If you remember my posts a couple of months back about some of Robert Paul Wolff’s old books on anarchism, you remember my basic conclusion. There is no way that an apparatus of the size and complexity of a modern state can truly represent your individuality as a person without making that individuality disappear. In that sense, there is no way that a state can be a politically legitimate form of governance.
However, I also believe institutions like the state are pragmatically necessary. The human economy — our technological processes of production and flow of capital and materials around the world at a terrifyingly fast pace and enormous scale — dwarfs, crushes, and grinds into a fine paste any anarchistic community that could sustain genuine democratic legitimacy in governance. To protect ourselves from enormous industry, we need huge bulwarks. States are generally awful for all sorts of reasons, but they’re the closest things to actual protection we get from these overwhelming capital forces.
Of course, this perspective only means that I become even more irritated with the fantastically shitty job they’ve done of protecting us from unfettered capital and material flows. In Hamilton, I live in the shadow of a dying steel and manufacturing industry, and one of my country Canada’s most successful companies is Dollarama, the mega-discount store where virtually nothing costs more than $4, a huge percentage of the goods are made in Asia under sweatshop conditions, and the staff are paid so poorly that they can only just afford to shop there. However well-off Canada’s population may be compared to the rest of the world, life here isn’t exactly free from the problems of economic inequality.
|Thomas Piketty's book has exploded in the mainstream
press since it's launch this month, and he's become so
prominent a spokesperson for modern left perspectives
that reporters have found old allegations of domestic abuse
One of latest books of economics to catch popular fire this year is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a vastly detailed and comprehensive study of how the inheritance of fortunes in capitalist contexts results in major increases in inequality over time. The rich get richer and the poor either get poorer or stay about where they are while the rich’s trust fund brats get continually richer off capital gains of their parents’ estates. Wolff’s blog also gives a detailed examination of the book, which you can read in these links, as they’re quite illuminating. Piketty himself has engendered vitriol from the right saying he's a communist, and from the left saying he's a bourgeois propagandist. If the popularity of this book, and the controversy it engenders, means anything, it’s that economic justice has become a central issue of our time.
Now that it’s election season in Ontario at the provincial level, I hoped that we would at least see some gripping political discussion of the economic and social issues that face our society. No such luck, as the three major parties of Ontario (and the Greens) sputter the usual platitudes. Knowing the vibrant discussions and debates of the millennial political left, the strength of the Idle No More protest movement in southern Ontario being a particularly powerful source for new ecological ideas, I at least hoped the New Democrats would channel some of this energy and these ideas into policy proposals, especially since they were the ones who prompted the election through their refusal to support even an amended version of the Liberal budget under Kathleen Wynne. They've had no problem negotiating and amending Liberal party budgets for the last two years, and achieved the incremental progress that can be expected from most political organizing and negotiations anyway. According to the CBC’s Political Compass survey, at least, the NDP is the only provincial party that overlaps with any of my general political principles at all, even if the Horwath NDP is at the far right border of my political smear on their map.* After all, I'm still a member of the NDP, so I'd hope that I could at least justify voting for them.
* If the CBC’s survey had included any more foundational matters of political philosophy instead of directly relating each question to a specific policy point, I would probably have no overlap with the major parties at all on this map. I also seem to have a curious sympathy with the Hudak Conservatives on nuclear power policy — Thorium plants for all!
I can understand Andrea Horwath’s ambition. The 2011 election saw Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals win a government with one seat shy of a majority, and their first task, instead of tactfully and constructively coalition building with his most likely partner (the NDP), he began bribing members of the other parties with high-paying bureaucratic appointments so he could take their seats in by-elections. The following three years of by-elections saw the Liberal plurality slip from 53 to 48, entirely to the benefit of the NDP’s seat count. Given that, I can see why Horwath would think momentum is behind her.
|Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath on the campaign trail.
I don't know what she's thinking.
But her campaign policies include the kind of ridiculous populism that Rob Ford rode to the mayoralty of Toronto four years ago. I've read some very strong critiques of the New Democrats as no longer compatible with truly progressive politics because they've become too deeply entwined in institutional and establishment thinking. Yet Horwath seems to have embarked on a new kind of crazy. Her plan for a universal Hydro credit is utterly unaffordable (we’d all be much better off with Thorium plants), and she’s even using memes like stopping the gravy train and supporting job creators. That is a notion straight from the far-right conservative media think tanks of American politics.
Anyone with a decent knowledge of economics — especially one who would call herself a social democrat — knows that business owners, although they sign the paychecks and give you your tax slips every winter, aren’t actually job creators. The force that creates jobs is the buying power of middle and lower class citizens who purchase the goods and services of their community’s businesses. The motive force of capital flow are consumers — the people! — not owners. Yet the leader of Ontario’s New Democratic Party is talking about supporting job creators as if Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz were writing her speeches. Even the Toronto Star is shaking its head in dismay. I have no idea what the Horwath campaign is thinking.
So yes, I believe that the state is inherently illegitimate, but because I think the state is pragmatically necessary as the best weapon we have to protect ourselves from being steamrolled by planet-sized capital and material flows, I still vote. As well, I get excited about watching elections the way some more sane people get excited about sports seasons. The mechanics of a campaign, the relationship between the sloganeering, the speeches, the underlying ideas, and the over-caffeinated drudgery of getting the vote out door by door is a beautiful sight. But for the first time in quite a large number of years, I don’t think I’ll be voting NDP. I live in Horwath’s district, so I’ll essentially have a protest vote. It’ll probably go to a fringe candidate. I haven’t decided which one yet.