II. The Ontario Election, Austerity and The Social Commons

In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke argued that land, when Common, was fallow and unproductive. Mixing one’s labour with the land, such as growing grain or picking an apple, however, privatized the land and allowed access to the fruits of the labour.[1] Eventually these private, “productive” lands were enclosed, most often by fences.

In Part I, I took up the issue of the use by political actors of euphemisms to avoid substantive discussions about cutting government services — and the debates around the same. This post is an attempt to be substantive about what exactly is being cut.

An austerity and privatization agenda is arguably an attack on the Commons in modern times. The Commons here are not land but a series of social programs and services that provide the foundation of the social welfare state: self-evidently programs that cannot be delivered by individuals and must be by collectivist entities. These are programs including social assistance, education, unemployment insurance and socialized medicine.

  • I propose that austerity is process of enclosing the modern, Social Commons. The reasoning for this appears to be for state actors to politically qualify productivity via privatization and this is accomplished through enclosure. To explore this, I will examine current discussions during the Ontario provincial election.

    RedSoxFan274/Wikimedia Commons

Locating Austerity in the Ontario Provincial Election

Overt discussions about austerity are easy to find in the provincial election. Some politicians vying for government in Ontario propose a wide-scale reduction of public sector employment, which would throw thousands out of work. The incumbent premier has said that Ontario spending increases must be capped at a low rate and that austerity must reign for years ─ even after the provincial budget is balanced.

Others propose to root out inefficiency via the creation of a government ministry. Ontario’s cherished health care system and its post-secondary education system would be among the targets.

This kinder, gentler approach is arguably a form of crypto-austerity; the use of austerity language but the ostensible intention of strengthening the welfare state through nebulous “efficiency.”

The Social Commons and Austerity 

So-called “waste”, of course, can’t be quantified in an objective way in any political context — including in Ontario. The very notion that there is waste to be found in the state apparatus is subjective and demands conversations about the role of the state itself. The theme that waste is to be found or guarded against has been adopted by the main contenders for control of the provincial legislature, however. So it is from this point we will proceed.

The social welfare programs provided for by the provincial state are Common Goods, are paid for by tax dollars and are designed to be used by all. Attacks on this Social Commons via threats to underfund, stop funding or guard against their growth starve the Commons of their resources. But, in a society used to these Common Goods, they are not luxury items but necessary social commodities, existing due to a contract between the people and the state as public and accessible to all — like the common land associated with an estate.

Austerity serves as an enclosure by forcing crises such as reductions in public employment and potential de-listings of services. These services either disappear creating poverty and a vicious cycle of dependency on a social welfare system that has been gutted, or they will go elsewhere if the state refuses to provide them. This “elsewhere” will be private service delivery: either (a) the few private sector companies capable of delivering such government services or (b) state-approved charities.

To the former, some large companies have proven capable of handling social service delivery, such as the design and implementation of  when those services are privatized. Lockheed Martin, better known as a military contractor, was “awarded millions to design and implement welfare to work and welfare reform projects in California, Florida and Maryland.”[2]

As for the latter, I point to a study of neoliberal policy in New Brunswick, which has revealed that while government cutbacks have often been sold under the cloak of efficiency, a larger yet more subtle change has allowed the state to disengage from responsibility for social services ─ and yet still control the agenda. After conducting interviews and research in Fredericton and St. John, New Brunswick, the authors, who include Karen Bridget Murray, now of York University, argue the reduction of the state’s role echoes historically punitive approaches to social problems that blamed poverty on individual character failings. Market forces also allow local community workers to become gatekeepers by deciding who gets help as well as when and what type of help they will receive. A reduced state involvement creates holes in policy due to a lack of enforced standardization, the authors argue. Opposition by street-level service providers to government policy is also shunted to the side because of cutbacks and an emphasis on competition for state dollars, which demands co-operation if an organization wishes to survive.

With this established, I offer two conclusions:

  1. The altering of the contract upon which the Social Commons rest can and must only be done by the people in order for the new contract in order for such action to enjoy legitimacy. This very notion encounters real issues when the next provincial governments will be formed, as all others have been: in a first-past-the-post system with a plurality of votes and no safeguards for the protection of minority rights — for example, the needs of social services — swept away by those pluralities.
  2. The altering of the social contract for austerity and efficiency (read: productivity) purposes, even with the consent of voters, is a fundamental breach of the contract by which the Social Commons stands. The Social Commons were never supposed to be at risk of being qualified by subjective standards of efficiency and productivity, which are in fact codes for reduction and/or elimination.

    The question of who gets left out social citizenship in Ontario when the Social Commons is enclosed by austerity must be taken up.

I put it to you that austerity in the social welfare realm, amid a culture of reducing corporate and personal income taxes which strengthens private actors at the expense of the Social Commons, lacks legitimacy.

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (Indianpolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980, originally published 1690), 19.
[2]Richard Girard, The Weapons Manufacturer That Does it All: A Profile of Arms Giant Lockheed Martin, Polaris Institute, November 2005, http://www.polarisinstitute.org/files/Lockheed%20Martin.pdf, 10.
[3]Karen Bridget Murray, Jacqueline Low and Angela Waite, “The Voluntary Sector and the Realignment of Government: A Street-Level Study.” Canadian Public Administration 49, no. 3 (2006): 375-392.


