What’s wrong with “class warfare” anyway .. time to strike back in Washington – and Queen’s Park?

Sep 21st, 2011 | By | Category: In Brief

Oliver Mowat, Liberal Premier of Ontario, 1872—1896

Way back in the late 19th century Oliver Mowat, the Ontario Liberal premier who still holds the  local record for longevity in office (some 24 consecutive years, 1872—1896), declared in a statement to a Knights of Labour branch in his home riding : “I am glad to believe that there is little antagonism between the different classes in this glorious Province, but if there is antagonism, my sympathy and that of my colleagues is with the masses rather than with the classes.”

(And note that Bob Rae actually quoted this memorable declaration by Premier Mowat in the Ontario legislature more than 100 years later, early in June 1992, when Mr. Rae was himself the much shorter-lived first New Democrat premier of Canada’s most populous province.)

Oliver Mowat statue in Queen’s Park, Toronto today. Photo by Alan L Brown.

Ever since the anglosphere right-wing free-market revivalism launched by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however (and the concomitant spreading of the gospel by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black), the concept of “class warfare” has acquired allegedly demonic overtones. And even today you still get such headlines as “Obama’s new tax rate for wealthy is ‘class warfare,’ Republicans say” (from this past Sunday’s Globe and Mail in Toronto) –  followed by “Why Obama’s tax hike for the rich isn’t ‘class warfare’”Â  (in the same paper the very next day, by the business news columnist Michael Babad).

I think it is altogether a good thing that more and more mainstream media business news workers are starting to defend some of the current eminently sensible economic development policies of the President of the USA, USA. But what I am really starting to wonder is what is in fact wrong with “class warfare” anyway?  There is a quite palpable “antagonism between the different classes” in many different parts of North America and beyond these days. What is wrong with duly elected progressive politicians (or anyone else) standing up “with the masses rather than with the classes” – just like Premier Grandad Oliver Mowat did in Old Ontario long ago?

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Dave Letterman and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of US Vice President Joe Biden, on Letterman’s TV show, Monday, September 19, 2011.

I have no doubt been stiffened in my fresh resolve here by watching US TV this past Monday night, when David Letterman (from Indianapolis. Indiana) told the wife of the Vice President of the USA, USA: “I want President Obama to say ‘We’re not going to screw around anymore, it’s my way or the highway’ …  I want to hear him say to Boehner or anybody, ‘bring it fatty.’”

And then there is yesterday’s report from the Gallup polling organization: “Americans Favor Jobs Plan Proposals, Including Taxing Rich … Majority say Obama’s jobs plan will help economy at least ‘a little’.” (In the numbers we seem to believe in most nowadays, Gallup finds that a quite dramatic 70% of Americans favor “increasing taxes on some corporations by eliminating certain tax deductions,” and 66% favor “increasing income taxes on individuals earning at least $200,000 and families earning at least $250,000.”)

Karl Marx at the height of his fame in the later 19th century : not exactly, it would seem, an original drawing!

I was struck as well by a September 14, 2011 article in what now goes by the name of Bloomberg Businessweek, entitled “Marx to Market … The economic crisis has made the philosopher’s ideas relevant again, but the world shouldn’t forget what Marx got wrong.” The article was written by Peter Coy, the current “Economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.” And I hope someone in Stephen Harper’s Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa (among many other such places) has read it.

Mr. Coy writes that the “current global financial crisis has given rise to a new contingent of unlikely admirers” of Karl Marx “the Prophet, Marx the Sociologist, Marx the Economist, and Marx the Teacher.” For example, “Marx has gotten an attentive reading recently from the likes of New York University economist Nouriel Roubini and George Magnus, the London-based senior economic adviser to UBS Investment Bank.” In particular, “ in an Aug. 28 essay for Bloomberg View, Magnus wrote that ‘today’s global economy bears some uncanny resemblances’ to what Marx foresaw.”

Friedrich Engels (left rear) and Karl Marx (right rear), with Marx’s wife Jenny (front right) and their two daughters Laura and Eleanor (front left), 1864, in London, England, where Marx spent the last 34 years of his life – and wrote many of his now classic works.

Karl Marx, of course, also saw “class warfare” as an engine of progress in world history. And Peter Coy concludes his September 14 article on a parallel if nonetheless rather different note: “It’s time for another burst of enlightenment. In years past, Britain’s John Maynard Keynes and America’s Hyman P. Minsky … did capitalism a service by diagnosing its tendency toward crisis and advising on ways to make things better. The sooner policymakers today ‘recognize we’re facing a once-in-a-lifetime crisis of capitalism,’ as Magnus writes, ‘the better equipped they will be to manage a way out of it.’ Grasping the ways in which Marx was right is the first step toward making sure that his predictions of capitalism’s downfall remain wrong.”

