Friday, July 21, 2017

Etobicoke "park stairs" story is a perfect example of the crass, reactionary, anti-regulatory nonsense that led to the Grenfell disaster

Photo from twitter via Shannon McKarney‏ 
By now almost everyone in  Toronto would have heard the story of newly minted Etobicoke folk hero  Adi Astl and how he built stairs quickly in a park for only $500 when city officials said building the stairs would cost $65,000 or more.

Astl allegedly hired a "homeless person" and in just a few hours presto! There were stairs down to the community garden. Take that "bureaucracy".

And, of course, all of the reactionary local media and pundits, as well as many members of the general public, scored this as a victory for the little guy that showed if we just got rid of all the "red tape", let folks like Astl and the private sector take charge, we could have all the things the city needed built faster and cheaper and he just proved it.

Except, of course, he did no such thing. All he proved is that anyone who paid no regard whatsoever to important safety or accessibility regulations, to such minor details as making sure the stairs have a proper foundation so that they won't collapse after a few months while being used by someone, to the stairs' longevity, or to the use of proper building materials for a public stairway, could build a visibly crappy and unsafe set of stairs in a short period of time for a relatively small sum of money.

The stairs he built are not remotely akin to an acceptable set and this is transparently obvious with even a cursory look at any photos of them. If a contractor built those for me in my backyard I would refuse to pay them.

The media pictures were kind to these stairs (they had their ideological reasons for this I suspect) and even in those they look like junk. If you turn to sources that provided more revealing reporting and photos of the stairs, such as a thread posted by Shannon McKarney‏ on twitter, you see that the stairs are clearly dangerous. They would not pass any number of essential city codes that, you know, want to ensure you are unlikely to permanently injure yourself or die using them.

They would also be totally impossible to use for people with accessibility issues and you have to step over a parking barrier to get to them! They are a total joke.

In spite of this Mayor John Tory actually thanked Astl for "taking a stand on this issue" and he was also de facto applauded by his local Councillor, the singularly ineffective and forgettable seat warmer Justin Di Ciano.


Right wing politicians and the mainstream media love stories like this that they can frame as showing that "initiative" and "getting things done" are being strangled by regulations, unions, bureaucrats, etc.

After all, if the city would allow folks like Astl and private companies to use the ultra cheap labour of "homeless people", ignore all the "red tape" and "just do it" we could have dangerous stairs to everywhere tomorrow and they would cost the taxpayers so much less money.

Wouldn't that be great?

There is a direct line from this thinking to the agenda of deregulation that led to the Grenfell Tower disaster that killed so many in London last month. In the United Kingdom governments waged war on so-called "burdensome regulations" for a generation to lower costs and "free" the private sector. As the New York Times noted:
Promising to cut “red tape,” business-friendly politicians evidently judged that cost concerns outweighed the risks of allowing flammable materials to be used in facades. Builders in Britain were allowed to wrap residential apartment towers — perhaps several hundred of them — from top to bottom in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the United States and many European countries. And companies did not hesitate to supply the British market.

George Monbiot put it even more clearly in the Guardian:
For years successive governments have built what they call a bonfire of regulations. They have argued that “red tape” impedes our freedom and damages productivity. Britain, they have assured us, would be a better place with fewer forms to fill in, fewer inspections and less enforcement.
But what they call red tape often consists of essential public protections that defend our lives, our futures and the rest of the living world. The freedom they celebrate is highly selective: in many cases it means the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor, of corporations to exploit their workers, landlords to exploit their tenants and industry of all kinds to use the planet as its dustbin. As RH Tawney remarked, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.”
When politicians, columnists and the media in Toronto applaud the construction of a visibly incompetent set of stairs in a park this is the agenda that they are doing it to reinforce.

Should properly constructed, safe, accessible, concrete stairs in this specific park that meet regulations and that are built using experts and properly compensated workers cost $65,000 or more? To be honest I don't know as I am no more an expert than the mayor or any number of pontificating columnists are. But I do know I would rather have them cost that than have substandard, inaccessible stairs installed that end up killing or harming someone just to save the city an amount of money that in the scheme of things is tiny.

And make no mistake that if these folks had their way costs would absolutely be cut through the elimination of such pesky things as safety and accessibility regulations. If they could combine this with slashing labour costs by destroying the city's unions and paying workers substandard wages or by contracting work out to companies with dubious labour practices (and there are lots of these in the construction or building sector) all the better.

