In his opening paragraphs to the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx noted that people "make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."
It is one of the most basic and fundamental insights into the way our society, its politics and its mass thinking work, and yet its meaning is often forgotten or ignored.
We, as people exist in a context, and that context shapes the way we think and the way we act. That context is sometimes of our own making, in part or in whole, but regardless, it is inescapable and it frames the way we think, react and act as a society, often imperceptibly.
This social discourse evolves constantly, and the actions of politicians and political advocates help to shape what becomes the essential framework of their day.
The citizens of Ontario have come under a kind of full-frontal ideological assault recently, delivered to them by an agent of their own provincial Liberal government, the former TD Bank economist Don Drummond. His commissioned report has recommended deep cuts to programmes that millions depend on. It disgracefully calls for the imposition of user fees on things like school buses (as one small example), massive cuts to health care, farcical ideas such as ending all-day kindergarten or cutting access for seniors to medication. It seeks to undo the little that the Liberals can claim as their attempts to reconstruct an inclusive civil society in the wake of the Harris years.
But what is fascinating about the report is that the reaction to it has been akin to the reaction to a hurricane or some other unavoidable though unfortunate force of nature. Much of it has accepted its basic premises (even when somewhat critical) and has promoted it as a "bitter pill" that was overdue.
The "progressive" Toronto Star has had the Drummond Report as a link under its own masthead on its website since it came out. Some of its less interesting commentators, such as Martin Cohn, have written nonsensical articles with idiotic narratives about the "chickens coming home to roost" economically, etc. The National Post, Globe and the Toronto Sun, hardly surprisingly, have embraced its recommendations with a glee bordering on the obscene. It is as if they cannot wait to take these programs away from people and to watch life become that much harder for Ontario's citizens.
The report seeks to make constant the false ideas that neo-conservatives used to deconstruct the post-war social compromise, and it seeks to do so as a kind of permanent counter-revolution against the gains of workers and other groups economically that were the dominant ideological hegemony and narrative after the Second World War and until the mid-1980s.
But the report did not fall out of the sky and its defenders are not merely post-modern Chicken Littles. It is the outcome of an ongoing process of ideological re-education within the developed West that seeks to both reverse any traces of economic Social Democracy (in the traditional sense of the term) and that also seeks to make perpetual economic turmoil a constant so as to subsidize the lifestyles of people exactly like Don Drummond and so as to aid in the shareholder-return-driven amoral culture of profit that has destroyed the North American industrial base, wiped out the communities and jobs that existed for so many and that has successfully made even "left" parties sing its tune.
The idea, of course, is rather simple. Supposedly, despite decades of massive economic growth, despite record corporate profits, despite the fact that the wealthy are wealthy to a degree unparalleled since the "Gilded Age" era of capitalist Robber Barons, and despite the demonstrably obvious fact that our society is wealthier and has more overall social capital than it did 40 years ago (and remember, the forces of capitalist ideological hegemony have hitched their fences to the logic of its capacity for perpetual growth, so they will not even deny this), we are still told to beleive that governments cannot afford to implement or sustain the kinds of programs they introduced in the 1950s!
If that is the case, then capitalism has manifestly failed. It has failed by even its own logic.
But how have we gotten to this point of absurdity? The surreality where we are told that capitalism has delivered tremendous material reward and incredible advances in social wealth, and yet, somehow, we cannot afford to fund basic social programs and we are now suggesting that parents should PAY to have their kids bussed to schools that they have a legal right to have their kids attend.
And how is it that it is not noted that this supposed lecture and recipe for "recovery" comes from a social aristocrat, who was instructed to NOT discuss tax increases (not that he would have), and whose version of austerity would inflict far greater pain upon working people than it ever would upon those of his peculiar pedigree of social leach. Telling the masses to depend less on government while making an enormous personal sum off of government to say this.
Why did McGuinty hire him in the first place? Was it not perfectly obvious that Drummond had a vested interest in a specific agenda? To hire him to suggest how government could better govern itself was akin to appointing the head of the Yankees to run a commission on how to deal with revenue-sharing in baseball. In other words, it was either stupid or this is what the McGuinty government wanted. It does not really matter which is true.
