Spirit of Quebec takes over Toronto streets

By Peter Hogarth

Casseroles night in Canada as it has been popularly referred, kicked off in Toronto on Wednesday May 30. All over the city, on porches and street corners; in small groups and large; people came together in their red with their kitchen noise-makers to show support for the Quebec students’ fight against austerity.

In Dufferin Grove park, just before 8:00pm a diverse group of people of all ages began to gather and gently bang on their pots and pans. As the crowd began to grow, the enthusiasm swelled and the crowd started to march behind a giant banner reading “solidarity against austerity.”

The crowd, at its height, was well over 2,000 people strong and took over the streets, imposing a march route on the small police contingent there. The pots and pans clanged for hours and home-made signs reading “support accessible education,” “make the rich pay,” “I hate law 78” and “don’t pepper spray us” were on display next to union flags and red felt squares.

The demonstration went well into the night. Several times when it seemed like the march was about to wind down, the pans began to clang and streets were overrun with jovial protestors reveling in the freedom of proudly supporting a movement that has gone beyond a mere fight to stop tuition fee increases.

After more than 100 days on strike, the imposition of the repressive anti-protest Law 78 and the incredible determination of the Quebec students, the movement is no longer a student movement, but a social movement.

It is a fight against austerity; a strong declaration that “we won’t pay for their crisis;” it is solidarity between Quebec and English Canada; it is an echo of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement; it is a call for students across Canada to fight for better education; a call to workers to strike back and say no concessions and it is so much more.

But most importantly, it is a spark and inspiration. And for the ruling class, in Canada and around the world, it is the threat of a good example. The Quebec student movement has shown to workers across Canada that you can vote down a bad deal and you can defy injunctions.

The solidarity demonstrations organized across the world are a reflection of that sentiment. Its our job to generalize that sentiment and take it with us to our workplaces, communities and everywhere people are facing down austerity.

Picture courtesy of Occupy Canada

Workers at CP get railroaded

By Andrew Stevens and Doug Nesbitt (republished from rankandfile.ca)

On May 23, 4800 CP Rail workers went on strike after giving a 72-hour strike notice on May 19. The workers, represented by the Teamsters Rail Conference of Canada, had voted 95 percent in favour of a strike on April 27.

The major issue is pensions, but there are also other areas of dispute such as fatigue management and workplace safety. The company is seeking to devalue existing pensions by 40 percent in a move that would affect both new hires and long-time CP workers who have paid into the company pension plan for years.

Minister of Labour, Lisa Raitt, invited both the union and company representatives to a joint meeting in Ottawa on May 22, with the hope of avoiding a strike. At best, the government’s attempt at fostering a dialogue between the two parties paid lip service to tripartite negotiations. In her meeting with the union the day before the strike, Raitt made no mention of intervention, prompting the union to issue a press release stating:

“Brother [TCRC Vice President Doug] Finnson has reported that the Minister is keenly interested in the progress of our bargaining but at this time she will not be interfering with the process. The rest of our bargaining committee are now arranging to convene in Ottawa to continue bargaining with the Company.” (source)

Just after midnight on May 23 the union went on strike and in less than a day, Minister Raitt was already threatening back-to-work legislation.

As with back-to-work legislation against Air Canada baggage handlers, mechanics, ground crew and pilots in March, Raitt cited the “economy” as her justification to intervene. While making such threats, she still claimed to support a “freely” established agreement between CP Rail and the union. After threats and the imposition of back-to-work legislation against four separate unions representing Air Canada workers between June 2011 and March 2012, CP Rail is now the second privately-owned company to witness back-to-work legislation threats since the Tories were elected on May 2, 2011. Historically, back-to-work legislation has almost exclusively been used against public sector strikes at the provincial and federal level. The Conservative’s use of this regressive legislation in private sector negotiations – and in the case of Air Canada, even before the outbreak of a strike – indicates that the government is committed to breaking the convention of fair and free collective bargaining in Canada’s industrial relations system.

For the rest of the article, including audio files, go here.

The fight for queer liberation

The role of the family and expressions of gender and sexuality seem to be deeply-rooted and part of our inherent nature as people, but these are all socially constructed and have changed over time.

