Jack Layton and the Politics of Anger

My wife and I (and our dog Charlie) attended Jack Layton’s memorial service in downtown Toronto yesterday along with thousands of other mourners. It was a moving, emotional, soulful and remarkable ceremony, a testament to a fabulous human being’s honourable political legacy and his fundamental decency as a person. It’s tragic that just when Jack was in a position to maneuver himself and his party to possibly one day govern the country, he was taken from us.

I recall Layton getting elected for the first time back in 1982 when he ran for Ward 6 in Toronto, becoming a junior city councilor. I was in my first year as a journalism student and was “covering” the election as a school exercise and was at his election party. In the 1990s I interviewed Layton a couple times for articles I was writing. By then he had become a fixture on the left, and a consistently excellent councilor with an unimpeachable voting record on progressive issues. Most city councilors, including those on the left, usually sell out over something, especially to goodies offered by developers. But not Jack – he was impressively incorruptible.

One of the ironies of the outpouring of grief over Layton’s passing overlooks the fact that Jack was not very successful when it came to winning elections. In 1992 he ran to become Toronto’s mayor against June Rowlands, who was a grumpy, right-of-centre political mediocrity – and he lost badly. When he ran for a federal seat a few years later against the execrable Liberal Dennis Mills, he lost again. While he revived the fortunes of the NDP federally, the party was still only 19% in the polls when the election was called this winter. Only due to the Liberal and BQ’s leadership weaknesses and running a smart campaign did Layton shock everyone and push the NDP into new terrain.

Layton did have one weakness as a politician. Despite his incorruptibility and excellent track record and humanness, he had an unfortunate manner of coming off as a bit of a used car salesman, as a phony, and as being too perfect. It was weird seeing this in a person who was, in reality, far from being a phony and genuinely committed to his causes. This past election, perhaps because of his illnesses, suddenly he seemed more genuine and human and less than perfect. Which is why the country embraced him so.

One of the constants in the memorial service and in Layton’s remarkable last letter was the emphasis on his optimism and message of hope. And his lack of anger or bitterness, even in the face of disappointments or setbacks.

But this got me pondering about the politics of anger and just what sort of prime minister Layton would have turned out to be if he had won that post.

Another politician who has been labeled an optimist and master of “hope” is Barack Obama. But Obama is now in disgrace, having sold out and caved into the Republicans and the US corporate elites at every turn. A man who seemed to embody the best of American progressive ideals in 2008 is now seen as weak and ineffectual and a tremendous disappointment.

There is nothing wrong about being optimistic and hopeful, of course. Yet I contend we are in a time when we need to see people on the left express more anger and less willingness to compromise. For 30 years, unions, social democrats, liberals and other progressives have caved into the right and the corporate sector in the hopes that by giving them something they will leave social programs, labour laws and other progressive institutions alone. And it never works. There is no such thing as enough for the right-wing. They see this willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness and they take advantage of it and demand more takeaways. And bit by bit we have seen our social safety net fray and the power of capital grow to the point it is now pretty much free to do whatever it pleases.

So if Layton had managed to get elected as prime minister down the road, would he have become another Obama, selling out the store? I doubt it, only because Layton was not known for being a sell out during his political career (while a closer examination of Obama’s brief political career before he became president revealed a willingness to throw the left under the bus).

On the other hand, the pressure brought to bear on Layton to maintain the corporate and economic status quo would have been immense. And here I fear Layton’s politics of optimism and hope would have run aground.

The reality is, we are living in angry times. And we need leaders on the left who reflect and act on that anger. We have to recognize who our enemy is and articulate not the politics of appeasement, but the politics of class struggle and combat. Workers and the middle class and small businesses owners have been at the receiving end of a class war launched by the corporate sector more than 30 years ago – and have been losing that war. It’s time to get angry and demand that the next NDP leader lose his or her shit over all the terrible things capital is doing to wreck our economy, our planet and standard of living.

Messages of hope and optimism are great, but at some point people need to get really pissed off.


