The following editorial was originally published on North Shore Counter-Info.
Against all expectations, the Ontario provincial election is shaping up to be politically interesting. I don’t ever vote and I encourage others to also abandon any remaining faith in electoral democracy. If you don’t care much about which party leads the province, since you intend to oppose them no matter what, you don’t need to pay attention to the details of party politics. However, in Ontario, the argument in favour of voting has seldom been stronger. Doug Ford is an ideal right-wing bogeyman, giving centrists and leftists a source of fear and guilt to coerce those who have abandoned electoralism into casting a ballot for a lesser evil. And at the same time, the Ontario NDP finally tries to distinguish themselves from the Liberals on the left by including free dental care in their platform, which, if implemented, would undeniably make lots of people’s lives better (including the cavity-plagued anarchist writing this text).
And yet, I still don’t intend to vote and I still want to encourage you to reject the ballot and representative politics too. But I feel like the generic anti-electoral argument (“No matter who you vote for the government still gets in!”) are particularly inadequate this time around. This text is for those who are disgusted by electoral politics but who, like me are feeling the pressure to participate. It’s an invitation to build an anti-electoral politic specific to our local context, capable of responding to the fear-mongering around Doug Ford and also the specific threat he poses, as well as countering the opportunistic handouts coming out of the NDP. Continuing to struggle against reactionaries prevents the rise of figures like Doug Ford while deferring to the system enables them; and building practices of autonomy and mutual aid make the top-down charity of the NDP unnecessary.
Doug Ford, sometimes presented as the master mind of Rob Ford’s hilarious series of pratfalls as mayor of Toronto, is positioning himself as a strong fiscal conservative, using rhetoric around balanced budgets and spending restraint to conceal the cuts, privatizations, and tax recuctions the Ontario Progressive Conservatives (PC) have always stood for. He has also positioned himself as more socially conservative than the party’s previous leader, Patrick Brown, whose predatory behaviour brought about his rapid downfall. Ford has tried to capture the support of the party’s social conservative base by declaring that, if elected, he would throw out the new Sexual Education curriculum, famously described by another PC leadership candidate as making kids bad at math by distracting them with anal sex.
The Liberal government has tried to dismiss the movement against the Sex Ed reforms as simply rooted in homophobia, which surely much of it is, as the second most cited reason to oppose it after “ANAL SEX!!!” is its discussion of gender identity. However, it also shows a successful PC attempt at building a coalition of social conservatives across ethnic and community lines, bringing together conservative Christians, Muslims, and others whose religious beliefs involve not educating their children about sex and gender. Ford has also flirted with reopening a debate around abortion access, using the right of teens to consent to an abortion as a wedge.
It’s easy to ignore grassroots conservative coalitions, like the one against the Sex Ed reform, when the parties in power are relatively progressive and don’t rely on their votes; the nature of the problem isn’t fundamentally changed by the presence of a politician willing to listen to them. Relying on legislative solutions to discrimination against women and queers has been a poor strategy, in that we don’t develop the capacity to build and defend equality ourselves — a politician like Ford only exposes that fundamental weakness. Regardless of who wins the election, we need to find ways to push back against reactionaries, whatever religious mask they choose to wear, as a surer bastion against far-right figures gaining state power than any leftist politician.
Rob Ford’s main legacy was stopping a major expansion of the public transit system in Toronto; and a previous PC government of Ontario 20 years ago, in a so-called “Common Sense Revolution,” cut social assistance rates and put downwards pressure on the living and working conditions of public employees, provoking the largest social movement in Ontario of recent decades. In addition to social conservatism, cuts to services like education and transit are the main fears mobilized by progressives to incite us to participate in the electoral farce. Doug Ford has promised to pull Ontario out of the Federal Carbon Tax program and to cancel the planned minimum wage increase from $14 to $15, but the specifics of what he would target for cuts remain vague — would it be the free tuition grants for low income students? Would he sell the LCBO or further privatize utilities? Considering that the Liberals have also pushed to privatize utilities (Hydro One), sold publicly owned assets (LCBO headquarters), and lowered taxes on businesses, what specifically will Ford’s efforts to make Ontario “open for business” look like?
The fact is that we don’t know, and probably Ford doesn’t either. The “Never Ford” campaigns floating around online, embarrassingly aping a centrist slogan from the US, have more to do with Ford’s generally antagonistic attitude — towards women, queers, the disabled, unionized workers… More or less everybody really. Doug’s an asshole, but he’s unlikely to represent such a large break from provincial politics as usual that fear of him should sway us into legitimating a different leader. Our ability to defend social gains and to counter the power of the far-right relies on our own strength, direct action, and struggle, not the election of some lesser evil.
Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP have accompanied the federal NDP in shifting towards the political centre. Though still somewhat the party of labour (which really just demonstrates how working class peoples interests aren’t and can’t be represented by this system), the provincial NDP has been outflanked on the left by the Liberals. Their platform this time around – convert all student loans to grants, free dental care, renationalize Hydro One – is the closest they’ve come to having a socialist platform in a decade. But we shouldn’t confuse ourselves into thinking that’s a good thing.
Sometimes when political parties take steps that encourage redistribution of wealth and equal access, it can be easy to forget that social gains that don’t come through struggle are fragile and serve mostly to deactivate the social movements that might demand them. My participation in struggle has never been about getting politicians to act in certain ways – it’s about freeing ourselves collectively from the influence of politicians. Of course I want dental care and if the province gives it to us for free, I’ll certainly use it. But socialized dental care doesn’t actually bring me any closer to my goals and is no reason to be less hostile to government, elections, and party politics.
I don’t want this system where essential health services are used to reproduce a cast of rich professionals, who jealously guard their techniques and tools. I want to live in a world where we put our skills in common, encourage their spread, make them freely available to each other based on needs that we collectively identify. I want autonomy, not crumbs from the provincial government, no matter what colour the party is.
The question of privatization is a tricky one as well, since the privatizations of the Harris PC government led indirectly to several deaths in the Walkerton water crisis. It seems uncontroversial that introducing a profit motive into services that are meant to be provided equally to everyone will erode the quality and consistency of those services. However, in the context of crushingly high electricity prices in Ontario, it seems unlikely that buying back shares of Hydro One will do anything to make things better.
The privatization debate is an argument among the powerful about the best way to maintain control over vital infrastructure. Those who see their interests as more represented by the state want the state to control it; those whose interests are more tied to capital want the market to control it. This debate has real consequences for us, but if our goal is autonomy, it doesn’t make a difference which elites own the hydro lines. As long as the systems we depend on are outside of our control, we will always have a disadvantage in any struggle with power. I want to see a world where electricity use is radically lower and where production of power is decentralized and placed in the hands of those who will use it (and of those who are affected by the method of production). Autonomy is a demand that can never be recuperated by politicians, because it imagines a world in which representative politics do not exist.
Between the NDP carrot and the Doug Ford stick, it seems like electoral democracy has a perfect set up for luring us back into the spectacle of mediocrity that is provincial politics. But it can also be a moment to sharpen our critiques and to be clear about where we stand – far from politicians of both left and right flavours, for autonomy, solidarity, mutual aid, and permanent conflict with power.