There is the sound of champagne corks being popped and cheers in the streets. Everyone smiles at each other and winks, knowing that soon it will all be over. The hated burgermeister is falling and no one, except perhaps his family, will be sad to see him go. And he has been felled by none other than that champion of democracy, Toronto Police Chief William Blair.
Oh, wait a second. Bill Blair? The same Bill Blair who led the cops in their assault on G20 protesters a couple of years ago? The same Bill Blair who wheeled out props – a la the “Miami model” of protest disruption - and used “kettling” to corral not only peaceful demonstrators but unlucky passersby for hours without food or water? The same Bill Blair whose cops shot a man nine times on a streetcar before tasering him?
Something is rotten in Denmark.
I have watched the left go absolutely bananas with delight in the past week as the official right wing in Canada has imploded. Well, imploded is too strong a word, the game is hardly over for Harper as of this morning. And I’ve also been happy to see the vultures turn on each other. I mean, these guys are scumbags, lets face it. But it has been with growing trepidation.
At the federal level, Stephen Harper’s troubles have nothing to do with his murder of thousands of Afghans in support of NATO’s attempt to subdue that country. It has nothing to do with his shutdown of the national daycare plan that Paul Martin put in place to try and save his own skin, or his scuppering of the deal he made with first nations people. Nor does it have anything to do with his policy record of the past decade – his cuts to cultural funding, his government’s attacks on funding for international women’s organizations that support choice on abortion or domestic religious groups like KAIROS that support Palestinian rights. It has nothing to do with his unbridled support for big oil and their enthusiastic destruction of the environment of Alberta and, indeed, the whole world with the tar sands. Nothing to do with his support for fracking to recover natural gas. The list goes on as to the odious reasons why Harper should be unceremoniously turfed from office.
Not one of those reasons has come up. And the same can be said for Rob Ford. Ford privatized west end garbage collection, leading to a degradation in working conditions for sanitation workers, and worse service. He tried to close libraries and de-fund childcare subsidies for single parents and poor families. He has attacked cyclists and environmentalists. He shut down the much needed transit plan for the city to wage an ideological fight for subways vs LRTs.
No, the reason why Harper is in trouble is a stupid, piddling, little scandal – a couple of his senators took extra expenses – a time honoured tradition in Canada’s undemocratic chamber of “sober second thought” (oh, the delicious irony of that title as I watched Duffy roast Harper last week). His office then tried to head off the scandal by covering the expenses of Mike Duffy. Aboriginal people are living in conditions worse than the developing world on many reserves and working class people can’t afford daycare – and I care that Duffy took an extra $100K?
Sure, it is Harper’s famous arrogance and micromanagement that is bringing him down. And if he goes the way of Brian Mulroney 20 years ago I won’t shed a tear. But we all ought to remember how that celebration ended. The Tory party was destroyed, not by the left, but because it was so thoroughly rotten and hated by both left and right (the right because Mulroney supported concessions to Quebec viz Meech Lake Constitutional Accord). It gave the Liberals 4 terms in office under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin. And it gave Canada the harshest austerity regime in the western world under Paul Martin. The fact that it was not a shift to the left was also expressed in the fact that out of the ashes of the Tories arose an even more right wing party, Reform – whose ultimate victory was that they got to remove the words “progressive” from the “Progressive Conservative Party of Canada” (confirming that they are, in fact, against any progress). In Ontario the NDP was decimated for a generation (by their own right wing policies, it should be said) and replaced by the rabidly right wing Tories under Mike Harris.
Not that the present round of defenestrations will necessarily end the same way. But people need to sober up and take a look at who is putting in the knife and why. That will tell us a bit about why it is happening and why now.
In Toronto the city elite have always hated Rob Ford. Their horse was George Smitherman – a smooth, connected lawyer with right wing politics and a progressive gloss because he’s openly gay. He would have had an easier chance of maintaining consensus while implementing austerity. Ford is a bumbling, personally troubled, brash populist with few political skills beyond brawling and personal insults. His agenda is no different than Smitherman, except in the details (in particular his weird opposition to a transit plan that was supported by the Chamber of Commerce, because gridlock is a big, costly headache for Ontario capitalists). At first, after the election, the city elite reached out to Rob Ford and tried to work with him. Some media supported him, just as they had supported Mike Harris years earlier because sometimes a right wing populist can break the logjam of “business as usual” to put things on the “right track” by harnessing popular anger in a pro-capitalist direction.
But Ford was too erratic, too self-serving, too unable to build a coherent team with a coherent agenda to get through what is needed from the point of view of Toronto’s corporate elite. And they hate him because he’s a trashy, nouveau riche, petty bourgeois piss-tank who won’t play ball the way they want him to. He gets drunk in public and is rude to people. He hangs out with trash and thugs. He behaves in ways that remind them too much of the dirty unwashed masses. That’s why the focus of attacks on Rob Ford has almost always revolved around his personal behavior. Does anybody think that it’s an accident that the police released a photo of Rob Ford taking a piss in a public park? Jesus, I’ve taken a piss behind buildings more than once – because there’s no freaking public washrooms anywhere in the city. Or, horror of horror, Ford has to sneak around to buy drugs? Um, I don’t know if any of you have ever smoked pot but you don’t buy it at the corner store either (and for all we know it could have been pot that Lisi was dropping in Ford’s car – not that I particularly care). Is Rob Ford a hypocrite on these things? Would he attack drug users and homeless people who are forced to piss behind buildings? Of course he would but just because he’s an asshole doesn’t mean I have to be. Build more public washrooms for crying out loud. Decriminalize drug use.