  • Jack was a nice guy, but he could also bring the hammer and kick ass too. After Jack defeated Iggy during the debates he said he’d fine truancy in MPs with fines. The National Post replied with for a nice guy he can sure twist the knife. That why the “happy warrior” is a better discription then “Nice Guy”, Jack was no ones door mat and that fighting spirit mixed with Optimizism and Warmth and a good stragedgy is what won him the OLO. Don’t get me wrong there is a time for anger, but usually the Tories have the home court advantage with anger. Anger is divisive, Hope binds people together, it also encourages empathy in people, while Anger blocks empathy. I’ll stick with Hope. With fightijg spirit and cunning of course.

  • Perhaps. But we first need a new vocabulary. “Solidarity forever”, “unions”, “social justice”, etc are either met with blank stares or hostility, because the right has so successfully demonized them over the past 30 years. Anybody 40 or younger comes pre-alienated from that old-school labour and class language.

    Younger people are angry, and anxious, and aware they are getting actively screwed, yet they don’t want to think of themselves as lumped in with blue-collar workers or hairy-legged feminists (sigh), so separated are they from the history of the labour struggle (or ignorant of it.)

    We need a new way of talking, first, that shakes itself loose from “class struggle” and “workers’ rights”, because nobody wants to be a “worker”… that’s so 1960s. That’s their grandparents. They want to be an “employee” or an “entrepreneur”, etc, like their boomer parents.

    Marx was wrong: people don’t vote their class interest, they vote the interests of the class they want to become a part of. The left needs to learn from this.

  • Actually, as I understand it Marx was fairly well aware of that tendency.

  • Observing politics is frustrating. The pessimist inside of me would say that most of the energy involved goes towards playing the game. Hope and optimism are spoken about (and sold) but does ‘change’ – and, with that, I mean change for the common good – really happen?
    Yes, society does have to get angry and stand up for its values and needs.
    I must say, though, that I appreciated Renee’s comments about needing a new ‘vocabulary’ as well as her statement that ‘people don’t vote for their class interest, they vote for the interests of the class they want to become part of’. There is more than just an element of truth in these statements.

  • My thoughts exactly, Bruce. There are times when anger is appropriate and necessary. Witness Jesus and the money changers. Even Aquinas recognized that not being angry when anger is called for is a fault. It motivates one to organize and act. Otherwise the present decline will simply continue. The parasitic plutocrats are in charge.

    And what would academics do? They’d organize a conference on “The Relevance of Anger in Responding to the Current Crisis”, discuss it learnedly among themselves, and publish proceedings, which only a handful of people could access. Shouldn’t one be angry about that too?

    We need to be intelligently angry: in the right way, at the right time, with the right people. We need a pedagogy of disciplined, articulate rage.

  • Yes, I think the left needs to learn to frame the real issues better. Instead of “Solidarity Forever” which, while it stirs my blood. doesn’t appear to stir most people’s, I suggest Red Green’s “Remember, we’re all in this together” and “We’re pulling for you”. Means much the same thing, really, but puts it in a way most people can understand. And while we’re at it, let’s remember to keep our sticks on the ice…

  • There are some interesting ideas in this discussion on reframing issues and using language that resonates with or is more appealing to our current society’s sensibilities; e.g., “We’re all in this together” rather than “solidarity forever”. (I’m not entirely certain that the two phrases are completely interchangeable. Just because “we’re all in it together”, it doesn’t mean we’re going to stand side by side and work together to make changes.) I wonder, though, if “softening” the language and how the issues are framed isn’t also a form of capitulating and weakening the progressive Left’s social equality platform.

    I have noticed that there is also a double standard around “angry politics”: When the political right get angry, they are taken seriously and seen as “authoritative” and taking a “tough stance” on whatever issue is, whereas when progressives get angry they are dismissed as being shrill, and the urgency of their message is devalued.

    I think the real challenge is getting people to realize that when they consistently vote for the interests of the class they want to become part of, they are in fact voting against their own best interests and the common good. Exactly how the Left can get that message out in a way that breaks through the cognitive dissonance and then mobilize that realization to demand and create real change is indeed a challenge.

  • You can talk about class, bluntly, without ever saying the word “class”.
    For instance, there is the distinction between people who do stuff for a living, and people who own stuff for a living. Most people maybe want to move up in the world, but they think in terms of a better job–one that pays more, has more responsibility, more room for creativity, more autonomy. They don’t think “I wish I could be a parasite who skims cash from money markets”, which is the group modern policy is mainly rigged to help. Their aspirations mostly stay in the “do stuff for a living” camp.

