Building a Neoliberal Canada
by Bruce Mason
Economic freedom is the highest good, trumping everything else, including political freedom... Neoliberalism describes Pinochet's Chile, Thatcher's UK, Reagan's US, Harper's Canada, and others.
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 is quite possibly 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. It is not to be confused with classical liberalism.
As Gutstein reveals, in power, neoliberalism is much more sinister and calculated. More than a simple desire for smaller government and taxes, it is an agenda, even an ongoing, utopian dream. Heavily influenced by think tanks, neoliberalism broadcasts through a mainstream media echo chamber of constant repetition, until it seems like common sense that governments screw up and markets make better decisions.
Gutstein reports that this got started with Friedrich von Hayek (1899–1992), whose ideas were the subject of Stephen Harper’s graduate thesis. Hayek’s Mount 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, 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 is documented in Paul Wells’ best-seller, 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 ten years of Harper’s pro-market world view.
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.” And 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.
This article was first printed in Common Ground (Vancouver) February 2015, and on-line at commonground.ca and permission was given for use in WHOLifE Journal.