Petite bourgeois resentment: a sketch

It’s a truism among socialists that capitalism creates many losers and comparatively few winners. Put another way, capitalism dominates nearly every aspect of life but very few people actually become capitalists.

The great majority of us are working class, whether we identify as such or not. We sell our labour and are compelled to commit a more than negligible share of what we earn to the basic necessities of life: in effect, expending many of the most precious hours and years of our lives so that the free time we do have includes a roof over our heads and at least three square meals a day.

This gets at the great paradox lying at the heart of human society since the Industrial Revolution: if most people are working class and enjoy a less than equitable deal under capitalism, how and why does capitalism persist?

There are several answers to this question, and at least one of them is obvious. Thanks to more than a century of organizing by workers’ movements and others on every continent, some of the harshest aspects of capitalism have been, at least partially, reigned in. The 8-hour work day; the five day week; laws banning child labour; public pension plans – all meaningful improvements on the atavistic industrial capitalism that prevailed in Victorian Britain and was spread (or imposed) throughout the world. It’s because of reforms like these that many (though increasingly fewer) people in modern liberal democracies consider themselves middle class and reflexively associate “the workers” exclusively with manual labour and toil on the factory floor.

The more complicated answer, though, is that while there are very few actual capitalists there remain many partisans for capitalism: people ideologically committed to its core premises, myths, and romanticisms despite living limited, or in some cases, extremely limited, versions of them. The fiercest ideologues of Thatcherism, including its namesake herself, hailed from the middle class, rather than the aristocracy. Theirs (rhetorically at least) was a philosophy of martial struggle, radical individualism, and Promethean self-creation – not of class solidarity or traditional noblesse oblige.

Or course, partisanship for capitalism needn’t practically be so conscious of itself. Your average member of the petite bourgeoisie probably isn’t going to attend lectures organized by the Adam Smith Institute or consult The Road to Serfdom before starting a business. But they probably will be invested in bourgeois totems like free enterprise, meritocracy, and the familiar rags to riches fable.

Consequently, many of them will look down with contempt upon anyone less invested in capitalism’s self-perpetuating myths. (In my experience, socialism’s greatest nemeses have often fit this description. If Big Capital is ultimately the adversary, small time capitalists tend to be its most zealous shock troops and most loyal guardians.)

Oddly enough, these thoughts came to me because of some recent career developments experienced by a friend of mine. After a year or so working as a temp (though nevertheless in the full-time employ of a company) with no benefits or perks save a bit of scheduling flexibility at a small startup, said friend recently accepted a superior gig at a larger, more successful company that offers a better salary and an actual benefits package. Upon informing their boss of the impending departure, they came face-to-face with what I think can only be described as petite bourgeois resentment: a reflexive contempt towards people less invested in their adopted narrative of bourgeois self-fulfillment: “You’re making a big mistake and you’ll regret it”, said the founder of a small, nameless, floundering company that reflexively employs temps and pays peanuts to a young worker wanting stability and security. “We’re gonna do great things and you’ll be missing out” (or something to that effect).

These remarks, in a sense quite bland and commonplace, stuck with me because I think they so effectively illustrate one of the mindsets that most keeps capitalism afloat.

And they weren’t being uttered by some great viceroy of Capital but by a small time businessman who doesn’t see himself as a loser in the system – but rather as a winner who just hasn’t won yet.


Liberalism in theory and practice

“Liberalism dominates, but without confidence or security; it knows that its victories at home are tied to disasters abroad; and for the élan it cannot summon, it substitutes a blend of complacence and anxiety. It makes for an atmosphere of blur in the realm of ideas, since it has a stake in seeing momentary concurrences as deep harmonies. In an age that suffers from incredible catastrophes it scoffs at theories of social apocalypse—as if any more evidence were needed; in an era convulsed by war, revolution and counterrevolution it discovers the virtues of “moderation”…Liberalism as an ideology, as “the haunted air,” has never been stronger in this country; but can as much be said of the appetite for freedom?” – Irving Howe

One of the major points of division between liberal and left thinking, it seems to me, is evident in how each side perceives liberal democratic institutions and how they function in practice as opposed to theory.

