Harper's Project of Destruction
by Dr. J.F Conway
University of Regina political sociologist and the author of Debts to Pay: The Future of Federalism in Quebec and The West: The History of a Region in Confederation.
Few understand the sheer enormity of what Harper is up to – the destruction of the welfare state, and ploughing and salting the political terrain upon which it stood so it will never sprout again. Those in their adulthood in the 1970s remember the promise and the hope. Those born since know only the long, gradual crushing of that hope and promise as the neoliberal wrecking crew began its work, defeating popular resistance battle after battle. With a majority Harper now intends to complete the destruction. Perhaps it is timely to remember what is being lost and how it was won.
Following the Great Depression and the carnage of the World War II, welfare capitalism made heady promises, and initially delivered on many of them. A greater share of the wealth produced by the combined efforts of capital and labour was diverted from capital to labour with gradual increases in real wages and the establishment of a universal “social wage.”
This social wage included:
1) Publicly funded, universal primary and secondary education
2) Health care
3) Family allowances
4) Old age pensions
5) Unemployment insurance
6) Social assistance for those in need, and growing investments in public infrastructure and cultural amenities.
A solemn social covenant was made based on the principle of universality. All citizens, even the wealthiest, received these benefits, even though for those with high incomes much of it would be taxed back due to progressive taxation. Nevertheless this principle of universality was important politically and symbolically, since all citizens received tangible evidence of their participation in sharing in the distribution of public goods. No one would ever again be hungry, homeless, denied needed health care, or refused access to quality education.
Each new generation looked forward to advancing the quality of their material lives beyond that enjoyed by their parents, if they were prepared to work and study, always comforted by the certainty that, in the case of emergency, personal crisis, or economic circumstance, the social safety net was there to catch them and their dependents if they faltered.
Democratically elected governments played a more central role in the lives of citizens. The banking and financial systems, and the stock markets, were subjected to strict government regulation to protect the public interest. Industries found themselves under scrutiny to ensure their products were safe, to prevent dishonest business practices, and ensure the public was protected from predation.
The new economy of the welfare state was diversified as a growing public sector took over key activities: utilities, transportation, and any economic sector deemed to be central to the public interest and therefore unwisely left to the pursuit of private profit. As a result, the public sector, due to increases in the size of the civil service and those delivering publicly funded services, grew to central prominence in the economy. The capitalist world became a very different place compared to the swashbuckling days prior to the Great Depression.
This was the final stage in Canada’s nation-building strategy embarked upon in 1867. The dominant capitalist class was not happy, resisting it often, attempting to minimize the breadth of its programming, aggressively combating features considered lethal to “free enterprise.” The old days of capital’s unfettered power were not forgotten. The welfare state was not yielded up voluntarily by the capitalist class. All the concessions were won under political threat.
Back in the 1970s many of us dreamed in Technicolor of a cradle-to-grave welfare state. We believed the welfare state consensus was secure; that no politician hoping to win would dare dismantle it. We were wrong. We underestimated the ruthlessness of the capitalist class. We forgot what history had taught us. Capital accepts no limits in its pursuit of profit – slavery, colonialism, genocide, world wars. Today capital is prepared to destroy the planet in its mindless pursuit of profit at any cost.
Here we are in 2012. Harper has his majority. The capitalist class again enjoys unfettered power. The piecemeal dismantling of the welfare state from the 1970s to 2011 will be replaced by the final assault. The unanswered question is: when will the Canadian people rediscover and re-assert their political power, a power they exerted so effectively in response to the Great Depression and World War II?