Stapled to the Front Door: Neoliberal Extractivism In Canada

This article discusses several aspects of the reliance in the Canadian economy on the natural resource extraction (NRE) industries. The NRE sector illustrates the dual nature of Canadian capital in a global context. The intensification of resource extraction is associated with an increase in inequality along several vectors. These increases in inequality, however, cannot be decoupled from the institutionalization of neoliberal policies at both the federal and provincial levels over the last 30 years.


Trumped up and buried under the ashes of neoliberalism


At the time of preparing this talk, January 2017, Donald Trump had just been elected the 45th president of the United States of America.    This talk is not really about the United States under the tutelage of the newly elected American President Donald Trump.  Rather this talk is more about how we arrived here: about the legacy of neoliberal policies that forged the trump card for the explosion of right wing populist movements and their victories across the advanced capitalist zone including in the United States.  As the vivid title of this talk makes clear, I am not arguing that we have moved to a post neoliberal order as of yet–although there are signs we may be in a bad transition out of the neoliberal epoch.  Alternatively, I will argue that we are living with the consequences of neoliberal institutions and policies: suffocating under the ashes of neoliberalism with Donald trump as the brightest burning coal at the top of the ash heap.

As most people know, to play the “trump card” in any game—political, economic or otherwise—confers a decisive advantage to the person who plays it given the right circumstances and timing.  The idiomatic expression “trumped up” refers to situation that has been manufactured to produce one set of outcomes while falsely claiming to produce another.  A trumped up criminal case is promulgated on phony evidence where the wrongly accused faces a criminal sanction while the broader public is misled to believe justice is being done.  There is close analogue here to the phrase gaslighting.  Much of neoliberalism, indeed an important explanation for its ideological spread was the initial promise of employment and renewed economic growth, i.e., what we might call the remedy to economic shame[i].  There is a sense in which neoliberalism is and was a scam and a manipulation of public morale: the difference today is most, including significant sections of the ruling classes admit this. They simply do not care because its all just a contemporary communications game.

If you are on the left it is easy, in this context, to simply be against Donald Trump and the sundry list of right wing populist movements and leaders. Who reading this post is for racism, sexism, xenophobia and soft and hard bigotries of all stripes?

Rather the problem for the putative left, particularly but not solely, its formal parliamentary forms; the Democratic Party in the United States, the New Labour Party in Britain and Australia, the Socialist party in France, the New Democratic Party in Canada, and the Sozialdemokratische Partei in Germany, for example, is to come to terms with what is now 40 years of their own internal drift to the right and their own hand in building the very neoliberal institutions which  created the conditions in which right wing populism and inequality flourish and left wing politics languishes.[ii]

In the above regard, it is my suspicion that it will be much harder for the institutionalized left to come to grips with the folly of neoliberalism than the right.  This is particularly so in the upper echelons of the progressive social structure (intellectuals, academics, politicians and the quasi woke citizenry).

Here is why.  For the right, neoliberalism was an internally motivated project, which sought to roll back, dismantle, and or fundamentally restructure the post World War II social order.   Neoliberalism was never about jobs, productivity, or economic growth for conservative elites: it was about a redistribution of power upwards.  In this regard, the adoption of neoliberalism did not require a conversion of ideological convictions as it did for the left. It was broad and important segments of the left which made the conversion:  It is the Clinton democrats, Tony Blair’s ‘new labour’, Gerhard Schröder’s ‘third’ way, and the legions of intellectuals and academics which made their own accommodations, and indeed in many cases who crafted neoliberal innovations that will have to do the hard work of soul searching, shame letting, and back tracking.

I am not very sanguine about the prospects of the aforementioned coming to pass for three reasons.  For one thing, most left accommodations to neoliberalism were made within the reality of a very constrained political economy characterized by high unemployment,fears of high inflation, and low economic growth and a concomitant ideological restructuring to the right.  For example, Tony Blair inherited Margaret Thatcher’s new United Kingdom, and Bill Clinton inherited Ronald Reagan’s “New Day in America.”  It would be impish to maintain that these were not real reconfigurations to the possibilities facing policy makers—left or right.

