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Monday, February 20, 2012

The World that made Don Drummond

In his opening paragraphs to the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx noted that people "make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."

It is one of the most basic and fundamental insights into the way our society, its politics and its mass thinking work, and yet its meaning is often forgotten or ignored.

We, as people exist in a context, and that context shapes the way we think and the way we act. That context is sometimes of our own making, in part or in whole, but regardless, it is inescapable and it frames the way we think, react and act as a society, often imperceptibly.

This social discourse evolves constantly, and the actions of politicians and political advocates help to shape what becomes the essential framework of their day.

The citizens of Ontario have come under a kind of full frontal ideological assault recently, delivered to them by an agent of their own provincial Liberal government, the former TD Bank economist Don Drummond. His commissioned report has recommended deep cuts to programmes that millions depend on. It disgracefully calls for the imposition of user fees on things like school buses (as one small example), massive cuts to health care, farcical ideas such as ending all day kindergarten or cutting access for seniors to medication, etc. It seeks to undue the little that the Liberals can claim as their attempts to reconstruct an inclusive civil society in the wake of the Harris years.

But what is fascinating about the Report is that the reaction to it has been akin to the reaction to a hurricane or some other unavoidable though unfortunate force of nature. Much of it has accepted its basic premises (even when somewhat critical) and has promoted it as a "bitter pill" that was overdue.

The "progressive" Toronto Star has had the Drummond Report as a link under its own masthead on its website since it came out. Some of its less interesting commentators, such as Martin Cohn, have written nonsensical articles with idiotic narratives about the "chickens coming home to roost" economically etc. The National Post, Globe and the Toronto Sun, hardly surprisingly, have embraced its recommendations with a glee bordering on the obscene. It is as if they cannot wait to take these programmes away from people and to watch life become that much harder for Ontario's citizens.

The report seeks to make constant the false ideas that neoconservatives used to deconstruct the post-war social compromise, and it seeks to do so as a kind of permanent counter-revolution against the gains of workers and other groups economically that were the dominant ideological hegemony and narrative after the Second World War and until the mid 1980's.

But the report did not fall out of the sky and its defenders are not merely post-modern Chicken Littles. It is the outcome of an ongoing process of ideological reeducation within the developed West that seeks to both reverse any traces of economic Social Democracy (in the traditional sense of the term) and that also seeks to make perpetual economic turmoil a constant so as to subsidize the lifestyles of people exactly like Don Drummond and so as to aid in the shareholder return driven amoral culture of profit that has destroyed the North American industrial base, wiped out the communities and jobs that existed for so many and that has successfully made even "left" parties sing its tune.

The idea, of course, is rather simple. Supposedly, despite decades of massive economic growth, despite record corporate profits, despite the fact that the wealthy are wealthy to a degree unparalleled since the "Gilded Age" era of capitalist Robber Barons, and despite the demonstrably obvious fact that our society is wealthier and has more overall social capital than it did forty years ago (and remember, the forces of capitalist ideological hegemony have hitched their fences to the logic of its capacity for perpetual growth, so they will not even deny this), we are still told to beleive that governments cannot afford to implement or sustain the kinds of programmes they introduced in the 1950's!

If that is the case then capitalism has manifestly failed. It has failed by even its own logic.

But how have we gotten to this point of absurdity? This surreality where we are told that capitalism has delivered tremendous material reward and incredible advances in social wealth, and yet, somehow, we cannot afford to fund basic social programmes and we are now suggesting that parents should PAY to have their kids bussed to schools that they have a legal right to have their kids attend.

And how is it that it is not noted that this supposed lecture and recipe for "recovery" comes from a social aristocrat, who was instructed to NOT discuss tax increases (not that he would have), and whose version of austerity would inflict far greater pain upon working people than it ever would upon those of his peculiar pedigree of social leach. Telling the masses to depend less on government while making an enormous personal sum off of government to say this.

Why did McGuinty hire him in the first place? Was it not perfectly obvious that Drummond had a vested interest in a specific agenda? To hire him to suggest how government could better govern itself was akin to appointing the head of the Yankees to run a commission on how to deal with revenue sharing in baseball. In other words, it was either stupid or this is what the McGuinty government wanted. It does not really matter which is true.

McGuinty, sensing perhaps that the "Report" would be nasty, tried to do the usual preparation for its impact in January, by telling everyone that they would all have to "share the pain" when the austerity regime started.

But never has this rhetoric been less true. There is no "sharing" that will occur. Millions of people will have their lives impacted on in ways that will range from the severe, in the case of the poor, to the serious, in the case of much of the middle class.

