Stephen Harper came to Windsor a couple of weeks ago. He came to ground zero of the collapse of the manufacturing base in Canada. About 50 labour and social justice advocates came out on short notice to exercise our right to dissent.
Harper supporters, numbering around 100, came out of the Anchor Danly plant after being treated to a typical Harper stage managed pep rally. On the way out many Harper supporters held placards that read ‘the economy is the number one priority.’ Those signs were particularly hard to take for many protestors who greeted Mr Harper at Anchor Danly, and earlier at Crest Mold. With unemployment the highest in Canada here in Windsor, and manufacturing job losses in the hundreds of thousands across southwestern Ontario over 30 years of free trade, we were left wondering what economy Harper was talking about. Now we hear another massive, secret deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership, has been agreed to in principle by the Harper government.
Although all politicians steer clear of any discussion of Free Trade during this campaign, it is the working class of the country, and Windsor specifically, that has not been able to avoid the effects: job losses, increased precarity, loss of union density ( that is to say, the loss of bargaining power and political clout for workers), and so on.
With free trade and the resulting globalization of national economies and the collapse of positive state interventions (ie income support, environmental regulation, right relations with First Nations, etc) capitalist investors sought lower wage labour elsewhere while accumulating obscene wealth. Communications technology and cheap oil made the administration of a global supply chain possible. The bottom line has been that all national economies had to submit to the global hierarchy through trade agreements and the resulting formation of trading blocks. As a result there are hundreds of millions of migrant workers all seeking a place in the global economy.
The workers being left behind as plant after plant closed in Ontario were told they and their children would have to join the knowledge economy by upgrading and gaining access to post-secondary education.
For too many the knowledge economy has devolved into low wage service work heavily reliant on temporary employment agencies. Post-secondary education has become a debt trap for working class students who will be for years indebted to banks. Without an effective national plan for manufacturing and investment in new technology, employers have been given a free hand to hire temporary foreign workers at will with disastrous effect. The effect has been the devaluing of skilled work. This is NOT the fault of the foreign workers.
The global economy has wrecked the national economies of their countries; predominantly countries of the global South that for centuries have been the source of capitalist wealth beginning with the slave trade. The national economies of Tunisia, Indonesia, Jamaica, Mexico, Vietnam, and so on, cannot produce enough jobs for their citizens thereby ensuring, for the global capitalists, a near endless supply of low wage labour willing to move thousands of miles away from family and culture to work in Europe and North America. This isn’t an accident; the system is built this way.
This is the context of Mr Harper’s visit to Windsor. And there we were; Us and Them. Windsorites that can see what I’ve described vs. those who still benefit from the status quo – the professional class, investors, real estate agents, business owners, and local politicians desperate to believe that the current prime minister is there best bet in surviving a global economy. More of the same they say, except more of the same is impoverishing the working class and destroying the biosphere.
As if the economy in a shambles isn’t bad enough, Mr Harper has set the country on a dangerous course with his ‘Old Stock Canadian’ comment and the Niqab wedge issue that are clearly racist taunts meant to instil in all of us a fear of the ‘Other’: Muslims, temporary foreign workers who are good enough to work here but not live here, desperate refugees fleeing the very wars waged to maintain a corrupt global economy, First Nations peoples who are on the front lines of environmental resistance to more pipelines and the general destruction of the biosphere, and any others who disagree with the prime ministers authoritarian rule. That hateful phrase – Old Stock Canadian – is a code to signal to those most fearful of the future that some may not really belong here; are not really Canadians.
The first thing I thought of, living in the 4th most diverse city in Canada, is what must newcomers be thinking hearing this comment? What was Windsor- Tecumseh Conservative candidate thinking when she said to the media, “…when I look at the party beliefs, the Conservatives fit for me”? Stoking racist values in a diverse city with high unemployment is inexcusable.
Not only is the local economy in crisis, so to is the global economy in crisis because it has reached the limits of what the planet can give: there is seemingly nowhere left to invest in job sustaining enterprises – thus the rise of low wage service work (not necessarily low social value work), and financialization; that is, debt as a commodity. The global political and investing elites are out of ideas on how to transform the global economy and are not about to admit it. They need authoritarians like the Prime Minister and his coterie of candidates to keep on implementing austerity to make sure fear paralyzes dissent – even as they preach publicly as Gignac did – about how they will be a “…strong advocate for our residents and businesses”, or some such promise.
However, the hopeful signs, even in the face of their failures are, the Arab Spring, the global Occupy movement, and Idle No More. Also hopeful is the rise of the radical left – at least radical in comparison to the existing political economy – in Spain, Greece and Quebec. That confluence of spontaneous organization around inequality and environmental degradation must have severely shaken the confidence of the global elites; hence, the militarization of police forces, the rise of Othering, and outright racist taunts and actions, and the ever present war on terror.
In Windsor, the fourth most diverse city in Canada, the political and economic leaders look nothing like the city. Civic leaders are predominantly male, white, and wedded to the idea that private investment and low taxes are the only answers to rebuilding Windsor. We have a $75 million aquatic centre which costs, we are now told, $3 million a year to maintain. It sits on the periphery of one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Windsor. This kind of investment is born out of the mindset of global elites that envisions cities as sites of spectacle: entertainment and consumption that is supposed to drive a local economy. In so called world class cities we see hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the Olympics or other global sports spectacles. In Windsor it’s FINA or the casino; pathetic imitations of the global vision for cities.
What new politics must we imagine to confront the reality of Windsor rather than the wishful thinking of blind leaders?
Clearly, if you’re as depressed as I am at what I’ve laid out, a new kind of thinking is required; especially for cities like Windsor, which capital has so obviously abandoned. Green jobs as we transition to a new economy (as in the LEAP Manifesto promotes) certainly have promise; but there must be more, far more. A whole new way of thinking about work, education, community; about participatory democracy and citizen assemblies is required.
We need to create new ways of organizing on a scale required when factories re-ordered the mainly agrarian way of life in Canada and elsewhere with the luring off the land of rural workers who became the factory workers, who became the union agitators, who became the middle class. Certainly a standard of living and material well-being was achieved like no other time in history, but the political and economic power workers had to maintain and enhance their position was always tenuous as the last 30 years have taught us.
So instead of waiting for some corporation or single genius along the lines of Elon Musk to save us all – an unlikely outcome – we need to think of ourselves as fully capable of working cooperatively for our mutual benefit using the very technology that is eliminating jobs. For it is no longer free trade and the off shoring of work that threatens our well-being and political participation in affairs. It is now the very elimination of whole categories of decent work such as truck driving and manufacturing in large factories. Driverless vehicles are just around the corner, robots already dominate manufacturing plants, and how long will Chinese factories need human workers to assemble iPhones? What will the world do with billions of surplus workers?
After October 19th, we must begin to imagine an entirely new political economy and plan on how to get there. I think the answers lie in places like Windsor and Detroit, and indeed work is underway. More on that after the election…