Image: Tobin B/Flickr

The supine response to GM’s Oshawa closure was impressive: a collective swoon. Doug Ford above all. Someone should’ve handed him smelling salts. He’s tough when it comes to killing a $15-an-hour wage or eliminating sex ed, but folds like one of his own cheap suits when GM says Ontario is closed for its business.

He sounded honoured that they even spoke to him, man to man, saying, “straight up, there’s nothing we can do.”

“They’re dug in,” said listless industry minister, Todd Smith.

They focused on forcing workers to face harsh reality, and offering some speeded-up EI. The feds took a similar tack. That’s not leadership, it’s social work. You suck any hope or fight out of the situation.

Next day Ford got feistier, denouncing job killers like decent wages or a carbon tax, so people can work for less at Tim Hortons. “Little jobs for the little guy,” should be his slogan. Two or three little jobs at once, if necessary.

Unifor leader Jerry Dias said, “They are not closing our damn plant without one hell of a fight.” If you wanted to seem serious, you’d cut the last six words. Susan Delacourt said he was channelling his inner Trump. I think it was his inner Bob White but it sounded mostly for show. Then he jetted off to Ottawa and Washington. Jagmeet Singh’s advice was to convene a brainstorming session.

Gutless as all this was, I see it less as a moral failure than an imaginative one. There was much tutting over lack of demand for the car models Oshawa produces, but what can you do? That’s the way the market breaks. It’s as if the blindest, short-term, profit-driven form of capitalism is a state of nature and there’s no alternative to accepting its cruel laws. It’s not called an ism for nothing. You must submit as you would to any world-conquering faith.

Ten to 20 years ago it was common for Ontario autoworkers to “occupy” — or threaten to — endangered plants (London, Kitchener, Scarborough, Oshawa). What if their models weren’t selling?

Union staffer Sam Gindin said they should focus on future needs those plants could fill, like public transit, which lowers carbon emissions. Any plant slated for closure should be “expropriated” for those purposes. Auto plants, he noted, had been swiftly rejigged to build tanks and planes in the Second World War. Exactly what’s wrong with this approach?

Why don’t we hear a hint of such thinking now, while people succumb instead to the iron law of SUVs and compact pickups? Perhaps because a decade ago, the end of the Cold War was still within recall, along with the notion that there are alternatives to capitalism. Those visions began hopefully, with the idea that economic forces could be shaped to fill human needs, versus the reverse, though they ended disastrously with Soviet gulags and their aftermath.

The ideas themselves don’t easily die but the terms associated with them grew foul, then stale. In fact, even Justin Trudeau’s government nationalized a pipeline company for what they saw as the public good. Yet no one says that, it’s almost as if it didn’t happen. What we have here is a problem of vocabulary. What term could you use to replace, say, socialism? How about — socialism?

I mean it. People like me tend to go into a defensive verbal crouch when the word is spoken. Jack Layton’s NDP expelled it from its constitution. But the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics vapourized 30 years ago. A majority of sentient citizens today have no historical associations with the word. The younger you go the more that’s so.

Gallup reports that more Americans aged 18 to 29 are now more “positive” about socialism than about capitalism, and the gap’s widening. What is it they understand by socialism? Not gulags, I’m betting.

Perhaps they stress the “social”: it’s society’s needs, not corporate profit, that should set the direction of the economy. An old leftist, like Bernie Sanders, still focuses on welfare state programs like Medicare and on regulation, versus the economy itself.

But young leftists, who throng to him, may be drawn toward more purely economic projects to replace the impersonal, avaricious and above all humanly insensate motives, like those that killed GM in Oshawa.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star

Image: Tobin B/Flickr

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.