International Marxist Tendency Quebec’s manifesto against austerity.
Part 1: Fight the cuts
A massive social confrontation is brewing in Quebec. Every week the government rolls out new cuts that directly make our lives more difficult. The hated pension reform has essentially stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from 65,000 municipal workers. The government has put an end to the cherished $7-per-day daycare system, making an already difficult situation much harder for hundreds of thousands of families in Quebec. On top of this, hundreds of millions of dollars are being cut in a massive overhaul of the healthcare and education systems. These are just to name a few of the cuts.
Finance Minister Carlos Leitao has stated that the already announced austerity amounts to cuts of $700 million to public service jobs, $300 million to municipalities, and $200 million to the healthcare system. This was supposed to put the province on track to reach the projected $2.35-billion deficit target. In 2015, they are outlining a further $1.1 billion in cuts, which means that in order to reach “deficit-zero” the worst cuts are still to come.
All of the social programs and benefits, which we’ve won over decades of struggle, are now on the chopping block. Austerity is, in essence, a call to dismantle the social welfare that makes our lives semi-bearable in Quebec. This is serving as an immense shock to millions of workers who have been politically dormant for a long period of time. The illusion that Quebec is a democratic and progressive society is being shattered as the real face of Quebec capitalism comes to the fore.
The hypocrisy of this government knows no bounds. Philippe Couillard was not elected on a program of austerity; the Liberals lied to the people of Quebec. On top of this, they are going back on agreements made with the unions by cutting pensions and demanding concessions without any negotiations. These thieves and liars hypocritically call for “everyone to do their fair share.” But what about their rich friends who got us into this mess? They continue to get handouts and tax breaks while we are asked to foot the bill.
Left with no prospect of conducting friendly negotiations, as was the tradition in the past, the labor leaders have been talking tough and are promising a “new Quebecois Spring,” referencing the mass movement of 2012. The response from rank-and-file workers has been massive. In the fall of 2014, we saw a handful of large demonstrations—the largest drew out over 100,000 people on a cold day onto the streets of downtown Montreal. In addition to this, there have been a series of one-day strikes and wildcat action from daycare workers, white-collar workers, and blue-collar workers across the province. But where will the movement go? The government has already made it clear that they will not back down; they plan on implementing these cuts regardless of how many people are brought onto the streets. What can the movement do to win?
Millions of workers and youth are looking for answers as to why this is happening and how we can fight back. It is with this in mind that La Riposte has produced this manifesto, with the goal of giving workers and youth Marxist ideas to help them in the movement to come.
Part 2: Fight capitalism
Quebec was not immune to the global economic crisis of 2008–9, and has not yet recovered from it. Far from being a normal cyclical bust, this crisis is, in fact, an organic crisis of the entire globalized capitalist system.
Much has been made of the extreme levels of public debt in the southern European countries, but Quebec is not too far behind. In fact, Quebec is one of the most indebted jurisdictions in North America, with a near 50% debt-to-GDP ratio. When municipal and federal debt is factored into the equation, Quebec’s debt-to-GDP ratio is as bad as many of the worst debt-ridden European economies. The issue of debt, under capitalism, is not an abstract one. To simply maintain its debt obligations, the Quebec government paid almost $11 billion in 2014, up from $8.6 billion in 2013. This ate up approximately 11% of government revenue in 2014. To put this into context, this puts debt servicing on par with the combined costs of Education, Sports, and Leisure, the second-largest government department. And, as bad as these numbers are, debt servicing will become even worse as interest rates are forced to climb. If Quebec is unable to get its financial house in order, international rating agencies have threatened to downgrade Quebec’s credit rating, which would lead to an increase of the rate at which the government borrows money.
In terms of Quebec’s economy, conditions have only grown worse, and there is not much positive on the immediate horizon. While many politicians have spoken of a “recovery” since 2009, the facts tell a different story. Economic growth over the past four years has been slowing steadily; in 2013, GDP growth amounted to just 1.2% and is now nearly a full percentage point behind the Canadian average. Since the Liberals took power in April 2014, over 80,000 full-time jobs have been lost. In 2013, overall consumer demand increased by only 0.7%, its weakest advance since 1995. Economic investment stagnates as the Quebec economy is confronted with the same basic problems faced by every nation. Companies in Canada have actually been hoarding money, refusing to invest. In 2014, the amount of “dead money” in corporate bank accounts across the country soared to $630 billion, worth approximately one-third of Canada’s GDP. This astonishing sum could be (and should be) used for the needs of all of society. But can it be any other way under capitalism?