  • I agree that we need some new language to engage effectively in the 21st century.

    Purple Library Guy, I’m not sure the distinction you’re proposing still holds. If you look at Armine’s recent report on The Rise of the Top 1%, you’ll see that the vast majority of the richest Canadians earn their money through exorbitant wages (CEOs, etc). Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and yes, even Warren Buffett in finance — they’re all seen as guys who had to work to earn their money, they didn’t just wake up one day to find themselves super-rich. This is what makes it harder for a lot of people to see them as parasites that should be despised and stripped from their money. Instead, many, especially in America, have bought into the fantasy that if they only worked a little harder, they too could join the entrepreneurship/super-rich group.

  • Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett are the exceptions, not the rule. They managed to build their companies from scratch into large enterprises.

    Most CEOs parachute in, mess around a bit, have their companies grow and shrink based largely on external factors and parachute out with their stock options.

  • A really amazing social justice advocate once said to me: “Without anger there is no hope.” Her point being that anger is necesary for change to occur and hope is the foundation of working for the change: we have hope that we can make the world a little better, to make change happen, but that comes from a place of anger – anger at the injustice in the first place.

    We need both.

  • Well said Lana Payne – that is exactly how I feel and you have managed to express it as well or better than I could. It is time to reassert the legitimacy of anger as a natural human response to the oppression and exploitation of the capitalist system. I am no less hopeful because I am angry – hope is merely the belief that something is worth fighting for, regardless of what I think the outcome might be. I am opposed to capitalism because it makes me angry, and I live in hope that I will be able to make a contribution to its ultimate demise.

    Also, this talk about creating a new vocabulary to deal with capitalism is an incredible waste of time. If people know that they are getting screwed then they should find out who is screwing them. It is capitalism, and, whether they like it or not, they are part of a class. If they want to stop getting screwed, they better find out which class they are in, find out who else is there with them and join in “solidarity” with them to fight their oppressors. The words are already there; it is time to challenge the capitalist media and proudly proclaim our class solidarity against capitalism.

  • I respect you a great deal, Ms. Ivanova, but I agree with Darwin O’Connor that Gates, Jobs and Buffett are more or less anecdotes rather than data. Although even there, Warren Buffett, pleasant fellow though he is, is basically a financial manipulator who takes money out of the economy rather than putting it in. He is absolutely in the business of owning things; his renown is for being clever about which things to own.
    The broader fact is that labour income represents an ever shrinking percentage of total income, not so? And that’s even including those ridiculous salaries unless I’m missing something about definitions. CEOs make lots of money from wages, and attention is on that, but while that’s a dramatic story it’s not the core story. In any case, while they pocket big salaries, what truly makes them rich is that they invest that money or receive it as stocks in the first place, and are in a position to ensure their investments are profitable through various forms of insider trading. They leverage their salaries to join the investor class.

    Further, even when it comes to corporate income, an ever greater share is in the FIRE sector. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are yesterday’s men from yesterday’s economy–the modern economy isn’t about people who do actual stuff or arrange for actual products to be sold. The symbols of today’s economy are the hedge fund managers, the boys at Goldman Sachs, at the Irish banks that crashed the Irish economy, and so on–people who own things for a living and/or head businesses entirely dedicated to helping other people own things for a living.

  • To elaborate a bit more about CEOs. A CEO of a corporation is a person whose job it is to make sure the investors make money. That is, he(almost always he) is an aide, a facilitator, for those who own things for a living.
    The reason CEOs make huge amounts of money is that you want someone handling the arrangements who is the same kind of person as you–that is, a fellow rich person. Often CEOs were from the right background to start with, but even if they weren’t it’s important they have ‘skin in the game’–and I’m not talking about the specific stock of the specific company they’re heading, I’m talking about the broader game of making sure people who own for a living stay on top. Being a CEO isn’t something you can do just by being highly competent at the business in question. You have to be suitable in the eyes of the investors, of the corporate directors, who in turn are suitable in the eyes of other corporate directors; you have to be part of the network and hold its ideology. That’s why it’s OK with the others in the network if you skim some profits: Being a CEO means you’re in the own-for-a-living club, in affiliation and, soon if not already, in practice.

