparent.
In the crisis there is a global tendency towards polarization, but this does not mean that there is an equal split between left and right. Due to the failure of “left” parties and the traditional mass organizations, the support of the right is over-represented on the electoral plane. When the status quo is no longer a viable option people turn to more radical solutions. When the reformists just appear as the left wing of liberalism they concede the anti-establishment ground to the right. But conversely in terms of public opinion, and ability to mobilize people over the key issues of the day, the pendulum swings far to the left.
While the “alt-right” can at best bring out a few hundred sad individuals, the left and the unions have the potential to mobilize hundreds of thousands or even millions. This is not hard to understand – when answering the question “who is at fault for the crisis in society”, which answer is more convincing? Either it is the fault of poor immigrants escaping desperate conditions, or it is the fault of the bosses and the bankers that actually have money, power, and run society. The class base of reaction is far more limited than in the 1930s. Formerly privileged layers like public servants, teachers, and students, who used to be on the right, have become proletarianized in the postwar period. The problem is that while people are increasingly looking for anti-establishment answers, none of the left organizations actually propose them.
NDP in doldrums
Heading into the 2019 election the NDP looked set to experience a bloodbath, but during the course of the campaign they managed to improve enough to merely be a disappointment. This reduction in support follows the trend from 2015 when Mulcair lost more than half the NDP’s seats after removing references to socialism from the party constitution and promising a balanced budget. Incidentally, if Mulcair had won that election and followed through on his platform the NDP would have been responsible for $15 billion of annual austerity relative to the Liberal regime.
Mulcair was kicked out by an angry rank-and-file, but the party establishment managed to insert their preferred candidate as a replacement. The NDP bureaucracy had learned a bit from the rise of Corbyn in Britain and Sanders in the USA, and decided to reform from the top to prevent revolution from below. Jagmeet Singh won the leadership on the basis of a platform that was to the left of anything the NDP had proposed for decades. The left-ish platform and good debate performance helped the NDP bring their support up from 10 per cent to over 15 per cent, but did not stop the general trend of decline. Behind the policies of national pharmacare, a wealth tax, and Indigenous funding, were the same old apparatchiks that had led past failures. Singh would parrot the lines about standing up to the rich and powerful, but his actions repeatedly showed that these were just words.
In this epoch of crisis and polarization a politician’s policies are less important than their perceived ability to stand up to the establishment. In some ways this reflects an elemental understanding on the part of the workers that the most important thing is which class controls state power. Anybody who puts forward nice promises without saying who they will confront to achieve them is sure to sell out. The population does not have a clear scientific definition of what “the establishment” is, and therefore are open to manipulation by right-wing demagogues. But this lack of understanding could be easily bridged if the mass organizations explained that the establishment is the capitalist ruling class, and mobilized the workers to confront them. Bernie Sanders shows this can be done. But the NDP bureaucracy are genetically incapable of standing up to the bosses and bankers and repeatedly capitulate when faced with hard decisions.
From coast to coast the NDP has shown itself incapable of standing on the side of workers. Starting with Rachel Notley’s Alberta NDP government that became the promoter of the oil corporations and a public sector wage freeze, we move to the Saskatchewan NDP who could not support anti-scab legislation in the middle of the Regina Co-op lockout. The BC NDP correctly opposed the now-nationalized Trans Mountain pipeline, but in turn promoted the within-BC LNG pipeline that is based upon environmentally destructive fracking and the violation of the sovereignty of the Wet’suwet’en. The Ontario NDP has spent more time disciplining MPPs for standing next to “Fuck Ford” protest signs than it has in fighting to bring down the Ford regime. When they waste time denouncing mock guillotines at a May Day demonstration it is not surprising that they cannot connect with the mood of anger in society.