Slogans coming from the main worker and student union leaders are that these cuts are “just ideological” and they are “not an inevitability.” But can the government simply continue to run deficits and increase the public debt? The unions have pointed out that the real problem is the faltering Quebec economy. They argue that far from improving the state of the economy, austerity will in fact worsen the situation. By taking money out of the pockets of the workers, demand is effectively reduced. This worsens conditions for investment as capitalists will not invest in a shrinking market. This is all true, but governments also cannot continue to accumulate unsustainable debt levels. This is the conundrum the capitalist crisis has led to. Under capitalism, the debt needs to be repaid and the government cannot make the bosses foot the bill. The dominant force in the Quebec economy is private investment and therefore the government must follow its dictates. Any government that is not prepared to break with capitalism will have to institute deep cuts against the workers and youth. But is there a way out?
Many on the left take a look at the situation and put forward the idea of increasing corporate taxes to get the necessary funds to deal with the deficit and to fund social programs. But what will happen if the Quebec government raises the corporate tax rate? We don’t need to look far for an example of this in the Canadian context. In 1990, Ontarians elected an NDP provincial government led by Bob Rae. Rae and the NDP won the election under a mild reformist platform that included creating public automobile insurance. To pay for these reforms, the Ontario government looked to increase corporate taxes, personal income taxes on rich Ontarians, and the capital gains tax. In response, the ruling class did everything in their power to sabotage the provincial economy, withdrawing investment and helping bring in one of the deepest recessions in the history of the province. As the provincial deficit soared, the NDP government was forced to abandon any progressive reforms they had promised and instituted deep austerity measures against the working class. The choice was, as it still is today, “Socialism or austerity.”
The economic situation in Quebec today is even worse than the one faced by the Ontario NDP in the early 1990s. The debt and deficit are higher, and the economic crisis of 2008–9 shows no signs of abating. Already the Quebec economy has all but lost its textile industry, and continues to bleed manufacturing jobs (which tend to be unionized and better paying) to other markets. In a situation like this, raising corporate taxes will inevitably lead to businesses pulling out more investment.
In ASSÉ’s campaign against the austerity measures, they point to the higher corporate tax rates of the 1960s to prove that these attacks are just a by-product of a neo-liberal ideological project. This argument does not take into account the completely different economic situation in the world. In the 1960s the West was at the peak of the greatest economic boom in the history of the capitalist system; today the system is plagued by the worst crisis seen since at least the Great Depression of 1929.
Over the past 50 years, corporate taxes have been progressively hacked away in order to lower barriers to corporate investment. Especially since the crisis of 2008–9, governments are scrambling to do whatever they can do to kick-start the fledgling Quebec economy. But all their efforts have so far been in vain. Why is this? The past number of governments in Quebec have been desperately trying to find a way to court private investment. Even the last so-called social democratic Parti Quebecois government implemented a 10-year tax holiday for any investment of over $300 million. On top of this, in 2011 Jean Charest eliminated the capital gains tax, sucking $600 million out of the government’s coffers. Capitalism is a race to the bottom as each government falls over themselves to try to make their market more attractive for the predatory capital of giant multinationals.
The roots of the crisis are not to be found in this or that policy or this or that “mistake” by some group of capitalist financiers making a bad investment. This crisis is what Marx described as a “crisis of overproduction.” The anarchy of capitalist production is such that each individual capitalist is forced, by market competition, to revolutionize the means of production so that they are able to produce more at less cost. This increases the amount of goods being produced without an increase in the market to absorb these products. Companies end up not wanting to invest in saturated markets that cannot buy their products. In addition to this, austerity makes the situation worse by taking money out of the pockets of the workers and thus the market shrinks. In order to get around this contradiction, the capitalists have relied on debt. They have beaten down any barriers in the way of accessing debt so that, in the place of spending money that represents real production, people buy things with borrowed money in the hope that production will back it up down the road. This couldn’t be more evident in Canada where the average household debt stands at just under 164% of household income. To put this into context, this is higher than the indebtedness of the average American household just before the subprime mortgage crash of 2008. What this staggering number means is that capitalism, in Canada and around the world, has a terminal illness.
