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Great Expectations

Perhaps the most pertinent explanations for why major historical changes occur lie in how expectations and desires express themselves within the hearts and minds of working people.

There was a time in the Western world when the idea that all human beings were created equal simply did not exist. Farmers and peasants subsisted only at the pleasure of their social and economic "betters."

Within this system (of feudalism) the elite held power by exploiting the notion that people were inherently unequal, a view bolstered by religious orders. The expectations of and for "regular" people were very low.

But in the 1600s and 1700s came liberalism, a world view that professed that the natural equality and rights of people — at least, of white, propertied men — could no longer be subordinated to the will of the King and nobility.

From the late 1700s on, the scope of liberalism continued to expand, giving more and more people basic equality and rights. Yet, liberalism refused to address economic equality and rights in the workplace. The answer to this omission was socialism.

From the mid-1800s into the Great Depression, workers increasingly realized that improving our lives was possible if we cooperated within trade unions, socialist parties, and communities.

Tens of thousands joined the Communist Party of Canada. This combined activism helped spread the idea that all could prosper and enjoy freedom in a society based on social justice and economic equality.

After the Second World War, Canadian workers won expansions in our rights, our living standards, and our ability to participate in politics, often due to pressure from unions and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor to the New Democratic Party.

In this period, workers' expectations were as high as ever. But by the 1970s, this era of relative peace between workers and the elite began to collapse, as the latter no longer wished to tolerate the expectations and hopes of working-class Canadians.

So, while Pierre Trudeau stormed to power in 1968 on the promise of a Just Society, he and other leaders across the Western world would deliberately strike back at the rising expectations of working people.

Trudeau would argue that workers made too much money, that they and their unions made Canadian businesses uncompetitive, and that the only way for them to prosper was to accept lower compensation, and await the trickled-down result of improved capitalist profitability and productivity.

The result of such attacks is, at least in part, responsible for what economists like Paul Krugman, Jim Stanford, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have called the "Great Decoupling," whereby wages have remained stagnant since the 1970s, even as workers have become more productive, and businesses more profitable.

So, while our new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, echoes his father's Just Society by saying that "in Canada, better is always possible," the long-run reality is that Canadian workers face an economic system in which we become poorer and more disenfranchised as capital's power increases — and we seem to accept it as part of the general economic commonsense of our era.

Is there a way to fix this predicament? In broad terms, the ability for an individual country to make the full range of changes needed is difficult under a globalized economy.

Indeed, the long-term ascendancy of the working class must be a global one, but there are solutions for Canada right now. Here are just a few:

1) Increase the density and intensity of unionization: It's no coincidence that the assault on workers' expectations has been accompanied by a decline in private-sector unionization rates in North America. If workers can form unions, make demands, and raise the floor for others, we can recapture some of the optimism that drove past generations towards working-class gains.

This will require enacting laws that make unionizing easier. But it will also depend on existing trade union leaders making bold demands, and fostering innovative organizational strategies.

2) Empower young workers: The assault on expectations is most intense with young workers. In addition to the general gap between rising productivity and wages, young people are often expected to work for free as a way of navigating a poor job market. This is due, capitalists baselessly suggest, to the decreasing work ethic and talent of young Canadians.

The reality is that young people are playing a rigged game based, in part, on the long decline in expectations; a decline in hope that has made decent-paying work, predicable schedules, and a dignified retirement seem less a right, and more a set of luxuries employers can no longer afford to provide.

The empowerment of young workers in the labour movement is important, both because they are future leaders, and because such empowerment will be vital in expanding expectations.

It was mostly young men in the 1950s and '60s who pushed the old union guard into militant positions, and it was mostly young women in the '70s and '80s who demanded to be heard at the bargaining table, making things like parental leave, pay equity, and anti-harassment policies an increasing reality.

If we want to know what the next frontier for expectations might be, there are few better places to look than to the next generation.

3) Bring back the language of socialism: If socialism is a key factor in raising workers' expectations, a key factor in socialism centres on the idea that the economy should be democratically owned and operated.

The goal here should be to show workers how expectations can be raised not just by higher wages, but also by the belief that one can have meaningful decision-making power over the things which affect one's life. If Canada is to be a democratic society, democracy must go beyond the polls and encompass the vast majority of society, beginning with people in their workplaces.

4) Continue to expand the extent and scope of equality: The last few hundred years can be defined, in part, by the evolution of concepts like equality. Once a pipe dream, it came to be applied to increasing numbers of people. But even today, equality has not been achieved.

The solution to this, as well as to lowered expectations, is to shift from liberal to socialist understandings of equality; from supporting equal opportunity, to striving for equal conditions.

It is my view that equal opportunity is a mirage in a system with economic and social inequality, and in which the expectations of people are, from birth, widely different through no fault or merit of their own.

If we want to change the kind of hopes and dreams poor and working-class children have, we need to strive towards a Canada, (and a world,) in which there is total economic equality.

The reality is that when regular people can dream of a better tomorrow, and have the tools to realize that better tomorrow, we are all the better for it. Let's move past this 40-year period of stagnation for workers, and resume our trek on the road to a better world.

Christo Aivalis is a doctoral candidate at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, researching the political, economic, labour, and religious history of the Canadian left. He is also a member of the NDP, and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Local 901.

He is the PSAC Ontario Young Worker Representative, and sits on the Ontario Federation of Labour's Workers Under 30 Committee. He was a delegate to the 2014 Canadian Labour Congress convention, where he and other young workers took a stand against a two-tier economy.