GOOD READING: @camilacore on the political economy of Uber in Toronto

Today, taxi drivers are demonstrating in Toronto over the city dragging its heels on regulating Uber. Cabbies have also let the politicians at Queen’s Park know how they feel. Ontario also has not moved to regulate Uber.

The following post has been re-posted from @camilacore‘s Facebook page with her permission.


“The cabbies are doing themselves no favour with this strike. They need to improve their image.”

This is the same line we repeatedly about unionized workers who exercise their right to collectively bargain, strike, and march on picket lines – year after year.

Don’t celebrate your supposed adaptation to neoliberalism.. it’s nothing to be proud of. The fact that you—as a worker—have no backbone and have conceded the very last of our rights, quality jobs and quality public services to a market that redistributes wealth from the bottom tiers to the wealthiest companies and individuals is nothing to brag about. That’s not progress or ‘progressiveness’, that’s not technological advancement, and it’s only forward-thinking in that you help accelerate a race to the bottom.

It’s mega bizarre that right-wing free market groupies (consumers who drink the kool-aid and are now pouring it down your throat) can have so much influence over us that they’re able to convince us that new shit is always better shit—even when new shit amounts to concessions on democratic accountability, standard employment, health and safety, decent living wages, etc and shifts risk from corporations to workers now operating under weakened labour protections. Some people get off on precarious non-standard employment relationships that don’t include benefits, I hella don’t.

These are not simple choices we’re dealing with, quite the opposite. Capitalism forces us to make the hardest decisions and constantly pits workers against other workers, and it’s currently forcing poor residents living in the suburbs and other areas of the GTA, which are underserved by public transit, to make a decision on whether or not to use seemingly inexpensive and attractive Uber services in a time when our cost of living is rising and our employment is the most precarious.

I can’t sit here from my most-privileged vantage point and tell my associates where to put their money or how to survive off our meager salaries, but I am telling you that our decision to welcome Uber into our city, as is, will have a profound impact on our city’s economy and hundreds of jobs currently occupied by brown and black men, many of whom are immigrant men, many of whom belong to religious minority groups, and many of whom are on multiple fronts discriminated against in the Canadian economy and who are vastly over qualified for their line of work. Drivers whose education, experience, and credentials have been denied by the Canadian state and who often work multiple jobs, or whose racialized wives have picked up the slack since immigrating to Canada. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for what’s at stake here. All of these issues must be addressed, though it’s not single-handedly the fault of Uber (a mere player among many that gets to stroll in and shit on Canadian workers) that we’re placed in this predicament, but I do ask that we be more critical when discussing the impacts of this general shift and make an effort to understand the issues placed before us from a labour standpoint.


The Political Economy of Canada’s Role in the Atlantic Slave Triangle

Upper Canada Gazette, July 4, 1793.

I think it is crucial to remember the role of both Upper Canada and British North America in the Atlantic Slave Triangle, one of history’s most hyper-exploitative economies. The following paper is based on a series of lectures delivered by Political Science Professor Greg Albo of York University:

History typically does not record colonial Canada as one of the notorious slaving areas of the world. And while Canada never developed a slave mode of production in the vein of the southern United States, it did participate in the Atlantic Slave Triangle through its relationship with the slaving power Britain and its proximity to slave plantations in the United States. I contend that Canada’s participation in the Atlantic Slave Triangle via Great Britain and the southern United States assisted in pushing it toward the centre of the world economy. I also argue that while Canada did not utilize slavery to the extent that the United States and Britain did, other forms of unfree labour dominated the Canadian economy during the same period. This analysis will explore the history of the slave mode of production, examine the dynamics and geography of the Atlantic Slave Triangle, explore the various forms of unfree labour used in Canada and finally examine its place in Britain’s economic control, known as Pax Britannia I.

