Building a neo-liberal Canada

READ IT by Bruce Mason

harperism book cover• It rules the world, but do you know what “neoliberalism” really means? While rarely defined, often confused, misused and glossed over, understanding the term is basic to human interaction in the 21st century and the key to unlocking a different country and world.

After 40 years of tracking neoliberalism’s global rise, Donald Gutstein decided to help clear up any doubt and confusion by sharing his insights in a book. Happily, he uses our prime minister as a case study. Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada (James Lorimer) has been published months ahead of what quite possibly will be the most important federal election ever.

Dictionaries define neoliberalism as a modern, political-economic theory favouring free trade, privatization, minimal government regulation, lower taxes – especially for elites and corporations – and reduced social services.

As Gutstein reveals, in power, neoliberalism is much more sinister and calculated. More than a simple desire for smaller government and taxes, it’s an agenda and an ongoing, utopian dream. Heavily influenced by think tanks, neoliberalism broadcasts through a mainstream media echo chamber, constantly repeating the mantra that governments screw up and markets make better decisions.

Gutstein reports the concept began with Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), whose ideas were the subject of Stephen Harper’s graduate thesis. Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society, created in 1947, was the first right-wing think-tank, followed by hundreds more around the world, including Canada’s very familiar and influential Fraser Institute. Many more – as part of an international network – sprung up across the country, partially subsidized by taxpayers.

Often incorrectly referred to as a conservative movement, neoliberalism radically restructures existing society by creating more and more unregulated markets. In contrast to libertarians who want a small, less powerful government that leaves people alone, neoliberals actually require their own brand of strong government.

While conservatives strive to save what they believe is the best of the past, neoliberal governments focus on creating, enforcing and enabling markets to flourish, unhindered by constraints such as environmental concerns. Economic freedom is the highest good, trumping everything else, including political freedom. Transactions rule over elected officials. Government is needed, yes, but democracy not necessarily so. Neoliberalism describes Pinochet’s Chile, Thatcher’s UK, Reagan’s US, Harper’s Canada and others.

No matter how incredibly subtle, incremental and hidden from view our leader’s moves might be, he is gradually, but radically, re-forming Canada into a shape that will outlast his time in office, requiring decades to restore. That’s documented in Paul Wells’ bestseller, The Longer I’m Prime Minister, Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006–.

Filtering through neoliberal ideology also sheds light on Harper’s weakening of unions and free collective bargaining, muzzling government scientists, killing the Canadian Wheat Board, undermining the CBC and encouraging privatization of land on First Nations reserves. He has eviscerated environmental protection and recast Canada as a “warrior nation” over its peacekeeping tradition, extolling the Tar Sands while turning his back on international climate initiatives and charging around the world to sign free-trade agreements. These issues and myriad other policies are examined in Michael Harris’ Party of One.

Gutstein, an adjunct professor in SFU’s School of Communication and co-director of NewsWatch Canada, provides astute, invaluable analysis as he dismantles and exposes the neoliberal labyrinth of corporate funded think tanks and interconnected corporate media. Most importantly, he also exposes the element of social control in 10 years of Harper’s pro-market worldview.

Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada is essential reading. Understanding its central thesis is important to every voter, including the mistaken 30+% who think they are supporting “conservatism,” not “neoliberalism.” It should be mandatory reading for anyone planning to not cast their precious ballot. It offers scary motivation, indeed, for all Canadians to get to the polls this fall.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

2 thoughts on “Building a neo-liberal Canada

  1. Neoliberalism (= new liberalism, or a re-situating of Adam Smith’s theories into the modern age).

    Profit above social good. Trickle down. (not)

    Neoliberalism actually started with the liberal movement (Adam Smith, i.e. laissez-faire economic liberalism [as opp. to social liberalism]).

    Liberals seem to believe in the greatest good for greatest number of people – with lots of help from a big government (i.e. a reasonable proposition, like some Scandinavian countries).

    Conservatives believe in trickle-up then trickle-down, minus the latter part.

    Surprising that so many world leaders (through Hayek et al) got starry-eyed over neoliberalism (the neocon ideology) without realizing that it never was a coherent ideology in the first place, as its first incubator knows so well (Chile), and as Steve Keen (economist) explains in this day and age.

    Thatcher and Reagan (and Harper) both pushed it, and many other leaders over the globe somehow got the bright idea that neoliberalism (privatization, deregulation, liberalization of trade, commoditization of social goods) was a great idea. They even thought it would be great for banks and hedge fund dealers.

    And so we have today. (It’s been a disaster, since about 1979).

    Thatcher’s TINA (There is No Alternative) is completely bogus. A very misguided woman.

    Most countries since 1979 that did not embrace neoliberalism and relied more heavily on government intervention rather than a bunch of cowboys over in the stock exchange have done much better.

    Inequality in the unenlightened states (i.e. U.S., Canada, UK) has skyrocketed, along with crime, disease and other social anomalies. In all those countries, being poor is more or less a crime. Neoliberalism is tailor made to feed wealth up to the already-rich and completely impoverish everyone else (which it has succeeded in doing, admirably).

    Problem is, being an interconnected world, the rich cannot escape the problems they have caused. They have no choice but to solve them, or find another planet.

  2. Good article on the excellent work by Donald Gutstein. While Neo-Liberalism is undeniably real, it also has to be said that it is a strategy developed by the conservative movement over the centuries and in particular this past century to counter progressive values and the progressive movement.

    There is much intended confusion in the world of political values and strategies, most put forward by the conservative movement as their values allow them to justify their means. But I am getting ahead of myself. Clearing up that intended confusion of political values is, I believe, our best hope in building a better and more progressive world.

    George Lakoff the Cognitive Linguist, along with many other academics, have been able to clear the air as to how our minds work when it comes to our political values. Lakoff has deconstructed how the conservative movement in the US, since 1970, has been able to win the majority of elections and has written numerous books on how we as progressives must proceed if we are to take control. His book, “Moral Politics”94, explains how political values are essentially the same as moral values. That the values we hold are deeply seated in our brains based on our experiences and language and that they are opposite in nature and that in the extreme, there are only two political/moral values which oppose one another.

    Neo-Liberalism is a well thought out strategy meant to confuse and the best example of a successful conservative used that strategy was and is Tony Blair of the British Labour party. Progressive and conservative minds are part of the human compendium, and their politics or moral values have finally been laid out for all to see in the light of day thanks to the amazing body works from George Lakoff.

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