Most people are familiar with the concept of equilibria. However, less know that there are two types of equilibria. The most common type occurs when a system tends to a certain point. Disturbances away from this point cause only temporary change before returning to the original state. This is known as a stable equilibrium. The other type is an unstable equilibrium. Here, a system is kept static because equally strong forces are pressing on it from all sides. In this case, the system does not return to its original point after any disturbances – even the smallest external input causes hopeless destabilization.
Relations in Canadian politics appear to have remained constant over the last few years. The task of this document is to determine whether the present “equilibrium” within Canadian society marks a new period of capitalist stability, or alternatively, working class militants must prepare themselves for a period of instability, sharp turns and sudden changes.
In the epoch of “globalization,” or more accurately, monopoly imperialism, it is impossible for any country to ignore the tendencies in the world economy. This document is to be read in conjunction with the World Perspectives 2008 draft document and previous Canadian Perspectives documents. The general dynamics of the present world economy are outlined in Part One of World Perspectives so it is not necessary to repeat them in detail here.
Economic commentators are consoling themselves with the thought that the last few downturns have been mild and this one is likely to be the same. These are the same people who were speaking of increasing growth rates only a year ago and before that of a “New Economic Paradigm” where capitalism had done away with booms and slumps. They foresee nothing and understand nothing, so the advice of these people must come with a serious health warning. The fact is that for the capitalist economy the past is no guide to the future, you cannot just extrapolate a line on a graph. There is no guarantee that this downturn will be either mild or short, especially considering the massive debt loads currently held by the US Government. The most serious capitalist commentators are raising the possibility of a decade of stagnation, much like that which afflicted the Japanese economy.
We also have to look at the cause of the recent “boom.” In generality, when society is developing the means of production and is moving forward, the ruling class can afford to throw a few crumbs in the direction of the masses to buy class peace. This is what happened during the 50’s and 60’s – at least in the West. However, people do not live in “generalities,” we live in the real world. An economic boom does not automatically mean class peace, especially when the boom has been financed off the backs of the working class. Productivity and GDP have increased significantly over the last 30 years, but the wages of the
The ability of the capitalists to get out of this crisis is much harder than before. Re-inflating the bubble merely recreates the problem. Increasing exploitation exacerbates the class struggle. There is no such thing as a final crisis of capitalism. Unless the capitalists are overthrown by the working class they will eventually find a way out in new markets and areas of exploitation. However, this does not mean that they will find the way out quickly, or without first setting loose forces that they cannot control.
Up until very recently Canadian economists were saying that the crisis in the
The Canadian economy, especially its manufacturing base, is still dependent on the
In previous documents we have discussed the imbalances within the Canadian economy and by extension the Canadian federation. “Dutch disease” occurs when booming resource prices for commodities such as oil push up the value of a nation’s currency. The high dollar in turn makes exported manufactured goods more expensive on world markets. The Canadian dollar was worth less than 65 cents US back in 2002, now it has settled at about parity with the greenback, up from 85 cents a year ago. This alone means disaster for Canadian manufacturing.
However, all is not perfect in
In terms of housing,
In addition to the high dollar, the dynamics of the world economy are leading to a slump in Canadian manufacturing. Competition from cheap wages in countries such as
Over the last 3 years, more than 1 in 8 manufacturing workers in
The decline of manufacturing hits at the heart of the Canadian labour movement. Militant struggles such as the GM Oshawa strike of 1937 and the Ford Windsor strike of 1945 laid the basis of the post-war increase in union density and wages for a section of the working class. Rather than face down the workers, the Canadian bourgeois instituted a social contract through methods like the
Fortunately, no bureaucracy is more powerful than the movement of the working class. Workers in the manufacturing sector have been forced to fight back to save jobs. This movement began with the occupation of the Alcan smelter, in Jonquière, Québec, in 2004. By coincidence, Jonquière was also the site of the first unionized Wal-Mart in
After Jonquière, the Collins & Aikman parts plant in
In the weeks following, a steel smelter in
Unlike the previous occupations that were demanding the fulfilment of severance, the Masonite occupation, which nearly turned into a city-wide work stoppage, was directly aimed at protesting the loss of jobs in the first place.
