Thursday, April 28, 2011

My visit to Karl Marx's Gravesite

Ok, so I really have not been posting much, but that will hopefully change now that the school year is over... this summer I am only bargaining for a collective agreement, working a summer job, doing an independent study course, and conducting interviews for my thesis (trust me, that means things are slowing down!!!). Oh, and there are two major conferences and I still have two children in there too somewhere.... Anyway, this is a post that I started in March, and I'm finally getting around to posting now!

In February, I went to a conference as an executive for my GTA union. One of the events was a Raise the Rates rally with John Clarke (an activist from Toronto who helped found the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty) and I was on the speakers panel. That's right... I met, and spoke with John Clarke! I felt like a 12 year old girl meeting Justin Beiber. I mean, I use John Clarke's theorizing and political activism as part of the conclusion to my thesis, for how we can change social policy for the better! I love how he combines theorizing with doing. I wanted to post a variation of the last part of my speech, because I find it quite relevant right now (possibly slightly moreso when that part was written, 2 months ago, than right now, but I will post it anyway!!!).

Part of the reason for not posting much over the past few months is that I took a trip to the UK... before this, the furthest I can remember traveling is Ottawa (about 6 hours away), so this was quite the experience for me. When we were in London, we took the tube to Highgate cemetery and visited Karl Marx's gravesite.

I sat on a bench in that quiet old cemetery on a typically cool and damp London winter day, and looked up at this giant granite head while trying to plan what I was going to say (I was quite nervous... did I mention that John Clarke would be there???).

I was inspired by the two quotes on his tombstone.
Workers of all lands unite!
And what my philosophy professor refers to as the Password to Marx's work
Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it
What struck me at that moment was the global political climate. I was aware of what has been happening in Egypt and Lybia before leaving Canada, but it only takes up a few seconds of a 90 second news update. In the UK, international news stories are discussed at length in the news... which was a refreshing surprise to me. But it meant that I had been submersed in dialogue about the political action taking place globally when I went for coffee or ate breakfast at the hotel restaurant.

That week in Egypt, political organizing caused the president of 30 years to step down! In Lybia, that very morning, two fighter jets had taken refuge in Malta, refusing to obey orders to bomb protesters. That morning was also the first I had heard about organizing in Wisconsin, they announced that 40,000 protesters, mostly students and unionized workers, had taken over parliament. That one shocked me most... this was happening so close to home! My favorite moment at the conference was when one of my colleagues from Carleton University stood up in the middle of a debate of some sort, went to the mic, and told us that the police had joined the protesters. This news was met with applause and cheers from the crowd.

Back on my campus, a group of students formed an activist group to protest cuts to French programs called MERDE (which, literally translated, means shit), and I believe stands for Movement Etudiant Revendique nos Droits d'Education (student movement demanding our educational rights). A few weeks before this, they taped up the elevators, forcing university administrators and the board of governers to walk up 11 flights of stairs to get to their meeting in protest of widespread cuts (along with increased bonuses for admin and higher tuition rates for everyone).

I think I am always going to remember looking up at that gravesite and contemplating world politics. I don't remember ever seeing this type of widespread political unrest (granted, I am quite young). But thinking about it at that location, I got goosebumps. The juxtaposition of the quite, serene, ivy covered tombstones with along with my desire to hop on a plane and go to Wisconsin, where I'm sure the atmosphere was much less serene, reactivated my ability to foresee changes occuring. Maybe people are not as apathetic as I believed previously. Maybe this is possible, and my work, along with the work of other activists (have I mentioned John Clarke?!?!?) will have some serious results in the very near future.

Workers across the lands need to unite to change the world, and we need to do it NOW. We have to reinstate benefit levels to pre-Harris rates (for those of you not from Ontario, in the last 15 years, welfare recipients have seen about a 55% decrease in their pay). We need to restore special dietary allowances which are currently being taken away from a lot of people, and are the only thing that is keeping a lot of people housed and fed. We need to fight to improve education; education is a right and should be free, students should not have to take out loans to pay for their everyday costs of living, including feeding their children, while in school. I can list dozens of progressive causes that activists are fighting for, all of which I believe should be uniting to change things.

Not only do we have these movements globally to look at to foster solidarity, but we have an election coming up in Canada... and it appears as though young people might actually be voting! Recent polls (which I don't entirely trust) show that our most left-wing mainstream political party, the NDP, has the highest level of support that they have ever had... not enough to win, but enough to make a formidable opposition. Although my personal belief is that change should happen separate from the government in order to have any real lasting effect, I am still making sure to vote on Monday, and I ask that anyone who is reading this and eligible to vote in Canada consider it. Either vote or don't vote, but do so actively... if your voice will not be heard at the polls, find other ways to make it heard so that those who are awarded the power to develop and implement policies through our "democratic" political system know that we are not simply apathetic. Workers' groups and unions seem to be really trying to support the NDP, who I don't think that they will change much even if they did win, but the idea of a Conservative majority government scares me.


  1. Glad to see you've had a chance to post again!

    And as a slight addendum, while this may be the highest the NDP has polled nationally, it's more left wing predecessor, the CCF, actually polled higher than that in around 1944...a fact -- one among many, and perhaps not one of the more important, but still -- that really galvanized the Liberals into their long practice of stealing the more capital-friendly planks from the CCF/NDP social democratic platforms, and which contributed to the slow and partial construction of a Canadian welfare state between 1945 and 1970.

    Regardless of how things turn out on Monday, I doubt the NDP's high numbers today will contribute to anything quite so earth shaking, unfortunately...too much else is different from way back then. I suppose it might inspire some sectors to return to making collective demands in more vigorous, non-electorally focused ways, and if so that's great, but it isn't at all clear that it won't do the opposite and suck even more energy that could be devoted to movements into very contained electoral projects.

  2. Wow... I love political history. Your comment reminded me of the first time I read Alvin Finkel as a second year social work student... it was actually part of the reason I switched to sociology. When I found out that the welfare state was created more as a way to suppress a socialist movement than as a nice gesture to help people, I felt kind of tricked by what I had previously been told Canada was about.

    I agree that even if the NDP does get a lot of seats, not many changes will occur... I just think that they will at least save most of what we still have. I do know that they still plan to put a lot more money into things like military spending than I am comfortable with, and a lot of their programs still have that divide between the deserving and non-deserving poor.