But others, like Don Drummond, given that tax increases are off the table, will feel little to nothing at all.

If you want to see how this really works, check out

Here you will see that "sharing pain" in this era of grotesque inequality is a farce. For austerity to have an impact on the lives of the welathy like it will on the rest of us, taxes would have to be massively increased and laws put in place to remind corporations of their social responsibility to the society that created them and that they could not have existed without.

Instead, not a single party in mainstream "left" thinking is calling for anything like this at all.

They have completely capitulated to the forward march of the relentless neo-liberal economic logic of tax cuts, service cuts, deregulation, anti-unionism and much more.

Louis Menand of The New Yorker, when reviewing Rick Perlstein's "Before the Storm" put what I am trying to say very well..."It's not only that more politicians today sound like Goldwater than like Tom Hayden. More politicians today sound like Goldwater than like Lyndon Johnson". What this was pointing out was that the ideological spectrum has changed to the point that the ideas of the "extreme" presidential candidate Barry Goldwater are now mainstream thinking, while the ideas of Johnson, who declared a "War on Poverty" that actually achieved results, would be regarded as unrealistically and even ridiculously radical now.

In Canada we can see the ideological shift in many ways. Unlike the USA and the UK, Canada took slightly longer to capitulate in the face of the new hegemony. Even as late as 1989, all federal parties were willing to agree that it was the function of government to actually attempt to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. They spectacularly failed to do so, but, far more significantly, none of them would really make this pledge now.

In 1995 a Liberal federal government introduced a budget that signified the first shift of "progressive" forces away from the ideas of interventionist government and the social responsibility of the wealthy and corporations.

The NDP has followed suit. It has also bought into all of the basic ideas of the new neo-liberal ideological framework, as is clearly shown in Manitoba, and, more bitterly, Nova Scotia, where the government has singularly failed to act on the few promises it made to organized labour and is bringing in a preliminary form of its own austerity agenda.

In Ontario the shift can be seen in how the party, which has sought in an entirely reactionary way to distance itself from its Bob Rae past, called their 2011 platform (such as it was) "The Plan for Affordable Change" as opposed to Bob Rae's "Agenda for the People". The difference in tone is quite telling. So is the reality that the ONDP's 2011 platform was far to the right of Rae's re-election platform in 1995 let alone the 1990 one.

Andrea Horwath, reflecting this now, released a statement calling for a "Balanced Approach to a Balanced Budget" as if a balanced approach is really what is needed and as if a balanced budget, with the fetishistic right wing reductionist logic that this entails, is actually what should be the government's focus as opposed to the well being of its citizens and the attempt to end the suffering and deprivation that poverty and social inequality cause.

The federal NDP has also done this, and the Jack Layton lead "Orange Crush" took opposition on what was without any doubt the most right wing platform the party has ever run on. Read it for yourself:

As with the Democrats in the US and most of the Socialist and Social Democratic parties in Europe, the Liberals and the NDP have bought into almost every fundamental aspect of the new ideological order and, by doing so, have created and helped to perpetuate the very ideas and philosophies that hinder them in their pursuit not only of power but of actually making a difference and being anything other than a last defence against the "Storm"

They have aided in their rhetoric, their platforms and, most importantly in their acceptance of the basic premises of the neo-liberal right, in perpetuating the ideological and social ideas that allowed this report to be taken seriously at all, which it would not have 30 years ago (despite the fact that our economy has supposedly "grown" so much in the meantime).

They have helped in every meaningful way to manufacture the world that created Don Drummond.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

On "Winning" Parts 1-2

1) Introduction

Karl Marx once remarked that the generations of the dead weigh like a nightmare upon the brains of the living.

Never has this been truer than in the history of the socialist left. Our decades of grasping failure from the jaws of victory have left us, as a movement, in a weaker position than ever, despite the reality that at the dawn of the last century, and with the coming of the economic crisis in this one, many felt that the future was and is ours to inherit.

It has also exposed the fallacy that the election of people from these parties, firmly ensconced as they are within an ideological idea that would have been anathema even a couple of decades ago, signifies anything at all.

And yet, somehow, we repeat the errors of our forebears. Errors compounded by the fact that they have been repeated so often.

These errors stem from a basic misunderstanding by the left of the traditional idea of what constitutes “victory” for both the socialist left and those that the socialist left claims to represent, the broad mass of humanity that can be shown to, to one degree of wealth or another, be outside of the structural power and social elite.

