Rawls’ ghost in the machine

Why a just society may require socialist robots

Rawls’ ghost in the machine

Karl Marx predicted the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) over 170 years ago. Buried within a dense, unfinished manuscript that he began in the 1850s but that remained unpublished until 1939, Marx predicted that “the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the… automatic system of machinery… set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself.” A complete and utter change in both form and function to the means of production.

AI can be loosely defined as the capacity of a machine to imitate human intelligence, whether in intensive pattern recognition, decision-making, or visual perception. It is set to reshape our society in ways we can barely imagine.

A 2016 study from the University of Oxford suggests that AI will eliminate about half of the United States’ human labour. In countries like Ethiopia where agriculture composes a substantial part of the economy, that number rises to 85 per cent.

This massive replacement of human labour by AI will radically change the structuring of our economic institutions. Some, including Elon Musk and Jack Ma, have argued that AI poses a cataclysmic threat to humankind — one that must be curbed.

As opposed to the approach laid out by billionaires who may have very good reasons to resist change to a system that has worked quite well for them I believe that the introduction of AI gives us an unprecedented opportunity to radically transform our economic and social systems for the better. Working not against AI, but with it, will allow us to build a truly just society from the upcoming ‘fourth industrial revolution.’

So what is justice, anyway?

Navigating this crossroads is no easy task, so I opt to employ a guide that will assist in building a just society. John Rawls, widely considered to be one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, presented an influential model of a just society in his aptly titled book, A Theory of Justice. In it, Rawls argues that justice is, in essence, fairness.

The proposed system is elegantly simple: it includes only two basic principles. The first is the “Liberty Principle.” In a just society, each person should have an equal set of basic liberties, familiar to those of us who live in liberal societies: freedom of speech, assembly, conscience, and thought; the right to vote for and hold public office; and so on. However, as Marx noted, while individuals can be religiously or politically free in a liberal state, they may not be able to act on those freedoms due to material constraints.

This brings Rawls to his second “Difference Principle.” This rule is egalitarian in nature; it prohibits all positions of inequality that are not in principle available to all think equality of employment and ensures that the inequalities benefit the least advantaged.

Having this roadmap in mind can help us assess the two questions that I think are at the heart of the debate over AI in the context of a just society: should AI be embraced, and who should own it?

Rise of the robots

Many are convinced that we should be worried about AI. The headlines write themselves. A Mother Jones article warned against job replacement, saying that “mass unemployment is a lot closer than we feared.” A piece in The Guardian discussed a “hollowing out” of the global middle class. Entrepreneur published a piece criticizing the European Union for its lax guidelines on AI.

Calls for halting the progress and implementation of AI are understandable, given that labour change has always been feared in capitalism. The iconic example of this are the Luddites, who destroyed textile machinery in protest of the replacement of traditional labour in the early nineteenth century.

However, maybe the Luddites weren’t necessarily protesting the machines as such. I imagine they would have been perfectly content with the implementations of textile machinery, which made their jobs less strenuous, safer, and more efficient, if their quality of life was not affected in the process.

The main concern people have with machinery, past or present, is not whether they will replace human beings. It is about income security but we will get to that later. Disregarding the loss of human labour, there is insurmountable potential for AI to create a more just society by improving upon our civil liberties, including our freedom of expression, assembly, fair trial, voting, life, and privacy.

It may, however, be tempting to ask whether liberal freedoms can be improved at all. After all, it seems that in an ideal liberal-democratic society, everyone already possesses these freedoms. There are no bars stopping racial or sexual minorities from voting, no Ministry of Public Security to thwart peaceful protests or democratic dissent, no ‘disappearance’ of dissenting journalists.

It is true that we enjoy an overwhelmingly inclusive set of civil liberties. However, the problem lies in the fact that their potential for application is unequal across the board. For example, a homeless man may very well have equal freedom of expression as the editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, but they do not have an equal chance to employ this freedom.

This pattern is much the same with other basic civil liberties: someone who lives in a rural community has a much harder time going to vote as opposed to urban dwellers; a person who holds major office can disseminate their voice much more effectively than a regular Joe; a Christian has an easier time practicing their religion than a Muslim. When applied to Rawls’ theory, this “scheme” of civil liberties is incompatible across the board, and is therefore, at least to some degree, unjust.

AI could act as the great equalizer for social liberties. It can make the world more accessible and freer for all users. The ability for advanced and logical problem solving can help overcome many barriers to civil liberties.

A self-directed and corporeal algorithm can, for example, help reach out and organize a protest, direct people to polling stations (or better yet, allow them to vote directly from their personal devices), disseminate voices to a large and diverse audience, and ensure that there is a fair legal process by representing clients.

It can allow for more accessible and integrative methods for religious practice, enhance our healthcare system, and protect our personal information and data from malicious software. A capable, accessible, and sophisticated intelligence has almost unlimited potential for the encouragement of positive liberties.

However, I would like to caution that current use of AI can also corrupt, rather than amplify, civil liberties. Predictive algorithms are used by police to disrupt peaceful protests, screen social media posts, or censor political opposition. Nevertheless, I believe that there are two sides to the AI story, and AI has the potential to ensure that our society is all the more just.

Some may scoff and point out that the picture laid above would be simply impossible to realistically implement. Why, they may ask, would the companies that create these algorithms be interested in enhancing personal liberties?

Indeed, it may be very well in their interest, and the interest of their shareholders, to limit our personal freedoms. They may do this by keeping us in echo chambers, blocking us from consuming content that is critical of companies or governments, or by selling personal information gathered by the algorithms to maximize profits.

How do we trust that AI will not exploit our civil liberties in the name of profit? The answer lies in the nature of ownership and control of the technology.

