The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: March 2012

Observations on Canadian NDP leader Mulcair and the politics of class

Last weekend, the federal New Democratic Party (NDP) elected a new leader: Thomas Mulcair, an MP from Quebec, who was a minister in the provincial Liberal government there, before he resigned rather than open a park for development.

Mulcair was the front runner, and his victory was hardly a surprise.  Many NDPers thought that he would move to the center and would abandon left-wing principles in pursuit of power, and a number of key members of the prior leader’s team have left.

I had my doubts, but Mulcair has gone a long way to assuage them in just a week.  First, this, in his first day in Parliament:

Speaking to reporters afterward, he laid out his concerns for the state of the Canadian economy and accused the federal government of neglecting workers as it promotes the extraction of natural resources, mainly in Western Canada.

“That’s driven up the value of the Canadian dollar, made it more difficult to export our own goods. We’re killing our manufacturing sector,” he said. “The way the Conservatives are acting has had a devastating impact on good jobs with pensions.”

There was a lot of whining from Alberta about this statement, but it’s just a fact.  The classic Canadian economy was a mixed one, which combined resource extraction and manufacturing.  When manufacturing does well, resources generally don’t.  When resources do, manufacturing doesn’t.  In the old model this was considered a strength, since it meant that part of the economy was doing well, no matter what resource prices were.  And when one sector was up, it was meant to subsidize the other sector.

Resource booms always end.  Every single one.  The oil boom will end, the question is when.  If Canada doesn’t have a manufacturing sector left when the boom ends, we will become a basket case South American country.  And Alberta will become the new Maritimes (remember, the Maritimes was originally a resource boom area.)

Politically speaking, this is also smart, because the NDP just isn’t going to get a lot of MPS out of Alberta in specific or the Prairies in general.  If attacking the tar sands, and calling for Canada to add value to resources before shipping them out of the country costs votes there, so be it.  The battleground is not Alberta.  Alberta went all in with the Conservatives, and they have to live with that.  There’s no point in pandering to Albertans, it would take a huge shift in voting to gain many more seats.

The places in play are the Maritimes and Ontario, and it is there that the election will be won or lost.  It is Ontario which has been losing its manufacturing due to the high dollar, and the Maritimes has been treated shoddily by the Conservatives as well.  So on both politics and economics Mulcair’s stance is a good one, which appeals to the regions where the NDP can make gains and pisses of people who would never vote NDP anyway.

Then there was this, yesterday, when the Tory austerity budget was unveiled:

“The Conservatives have caused the problem by gutting the fiscal capacity of the government,” Thomas Mulcair, the newly crowned NDP leader, said Wednesday.

“Now they’re saying, oh, gee whiz, no more fiscal capacity in the government, we know what we’ll do, we’ll start cutting the services of the government.”

Oh my, pointing out the obvious.  Conservative tax cuts and reckless spending caused the defict.  But tax cuts for rich people are sacrosanct, so old folks will have to wait till 67 to retire.

And this:

“Everything indicates the Conservative budget will be synonymous with cutbacks and job losses. A few months ago, the Prime Minister promised textually, in this House, that he would not touch pensions, would not cut health transfers to the provinces, would not touch services to the population?” Mr. Mulcair said. “Will the Prime Minister live up to his word, or will he break his promise?”

And then, Harper cut pensions and cut health transfer to the provinces.

Ouch.  That had to smart.

Yeah, I’m liking Mulcair.

One of the things which has distressed me most about the West is that no one on the left has really been willing to hammer the politics of class.  Mulcair, who has also hit inequality, shows some signs of doing so.  It is conventional wisdom that tax increases won’t fly, but the polling data doesn’t support that, at least not if you want to tax the rich and make that clear.  Heck, if even Globe and Mail readers (the primary business newspaper in Canada) want tax increases and more spending, I think we can conclude that it’ll fly (yes, I’m aware of the limitations of that particular poll).  But even the upper middle and lower upper class think that the true rich should pay their share.  Coming out of Quebec, which is somewhat insulated from the political culture of the rest of North America, Mulcair seems willing to play class politics, and seems to know how to do so.

So far, so good.  And as for the budget, Prime Minister Harper isn’t going to get the cuts he wants from the public service without causing great pain.  Nor is cutting other forms of spending going to help the economy.  Harper better get down on his knees and pray to God that there isn’t a major downturn in China, because he’s betting everything on resource prices.  If they crumble, the Canadian economy will go with them.  And so will Harper’s job.

This is opposition politics 101: whatever the government does, you oppose. If Harper’s bet on the resource economy works, then the Conservatives will get another term.  If it doesn’t, the NDP needs to be seen as the party which opposed his policies.  Mulcair is positioning them for that, and doing so in a way which allow him, if he gets in power, to put in place policies which will reward the constituencies he needs to win—everyone not attached to the oil teat.

It is in blood that empires, like humans, are born, it is in blood that they die (reprint)

Photo by Chris Hondros, RIP

I think we all remember the year before the Iraq war, the drumbeat of propaganda, the horrible certainty that nothing we could do would stop George Bush’s messianic belief that he must have a war with Iraq because he was ordained by God, and all the great presidents were war presidents. We argued at the time that there is no decision a politician can make which he or she should think on harder than going to war.

