The Political Economy of The Sharing Economy

Introduction

Today, getting a lift to the store is as easy as loading an application on a digital device and summoning a roving car to one’s door. It is fast, cheap and, many argue, less onerous than ownership. The so-called sharing economy is on the radar of interests representing business, various governments in Canada and, to a seemingly lesser extent, academics and critics. I contend that the largely unregulated sharing economy in Ontario is already exacerbating unstable forms of employment in the province. I further contend that even with government regulation, which arguably serves to normalize the sector, the sharing economy shifts economic risk from capital, which can more easily absorb it as a cost of doing business, to individuals who cannot.

To explore these contentions, the first section of this paper will theoretically examine the role of the state vis-à-vis capital and the role technology plays in determining how social relations manifest into power, through a Marxian lens. The second section will attempt to locate the sharing economy in the appropriate political and economic context: that is, that the sharing economy appears during the current neoliberal political policy-making paradigm which is contemporaneous with a post-Fordist economy that features increasingly prevalent non-standard employment relationships and precarious work. The third section will discuss the size and impact of the sharing economy, closely examining general trends in North America with a special focus on Ontario — specifically, that province’s capital city, Toronto. In the fourth section, I will assess several arguments in favour of the sharing economy and how that sector is being positioned as healthy for the economy, the environment and the progressive ethos generally. The fifth section will look at views in opposition to the sharing economy, which predominantly focus on the sector’s record on safety, its tendency to shift risk to the individual from the firm and its role in a more general intensification of a race to the bottom characterized by downward pressure on wages and precarity. The sixth section will investigate tactics by subnational and municipal governments to deal with the sharing economy, be it regulation and/or prohibition. Finally, in the seventh section, I will analyze these socio-political and economic trends and the arguments for and against the sharing economy.

I. Theoretical Framework

The role of governing authority vis-à-vis economic activity is a major issue taken up in the study of political economy. This investigation concentrates on the institutions through which modern governance is exercised such as municipal councils, sub-national authorities including Canadian provinces/territories and states of the United States, and also national governments. Various political economy analyses locate the governing authority differently in relation to the economy and establish ideal roles and/or limits for that authority. These roles can range from one extreme of government merely ensuring a fertile environment for unchecked economic activity to flourish all the way to direct ownership and/or control of the entire economic apparatus, with many variations in between.

The Marxian view of the government during a capitalist economy is that it is a by-product of warfare between classes and that it is controlled by the most economically dominant group. In the case of a government operating during a capitalist mode of production, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels point to those who own the non-human implements by which economic production is realized (the bourgeoisie) as the group sitting atop the socio-economic hierarchy. “The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” they tell us in a particularly polemical passage.[1] While this notion of class tension helpfully guides any Marxian analysis, whether Marx and Engels intended such an apparently reductionist position regarding state-capital relations to be their legacy is muddied by later writings. In Capital: Volume Three, Bob Jessop notes that Marx writes:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct  producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers — a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity — which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the    political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state.[2]

Here, Jessop provides us a warning to read Marx’s words closely and carefully. Marx does not claim that a clear line can be drawn between individual policies enacted by the government and the prevailing economic indicators, he notes. Instead, “Marx argues that the ‘form of political organization’ corresponds to the ‘form of economic organization’.”[3] That is, where the economy is organized to privilege private property, waged labour and profit-driven exchange it will easily mesh with a politics that places importance on “the rule of law, equality before the law and a unified sovereign state.”[4]

It is arguably important to note that it is not only the Marxians who insist that when capital and the state are considered, they must be considered simultaneously. This ideological current has found a home in other heterodox analyses, such as those proposed by some Institutionalists. It is the degree to which the state and capital are enmeshed and/or operating in different silos that is helpful in differentiating among the various heterodox schools.  For example, Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler assert that neither capital nor the state can be considered either as antagonistic towards one another or, alternatively, working in harmony. They argue that the limiting concepts between the two structures, the borders that separate capital and the state, have wholly collapsed and birthed a new power. “[W]e argue that capital and state do not stand against or function together with each other. They do not complement or undermine one another. They neither interact nor interplay. And the reason is simple: they are no longer separate. Capital itself has become an emergent form of state: the state of capital.”[5] Regardless, the place of government in relation to business is particularly important in the current socio-political-economic climate (which will be discussed further in the next section); in which government often functions to alleviate regulatory and confiscatory burdens on the flow of capital and the operation of the business sector in general.

The state, however, is not the only structure relevant to an adequate theoretical discussion underpinning an interrogation of the technology-driven sharing economy in late capitalism. The role of technology as an organizing force has long dominated Marxian analyses. In a footnote to Capital: Volume One, Marx remarks on the need for an extensive history of technology as he viewed its forces to be potentially correlated with social organization. “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them,” he writes.[6] Some Marxian theorists argue a system of technology within a society develops into an organizational structure. For example, Nikolai Bukharin states:

In speaking of the social technology, we of course meant not a certain tool, or the aggregate of different tools, but the whole system of these tools in society. We must imagine that in a given society, in various places, but in a certain order, there are distributed looms and motors, instruments and apparatus, simple and complicated tools. In some places they are crowded close together (for instance, in the great industrial centers), in other places, other tools are scattered. But at any given moment, if people are connected by a labour relation, if we have a society, all these instruments of production-tools and machines, large and small, simple and complicated, manual or power-driven-are united into a single system.[7]

In turn, Bukharin suggests to us that the division of labour ─ that which separates the worker from the owner ─ flows from the individual’s relationship to the social technology structure. “The modern division of labor is determined by the modern instruments of labour, by the character, description, and combination of machines and tools, i.e., by the technical apparatus of capitalist society,” he notes.[8] Taken to a highly literal conclusion, this division of labour based on a relationship to social technology offers one theory for why individuals find themselves located where they do vis-à-vis the economically dominant class (either workers or those in ownership/control of the means of production). This is, admittedly, a technologically deterministic reading of Bukharin’s writing. The influence of the social technology structure in regards to the sharing economy is particularly relevant given the inherent risk associated to economic activity ─ a subject which will be investigated further in Section V.

