Category Archives: Politics

The Language of Austerity: ‘Working Poor’

Amidst all the debates about austerity, debt and stimulus packages, albeit rarely spoken about explicitly, lie notions of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ people, whether they be poor, unemployed or otherwise. These ‘values’ lie below the surface when such words are not actually mentioned.

Notions of deserving and undeserving poor have enabled other people, i.e. those with decent incomes, to ignore and/or complain about the ‘undeserving’ while bestowing ‘charity’ upon those deemed more ‘deserving’. The latter, in turn, who are expected to demonstrate ‘gratitude’ for whatever handouts are provided. (What is missing is the recognition of the system as having any role in all of this, which, as you know, is ridiculous.)

One term that has not received a lot of attention, at least to my own knowledge, is that of ‘working poor’. The term itself appears to reinforce the notion that the poor do not ‘work’, hence the adjective. Although redundancy in language use is rather common (i.e. adding an adjective or adverb where one is not needed), the more formal use of this phrase is not yet redundant, though perhaps becoming more so. That is, work has ceased to be a way out of poverty for an increasing number of people in most Anglophone countries (of the North Atlantic) at least (since their political parties of the centre and right (aka neoliberal and neoconservative) share similar approaches to work, austerity and welfare). Of course, many probably still believe the idea that a job — any job — will get you out of poverty. It takes time to change (so-called) ‘common sense’, but it does change.

While the notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor were linguistic counterparts to the social-economic structure of 19th century society, with the arrival of the ‘working poor’ as a significant albeit still minor portion of the working population, the ‘poor house’ is no longer a necessity. Instead, of course, we have prisons to replace the 19th century ‘workhouse’ and post-secondary education increasingly becomes a ‘holding tank’ for the ‘other-wise’ unemployed and enable the building up of debt for young people to ensure they are forever ‘working poor’ (youth unemployment rates in Canada and Europe are at their highest levels in decades). (When students are working part-time or in summers during their post-secondary education, they are more hopeful that such a situation is only temporary and will be quickly rectified once they graduate — and, as such, they are also less likely to want to organize and fight back against bad employers.)

An important counterpart of ‘working poor’ is ‘being poor’ or the fact that, as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Manitoba pointed out a couple of years ago, it takes ‘all day to be poor’. That is, what people who have never been poor, or never been on welfare or unemployment benefit/employment insurance, don’t understand, is the amount of work that you have to put in to deal with just the everyday realities of living on next to nothing.

(http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/fast-facts-it-takes-all-day-be-poor)

Postscript: I forgot to add that ‘poor’ can also be read as an adverb for ‘working’ or as an adjective for ‘working’ as a noun, whereby the emphasis (in speech is on the ‘working’) also indicates a development as being poor at working or most likely working but poor. This latter emphasis is also a result,  not only of working at minimum wage or at wages below the ‘Low Income Cut-off’ or ‘poverty line’, but also when employers refuse to pay you your wages or delay your pay: i.e. ‘wage theft’. But, that is another issue for another time.

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Filed under Frames and Framing, Language, Politics, Poverty, Wages, Welfare, Work and working conditions

What we might learn from Weimar….

They say that you always know when a political discussion or argument is degenerating — and quickly. It’s when your opponent (or perhaps you have done so on some occasions yourself?) sinks to invoking the name of ‘Hitler’ or ‘Nazis’ to discredit some left- or right-wing political leader, group or party (depending on your political leanings). These over-the-top comparisons are a sign that there is probably little point in continuing to engage in a debate with such an individual.

Equally, in the USA during the 1960s the hippies and anti-war protestors were apparently fond of using the term ‘fascist’ to refer to the establishment, the Democratic Party, the police and so on. Later, when people used the term to refer to leaders like Thatcher or Reagan or Mulroney, I always objected pointing out the historical meanings associated with the term that had represented a particular political movement (and moment) of the 1920s and 1930s, of which Nazi-ism was but one permutation.

(Of course, there has been a rise of neo-fascist movements and parties since the Second World War, and these have organisations have invoked or acknowledged their historical predecessors or identified with them in some way.)

Yet, there is a danger in throwing out the lessons of the Weimar Republic when we avoid mentioning Hitler’s name. It’s not that I think calling one’s opponent or their hero(es) Hitler or similar names is a useful tactic — I don’t — but that this attitude has meant that it is almost impossible to get beyond the detritus that exists about Hitler and his henchmen.

There were lessons that Weimar has for democratic societies that remain unlearnt, for the most part. First of all, there is confusion about how Hitler came to power in January 1933. The most frequent question that I remember from my undergraduate course on ‘inter-war Germany’, which frequently evolved into debates with my classmates, was whether the Nazis ‘seized’ power or used the system against itself? (I assume that it remains a question in history classes that focus on the Weimar Republic to this day.)

From what I could determine from my readings (and what I believe I argued for) was that they had used the system against itself, passing laws forbidding demonstrations, restricting rights and freedoms, establishing the first concentration camps (but for political prisoners first, before Jews and other so-called ‘sub-humans’) and so on.

That, in essence, the Nazi Party used ‘legal’ means to undermine the Weimar Republic, turning the democratic state into the authoritarian (or totalitarian) state.