All ‘bout the money

Here, we arrive at the more pressing question: who should own AI? I mentioned previously that the main concern about machinery is not its nature rather, it lies with a potential decrease in quality of life. Here, Rawls’ second principle can come in handy.

There is a lot of money to be made in AI. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that AI has the potential to create between $3.5 trillion and $5.8 trillion annually across nine business functions in 19 industries and boost global productivity by around 1.2 per cent.

That may not sound like much, but the introduction of the steam engine and the spread of information technology only increased productivity by 0.3 and 0.6 per cent, respectively.

This outpour of wealth, however, would not satisfy Rawls’ second principle of justice under our current capitalist system. There would inevitably be an unequal distribution of the benefits and burdens of AI, one which would make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

A fully automated capitalist state would have two main outcomes, both of which would produce financial inequalities which would neither be accessible nor beneficial to all. First, there would be a marked loss of jobs.

Many middle-class jobs are classified as routine abstract work, such as accounting or customer service. Given that AI could easily perform most desk jobs, those slots would eventually disappear. Additionally, routine manual work, such as package delivery or agriculture, would also be gone.

The two fields that machines would presumably not replace are non-routine manual work, such as childcare or healthcare, and non-routine abstract work, such as architecture, coding, or researching.

This lack of jobs would be coupled with low money circulation. The number of transactions would fall, and money would instead be used for investments or savings. Given that only a select few would be privileged enough to hold their jobs, this would result in the gross accumulation of wealth in their hands because only they would have a disposable income.

This would, in turn, contribute to economic shrinkage, a terrifying concept for capitalists since it means that resources would be harder to acquire. The shrinkage would, in turn, result in more automation, since the capitalist class would benefit most from it, and more jobs would be lost. On and on the cycle would go, until the system presumably collapses.

The ‘just’ invisible hand

An automated capitalist state cannot uphold any of Rawls’ principles of justice. First, civil liberties could not be upheld in an equitable manner.

Superfluous economic power often translates into political power. Lobbying groups for the capitalist class would inevitably spring up, and with them a host of candidates who latch onto the rich for their own benefit.

White-collar crime is rarely prosecuted as severely as blue-collar crime, and the rich are often given much more leeway in the political and judicial system. The fair value of civil liberties would be controlled by the handful who managed to keep their jobs, leaving large swaths of the population with little to no political power.

This heightened inequitable distribution of civic freedoms would then render this society unjust. Decisions of societal importance would be within the scope of the market, and not by democratic process, to a much greater degree than today.

Jobs would also not be equally accessible to all. Today, we can see that inequalities drive inaccessibility. This effect would be multiplied by the extreme inequalities caused by automated capitalism. The recent college admission scandal shows this on the micro scale. The number of admitted positions at elite American colleges should, in theory, be egalitarian. The fact that students from affluent families could blatantly pay to get the spots is obviously unjust.

On the macro level, accumulated wealth allows systemic inequalities, where high-paying jobs are reserved for a limited demographic. Upward social mobility has been on the decline in the United States since the 1980s — coinciding with the introduction of Reaganomics — with middle- and low-income children struggling for upward mobility while children of the upper class inherit fortunes.

This perpetual cycle, through which high-income jobs are reserved for a chosen few since others could not hope to acquire the needed skills, would only be amplified by the dramatic inequalities that would stem from AI.

Lastly, any benefits that AI might incur would disproportionately go to the privileged. The means of production are currently held by a small group of individuals, and the loss of jobs and money circulation by AI would only accentuate this.

The Economic Policy Institute reported that in 2017, the average CEO at one of the 350 largest firms in the United States saw a salary increase of 17.6 per cent from the previous year, equating to an $18.9-million USD jump.

This jump could only be deemed just if it benefits the least advantaged in society. However, just by looking at employment compensation, we can deduce that this is not the case. While the rich got richer, the average employee compensation remained flat, rising by only 0.3 per cent.

This is not just a one-off year — this pattern has been observed in the capitalist system for some time. The gap between executives and workers has widened for decades, with the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio jumping to 312-to-one from the 20-to-one ratio in 1965.

Clearly, the inequalities are not benefiting those who are least advantaged, which points to a systemic flaw. AI would increase the wealth of the few, but the current system will ensure that the wealth does not trickle down.

An automated capitalist state, then, would not fulfil any of Rawls’ principles of justice, and would therefore be unjust.

If not capitalism, then what?

I’ll be blunt. I think that the only way that a more just, fair society can emerge from this would be the implementation of a fully automated democratic socialist state.

Democratic socialism is defined as a system by which all major means of production are publicly owned. This means that as a constitutional right, all citizens own and administer the assets they require in order to be cooperating members of society. In an automated society, AI used in major companies would be administered and profited from by citizens.

Many may point out that historically, socialism has not always reached its full potential. In countries such as China, Venezuela, or Cuba, the administrators of the system have amassed vast amounts of wealth through illegitimate means, which has led many skeptics to conclude that human nature itself rules out the possibility of true socialism.

However, in an automated world, human nature may not need to play a part in the distribution of the means of production.

In an article for The Washington Post, Feng Xiang wrote that, “If AI rationally allocates resources through big data analysis, and if robust feedback loops can supplant the imperfections of ‘the invisible hand’ while fairly sharing the vast wealth it creates, a planned economy that actually works could at last be achievable.”

Moreover, a nationalized AI system would mean that the elimination of wage labour would not pose a problem, unlike under a capitalist system. Human capital would be largely replaced by resource and information capital. Whereas this would spell out the inevitable collapse of capitalism, it would help a socialist system flourish.

The work and wealth that would stem from AI would be owned and administered by society at large, ensuring that the fruits of production would benefit all. This means that the first clause of Rawls’ second principle would be upheld. Since there would be no “offices” to be held, as human labour would be essentially eliminated, there would be no inequalities in attaining different offices.