II. Context

Following a period of economic growth, driven by mass production, and increased government spending on social programs after the Second World War, capitalism faced one of its first major crises since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Stagnant economic growth combined with high inflation (dubbed “stagflation”) in the 1970s confounded economic analysts.[9] The crisis gave increased credibility in many eyes to emerging proponents of market-based solutions who were clearly inspired by classical political economy theories that emphasized economic liberalism. Theorists affiliated with these approaches can be described as neoclassical and the associated socio-political-economic paradigm as neoliberal. “Economic neoliberals attributed the crises to the distortion of the market mechanism brought about by powerful trade union monopolists and unsustainable and irresponsible demands on the economic system by governments, transmitted through the competitive system in representative democracy,” Geoffrey Ingham tells us.[10] The stagnated economy could be corrected by a reduction in government expenditures, which would in turn lead to increased savings and revived encouragement “for both capitalists and workers to work harder and longer without having their rewards confiscated by profligate governments,” the neoliberal economists argued.[11] This neoliberal approach, which arguably became structural by the early 1980s, and can be additionally characterized by the privatization of state-owned economic assets, liberalized trade regimes and the deregulation of industry and labour markets, has been a dominant socio-economic paradigm in advanced capitalist nations such as Canada and the United States for more than 30 years. “Neoliberalism should be understood as a particular form of class rule and state power that intensifies competitive imperatives for both firms and workers, increases dependence on the market in daily life and reinforces the dominant hierarchies of the world market with the U.S. at its apex,” Greg Albo, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch tell us.[12]

The consequences of the neoliberal era, which continues today in Canada and the United States, are significant. Economically, the neoliberal/neoclassical era is correlated with a preference by employers for non-standard employment relationships marked by part-time, contingent and other types of self-employment,[13] as well as “precariousness in job tenure,”[14] according to Mark P. Thomas. Meanwhile, Rosemary Hennessy tells us that “less government’, ‘privatization’ and ‘free trade’ have meant tax breaks and more profits for businesses at the expense of those most in need,” and draws specific attention to  “[c]uts in food, health and education programs that most affect the poor, the disabled, and the elderly”[15]

Rosemary Hennessy

Rosemary Hennessy

as characteristically neoliberal. Concurrently, global free trade accords, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, have amplified Western capital’s search for regions in which it can lower labour costs produce goods and “massive layoffs have occurred at almost every major corporation since the early nineties.”[16] One of the arguably higher-profile characteristics correlated with the recent neoliberal age is widening income inequality. In Canada, almost half (46.9 percent) of the total household wealth in the country was held by the top 20 percent of income earners in 2012, according to Statistics Canada. That concentration has increased from 45 percent in 1999. On the other hand, the 20 percent of Canadians earning the least held only 3.9 percent of the country’s total wealth in 2012 ─ even less than the 5 percent they held in 1999.[17]

III. The Sharing Economy

To assess the so-called sharing economy, it is helpful to begin with a definition. This analysis proceeds from the idea that the sharing economy can be defined as the provision of one individual’s/group’s private property to another individual/group (also known as Peer-to-Peer) who wish access to that property but do not wish to own it. This analysis assumes this provision is monetized, given that the sharing economy is a sub-section of the larger capitalist economy. Sharing economy sectors often included in various analyses typically include: transportation (such as ride-sharing), lodging (such as home-sharing), retail, labour and services (such as running errands) and finance. Ride-sharing, home-sharing and errand-running will be the focus of this assessment because those services often involve privately-owned property and labour in Ontario. Often, sharing economy transactions are facilitated online through smart device apps or websites, which in many cases are operated by multinational companies.

Knowing the exact size of the sharing economy is less a science than an art at this stage. A 2015 report PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that global revenues from the sharing economy are currently approximately $15 billion.[18] That firm expects global revenues from the sharing economy will hover around $335 billion by 2025[19] ─ an increase of about 2133 percent. In Ontario, the size of the sharing economy is even less defined. A 2015 report by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce describes the sharing economy as being “in its nascent stages in Canada and Ontario,” and there being “a lack of concrete data on the economic impact of this new and burgeoning sector.”[20] While the 2015 Ontario budget indicates its intention to “support” the sharing economy and acknowledges the impact businesses involved in that section are having on labour markets, it provides no assessment of the size of the sector, either.[21] Despite this ambiguity, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce estimates that the average Ontarian who shares a home through Airbnb, a multinational company in the lodging subsector of the sharing economy, can earn an average of $450 per month.[22] That report also estimates that more than 400,000 people in Toronto have engaged in ride-sharing through Uber, a multinational company involved in the transportation economic subsector. Twenty percent of residents in the Greater Toronto Area, the urban agglomeration surrounding the City of Toronto, have used Uber’s services, the chamber’s report states.[23]

IV: Pros

Proponents of the sharing economy often coalesce around an ethos that privileges access over ownership, Juliet B. Schor, et al tell us.[24] Drilling down further, some advocates view the sharing economy as a more sustainable model of use than ownership, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. More than 75 percent of people surveyed by the company during one 2014 study said they believe the sharing economy to be “better for the environment.”[25] Nearly 80 percent of respondents in that same survey said they believe the sharing economy is “good for society overall.”[26] A 2015 survey by polling firm Leger found Ontarians are largely hopeful that the sharing economy will be a boon for economic development in the province. Eighty-five percent of people who live in the Greater Toronto Area that were part of the Leger survey believe the growth of sharing economy companies to be positive.[27] “Sharing companies bring significant economic, environmental, and community benefits, including better use of existing resources,” the Ontario Chamber of Commerce tells us.[28]

V. Cons

Given that this is an era that bears witness to an increasing shift toward non-standard employment relationships and precarious employment, detractors of the sharing economy have pointed to that sector’s potential to exacerbate an already perilous situation for labour markets. Some point to companies offering errand-running as an example of how low-waged work on an unreliable schedule ─ especially when those so-called errands are done for companies ─ is creeping in under the banner of the sharing economy. Those companies are, in essence, functioning as temp agencies offering services that “{slide} rapidly from [neighbourliness] to the most precarious of casual labour.”[29] Any intensification of precarity is arguably a cause for alarm, given its disproportionate prevalence among “women, racialized groups, immigrants and people with low incomes.”[30]

A second trend to which detractors regularly point is the shifting of economic risk from the firm to the individual involved in sharing economy activities. This trend is particularly relevant in the transportation and lodging subsectors. For example, Uber, which provides ride-sharing services via a smart device app, offers a low-cost service (UberX) in which drivers of privately-owned vehicles can connect with individuals willing to pay for a lift somewhere. In return, Uber takes a cut of the cost of the ride, a cost which can wildly fluctuate in an unregulated market. Uber’s drivers are expected to handle overhead costs such as the vehicle itself, personal driving insurance and fuel[31]. By contrast, traditional taxi and limousine companies pay licencing fees to local authorities to operate within the borders of a municipality and drivers are expected to be appropriately insured for the potentially expensive costs associated with professional transportation services. The shift toward the personal assumption of risk linked with the sharing economy exploded into plain view in April 2015 when a couple in Calgary, Alberta listed their home for rent on Airbnb and returned to find tens of thousands of dollars in damage and “biohazardous material” left in the house by the renters.[32] This risk-shift is a part of a larger trend in late neoliberal capitalism, Jacob S. Hacker tells us. “The Great Risk Shift is the story of how a myriad of risks that were once managed and pooled by government and private corporations have been shifted onto workers and their families ─ and how this has created both real hardship for millions and growing anxiety for millions more.”[33]

