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Doug Ford’s Ontario: Hard Right Turn

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‘‘Ford’s ‘government for the people’ thus pivots, like Trump’s regime in the U.S., around ideological appeals to a hard-right provincialism, patriarchal family values set against a hostile world of crime and terrorism, mobilization of ethnic and racial chauvinisms, and mystical market solutions for every ill.’’
A decade after the global financial crisis, few of the initial political calculations on the trajectory of world capitalism remain intact. The assessments made by liberals and social democrats alike on the end of neoliberalism and a revival of Keynesian state intervention seem now like a bad joke. And the reading from many on the radical Left that the economic slump would be met by a wave of social resistance and an opening for political rupture have fared no better in either economic analysis or political guidance. Indeed, neoliberalism has regained its preeminence in economic policy through re-financialization and austerity despite its ideological discredit and the endless multiplications of its contradictions.

It is more than a little alarming that it is right-wing political forces that have gained more and more political space in the wake of the crisis. The range of forms of this insurgent right defies a single classification: electoral victories opening political space for a hyper-nationalist alt-right (U.S. and Germany); incorporation of neo-fascist forces into “formal” liberal democratic states (Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Austria, Poland, and others); exceptional judicial-political coups (Brazil, Honduras); authoritarian constitutional regimes (Russia, China, India, Turkey); military coups (Egypt, Thailand); and still others.

It is often claimed, in the simple-mindedness that passes for political analysis in Canada, that our inclusionary polity has been innocent of these developments (although Canada is, perhaps, the most orthodox adherent to neoliberal policy precepts in the world). But with the far right gaining political space inside and outside the Conservative Party — as in the long years of the Stephen Harper governments, and now with the United Conservative Party in Alberta, the People’s Alliance in New Brunswick, and the Saskatchewan Party and Coalition Avenir Québec governments — this claim bears no scrutiny.

The election of the Doug Ford-led Conservative Party to a majority government in Ontario, Canada’s largest province by output and population, should leave little doubt that an authoritarian phase of neoliberalism is sinking deep roots in Canada. Ford’s election platform, A Plan for the People, played to the “Ford Nation” built by his brother Rob as mayor of Toronto in its themes of social conservatism, law and order, unwanted “illegal” migrants, and market populism. Ford adopted much of the inflammatory rhetoric of Trump, and a parallel narrative of “making Ontario great again” after years of “criminal” Liberal spending (with the same chants of “lock her up” for then-premier Kathleen Wynne as targeted Hillary Clinton) and domination by cultural “elites” in Toronto. In this, Ford fused a suburban, multiracial bloc of voters with traditional conservative support — many with longstanding hard-right leanings — among rural and wealthy voters. In turn, Ford empowered even more militant — some fascistic and openly racist — elements of the far right to come out from their sewers (as with ex-Rebel Media figure Faith Goldy placing third in a run for Toronto mayor).

There is no policy handbook that guides these emergent authoritarian regimes as they blend nationalism with neoliberalism. Still, features of the Ontario government policy matrix under Ford that fit this pattern can be discerned.

First, the Conservatives are committed to further “liberalisation” of the economy — with “open for business” signs symbolically installed at each border crossing. These policies will be layered into a growth model that is as “extensive” (larger market) as it is “intensive” (higher productivity), and sustains Ontario as a low-cost, low-tax regional production system. Some of Ford’s first moves were to scrap the carbon trading system, while simultaneously cutting the gas tax, 750 renewable energy projects, and the Green Ontario Fund (shamefully leaving Ontario without a climate change policy). Shortly after, Ford tabled legislation to roll back modest labour reforms addressing some of the problems of low-paid workers and to freeze a planned increase of the minimum wage to $15 per hour, while also cutting back workplace inspections. New spaces for accumulation are, as well, to be pushed in the “ring of fire” in northern Ontario for mining, opening up “green spaces” for exurban development sprawl, and cannabis privatization.

Second, Ontario fiscal policy has been constrained for decades by targeted maximum fiscal deficits (normed, more or less, to move toward balanced budgets, with total debt kept in a range of 30–35 percent of provincial GDP). This has meant a budgetary practice under the Liberals of keeping program spending below the combined rates of inflation and growth to reduce steadily the size of government as a portion of the economy (with Ontario now having the lowest per-capita program spending in Canada). For the election, the Liberals allowed a modest deficit to fund a range of programs. Ford, in turn, ginned up charges of reckless Liberal spending and appointed a Financial Commission of Inquiry and an Ernst & Young Canada audit of the books to produce a $15 billion deficit (with some dispute over accounting procedures, in the same range as the Liberal projections). The Conservatives, however, promised during the election to increase spending on public transit, housing, childcare, and long-term care beds, with no cuts to services and public employees, and gas, income, small business, and corporate tax cuts. This is all to be funded, Ford argued, by $6 billion in savings through unnamed efficiencies.

