2023 Ellen Meiksins Wood Lecture featuring Armine Yalnizyan

The 2023 Ellen Meiksins Wood Lecture was delivered by economist Armine Yalnizyan—a leading voice on Canada’s economic scene.

Armine Yalnizyan delivering the 2023 Ellen Meiksins Wood Lecture at Toronto Metropolitan University, May 23, 2023.
Armine Yalnizyan delivering the 2023 Ellen Meiksins Wood Lecture at Toronto Metropolitan University, May 23, 2023.

This edition of the Ellen Meiksins Wood Lecture was held on Tuesday, May 23rd at an event in partnership with Toronto Metropolitan University’s Faculty of Arts. A special thanks to TMU Dean of Arts Pamela Sugiman for hosting this Broadbent Institute event.

Ellen Meiksins Wood was one of the left’s foremost theorists on democracy and history, and often promoted the idea that democracy always has to be fought for and secured from below, never benevolently conferred from above. The Institute founded the annual Ellen Meiksins Wood Prize & Lecture to honour Professor Wood’s legacy as an internationally renowned scholar and to bring her work to new generations of Canadians.

The Ellen Meiksins Wood Prize is given annually to an academic, labour activist or writer and recognizes outstanding contributions in political theory, social or economic history, human rights, or sociology.

Each year’s recipient also delivers the Ellen Meiksins Wood Lecture.

The 2023 Ellen Meiksins Wood Lecture was delivered by economist Armine Yalnizyan—a leading voice on Canada’s economic scene.

Her lecture, entitled Progress vs. 2023: A Guide to the Fight Ahead, presented her sweeping vision of what it means to be a progressive in 2023, taking us on a tour of the evolution of progressive ideas, and its constancy. She showed how context has shaped strategy, and lay out the push and the pull of the moment: the challenges facing the progressive agenda and the momentum building for it.

Listen, watch or read the full 2023 Ellen Meiksins Wood Lecture.

2023 Ellen Meiksins Wood Lecture

I am originally from Toronto, but have lived for the last five years on unceded, unsurrendered territory that the Anishnabe Algonquin people have taken care of, just as it has taken care of them, for thousands of years.

I live on the Ottawa River now and the biggest thing I’ve noticed about my change of place is how the river constantly changes, shaped by what is happening upstream, and by blocks and openings downstream.

A changing river changes the landscape. So do some people.

They may just be droplets in the river of life, but their instincts and ability to explain why we shouldn’t go-with-the-flow attract so many others that, together, they change the course of the river, and the course of history.

Two such people brought us here today.

Ellen Meiskins Wood taught us not just the importance of understanding history, but the importance of how we tell the story, interpret the story to ourselves, in order to change its course. Her work showed us that the flow is constructed: capitalism isn’t inevitable, contrary to what we’ve been told for decades. It isn’t the natural order of things. Capitalism hasn’t always existed; and its nature is constantly changing.

Margaret Thatcher’s brilliant slogan, “There is no alternative”, was just plain wrong; but it accomplished its goal – neutralizing the meaning of free market economic forces, depoliticizing them even as they changed our material circumstances and the quality of our lives. Ellen’s analysis challenges us to consider: How will capitalism change next, and who will change its course?

Then there’s Ed Broadbent, who showed us how institutions change the course of the journey, and how you can change institutions if you are clear on what you are trying to accomplish. Ed is a giant of social democracy in this country who has dedicated his life not just to improving political democracy — the right to vote, support a candidate running for election, maybe even join a party — but to improving the conditions that build a just and equitable society.

His unique combination of academic rigour and activism created the type of horse-trading that left politics often promises but rarely delivers on. In his insistence that we all challenge ourselves to achieve social democratic goals, from whatever station of life we occupy, Ed has no peer.

Unless you consider Ellen. If I wasn’t Armenian I’d have a joke for you right now. You know, one of those “A Marxist and a social democrat walk  into a bar….” types of jokes.

Marjorie Griffin Cohen told me about Ed and Ellen’s unlikely chemistry, given their uncompromising differences of opinion. She talked about a video where they debated one another, vigorously; but what shone through was their mutual respect for each other, and their understanding that their differences in strategy  was tied to their love of the shared goal of creating a better type of human existence. And just plain love for one another. What a way to be unified.

So this prize has a double significance for me – what it can mean to interpret the world, and what it means to change it. 

First I was astonished to receive it, given who it comes from. Then I was grateful for the opportunity to reflect on what it means to belong here. I felt like that character in the Talking Heads song: And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”

Seriously, this award challenged me to address a question I’ve been mulling over for years, and bring it face to face with the  moment: What does it mean to be a progressive in 2023?

