Friday, January 19, 2007

Reflections on One Year of Harper

It is close to a year since the election in which the Conservative Party (under Stephen Harper) won enough seats to form the federal government for the first time since the early '90s. With this anniversary pending, I have been reflecting on what might be learned from this year.

I should begin by pointing out that in many ways this is not terribly well informed reflection, at least not in the ways that most people would think mattered. I read mainstream daily news only sporadically. I have not followed every twist and turn of Parliamentary drama. I have not developed wonkish familiarity with every nuanced evil on the current legislative agenda. I had actually half expected that last January's triumph by His Creepiness would spark me to greater attentiveness to mainstream news on mainstream Ottawa-related topics, but it has not. It is actually quite sad and an indictment of the media how not ill-informed you can be just by reading the headlines and the occasional post by a blogger who pays attention to such things, so long as you have invested longer term effort in learning how things work. But then, I have long been a fan of J. Frank Harrison's observation that "It is well said that the attempt to follow socio-political events by reading the newspaper is like trying to tell time by looking at the second hand of a clock."

However, what is most worthy of comment about Harper's first year in office is actually not the doings of politicos in Ottawa, as much as many of those doings deserve to be condemned. What strikes me as more important are the doings -- or, more accurately, the lack of doings -- by ordinary Canadians across the country. With the exception of some signs of life from the women's movement, and fewer from the politically moderate national faces of queer organizations, there has not even been a scent on the wind of generalized, sustained mobilization by popular movements in Canada against the resurgent right.

I judge this, first of all, on what I have heard and read from across the country. There are social movement-y things going on, because there are always things going on even if those of you who depend on the dominant media rarely get to see them. But activity and momentum are low, and the prospect of a scarier federal government does not seem to have done very much to change that. Speaking of the scenes I have more direct connection with, here in Sudbury social movements are in a pathetically low state. Though things are less uniform in Toronto and Hamilton, what I heard from friends there when I was down in late December wasn't exactly encouraging either.

Though I continue to struggle with how exactly to word it, and my choices have definitely changed in the last year, my basic position is much the same as it was when I wrote my pre-election series in late 2005 and the beginning of 2006: the vanilla neoliberals that run the Liberal Party and the radical right that is currently in charge of the Conservatives are largely similar and both quite horrible but the latter are still non-trivially worse. Though neither are unwilling, the latter are much more enthusiastic about changing the role of Canadian state relations, from quiet complicity to enthusiastic cheerleading for and active support of empire abroad, and the connected harsh steepening of hierarchical relations of power (via wealth and other mechanisms) at home. Though putting it this way risks treating political parties as isolated, equivalent units that can be compared in the abstract across time rather than integrated into broader social relations, it is probably not inaccurate to say that Harper's Conservatives are the most right-wing party to form a federal government in Canada since at least the early 1930s.

So what's going on? Why aren't people in the streets, or (again, with the few exceptions noted above) engaging in the many other sorts of activities that make social movements move?

Perhaps I should back up a step, though. Perhaps it is important to substantiate why these are worthwhile questions. Why should I expect some sort of boost in social movement activity when a right-wing government takes power? Well, obviously, looking across time and place, it doesn't always happen. I'm sure U.S. readers could look at the last three decades of their own history and find examples where it has not (though all it would take would be a look south to Mexico in the last year, for example, to see that it can).

The point of comparison that makes me think the questions are worth asking is the province of Ontario in the years after 1995. The Tories ran Ontario from the end of World War II until 1985. They were largely "red Tories" by the end of that time. Then there was a Liberal minority government (said by some to be the most progressive government in Ontario history, though I don't know enough to confirm or deny), a Liberal majority government (reputed to be corrupt and largely despised), and then an NDP (that is, social democratic) majority government. The neoliberalization of Ontario began in the last days of the NDP government, but it was the election of some very blue Tories under Mike Harris that really kicked things into high gear, in combination with the infamous federal budget by Paul Martin that accelerated in a serious way the neoliberalization of the federal level of the Canadian state the same year.

Progressive sectors in Ontario responded to the Harris attacks on gains won not only under the NDP government, but also the preceding Liberal governments and even the Bill Davis Tories, by getting into the streets. Over several years, ten cities across the province saw mass mobilizations, some including a one-day city-wide general strike. I missed the early mobilization of 100,000 people in Hamilton because I was living in Ottawa for a brief period, though I got to know a number of the key organizers later. But I was part of the quarter of a million people that filled the streets of Toronto not long after, and I took part in the action in St. Catherine's, the first mass strike on May Day in North America since the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago that defined the day over a century before.

