Comrades, this is our moment. Tonight we smash capitalism!
(The code word is Dzhugashvili.)
OK, cheap laugh. Sorry, but how could I not? Bemoaning the debasement of public discourse isn’t doing much good on its own, so might as well get the easy laughs while I can.
Anyway, to business. Two marvellous contributions to the conversation recently from Alex Himelfarb and Trish Hennessy; if you’re not reading their stuff, then start now. Whereas some people go for the easy snark and descend into rudeness, their stuff is invariably thoughtful, tempered and beautifully written. Their arguments are persuasive and elegantly constructed. If you want contemporary Canadian policy issues framed in a comprehensive context, it’s hard to think of better places to start.
Both Alex and Trish have written recently about the so-called austerity agenda and the foolish unsustainability of fiscal policy based on tax cuts. I’m not going to try to improve on their arguments, because I can’t. I’ve linked to them; read them at your earliest convenience. What I do want to do, to the extent that I can, is expand upon them and, perhaps, establish a bit of context.
Before I get into that, though, a small observation consistent with my obsessive focus on the meanings of words, their use, and their connotations. “Austerity” is one of those loaded words. It’s got overtones of moral opprobrium, fiscal imprudence, even Calvinist rectitude. It’s difficult to imagine it coming up in conversation without connotations of stern paternalism, a sense that we’re wayward children in need of firm correction — for our own good, of course. Less is more. Live within our means. Shared sacrifice. Tightening our belts. We’re all familiar with the discourse by now. Inevitably, however, the attendant pain is borne mostly by the less privileged members of society.
Again, though: Alex and Trish have set up a comprehensive and essential discussion of the “austerity agenda,” so I won’t rehash it. To the extent that I can contribute, I’d like to suggest a bit of political and discursive context; if I’m successful, this will help re-frame the discussion and expose some of the underlying assumptions.
The most important pillar in that context, in my submission: “The Market.”
There’s no shortage of right-wing think tanks devoted to deification of “The Market” and belching out talking points in an attempt to control the discourse. In an earlier post, I linked to a terrific site examining the sources of their funding; The Sixth Estate goes into a fair bit of detail about who funds them and why. It’s worthwhile background reading if you want to understand why the meme of “The Market” holds such sway in the national conversation.
My purpose here, though, is more basic. Let’s go back to first principles and define our terms: what do we mean when we talk about markets? From Wikipedia:
A market is one of many varieties of systems, institutions, procedures, social relations and infrastructures whereby parties engage in exchange. While parties may exchange goods and services by barter, most markets rely on sellers offering their goods or services (including labor) in exchange for money from buyers. It can be said that a market is the process in which the prices of goods and services are established.
I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia’s is the last word. I’m citing it only for the sake of discussion. In this context, it’s defined as a system of economic relations, a means for conducting commerce and establishing the value of commodities. Left unaddressed is the question of whether such a system should be the only means whereby we govern social relations; we’ll return to this momentarily.
Let’s acknowledge at the outset, though, that like most social relationships and forms of organization, it is an artificial construct. It did not exist in a state of nature; it is not some uncontrollable force like the weather, and it does not function through acts of God.
However, let’s take a good long look at the position to which we have elevated it. We have raised this artificial construct to a position of quasi-divine power, and we are making weekly obeisances to it as if it’s a force of nature. An immutable thing over which we have no control. And tied to that is the assumption that left to its own devices, it will always produce the optimal result. Societies governed by market forces, we are told, are always more free, more efficient, and more adaptable.
And we attribute the most anti-social, destructive things to it and then just shrug. What are you gonna do? Supply and demand. It’s “The Market” at work, folks, and you’ve priced yourselves out of it. We can’t afford to pay decent wages any more. We can’t afford a social safety net any more. Investors will just take their money elsewhere. We’ll need to tighten our belts and live within our means.
Let’s imagine for a minute. A powerful external agency devastates our country / flies planes into office buildings / inflicts unimaginable environmental degradation / destroys our economic infrastructure. Pick one. Or pick them all. The common theme in all of these is a destructive external force ripping the heart out of our community. All the myriad connections, bonds and interdependencies upon which the fabric of society is built are unsentimentally torn apart. In other contexts, we’d consider it an act of war. We’ve been attacked.
But when corporations like Electro-Motive do it, we shrug and tell ourselves it’s just market forces. As if that somehow takes away the moral stain. Let’s not pussyfoot around here. Leaving people without the means to support themselves is wrong.
When people place self-interest above all, ignore the rules of civilized behaviour, and don’t give a shit about anyone else, we call them sociopathic. When international investment vehicles and corporations act that way, they’re just maximizing shareholder value and reacting to “The Market.”
But if “The Market” can’t ensure a living wage and decent benefits and contribute to the economic underpinnings of a community — all those parts of our daily lives that make us social human beings — then What Fucking Use Is It?
It’s time to stop fetishizing it.
Never mind the artificial construct or the logical and semantic hoops its mouthpieces lead us through. Subsidies, tax breaks, artificial monopolies, empty regulations — all these things are a licence to print money when, in fact, the recipients don’t compete in a “free market” at all. They want us to guarantee a return on their investments, look the other way when they use their economic power to crush competition, and meekly acquiesce when they form oligopolies and cartels to milk us for all they can get.