Capitalists are not investing, and why would they? As long as private ownership of the means of production is maintained, every government must follow the dictates of big business. Corporate taxes must be slashed, handouts must be given, and attacks must be made against organized labor so that profit can be more easily extracted. The resulting government indebtedness cannot be resolved by taxing it out of big business as they will just pack up and invest elsewhere, or sit on their money as they have been doing. This is the real agenda behind Jean Charest, Pauline Marois, Philippe Couillard, or any bourgeois politician.
Austerity flows from capitalism itself. Therefore it is not possible to defeat austerity without defeating the capitalist system. Marxists are of course in favor of a system of progressive taxation, where taxes are lowered on the working class and increased on large companies, but on its own this will not solve the problem. This is because taxing corporations leaves private ownership and private profit intact. You cannot control what you do not own and this is precisely the problem. It was the anarchy of the market and production for private profit that created the crisis and therefore these will need to be abolished to truly defeat the austerity agenda once and for all. Therefore, any attempt to fight austerity through increasing corporate taxes, while leaving the economy in the hands of the capitalists, will inevitably lead them to wage economic sabotage, pull out investment, thereby strangling the economy.
We have great respect for the main organizers of ASSÉ, who built the 2012 student strike, but we have to point out that a program of taxing the rich, in and of itself, is not very radical. It is just a form of reformism that leaves the capitalist system intact and keeps the bosses in control of the economy. We need something that gets to the heart of the problem—private ownership of the means of production.
A socialist perspective is needed for the movement. All of our actions need to be linked to the general perspective of taking the economy out of the hands of the billionaires—to be given to the workers to run democratically. In this way we can break with the anarchy of the market and produce for human need instead of the profit of a few. The workers are the real creators of all wealth and know much better how to run production than the bosses.
Expropriate the bosses!
For democratic workers’ control!
Production for need and not greed!
Part 3: Support the workers!
The ghost of the 2012 Quebecois Spring still haunts us. The seven-month-long student strike served as a general rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of people who were looking for an avenue to express their anger and frustration. The movement forced the resignations of two education ministers, unseated the hated Jean Charest government, and forced a partial retreat on the tuition fee increase. Very quickly, though, all that was won was taken away.
It is a general law of history that when a population moves into political action, it is the youth that tend to move first. Broadly speaking, youth are more sensitive to the crisis in society. Youth are usually less conservative, not being burdened by the experience of past defeats, and are therefore quicker to draw radical conclusions. Around the world the youth have been moving into political action. From Occupy to the Arab revolution, the youth have been the instigators and motor force of these movements as they try to escape the dismal future they are presented with under capitalism. But far from being an isolated incident, a mass uprising of the youth is generally a precursor of the movement of the working class. This was seen most clearly in the revolution in France in May 1968. What started out as a mass student movement quickly spread to the workers and resulted in a massive general strike, involving over 10 million workers at its height.
It is also true that movements do not necessarily progress in a straight line. While the Quebec student strike of 2012 did not lead to a generalized movement of the working class, it did speak to the anger and discontent felt more broadly by Quebec’s workers, as evidenced by the spontaneous “casserole” protests. This ferment has not dissipated, and in fact, has only grown stronger.
While students can cause a lot of trouble for the capitalists and the government, it is the workers who hold the real power in society. For example, in 2013 the construction workers’ strike cost the Quebec bosses over $15 million per day. In capitalist society, the workers have the power to shut down production and hit the bosses where it matters most—in their bank accounts. As the old saying goes, “Not a light shines, not a wheel turns, without the permission of the working class.” Capitalism cannot function without the labor of the working class. This is the significant aspect about the coming movement in Quebec.
Whereas the movement in 2012 was a student movement with support and sympathy from individual workers, the current movement is fundamentally a movement of the organized working class. Therefore students must do everything possible to support and strengthen the movement of the workers. Solidarity strike action from the student unions should be on the order of the day. Solidarity picket squads should be organized through the student unions to send support to picket lines, with students adopting the workers’ demands and combining them with student demands to foster solidarity and unity.
Students can play a vital role in the struggle by providing energy that helps ignite the workers’ struggle. However, any elitist ideas that students can “go it alone” without the workers will only harm the fight back. Student elitism has played a terrible role in the struggle by isolating the energy of the youth movement from the power of the workers. At the end of the day, this approach overwhelmingly damages the position of the students. Historically, we have seen that the main successes of the student struggle have come when the fight of the youth spread (or was just about to spread) to the workers, forcing the ruling class to back down before the big battalions entered the fray. An isolated youth movement, that has a haughty attitude to “ignorant and uneducated” workers, is easily ignored by the bosses and their government.
