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.
The United States, the motor force for the world economy, is entering a period of recession. It may already be in recession, or it may take 6, 12 or 18 months to take full effect. The impetus for this recession is the bursting of the housing bubble and the sub-prime mortgage crisis. However, these are merely symptoms of the underlying cause of the crisis. In the last analysis the cause of this and every other capitalist crisis is a crisis of overproduction.
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 US working class has not. There has been a similar development in Canada which we shall illustrate later. The recent boom has been financed by increased exploitation, the extraction of absolute and relative surplus value, combined with increased debt by US workers. As long as house prices were increasing this debt could be financed, but now the housing bubble is bursting and these workers are drawing back their consumer spending. Any efforts to encourage further spending merely serve to re-inflate the debt bubble, leading to the repetition of the crisis a few months or years down the road. Exploitation has its limits also; there are only so many times you can whip a donkey to make it go faster. In addition, if you whip it too many times it is liable to bite and kick.
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 US does not matter and that the fundamentals of the Canadian economy are sound. This contradicts absolutely everything these people have ever said about globalization over the last period. If the world economy is fundamentally interconnected (which it is) and growth in one area means growth in other areas, then it is illogical to believe that a recession in one area will not also spread to other areas.
The Canadian economy, especially its manufacturing base, is still dependent on the USA. According to Statistics Canada, exports represented 38% of Canadian GDP in 2007, which is a relatively high figure for an OECD country. 76% of these exports went to the USA. This is down from 79% in 2006 and represents a retraction of $5.5 billion in exports to the USA. The IMF has recently downgraded its growth prediction for Canada from 2.3% to a fairly anaemic 1.8%, based on the US slowdown. But they also predict that in the event of a deep US recession, with a steep fall in the US dollar and a collapse in commodity prices, Canada will experience a 3.3% contraction in 2008, 3.8% contraction in 2009, before recovering to barely above zero in 2010.
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 Alberta and the Western provinces which are benefiting from the oil boom. While wages are increasing, inflation is cutting into the standard of living of the working class. In Alberta, prices are on average 18.8% higher now than in 2002. Inflation also appears to be concentrated in areas that disproportionately affect the working class. Prices for shelter are 46% higher, bread and cereals 22% higher and energy costs are 55% higher. These figures are over and above the increase in the value of the dollar, which would tend to reduce inflation. If the ascent of the dollar ends the full force of increased prices will hit. This is not yet hyperinflation, but it is a growing trend especially in the West.
In terms of housing, Canada is relatively affordable when compared with Britain, USA, Ireland and Australia. However there are massive regional disparities. In a study of the ratio of median house prices vs. median income, Thunder Bay, Windsor, London, Sudbury and Oshawa all came in as some of the most affordable markets in the world. It is not an accident that these cities are in the Ontario manufacturing belt. On the other side, Vancouver, Kelowna and Victoria have some of the least affordable housing on the planet. Statistics such as these show the divergent economic pressures on different parts of Canada.
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 China and India are taking their toll. Canada is no longer the biggest exporter to the United States – it has been pushed into second place behind China. Over the last year automotive exports have decreased $5.0 billion, exports of lumber, largely for the US housing market, are down $4.3 billion. However, energy exports are up $5.0 billion, further exacerbating regional disparities in Canada.
Over the last 3 years, more than 1 in 8 manufacturing workers in Canada have lost their jobs. The figures from Statistics Canada show the rapid decline of the sector. Between January 2005 and January 2008 almost 300,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. From employing 14.3% of Canadian workers, the sector now employs only 11.7%, about 2 million people. This is a steady annual trend over the period. These losses are concentrated in Ontario and Québec which have lost 171,700 and 98,900 manufacturing workers respectively. Contrast this with employment in the booming construction sector which employed 177,600 extra workers, a 17.7% increase, over the same period.
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 Rand formula. Workers gave up their right to strike while under a contract and gained the right to union recognition and automatic dues check-off. It can be argued whether this compromise was worthwhile, Marxists believe it was not. The post-war social contract led to the increased bureaucratization of unions with power moving away from the rank and file and towards lawyers, mediators and “experts.” However, the manufacturing workers, with the auto-workers at their head, were able to gain significant concessions through this period. They formed the backbone of the labour movement and by extension aided the increase in living standards for workers generally. But now the manufacturing crisis is endangering the fracture of this backbone, which has already grown soft with the extreme bureaucratization of the unions under the leadership of figures like Buzz Hargrove.
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 North America, before it was closed down as a warning to other workers.