What are we on the verge of winning, and what are we on the verge of losing? What forces are we up against, and what could propel us further? Maybe more importantly: What are the organizing principles for progressive change?  

Since it’s 2023, and I was a little cowed at the prospect of having Ed in the audience, I asked Chatbot GPT-4 for advice on how to write this speech.   

The chatbot told me to start with a story about myself. I mean, when the machines tell you to be more human….

But the instruction reminded me of what we repeatedly learn and repeatedly forget about the power personal stories have to connect us as humans. For over 70 years that power was harnessed to organize labour on assembly lines and on farms in the U.S., in communities and in politics by people like Saul Alinsky, Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta, and Marshall Ganz.

Ganz boiled the recipe for successful organizing and people-driven change down to three chapters: the Story of Self, the Story of Us, the Story of Now. To quote Ganz, the magic of organizing is about “how to turn what we have into what we need to get what we want”.

I believe the progressive challenge of 2023 is that we talk to each other but don’t often listen to each other. For sure we don’t talk to each other personally enough to learn what would motivate people to organize for a better humanity, nor do we use what history has taught us. And since I think Ganz’s recipe is the way we win, let me tell you my story of self, the improbable story of how I got here, what called me to be a progressive.

Let me start with what didn’t call me.

I am not a Marxist. Well, I shouldn’t be so hasty. Maybe I am, but of the Groucho Marxist variety – you know, “I don’t care to belong to a club that would have me as a member”.

I have been an outsider my entire life. In my profession as an economist. In my generation of feminists. At school. Even growing up in my own home.

It’s because I could so clearly see the limitations of any club I might belong to, and because my upbringing required “holding the tension” of polar opposites.

I have no working class pedigree.

My formative politics came in two flavours, a mirror of the political tensions in the Armenian diaspora: my mother was a fearful survivalist of the “don’t rock the boat” type. My dad was a “leave no one behind” firebrand, a survivor of the Turkish massacre with a true lust for life.

My father died when I was nine, leaving me with a lifetime of debate with my mother, whose essential conservatism and obedience was shaped by the French nuns who raised her.  Much to her chagrin, I decided I was a feminist at a young teen after reading “Our Bodies, Ourselves”.

My mother was among the brightest women you’d ever meet, but only completed a Grade 4 education. My father’s salvation and distinction came from his education as a mechanical and electrical engineer, goals attained with mighty struggle.

It was assumed I would take advantage of the many benefits of living in Canada, including easy access to higher education. I did not. I hated school and went straight from high school to work, in a library.

If I had no working class politics before, I sure developed them when I found out that nomatter how smart I was, or how hard I worked, I would never lose my roommates and find economic freedom without a degree.

That’s the only reason I went to university in 1979, and I just had to find out why economics was the profession that ruled the world. In the first weeks I thought there was a mistake. It seemed based on some pretty nutty foundational ideas, like perfect and symmetrical information, and – my favourite – the indifference curve, where one chose between work and leisure. Surprise! There was no vector for unpaid work! Women were mostly invisible in what counted!

Ellen Meiskins Wood described how capitalism evacuates social content. For me that meant the parts that don’t make money are invisible at best (think: women), and problems at worst (think: governments and rules!). Capitalism depoliticizes economics by talking about the economy *done right* as if it’s simply a maximization machine, and free markets are “neutral” notwithstanding the fact that there is nothing more political than who can get what from whom, under what conditions.

Colonialism is the go-to example today; but at the time, I found the treatment of unpaid labour, done mostly by women, perplexing. It made the world go round. How could it be invisible?

As part of my bilingual degree, I studied third year economics in France, where the study of Marx (at a conservative university no less) was mandatory. Fun fact: You couldn’t even *say* the word Marxist in most Canadian economics courses back then,  much less be expected to know theories of surplus value, also known as the extraction of profit, which often looks like straight-up exploitation.  

I graduated in the spring of 1983, not long after the 1981-82 recession bottomed out. Canadians saw the biggest job losses since the Great Depression. The only money I could make was as a graduate student on scholarship, working as the bilingual research assistant…but what research. I was the RA to my undergraduate hero, Sylvia Ostry. Twist my arm! In 1972 Ostry had written with Mahmood Zaidi the only economics book my undergraduate studies countenanced about systemic differences in labour market outcomes due to gender and race.

She had just returned from a stint as the OECD’s chief economist, and was researching the impacts of technological changes and globalization on labour markets. Forty years on, I am still working on these themes.

Around this time I was attending alternative economics conferences with speakers like Sam Gindin, Hugh Mackenzie, and D’Arcy Martin. They, too, inspired me. They were at the cutting edge of articulating the challenges and possibilities for workers as capitalism’s new global economic realities took hold.