This mass is not simply the traditional industrial working class, but also must be said to include the hundreds of millions of the underprivileged in the Third World, the members of what Marx described, increasingly inaccurately, as the “Lumpenproletariat”, the wide strata of “white-collar” workers who often work longer hours for less reward than the few factory workers left that they sought not to be, and the permanent near underclass that we have created with our untenable civilization of tremendous productive capacity and wealth generation and a bizarre social unwillingness to include the vast bulk in this progress, rendering them open, at any moment, to impoverishment.

To those who would seek to solve the issues addressed herein through traditional democratic capitalist methods, I would suggest that you need read no further.

This is not an attempt to justify democratic socialism, it is, rather, a suggestion as to how to secure its future.

While, and I feel that this is tremendously important, it is absolutely necessary and reasonable to debate whether or not democratic socialism is the path to be pursued to resolve the social questions that confront us, this is not meant as a defense of socialism per se.

Instead it is an attempt, in several parts, both tactically and morally, to suggest why socialism, in both its revolutionary and parliamentary forms, has failed, as well as to suggest how we might, as a broad movement, go about attempting to reverse this history.

The fact is, like-it-or-not, that the socialist movement in either of its broad incarnations, while successfully forcing the creation of a more broadly inclusive civilization in the developed West, and to a degree elsewhere, has also either failed to have any lasting structural effect where democratically elected, or has, in every single case, become tyrannical and has debased its alleged lofty goals where “successful” through revolutionary methods elsewhere.


The moral imperative of socialism is undeniable. It is born of inequity and inequality and its cauldron is the flame of injustice that our civilization brands so many of its citizens with.

The basic error that we have made as socialists, that we have made as people who wish to see a successful transformative social movement actually succeed in attaining a lasting effect, is in our basic misunderstanding of what constitutes “winning”.

What unites the revolutionary and parliamentary left, and what unites them with their opportunistic centrist opponents, though not their Rightist opponents, is the fixation on power as a constructive end. “Winning” is assumed to be the assumption of power by election in the case of Social Democrats, or by revolution in the case of the remaining revolutionary left.

Yet the reality is that the socialist movement should not directly, as an aim, attempt to take power at all.

In the case of revolutionary “victories”, the self-defeating problem is the overwhelming preoccupation with the maintenance of revolutionary power, which must be virtually the sole basic focus of a revolutionary government due to the fact that the government itself becomes an island under siege very quickly after assuming power. Violence as a structural arm of governance becomes a necessary component of revolutionary government directly due to the reality that a truly revolutionary government is not always a government that comes to power due to a “revolution”. Often it is by definition attempting to force consciousness forward. In this they cannot succeed.

I realize that this is a difficult thesis to accept, but only if the thesis is misunderstood, deliberately or otherwise.

The immediate charges will be those of “defeatism” or “utopianism”. Oddly, and this is worth noting, these exact same charges will be leveled from both the “hard” and “soft” left. The reason is simple. They have the same overwhelming desire to be in power.

(In fact, as I will discuss at length later, the entire purpose of the Communist and revolutionary Left movement and its imitators, is the attaining and maintenance of power.)

Broadly speaking, however, this is not so much an argument against the idea of forming a government as it is an argument against the immediate utility of such a goal.

In fact, I wholeheartedly support continued efforts to democratically attempt to attain and to hold power where possible. I simply feel that this parliamentary aspect of the struggle for a democratic socialist social transformation must be a secondary goal. I also feel, as I will expand upon later, that those who seek a rapid revolutionary or violent (and all rapid social transformations are of necessity violent) social transformation are doomed to failure even in the rare cases that they do take power, due to their subservience to a deeply reactionary and elitist idea that a government of revolutionary vanguardists can force the ideological and cultural victory of humanity over its “baser” instincts.

The primary battle, very simplistically put for now, must be a battle for people’s hearts and minds, for their consciousness, in a long-term sense, and not for their votes come election time or, more perversely, for their temporary participation in some “revolutionary moment”. The struggle is an ideological one, not a tactical one.

“Victory”, in any meaningful sense of the term can only come after this laborious battle for the consciousness of people and not before. Winning power in elections or in a grasp at power during some revolutionary moment when the system is in a temporary state of objective collapse or weakness will not accomplish this end. While the democratic triumph of socialist governments can help in the process, they can only help. The true battle remains outside of the structure of government.

And, as a result, it is winning itself that is often the first defeat.

2) On the Framework

Hierarchy, as much as class and sexism, is the enemy, and the left has had a hard time accepting this. It is its dilemma. It has opposed a system while accepting much of its structures and its methodology in its own practice.