After Jonquière, the Collins & Aikman parts plant in Scarborough, Ontario was occupied by its workers in March 2007. C&A announced that it was shutting down production at the plant and laying off its workforce. In addition, management told the workers that they would be withholding severance packages and not honouring previous contracts. The movement was instantaneous to take over the plant. In less than 48 hours of occupation, solidarity strikes had occurred at two other parts plants across the province and postal workers were refusing to walk their routes. The company caved in very quickly to the workers’ demands for their severance packages and this event gave a much-needed jolt to the movement.
In the weeks following, a steel smelter in Hamilton, that had announced that it would be closing its doors and not honouring its severance agreements, met with a similar occupation. Within 24 hours the company backed down. Then the Masonite Manufacturing plant in Mississauga, Ontario was occupied by its workers to protest its announced closing. During this occupation workers from factories as far away as Kitchener, upon hearing of the action, put down their tools and flooded to the occupation site. The resulting impromptu rally showed a great deal of both militancy and frustration amongst rank-and-file workers.
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 Windsor. This rally attracted a huge turnout of nearly 40,000 workers calling for action to stop the job losses. This turnout was higher than that of the Windsor city-wide strike during the Metro Days of Action a decade previous. A similar rally was held in the city of Oshawa, once known as the centre of auto manufacturing in Ontario, now decimated by layoffs, that attracted another 2,000 workers. Eight other cities saw smaller rallies the same day. These movements just go to show the seething discontent present amongst the working class that is just looking for an outlet.
Three days later, a rally of several thousand was held outside the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. The workers constructed a mock graveyard on the lawn of the parliament, each headstone representing a plant closure and the number of jobs lost. The most telling event during this rally was the reception that Liberal leader Stephane Dion received when he attempted to address the crowd. Barely a sentence into his speech he was drown out by jeers and boos from the crowd. Chants of “Anti-scab! Anti-scab!” pummelled Dion, a reference to the anti-scab bill that the Liberal Party helped the government vote down during this session of parliament. This just over a year after CAW leader Buzz Hargrove ceremonially gave then Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin his very own union jacket and endorsed his party during the 2006 federal election. As the class-consciousness of the workers advances with the mass movement, they are stripping away the illusion that the Liberals are anything but a bosses’ party. It is symbolic that an embarrassed Hargrove was standing next to Dion, while the predominant banner in the front row of the chanters was that of the Steelworkers.
All this points to the reactivation of the labour movement in Canada’s industrial heartland. But following on from the experiences of the defeated Metro Days of Action and the strikes in the rest of Canada, the movement is at a much higher level. It is no longer a fight for pay and conditions, but a fight for the existence of good quality union jobs that the Canadian workers won in the post-war period. There is not much use striking when the plant is going to be closed anyway, and that is why plant occupations are starting to be seen. Trotsky, in the Transitional Program explained that:
“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 Kitchener while refusing to pay severage. The workers organized by the CAW occupied the plant immediately. The Waterloo Record reported on 29th January that “Hamilton East-Stoney Creek MPP Paul Miller visited the Ledco pickets yesterday to offer support. Miller, the NDP critic for several labour files, said he doesn't fault workers for taking such drastic actions as occupying plants. ‘A lot of it is intimidation by companies to get concessions from the workers,’ he said. ‘Sometimes workers get to a point where they're so frustrated, they have no other avenue to take.’”
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 Ontario to resist police evictions.
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 Miramichi, New Brunswick, recently marched on the legislature to demand the expropriation of their shuttered paper mill. It appears that the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers’ union is taking a lead in this sector.
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 Venezuela will increasingly put the issue of occupation, expropriation and even workers control in the minds of workers and their active layer. It is vital that the Marxists find a road to these workers to aid them to come to the most advanced conclusions in this struggle.
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 Canada’s big cities. The United Way studied income distribution in Toronto in November 2007, but the results of this study are almost certainly typical to a greater or lesser extent in all of Canada’s cities. The numbers of Toronto families living in poverty has almost doubled since 1990, from 16% to 29% – a level on par with Venezuela. This comes with a boom in unstable temporary work which means that only 1 in 4 workers in Toronto qualify for Employment Insurance. Across the city, parasitic payday loans outlets are popping up to prey on the insecurity of workers. The effective interest rate of a typical loan from these people is over 400%. There is only so much that working people can take before there is a major confrontation.
We outline these figures not to elicit sympathy but to point out the processes in society. The suburbs of Paris have been beset by riots in recent years; the situation facing millions of Canadian workers is not that dissimilar. Like causes give like consequences and if the workers are not given a lead by their unions and political representatives we can expect similar eruptions. However, the factory occupations movement shows that the elemental struggle of the workers does not need to go down the avenue of blind fury. It can be harnessed to challenge the rule of Capital. The key issue is leadership.
