The Manitoba Progressive Conservative government recently announced cuts to public spending. The City Of Winnipeg also proposed cuts to pools and libraries in the 2020 budget, while increasing funding to police. These cuts are unnecessary, and to do this during a global pandemic and recession is deeply harmful to the majority of Manitobans. The harm done by these cuts will be felt for years to come. We need to fight back.
1. Why Does the Government Impose These Cuts?
These cuts are explained by the political-economic ideology of austerity. Austerity is when governments reduce spending on public services in order to reduce deficits or pay down government debt. When you hear phrases like “cutting the deficit”, “balancing the budget”, “making the government more efficient” you are hearing code words for austerity. Austerity policy has been practiced by governments at every level in Canada, by all political parties in power. At the provincial level, austerity is currently being implemented by the Progressive Conservatives in Manitoba, but also by the Liberals and NDP in other provinces. Manitoba is getting hit now because the Pallister PC’s are dogmatically committed to austerity ideology, but we can expect more austerity from all levels of government in the future.
When governments impose austerity they know it is harmful to the working class. It is a deliberate strategy that serves the needs of the wealthy. We need to understand that government debt isn’t the same as household debtand so we have to reject the idea that these cuts are necessary. Even if we collectively decided that it was important to reduce government debt, we could accomplish this by raising taxes on corporate income, personal wealth and personal income back to what they have been in the past. At the very least, we could defund or eliminate contracts to services that actively repress rather than serve the public, such as the RCMP and Winnipeg Police Service.
Instead of collecting money from the wealthy and corporations, or reducing budgets to repressive departments of the state, governments choose to pass along the costs to the rest of us. Austerity explicitly underfunds or eliminates universal public services and shifts control of natural monopolies (water, hydro, health care, education, communication, public transportation, etc) to the private sector by selling off crown corporations, using public-private-partnerships to build infrastructure, and farming out services to politically connected nonprofits and NGO’s while reducing funding to the public sector services and goods that don’t align with the values of the current government. As a result, we lose democratic control over public goods, public sector jobs are eliminated and remaining public sector workers are forced to accept less pay and benefits in order to compete with the lower cost of labour in the private sector. Quality of service declines due to private firms cutting corners to maintain profitability and those who can least afford more expenses are then required to pay new or higher user fees.
Besides directly enriching the wealthy and expanding state mechanisms of repression, austerity harms the working class by making us all more dependent on paid work to meet our basic needs. Most households rely on two full-time jobs or more to pay the bills because many employers do not pay a living wage. When we pay more user fees for childcare, health care, education, infrastructure, and other services, we have less support when unemployed. We have more to lose in confrontations with bosses: it’s harder to challenge management or go on strike if losing our job means we lose our benefits or we won’t be able to pay for basic health care. Spending more time at work takes away time from leisure, social life, and political activity.
Austerity facilitates an upward transfer of wealth from the working class to the capitalist class and those who serve them, and increases systemic power of capitalist institutions while depriving the working class of our collective wealth and power to organize. Austerity is theft, pure and simple. We need to fight back against it because it makes our individual lives more miserable while also weakening the working class as a whole. So, how do we defeat austerity?
2. Working Class Solidarity
If we recognize austerity for what it is–an offensive maneuver by governments on behalf of capitalists against the working class–we can develop a strategy to fight back against it.
Our strategy must be to forge solidarity among the working class and fight back as a whole against capitalists and capitalist governments. We must disrupt the ability of governments to rule over us, with the goal of interrupting the ability of capitalists to make profit. There are a variety of tactics that can be used to this end, the most powerful being a mass unlimited general strike.
We know that the working class has powerful potential to unite together in a confrontation against capitalists, in the workplace and in the community. Even though capitalists can overpower us when we are divided, they still need us as a whole to do the useful labour society needs. They still need to control us as a whole in the workplace to exploit us. If they can’t do this, they won’t be able to make profit. They need us, but we don’t need them.
It is essential to recognize austerity disproportionately harms people who already face oppression along multiple lines. Austerity disproportionately hurts working class women, children, the elderly, Indigenous people, racialized people, migrants, LGBTTQ and non binary people. It also harms working class people living with addiction, mental illness and physical disabilities. These lines of oppression correspond with who are most dependent on public services and therefore who are most harmed by austerity. But these lines of oppression also map potential wedges that capitalists use to divide us and weaken our ability to collectively fight back. Therefore, if we want to win the fight, we must forge solidarity across all lines of oppression in struggles against austerity.
3. Against Austerity, Towards Ecosocialism
Rather than austerity, we need universal prosperity and public luxury – a society in which everyone’s basic needs are met and people have access to quality public services of all kinds – along with ecological sustainability. A society that meets the needs of all, without exploitation or oppression. This kind of society isn’t possible under capitalism. This is why we organize and advocate for ecosocialism. While we work towards an ecosocialist future, we can still reject austerity within capitalism and develop our capacity to take on bigger fights at the same time. In the here and now we can fund public services in an equitable way by heavily taxing the income and accumulated wealth of the rich and exploitative corporations, defunding the police and military, and re-investing in systems of community care.
We have seen the power of a united working class demonstrating real power to bring about swift positive change through the Black-led, multiracial uprisings across the United States. This is our power, working-class power. Our power has forced city councils to commit to defunding police departments. Our power has toppled monuments to racist capitalism. International supply chains have been disrupted by the workers who maintain them. We have seen rank and file union solidarity with people in the streets. We have seen networks of mutual aid spring into existence seemingly overnight. We see Indigenous people rising up to defend the land and water we all need to live and their right to sovreignty. We are seeing a mass awakening of class consciousness through participation in real, direct, political struggle. All this is possible, even under the most challenging of conditions, during a worldwide pandemic, looming recession and continent-wide austerity. These are tangible victories, occurring in real time.
At no point in our lifetimes has the need for quick, sweeping, systemic change been so great. For the first time in generations we are seeing real solidarity in action in the streets and in the workplace. We are seeing the possibility of a real challenge to the global capitalist system in action. In Winnipeg we have seen unprecedented numbers of people gather for rallies at the legislature in support of Black and Indigenous lives. These actions by everyday people are needed–more urgently than ever–to move from austerity to the kind of society we need.
Growing numbers of people have the appetite and the energy to do more. As more and more of us are pushed to the brink of survival we cannot rely on elected officials, union leaders or non-profits to make the changes we need to live lives of basic dignity. We need to come to terms with the fact that appealing to leaders to do the right thing can only mitigate the worst of the damage. In solidarity, we can work together for a better future.
We need to organize as rank and file workers to directly challenge entrenched hierarchies of power in our workplaces and to make union leaders accountable. We need to organize with our neighbours to develop relationships of trust and support within our communities. We need to continue to build networks of mutual aid to care for those among us who need it most. We need to prepare for a time when the streets of Winnipeg will fill with people, like so many of our comrades are doing across the United States, to join the struggle against the global capitalist destruction of our communities and our environment. We need fight for people we don’t know, and recognize that our liberation is bound up with one another and the natural world.
If you work for someone else rather than for yourself and don’t have significant management power, you are working class. If you are reading this, you are most likely working class. The working class includes everyone in blue collar jobs, service jobs, gig economy jobs, jobs thought of as professions and white collar work: teachers, nurses, office workers, academics, tech-workers, non-profit workers, etc. This includes both unionized and non-unionized workers. This also includes the unemployed, the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed and the incarcerated. The working class does not include the police.
George Monbiot came up with the phrase “private sufficiency, public luxury” for example as in here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/31/private-wealth-labour-common-space