Jim Sacouman

In the last quarter century, the class structure of the capitalist world has changed substantially. Capitalist concentration and centralization, unfettered by a collapsed socialist bloc and the decline of social democracy as even a modest alternative, is returning to class processes and formations typical of the nineteenth century, although in a dramatically more global context. Direct or unmediated forms of exploitation and immiseration, typical of the nineteenth century and first clearly identified by Marx and Engels, have returned as neoliberal imperialism on a truly global scale.

As a consequence, the political economy both of Canada and of Atlantic Canada have changed ‘back to the future’. And, as a further consequence, ‘what is to be done’ in the Atlantic region has changed.

Class analyses of Atlantic Canadian political economy[1] that are rooted in older forms of capitalist exploitation and immiseration are, therefore, inadequate to the task of critical understanding the current reality in order to transform it for the betterment of the vast majority. A serious rethinking of the region’s political economy, and in particular its class structure, is now badly overdue.

This paper first briefly reviews key developments in the capitalist restructuring of exploitation and immiseration globally and then Canada wide, in order to identify and place properly major changes in the political economy of the Canadian East Coast. Some implications for class struggle are then outlined.

The central argument in this paper is that since the 1970s the capitalists’ class war on the working class and petty producers in this region has become much more direct and vicious. This war has returned to its classical bases in working class impoverishment identified most clearly and usefully by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century. In the face of this lopsided, divisive assault by capital on labour, working people and their policy proponents in Atlantic Canada must concertedly reassert working class-rooted anticapitalist alternatives that promote and deepen inclusive democracy, equality, and solidarity in ways that recognise and reassert the necessity for working class-led socialism and that consciously build the experiential possibilities for its attainment.

A. Key Changes in Capitalism Globally

During the last quarter century, a large number of interrelated structural changes have occurred in capitalist development:

1. The actual globalization of the capitalist market and of capital together with continuing restrictions on the mobility of human labour power.[2]

2. The rise and organizational consolidation of transnational finance capital/imperialism through, especially, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.[3]

3. The rapid growth in information and other scientific technologies and the associated extension and deepening of corporate control over scientific and knowledge work.[4]

4. The global extension and intensification of exploitation, superexploitation, and, thus, of both relative and absolute immiseration.[5]

4. The cancerous spread of neoliberalism as ideology, policy, and enforced practice.[6]

5. The end of the Second World of state socialism and the general crisis in social welfare and social democratic reformism.[7]

6. The intensified domination of US imperialism economically, politically, culturally/ideologically, and militarily.[8]

The net major class effects, so far, of these global structural changes in capitalist development have been twofold. On the one hand, there has been a massive and rapid increase in the proletarianization and semi-proletarianization of the peasant and female segments of the reserve army of labour. On the other hand and at the same time, existing and emergent self-organizations of workers, peasants and women have been massively assaulted -- economically, politically, culturally/ideologically and militarily. The world has, indeed, become more obviously a two-class world of TNCs versus the working class.

But, capital’s one-sided, as yet, war on workers and semi-workers has itself intensified both a global ecological crisis of unprecedented proportions and what appears to be a structural economic crisis of overproduction in capitalism itself. This critical assault on nature and on workers has led to new levels, globally, of resistance to capitalist rule and associated state terrorism.[9] It has also, of course, also led to further imperialist wars of domination, such as Afghanistan, and has thus further exacerbated the ecological and economic crises.

B. Key Changes in Capitalism in Canada

Associated with these global changes in capitalism, a number of changes over the last quarter century in the Canadian political economy are particularly noteworthy:

1. The heightened exploitation of full-time labour through the extension and intensification of the working day.[10]

2. The assault on job security and the rise of part-time and other contingent forms of labour.[11]

3. The privatization and commercialization of significant parts of the public sector.[12]

4. The diminution of the welfare state, including the dilution of regional development policies and the end of the rhetoric of Canada wide development.[13]

5. The ongoing anti-democratic imposition of free trade on this hemisphere and the US-ization and imperialization of Canadian internal and foreign policies.

The major class effect of these changes in Canadian political economy is a greatly intensified polarization between the big capitalist and working classes, on the one hand, combined with the uneven immiseration of the working class itself, by gender, ‘race’ and ethnicity, and age. The big question today, of course, is the extent to which the Canadian labour movement and its allies can lead the counter-assault against capitalist self-aggrandizement through heightened exploitation and immiseration and for working class rule.