The reason should be obvious. In war bad things happen. Wars are always sold as if they are going to be brief, as if only the “bad guys” will be killed, as if “precision munitions” have made horrors a thing of the past. They are sold as easy, and glorious. And they almost never are. War is the archetype of “rubber hits the road”, of a situation you can’t control. They have a way of turning into messes we never intended.

World War I was supposed to be brief. So was the Iraq war. A quick march in, lots of flowers, rework Iraq into a libertarian paradise by applying Republican economic and social dogma, then on to Tehran!

We could run through the numbers of dead, of maimed, of orphaned, but I think this story from the San Antonio Express-News speaks more directly to what happens in war. Some time ago some US soldiers raped an Iraqi girl repeatedly, then tried to conceal the crime by burning the corpse and killing her family.

Iraqis were outraged, and later some soldiers were captured. And for four months they were tortured. The antiseptic language in the article is somehow worse than saying it outright: “foot bones detached from commingled remains of Fouty and Jimenez, and finger bones wrapped in a blanket. Part of a pair of handcuffs was found.” And a broken nose that had healed.

The men were kept alive, in other words, and tortured. They were probably cut up while still alive.

You can’t control war. Even the best disciplined army in the world (and the American is not even close to being that) will kill people it shouldn’t. Rapes will occur, they do in every war. Brutality and torture are almost certain to occur, even if the army tries to avoid it, rather than institutionalizing it. War, by its nature, requires making the enemy into something less than human, so you don’t mind shooting them. It almost always spills over onto the locals, who likewise are viewed as animals by occupiers or invaders and treated as such by many of them.

War, then, is hell. This isn’t news, everyone knows it. But as with most of what everyone “knows” they don’t really get it, because most people don’t get things that have never effected them or people they love. And if you’re in Congress, well, with very few exceptions, no one you care about is going to fight, no one you know is going to risk their life and maybe even get captured and tortured. The same is true of most people serving in the administration.

That boy being tortured, that girl being raped. All the deaths, murder, rapes, torture, were inevitable. You go to war with the army you have, and the president you have, but even if Jimmy Carter had been in charge there would have been murder, rapes, torture—just less of them. But “less” doesn’t matter much when it’s your daughter who was raped repeatedly at gunpoint; your son who was cut into pieces over a period of months.

And so we come back to the heart of the war. We rarely talk about it anymore, but it’s simple enough. All those people who supported the war, and most especially all those who voted for it, bear the moral responsibility for the results of the war. At least 100,000 dead Iraqis (and probably closer to a million). 4,000 and rising dead US soldiers. Rape. Murder. Torture. Orphans who got to watch their parents being killed. Husbands who saw their wives die, or wives who watched their husbands gunned down or blown into bloody carrion. Families who have buried multiple children.

All because members of Congress didn’t care and because they were gutless. Because they though to themselves “I might have to face attack ads if I vote against this war.” Can you think of anything more weak, anything more pathetically evil, than to care more about your reelection than about thousands dying? Than about the certainty that from your vote will come rape and torture and murder?

And can you think of anything more pathetic, more redolent of bad judgment than to say “but I didn’t know. I trusted George Bush?”

As far as I am concerned most of Congress doesn’t just have blood on their hands, they are in it up to their chins. Their gutlessness, cupidity and selfishness is such that most of them, in a just world, would be preparing their defenses for a Nuremburg trial. They attacked a country which had not attacked the US, based on lies that were debunked at the time, for petty personal reasons of political ambition or cowardice.

We all know that won’t happen, but what I will tell you is this. Without the Iraq war, the financial crisis happening right now either wouldn’t be, or would be much less harsh. It is quite likely that Iraq is the last mistake of the American century and marks the end of America as a superpower.

This is only fitting. Those who have proven they cannot be trusted with power must have that power taken away. America had its chance, in 2004, to take that power away from the worst of its elites. It didn’t. For an outsider, whether the election was stolen in 2004 or not is irrelevant, all that matters was the lesson of the result—that Americans are no longer capable of disciplining their own elites.

American hegemony rose out of the ashes of WWII. World War II was an unprovoked war. Germany attacked those that did not threaten it. At Nuremburg Americans hung Nazis who had not been involved in the Holocaust, for no crime other than unprovoked war, declaring that it was a capital offense. Out of that war, and out of Nuremburg, America was born as the leader of the free world. Not just the mightiest, but the nation that said “never again”.

It is fitting then that an unprovoked war is what is bringing an end to America’s leadership of the free world, to its economic and military hegemony. Having done what it once condemned, having proven unwilling or unable to correct itself, America has reaped what it sowed.

Alas that a young man had to be chopped into bits; a young girl raped repeatedly, as part of the process—that hundreds of thousands had to be killed.

It is in blood that empires, like humans, are born.

It is in blood that they die.

(Originally posted October 5th, 2008)

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