This may sound like a frightening idea. After all, we are used to dedicating a majority of our lives toward a profession, whether out of a sense of duty, need, or passion. Eliminating that requirement could make life seem strangely barren.

However, I think that if we really internalize what the abolition of mandatory labour would mean, we can come to an understanding that we would, in fact, be much happier people.

Lack of work would make us much freer than we are today. We would have time to finally get to the book we’ve been meaning to write, to spend more time eating a nice brunch with friends, or to finally master juggling.

A world with little to no required work would mean that the work we do perform would be all the more meaningful. It would be done solely for our own personal enjoyment, or for the benefit of others, not for a perceived duty.

Positions would be defunct, only replaced by equally accessible activities which create no tangible inequalities, thus fulfilling the first clause of the second principle.

In an automated socialist state, natural resources and machinery, the main means of production, would belong to and be administered democratically by the public.

Each citizen would then have a guaranteed source of income, which would mean that any inequalities that arise out of luck, such as in the capitalist case, would be eliminated. The remaining amount of administrative labour would be equally divided among the population as part of their civic duties.

Thus, the benefits and burdens of AI would be equally distributed. Collaboration, rather than competition, would rule the economic market, with an increase of output meaning an equal rise in profits for all. Any fluctuations in capital would equally impact all, fulfilling Rawls’ second principle.

There are, of course, many other benefits of AI that I didn’t touch upon. Better healthcare, decision-making, research, forecasting, disaster response, energy distribution, and much more can emerge from the implementation of AI.

Most of all though, AI provides us with the unprecedented opportunity to transform our society into one that is more just.

Following Rawls’ classic theory of justice, we can safely conclude that implementing a fully automated democratic socialist state could create a truly just society. Some may argue that doing so would be like building castles in the sky — however, we’ll never know until we lay down the first brick.

Rosa Luxemburg: living flame of revolution

Toronto New Socialists host Professor David Camfield

Rosa Luxemburg: living flame of revolution

In the late afternoon sun on February 10, the Toronto New Socialists welcomed Professor David Camfield to speak on socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Slight and soft-spoken, with a ring of curly hair haloing a narrow face, Camfield teaches in the Department of Labour Studies at the University of Manitoba. He is also the author of the academic books We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society and Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement.

The audience, mostly middle-aged, sat on fold-out chairs. A man in a Democracy Now! ballcap shook hands with everyone around him, and others called greetings to one another across the room. The person who sat next to me turned and asked if I was involved in any organizing.

A hundred years after Luxemburg’s murder, I was glad to spend an afternoon discussing her life, ideas, and continued relevance today.

Luxemburg’s life

The event began with a land acknowledgement, then flowed into Camfield’s introduction. He briefly outlined Luxemburg’s life and her role in the German socialist movement. Rosa Luxemburg, he explained, was a leading figure in the dominant Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), until the outbreak of World War I. It may seem anachronistic, but the SPD was the greatest socialist success of the early twentieth century prior to 1917. In fact, in 1912, it captured 34.8 per cent of the vote to become the largest party in the country.

Luxemburg, who held a PhD in economics, was an influential speaker, organizer, and theorist of the booming German socialist movement. Her major economic work, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), examined the intrinsic connection between capitalism, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. She was committed to revolutionary principles, and as such led the radical wing of the SPD. She frequently clashed with the reformists, especially future party leader Eduard Bernstein, who hoped to achieve gradual changes while maintaining the existing capitalist system.

These ideological schisms deepened as war preparations began in Germany and the country tilted ever closer to outright militarism. In the German parliament, where women were not able to vote, Bernstein’s SPD voted to approve the war. Devastated, Luxemburg rightly recognized Bernstein’s and the SPD’s support for the war as an enormous betrayal of principles and left the party. In response, she helped found the Spartacus League, which was dedicated to revolutionary struggle and systemic overthrow — not Bernstein’s policy of compromise.

Luxemburg was heartbroken by the division of proletariat and the turn toward nationalism instead of the international solidarity of the working class. She protested fiercely against the war and was arrested in 1916 for her agitation. She spent the duration of the fighting in prison.

After the war ended, Luxemburg continued to work with the Spartacists, who grew increasingly frustrated with the stumbling Weimar government. Without her foreknowledge, some Spartacists launched a premature revolt in Berlin in 1919. Though she recognized the time was not yet right, Luxemburg took to the streets.

Leaders of the reformist SDP responded by unleashing the Freikorps, a proto-Nazi gang of thugs, to subdue the crowds. They murdered Luxemburg in the street on January 15, 1919.

Lessons for today

Our world today, Camfield reminded the audience, is markedly different than that of Luxemburg’s. As such, some aspects of her analyses are absolutely temporally bound. For one thing, capitalism today is vastly different than it was in the early 1900s. Unions and left-wing political organizations were robust and relatively powerful in early twentieth century Germany, unlike today, where the contemporary power of unions has been drastically co-opted by bureaucratization and far-left political parties are relatively sterile. Nevertheless, posited Camfield, Luxemburg’s writings and theories still contain some relevance for the twenty-first century.

He narrowed this into five main points.

First, he said, Luxemburg’s theory that capitalism leads to complete social breakdown — with a final stage of intense regression and destruction — is clearer than ever: our world is literally melting from climate change, as driven by corporations.

Second, an advanced society with cooperative production is entirely possible and compatible with democratic principles.

Third, leftists must also remember that the start of a new order requires a social revolution — not gradual change. Real change cannot happen under capitalism, he reminded listeners, and reform will always be handicapped by the system that created it.

Fourth, this social revolution must be precipitated by a massive process of self-emancipation: in other words, the revolution must be led from below, not above.

Finally, Luxemburg’s commitment to internationalism rings particularly true today, when ultranationalism is rising and countries close their borders to migrants.

Rosa Luxemburg shouldn’t be deified, but neither can we afford to forget her. 