VI: Government Responses

Response to the disruption of traditional economic and labour models caused by the sharing economy has widely varied on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis. Some communities, such as Eugene, Oregon[34] and Calgary[35] have ordered Uber to cease operations under the penalty of fines until municipal bylaws can be updated. In Calgary, Uber allegedly told drivers that their personal driving insurance is primarily what protects them but they are also covered by the company’s “contingent” coverage up to $5 million for injury and damage.[36] The city’s position is that “a driver’s personal insurance is nullified when riders in private, unlicensed vehicles are injured.”[37] Elsewhere, in March 2015, a German court banned Uber from operating its ride-sharing service anywhere in that country.[38]

The City of Toronto is also grappling with how to deal with the sharing economy. Attempts to halt Uber, for example, in the city have been unsuccessful as of this writing. In the summer of 2015, an Ontario court found that despite Toronto’s protestations to the contrary, Uber does not function as a taxi company and therefore is not required to follow the rules set out for those companies.[39] The city’s mayor has also rejected pursuing an injunction against the company similar to that in place in Calgary,[40] against the wishes of the city’s taxi drivers.[41] Toronto’s ultimate aim is to regulate ride-sharing services.[42] Provincially, the government’s 2015 budget indicates a willingness to regulate ─ not crush ─ the sharing economy. “To help vibrant, emerging sectors thrive, the government commits to working with firms and industries to help them comply with existing obligations and to consulting on an ongoing basis to ensure those obligations reflect a changing economy,” the budget’s text states. In October 2015, a private member’s bill designed to, among other things, regulate ride-sharing companies, ride-sharing drivers and those who wish to share their homes, was tabled in the Ontario Legislature.[43]

VII. Analysis

The sharing economy is unquestionably a disruptive force. It is disrupting labour markets and economic models. It is however, doing little to alter the current social relations that flow from a late capitalist economy. This analysis does not assume a social/cultural determinism based on technology. There are, undoubtedly, other forces that influence ─ perhaps more greatly ─ general social relations in human society. That said, it is arguably fair that an individual’s proximity to control over social technology does at least play some role in the status they find themselves in as late capitalism continues to metamorphose. What is upending traditional analyses is that the system of social technology has changed in that some machines and tools can be owned by workers, such as an automobile or home, and those workers can still find themselves at the mercy of more powerful capitalistic forces, such as those companies involved in the development of sharing economy facilitation apps. In other words, the workers find themselves owning means of production ─ but not those means from which they escape their traditional underclass role.

This means that action by government is as crucial as ever. Governments at both the municipal level in Toronto and provincial level in Ontario appear to be set to regulate the sharing economy. While this action is not out of step with several other North American jurisdictions and developed economies throughout the world, it is a conscious, interventionist choice. Regulation of the sharing economy arguably normalizes an economic sector that does nothing to ameliorate current late capitalist trends toward increased non-standard employment relationships and precarious employment. That is concerning. If precarious employment gains an even stronger foothold, and intensifies pressure on labour markets already highly stratified along racial and gender lines, that is an unjust consequence. Trends in that direction should be stopped.

The arguments for the expansion of the sharing economy under its current incarnation are hollow. Lower consumption and a more environmentally sustainable economy are both admirable goals but does making it easier for drivers to deploy their underused fossil-fuel burning automobile for a quick cash infusion really square with sound environmental policy? It is hard to argue that such an approach is, at its core, truly environmentally friendly. As for the alleged economic benefits of the sharing economy, those seemingly cannot even be measured in Ontario at this time. Indeed, there is the potential that the sharing economy will create jobs but of what value will those be? Will families be able to subsist, let alone thrive, on the value extracted from underused assets? How much capital will individuals have to outlay and how much risk will they have to assume in order to make a decent living, given that solid employment opportunities are becoming increasingly infrequent? The answer appears to be, a lot.

Arguments against the so-called sharing economy appear more grounded. Errand-running companies should not be permitted to function as low-wage temporary employment firms. There is a significant difference between doing an odd job for someone for a few dollars and running “errands” for companies that can afford to hire employees. Criticism of the shifting of risk from firms to the individual is also valid. Individuals do not have the ability to pool risk the way governments and corporations do. And when they are interacting with mammoth multinational corporations, individuals should not have to take on the risk traditionally assumed by those who can more easily absorb it.

Conclusions

The potential consequences of the status quo in regards to the sharing economy in Ontario are concerning and unsustainable. This economic sector is doing little to nothing to disrupt the trends toward unstable forms of employment in the province. Regulation, which will normalize the sector, may intensify the shifting of economic risk from capital to individuals who cannot easily absorb it. Ultimately, the sharing economy is here and governmental authorities appear to be welcoming it. The long-term effects of the sector on the economy will determine whether or not that choice was correct.


 

[1] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (1848; Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994): 161.

[2] Bob Jessop, “The state,” The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics,” eds. Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, (Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2012), 334.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, Capital as Power: A study of order and creorder, (New York: Routledge, 2009), 278.

[6] Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Friedrich Engels, translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (1906; Minola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2011), 406.

[7] Nikolai Bukharin, Historical Materialism, (1921; New York: International Publishers, 1925), 135.

[8] Ibid., 141.

[9] Geoffrey Ingham, Capitalism, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 196.

[10] Ibid., 196-197

[11] Ibid., 197

[12] Greg Albo, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch, In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives, (Oakland: PM Press, 2010), 28.

[13] Mark P. Thomas, Regulating Flexibility: The Political Economy of Employment Standards, (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009), 22.

[14] Ibid., 3.

[15] Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism, (New York: Routledge, 2000), 75.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Statistics Canada, “Share of wealth (or net worth) held by each income quintile, 1999 and 2012, %,” http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/150603/cg-b001-eng.htm (accessed December 15, 2015).

[18] PricewaterhouseCoopers, “The Sharing Economy,” 2015, http://www.pwc.com/us/en/industry/entertainment-media/publications/consumer-intelligence-series/sharing-economy.html (accessed November 1, 2015), 14.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Andrea Holmes and Liam McGuinty, “Harnessing the Power of the Sharing Economy: Next Steps for Ontario,” Ontario Chamber of Commerce, 2015, http://www.occ.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Harnessing-the-Power-of-the-Sharing-Economy.pdf (accessed on September 26, 2015), 4.

