Fighting for a World Beyond Capitalism


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Source: Jacobin
Canada’s most populous province held an election last Thursday. Unfortunately, the opposition, the social democratic Ontario New Democrats, failed to win, losing eight seats as incumbent premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives cruised to a majority. Left-wing Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP) MPP Joel Harden, however, was reelected in Ottawa Centre.Jacobin spoke to Harden about the election and what a renewed Ford mandate means for the Left. Over the course of the discussion, Harden laid out his views on socialism, liberalism, community organizing, and his past as an antiwar and anti-poverty activist.


Mitchell ThompsonHow are you feeling about last week?

Joel HardenMixed emotions. I’m very proud of the organizing machine that’s been built painstakingly here over the last five years.

We had two wins that the political establishment didn’t see coming. Here in Ottawa Centre, most pundits were saying the margins were razor thin. But all they were using were poll aggregators — provincial averages, telescoped into the local community and that’s a pretty dismal way to do politics. What I was hearing out on doorsteps was a lot of appreciation for how we showed up when Black Lives Matter was mobilizing to demand accountability for police violence.

People also appreciated us showing up to support indigenous organizing, housing organizing, anti-poverty organizing, again and again. It’s the showing up that matters. It means breaking a little bit from the cult-of-leadership model and the consultant-driven model, and listening to what our community wants and putting their interests first.

It is disheartening to see 43 percent voter turnout. It is disheartening to see people disengaged from politics. But what I think they’re actually disengaged from is electoralism. What I would love to do for the next four years is not wait until a New Democratic Party (NDP) government comes to power. I would like to work right now to organize with our neighbors to fight for the things we deserve. We do not have to wait.

What I saw in the Bernie [Sanders] campaign, what I saw with Podemos, what I saw with the [Jeremy] Corbyn campaign, is that when you raise expectations and do politics in an exciting way and have a delegated approach to leadership, there’s no limit to what you can do.

Don’t Mourn, Organize

Mitchell ThompsonA second Doug Ford majority is a frightening reality.

Joel HardenAbsolutely. I’m in contact with a lot of the disability community and folks are terrified. They are already living in legislated poverty.

But as the old labor slogan goes, “Don’t mourn, organize.” We need to organize in a way that inspires people, that isn’t about a brand or about “getting to know my leader.”

I want to see politics about the community. Spotlight the people who are holding it down, fundraise for them — not just for the NDP. Before I got into politics, I was a community organizer and I had to suffer through politicians coming to our events and making it all about them. We’re trying to work in a way that flips that script.

Mitchell ThompsonIn many ways, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have intensified the worst of the cuts and anti-worker laws that were introduced by the previous Liberal government.

Joel HardenThe previous premier, Liberal Kathleen Wynne, bragged publicly about having the lowest spending per capita in Ontario.

What I would love to do for the next four years is not wait until an NDP government comes to power. I would like to work right now to organize with our neighbors to fight for the things we deserve.

Bragging about nickel-and-diming public services and how early childhood educators and education assistants are reaching into their own pockets to outfit kids’ schools. How is that progressive?

The fact of the matter is, Doug Ford didn’t break the bank. But the health care system was on its knees before we got into COVID. The same holds true for education.

Mitchell ThompsonThe Ford government has been a kind of COVID-19 multiplier. The Tories have made it easier to evict low-income tenants, they’ve clawed back social assistance payments, they’ve blocked work refusals and now may very well cut health and education. What will it take to undo the damage?

Joel HardenThere are fifty-nine billionaires in Canada and most of them live in Ontario. They literally doubled their wealth during the pandemic. They collectively have roughly $110 billion of wealth. None of that went to the DoorDash deliverer. None of that went to the personal support worker working for a temp agency, helping to look after the elderly or disabled. And none of that went to people working in the gig economy.

We’re at our best, I think, when we’re speaking directly to the idea of creating a vastly better world than the one we have, not engaging in incremental reforms which just end up disappointing everybody.

The Party of Labor

Mitchell ThompsonYour platform included anti-scab legislation and a number of reforms that would make it easier to unionize. Can you tell me about them?