Editor’s Note (February 26): This article has been updated to clarify the contents of Camfield’s statements and the breadth of his academic work. 

Former U of T Chancellor Michael Wilson passes away at 81

Wilson was Trinity College alum, ambassador to the United States, Canadian finance minister

Former U of T Chancellor Michael Wilson passes away at 81

Michael Wilson, former U of T Chancellor from 2012–2018, passed away on Sunday after a battle with cancer.

Wilson, a Trinity College alum, had an illustrious career in politics and academia, having served as Minister of Finance from 1984–1991 under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Wilson was also the first MPP to serve in the newly created Etobicoke Centre riding as a Progressive Conservative from 1979–1993, going on to hold high positions in various Bay Street consulting and financial service firms.

Wilson was later appointed as Mulroney’s Minister of Industry, Science and Technology and Minister of International Trade. During his time in government, he helped to negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Wilson returned to U of T in 2003 as the Chancellor of Trinity College, a role he served in until 2006.

In 2012, Wilson was appointed Chancellor of U of T, serving another three years after his first term ended in 2015 — he was succeeded by current Chancellor Rose Patten.

Wilson was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2010, a position reserved for Canadians who have demonstrated some of the most notable services and innovations to Canada, both nationally and internationally. He also established the Cameron Parker Holcombe Wilson Chair in Depression Studies at U of T in 2009.

U of T President Meric Gertler issued a statement in remembrance of Wilson shortly after his death, celebrating “his comprehensive excellence, his unassuming generosity and his quiet compassion.”

“From spearheading public policy of the highest significance to publicly confronting the challenge of mental illness, Michael Wilson was a true champion,” wrote Gertler. “It is one of the great privileges of my life to have worked closely with Michael Wilson in the advancement of the University and the causes he cared about so deeply.”

“On behalf of the entire University of Toronto community, I extend heartfelt condolences to Michael’s beloved wife, Margie, and their family at this sad and difficult time. Thank you for sharing your husband, father and grandfather with us so generously.”

At all three campuses, the university’s flag will be flown at half-mast until the day of Wilson’s funeral. A book of condolence will be available in the Simcoe Hall lobby for the U of T community to sign from 1:00 pm on Monday.

Burn it all down

A brief overview of radical politics in Toronto

Burn it all down

Toronto has a rich history of radical politics. Over multiple generations, University of Toronto students have consistently taken the initiative as political participants and leaders. 

As early as the nineteenth century, U of T students have advocated for a more inclusive campus and improved broader community. The very first issue of The Varsity, from October 7, 1880 contains an article staunchly defending the then-contentious idea of allowing women not only entry into university, but the same access to programs of study, scholarships, and extracurricular activities as men. In that same year, students challenged conventional teaching methods, describing curricula as “too much reading too little thought.”

These early years of recorded student activity are characterized by intellectual resistance, wherein students advocated for change and independent thinking. With that said, universities were still dominated by white, privileged men, who shaped the institution in their image — to the exclusion or marginalization of other groups. Nevertheless, these primary organizing ideas manifested into student organizations designed to facilitate the extracurricular activities and advocacy that students demanded. By the early twentieth century, U of T had a student government. Students would also play a key role in creating the National Federation of Canadian University Students in 1926, the first national student union in Canada.

THE VARSITY ARCHIVES

In the city at large, radical politics in the early twentieth century took the form of grassroots social collectives, united under causes like feminism and anarchism. Toronto also sheltered political exiles from the United States, including the influential Emma Goldman. 

Goldman was a Jewish-Russian immigrant who challenged all injustices she came across, including poor working conditions, a lack of social supports for the lower classes, and discrimination against women. This led her to join, and eventually lead, anarchist movements in Canada and the United States. Goldman lived in Toronto briefly, in a small walk-up apartment on Spadina Avenue, and died in a friend’s home on Vaughan Road in 1940. 

Goldman gave speeches calling for many things taken for granted today, including birth control, tolerance of non-heterosexual orientations, an eight-hour workday, and banning corporal punishment in schools. Her actions attracted the negative attention of police, and she soon bore the nickname “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World.”

One of Goldman’s Canadian successes was halting the extradition of Attilio Bortolotti, a key figure in Toronto’s early anarchist movement. Bortolotti, an Italian immigrant, edited anarchist journals and advocated against Benito Mussolini’s policies from abroad. He was slotted to be extradited to Italy, and many speculated that once he’d arrived, he’d be killed by the fascist government for his dissidence. Goldman engaged in campaigns to raise awareness and garner public support about Bortolotti’s plight, successfully pressuring the Canadian government to cancel his extradition. 

Despite the cataclysmic events of World War II and the resulting onset of the Cold War, radical politics in Toronto and on campus persisted. Tommy Douglas, described in a 1954 issue of The Varsity as “the only Socialist premier in Canada,” came to speak to U of T students in the fall of that year. 

Throughout the early 1960s, The Varsity made it a priority to hear from those in society who had largely been silent in mainstream media, including communists, sex workers, and those suffering from drug addiction.

In 1960, the U of T Communist Club was founded. Their first meeting was crashed by a crowd of anti-communist students shouting “Rule Britannia,” attempting to drown out the communists. Supposedly, they gained a majority in the room and began to force the club to adopt anti-communist stances, such as the endorsement of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s speech at the United Nations, which condemned the imposition of political and economic orders on new countries. The Varsity interviewed one of these communist students to get their perspective. 

U of T students also flirted with communism abroad. A mysterious letter sent to The Varsity in 1960 under a pseudonym told an account of five U of T students who joined Fidel Castro’s resistance forces in Cuba to fight against the oppressive Bautista regime. According to the account, the students spent two months wandering through Cuban jungles until they found the rebels’ camp and met Castro himself, who welcomed them into his ranks. The students participated in military activities and were active members of the resistance movement. While The Varsity’s editors at the time questioned the truthfulness of the account, it was compelling enough for them to publish it with a disclaimer, and it has since become campus legend.