So it is largely in comparison to that environment -- the environment in which I was first politicized, by the way -- that I think it is worth exploring the possible reasons behind the relative silence and passivity in response to the election, a little more than ten years later, of the most right-wing federal government this country has seen in decades.

The first thing to look at, I think, is the nature of the change that went along with the change in government in each instance. Though neoliberalism had been rising globally and in Canada since the '70s, until the mid '90s it was possible in Canada to maintain the illusion that the social democratic compromise reached after World War II still existed and would continue to exist indefinitely. The election of the Harris government came after a decade in which progressive elements in Ontario society had, at least relatively speaking, been doing pretty well in terms of provincial politics. The gains were the sort of pallid, imperfect gains that one should expect from left-liberalism and social democracy, but they were nonetheless real: an anti-scab law, modest improvements in the welfare system, stronger environmental regulations, some efforts to address the needs of racialized communities, and so on. Progressives, I think, felt quite a shock in 1995 -- though I think the true substance of it was slow to sink in (and I'll come back to this below), it was a transition from a world in which the slow, steady accumulation of reforms seemed like a plausible path to a better world, to one in which the rules were changed and the momentum shifted decisively in favour of neoliberalism. In 2006, in contrast, we had already endured a decade of neoliberalization under the Chretien and Martin Liberals. Analyses vary about how much worse the Harper Conservatives will be (and it is broadly understood that they will be worse) but there is a big psychological difference between going from slow gains to quick losses, and going from losses that would have seemed quick in the context of 10 or 15 years ago under Chretien/Martin to ones that will be even quicker under Harper. We're already stretched, and don't have new resources of outrage that can be easily mobilized.

The second reason also has to do with momentum, I think. And that is the changed context in North America as a whole. Since 9/11, notwithstanding the massive mobilizations against the recolonization of Iraq in 2003, both actions taken directly by the state and shifts in the general culture have taken away momentum and space from progressive movements.

A third reason might be that the Conservative government is a minority government. This has meant that the Conservatives have had to be cautious in implementing their agenda -- they have had to seem sane and reasonable to the many voters who do not actually share their hard-right values that they have to get to vote for them if they want to form a majority government. This is in contrast to the Harris Conservatives, who had a solid majority and were able to get to implementing their horrid agenda as quickly as possible. The fact that it is a minority government also means that the illusion of electoral relief can be vividly held by left-liberal and social democratic folk, including those few that are in a position to direct significant resources towards mobilizing people (from above).

The final possible reason that occurs to me for the lack of movement activity this time is actually connected to my understanding of what happened in the late '90s. Under the terms that had congealed in Canada for the post-war social democratic compromise, especially since the late '60s, some combination of lobbying and putting bodies on the streets in a symbolic way was generally enough to win some sort of incremental reform, even if only a pathetically inadequate one, in the direction of whatever demand that you happened to be making. Particularly in the late '60s and early '70s there were mobilizations that were more substantive, that had more radical politics (both in terms of analysis and in terms of actual social organization) backing up their demands, but over time the radical basis faded and the ritual remained. The government gained from small concessions to ritualistic mobilization because it helped ensure that moderates remained in control of movements, and it also provided a useful way of getting input into what governments needed to do to keep people happy enough to vote for them and to keep bureaucratic systems from functioning too poorly. The movement leaders gained: they could keep their leadership because they could show gains, even if small. And many of the rank-and-file were happy because, after all, even small gains can make big differences to people's lives.

A feature of the changes that happened under the Harris Tories in the late '90s (and probably a feature of the neoliberal transformation of state relations in rich countries more generally) was that this tacit agreement was unilaterally cancelled by the state. However, the agency-based and labour-based social democratic left didn't realize this. They figured that an adequate response to a big nasty agenda would be a big symbolic mobilization of people. So that's what they did. I suspect, especially in Hamilton and Toronto, the mobilizations were significantly bigger and people were significantly angrier than this leadership had expected. This spontaneous anger helped the left within the labour movement push for events that included political strikes and not just demonstrations -- political strikes kept under careful control so they did not turn into direct confrontation with the state, but nonetheless actions with a bit more oomph behind them than just standing in a large group and shouting. Still, it was all largely symbolic, and though it was explicitly not electorally focused in the beginning, later on the more conservative elements of the labour movement got their wish and managed to insert the NDP into things. At no point, at least in my experience as someone who was not involved in organizing and just went as a participant, was there any sense that it was being treated as important to use these large, energetic, but ritualistic gatherings to build something beyond...well, beyond the next somewhat less big, somewhat less energetic, ritualistic gathering. I remember seeing no commitment to building consciousness that would lead to further, autonomous action by people and to ongoing struggle, and no widespread efforts to encourage people to develop analyses beyond "the evil Tories" (except the sectarian Marxist grouplet papers, which often manage to find other ways to be alienating and irrelevant even when they have good stuff in them). And, needless to say, the attempts by the left in the community and, of more relevance, in the labour movement to push for even a limited one-day province-wide general strike did not come to fruition, let alone the yearnings on the part of some that an honest-to-goodness, to-the-death kind of general strike might result.