A particular memory from grad school comes to mind. I recall participating in a discussion of John Rawls’ political thought that after half an hour or so felt completely divorced from reality. It wasn’t that those assembled didn’t understand Rawls – on the contrary, they were incredibly knowledgeable about his work and the innumerable theoretical debates surrounding it. What struck me was that they were discussing these debates in tones that strongly implied contemporary political institutions actually, albeit in varying and imperfect degrees, embodied the idealized speculative versions sketched out in Rawlsian and other neo-Kantian thought.

This is visible in more banal, less esoteric contexts too. A big part of what animates mainstream liberal opposition to the Trump administration – let’s call it the hashtag resistance – is an underlying notion that American institutions more or less functioned harmoniously, or at least in a manner not completely dissonant with what they’re supposed to be on paper, before Trump and his brigands crashed the gates.

The general left view of liberal institutions, on the other hand, is a lot more pessimistic about how they actually work and, in particular, how they work relative to what liberal intellectuals have told us we can expect from them – furthermore to what extent they can conceivably be expected to fulfill even their most basic assigned functions against the backdrop of a political and economic system in which “democracy” has such narrow applicability.

Oddly enough, this all came to mind because of some work I’ve been doing around employee pension plans in Canada – among the biggest and most profitable companies criminally underfunded despite huge dividends continually being paid out to shareholders since the financial crisis. As we’ve recently seen with Sears, this means that the pensions of a huge number of Canadian workers aren’t safe and could more or less vanish into thin air if their employer suddenly goes into insolvency. Why? Because shareholders at big companies have been allowed to cannibalize billions of dollars even if it’s meant worker pension plans run deficits in the hundreds of millions. Even in the wake of the Sears debacle, the reaction of Canada’s Liberal government has been extremely tepid. Justin Trudeau, our great and progressive leader, has said “his heart goes out” to laid off workers at Sears but nothing about concretely guaranteeing pensions in the future and has uttered not a single word of censure towards Sears executives and the bonuses they’ve received despite crashing one of the country’s flagship retail chains (and biggest employers). His Finance Minister, meanwhile, wants to help employers permanently shift potential liabilities onto workers by replacing Defined Benefit Pension plans altogether.

I bring this up because it seems like such a clear demonstration of liberal institutions’ structural inadequacy but also their failure to reflect the basic principles of economic pluralism and democratic representation we’re told they exist to guarantee, expand, and protect. Here you have a clear and present issue of basic justice, around which there are strong incentives for the government to act – the Liberals, after all, talked about protecting pensions in opposition, and a visible move on behalf of ordinary people’s retirement savings would undoubtedly be popular – and the best a supposedly progressive, liberal PM with a massive parliamentary majority can offer is his best wishes.



All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.


Since there’s an election looming in Ontario, I think it’s pretty safe to bet we’re about to experience the start of a very familiar arc, which goes a little something like this:

Having spent the past 3 and a half years overseeing the privatization of Hydro One and genuflecting to Bay Street, the Ontario Liberals will again discover that they’re on the side of workers and progressive activists after all. Miraculously, canned corporatist talking points about “asset redeployment” will be replaced, as if by magic, with refrains about social justice and the power of the state to be an equalizing force in our society.

The submerged social consciences of every cabinet minister will suddenly resurface from the deep, with little bits of money (no doubt mostly promised for some hypothetical future) announced for every progressive and civil society cause under the sun. Labour leaders will be courted to speak glowingly about the rectitude of the Liberal project and its pro-worker virtues. Attempts to seduce the urban middle class with the language of civic solidarity and activist government will commence at the eleventh hour, coupled with the usual refrains about the mortal threat posed by the PCs.

Like clockwork, Kathleen Wynne will be transformed from a centrist technocrat into a soft version of Sandersesque populist. Meanwhile, the smallest and most superficial gestures from the Premier and her lieutenants will be showered with praise by a gushing centrist wonkosphere, while the right wing press goes into meltdown mode and warns about the threat of creeping socialism (in effect, doing its part to shore up Liberal messaging).

