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. 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.
Anthony J. Gavin
 These numbers published in Hennessy’s Indices by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.