Joel HardenLook, we’re the party of labor. It is in our hearts, it’s in our souls. It’s there in the founding of the party. I spent a long time organizing unions before I became a politician. That was one of the things I did when I was a graduate student. I learned a lot about the hotel industry, about cleaners, about room attendants, I learned a lot.

I believe our existing labor laws dramatically favor employers. They do nothing to improve jobs. So, we’ve committed to introducing card check certification — 55 percent for a workplace. If you sign up 55 percent of your workers, you’ve got a union, the boss won’t have anything to say about it. There will be no election where the boss can terrorize the workers.

We can also end the misclassification problem we have with our food deliverers, misclassified as independent contractors.

Mitchell ThompsonThe former Liberal regime was also notorious for introducing more pieces of strikebreaking “back-to-work” legislation than maybe any other in the history of the province. Since 2018, the Tories have also not been shy about using it. Are you committed to opposing back-to-work legislation, in all cases, going forward?

Joel HardenI would never. It will never happen with me.

Mitchell ThompsonOntario has the highest tuition fees in Canada, having doubled throughout the 1990s. You’ve spoken about abolishing tuition fees and making post-secondary education free. Can you tell me more about that?

Joel HardenWhy are we burdening people with massive debt loads just because they want to try to contribute to their community and improve themselves? It makes zero sense to me — particularly at a time when we need more people in the caring professions, more nurses, more personal support workers, more people in skilled trades, more people building infrastructure. I am absolutely dead set against tuition fees and always have been.

And you know who else is against tuition fees? The members of the NDP. Three different conventions all voted against tuition fees.

Mitchell ThompsonHousing is big business in Ontario and it’s at the direct expense of workers. What does ending the mismatch look like?

Joel HardenThere are several appalling features of capitalism. One of the worst, for me, is that housing has become a speculative investment and not a human right. There are twenty-two thousand vacant units of housing in Ottawa right now. That is just galling in a context where hundreds of people are sleeping rough — even in winter — in tents, parking garages, forests. That is an indictment of our current setup — it shows how broken our society has become because profit matters more than human need. We need to fix our social housing stock and massively expand nonmarket housing.

There are several appalling features of capitalism. One of the worst, for me, is that housing has become a speculative investment and not a human right.

Mitchell ThompsonOver the past decade or so, the ONDP’s support in Oshawa, Windsor, and Hamilton — all industrial centers — has been shaken. At the same time, job, wage, and pension cuts have occurred in the major plants. Capital’s “freedom” to close up shop and move anywhere is also the freedom to destroy working-class lives and working-class communities. What do you think needs to be done?

Joel HardenI used to be a pension researcher in a previous life and I’ve been in too many meetings of retirees who’ve had their pensions cut and their private sector indexation taken off. Just because you’re a powerful company does not mean you can run people into the ground. We need to find a way to hold companies to account and organize in a way that helps people.

Mitchell ThompsonSince you were elected in 2018, you’ve been open about leveraging your constituency office and resources to community groups and activists. Can you tell me about that?

Joel HardenIf people need meeting space, we try to accommodate people. People need amplification for their demonstrations and we have the capacity to do that. We have a community newsletter that reaches fifteen thousand people in the riding. A lot of community organizers approach me and say, “Hey Joel, I’d like you to spotlight something in the newsletter so we can raise money, so we can recruit volunteers and get publicity.” And we do that. We introduce people to journalists.

If other community organizations are getting traction and becoming successful, that helps the whole community be better.

We think, “Hey, we really want tenants unions to be successful in fighting at the landlord tenant board.” So, we’re going to talk about that. It’s a virtuous cycle in which we encourage people to be more into mutual aid and organizing — as opposed to looking at the office as an insurance agent that can just kind of dive in and solve your problems and dive back out.

Mitchell ThompsonWhat other efforts has your office been involved in?

Joel HardenWe’ve done over seven thousand instances of casework with constituents, it’s a lot of heavy lifting. We’re talking housing, health care, any provincial services you can think of where we work with the residents. Sometimes it’s as easy as signing somebody up for a new birth certificate. That’s a quick one.

