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Jack Layton and the politics of anger

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My wife and I (and our dog Charlie) attended Jack Layton's memorial service in downtown Toronto yesterday along with thousands of other mourners. It was a moving, emotional, soulful and remarkable ceremony, a testament to a fabulous human being's honourable political legacy and his fundamental decency as a person. It's tragic that just when Jack was in a position to maneuver himself and his party to possibly one day govern the country, he was taken from us.

I recall Layton getting elected for the first time back in 1982 when he ran for Ward 6 in Toronto, becoming a junior city councillor. I was in my first year as a journalism student and was "covering" the election as a school exercise and was at his election party. In the 1990s I interviewed Layton a couple times for articles I was writing. By then he had become a fixture on the left, and a consistently excellent councillor with an unimpeachable voting record on progressive issues. Most city councillors, including those on the left, usually sell out over something, especially to goodies offered by developers. But not Jack -- he was impressively incorruptible.

One of the ironies of the outpouring of grief over Layton's passing overlooks the fact that Jack was not very successful when it came to winning elections. In 1992 he ran to become Toronto's mayor against June Rowlands, who was a grumpy, right-of-centre political mediocrity -- and he lost badly. When he ran for a federal seat a few years later against the execrable Liberal Dennis Mills, he lost again. While he revived the fortunes of the NDP federally, the party was still only 19 per cent in the polls when the election was called this winter. Only due to the Liberal and BQ's leadership weaknesses and running a smart campaign did Layton shock everyone and push the NDP into new terrain.

Layton did have one weakness as a politician. Despite his incorruptibility and excellent track record and humanness, he had an unfortunate manner of coming off as a bit of a used car salesman, as a phony, and as being too perfect. It was weird seeing this in a person who was, in reality, far from being a phony and genuinely committed to his causes. This past election, perhaps because of his illnesses, suddenly he seemed more genuine and human and less than perfect. Which is why the country embraced him so.

One of the constants in the memorial service and in Layton's remarkable last letter was the emphasis on his optimism and message of hope. And his lack of anger or bitterness, even in the face of disappointments or setbacks.

But this got me to pondering about the politics of anger and just what sort of prime minister Layton would have turned out to be if he had won that post.

Another politician who has been labeled an optimist and master of "hope" is Barack Obama. But Obama is now in disgrace, having sold out and caved into the Republicans and the U.S. corporate elites at every turn. A man who seemed to embody the best of American progressive ideals in 2008 is now seen as weak and ineffectual and a tremendous disappointment.

There is nothing wrong about being optimistic and hopeful, of course. Yet I contend we are in a time when we need to see people on the left express more anger and less willingness to compromise. For 30 years, unions, social democrats, liberals and other progressives have caved into the right and the corporate sector in the hopes that by giving them something they will leave social programs, labour laws and other progressive institutions alone. And it never works. There is no such thing as enough for the right-wing. They see this willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness and they take advantage of it and demand more takeaways. And bit by bit we have seen our social safety net fray and the power of capital grow to the point it is now pretty much free to do whatever it pleases.

So if Layton had managed to get elected as prime minister down the road, would he have become another Obama, selling out the store? I doubt it, only because Layton was not known for being a sell-out during his political career (while a closer examination of Obama's brief political career before he became president revealed a willingness to throw the left under the bus).

On the other hand, the pressure brought to bear on Layton to maintain the corporate and economic status quo would have been immense. And here I fear Layton's politics of optimism and hope would have run aground.

The reality is, we are living in angry times. And we need leaders on the left who reflect and act on that anger. We have to recognize who our enemy is and articulate not the politics of appeasement, but the politics of class struggle and combat. Workers and the middle class and small businesses owners have been at the receiving end of a class war launched by the corporate sector more than 30 years ago -- and have been losing that war. It's time to get angry and demand that the next NDP leader lose his or her shit over all the terrible things capital is doing to wreck our economy, our planet and standard of living.

Messages of hope and optimism are great, but at some point people need to get really pissed off.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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