Recently I attended the funeral of one of my relatives and while we were at the gravesite the minister read aloud the opening lines from Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times and so forth. The minister explained that these lines captured the complexities of the process of mourning. We both grieve for our loss and appreciate our time with the departed.
Now, I am not the most religious of people, so when the minister started talking about the spring of hope and winter of despair I kept thinking about the politically charged tone of those lines and how they are more than relevant to today’s world. However, my relative was not ‘political’ and the minister’s reading of Dickens was not meant as a scathing indictment of inequality and injustice.
By relating Dickens’ work to the act of mourning the minister revealed an even deeper parallel this opening passage has with our current predicament. While death is final, there is a period just after death in which the spirit of the person who passed is still present. You half expect them to walk through the door. The mourning process is supposed to help you come closer to terms with the loss. Is this complexity, where a life still lingers after death, not exactly what Gramsci had in mind when he talked about an interregnum: the old is dying and the new cannot appear?
We live in an age of extreme inequality that increasingly resembles the horrors and decadence of the gilded age of yester year. Along with this Dickensian parade of glut and famine we are also treated to a cynical political class and their corporate sycophants pushing bankrupt political ideas that only perpetuate cruelty and blatant falsehoods.
The recent Liberal attack on labour in Ontario is but the latest example in Canada. The McGuinty government passed Bill 115 that imposes new contracts on teachers, curbs sick days, freezes wages and bans strikes. After the Liberals passed Bill 115 on the teachers they turned around and immediately set their eyes on other public sector workers in the province. The Liberals want to impose (though it may not pass because the bill is not cruel enough for the Tories) a two-year wage freeze and give the finance minister a final say over all contracts covering 480,000 workers.
All of this is to ostensibly eradicate the 15 billion dollar budget deficit. Now whether this type of austerity will work from the perspective of the ruling class is debatable. One could see how the wage freeze (which is actually a wage cut when one accounts for inflation) would over time weaken unions, curb some government spending and create conditions that further drive down labour costs. However, the target of this attack on labour carries with it a twofold problem. The first one is political. As the by-election in Kitchener Waterloo highlighted, an attack on labour by the Liberals could very well backfire politically.
The second and more existential conundrum is that the proposed measures by the Liberals are directed at phantom problems. It is all too easy to look at the current fiscal situation of the province and conclude that government should rein in spending. A more sober look at the numbers shows that the deficit indeed has ballooned and the debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio has climbed significantly in the last four years. But the net debt to GDP is still only around 38 percent, which, though high, is nowhere near a crisis-inducing problem.
What is curiously missing from this debate is an honest discussion about the actual causes of the rising debt. Some have suggested that the debt increase is simply the result of too many well paid teachers and public servants. Now one could make the case that temporarily Ontario has a surplus amount of teachers — again this assumes that we would want to keep the current education model of large class sizes — but does this really account for the key phrase when talking about the deficit: the last four years?
Now if we look at fiscal years 2004 to 2008 the debt grew from 138 billion to a 156 billion in actual dollars. This is an accumulation of 18 billion dollars in debt over 4 years. Now if we take the next four years ending in fiscal year 2012 we see an accumulated deficit of 79 billion dollars. That doesn’t include the projected deficit of 15 billion dollars of the current fiscal year. Looking at the numbers there is no way that public sector labour contracts have been the source of the rising deficit.
The elephant in the room is that the still on-going economic crisis has created a massive revenue shortfall as the private sector shed jobs. The province and the federal government for a period of time increased public sector spending to somewhat alleviate the drop off of private sector activity. This also happened at a time when the demands on our healthcare system are increasing due to an aging population. So in short, revenue was down, public spending went up primarily to offset the woes of the private sector and now the Liberals are turning around and blaming teachers and other public sector workers. They want to trounce collective bargaining rights and eventually transform benefit plans into defined contributions rather than defined benefits (this is the Canadian ruling class dream).
It is austerity Canadian style, death by a thousand wage freezes. But the real question is how has labour and the left ceded the crisis narrative? Where did we go wrong in linking the current budgetary woes with the economic crisis? I think part of the answer involves a complete lack of vision, not only in what we want but in how we can get it.
The left has failed to articulate narratives and strategies that speak to people and that are flexible enough to deal with the constantly changing political terrain. We are living in Dickensian times where the spectre neoliberalism on the left and right has still not been laid to rest. If we want to counter austerity it is high time we on the left start building new political visions, new organizations and new ways of thinking and start burying the dead.