The second reason I am not optimistic about the chances of a volte-face on the part of the neoliberal left is quite simply that we are now almost two generations into the neoliberal epoch and easily one generation into its hegemony.  Educational attainment, political identities and careers have been formed and built within a neoliberal cognitive and material framework.  None of which is particularly easy (and in some cases possible) to walk away from.

Third, the left remains fractured between insiders and outsiders.  Because the political insiders on the left will not admit to the paucity of neoliberalism and the role they played in constructing the neoliberal order, the most vigorous and energized elements of the left remain largely outside formal political institutions and the broader public policy processes.  Indeed many insiders on the political left are still gaslighting the outsiders.  And if they are not merely sociopaths, its fairly hard for serial abusers to admit they have a problem…lotta shame needs to be overcome.

Moreover, it is by now blatantly apparent in American politics that the political process is over-determined by campaign and party financing—with the democrats still requiring that some professional politicians and administrators be the front for the donors and with Trump era republicans increasingly disposing of the political ‘middle men’ (sic) and opting instead to just put the donors in power. That is, within American politics it is increasingly the case that the Democrats and Republican parties do not merely represent different fractions within the haute bourgeoisie–they are the haute bourgeoisie.  There is, therefore, a toxic stasis on the European and North American left facing a dynamic, well funded, and popularly organized right.

Afterword to the introduction

It has been almost a year since I gave this talk and there is reason today to feel a bit more sanguine than one may have felt in the morning after Trump was inaugurated.   The British labour party had a major coup d’état with the victory of Corbyn. Equally positive has been the increasing traction of non normie style democrats.  Moreover, and I think more importantly, there are some positive signs that that the non parliamentary left is finally working through some of its major dysfunctions of which I will just touch on two below.

First, there are strong signs that the non parliamentary left intelligentsia is moving beyond the internecine, unproductive and self defeating debates of the naughties and teenies.  I think Trump’s election was a brutal wake-up call signalling that the prosaic and bitter debates of grad school educated lefties had become a waste of real resources.  Do not get me wrong, I think those debates had to be had, but they went beyond their best before date and ossified  into petty silos.  It was as if by sitting in grad school seminars and by standing giving grad lectures we were going to change something all on our own, as if the logical consistency of our interior ontological righteousness could alone change the world:  to be sure a much more meaningful exercise than Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models, but often not much (there is a future post in this analogue, someone remind me of it).

Second, while we were busy, people like Jane McAlevey and countless others were actually being a part of helping communities organize.  Her title gets right at the problem, there are no shortcuts to the real work of organizing: there is no one big existential idea, no coupling of mobilizing and online communication hubs (often falsely called communities) for living in, and being a part of, organizing ourselves in the broader (as in not self selected) communities we live in.  Life has an unavoidable spatial context and real social complexity.  Organizing involves dealing with both.  I think the non parliamentary left is finally getting this.

[i]   See Arlie Russel Hochschild, “Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, (2016), The new press.
[ii]  It remains to be seen if Jeremy Corbyn marks a shift in English politics.

Delicious and dangerous irony: China to buy Italian bonds

How much of a disaster is the EMU?  Look no further than the spectacle of the Italians going cap in hand to the Chinese for a bail out.  The fact that the Italians are tapping the Chinese is not the issue.  The issue is that they cannot tap the EU or the by now ideologically impotent ECB.  I have always thought of neoliberalism as the ideological gloss on an accumulation strategy.  Me thinks I might have it exactly backwards.

The irony of greed: The end game for Neoliberalism?

The global economy is in the toilet and the Boomers’ representatives are chanting: “flush, flush, flush.”  Me? I am eating cigarettes and wine while admiring the remarkable consistency in the myopia of all of it.