I also remember being introduced to articles that argued that had the Weimar Republic had the same system of first-past-the-post governance as Canada/UK/Australia/New Zealand/USA, Hitler would have actually come to power one to two years earlier than he did. This argument clearly contrasted with the Allied re-organisation of West Germany after the war in which Parliament was restricted to political parties that obtained at least five percent of the popular vote before they would get representation. The argument by the Allies was that all those small parties, of which the Nazis (NSDAP) had been only one, had been a threat to the stability and longevity of Weimar.

Yet, what the Allies (and others) did not recognize, or at least did not take into account, in their reshaping of the political structure of West Germany, was that all kinds of local, regional and national elites (political, business, cultural), the judiciary (for the most part), elements of the military and police (although there were exceptions to the rule, such as Berlin, where the police force had not been supportive of the Nazis) as well as the suburban and rural middle classes had supported the Nazis. Many of those who supported the Nazis did so for reasons of ‘security’: that is, they feared ‘democracy’ more than they did fascism or Nazi-ism. Indeed, it was the SPD, the German socialists, who were the only force that fought to defend the Republic from the Nazis and the German Communist Party (KPD), which attacked both the SPD and the Nazis (but that is another story).

Democracy is a ‘messy’ form of governance but the rise of forms of ‘fascism’ or authoritarianism, which exploit the ‘weaknesses’ of democracy have to be opposed. It’s not encouraging in a democracy when we are expected to bow down to ‘bureaucratic correctness’ rather than encouraged to stand up and speak for ourselves and for others who are disadvantaged under the system. See, for example, the kind of twaddle peddled by critics of Idle No More or Occupy Wall Street about the ‘correct’ way to protest or ‘register’ disagreements with the system. What I remember from my courses and from my own studies of this era, and which I think is important to be aware of, is how a democratic system was used against itself.

Are those who undermine or exploit the ‘weaknesses’ of the Parliamentary system, and/or use exploit the ‘letter of the law’ (rather than keep to its ‘spirit’), to advance their own political party and/or corporate power, against the public interest and the public generally, guilty of a form of authoritarianism? Or of usurpation of power won at the ballot box? Fascism was one historical form of authoritarian or totalitarian power, which exploited the weaknesses of representative democracy. When fascism comes again, it won’t necessarily be dressed in black or brown shirts and hob-nailed boots. It could quite easily come dressed in expensive suits, sipping Chardonnay and beaming with a big friendly smile.

Postscript: I forgot to add that we shouldn’t forget about the judiciary’s collusion with the Nazis, as well as the military’s and support from the academy.

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Filed under Corruption, Democracy, Dictatorship, Elections, History, Parliament, Politics

Harper: Pensioners as ‘Threats’ to Economy? Reveals much about how work is ‘downgraded’

The comments that Prime Minister Stephen Harper made about the “threat” that Canadian elders represent to the economy and future of the country at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, should not have been unexpected.

Harper has never forsaken nor rejected his neoliberal beliefs and support for the corporate elite (who have been framed by the occupy movement as the “1%” [though they tend to be a much smaller group of closely linked people than this figure suggests], as opposed to the rest of us, the “99%”). For Harper and his ilk, what furthers the bottom line of private, for-profit corporations is of value. The people, though, who make a corporation or government or any other organization work, are not.

Perhaps, Harper has read too much of the “Great CEOs” of history. It’s not just Harper, though. So much in our corporate-owned and controlled media extol the virtues and values of the “great men of business” without a thought about the people who actually do the work. None of them would be worth their bonuses without us, the 99%, doing all the work.

This is the same as the Caterpillar lock-out of nearly 500 workers at the Electro-Motive Diesel Plant in London, Ontario, on 1 January 2012 because the executives wanted to cut their wages and benefits by more than 50%, even in spite of huge profits made by the company. This is how the members of Canadian Auto Workers Local 27 are rewarded for decades of hard work, increased productivity, skills and expertise?!

Just as Caterpillar appears to have little use or regard for the human beings that make the goods, so do Harper and the Conservatives show how little they value what retired workers have done for this country over the previous decades.

Yet, many of these hard-working Canadians have been ripped off by executives and governments. For example, provincial and federal governments allowed or even enabled executives to raid the pension funds of employees in the private sector, and now politicians, like Harper, turn around and complain that the public pension system is not sustainable. Or that public sector workers have pensions that will allow them to retire (modestly) and even that is somehow wrong.

This is part of the de-valuation or degradation of work and its value in society by the very elites that benefit from the work of the 99%.

It also explains Harper’s degradation of the work of our elders, people who have worked and followed the rules all their lives. They’ve struggled to build this country and worked hard.

I think it is worth (re)reading Bertolt Brecht’s poem from to get the perspective from the 99%:

“A Worker Reads History”

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

(See this link to follow up some informative comments and thoughts on Brecht’s poem: http://wonderingminstrels.blogspot.com/2003/12/worker-reads-history-bertolt-brecht.html)

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Filed under Cutbacks, Democracy, Economics, History, News, Pensions, Politics, Poverty, Uncategorized, Wages, Welfare, Work and working conditions

Locked-out CAW27 Workers of EMD Plant in London, Ontario

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Filed under Corporate Welfare, Democracy, News, Pensions, Politics, Wages, Work and working conditions