The Shock Doctrine, Toronto Style
I doubt Rob Ford reads Naomi Klein. Between studying committee reports and football playbooks, the Mayor doesn’t likely have the time or the inclination to keep up with the toppa-top left-wing journalist. Nevertheless, Ford’s approach to running (or is it running down) the city of Toronto cannily resembles the political strategies of right-wing politicians laid bare in Klein’s international bestseller The Shock Doctrine.
For those of you who haven’t read the book, here’s a one-paragraph breakdown: Beginning in the 1970s, Klein observes, neo-liberals and neo-conservatives (those who believe that free markets and less government is the answer to everything) have exploited crises to advance their agenda of deep cuts to social spending, government deregulation and privatization. Cuts have been made to health care, welfare, public pensions, unemployment insurance, tuition subsidies and about every program or benefit you can think of that makes capitalism a little bit nicer a system to live under. Privatization of things like health care, roads, public housing, and libraries has meant windfall profits for big corporations as what were once public goods get bought and sold on the market like any other commodity. As Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman notes , this “agenda that has nothing to do with resolving crises, and everything to do with imposing their (the right’s) vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society.”
Crises are essential to the shock doctrine because they create a climate in which the public supports, or just passively accepts, an agenda which is counter to their interests. As Klein puts it: the shock doctrine is about “using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters -- to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy.” Starting with Pinochet’s coup in Chile in 1973 (the CIA assisted overthrow of the socialist government of Salvador Allende) and covering the Falklands War in 1982, the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Asian Financial crisis in 1997 and Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Klein documents how economic and social crises have become moments of opportunity for right-wingers to attack the welfare state, social programs, trade unions, and the social movements that have pushed for greater economic democracy.
Take the case of post-Katrina New Orleans. In the wake of the disaster, think-tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (Canada’s equivalent to the Fraser Institute) and Republican politicians descended on the city pushing the f*ckery of privatization of public housing and public education, dismantling what little of a welfare state New Orleanians had. This served their ‘free market’ ideology, most clearly articulated by American conservative Grover Norquist, who once said “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag in into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” But it also served the corporate interests close to the Bush administration who made millions from taking over what were once public assets. New Orleanians, displaced and distraught, or in a state of ‘shock’ as Klein puts it, had little say in the matter.
Canadian neocons have long-casted an envious eye at their US cousins. Harper, Mike Harris, and Rob Ford have sweated US Republicans like tweenage girls sweat Drake at Summer Jam. Now Toronto’s Mayor has surrounded himself with strategists and backroom players whose membership in the Conservative Party, the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, and think-tanks like the Fraser Institute neatly overlap. The Common Sense Revolutionaries (if you’re too young to remember, they ran Ontario from 1995 to 2003 and brought us the Walkerton water crisis, the assassination of First Nations activist Dudley George and the death by heat exhaustion of Kimberley Rogers, a young single mom who was trapped in her sweltering apartment under house arrest for ‘defrauding’ welfare), many of whom cut their political teeth in the downloading and amalgamation years of the Mike Harris Tories have reappeared in urban guise, finally having won control over a much sought after prize: the left-leaning City of Toronto with its myriad social programs and ‘big government’.
Yet in adherence to the shock doctrine, Ford’s team needed a crisis to push through their agenda. With only 25% of eligible Torontonians voting for Ford, a full-scale assault on the City’s social services would not be popular. Ford’s rise to office happened within the context of the world economic crisis that left many Torontonians more economically insecure and wary of tax increases and ‘misspent’ tax dollars. From Europe to North America, governments are calling for ‘austerity’ in the name of debt reduction and fiscal balance. Ford won the election by articulating a simple narrative of what was wrong with the city: too much wasteful spending; city hall’s so-called ‘gravy train’. Ford named lavish retirement parties and councillor’s penchant for taxis, but cleverly avoided labelling the City’s social services ‘gravy’.
Why? Because most Torontonians do not see nutritional programs for low-income children or green energy initiatives as wasteful spending; many agree that such programs are the marks of a world-class city. And yet the public is rightly pissed off when councillors casually spend tax-payers dollars on crazy expenses or when a public agency is careless with its budget. But actual instances of this are few and far between; Ford’s strategy has hinged on reframing most if not all government spending as inherently wasteful. To his chagrin, potential allies on council like Mary-Margaret McMahon have discovered, “The gravy’s not flowing through city hall like originally expected.”
The second crisis opening the door for Ford’s agenda is the crisis of confidence in public institutions. The garbage strike, the media hammering of errant TTC employees and the events at Toronto Community Housing have all played into the Mayor’s hands.
In this context, the Mayor looks for scapegoats and it really doesn’t matter who fits the role; it could be graffiti artists, left-wing pinkos, the homeless, black youth, environmentalists, just fill in the blank. But with the economic crisis, TTC and garbage strike affairs, the city’s unions have become public enemy number one.
Union-busting is at the center of the shock doctrine as public-sector unions are the first line of defence against cuts, deregulation, and privatization. As Klein points out, in post-Katrina New Orleans the introduction of charter schools (effectively privatizing public education) broke the back of the teachers union. Facing a fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, the Republican governor has rolled back the collective bargaining rights of almost all public sector employees.
This is what lies behind Ford’s successful effort – with a complicit provincial government – to have the TTC deemed an ‘essential service’ and plans to privatize garbage collection, effectively firing the city’s unionized employees. The Toronto Community Housing ‘scandal’ has provided the Mayor with the necessary excuse to review the City’s roll in public housing, again with an eye to privatization. Look for Ford to shed the City’s unionized public child care centers in the next round of budget cuts, contracting care to non-union for-profit providers. Libraries and their unionized employees are also being considered for privatization (props to fellow POUNDling Angelica for pointing this out).
For the Ford agenda has very little to do with resolving a ‘crisis’ real or perceived and everything to do with remaking Toronto in a right-wing image: A leaner, meaner city, where the market is to be free and the public sector and its unions are to be disciplined. If we don’t fight back, Toronto Inc., the city of corporate rule, will become a reality.
- Simon Black