The spontaneous actions of the workers started to build up pressure on the leadership of the industrial unions. The Scarborough C&A workers were represented by the Canadian Auto Workers and upon hearing of the occupation the union officials scrambled to the plant to do anything to restore normalcy. But the later occupations were in plants organized by the Steelworkers International union and received the support of the union leadership. In the recent past the CAW was seen to be on the left of the labour movement and split away from the UAW international union to supposedly protect Canadian militancy from American bureaucrats. The Steelworkers, which has retained its links with US workers, was seen as being on the right of the movement. At the time the Marxists advised against splitting workers as this just weakens the movement. There is nothing to say that a formerly “left” union cannot degenerate, or that the mass of workers in a bureaucratised union cannot transform their organization. What is necessary is to retain the historic links of workers’ solidarity while fighting to transform the union from within. Now the Steelworkers, while far from perfect, appear to be more militant than the CAW on the issue of factory occupations.
In response to the pressure from below, the CAW leadership was forced to put itself at the head of the movement. The CAW, with support from the Ontario Federation of Labour, organized a rally in the industrial city of
Three days later, a rally of several thousand was held outside the Parliament buildings in
All this points to the reactivation of the labour movement in
“Sit-down strikes, the latest expression of this kind of initiative, go beyond the limits of “normal” capitalist procedure. Independently of the demands of the strikers, the temporary seizure of factories deals a blow to the idol, capitalist property. Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is boss of the factory: the capitalist or the workers?”
In Janurary of this year, Ledco Inc, a tool-and-die supplier for the big three automakers, closed its doors in
Unfortunately the CAW leadership called off the Ledco occupation after injunctions came down. This was despite the presence of 100 solidarity picketers and the real possibility of 1000 more coming from across southern
In all likelihood we are seeing the beginning of a real factory occupations movement against plant closures. At the moment the movement is on a very low political level and is mostly raising defensive demands for the receipt of severance rather than the slogan of nationalization to save jobs. Where the union leaders have presented demands to save jobs they are a confused mix of protectionism, economic nationalism and corporate welfare that are no solution whatsoever. But the logic of the movement demands a leap in consciousness. Lenin used to say that for the masses an ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory. The movement is also starting to spread to the forestry sector. 150 workers in
Instead of supplying goods, the manufacturing crisis means that there will be a steady supply of closed factories in the coming years. Positive examples from
Exploitation of Labour
It is an axiom of bourgeois economics that a growing economy is good for all sectors of society. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels however predicted that workers wages would tend to the minimum necessary.
“The average price of wage-labour is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer. What, therefore, the wage-labourer appropriates by means of his labour, merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence.”
This prediction has come under particular attack from the reformists in the labour movement. They believe that capitalism can be reformed and work for the good of all. But you can no more stop the capitalists exploiting the workers than you can convince a tiger to eat lettuce instead of meat. What is more, the statistics of the last 30 years bear out the prediction of Marx and Engels. In June 2007, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released a report titled Rising profit shares, falling wage shares. This report outlined a massive increase in the productivity of Canadian labour between 1975 and 2005. Economic production per head grew 72% over this period and labour productivity (measured as GDP/hour worked) increased by 51% in real terms. Canadian workers are working harder, smarter and longer, so that a single worker who produced 100 widgets a day in 1975 now produces over 150 widgets each day. Or alternatively, where a boss in 1975 needed 150 workers to reach his production quota, now he only needs 100. A Liberal or a reformist would expect wages to increase in line with productivity, but this is not the case. Over this period hourly wages have been stagnant. This underlines our previous observation that any talk of an economic boom in the recent period has been a boom at the expense of the working class. This boom in no way stabilizes the system. In fact it is a cause for an increase in the class struggle as the working class sees the capitalists benefiting from speed-ups, shift work and other petty methods to increase exploitation. Between 1991 and 2005 the share of income that went to corporate profits increased by 55%.
