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Thesis Abstract

I recently finished my (yet-to-be-defended) MA thesis, entitled “Neoliberalising Immigration in Canada: The Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower-Levels of Formal Training and the Expansion of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.”

Here’s the abstract:

There has been a significant expansion in Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) over the past ten years. The Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (PPORLLFT), a sub program of the TFWP, has been leading this expansion. Drawing upon testimony given to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, this thesis examines the development and expansion of the program, since its inception in 2002, and shows that it is connected to the ongoing process of neoliberalisation in Canada. One significant example of this connection is the program’s support for increases in two-step immigration streams that involve employer sponsorship for successful transition to permanent residency; this increase represents a privatisation of citizenship decisions. More than this, the neoliberal aspects of the PPORLLFT have increased inequality and the ability of employers to have a more disciplined workforce. This has decreased the ability of working people to have influence in their workplace and over economic policy more generally.

Jim Stanford’s Economics for Everyone

This book is a great, comprehensive, and accessible overview of the economics of capitalism.

Two things I learned from this book:

The purpose of a corporation is to protect the individual wealth of the corporation’s investors and owners.

The fundamental conflict between employers and workers. Employers pay the workers to do a task; they are buying task completion. But workers aren’t selling task completion, they are selling their time.

Notes on Panitch and Swartz From Consent to Coercion

From Consent to Coercion: The Assault on Trade Union Freedoms originally published in 1985 and with this third edition published in 2003 is essentially reading in the study of labour in Canada. The book traces the history of free collective bargaining in Canada, from its origins in 1944 (Privy Council Order ___ ), through the era of the Fordist accord, and through the period of neoliberalism and monetarism. ‘Free collective bargaining’ is the ability for a group of workers to as a group negotiate the terms of their work with their employer without fear of repression or coercion (e.g. being jailed, beaten-up, fired, etc.). The authors caution on the use of the word ‘free’:

The use of the word free does have a crucial double meaning. It suggests that a balance of power exists between capital and labour, that they face each other as equals, otherwise any bargain struck could scarcely be viewed as one which was freely achieved. It also suggests that the state’s role is akin to that of an umpire who works to be involved in applying, interpreting, and adjusting impartial rules. In the case of the first meaning, the structural inequality between capital and labour is obscured; in the second, the use of the state’s coercive powers on behalf of capital falls from view. (13) (more…)

What is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is a word that is used to describe a wide variety of processes and practices that began to gain prominence in the 1970s following the economic slow downs that occurred during that decade. The word neoliberalism is obviously derived from the conjoining of ‘neo’ with ‘liberalism’, i.e. some form of new liberalism. What then is liberalism, and what is new about neoliberalism?

The development of liberalism as a political idea is closely conjoined with the end of feudalism and the beginnings of capitalist modes of production. Besides the social aspects of liberalism, like support for individual rights, fair treatment under the law, and democracy, liberalism is also fundamentally about the sanctity of private property and the superiority of the so-called free market as a means of organizing economic exchanges. Neoliberalism is a reinvigoration of the economic aspects of liberalism, drawing upon the branches of economic theory known as neoclassical economics and monetarism. (more…)

NFB Film – Finding Farley

Last night we watched a delightful NFB film called Finding Farley. It follows as couple, their toddler, and dog as they wend their way across the country, mostly by canoe, visiting sites featured in the books of Farley Mowat. Besides the interesting premise, and many segments with Mowat himself, the film stands up on the strength of the quality of the filming. Besides the plotline, the movie is gorgeous, with amazing shots of the landscape and of the flora and fauna. The filmmakers are obviously well experienced in nature photography and manage to get impressive shots of horned owls, whales, wolves, bugs, caribou, etc.