In the name of fiscal prudence the whole of the advanced capitalist zone is in engaged in austerity budgeting and calls for more of the same.  Even Martin Wolf, in his otherwise insightful column in the FT online today, felt the need to tap his hat and nod in the direction of the genteelism of supply.  Exhibit A, the conclusion to his incisive intervention:

Reconsidering fiscal policy is not all that is needed. Monetary policy still has an important role. So, too, do supply-side reforms, particularly changes in taxation that promote investment. So, not least, does global rebalancing. Yet now, in a world of excess saving, the last thing we need is for creditworthy governments to slash their borrowings.

As is widely acknowledged, monetary policy has little outside of conciliatory role to play at this time.  In so far as the CBs should not make the mistake of tightening policy as the ECB and the BoC did.  But apart from the role of spoiler there really is not much left for the CBs to do.  The problem is squarely fiscal.  As Wolf himself went to pains to argue.  Why then the conclusion given that further tax reductions are not only going to make the fiscal positions of governments worse they will also likely have the same effect as lowering interest rates at this time:  Nadda, ziltch, rien, nothing?  The problem is that Wolf has to tip his hat to conventional wisdom.  If not; he has no hope of bending the ears of policy makers.  Oh well, that is his plight not mine.

Here, given none are listening we may speak frankly.  The world economy is in the toilet because free trade, tax cuts, deregulation and above all the liberalization of finance over the last thirty years let loose a Tsunami of forces both economic and political.  The liberalization of finance and production allowed for the national gutting and then global whipsawing of labour.  As the profiteers profited and retired workers slept while the assets they had built were being systematically stripped and the fortunes being amassed were then turned to the seedy business (although a time honoured practice if one cares to actually read Smith) of buying off the government–and it must be stressed the intelligentsia too–broadly understood.

We now have the perfect storm.  A generation of public and private sector functionaries has been trained to believe that the market can do no wrong and the government no good.  As a corollary is of course the proposition that monetary and regressive tax policy is everything.

The irony, of course, is that any credible account of the present crisis would have to admit that we are here because free trade, tax cuts, deregulation, the flexibilization of labour markets  and above all the liberalization of finance brought us here.  How odd it is then that we should be treated to more of  the same as the cure for what ails us.

The food insecure amongst us

Every year the UN-OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) says that 3-4 million (always different) subsistence farmers and pastoralists in a variety of different regions in Ethiopia are food insecure, and thus in need of food aid (out of a total population of 80 million) The Ethiopian government then holds a press conference and asks donors to pitch in. The number of food insecure in Ethiopia is roughly the same this year, and yet when reading the news reports in the Western media about famine in the Horn of Africa you would think something totally dramatic and different has been happening in Ethiopia this year.

On the other hand as a percentage of the population the numbers of food insecure people are substantially higher in southern Somalia where “access” to food insecure places is a key factor in donor activity in the region. When I say “access” what I mean is that getting physical access to southern Somalia is a key issue in donor efforts in the region. Southern Somalia is also controlled by Al Shabbab. And, well the powers that be have been trying to tame southern Somalis for the past 20 years, but without much success. Thus, in the past 20 years, we have had two formal military interventions (one US led and one led by Ethiopia) and myriad small scale regularly inflicted informal interventions, sometimes in the form of drones, sometimes coming as ak47s, etc. So between the war on terror, and the war on poverty it is hard to know why Somalia is in the news right now.  But also more difficult to know is what is happening in the Horn of Africa militarily, politically, and economically beyond sensational reports. But, certainly since there is always enough food to feed the people of the world, we must become cognizant of the fact that famine has its own specifec political-economy, as does war, and also news reportage. So, just as poor news reporting is never a disaster of an individual mind, famine is never a natural disaster. Bad institutional configurations produce both :)

Where does that leave us? I am not suggesting  a conspiracy theory. But when I start to put the pieces of this story together the Cassandra in me certainly hears grumblings of another military intervention in all of this news making activity. After all, what else can “access” mean?

In the mean time, though I am still waiting for a really good article/analyses on the framing of this years biggest “humanitarian disaster”, I see that other people have questions too. We are starting to get closer to a better analyses of this event with this blog post. Check it.

A little perspective on GDP growth or does policy matter?