This is, to say the least, a confused and incoherent fiscal policy that cannot hold. Indeed, it is austerity that has already been rolled out: a public-sector spending and hiring freeze; axing of a pharmacare program for young people; cuts to a school-repair program, cycling infrastructure, and mental-health funding; and appointment of a Task Force on Healthcare Reform led by a two-tier advocate. The precise mix of spending cuts, user fees, and monetization and privatization of assets will be sorted out in the coming economic statement and budget.

Third, the neoliberal deepening of economic institutions works in conjunction with measures that promote “social discipline” as the hard right sees it. The Conservatives have, for example, moved quickly to turf a modernization of the sex-ed curriculum, as well as materials to deal with reconciliation with First Nations; to legislate CUPE back to work at York University; to cut a basic-income pilot program and social-assistance rate increases (on the road, it seems, to revising some form of workfare); to withdraw from provincial obligations to settle and house refugee claimants; to block new oversight laws on the police; and to re-establish specialized policing units (the “guns and gangs” forces associated with extensive carding of racialized groups) in high-priority neighbourhoods. This is only a partial inventory of the ideological and economic mechanisms to instill the culture of fear and market discipline that Ford is deploying.

Finally, the Ford regime has been unhesitating in reinforcing the anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies that have been integral to neoliberalism. Indeed, Ford’s most dramatic initial move was a unilateral cut to the size of Toronto’s city council in the midst of an election (as well as eliminating the elections of several regional government chairs). Ford was so keen to reduce the space for electing, as he put it, “lefties” in Toronto, he belligerently invoked the constitutional notwithstanding clause to limit judicial oversight. The personalization and concentration of power around Ford is notable: the hypercentralization of executive power in the Premier’s Office; the ending of public ministerial mandate letters; the centralization of control over ministerial staff appointments and media contacts; the naming of special advisors and commissions to the Premier’s Office; the demotion of the ministerial status of First Nations issues; and the altering of parliamentary rules to limit the capacity to oppose government bills.

In sum, Fordism in Ontario is an extraordinarily contradictory — and dangerous — agenda. The antistate, market populism used to sustain the rate of accumulation at any cost exists alongside — indeed, depends upon — an increasingly interventionist and authoritarian state mobilizing its resources and reordering its administrative apparatuses to buttress this process. Ford’s “government for the people” thus pivots, like Trump’s regime in the U.S., around ideological appeals to a hard-right provincialism, patriarchal family values set against a hostile world of crime and terrorism, mobilization of ethnic and racial chauvinisms, and mystical market solutions for every ill.

Ontario under Ford has not mutated into an exceptional regime existing, as it does, within the faint veneer of liberal democracy. But Ford operates with ever fewer constraints — a nascent Bonapartism? — over his exercise of power. Both Ford’s core populist instincts and political calculations authorize and sanction the hard-right sections of his caucus, party, and extra-party militants; and his economic strategy hinges on ever more speculative, politicized, and extreme forms of accumulation. It would be utter folly to predict where this will end (no less in other regions of Canada). It is clear, moreover, that the Liberals are indicted in these very same processes; and the NDP has proven more inept than capable of developing an alternative to neoliberalism, as these policies have also made their claims on its vision and platform. Political fronts, a fighting and transformed union movement, ambitious socialist organizing, and alternatives have seldom been more urgent to confront the challenges of these uncertain and grave times.

Greg Albo teaches political economy at the Department of Political Science, York University, Toronto. He is currently co-editor of the Socialist Register. He is also on the editorial boards of Studies in Political Economy, Relay, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Canadian Dimension, The Bullet and Historical Materialism (England). Co-editor of A Different Kind of State: Popular Power and Democratic Administration and author of numerous articles in journals such as Studies in Political Economy, Socialist Register, Canadian Dimension, and Monthly Review.

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The language of capitalism isn’t just annoying, it’s dangerous

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When General Motors laid off more than 6,000 workers days after Thanksgiving, John Patrick Leary, the author of the new book Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, tweeted out part of GM CEO Mary Barra’s statement. “The actions we are taking today continue our transformation to be highly agile, resilient, and profitable, while giving us the flexibility to invest in the future,” she said. Leary added a line of commentary to of Barra’s statement: “Language was pronounced dead at the scene.”

