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The capitalist crash and the challenges facing socialists in Canada

By Roger Annis and John Riddell

[Roger Annis will be a featured guest at the World at a Crossroads conference, to be held in Sydney, Australia, on April 10-12, 2009, organised by the Democratic Socialist Perspective, Resistance and Green Left Weekly. Visit http://www.worldATACrossroads.org for full agenda and to book your tickets.]

The first casualty of the financial collapse has been the claim that “there is no alternative” to unrestricted free market capitalism. The imperialist governments are bankrolling imperilled banks and industrial conglomerates with immense bailouts — an estimated $5.1 trillion in the US alone by November 2008 — while preparing “stimulus” packages aimed at restoring financial markets.[1]

The “stimulus” includes potentially useful projects along with many that are far more dubious. But urgently needed social investment, such as housing or a national daycare program, receives scant consideration. The spending is shaped to restore corporate profitability, not to sustain workers’ livelihoods. Thus, the US government’s auto industry bailout is conditional on wages and working conditions in union-organised plants being cut to match non-union operations, and Canada’s federal government has set similar conditions.

In Canada, mass layoffs are spreading through the economy but unemployment insurance provides benefits to only half the jobless. The recent federal “stimulus” budget did nothing to change that

‘Stimulus’ serves profits, not human needs

Around the world, governments are spending hundreds of billions to protect profits but only pennies on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. No consideration is being given to the comprehensive structural changes required to counter global warming. No action is proposed to deal with the Alberta Tar Sands operation, the world’s most ecologically destructive project.

In the Global South, the capitalist crash has triggered what Adam Hanieh has termed a “deadly mix of capital outflows, high inflation, and drops in export earnings.”[2] The weaker countries are paying by far the highest price for the breakdown in the capitalist heartlands.

As the crash deepens, the US government and its allies are extending their war drive against peoples of the Global South. The Obama administration has promised a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan. All of the imperialist countries, with Canada in the lead, gave full backing to the genocidal Israeli assault on Gaza. As Hanieh notes, the crash presses capitalism toward a “more hardened, authoritarian state,” “increasingly virulent racism,” and “more war and military repression.”

Consistent with this pattern, the initial response in Canada to the crash by the Conservative Party government of Stephen Harper was to incite a wave of chauvinism against the Québécois people.[3]

Harper’s unqualified support of the Israeli slaughter in Gaza mirrors his colonial agenda for the racially and nationally oppressed and impoverished Indigenous peoples within Canada’s borders.[4] Amid all the talk in Ottawa of economic stimulus, nothing has been heard about the urgent humanitarian effort needed to remedy calamitous social conditions in Indigenous communities, be it black mould infections in western housing, water poisoning in the east, or job and health care crises in the north. Ottawa continues its long-standing policy of slow death or assimilation for its colonial subjects.

Anti-imperialist resistance

In the months since the economic crisis broke, the most effective resistance to capitalist attacks has come from anti-imperialist governments in Latin America and from the struggles of the Palestinian people.

The countries of the ALBA alliance in Latin America responded to the financial collapse with a plan for increased economic integration, including a regional currency.[5] Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, the leading architects of ALBA, also stood out in their forthright condemnations and actions against the Israeli assault in Gaza. Their leaders have proclaimed the truth that there is no solution to the problems of humankind short of the abolition of capitalism.

The slaughter in Gaza has created indescribable hardship and misery for the people there, but they are emerging from the wreckage unbowed. The Palestinian people were supported by the largest international antiwar protests since the launch of the Iraq war six years ago.

These recent events confirm the judgment expressed by Socialist Voice in a statement by its editors in June 2007: “The dramatic advances of the Venezuelan revolution and … other insurgent peoples and governments resisting imperialism, are creating a historic opportunity to strengthen international anti-imperialist collabouration and rebuild the revolutionary socialist movement internationally.” (see “Venezuela and the International Struggle for Socialism.”)

The 2007 statement outlined the lessons of mass struggles in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America for the world movement for socialism.

Labour shifts to the right

Canada’s trade unions and the labour-aligned New Democratic Party (NDP) have reacted to the crisis by shifting to the right. The NDP reached a temporary deal for a coalition government with the Liberal Party, one of the twin parties of capitalist rule in Canada for a century. That deal has now collapsed, with the Liberals choosing instead an alliance with the Conservative government. Yet a coalition with the Liberals still stands as the avowed goal of the NDP — what party leader Jack Layton, speaking on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio January 25, called the “bold plan that we need in this country.”

As part of the original coalition deal, the NDP ceased public opposition to Canada’s war in Afghanistan.[6] It failed to counter Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s and Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff’s support for the Israeli slaughter in Gaza. The NDP leadership has yet to speak out on these critical issues.[7]

The Liberals are a tested instrument of big-business rule. A succession of Liberal governments in the 1990s and 2000s waged deep-going assaults on living standards, social programs and democratic rights. They took Canada into war in Afghanistan and maintained a close alliance with Israel. Labour and its allies cannot mount effective opposition to capitalist assaults and imperialist oppression if they are shackled to such a party or to a government it would lead.

Support for the Liberals is sometimes justified on the grounds that they represent the “lesser evil” — that their policies, while bad, are not as harmful as those of the Conservatives. That logic allows the capitalists to define the permissible options. As the US socialist Peter Camejo once joked, “if they want us to vote for Mussolini, they need only put him up against Hitler”. “Lesser evilism” blocks working people from setting their sights on a humane and just world and advancing an independent program to that end.