These are odd times.  Not one policy seems to get floated these days which does not include in the tag line that it will be good for economic growth.  And it is not just tax cuts for the rich or corporations which get rationalized as such: everything from eating organic to getting a post secondary education are all said to be good for economic growth.  What all these claims have in common is that they are patently false if real GDP per capita growth rates is anything to go by(1).  What is more, in almost every advanced capitalist country the obligatory policy meme has been that policy X will be good for GDP growth.  The reality is that since the 1960s it would appear nothing has been particularly good for GDP growth from financial liberalization to the increasing consumption of soy “milk”*.  The hard facts are illustrated in this (below) graph of real GDP growth per capita:

I do not know about you but does anything strike you as patently obvious about the trend rate of growth for these advanced capitalist countries?  Anything, anything at all.  Well in case you missed what they all share in common, with perhaps the exception of the UK, is that it has been a toboggan run since the 60s. Sure the Netherlands gets a bump and then reverts to mean; and sure the UK runs horizontal for a time; and sure Japan descends from mount Fujimori making Whistler look like a bunny hill but the overall undeniable fact is that things have been going down hill since the 60s.  That is, despite all the fan fare behind deregulation, privatisation, free trade, corporate income tax cuts, bicycle helmets, tofu, gay liberation and the Prius; in terms of real GDP per capita growth things have been going down hill.

Look at Canada.  For all the bluster and loud pronouncements about which policy and what size of government was going to tank or reinvigorate the economy the reality is that the last five decades have been characterized by ever lower real GDP growth rates regardless of who was in power and what policies were pursued.  Does this mean policy does not matter?  Of course not.  Policy matters tremendously.  Good policies alleviate poverty which is good for public health and the quality of life of the poor; a strong system of unemployment insurance provides a bridging loan and helps match workers to jobs for which they are qualified(2); a good education, like a garden, improves the quality of life and the autonomy of citizens; exercise helps us keep our form and tax public health care less.

All true.  But do any of those things necessarily boost GDP growth per capita?  And if they don’t maybe we need to stop trying to justify them on those terms and justify them on their merits. If policies such as privatisation, free trade, tax cuts for the rich and corporation cannot be proven to increase GDP per capita growth, which they can’t, then let their boosters provide an alternate rationale.  I am all ears.

*Bean juice from a cow?

1. Of course if we make the right assumptions we can claim that in absence of all of these things GDP growth would have been worse.

2.Skill mismatching is rarely considered by those advocating shortening search times.

“The fascism we deserve”?

My fellow blogger on RPPE (Mr Travis Fast) says that the question is not “if another world is possible for in the abstract it always is. The real question is how and under what conditions it could be possible.”

I have also been thinking about the conditions for making another world during the run up to the federal elections here in Canada. But as we face the possibility of a Harper majority, one of the things I have been struck by is the inability of those who want something other than a Harper majority to really think through and thus act to address the question of political lassitude.

The only piece I have seen on the issue is one by Murray Dorbin, who tried to answer the question on by rightly claiming that “we have a population that is disengaged from its own community and its history. That means [it is] disconnected from a key source their moral core. Politics makes a difference if you are connected to each other. Otherwise, not so much.”

But Murray Dorbin’s article then waxes on about “traditional democracy” and the fact that the elite classes no longer respect the institutions of a post WWII social contract.

But all this got me thinking about the relationship between aggregate experience (the form of a society) and individual experience. That is to say, I am also bewildered by why there are no courageous attempts at reform in Canada? Well, one thing that I have found is that it seems really hard for people to have both a sense of reality and a sense of justice at the same time. People can think about how we “ought” to live but they cannot connect those “oughts” to reality. By this I mean they cannot connect those “oughts” to how they organize their daily existence. The good life is thus an abstraction of fine platitudes but has no real bearing on reality—sort of like heaven. But for me this raises the issue of the relationship between the discipline required to think about reality and reality itself– that is, how can we recognize the limits inherit to reality and also establish processes to help overcome those limits. And then it hit me that a “liberal” society systematically deprives people of the practical memory as well as the conceptual tools to deal with discipline as fairness and justice. This is because experience in market society is organized so that it appears that there is no relationship between desire and deprivation of desire except as a market principle (see my posts on romantic love for further clarification on this point). In any case, under such conditions any sense of a shared world or collective struggle thus seems old fashioned, authoritarian, primitive, or whingey.

