An Open Letter to Thomas Mulcair

The following letter was sent to the office of opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, on the evening of May 18th, 2015. 

Dear Thomas Mulcair,

You do not know who I am in particular, although you may recognize my face. You would recognize it from among the faces of supporters whose hands you shook at a rally for the New Democratic Party in Victoria on Thursday. I heard an ex-producer of the recently passed B.B. King interviewed on the CBC earlier this week, who proclaimed that anyone who shook the blues guitar legend’s hand would right then become a friend to him for life, as a testament to the King’s good character. As I plan to support the New Democratic Party in the upcoming election, and as I encourage other young voters like myself to do the same, I find myself inclined to test the character of its leader, in a way hopefully distanced to some degree from the often purely performative spectacle of parliamentary politics. My name is Anthony James Gavin. Having extended your hand to me as an invitation to amicable support, so too do I hope that you will now accept my invitation into a political discourse.

I would like to discuss the question of the middle class, a cornerstone of your party’s platform: “New Democrats are committed to strengthening the middle class and raising up all those who have fallen out of the middle class due to the economic policies of both the Liberals and the Conservatives.” The problem, Mr. Mulcair, is that the ‘middle class’ is a myth. It is a myth of political utility and convenience. My hope is that we might dispel this myth, to reawaken a more realistic class view of society among the countless disenfranchised voters in Canada – particularly the youth – so that we might speak openly about the daily struggles that they face.

If I may briefly introduce a different, but related myth: that increasing numbers of young Canadians are failing to vote because they are either not interested in, or have never had sufficient educational opportunities in order to become actively engaged in politics and civic life (see, for example, a 2010 article in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, “Why Youth Do Note Vote?”) There may be some truth to this attitude, but we miss the mark on a much greater issue by stopping here. Rising numbers of overeducated and underemployed young Canadians are of a prevailing attitude which says (forgive my candor) that politics is bullshit. It is not that this layer of the youth are disengaged with civic life – quite the opposite. Many are activists operating on the fringes, or otherwise completely outside of provincial or federal political infrastructure (you are no doubt aware of the presence of this section of the youth from your time in Quebec.) Many others are actively engaged in the discourse of Canadian politics, but see that parliamentary democracy utterly and systematically fails to serve them. It fails to serve them, because it fails to recognize them. They do not see themselves as middle class. And despite facing record levels of debt, and the rapidly rising costs of housing in urban centers where most of them live (Vancouver is close to my heart, with housing costs skyrocketing in a foreign ownership inflation scandal, but also in Toronto), they do not aspire to ascend to the level of the elusive middle class citizen, with all of his traditional trappings. We are daily faced with the sheer inconceivability of ever purchasing something like a house, a new car, or of the possibility of working in a job that gives us anything beyond purely economic fulfilment – even then granting us only basic subsistence if we’re lucky – leaving us alienated by our labor.

This is a basic portrait of the young Canadian social progressive – an economic underclass. I speak now as an ‘us,’ rather than a ‘they.’ While Ottawa seems doomed constantly to fail to sing our tune, nonetheless you will find that we strike upon harmonious chords, Mr. Mulcair. No doubt the New Democrats are aware of this and have consciously crafted their platform to speak to these ideals, even if the Party fails to completely grasp the young Canadians who take them most to heart. The Party’s policy to repeal Bill C-51 speaks especially to this demographic, with many young Liberals having denounced Justin Trudeau for his complicity in buckling to the anti-terror legislation of the Conservatives. From a recent call to action from Youth Vote Canada,

A growing number of youth choose to take part in more “radical” actions, such as blockades, occupations, hacktivism, and intense ideological debate. Bill C-51 targets these actions, taking away our freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and conscience. If we continue to stigmatize actions like this, we are stigmatizing the democratic coming of age of an entire generation.