For most of human history, nobody considered there to be any such distinction between people as lesbian, gay, bisexual or straight. People participated in sexual relationships without having these activities define them. In fact, even though “sodomy” was illegal in much of Europe from the sixteenth century onward, it referred to any non-procreative sex: masturbation, oral and anal sex, and bestiality. This meant that anyone could be guilty of the crime—men and women—whether they had sex with someone of the same sex or not. And while the punishments for such crimes were harsh, these laws were rarely enforced.

In his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884, Friedrich Engels compared various societies, including ancient Greece and Rome as well as the Iroquois of North America. Based upon the earliest anthropological studies, there are some flaws in his work but his thesis—that sexuality changes over time and varies across cultures—remains true. He showed that changes in the family and sexuality were connected to the wider development of society.

The creation of the notion of monogamy is a perfect example. For most of human history, children were raised communally and therefore it didn’t matter who the father of any given child was, as all were cared for equally. But with the advent of private property a shift occurred. A man with wealth would want his children to inherit it but if his wife was unfaithful then any “illegitimate” children would take a share of the property from the rightful heirs. A result of wider structures in society was the creation of sexual morality where none existed before.

Capitalism

During the transition from feudal to capitalist society in England, young men and women were moving to London in droves to look for work. They found themselves free from the constraints of their families and villages, with new social opportunities available to them. Instead of working their family farms they were working for wages and for the first time they discovered they could have a private life. One product of this was sexual relationships between men and between women, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century a “gay” subculture began to emerge. Some men even began to justify their sexual desires. While on trial for sodomy in 1726, William Brown told the court, “I think there’s no crime in making what use I please of my own body.”

As capitalism developed, leading intellectuals of the day denounced attacks on people’s sexuality through sodomy charges and these repressive laws began to be stricken from the books. In France, after the French Revolution, sodomy laws were abolished in 1791 and sex between men and between women was completely legalized in 1804. Capitalism and the Enlightenment promised a rational and tolerant approach to sexuality yet the opposite was soon to be true.

In England, the Industrial Revolution saw millions of people flooding the cities looking for work in mines and factories. There was massive over-crowding, resulting in horrible living conditions. Economic upheavals sometimes left men at home to mind children while women went out to work.

In middle class families, where values of respectability and sexual restraint abounded, men went out to work while women and children stayed at home. This class associated open sexuality and a lack of respectability with social disorder in general—leading perhaps to revolution. They were also worried the economy, and thereby their own wealth, would suffer if many workers continued to die in their teens because of poor food and housing, or lack of care at home.

In the second half of the nineteenth century such arguments won over the ruling class and minimal restraints were imposed on capitalism in the hope of ensuring the long-term survival of the system. The family was a key part of this strategy. Women were excluded from some paid work—such as in mines—and children from most of it. The sick and the old were to be looked after in respectable, working class homes—without costing the state any money.

The Victorian promotion of the family involved attacks on any kind of sexuality outside of this norm. Prostitution, which was common at this time, faced new legal sanctions. Doctors were obsessed with stopping children from masturbating. Sex between men and between women also faced attacks. All sex between men was criminalized in Britain in 1885—up until then only anal sex had been illegal. A similar law covered all of Germany after 1871.

However, as early as 1864 a German campaigner called Karl Heinrich Ulrichs opposed such laws. He argued that men had sex with other men because they were part of a minority of human beings born that way and that therefore it was wrong to punish them for doing something that was in their nature.

Such arguments were taken up by liberal doctors and psychiatrists. They classified many different sexual behaviours, with “the homosexual” being one such category. Some doctors used this new idea in courts, giving evidence that prevented people from being jailed for their sexual behaviour. Some doctors who wrote about homosexuality also received hundreds of letters from people who felt this idea explained their lives. In this way the idea and the reality of homosexuality developed—first among middle class people with access to medical writings, then among workers as well. Heterosexuals and bisexuals were defined later.

The struggle today

Today, the family continues to be extremely important to capitalist society. Governments save billions of dollars each year because children, sick and elderly people are looked after for free within the family—often by women. The family is also important ideologically, with Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats all championing respectable “hard-working families” just as their Victorian forebears did.