I went to school in the 3rd world, and later I attended UBC where I completed my undergrad education. Everything about the way I was raised, from the primary and secondary school I attended, to the streets I walked on, taught me that people who work together can change the world(decolonization was still fresh on our minds). UBC was a total shock for me, because, what I took for a global conversation was totally absent from the school curriculum in the Department of History (no less). In any case the streets of my childhood did not teach me about a shared world in some didactic way, what I knew was that some folks grabbed some space and reorganized power at the institutional level so that I had a thoroughly post-colonial education. Thus, my high-school ‘A’ level curriculum included the readings of one Dr Walter Rodney.

Today, in my scholarly work I am still having a conversation with the way that power was reorganized in the 3rd world in the post WWII era, but clearly I know the conditions for having the conversation. But what seems apparent to me is that the concomitant experience of power grabbing and reorganization that happened in Canada is absent from the way we imagine the WWII social compromise in Canada. Instead, as Dorbin would have it, elites were just nice guys who all of a sudden wanted to respect democracy.

What was the saying: “A country gets the fascism it deserves”?

So, unless we start organizing so as to return experience back to critical thought, this above statement will be more true than ever. What this means for me is that we need to build spaces of solidarity that can address the form society takes at the aggregate level and at the same time address everyday experience. Unions used to do this, but then we all became concerned with being respectable, polite, and rational. But, such a discussion cannot provide us with the power base through which to connect thought to experience.

And this is a question of power, I think.

Otherwise, who cares about a blog or textbooks or romantic love? Only the solitary you, my friends.

The right of the community to know and love one another

Guest Post By Elleni Centime Zeleke

Hot on the the heels of my last post on romance and because I am still high from celebrating international women’s day I want to add a few more discussion points to the topic of love and capitalism.
I will start by restating some basic premises and then posing a question.

So, in the context of advanced capitalist societies self-interest is the only form of subjectivity that we are allowed to have access to. We believe that we can overcome the experience of being self-interested humans within the context of a romantic love relationship, but in fact the structure of our society is such that we can really never reconcile self-interest with the reproduction of longer-term cycles of community and collective life.

If we are rich or middle class enough,sometimes we survive as a couple and suffer the illusion that the needs of the individual have been reconciled with the needs of the collective (society). After all money can buy you love, houses, and comforts that keep the couple together and so it reconciles the couples desires with the needs of a consumer based society to reproduce itself.

So, to be sure in order to eat decent food coupling might in fact be a necessary institutional requirement of our time. But that is the point, it is a very historically specific institution, and as a social practice it is more akin to visiting the toilet than any real creative ambition.

Now, to be sure humans are also animals and so we make pragmatic choices in order to survive. It is better to piss in a toilet than to piss randomly and wherever the wind takes you.

But in this sense romance turns us into animals driven by instinct rather than self-critical thought.

Interestingly, we like to gaze at backward women in other countries and feel sorry for them because we see them as passive victims of patriarchy. But romantic coupling is a social arrangement produced in the context where we are all passive victims to narrowly defined goals that are motivated by self-interest rather than self-critical and collectively defined activity. And yet, as we have been saying, to act as a self-interested human being is not natural, it is a political project that we all accept in the advanced capitalist countries as nature and so we fashion our love and our behaviour accordingly.
In my previous post I told the story of the prisoner because he offered a different way of being in the world. His confidence in loving me came from the fact that he did not doubt for a moment that we shared the same world. As a loving man he insisted that the collective be the front and centre of any decision making, even if his body suffered to some degree because of that. His act of love was a sign of maturity that moves us beyond the animality that most romantic partners indulge in for the entirety of their lives.