Student elitism finds its roots in impatience. During periods of a lull in the class struggle, it seems as though working-class people will never move into action. This leads those who are isolated from the working class to lose hope that workers will enter into struggle. Some in academia even go so far as to question the existence of the working class. As mentioned before, while the students can be a real nuisance for the government and the ruling class, the real power of students is as an instigator for the struggle of the workers. Isolated students, without the support of the workers, have a far smaller possibility of victory. The youth must work to bring the workers into the struggle and not fall into impatience or short cuts that lead nowhere.
When Jean Charest was first elected in 2003, many were expecting a generalized movement to stop the proposed attacks. The push for a general strike in late 2003 saw the majority of FTQ and CSN workers vote for a one-day general strike against the proposed “reforms.” Unfortunately, this desire of the members to fight was not matched by a conservative section of the trade union bureaucracy, which feared a massive social confrontation. This allowed successive Liberal and Parti Quebecois governments to ram through hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts with little or no mobilization on the part of the trade unions.
Today, many question the words of the trade union leaders and wonder whether they will sell out the struggle this time around. The danger of bureaucracy is a real one, but it cannot be fought by ignoring the trade unions. We need to fight for the workers to democratically control their organizations from below. Workers need to control their leaders to prevent any sellout deals being made behind their backs. Any deal proposed by the government must be voted on by the members before the struggle is concluded. Democratic control from the bottom up is an essential component of unleashing the creativity of the workers and ensuring victory. This can be facilitated by the formation of community solidarity committees. These structures are frequently the initiative of labor councils and are not meant to be a replacement for the existing organizations. Each union local, student union, community organization, left-wing political party (QS, NDP, etc.) should send delegates in order to bring together all those elements of society fighting against the austerity measures. This serves to broaden the struggle and facilitates rank-and-file democracy without boycotting the workers’ organizations.
A study of history will show that mass movements do not come very often or last very long. Millions of workers and youth, normally apathetic to politics, are held down by the drudgery of everyday life under capitalism and only move into action politically when the conditions are right. In contrast, the ruling class knows very well what their tasks must be. Because of this phenomenon, it is vital that a clear course of action be given by the leadership of the workers and youth to prevent the government and bosses from gaining the upper hand. Many students fell into a mood of disillusionment at the end of the struggle in 2012, due to the fact that no clear direction was given for the movement to win. After seven months of striking, daily mass demonstrations, and no sign of the government backing down, calls to “continue the strike” fell on deaf ears. This allowed the Liberal Party to use the question of the election to confuse and disorient the movement, drowning the aspirations of thousands of youth into the election of the Parti Quebecois government. We cannot let that happen again.
What needs to be done? The current leadership of the unions does not have a vision that extends beyond the capitalist system. Much like 2012, the demands of the movement are wholly defensive in nature. Even if the movement “won,” we would only be winning the status quo, which is the reason why the discontent is so widespread in the first place! Moreover, if we are able to push back the government, the bosses would simply wait until the movement dies down to ram the cuts through. Betrayal is inherent in a leadership that isn’t prepared to break with the system; without a struggle against capitalism, we are forced to accept what the system can give us. Even the leaders of the radical student union, ASSÉ, fall into this trap. “Tax the rich” politics merely mirrors a social democratic program and does not challenge capitalism—no matter how radical the associated phraseology. In essence, they stand for rolling the clock back a few years to when corporate taxes were slightly higher.
It is therefore necessary for those who understand what needs to be done to unite together and fight for revolutionary consciousness among workers and youth. When we look around the world, we see similar processes taking place. The masses are waking up politically and are starting to struggle against poverty, inequality, and oppression. More than ever, we need to bring together the militants from the student movement with the radicalizing workers and unite them with revolutionaries in the rest of Canada, the USA, and the world. The lessons and experiences from struggles from all corners of the globe must be shared, to avoid past mistakes and to assure future victory. There has been a rich history of working-class struggle and revolution over the past 100 years. All of the challenges and questions that we face today have been encountered hundreds of times before by people striving to fight for a new society. It would be a grave mistake not to study that history in detail, with the goal of transmitting these lessons into the movement today.
With that, we present this manifesto against austerity to be discussed as widely as possible. To all those who agree with the main ideas contained here—join us in building a revolutionary organization in Quebec and internationally that can fight the cuts, fight capitalism, and support the workers!