But there have also been huge changes in the last 40 years. Women and LGBT people have fought for liberation, and made significant gains in formal legal equality when it comes to issues concerning employment, housing and health care—even marriage.

Now the dominant idea is that sex should underpin the loving relationships on which families are based. Sex, gay or straight, has become to some extent acceptable and it has entered the mainstream—pornography is big business, and sex is used to sell everything from magazines to cars. But this is a limited and contradictory advance when cultural expressions of sexuality are just a money-making caricature of real sex between real human beings.

And LGBT people continue to be oppressed—facing violence, abuse, discrimination, bullying in school and under-representation in the media—with advances for transgender people lagging far behind those for gays and lesbians. There is also no guarantee that things will continue to improve.

We need to continue fighting for LGBT freedom and a truly liberated sexuality. We need a society where people can decide how they want to live, not struggle to hold a family together or else feel they are a failure. Because LGBT oppression originates from capitalist society as a whole, it can only be eliminated by the overthrow of capitalism.

If you like this article, come to the three-day political conference Marxism 2012, May 25-27 in Toronto, which includes the talk “The red in the rainbow: socialists and queer liberation.”

The disability movement: a look forward

By Melissa Graham

The Disability Pride March takes over Bay Street

For people with disabilities, the struggle to be heard is still an uphill battle as we struggle to define ourselves as the movement. In some ways we can relate well to the history of the women’s movement. We have an international day of recognition, we struggle for gains politically, economically, and socially, but still many question if there is such a movement, or why one should exist in the first place.

Many of us living with disabilities see the need for activism and change. We’ve moved a long way from our history of raising our voices. Many organizations that were once active advocates for people with disabilities are now relying on government legislation to provide funding scraps. While there are individual activists rising to the challenge, the movement is still divided by disabilities and class. As a result, the rich and active history of people with disabilities who chained themselves to buses and started their own organizations has gotten lost. The movement will need to draw from history in order to make further progress.

There is hope: in 2011 new voices and issues were thrust into the spotlight, leading to revolution—and solidarity—in many parts of the world. Activists have changed the conversation to the point that Time magazine’s person of the year for 2011 was “The Protester.” People with disabilities have been a part of this change, and many are not content to sit back and wait—they are fighting for their rights, increasing the visibility of the movement with a kind of radical activism that seems to be growing.

In Montreal, an organization called Défense et revendication des droits des personnes en situation de handicap—Defending the Rights Of People With Disabilities (RAPLIQ), has been working for the elimination of discrimination faced by people with disabilities. In response to the lack of accessible transportation in the city, they called on people with disabilities to fill city hall—and they did.

In Toronto, close to 100 people with disabilities and their allies gathered at Nathan Philips Square in response to proposed cuts and the cancellation of the city’s annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities celebration. They took to the streets and marched down Bay Street to the site of Occupy Toronto chanting: “Equal Access, Equal Rights,” “Build Ramps Not Bombs,” “No Cuts! No Way! Tell Rob Ford we’re here to stay!” The march received a positive public response: truck drivers honked in solidarity as the group marched by, and a crew of construction workers paused to applaud.

So, what’s next for radical disability activism? The best thing we can do right now is build connections and learn more about what’s happening across Canada; reach out to people with disabilities that we see doing activist work, and connect them with related struggles. We also need to encourage each other to continue the work that we are doing. As the summer of 2012 approaches, let’s continue to build that solidarity with students, labour, and other movements, so that together we can build a better—and more accessible—world for all.

If you like this article, come to the three-day political conference Marxism 2012, May 25-27 in Toronto, which includes the panel “‘From each according to their ability’: socialists and the disability movement.”

How do we spread the Quebec Spring?

The Quebec student strike is inspiring people across Canada who would like to see a similar mass movement against austerity. But how we spread the Quebec spring?

Some say the Quebec spring is unique, and Quebec certainly has its own particular conditions that are important to understand.

From the experience as an oppressed nation within the Canadian state, the people of Quebec have a strong history of resistance—including the biggest anti-globalization protests in 2001, the biggest anti-war protests in 2003, and the biggest May Day protest in 2004.