Jagmeet Singh’s federal NDP is no less disappointing than its provincial cousins. In response to the heroic fight of the Wet’suwet’en, Singh could not say whether or not he supported the LNG pipeline (it turns out that he does). When asked about police raids on the land defenders all he could say was “I support the rule of law”. It is the rule of colonial law oppressing Indigenous people for centuries and violating their land rights that is exactly the problem! Singh looks like a total hypocrite attacking Trudeau over pipelines but ignoring Horgan, the NDP premier of BC. With regard to the new NAFTA, the NDP has totally abandoned its traditional policy of opposing corporate free trade. They were even praised by Liberal minister Freeland for helping to fast-track the approval of a deal that does nothing to stop contracting out in the auto sector, increases drug corporation profits at the expense of consumers, and facilitates privatization of government services.
While the party leadership shows its left face to the population, it has been very careful to block anybody with anti-establishment left credentials from running for the party. Former Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan and a good number of other left-wing and pro-Palestine activists were blocked from NDP nominations in the election. To top off the top-down control and lack of democratic accountability they recently cancelled the party convention, violating the NDP constitution in the process. All these facts combine to make the NDP distasteful to workers and youth who are looking to fight.
Given the above, what position should Marxists take to Canada’s labour party? Clearly the best workers and youth are not currently active within the party and revolutionaries should primarily expend their energies on the most important areas of the struggle. If the class struggle is analogous to a battlefield, a successful army will concentrate its forces on the terrain where the most gains can be made. But that does not mean we write off the NDP or advocate abstention in elections.
The right-wing of the labour movement utilizes the failures of the NDP to justify strategic voting for the Liberals. Our old friend Jerry Dias is in the vanguard of this move to support the main party of the capitalists, but has also received assistance from outgoing Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff. The “strategic voters” often give themselves left cover by using the arguments of the abstentionist left, saying that there is no difference between the NDP and Liberals. This is not true. The criticism of the NDP leadership is correct, but the abstention is ultra-left. Despite the betrayals of the NDP leadership, the party still has an organic connection to the organized working class. The irony is that the same labour leadership who echo correct criticisms of the NDP leadership then go on to support the Liberals, whose crimes know no end. Additionally, these bureaucrats are not powerless to change NDP policy. If the unions so desired they could easily wage a successful campaign for the party to adopt socialist policies. Pro-Liberal strategic voting in the 2018 Ontario election played an important role in splitting the anti-Conservative vote, allowing Doug Ford to win the election. It is vital to take a clear stand against any vote for the Liberals.
While it is not theoretically ruled out that a new left political party could arise, this is not a likely perspective in the short term. On the one side the NDP is too far to the right to be attractive to radicalized youth and workers, but on the other side it is too far left to leave space for a new electoral formation like Podemos or France Insoumise. The most likely areas of struggle are currently outside the party and outside electoral politics. It is necessary to follow developments and give criticism of the NDP in a way that does not cut ourselves off in the event that the outside movements begin to be reflected inside the party. But at the same time it would be a big mistake for socialists to be too closely associated with the NDP and thereby alienate those entering the struggle.
In Quebec, the NDP is back to square one. In 2011, the “Orange Wave” swept Quebec as workers turned to the NDP to see if class politics could solve their problems. This potential turning point occurred just one year before the amazing 2012 Quebec student strikes that brought over 300,000 out on the streets and eventually brought down the Jean Charest Liberals. If the federal NDP had turned towards this struggle, had adopted socialist policies that spoke to the needs of the workers in Quebec, while also upholding the right to self-determination, then the NDP could have solidified its connection to the consciousness of Quebec workers. But instead, ex-Quebec Liberal Mulcair directed NDP MPs to be silent during the student strike and not criticize his former boss. The rightward turn of the party led the NDP to go from 59 seats to 16 in 2015, to a single Quebec seat in 2019.
In 2011, the “Orange Wave” swept the Bloc Quebecois off the map and almost destroyed the party. This was a symptom of the dead end of the 40-year long struggle between federalism and independence that dominated all political debates in the province, on the federal and provincial level. But the Bloc was able to make a comeback in 2019, winning 32 seats and coming second behind the Liberals.
