Thursday, 29 November 2012

Inequality, Democracy and Trade Unions

Over the past year or so the public finally discovered that inequality of income and wealth in Canada and the United States has been steadily increasing. The short-lived Occupy Movement had one lasting impact: they had little trouble convincing the general population that the top 1% of our societies included the people who actually make the major decisions on political and economic matters.

Given the fact that the mainstream media has been in the back pocket of the 1% for a great many years, and our political leaders have all embraced the neoliberal agenda, it is interesting to discover that a majority of citizens still feel that rising inequality is an affront to democracy and steps should be taken to correct the problem. Public opinion polls even indicate that the majority is willing to accept an increase in taxes.

For those who want to seriously look at this issue, I highly recommend reading and studying Gregg Olson’s Power and Inequality: A Comparative Introduction. Olson is a professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba and has written extensively on the welfare state.

From egalitarian democracy to hierarchy and inequality

For around 90% of our existence, human beings lived in small groups, where the prevailing culture stressed collective, egalitarian values. These democratic societies were based on the concept of intrinsic equality – the right to existence with material and cultural support simply because we are human beings and residents of a community.

This changed with the development of agriculture and sedentary living. The creation of an economic surplus permitted the development of structured inequality based on castes, slavery,  class systems, gender, race/ethnicity, age and ability. Privilege was usually inherited.

As the Chinese philosopher Mencius wrote: “Those who are ruled produce the food. Those who rule are fed.” Western political philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, so revered in North America, did their best to produce political theories to justify inequality and hierarchy and denigrate democracy.

The rise of capitalism and liberalism
With the development of industrial capitalism, beginning in the 18th century, we have the solidification of society based on hierarchical divisions of social class. In all capitalist societies we have the capitalist class at the top (among the 1%), the owners of the large productive assets. As sociologist Max Weber stressed, they are supported by a strata of the “propertyless upper class,” top managers and administrators who are very well paid. The third class is the petit bourgeoisie, small scale property owners and those professionals capable of making a living with their own skills. At the bottom is the majority who are the working class, those who do not own the means of production but are required to sell their manual and mental labour to survive.

Capitalism brought with it the political philosophy of liberalism and individualism. This new world system is based on competition among individuals and among private businesses. Classic liberalism, viewed in a Herbert Spencer/social Darwinian manner, is the survival of the fittest with the winner taking all.

While we identify liberalism with basic political rights and liberties against state oppression, the most basic right is deemed to be the right to own private property. Thus, the early liberals forming constitutions and establishing liberal democratic representative governments limited political rights to men who own property. While more recent liberal ideology has argued for “equality of opportunity,” the followers of Adam Smith have been strongly opposed to any taxation system that redistributes income and wealth from rich to poor, and this includes inheritance taxes. The reality, of course, is that human beings are who they are largely because of the accident of birth. Should a person be condemned to a short life with hardship because of a basic condition over which they had absolutely no control?

Thus the democratic movement against liberalism has historically insisted that all human beings have an equal value and communities must provide basic supports necessary for a life of well being. As Olsen points out, the equality of outcome requires “a greater sense of community, solidarity, co-operation, and self-fulfillment beyond that of only individual gratification.”

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Which Road for the Saskatchewan NDP?

Act Up in Saskatchewan 
Friday, 16 November 2012

The campaign for the new leader of the Saskatchewan NDP takes off this Saturday in Regina with the first public debate among the four candidates. There are thirteen debates scheduled between November 17 and February 16, 2013. This will allow NDP members and others to see the differences between the candidates. The leadership convention is scheduled for the weekend of March 9, 2013 in Saskatoon.

As everyone knows, the provincial NDP is in dire straits at this time. Their support among voters has dropped from 275,000 in 1991 to only 127,000 in 2011. Their membership has dropped from 46,000 in 1991 to around 8,000 today. The turnout at elections has dropped from 75% of eligible voters in 1991 to only 50% in 2011. The provincial Liberal Party has all but disappeared, which means that the NDP will likely have to win close to 51% of the vote to once again form the government. They now face Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party whose government has had an approval rating of 70% in recent public opinion polls.

The leadership candidates
The four leadership candidates are all young white men. Trent Wotherspoon, the MLA from Regina-Rosemont, appears to have the most support at this time. However, he was a strong supporter of bringing Dwaine Lingenfelter back to lead the party in 2009, and this proved to be an absolute disaster.

Cam Broten, the MLA from Saskatoon Massey Place, supported Deb Higgins for leader in 2009. Higgins had been a cabinet minister in Lorne Calvert’s NDP government but finished last in the leadership race. Because of their status as Members of the Legislative Assembly, these two candidates are the best known among party members. But because they are closely identified with the present NDP caucus, they are seen to be less likely to lead the party in a new direction.

The third candidate is Ryan Meili, a doctor and social justice activist from Saskatoon. He contested the leadership against Dwaine Lingenfelter in 2009 and finished second with 45% of the vote. He appears to have the support of many of the traditional “left” within the provincial party.

The youngest candidate is Erin Weir, an economist who has taken leave from his job with the United Steelworkers Union and the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa. He also spent 2010-11 with the International Trade Union Confederation in Europe. He has some public recognition from his appearances in the television media representing the political left.