It’s no accident life is getting harder: Workman

by Gregory Beatty

Thom Workman: The Hedgehog, the Fox and Canadian Austerity
University Of Regina
Wednesday 12

This year’s Woodrow Lloyd Lecture will be delivered by University of New Brunswick political science professor Thom Workman. Workman’s research interests include critical political discourses, imperialism and Canada, and Marxism and labour history. His talk’s titled “The Hedgehog, the Fox and Canadian Austerity”, and it looks like a good one.

On Jan. 29, I spoke with Workman, who was at his home in Fredericton.

Where does the title of your talk come from?

An essay by political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The idea he had was that the hedgehog was a sweeping thinker who connected dots and the fox was the purveyor of specificity and detail. I’m using that dichotomy between surveying and looking at things up close to make sense of Canadian austerity with the general point that we need to connect dots between things like Canadian militarism on one hand and welfare cuts on the other.

With the scale of domestic and global issues out there, that can be pretty daunting.

Certainly, when you’re working full-time and trying to raise a family, it’s difficult to do. That’s made worse by mass media that almost never draws those connections, and a push in academia toward specialization. That’s important, but it doesn’t help us make connections between foreign and domestic events and different spheres such as finance, economic development and social policy. And, of course, when those connections are drawn, they can be controversial.

Prairie Dog prints once every two weeks, so we’re not caught up in the daily news cycle — where events get reported, but usually without much analysis or context — like other media outlets.

I don’t want to be too cynical, but it looks like news that’s meant to distract. It’s news as spectacle; it’s safe news. News that is politically critical is not safe news. Whether that’s driven by advertising or ratings, in the end there’s a concerted effort to draw attention away from the kinds of issues that would galvanize social opposition to specific government policies. But at the same time, we have seen the growth of grassroots news organizations that are trying to counter this, and the Internet helps with that.

Is it your experience that students are interested in engaging with issues on a deeper level?

Absolutely. Not only that, students often get angry that they’re not hearing about these things. They get frustrated that they had to take a university course to find out about something. That leads them to be cynical and disillusioned about politics and their ability to actually change things. That’s compounded by youth prospects being so low. This is an age of falling expectations. Youth today are not confident their lives will be better than their parents’. They sense they’re going to have to struggle for regular employment and to buy and own a home.

Falling expectations is one dot you can presumably connect to government austerity. What are some others?

The easiest way to [sell austerity] is to just plead that governments are broke, and to not draw attention to reasons why that might be. In the real world, everyone has first-hand acquaintance with credit and credit cards, so we have a sense of what it means to be broke even though state finances are very different. What you have to keep from the public is that after the 2008 crisis we saw the biggest transfer in history of private debt to public debt to bail out the banks. Or that there’s been deep corporate tax cuts. If that’s done, then the public thinks, “Well, if we’re broke we’re broke.” And governments get away with austerity measures that eliminate programs and attack the poor and working poor.

And most of those attacks have been done incrementally?

Governments have chipped away. With unemployment insurance, the major improvements ended in 1976. The ’80s was a decade of conversation and discourse about the burdens of the program. Once the Chretien government was elected in 1993 the axing started, and those cuts have continued right through to the Harper government. In the late ’70s about two-thirds of unemployed people received “pogey”. Now that figure is around 30 or 35 per cent. That ensures people have fewer options, and have to take that crappy $10 an hour job at Wal-Mart.

And the more frayed the social safety net, and the greater the level of insecurity, the more compliant people are likely to be in accepting austerity?

People are basically hard-working and decent, and most will, even though they might hate their job and their employer. Then it becomes easier to impugn those who are not in that position — people who are on welfare, or single parents — as somehow being a burden on the state. It’s the proverbial death by a thousand cuts. And in the end, we’ve created a rather vulnerable society.

Are we reaching a breaking point?

We’ve had four major crises in the last 130 years. One was in the 1870s-’80s, another was in the 1930s, then 1970 and 2008. Somehow capitalism pulled through. I’m not predicting it will ever fail, nor would I want to be around if it did. But there are two looming crises: one is the staggering rate of global poverty. The second is a fundamental rift with the natural world that’s manifesting itself most dramatically in climate change.