Sadly, they also convince many members of the public with simple-minded narratives that the regulations meant to protect them are actually somehow a bad thing.

Heed Tawney's warning. Freedom for the pike is, indeed, death for the minnows. If these political forces succeed they would not just be cutting regulations for park stairs. And that should worry us all.

Bistro Style Minute Steak

Previously on The Left Chapter we have looked at a variety of ways to prepare delicious dishes using minute steak,  that relatively inexpensive and much maligned cut of beef you find at most grocery stores. These included Ukrainian "Scalloped Beef" RevisitedSchnitzel Style Minute Steak and Lemon Minute Steaks with Sauteed Mushrooms.

Today we are going to do a bistro style minute steak with a red wine based sauce. The sauce makes the steaks in this case and, for the sake of variety we will include two variations that you can do on the base recipe. This recipe is loosely based on a minute steak recipe in the terrific vintage cookbook The Steak Book. 

A great family dish, I like to make 6-8 steaks and then spoon the sauce over them at the end on a platter.


6-8 minute steaks
1/3 of a cup of dry red wine
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 medium onion diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
2-4 dashes cayenne pepper
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chopped green onion
1-2 cups sliced mushrooms (optional)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard (optional)

Heat some olive oil in a large saucepan.

Salt and pepper your minute steaks on both sides to taste and then fry them in the oiled pan until done to your liking (about 30 seconds for more rare to around one minute a side turning only once. I like to cook them for no more than 30 seconds a side as they are so thin). Set aside the steaks as you prepare them on a covered platter or on a platter in a warm oven to keep them warm while you prepare the sauce.

When the steaks are cooked add some more olive oil to the same saucepan (without draining it or wiping it clean at all) and then add all of the ingredients other than the green onion. This includes the mushrooms and Dijon mustard if you are using them.

Saute all of the ingredients over medium heat for several minutes until the red wine has been reduced to almost nothing. Then spoon the sauce over the platter of minute steaks and garnish with the green onion.

These steaks are great with rice, rustic style bread, a salad and some more red wine for drinking of course! I also like to serve them with lemon wedges as I find a bit of lemon juice on them adds a nice zest.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Master Chef's Outdoor Grill Cookbook w. Beef Roast on a Spit, Barbecued Bologna Roll & more -- Vintage Cookbook TBT

Vintage Cookbook: The Master Chef's Outdoor Grill Cookbook

Publication Details: American People's Press, 1960

Today we are looking at a really fun vintage cookbook that is just perfect for the season.

 The Master Chef's Outdoor Grill cookbook is a truly campy trip through the world of outdoor cooking c. 1960. From liver steaks to Barbecued Bologna Roll the menus times quite interesting.

On the upside, there are lots of great recipes and menus as well and it is an all charcoal book, just as it should be. No gas to kill the mood. In addition, the BBQs in the pictures all look amazing. I would love to get my hands on any them and especially the ones with two grills divided by a small island for your utensils, beer, etc.

The book starts with lots of basic tips on getting a grill going, types of charcoal and wood and whatnot. It then runs through a variety of BBQ menus and even ends with a handy set of dips, sauces and even alcoholic mixed drinks to make the backyard party complete.

(Click on images to enlarge)

Vintage Cookbook TBT List 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

PPP Struggles for TUC Freedom - Cheddi Jagan PPP of Guyana 1985

Vintage Leftist Leaflet Project

See the end of this post for details on the project.

Leaflet: PPP Struggles for TUC Freedom - Cheddi Jagan PPP of Guyana 1985

Recently we looked at a Guyanese People's Progressive Party leaflet written by its General Secretary -- and a pivotal figure in Guyana's history -- Cheddi Jagan, "The Truth About Bauxite Nationalisation"

Today we are looking at another PPP/Jagan leaflet,this one from 1985, "PPP Struggles for TUC Freedom"

"This booklet consists of aspects of the struggle of the People's Progressive Party to strengthen the trade union movement in Guyana; and to put the Trades Union Congress on a sound and militant footing where it unswervingly defends the workers' rights."