Quebec students also have a tradition of mass strikes, most recently the 2005 strike that forced the government to give back $103 million in cuts

That experience cannot be spontaneously summoned across English Canada, but that doesn’t mean that the struggle can’t spread.

The Quebec Spring is a combination of past local experiences along with inspiration from global revolt. That people in Quebec have called the strike wave the “printemps erable”—meaning maple spring but sounding like Arab Spring—shows the links with the global revolt. But how do we spread it?

Some are impatiently demanding that the leadership of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) simply call a strike, or arguing that radical students organize on their own—counterposing the Quebec student organization CLASSE with other student unions. But this ignores the way in which the Quebec student strike—and strikes in general—are built.

Hundreds of thousands of students didn’t go on strike because CLASSE told them to. The strike was built from below since the end of last year, and CLASSE—which numbers in the tens of thousands—has built unity with other student unions FECQ and FEUQ.

We can’t turn our backs on mass student organizations or expect them to call a strike that has not been built from below (which would invite failure).

The CFS organized a pan-Canadian day of action against tuition fees on February 1 and occupied the Ontario Education Minister’s office on April 5. If we want to spread the Quebec spring we need to learn the lessons and build a mass student movement from below, uniting with and strengthening the CFS.

If you like this article, come to the three-day political conference Marxism 2012, May 25-27 in Toronto, which includes the talk “1972: when Quebec workers occupied”, with Gatineau activist Jessica Squires, and the panel “The 2012 Quebec student strike” with Quebec student organizer Xavier LaFrance, lawyer for striking students Sibel Epi Ataogul, and leading member of Québec solidaire Monique Moisan.

How to save the planet, and ourselves

The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, Richard York

reviewed by Bradley Hughes

This book is an all-encompassing review of how to understand the relationship between humans, nature, and capitalism, and what to do about it.

The authors start with a review of the dire straits we are in. In at least seven key areas of our relationship with the planet, we have passed or are approaching “planetary boundaries,” the point at which our disruption of natural cycles becomes so great that “irreversible environmental degradation” is a likely result.

After more than 400 pages, they conclude that only an ecological revolution can possibly save us. We need a revolutionary change in our relations to one another and the planet. Currently all our interactions are mediated by capitalism, a “system of unsustainable development.”

Between the start and the finish, they exhaustively cover all the ways in which human and environmental degradation is built into the DNA of capitalism. Along the way there is a discussion of the relationship between science and the society it is embedded in, the limits of capitalist agriculture, the limits of reforms, a defense of dialectical materialism, the history of ecology, a short course on economics, and, it seems, some mention of everyone who has ever written on the environment, ecology, or capitalism.

The ecological rift of the title refers to an updated and expanded version of Marx’s idea of a metabolic rift. Marx observed that we are a part of the world, and through eating and breathing, the world is a part of us. This metabolic interaction with nature means that nature is the part of our bodies outside of ourselves.

Under capitalism, this metabolism is disrupted. In Marx’s time this was most evident in capitalist agriculture. Food and fiber (clothes, rope etc) take up nutrients from the soil. Then after being shipped to cities (sometimes around the world) those nutrients are wasted in sewage and landfill where they become pollution. At the same time as the soil is depleted of nutrients, artificial fertilizers need to be produced and shipped over long distances to replenish the soil. Capitalist agriculture exists on an overdraft, using non-replenishable resources to make up for those it wastes.

This separation produces a metabolic rift. With the expansion of capitalism to cover the whole planet, we see more and more of these rifts.

Fossil fuels are created from dead plants over millions of years. The energy they contain came originally from the sun. Since capitalism is depleting these resources much faster than they could be replaced, we are living on an energy overdraft.

Wood is taken out the forests at a rate much greater then it can grow back, another overdraft.

There is a clear parallel between theses resource overdrafts, and the global economic crash that was triggered after years and years of debt financing of everything from houses, to cars, to factories.

This is one of the best books on how to save the planet you can find.

If you like this article, come to the three-day political conference Marxism 2012, May 25-27 in Toronto, including the talk “What’s green about Marxism?” by Bradley Hughes.