Neoliberalism, the State, and the Left: A Canadian Perspective

By Albo, Gregory | Monthly Review, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Neoliberalism, the State, and the Left: A Canadian Perspective


Albo, Gregory, Monthly Review


An assessment of the left today must begin with an analysis of neoliberalism. For over the past two decades neoliberalism has come to dominate public discourse and the modalities of the state in one country after another. The ascendancy of neoliberalism has occurred through a series of interconnected transformations that began with the economic turmoil of the 1970s, the rise of New Right governments across the 1980s, and the deepening internationalization of the circuits of money and industrial capital, modes of communication, and governance structures in the 1990s. Neoliberalism has come to mark a historic turning-point in the balance of power, the social forms of economic and political power, and the patterns of everyday life. From the perspective of the renewal of the left in Canada, and indeed North America, it is critical that we record the importance of this point and its many implications.

Neoliberalism is not a monolithic ideology or political program. There is unevenness in the universalization of the neoliberal project in North America as elsewhere. The basic idea is that the state should be limited in its role in modern society apart from securing private property rights and contracts. One of neoliberalism's key ideologues, New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, exactingly summarizes the agenda:

...a country must either adopt, or be seen as moving toward, the following golden rules: making the private sector the primary engine of its economic growth, maintaining a low rate of inflation and price stability, shrinking the size of its state bureaucracy, maintaining as close to a balanced budget as possible, if not a surplus, eliminating and lowering tariffs on imported goods, removing restrictions on foreign investment, getting rid of quotas and domestic monopolies, increasing exports, privatizing state-owned industries and utilities, deregulating capital markets, making its currency convertible, opening its industries, stock and bond markets to direct foreign ownership and investment, deregulating its economy to promote as much domestic competition as possible, eliminating government corruption, subsidies and kickbacks as possible, opening its banking and telecommunications systems to private ownership and competition, and allowing its citizens to choose from an array of competing pension options and f oreign-run pension and mutual funds (pp. 86-7).

Neoliberalism's "golden rules" have the objective of expanding the sphere of the capitalist market globally. But they also are intended to "narrow the political and economic choices of those in power" such that "policy choices get reduced to Pepsi or Coke--slight nuances of taste, slight nuances of policy, slight alterations in design to account for local traditions, but never any major deviations from the core golden rules" (pp. (86-7).

Neoliberalism is much more than the above ideas of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick replacing those of J. M. Keynes, J. K. Galbraith, and John Rawls. It is closely associated with the rise of the New Right regimes of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Ronald Reagan in the United States, and Brian Mulroney in Canada in the 1980s; the New Right project continues under the U.S. Administration of George W. Bush. In Canada, Tory governments of the richest provinces of Ontario and Alberta under the populist leadership of Premiers Mike Harris and Ralph Klein respectively have continued on as neoliberalism's standard-bearers. But neoliberalism has been equally practiced by political regimes of the center-left, such as the Third Way social democratic governments of Europe through the 1990s, the Clinton presidency in the United States, the Parti Quebecois in Quebec and the New Democratic Party (NDP) provincial governments stretching from Ontario, under Premier Bob Rae in the early 1990s, to the current ND P governments in the prairie provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. …

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