I'm sure that once historians have access to the cabinet memos of the day, evidence will be found that the mobilizations did play a role in the Harris Tories not going any farther than they did in doing nasty things. But they went pretty far. By and large these mobilizations did not achieve their goals. They did not force the government to back down in any substantive way that we could see from out here in the public. They did not result in even symbolic public compromises with the demands of the movement. They did not even help the opposition parties do much better in elections, and the Tories remained in power until quite a bit later, after Harris had left and the government had exceeded its best-before date and was due for a change anyway.

My take is that much of the left-liberal and social democratic left were and to a certain extent remain highly demoralized by this failure. They grew up in an environment in which lobbying, policy briefs, and symbolic mobilization were mostly likely to make some headway. The rules changed, the old forumlae didn't work, and ever since they have been left despondent and not quite sure what to do instead. Some have ceased to be active at all, some have responded with a renewed commitment to strictly electoral politics, and some are buried in trying to keep alive the services that neoliberalism is constantly eroding from under them, or in trying to maintain their dues-paying membership as that is eroded out from under them. Oh, and they write the odd policy brief.

It is a mistake to try and provide a single answer to why there is not more social movement activity going on. The answer will inevitably depend on power and privilege, and there are certainly lots of people out there across Canada who would dearly like to do something about the oppressions and exploitation they face on a collective level but who have little space in their life to do much more than combat their oppression on an everyday, personal level, work, and keep themselves and their families together. It is also important not to answer it in a way that focuses too much on the government of the day -- being unable to see past that level of analysis is one of the problems that has locked the liberal-left and social democratic left into their current paralysis as far as extra-electoral activities go, I think. Any movement that is going to be able to persist in the face of current obstacles will have to have a broader target.

All of that said, the relative lack of response by Canadian social movements to the electoral resurgence of the right is not encouraging. As I have maintained in other posts, even if there is an election tomorrow, the contest will not be over whether things get better or worse in the next few years, but how fast they get worse. Though it is a good sign that much elite opinion in the United States seems to have turned against Bush -- some sort of retreat by the most right-wing elements of U.S. elites, even if it is in the face of their almost equally horrid neoliberal elite brethern rather than because of movements, may help to limit the extent to which Harper will be able to imitate his mentor.

But you'll have to excuse me if I'd rather we not depend on that. I'd much rather we, ourselves, were in a better position to set the terms of the debate. And we need to keep working towards that, no matter who resides at 24 Sussex Drive a year from now.

As for how -- well, I make no claims to having answers and this post is long enough already. But perhaps a good start would be to look to those amongst us who are already doing something, whether it is directly focused on Harper or not, and take that as a place to start.


J. David Zacko-Smith said...

I'll take Canadian Conservatism any day over the neo-conservatism of a hypocrite like George Bush (who, I truly belive, is clinically insane).

Scott said...

Hi David!

Yeah, I get what you're saying...I've lived in both countries, and agree with your diagnosis of Bush.

That said, the current leadership under Harper is not so far from Bush. Until relatively recently in Canadian history, Conservative politicians were usually fiscal conservatives but social moderates -- mostly rich WASPS directed by Bay Street, our equivalent of Wall Street, who regarded hardcore social conservatives as embarassing (even if occasionally necessary to win a government). There was a protracted civil war within the Canadian right, which the social conservatives decisively won a few years ago. Now whatever moderation Harper shows is because of tactical necessity with general voters, but he is very much from a Bush-worshipping school of conservatism. The right just hasn't had as long to take over institutions and their right-wing grassroots movements are not so well-developed in Canada, so they have to hold back a bit. Though I obviously hope not, depending on how things go in the next few years, the current minority government could easily become the first step towards developing that kind of stranglehold on power.