The expressed attitude of the Party over the freedom of Omar Khadr strikes the same chord again with these young social progressives, who have fervently denounced Stephen Harper’s disfiguration of Canada under a politics of fear. Finally, the mandate of the New Democrats to introduce a federal minimum wage of $15/hour is perhaps most directly, albeit least significantly, targeted at this group. I say ‘least significantly’ only because real political significance is married to ideology, and the social ideologies of these young progressives are less likely to ride on the coattails of economic gains than their parents were when change in Ottawa is on the docket, for just the reasons described above.

I reiterate; so that we may speak more directly to this group, let us dispel of, or at least suspend all that which leaves them feeling disillusioned. The ‘middle class’ is a myth which does not serve us. Our social dislocation is the result of a different class reality, the reality of class antagonism. We have realized this idea and manifested under it time and again, from the Western to the Eastern world, from the Occupy Movement to the Egyptian revolution in 2011 alone. The ‘middle class’ is an ideal of Western liberalism: a fictitious type of citizen who parasitizes the social neither from the top-down – as the ultra-capitalists that earn almost all of the wealth off of the backs of those whose labor creates the value of the goods that they sell – nor from the bottom-up, as those favourite social scapegoats of the upper-class bourgeoisie, those whose circumstance is such that they are forced into stigmatization and consequent indignity under the crumbling architecture of social services and welfare. The ‘middle class’ represents a theoretical point between exploiter and the exploited, between oppressor and the oppressed. A point nebulously based on income and the combined economic value of all of our property, introduced as an excluded middle between mutually antagonistic extremes, each deriding the other as parasite. The ‘middle class’ is a pernicious myth that disguises class antagonisms in society for those who find themselves defined by it.

Which takes me to my next point, Mr. Mulcair. For these ideological reasons, everyone is climbing over each other to identify themselves as middle class Canadians. This demonstrates the political utility of the myth. Up to 90% of our nearby American neighbours self-identify as middle class citizens. The number of Canadians is more respectable, down from a peak of nearly 70% prior to the global economic collapse that led to the 2008 recession, to 47% last year. In just one year since, the number has climbed again up to 52%. Interestingly, these numbers are based solely on income figures; when asked to consider both their financial and social place in society, 73% of Canadians self-identify as middle class. While we’re at it, I will point out that 36% identify as working class, rather than middle class[1]. Does this year’s being an election year help to explain the 5% jump in middle class self-identification, owing to broad sweeping political rhetoric? – after all, each party in Ottawa (save perhaps for the Greens) have made it their mandate to appeal to just this demographic. It makes sense. Present an image of the values of the ideal Canadian citizen, broadcasting one’s political platform as widely as possible among the many who wish only to be good, honest people, rather than parasites. The figures on numbers of Canadians who self-identify as middle class are endlessly more telling than any of the many types of median income calculations or other vectors of social standing which try to describe who the middle class citizens really are. The most conservative estimates of these sorts depict the middle 20% or so of Canadians as bona fide middle class. Could such a calculation ever serve parliamentary politics?

There is no room in the calculations of the 99% for solidarity with a wavering middle 50%-ish. The ideals presented in Ottawa fail to capture the minds of this youthful demographic which I have primarily been speaking of – although if we are being truthful, the demographic also includes that 36% slice of your ‘middle class’ who prefer to call themselves workers – because this demographic is crushed by its realities. Young Canadians are crushed by record highs in unemployment and student debt, but still only 38% voted in the last federal election. This is not because we are uneducated and unaware, but rather that none of the parties in Ottawa are speaking to us. Indeed, we are over-educated and hyper-aware, too educated for our wage-slavery, bright young minds from undergraduates to PhDs to the many excluded from the outset by the financial burden presented by university or college, working as baristas and paint shop clerks and under the banners of corrupt telecommunications brands in cramped shopping mall kiosks, or not working at all. We may not be a portrait of the old proletarians, but we are their closest comrades in ideology, in every sense an economic underclass faced with age-gaps and wage-gaps and drowning in unpaid internships. Our reality is the reality of class antagonisms in society, of capitalism in decay and breaking down all around us, and the rhetoric of the old ideals doesn’t sing our tune. We like our leaders like our B.B. Kings, somehow always echoing their influence through the music of the youth. Speak to us, and we will hear you.

