As multiple globalized crises simultaneously crash in on each other, does dystopia become inevitable? In his new book, Escaping Dystopia: Rebuilding a Public Domain, McMaster University Professor Stephen McBride argues that we can escape dystopia by pointing to the contemporary relevance of democratic socialism, embedded in a close analysis of the multiple overlapping crises of neoliberalism. A radical transformation of these institutions is needed to stop multiple crises from sending us to complete disaster.
McBride's starting point is to argue that the simultaneous crises we face today, from rising inequality to the climate crisis, to COVID and economic instability, are rooted in and exacerbated by neoliberal ideology and institutions. Neoliberalism cannot simply be solved through reformist measures. Escaping Dystopia documents the rise of populist and anti-system politics in the advanced capitalist economies, and the serious threats they pose to the norms of liberal democracy. McBride judges that traditional social democracy is also complicit in weakening democracy, thanks to its reformist embrace of neoliberal policies since the 1980s and growing disconnection from the working-class.
The nation-state, however, remains absolutely central to politics. McBride argues that the neoliberal state constructed an international order to protect capital against democracy, but also this cannot be reformed without a major progressive political shift within nation-states.
Rather than dreaming of a global alternative, the left must take a leaf from the populist right (while rejecting cultural nationalism) in calling for the restoration and exercise of political power at the level of the nation-state. One way to push back against neoliberal decay, for example, is to limit the constraints on national economic policy imposed by corporate interests through international trade and investment agreements.
McBride argues forcefully that the solidly entrenched neoliberal order has manifestly failed to live up to its promises of shared prosperity and has lost legitimacy after the global financial crisis. It has failed to deal with rising inequality, increasing insecurity, and the climate crisis after decades of stagnation. While we have seen some well-intentioned, modest proposals for reform, such as subsidies to green industries and calls for a stakeholder format of capitalism, the fact is that fiscal austerity, low taxes, and weak regulations remain in the current paradigm.
After imposing neoliberal reform to national economic and political institutions, no government was prepared to seriously redress the imbalance of power between labour and capital, or challenge control of investment by banks and private finance. States could not seriously equalize income and wealth inequality through major tax reforms while serving the interests of capital.
Ultimately, reforms flounder because of the entrenched political and economic power of capital combined with the weakness of serious alternatives. The capitulation of the traditional left to neoliberal ideas is seen a serious barrier to systemic change.
In the most important chapter entitled “Radical Transformation,” McBride argues for control of capital while expanding the public domain and related policies which he embeds squarely in the democratic socialist tradition. To escape dystopia, he calls for stronger controls on international flows of capital, controls on private investment through public ownership of banks, democratic control over the “commanding heights of the economy” such as public utilities, natural resources, and manufacturing industries, and serious redistribution of wealth.
Massive state intervention is needed to shape investment that can meet human needs, rather than maximize profits and returns to capital. Economic planning and socialized investment are necessary to address the climate crisis, economic instability, and to close huge gaps in wealth that currently exist between the richest and the poorest.
Escaping Dystopia can and should be seen as a major re-statement of the case for democratic socialism today, drawing heavily on the state socialism model of the 1930s and 1940s which inspired the post-War Labour government in the United Kingdom, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in Canada. However, McBride advances some proposals to make the expanded public sector accountable to the wider society, including labour and communities. He also specifies some needed reforms to democratize political institutions.
As an aside, McBride suggests that Keynes worked to save capitalism from itself, prolonging its life through modest reform. Yet Keynes himself (see James Crotty, Keynes Against Capitalism) called for massive socialization of the investment process, the euthanasia of the rentier class, and capital controls at the international level sufficient to give national governments control of their economic destiny. Whether or not Keynes’ intentions were to prolong or end capitalism, what is demonstrated is that institutional change is necessary for a radical Great Transformation.
McBride's book is much richer than this brief summary suggests, but his argument is underdeveloped when it comes to agency. The author certainly recognizes the important linkages between the labour movement and democratic socialism in the past, and the political consequences of the decline of unions since the 1970s and 80s. However, McBride has had little to say on how to build a new labour movement committed to a democratic workplace and socialist politics, or on how to change existing social democratic parties from within.
That said, this book needs to be read and debated by anyone interested in how to move beyond neoliberal dystopia.
Stephen McBride is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Public Policy and Globalization at McMaster University. His research deals with issues of comparative public policy, globalization and political economy.
Escaping Dystopia: Rebuilding a Public Domain by Stephen McBride is now available from Bristol University Press.