The challenge of the NDP

Programmatically, the NDP is a capitalist party. The provincial governments it has formed have differed little from Liberal or Conservative governments. The NDP leadership is loyal and devoted to Canada’s colonialist-imperialist state.

But the NDP is also a political movement that was founded by the trade unions and left-wing activists. It has never been considered as an acceptable choice for federal government by the Canadian ruling class. The NDP’s stated program, however inadequate, echoes that of the unions that form its main institutional support. Its supporters share aspirations for a more just society.

If pressed to the limit, the coalition perspective will put in question the NDP’s survival as an instrument, however weak, of labour political action.

The NDP’s strategy of parliamentary action to humanise capitalism is a dead end for workers and oppressed peoples in Canada. But the challenge before workers is to strengthen their capacity for political action, not to passively accept losing what now exists through subordination to the Liberals. That would be yet another setback for a labour movement that is already in a defensive and historically weak position.

Socialists should therefore engage in the debate over the NDP’s future, particularly in the unions. We should press for the party to break from the Liberals and the capitalist class and to defend a workers’ agenda.

Ending the long retreat

Through more than two decades of capitalist attacks, working people in Canada have been on the defensive. Unions have lost members and strength, social programs have diminished, and repressive and racist policies have gained ground. The challenge today is to wage effective, broad-based struggles for immediate gains that can help end the retreat and inspire working people with new hope and confidence.

This will be achieved not through deals with capitalist parties but through independent struggles that can shift the relationship of forces. Such struggles can open the possibility of challenging capitalist rule and establishing a government of working people and the oppressed that can abolish capitalism.

There is no way to foresee what issues and struggles will spark such a movement. However, we can already identify central themes of a socialist agenda in Canada as the capitalist crisis unfolds:

  1. No government handouts to capitalist profiteers. Governments should take control of imperilled enterprises as a basis for planned economic recovery and ecological protection. The environmentally and socially destructive Alberta tar sands must be shut down, with full protection of displaced workers’ livelihoods.

  2. Protect the victims of capitalism’s crisis through support to the unemployed, education and retraining opportunities for displaced workers, and improvements to other social programs. Raise minimum wages and social assistance rates.

  3. Focus government “stimulus” spending on education, health care, social services, social housing and ecology infrastructure. Decent homes for all. Draw the entire population into a democratically planned transition to an ecologically sound and sustainable economy.

  4. Abolish restrictive anti-labour legislation and protect striking workers from replacement or dismissal. Adopt new laws to assist workers in joining trade unions and achieving collective agreements.

  5. Take action to assist victims of racial and national oppression. Defend all victims of gender-based oppression. End restrictions on immigration and grant full legal rights to all residents of Canada. End violations of civil liberties and human rights enacted as part of a phoney “war on terror.”

  6. Take emergency action to eliminate the calamitous social and economic conditions forced on Indigenous peoples by Canadian colonialism. Unconditional support for Indigenous sovereignty and the fight for an end to Canadian colonialism. (See Mike Krebs, For the Land, PDF)

  7. Self-determination and sovereignty for Quebec.

  8. Oppose Canadian imperialism. End Canada’s war in Afghanistan and its support to the Israeli-led genocide against the Palestinians. For boycott, divestment and sanctions against the apartheid Israeli state.

  9. Cancel the Third World debt, and cancel pro-imperialist trade treaties. Make Canadian technological and resources available to help break the cycle of imperialist-imposed poverty.

  10. Support freedom struggles around the world, including the initiatives of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and their partners in the ALBA alliance to build an alternative to neoliberal devastation.

  11. Press labour and its allies, including the NDP, to break with the capitalist ruling class and enter onto a road of struggle for a workers’ and farmers’ government.

The road ahead

The goals outlined here are not unique to Socialist Voice — they are shared by others in Canada and abroad. They grow out of the underlying need for revolutionary socialists to find each other, voice their views, collabourate and give life to their ideas through joint commitment to today’s struggles. Promoting this objective is the purpose of Socialist Voice. In this way, we seek to advance the goal of creating an inclusive and effective organisation of struggle for revolutionary socialism.

We aim to join forces with the many activists in labour and anti-imperialist movements who seek an independent path of struggle by working people and the oppressed. It is through such struggles that our proposals will be sounded, tested, and proven.

Footnotes

[1] For a perceptive analysis of this turn, see John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, “Financial Implosion and Stagnation: Back to the Real Economy,” Monthly Review, http://www.monthlyreview.org/081201foster-magdoff.php.

[2] Adam Hanieh, “Making the World’s Poor Pay: The Economic Crisis and the Global South,” Socialist Voice, http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=347.

[3] See Richard Fidler, “Political Crisis Exposes Canada’s National, Class Divisions,” Socialist Voice, www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=354.

[4] See Kole Kilibarda, “Solidarity with Palestine: Crisis Responses and Movement Building,” Bullet, www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/bullet176.html.

[5] See Paul Kellogg. “The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. Dawn of an Alternative to Neoliberalism?” Socialist Voice, http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=107.

[6] See Paul Kellogg, “The NDP, The Coalition, and the War,” Socialist Voice, http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=361

[7] For fuller analysis of the coalition project, see

[Roger Annis and John Riddell are editor's of Socialist Voice in Canada, where this article first appeared.]

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