Neoliberalism, Racism, and the War on Drugs in Canada

By Gordon, Todd | Social Justice, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Neoliberalism, Racism, and the War on Drugs in Canada


Gordon, Todd, Social Justice


Introduction

THE "WAR ON DRUGS" IS AN IMPORTANT FEATURE OF NEOLIBERALISM IN CANADA. Yet while the relationship between the drug war and neoliberal policy has been the subject of focus by writers in the United States (see, for example, Parenti, 1999; Davis, 1992), it has received little attention in the literature on either drug policy or neoliberalism in Canada. This article seeks to address this gap. Using a political-economy framework, it highlights the central role played by drug prohibition in the street-based operationalization of neoliberal restructuring and links this policing dynamic to the historical role drug criminalization has played in Canada. The failure to interrogate capitalist state power and to adequately situate the emergence and development of the war on drugs in Canada within the context of the state's racialized efforts to produce capitalist social relations considerably flattens most analyses thus far advanced on this issue.

The war on drugs, it will be argued, is bound up with a deep-seated racist fear of the non-British immigrant Other. This fear is rooted in part in the Canadian state's concern that immigrants--whose cheap labor Canadian capitalism has historically been very dependent upon--will not conform to, and thus will undermine, Canada's white bourgeois moral order. A central historical role of the state and police has been the constitution of immigrants (and workers in general) as a reliable and disciplined class of wage laborers dependant on market relations. In the process, certain drugs came to represent to the state and police a potential threat to this order. The concern was that these drugs might provide a financial or festive alternative (or sometimes both) to alienating market relations. Equally important, however, the danger associated with these drugs became even greater when they were identified with a particular non-British immigrant community, as opiates, cocaine, and cannabis were in the early 20th century. Drugs in these instances were a possible alternative to market relations and a cultural practice from a supposedly less civilized part of the world that was foreign to most white Canadians. This was therefore viewed as a serious expression of nonconformity to, and a potential infection of, the country's white bourgeois moral order. These dynamics framed drug criminalization in the early 20th century and are played out even today, as the emergence of neoliberalism has entailed the deep re-imposition of market relations into people's lives and Canadian capitalism's increasing dependence on cheap immigrant labor from the global South. Thus, the war on drugs remains a very important means for the state and police to pursue order in immigrant communities.

The article will first examine the historical role of the capitalist state in producing a racialized bourgeois order in immigrant communities. Then it briefly looks at the emergence of drug prohibition in Canada in the early 20th century as a racialized project of class domination. Some of the existing literature on the early period of drug criminalization in Canada is helpful, though its insights are strengthened by the discussion of antiracist state theory that precedes it. Having developed a historical framework for the war on drugs, I then explore its contemporary manifestation, drawing out its most salient patterns and relating them to the demands of neoliberalism. Finally, I look specifically at the criminalization of khat, and with it the Somali community in Toronto. This is similar in important ways to the criminalization of specific immigrant communities in the early 20th century as part of the war on drugs and cannot be properly understood outside this context.

The State, Immigration, and Canada's Threatened Bourgeois Moral Order

Critical studies of the historical development of Canada's ongoing war on drugs must seriously consider the historical role of the state in general, and the police in particular, in producing bourgeois order, as well as the concerns on the part of the state, the police, and moral reformers over non-British immigrants--whose labor is key to the successes of Canadian capitalism--as they pursued that order. …

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