The weather in Toronto today serves as a pretty apt metaphor for the state of our politics.
Rob Ford is no longer our mayor, but nobody is dancing in the streets. There’s no real joy, just a sordid cloud of greyness hanging over a city which, for all its vibrancy and prosperity, is politically, socially, and economically broken.
Ford Nation is out and the Family Compact is in. That right wing populism has been defeated by right wing pragmatism is not something to celebrate. A bombastic, inept, and dysfunctional demagogue has been replaced by a collected, professional, and more intelligent conservative who espouses roughly the same set of political ideas. John Tory’s win may represent a personal defeat for the Fords and their supporters, but it also represents a victory for a civic status quo which favours their politics.
The new City Council will be less boisterous, but there’s little reason to believe it will be any more progressive. The popular idea that government exists to be a kind of corporate dispenser of services funded by “taxpayers” is something Tory has lived and breathed, and it’s one he shares with the Fords. Beneath all of the rhetoric about building consensus and bringing people together, there is nothing in his program which will actually address our cavernous socioeconomic divides.
And cavernous they are.
Consider this: I have lived in Toronto for more than six years and I don’t know a single one of the 330,652 people who voted for Doug Ford. I know a handful who voted for John Tory, though even these were on familiar and self-fulfilling “strategic” grounds. Just like many of those who supported Tory and Ford, I exist mostly in an epistemological bubble with friends and acquaintances who more or less share my values and think others are alien, sinister, or both. This mightn’t be a problem if our divergent civic ideologies didn’t seem to map so neatly onto our class divides.
When class is invoked, most people think about wealth. But the picture is more complicated than that. Rob Ford and John Tory are both rich, but few would recognize them as part of the same social class. One belongs to the Rosedale Golf Club and has spent much of his career hanging out on Bay Street. The other drives around in a baroque mo-beel with silver hub caps and gets his coffee at Tim Hortons. Their class backgrounds may be similar, but their class locations are very different.
They may also share ideological terrain, but no one would have trouble distinguishing between Fordist and Toryite political oratory and no one would expect to see John Tory driving a Cadillac Escalade. One appeals to some downtowners, the other is utterly repellent to all but a few of them.
Political values are not arbitrary. They run like veins through the cultural and socioeconomic matrix of every society, weaving a complex tapestry of competing ideologies and belief-systems. Their origins aren’t obscure. They begin with the parochial experiences of ordinary people. They gestate in factories, on farms, in coffee houses, in boardrooms, at kitchen tables, and in living rooms. Over time, experiences accrete into deeply held beliefs about what society is and how it ought to be. Eventually, these find expression in the public sphere often, though not invariably, as formalized schemes or narratives like “liberalism” or “socialism”. They can be deeply felt without being particularly well-understood. All of us both inherit and reproduce them, our moral and intellectual agency in a kind of dialectical relationship with the dogmas we find around us and assimilate to. Since we cannot act or make decisions without appealing to past experience as a reference point, all political and social life is fundamentally “ideological” (the common refrain that politics should transcend “mere, divisive ideology” inadvertently reveals a deeply ideological view).
In a society where experience is more or less monolithic, so too is political ideology and people are unaware of its presence. In one in which experiences radically diverge – i.e. in every Western society since well before the industrial revolution – a plurality of values, and a series of conflicts between them, inevitably emerge. Values aren’t entirely shaped by class, but the three dominant democratic ideologies of the twentieth century – Liberalism, Conservatism, and Democratic Socialism – all have identifiable class bases (bourgeois, aristocratic, and working class respectively) though you don’t have to belong to the corresponding class to espouse one of them. Class plays a role in shaping ideology because it structures the way we think about people who are more or less wealthy than us or who have different tastes and manners. It also contributes heavily to what we understand the world of politics to be and what we take to be its ultimate horizons.
What does any of this have to do with Toronto?
It tells us that our political divides, and the ideological differences which articulate them, are also less than arbitrary.
Roughly speaking, there are three Torontos and, in the more than six years I’ve lived here, studied here, and participated in politics I’ve come to know them all. They’re cities with disparate social realities and radically different values. The Three Cities Study conducted by Professor J. David Hulchanski at the University of Toronto effectively illustrates the economic component of these divides. What I’m interested here in its ideological realities and their implications.
There are obviously generalizations involved in such an exercise. Not everyone, of course, fits neatly into a typology of class and ideology. Some people might belong, in certain respects, to more than one and no person is inexorably bound to espouse a particular outlook because of their social class.
Think of these as the three component elements of Toronto’s larger political psyche.
So here – as the clouds hanging over the city grow ever greyer outside of my window – is my attempt to describe the three cities within Toronto and their values.
