Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What should be on the Wider Agenda as Parliament meets?

Canadian politics has been reduced to a series of small battles in a static war as the parties jockey for position for the next federal election.

As the politicians skirmish in Question Period, it is as though they are operating inside a hermetically sealed bubble, where they almost entirely shut out the enormous changes that have been rocking the world since the onset of the global economic crash two years ago.

The crash has called into question the verities on which our socio-economic system has been based for the past three decades. But if you read the record of debates on Parliament Hill since the last election you’d have almost no idea that anything unusual was going on. It’s not that debates about stimulus, pensions, and employment benefits don’t matter. They do. What the debates fail to reflect is any wider consideration of the way our socio-economic system is organized and the priorities it establishes, the ways it privileges a few at the expense of the many.

It’s no surprise that the Harper government defends the existing order. But where are the fundamental challenges from the other side of the House? The Liberals are cautiously keeping their heads down, hoping the Harperites self-destruct. The members of the BQ conceive their role very narrowly as the defenders of Quebec’s share of the budgetary pie, not an inconsequential matter, but it rarely leads to basic questions about the socio-economic order. If a fundamental challenge is going to come from inside the House, it has to come from the NDP. Now and then, NDP members do raise important questions about pensions and EI benefits, about the environment, and Canada’s role in Afghanistan. That is important. What the NDP almost never does, however, is to question the system itself, the neo-liberal order in which we live.

If there was ever a period when basic debate was needed, it is surely now, a time when it is clear to so many across the world, that the crisis in which we find ourselves has not gone away, is not being resolved.

In the past, CCF and NDP members of Parliament actually dared to call into question the corporate capitalist order. We could use some of that now. What follows is a perspective on how the debate can be conceived.

The underlying idea of the financial system that has crashed was that it is the investment of capital that creates wealth. Beginning with the neo-conservative revolution at the end of the 1970s in Britain and the United States, de-regulating capital so that it could flow anywhere without restriction was understood as the key to unleashing the market forces that would make the economy grow. Let investment travel to all parts of the world, allow businesses to acquire one another, and remove remaining protective trade barriers, and a better world would be established, in the developing countries and the developed countries alike. Utopianism and greed were bound together in the chemistry of globalization. This revolution---most accurately depicted as neo-liberalism, although its was unleashed by neo-conservatives---realized the dreams of capitalists as never before. The nation state, mobilized during the post-war decades, to serve labour as the junior partner of capital in the advanced countries, was tamed to put mobility of capital ahead of all else. De-regulation and technological revolution combined to free capitalism not only from trade unions and the state, but from the restraints of time as well. Capital could be transferred at the flick of a cursor from anywhere to anywhere. Virtual transfers of capital quickly dwarfed commerce in commodities. Markets never closed.

Be careful what you wish for. Utopia unleashed became dystopia achieved. The world made safe for investors became a world where workers were exploited on an unprecedented scale, cities mushroomed into barrios for the dispossessed, the impoverished braved the seas in their quest for jobs and survival, and environmental catastrophe loomed. In the end, neo-liberalism wrought its own self-destruction, much in the way Soviet communism had a couple of decades earlier.

In the economically advanced countries, those who run the dominant corporations, lead the major political parties, and set the agenda for business schools, economics departments and pro-business think tanks aspire to reconstructing the neo-liberal order. That is not to say that these people, representing quite different organizations, and nurtured in diverse national cultures, do not hold a wide range of views about what ought to be done. It is not unfair, however, to ascribe to the overwhelming majority of these people the broad desire to re-make the world to be essentially the way it was on the eve of the crash. This assertion is not rendered invalid because many people in the economic and political elites want to reform and re-regulate financial systems and fiscal arrangements so that sub-prime housing meltdowns, the collapse of financial institutions, and the dangerous consequences of various forms of indebtedness to avoid future global economic catastrophes. What they do want, in general, is to restore capitalism to health to allow its pre-crash system of rewards to prevail.

Now what? Should humanity mobilize its political, economic and societal skills to painstakingly reconstruct the system that has crashed? That is certainly the goal of the Obama administration, the Cameron government in the U.K., the Harper government in Ottawa (to the extent that it has any understanding of what is happening), and other governments in the West. Even if Barack Obama understands that the financial sector in the U.S. had grown too large and must be cut back in size as the U.S. economy recovers, it is nonetheless his intention to recreate American and global capitalism with its rewards and its priorities essentially unaltered.

