Saturday, March 05, 2011

On goal-setting

Rick Salutin is partly right in describing the gap between the developing labour protests in North America with the ones that led to massive changes in decades past:
(L)abour’s high points in the past didn’t occur because unions thought they could help out progressive causes or buck up the GDP. Those were byproducts. The fuel was a moral convicition of the rightness of its own cause, as in its anthem, Solidarity Fovever: “It is we who ploughed the prairies, built the cities where they trade. . . Now we stand outcast and starving ’mid the wonders we have made/But the union makes us strong.”

That was heady stuff. It justified bold tactics and sacrifice because “we” workers, who created wealth, had seen it stolen by the owning class and doled back to us in meagre portions. “We” were creating a movement to reclaim our rightful inheritance, and that of all the dispossessed.

Canadian poet Milton Acorn wrote, “I have always treated the working class as kings in exile.” It was a moral myth (i.e., leaving aside how true it may be) that led to confidence and courage.

The current labour resurgence, so far, lacks that motivational grandeur. “No more givebacks,” “Don’t dilute our pensions,” “Save collective bargaining,” are all very defensible, but also defensive. They miss the urgent moral sense of justification in those earlier versions.

One component in the current crisis does have that moral intensity. It’s the widespread rage against the arrogant, greedy behaviour of big business and especially finance: the banksters and hedge fundies who demanded deregulation, peddled their useless monetary “devices” that brought on the apocalypse, then demanded a bailout, then more bailouts, while continuing to gobble bonuses and call for cutbacks in underfunded basics like education to pay for their own bailouts.

It’s revolting. It’s not even their original sins that elicit the disgust, it’s their subsequent graceless ingratitude. There’s some of the moral fury in reactions to this behaviour that was also found in the passion that fuelled the rise of labour in earlier eras.
Now, I'm in agreement that there's a need to harness the justified public outrage over the behaviour of the corporate sector toward greater ends. But the larger point seems to be that both of the parts of the current protests are largely oriented toward preserving something seen as a status quo from a policy perspective - whether it be the rights and benefits of union members and public employees, or the obligation of big business to contribute at least something considered its current fair share to the society which makes its profits possible.

What's lacking, though, is the sense that there are some realizable gains which are both consistent with the moral message, and within reach from a policy standpoint. Yes, there are some issues being discussed which have the potential (a guaranteed annual income, pharmacare and child care ranking high on the list) - but there's been precious little connection so far between the lack of contribution from those with the most, and the failure to make any progress for everybody else.

Of course, there are separate issues involved in trying to determine which issues to then present as the main goals of a movement. But even if we can't agree in advance on what to push, it's well worth placing a far greater emphasis on what a reasonable tax structure and labour policy would mean in terms of public benefits - and making the case that such changes are morally right as well as beneficial to voters.

[Edit: fixed typo.]

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