It’s so blindingly obvious I can’t believe the left doesn’t see this. When I talk to working class people who aren’t leftists it’s obvious to them. They know that Rob Ford is being attacked because he looks and sounds like them – he has family problems and swears and drives an SUV and he drinks too much and has trouble keeping it together. Surprise, surprise, so do most working class people (not exactly that constellation of challenges but similar ones). That the left hops on board this attack uncritically and says, frankly, the snobbiest, most elitist crap in attacking Rob Ford does the left no favours. The right wing will win on this terrain. I saw people laughing at Rob Ford yelling at reporters who were at his house and wouldn’t get off his property yesterday. I hate Rob Ford but I was sympathetic to him to be honest. The media are vultures and I’d have lost my shit if I were him too. I don’t find public dismemberment of anyone a pleasure to watch and while the left might think it’s fun because he’s so odious you ought to remember: this isn’t about you, it’s about the confidence of ordinary people to take control of their lives. Public humiliation of Rob Ford in this way isn’t going to raise their confidence in themselves. It’s going to further cement the idea that only rich, slick and connected operators – like Smitherman – are fit to run the city and the country. Notice the different coverage of Smitherman's family challenges about a month ago - his husband disappeared on some kind of binge, part of a long term problem apparently, and the police were called in - to Ford's troubles. Nobody laughed at Smitherman (nor should they, not for that). That’s why this idea that “Ford Nation” are stupid or brainwashed because they continue to support their man is so odious to me. On this one thing they are right – this is a concerted attempt to oust their man by city elites (though they are wrong that it has anything to do with the left).
Or Karen Stintz. Does anybody think that it’s an accident that Ford’s legal dossier was leaked now? Does anybody think that it’s odd that the police – on the basis of a newspaper report with no physical evidence – put their top investigators on the case to nail Ford? Since when have the police followed a politician to reveal his personal foibles or cared about political corruption? I mean, they released a report that doesn’t demonstrate any proof of illegal activity on the part of Ford. If they had any proof they would have arrested him. This is about destroying Rob Ford while there is still enough lead-time before the next municipal elections to rebuild the right wing on city council. This is about giving Karen Stints – who, coincidentally, announced her candidacy last week – a clear shot for the mayoralty. Stintz is also a Tory but one who knows how to work with city capitalists and who saved the transit plan from Rob Ford. And she doesn’t get drunk in public.
I would argue that a similar process is under way at the federal level. Not that there is a conspiracy (I do think that there’s a conspiracy to destroy Rob Ford, by the way) but rather a sense of malaise amongst the elite at the effectiveness of Stephen Harper. Let’s face it, Harper never really represented more than a fraction of Canadian capitalists. But he was the best alternative on offer after the meltdown of the Liberals because of corruption and infighting. But now the Liberals have recovered and Justin Trudeau is a rising star – while Harper’s star is on the wane. Everybody prefers consensus. This is true of workers as much as it is of capitalists. That’s always been the power of the Liberals – to implement the ruling class agenda through consensus, whenever possible, rather than conflict. That’s why they are Canada’s “natural governing party.” The Tories are the fallback position for Canada’s capitalists (and workers, traditionally). With a recovered Liberal Party and people getting tired of Harper’s open Machiavellianism and not-so-hidden right wing extremism, it looks like there might just be an opportunity to restore the historic coalition that the Liberals represented. Harper is now discovering just how shallow his support was in most of the country.
Will any of this benefit the left? Let's be frank, the union movement has done zero to resist austerity (outside of a few pockets of heroic, sectional struggles). Ford privatized garbage collection and there was not even an information picket. There were a few demonstrations against Ford on an anti-austerity platform and the strike by library workers – that was quickly settled, wisely, by Ford’s people before it could become a focal point. But that’s it. The Occupy movement was great - but it was small (compared to the tasks) and short-lived. It never generalized into a sustained movement.
Since the decline of the anti-war movement there has been almost zero public opposition to Harper’s agenda. And, of course, the ever-craven federal NDP under the leadership of ex-Liberal Tom Mulcair, is rushing to prove that they are the new Liberal Party of Canada. We’ll see how that goes for them. Even in Quebec, the PQ, which benefited from the brilliant student movement has managed to turn the debate away from austerity and towards attacking Muslims.
These are, in short, challenging times. And the over-the-top celebrations by the left at the predicaments of Ford and Harper is a sign of desperation. We’ll take any crumbs of hope that fall from the table. Sure, it’s true that splits in the ruling class can be to our benefit but it would be silly to think that the ruling class is split in Toronto. They are united in wanting Ford out – Blair is simply fronting for them. I expect that Ford will be getting some phone calls to offer him a cushy parachute if he jumps now along with a reprieve from criminal charges. The particular madness that is Alberta politics is, of course, always a problem for Canadian capitalists but when the Toronto Sun comes out for Harper’s neck don’t kid yourself that there isn’t a growing consensus at the national level.
So, the left shouldn’t pretend that this defenestration has anything to do with us or with workers or social programs or any of that good stuff. This is a night of the long knives, a ruling class drama that is entertaining, perhaps, but will do little to strengthen the ability of our side to take back that which was taken from us. And, in the case of Ford, the snobbery can actually damage our side’s confidence.