This is a historic opportunity, however, for people around the world with entirely different aspirations to come to the fore. During the neo-liberal era, the hegemonic power of the ruling ideas pushed alternative conceptions about to order the economy to the margins.

In comparison to the post-war era when a comparatively wide range of socio-economic options were being broadly advocated and considered, the past three decades has been a time of ever narrower legitimate options. It has been the age of TINA---there is no alternative---an age of reaction during which the concept of citizenship has been eroded, the social state has been substantially dismantled and those who control capital have been empowered as never before in all of human history.

That is not to say that during this time progressives did not fight large battles. They even won some of them. Most significant have been the struggles about the environment, gay and lesbian rights, anti-racism, and the rights and aspirations of women, in particular their reproductive rights.

The long retreat of the past thirty years has been on the terrain of the collective power and rights of working people all over the world, from the best paid salary earners in the advanced countries, to the super-exploited wage earners in the garment factories in the poor countries. As organized labour has been thrown on the defensive and social and educational programs have been rolled back, the power of capital has grown ever more complete. The extent of the retreat is captured in the increasing reliance on the philanthropy of the rich and the super-rich in a wide range of fields.

A contradictory outlook faces wage and salary earners throughout the world today. On the one hand, the savage economic downturn and the loss of many millions of jobs around the globe, has reduced the bargaining power of labour still further. Highly visible has been the massive political and corporate pressure on unionized Canadian and American auto workers to accept enormous cuts to their overall remuneration, in the form of reduced pay and benefits and slashed payouts to retired auto workers. Similar pressures have been applied to workers around the world to force them to make do with lower wages and less generous benefits. The existence of a gigantic reserve army of unemployed workers strengthens the government and corporate assault on wage and salary earners.

On the other hand, there is the visible failure of the neo-liberal system world-wide, the reduction of the top corporate managers in the eyes of humanity from demi-gods to greedy incompetents. Never in history have the rulers of the economic system been so humiliated as over the past two years.

Populist anger against financiers has boiled to the surface, not only in the United States, but in many countries. Those who direct, or formerly directed, major financial institutions are no longer believed by the general public. Nor are those at the helm of governments, although some have more credibility than others. The low esteem in which those who steer the economy are now held has opened the door to new ideas, or the restatement of old ideas, from across the political spectrum.

On the political right in the United States, Tea Party inspired Republicans have returned to the political verities that constituted the right-wing stock in trade before the crash. Rather than facing up to the role of their policies in generating the economic catastrophe, the Republicans are promoting their belief in small government and in tax cuts. On the face of it, this may seem a short-sighted, even foolish, political strategy, and perhaps events and the passage of time will prove that it is.

But if Obama’s cautious policies, aimed at restoring American capitalism, by and large, to the way things were before the crash, are deemed a failure, things could turn out very differently. In that case, the door will be opened not only to the ideas of the Republican Party, but to all manner of populist demagoguery on the far right. The conditions that face us are similar to those of the 1930s in one very important respect. When centrist politicians and their policies do not ameliorate the desperate economic plight of millions of people, powerful authoritarian movements spring up to grapple with the anxieties of the age with programs that are the very antithesis of democracy. In the 1930s, the fascists and the Nazis filled the void when mainstream democrats dithered and failed to come to grips with urgent problems, such as mass unemployment and poverty. And the solutions of the authoritarians can involve, not merely the elimination of democratic rights, but the imprisonment of thousands, and in the most extreme cases the murder of millions.

A progressive alternative is urgently needed, an alternative that will not cloak the current crisis in exclusionism, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the denial that humanity has pushed the planet to the brink of environmental collapse----the goodies that are on offer in the shop windows of the far right. The vigour of the progressive response to the crisis will depend on the ability of movements around the world to rise to the challenge not only of the socio-economic and environmental problems that plague our world but also to the campaigns of the intolerant who will use these problems to promote false solutions based on hate and scapegoating. In many parts of the world today, the walls of hate are going up in the form of anti-immigrant sentiment and religious fundamentalism.