To fully understand the Atlantic Slave Triangle, it would be helpful to first examine the slave mode of production, as an economic agenda. Increasing demand by the European elite for luxury goods — especially sugar — in the 1500s resulted in a struggle to control commodity production and pushed the West toward the slave mode of production. The slave mode of production relied on hyper-exploited and racialized labour — that is, free and typically forcibly removed from Africa — to produce commodities sold in Europe at higher prices.[1] A slave produced both necessary and surplus product. The slave was owned as chattel, in the same vein as a master would own a cow and was considered part of the means of production. A master claimed the surplus commodity produced by slaves for sale in the market. The master was not a capitalist per se but a merchant given power by mercantilism via the European state system.[2] There were some differences in the execution of the slave mode of production but the British, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Americans all employed it at one time or another. Slavery, as practiced by the West as early as the mid-1400s by the Venetians, differed from slavery in the classical era, which generally emerged from war and was non-racial.[3] The slave mode of production was explored between 1450 and 1650 and was generalized by Spain and Portugal, becoming the predominant economic system used throughout the world for 300 years (until the 1880s)[4] Through the 1500s, the trade in slaves reached such a volume that capture expeditions were no longer adequate to fill demand. The Portuguese were the first to develop commercialized relations with African kingdoms and began to specialize in slavery in the New World.[5] The Spanish initially attempted to force First Nations people into slavery. However, their agenda resulted in First Nations societies being wiped out or marginalized.[6] The English, meanwhile, originally intended to enslave the Irish but moved systematically to enslaving Africans, copying what the Dutch had done before, in order to displace the Dutch in the world economy.[7]

The Atlantic Slave Triangle itself was a trading network that typically involved the forcible movement of slaves from Africa to the southern United States, Caribbean and Latin America, where staple commodities would be produced and destined for (northern) European ports. The triangle would be completed with the movement of commodities such as guns and rum to Africa.[8] The Atlantic Slave Triangle left Africa deliberately underdeveloped, distorted and its leadership decapitated, while centralizing the world economy in northern Europe, specifically in Britain, France and the United Provinces (the Netherlands).[9] All powerful European nations were implicated in the slave trade.[10] The slave triangle also pooled wealth in Europe, enhancing the purchasing power of Europeans.[11] Meanwhile, due to increased European colonial activity, many Asian economies were forced to cross a European military trade blockade. Asia, which had previously enjoyed a high rate of profitable trade with Europe, was disrupted and frozen by the Atlantic Slave Triangle. While it would be inaccurate to explicitly claim that slavery led to capitalism or vice versa, capitalism did intensify slavery, especially in the period between 1601 and 1810.[12] Between 1500 and 1900, approximately 18 million Africans were forced into the slave trade. Of that 18 million, 67% (12 million) were forced into the Atlantic economy. The mortality rate during the passage by boat to America was 10-15%.[13] Canada, which moved staple commodities such as fish, fur, timber and grains to Britain, was on the periphery of the Atlantic Slave Trade by virtue of its relationship with the United Kingdom.

While what is now Canada did not develop a slave mode of production, there was slavery on the lands and it was implicated in the Atlantic Slave Triangle.[14] Slaving of First Nations people began in the 1500s by the Portuguese. As early as 1628, there were slaves in New France who were subject to governance under the French Code Noir. During the age of the Atlantic Slave Triangle, there were an estimated 4,200 slaves in Canada — 50% were of African descent and 50% were First Nations people.[15] In Anglo Canada, the legal foundation for slavery was found in British law. Slaves could be found on the docks in Halifax and a large number of slaves entered into Upper Canada with the United Empire Loyalists after the American War of Independence. Slavery was a part of life for the Upper Canada elite. Several of the governors of Upper Canada were slave-owners.[16]

Upper Canada Gazette, August 19, 1795

That slavery did not become a mode of production in Canada is significant. Other forms of unfree labour came to dominate the Canadian economy, specifically indentured servitude, convict labour and the wide-spread use of contract labour, specifically that which employed Asian and South Asian workers and eventually Italians when anti-Asian legislation was passed.[17] Across the Americas, but especially in Canada, indentured labour was employed and many indentured servants in Canada were Irish and Scottish.[18] The movement to abolish slavery, which had presences in the United Kingdom and the United States by the turn of the 1800s, initially did little to reduce dependence on other forms of unfree labour. In the later half of the 19th Century, as indentured labour rates began to fall, many such workers were Chinese, Punjabi and southern Italian — all of who enjoyed only limited rights.[19] Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery ended in 1837 across the Empire — including in Canada.[20] France abolished slavery in 1815[21] and the United States in 1865. Slavery would continue in some areas of South America (Brazil) and the Caribbean until the late 19th Century.