Stream it for free here: Finding Farley

Capitalist Realism

I recently read a captivating book by Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism, which seeks, I think, to synthesize ideas thoughts culture and technology in the “late-capitalist” era with a political economy understanding of the current state of capitalism. Essentially this means that Fisher looks closely at various cultural productions (films, advertising, TV, etc.) and uses them to help to analyze the broader state of the world today. The outcome of this synthesis/analysis is an elaboration of the concept of “capitalist realism”. “Realism” is a term that has many uses (e.g. socialist realism; realism in paining; philosophers use it in a unique way; etc.) but I think that the basic underpinning of the terms is that it realism is concerned with ‘how the world actually is’, as opposed to how the world could be in the future or might be in the present in less perceptible ways. So, ‘capitalist realism’ is an ideological or political position that sees capitalism as the the way the world is and cares not about understanding its historical development or its potential demise. (more…)

Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual

Representations of the Intellectual contains 6 essays, originally delivered  as the BBC’s Reith Lectures, on the role of the intellectual in society. Below are some thematic quotes, and a few of my thoughts.

Universals: “Freedom of expression can not be sought indiviously in one territory and ignored in another.” (89)

There need to be universals otherwise everyone would do what they think is right. ["In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes." (90) This sounds very unappealing and distopian to me.] Chomsky’s writing is a great example of this, because he holds all sides to account, where other so-called intellectuals decry the trampling of freedoms in other countries, but defend the USA’s own imperialist actions (e.g. Michael Ignatieff). (more…)

Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell “Neoliberalizing Space” (Antipode, 2002)

This article is in a similar vein with Brenner & Theodore’s, emphasizing the mutability of neoliberalism, and its ‘creative destruction’. The unique aspects of the article that stand out to me are: the question of neoliberalism as a regulatory regime; and the focus on extra- and inter-local rule systems.

So, the first question, is neoliberalism a system of social and economic regulation in the way that Keynesian-Fordist policies were, mediating and structuring relations between different classes and interests? Taking a historical perspective, the neoliberalism of Thatcher and Reagan was destructive and based on a ‘roll-back’ of prevailing policies, rather than being an alternative per se. Into the 90s, economic crises forced neoliberal policy makers to become more creative and to ‘roll-out’ policies designed to moderate and/or discipline social resistances to the system [e.g. Mike Harris' policies like workfare: an alternative to, not just a destruction of, previous welfare policies].

Contemporary politics revolve
around axes the very essences of which have been neoliberalized.
As such, neoliberalism is qualitatively different from “competing”
regulatory projects and experiments: it shapes the environments,
contexts, and frameworks within which political-economic and socio-
institutional restructuring takes place. Thus, neoliberal rule systems
are perplexingly elusive; they operate between as well as within
specific sites of incorporation and reproduction, such as national
and local states.

But describing the characteristics of the institutions of neoliberalism is difficult. In the Keynesian era there were various institutions like, for example, labour relations boards, policing services, hospitals, etc. Peck and Tickell propose that these sorts of institutions could be seen as ‘hardware’ and that, at least initially, neoliberalization changed the ’software’, the rules that determine the functioning of these institutions. ”Neoliberalism was playing a decisive role in constructing the “rules” of interlocal competition by shaping the very metrics by which regional competitiveness, public policy, corporate performance, or social productivity are measured—value for money, the bottom line, flexibility, shareholder value, performance rating, social capital, and so on. Neoliberalism therefore represented a form of regulation of sorts, but not a form commensurate with, say, the Keynesian-welfarism that preceded it in many (though not all) cases.” (387)  But eventually, more recently, the hardware is changing too, as neoliberalism becomes entrenched and the ’software’ becomes normalized. Ideas like, for example, ‘fiscal responsibility’are no longer debated, they are just assumed, and so whole new institutions can be created [e.g. department of homeland security, the G8 (vs. UN), others?] and destroyed or attacked [e.g. Canadian Wheat Board, others?].