The descent into xenophobia, cynicism and anxiety in many countries has been vastly exacerbated by the effects of the economic crisis. But that descent began long before the crash. For the past quarter century, mainstream political parties of all shades have utterly failed to cope with the widening gap in income and wealth between a small segment of the population that has been enormously enriched and the vast majority of the population of the advanced countries, and much more so, the population of humanity as a whole. The economic collapse has made the failure to address the problem of the widening wealth and income gaps even more urgent. The boiling anger of those who are shut off from the possibility of advance can open the door to an advance for progressive politics, but it can also feed into the agenda of those who fabricate lies that the world is run by some ethnic or religious group that can be isolated and attacked. For the Nazis, the theory was that the world was run by Jewish financiers, who had stabbed Germany in the back during the First World War.

Today, the world is plagued by new theories that are used to marginalize people: in Europe, there is fear of Muslim immigrants and their descendants; in America, fear of Hispanic immigrants; and in many parts of the world there is propaganda from religious fundamentalists who seek to blame our ills on people of other faiths. These forms of hatred can be used to tell people that immigrants are taking jobs away from the French, that newcomers are robbing the American middle class of its standard of living, or that God has a divine plan for people of particular faiths that must not be thwarted by the designs of others.

While exclusionism is omni-present, so too are the progressives. Before the crash and since its onset, a wide range of progressive movements has been putting the case for a new economics to serve humanity and to safeguard the planet against environmental ruin. These movements are diverse, pluralist, and democratic. Among them is heard the voices of social democrats, socialists, liberals, humanists, environmentalists, non-fundamentalist religious believers, feminists, trade unionists, urban activists, anti-poverty organizations, students and writers. A new politics of the planet has been taking shape. Its philosophical origins are ancient as well as contemporary. This politics of the planet takes unique forms in each country, arising out of particular cultures and conditions.

The broad challenge is to reinvigorate democracy at the local and national levels, while advancing programs that for the first time in history are in keeping with the interests of people everywhere. The perspective has to be planetary. But unlike the corporate agenda that has stripped away effective power from the level of the nation state, and from working people, the progressive agenda needs to return effective power to nations so they can design their social systems, govern their own economies and act as stewards for their share of the planet.

If this sort of agenda sounds as though it is alive with paradox and contradiction, it is. It is the reverse of much that has driven the global agenda of the past three decades, during the so-called age of globalization. Globalization has, in truth, drawn all people and all nations into a closer set of relationships with one another. But the relationships have been based on amplifying the power of the few at the expense of the many on a wide range of fronts, so much so that we can conclude that globalization has effectively paralyzed democracy to an alarming extent.

While it has been claimed by its proponents that globalization has opened borders and reduced the power of the state, in fact, globalization has opened borders to the flow of capital and has reduced the power of most of the states of the world leaving the socio-economic future to be shaped by a handful of states (the United States most important among them), while borders have been closed to most of humanity.

A case in point is the plight of desperate people who take to flimsy vessels to sail from Africa to Europe, all too often dying during the voyage, in the hope that they will be able to make a living in Europe for themselves and their families. Similarly, tens of thousands of Mexicans take their lives in their hands each year to attempt to make it past the growing army of border guards into the United States where they can work for low pay and with no job protection to make a living in a country where the political rhetoric has increasingly reduced these migrants to the status of pariahs. The American economy would be hard pressed to function without these illegal immigrants, but on the political right the measure of political correctness is for politicians to advocate the denial of all social and educational benefits to these workers and their children. Across the developed world, the barriers are going up to stop desperate economic refugees from reaching the promised land.

The democratic agenda needs to regard this staggering inequality as the most important matter to be addressed. Unless it is effectively addressed, little else that is achieved will matter very much.

Putting the world on the road toward equality will call forth as much creative energy as the great democratic upheavals of the 18th century. Power needs to be returned to nation states so that their citizens can address inequality within their countries at the same time as an agenda to address the inequality between nations is established. Such a power shift can only be achieved through the mobilization of the democratic energies of a wide spectrum of the population.

It’s not hard to locate the issue on which this majority can be mobilized. The issue is the economic treadmill on which the majority in the developed world finds itself. Wage and salary earners are on an economic treadmill. On average their living standards have not risen for the past several decades and they are increasingly plunging into debt to finance the purchase of homes and to send their children to post secondary educational institutions whose tuition has been skyrocketing in many countries. The huge economic gains of this period have gone only to a few. For instance, twenty years ago the remuneration of a top American corporate manager was forty times that of a typical employee. Now typically the top manager makes one hundred and ten times as much.

