Nora Loreto is a freelance writer and author of the book “From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement.”
QUEBEC CITY — In Canada in 1932, unemployed men were becoming more and more restless. The chief of the Canadian military, Gen. Andrew McNaughton, warned that these 70,000 men posed a security threat: “In their ragged platoons, here are the prospective members of what Marx called the ‘industrial reserve army, the storm of the revolution.'”
McNaughton persuaded Prime Minister R.B. Bennett to build so-called relief camps where men could work, at a fraction of the wages of an average job. The camps were far from city centers, scattered across remote, northern parts of Canada.
In total, more than 170,000 men worked in these camps.
McNaughton was right to be concerned; the camps became hotbeds of communist organizing. The famous “On To Ottawa Trek,” in which 1,500 striking workers hopped on Canada’s national railway intending to reach Ottawa, was organized in the camps. The trek didn’t reach Ottawa, but it culminated in a riot in Regina, Saskatchewan.
CBC’s “Canada: A People’s History” series quoted writing from Ron Liversedge, a camp worker: “In those bunkhouses … there were more men reading Marx, Lenin and Stalin than there were reading girlie magazines.”
The camps were shut down in 1936.
Radical organizing is always borne out of a desire for something better. It’s most potent when that desire is mixed with despair: for one’s income security, one’s freedom or one’s need for oppression to end.
There’s certainly a surge in radical action across North America: From the popularity of Bernie Sanders to teachers’ strikes and protests, from students protesting gun legislation to Black Lives Matter, it feels like the time is ripe for a new era of unapologetic, progressive politics.
Ontario has been hit hard by the ravages of global economic policy and should be a prime location for emerging, radical action. Instead, Canada’s most populous province has produced the English-speaking world’s most controversial, right-wing surrogate dad: Jordan Peterson.
Peterson cloaks his anti-progressive opinions in folksy, common-sense advice. He is a master at inventing an enemy and offering young men a solution to various straw men. Peterson has perfectly tailored his self-help style to the individual, no doubt a holdover from his days as a clinical psychologist, which he mentions a lot when he talks.
Self-help alone isn’t dangerous, but it becomes dangerous in the way that Peterson uses it as the solution to the myriad problems that young people face. He argues that the left is dangerous and destructive because of the emphasis it places on “group identity.” In a trailer for a video called “No Safe Space,” to be released in 2018, Peterson argues that “group identity” is really what killed tens of millions of people under Stalin’s Communism and Hitler’s Nazism and then, remarkably, concludes, “and I’m concerned because the universities are so overwhelmed by this, that I can’t see how they can extract themselves from it.”
Therefore, supremacy of the individual is the only way to stop global war and mass murder.
Peterson’s message fits perfectly with the prevailing ideology that has driven public-policy debates in North America since the 1980s: People should be able to succeed on their own, without help from the state. This message intentionally erases systemic barriers that perniciously remain and instead demonizes anyone who understands that collective advancement is the key to improvement.
This is especially potent in the Internet age, when despair happens in isolation. Far from the days of a 1930s remote work camp, disaffected young men can find the answers they seek through a screen or a podcast. It’s comforting to have someone easily identify the source of your trouble (chaos) and that the solution to this trouble is deep inside your soul.
Except you can’t self-help your way out of a stagnant economy.
In the four years that preceded the 2008 economic recession, Canada lost 322,000 manufacturing jobs. Ontario workers were hit hardest: As the province with 46 percent of manufacturing jobs in the country, it lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs alone, from 2004 to 2014.
At the same time, young people have been pushed toward higher education like never before, while tuition fees have more than doubled. Canadians owe $28 billion in publicly granted student debt. Wages have stagnated with no significant increase in 40 years. And the split between men and women accessing Employment Insurance (Canada’s unemployment insurance program) has widened. From 2008-2009, men accessing E.I. rose from 60.9 to 64.3 percent of program recipients, while women receiving benefits fell from 39.1 to 35.7 percent.
Union density has dropped, and work is increasingly precarious. Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, have demonstrated that there is a link between precarious work and increased anxiety, depression and emotional difficulty.
These trends can change only when people work together and demand improvements, whether it’s locally through community activism, or on a larger scale. But that kind of thinking would put Peterson out of work. Peterson’s logic preys on people already in despair and puts them into a cycle that they cannot improve on their own. He’s creating a cadre of dependent disciples.
Margaret Thatcher famously identified community as the enemy to neoliberal economic reforms. If we stop identifying with our neighbors, we lose empathy for them. We work together less.
Peterson is one of the modern prophets of the neoliberal worldview, and he’s translating it to a generation of people.
It’s here that Peterson must be challenged: not on the logical inconsistencies of his rationale, or the aesthetic manner in which he debates. There are a lot of young men who are in a lot of pain. But we need to link Peterson’s rhetoric to the economic policies that are hurting them and break his individualistic narrative of personal liberation.