After nearly three decades as an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), I now find myself teaching a course in Protest Movements and Democracy at Toronto’s York University. It would be fair to say that my experience in the struggles of poor working class communities has had a very big influence on my view of both protests and democracy. We live in an unequal and exploitative society that, in a thousand ways, serves the interests of wealth and power and there is no reason to believe that the formal right to vote has fundamentally changed that. In order to advance democracy in a meaningful way, it is necessary for working class people to be aware of their interests and to act collectively to defend them.
The right and capacity of working people to organize independently is an absolutely pivotal question in determining the balance of forces in society. Even where some degree of democratic rights has been won, every effort is made to contain working class organizations. While political leaders in Canada place great emphasis on the institutions of representative democracy, it is important to remember that these are reluctantly modified forms of a system that was intended to represent only the men of property. At the dawn of English parliamentary rule, during the Putney Debates of 1647, the Grandees of Cromwell’s army made it very clear that they had no intention of granting universal suffrage. In 1819, the bloody Peterloo Massacre in Manchester showed what the governing authorities thought of a call for democratic rights. It was little different in this country and Canadian Confederation created a system of representation that only applied to property owning men. The granting of the right to vote to women and working class men lay far ahead and would have to be won through struggle.
To this day, however, in a society in which the influence of power and money is so pervasive and determining, the right to vote has brought with it only a limited ability for working people to advance their interests. Independent working class organizations that can act outside and beyond the electoral arena have been absolutely necessary and the struggles of those organizations, especially trade unions, have been of decisive importance.
Just as the extension of the franchise was a concession that was wrested from the men of property, so the right to form unions and bargain collectively with employers was obtained through long decades of defiant working class struggle. However, this tactical retreat, driven by working-class pressure, was not made by those in power without exacting something in return. The adoption of labour relations legislation may have granted definite rights to unions, but it ensured that they would be incorporated into a regulated system that limited their ability to take action by confining them within the framework of individual collective agreements. Similarly, when protest movements arose around issues outside of the workplace, governments developed methods of consultation that would draw workers away from mobilizing and steer them into safe bureaucratic channels.
Remarkably, this tacit agreement, which assumed its most developed form in the wealthy countries of the Global North during the economic boom that followed the Second World War, was maintained during the neoliberal decades, from the 1970s on. Although previous concessions to working class movements were aggressively reversed, with unions forced to retreat and the social infrastructure greatly weakened, recourse to more militant, defiant and generalized forms of social struggle was usually prevented or curtailed.
The 2007 financial crisis and Great Recession, and the years of sluggish recovery and austerity that followed, threatened this social equilibrium and the prospect of new forms of struggle and organization emerged. The Arab Spring unfolded across the Middle East and North Africa ten years ago. The wave of powerful social explosions that it unleashed, driven by both global crisis and regional particularities, provoked fear and loathing in high places.
This uprising had a galvanizing effect in a world shaken by financial crisis and economic downturn. The Indignados movement sprung up in Spain, with the occupation of public squares throughout the country. The same year saw the international spread of the Occupy movement. There is much to debate about the nature and impact of this upsurge, but it clearly sought to articulate deep social grievances and, in claiming public space for long periods of time, wrestled with questions of movement building and participatory democracy. There is no doubt that it had enormous support and left its mark on the thinking of many who would continue to experiment with new forms of struggle.
The wave of protests around the world in 2019 had many local roots but, from South America to Hong Kong, the young people who took to the streets, were “the children of the financial crisis—a generation that has come of age during the strange and febrile years after the collapse of a broken economic and political orthodoxy, and before its replacement has emerged.” The following year, the effort to drive a pipeline through the territory of the Wet’suwet’en, in pursuit of an agenda of resource colonialism, sparked a movement of Indigenous-led solidarity that was deeply economically disruptive and created conditions of political crisis. In all of these struggles, new forms of resistance and methods of organizing emerged.
During this same period, resistance to the proliferation of low wage, precarious work that characterizes the neoliberal period has also emerged. Struggles around minimum wage and workers’ rights proliferated, including in the Fight for $15 and Fairness in Ontario. On a range of fronts, popular demands were put forward that focused on the right to decent jobs and adequate public services—demands that could not be addressed adequately by simply casting a ballot at election time. In the US, the undermining of the working conditions of teachers, coupled with the austerity attack on public education, sparked an upsurge of resistance that emerged from rank and file teachers seeking to democratize and rejuvenate their unions.
The onset of the global pandemic, the huge economic slump that it has triggered and the ever increasing impact of climate disaster have exacerbated the social and political crisis and created a new level of urgency when it comes to building movements of resistance. As the pandemic drags on, workers and communities face governments that want to recklessly reopen for business, putting profits ahead of human life. At the same time, where lockdown measures are reluctantly and belatedly imposed, millions face economic hardship and a threat to their housing. Moreover, the impacts on both of these fronts are felt—to a massively disproportionate degree—by racialized workers and communities. Globally, poor countries face the full weight of the crisis in a range of ways, from high levels of social dislocation to the denial of equitable access to vaccines.
In this situation, the popular democratic will is asserted through movements of resistance. The racist murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year sparked a movement for Black lives on a truly historic scale. That upsurge pointed to just how central the struggle for racial justice will be in many of the fights unfolding in the changed reality imposed by this crisis. In India, the vast mobilization by farmers, also happening as the pandemic rages, represents and expression of democratic will against a political regime that is a veritable testing ground for the neoliberal reordering of society.
The pandemic-triggered crisis effectively places on the political agenda the vital question of who will pay. The answer to this will be decided by means of social struggles and these are emerging in various forms. Trade unions and communities are coming together to demand genuinely preventive measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, with active campaigns for a ‘Zero COVID’ approach. The threat of housing evictions on a massive and unprecedented scale is leading to bold new forms of active resistance and tenant organizing. Many of these unfolding struggles will be workplace-based, as workers resist an employer offensive in the wake of the pandemic. The Alphabet Workers Union is challenging Google and a primarily Black workforce in Alabama is on the front lines of the effort to win the right to union recognition for massively exploited Amazon workers.
The pandemic will continue to shape our lives for a long time to come yet. However, even when it is finally behind us, the economic fallout and deeper problems of global capitalism will be left in its wake. As workers and as members of communities under attack, we are going to have to be able to assert the popular will through powerful and united social movements. We are going to have to build the dynamic and democratic forms of organization through which those struggles can be taken up and won. We can and should use electoral tactics, but the brand of democracy we must develop will need to be a great deal more participatory, considerably more combative and a lot bolder in its vision of a different kind of society than anything our electoral process permits.