Wage and salary earners are increasingly conscious of the emergence of levels of inequality that have not been seen since the aristocratic age that preceded the American and French Revolutions. Those at the helm of the advanced economies tout the idea of “flexibility”, the notion that the investment of capital and the location of enterprises should be directed by the marketplace to wherever in the world they can be most effective. For instance, one respected voice representing this point of view is the Economist weekly magazine in London. On January 20, 2007, the Economist proclaimed that “these are the glory days of global capitalism…This newspaper has long argued that a mobile society is better than an equal one.”

The argument being made here, with which many with the point of view of the Economist will stoutly disagree, is that inequality has gone too far to be compatible with a vigorous democracy.

Returning a good deal of effective economic sovereignty to nation states does not mean erecting economic walls around countries. That is neither desirable nor possible in our age. In fact, what it means, above all, is a shift in the control of capital from the ever larger financial holdings that now exist to local, regional or national holdings. What drove the world to the yawning inequality of the neo-liberal age and then to the crash and the economic cataclysm that has followed was the existence of ever larger pools of capital controlled privately. The control of capital has always been at the centre of capitalism. And those who control capital have always had the whip hand. During the neo-liberal age, however, the use of capital was increasingly de-linked from the expansion of productive capacity. Instead, in the mega-extension of the financial sector, especially in the U.S., the investment of capital through a wide range of financial instruments was increasingly used to siphon profits out of the bubble economies that developed first in the dot.coms and then in housing. Financial sector parasitism was the consequence of neo-liberalism and the central cause of the crash.

Progressive advance means setting things the right way up in the economy so that the people at large become the masters of capital and not the other way around. Placing pools of capital in local, regional and national holdings and democratizing both the control of capital and of the workplace needs to be the next great chapter in the history of democracy. There is, to be sure, no easy fit between this step and the one that needs to accompany it---the establishment of a much more equitable relationship between the wealthy and the poor countries of the world.

Will advantageously placed nations use their privileged positions to assure more for themselves than for those with whom they conduct commerce in poorer countries?

The short answer is yes, certainly. But in a world with capital pools divided up into local, regional and national holdings, the balance of power could effectively shift toward a new, democratic, political coalition, involving rich and poor countries. A politics of local, national and global development, dedicated toward more egalitarian outcomes and sustainable environmental policies, could emerge.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. The neo-liberal system is in pieces and cannot be put together again. Nor should humanity attempt it. It’s time to move on to a better future.

Monday, September 20, 2010

John Baird: A Gun in One Hand and a Cosmo in the Other

Fourteen of the sixteen most recent police officers to be killed with guns in Canada were shot with long guns.

Overwhelmingly, police chiefs across the country regard the gun registry as a vital tool that protects their officers especially when they are dealing with domestic disputes. Frank Eisner, chief of police for Greater Sudbury, right in the heart of long gun country in northern Ontario, who strongly supports the registry, has made the point that Sudbury police use the registry, in particular, when called out on cases of domestic disputes and violence in the home.

As Mavis Moore, a seventy-two year old Saskatchewan woman who has been an avid hunter over the years, told the Toronto Star, the gun registry question is “not a matter of rural versus urban. It’s a public safety issue. How many women and children in rural Canada are threatened in their own homes with a gun? More than we want to know, I think.”

Moore, who enjoys guns, supports the registry, not least because she can still remain the time she looked up the barrel of a .22 a man was pointing at her and her mother when she was four years old.

A recent Harris/Decima poll found that 47 per cent of rural women want to keep the registry while 40 per cent would abolish it.

Conservative House leader John Baird ignores the concerns of police officers and rural women.

He represents a riding in the west end of Ottawa where not much more moose hunting goes on than in downtown Toronto. But it’s the dastardly “Toronto elites”, Baird says, who are out to thwart the will of rural Canadians on the issue of the registry. According to Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Glen Murray, when Baird is not out fulminating against “Toronto elites”, he’s hanging out with them enjoying cosmos----a cocktail made with vodka, Triple Sec, cranberry juice and fresh-squeezed lime juice or sweetened lime juice---in the glamorous Byzantium Toronto bar and restaurant. That’s where Rusty (Baird’s nickname) can just get on with being an unabashed member of the elite he claims to disdain.

Baird and Stephen Harper are well aware that polls consistently show that a plurality of Canadians favour keeping the registry. The Harris/Decima poll found 48 per cent of those polled favouring retention, with 38 per cent supporting abolition. But they refuse to compromise on the issue. Changes could be made to the rules of the registry to ensure that it will always be free, easy to access, and with no threat of criminal charges for non-compliance for the first two violations.