The ultimate thrust of Peck and Tickell’s argument, and, I think, their answer to the question of whether or how neoliberalism regulates is that it regulates the spaces between. One thing about neoliberalism is that, like Brenner and Theodore’s ‘path-dependency’, neoliberalization manifests itself in different ways in every different location. Peck and Tickell call this ‘local neoliberalisms’. Neoliberalism gains its strength, its robustness, in controlling and ordering the rules that govern and create competition between these local neoliberalisms. Here’s an example that I think relates; the current obsession with insurance. Small-scale organizations, from community centres to public elementary schools, are worried sick about not being liable in the case that someone gets seriously injured on their property, and so they go to serious and bizarre ends to counter this, demanding waiver forms, limiting access, destroying/replacing perfectly good playgrounds, etc. How did this culture of paranoia develop? Perhaps it comes out of neoliberalism regulating not directly regulating these local organizations, but by existing in the space between these organizations in the creation of a the culture of fear and competition or at least isolation between these organizations as individual units, rather than part of a collective that gains strength from being mutually supportive–a community centre would not be so concerned about liability if all community groups were strong as a collective, besides which, more importantly, the risk of someone cracking their head open and also suing are very low but neoliberalism exaggerates this fear by valorizing financial liquidity and individual responsibility while at the same time removing support systems that would dissuade fears. I’m not sure that that ended up being a very coherent example. Here is what Peck and Tickell say about neoliberalism shaping contexts:

Contemporary politics revolve around axes the very essences of which have been neoliberalized. As such, neoliberalism is qualitatively different from “competing” regulatory projects and experiments: it shapes the environments, contexts, and frameworks within which political-economic and socio- institutional restructuring takes place. Thus, neoliberal rule systems are perplexingly elusive; they operate between as well as within specific sites of incorporation and reproduction, such as national and local states. (400)

If this is true about neoliberalism, that its rule systems are elusive because they shape environments, contexts, and frameworks, then resistance to neoliberalization must be properly focused not just on creating alternatives to manifestations of local neoliberalisms and their rule-structuring effects:

This is not to say that the hegemony of neoliberalism must necessarily remain completely impervious to targeted campaigns of disruption and “regime competition” from progressive alternatives, but rather to argue that the effectiveness of such counterstrategies will continue to be muted, absent a phase-shift in the constitution of extralocal relations. This means that the strategic objectives for opponents of neoliberalism must include the reform of macroinstitutional priorities and the remaking of extralocal rule systems in fields like trade, finance, environmental, antipoverty, education, and labor policy. These may lack the radical edge of more direct forms of resistance, but as intermediate and facilitative objectives they would certainly help to tip the macroenvironment in favor of progressive possibilities. In this context, the defeat (or failure) of local neoliberalisms—even strategically important ones—will not be enough to topple what we are still perhaps justified in calling “the system. (401)

on ‘diversity of tactics’

After what happened in Toronto last weekend with the G20 meeting, I’ve been trying to figure out what I think of black bloc tactics. At a general level I suppose a good place to start is to consider the place of anarchism within the (global) movement for social justice. Anarchists1, very generally, believe that capitalism must be overcome in order to rid the world of great social injustices, like racism, poverty, homophobia, colonialism, and inequality in general. Also fundamental, is opposition to all forms of heirarchy and external control; this means opposition to all supra-local government, and support for local autonomous communities. As David McNally says in this interesting interview on the CBC last week, many anarchists are prominent and active community activists, starting and leading local activities that contribute to vibrant and strong communities. There are some anarchist that embrace ‘black bloc tactics’ which seek to radicalize people by provoking displays of violent force by the state, violence which is perpetrated in different less visible forms all the time (e.g. cutting support for the poor and unemployed, racial profiling (e.g. Maher Arar), breaking unions (e.g. USW in Sudbury)). Their tactic for provoking this display of violence by the state is often to the destroy property of the state and complicit corporations.

Leading up to the G20 protests, I had a sense that the organizers of the large protests that were to take place had managed to create a broad coalition of labour, socialist, and anarchist groups that respected each other’s ‘diversity of tactics’.2 At the big ‘Shout Out For Global Justice’ event on Friday night organized by the Council of Canadians, there was a, I thought, a noticeable tension between the labour speakers and the anti-poverty, indigenous rights, social justice speakers (e.g. difference b/w Leo Gerard, United Steel Workers president,and Naomi Klein). But I was hopeful that these differences were being broached by a shared commitment to justice and ending capitalism.

Regardless of the amount of destruction committed by police agents provocateurs, some anarchists embrace black block tactics, and it is worth thinking about whether their actions are helpful and strategically useful, or if they are individualistic and strategically poor.