I realized that understanding and interpreting economic theory or economic history wasn’t enough. I wanted to change the trajectory of economics, along with those who were being affected; working with other workers to create something better for each and all, because it felt like the deck was getting increasingly stacked against people like younger me.

But unions were bleeding jobs and members. Nobody was hiring.

I was a just-in-time economist for two years and grabbed the first non-contract position I was offered, in 1987. It was at the Social Planning Council of Metropolitan Toronto, an NGO founded in 1933 to deal with the impact of the Depression and the desire to “plan” for something better than free-market capitalism. I was their first in-house economist, following in the footsteps of a non-economist who wrote the first report on de-industrialization in Canada.  

That job turned me into a bridge. I was working with academics, labour leaders, politicians, bureaucrats, social workers, church groups, settlement services, and community-based activists to give voice to the people whose lives were most disrupted by the 1981-82 recession. Each group spoke a different language, but together this tribe was talking turkey on how to fend off a fresh round of attacks on the most vulnerable: the loss of training and literacy supports, the axing of jobless benefits, the quickening pace of job loss in the manufacturing sector, the accelerating housing crunch, the growing role of women in the labour market as male breadwinners lost ground.  

I didn’t apply economic tools like most of my peers, who derided my lack of focus on how to “grow the pie”. But I knew these were my people, and my fight. I was realizing who and what I wanted to become. You become what you do.

The story of self essentially is a story of becoming, and that comes in three chapters too: Becoming, belonging, breaking down barriers.

Each deserves a mention.

Back in the day becoming was about self-actualization. Today, identity politics reflects the reality that you can evolve to become many things over the course of your life.

The reality is you can’t become without belonging. Becoming, like identity, is in relation to others, and responds to the support of or alienation from others. Find your people, and you find your purpose.

But belonging can be a false flag. People get recruited into all sorts of things with the promise of belonging that either doesn’t pan out (you actually don’t belong) or you are fighting against your own interests (false consciousness).

Belonging often means overcoming barriers. Not everybody belongs everywhere. So becoming relies on belonging, and belonging sometimes requires breaking down barriers.  

Let’s be clear, though: one person’s barrier that needs to be broken down to self-actualize is another person’s barricade to prevent bedlam.

Consider the role of the simple face mask – protecting some but outraging others. [Oh the painful irony hearing “Our bodies, ourselves” evolve into the Freedom Convoy’s “My body, my choice” slogan.]

Or the promise of free trade – which offered cheaper stuff but fewer jobs, a tough tradeoff when the worker and the consumer are the same person…and everyone wants a deal!

Or the magic of fewer rules. We’re all a little libertarian now, aren’t we? That “you’re not the boss of me” spirit is not just the result of the progressive quest of greater equality. The pursuit of deregulated markets and lower taxes made libertarianism a religion and released the sweet scent of success into the room by preaching meritocracy for all even as it delivered increasingly concentrated wealth and power. Survival of the fittest, baby. How are you gonna fight nature, amirite?

So there’s tension in all three elements of the story of self: becoming, belonging, and breaking barriers. We want many different things for ourselves. Some are contradictory. Our wish list changes partly because we and those around us continually evolve and partly because we are being constantly bombarded about to want by vested interests.

Multiply that complexity by millions. I am but one particular in a sea of other particulars. What am I talking about when I switch from “me” talk  to “we” talk. Who is We?

The Story of Us

The story of us is a constantly changing equation, even for progressives. It used to be all about class. Then it was all about identity. Now it’s about the intersection of these realities.

Some people try to hold the whole shebang together, but most conversations are fragmented into specific interests and campaigns. It’s easy to lose the plot on a coherent alternative vision of what “us” could be and do together.

Worse, the conversation about the “us” is increasingly being defined by regressives, not progressives – it’s us, not experts; it’s us, not governments; it’s us, not immigrants; it’s us, not you.

Growing insularity is dividing and fracturing the political project of universal progress and shared prosperity. That’s no accident.

There’s so much discontent about the various crises we are facing, about the bald-faced grift and lack of accountability, it’s easy to just say – throw it all out, burn it all down. It was never ours in the first place. We didn’t own it.

That leaves a vacuum for the powerful to get even more powerful.

That’s crazy, because the big story about power today is about worker power.

There have always been more workers than bosses, but for the past half century the combination of baby boomers flooding into the labour market  and back to back recessions in the 1980s and 1990s created decades of labour surplus.

Now the shoe is on the other foot: labour shortages for as far as the eye can see. It’s happening at the same time in every country that had a baby boom after the Second World War, which is most of the richest nations in the world.