The last thing the Conservative high command wants is a solution on the issue that would suit almost everybody. They only care about it as a wedge. They want to wave the bloody shirt of the nefarious registry during the next election.

Baird’s calculation is that even though most of his constituents undoubtedly favour retention of the registry, he won’t pay a political price for his abolitionist stance. He figures that those who are passionate about killing the registry are much more likely to make this the issue that will determine how they vote than is the case for the larger number who would keep the registry.

Good for Baird. He can go on being a poseur on behalf of gun owners, while enjoying cosmos in the heart of wicked Toronto, and seeking the support of Ottawa voters.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Peacocks and Buzzards: Coming Soon to a Neighbourhood Near You

In these post-crash times, as governments switch from stimulus to cutbacks, North America and Europe are resigning themselves to a long stretch of bad economic times. Unemployment and underemployment, public servant and union bashing and doors closed to the young are hallmarks of this dismal time.

For a few, though---bad times for the many create golden opportunities. Not everyone is hurt by the low wages that accompany high unemployment, or the prospect of a long spell of flat or falling (especially in the U.S.) real estate prices.
While low taxes for the well-heeled do next to nothing to spur economic growth, they do help make life sweet for the haves.

Two types of people who have money---we’re not talking about the super-rich---and who are adapting well among today’s fauna, can be called the peacocks and the buzzards.

The peacocks are a lot richer than the buzzards, but both of these feathered species have found places to sun themselves. Peacocks are those with high incomes----think of partners in corporate law firms----and are typically in their fifties. They’ve spent a ton of money sending their kids to private schools where they learn to network with others of their class. (The education is optional, but high grades are guaranteed even for the mediocre and the lazy, to complement the tuition.)

Even when the peacocks are still groaning under the weight of the bills to dispatch their offspring to Ivy League universities where grade inflation is a la mode, they’ve reached the stage where they want something big for themselves. They’re old enough to hunger for something permanent, a monument to their personal achievement. Flashy cars are no longer enough.

By the time they’re in their fifties, even the wealthy experience shuddering glimpses of their own mortality.

Through the ages, the monument chosen by the rich and the powerful to commemorate themselves has been the grand house, or more accurately the personal mausoleum.

The pharaohs of Egypt oversaw the building of the pyramids where they would be entombed. In them, they planned to luxuriate with their belongings in the next, and eternal life.

Later members of ruling classes had castles and mansions constructed to accord them a measure of immortality.

Today’s peacocks are the latest to display their brilliant tail feathers as they seek the permanency that goes with the grand dwelling. To this end, they purchase large abodes even after their descendants have flown the coop. Just as often, they oversee vast makeovers of their existing homes in fashionable districts.

In these super-renos, everything is torn out of the shell of the existing house, including staircases and walls. Rooms are enlarged, shrunk or jettisoned. Huge new island strewn kitchens are created for the peacocks, as are enormous bathrooms. What people do in these lavish Water Closets, I don’t want to know. Home design and paint specialists are brought in to advise. Temperature controlled wine cellars are installed. Typically, the existing stock of furniture is replaced with the latest designer pieces to go with the renewed edifice.

One man I know of mounted a large Rembrandtesque oil portrait of one of his ancestors along a soaring staircase. He has taken to calling himself William Peter the fifth.

While renoing, the peacocks rent another fashionable house for six or eight months.

Peacocks preen for other peacocks.

Not surprisingly, the peacocks, who are far from being billionaires, are ferociously opposed to any suggestion that they ought to pay higher taxes or should compensate those in their direct or indirect employ more handsomely. Bus drivers, garbage collectors, nurses and teachers are all over paid as far as they are concerned.

Then there are the buzzards, far less elegant than the peacocks, but with a shrewd eye for their own advantage nonetheless. To date, the buzzards have been more common in the United States than in Canada, as a consequence of the shattered housing market in so many American regions. But they are on their game in Canada as well, and the dim outlook for many real estate markets in this country bodes well for these sturdy carrion-eaters.

Buzzards migrate where housing markets have crashed and foreclosures are common. Among their favourite feeding grounds are California, Ohio, Michigan and Florida. Buzzards pick up fairly new homes for as little as twenty per cent of their pre-crash prices in America’s foreclosure capitals.