Other studies underline the increased exploitation of the working class. Successive right wing governments are starting to achieve their dream of a flat tax system. The CCPA showed that the effective tax rate on the poorest 10% of families increased from 25.5% to 30.7%, between 1990 and 2005, while the richest 1% had their tax load decrease from 34.2% to 30.5%. Proportionately, Canadian billionaires are paying less tax than families on welfare! However, this increased poverty has nothing to do with increased unemployment. Unemployment is at a historic low, but low wages mean that employed people cannot get out of poverty. There are a whole slew of statistics that bear this out. In fact the observation that the average hourly wage has stagnated over the last 30 years hides the fact that it has actually decreased for the poorest half of society, while increasing for the rich. This is Robin Hood in reverse, stealing from the poor to give to the rich.
All of this has social implications. Ghettos of working poor are starting to form in
We outline these figures not to elicit sympathy but to point out the processes in society. The suburbs of
The dynamics of the class struggle are particularly complex within the
Camouflaging their programme in nationalist rhetoric, the Parti Québecois pursued austerity measures and anti-worker policies for years. The defeat of the PQ in 2003 was a reaction to its attacks on working people (rather than a rejection of separatism, or a victory of federalist policies). The issues that brought down the PQ remained unaddressed by the Liberal administration under Charest, and a renewed wave of government attacks were launched a few short months after its election. What Charest called the “re-engineering of the state” in effect meant the restructuring of Quebec society along more stringently capitalist lines – the flexibility of the labour force (particularly the public service), and reform of the education system being primary objectives. In one sweep, the Charest government attempted to eliminate the CEGEP (pre-university) system, passed Bill 142 banning 500,000 public sector workers from striking, and lifted long-standing protective measures in the manufacturing sector (which has contributed to the loss of over 100,000 manufacturing jobs since the Liberals took power).
This unleashed a wave of popular protest from the unions and the students under the slogans: “Charest – Ostie de croisseur!” (the main labour slogan – “Charest – Fucking poser!”) and “La paix sociale est terminée!” (“The social peace is over!” – radical student union ASSÉ’s slogan). In other words, the cozy class collaboration that followed 1972, uniting the PQ, labour, and the main student federations, was no longer tenable under capitalism.
Post-election 2003 saw a push toward a general strike in response to Charest’s ferocious attacks. This got the overwhelming support of the rank-and-file. The CSN took the initiative and received a full mandate for a general strike. The larger FTQ received 90% ratification from its member locals. As a barometer of the scope of the movement, growing out of the radicalization of society, May Day 2004 was attended by an overwhelming 150,000 workers. But the movement was undercut by foot-dragging on the part of the FTQ. Under the guise of a “holiday truce” for the 2004 Christmas season, the general strike was quietly scuttled.
The climate of demoralization that set in following the betrayal of the labour leaders was the precondition for the rise of a reactionary current. But the vacuum was not immediately filled by the right wing. The
The disappointment with the labour leadership turned the turmoil in
In the absence of the organized militancy of the working class, the bourgeoisie regained the upper hand. But the student strike had given the Liberals a bloody nose; labour had not been decisively defeated. For this and other objective reasons, the bourgeoisie began to lose confidence in the ability of the Liberals to maintain their class interests. The threat of a firmer political hand was needed. This meant backing a new bourgeois party to capitalize on the discontent with the Liberals and PQ, and to channel the alienation of the middle class and rural areas behind the bourgeoisie. Enter Mario Dumont and the ADQ.
The election was only a symptom of discontent, expressed in a distorted manner. It’s no coincidence that
How did the ADQ get to be seen as the solution to these class issues? It is clear that the ruling class has studied history and understands what is necessary to combat the rising militancy of the renewed workers’ movement. The middle class has often been used throughout history to serve the interests of the business and political elite against the working class.