[21] Province of Ontario, Building Ontario Up: Ontario Budget 2015, http://www.fin.gov.on.ca/en/budget/ontariobudgets/2015/papers_all.pdf (accessed November 1, 2015), 103.

[22] Holmes and McGuinty, “Harnessing the Power of the Sharing Economy: Next Steps for Ontario,” 4.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Juliet B. Schor, et al, “On the sharing economy,” Contexts, 14, no. 1, (Winter 2015): 13.

[25] PricewaterhouseCoopers, “The Sharing Economy,” 22.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Holmes and McGuinty, “Harnessing the Power of the Sharing Economy: Next Steps for Ontario,” 2.

[28] Ibid., 1.

[29] Tom Slee, “Sharing and Caring,” Jacobin, January 24, 2014, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/sharing-and-caring/ (accessed September 26, 2015).

[30] Luin Goldring and Marie-Pier Joly, “Immigration, Citizenship and Racialization at Work: Unpacking Employment Precarity in Southwestern Ontario,” Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society, 22 (Autumn 2014): 97.

[31] Avi Asher-Schapiro, “Against Sharing,” Jacobin, September 19, 2014, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/09/against-sharing/ (accessed September 26, 2015).

[32] Danielle Nerman, “Airbnb renters who trashed Calgary home left biohazards,” CBC News, May 1, 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/airbnb-renters-who-trashed-calgary-home-left-biohazards-1.3057288 (accessed December 1, 2015).

[33] Jacob S. Hacker, The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream, (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 21.

[34] The Associated Press, “Uber ordered to quit business in Eugene or face fines,” The Oregonian, October 30, 2014, http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2014/10/uber_ordered_to_quit_business.html (accessed December 1, 2015).

[35] CBC News, “Uber to suspend Calgary operations to comply with temporary injunction,” November 20, 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/uber-court-injunction-calgary-drivers-1.3327734 (accessed December 1, 2015).

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] The Associated Press, “German court bans Uber’s ride service,” The Register-Guard, March 18, 2015,

http://registerguard.com/rg/news/32885577-76/german-court-bans-ubers-ride-service.html.csp (accessed December 1, 2015).

[39] Jennifer Pagliaro, “John Tory says Uber injunction not on the table,” Toronto Star, December 4, 2015, http://www.thestar.com/news/city_hall/2015/12/04/john-tory-says-uber-injunction-not-on-the-table.html (accessed December 10, 2015).

[40] Ibid.

[41] Shawn Jeffords, “T.O. cabbies want Uber injunction like in Calgary,” Toronto Sun, November 21, 2015, http://www.torontosun.com/2015/11/21/to-cabbies-want-uber-injunction-like-in-calgary (accessed December 1, 2015).

[42] Jennifer Pagliaro and Betsy Powell, “Toronto council votes to regulate Uber,” Toronto Star, September 30, 2015, http://www.thestar.com/news/city_hall/2015/09/30/toronto-council-debates-uber-role-in-taxi-industry.html (accessed September 30, 2015).

[43] Legislative Assembly of Ontario, “Bill 131, 2015: An Act to enact two new Acts and to amend other Acts to regulate transportation network vehicles, to provide freedom for individual residential property owners to share their property for consideration with others and to deal with the expenses of public sector employees and contractors in that connection,” http://www.ontla.on.ca/web/bills/bills_detail.do?locale=en&BillID=3534&detailPage=bills_detail_the_bill (accessed November 21, 2015).

 

Advertisements

A Brief Note On #Elxn42 And Moving Toward A New Left

This much is clear: with the NDP’s federal collapse last night, the neoliberal Third Way experiment can clearly be declared a failure. But now what? Now, to build ─ not rebuild on a broken foundation.

But also this: pillory me as a post-structuralist if you must, but I’m not here for the construction of any next Left that doesn’t weigh the fight against social oppression equally with that of economic oppression. The suture for a new Left in Canada must be oppression, period. Class analysis, arguably, can be taken in exciting new directions if it is a collaborator in the fight against other oppressions and not the centre to which other battles are stitched for the ride to liberation.[1] One obvious conclusion here is efforts must be made that this type of transformative Left not be led by the archetypal able-bodied cisgender heterosexual white male. It is time to adjust ourselves accordingly. It is time to do better.


[1] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd ed.(London/New York: Verso, 2001).

Reflections on McChesney: Problematics of Media Self-Regulation

FULL DISCLOSURE: I worked as a mainstream news reporter between 2003 and 2012.

News media goes where many cannot or will not. It infiltrates the halls of power, the courtrooms, protest sites, war zones and scenes of tragedy. It is, unquestionably, the source of much of the information used to inform and shape society. Its role is crucial. However, I contend that codes of professional journalism ethics, which purport to produce a balanced, non-biased mirroring of the facts, fail both as an adequate industry regulator and as a check on the powerful.  To explore this, I will first attempt to locate contemporary news media in its proper context. I will then examine and analyze structural biases inherent in professional newsgathering, which render the concept of self-regulation ineffective and violent for marginalized people. Finally, I will offer both reformist and alternative paths forward to address the problematics of self-regulation and make news media more accountable to the public it is supposed to serve.

Context

Robert McChesney tells us “democratic theory posits society needs journalism” to serve as a watchdog of the powerful and those who chase power, to separate truth from lies and to present a wide range of informed positions on key issues.[1] The idea of neutrality in news media, meanwhile, is a relatively recent phenomenon, having replaced overtly partisan journalism in the 20th Century.[2] As press power consolidated into the hands of fewer chains by the Progressive Era (roughly the early 1900s to the end of the First World War) and advertising drove up the profit margins of newspapers, much of the socialist and populist press folded because it could not/would not pursue ad dollars.[3] So-called “yellow journalism”, or stories focused on sex, scandal, crime and celebrity that frequently involved fabrication became a low-cost way for newspapers to drive circulation numbers and, subsequently, advertising (dollars).[4] By the 1910s, media, suffering a crisis of trust, was being roundly criticized for a one-track capitalistic focus.[5] Professionalism emerged as an attempt by the industry to regulate itself and dampen the critical onslaught.[6] “The argument went that trained editors and reporters were granted autonomy by the owners to make editorial decisions, and these decisions were based on their professional judgment, not the politics of the owners and the advertisers or their commercial interests. As trained professionals, journalists would learn to sublimate their own values as well. Readers could trust what they read and not worry about who owned or worked on the newspaper,” McChesney notes.[7] It is very difficult to suggest that this change within the news industry did anything else except shield it from more external regulation.

