Monday, November 4, 2013

Austerity and the politics of the Ford scandal

Considering all his budget cuts and bigotry, it’s no surprise people are taking pleasure in the scandal surrounding Rob Ford. But while 60% think he should resign, polls also show his popularity has increased from 39% to 44%. The scandal seems to present opportunities for the left, as the Toronto Sun anxiously wrote in its article calling for Ford to resign: “Ford’s enemies on council, beyond calling for him to resign, are going to use his personal troubles and controversies to try to discredit his agenda of fiscal conservatism.” We certainly do need to discredit his agenda, and have through a series of mobilizations. But the scandal can just as easily erase these memories, and substitute right-wing moralism that fuels his support and reinforces his agenda. We should remember why he was elected, how he was challenged, and the real scandal of the Ford agenda if we want an alternative.

Why was Ford elected?
Ford was elected in a landslide victory, which confused many. Two years into the economic crisis there was visible resistance to austerity—24,000 city workers went on strike in 2009, and 40,000 people marched against the G20 in 2010. Any left candidate giving electoral expression to this sentiment could have won the election. But the left in office, supported by the left candidate, did the opposite: David Miller fought against the city workers, and then passed a unanimous motion applauding the police for the largest mass arrest in Canadian history during the G20. The silence of the left on council opened up a right-wing backlash that Ford rode to office—similar to the Tea Party’s emergence in the wake of disillusionment with Obama.

With no left alternative to the crisis, Ford articulated a right-wing populism that tapped into people’s anger against austerity (defending “the people” and “the tax payer”, demanding “respect”, and calling for an “end to the gravy”), but channeling it into a right-wing direction. As a result the millionaire mayor was elected by contradictory groups—the 1% eager to impose austerity, and much of the 99% with a confused opposition to it.

How was Ford challenged?
This contradiction, revealing the limits of right-wing populism, was important to recognize. In the opinion polls Ford had massive support, leading many to claim Toronto had surged to the right, and that people were unwilling or incapable of resisting austerity. But seeing opposition to austerity—even in a section of those who voted for Ford—was crucial to mobilizing against him. On International Women’s Day, in March of 2011, thousands marched for jobs and services, and on April 9 a labour and community mobilization brought 10,000 people into the streets, to demand “respect for communities, public services and good jobs.” As John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and one of the speakers, said: “This is not a rally against an individual politician. This is a rally that talks about the kind of city we want to have together, the kind of city we want to invest in together, the kind of city we want to build together.”

This was also important for distinguishing between the right and the wrong reasons to be against Ford. When he announced he was running, NOW Magazine wrote about it under the title “fat chance”, and early in his term had a cover of the mayor naked—aiming to make fun of his body size. As I wrote at the time, “There's plenty of reasons to criticize Rob Ford—from his racism and homophobia to his attacks on transit workers and public services—but his weight is not one of them. NOW defended itself on freedom of speech grounds, but that's besides the point. Free speech shouldn't pander to fat phobia or any other form of oppression.”

A focus on Ford’s policies continued to mobilize people throughout the summer—at Pride, through a Toronto library petition that went viral, at marathon deputations and neighbourhood meetings. As a result of sustained mobilizations, a poll in September 2011 found Ford’s popularity fell from 60% in February to 42% in September, with a majority of Torontonians in all wards against the cuts. Left counselors reflected the anger in the streets, and right-wing counselors like Karen Stintz began trying to differentiate themselves from Ford. Ford announced a delay in cuts, but resistance continued—including a video against the cuts, a second labour/community rally on September 26, and marches by the Occupy movement in October and November—when Ford’s approval rating was at its lowest. But the tendency to personalize Ford’s policies continued—through slogans like “stop the crazy train”, which depoliticize the austerity agenda and reinforce the oppression of people with mental health issues.

In January 2012, with a third mass rally outside, city council passed an amended budget dampening the austerity agenda. Ford then went after city workers, hoping for a repeat of the right-wing backlash that catapulted him to power. But the library workers fought back in the spring of 2012, receiving strong public support. A year ago, opposition from below and splits from above made Ford vulnerable to legal challenge, which almost removed him on a conflict of interest charge; since then the right-wing have been increasingly anxious about his ability to impose austerity.  