  • I think one really has to ask whether the “reform” of the current capitalist system (motivated by hope and/or anger) is even possible anymore. Chris Hedges seems to think not – see his column yesterday.

    “There is no economic, political or environmental reform that can be implemented to impede the march of the corporate state. … The corporate coup is over. We have lost. The trolls have won. We have to face our banishment.”

    His proposed remedy: “We have to create monastic enclaves where we can retain and nurture the values being rapidly destroyed by the wider corporate culture and build the mechanisms of self-sufficiency that will allow us to survive.”


    This may be exactly the right perspective and remedy. I recall reading the CCF’s Regina Manifesto for the first time a few years ago and being struck by how the introductory paragraphs on the inhumanity and predatory nature of the capitalist system were every bit as relevant now as they were in 1933.

    Perhaps indeed the bottom line is that resistance IS futile and the only reasonable alternative is opting out.

  • I agree with Chris Hedges when he says “there is no economic, political or environmental reform that can be implemented to impede the march of the corporate state”, but I do not agree that the corporate coup is over. He is absolutely right that capitalism cannot be reformed, either by what he calls the “liberal class” in the U.S., or by those who cling to the tenets of social democracy here in Canada and elsewhere.

    The realization that the reformers have failed and will continue to do so should lead people to realize that what we should be doing in fact is resisting it. We need to challenge the very legitimacy of this system which, as the Regina Manifesto so eloquently said, is inhumane and predatory.

    I am glad that synaxis discovered the manifesto and acknowledged its continued relevance. It helps to support my assertion in an earlier post that there is no need to come up with new language. It has been said before and it is still relevant; capitalism must be brought down and this can only be done through the consciousness and solidarity of the working class. The only way to challenge the system is to proudly proclaim those words, not go through some convoluted process of coming up with new language to say the same thing. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, its a duck.

  • What disturbs me is I see in the events of the past week and a bit is the creation of a personality cult.

    This was in the cards from the moment the NDP became a majority Quebec based party–and that was based not upon policy, but upon the personality of the late Leader: le bon Jacques.

    These trends in the NDP are nothing new–they have been growing in the 20 years I was an activist, and they almost decade since–but now, they have been successful.

    There was always the trend to move to the centre, and away from the founding vision, because that is where the power is, or so we were/are told, and we must do what we must to get there–so we can do what we believe.

    Maybe all we need to right society is public auto insurance–the Rae proposal. Maybe all we need is to protect condo buyers–the Horwath proposal.

    This is why I believe any merger between the NDP will mean the end of what is left of the NDP; it will just become one big Liberal party. The cheerleader for this proposal is none other than Pat Martin, the one who declared democratic socialism in the party constitution just gets in the way of people who would otherwise support the party.

    But what would they then be supporting.

    I believe its not about the packaging, but the spirit.

    Though this is what the pundits and party gurus have been declaring for more than 30 years: and now they will have their chance.

    Even if Chris Hedges is correct–and I would be hard pressed to challenge his arguments–why do all those who claim to be on the side of the people go so WILLINGLY towards the right?

    Despite his history being less corporate than Obama’s–I’ve read his book on homelessness–Jack culminates a trend that is now, I fear, unstoppable.

    The party will try to emulate the software feats of the Conservatives, but fused, I suppose, with another personality cult–which I suppose is the definition of the Liberal Party.

    The only way to power is to become the sort of electoral machine the Liberals were, the Conservatives now seem to be–but the cost is the soul.

  • Today, reading Tom Walkom in the Toronto Star, I find he has put the points I have tried several times after posts to this blog, about the personality cult in the NDP and about its long move to the Right, once objected to when it was Bob Rae, but embraced when it was Jack Layton.

    Why should we cavil at losing ‘democratic socialism’ since it has long been clear New Democrats have been transformed into Bob Rae Liberals?

    Walkom’s piece is here:


  • Am I understanding correctly, that you assume that hope & optimism are incompatable with getting “really pissed off”? If so I would have to disagree. Some of the most moving hope and optimism I have witnessed have come from people getting really pissed off. Many social movements in Latin America have modelled this.

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