Hope is indispensable in public and private life. I don’t mean brainless optimism in the face of facts. I mean hope that finds a way to persist in honest awareness of how bad things are.
Take the economy. Everyone knows that the disaster of 2008, which has clearly not gone away, had nothing to do with excess government spending. It had/has to do with other things: loss of good jobs; wage stagnation; jumps in consumer debt to cover the losses; “financialization”; fraud; greed; lack of oversight — blah blah blah. Any rise in deficits came mainly from bailouts to banks, or needless war-making. The point is: The catastrophe had/has no connection to government social or economic spending. Yet the only solutions proposed everywhere are public spending cuts.
Ordinary people know, or sense, that this is stupid. Even in the U.S., a poll this year found only 20 per cent thought deficit reduction validated cuts in pensions or Medicare. Only 25 per cent would reduce education spending to balance the budget. Even public support to the arts had majority support. They have their heads screwed on; they know where the real problems are and aren’t.
But — and here’s where hope comes in, or flies out the door — governments slash anyway. Not just in crisis cases like Greece, Portugal and Spain. But in the U.S., U.K. and here, as we’re told to expect in next week’s budget. Please note that in many cases these pointless, unwarranted cuts are made by “left” governments. The three European governments all have “socialist” in their names. Barack Obama has joined the attack in the U.S.
What will the effect on people be? Cuts that they know are unjustified, and probably damaging, and which they often explicitly voted against — will be made. What is the point of voting, or even bothering to think about these matters? This is how hope in public participation dies, or is killed off.
Let me note a special Canadian role in this hopicide. I’m thinking of Paul Martin, finance minister in the Liberal Chrétien government of the 1990s. The Liberals rose to power promising to reconsider free trade, end the GST and give the country universal child care. They did none. Instead they focused obsessively on ending the deficit by slashing public programs. Martin went from year to year and program to program like one of the manic unsubs on Criminal Minds. At the end there was no hope left for government activity. When he finally became prime minister and tried to compensate with a bit of child care, it was hopelessly late. The voters turned him out.
Recently the Mercatus Center in the U.S. hailed Martin a hero and urged their own leaders to emulate him. In case you aren’t familiar with Mercatus, it’s a right-wing think-tank funded by the far-right Koch brothers and dedicated to ending government activity wherever possible, including limits on truckers’ hours and on arsenic in drinking water. This will be Martin’s legacy: verbal monuments erected with right-wing U.S. money to the death of public hope.
Where do people turn when leaders and parties that promised to do what seemed to make sense, betray them? Either to despair or to themselves. That often means: into the streets, where the battles for democracy and justice frequently began. Take the encampments of “los indignados” in Spain. Who are they indignant at? The greedy rich, obviously. But also their gutless, lying, “left-wing” politicians. Their manifestos basically demand that those parties do what they said they would: protect workers and academic freedom, extend social benefits, use non-nuclear energy, create proportional representation, etc.
What are their odds of success? Well, Spain does have a great anarchist (i.e., leaderless) tradition with many achievements. But eventually, at this stage of human evolution, you probably have to turn back to institutions of government, flawed as they are (like other flawed but seemingly unavoidable institutions: medicine, teaching, journalism . . .) Still, as a way to go, it beats those alternatives, apathy and despair.
This article was first published in the Toronto Star.
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