However, the return of the Bloc does not signify an increase in the desire for independence. Rather, the Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet downplayed the party’s sovereigntist credentials during the campaign, saying that independence was “not the mandate that many Quebecois give to us”. Instead, the Bloc ran a campaign that focused on issues of identity and defending the Quebec government’s religious symbols ban. The resurgence of the Bloc after almost a decade of crisis reflects a broader rebalancing of Quebec politics, most notably the rise to power of the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ).
New dynamics in Quebec
The victory of the CAQ in the 2018 Quebec election marked the end of a 50-year era in Quebec politics. The two traditional establishment parties, the bourgeois-federalist Liberals and the bourgeois-nationalist Parti québécois, both suffered their worst result in history. For over 40 years, these two parties had a combined vote of 80 to 90 per cent. However, this time their combined vote collapsed to just 42 per cent. The parties proved to merely be two sides of the same capitalist coin, attacking workers, instituting austerity, and passing back-to-work legislation. Their poor showing was a reflection of Quebec workers’ rejection of the “center ground” and the establishment.
The massive rejection of the PQ, despite the party hardly being in power at all over the past 15 years, is a reflection of the deep crisis affecting the nationalist movement. For decades, the PQ was able to hold together its “national coalition” by fighting for sovereignty. But the class struggle ended up tearing the party apart. In power, the party introduced austerity and attacked workers. Moreover, all the main struggles in the province have centered around class-based issues for the past 25 years. More and more workers and youth see their main enemy as the Quebec capitalists and the provincial government. Consequently, interest in the question of independence has gone down, and with it interest in the PQ. Reflecting the polarization of society and the rejection of the status quo, over the last period the PQ lost ground to nationalist parties on its right (ADQ/CAQ) and on its left (Québec solidaire).
However, it ended up being the right-wing CAQ which was best able to capitalize on this anti-establishment mood in Quebec. Posturing as a party of “change”, they also played the right-wing populist card of defending “Quebecois identity”, all the while promising no referendum. They were thus able to attract voters from both the PQ and the Liberals. Since being in power, Premier François Legault has been almost exclusively focused on attacking immigrants and minorities, most notably with the infamous Bill 21, the ban on religious symbols for some public sector workers. Unfortunately, the party has been somewhat successful in winning support among workers by posing as defenders of “Quebecois identity”, and Bill 21 appears to enjoy a certain popularity in the province. Why is this?
It is completely wrong to paint Quebec as especially racist, and statistics show that racist sentiment is just as prevalent in other parts of Canada. The main reason for the Bill’s popularity is that all through the endless debates on bans on religious symbols in the public sector, there was virtually no principled opposition to it. QS equivocated on the issue for years, and it required a rank-and-file revolt before the leadership was forced to clearly oppose any ban on religious symbols. Despite this official change in position, the party seems to have accepted the adoption of Bill 21. Some major unions have now denounced the law, but took no concrete action to oppose it. If this law is normalized without resistance, it will set a terrible precedent for the movement.
There is nothing progressive about identitarian nationalist policies like Bill 21. Banning muslim women wearing head coverings from being teachers does nothing to promote secularism or end the oppression of women. The leadership of QS in particular should explain that the CAQ is trying to divide workers by attacking minorities. By exposing the CAQ and calling for a movement against the law, QS could gain popularity, especially when the CAQ inevitably attacks the broader working class.
Premier Legault has enjoyed a certain honeymoon since his election on the basis of a mild economic boom and the biggest budget surplus in the history of the province. Legault has been free to focus on his reactionary social policy without having to push forward his reactionary economic policy. Austerity has been delayed, but not averted. While unemployment remains low and wages have gone up in the past period, Quebec capitalism is relatively weak and will be heavily affected by the coming slump. We can already see an anticipation of this weakness in the Bombardier debacle, where despite all possible help from the state, the company has laid off thousands of workers and been forced to sell itself off piecemeal.
