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John Tory's Toronto and the false promise of political unity

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Image: Flickr/alexguibord

It has been a month and half since the election of John Tory as Mayor of Toronto, and a scant 12 days since Tory actually took over the office officially, and we have already witnessed a return to the nauseating displays of false recrimination and psudeo-differentiation that have marked Toronto's civic politics for a very long time and that are reflected by the seemingly unalterable sameness that grips the faces and forces that govern it.

Toronto's election, overall, resulted in nothing new. There were no ideological shifts of any interest and just one incumbent lost, only to be replaced by a very similar ideological "opponent." Where there were vacancies on City Council they were filled by birds-of-an-ideological feather, including the replacement of the feisty Adam Vaughan by the likely to be functionary Joe Cressy, who, despite having battled each other during the federal by-election, in which Vaughan defeated Cressy rather easily, are really not different ideologically in any meaningful sense at all.

In fact, Toronto's Labour Council, in all of its wisdom, had instantly endorsed Vaughan for reelection to City Hall early in the game, only to take down the entire list of their endorsements for over a month from their website when this endorsement became an obvious embarrassment during the federal by-election after Vaughan chose to run for the Liberals. They need not have bothered. He was far from the only Liberal or embarrassing choice they made in their endorsements and he was likely a more interesting councillor than Cressy will turn out to ever be within the limited framework of Toronto's discourse.

There will be nothing new in Hogtown and there is hardly a scenario in 2014 in  which one might imagine that there would have been, given the self-imposed limits on the possible that have been set by "progressives" and their right-wing opponents alike, and while the right or centre-right sets the agenda, the "left" most often decries it in terms that both lacks a programmatic alternative and that implies that the real fault lies in the inability of everyone to "work together" as if this is some kind of achievable or, more importantly, desirable goal.

Which it is not. 

In the days after Tory became Mayor he installed, rather predictably, members of council of his own ideological ilk to a variety of important posts and positions. This was immediately denounced as some sort of "betrayal" or a repudiation of Tory's supposed implication during the campaign that he would "unite" the city.

The Toronto Star, which rather obnoxiously actually endorsed Tory, was right out of the gate calling on him, just four days after his election, to "unify" Toronto  and  said that he "needs to reach out to Ford Nation and restore people’s confidence in the power of good government." They followed up this inane statement with a confidently banal and reactionary musing that "Tory faces a huge challenge -- restoring a disillusioned population's shattered faith in government service. The best way to do that is to improve people's lives in a way the Fords never did while also being a responsible guardian of the public purse." Cautioning, of course, that "meaningful progress needn't involve radical change" they opined that he needed to show "the good that government can do" as if this is something that he is interested in doing. 

The fact that the two sentiments of "improving people's lives" and being a "guardian of the public purse" are largely incompatible in the sense that they mean them, and that Tory will place far more emphasis on the latter than the former was obviously lost on the Star's earnest editorialists.

But not for long!  Just a day after Tory became Mayor, the same editorial writers were apparently stunned to discover that Tory did not share their desire to sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya. Of his appointments the Star felt "it's hard to read these choices as anything other than a declaration of war against downtown progressives," presuming in their typically liberal way that he had not been "at war" with them the whole time. After all, according to the Star, Toronto City Council's "left-wing" " includes some remarkably talented and experienced people," as if this should stand, on its own merits, as a reason for Tory to include them. This reflexive embrace of technocratic rule as an important objective regardless of actual material conditions or ideological predispositions is as interesting as it is a depressing reflection of a fundamentally defeatist mindset. 

Toronto's "talented and experienced" alleged left-wing councillors were also incensed at their exclusion from the administration of this avowed reactionary, a fact that is also rather telling. According to NOW Magazine "Councillor Paula Fletcher said that councillors traditionally affiliated with the NDP had been "set out on an orange ice floe in the middle of Grenadier Pond" by the Tory administration, while Joe Mihevc, unintentionally humorously described as an "old school progressive," "urged the new mayor to recognize that 'there are partners here from across all the different spectrums of the city of Toronto, and we want to work together.'"

Of course they do. And that is the problem. 

They want to "work together" with what, exactly? To accomplish what, exactly?

In the stunted vision of the liberal and "progressive" politics of Toronto today, as is true more broadly in our politics in Canada as a whole, the allegedly "achievable" has become fetishized to a point where it has undermined the ability of these political agents to act as any sort of meaningful opposition. Especially due to the supposed (though actually fictional) lack of political parties in Toronto municipal politics, "progressives" float around almost issue-to-issue while seeking to "work with" opponents who have no desire to work with them.

Within progressive bourgeois politics the cult of compromise and consensus is profoundly harmful as this compromise and consensus inevitably enables and empowers the right. As right wing and austerity driven ideas are the hegemony within which these politics function presently,  calls for "unity" are calls for the right to, in some token or meaningless way, include the "left" in the administration of neo-liberal governance with the presumed goal of "achieving something." They have as well, the unstated goal of these same "left" politicians thereby gaining the fiscal and political "legitimacy"  they so desperately want and that they feel can only be bestowed by their acceptance by those who are more clearly identified with and in control of the existing hegemony and who are not at all interested in bestowing this legitimacy. 

As an example of the disconnect between these supposed aspirations and reality, one need only look again to the Now Magazine article and Paula Fletcher. "'We'll be going issue by issue,' she said, predicting progressives could play a leadership role on causes around which there is consensus across council, like poverty reduction. Tory has identified that issue as one of his priorities." 

Does anyone really suppose that this "priority" will be met in a serious or systemic way under this administration? Might not a serious, avowed and more direct left opposition in the municipal context actually force the right's hand far more than angling for more committee posts where endlessly changing plans to ultimately do little are discussed ad infinitum? 

Seeking unity with the right in Toronto is the ultimate waste of time and detour. Instead of bemoaning John Tory making the battle lines clear the left should applaud him and rise to the occasion.

He has made it abundantly apparent, yet again, just how interested the politicians of the right are in working with even the most inconsequential and "non-ideological" of progressives. They are not. He has put the lie to the nonsense, yet again, that "collaborative" politics are possible or meaningful on anything other than essentially their terms. He has reinforced the fact that class politics are very real and that thinking that the patricians of Bay St. will work with even this feeble "left" crew is a fantasy.

The self-styled "left" of Toronto's City Council can now respond accordingly. It has a chance to use the lines Tory has drawn to make itself distinct and to actually fight for its supposed goals. It can take up the mantle of a more confrontational and class based politics as we have seen happening in the United States and elsewhere, or it can continue in its irrelevance and retreat and continue to whine as they are shut out of all those committees that John Tory doesn't want to see them on.

Image: Flickr/alexguibord

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