Some policymakers today do seem to be listening to this kind of message. As even Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times column this past Sunday: “And to be fair, some policy players seem to get it. President Obama’s new jobs plan is a step in the right direction, while some board members of the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England – though not, sad to say, the European Central Bank – have been calling for much more growth-oriented policies.”

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Premier McGuinty with Indian actors Anil Kapoor and Preity Zinta : Ontario reaches out to Bollywood in the global village.

Meanwhile, back in the present-day successor state of Oliver Mowat’s Old Ontario, Premier Dad Dalton McGuinty – in the midst of a tough campaign to be re-elected to office for a mere third time in a row (Mowat in the late 19th century managed six) – has at least intermittently seemed to be discovering some fresh class warfare instincts of his own. Now … if only they would last?

My version of the story runs something like this. Early yesterday I copied the URL and some text for a Globe and Mail article headlined “Invoking Harris-era cuts, McGuinty presses for 10-year health accord .”Â  This told how Premier McGuinty was talking about trying to wrestle a new 10-year financial deal to help preserve the present Ontario public health care system out of the Harper Conservatives in Ottawa – who he seemed to equate with both the old Mike “the Knife” Harris Tories and the current alleged Harris-clone Tim Hudak Tories in Ontario.

Current Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak listens to former Ontario Conservative leader Mike Harris. Photo: TARA WALTON/TORONTO STAR.

The text of the article, as it then stood, included these comments from the Premier, alluding to both the federal Harris Conservatives in Ottawa and their Hudak (Harris) counterparts at Queen’s Park: “‘I have seen the whites of their eyes. My interest in them has been more than passing and distant and remote and academic. I follow these guys. I know what they do’ … He added that Mr. Hudak’s Tories are not the same breed as Bill Davis’s Progressive Conservatives in the 1970s. The former premier was ‘devoted’ to education and health care, Mr. McGuinty argued … ‘Those guys are gone. These guys will attack our public services,’ noting Mr. Harris’s record of health and education cuts. ‘These are the same guys. They want to do the same again.’”

As of 9:30 PM last night, however, both the text and headline of the article you get when you punch in the same URL have been altered rather dramatically. The headline  now reads “Health accord may hinge on Ontario election.” And the article begins with: “Stephen Harper will be pressed to commit to a new 10-year health accord or he may be let off the hook on any long-term promise, depending on the outcome of the Ontario provincial election … Both Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty and the NDP’s Andrea Horwarth want the Harper government to negotiate a second decade-long health accord with the provinces … Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is the outlier. Asked if he would push the Prime Minister for a second 10-year accord, Mr. Hudak would say only that he wants funding to continue.”

NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Dalton McGuinty at Canadian Jewish Congress campaign event. If no party gets a majority in the Ontario legislature on October 6, 2011, they could wind up co-operating to form a more stable progressive government?

Alas the part about Premier McGuinty saying “I have seen the whites of their eyes” no longer appears at all. I can only demonstrate its earlier existence by POINTING TO THIS LAPSED GOOGLE REFERENCE!  The new version of the article just does not at all convey the same kind of feisty combative class-warfare instincts of the premier as the original version.

There could be various reasons for this change of tone – not all of which smack of a fresh burst of excessive political moderation, or kowtowing to the current regional northern North American incarnation of Hilary Clinton’s right-wing conspiracy, or worse. (To be entirely balanced and objective, eg, the old Mike Harris Conservative regime in Ontario – as appalling as some of us did find it in other ways – did not really dramatically or even at all seriously “cut” public health care spending in the province. If it had, it would probably not have won a second election in 1999!) But I still find myself wanting to deliver something like David Letterman’s Jill-Biden message this past Monday night to someone in the premier’s office at Queen’s Park. I want Premier McGuinty to say “We’re not going to screw around anymore, it’s my way or the highway.” I want to hear him tell Hudak or Harper or anybody, “bring it fatty.” We progressive voters are getting mad as hell, etc, etc, etc. (And in this case if the Liberals won’t stick up for us, we really will just vote NDP?)

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  1. Unfortunately that sort of thing goes on far too often – changing of headlines/content and what not – part of the age we live in i guess. Nice writing.

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