Problematics of News Media “Self-Regulation”

However, there are serious problems with the proposition that professional journalism is an objective, neutral recitation of the facts as they occur. Scholars, specifically, The Media Monopoly author Ben Bagdikian, have identified three structural biases in professional journalism ethics codes, McChesney tells us. Firstly, with the aim of exorcizing criticism of the story idea process, “professional journalism regards anything done by official sources — for example, government officials and prominent public figures — as the basis for legitimate news.”[8] Secondly, professional journalism tends to avoid contextualization of the news it covers.[9] And finally, there is a clear pro-business bent to professional journalism, which serves the aims of its corporate masters and advertisers.[10]

A reliance on official sources may be a cheap and cheerful way to gather news[11] but simply getting in close proximity to the powerful lends itself to the potential to merely reproduce officially sanctioned narratives as ‘more true’ than opinions offered elsewhere — specifically, those offered by individuals standing in opposition to the powerful. “Those in political office (and to a lesser extent, business) wield considerable power to set the news agenda by what they speak about and, just as important, what they keep quiet about,” McChesney notes.[12] And, available evidence points to news media’s active complicity in this process of dominant narrative reproduction. A 2001 study by Ina Howard revealed the majority of sources utilized by the nightly newscasts of American networks ABC, CBS and NBC were “white, male and Republican” ─ Republican being the party of the President at the time.[13]  Coercion is also employed to encourage the reproduction of official narratives: journalists who chase stories that no official sources are discussing are sometimes tarred as “unprofessional” and “attempting to introduce bias into the news.”[14] Faced with a reporter undaunted by the accusations of unprofessionalism, official sources may resort to cutting off the journalist[15] — or even the media outlet that employs the journalist.

Tangentially related to the reliance on official sources, contextualization was a casualty of professional journalism because partisan journalism attempted to locate news within a larger ideological framework in order to provide some understanding of it.[16] This does not work for professional journalism because it forces the reporter into a “definite position,”[17] and ostensibly damages her/his supposed neutrality. “To assure that news selection does not appear ideologically driven, reporters and editors grab a news hook to justify a news story.  If something happens, it is news.” This has implications for public discussions about societal ills, McChesney adds. “This means that social issues such as racism and environmental degradation vanish from the headlines unless an event, such as a protest demonstration or the release of an official report, can justify coverage — or unless official sources choose to make it a story.”[18]

Additionally, the pro-corporate bias of professional journalism, while “more subtle”, [19] is real and pervades the whole nature of the craft. Via this bias, professional media plays a significant role in the dissemination of neoliberal values generally and, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, the deployment of the security apparatus that assists in safeguarding the neoliberal and capitalist agenda, specifically. “The affairs of government are therefore more closely scrutinized than are the affairs of big business,” McChesney tells us. “And, of government activities, those that serve the poor (such as welfare) get much more critical attention than those that serve primarily the interests of the wealthy (such as tax dodges or the role of the CIA and other institutions of national security), which are more or less off-limits.”[20] The environment this creates is that which makes it more difficult for government to “regulate in the public interest” and emboldens those who seek to advance the interests of corporations.[21]

Analysis

The over-reliance on official narratives is the praxis of power politics in the public realm. It is not objectivity. It is the violent amplification and further elevation of structural power and works to politically crush the marginalized. It regulates nothing except the perpetuation of traditional power. Examples are myriad. It is seen in the publishing by reporters of law enforcement sources detailing the non-relevant police interactions of a Black man shot dead by a white officer. It manifests in the character assassination of sexual assault survivors by columnists quoting out of context official statistics and then twisting them to suit their agenda. It displays itself in the drowning out of the voices of those standing in opposition to neoliberal principles under a cascade of speeches at news conferences repeating disprovable ideology about corporate tax reduction, service cuts and so-called labour market flexibility.

The reporter’s fear of being cut off is admittedly legitimate. But it is not the end of newsgathering. New, perhaps untested, methods for pursuing stories will need to be attempted. This may mean that different, less structurally powerful voices become magnified in the journalist’s work. This reportage is not necessarily ‘professional’, ‘objective’ newsgathering. Instead, it provides space to voices traditionally suppressed. It is equity of opportunity and, arguably, socially just.

The lack of context in professional news reportage, meanwhile, is a knowledge killer. It plays into the hands of those who would claim that the death and disappearance of approximately 1,200 First Nations women in Canada is a series of unconnected, individual incidents and not a sociological phenomenon. It tells the public nothing about why the news is happening, if it happened before and its implications. It extracts and abstracts significant events from the very aether that often makes them significant.

The pro-corporate bias of professional news, bluntly put, is an implement of status quo capitalism and works to exacerbate social inequality. The markedly unquestioned publishing of reports deriding government spending, public salaries and social programs serves to undermine public confidence in the public realm and diminish citizen interactions with state resources ─ except those which hammer opponents of the racist, heteronormative, patriarchal, neoliberal capitalist hegemony such as police and other security agencies. Add to this the staggering failure by professional media to question the structural foundations of the so-called free market and the state’s relationship with it and the pro-corporate bias reveals itself writ large.

Toward A Better Media

Change is not impossible. Professional journalism can be reformed and media can serve the public. McChesney states journalists have never been “professionals” in the same way doctors and lawyers are, since journalists are employees who don’t own their own businesses and that journalism lacks a “unified scientific code.”[22] McChesney appears to be arguing that because of these issues, journalism cannot or should not be regulated by a college. This line of reasoning fails. Ownership of the means of production is not a pre-requisite for professional regulation in the fields of social work, nursing, respiratory therapy, occupational therapy and teaching. Colleges of Journalism would admittedly be another layer of self-regulation; however, participation would be mandatory — not voluntary like in the case of press councils such as the Ontario Press Council. There would be hearings with consequences for bad, damaging journalism. If a particular College wished not to be inundated with complaints about official source-driven coverage that provides no context and pushes a pro-capital agenda, it could work to implement a unified code of ethics that requires a different approach to the news.

An alternative approach would be to seize a portion of profit from professional journalism agencies and redistribute it to independents. Those independent, non-professional agencies would be required by public, elected committees to provide context, amplify the voices of the structurally marginalized, create news teams that actually reflect the diversity of the subject matter being interrogated and publish coverage that does not smuggle a pro-corporate bias. The state already has the taxation and redistribution powers to implement such an approach. This idea is no more revolutionary than allowing corporate “professional” media agencies to shield themselves behind free press sections of national constitutions while reproducing the worldviews of the ruling elites and gradually converging into a handful (or smaller number) of news economy leviathans.