Why should we pay attention to the particular words used to describe, and justify, the regularly scheduled “disruptions” of late capitalism? Published last week by Haymarket Books, Leary’s Keywords explores the regime of late-capitalist language: a set of ubiquitous modern terms, drawn from the corporate world and the business press, that he argues promulgate values friendly to corporations (hierarchy, competitiveness, the unquestioning embrace of new technologies) over those friendly to human beings (democracy, solidarity, and scrutiny of new technologies’ impact on people and the planet).

These words narrow our conceptual horizons — they “manacle our imagination,” Leary writes — making it more difficult to conceive alternative ways of organizing our economy and society. We are encouraged by powerful “thought leaders” and corporate executives to accept it as the language of common sense or “normal reality.” When we understand and deploy such language to describe our own lives, we’re seen as good workers; when we fail to do so, we’re implicitly threatened with economic obsolescence. After all, if you’re not conversant in “innovation” or “collaboration,” how can you expect to thrive in this brave new economy?

Leary, an English professor at Wayne State University, brings academic rigor to this linguistic examination. Unlike the many people who casually employ the phrase “late capitalism” as a catch-all explanation for why our lives suck, Leary defines the term and explains why he chooses to use it. Calling our current economic system “late capitalism”suggests that, despite our gleaming buzzwords and technologies, what we’re living through is just the next iteration of an old system of global capitalism. In other words, he writes, “cheer up: things have always been terrible!” What is new, Leary says, quoting Marxist economic historian Ernest Mandel, is our “belief in the omnipotence of technology” and in experts. He also claims that capitalism is expanding at an unprecedented rate into previously uncommodified geographical, cultural, and spiritual realms.

Keywords was inspired by a previous work of a similar name: the Welsh Marxist theorist Raymond Williams’s 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Williams’s goal, like Leary’s, was to encourage readers to become “conscious and critical” readers and listeners, to see the language of our everyday lives “not a tradition to be learned, nor a consensus to be accepted, [but as] . . . a vocabulary to use, to find our own ways in, to change as we find it necessary to change it, as we go on making our own language and history.” Words gain their power not only from the class position of their speakers: they depend on acquiescence by the listeners. Leary takes aim at the second half of that equation, working to break the spell of myths that ultimately serve the elites. “If we understood… [these words] better,” Leary writes, “perhaps we might rob them of their seductive power.”

To that end, Leary offers a lexicon of about 40 late capitalist “keywords,” from “accountability” to “wellness.” Some straddle the work-life divide, like “coach.” Using simple tools — the Oxford English Dictionary, Google’s ngram database, and media coverage of business and the economy— Leary argues that each keyword presents something basically indefensible about late capitalist society in a sensible, neutral, and even uplifting package.

Take “grit,” a value championed by charter school administrators, C-suite execs, and Ted Talkers. On the surface, there’s nothing objectionable about insisting that success comes from hard work sustained in spite of challenges, failure, and adversity. It can even seem like an attractive idea: who doesn’t want to believe, as author of the bestselling Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance Angela Duckworth puts it, that success rests “more on our passion and perseverance than on our innate talent” — or the race and income of our parents?

What discussions of “grit” scrupulously avoid, Leary writes, is “the obviously central fact of the economy”: poverty. Duckworth and other proponents of grit nod to the limited horizon of opportunity presented to those living in poverty, but insist that grit can help people “defy the odds.” Implicitly, they accept that most will fail to do so: they simply promise elevation to the hard-working, the deserving, the grittiest — that is, to the very few.

“Grit offers an explanation for what exists,” Leary writes, “rather than giving us tools to imagine something different.” Rather than attacking the conditions that make “grit” necessary, the word’s proponents ask women, people of color, and the poor to overcompensate for the unjust world into which they’ve been born. While the need for “grit” is most often preached to urban schoolchildren and people in poverty, its “real audience,” Leary writes, is “perched atop the upper levels of our proverbial ladder,” a position from which inequality doesn’t look so bad.

Leary divides his keywords into four broad categories: first is “late-capitalist body talk,” which imbues corporations with the attributes of human bodies, like nimbleness or flexibility, and shifts focus away from the real human bodies whose labor generates its profits. “Much of the language of late capitalism,” Leary writes, “imagines workplaces as bodies in virtually every way except as a group of overworked or underpaid ones.”

