Friday, October 22, 2010

Risks in an Anti-Austerity Focus

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be facing the austerity agenda that currently looms so large across the globe. In particular, I've been thinking about what it means for acting in the specific kind of context that I happen to be in. I've come to the conclusion that the most obvious responses available to us might end up further marginalizing people who are already the most marginalized, but I'm not quite sure what to do with that observation.

The reasons for this issue being on my mind should be obvious. In the lead-up to the G20 summit in Toronto this past June, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney predicted a global "age of austerity." Sure enough, this summit of the leaders of the world's most powerful states ended with a communique endorsing the slash-and-burn approach. There was a moment in 2008 and 2009 when neoliberalism, and even capitalism, were open for questioning, with the automatic granting of their claims to legitimacy faltering even in the mainstream, in ways not seen in at least a generation. Yet despite this opening, and despite the fact that elites have failed to fully recussitate neoliberalism's mainstream legitimacy, it continues to lumber forward -- "zombie liberalism," some have called it. That is what this austerity agenda is: the same neoliberalism that has dominated elite politics for the last three decades, with any novelty coming from the increased intensity with which it is being applied and the fact that it is happening all over the world in a somewhat more coordinated way than before. There has already been lots of resistance -- the nearly constant turmoil in Greece; a recent Europe-wide day of trade union action (which, admittedly, some radicals were skeptical of); the current massive wave of strikes and demonstrations in France; and the efforts by radicals to push British unions to act more quickly and more resolutely in the face of attacks on ordinary people far more severe than anything Margaret Thatcher ever accomplished, by the new Liberal-Conservative coalition government.

It is my sense that things are not quite as stark in Canada, though I have not seen anything directly comparing the early stages of implementing austerity in Canada to other places. To the extent that this is true, I suspect it has to do with the fact that the crisis that is being used across the globe to shift wealth from ordinary people to the rich and powerful (and to reorganize social relations in other ways) hit Canada more mildly than most other countries. It may also be connected to the specific political situation at the federal level -- I suspect the Conservatives know that if they were to go beyond the piecemeal patriarchal, racist, anti-poor programmatic nastiness that has characterized their years of minority government into a fullscale implementation of the sorts of socially conservative-inflected neoliberal awfulness that I know fills their dreams, they would promptly face an election in which the Liberals would win a majority government. At which point the Liberals would then implement all of the same neoliberal awfulness, with a bit less of a socially conservative inflection.

Yet despite the fact that this intensified neoliberalism seems to be happening in a somewhat more muted way in Canada, it is still happening -- things like Ontario's Liberal government implementing wage restraint and taking money out of the hands of poor people. Because of personal connections, I have a window into some of the ways that intensified neoliberalism is playing out in the broader public sector, specifically in universities, where it is meaning pressure to make all kinds of little changes in how things get done that are adversely impacting working conditions and learning conditions. I expect this is true a lot more broadly. I also expect that we will face years of this kind of attack, which ordinary people will have no choice but to resist in whatever ways we can.

I wrote earlier this year about at least one aspect of the political environment in Sudbury, and though certain specific events have shifted since then I think my overall analysis is still applicable. That is, Sudbury exhibits stark social divisions and plenty of instances of oppression and exploitation, and there is the inevitable resistance to this in everyday and individual ways, via informal mutual aid, and via certain kinds of dispersed or institutional collective expressions that are not focused on mobilization. As I concluded in that earlier post, "despite all of that, struggle mostly does not -- in this place, in this moment -- tend to be public, collective, and based in ordinary people mobilizing."

I think this is true in a lot of smaller communities in Canada. And this means that as austerity hits, by and large we do not have vibrant networks of ordinary people who have tools to translate their moments of everyday resistance and refusal into collective action.

So what does our response look like, then?

Well, it might not look like much of anything at all -- it might mean more and worse moments eliciting everyday resistance, but nothing that becomes collectively visible. More likely, though, there will be some instances where it does bubble forth in particular ways into collective expression. Take two recent Sudbury examples: existing organizations that did not have a default orientation towards mobilization and activism responded by shifting, in crisis, to more confrontational modes of doing things. The examples I'm thinking of are the massive, year-long mining strike that ended in defeat earlier in 2010, and the current strike by administrative, office, and technical staff at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. The former was not in response to the intensification of neoliberalism that gets labelled "austerity" but to neoliberal shifts in the global organization of the mining industry, but it is still a useful example, while the latter very much is about public sector neoliberalism (though it is politically important in the context of that struggle to understand that in a nuanced, not a flat, way).