The expelled former owners and their families have gone who knows where. The buzzards settle where jobs are scarce, pay is low, crime rates are high, biker gangs thrive and parents often turn up with their kids to partake in the offerings at pre-school breakfast programs.

Buzzards hire cheap help to do up their houses and tend their lawns. At the local Wal Mart and second hand stores, they pick up furnishings and appliances at depression prices.

Buzzards are at work in a string of industrial cities in Southern Ontario, from Windsor and St. Catharines, to Welland, Brantford and Hamilton.

Peacocks and buzzards have clawed out spaces for themselves in our Darwinian world.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Rob Ford: The Man with the Midas Touch

Toronto mayoral candidate Rob Ford has unveiled his transit plans for the city he hopes to lead.

Ford is a lover of cars and a hater of cyclists. He plans to relegate two wheeled vehicles to the ravines of the city where they can spend time with four legged creatures. He’d like to send trade unionists and public employees to the ravines, as well.

As for streetcars, with or without dedicated lanes, Ford wants fewer of them. They slow down the flow of the SUVs.

To help move transit riders, he hopes to put the big bucks into building subways. His plan, with a price tag of $4.8 billion, was likely costed on the back of a lottery ticket. It bears about that much connection with reality.

Ford is supposed to be the “stop-the-gravy-train” guy. He spends sleepless nights counting rate-payers jumping over a fence.

That’s why his transit plan is so remarkable. New subways are by far the most expensive way to extend public transit. For every kilometer of additional subway, you can build more than fifteen kilometers (that’s a low estimate) of above ground transit lines.

How does Ford plan to pay for his “plan”? He’s going to try to hit up Queen’s Park for the money. And who pays the bills at Queen’s Park? Taxpayers----a lot of them living in Toronto! So while Ford safeguards the coins in your front pocket, he hopes to extract the folding money from your wallet.

With his Cadillac taste, Rob Ford is Toronto’s Goldfinger, the man with the Midas Touch.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Why the Gun Registry Vote Matters to the NDP

The outcome of the upcoming vote in parliament on the long gun registry matters to the NDP because the party has been suffering from a “What do you stand for" problem.

People with long memories know what the NDP has contributed to Canadian life. Medicare tops the list, followed by public auto insurance in a number of provinces, the championing of social programs, including decent pensions, and access for everyone who qualifies to post-secondary education. Once upon a time, the NDP fought for Canadian control of the Canadian economy, pushed for the creation of a publicly owned national petroleum company, Petrocan, opposed NAFTA, and even discussed the idea that wage and salary earners should someday own and control the enterprises for which they worked.

The CCF-NDP was established during the Great Depression to provide a sweeping program for the re-construction of Canadian society and the economy to replace capitalism with a broadly egalitarian alternative. Some called it the cooperative commonwealth, others social democracy and still others socialism.

The premise that drove the party and movement for decades was clear: by its very nature capitalism is an exploitative system that can never deliver true equality. The vision of a new kind of society motivated tens of thousands of Canadians to devote their lives to building the party.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the ideas and values alluded to above have very little to do with today’s NDP. If I were to tell a class of my students that the NDP currently stands for the transformation of Canadian society, they’d look at me with the smiles one reserves for those who ought to hang up their skates and give others a little ice time.

For the past quarter century, those who run the federal NDP have been dedicated to the proposition that the party should position itself close to the centre of the political spectrum, and should advance proposals that are pragmatic and practical. If fully implemented, the current NDP platform might slow the widening of the wealth and income gaps in Canada. That’s not a bad thing. But the party has trashed the vision thing. For those who believe that capitalism is a fundamentally flawed system, that Canada is unwise to put all its eggs in the basket of the American Empire, or who think that we have little time to halt the onset of irreversible environmental catastrophe, the NDP offers very little. Today’s New Democrats are liberals who are not even in much of a hurry.

That’s why the long gun registry vote matters so much to the federal NDP.

Once upon a time, the CCF did have a genuine base in rural Canada. When Tommy Douglas led the Saskatchewan CCF to office in 1944, the central plank in his platform was to protect a farmer’s home quarter section of land from foreclosure by the banks. Since then, the farm base of the NDP has steadily eroded as family farms have disappeared to be replaced by agribiz. Today, the NDP’s rural base is centred in regions where mining and forest products are the dominant sectors. Plenty of people in those regions own long guns and hunt.