The Family Compact
It is from out of this Toronto that our new mayor comes. The Family Compact is the spiritual ancestor of Ontario’s 19th century ruling class, the inheritor and vanguard of decades of elitist brokerage politics practiced by Bill Davis’ Big Blue Machine and by the federal Liberals under King, Saint-Laurent, and Trudeau. Its taint can be L/liberal or C/conservative, depending on its mood. Its members may be middle class or they may be wealthy, but they generally espouse an aristocratic view of power and democratic politics. Its outlook is no less than the formalized abridgement of decades of experience in the lifeworlds of law, management, and private enterprise.
Its stated view is that politics shouldn’t be “ideological” and is fundamentally about building consensus between competing interests and claims and doing some rough justice to all of them.
This simultaneously reveals and effaces the class basis of the Family Compact. In fields like business or law there are more or less consecrated rules of operation and clearly defined stakes between individuals who participate. The actors are, at least formally, equal in their pursuit of their own private interests. “Ideology” needn’t appear ideological because the basic premises are more or less shared by everyone. Democratic or populist ideologies seem irresponsibly disruptive and corrosive, so they’re strongly and sometimes bitterly resisted. The Family Compact conceives of government like a corporation which is owned by citizen-shareholders who need to be provided with a just framework in which to pursue their private goals (and little, if anything, else).
The compelling mythos of self-sufficiency is its primary ideology. When someone like John Tory says that white privilege doesn’t exist or that the way for women to get ahead in their professional lives is to “learn how to play golf”, it’s no mere accident or gaffe: It’s perfectly consistent with the view that “society” essentially consists of individuals who need only cooperate insofar as it better enables them to achieve their private goals. The very notion of equity is inimical to such a premise.
Tory is almost a perfect embodiment of the Family Compact and its values. He’s professional, well-spoken, and has a history of charity-work which mostly involves using his money and influence to better connect people to the system and make it function more smoothly. His motives are good and his politics are deeply reactionary. The wealthy and powerful people whose support he relied on to win are the same as the wealthy and powerful people who exist in any society: Their primary interest lies in maintaining a status quo in which that wealth and power is secure and in which those who lack either remain politely docile.
Buried beneath its rhetoric, beneath its benign and sometimes charitable instincts, beneath its superficially attractive and self-justifying language, the Family Compact exists not so much to build a consensus as it does to protect one. Every establishment ultimately believes its own outlook is neutral and demands that others believe this too.
Toronto the Middle
This is the Toronto I know best. It’s in this Toronto that I’ve made my adult life, having grown up in rural Ontario by virtue of some cosmic joke or other.
It’s the Toronto of liberally-minded and educated middle class people who are more or less economically secure and are mostly well-meaning, inwardly and outwardly, towards their fellow citizens. It’s the Toronto which produces our greatest social crusaders and not a small number of our most effective technocrats. It’s the cosmopolitan Toronto which aspires to be world class and feels multiculturalism in its bones. It’s the Toronto of community activists and bike lanes, of sunkissed walks through High Park and across the St George Campus, of social reformers who say they want to change the world and mean it, of lefty city councillors rallying their communities to defeat developers, of poetry readings and Massey Lectures.
It’s the Toronto that commutes the least and has the best access to public transit and municipal infrastructure, and the Toronto which doesn’t know much about Rexdale or Scarborough and generally doesn’t care as long as they don’t impose their boorish politicians on its respectable way of life. It’s the Toronto which wants to vote with its heart but often doesn’t. It’s the Toronto where reason generally trumps passion, sometimes for the better but quite often for the worse. Sometimes it lacks self-confidence. Other times it’s confident to the point of condescension and sanctimony. It can feel and express genuine solidarity. Or not. It can be socially radical or respectably conservative; progressive or paternalistic, but not patrimonial.
This Toronto is an outgrowth of modern, middle class life and its socioeconomic pillars: Relative economic security, high levels of education and decent prospects for social mobility. Its denizens aren’t necessarily left wing, but they’re probably inoffensively liberal. Sometimes they desire real change though more often they favour something a bit more comfortable. Some of them become populist social reformers and some of them join the Family Compact. They can be constructively enlightened, passively liberal, or corrosively smug.
The first thing to say about Fordlandia is that it’s only incidentally related to Rob or Doug Ford. The Ford Family has emerged as its self-declared tribunes, but their power and influence comes from sentiments they’ve helped to crystallize, not to create. On the face of it, Fordlandia is a right wing personality cult built around a charismatic figurehead. In actuality, it’s a natural outgrowth of urban class divides; of poverty, austerity, and crumbling public infrastructure. Fordlandia is poorer than the other Torontos, and evidence compiled during the Three Cities survey suggests it’s getting poorer. Its members are more likely to be immigrants and they’re more likely to be racialized. It also, notably, lacks quality access to our transit corridors (subways! subways! subways!).
In 2010, Rob Ford surged into office with the more or less enthusiastic backing of the Family Compact and its intelligentsia. Through scandals and corruption, through crack and though sheer political ineptitude, this initial support was stripped away, but the core remained – and remains – intact.
