Friday, January 20, 2017

The Canadian Choice: Fundamental Change or Hard Right Populism

In the era of Brexit and Trump, Canadians face an increasingly clear choice between fundamental change and hard right populism.

Canada is one of the major countries in the West where the political centre has held, much to the benefit of Canadians. But the same forces that have driven the rise of the xenophobic right in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other countries are at play here.

We have some time to adapt, but time is running out. The temptation to muddle through in the hope that the Trump administration will be satisfied with gouging Mexico and won’t try to take a bite out of us on trade, investment and taxes is foolish. We risk being further marginalized as suppliers of primary products at the same time as our industrial base is ever more hollowed out.

What is driving the collapse of the political centre is the crisis of the global neo-liberal capitalism of our age.

For the past several decades, the majority of men and women in the labour force in Canada and abroad have seen little or no rise in their incomes (adjusted for inflation), at the same time as their security of employment grows increasingly precarious. Meanwhile, those who have presided over the present global division of labour have enriched themselves more lavishly than any class of rulers in the history of the world.

To put it simply, the leverage of those who control capital over those who sell their labour to earn a living has expanded dramatically.

Though the rise of the xenophobic far right, in response to this state of affairs, has received most of the attention in the mainstream media, a wave of radical politics is sweeping across the developed world. Potentially, this wave can provide the effective antidote to the extremism on the right. The young are at the epicentre of this political surge. In response to the socio-economic conditions they face and the dire problems that confront the world, they have evolved a unique political outlook.

The negative consequences of the vast and growing inequality of our age are being concentrated on the young. They are the victims of the uneven ways the widening class divide affects different generations.

Compared with those who came before, most notably the baby boomers, the generation of the millennials, aged twenty to thirty-five, are grappling with the effects of inequality.

As one man in his early twenties wrote to me: “The millennials are acutely aware of the ever worsening material conditions they face.” From their forebears “millennials have come to realize that at one point in the past it was not typical to have to change jobs every two years, or to be completely locked out of the home ownership market due to ridiculously high home prices, and to have to bankrupt oneself to get a post-secondary education.” One apt term being used to describe the young is “Generation Rent.”

For the young, as well, climate change is imbedded in their reality. Stark changes in weather patterns are part of the public conversation in a way that was certainly not true for earlier generations.

To break with a failed system, Canadians need a wholly new outlook on how to make Canada work for the large majority of the population. No less is required than the launching of an economy, constructed around new green industries, and green energy systems, that will transform the way we live and work. Rebuilding cities and transportation systems will be central to this. Twentieth century cities, particularly their suburban and exurban perimeters, were constructed around the automobile. The cities of the twenty-first century will have to be designed around much more effective public transit. Greater urban density and public transit are essential to the green economy of the future.

Building a new economy around the principle of equity for the diverse elements of the Canadian population including first nations peoples, immigrants, and women can create full employment. It can effectively grapple with the plight of those in the working class who have been losing full time jobs.

Canadians have made vast and successful adaptations in the past to their socio-economic system. Today’s change, in which the young are bound to play a leading role, will require making capital work for people rather than the other way around. Among other things that necessitates the rejection of trade deals such as NAFTA that have much more to do with the privileges of corporations than the free exchange of goods and services.

In Europe and even in the United States, effective political voices have taken up the cause of a new politics. So far, in Canada, while the conditions exist for new movements with transformative political programs, no political party has laid claim to this terrain, and that includes the NDP. Politics abhors a vacuum. If existing institutions fail to fill the void, new institutions, as has happened in other countries will take their place.