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

Ontario.jpg

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.

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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:
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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.

 

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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.
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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. 
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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

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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.

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Missing the forest for the trees

In the course of my work I engage a lot with the ongoing public policy debate around raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. And the deeper I get into the innumerable studies, blog posts, and media coverage the more I’m convinced the issue represents pretty much a textbook version of how political debates have tended to play out over the past 30 years or so.

On one side, you have an assorted coalition of low-wage workers, activists, and trade unions who see raising the wage floor as a natural way of improving material conditions for much of society. On the other, there’s the Chamber of Commerce and the usual right wing wonks and movement conservatives.

Both are acting in a sense on the basis of self-interest, but much of the official debate (in the press especially) is played out in fairly dry and wonkish terms. Officialdom on both sides states that their favoured policy direction “makes good economic sense”, trotting out various statistical studies and analyses to bolster their claims. The thing is then waged on an academic level and through a competition for standing and media legitimacy.

Now, obviously these things are going to be important components of any political campaign from the left or the right. I work at a social democratic think tank that does this kind of work (with, dare I say it, quite lethal effectiveness) and I believe strongly in what we do. Professionalization can’t simply be dismissed (overprofessionalization, of course, is a problem – but that’s for another post altogether). 

But what’s sometimes missing from the public policy foray is any implicit sense that the debate represents an actual struggle between two competing visions of the world. In reading this stuff it often seems like there’s minimal awareness from the interlocutors involved that power dynamics are at play, or that the arguments produced are a kind of formalized agitprop designed to make publicly legible or respectable a position that’s ultimately ideological. Even the worst ideologues on the right seem to have internalized their truisms and talking points so thoroughly that they’re unable to extricate themselves from the morass.

This is one reason why the minimum wage debate is so interesting and instructive. Because while I think left wing economists and others have been very effective at combatting the familiar right wing rhetoric and spin, we’d doubtless be a lot further behind without the organization done by activists, community groups, the Fight for 15, etc., which has helped lay bare the struggle for power at the heart of this whole thing.

No special insight here, but I think it’s important for anyone who spends their time thinking about, debating, or covering public policy to remember that what’s ultimately at stake is who wields power in our society and to what ends it’s applied.

Let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

Photo: 15 and Fairness.

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Jeremy Corbyn and the radicalism of possibility

Today tens of millions of people in my mother country will vote in an early general election few expected and almost nobody wanted.

Throughout all the emotional vacillations of the past few weeks, the one thing I continue to feel is a sense of hope and possibility that until recently would have seemed very alien. It’s not simply the hope of an outright Labour victory that’s keeping me going (unfortunately, this remains somewhat distant possibility) so much as a sense of possibility created by what Jeremy Corbyn has achieved in rejecting the ossified conventional wisdom of pundits and political gatekeepers.

Virtually all the politics I’ve known in my lifetime have been concerned with contracting the horizons of possibility rather than expanding them. Corbyn has succeeded in the face of all odds by explicitly rejecting the hallowed neoliberal premise that nothing can ever get better; that poverty and inequality are metaphysically hardwired into our societies; that the state can tinker but never transform; that democracy is an inconvenience to be managed rather than an enterprise to be embraced; and most of all that the only appropriate response to 30 years of defeat and retrenchment is to accept, adapt, and continue the march into decline. For once, the possibility of change on offer is the real kind: not the hollow elite spectacle of a Trudeau, Clegg, or Obama, but an electoral program that would qualitatively improve tens of millions of lives with a genuine mass movement at its back.

That such a thing could happen in Britain of all countries, especially after the frankenstein duopoly of Thatcher/Blair, still seems surreal. There is a strange sadness about the place, a haze of resignation and decline that has hovered over every decade since the war in one way or another. It is partly this, I believe, that accounts for the cultural stranglehold conservatism has enjoyed since the late 1970s: it’s what preserves all of the old class hierarchies and the insidious logics that justify them; keeps alive the nativism of Mosley and Rivers of Blood; makes culturally admissible the bourgeois racism of a Farage or a Griffin; it’s what maintains the Victorian moralism which says that the only value more important than Pavlovian deference to aristocracy is pathological contempt for the licentious lower orders; it’s the subtext behind every piece of tabloid grotesquery or Murdoch monstrosity, behind every bogus cultural shibboleth from The Aspirational Society to Alarm Clock Britain; it’s what kept democratic socialism in check even when the working classes were organized in their factories and their mines. 

I have no idea what’s going to happen tonight, of course. But win or lose it feels like something genuinely beautiful has been uncorked.

So, with a few hours to go, here’s to the radicalism of possibility and to the future it might bring for us all. 

Photo: https://twitter.com/emilyafai/status/872183750981017600

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