Corvin Russell's Blog

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Corvin Russell is an activist, writer, and translator based in Toronto. His current focus is Indigenous solidarity and environmental justice work.

Some big ideas

| October 2, 2008

As promised, here is my post putting out some of the many big ideas that are missing from this election.

1. Green jobs, green infrastructure, green cities.

This week we got news that methane is bubbling up from the arctic ocean floor far sooner than anyone expected, and that carbon dioxide buildup has been happening faster than climate scientists’ worst predictions. We are hurtlling towards a calamity that could engulf almost all life, yet we are talking about at best cosmetic policy changes. At the same time, we are facing a grave financial crisis that is bleeding into the real global economy. It could be capitalism’s gravest crisis yet. A comprehensive green infrastructure strategy can be part of the answer to both crises.The green economy has become a trite and empty phrase, but that’s in part because no one has evoked what it means in a way that is appealing and where people see themselves fitting into it. Addressing climate change requires a fundamental reorientation of how we live, work, and play; we need an optimistic picture of the future world in which climate change has been arrested. Stopping climate change requires:

  • Massive investment in new urban transit and intercity rail. Free urban transit is an idea whose time has come: it would improve the quality of life of the urban poor and working class and encourage the shift from an auto-centric economy to a low carbon economy.
  • Investment in renewable energy like solar and wind on a massive scale, preferring distributed, community-run microgeneration but also including solar farms and offshore windfarms.
  • Mandating passivhaus or equivalent standards for all new housing and commercial buildings, and subsidizing retrofits for existing houses and rental units. Start this immediately, or as close to immediately as possible. What the hell are we waiting for?
  • Supporting local production of food and changing the relationship between cities and the food-producing areas within and around them, bringing producers and consumers of food into closer connection. Many of the ideas that have been pioneered by groups like FoodShare could be brought on to the political stage.
  • The creation of new local industries to provide equipment and expertise for renewable energy generation, low carbon housing, and low carbon transit.

All of this means lots of high-skilled, high-wage jobs and economic activity — at a time when the auto sector and manufacturing as a whole are being hollowed out in Canada. All of this can be paid for up front by a blend of carbon taxes, shifting subsidies away from fossil fuel and cars, auctioned pollution permits, and issuing ultra-cheap government debt - see below.

2. Challenge neoliberalism

At a time when extensive deregulation and financialization has plunged capitalism into its gravest financial crisis since at least the Great Depression, the absence of any articulation of an alternative at the political level is stunning. Layton’s NDP, supposedly the left wing choice, are completely within the frame of neoliberalism, discussing job skills training and tax credit schemes. Now is the time to name the system and the problems with the system, and strike a blow at the ideology that has helped sustain it. Now is the time to name what “free trade” regimes are: regimes of regulation that favour capital and discipline labour.  Now is the time to say American capitalism is not the model we want to follow — in fact, it is threatening the global economy and the health of the planet. Some concrete ideas:

  • Introduce a tax on speculative finance, like the Tobin tax. If not now, when? The Tobin tax would contribute to the policy goal of deterring highly levered speculation and tempering hot money flows while also generating revenue from the most useless, parasitical sectors of society.
  • At a time when investors are seeking the security of government-issued debt, the government can issue huge amounts of debt for barely more than 0% interest. Now is the time to fund large infrastructure projects, like badly needed urban transit upgrades and new railway lines, or new public housing, because it can be done so cheaply.
  • If the banks are too important to fail, and government is going to have to bail them out anyway, nationalize them so that the profits will be public and not just the losses.  William Buiter wrote at ft.com, “Is the reality of the modern, transactions-oriented model of financial capitalism indeed that large private firms make enormous private profits when the going is good and get bailed out and taken into temporary public ownership when the going gets bad, with the tax payer taking the risk and the losses? If so, then why not keep these activities in permanent public ownership?” Hardened free marketers can say this, so why are our “left-wing” politicians too chickenshit to make this argument?
  • Talk about the need to make investment decisions democratic. Finance capitalism, which was one of the main drivers of trade “liberalization” and deregulation, is in crisis. Now there is an opportunity to openly challenge trade deals like NAFTA and the WTO.
  • Talk about a reduced workweek and a guaranteed income indexed to a living wage.

3.Take responsibility for colonialism and reshape Canadian-Indigenous relations

The history of Canada is a history of colonialism. The Canadian imaginary, with its notions of a vast empty wilderness, is colonial to the core. We moved into someone else’s homeland, and we took the land through deceit and treachery. We did our best to destroy Aboriginal cultures and economies. And the colonial project continues to this day. Here’s how to end it in a way that will transform Canada’s relation to Indigenous peoples, to their land, and to Canadian history.

  • End the current Canadian policy of seeking extinguishment of Aboriginal title. Period.
  • Respect the right of First Nations to say “no” to economic development on their traditional territories.
  • Sign on to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Give legal status to Aboriginal languages and massively fund their support and dissemination — only one small part of taking responsibility for residential schools and the history of attempted ethnocide and genocide.
  • Abolish the imposed system of Indian Act government and allow Indigenous Canadians to choose their own systems of government.
  • Respect and protect Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous economies.
  • Provide services to Aboriginal Canadians at a level that at least matches funding for similar services provided to other Canadians — at present, most services to Aboriginal Canadians, which are a treaty obligation of the Canadian state, are funded at levels below those given to other Canadians.
  • Honour the spirit and intent of the treaties.
  • Educate the wider Canadian population on the history of colonialism, and on the histories of Indigenous peoples on this land.
4. Reinvent democracy

It’s time to to fundamentally reframe our relation to the state — not as a power structure that looms over us, but as something we as citizens control and actively participate in and benefit from, and which develops our capacities as human beings. Proportional representation is only a basic first step in democratic reform. More ambitious ideas include: Reform government institutions by giving frontline workers and service users more of a say in the running of services. Make decisions locally wherever possible, through community management of resources and participatory budgeting, for a start. Promote social solidarity through education and engagement around fundamental issues and values — questions like, if we really have to change everything to deal with the climate crisis, what are the things we really value and want to keep? And should these decisions be left to the blind imperatives of private finance? Or should we all have a say in our destiny?

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