The demographic collision of aging boomers and falling birthrates over the last few decades means more people are exiting the labour force than entering it, creating unemployment rates last seen 50 years ago.

The reality of Us in 2023 is that workers haven’t had this kind of bargaining power in half a century.

Tight labour markets has led to employer demands for more newcomers, a mixed blessing – without them, the labour market would shrink and so would the economy, horrors.

But with them you see this rising tension – not enough housing, not enough social infrastructure, not enough planning to ensure that all workers have a chance to do better under these historically opportune conditions.

How are progressives using workers’ bargaining power to shape the agenda on needed economic change?

We aren’t. Well not enough anyway. IMHO, the other side is doing a better job, at least on the face of things.

The math is simple. There are more workers than bosses. That’s where the votes are. Sound like you’re working for workers, and you win. That is precisely the formulation of the current Ontario Conservative party.

But the conservatives aren’t progressives. They are not working for the rights of workers. They are working for the right to make money (with few responsibilities). They are working for the wish list of concentrated power, not workers’ wish list for more democratized power.

We voted them in, but political democracy isn’t the same as social democracy. Just ask Ed. It’s not what someone else can do for you. It’s about how we become more engaged in our own lives. How we develop and use both autonomy and collective action.

The progressive agenda in the post-war period was backed by the masses. It sought greater security and greater opportunity for everyone, characterized by the pursuit of full employment and a strong welfare state. It was viewed as a radical agenda, and it was transformative for a time. But, as Reverend Jesse Jackson said in the 1980s, we had full employment under slavery too.

Today’s progressive agenda is about full engagement.

That means more control over your time. More control over your basic decisions on where to live and whether or not to have children. More control over the performance and accountability of the companies that seep into your days and nights, as workers and as consumers; more control over the performance and accountability of the governments you elect to represent your interests.  

Yes we need new rules to define the sandbox of the labour market. Yes we need better supports. Yes governments do all that, and can level the playing field. But governments are only part of the mechanism, and only become what we push them to be.  

No government leads the parade to social and economic justice. They get in front of the parade others create. Parades are more frequently formed by business interests than workers’ interests. But sometimes David beats Goliath. Sometimes people throng in the streets. Sometimes something or some series of events pumps up mass expectations and demands to move in a new direction.

That’s where you come in. Our power comes not just from how we lobby government, but how the way we shape our own lives in our workplaces, in our homes, in our communities makes governments of every political stripe HAVE to change.

It means we have raised actionable, realistic expectations that we can become better humans, and together create a better humanity. That means we’ve How we expanded interest in making doable change; that we’ve described a form of progress so irresistible we constantly add more people to the movement. 

As I prepared for tonight, I spoke to people who introduced me to the momentum of people power; who shaped my thinking by inspiring me and challenging me; who showed me what it could like like when my generation passes the torch to the next generation. Some of you are here. [The remarkable Laurell Ritchie is here. I will be forever indebted to your friendship and wisdom.]

Each of the people I spoke to pulled on a similar thread: the delicate but powerful energy that Ed and Ellen’s story embodies perfectly: hold the tension within yourself; and with people who are not exactly like you;  Understand you need incremental change to make transformational change. Because it builds momentum. And that the bigger the coalescing of different types of energy, the bigger the chance for change.

Sad to say, that happens less often among progressives these days, and more often in the other “Story of Us”… the right-wing ecosystem is built on a huge range of very different players – evangelical churches, PTAs and school councils, gun clubs, isolationists….built on the heat and urgency of fear, not the cooler temperatures of kindness, empathy and patience, they more easily conjoin in movement. 

I’m not saying the answer is “get hotter”. But I am saying, the battle for our future is here, and we just need more soul, we need more soldiers! It’s time to get strategic in how we organize.

The Story of Now

This where we come to the Story of Now.

2023 feels like a moment of pivotal change. But we’ve been fooled before.

The list of moments of apparent paradigm shifts is long: the collapse of multilateral free trade; the wake of 9/11 and the end of political complacency about western democracy and capitalism; the global financial crisis and global Occupy movements; the rise of authoritarian Me First politics in Trump’s MAGA America, Brexit, Russia and China; a global pandemic that triggered new global supply chains and inflation.

We’ve tried protests. We’ve tried politics. Nothing has yet delivered the goods….or the good. Maybe it’s time to try organizing again.

Without question the world is looking for transformative change, and we have the time-tested recipes, literally the organizing principles that change the world.

If you don’t believe in the power of getting organized, or if you think that’s only for labour unions, check out what leading capitalists have accomplished.   

