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As the wave breaks: NL budget 2016

By: | April 9, 2016

Solidarity is our only weapon against austerity.

Jon Parsons
Power and Dissent offers a critical take on culture, society and politics in Newfoundland and Labrador

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Photo by Alan Schmierer.

This writing is directed toward, and dedicated to, anyone interested in resisting and fighting back against the program of austerity about to crash on this province. If that’s not you, the little “x” up in the corner of your screen is your best bet.

I want to speak in broad terms about solidarity as a strategy of resistance, but before I do it is necessary to pause for a moment and view the terrain.

Our society is fragmented and divided: various segments are pitted against one another in competition over a finite pool of resources. Some of the most obvious examples of this are the way spending on public services is apparently opposed to private enterprise; the way unionized workers are apparently opposed to non-unionized workers; and the way low, middle, and high income earners are all apparently opposed to each other. As regular readers of The Independent know, this is to say nothing of other contentious issues in the province to do with the environment, poverty, gender, Indigeneity, and other important topics.

 Collective values and social solidarity are at an all-time low at just the time when they are needed most.

In terms of public attitude, there is a pervasive sense of cynicism with respect to institutions, whether government, the media, unions, or education, to name a few. Some of this cynicism is entirely justified, since the promise and potential of these institutions at times falls flat. Cynicism, in turn, breeds apathy and resignation, and for many the prevailing attitude at the onset of austerity can be summed up by the phrase, “so long as it doesn’t affect me.”

In short, collective values and social solidarity are at an all-time low at just the time when they are needed most.

Some of the people I work with in civil society and grassroots groups are more optimistic than I am. To you wonderful and caring folks, I respect your views and envy your optimism but my view is that steadfast optimism and blind hope keeps us from taking a pragmatic approach to the issues at hand.

But please don’t mistake this as pessimism or cynicism in its own right. Quite the opposite, I believe that even though we have made mistakes leading up to this difficult moment, the fragmentation of society and the absence of collective attitudes is something that can very quickly be overcome.

The appropriate response to realistically seeing the brokenness of our institutions and the myriad problems we face is not pessimism or cynicism — which is in the end just another way of avoiding the problem. The appropriate response is to organize and work to fix those things. Here’s how…

A strategy of broad-based solidarity

Defined in a rudimentary way, broad-based solidarity is empathy for the struggles of others. An uncomfortable aspect of this notion of solidarity is that it means empathy for the struggles of those you may not necessarily agree with or think of as in your camp. Another uncomfortable part of this principle of solidarity is that it won’t always be reciprocated: those you offer solidarity won’t necessarily show solidarity back.

AudreLordeFor example, broad-based solidarity means that unions need to empathize with the struggles of small business owners, just as business owners need to empathize with the struggles of unionized workers. Workers with seniority need to empathize with the struggles of workers with less seniority, and vice versa. Groups whose focus may be on environmental issues need to empathize with groups whose focus may be on gender, and so on, and so on.

Finally, solidarity always means empathy with the struggles of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised, the struggles of those who do not have agency and privilege to even have their grievances or hardships recognized.

Admittedly, this definition is fairly dogmatic. But make no mistake, there are limits to this principle and to what solidarity means. I hope it goes without saying that there are racist, sexist, and otherwise repressive tendencies we must never support and in fact must stridently oppose.

And broad-based solidarity is also not about remaining silent or withholding criticism of those who encourage divisiveness or who diminish the will to resist. If a particularly pernicious lobby group working on behalf of the business community, for example, happens to attack unionized workers, they should be taken to task and met with determined resistance. But taking them to task must never mean attacking in return the community or constituency they represent.

Some simple questions that can guide when and to whom we show solidarity, and also guide how we go about organizing and acting, are as follows:

Does a particular action or discourse solidify or diminish collective attitudes? Does a particular action or discourse instill or diminish a fighting spirit and a will to resist?

Lilla WatsonThe answers to these questions differentiate “us” versus “them” even as we may desire that there be no “us” versus “them.”

A further word of caution: the call for broad-based solidarity is not a call to abandon or subsume any single aspect of the struggle into a totality or unity. In fact, those promoting absolute unity or unquestioning adherence ought to be regarded with the extreme skepticism.

Instead of unfettered allegiance, we should borrow from the theory of intersectionality developed by the feminist movement: all the various struggles and grievances remain their own unique issue–the challenge is to see the way each struggle relates to and intersects with others. 

The ‘No’ that comes before ‘Yes’

Before leaving off, I want to address one more point those interested in resistance should keep in mind moving forward — the inevitable demand for alternatives. Because whenever people oppose something or rise up in protest the flippant response is always, “Well, what do you propose?!?”

The implicit assumption of this question is that no one is allowed to be against something unless they have a ready-to-implement blueprint to sort out the problem at hand, in this case the fiscal quagmire of the entire province. This reactionary line diminishes collective attitudes and fighting spirit because it encourages despondency — i.e. since I can’t offer a neat solution tied up in a perfect bow then I have no right to resist.

First of all, lots of people have been offering lots of ideas about how we can do things differently. However, there hasn’t been a serious conversation about any of this, partly because various segments of society have either been mired in garrison mentality or convinced to fight one another. With no small degree of pride I can tell you that The Independent has been the main forum for alternative ways of understanding the fiscal crisis and for offering options. Here is a selection of articles for your consideration, none of them offering a perfect quick-fix, but all of them going beyond the level of discussion in the broader public sphere:

However, even as there have been these different ways to frame the crisis and alternatives, the more fundamental response to the question “What do you propose!?!” is that no one needs to have an answer in order to resist.

Resistance is the ‘No’ that happens before we can get to ‘Yes,’ before we can get to a place where viable and fair solutions can be considered and implemented.

The reason that this ‘No’ is so important, the reason resistance is so important, is because it is a pause, a moment of critical reflection, opening a space in the social imaginary where alternatives can be considered that in the everydayness of the current paradigm are dismissed as either impractical or outrageous or utopian.

This ‘No’ offers a chance to rethink our values and allows the emergence of new ideas about what we want for our communities and for our province and for the world at large. Without offering any alternative at all, saying ‘No’ is more important than anything else that can be done to address the current crisis, because this crisis is about much more than just dollars and cents. It is about how we relate to one another and about the kind of world we want to live in.

The will to resist

There is, of course, a great deal more to say. But for now I hope to have at least provided some food for thought about how we can move forward in this struggle, in our common struggles. #NLBudget2016 is just the beginning of austerity in this province, just the moment the wave breaks and crashes upon us.

The way we respond will echo beyond our immediate historical moment, so let’s do everything we can to rise to this challenge and to embed in our modes of resistance the kind of social solidarity that can blossom into a beautiful and better province and world.

Solidarity, resistance, standing in the way of the breaking wave, is really up to you.

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