I was going to write/think about this more, but this article called “In the Aftermath of the G20: Reflections on Strategy, Tactics and Militancy” does a better job.

  1. here’s an interesting article on anarchism by Noam Chomsky; qt: “The problem of ‘freeing man from the curse of economic exploitation and political and social enslavement’ remains the problem of our time. As long as this is so, the doctrines and the revolutionary practice of libertarian socialism [aka anarchism] will serve as an inspiration and guide.” []
  2. Toronto chief of police Bill Blair (shame!) at a press conference recently said “They embraced a euphemism they call the diversity of tactics. That is their diversity of tactics,” and pointed to a display of captured implements of destruction. []

David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism

I just finished David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Penguin, 2007). I highlighted a lot of passages (incidentally, it was the first whole ebook I’ve read–which was fine except for the need for an internet connection), which I want to go back over and write about here, but the main argument that he makes, much like the Canadian authors I’ve been reading (see category->neoliberalism in Canada), is that neoliberalism is not fundamentally about monetarist economic policies: it is really about the restoration of elite class power. In Harvey’s words, neoliberalism can be interpreted “either as a utopian project to realize a theoretical design for the reorganization of international capitalism or as a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites” (19). So, on the one hand neoliberalism could be about rejuvenating (international) capitalism in response to the crises that occurred in the 1970s, (which is how it is described in the mainstream, and sold to the masses), or on the other hand it could be seen as opportunism designed to counter the general progress that had been made between the end of the Second World War and the 1970s towards a more equitable distribution of wealth and power within a capitalist system (i.e. Keynesianism, or what Harvey calls ‘embedded liberalism’).

Harvey backs up his belief in neoliberalism as a project to restore class power mostly by analyzing the track record of neoliberalism during the last 30 years: has human well-being increased in general? has society become more equitable? has the distribution of wealth become more even? has the world become more democratic? A number of indicators show that by these standards the record of neoliberalism is abysmal, which does not necessarily mean that neoliberalism is an elite class project–it could just mean that neoliberals have failed in their utopian project (the goal of which is to bring freedom and prosperity to all via the free-market and extreme individualism). However, given the rapid transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy, and given the large gap between neoliberalism in theory and neoliberalism in practice, it seems that freedom and prosperity for all may not be the true goal of those who influence policy. This is, I think, where Harvey’s theory of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ comes in. Here is a long passage about it:

The main substantive achievement of neoliberalization, however, has been to redistribute, rather than to generate, wealth and income. I have elsewhere provided an account of the main mechanisms whereby this was achieved under the rubric of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. 9 By this I mean the continuation and proliferation of accumulation practices which Marx had treated of as ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ during the rise of capitalism. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations (compare the cases, described above, of Mexico and of China, where 70 million peasants are thought to have been displaced in recent times); conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights (most spectacularly represented by China); suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade (which continues particularly in the sex industry); and usury, the national debt and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system as a radical means of accumulation by dispossession. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes.
Harvey, David. Brief History of Neoliberalism.
Oxford, , GBR: Oxford University Press, UK, 2007. p 159.
http://site.ebrary.com/lib/ocultrent/Doc?id=10180656&ppg=168
Copyright © 2007. Oxford University Press, UK. All rights reserved.

“The main substantive achievement of neoliberalization, however, has been to redistribute, rather than to generate, wealth and income. I have elsewhere provided an account of the main mechanisms whereby this was achieved under the rubric of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. By this I mean the continuation and proliferation of accumulation practices which Marx had treated of as ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ during the rise of capitalism. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations (compare the cases, described above, of Mexico and of China, where 70 million peasants are thought to have been displaced in recent times); conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights (most spectacularly represented by China); suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade (which continues particularly in the sex industry); and usury, the national debt and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system as a radical means of accumulation by dispossession. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes” (159)

One of the earlier examples of accumulation by dispossession is the Mexican debt crisis in the early 1980s when Mexico declared that it could no longer pay off the massive debt that it had acquired to foreign banks:

“What the Mexico case demonstrated, however, was a key difference between liberal and neoliberal practice: under the former, lenders take the losses that arise from bad investment decisions, while under the latter the borrowers are forced by state and international powers to take on board the cost of debt repayment no matter what the consequences for the livelihood and well-being of the local population. If this required the surrender of assets to foreign companies at fire-sale prices, then so be it. This, it turns out, is not consistent with neoliberal theory.” (29)

Just who are the elite who are actively securing their own class power? Taking ‘accumulation by dispossession’ as a premise, the economic recovery during the neoliberal era is not based on the generation of (much) new wealth through the expansion of industry. Rather, new ‘wealth’ and accumulation are the result of finanzcialization (numbers games), enclosure of commons (e.g. the commodification and privatization of water), and the diminishment of the power of organized labour (e.g. the decline of wage rates in real terms). Thus, “one substantial core of rising class power under neoliberalism lies…with the CEOs, the key operators on corporate boards, and the leaders in the financial, legal, and technical apparatuses that surround this inner sanctum of capitalist activity” (33). Another group of highly influential elites are the owners of the massive corporations that have come to dominate the world economy, for example Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Carlos Slim in Mexico, perhaps Conrad Black in Canada, and the Walton family. “the incredible ability not only to amass large personal fortunes but to exercise a controlling power over large segments of the economy confers on these few individuals immense economic power to influence political processes. Small wonder that the net worth of the 358 richest people in 1996 was ‘equal to the combined income of the poorest 45 per cent of the world’s population––2.3 billion people’. Worse still, ‘the world’s 200 richest people more than doubled their net worth in the four years to 1998, to more than $1 trillion. The assets of the top three billionaires [were by then] more than the combined GNP of all least developed countries and their 600 million people’”(43).

“While this disparate group of individuals embedded in the corporate, financial, trading, and developer worlds do not necessarily conspire as a class, and while there may be frequent tensions between them, they nevertheless possess a certain accordance of interests that generally recognizes the advantages (and now some of the dangers) to be derived from neoliberalization. They also possess, through organizations like the World Economic Forum at Davos, means of exchanging ideas and of consorting and consulting with political leaders. They exercise immense influence over global affairs and possess a freedom of action that no ordinary citizen possesses” (45).

There are a lot of other interesting parts in this book, including the influence of neoliberalism on ethics and rights (e.g. the connections between negative rights, privatization, and individualism); on postmodernism as a symptom of neoliberalism (the idea that “postmodern intellectual currents…accord, without knowing it, with the White House line that truth is both socially constructed and a mere effect of discourse,”(198) or in other words that there are no absolute moral truths so we can/should do whatever we want or whatever best suits our interests or acquisition of power); on democratic processes (e.g. the rise of NGOs, which are essentially private sector (i.e. not democratically accountable) groups); on the current tendency towards neoconservativism, which has less interest than neoliberalism in disguising its embrace of authoritarianism; the contradictions caused by neoliberal policy (e.g. the tendency toward large monopolistic companies like walmart and google, rather than increased innovation through competition); on Polanyi and the value of alternative, collective rights (e.g.”the the right to life chances, to political association and ‘good’ governance, for control over production by the direct producers, to the inviolability and integrity of the human body, to engage in critique without fear of retaliation, to a decent and healthy living environment, to collective control of common property resources”(213)); and more.

I haven’t offered any critical comments on Harvey’s book here, possibly because I think that it is pretty much right on. I thought that the chapter on China was very dry and economistic, and I tend to twinge whenever I read sweeping condemnations of China, entirely as a result of the influence of SLE. This is a very unpopular stance though these days. It is interesting though that Harvey’s criticism of China and its ‘human rights record’ is not coming from the usual place of (hypocritical) outrage about how draconian China is compared to the free and liberal west. Harvey is critical of Deng’s neoliberal turn, and the whole idea of ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ which has involved the destruction of the iron rice bowl, the creation of an elite class, increased privatization of services, implementation of user fees, the dislocation of millions of peasants, and the destruction of the power and influence of organized labourers. Hmmm, it seems that I ended up being uncritical of Harvey again…