And then came 1968, a pivotal year for student movements, which saw unprecedented mass protests around the world in countries including Brazil, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, France, and the United States. The University of Toronto was swept up in this current, which saw a spike in activism on campus and in the city. Students impacted by a housing crisis in Toronto built a tent city outside of Hart House to call for change. This newly-formed community began to host their own events, entertainment, and advocacy initiatives to raise awareness about their need for accessible to housing. In fact, they became so organized that they arranged for ads in The Varsity to inform students about their upcoming activities.

While most U of T students were not directly affected by the Vietnam War and the military draft lottery that led to massive student protests south of the border, they still recognized the war’s controversial nature and empathized with their American counterparts. Fall 1968 saw a large protest consisting of students and local activists in front of the American consulate in Toronto, which resulted in a number of arrests and instances of police violence, including the beating of protesters and riding horses into crowds. A number of students wrote to The Varsity, denouncing the Toronto police as pigs, while a later issue was filled with letters from students defending the police as trying their best to maintain order.

TIM AND SELENA MIDDLETON/CC FLICKR

During this time, student demographics were beginning to change significantly. The first scholarship students from Africa arrived at U of T in 1960, which in the same academic year prompted a series of articles calling out racist behaviours on campus. By 1970, a Black Students Union had formed, and the Students’ Administrative Council — now known as the University of Toronto Students’ Union — decided to allocate $5,000 annually to this organization to support marginalized students. In 1969, the University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA) was established to advocate for equal rights and freedoms for students of non-heterosexual orientations. This marked the first time that such a group had been organized in Ontario or at any Canadian university. The advocacy of UTHA activists helped bring about changes in paradigms of sexuality and gender in Canada and across the world. Today, the UTHA is now known as Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT) and has a permanent space on campus for organizing a variety of events and programming for LGBTQ students.

While many Canadian protests in the 1960s had been in response to events in other countries, everything changed with the rise of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). Québec separatism exploded in the early 1970s with the election of separatist governments, mailbox bombings, and the kidnapping of politicians. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and deployed the military in Québec to restore order. However, what is not well known is that martial law was enforced in other parts of Canada as well. Two University of Toronto students were arrested for allegedly supporting the FLQ, and their rights of habeas corpus were suspended under Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act. Despite this, many U of T students were committed to bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Several meetings about the crisis in Québec were held on campus in 1970, with the ultimate conclusion being that U of T students should take action.

After two Indigenous women from Kenora were unjustly jailed in 1970, a protest was organized at Queen’s Park by Indigenous activists from across the province, highlighting the racist behaviour of the judge who presided over the case and Indigenous peoples’ limited access to legal counsel. In 1992, an organization now known as the Indigenous Students Association was formed, dedicated to providing community for Indigenous students on campus and advocating for their needs.

Environmentalism also began to catch on in the 1970s, with articles in The Varsity outlining how corporations were lobbying against environmental protections to make more profits. Other students began to theorize how these sentiments could develop into a lasting political movement to foster policy change.

MARC FALARDEAU/CC FLICKR

The 1980s saw the rise of neoliberalism and a more conformist ideology spread through academia, which emphasized focusing primarily on academics and spending less time on activism. U of T seems to have felt some of this as well, with activism focusing more on smaller local issues like high rent prices. It was not until the 1990s that University of Toronto students would rise up again in large numbers, this time in response to the proposed tuition increases of the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario, led by Premier Mike Harris. Roundtables were held on campus that hosted prominent speakers like former NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae, who encouraged students to build coalitions with other community groups. 

Over 7,000 people attended a protest at Queen’s Park in 1995 to challenge the Harris government’s budget cuts to education.  As in 1968, police tried to disperse the demonstrators. A column of officers in full riot gear, 14 wide and five deep, advanced toward the protestors, beating anyone in their path with batons. Then-U of T student Allison Starkey, who attended the protest, described an incident in which a police officer cracked open the skull of a mother of four with his baton. Student leaders were influential in the protest, with Arts and Sciences Students’ Union and Graduate Students’ Union representatives and members asserting their presence among a number of students from Toronto secondary schools. The Students’ Administrative Council was criticized by students for not formally attending the protest.

The twenty-first century would in many ways see a continuation of advocacy for the social issues brought to the forefront in the twentieth century, and in some cases these issues would blend together. The 2008 financial crisis prompted the formation of a number of social movements designed to highlight economic inequalities by physically occupying areas of cities where financial power was concentrated. Occupy Toronto was one of these groups, formed in 2011, which organized a 40-day protest with activists setting up camp in St. James Park. From their encampment, the activists would go to Toronto’s financial district to engage in a series of demonstrations. The camp was largely sustained through the generosity of Toronto residents.

Other, more organic protests formed in response to the G20 summit held in Toronto in 2010, with activists challenging elite politicians and discriminatory economic policies, as well as the cost to Canadians to host the summit. Police established a temporary detention centre and arrested over 1,100 people, most of whom were later released. A report by the city’s Office of the Independent Police Review Director released two years later outlined that police tactics during the protests had breached Canadians’ constitutional rights.

FIGHTBACK LA RIPOSTE/CC FLICKR

It may be argued that in recent times, student engagement in advocacy activities and political participation in Canada, outside Québec, is insufficient and has little genuine influence on policy. However, students today benefit from powerful democratic student unions that, in addition to advocacy, provide services to help improve the quality of education in spite of unfavourable economic and policy trends. 