This demographic, whose support you try to speak to through your policies, is not ultimately hearing you. Some are like me, who will invite you into a political discourse directly, and who will not hesitate to involve themselves in political activity both inside and outside of our traditional political infrastructure. But many are not, because many do not feel that they have been invited into the conversation in the first place. To speak figuratively, Mr. Mulcair – you have not given many of us a handshake. I implore you to do so, and to begin by engaging us in the discourse which I have opened up here. We are leaking into your ranks on all sides, from the young student MPs in Quebec to those in Rachel Notley’s provincial government in Alberta. Let us in, and we will happily engage you in discussions, lending you our support while maturing the radical politics of our generation on the outside. Because, as a tactical measure, it makes sense to launch our attack on all sides whenever we are able, both from within and without.

I hope that you will deliver a thoughtful reply to my letter, Mr. Mulcair. Because I find you to be a respectable man, and because we young people deserve it.

Sincerely yours,

Anthony J. Gavin

[1] These numbers published in Hennessy’s Indices by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Thomas Mulcair”

  1. This is well written but clearly with a socialist bias and ridiculously idealistic.

    The current generation of politicians may not have a clue but I don’t think our’s does either. The youth you’re referring to (an age bracket I fit into) are searching for an unobtainable utopia. If you want that, gather up like minded indiciduals, buy an island and go there.

    This NDP circle jerk is getting out of hand.
    They’re not the only answer to the problems with this nation and likely to be not best solution. The vote against C51 was a tool to win votes and the sheep are buying it. They’ll repeal it? Please, they won’t. Trudeau didn’t buckle, he did what he said he was going to all along.

    /rant. Oh, and I AM unaffiliated.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Unaffiliated. I can’t deny I’ve got a clear socialist bias, but I don’t think that it’s idealistic. The relevance of socialist ideas ebbs and flows, and they have long been out of fashion, but they are still dangerous and potent, waiting to be picked up again. This is the bias I write from, anyway. We aren’t necessarily searching for an unobtainable utopia – just freedom, and a voice to ascertain it. We do form collectives of like minded individuals, again operating outside of political infrastructure, but it is my view that we must struggle both within and outside of this infrastructure.

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  2. I got through most of this by skimming some paragraphs. Really people need to learn how to edit. It’s not enough to write a first draft and send it. If you really want people to read your prose, go through your draft and delete all the repetition and unnecessary phrases.
    Also, for the screen, cut paragraphs down to just a few sentences, so the reader is not faced with one big block of text. It’s much harder to read large blocks of text on a screen.

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    1. Would you be willing to give me a specific example of what you mean? My prose may be a bit academic, perhaps difficult at times, but I’d hate to think that this letter gives the impression of being a first draft! Thanks for your comment.

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  3. I agree with your point about the ephemeral quality of the middle class, its aspirational over-subscription, its convenience in electoral myth-making, etc.

    But where I lose you is in the rhetoric of class antagonism [Honest disclosure: I’ve never been able to get behind economic arguments couched in rhetoric that predates the lightbulb] and in what precisely your ‘ask’ of Tom Mulcair is here.

    We know the middle class is at least partly a political myth, but it’s also tricky to define. What matters is how you perceive the “middle class”: is it the stereotype of a materially abundant, spiritually sterile life in the suburbs, your income fuelling consumption, your assets deterring you from rocking the boat? Or is it just a step onto firm ground back from the brink of poverty: having enough left at the end of a paycheque to take your children to a play, saving for a training course, going camping, taking music lessons.

    If you see it as the former, then you probably see dangling it before the electorate as a con.

