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Is 'compassionate belt tightening' another sign of worldwide neoliberal derangement?

Dr. Jamie Peck. Photo: David Climenhaga

On Friday, Alberta's New Democratic Party premier warned a meeting of rural municipal officials to brace themselves for cuts in spending in the province's 2018 budget.

"Now is the point in the plan where the same steady approach that saw us through the recession is going to see us carefully and compassionately tighten our belts, and ask others to tighten theirs," Rachel Notley told delegates to the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Councils.

She also promised them the government will sign "common sense agreements" with unionized public sector employees -- which could mean common sense agreements or could mean trying, as Conservative governments regularly do, to load the cost of austerity onto the backs of nurses, teachers, social workers and other public employees while allowing conditions that make more privatization look like a reasonable alternative to grow. We'll have to wait and see.

Later, Premier Notley told reporters that her government spent money on infrastructure and services during the recession caused by the international collapse in oil prices, but now that the economy seems to be perking up at last, it's time to alter course.

This seems to make sense in a classic John Maynard Keynes, Economics 101, sort of way -- you know, spend in bad times, save in good. A couple of things are wrong with this explanation, however:

First, it's too soon. The recession isn't over. Spending is still needed to keep the economy off life support.

Second, and more important in the Alberta context, taxes here are artificially kept at nonsensically low levels -- too low to run a modern economy in a jurisdiction of this size and complexity -- because we refuse to tax individuals and corporations at a level that makes sense.

Everybody understands this. Certainly Notley does, as does her caucus. NDP supporters do too.

So do her Conservative opponents of various stripes, who daily excoriate the level of spending by her government that has helped Alberta start to emerge from this worldwide recession with its economy essentially intact. If elected, they promise even more cuts -- with even worse results guaranteed.

After 30 years of the neoliberal project in Canada, the industrialized nations of the West, and eventually the rest of the world too but for a couple of places we blockade and boycott, we all know this doesn't work.

If ever there was a discredited economic doctrine, it's the harsh austerity, privatization, deregulation, government spending cuts, and lowest-common-denominator trade policies of the neoliberal counter-revolution that has sought to destroy the post-World War II welfare state, which resulted in the highest levels of prosperity in human history, and turn the clock back to the 19th Century.

And yet here we go again -- led by an NDP government no less -- down the rabbit hole of neoliberal prescriptions, which never work, always make things worse, and sow chaos and destruction for ordinary people while undermining democracy by making the uber-wealthy richer and more powerful.

It's a tribute to the success of the international neoliberal propaganda machine, I suppose, that doing the sensible thing and implementing modest increases to Alberta's taxes is simply not on, even for a well-intentioned social democratic government.

So the best thing Premier Notley can promise -- and in this you can be certain she is completely sincere -- is that she will do her level best to ensure that the painful, unpleasant and completely ineffective course of treatment we are about to undergo will be as 'compassionate' as possible.

Believe me when I say this, I recognize the political reality of this situation. We have all been so conditioned by constant repetition of the nauseating nostrums of neoliberalism that it's very hard for any of us to think coherently any more. So while the economic prescription we are about to swallow -- ever lower taxes, ever more discredited public services -- will never work, it is unimaginable that any existing Canadian political party with even a slight chance of forming a government would or could contemplate anything else.

The result? In all likelihood, more crisis and chaos. That, after all, is what neoliberalism is designed to create.

For me, this was the most useful insight to come out of the Parkland Institute's conference last weekend on the crisis of neoliberalism -- you can play that any way you like, by the way, because neoliberalism is in crisis now that we all get market fundamentalism is baloney, and we're all in crisis because any approach except the neoliberal approach has become unthinkable to the people who make decisions in Canada.

That's because "the stark utopia" of neoliberal economic ideas is designed to create chaos, and neoliberalism thrives on the ensuing crisis, University of British Columbia geographer Jamie Peck explained in the conference's final session Sunday afternoon.

Heaven knows, the neoliberal project -- bankrolled by the billionaire class and its retainers in corporations, media and elected office -- has been adaptive. It can work its malign magic with fascists and social democrats alike. Nevertheless, it always trends, as Dr. Peck noted, toward "the destruction of the social and redistributive state, and the expansion of the punitive state."

He asked: Do you remember the financial meltdown of 2008? "Remember how quickly what started as a banking crisis was re-narrated as a crisis of the social state?" What looked like a serious crisis for advocates of neoliberalization, "became a course correction, and a nastier neoliberalism quickly followed."

"Neoliberalism is an adaptive creature of crisis," he observed. It is never, and never will be, a completed project. "It's a process, not a state of being. … It's associated with endemic policy failure -- but it tends to fail forward."

That is, Peck explained, "it depends on the acceptance as 'normal reality' and 'common sense'" of policies that are, in fact, often sheer lunacy.

Answering the question posed in his remarks -- Neoliberalism: Dear or Alive? -- Peck described government by neoliberals, as we have everywhere in Canada nowadays, as "Zombie Governance … dead, but dominant."

It is a form of governance inseparable from "failure of moral leadership." It is "tenacious as a crisis-driven mode of government" as each crisis it creates gives rise to new shock treatments that create more problems. When nothing works, we try to fix it with more of the same.

"Conservative politics have rotted from the head down in that zombie fashion," Peck asserted.

Moreover, he said, there has been "a reciprocal failure on the part of democratic and labour parties to advocate an alternative economic vision."

Who can forget the great outpouring of hope on the steps of the Alberta Legislature on the June day in 2015 when Notley's NDP was sworn in? Hope, have no doubt, that we could leave behind neoliberalism's quack remedies that made what in many ways the richest place on earth Ground Zero of a perpetual economic crisis.

Alas, the modest common-sense tax increases Alberta needed from the NDP never came. Instead, the best we can hope for now is compassionate austerity, which when it doesn't work, risks becoming the conservative entrée to something harsher, and even less effective.

Peck argued the frustration of ordinary voters with that failure in the centre and on the left was what propelled the "racist and xenophobic cocktail" that resulted in the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in Britain -- each creating a new crisis on which neoliberalism's beneficiaries can hope to thrive.

Preventing a similar development here is the difficult challenge we now face in Alberta.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: David Climenhaga

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