C. Key Changes in Atlantic Canada

In the light of global and Canada wide changes in capitalism, the following recent changes in the political economy of the East Coast (biased towards Nova Scotia) are of note:

1. The destruction of the industrial proletariat in Cape Breton.

Almost all that is left of Industrial Cape Breton is a human and environmental diaster of massive proportions. “The estuary [around the Sydney tar ponds] contains 700,000 tons of toxic sludge, a witch’s brew of carcinogenic chemicals 35 times worse than New York’s infamous Love Canal .[14]

The coal and steel industries, created by rapacious finance capital, never developed as a basis for local/regional manufacturing. Under the leadership of Canadian Communists during the 1920s and 1930s, one of Canada’s historically most militant sections of the industrial proletariat[15] has finally been reduced to begging for better severance pay. Prior to that, the mainland coal miners of Pictou County had been blown away by capitalist greed.[16]

In place of the militant trade unionism[17] in the coal and steel industry on Cape Breton Island, a relatively creative, grassroots environmental movement to repair the human and natural diaster that corporate greed has created has emerged. This movement, while of major importance, cannot be expected to replace working class militancy at workplaces, but could keep the flame of struggle alive until the organized working class on the Island and in the province gets better organized on a class struggle basis.

2. The all but ‘final solution’ to the previous persistence of a petty producer class in the inshore fisheries and on woodlots.

The groundfish component of the fisheries has been decimated in Atlantic Canada.[18] State policies favouring the corporate offshore and promoting overfishing of the resource in both the inshore and offshore components of the ground fisheries has beggared many offshore and fishplant workers as well as petty producers in the ground fisheries, especially in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

Many small coastal communities in the region have thereby been forced into decline as active production sites. In many cases, ‘development’ is being redefined as the tourism of the ‘quaint’.[19] In these rural areas, from a class perspective, seasonal productive work has been replaced by chronic unemployment or, at best, seasonal unproductive work. A major redefinition of the rural coastal class structure towards intensified immiseration is currently in process.

On the other hand, the market value of the shell fisheries (lobster, scallops, crabs, mussels) has substantially increased over the last decade.[20] Within the minority of coastal communities in the principal shell fisheries subregions (such as southern Nova Scotia and the Acadian zone of the Northumberland Strait area), a transformation of the rural class structure from petty producers to small capitalists is occurring, coupled with corporate expansion in marketing and the immiseration of those who were unable to expand.

Over the last decade, the indigenous peoples in the Maritimes (primarily Mi’kmaq) have won/reclaimed their legal rights to participation in the fisheries. Many Reserves, often themselves as capitalist enterprises, are now entering the fisheries, especially the shell fisheries, in sufficient numbers (greater than 2%) to be perceived as threatening to the primarily white inshore small capitalists.

With respect to class-rooted organizations, the Maritime Fishermen’s Union (MFU), for example, has dramatically changed from a militant, petty producer- based, primarily Acadian, union fighting for both economic and cultural survival[21] to a small business interest group attempting to co-manage the fisheries with the state and big capital. Thus, a formerly militant organization of petty producers in the inshore fisheries has become, like successful farmer organizations in agriculture, much more like a chamber of commerce than a union.

The MFU, in fact, has recently led the attack on newly recognised aboriginal fishing rights in both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. On the other hand, the state-induced leadership structure on many of the indigenous people’s Reserves, has facilitated a tendency for corrupt family-rooted leaderships to siphon off, away from the community, the profits from their new fisheries enterprises.

In forestry on the East Coast, the stubborn persistence of rural petty producers reliant on either a ‘farm’ woodlot or on leasing stumpage from the pulp corporations is currently threatened. In the main, these petty producer families are being immiserated in two ways. Pulp companies are gradually changing towards using more of their ‘own’ crown land stock clear-cut and processed by ‘their’ workers. Also, there is an increasing tendency for the pulp companies to cut and sell directly the hardwoods on ‘their’ crown lands to other big corporations (often ‘from away’). Thus, many petty producers who cut, split and deliver hardwoods for home fuel are being thrown into chronic unemployment.

3. The emergence and expansion of a contingent corporate service sector; proletarianization without traditional proletarians.

Throughout Atlantic Canada, as in the rest of Canada, the “McWorld”[22] of low-paying, precarious, highly mobile and, therefore, difficult to unionize service sector jobs continues apace. Like other parts of Canada a clear case of such ‘McDonaldization’ is the rush on the East Coast to attract call centres.[23] A further instance is the cancerous growth in corporate casinos.