    If it’s the latter––and I think it is––then it’s very real but it has little to do with income, nothing to do with one’s relationship to the means of production, and everything to do with perception. It’s about whether you see yourself as part of an economy that’s (sometimes) fair and rewarding of good ideas and hard work, a community that’s (sometimes) supportive, inclusive and vibrant, and a political system that’s (sometimes) responsive to your needs and the wishes of your community. It’s no “unobtainable utopia” [Thank you, my Liberal friend ‘Unaffiliated’], but neither is it an enormous and collapsing con game.

    Defined in these terms, political parties’ obsession with the middle class isn’t disingenuous, it’s a debate about the proper role of government in the lives of that mass of people neither poor enough to be dependent on the government, nor wealthy enough to be detached from its every decision except taxes. It’s about what steps we can take in four short years to make that economy just a little bit fairer, that community just a little bit more supportive and inclusive, and that political system just a little bit more responsive.

    Which brings us to your ask of Mr. Mulcair. If you want him to talk more about making education accessible, protecting interns from exploitation, and levelling the playing field for young workers, then I’m with you. But if you want him to join you in a discussion on wage slavery and class antagonism, I’m not holding my breath.

    In other words, is this letter a question or comment on the platform he’s offering, or an invitation to a grad seminar on Marxist theory?

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    1. Thanks Theo for your very thoughtful reply! Your question is a good one, on what exactly the ‘ask’ is here. Most directly, I am asking Mr. Mulcair to accept my invitation into a discourse – so then the question becomes, how do I envision that discourse? I have no interest in mounting an assault of pedantic Marxist rhetoric on the man, but obviously my Marxist tendencies are central here. One of those tendencies is to see the value in fighting simultaneously for socialist revolution, and social reforms. In some ways it is a question of ideology. One can be a socialist and support social reforms, not becoming thereby a full-blow reformist. The tactics of the reformist sometimes make sense to the socialist, but never exclusively so. All this by way of saying that a respectful discourse involves some mutual respect between parties. I wouldn’t expect Mr. Mulcair to abide outright talk of wage-slavery and the need to overthrow capitalism, nor would young people do themselves a service by listening if it is clear that his party is unwilling to make any concessions, in the form of discussions on the accessibility and cost of education, the rights of young people entering the workplace and their unique situation, etc. My main political voice is radical, but I believe that I have reasonable expectations for the kinds of conversations that might reasonably be seated in this (still quite hypothetical) discourse with Mr. Mulcair.

      Now that I’ve firmly committed to not making the conversation a ‘grad seminar on Marxism,’ forgive me for doing exactly that, just for a moment! I like your treatment of the middle class question, giving two possible conceptions of it such that we can say that it is only partly a myth, still grounded in something else. You seem to present two still fairly orthodox views of economic stability (and the happiness it brings) as a dichotomy, which seems like a historical dichotomy separated by just a few generations, all within the status quo of Western liberalism. Granted, we have grown past the first, and should consider the second to be a more fair representation of what most would consider to be a ‘middle class’ lifestyle. Here’s the thing – both have to do more so with perception rather than income. The former was the reality of our parents, or our parents’ parents, and the latter hits closer to home in the modern day.

      Nobody wants to be a parasite – parties on a 4-year timeline can only do so much, and most politicians are not being disingenuous when they focus on increasing the lot of this freshly reimagined middle class. Granted. But it isn’t mostly the politicians that are problematic, but the system itself: a system of social and historical constructions which houses their every possibility of action. I think that it is a misunderstanding of the materialist philosophy to attribute bad politics outright to bad politicians. Politicians immediately sign up for a tremendous social-historical inheritance which necessarily burdens them. Call it the ‘political system.’ This is what I fundamentally want to call attention to, what I think requires fundamental change – it is not what I think I can discuss with Mr. Mulcair.

      Thanks again for the comment!

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