Then there’s the “moral vocabulary of late capitalism,” which often uses words with older, religious meanings; Leary cites a nineteenth-century poem that refers to Jesus as a “thought leader.” These moral values, Leary says, are generally taken to be indistinguishable from economic ones. “Passion,” for example, is prized for its value to your boss: if you love what you do, you’ll work harder and demand less compensation. Some are words, like “artisanal,” that reflect capitalism’s absorption of the countercultural critique that it failed to provide workers with a sense of purpose and autonomy. Finally, there is the category of words that reflexively celebrate the possibilities of new technologies, like “smart”: smart fridge, smart toaster, smart toilet.

As Leary shows, these keywords reflect and shore up the interests of the dominant class. For the tech overlords of Silicon Valley, an “entrepreneur” is someone innovative and savvy, who “moves fast and breaks things.” The entrepreneur alone creates his company’s exorbitant wealth — not his workers, nor any taxpayers who may fund the innovations his company sells. (Elon Musk, for example, has received nearly $5 million in government subsidies). It’s a very useful concept for billionaires: after all, why redistribute that wealth, through taxes or higher wages, to those who didn’t create it?

In these short essays, Leary undermines what Soviet linguist Valentin Voloshinov describes as the aim of the dominant class: to “impart an…eternal character to the ideological sign, to extinguish or drive inward the struggle between social value judgements which occurs in it. ” And in the case of “entrepreneur,” for example, Leary shows that quite a lot of struggle between social judgements is contained in the word.

First defined around 1800 by French economist Jean-Baptiste Say as one who “shifts economic resources . . . into an area of higher productivity and greater yield,” the word was given a dramatically different inflection by political economist Joseph Schumpeter. According to Leary, our contemporary view of entrepreneurship comes from Schumpeter, who believed that the entrepreneur was “the historical agent for capitalism’s creative, world-making turbulence.” When we talk about “entrepreneurs” with an uncritical acceptance, we implicitly accept Schumpeter’s view that wealth was created by entrepreneurs via a process of innovation and creative destruction — rather than Marx’s belief that wealth is appropriated to the bourgeois class by exploitation.

By demonstrating how dramatically these words’ meanings have transformed, Leary suggests that they might change further, that the definitions put in place by the ruling class aren’t permanent or beyond dispute. As he explores what our language has looked like, and the ugliness now embedded in it, Leary invites us to imagine what our language could emphasize, what values it might reflect. What if we fought “for free time, not ‘flexibility’; for free health care, not ‘wellness’; and for free universities, not the ‘marketplace of ideas”?

His book reminds us of the alternatives that persist behind these keywords: our managers may call us as “human capital,” but we are also workers. We are also people. “Language is not merely a passive reflection of things as they are,” Leary writes. “[It is] also a tool for imagining and making things as they could be.”

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Tucker Carlson Thinks the Problem With America Is Market Capitalism

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If there were any doubt of the direction the Trump-dominated GOP is taking, Tucker Carlson’s monologue on Fox News Wednesday should remove it. Carlson’s not a political leader, but he’s a bellwether, and his words are already being cheered by prominent conservatives. Meant as a rebuttal to Mitt Romney’s New Year’s Day op-ed, the speech wasn’t original, but it reveals the degree to which Republicans have embraced the populist authoritarianism they once condemned.

Carlson began with several swipes against “bankers” who exploit the working class to line the pockets of spooky elites. If that anti-capitalist lingo sounds familiar, so does his contemptuous shrug at the ways free markets improve lives. “Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far.” This is a time-worn rhetorical technique of freedom’s enemies, who sneer at material standards of living in order to elevate abstract social goals over the needs of actual people. In fact, cheaper consumer goods have benefited Americans immeasurably. Some 85 million now own iPhones, for instance, and use them not as trinkets, but as work tools or devices to keep in touch with loved ones. And while Amazon may deliver “plastic garbage,” it also delivers syringes to diabetics, toys for special-needs kids, and even prosthetic limbs for the disabled—all, of course, made of plastic. Freer markets and abundant, affordable imports, have made the average American wealthier than Rockefeller, and 90 times richer than the average human being.

Does that translate into happiness? It depends. More wealth means better access to innovative medical technology, cheaper and safer transportation, cultural riches of art and music. But by making possible a wider spectrum of experiences and opportunities, it also means more chances for disappointment and fear—the real source of the “alienation” capitalism’s accused of generating. Money can’t buy happiness, but material prosperity is a necessary ingredient for the good life, and the practical elimination of poverty today is giving more people than ever before the opportunity to lead lives in ways that accomplish their own goals.

