Aiding and Abetting Austerity: The Social Democratic Rhetoric of Retreat

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Aiding and Abetting Austerity: The Social Democratic Rhetoric of Retreat

(Photo: Michael Laxer/rabble.ca

After the total disaster of the Ontario NDP's "pocketbook populism" provincial 2014 campaign that sought, allegedly, to attract new voters by seeming to try to mimic the tone (if not exactly the content) of Tories (a strategy that was one of the most appalling failures of the inherently elitist attempt to politically pander to where what a group of backroom strategists think the "public" are in recent memory), one would have thought that the "mainstream" left in Ontario and Toronto would rethink its embrace of the rhetorical and ideological underpinnings of austerity. 

Sadly that does not seem to be the case.

One need only look to the so far rather lacklustre Olivia Chow campaign for Mayor in Toronto, which, one might note, is also, and not terribly surprisingly,  losing ground in popular support and going from what seemed a sure thing to an election that is now very much in doubt, to see that social democrats seemingly remain beholden to the idea that they must embrace the language and tone of austerity that is better left to their right-wing opponents.

That the right is onside with austerity is neither surprising nor interesting. One version or another of austerity, varying in degree, is the basis of all "liberal" and conservative economic theory and policy for the past generation of capitalist retrenchment. In fact, unlike the left, the right has been rather good at actually sticking to ideological messages and ideas, even when at first unpopular, and the Canadian left has learned entirely the wrong lesson from this. 

Instead of attempting to shift the debate away from austerity on to our own terms, we have allowed the basic ideas of austerity to permeate the ideological "vision" of the left. 

On Olivia Chow's website itself, for example, one finds, among so many other cases:

"As our new Mayor she'll create jobs by supporting small business and working with key industries while minding the public purse."

This is hardly, if at all, distinguishable from what would be said by any right-wing politician. 

And even when entirely correctly supporting an LRT in Scarborough as opposed to a subway, it is again framed in terms that are as much or more about "protecting the public purse" and preventing "tax hikes" as they are about providing better and more transit infrastructure for neighbourhoods that desperately need it.

Hence: "Rob Ford's underground is a billion-dollar, 30-year tax hike. Plus all the costs yet to come. And it is at least $30 million more a year to operate. That will cost jobs and cost families. I will mind the public purse and deliver better transit faster."

Yet, the irony, of course, is that we need "tax hikes" to actually "protect the public purse" as it is due to tax cuts that the purse is so easily framed as empty!

The language matters because that is what forms the basis of our present austerity hegemony. Hegemony is an ideological consensus that has become so ingrained that its dialogue is reflexive and unthinking to the extent that many reinforce it without even believing that they are doing so.

The problem with using the rhetoric of "fiscal responsibility," "living within our means" and the total fiction that managing the budget of a government is remotely akin to that of managing a household budget or the budget of an organization or company, is that this is one of the basic underpinnings of austerity as an alleged economic imperative.

Claiming that there is actually a need to be "fiscally responsible" is the very basis of austerity. It is the basic falsehood from which austerity flows and upon which austerity's proponents depend. 

The austerity agenda is in large part the false idea that government has a spending problem as opposed to a revenue problem. That, despite the tremendous wealth of our society, corporations and economic elite, we somehow cannot afford to do anything of any consequence publicly and collectively as a society and that we must continuously fixate on fiscal management when it comes to government.

The fact is, although never acknowledged, that it is solely and entirely the result of successive rounds of personal tax cuts (and not just for the wealthy) that we have a "spending problem" at all. 

As Alex Himelfarb put it, "Austerity is not simply the consequence of constant tax cuts, it's their purpose." The "fiscal reality," in other words, of accepting the right-wing logic of maintaining tax cuts by agreeing that government has severe fiscal limitations on what it can ever hope to achieve, is austerity.

Austerity, cutbacks and retreat are the inevitable outcome of accepting the premise that our government, as Kathleen Wynne put it in regards to  public sector worker salaries, has "no money" to entertain policies like public sector pay raises.

This is absurd, but is accepted not only by "public purse" fixated campaigns like Chow's, but also by notions like that raised by Horwath during the provincial election like "You don't expect to see your tax dollars wasted ... In the real world, you're adding up every bill at the kitchen table to see if you can squeeze out some savings."

Yet in the "real world" the fiscal restraints of people and government have absolutely no correlation and  by pretending they do we hurt the political aims of both.

The vast majority of people will get far more out of the taxes they pay than what they put into them, a fact that bears no relation at all to these simplistic, pseudo-folksy and originally right-wing ideas. Free or affordable tuition, daycare, pharmacare, transit and countless other re-distributive programs can never and will never happen as long as we continue to embrace or tacitly accept the neoliberal program of tax and spending cuts.

To achieve even mild versions of these programs, taxes must go up.

But, further, the basic premise that a government must be run like a household or a public or private sector organization is false.

Households and organizations do not, in many cases, have any real control over their "revenue," whereas governments do. The analogy would only be correct if we assume that most people or groups would actually chose to make make do with less, as our governments have, and then frame this as a "necessity." This is an assumption that is obviously false but is constantly reinforced by the rhetoric and logic of austerity politicians right and left.

Successive governments have intentionally lowered the revenue and "income" available to them and have then claimed a fiscal "crisis" and a "spending problem" where none exists. If one were to actually compare it to a household, it would only be equatable to one where they had actually decided to earn less and less money, year after year, and then accordingly discovered they now had less money to spend and had to pinch pennies.

There is little doubt that if we give up the revenue and ability to create meaningful programs, stimulus and infrastructure, we will not have the money to do these things!

There is something of an entrenched mythology within the "social democratic" left in Canada that you can somehow, presumably by positive thinking and goodwill, achieve policies and changes that you are not only not advocating for in the "real world" of actual electoral politics, but also while you are mimicking the rhetoric of the right.

To say that this has not worked out in practice would be a profound understatement. The lie that getting elected is anything even remotely akin to having the "power" to do anything of any consequence has been shown to be what it is.

One need only contrast the political impact of one genuine socialist getting elected in Seattle with the complete fiasco of a far greater number of Ontario New Democrats "holding the balance of power" and squandering it supporting austerity and pandering to right-wing mythologies, to see that the importance of "principle" is not at all abstract.

The language we use to get elected directly impacts the outcome even if we do succeed. It matters. A "left wing" or "progressive" candidate for office who runs on the assumption that we must work within and limit our actions to an ideological construct created by the right and corporations will, once in "power," do exactly what one would expect... which is basically nothing when it comes to poverty, inequality, worker's rights or social justice.

We can be assured of this also by recent "real world" experience of actually elected social democrats, from Manitoba to Nova Scotia (and from which we never seem to chose to learn), that shows that without principle achieving power achieves little else than the perks, titles, big salaries and sowing of disillusion that flow from the fixation of those who wish to be elected upon power for themselves.

Accepting the basic ideas of austerity and tax cuts are simply a given for them. A way station on the track to "winning" office.

Michael Laxer

Michael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. Michael has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, was a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2010 and is on the executive of the newly formed Socialist Party of Ontario.

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