Identifying issues and working together as students necessitates communicating effectively between large numbers of students. An independent student press is crucial for highlighting important issues for students today and tomorrow. At U of T, we’re lucky to have multiple student newspapers. Similarly, extracurricular groups on campus need to work together to engage their members toward common goals. A good way to facilitate campus coalitions is to host joint events and activities where different memberships can develop friendships and exchange ideas. Cooperation between undergraduate and graduate student organizations, and even secondary and postsecondary students, is particularly valuable. 

Furthermore, students should always ensure that their own organizations, especially student unions, have fair decision-making processes. Any authoritarian practice, including excessive power in the hands of unelected officials, financial mismanagement, discrimination, lack of transparency, or interference with democratic processes, should be challenged. That way, we’ll be ready for future crises. 

As history shows, a strong framework for student advocacy exists, and can continuously be improved. The challenge lies in identifying tangible policy goals and the accompanying political tactics that would be the most successful in achieving them.  

Scarborough—Rouge Park poll shows McKelvie with sizeable lead

Incumbent Shan falling behind

Scarborough—Rouge Park poll shows McKelvie with sizeable lead

A poll conducted on October 16 by market research firm Forum Research gave municipal councillor challenger Jennifer McKelvie a sizeable lead over incumbent Neethan Shan in Ward 25 ScarboroughRouge Park, the ward that UTSC is located in.

Of the 405 people questioned, McKelvie is polling at 50 per cent while Shan is at 27 per cent.

Shan was elected as councillor for Ward 42 on February 13, 2017 under the previous city boundaries. Forum Research President Lorne Bozinoff said that Shan is “likely to see his tenure on council ceded.”

McKelvie, who is a former UTSC student, is running on establishing an integrated Scarborough transit network and a training centre to combat youth unemployment, as well as enhancing greenspaces.

Of the other Ward 25 candidates, Reza Khoshdel was at seven per cent, Paul Cookson at five per cent, Amanda Cain at three per cent, Cherryl Lews Thurab at one per cent, and the remaining five candidates at six per cent total.

The research also showed that Mayor John Tory is polling at 68 per cent in the ward, while challenger Jennifer Keesmaat is at 21 per cent. Twelve per cent of people said they will be voting for another candidate in the mayoral race.

A debate on the Autumn Munk Debate

Two opposing student perspectives on the upcoming Toronto debate about populism, which features the controversial Steve Bannon

A debate on the Autumn Munk Debate

“Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist, not liberal…”
PRO: Steve Bannon CON: David Frum  

Should Steve Bannon speak at the Munk Debate? Poll Results.

 

The left gains from listening, not silencing 

Steve Bannon, if you are not familiar with the name, is many things — none of which I would take much pride in being called. He is a media executive, investment banker, and a former executive of Breitbart News. Most importantly, however, he is an alt-right politician who was the White House’s Chief Strategist during the first seven months of the Trump presidency, until his high-profile departure. 

Bannon’s views are clear and controversial: under him, Breitbart was immersed  in scandals regarding, but not limited to, racism, antisemitism, sexism, and white supremacism. During the disastrous 2016 United States presidential elections, when it was announced Bannon would take up an influential post in the White House, there was an incredulous outpouring of public outrage. 

Most recently, following widespread criticism of its selection, The New Yorker dropped Bannon from its upcoming festival in October. Similarly, there are calls to disinvite Bannon from speaking at the Autumn Munk Debate in Toronto against David Frum, where Bannon will support the proposition, “the future of western politics is populist, not liberal.” 

Many are worried about allowing Bannon to spread his alt-right, populist views. However, Bannon’s disinvitation due to public outrage would be a very clear violation of free speech. 

Bannon, irrespective of the repulsiveness of his views, should be allowed to share his perspective and ‘educate’ the audience. Particularly, the most important redeeming quality from his speech is that we can critically reflect on that with which we disagree, a practice that can help us cultivate stronger and more well-rounded arguments. 

In the current political climate, an observation I have made is that those who are left-leaning, with which I identify myself, seem to be too impatient to listen to the opposition’s argument. We become so overcome with outrage that we quickly pick up on the disgraceful rhetoric expressed by the opposition, rather than think about the context in which that expression is made. However, this should not be confused with justification for any spiteful words articulated by the alt-right. 

The left speaks up everywhere — on the streets, on social media, in public spaces, in government. This has unwittingly helped the opposition cultivate its argument. One of the major reasons the alt-right is so successful in the dissemination of its information is that it listens to everything we say, framing and responding to every one of our talking points before we even say them. Our views are so easily accessible and visible in society for the opposition to read, especially given our propensity to protest and march. 

The power of free speech gives us the opportunity to not only express ourselves, but to enjoy the expressions of those with whom we disagree; by better knowing the opposition, we can improve the quality of our arguments and our capacity to challenge them. However, the left continues to squander this opportunity — rather than exercise reason and pay attention to the alt-right, we are bested by emotion and demand its silence. 

It would be extremely beneficial for U of T students to attend the Autumn Munk Debate and listen to Bannon’s views on populism. As the Western world undergoes rapid change, typical understandings of the functions of a democratic society — trade, immigration, foreign policy — are being questioned. Populism has taken the front seat in this new era of politics. 

The value of this Munk Debate is that it will expose the logic of an alternative political system and its approaches to governance. Although populism currently seems like a radical idea, there is no saying what the future holds — after all, liberal democracy was at one time viewed as revolutionary. Bannon, who is closely associated with the most powerful populist figure in the world — Donald Trump — may grant the audience exclusive insights into the concept. 

Providing Steve Bannon with a platform does not put anyone at risk. Ironically, it provides the left with the opportunity to develop its understanding of the increasingly relevant concept and practice of populism, and potentially, to improve the way it can engage and argue against the opposition. The Toronto public, and especially our student body, must be equipped with all the tools needed to debate those who have different values and perspectives. To this end, the left, rather than seek the disinvitation of Bannon, should invite themselves to listen.  