The class implications of such growth is, on the one hand, the proletarianization or, perhaps better, working-classization of many, especially young and often female, people. The classical proletariat which is being thrown out of productive activity in the region is certainly not being re-employed in this type of work.

On the other hand, this proletarianization is occurring under rigid conditions of low pay and no or poor benefits. Additionally, there is an overwhelming tendency of such employment to be fleeting. Because of high likelihood of capital flight to cheaper labour areas as far away as India, and also because of high turnover (both chosen and enforced), the McDonaldized working class is always on the knife edge of immiseration.

4. The proletarianization of and heightened attack upon the public sector.

Not unlike the rest of Canada,proletarianization in the form of unionization has advanced, along with the well-documented privatization process.[24] Certainly, a solid proportion of the increasingly militant unionization-privatization class struggles in Canada have been waged on the East Coast.

5. The consolidation of the illegal informal economy.

Marijuana production in the region has, at a minimum apparently, kept pace with the slightly better known British Columbian situation. An important contribution to the political economy of actual production in the region would be a class analysis of the change from overwhelmingly petty commodity production to becoming, at least in terms of hydroponics, semi-proletarianized production under centralized control by biker gangs.

6. The ‘zoo-ification’ of Atlantic Canada.

Over the last quarter century, tourism has expanded its role throughout the region as a major holding pen for the seasonally employed and the Atlantic Canadian reserve army.[25] As elsewhere, casinos add to the ‘authentic flavour’ of romanticized, dead, virtually dead, or never-existing cultures and subcultures.[26] What is comparatively important is its importance to the regional and Canada-wide class structure.

The ‘culture industry’ has expanded to encompass significant movie and television production while the music industry has discovered that the East Coast is undoubtedly[27] a major Canadian base of production.

7. The extension and intensification of impoverishment.

Throughout the region, the above factors have substantially extended and intensified the immiseration of those near or below the low income cut-offs. Especially significant for women and, in particular, single mothers have been the twin impact of the federal-provincial down loading and de-‘universalizing’ of social assistance programs.[28] Severe cutbacks in other social services, in workers’ compensation, in unemployment insurance and in its accessibility, in health and in its accessibility, and in education and in accessible education has impacted most directly on the entire working class and petty producer population in this region of century-long, often severe, under- and unemployment.[29]

D. In Conclusion

To repeat, since the 1970s the capitalists’ class war on the working class and petty producers in this region has become much more direct and vicious manner as understood by Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century, though in a now globally imperialised world. The relative uniqueness of the Atlantic Canadian class structure and class struggles to the rest of Canada has lessened over the past quarter century. The relative and absolute impoverishment has not.

Working class rooted responses to this intensified and increasingly more obvious class war are definitely emerging and re-emerging. These responses and their programmatic direction need to be carefully analysed and discussed by working class-interested organizations.

Such a policy programme that could build the working class as a whole against the capitalist onslaught might well include a number of components which can be fought for nationally, regionally and provincially, such as:

(1) A substantial reduction in the working day and working week, with no reductions in pay, or loss of services to the public;

(2) significant increases in minimum rates of pay, pensions, and other employment related benefits for all full- and part-time workers;

(3) a massive jobs program to put millions of unemployed and under-employed Canadians back to work, to ensure that unemployment is substantially reduced, and that all workers enjoy unemployment benefits for the full duration of joblessness;

(4) the enforcement of laws guaranteeing complete pay equity for women workers, the guarantee of full reproductive rights, and the provision of universal, free child care and other vital services to ensure that women can play a full and equal role in all aspects of economic, political and social life;

(5) the provision of complete, free, and universally-accessible services to all Canadians, including health care, primary, secondary and post-secondary education, livable pensions, housing and other basic services; and

(6) the extension and protection of workers’s rights to unionization, free collective bargaining, and the right to strike.[30]

Such a policy programme is not, in and of itself, socialist. But, building the working class as a whole in Canada and Atlantic Canada, when done in tandem with building solid alliances with petty producer, women’s, anti-sexist, anti-racist and immigrant, disabled, and environmental movements, can provide a solid basis for the eventual collective and concerted attainment of a massively self-conscious, fully democratic and empowering worker-led socialist project. That would be a credible, if only preliminary, working class response to the capitalist class’ vicious war on the working class and petty producers of our country and region.

[1]. The best source of left analyses of the previous period is the now defunct New Maritimes. Academic sources include Robert J. Brym and R. James Sacouman, eds., Underdevelopment and Social Movements in Atlantic Canada (Toronto, New Hogtown Press, 1979) and Bryant Fairley, Colin Leys, and James Sacouman, eds., Restructuring and Resistance: Perspectives from Atlantic Canada (Toronto, Garamond Press, 1990).