In the previous provincial election the ADQ had been laughed off as far too conservative for the
As we wrote at the time:
The neo-conservative ascendancy in
The shifting allegiance of the ruling class exposed its hunger for a firm hand. Only a party such as the ADQ, only another Maurice Duplessis, could attempt to wipe away the legacy of 1972’s abortive working-class revolt – just as Sarkozy aimed to “bury the memory of 1968” in France.
“The Shadow of Duplessis,” May 2007, emphasis added
Once it had captured centre stage, the ADQ made gestures toward the middle class, hinting that their “high rate of taxation” was solely due to parasitic transit and city workers, daycare workers, and students demanding too much of the public purse – and constantly threatening to strike. Naturally, Mr. Dumont failed to mention that eliminating these nuisances would also be in the interest of the ruling class! So in effect, the ADQ programme proposed an alliance between the middle class and bourgeoisie – to break the powerful public sector unions and the restive student movement.
After the elections, the Liberal government gave a conscious and public response to the ADQ’s focus on the middle class. It used federal transfer payments – intended for health and education funding – to grant a $950 million dollar tax cut to the (upper) middle class.
The accommodation debate, then, was a smokescreen, a ploy by the ruling class to cut across the militancy of
However, having gone down the route of ADQ demagogy, even this tactic is losing its hold on public opinion. The ADQ is losing support, just as the Liberals and PQ lost support before them. The fact is that all forms of bourgeois rule are becoming discredited and there is a deep well of anger in Québec society just looking for an outlet.
Never before has the crisis of leadership been so acute. The break in the situation may come through the manufacturing and forestry crisis or through a general economic slump. Perhaps the war in
The dialectical contradiction between the inability of the bourgeois to crush the movement, combined with absence of leadership amongst the working class, means that there will be a prolonged period of crisis and instability. Periods of advance may be cut across by periods of defeat and demoralization, but this does not change the general line of development. Just like in the rest of the country, there will be major disturbances and confrontations before any new social equilibrium is formed. The small yet growing force of Marxists in Québec will face tremendous challenges and tremendous opportunities in the coming period. The social impasse gives the revolutionary tendency time to build its forces in order to play a catalyst role in the coming struggles. No time must be wasted in building the forces of proletarian internationalism in Québec to aid the workers in their fight against the Canadian imperialist state and their local nationalist office boys.
The Minority Federal Government
It is astounding that the present minority federal government has survived for such a long period of time.
In any other era, the Harper Conservatives would be overthrown in a heartbeat. There is no enthusiasm for Conservative rule. The working and middle classes are deeply opposed to the policies of this government, whether it is on the environment, childcare or the war in
Economically, with the oil boom, the government has had a certain room to manoeuvre with increased revenues. This has somewhat blunted the class struggle as the Conservatives have not been forced to step up the attack the working class. Mostly they have maintained the status-quo while giving the surpluses away as huge tax-cuts to corporate
The war in
The war itself is clearly unwinnable. 2007 was the most violent year since the 2001 invasion. More than 6,500 were killed in fighting last year which includes 222 imperialist troops. Recently, US National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell explained that the Hamid Karzai government does not control more than 30% of the country. The Taliban control about 10% while the remaining area is governed by local tribes. It is no accident that Karzai is known as the mayor of
It is possible that
The pressure to withdraw will not be ended by parliamentary tricks by the Conservatives and Liberals. Even if Harper gets his 1000 extra troops, this will not make a fundamental difference on the ground. More soldiers will die each year and the insurgents have time on their side. Even the 2011 end date is way too soon to make any difference in
Despite the western propaganda, the position of women is no better now than under the Taliban. The war pits the former puppets of imperialism (the Taliban) against their current puppets. In this game the Afghan population is so much cannon fodder between the two sides. A workers’ revolution against the barbarism of both the imperialists and the Taliban is difficult to conceive in
The most likely areas for a break in the Canadian political situation are
The need for working class leadership
Again and again, workers attempt to change society but at every turn they are sidetracked by their leadership in the unions and the NDP. The most stark evidence of the lack of confidence workers have in bourgeois politics and institutions is the mass levels of abstention in every electoral contest. Last year’s
All tendencies, from the reformists to the ultra-left, have written off the working class and are talking about a rightward shift in society. Sometimes you have to wonder if we live on the same planet as these people! Workers are doing everything in their power to fight back – whether it is youth fighting for an increase in the minimum wage, or workers trying to save their jobs through factory occupations, or students striking for free education, everywhere you look people are struggling against the bonds enforced on them by corrupt, cowardly, or at best error-prone leadership. What is amazing is the high level of struggle that we see despite the downward pressure of the bureaucracy.