The CAQ’s victory represents a new realignment of Quebec politics. Within the nationalist movement, issues of identity now dominate over the issue of independence, which is registering its lowest support in decades. The renewed success of the Bloc is a symptom of this realignment. What remains unclear is what the stable alternative to the right-wing nationalism of the CAQ will be. A resurgence of the PQ seems unlikely. The PQ appears to have no independent reason to exist. The PQ’s ability to pretend to be social democrats is now hampered due to the rise of QS, and their attempts to out-racist the CAQ are falling on deaf ears. As well, QS has doubled down on the question of independence which means the PQ cannot claim ownership over this already unpopular issue.
Legault will soon show his true colours. We must not forget that the CAQ is composed overwhelmingly of people from the business community and has always been the first to call for back-to-work legislation. In the context of the coming public sector negotiations, the CAQ has made ridiculous below-inflation wage offers to the over 500,000 workers. A conflict is in preparation on this front, and it may well burst Legault’s political bubble. A turbulent period is on the horizon in Quebec and workers and youth must be prepared to fight the attacks of the CAQ.
Heading into the 2022 provincial election there are different possibilities. The CAQ could become wildly unpopular as their true colours are unveiled when they attack the workers, provoking a mass movement against the government. This would create a fertile ground for Quebec solidaire to become a pole of attraction. However, we have seen different tendencies within QS. When the party leadership tries to present itself in a moderate, reasonable, parliamentary light and focuses on the question of Quebec independence, the party tends to lose relevance and go down in the polls. We saw this following the election, when the fall 2019 QS congress voted for a Quebec army, and moved to the right on the environmental crisis, adopting market measures like the carbon tax and cap-and-trade.
However, when the QS leadership focuses on bold class demands and attacks the establishment, the party tends to gain in support. This is the main lesson from the 2018 election when QS doubled their number of votes by proposing free dental care, free education, pharmacare, nationalization of rural transportation, etc. In response to a mass movement against the government the QS leadership could capitalize by putting forward a bold class-based anti-establishment message. However, this optimistic perspective is in no way guaranteed as the petty bourgeois leadership of QS seems to be so divorced from the working class that it is equally as likely that they will tail-end the movement while focusing on purely parliamentary theatrics.
The Liberals may also try to make a comeback as the opposition to the CAQ’s anti-immigrant agenda. If QS doesn’t make countering the identitarian nationalism of the CAQ a priority and build a movement on this basis, this could open up space for the Liberals to resurrect themselves, once again falsely posing as the defenders of immigrants and minorities.
The IMT in Quebec will continue patiently arguing against the moderation of QS and for the party to adopt bold socialist policies as the only realistic way of solving the problems of workers and youth.
Another important dynamic coming out of the federal election was the near total domination of the Conservatives in Alberta and Saskatchewan. This has provoked talk of a new national unity crisis, with the interests of the Prairie Provinces being ignored in the federation. There has even been discussion of “Wexit” and the formation of an Alberta independence party. Some in the east joke about such possibilities; but while the groups behind Wexit are small and reactionary, the alienation is real. In April of 2019 roughly one in ten young men in the province were unemployed. By November of the same year that figure had jumped up to one in five.
The political turmoil in Alberta is a natural reflection of the economic turmoil resulting from the 2014 oil slump. For decades the corrupt and parasitic Alberta oil barons squandered the windfall profits from the resource boom. Instead of investing in infrastructure and diversifying the economy they demanded tax cuts and corporate handouts. This caused a backlash which resulted in the election of the NDP in 2015, ending the 44 year-long Tory dynasty. Despite being elected as critics of the oil barons, the social democrats capitulated to the petroligarchy, abandoned plans to increase oil royalty rates, and instead ended up instituting wage freezes in the public sector. Notley’s attempt to position herself as the best proponent of pipelines rang hollow. Jason Kenny’s United Conservatives won the 2019 election as the true representative of big oil, rather than the imitation version provided by the social democrats.
However, the victory of the Conservatives does not represent a return to another generational dynasty in Alberta politics. The election of the NDP represented the expression of deep underlying processes within the province. Clearly defined class politics are here to stay and the ruling class is not all-powerful. Albertans are not the red-necked reactionaries that the petit-bourgeois left likes to characterize them as. However, the people of the province do know how to get angry, and they do know how to fight.