In both of those instances, happening as they are in a socially divided community in which collective struggle is largely decomposed at the moment, activists from beyond the directly affected organizations have come together in support. We haven't done so quickly enough, in sufficient numbers, or effectively enough, but people have done and are doing things. In fact, the presence of such struggles provides those of us who have energies for social change not taken up exclusively by our own unchosen struggles with an answer to the question of what to do that is obvious and important. Such answers will, I suspect, become increasingly common in the next couple of years, and it would be relatively easy for activists with such discretionary energy to find their time completely taken up by such responses to austerity.

On a certain level, this makes perfect sense. Resisting intensified neoliberalism is important. Generally speaking, struggles that become collective and visible in the Canadian context today are going to need all the support they can get in order to win. And supporting those struggles that reach this stage in a generous way could be absolutely crucial to creating an environment in which diverse struggles become more clearly linked and in which collective and confrontational moments of struggle begins once more to circulate more generally through society. This, in turn, could release collective energy that advances many different sorts of struggles.

It becomes more complicated, however, when you think about where these struggles are most likely to occur. That is, given the lack of any already-composed, mobilization-focused spaces, groups, or movements of any size -- in Sudbury and in many centres across Canada -- it will be mainly among relatively privileged people that resistance is able to take this form. It will be unionized workers. It might be other constituents of organizations in the broader public sector, like universities. And, well, I'm not sure who else. What other groups in Sudbury and similar centres will be able to mount timely, collective, confrontational, and at least potentially effective resistance when austerity threatens their interests, given the current state of decomposition of movements?

Saying that does not make such struggles any less important. But it does invite the question of whose moments of everyday struggle, under these circumstances, are unlikely to find the same kind of collective and confrontational expression, and therefore receive little or no attention from activists with some discretionary energies to expend. What about tenant struggles? What about people on social assistance? What about struggles grounded in the experiences of survivors of misogynist or anti-queer violence? What about low-wage, precarious, service sector workers? What about people of colour? In a very white corner of the country like Sudbury, such struggles are unlikely to be responsive in any direct, meaningful way to the experiences of people of colour, even though some people in the worker or student or whatever organizations that are pushed into struggle by intensified neoliberalism will certainly be people of colour. So in investing our energies and attentions largely in struggles by constituencies that are already relatively privileged and already have some sort of organizational expression, even if that is not a mobilization-focused one outside of moments of crisis, we are further marginalizing struggles by people who are starting from already-more-marginal places. We are making choices about who and what matters, and those struggles that lose out in this choice-making are those that are already most likely to lose out.

So what do we do? I don't know. I mean, when there's a strike, you support the strikers -- that's politically imperative, and we shouldn't not do it.

I also know what I think needs to happen. I think there needs to be concerted, deliberate, anti-hierarchical organizing -- organizing understood not as getting people to be passive members of some organization, but organizing understood as working with people to co-create collective ways to engage in struggles that already permeate everyday lives -- with a long-term, basebuilding approach. In Sudbury, I think such work could be very effective with an anti-poverty focus or an environmental justice focus, and others probably would have some traction as well. (I think there might also be space for new kinds of indigenous-lead, indigenous-specific political work, but I have much less of a sense of what might be appropriate or possible in that regard.) I think this kind of work might allow for resistance to intensified neoliberalism that would be much more responsive to the experiences of people who are already more seriously harmed by it. But I know that myself and the small group of people with whom I regularly do political work here do not have the capacity, and perhaps do not have the skills, to make this happen. I would happily plug into such work in a subordinate way if it were already happening, but it isn't.

So I don't have a solution, or at least I don't have one that I've figured out how to act on. But I still think it is essential to see beyond the temptation that I'm sure will be present in the coming period to focus exclusively on overt, collective conflict related to austerity. We must continue to figure out how to engage with and support struggles that are no less crucial but that do not have the structural advantages that make the path to collective, confrontational expression a short and obvious one.


thwap said...

I'm glad you wrote that. I'm being pulled a million ways at once, and I'd like to engage these thoughts, but for now i'll just say i'm glad you wrote it.

Scott said...

Thanks thwap...I look forward to reading whatever you come up with!