Sometimes it’s complicated — like when someone who goes to the hospital, desperately in need of pain medication, and gets labeled a drug addict when, in fact, they have a significant health care need that’s not being accommodated. They go to the hospital; they don’t get anything resolved. They come to us.

Taking Politics to the Streets

Mitchell ThompsonLooking through the archives, in the 1990s, you were involved in the demonstrations against the reactionary Mike Harris government, as it cut social assistance, attacked indigenous people, closed schools and hospitals, and carried out countless other attacks on workers and the poor. How did that shape your outlook?

Joel HardenThe first time I was ever in the legislature, I went down as a graduate student because I found out that Harris was cutting social assistance by 21.6 percent. And my family, for a time when my mom’s first marriage broke up, was on social assistance for three or four years. Back then, you could actually find housing — you could feed yourself. It wasn’t pretty and we had a lot of help from my grandparents and our church, but we survived.

When that announcement was made, I literally couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t believe someone could be that cruel. I said to someone in my graduating class, “I’m going to go down to the legislature and I’m going to yell at Mike Harris. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that, but this is just disgusting.”

In Question Period, Mike Harris gets up and we start screaming. Then, this guard comes up to me, and, after I scream, in effect asks me, “Are you done?” He then takes me down to this cell in the basement of the legislature. That was probably my first major political act.

Mitchell ThompsonI’ve also heard that you occupied a bank?

Joel HardenWe stayed overnight in the CIBC building. I can’t tell you how many cab drivers and other people were dropping off food, banging on the windows, and saying, “Go get them banks.” It was fantastic, it was great. And we left with our fists in the air and our heads held high.

A World Beyond Capitalism

Mitchell ThompsonYou were also involved in antiwar activism and remain outspoken against the oppression of Palestinians. Recently, for example, you spoke out and called for the release of Khalida Jarrar. Talk to me about that.

Joel HardenThe root of my work for peace, whether it’s been around military conflicts or whether it’s been about supporting people fighting against occupation, is the through line of all these campaigns. We should be against occupation, all over the world.

Canada has helped to design oppressive infrastructures that have been repeated elsewhere — the mindset of occupation, of dehumanizing people, of likening the need for your country to be the savior for somebody else. So I’ve always felt a responsibility to speak up about it.

Criticizing the colonial practices of Israel is not antisemitism. And I’m not going to be bullied into ignoring Palestinian suffering.

The Palestinian people are close to my heart because I’ve learned from many Palestinian and Israeli friends over the years about the inhumanity of the Israeli occupation. And the developments in the last couple of years are terrifying to see.

The decades-long occupation that the Palestinian people have endured with Western complicity — including that of our own country. It has to change.

Mitchell ThompsonDuring the campaign, it was noted that the party leadership came out in favor of the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Association] definition of antisemitism — which falsely labels many forms of advocacy for the rights of Palestinians as hate. Former MPP Rima Berns-McGown spoke strongly against this. Do you also oppose the definition?

Joel HardenWe’ve heard very clearly from party members — and Rima articulated it perfectly well — that the examples in that definition lead one to conclude that criticisms of Israel and its unbelievably violent, racist policies toward Palestinians is antisemitism and that is absurd. Criticizing the colonial practices of Israel is not antisemitism. And I’m not going to be bullied into ignoring Palestinian suffering.

I won’t do it for the Palestinian people, I won’t do it for the Algonquin and Anishinaabe peoples who are also under occupation right here in our own communities. They are humiliated by mining companies who want to storm onto their land and do whatever the hell they want. Hell no. I will not look away.

Mitchell ThompsonAround the time of your anti-Harris activism and your antiwar work, you were a member of the Canadian Dimension editorial collective. In that capacity, you wrote an article about advancing the “anti-capitalist movement.” Do you still call yourself a socialist?

Joel HardenI am a socialist.

Mitchell ThompsonRight. What does it mean to oppose capitalism, in your view?

Joel HardenI very much want to see a world beyond capitalism — beyond the greed, the incessant, disgusting waste of resources, the dehumanization of people, and the destruction of the planet. I know we can do better.

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