Conclusions

Professional journalism ethics standards are an abject failure, both as an industry regulator and as a check on the powerful. The inherent biases built into professional journalism intensify structural inequalities and power imbalances. But, change is possible and, indeed, necessary. The boosting and normalization of voices critical of and marginalized by structural power may serve as important barrages in the many battles for social and economic liberation. These are battles in pursuit of truth. They are battles for justice. And the waging of those battles is the role of news media.


[1] Robert W. McChesney, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the Twenty-First Century, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 57.

[2] Ibid., 58.

[3] Ibid., 60.

[4] Ibid., 61.

[5] Ibid., 62.

[6] Ibid., 64.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 68.

[9] Ibid., 71.

[10] Ibid., 72-73.

[11] Ibid., 69.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 70.

[14] Ibid., 69.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 71.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 72.

[20] Ibid., 73.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 67-68.

Reflections on David Harvey: Neoliberalism and The State

For three decades, neoliberalism has dominated the political and economic landscape. Following David Harvey, I contend that neoliberalism depends on the manufacturing of consent to a neoliberal agenda and the use of coercion to enforce that agenda. I further argue that neoliberalism is a corrupted form of democracy which easily lends itself to a rule by powerful elites and reproduces social and economic inequalities. To explore these contentions, I will first place neoliberalism in context. I will then delve into the manufacturing of a consent agenda for neoliberalism and probe how coercion has been used to strong-arm that agenda. Finally, I will analyze neoliberalism’s anti-democratic patterns. This examination is primarily focused on trends in North America with specific references to the neoliberal experiment in Canada.

Locating Neoliberalism
Before the interrogation at the core of this analysis begins, it is helpful to properly locate neoliberalism as a governing paradigm. Neoliberalism is generally seen as having risen in an age in which post-Second World War employment, production and social patterns were declining. Neoliberalism’s characteristics include government with the aims of industry deregulation, a promotion of the primacy of the individual, “strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.”[1] Another important aspect of neoliberalism is the degree of control that governments must have over the population to ensure the free flow and “integrity”[2] of capital and money. “(Neoliberal governments) must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets,” David Harvey tells us in A Brief History of Neoliberalism. The institutionalization of neoliberalism can be closely associated with the ascendency of politicians such as the United Kingdom’s Margaret Thatcher, the United States’ Ronald Reagan, Canada’s Brian Mulroney and, as Harvey claims, China’s Deng Xiaoping[3] in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s.

Consent
The rise of neoliberalism did not occur overnight ─ in fact, it was a long-term project ─ and was not without effort by capital, social institutions and forces within the academy, Harvey explains.[4] “The ‘long march’ of neoliberal ideas through these institutions that (Austrian political philosopher Friedrich von) Hayek had envisaged back in 1947, the organization of think-tanks (with corporate backing and funding), the capture of certain segments of the media, and the conversion of many intellectuals to neoliberal ways of thinking, created a climate of opinion in support of neoliberalism as the exclusive guarantor of freedom.”[5] This is arguably crucial, given the incremental steps consent takes and its ability to overcome any visceral rejection of rapid structural change in society ─ the kind of quick change revolution can bring. Also critical here is the tension between social justice and the struggle for individual liberties that neoliberalism has a tendency to exploit. Neoliberalism’s opposition to the perception of a government acting as a check to capital’s liberty may have ridden into town at just the right time as activists (civil rights, reproductive, sexuality and others)[6] were fighting very real battles against oppressive state actions. Well-funded attempts to conflate these social struggles with capital’s perceived plight speak directly to the manufacturing of consent and the implementation of the neoliberal agenda.

Coercion
But, where consent fails, coercion may do. It is entirely feasible to claim that late neoliberalism has become increasingly authoritarian. However, individual choice, the guiding force of hyper-liberalism and the extreme measures gone to in order to foster an environment where such individualism (which typically manifests as consumer choice) is the dominant narrative has an element of what Harvey calls “chaos”[7] to it. In response, neoliberalism has in many cases mutated into neoconservativism, which seeks to bring a highly moralized order to that perceived chaos via the state’s coercion apparatuses, most namely the military[8] but also the police and surveillance/intelligence agencies. All of this has been fuelled by the creation of myths that the nation is under attack by threats internal but also ─ and especially ─ external.[9] “Neoconservatism is therefore entirely consistent with the neoliberal agenda of elite governance, mistrust of democracy, and the maintenance of market freedoms. But it veers away from the principles of pure neoliberalism and has reshaped neoliberal practices in two fundamental respects: first, in its concern for order as an answer to the chaos of individual interests, and second, in its concern for an overweening morality as the necessary social glue to keep the body politic secure in the face of external and internal dangers,” Harvey notes.[10]

Analysis
But to what end is this consent and coercion used? Who are the beneficiaries of this complex creation of myths and fact-ish ideology reproduced in a volume of tsunami proportions? Who wins with the creation and exploitation of fears, based on threats real and perceived, domestic and international? I argue that one manifestation of neoliberalism is the intensification of the concentration of power in the hands of those traditionally allied with capital — specifically, the government Executive and the judiciary. Neoliberals are inherently “suspicious of democracy” and that they “tend to favour governance by experts and elites,” Harvey tells us.[11] The consolidation of power arguably serves two important functions: (1) to reclaim, and then intensify, ruling class interests all while legitimized and emboldened by the ability to enforce the status quo via the military/police and (2) to marginalize the legislature, where public, vigorous debate can be engaged in and witnessed. The context here, of course, is that this is occurring during an era in which security, both internal and external, is a dominant driver of government policy. As Harvey notes, “the neoliberal preference” is to “appeal to judicial and executive rather than parliamentary powers.”[12]

The Executive and judiciary are excellent zones for power to be centralized by the ruling elite. Secretive, authoritarian Executive governance can be conducted behind closed doors in cabinet meetings and through the invocation of time allocation and closure motions during majority governments, for example. The legal system, meanwhile, can be counted on to reinforce the interests of “private property and the profit rate over rights of equality and social justice” due to what Harvey calls “the typical class allegiance of the judiciary.”[13] This takes place despite a formal commitment to the equality of access to justice in the advanced capitalist core of nations ─ which in practice, often actually translates into costly court cases that limit justice to those who can afford it.[14]

Conclusions
Neoliberalism rests upon a foundation of manufactured consent and coercion. Its key focus is to reproduce power and class relations that intensify so-called “free market” relationships and commodify human interactions as mere consumer choices. Neoliberalism is inherently anti-democratic and thrives in environments in which threats, perceived or real ─ foreign or domestic ─ are promoted to manage the chaos hawkish neoliberals see as endemic to a society in which the value of liberty is extolled. Ultimately, neoliberalism shows no signs of abating. Proponents have offered no alternatives, which may indicate that the current structures are working satisfactorily for those who benefit from them. Opponents, to this point, have also been unsuccessful in presenting an alternative to this dominant governing paradigm that has captured the population enough to build a counter-hegemony and alternative paradigm. At this point, it is unclear how long the neoliberal experiment will last but given that it not only survived but has become intensified in the wake of the recent economic crisis, it appears solidly structural with a great deal of power, resources and will backing it.