Varsha Pillai is a first-year Social Sciences student at University College.

 

The absence of the left points to a questionable debate 

It should first be noted that the proposition is reductive and vague. Most scholars associate the term ‘populism’ with politicians who emphasize their loyalty to the majority of the population and reject the ‘elites.’ Ultimately, populism is an approach to politics that depends on the ideology that brings it into force; this renders the discussion of a general concept of ‘populism’ a flawed debate topic. 

Furthermore, the dichotomy presented between populism and liberalism is questionable, given the rise of seemingly-paradoxical ‘neoliberal populist’ movements, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! movement. 

The choice of participants for the Autumn Munk Debate opens the door to an even more significant void in this debate: that of ideological representation. Putting aside the surprising absence of voices from Europe, which has been shaken by numerous populist movements, in a debate about Western politics, the larger issue remains that there is no representation for left-wing populism. The views on stage will range from centre-right to far-right. 

To only invite a right-wing populist,  Bannon, under the guise that he speaks for the entire pro-populist side, is both unfair to populism and inaccurate of its actual manifestations. These debates are responsible for providing the jumping-off points for people’s thoughts on these ideas — to fail to inform people that support for populism is not exclusive to the alt-right will only lead to ignorance. 

Beyond ideology, Bannon himself is unrepresentative of the populist base that he claims to represent. Bannon, who is a privately-schooled, Harvard-educated former investment banker, is part of the elite he purports to criticize. Indeed, many recent right-wing populist movements have been no different: Trump is a Wharton graduate of immense inherited wealth; Brexit was led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, both Oxbridge graduates who employ ‘reject the experts’ rhetoric.

Of course, David Frum is hardly representative of the ‘liberal’ side either: he has been responsible for one of the most authoritarian speeches in recent American history, employing highly populist rhetoric to attack non-Western democracies. 

The Munk Debates’ ignorance of leftist supporters on either side of this debate points to a troubling trend in Western politics, one that says that the people “have had enough of experts,” as Gove famously said on British television just before Brexit — a trend that places trust in loud polemicists, often perceived as ‘public intellectuals,’ instead. 

Populism should not be seriously discussed without bringing in experts on the digital spread of information and misinformation, the increasing levels of support for referendum-driven democracy, and other phenomena which have allowed Western populism to flourish — and neither Bannon nor Frum cite these experts when making their cases. Populism deserves a more holistic, informed, and global analysis.

We then come to a final problem: that of Bannon’s actual attendance at the debate. Bannon’s ideas are one problem, but the platform that this debate could give him is a far more dangerous one. Bannon has a history of expressing sexist and racist views. He co-ran Trump’s 2016 election campaign, one which coincided with a hitherto-unforeseen spike in hate crimes reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

Bannon uses the affectation of reason to push hateful ideas. The Munk Debates are propagating the idea that Bannon and his ideas are reasonable by putting him up on stage.

This is not a free speech issue. The suppression of free speech entails censorship: denying someone any sort of platform, private or public. Bannon has many platforms and he has used them to repeat the same message. His ideas have been publicized throughout the last few years, by everyone from liberal-learning mass media to demagogues like Nigel Farage, Kellie Leitch, and Viktor Orbán. We must consider the fact that, even if we did want to hear the words of Bannon, he does not have anything important to say. 

Bannon should be dropped from this debate because of the horrific ideals he openly espouses — ideals which he has been given chance after chance to spread. But even if the Munk Debates decide to tolerate the fact that Bannon is one of the worst people in modern Western media, he should be dropped simply because, as someone who is both unrepresentative of populism and ideologically worn out, he is irrelevant to the topic at hand. 

Arjun Kaul is a fifth-year Neuroscience student at St. Michael’s College. 

 

Editor’s Note (2018-10-01): The “Should Steve Bannon speak at the Munk Debate?” poll at the top of the article was replaced after 14 days of polling with the completed results. 

Survival strategies for the Ford era

We need to stick up for each other, whether with our time, words, or money

Survival strategies for the Ford era

As Ontario’s favourite Labels and Tags aristocrat sweeps into office, the future of our sweet settler province is starting to seem a little cloudy. We no longer have a kindly lesbian with a no-nonsense haircut representing us in Queen’s Park and, like, bleeding on stuff or doing whatever it is that female politicians do.

Instead, we elected her very antithesis — and now we need to deal with it. However, unlike white wealthy men stumbling into positions of power, this is easier said than done. Everyday, we’re inundated with a range of international issues that demand and deserve our attention. The fact that many of us get to choose what to care about or pay attention to is an incredible privilege.

Nevertheless, the constant onslaught can be a lot to carry.

Personally, the rotting trust fund club that is global politics smacks me in the sternum whenever I open my phone to a goddamn New York Times push alert. That alone gets tiring.

Now I open CBC — usually the home of classical music and soothing radio personalities — to distressing headlines from my home province, my home cities, my home schools. It’s a stark and startling change. How to cope?

1. Do something about it. If you care about health curriculum rollbacks, email the Education Minister. Thanks to bureaucracy, if there’s an issue, there’s a minister. So make your voice heard. Go to protests — heck, organize a protest. Sit on the lawn of Queen’s Park and just fart loudly for a few hours if it makes you feel better. But don’t sit still and complain. If you’re lucky enough to not be directly impacted by the Ford government’s new policies, care for those who are.

2. Okay, now you’ve done something. Keep doing the thing. Get others to do the thing with you.

3. Alright, you’re really doing the thing. So are your roommates and your mom and your chiropractor. Are you tired? Yes. Okay, I respect that. Go home! Make a big pot of pasta. Cover the pasta in something rich in cholesterol and low in nutrients. And have it with a glass of wine on the side and someone you love in front of you. Talk about something silly. Like farts. Can you tell I have a true weakness for scatalogical humour? Oops.