One highlight: "It is essential not merely to transfer ownership of the means of production (factories, land, machines, tools, etc.) from foreign-private to state, but also to change the relations of production with the aim of making socialist production relations predominant. Economic growth and nationalisation alone do not mean socialism. Although a certain level of economic development is a prerequisite for socialism it is not its content. Socialism is a class and political concept; its essence consists in the socialisation of the basic means of production, distribution and exchange and the establishment of the rule of the working people." 

(Click on images to enlarge)

When The Left Chapter began part of what I wanted to do on the blog was to show and highlight vintage public leftist election/political leaflets and booklets. While many of these have been offered with commentary to date, a very large collection of hundreds of them from several different sources remains and to preserve these often quite rare documents we will be posting them on a regular (almost daily) basis now often without or with minimal commentary so that people may have access to them as quickly as possible as an historical resource. 

While these will all be leaflets from a variety of different leftist viewpoints and countries, they are being posted as an historical/study resource and the views or opinions expressed in them do not necessarily reflect the views of this blog or blogger.

All of these posts (as well as posts made to date) will be listed on the page: Vintage Communist/Socialist Leaflets (which is still being updated with past posts).

If you have any public, vintage leaflets or booklets you would like to contribute to this project please contact us via

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Conundrum: Niki Ashton and the NDP leadership campaign

Given the truly inspiring turn of events within the Labour Party in the UK under Corbyn over the last couple of years it is not at all surprising that leftists in Canada are hoping that perhaps these conditions can be recreated here and within the country's mainstream social democratic party the NDP.

With the examples of Corbyn and also, allegedly, of Sanders in the United States, some have even gone so far as to state, as in the case of Rick Salutin "Forget about starting new left-wing parties. You can actually work within corrupt cadavers like Labour and the Democrats, aspire to take them over, and move on to power. I’d never have believed it but the evidence is there."

Except, of course, the "evidence" is not really there at all, a point to which we will return. This is even setting aside the fact that the "evidence", such as it is, entirely ignores what is occurring in Western European countries outside of the UK as well as ignoring what is happening right here in Quebec, where it has been completely due to the creation and emergence of new parties that we witnessed a revival of a socialist and communist left.

For now, though, what is left of the NDP's left is coalescing around the interesting campaign of Niki Ashton. This includes a variety of formations from the newly minted Momentum to the entryist Fightback. Meanwhile, yet another grouping called 'Courage' has been added to this mix that also comprises the long-standing Socialist Caucus. (While Momentum and Forward have endorsed Ashton, to date Courage and the Socialist Caucus have not.)

Historically formations of this type within the NDP have been anything but effective and there is little to indicate that this is changing.

Ashton did not (unlike Corbyn) come from any dissident activist thread within the party and is not the actual candidate (other than by the endorsement of some) of any of these groups. In fact, initially two of the groups actively tried to recruit a different candidate, Sid Ryan, and did so after Ashton had already announced.

Unlike both Sanders (who was not even a Democrat until his run for the nomination) or Corbyn she was an uncritical member of the caucuses of her leaders Mulcair and Layton as they shifted the party to the right and she went along with any number of Third Way and Blairite positions from the catastrophic Libya intervention to the ludicrously reactionary balanced budget pledge without saying anything about them at the time.

If we are to be told that she had no choice but to do this then really that says a great deal about the undemocratic and insular nature of the NDP none of which is good. Will she have no choice again should she lose?

Her first campaign for the leadership in 2012 showed little of the leftism of this one which does leave one wondering if it is in its own way opportunistic. While she speaks in terms of building a 'movement' now she has not made it at all clear that she would continue to fight for the leftist positions within the party should she lose and has, like Sanders did within the Democrats, essentially promised to get totally on board with the new leader in that self-defeating faux-collegial way New Democrats always do. We also have to take her at her implied word that she will re-democratize a party that has been run completely from the top down.

In must be noted that largely due to a relatively unfair and somewhat rigged system, Sanders did not actually achieve anything like what Corbyn did, the Democrats have not shifted left, Sanders has now integrated himself into the upper leadership of a dreadfully right-wing and stridently Wall St party and by doing so has led his "revolution" to dissipation and defeat. The notion that the Democrats in the US are going to become a vehicle for leftist or socialist change and that the "evidence" -- as cited supposedly by Salutin -- is there that this can or will occur is the purest tilting at windmills and farcically idealistic and not in the good sense of the term. It would seem that Sanders' very attempt to work within the Democratic Party has fatally undermined all that he originally was ostensibly fighting for.

