OP-ED | The Bitter Twilight of Social Democracy: NDP, unions and enviro NGOs back transit referendum

BiV_transitYESLeaders of the transit referendum’s “yes” side | Photo credit: Business in Vancouver

This spring, the provincial government will be asking Metro Vancouver residents if they approve of a new TransLink funding proposal. The social democrats are coming out of the woodwork to throw their weight behind the ‘Yes’ side in the referendum, as though it were some kind of grand cause. In reality, neither a ‘yes’ vote nor a ‘no’ vote will have an impact on the political direction of transit in our region: privatization, criminalization of the poor, racial profiling, and ‘service’ geared to corporate profits rather than people’s needs.

In backing the referendum, provincial NDP, Vision Vancouver, union bureaucrats, middle class environmentalists and the Christian church establishment have also found unity with the main institutional representatives of the ruling class in BC: the Vancouver Board of Trade, the BC Chamber of Commerce, and the Building Owners and Managers Association of BC.

This unholy alliance wants us to vote to slightly increase funding for TransLink, a neoliberal institution that not only works against our interests as working class people, but has actually been on the front lines of containing, criminalizing, incarcerating and deporting the most oppressed and marginalized sectors of our class. What’s the actual political content of this proposition by the social democrats? Let’s take a look.

Regressive Taxation

Today there is a general line among social democrats that taxes are good. This is a response to the neoliberal line that all taxes are bad, but it is simplistic. At the strategic level, the ruling class aren’t against taxation (after all, Mulroney brought in the GST!), they just want to shift the tax burden off of corporations and the rich and onto working class people – in other words, to strip taxation of its redistributive function.

The reality is that from a class standpoint, all taxes are not good. Some are regressive and some are progressive, and that’s before even considering what the money is being spent on (sending soldiers to Afghanistan, prisons for the poor, NGO imperialism in Haiti?). But today the social democrats have completely given up on their defining principles – like progressive taxation and universality – which grew out of actual class struggle and working class movements. It is no secret that social democracy now functions as the left wing of neoliberal capitalist common sense.

In this referendum, the NDP, the unions and their allies are actively pushing for a regressive tax. An increase in the PST is a flat tax that actually hits the poor and working class disproportionately, since we spend a much higher proportion of our income on things that are taxed by PST. Rich people are much more likely to save or invest their money and pay very little sales tax proportionally.

Funding Privatization

Since being founded in 1998, TransLink has been a leading model of privatization and the neoliberal ‘restructuring’ of public service. The process has been simple: to take out most of the ‘public’ and most of the ‘service.’ The main mechanisms for this process of privatization have been:

  • Shifting spending away from provision of labour-intensive basic service bus service to capital intensive privatized mega projects, like the Canada Line, which generate larger corporate profits;
  • Steadily increasing fares and shifting the burden of paying for the transit off of general tax revenues and onto individual transit riders, who are disproportionately low-income – despite the fact that better transit benefits everyone, even those who don’t ride it on a regular basis;
  • An ideological campaign against the idea of transit as a universal public service: poor-bashing and scapegoating people who can’t afford to pay the fare as ‘fare cheats’ and sinking money into fare enforcement mechanisms (cops & security, fare gates, Compass Pass) that are only beneficial to the corporations feeding off of lavish contracts;
  • Privatization of the governance structure in 2007 in response to a perceived excess of democracy: what then Minister Falcon called a “circus atmosphere” because the TransLink Board, under pressure from anti-privatization forces wouldn’t pass the privatized Canada Line fast enough, causing concern it wouldn’t be completed in time for the Olympics.

So the social democrats are really talking about mobilizing working class people to fight for the increased funding of an institution that has, for almost two decades, been completely hostile to our interests.

Advancing the Neoliberal Containment State

For the better part of two decades TransLink has operated against the economic and political interests of working class and oppressed people. But since the introduction of an armed transit police in 2005 many people in our community, particularly the poor, the racialized, and those with precarious status, have actually experience this institution as a daily source of intimidation, criminalization, and even incarceration and deportation.

Having your fare checked by a cop with a gun is bad enough. But the numerous stories of violence and public humiliation – particularly against poor people and Indigenous youth, as well as migrants who increasingly experience public transit as an armed border checkpoint – make it very evident that there is a much bigger issue than funding at stake.

Pick a Bigger Weapon

It has always been one of the chief failings of social democracy that it promises ‘bread and butter’ but fails to address the issues of power and control, as if these are only a secondary part of our exploitation and marginalization. There is no analysis and no vision here. And the truth is that there hasn’t been for a long time.

From 2000 to 2010 I was part of a  militant and grassroots group (the Bus Riders Union) fighting against privatization and for social, economic and environmental justice in the transit system. The social democrats could have joined in this fight and in some instances, notably in the struggle against the Canada Line, their role could have been decisive. Instead, they backed the pro-privatization, pro-transit police, pro-fare increase policies of Larry Campbell as their representative, while supporting the Canada Line on the narrow and short term basis that it would generate ‘union jobs.’

Whichever way we vote in the TransLink funding referendum (for those of us who decide to vote at all), we are eventually going to have to engage in the tough work of building grassroots political organizations capable of challenging the big business agenda in public transit. This means fighting not only for access, but for power and control for working class and oppressed communities. We can start by realizing that there is no solution to the social catastrophe of capitalism or the environmental catastrophe of climate change within the respectable, pro-capitalist boundaries of social democracy. In its bitter twilight this phoney leadership, who pretend to be about social, economic and environmental justice, will at every critical moment side with the ruling class to save their rotten system.