[2]. Osvaldo Martinez, Neo-liberalism in Crisis (Havana, Editorial Jose Marti, 1999).

[3]. Steven Shrybman, The World Trade Organization (Ottawa, CCPA, 1999).

[4]. Scott Sinclair, GATS: How the World Trade Organization’s New “Services” Negotiations Threaten Democracy (Ottawa, CCPA, 2000).

[5]. Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalisation of Poverty (London, Zed, 1997).

[6]. See, for instance, Tony Clarke and Maude Barlow, MAI: The Multilateral Agreement on Investment and the Threat to Canadian Sovereignty (Toronto, Stoddart, 1997).

[7]. Communist Party of Canada, Canada’s Future is Socialism (Toronto, CPC, 2001), Ch. 5 and Ch. 7.

[8]. James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century (Halifax, Fernwood, 2001).

[9]. Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Global Showdown: How the New Activists are Fighting Global Corporate Rule (Toronto, Stoddart, 2001) and Jen Chang et al., eds., Resist! (Halifax, Fernwood, 2001).

[10]. See, for instance, Andrew Jackson and David Robinson, Falling Behind: The State of Working Canada, 2000 (Ottawa, CCPA, 2000).

[11]. Henry Veltmeyer and James Sacouman, “The Political Economy of Part-Time Work”. Studies in Political Economy, 1998, No. 56, pp. 115-143; and Dave Broad, Hollow Work, Hollow Society? Globalization and the Casual labour Problem in Canada (Halifax, Fernwood, 2000).

[12]. James L. Turk, ed., The Corporate Campus: Commercialization and the Dangers to Canada’s Colleges and Universities (Toronto, James Lorimer and Co., 2000); Monica Townson, Pensions Under Attack: What’s Behind the Push to Privatize Public Pensions (Ottawa, CCPA, 2001); and Paul Leduc Browne, Unsafe Practices: Restructuring and Privatization in Ontario Health Care (Ottawa, CCPA, 2000).

[13]. Colin Mooers and John Shields, eds., Restructuring and Resistance: Canadian Public Policy in an Age of Global Capitalism (Halifax, Fernwood, 2000).

[14]. Maude Barlow and Elizabeth May, Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada’s Love Canal (Toronto, HarperCollins Canada, 2000), p. 2.

[15]. See, for instance, David Frank, J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (Toronto, James Lorimer and Co., 1999).

[16]. Cris O’Neill and Ken Schwartz, Westray: The Long Way Home (Winnipeg, Blizzard, 1997).

[17]. Militant trade unionism in Cape Breton has, in fact, been declining since the 1960s. For instance, The general pattern in trade union leadership has been from communist to social democratic to Tory.

[18]. See, for instance, Rick Williams, “Reflections on 25 Years of Fisheries Co-Management.” Paper presented at the CCPA-Nova Scotia Branch Conference on Underdevelopment in Atlantic Canada: Renewing the Debate, Saint Mary’s University, October, 2001.

[19]. See the seven volumes of the magazine of the Coastal Community Network, Coastal Community News. For further discussion of tourism as ‘development’ see the section on ‘zoo-ification’ below.

[20]. See, again, Williams, “Reflections...”.

[21]. See the books referred to in Endnote 1.

[22]. See, for instance, Tony Clarke and Sarah Dopp, Challenging McWorld (Ottawa, CCPA, 2001).

[23]. Tom Good and Joan McFarland, “Call Centres: Solution to and Old Problem?” Paper presented at the CCPA-Nova Scotia Branch Conference on Underdevelopment in Atlantic Canada: Renewing the Debate, Saint Mary’s University, October, 2001.

[24]. Public sector, CCPA documents.

[25]. For more information on the Nova Scotian case, see CCPA-NS’s Alternative Provincial Budget (Halifax, 2000 and 2001). For more on class processes, see my “Semi-Proletarianization and Rural Underdevelopment in Atlantic Canada”. Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 1980, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 232-245.

[26]. Consider, for instance, Anne of Green Gables.

[27]. In my biased opinion.

[28]. See, Barbara Moore, “‘Please Don’t Bury Me!’” RECAP Report (Halifax, RECAP, 1997).

[29]. See the CCPA’s Monitor (Ottawa, recent years) as well as references in Endnote No. 1.

[30]. Communist Party of Canada, Canada’s Future is Socialism (Toronto, CPC, 2001), p. 77.