McGuinty, sensing perhaps that the "report" would be nasty, tried to do the usual preparation for its impact in January, by telling everyone that they would all have to "share the pain" when the austerity regime started.
But never has this rhetoric been less true. There is no "sharing" that will occur. Millions of people will have their lives impacted in ways that will range from the severe, in the case of the poor, to the serious, in the case of much of the middle class.
But others, like Don Drummond, given that tax increases are off the table, will feel little to nothing at all.
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Here you will see that "sharing pain" in this era of grotesque inequality is a farce. For austerity to have an impact on the lives of the wealthy like it will on the rest of us, taxes would have to be massively increased and laws put in place to remind corporations of their social responsibility to the society that created them and that they could not have existed without.
Instead, not a single party in mainstream "left"-thinking is calling for anything like this at all.
They have completely capitulated to the forward march of the relentless neo-liberal economic logic of tax cuts, service cuts, deregulation, anti-unionism and much more.
Louis Menand of The New Yorker, when reviewing Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm put what I am trying to say very well..."It's not only that more politicians today sound like Goldwater than like Tom Hayden. More politicians today sound like Goldwater than like Lyndon Johnson." What this was pointing out was that the ideological spectrum has changed to the point that the ideas of the "extreme" presidential candidate Barry Goldwater are now mainstream thinking, while the ideas of Johnson, who declared a "War on Poverty" that actually achieved results, would be regarded as unrealistically and even ridiculously radical now.
In Canada, we can see the ideological shift in many ways. Unlike the U.S. and the U.K., Canada took slightly longer to capitulate in the face of the new hegemony. Even as late as 1989, all federal parties were willing to agree that it was the function of government to actually attempt to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. They spectacularly failed to do so, but, far more significantly, none of them would really make this pledge now.
In 1995, a Liberal federal government introduced a budget that signified the first shift of "progressive" forces away from the ideas of interventionist government and the social responsibility of the wealthy and corporations.
The NDP has followed suit. It has also bought into all of the basic ideas of the new neo-liberal ideological framework, as is clearly shown in Manitoba, and, more bitterly, Nova Scotia, where the government has singularly failed to act on the few promises it made to organized labour and is bringing in a preliminary form of its own austerity agenda.
In Ontario the shift can be seen in how the party, which has sought in an entirely reactionary way to distance itself from its Bob Rae past, called their 2011 platform (such as it was) "The Plan for Affordable Change" as opposed to Bob Rae's "Agenda for the People." The difference in tone is quite telling. So is the reality that the ONDP's 2011 platform was far to the right of Rae's re-election platform in 1995 let alone the 1990 one.
Andrea Horwath, reflecting this now, released a statement calling for a "Balanced Approach to a Balanced Budget" as if a balanced approach is really what is needed and as if a balanced budget, with the fetishistic right-wing reductionist logic that this entails, is actually what should be the government's focus as opposed to the well-being of its citizens and the attempt to end the suffering and deprivation that poverty and social inequality cause.
The federal NDP has also done this, and the Jack Layton-led "Orange Crush" took opposition on what was without any doubt the most right-wing platform the party has ever run on. Read it for yourself:http://www.ndp.ca/platform
As with the Democrats in the U.S. and most of the Socialist and Social Democratic parties in Europe, the Liberals and the NDP have bought into almost every fundamental aspect of the new ideological order and, by doing so, have created and helped to perpetuate the very ideas and philosophies that hinder them in their pursuit not only of power but of actually making a difference and being anything other than a last defence against the "storm."
They have aided in their rhetoric, their platforms and, most importantly in their acceptance of the basic premises of the neo-liberal right, in perpetuating the ideological and social ideas that allowed this report to be taken seriously at all, which it would not have 30 years ago (despite the fact that our economy has supposedly "grown" so much in the meantime).
They have helped in every meaningful way to manufacture the world that created Don Drummond.