The Left has, historically, opposed bourgeois structuralism while implementing an identical version of it within its own parties, with leaders, sycophants, employees, "whips" and all of the detritus and ass-licking that makes bourgeois society function.

It should be obvious to note that one will not defeat a system by adopting all of its basic power and hierarchical tenants, but it seems a lesson lost on the vast bulk of left parties. There is no basic difference in the way that most Left parties govern themselves and structure themselves and the way that Right parties do. This alone should be an alarm.

It is one thing to accept the reality that we live within this context and that we, to a certain extent, must function within it. It is another thing to accept the context and its legacies within our own movements and organizations.

The hierarchical, personality & elite leader driven culture of Left parties is identical to that of right parties. There is no difference whatsoever other than in the apparent aims and the alleged goals. Left parties have become institutionalized in bourgeois democratic culture. They are both its false "nemesis" and its pressure valve outlet when the broad section of the populace become angry.

Having basically accepted not only the ideological underpinnings of capitalism, but its very structures, these parties are a false threat. They, when elected, serve only to humanize the inevitable shift that they no longer ideologically oppose. There is not a single socialist or social democratic party in the developed West, outside of Scandinavia (arguably), that has governed as an anti-capitalist party once elected in the last 25 years.

Even the few, such as the Bob Rae government in Ontario, that actually governed from the Left, in a capitalist sense, were destroyed by their own lack of ideologically cohesion and by the stunning counter-assaults by the Right which both undercut the government and made many of its allies turn against it. The irony was that many of these erstwhile allies were only to reemerge later as defenders of an NDP that has shifted far further to the right than the Rae administration ever was.

There is not a single governing faction of the NDP, federal or provincial, that would run remotely on the platform that Rae ran on for re-election in 1995, let alone what the Rae NDP ran on in 1990 with the "Agenda for the People".

The Rae government stands alone as the sole government in North America that chose to not fight the Recession of the period on the backs of workers...every single NDP government now has, or would.

Why is this broadly the case?

In large part it is that these parties do not seek to alter the framework of capitalist discourse, but they rather seek to "win" within it. They feel that by attaining government they can effect some kind of "change" and that they can represent certain interests ahead of others.

And this is, no doubt, true. There is little question that an NDP government, for example, would govern more "fairly" that a Tory government.

The question that emerges is fairly in what context? And, to what end?

For all of the endless defenses that one hears from Liberals, Democrats, Social Democrats or Democratic Socialists, the irrefutable fact remains that, whether these parties were in or out of power, the social discourse and the policies of governments of all stripes have gone fundamentally to the right. And they have often been in "power".

We live in a context where the election platforms of North American conservatives with regards to economic policy in 1975 are far more radical than those of "left" parties today. There has been a tendency, of late, to blaim this on quasi-conspiratorial ideas that "Wall Street" or the "1%" has somehow imposed this agenda on the people of the First World.

But this is wishful thinking at best and it undermines any real left attempt to turn the tide.

The Right has won the broader ideological battle by relentlessly sticking to ideological points that were very unfashionable and unelectable 30 years ago and making them "mainstream". Ideas like "tax relief", "deficit" fighting, "privatization" and others. They have conjoined this with a religious opposition to the sole accomplishments of the "Left" over the past period of capitalist retrenchment, which are the gains of women, the LGBT community and "minorities".

This is a very clever combination in that it claims to empower many of those that the rest of their agenda disempowers in every meaningful social sense. Even if they have lost their jobs and social security, they can still proudly claim that they have "defended" their family "against" people like Gays or Islamics who have now become the social "others" along with the poor and the no longer acknowledged working-class.

There is no possible way to confront this new "political correctness" and ideological hegemony other than by attempting to do what the right has accomplished...actually altering the the framework of the discourse. Only when this is done can we "win". Otherwise our victories are not victories at all, they are simply delaying tactics to prepare citizens for the worse that is to come.

The left, economically, has not won one single, lasting and transformative battle of any kind for nearly 30 years. Conditions for workers, the poor, unions, and much of the White Collar working class have only gotten more and more tenuous regardless of who was in power. That by accepting the basic precepts of right-wing thinking parties like the Democrats, Liberals or NDP are a basic part of creating this new hegemony is only something that can be denied by the delusional.

These parties, basically, did this to "win". They shifted as they felt the shift would help to elect parliamentarians. That it also reinforced the basic ideas and tenants of the system did not factor into the thinking.

By placing the notion of political or electoral victory ahead of the idea of changing social and political discourse to reflect our ideas, as opposed to those of the right, we lose in advance. be continued...