Deregulated markets, low taxes, free trade, monopoly power aren’t accidents.

As Karl Polanyi famously quipped: “laissez faire was planned.”

Markets can’t operate without government action.

And government action depends on the mix of who’s asking for what. Hello, I’m talking to you.

2023 is bringing major headwinds to the progressive agenda, maybe even existential risks to humanity – climate chaos, a new world of unapologetically authoritarian governments, and AI that blurs the line between truth and fiction. There’s lots to fight against.

But we have plenty of tailwinds too – more bargaining power, more people ready for change, more clarity about what’s at stake. There’s lots to fight for. And the more we connect with key ideas, the more we shape the future.

It’s a pick your own adventure moment: environment, housing, revitalizing politics, human rights, anti-monopoly… It’s all future-shaping stuff. Who better to shape your future than you?  

For me, I’ve chosen to go all in on the care economy with my colleagues Marjorie and Laurell, and the remarkable Pat Armstrong. It embodies elements of my lifelong fight against inequality and for becoming the best you/we can be; plus it’s some kinda big.  

What I mean by the Care Economy is the cradle to grave care of our bodies and minds, the combination of the economic sectors of health and social assistance and education.

The Care Economy is the social infrastructure as vital to our ability to “grow the economic pie” as roads and bridges, water and electricity systems. It’s even more important to creating thriving human beings.  

For all the talk of the importance of manufacturing or mining and oil and gas, you may be surprised to learn that, at 12.6% of GDP the Care Economy contributes more to the economic pie. Its size is rivalled only by the value of real estate (and that’s not what you want your economic growth to be propelled by, right?).

But it’s viewed as some kind of economic derivative. The Care Economy is not a derivative, nice-to-have part of the economy. It’s the foundational MUST HAVE of the economy.

And it’s unrivalled in terms of its share of paid work. One in five jobs is in the Care Economy.

Many but not all those jobs are unionized because many but not all those jobs are currently in the public sector. That could change.

What won’t change is that the aging of the population and the shrinking of the share of the working aged population means we will need more care of those too old, too young and too sick to work.

That means we’ll need more government than we’ve needed in decades, by which I mean more spending by us for us. What we choose to give one another has never been more important.

But that doesn’t mean that we will win this 40 year crusade for “more market, less government”. Some governments are already actively undercutting capacity in public and non-profit care delivery, setting conditions that favour the for-profits that have the care economy in their crosshairs.

Spoiler alert: The for-profits are not coming to provide the care. They’re not even coming for the public funding, though that doesn’t hurt. They’re coming for the real estate, and the rents they can extract from us.

We know exactly how to improve material outcomes of the majority of Canadians, both in terms of what we do with our paid and unpaid time, and what kind of quality of life we can expect from life in this country. As the 10th largest economy in the world, we can do or be anything we want.

Or we can stand by and watch our lives deteriorate, awash in a sea of money. That’s why I’m focusing on the Care Economy.

It’s one of the rare areas of the economy that is not currently designed primarily to make a profit.

But the Care Economy is absolutely at risk of becoming just another profit centre.

The progressive agenda on the Care Economy is transformational, because it could set the tone for decommodifying other aspects of the basics of life, exactly when everything costs more.

Add to that consumer reality, the work reality that we have the opportunity to make every job a good job in the Care Economy.

Given its scale, it has the potential of transforming the whole job market in much the same way as manufacturing created the backbone of the middle class in the 1950s to 1970s, with the rise of unionization which delivered better pay, benefits and pensions to a growing share of 20 percent of the economy.

We could create a better world, for workers and non-workers alike. But far from growing the good, current conditions threaten to flip over and grow the bad.

That’s the choice folks: a contagion of progressive change, or a contagion of profit-seeking in a sector of human development that doesn’t exclude but definitely undercuts the extractive philosophy of capitalism.

Yep, like a river, capitalism is shape-shifting again.

One of the biggest challenges of our economic life and times is at our door, and I’m here for it.   

It’s a historic moment and unlike anything we’ve seen for the last half century.

So is being progressive different now than it was half a century ago? A hundred years ago?

My answer: it’s utterly the same, and utterly different. Just like the river.

More people want to change things up, and at the same time also hang on to things as they are. Maybe you feel a bit that way too. A lot is at stake.

I invite you to hold the tension in yourself, and with those around you.

This is our chance to work with others and generate new ways to get more people demanding more ways to become better humans. Let’s put a premium on becoming and belonging not just working and making money.

That could become the viral epidemic that businesses and governments alike feel is hard to contain: the desire to make our societies better for humanity and all living things.

Together, the new currents of energy we are going to create in the river of life could carve out a new course in the landscape of history.

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