Kenney has tried to ride this anger and blame foreign-funded environmentalists, Indigenous protests, socialists, and the federal Liberals for all of Alberta’s woes. He says that if it wasn’t for all these alien influences Alberta could return to its former prosperity. Unsurprisingly, he lays no blame at the feet of the parasitic oil bosses who are his paymasters. In fact, despite spitting out the term “rule of law” in every other sentence, Kenney appears to forget the rule of law with regards to the $173 million of unpaid taxes the oil corporations owe to struggling municipal governments.
Pipelines have been presented as a panacea that will usher in the return of the good times in Alberta. Any opposition on the grounds of environmental concern or Indigenous sovereignty is portrayed as a betrayal of the entire population of the province. But what is missing in this hyperbole is the fact that the profits from the construction of multi-billion dollar pipelines will not go to benefit the entire population. They will almost certainly be monopolized by the corporate elite and the working class won’t see a penny. 100,000 jobs were lost in the oil slump, but since then there has been a recovery in production. Output peaked at 15.9 million cubic meters (mcm) in 2015, before slumping to 10.2 mcm in 2016. However, latest figures peg production at 18.4 mcm, while employment in the sector is set to be 23 per cent lower than its peak. Technological change means that the bosses can employ 23 per cent fewer workers to produce 16 per cent more product. Pipelines won’t magically increase global oil prices; increased production does not lead to increased employment; and with tax cuts, tax avoidance, and tax evasion, increased corporate profits do not result in improved government services.
While private ownership of the oil sector continues the workers have nothing to gain from pipelines and oil profits. However, we cannot adopt capitalism-based reformist environmental policies that throw more energy workers into unemployment, and thereby into the arms of right-wing reactionaries. The only solution is to expropriate the parasitic petroligarchy and run the energy sector under workers’ control to guarantee employment while production is retooled to more environmentally sustainable energy sources. Any energy infrastructure must be the result of thorough community consultations, especially with Indigenous communities, with the mitigation of any environmental risk and real economic benefits for all impacted. This cannot be achieved on the basis of corporate control and private profit.
Proof that Alberta has decisively changed is found in the rapid drop in popularity of the United Conservative government. Kenney has initiated a war on the working class, that is to be made to pay for handouts to big business. Wage rollbacks, mass layoffs, tuition increases and service reductions are all being implemented to fund $4.5 billion in corporate tax cuts. This has already led to a 15 per cent fall in support for the United Conservatives, and an 18 per cent decrease in Kenney’s personal approval rating. Calls for a general strike by the Alberta Federation of Labour and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees are gaining ground. And this is the situation that has developed even before a global slump knocks down oil prices. Alberta is set for a period of bitter class struggle.
Ontario’s crisis of leadership
All classes in Ontario suffer from an acute crisis of leadership. The ruling class is stuck with the bumbling buffoon Doug Ford, whose idea of politics is a bumper sticker slogan that falls off in the rain and can’t be read in the dark. But the leadership of the working class is just as bad, with the Horwath-led NDP completely failing to capitalize on the unpopularity of Ford, and the labour leadership incapable of harnessing the anger that is objectively enough to bring down the government.
Ford won power by blatantly lying to the people of Ontario. He said that there would be no cuts, only “efficiencies”, and nobody would lose their job. He then proceeded to attack every single sector of the working class, the oppressed, and the youth. It is quite astounding that after just 12 months in office people saw through the lies of this Trump wannabe. After winning 41 per cent support in the election, Ford’s popularity is now in the 20s and he is the most unpopular premier in Canada. It is amazing that this “populist” politician gets booed every time he shows his face in public, most notably by hundreds of thousands of basketball fans at the Toronto Raptors victory parade.