Government policies that curtail their choices are, by definition, obstacles to the pursuit of happiness and impose harms that politicians literally cannot imagine. Consider “cheap iPhones”: nobody can calculate the hours saved thanks to driving-directions features, the lives saved through quick access to 911, or the millions of simple, happy conversations that screentime or text messaging makes possible for families separated by long distances. To deride this as materialism is to scoff at simple, even beautiful human joys. Imagine the consequences of eliminating smartphones (you can’t) and you get a sense of the inhumane sentiments that anti-materialistic slogans conceal.

Yet to Carlson, economic freedom is disposable—”a tool…created by human beings” “like a staple gun or a toaster,” which politicians can eliminate if they decide it’s “weaken[ing]…families.” Since “the goal for America is…happiness”—which includes things like “dignity, purpose, self-control, independence, above all, deep relationships with other people”—the failure of international bankers to make people happy and give them rewarding family lives is grounds for bureaucratic control. Although pitched as anti-government populism, Carlson’s prescription is clear: government management of the economy in order to force citizens into what politicians consider “happiness.”

But America’s “goal” isn’t “happiness”—it’s freedom to pursue happiness. That phrase was written by people who rejected the idea that government gives us liberty to serve collective ends. Their commitment to self-determination has often been attacked by strongmen who think government should manage our choices in order to stabilize society. “Man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process in which he contributes as a member of familial, social groups, the nation,” wrote Benito Mussolini. “Fascism is therefore opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth century materialism…[and] does not believe in the possibility of ‘happiness’ on earth as conceived by the economic literature of the 18th century.”

Yet free economic exchange is inseparable from genuine dignity and valuable relationships. That should be clear at least to women, who for generations were denied independence by laws that restricted their freedom, often in the name of preserving “the family” and protecting their virtue. The first stirrings of feminism did destabilize long-standing traditions about the family, as freedom usually does—witness the controversy over the climax of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which Nora is so emboldened by her experiment with economic freedom that she finds strength to leave her unhappy marriage. Few women today would choose to return to an era when their fates were shaped by government to serve what officials considered the social good. Yet for Carlson, women’s economic freedom is among the most fundamental ills in our society. Thus he condemns hard-working female executives such as Sheryl Sandberg who think it’s “more virtuous to devote your life to some soulless corporation than it is to raise your own kids.”

Obviously family is important. But like everything, it’s a blessing when freely chosen, and a burden when conscripted as a political device by which the hopes and dreams of actual people are subordinated to the demands of political authorities. Restricting freedom in order to encourage “deep relationships with other people” doesn’t promote, but obliterates, dignity, self control, and independence. It’s a recipe for squalor and resentment, not happiness. Yet it’s the go-to recipe for authoritarians who see individual pursuits as trivial compared to the perpetuation of the state.

Freedom—economic or personal—is not “created by human beings.” It’s the rightful, natural state of all persons. It can unjustly be destroyed, but never transcended. Nor were the infinitely diverse institutions we call “the market” ever “created”—they’re a spontaneous order generated by the free choices of countless individuals pursuing happiness as they decide. Some of their choices may be foolish, or seem so to outsiders who lack full information. But the freedom to make choices, for all its disruptiveness, is the only thing “independence” or “happiness” can ever truly mean.

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Capitalism and Mental Health

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David Matthews is a lecturer in sociology and social policy at Coleg Llandrillo, Wales, and the leader of its degree program in health and social care.

A mental-health crisis is sweeping the globe. Recent estimates by the World Health Organization suggest that more than three hundred million people suffer from depression worldwide. Furthermore, twenty-three million are said to experience symptoms of schizophrenia, while approximately eight hundred thousand individuals commit suicide each year.1 Within the monopoly-capitalist nations, mental-health disorders are the leading cause of life expectancy decline behind cardiovascular disease and cancer.2 In the European Union, 27.0 percent of the adult population between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five are said to have experienced mental-health complications.3 Moreover, in England alone, the predominance of poor mental health has gradually increased over the last two decades. The most recent National Health Service Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey illustrates that in 2014, 17.5 percent of the population over the age of sixteen suffered from varying forms of depression or anxiety, compared to 14.1 percent in 1993. Additionally, the number of individuals whose experiences were severe enough to warrant intervention rose from 6.9 percent to 9.3 percent.4

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