Sanders has squandered the energy and enthusiasm of his campaign that would have been much better spent trying to construct a new political formation with other parties and movements. Sanders' campaign is a lesson to Canadian leftists, but not in the way it is generally represented.

In the case of Labour even during the Third Way era it remained relatively democratic compared to the NDP and, more to the point, had open and overt dissenters within its caucus and Corbyn was one of those. He also built a genuine movement during his leadership run (Momentum) that would have carried on even had he lost initially. His campaign was not simply about him winning-- he was not expected to win by anyone -- even though he ultimately did.

Nothing remotely analogous to this is occurring within Ashton's campaign to date. Unlike either Sanders or Corbyn, Ashton has not generated anything like the mass enthusiasm (as evidenced by huge rallies, a penetration into popular consciousness, etc.) among the broader public that was not simply essential to their respective phenomena but is also crucial to the very basis of a long term anti-capitalist project. In part this has to be because she does not even appear to be really attempting to do this.

All of this means that like Sanders this is less a 'movement' than a social democratic version of what used to be called a cult of personality, only a not terribly effective one outside of the confines of leftist activists. As long as Ashton is running the inorganic "movement" she personifies exists. The second she loses, if she does, it will cease to.

Many of us predicted it would with Sanders. It seems likely to in Ashton's case as well.

I think it is also reasonable to say that leftists outside of the party are being asked to take a "leap of faith" and to rejoin a party that has been more directly harmful to the socialist idea in this country than any other in the last few years as it has directly repudiated its very connection historically with even a cursory anti-capitalist stance.

It can, of course, be argued that it has been so for many years, but by taking such steps as removing the very word from the constitution and running on explicitly Third Way platforms as both Layton and Mulcair did the party has become a liberal party in every meaningful sense of the term. The silly slogans or rantings of some of the NDP's more demented partisans to the contrary, any resemblance between the NDP and a socialist party is purely in their own minds.

This leaves us with a serious conundrum. Given that Ashton is the only candidate to have even rhetorically embraced an anti-capitalist narrative and given the limitations of both this narrative and her campaign to what degree does this represent a serious opportunity and to what degree is this simply another possible detour?

The trouble is the real danger that we are encouraging people to mimic an already existing approach in Canada's case that has failed since the 70s and even more so since the victory of Layton which some at the time foolishly saw as a victory for the party's left (it was quite the opposite). This strategy would have us simply go along with the new leader whoever it is for the foreseeable future should Ashton's bid fall short and pretend that this is somehow part of trying to create a "socialist" movement.

What events in the US, the UK, France and elsewhere have shown us is that the collaborationist 'social democracy' and liberalism of Blair and the French Socialist Party, etc., is collapsing due to its internal contradictions and bankruptcy and that candidates running on left platforms in general elections can win. But they have not at all shown us that the parties that were the vehicles for this Third Way bankruptcy can be vehicles for its overturn in conditions as varied as Canada is from the UK.

As long as Ashton' s campaign exists there is at least something of an argument to temporarily join the NDP to support her and see where it leads.

But when and if it fails this argument is gone and becomes but a new echo of an old and tired refrain that serves as little more than an excuse to not organize something that could be a vehicle that would actually represent an anti-capitalist electoral political path forward.

Other Readings: Resolutionary Socialism: Why a leftist agenda within the NDP is futile

See also: Niki Ashton releases strongest Canadian federal social democratic tax platform in a generation

See also: Saskatoon NDP debate sees testy exchanges and a strong outing from Angus

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Postcard Trip to a Soviet Circus

Today we are looking at a small folder of postcards that I came across at a church sale. Likely from the 1970s (though they are undated) they are of Soviet circus performers at work.

The circus was hugely popular in the Soviet Union. As Wikipedia notes in their history of the Moscow State Circus, "Officials considered the circus to be culturally on par with the Ballets Russes or Tchaikovsky, but was much more affordable, and therefore more proletarian, at only about five dollars per ticket. The Soyuzgoscirk established seventy circus buildings across the USSR, and entire towns would turn out to see the shows."

You can pay a visit to one of these buildings -- sadly now abandoned -- in Moldova and learn about its history and more about the history of the Soviet Circus in "Sneaking into an Abandoned Soviet Circus in Moldova".

(Click on image to enlarge)