I. Language War: The Use of Euphemisms To Avoid Hard Political Discussions

Waste. Fat. Gravy.

It goes by many different names. All of them mean the same thing: government spending on social programs. Government spending for such purposes has become so odious as we lurch through the reconstruction of neoliberalism after the Great Recession of 2008-09, that it has gained euphemisms. The end game is apparently the reduction of government spending through found efficiencies so plain and obvious that opposition politicians pose themselves as aghast that such bloat has not been curbed.

In this post I take up the following issue:

• The use of euphemisms when discussing the cutting of government spending. This, I argue, serves to obscure the use of the state as a method of achieving and maintaining political, economic and biological power through absurdly reductive reasoning.

On Euphemisms

Euphemisms are tools for attempting to broadcast an awkward or embarrassing thought without being explicit. Children are often taught euphemisms for certain body parts, for example. But the upshot is that such language obscures the thrust and often-graphic nature of the topic. And that is the point. It is, I propose, no different when talking about cutting government spending. The euphemisms that are currently in use by politicians (among them, “gravy”, “fat” and “waste”), position government spending as unnecessary to a great degree. If we proceed from a position that government spending on social programs such as health, housing and education, has long-term benefits the conversation is no longer about cutting fat but cutting bone. By adopting these euphemisms, even ostensibly progressive political parties align themselves with neoliberal types who believe waste to be endemic to the public sector and easily eradicated.

From there, the use of these euphemisms enters an arguably endless cycle that gathers speed as the terminology crosses the state/civil society boundary and infiltrates common parlance. This is not to presuppose that state-destroying euphemisms are the exclusively statist in origin. Neoliberalism itself was a product of academia that eventually was endorsed by the state. At this juncture, however, I believe it is objectively difficult to deny that neoliberal language warfare is being waged primarily by the state itself.

But to what end? Keynesians may note that the state can play a positive role in attacking inequality, unemployment and illness through a variety of social programs, which require spending. This, they argue, is about fairness and universality — a relative newcomer philosophy in western governance, which via poor laws once punished the impoverished for character flaws. The whittling away of those programs serves to undermine the fairness net built after the Great Recession. Marxians may argue that reductions in social programs designed to even the playing field leaves in its wake a desperate pool of workers needing to sell their labour to reproduce privately the insurance they were once provided by the state.


I do not quibble with either the Keynesians or the Marxians. I see value in both analyses and believe that they speak to significant ramifications for specific categories of society. However, the control that the state seeks and obscures through its use of euphemisms does not act in the interest of any particular class — be it the needy, the unemployed or the workers, I argue. These groups are horizontally linked with intersectional considerations, among them race, sex and sexuality, which bring with them specific power relations vis-à-vis the state and civil society. These are categories traditional neoliberal theories have been unable or worse, unwilling, to locate in the discussion of exclusion and power. What impact does cutting education or health care or Cabinet representation have for a trans* person of colour? Is it significantly more negative than a white cisgendered person? Discussions about the cutting of government spending are currently occurring at the provincial level in Ontario. These discussions are, by the very nature of our diverse society, post-structuralist. We cannot equally quantify the impact of cuts. Such an approach disables discussions about who enjoys privilege and thus, based on that privilege, which segments of the population will be disproportionately injured by government spending reductions. Those chasing the power of the state, I propose, know this. Hence, I argue, we see the use of euphemisms to avoid the hard parts of such a debate. But why? Power, I suggest, chases the path of least resistance. An appearance of social cohesion promulgated by the immense power of the state makes power easier to obtain. Reductive platforms such as cutting “government waste” can be calculated only in subjective political terms. Roadblocks to such reductive platforms such as discussions about intersectional social relations are hard and thus ignored. It is, I put to you, a short-term approach lacking in vision and corrupted by language that betrays cowardice on the part of those seeking to control the political, economic and biological.

Supervised Injection In Toronto: The Canadian Taboo

Supervised injection is an emerging school of urban policy.


Wikimedia Commons

At Illuminated By Street Lamps, I have posted a paper I wrote on the subject, which focuses on Toronto, and points the finger at the Conservative federal government and police for halting the discussion about this harm reduction technique. What is most concerning is that the debate about supervised injection has stopped despite overwhelming medical evidence showing positive results.

Here is the post: Supervised Injection in Toronto: Why The Discussion Has Screeched To A Halt.

Temporary Foreign Workers: What Canada Must Do To Protect A Vulnerable Labour Class

At Illuminated By Streets Lamps, I’ve posted a paper about the vulnerability of temporary foreign workers in Canada. Migrant workers are an exploding source of labour in Canada but economic and political rights are not following.

Here is the post: Temporary Foreign Workers: What Canada Must Do To Protect A Vulnerable Labour Class

The following points are among my key findings and recommendations for moving to address that problem:

  •  Between 2003 and 2012, the number of temporary foreign workers admitted to Canada jumped from 102,932 to 213,573 — a difference of 107.5%.
  • Inquests are mandatory in Ontario when an on-the-job accident kills a worker employed at “a construction project, mining plant or mine, including a pit or quarry” — but not in the course of agricultural work.
  • Effective collective bargaining must be extended to migrant workers by Parliament.
  • Public health benefits must be extended to workers injured in the course of their work even after their employment contract expires.
  •  When an agricultural worker is killed on the job, migrant or not, an inquest must be held.