Given this mass working class opposition one would think that the leadership of the Ontario Federation of Labour and other major unions would be organizing a mass general strike movement to stop the cuts and bring down Ford. Instead they have been doing everything in their power to dampen the struggle. After Ford’s election the Marxists advanced the slogan “Bring down Ford”, as we understood the inevitable dynamics of the struggle. At the time, some on the left thought the demand was premature, but the turn in public opinion has shown that Marxist perspectives were totally correct. However, some leftists still oppose the demand to bring down Ford even when it obviously connects with the current consciousness of the workers. The call to wait until the next election can only be due to a desire to give left cover to the union bureaucracy, or to uphold the functioning of bourgeois democracy against mass workers’ action. The workers cannot wait until 2022, while they suffer under the Ford regime. A struggle for a one-day general strike against the cuts and to bring Ford down would gain massive support if it had genuine leadership.
The Ontario teachers’ strike shows the potential power of the working class. On the Feb. 21 over 200,000 teachers went out in the largest strike since the 1996 Toronto general strike against Mike Harris. Unlike previous public sector strikes this had overwhelming support from parents and the population. People are totally opposed to Ford’s increase in class sizes and other cuts to the quality of education. But instead of escalating and pressing their advantage, the elementary teachers de-escalated with a two-week pause in strike action. Even middle-class soccer moms have been heard on talk shows saying that the teachers should go all-out and get the job done. The excuse for de-escalation is that it will not trigger back-to-work legislation. But as seen with the CUPW strike, there may be nothing that averts such legislation. The danger is that by dragging out the fight people may become irritated and ambivalent towards how it ends. The unions need to prepare to defy back-to-work, and make their defiance the trigger for a general solidarity strike over issues that the public massively support. Such a movement in itself would be sufficient to bring down the Ford regime.
The Ontario NDP appears to be adrift at sea with a captain that is asleep at the wheel. After narrowly failing to win the 2018 election due to their inability to attack the capitalist establishment, combined with sabotage from the strategic voting faction, they have sunk down to third place. It is a mystery how Horwath can justify her position at the top of the party when the NDP is less popular than the hated Doug Ford and the leaderless Liberals.
This contradiction between the objective anger in society, and the subjective bankruptcy of the workers’ leadership, cannot continue indefinitely. The desire of the workers to fight can be held back by a bureaucracy, but eventually the struggle finds a way. It is impossible to predict exactly which part of the movement will be the first to enter into a decisive fight with the government. The teachers’ unions could be forced to go further than their Liberal-friendly leadership desire. A militant leadership could arise in a union local and show the rest of the movement how to do it. Or there could be an outburst independent of the labour movement, via the high school or university students, over the question of the environment, or literally any area of injustice. The anger of the workers just needs a spark and an outlet to create a mass struggle.
Revolution not reconciliation
After centuries of lies, betrayals, theft, colonialism, and genocide, Indigenous people are rising up against corporate violations and the capitalist state. The Wet’suwet’en struggle has become the focal point of all the accumulated anger over generations. The hypocrisy and lies of the Trudeau government have been laid bare. Trudeau came to power on the promise of reconciliation, but at the end of the day the interests of the big corporations always overrule any question of Indigenous sovereignty. Numerous satirical websites have pointed out the performative ridiculousness of Liberal land acknowledgements prior to an RCMP invasion of Indigenous lands. The Unist’ot’en are absolutely correct when they say that reconciliation is dead, revolution lives.
One of the most impressive things about the Wet’suwet’en movement is the wide support it has received from non-Indigenous workers, and especially youth. Polls put this support at approximately 40 per cent, which is far higher than previous Indigenous movements. Mass solidarity actions have been impressive across the country. These actions are typically led by radicalized Indigenous youth, but are open to all, and the Wet’suwet’en have called for all to join the fight. This is exactly the correct approach to create a mass movement, and contrasts starkly with the “stay in your lane” approach of intersectionality and identity politics. Indigenous youth are in the leadership of the Wet’suwet’en solidarity struggle because they organically are the most knowledgeable about the issues, not because of any artificial rules or attempt to exclude people.