4. Another nice way to unwind? Queer Eye. Say what you will about the show, but there is something so precious and wholesome about its lovely cast that it makes everything seem a little lighter. Plus, with Jonathan van Ness around, you’re pretty much going to church.

5. Turn off the tech! I tend to roll my eyes at The Olds constantly bemoaning the rise of smartphones and the decline of ‘real, human interaction,’ but sometimes it’s nice to swipe over into airplane mode. You don’t need to dissociate entirely, but give yourself a few hours off the news cycle. The news will go on. Haven’t you heard? CTV never sleeps.

6. Do all the classic self-care ritual junk that has been floating around the internet like single use plastic on our oceans’ surfaces. Will a Korean face mask make Ontario Great Again? No, but it might clean out your pores. And honey, based on how stressed I’ve been lately, those boys are clogged!

7. Oh god, okay, I’m gonna have to hit you with another Wholesome Tidbit — but, exercise. I know, I know, I just mentioned heavy carbs. But balance! Yes, our bodies are just flesh vessels, but sometimes it’s nice to get the blood going. I am the kind of embarrassing person who lip syncs along to my music while on the treadmill and occasionally — okay, often — air drums. I also sometimes upper-body dance, which manifests in a strange abdominal wiggle. Do I get hit on at the gym? Rarely.

8. Sit in the park with someone you love, or could love, or might be falling in love with. Friends or otherwise, INTJ or ENTJ, sometimes we all need a little human connection.

9. I am earnest to a fault and can’t help myself with this one, but don’t lose heart! We’ve got a long road ahead, and speaking out can get tiring. Don’t try to do everything all the time. You’re only human and you only have so many hours in a day.

If you’re lucky enough to be ensconced in privilege and emerge intact from Ford’s rollbacks, congratulations! But that’s no free pass. We need to stick up for each other, whether it’s with our time, words, or money. Just remember to put your own oxygen mask on first, too.

Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

Keeping politics aside, U of T must globalize in spirit, practice, and implementation

Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

The University of Toronto proudly promotes the notion that it is a diverse, multicultural, and innovative research-oriented institution. The institution has grown to be a symbolic manifestation of the values of openness, progressive thought, and inclusivity imbued in the very idea of Canada as a country.

To a large extent, this is true. Our university has one of the largest student bodies in Canada, with approximately 25 per cent registered as international students. Furthermore, the wide-ranging cultural and disciplinary backgrounds of academics and staff at U of T have allowed others to regard the institution as one promoting global thought leaders.

Yet it is imperative that all stakeholders at the university pay further attention to engaging with international students through more comprehensive platforms. International student fees remain uncapped and unregulated, which has resulted in the university having one of the highest nominal undergraduate fees in the country. Moreover, problems adjusting to language, religious customs, social engagements, and other socio-economic differences, in addition to a worryingly growing unease around mental health concerns such as homesickness, depression, and anxiety, have manifested in a lack of interest among international students in the university’s governance and student politics.

This is not to say that international students remain completely uninvolved in student life. In fact, U of T has one of the largest networks of globally themed student organizations in the world, which remains a testament to the desire for students from around the world or with an interest in global affairs, cross-cultural learning, and diversity to be active members of the student community. However, we as a university need to question what is holding these organizations or individuals back from partaking in student governance. Perhaps it is the volatile nature of student politics at our university. Perhaps it is the personalization of political choices by our student leaders. We leave that up to our constituents to decide.

With respect to student politics — and particularly with respect to the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which I am a part of — international student issues have formed a key portion of our aim to be effective representatives of our constituents. Yet, for various reasons over the course of our history, we have fallen short with regard to putting international student issues front and centre. It is a collective failure for which there is little excuse. But we recognize that this issue exists, and we want to change it.

One of the platforms that the UTSU is developing is called the Global Dialogue Series (GDS). Engaging student organizations, academics, and other stakeholders in town hall-style, discussion-based events, the UTSU organized its first GDS through a series of four events during the fall semester, with a focus on immigration, migrant rights, and minority rights in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, and Canada. The collaborators were comprised of student clubs like the Bangladeshi Students’ Association, academics from the Munk School of Global Affairs, and even a filmmaker working with Rohingya children based in Canada. It seemed to me like a good starting point to push student-centred global issues to the forefront of the UTSU’s relationship with its constituents.

Keeping up with this philosophy, the UTSU is planning to continue its GDS series, with a primary focus in student activism and education in countries ranging from Turkey to the United States. While the planning of the event series is still in its preliminary process, with the active engagement of on-campus student clubs and external stakeholders, we hope to make this event — and, from a long-term perspective, the GDS in general — a permanent platform for student politicians to carry forward, irrespective of political differences.

I invite all interested parties to partake in this endeavour. Conversations spur conversations, which ultimately lead to a better informed student body — better informed about foreign cultures and varying ideologies and lifestyles. Maybe one day, we at the university will be able to say that rather than international students adjusting to the Toronto culture, we all should collectively adapt to and celebrate diversity. If we can do that, we will truly be able to call ourselves a comprehensively diverse institution, not just in terms of numbers, but in the way we talk about and represent ourselves.

For far too long, student politicians and activists at this university have engaged in hostile politics, sometimes just for the sake of doing so. Differences in ideologies will remain, but they do not give us the right to ignore core issues for students, including Islamophobia, mental health concerns, homophobia, and academic difficulties.

My demand as an international student is that we come together to project genuine internationalism, from engaging with platforms such as the GDS to participating in activities hosted by bodies like the Centre for International Experience. Let us put aside partisan disparities across political slates, socio-cultural organizations, and academic disciplines and unite in the spirit of putting issues affecting international students front and centre.

 

Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a fourth-year student at University College studying Economics and International Relations. He is the Associate Vice President-University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.