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.


Everything is communism

Spend any sizeable portion of time in the right wing blogosphere and its associated mediums and you quickly notice that just about everything is communism.

Same-sex marriage? Communism. Soup kitchens that serve the homeless? Establishments of the deepest crimson. Anti-discrimination laws? Bolshevism, pure and simple. Taxes that subject janitors to different rates than Fortune 500 CEOS? Surely, this must be the Frankfurt School at work.

Earlier this week I spent some time investigating organized conservative opposition to a new sex-ed curriculum. Most striking, apart from all of the oozing sexual insecurity at play, was the way a primal fear of socialism always seemed to be lingering in the background. At one rally, for example, a speaker denounced the use of gender neutral language in classrooms by complaining that the word “comrade” had allegedly appeared on a school board list of gender neutral terms.

This is silly and anecdotal, sure. But there’s a lot more where it came from.

According to senior figures in Canada’s conservative movement: Mary Poppins is communist propaganda; minimum wages are communist, as is “the language of equality” when applied to marriage. In the midst of the 2015 federal election, Conservative MP Larry Miller tweeted an old warning (in fact, an infamous fake meme on the right) of the “communist rules for revolution.”

Fake as it may be, note the range of conservative pathologies represented here:

No special insight here, except that this particular conservative tick seems to affirm Corey Robin’s thesis that the right is less a strict set of ideas than it is a fluid series of reactions to any push for equality.



Getting the right wrong

One thing that I think is persistently overlooked and underestimated by some commentators and casual observers of the right is the extent to which its infrastructure and organization depends on a relatively small cadre of donors and activist plutocrats.
There’s a narrative line of sorts running right through the Reagan era (and its own analogues here in Canada), the Tea Party, and now the Trumpian alt-right which likes to portray outbursts of right wing rage and resentment as fundamentally populist: the product of working class pathologies and prejudices.
But this account of the right, among its many errors, really misses the mark in explaining how well organized and politically effective its been in setting the political agenda in many countries (particularly the United States). If anything, the mistaken image of right wing politics as inherently populist is just further evidence of a successful strategy on the part of the people who’ve masterminded them.
Some of the recent news and allegations about Rebel Media are a case in point.
Yesterday, Press Progress reported that Ezra Levant has received an unspecified amount of money from a far right outlet called the “Middle East Forum”. As a [surprisingly excellent] 2011 study from the Centre for American Progress revealed, the Middle East Forum is part of an established network of hard right “think tanks” and media projects engineered specifically to spread xenophobic propaganda and funded in trickle-down fashion by several “foundations” set up by an extremely small subset of unfathomably wealthy people (see the chart below). Much of the actual money for this stuff comes from above, but the further you go down the chain the more the official branding associates itself with crowdfunding and non-partisan “watchdog” models or independent “truth-telling” alternative media aesthetics.
Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 1.10.32 PM.png

Image: Centre for American Progress

The same might be said about countless right wing organizations that frame themselves in populist or charitable terms (“foundation”), giving themselves grassroots-ey titles like “council” or “federation” despite being funded by wealthy donors who they very often refuse to disclose. (A few months ago I made a similar observation after Press Progress investigated Kellie Leitch’s donor base and found that the “anti-elite” campaign we’d been told by the Canadian media had set off a “culture war” was getting much of its funding from plenty of supposedly respectable patricians who evidently had no issue with racist dog-whistles.)
Sure, there’s clearly a popular base for this stuff – after all, it needs an audience. But even this tends to be much more affluent and upper middle class than it’s fashionable to admit, and people from this strata are probably a lot more likely to become the right’s footsoldiers than the “ignorant redneck” archetype and others in the same family suggest.
This matters for many reasons, but especially because our understanding of what the right *is* informs in a big way how we decide to fight against it. And conceiving its most reactionary elements as flourishes of mindless ignorance by dumb, uncultured proles lets the very worst people in our society off the hook. 

The great Canadian CEO tax heist

Every so often I’m reminded there’s a ridiculous loophole in Canada under which individuals can deduct 50% of the income earned through stock options (in other words, people compensated with stock options pay tax on *only half* that income.)