Echoing the Regina Co-op blockade, the Wet’suwet’en have discovered that legality and the rule of bourgeois law is a dead end. The “rule of law” has been the slogan of every genocidal action of the Canadian state that Liberal politicians now hypocritically apologize for. There is the law of the capitalists, enforced by police state violence, but there is also the law of the traditional forms of Indigenous governance, which is enforced by mass action blocking rail networks, roads, ports, and even the BC legislature. We may add that there is also the workers’ law, enforced by a hard picket line and the shaming of scabs. Non-Indigenous people have supported the struggle not just because of the just demands of the Wet’suwet’en, but because they are fighting the same enemies that we all face: the state and the corporations.
Bourgeois commentators have, in their own hyperbolic language, highlighted the revolutionary implications of the violation of legal norms of protest. They point to the fact that if the LNG pipeline results in this much chaos, what will be the reaction to the nationalized Trans Mountain pipeline, whose costs have just ballooned from $7.4 billion to $12.6 billion. The fact that the cost to end the scandal of boil water advisories on reserve is less than $3.5 billion puts the priorities of the government into context. It has been said that those who make legal change impossible, make revolution inevitable. For Indigenous people, for workers, for immigrants, for all oppressed groups, and for the youth, avenues for change within the system are getting fewer and fewer – and it is the capitalists themselves who are cutting off these safe and legal options.
Faced with mass defiance, the bourgeois is split on which way to act. This is always the case when one sector of the ruling class says they must reform or there will be a revolution, and the others say they need to crack down or there will be a revolution. They are both right and they are both wrong. The federal Conservatives have been making the call to bust heads and restore order by repression. Disgraced outgoing Conservative leader Andrew Scheer blamed the protests on “radical activists” who have the luxury to protest and should “check their privilege”. This is quite astounding coming from a man who lives in a government funded mansion and was forced to resign in disgrace after over-spending his expenses budget by $700,000 to send his kids to private school.
The Liberals correctly criticize the Conservatives, as such a heavy hand would likely get people killed and spread the movement even further. But the Liberal criticism comes from the same bourgeois class base, and a desire to achieve the same end result. They tried to drown the movement in platitudes hoping that tiredness combined with the intervention of Liberal-friendly band council representatives could diffuse the situation. But the Indigenous youth have increasingly lost faith in the “elected” band council members that represent the Indian Act system; a system that was imposed on the people with the intention of destroying their traditional forms of governance.
Without the active support of the mass organizations of the working class struggles like the Wet’suwet’en will mostly go down to defeat, due to no fault of their own. Indigenous people make up less than 5 per cent of the Canadian population and cannot defeat the might of the Canadian state on their own. Also, without the NDP actively supporting the struggle and explaining the issues to the mass of the workers, public opinion will inevitably turn against the land defenders.
Scandalously, the LNG pipeline is being promoted by the BC NDP, which supports the use of force against the Unist’ot’en camp. BC premier Horgan refused to meet with the hereditary chiefs. Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh also supports the pipeline and said it was legitimate because it had band council support – ignoring the sovereignty of traditional governance over unceded lands. While Singh called for Trudeau to meet with the Wet’suwet’en, he was totally silent with regard to Horgan. In fact, the federal NDP leadership does not support the just struggle of the Wet’suwet’en. Their position is to simply have more talks to have more talks, until everyone gets bored and goes home.
A number of unions came out in support of the Wet’suwet’en, which is encouraging. But words are insufficient. Teamsters Canada, which represents rail workers, did not even reach this level of solidarity and scandalously called on the federal government to intervene to get the rail network running again. Functionally they were siding with the corporation that lays off rail workers and the state that legislates them back to work. To win, the unions and the NDP would have to unite in action with Indigenous struggles and link them to the broader needs of the working class. Rail, shipping, and transport workers should strike together with the Wet’suwet’en and add their own demands against layoffs and corporate control. The NDP should demand nationalization and workers’ control of infrastructure so a fair deal with Indigenous communities could be reached, worker to worker. Working class leadership and unequivocal support is essential to win the battle of public opinion against the corporations and state that oppress us all. Regardless of the outcome, the spontaneous solidarity protests mark an important step forward in consciousness about what is needed to win.