But for all the frippery and harrumphing we’ll hear from the corporate media and the think tanks, they never really address that question. There’ll be plenty of distraction, plenty of misdirection, and reams of effort devoted to changing the subject. And again, we’re all familiar with the memes: investor confidence, mobility of capital, free trade, labour market flexibility, respect for taxpayers, yargle bargle blegh.
Which brings us to the question of unions and organized labour, and the impending lockout of Toronto city workers. Once again, let’s be clear about our biases: as a paper from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently argued,
No country has ever achieved widespread prosperity and created a large middle class without strong unions.
Generations of hard-fought union struggles brought Canadians the eight-hour day and the weekend; workplace health and safety legislation and employment standards; income supports for new parents and training for unemployed workers; public pensions and minimum wages; protections for injured workers and equal pay for equal work.
Unions helped organize the extension of these negotiated workplace-based achievements to the whole workforce through legislation.
Again, this is boilerplate. The CCPA paper is essential background material; it helps establish the context for a more fundamental argument which owes much to Trish Hennessy’s implication about a ruthelssly unilateral shredding of the social contract. That shredding has been abetted or even tacitly encouraged by a succession of increasingly feckless and then captured federal governments. As Trish argues,
1. Instead of defined pensions, we were offered RRSPs.
2. Instead of an EI program that’s recession-ready, we were offered TFSAs.
3. Instead of affordable university tuition, we were offered RESPs.
Once again, let’s go back to first principles and examine some of the underlying assumptions. Why shouldn’t we have these things? They benefit society as a whole. Their value ought to be so self-evident that we shouldn’t even have to have the debate. That’s why I’m referring to the social contract. Underlying the phrase is another concept that needs to be reaffirmed and reclaimed: the public good. And since these things accrue to the public good, it stands to reason that they should be enshrined as public-policy objectives, and funded accordingly.
Instead, we listen as one think-tank mouthpiece or bank spokesthingy or columnist after another lectures us about “living within our means” and tells us we can’t afford it. And thus are our expectations steadily lowered — of ourselves, of our country, of one another, of citizenship itself. The bar is progressively lowered, the defining criteria for enlightened and civilized society are abandoned, and eventually we’re left at the mercy of international investment regimes and the corporations that work them, with no corresponding public institutions to defend the public good.
Where does organized labour fit into all this? As Trish points out, it’s no coincidence that unionized public-sector workers are being attacked and demonized. In my submission, they’re an essential element in the defence of the public good and the public sphere. They’re one of the few countervailing institutions in the struggle against “market forces” as defined by the think tanks and their patsies. I recognize that this is going to be a hard sell these days, but that doesn’t make them any less important as a counterbalance, so let’s have at the inevitable objections.
Should unionized public-sector workers be making 150, 200 % more than the “market rate?” Frankly, I don’t care, because that’s not the issue. I’m not going to reduce the conversation to one about numbers, and I don’t know what “the market rate” means. There will always be some nasty corporation ready to undercut the public service, pay people 8 bucks an hour and treat them like shit, and protest that “that’s the market rate.” SFW? How does that advance the public good? What’s so special about “The Market?” Again, if it can’t advance the public good or ensure that quality of life is enhanced for everyone, what fucking use is it? Time to stop fetishizing it.
Once again, back to the notion of the public good. The public sphere has a role to play in this beyond whatever artificial reductionist fantasies about “The Market” you want to indulge in. By ensuring that public-sector workers are paid a living wage with decent benefits, we set an example for private-sector employers to follow. We are making a statement about our values — that decent wages and the healthy communities which rely upon them are important and worth preserving, regardless of what the free-marketeer flimflam artists might be selling. We support that with workplace-standards legislation, with laws protecting the rights of workers to form unions and bargain collectively, anti-strikebreaker legislation, and so on. All of these have been enacted, after protracted struggles, by democratically elected governments supposedly charged with enhancing the public interest. It’s no coincidence that as that government gets colonized, regulatory agencies crippled by lobbyists, and the public conversation dominated by the corporate media, these have all been under attack — most stridently by the tabloid press which brays about being the voice of the little guy while advancing an agenda that just happens to coincide with the interests of the 1 per cent.
And again, let’s go back to the imaginary example suggested above: the scenario wherein a community’s economic backbone is at stake. Yes, my taxes pay public-sector workers’ wages. So what? Ensuring a decent income for everyone benefits society as a whole. I don’t have a problem with that, and the steady drumbeat of demonization and stupid memes about them being lazy overpaid thugs isn’t going to change that.
Sure, maybe my tax bill might be lower if we outsource to some contractor who pays its people shit, but how does that make society better? I might save a few bucks on my taxes, but I’ll be paying for it in countless other ways — as Alex has described, a meaner, more threadbare, more divided and polarized society with more crime, more conflict, more violence and more despair. All to save a few bucks and stick it to the “greedy unions?” Really, union-haters? Is that what you want? If so, then at least have the courage to admit it.
There’s a whole series of assumptions that need to be exposed, unpacked and questioned. It’s beyond the scope of a single blog post, but one of the conversations that needs to happen concerns things like tariffs and “protectionism,” versus “free trade.” While I’m not claiming economic expertise, it seems to me that once again, it comes down to value choices. If we’re placing the right of international investors to make a quick buck above the need to foster domestic industries and maintain national control over resource extraction, or the right to craft industrial policy in a way that serves the interests of our citizens and produces the greatest good for the greatest number, fine, but then let’s be honest about it. It’s not about some irresistible natural force called “The Market.” It’s class warfare, pure and simple. The only question we need to ask ourselves is which side we’re on.