The dynamics of the class struggle are particularly complex within the province of Québec. Ever since the defeat of the Common Front general strike in 1972, the national question has cut across the class question and dominated Québec politics. Now we are seeing the class question return with a vengeance. All the old-line parties, the Liberals and PQ, are in crisis in one form or another. Québec is entering its most turbulent period for a generation.
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 Quebec student strike of 2005 became the catalyst for the underlying discontent in Quebec: as the only sector of society organized enough to take on the government, the students received massive popular support from the middle classes as well as unemployed associations, labour unions, and the public at large - who joined their demonstrations in the tens of thousands. But the opportunist wing of the student movement (the FÉCQ/FÉUQ leadership) moved to calm the movement after five weeks of striking. While the strike forced the government to back down, all that was achieved was to maintain the status quo.
The disappointment with the labour leadership turned the turmoil in Quebec into its opposite. The student movement had lost its momentum. The labour leadership was bankrupt. People kept losing their jobs - the middle class, particularly, felt the squeeze. Precisely when the majority of Quebecers were looking for firm solutions, and a strong, principled stand, the bureaucracy stalled the movement, and a vacuum of leadership emerged. When the labour leaders failed in 2004, and the students could not offer a cohesive political alternative in 2005, the middle-class and rural sectors sought an outlet for their discontent on the electoral plane.
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.
On March 26, 2007, the face of Quebec politics changed dramatically. The Parti Quebecois saw a massive defeat, falling to 36 seats and forcing leader André Boisclair to declare that sovereignty was off the agenda "for the short term." The right-wing Action Democratique du Quebec jumped from five seats to 41. This put them only seven seats behind the ruling Liberals.
The election was only a symptom of discontent, expressed in a distorted manner. It's no coincidence that Dumont referred to his party's electoral success as "a revolt of the middle class and the rural areas." Squeezed out of employment by the ruling class, no longer enamoured of the Parti Quebecois, and disgusted by the Liberals, middle-class Quebecers had looked to the labour movement to fight back on their behalf, and were again betrayed. Rural manufacturing and resource workers had been completely ignored. The closure of the Alcan aluminum plant in the Saguenay had led to a factory occupation - and the continuing of production under workers’ control - in 2004. The most the FTQ did to support the union was to mount an ineffective symbolic demonstration - and in the absence of public support, the police moved in. Other resource-based jobs in rural Quebec disappeared with less of a splash.
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 Quebec taste, and was openly criticized as being too close to the American Republican party. In this context, the only issue which raised the ADQ profile in the months leading to the election was its open identification with the accommodation debate: conjuring the spectre of “immigrants” who wanted to destroy the fabric of Quebec society.
As we wrote at the time:
The neo-conservative ascendancy in Ottawa prepared the ground for a new kind of election campaign in Quebec: one that exploited the thirst for a radical alternative to the impasse of a Canadian bourgeois party and a Quebecois petty-bourgeois faux nationalism. The ground was prepared with a Republican-style “clash of civilizations” dialogue - during the months leading up to, during, and after the election. The debate was transformed from that of the crisis of health care, education, and jobs into the basest and most vile ethnic chauvinism and scape-goating. It even had a brand name: “reasonable accommodation,” a debate over how much minority rights were “too much.” The ADQ emerged as the crystallization of this campaign, with leader Mario Dumont using the somber shadow of Maurice Duplessis as a historical model...
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 Quebec society. It captured the anger of middle-class and rural Quebecers at capitalism by substituting racism, it rallied them behind the ADQ, and allowed the bourgeoisie to use these social layers to combat the “social parasites” in the working class and student population.
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 Afghanistan and the fight back against the racism of the reasonable accommodation debate will be the catalyst that unites and organizes workers. The objective conditions for a mass working class movement, that cuts across the national divide and unites Francophone, Anglophone and immigrant workers, has never been better. Québec Solidaire could be the political expression of this movement, but only if the newborn party casts off its petit-bourgeois academic wing and firmly unites with organized labour. Alternatively, a new political force could arise from within the unions themselves.
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. Canada has been in a minority situation for almost 4 years now, 2 under the Liberals and 2 under the Conservatives. Minority rule is a symptom of the impasse of society. To answer the question posed at the beginning of this document, in no way have political relations reached a stable equilibrium – the apparent stability of the status quo is merely due to the unattractiveness of all other options.
