By now, the initial shock and outrage occasioned by the firing of Gary Webster has probably subsided. Most of the observers whose work I follow have had their say and given their analyses, and in truth, I can’t really add much to it. Yes, it’s vindictive, childish and grossly unfair, and based on a fundamental misconception of the role of an impartial and professional public service. And yes, it sends a terrible message, and yes, it’s going to have lasting and damaging effects upon the future of public transit and upon municipal governance.
So? Really, did we honestly expect anything different from Team Ford? We’ve seen the way they conduct public affairs.
No. Once again, it’s time to take a longer view. We may be too late to help Gary Webster (although I suspect he’ll be fine), and we may not be able to save Team Ford from themselves, but if we are to save our city from their depredations, it’s important to understand the historical and intellectual foundations (such as they are) for their approach to governance.
Remember Grover Norquist? During the Reagan years in the 1980s, he was head of Americans for Tax Reform, a pressure group instrumental in helping the Gipper get government off the backs of the downtrodden rich. If you’re ever curious about how the tax-policy goalposts got shoved so far off-centre, and why we can’t have an adult conversation about raising taxes without provoking mass hysteria, Grover’s a big part of the reason.
I’m citing him because of his motivations. Nothing encapsulates them better than my favourite Groverism:
It’s not hard to draw the connections between that and more recent currents in governance and public policy. The common theme running through all of them is a hatred of government and the public sphere per se, expressed in pseudo-populist soundbites like “red tape” and “stop the gravy train” and “get government off our backs” and “more freedom through less government.” Always, there’s a carefully cultivated undertone of resentment, and a sense that the public sector is inherently wasteful, inefficient, and corrupt, if not actually evil.
And how does it play out in practice? Well, we’re seeing it now. Perhaps Team Ford, through its unique combination of clumsiness and tone-deafness, takes it to clownish extremes, but you don’t have to look too far for more illustrations. The Harper government’s hostility to inconvenient facts and impartial advice is revealed in its muzzling of scientists on the federal payroll and its approach to the long-form census. And we’re still dealing with the damage remaining from the Harris era.
Invariably, there’s an impulse to make government as feckless, dysfunctional, and ineffectual as possible. Forget about advancing the public good. Norquist’s bathtub analogy may seem a little over the top, but when you see governments reducing their capacity to act for the common good, surrendering control over a huge range of issues and voluntarily forswearing a whole range of policy tools, it’s easy to see how things like Walkerton can happen.
Again, it helps to view things through the lens of class analysis. The discussion needn’t be academic or theoretical; there’s plenty of real-world evidence that kneecapping government and crippling its ability to act hurts everyone except the 1 per cent. (That’s why the Occupy phenomenon’s had the impact it’s had, and why it’s not going away.)
Just take a look around. Who benefits from this? Whose interests are served by a crippled government and a hollowed-out public sphere? By a frayed and disintegrating civil society? Who can afford to buy their own social infrastructure? Privileged enclaves? Private security? A captivated mass-media complex that drums it into our heads, over and over, that this is the way it’s supposed to be, it’s just the magic of the market at work, and if it’s not working yet, the only answer is more austerity, more free trade, more tax cuts for corporations and “job creators?” Ringing a bell yet?
Democratic and responsible governance is supposed to be the counterbalance to all that. A healthy and vigorous middle class doesn’t arise from the benevolence of society’s overlords, so it’s no surprise that the policies, social conventions, and progressive legislation underpinning it – the products of decades, even centuries of struggle – are under attack. And we’re not going to be able to fight back effectively unless we recognize it for what it is.
The scandalous treatment of Gary Webster, and by extension, any other public servant with integrity, doesn’t have to be viewed as one of the front lines in class struggle. All I’m suggesting is that we consider it in context: a cumulative gutting of one of our most crucial public services, coupled with mindless repetition of discredited mantras about the efficiency of the private sector. All we need to ask ourselves is: cui bono? Because it ain’t us.
- Another Rob Ford gem, and its bearing on the #TTC | #TOpoli #saveGaryWebster
- Don Drummond’s austerity medicine: suck it, Ontario | #onpoli
- Let’s stop fetishizing “The Market” | #cdnpoli #TOpoli #classwarfare #austerity
- In defence of the public sphere | #TOpoli #TeamFord
- #TeamFord and our city: Can no one talk sense to these guys?
- Does anyone really get what they “deserve” in a democracy? | #TOpoli #cdnpoli