[1] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2005), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid., 40.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 42.

[7] Ibid., 82.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 66.

[12] Ibid., 176.

[13] Ibid., 177.

[14] Ibid., 78.

UPDATED: Post-Democratic Trend Lines in Etobicoke

 

UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 2016

– Rob Ford was elected Ward 2 Councillor in the 2014 municipal election.
– Rob Ford, 46, died March 22, 2016.
– Mike Ford was elected a TDSB Trustee in 2014. He was elected to Rob Ford’s former Ward 2 council seat in a 2016 byelection.
– Doug Ford plans to release a book in 2016 (co-written with Rob about the family’s base of political support. He also plans to again seek elected office.


ORIGINAL POST, SEPTEMBER 16, 2014

Since news broke of the decision by Toronto mayor candidate Rob Ford to sto-ballot-box-facebookep away from the mayor’s race and be replaced by his brother Doug the term “feudal” has been thrown around a lot.

The argument quite often associated with the use of this term generally appears to be that the Ford family is treating Etobicoke as if control of the borough is to be inherited and that elections are merely a formality.

I understand the need to put what has happened at odds with what should be happening in a healthy democracy ─ I’m even tempted to use the term feudal myself. But, I argue, the nature of what the Ford family is attempting in Etobicoke does not smack of what is prior to democracy but what comes after the democratic institutions we know and many of us cherish.

In other words, I argue that the Ford family is acting inherently post-democratic in Etobicoke and that current democratic structures are permitting this.

The origins of the term post-democracy are often attributed to political scientist Colin Crouch. The idea is essentially that a small clique of elites control decisions within democratic structures. Tendencies seen in post-democracy include few common goals, a common agenda, the conflation of the public and private sectors and privatization.

This is arguably what the Ford family is attempting in Etobicoke, and more broadly in Toronto governance.

The Ford agenda can be characterized by the pitting of neighbourhoods against each other (no common agenda), that Rob and Doug are seemingly interchangeable (a common agenda), alleged missteps involving lobbying on behalf of private sector firms (the conflation of the public and private sectors) and the use of private capital to fund major public projects (privatization).

By running Doug for mayor, Rob for Ward 2 councillor and Mike Ford for school trustee, the Fords, a wealthy business family from Etobicoke, are using democratic institutions to achieve what could easily be described as a post-democratic aristocracy if the election sees all three elevated to office. The Fords are up against challengers for every seat but the trend lines are there. A healthy democracy won’t permit one family to treat elections as a hoop through which to jump.

Rob Ford’s Political Body

Toronto’s Rob Ford lives a political life. Both his bare existence and his public personae have taken on a politicization since he entered municipal governance. Plainly said, his weight and other biological issues have become just as political as his public life as “mayor” of the City of Toronto.

The Ancient Greeks, such as Aristotle, had two words for life: zoe (to live) and bios (life as an action).[1] This zoe-bios distinction is taken up and developed by Giorgio Agamben, who explains that zoe was seen as excluded from action in the city, or polis, (bios).[2] Agamben argues that via modern biopolitics, a concept he borrows from Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt, bios has contaminated zoe.  It is from this foundation that I begin.

  •  In this post, I explore the politicizing of Rob Ford’s body and his own use of biopolitics as an undercurrent of governance at city hall.

Ford has steadfastly maintained that he believes there are things in his life that are private: in other words, outside bios and firmly planted in zoe.

The issue with this, of course, is that Ford has sometimes created a zone of indistinction between bios and zoe himself, such as when he has been filmed while ostensibly intoxicated and talking about his politics.

But also consider the politicization by external actors of Ford’s zoe:

The four examples above, I argue, are the clear contamination of zoe with bios; the politicization of Rob Ford’s bare life.

This is not to say that Rob Ford has not engaged in the same sort of biopolitics. He has been caught using racist slurs, refusing to participate and even working against joyous city events such as the raising of the Pride flag and making disgraceful sexual comments about a female colleague.

These examples show that Ford politicizes others’ zoe, be it based on their ethnicity, their sexuality or sex, in an attempt to politically disarm them.

What is apparent here is that Toronto politics is merely a microcosm of the larger paradigm that sees a blurring of distinction between zoe and bios. We see it in every “political” interaction at all levels of human society but it simply becomes more obvious with our elected representatives, who live public lives. Rob Ford’s nature arguably locates him as a high-profile example.

Toronto politics  is not simply about building transit and making sure the roads don’t have potholes. It, like life generally, is a highly biopolitical existence in which life (to live) is politicized. And from this point, there is no return to the classical zoe/bios dichotomy, Agamben tells us.[3] “And we are not only, in Foucault’s words, animals whose life as living beings is at issue in their politics, but also ─ inversely ─ citizens whose very politics is at issue in their natural body.”[4]


[1] Aristotle, Politics. Translated by C.D.C Reeve, (Indianapolis:Hackett Publishing Company, 1998), 285.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, eds. Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 2.

[3] Ibid., 188.

[4] Ibid.

The Militarization of Police: But Why?

Since the beginning of the year, several stories in high-profile mainstream media publications have examined the increasing militarization of police forces in North America.

  • In March, The Economist wrote a feature on the phenomenon noting that the use of tactical units, which are often armed with military-style weaponry such as so-called flash-bag grenades and tear gas, has spiked in the United States. Some cities are now using tactical units for routine patrol. The Economist suggested that civil forfeiture laws, under which no criminal conviction is required for people to lose large assets, are actually making it profitable to seize alleged proceeds of crime.
  • In June, The New York Times reported that during the Obama years, police forces in the United States have received “thousands of machine guns” along with”armoured cars and aircraft.” The Times asked whether the events of September 11, 2001 have blurred the lines between soldier and police officer.
  • And on August 15, the Toronto Star published an in-depth look at the militarization of law enforcement both in Canada and in the United States, noting Toronto’s notorious G20 Summit as a domestic example. The story also pulls from a report by the American Civil Liberties Association that claims 62% of tactical deployments were for drug searches and thus, “inappropriate.”