Marx asked us to rethink whether it was possible to reconcile the right of poor people to survive with a regime of private property rights. I do think that a corollary to that question is whether it is possible to reconcile romantic love with the right of the community to know and love the world that we all have already made and need to remake together?

The Sinister Side of Romance in North America

By Elleni Centime Zeleke

What has always worried me about couples in North America is that they replace the work of belonging to the world with the work of belonging to JUST ONE. And as such they take some of the most banal markers of adult life to be markers of maturity and achievement. In my experience, this tends to make North Americans childish in the most sinister way possible.

Another way of putting it is that couples attempt to overcome humanity’s present day alienation from the world by obsessing over the One. But what this means is that they mistake duty to the One as an end in itself instead of a way to open themselves up to the problem of solving alienation. This happens whether the couple means to do so or not. In a consumer based society achievement gets packaged as being able to amass goods for the empire of two (the couple) since survival of the couple must come at all costs. People spend their lives playing house, and what it means to be an adult is to master the game of monopoly for the sake of playing house.

In this case, being an adult gets reduced to satisfying needs–buying a house, clothes, feeding children. But after satisfying basic nutrition and keeping warm, our needs are socially constructed. Instead of investigating the source of the need, couples act like animals, chasing the satisfaction of their apparent needs when those needs in fact arise from elsewhere than their self-critical self–and yet what it means to be human is to be self-critical. Thus, in the name of love they pursue their own alienation and their own animality.

But in this sense then couples agree to guarantee each other’s childishness. After all, in the standard hetero-normative relationship you do not force the partner to take responsibility for the world. Instead, you stare into the other’s eyes and guarantee for the other that while they may feel alienated from the world, in the context of the relationship they will feel bonded with the One. Coupledom as we live it in North America is always a disavowal of the world. The husband or wife might do charity work or even be involved in politics but the structure of the love relationship is already enfolded into immaturity because it centres around protecting the other from confronting the alienation inherent to the world.

It is for this reason that North Americans often confuse their pets with children and lovers. It is because to love here is fundamentally a narcissistic activity. The least thing you want is for the Other to really talk back, and so truly open you up to the world.

But, this reminds me of a time when as a young woman I went to visit a family friend who was a political prisoner in a third world country. The prisoner had been in and out of the prison hospital, and he had been subjected to mild forms of torture and was already quite old. The prisoner was a family friend and he had heard that I was a feminist. He thought gender was not a wise way to organize politically, but all the same he spent the hour we had together engaging me around this question. A few months later the prisoner passed away and in retrospect I realized that the prisoner must have known that he was gravely sick and about to die even when I went to visit him, but throughout the visit he never talked about himself, nor did he complain about his health. Instead we talked about a world that was greater than both him and I but that tied us together as one. In this way he opened himself up to a life of love and generosity that also questioned the alienation that brought us before the prison guard. In this way, too, he insisted on forcing maturity and responsibility onto me.

That romance could always be this touching! For this I would be grateful. On the contrary, when men ask me to marry them here in North America, it seems they mistake the mastery of playing house with love and responsibility. How banal, and sinisterly so.

What this says to me, however, is that romance is the obsessive but failed attempt to overcome the alienation from things we have already made with our ancestors (and can remake). But the ideology that accompanies the invisible hand of market politics insists upon this alienation. Thus, the accompanying cultural concept to the invisible hand is romance, and it is romance as such that is the opium of the people. But in this case, romance is pure political passivity for it hardly contains a whisper of protest against the world as it exists.  More likely, it is accompanied by eternally unfulfilled personal relationships, which is probably why we cheat and divorce as often as we say “I love you”. It is also why I die a little death whenever I hear someone claim to love another, for sure enough the claim of love is soon to be accompanied by the violence of trying to full-fill what can never be fulfilled by romance through romancing some Other or becoming bored and depressed with the One. Turns out our expectations and experience of love tend to replicate our dissatisfaction with playing in the market, and yet we keep on looking for the One, playing make believe that this is the One, asking ourselves if this is the One, etc. All the while never really growing up to face the world that so desperately needs us to take responsibility for what we have made and need to remake together.