The loophole is predominantly taken advantage of by highly compensated people, often high-ranking executives at large firms (in 2014, for example, three quarters of all deductions claimed through the loophole were from 8,000 very high-income Canadians).

We’ve effectively created a system in which people who quite literally earn 200x the average income don’t have to pay taxes on their total earnings.

The chart below shows what Canada’s highest paid executives made in 2017. Now compare the base salaries to the actual take home pay (which often includes stock options). I don’t have a figure for how much the deduction was used in 2017, but in 2014 the loss of tax revenue from this loophole alone was $750 million.

Rank Name Company Base Salary Other Compensation* Total
1 Michael Pearson Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. $182,902,189 $182,902,189
2 Donald Walker Magna International Inc. $415,462 $26,124,238 $26,539,700
3 Hunter Harrison Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. $2,803,522 $17,098,931 $19,902,453
4 Steven Hudson Element Financial Corp. $1,200,000 $18,077,385 $19,277,385
5 Mark Barrenechea Open Text Corp. $981,787 $16,988,255 $17,970,042
6 Donald Guloien Manulife Financial Corp. $1,723,671 $13,889,848 $15,613,519
7 Brian Hannasch Alimentation Couche-Tard $1,356,260 $13,458,456 $14,814,716
8 Linda Hasenfratz Linamar Corp. $605,839 $13,608,995 $14,214,834
9 James Smith Thomson Reuters Corp. $1,981,433 $11,730,709 $13,712,142
10 Bradley Shaw Shaw Communications Inc. $2,500,000 $10,641,235 $13,141,235

It’s an obvious point (made forcefully by Quebec writer Alain Denault) but one that somehow eludes a lot of public discussions around taxation:

Every dollar of tax revenue not collected from a CEO means a longer hospital queue, another pothole; another day a toddler has to wait before receiving a critical operation; another delayed renovation in a public housing unit; another15 minutes a worker has to stand at the bus stop before she can be at home, spending time with her kids and enjoying her life.

Chart source: CCPA


Punditry and the Canada syndrome

It’s pretty widely understood that one of the consequences of being a small country like Canada – inundated with news and entertainment from larger countries, particularly the United States – is that a disproportionate number of cultural signifiers and reference points are, in a sense, imported from elsewhere. One area where I think this is particularly acute – and I sense that this is less well understood – is politics and political commentary.

Take the recent Conservative leadership race.

The whole thing happened in the shadow of Trumpism, with various candidates positioning themselves in relation to recent developments south of the border. As such, all Kellie Leitch had to do was make certain gestures and tweet “Sad!” once or twice and she became “The Canadian Trump”, with the cover of a prominent national magazine issuing the sweeping proclamation that she had “touched off a culture war”. As it turned out, Leitch was very much a candidate of the CPC establishment with little grassroots support. Both her campaign and the media that covered it basically got the whole thing wrong.

And I think this phenomenon is also visible in how pundits talk about Canada’s parliamentary left.

Things tend to be posed in relation to familiar and lazy frames (“pragmatism vs principle”/”party of government vs party of protest”/”centrism vs leftism” etc) that largely ignore the actual experience of the NDP over the past few decades (which is quite different from either British Labour or the American Democrats). To take one recent example, I think there’s been a tendency to view the ongoing leadership race in relation to the experiences of other countries as if the party is simply going to reproduce what’s happening elsewhere, either through an embrace or a repudiation of it.

From what I’ve seen so far, there seems to be a reasonably strong consensus among all the candidates around a variety of pretty major issues with some scattered disagreements (around the OAS issue, for example) and differences in emphasis/degree. Every candidate has postured to the left in one way or another and no right-leaning current is represented. The debate being held simply isn’t a repeat of UK Labour’s 2015 race or the 2015-2016 Democratic primaries.

Not to say, of course, that there’s no debate going on or that there isn’t plenty to discuss or disagree about. But wherever one stands on the race, both the New Democratic Party and Canadian politics more broadly have their own histories and internal dynamics.

These are what should be at the forefronts of our minds when we’re trying to understand what’s going on in either.