There has been much written about the who, the what, the where and the how of police militarization but little delving into the why. In this post, I explore three possible, and arguably intersecting reasons for the why: (a) Following Giorgio Agamben, that security and the overstepping of the law by governments in order to save the constitution is a long-held practice and is now a paradigm of North American governance. (b) That the state continues to show itself as terrified of marginalized groups and is using violence to coerce co-operation or at least peace from those groups when they express anger. And, (c) That neoliberalism, or the trend of governments toward market solutions and the retreat by the state from social programs is necessarily resulting in the increased use of the state’s security apparatus to quell opposition to such a trend.

This analysis assumes the police are an enforcement arm of the state. 

While Agamben freely admits there is no singular definition of the state of exception, he argues that it constitutes “the original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension.”[1] This, he claims, is a modern paradigm of governance. In other words, the state of exception is the situation in which the law is suspended to uphold the constitution of a particular society and that situation has become normalized and institutionalized as a driving pattern of governance. “In this sense, modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of a state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system”, he tells us.[2] That is, the constitution can be suspended in order to save it. This state of exception has been taking root since the First World War, gained traction through National Socialism and has achieved its largest deployment today.[3] The state must have the tools necessary and at its disposal to continue to govern in a continuous state of exception, and thus, the militarization of the police, which function as its enforcement arm most often in times of crisis and suspension of liberties. The police are often the only coercion agency of the state funded at the local, state/provincial and federal levels of government, allowing multiple states of exception to exist — but also for a co-ordinated police effort during a singular state of exception to be possible. A good example of this cross-jurisdictional state of exception is the use of local[4], provincial[5] and federal[6] police officers during the Toronto G20 summit in 2010, during which the civil liberties of protesters were widely suspended and the largest mass arrest of Canadians occurred.[7]

The state of exception is also clearly being used to perpetuate and reproduce historic racism. But, the state of exception as a paradigm of government cannot be used to explain the cracking down on historically marginalized groups, such as Black North Americans and First Nations people. There is a deeper history there and I see it as being about the devaluing of human life via a structural racism that is woven into the fabric of North American governance. Black Americans and First Nations people have been subject to hyper-exploitation and attempts at genocide to the extent that the experiences of the oppressors — that is, overwhelmingly North Americans of European decent — have, I believe, formed an unfinished project of marginalization that continues to the present day. In situations such as these, and others, the state’s actions are not broadly based and sweeping but target specific groups because of antiquated notions about superiority or merely a depraved indifference to the lives and well-being of those who have endured despite attempts to kill them politically and biologically. The militarization of the police is necessary here for the state insofar as those who have fought and continue to fight against oppression do so while concurrently challenging the racist state’s fundamental legitimacy. As W. E. B. Du Bois puts it in Black Reconstruction in America: “[I]f the poor, unlettered toilers are given no political power, and are kept by exploitation in poverty, they will remain submerged unless rescued by revolution; and a philosophy will prevail, teaching that the submergence of the mass is inevitable and is on the whole best, not only for them, but for the ruling classes.”[8]. The state’s coercive response, as seen in situations such as demonstrations in Ferguson, MO after the shooting death of Mike Brown by a police officer in August 2014 and at the Elsipogtog First Nation in October 2013, are both attempts to assert a racist sovereignty and a superiority of the established ruling classes against the respective marginalized groups. Pam Palmater summed up the enforcement by the state of a sovereignty poisoned by racism in a post about the clash between Mi’kmaw activists and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Elsipogtog in a post only days afterward: “This heavy-handed deployment of heavily armed RCMP cops against women and children shows Canada’s complete disregard for our fundamental human rights and freedoms, and their ongoing disdain for Indigenous peoples. One RCMP officer’s comments summarized government position perfectly: ‘Crown land belongs to government, not to fucking natives.'”[9]

Finally, the nature of neoliberalism may be inherently coercive. As I have written here about neoliberalism in Ontario, some scholarly authorities see neoliberalism revealing increased authoritarianism. Concurrent with the neoliberal period generally and the aftermath of September 11, 2001 specifically has been an intensified securitization inside states, York University professor Greg Albo tells us. “In Canada this combination of economic and geopolitical interests has produced an internal realignment of the state, with military and security structures absorbing new funds and resources,” he notes.[10] If the police, again the department most often called to put down opposition to neoliberalism’s goals, are to be successful, they need the tools used to quell chaos. Such tools have been developed and deployed by the West during its ongoing wars on terrorism since 9/11 and logically, the fruits of those labours are spilling down to policing departments as such wars — take Afghanistan and Iraq for examples — wind down and focus shifts to domestic disturbances.

Whatever the “why”, and this analysis does not purport to be the final word, the militarization of the police is an ongoing phenomenon. Here, I have attempted to explore the state of exception, structural racism and neoliberalism as three possibilities for why the police in North America have become increasingly militarized. Any society that permits the expansion of the state’s coercion will inevitably have to deal with the counter pressure of civil rights activists. What is crucial to consider is the difference between a real crisis for the state and one that is a fictitious crisis in which civil and social rights are trumped so that the constitution may remain in place. What is left then, if the constitution survives such a battering by the state itself?


[1] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, Trans. Kevin Attell, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 3.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 86-87.

[4] Graham Slaughter, “45-day jail sentence for Toronto police officer who beat G20 protester,” Toronto Star, December 9, 2013, http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2013/12/09/45day_jail_sentence_for_toronto_police_officer_who_beat_g20_protester.html (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[5] Adrian Morrow and Daniel Leblanc, “Toronto police, OPP called the shots on G20 response, report says,” The Globe and Mail, May 14, 2012, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/toronto-police-opp-called-the-shots-on-g20-response-report-says/article4178745/ (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[6] Josh Visser, “RCMP abandoned policy when it participated in G20 ‘kettling,’ report says,” National Post, May 14, 2012, http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/05/14/rcmp-abandoned-policy-when-it-participated-in-g20-kettling-report-says/ (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[7] Canadian Civil Liberties Association, What Happened During the G20?, http://ccla.org/our-work/focus-areas/g8-and-g20/two-months-after-the-g20/ (accessed August 24, 2014).

[8] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, https://archive.org/details/blackreconstruc00dubo, 206 (accessed August 24, 2014).

[9] Pam Palmater, Feathers verus Guns: The Throne Speech and Canada’s War with the Mi’kmaw Nation at Elsipogtog, http://indigenousnationhood.blogspot.ca/2013/10/throne-speech-in-action-canada-is-at.html (accessed August 24, 2014).

[10] Greg Albo, “Fewer Illusions: Canadian Foreign Policy since 2001,” Empire’s Ally: Canada and the Afghanistan War, eds. G. Albo and J. Klassen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 253.