What is the core ideology of Fordlandia? In 2010, it appeared to most of us in Toronto the Middle to be a more boorish kind of “fiscal conservatism”, a political mentality that seeks to constrain public spending and outsource state-provided services to private contractors. The Family Compact figured this too, or was at least convinced its other elements were bearable. Fordlandia often expresses itself through the language of fiscal conservatism, but its actual texture is far more complex.
If you want to understand what Fordlandia is really about, you need look no further than an election night clip of Doug Ford supporter Penny Morrison reacting to the election of John Tory. Her flowing tears and her worry that a Tory administration is going to “tax us out” may be unfounded, but her sentiments are completely genuine (her suggestion that Tory’s victory is “like ISIS coming to Toronto” not even sounding like hyperbole). No one can seriously believe that Morrison is some kind of right wing ideologue. What she is is a citizen who looks at the political and social elites of Toronto the Middle and the Family Compact and sees people who have the patrician mannerisms she [correctly] associates with class privilege. They don’t speak like her and their politics, which either involve brokerage or taxation and public investment, are even more obscure.
If you’re a member of the working poor, as many of the most passionate Fordlandians are, your immediate interest isn’t in social change, civic innovation, or city building: it’s in earning a paycheque and putting food on the table for your family. The apparent lavishness of the public sector, where individual council budgets frequently run beyond your annual income and politicians spend money to build bike lanes you’ll never use and commemorative monuments you’ll never visit, is unlikely to sit well with you. That Rob Ford is rich and comes from a family deeply embedded in the political class is probably irrelevant because he returns your calls and comes to the door when you want a pothole fixed or a pipe has burst. He’s approachable, whereas “the politicians” are not.
Fordlandia is the product of class divisions and, like most relations of exclusion, it has a dark and potentially violent underbelly. To quote the Star’s Royson James:
Ford Nation goes far beyond the traditional bounds of Conservative, Liberal, NDP politics. It’s more than the left-right divide. It’s more sinister, more disruptive, more revolutionary, more a tilting against the windmills of society, more a desperate striking-out against our urban norms. Strikingly, the emails one receives from this disaffected group of citizens are often vicious and vulgar, and when the authors run out of words, the signoff is spiced with personal invectives and salutations like “douchebag” and “scumbag”.
This is the part of its psyche that sees the mayor of Canada’s largest city arm in arm with gang members, hears his brother callously impugning the integrity of its chief law enforcer, or watches him physically injure another elected official on the floor of City Council, and doesn’t seem to care. It’s the part which hears Rob Ford say “First off, there’s no video” and manages not to recognize or acknowledge the lie even after it’s been exposed. It’s the part which nods approvingly when he says that he’s not homophobic and then devolves into an orgy of hateful poison and physical violence at the sight of someone wearing a rainbow flag (on election night, Ford supporter Iola Fortino angrily told NOW Magazine that under the new mayoral regime “money would go to the gay agenda”).
Doug Ford may have failed to become mayor of Toronto, and Rob Ford may have been forced by health and by politics to retreat into his Ward 2 fiefdom. But as long as our class divisions remain so acute, Fordlandia isn’t going anywhere.
There’s a great deal more that could be said. The last four years have felt like an eternity, with each scandal or bit of theatre proving as simultaneously shocking but ultimately ephemeral as the last. I have no idea what the future holds for Toronto, but I believe we can only begin to heal our divides when we realize that, beneath it all, they’re fundamentally about class and are expressed through its ideological corollaries.
It should be no surprise to anyone that I find the best of Toronto in the version of it that I myself inhabit. I think we solve these problems through the kinds of public initiatives both Rob Ford and John Tory would likely dismiss as examples of “NDP bureaucracy”: social housing, poverty reduction, vastly expanded transit networks, a bigger social safety net, the creation of more quality jobs and measures to create higher real wages. As it stands, these find more fertile ground in Toronto the Middle than they do in Fordlandia, and they aren’t exactly hegemonic here either.
But I also think my Toronto is complicit in our problems. Over the past four years, our default tone when speaking about Fordlandia has been one of condescending derision. Few among us have even attempted to understand why a politician like Rob Ford might be appealing to some of our fellow citizens or might, however brazenly, be expressing sentiments they feel genuinely. We have been much more prone to dismiss them as a rabble of unthinking hicks or hateful bigots. Plenty of us have selfishly called for de-amalgamation. And plenty of us have lazily put our faith in John Tory in the hope that his inoffensive character tranquilizes Fordlandia and gives us repose from its vulgar and histrionic ways.
It may be impossible to have any sympathy for Rob or Doug Ford (I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I never did) but showing some empathy towards our fellow citizens who do or who did is the first step towards putting our broken city back together.
After all, none of us are going anywhere.