However, there are no short cuts to the mass movement. Boycotting the mass organizations is merely giving up the struggle for leadership and saying it is inevitable that workers will always be led by bureaucrats. The movement of the working class is stronger than any bureaucracy and inevitably there will be reflections of the mass movement inside the traditional organizations.
The leadership of the NDP finds itself in as just much of an impasse as the Liberals. This is either due to their complete inability to put forward real demands that would benefit workers, or when occasionally when they do put forward demands they are incapable of building a mass movement around them. In fact, it is more accurate to say that they are unwilling to organize a mass movement for fear of the workers; they are just content to play tricks in parliament which shows the workers that they are not serious about their demands.
Opposition to the war in
Similarly, the leadership of the unions have lagged behind the movement of workers against the manufacturing crisis. Almost all of the occupations to date have been initiated from below. While the workers are taking the most resolute action, former left leaders like Buzz Hargrove of the CAW are signing sell-out deals with Magna. Once the workers’ leadership has given up any perspective of the fight for a new society any compromise and betrayal can be justified. The CAW leadership has since been forced to back the factory occupations movement or face a revolt from below, but the ideas they impose on the movement cannot win. The so-called reformist “realists” end up being the worst utopians when faced with the crisis of capitalism. The only solution is to go beyond the logic of the market and maximizing profit – the lives and viability of working class communities are far more important than capitalist profit.
Some labour leaders are even starting to reflect the pressure from below, Dave Coles the new head of the Communications Energy and Paperworkers recently said, “Our experience has been that where local unions caved in and made major wage concessions, the mill goes down anyways. We could give them a 20-per-cent wage reduction and it wouldn’t solve the problem.” Hargrove has even been forced to protect his left flank and is now standing on a “no concessions” platform in negotiations with the big
The logic of the situation is that eventually workers, youth, women and immigrants will be forced into militant struggle. This struggle will inevitably have its reflection within the mass organizations. Bodies that currently appear to be dead will be reinvigorated by fresh elements moving forward. It is the task of the Marxists to enter into a dialog with these elements and give them the necessary ideas to beat the boss and sideline the bureaucracy. The present social equilibrium will appear as a fond yet distant memory to the powers that be. The turmoil of the world economy, world relations and war in the
- World Perspectives 2008 draft by In Defence of Marxism (06 Feb. 2008)
- The Class Struggle in Canada, Political Perspectives for 2007 — Part One: The Canadian Economy by The Fightback Editorial Board (21 June 2007)
- The Class Struggle in Canada, Political Perspectives for 2007 — Part Two: The Labour Movement by The Fightback Editorial Board (25 June 2007)
- The Class Struggle in Canada, Political Perspectives for 2007 — Part Three: The Crisis of Reformism by The Fightback Editorial Board (27 June 2007)
- Perspectives for Canadian Workers 2006 by The Fightback Editorial Board (07 June 2006)
- Canada and the Crisis of International Capitalism, Political Perspectives 2005 by The Fightback Editorial Board (Apr. 2005)