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 Afghanistan. However the Liberals, the natural governing party of Canadian capitalism, are in complete disarray and are incapable of capitalizing on the situation. This is no accident, but reflects the crisis of confidence that workers have in all bourgeois political institutions. The pathetic Stephane Dion won the Liberal leadership precisely because he was not one of the major contenders and had zero content – the Liberal Party of Canada has truly got the leadership they deserve.
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 Canada or increased military spending. All this will change as the coming economic slump cuts into government revenues. All across the line every limited reform and benefit won by the working class will be put on the chopping block. Not even the sacred cow of Medicare is safe. It is already being eroded by underfunding and creeping privatization. Events such as these will destabilize the apparent social equilibrium over the coming years.
The war in Afghanistan remains an open wound in Canadian politics. Opposition to the mission is at 2:1 in the country and rises to 4:1 in Québec. The Liberals, showing their true colours, capitulated to capitalist necessity and fell into line over extending the Kandahar mission to the end of 2011. All their previous posturing about ending the mission in 2009 was merely for electoral expediency – when the interests of Canadian imperialism were stated bluntly they had no choice but to comply.
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 Kabul. With millions of dollars of drug money the insurgency is here to stay.
It is possible that Afghanistan will be the straw that breaks the back of NATO. There are deep divisions between the US, Britain, Canada and Netherlands, who are doing the majority of the fighting and dying in Southern Afghanistan, and France, Italy and Germany who are restricting their troops to the North with caveats to avoid fighting. Canada’s demand that they will pull out unless they get 1000 extra troops was not a serious threat on behalf of Harper and co. – but even this has heightened the tensions within NATO. Mark Sedra, in the Globe and Mail February 21, 2008, commented that, “the reality is that Canada cannot win the war alone – but it could lose it. If we withdraw now, it could trigger a domino effect of troop withdrawals among other NATO contributors. That is how much Canada matters to the mission, to NATO and to Afghanistan.”
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 Afghanistan. To protect their troops the US resorts to high level bombing – this massively increases the level of civilian casualties. Increasingly, the local population are getting tired of the corruption of the Karzai regime and the imperialist occupation. This can only mean a heightening of the insurgency and more bloodshed on all sides.
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 Afghanistan due to the near absence of a working class. In this situation the liberation of the Afghan people, for centuries under foreign domination, will come through a united struggle with the workers of the region. The working class or Pakistan and Iran hold the key to victory against imperialism and fundamentalist barbarism. We must link up the struggle for freedom in Afghanistan with the struggle for socialist revolution in Pakistan and Iran.
The most likely areas for a break in the Canadian political situation are Afghanistan, the economy and the possibility of the generalization of the occupied factories movement. However, political perspectives are not a crystal ball where we can predict developments with 100% certainty. All we can do is point out likely developments and orientate our forces accordingly. What we do know is that there is plenty of combustible material just waiting for a spark to set it alight. We cannot know exactly when and where this spark will come from.
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 Ontario election had a historically low 52% turnout. The Alberta election, which at the time of writing is still pending, will almost certainly have a dismal participation rate. Recent federal elections have been the same. The people who do not vote are predominantly the young, the poor, immigrants and women – precisely the people who would benefit most from a real fight for socialist policies. These people are not apathetic about society; in fact participation in other “political” causes has never been higher. These people just understand that politicians are apathetic about them and this includes the right-reformist leadership of the mass organizations.
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 Afghanistan runs at 4 or 5 times the support for the federal NDP. The rank and file of the NDP forced the party into an anti-war position but the bureaucracy have blocked every attempt to make the party the voice of a mass anti-war movement. There is a gentleman’s agreement, between the sects that run the anti-war “coalitions” and the NDP, that neither side will interfere with the other while the unions stand passively on the sidelines. The only way to build a mass anti-war movement that could bring down the government and end the imperialist occupation is for the mass organizations to take their rightful place at the head of the movement. It is possible that the leaders of the workers organizations will be forced into this position due to pressure from below.
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 Detroit three automakers.
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 Middle East, revolution in Latin America, will appear on the doorstep of Canadian capitalism. The workers will be given many chances to fight back against the system, but what remains an open question is whether they will have the necessary leadership to bring their struggle to a victorious conclusion. The small forces of revolutionary Marxism must set themselves the task of using the present calm before the storm as preparation time to build a tendency capable of playing a role in these events. It can seem like an immense task, but the ideas, methods, traditions and theory of Marxism is the key to success. Those with the stamina to do the day-to-day work, to put down roots in the working class while studying Marxist theory, will find themselves in a decisive position when historic events strike. That is our task comrades.
Toronto, February 29, 2008