(An earlier version appeared in a Feb. issue of Peoples Voice)
Picture this. It is the first day of school for the new semester. As usual, the teacher has written on the board. The headlines are from newspaper: December unemployment highest in 16 years. European Union says deep recession, surging unemployment coming. Recession even hits sports. Economic Crisis Fuels Family Violence.
The teacher turns to the class. What can we do to change this? she asks.
Last November, the YCL was warning about the need to advance a bold "people's alternative agenda," trying to block as much as possible a renewed attack by the Harper Conservatives, which would likely use the economic crisis as a pretext. At the time, I wrote an article in Peoples Voice partly about the positive potential of coalitions -- although I never thought it would happen! -- and promised to present more analysis about the implications of economic crisis for youth and students.
Since then, as we know, September's market meltdown translated into a political crisis. We saw remarkable openings and volatility in Parliament with the temporary eclipse of emperor Harper through a coalition, all prompted by the Tory's arrogant first attempt at a budget. But now, at the time of press deadline (and after an intense full court press by the Conservatives on the Liberals) Canadians are entering into budget-process round two with Harper looking likely to win.
A few weeks ago I received an email from the finance minister asking me for consultation on the 2009 budget. Intrigued, not least about how some Jim Flaherty email-bot got my address, I followed the link. I was given grading options on six vague items and 250 characters – yes, not words but characters, just like text-messages – to add my humble opinion.
Jim Flaherty probably wrote more in his Christmas-present thank you notes with his gilded pen: "Dear Mr. David P. O'Brien, chair of the Royal Bank of Canada. Thanks for the socks. Thank you also, David old chap, for the brandy, cigars and instructions -- er, ahem, I mean consultation -- at your great holiday dinner turkey left-over special."
Or would that be caviar left-overs? Because, as Michel Chossudovsky pointed out yesterday, whatever the budget proposes it will be on top of a "75 billion dollar bank bailout program for Canada's chartered banks, announced, virtually unnoticed, four days before the October Federal election..."
Well, we know whose voices and interests are being heard. On the left, we need to meet the challenge of calling, loudly, clearly, and unshakably, for a profoundly different direction based on people's needs not corporate greed.
And yes, we should ask: is capitalism capable of cleaning up this mess?
The clear answer is no. As many commentators have noted, not least youth and students, the economic crisis has again brought into sharp relief the colossal inability of capitalism to bring social progress, and the need for socialism.
For example, a fellow activist Steve da Silva says in the latest issue of Basics Newsletter: "While Canadians are clearly not ready for this struggle [...] nothing less than a fully socialist alternative can resolve the contradictions of monopoly capitalism that we’re currently experiencing."
To be sure, Basics is already a lefty blog -- but isn't this, and similar comments in other youth and student publications across the country, a good sign? And doesn't recognition of this urgent, possible and necessary transformation make it all the more important to chart a course forwards? Maybe Canadians are more ready for big struggles, if not revolutionary struggles, than the left sometimes thinks? Shouldn't we talk about what we can do now?
And where would that action plan start except from within the real, existing concrete problems we face today?
The capitalist class is certainly fighting for, and wining, immediate goals. Reminding me of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's comments in his last televised address of 2008, that capitalism is an "immoral art, science, and technology," even Hustler magazine's publisher Larry Flynt headed to the US Congress earlier this January asking for a billion-dollar bail-out for the porn industry.
Or were they asking for a stimulus package?
But seriously, since all the stimulus packages sound like the familiar broken record where the rich guys make the problem and the working folk pay for the clean-up, lets flip that record. Where would an economic recovery for youth and students start?
For the youth movement, in the YCL's view, such an alternative direction might draw from the Youth Charter that the broad and powerful Canadian Youth Congress proposed, following the On To Ottawa Trek of the Great Depression.
This is no dusty idea. American youth and students are currently mobilizing around a "youth agenda" platform, as have youth and students in Europe, and also Africa. In the end, resistance will be shaped by today's conditions and the requirements for social advance for the all exploited people and oppressed nations of Canada.
This is not the same as replacing the Conservatives with the Liberals, in short. It will require dynamic, broad, and visible opposition in the streets in the coming months.
So it comes down to struggle. To rage, rage even in the darkest moment of the night as Dylan Thomas might say.
Where to start? What about the Canadian Federation of Students' four proposals for "a broader economic stimulus package." Those proposals are: an increase to the Canada Social Transfer for post-secondary education; more graduate student funding under the Canada Graduate Scholarships; greater financial support for Aboriginal students; and a boost in student summer jobs funding.
Could a youth coalition be build around these issues, coupled with the agenda for raising minimum wages that many Canadian Labour Congress youth are putting forward? Could we not pay for this by shifting money from war budgets, military recruitment and the dirty war in Afghanistan and back to the people? That could be in the discussion at the upcoming student anti-war conference co-sponsored by the Canadian Peace Alliance in a few months.
The Sierra youth coalition has also made the link between the catastrophic environmental policies of the Harper Tories and the very salient need for a new approach. Renewable energy, they point out, could create thousands of good jobs.
While the New Democratic Party has picked up many of these ideas in their valid criticisms the budget proposals, Jack Layton also told the workers this week that you will need "to take a pay cut so your friends at the plant can keep their job."
Except he wasn't talking to workers -- he was at the Toronto Board of Trade: "Milton Friedman's `no such thing as a free lunch' is something we should keep in mind as we consider the dire economic picture before us" he said.
Clearly the solution must be bigger than the NDP. We are talking about a people's movement and an escalated struggle.
In this context, is the contribution of the left in wandering around among the people proclaiming 'we told you so'? A glance at many honest writers in the left student press would make you think so. Its justified to look for a culprit, but I'd say our task is to get our hands dirty in building people's forces and helping propose a way forward with pro-people policies that are desperately needed.
After all, we should never celebrate people's suffering. Crisis is a feature of capitalism. If there is an accompanied sustained working class offensive against the system, and progressive forces world-wide are able to grasp the moment and force through major change – that would be cause to celebrate.