Globalization and Culture-One Perspective

 George Hewison

"Presentation to a conference of the CAW and ACTRA, Port Elgin, Ontario, February 4, 5, 6, 1994"

The convening of this cultural conference by the CAW and ACTRA represents an enormous step forward. An examination of culture is always timely, but now more than ever.

Richard Leakey, the noted paleoanthropologist, in generalizing the evolution of the human species, gives us a broad definition of culture. He said that “humans became human through intense learning-not just survival in the practical world, but of customs and social mores, kinship, and social laws. In other words culture. Culture can be said to be the human adaptation.” 1.

Today, our Canadian culture is being drowned in the deluge of violent, corporate U.S. porno-consumerism. Our next generation is expected to absorb and expand the values of their parents and grandparents in face of a rapidly changing world, a world in which the controllers of technology, culture and information (the super information highway), can twist fundamental human values, or deny them altogether, especially as those values challenge their dehumanizing marketplace. Such is the challenge facing labour and culture brought on by the rapid globalization process. There is no doubt that an examination of culture is urgent in face of this challenge. For those of us with a labour background and perspective, the issue is doubly important. Labour is, and has through its history always been, a community within a community. The thirteen million or so Canadians, who daily sell their mental or physical labour in return for a pay cheque, possess a culture within a culture. But this workers’ contribution to the overall cultural milieu is rarely acknowledged in the mainstream/professional cultural world. 2.

Seldom do workers see their lives, issues or hopes depicted in film, music or theatre. Thus the dignity of people who create all the wealth and/or make society “tick”, fares rather miserably alongside the “glamorous”, “gifted”, “genius” of the rich and powerful. And heaven forbid that labour should organize for a small piece of that which they create. They are often greeted with derision, hostility, or deafening silence by the mainstream. Our workers heritage is given little acknowledgment in the school system, mass media or culture. Sometimes it is patronized as "quaint" and relevant only to the past. How many Canadians know of the political earthquake of 1919 known as the Winnipeg General Strike? How many know of the concentration camps, blacklists, deportations, outright murder of union activists? How many know of the “On To Ottawa Trek”, and the Regina Police Riot that led to the establishment of Unemployment Insurance? How about the Ford Strike of 1945 that led to the “historic compromise” (the Rand Formula), union security and whatever standard of living we enjoy today? This is not quaint, but essential to understanding how we got here and where we go from here.

While we are alarmed by, and adamantly oppose, the systematic destruction of the CBC, the CRTC and the Canada Council, we are mindful that these institutions have never been cultural champions of Canada’s working class. So now with crammed union agendas involving bargaining, lay-offs, plant closures and all of the other problems associated with defending workers against the onslaught of corporate restructuring, some organized workers could be tempted to dismiss the time and resources spent on culture as one luxury we can do without. Happily, the organized labour movement in Canada, for the most part, is not cynical. This conference proves that some in the labour movement understand the stakes involved in the loss of Canadian culture. Our Canadian identity is much more than the vision of John A MacDonald or Pierre Trudeau. It is about the sacrifice of generations of working people, including the pioneers of labour, who, often despite the MacDonalds and Trudeaus, struggled to create a humane, just and equitable society. Merging Canada into corporate America negates that sacrifice and makes our dreams harder to fulfill. So it is in times such as these that an examination of cultural fundamentals helps to establish or reestablish our priorities, not just as a labour family, but as a Canadian family as well. We just might find that labour will play a larger role in defending and bringing about the Canadian dream that our forebears dared to dream. It has often been said that labour engages in three basic types of struggle: economic (bargaining, work stoppages, boycotts); political (elections, lobbying, demonstrations, petitions, etc.); and ideological (the struggle for hearts and minds). Unfortunately, it is the last of these three that is the least developed, while potentially the most important.

We, in the labour movement, have long known that what we win at the negotiating table can be erased in the political arena. But we are just now coming to grips with the reality that what we win economically and politically, we lose when we lose the ideological fight. Much has been written of late about the rise of right wing populism, and the demise of the left. 3.

There is virtually no argument that left humanist/socialist/unionist values are being pounded by a massive assault from the creed of competitiveness, consumerism, individualism, despair, greed, and corruption. Within this overall right wing ideological blitzkrieg, that closely tracks the international corporate agenda, the issues of competiveness and deficit reduction have been repeated by the media ad nauseum until they take on the aura of unchallengeable truths, “truths” from which all other values must be subordinated. Defending our unions and our social programs without also widening the ideological framework for our right to exist will doom progressive action to growing defensiveness, and ultimately defeat. An urgent task before all progressive groups, therefore, is the need to find ways to reassert the intellectual and cultural values that led to building the labour movement in the first place. These are the values upon which social unionism is based. These are not self-serving values, but values that the entire community shares. They are values that workers and artists can enthusiastically work together to promote. We need to create a climate similar to that which allowed the building of the mass industrial unions and the welfare state. That task will be harder than bargaining the next contract, or the next election campaign. But it will ultimately determine how we fare in everything we do, including organizing the unorganized, the next bargaining round, or the next election campaign. So far, we have not addressed the challenge from the Right. The rise of the Reform Party and the decline of the NDP is not just a political problem for progressive Canada. It is symptomatic of the ideological challenge we face. We can resist, sometimes effectively, but we cannot hope to reverse our fortunes until we challenge for the hearts and minds of Canadians, including our own memberships. And that is where culture comes in. Our culture reaches out to people emotionally, as well as intellectually.

Culture is every bit an integral part of the ideological struggle. Insofar as workers are concerned, I have discovered in my experience within the labour movement that workers are moved by their own story/culture, and their own heritage (most often denied them). They respond warmly and enthusiastically and become more determined social unionists. Culture (whether formal or informal, concrete expressions, as Leakey defines culture, or abstractions in the form of art; individual and professional culture, or community cultural activities) is shaped by our interaction with our environment and one another. This in turn helps to shape us and our shared community values. Culture is not just a mirror of who we are now, but a dynamic projection of who we want to be in the future. Culture defines us and gives us the spirit to resist and overcome all obstacles. We do not want to become a mirror or projection of corporate USA, or corporate Canada for that matter. Culture is the reflection of all we as a community are, and all that we hope to be.

In the early 1800’s, Scottish essayist and social reformer, Thomas Carlyle warned the Russians, living under the iron heel of tsarist autocracy, that if they did not have their own literature, no tsar’s army could create it. 4.

We want our culture to go toe-to-toe with the racist and sexist models offered to divide us. We desperately need a culture which can focus the legitimate fear and anger of Canadians so that it reflects our shared community (human) values and move us to struggle for a better world rather than allowing the Right Wing to co-opt us, and lace our most basic human emotions with hatred. Most important, we need a culture that does not diminish, patronize, fear or depreciate the workers’ movement of our country; or hides our heritage and the significance of our contribution. We want and need a culture that affirms our dignity and identity as workers, expresses and reinforces our values and projects our view of a better world to come. In short, we want a culture that empowers us, not for ourselves as a workers movement, but so that the workers’ movement can be seen as a most effective bulwark for all of our collective Canadian struggles for a more just and equitable society.

[1] Leakey, Richard, Origins Reconsidered, p. 145.

[2] Fisher, Julius, “Singing Our Own Song”, Briarpatch Magazine, October, 1993

[3] Wain, Alan, “The Left Has Lost the Right Stuff” Toronto Star, January 3, 1994.

     Campbell, Murray, “Wrestling Morality From the Clutches of the Right”, Globe and Mail, January 17, 1994.

[4] Richards, David Adams, from an essay in the Globe and Mail, “We Are What We Sing-Sort Of”, July 8, 1992.