What's the real scandal?
The Toronto Sun’s call for Ford’s resignation began with a glowing tribute to him for having slashed budgets, contracted our garbage and revoked transit workers’ right to strike, but concluded: “He is now a liability to his own agenda of fiscal conservatism, because the longer he stays in office, the more City Hall will become a circus, preoccupied with the mayor’s personal issues and credibility rather than with spending taxpayers’ money wisely…That’s why we will continue to support Ford’s fiscal agenda, even though we can no longer support the man.”

The liability to his agenda of fiscal conservatism should be…his agenda of fiscal conservatism, which sparked mobilizations of thousands of people, who fought back against his policies and undermined his support. But the mainstream media’s main target has not been his scandalous policies, but his size, drug use and denial.

Fat phobia is in full swing, through cartoons and the front page of the Toronto Sun exclaiming “Dead weight”, with a photo of Ford’s abdomen. The media’s moral outrage over drug use is rekindling support for Ford, as a pollster exclaimed: “if you saw him during that media scrum yesterday, it might have generated some sympathy.”

It’s certainly hypocritical for a millionaire mayor to escape justice. But it’s the “justice system” itself that is the greater scandal: disproportionately incarcerating poor and racialized people, and criminalizing drug use and people with addictions. The police have taken advantage of the anger over the killing of Sammy Yatim to give more tasers to police, and could use the Ford scandal to reinforce the “war on drugs.” The media praise for the police chief—who presided over the G20 mass arrests and an epidemic of extra-judicial killings of people of colour and people with mental health issues—shows how a drug scandal amidst the 1% can still reinforce the 1%.

What next?
For the right-wing, this is Ford’s crime: that he sparked opposition to austerity, and drew attention to the hypocrisy of the system. That is why they want him out, so they can calmly continue to impose brutal austerity. As Karen Stintz explained in her mayoral announcement: “I believe in the fiscal agenda of Rob Ford, but I worry that another four years of Rob Ford may not move the city forward.”

For the left, this means that moral prescriptions—that Ford “must take responsibility for his actions” and “face up to the truth”—ignore the real austerity scandal, and let Ford off the hook. Ford simply announced on his radio show that he is apologizing but will weather the storm, will run in the next election and that people can judge him on his record. That has appeal for people disillusioned by mainstream politics, cynical about media scandals, and wooed by Ford’s statements about implementing the policies he promised.

The problem is that he did implement the policies he promised, and it's that record that needs to be challenged. It’s his policies (shared by the rest of the right-wing on council) of cuts to jobs and services that he should apologize for, and reverse. To weather the rest of his term, and beat him and Stintz, in the next election, the left needs to return to the issues that mobilized so many people in the first two years: not moralism about drug use or attacks on Ford as a person, but opposition and alternatives to austerity. 

1 comment:

  1. Great piece and I think you are absolutely right that that the struggles against the right wing regime on council has to move away from fat phobia, and personal attacks on Rob Ford - for so many reasons, primarily because its the right thing to do. The story needs to move away from Rob Ford entirely as a character, in fact. The effort by the media to keep attention on Rob Ford as a person, either a victim or a villain reminds one all to well of other media scandals that put "a potentially violent male hero" (bell hooks) at the center frame of everyone's consciousness, drumming up either pity or empathy, while entirely detracting from the real story of poverty and inequality. These stories work because they are comforting and familiar, and replay a norm of patriarchal male stories lapping up on all of the empathy and attention, and detracting from real inequalities. What are more examples of success of the left positively engaging citizens? It seems that sticking to the issues is key, as well as a positive message that moves empathy from center stage to the real issues that affect Torontonians - but also thinking more and more critically as a city about what these narratives are telling us over and over again: namely that us continuing to focus on Rob Ford's blunders and potential emotions is somehow more key and crucial than focusing collectively on our needs as Torontonians. This is the form, if not the content of the stories that the media continues to deliver. But also, we need to break down the stereotypes that have been generated in a successful right wing campaign pitting the downtown against the rest of Toronto. The reality is that the greatest inequality lies in the areas that most voted for Ford. What are more examples of what the left can do to heal broken trust and failed past campaigns, or even examples from other cities? At this point, it seems like a huge amount of tactics need to be analyzed through the framework you are proposing so that, going forward, repair of what is not a fairly serious loyalty to the right can be transformed. This can only be done if we also think seriously and critically about the history repeating itself in the media frenzy around ford, before that Bush, OJ, and on and on... propaganda tells us familiar stories and it feels familiar to focus attention and energy there.