For years, the gun lobby in Canada has propagated the idea among rural gun owners that there’s a basic difference between registering a car and a gun. Unlike the case of a car, registering a gun, the lobbyists say, is about freedom. The state ought not to know how many guns you have in your possession. Even if you make the registration free, and reduce the penalty for failure to register a fine of one dollar, they will object. For them, this is an issue of principle.

The principle, of course, has nothing to do with the Canadian experience. It is an outgrowth of the American Revolution and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which the U.S. Supreme Court interprets as giving individual Americans the right to bear arms.

Pushing the Second Amendment north into Canada is exactly what the gun lobby wants. This is a game for Tea Party wannabes, such as the Harperites. It makes no sense for New Democrats to be sucked into this maelstrom. Even if some members of the NDP are prepared to play games about the validity of registering long guns, the party cannot win a battle about who is prepared to serve up the biggest Tea Party.

Let the Harperites occupy that ground. As the facts come out, it becomes ever more clear that the long gun registry is a worthwhile and quite inexpensive law enforcement tool that saves lives. Plenty of people, it turns out, use long guns to assault other people and to take their own lives. Weapons need to be registered.

The flip side in urban Canada is also clear for the NDP.

If NDP votes in the House of Commons make the difference in killing the long gun registry, the Liberals will never let urban voters forget it. It will be their rallying cry in the cities in the next election. They will say that a vote for the NDP is a vote for Harper.

The last time that tactic worked big time for the Liberals was in 1993. I canvassed in Spadina in Toronto for the NDP during that election. At the door, I met people who were quite well disposed to the NDP but who were desperate to boot out the Conservatives. They planned to vote Liberal to get the job done. The fear of Harper’s dictatorial and irrational policies has been growing all summer. The desire to boot out Harper and to use whatever instrument is available to get the job done is on the rise.

The NDP, a party that doesn’t seem to have stood for much for a long time, is in danger of watching its votes slip away to the Liberals. And the clincher could well be the gun registry, an issue that is both substance and symbol. If the NDP can credibly be blamed for the demise of the registry, plenty of people in the cities will use that as their rationale for voting Liberal.

Watch out Jack.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Harper’s Party: The Curious Case of the Missing Conservatives

Despite its label and occasional bows to the lineage of John A. Macdonald, Harper’s Party is without conservatives.

Harper’s bazaar is inhabited by enthusiasts from the Christian Right, anti-government devotees, advocates of economic and political union with the United States, opponents of abortion, people fearful of gay pride festivities, haters of trade unions, those who think you should be nice to everyone who is not different, lobbyists for the oil industry, and those who fear that global warming is a pointy-headed conspiracy. Binding them together is a proverb: To those who have much, more shall be given; to those who have not, less is only plenty.

Missing in this potpourri are conservatives. Traditional conservatives are not frightened of the state. They don’t fear the census, and they don’t believe that registering cars, or guns is step one on the way to the shadowy men in the black helicopters swooping down and taking our shotguns away. They don’t think that someday those with four-wheel drive vehicles may have to take up arms against the state.

They didn’t support the original Tea Party in which white men dressed up as native people threw tea into Boston Harbour; and they don’t support today’s Tea Party, financed by billionaires, and dedicated to the proposition that ignorance is a qualification for political leadership. They are inclined to the view that the state should control the means of violence and do not adhere to the notion that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution(that the U.S. Supreme Court interprets as giving Americans the right to bear arms) is the fount of liberty.

Traditional Canadian conservatives regarded the strong state as essential for the construction of a country next door to the United States. They were prepared to underwrite railways they thought were necessary for the creation of a transcontinental Canada. When they were convinced that it was required---as in the cases of hydro electricity, bankrupt railways, the sale of liquor, and broadcasting----they were prepared to use crown ownership to achieve their ends. They were elitists, who acted on behalf of big business; they were skeptical about democracy, and they didn’t have a populist bone in their bodies. For a socialist like me, they were not to love.

But let’s not confuse conservatives with Harper’s crowd. On both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, the elements that make up today’s political right constitute a combustible, unstable force that threatens the viability of democracy. In the U.S. where they are stronger and can rally vast throngs in the streets, they have immobilized a timid Democratic administration and its Congressional allies. In Canada, where they hold office in Ottawa, they have to be more circumspect, waiting for the day when they have a majority and can let loose their full dictatorial impulses.

If any traditional conservatives are worried by the spectacle before us, now is the time to speak up.