The kids aren’t alright
The death agony of capitalism is most acutely felt by the youth. Youth unemployment is consistently twice that of the general population. Tuition fees consistently increase at rates far in excess of inflation. Average fees rose 40 per cent in the 10 years leading up to 2016. Skyrocketing rent in the major cities particularly impacts young workers and students trying to move away from home. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto now stands at $1374 per month. This marks a 45 per cent increase since 2011. Other reports have shown that the median price for a one-bedroom apartment advertised on the market is $2300, which hits the youth particularly hard. The prospect of home ownership is a pipe dream for youth in the major cities. The present generation is not just poorer than their parents, but also their grandparents.
In response, a healthy anti-capitalism has emerged amongst the youth. Sixty-three per cent of under-35s have a positive view of socialism, while 51 per cent have a negative view of capitalism (24 per cent have a “very negative” view). All these developments have occurred during a so-called “boom”. The idea that capitalism can provide improvements is increasingly alien to the younger generation, who have no adult memory of such occurrences. When the new global slump hits it is sure to radicalize the younger generation even further, who did not have much faith in capitalism to begin with.
We are beginning to see the global phenomenon of mass youth political action. Over 100,000 Ontario high schoolers walked out over education cuts. Students are not just politicized over economic issues. Thousands of school students walked out in Alberta in response to Jason Kenney’s attacks on gay-straight alliances. There was a similar walkout of 38,000 against Doug Ford’s rollback of sex-ed that was intended as an attack on trans students.
The most impressive youth-led political action is over the environmental crisis. Young people see climate change as an existential threat and are increasingly turning towards radical solutions. The fact that over 70 per cent of emissions comes from the top 100 companies is a widely known fact. On Sep. 27 500,000 joined the climate strike in Montreal, with hundreds of thousands in other cities across Canada. This shows that the environment is no longer a fringe issue. Trudeau had the gall to turn up to the protest, forcing people to say, “who is he protesting, himself? He built a pipeline!” Young people are beginning to reject market-based policies such as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade as far too moderate to get the job done. Only by expropriating the major polluters and developing a socialist environmental plan can we actually solve the problem.
We began this document by explaining that while the world is in a revolutionary epoch, Canada is relatively delayed in its development. However, it is clear from our analysis that this is about to turn into its opposite. Class contradictions are coming forward even before the slump hits, and when it does Canada will be in a much worse position than 2008. In the aftermath of the Great Recession the union bureaucracy was able to appeal to better days to encourage workers to keep their heads down. But in the current situation of joyless boom a new slump is more likely to anger workers and lead to bitter factory occupations and defensive movements. More and more sectors of society are beginning to question the fairness of bourgeois law, and move towards defiance. The beginnings of a revolutionary consciousness are developing.
The most conservative force in society is the labour and social democratic leadership. Trotsky explained that without these bureaucrats capitalism would not be able to survive the week. The crisis of working class leadership is the most important factor, which conditions every part of the struggle. The Marxists in Canada have made some impressive advances in the last few years, but we are far too small and too inexperienced to be the decisive element at this stage. This is why the movement shall be protracted with many defeats due to bad leadership. But the fact that capitalism is incapable of providing a solution to working class people means that the movement will come back even after being smacked down. Defeated armies learn well.
We must have a sense of urgency to build the revolutionary organization. The lack of a revolutionary leadership of the workers’ organizations will prolong the crisis and lead to much hardship and suffering. But we do not just need to numerically build the forces of Marxism, it is just as important to build and educate quality. We need to build revolutionary cadres who have learned the main ideas of Marxism and can apply them to the living, changing movement. We need students who are willing to fight academic elitism and do everything in their power to learn from the working class. We need working class fighters who can convince their co-workers of the need for socialism, and educate them so they can reach others. We are building an organization that unites the most self-sacrificing fighters from all sectors of the oppressed. If you agree with the ideas of this document we appeal to you to join the fight to bring down capitalism, join the IMT.
February 28, 2020