Meanwhile, colonial Canada did have a place in the trading scheme of the British slave trade between 1650 and the 1850s — a period known as Pax Britannia I. Slavery enabled Britain to become an economic player. It also helped push Canada and the northern United States into the centre of the world economy.[22] Canada and the northeastern American colonies developed an economic culture of exporting agricultural commodities. Through its production of staples such as fish, grain and other foodstuffs, Canada specifically participated in the slave triangle directly by feeding people enslaved in the southern American colonies, the Caribbean and Latin America. Its contribution as a colony of Britain to the development of wealth in that nation, also indirectly contributed to the pooling of capital that could be used to protect and enhance Britain’s global economic agenda — especially after the United States achieved independence.

Canada’s role in the Atlantic Slave Triangle was peripheral but not inconsequential. By feeding slaves with its foodstuff staples, Canadian colonies ensured that the slaves could continue to be forced to be part of the means of production in the southern United States, the Caribbean and Latin America. Canada’s role as a reliable colonial outpost for British economic dominance, especially after the independence of the United States, meanwhile, also arguably lengthened Pax Brittania I. While colonial Canada never did develop a slave mode of production, it nevertheless played a noteworthy role in the normalization of unfree labour through the widespread use of indentured servitude, contract labour and other forms of exploitative economic and social relations.

[1] Greg Albo, November 18, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Greg Albo, November 11, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Albo, November 18, 2013.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Greg Albo, November 18, 2013.

[14] Greg Albo, November 11, 2013.

[15] Albo, November 18, 2013.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Albo, November 11, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Albo, November 18, 2013.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

Ontario’s Flirtation With Extreme Capitalism

The past week has been busy for those interested in the relationship between power and capital in Ontario.

First, word emerged on Oct. 30 that the provincial Liberals and Progressive Conservatives were intent on ramming a PC MPP’s Private Member’s Bill through the Legislature that would allow construction giant EllisDon to skirt 55-year-old obligations to hire unionized workers.

By Tano4595/Wikimedia Commons

By Tano4595/Wikimedia Commons

Some background:

  • EllisDon, which the Toronto Star has reported is a major donor to both the Liberals and the PCs, lobbied Queen’s Park for the legislation despite an Ontario Labour Relations Board ruling against the company on the very same issue in 2012.
  • That labour board ruling was overturned by the Divisional Court on Sept. 27.
  • EllisDon is within its rights to lobby the government. It is up to the province to decide whether the request is compelling.

Then, yesterday, the Liberals abruptly reversed their course, yanking their support for the bill, provided the Divisional Court ruling is not appealed.

A report by Ontario Newswatch emerged late yesterday that one union involved in the case plans to appeal.

Meanwhile,  a separate story emerged yesterday in which PC Leader Tim Hudak called for major restrictions on advertising by third parties such as citizen coalitions and unions.

Hudak, who is no fan of unions, even went so far as to say it is not OK for unions to donate to political parties but it is OK if corporations do so, according to the Toronto Star’s Richard Brennan.

Both of these cases suggest Ontario’s power structure is flirting with an extreme brand of capitalism in which big corporate donors to political parties are seeing their agendas pushed through the Legislature and workers’ rights are being eroded under the guise of economic competitiveness.

If that isn’t the reality, then it is an arguably fair opinion, based on the facts.

Karl Marx told us that the government Executive exists merely to manage the issues common to capitalists.

Indeed, it is difficult to ignore the Marxist analysis when presented with the above cases.

Corporations create jobs. But unions help make sure those jobs are well-compensated, safe and secure for workers who must sell their labour for a wage.

The message the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals are sending is that Ontario’s political culture is one that favours the entrenched privileged elite.

But in a province in which the first same-sex marriage was solemnized and where battles over the legalization of marijuana and prostitution have been fought to extend rights and civil liberties to marginalized people, such a political culture, as that being pushed at Queen’s Park, is looking awfully rusty and out of touch.

The events of the past week lead to real questions about whose interests the PCs and Liberals are working for and to what end. Workers ─ just like any marginalized group ─ deserve just as much consideration from a provincial government as capital.

It seems like the Grits and Tories need to be reminded of that.