Conventional wisdom has it that 2011 was a turning point for democracy and progress, a year of hope and inspiration. The year in which the protester came out from behind the sign and became the person of the year who was making change.

I find myself a contrarian to this uplifting view. I have little hope arising from the progress that did not materialize. It was a year of progress unfulfilled, and frankly we are left with a world less friendly and more austere than a year ago.

Democracy has not triumphed yet in the Middle East, as the “persons of the year” are experiencing at this time in Syria and Egypt. Across the Mediterranean, democracy is in no better shape. As journalist Robert Fisk pointed out last week, the new Ben Alis and Mubaraks of the West are the bankers who call the shots in Europe, and for all practical purposes are the so-called “technical governments” of Greece and Italy.

Hunger and the global food crisis were one of the driving forces of the Arab Spring, but the fall of Mubarak and Gaddafi did nothing to curtail the dramatic price rises of maize, wheat and other staples in 2011. According to Oxfam, one-sixth of the world population — over 1 billion people — are hungry at the year’s end.

The global economy is a mess, with likewise record unemployment. The ILO reports that the jobless now exceed 200 million, mostly in the global south but including also 23 million in the European Union where youth unemployment rates have hit astonishing figures as high as 50 per cent in Spain.

In the United States there are 13 million officially unemployed but U.S. government data from September reported over 15 per cent of the population living in poverty — some 46 million Americans — a number that has increased each year of the Obama administration and which has fuelled Tea Party rage.

I take as much inspiration from the Occupy movement as the next, but a sober assessment of America after 3 years of Obama is that its foreign policy is barely distinguishable from Bush and that its domestic politics are frightening. What is left of Obama’s politics of hope? The U.S. progressives I know have long given up on Obama’s rhetoric and are desperate to prevent the ascendancy of an extreme and dangerous right-wing libertarianism, but much less likely to give their souls to the campaign as they did in 2008.

I cheered in November when U.S. unions won the repeal of anti-labour laws in Ohio, but in 2011 anti-labour legislation was introduced in 20 U.S. states. American unions are now happy over NLRB rule changes approved in December to speed up votes in organizing drives — but this is thin gruel for U.S. labour which has been reduced to 11.4 per cent union density and just 6.9 per cent in the private sector. Labour will take the new rules, but they are much less important than the promised and now abandoned Employee Free Choice Act.

This grim litany of world affairs would be incomplete, of course, without reference to the failed Durban climate conference and the jettisoning of the Kyoto process. I am a disbeliever that those responsible for these failures will now negotiate a new and better climate treaty.

In this country the year of “hope, love and optimism” ends with Harper’s “stable majority Conservative government” riding high and promising austerity measures in 2012. The Conservatives’ economic agenda is highlighted by free trade with Europe and unrestrained bitumen exports — in short, more of the policies that are ruining our manufacturing economy and wrecking our environment.

But I worry most about Harper’s social agenda, and a calculated attack on Canada’s labour movement. The reintroduction of a private member’s bill on union finances and the CPC fundraising campaign aimed at whipping up an anti-labour frenzy in the party base are clear signals of what is in store.

In May, I suggested in this space that the election of the NDP social democratic Official Opposition had created political space for the labour movement to organize and “occupy” — although in May, Occupy was still not part of our political vocabulary. Regardless, Canadian labour was not ready to step into the political space provided by the Orange Wave or Occupy, and after three interventions by Harper to break strikes and prevent free collective bargaining in 2011, labour is on the defensive.

The immense Canadian tragedy of 2011 was the loss of Jack Layton just at the moment when the NDP was poised to consolidate its electoral gains and reshape Canadian politics. Instead there was a national mourning for Jack and a remarkable connection to his values and final words. But in politics, Jack’s death resulted in a much weakened Official Opposition and a lengthy leadership campaign that has been internally based and has yet to grab the attention of the country with a compelling alternative to Harper.

I do not make this submission of a year unfulfilled because of a holiday depression or unrealistic expectations of what could have been.

Nor am I without hope now for the near future. I take hope from the anticipation of the apparent majority who saw the last year so positively. Because if next year will be better and real progress made, we can and must demand more of ourselves and our leaders.

Perhaps the “person of 2012” will emerge from the anonymity of nascent social movements and the holding patterns of our labour and political movements, to call us to action. Not just one person, but many people and whole movements that will organize and lead us to achieve the democracy, social justice and sustainability that eludes us.


Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson is the assistant to the President of Unifor.