On the face of it, the 2021 federal election changed very little. The party standings remain almost the same, and Prime Minister Trudeau failed in what turned out to be an ill-advised bid to gain a majority.Read more
I left British Columbia in 1984 to join my wife, Karen, who had taken a job with the Macdonald Commission and was to go on to pursue a career as a senior public servant. I did so somewhat reluctantly, since I had supported the recently successful British Columbia NDP leadership bid of my good friend Bob Skelly, who was at least as much an environmentalist as a committed socialist. Bob, leader of the opposition from 1984 to 1987, proved to be something of a disaster as NDP leader, making a hash of the campaign opening and presiding over a serious loss of electoral ground. From this experience, I learned that leaders need solid leadership and political skills, and not just good ideas. In Ottawa, I resumed work on my thesis for a few weeks until I was hired by the federal NDP caucus, which was then led by Ed Broadbent. In the 1984 election, the Conservatives led by Brian Mulroney swept to power with a record majority, but the NDP won a respectable thirty seats, just ten seats behind John Turner’s chastened Liberals. I worked, mainly on economic and tax issues, as part of the research team that served the leader and the caucus as a whole. There were a good dozen of us in those days, when parties still valued research over communications in the allocation of resources. (With a similarly sized caucus after 2015, the federal NDP had virtually no research capacity.)
Our work centred on critiques of the budget and the government’s legislative agenda, which was dominated by tax reform and spending cuts to address the deteriorating federal debt and deficit situation. Truth to be told, the Conservatives wielded the axe a lot less forcefully than the Liberals of Jean Chrétien would a decade later, trimming rather than slashing transfers to the provinces, largely ducking cuts to unemployment insurance, and refraining from a frontal attack on labour. The target of a balanced budget was annually postponed.
The issues of unemployment and growing insecure and precarious employment dominated political debate. The national unemployment rate hit double-digit levels from 1982 through 1984, and fell only slowly afterwards as the high interest rates imposed to tame inflation gradually returned to more normal levels. The right attributed the deficit and debt problem to supposedly excessive spending, while the left attributed it to slow growth, excessively high interest rates, and the erosion of the federal tax base. Many prominent academic economists—such as Lars Osberg, Pierre Fortin, and Tom Courchene, all at one time presidents of the Canadian Economics Association—argued that the shift to a much tighter monetary policy to fight inflation was indeed the major culprit for high unemployment and soaring public debt. I came to know and work closely with Ed, whom I now count as a close personal friend. We had regular lunches after both of us left the Hill, and I have had the privilege of working closely with him in the launching of the Broadbent Institute in 2012. Karen and I remember some wonderful meals with Ed and his wife Lucille at their large home in Sandy Hill, where we also lived. Lucille Broadbent passed away in 2007; we still use her recipe for cannelloni. When I was on the research staff, directed by George Nakitsas under chief of staff Bill Knight, I had quite close contact with Ed, frequently meeting in his office before question period or debates on various pieces of legislation.
Ed Broadbent somehow manages to be simultaneously a tough partisan and a genial intellectual of high principle, politically pugnacious, and a deep thinker who respects conservative and liberal ideas and principles. In both capacities, Ed wanted to supplant the Liberals as the dominant party of the centre left, and very much saw himself, not as a “Liberal in a hurry,” as the old adage goes, but rather as an intellectually grounded democratic socialist. He admired and was friends with leading European socialists of the period such as Willy Brandt in Germany, Joop den Uyl in the Netherlands, and Olof Palme in Sweden, whom he came to know through the Socialist International. As Christo Aivalis has argued at length in his fine book The Constant Liberal, the federal NDP caucus had remained ideologically distinct from the Liberals through the Pierre Trudeau years, during which Ed was a member of Parliament and then, from 1975, party leader. Much later in life, Ed toured Europe debating social democracy versus Marxism with his old friend and soon-to-be-wife Ellen Wood, one of the most distinguished left political theorists of our times.
Political scientists David Laycock and Lynda Erickson judge in their 2015 book Reviving Social Democracy: The Near Death and Surprising Rise of the Federal NDP that “under Broadbent’s leadership, the party continued to articulate a core social democratic conception of equality that was deeply implicated in its vision of democracy. The broad objective was a more egalitarian distribution of opportunities and resources to benefit both ‘ordinary Canadians’ and a wider range of previously disadvantaged groups, particularly women but also ethno-cultural minorities and aboriginal peoples.” Ed and the NDP were instrumental in ensuring that women’s and Aboriginal rights were recognized as part of the repatriation of the Constitution.
The NDP pushed the Liberals to embrace policies of economic nationalism in the 1970s and into the 1980s, especially when Trudeau’s government was in a minority from 1972 to 1974.
The federal Liberals in the 1970s regulated foreign ownership with a view to reducing high levels of US corporate control in the manufacturing and resource sectors; regulated the development of the oil and gas sector in the national interest through the National Energy Program; and modestly expanded public ownership, including through the establishment of Petro-Canada in the oil industry. In defining what it means to be social democrat and not just a liberal, Broadbent placed a lot of emphasis on policy development, and I was closely involved with member of Parliament Steven Langdon (an economist and former student activist), George Nakitsas, and Judy Randall in two caucus action groups, one on jobs and more broadly economic policy, and one on fair taxes. Both groups travelled the country, consulted widely with experts, and produced reports in 1987 on the need for much more government intervention in the economy and setting forth the case for redistributive tax reform with an emphasis on higher taxes for profitable corporations and the very affluent. Over this period, the federal NDP was, however, somewhat sidelined in economic pol- icy debates by a failure to take a definitive position on the deficit and debt situation. In the context of a very open economy with a strong propensity to import, a simplistic Keynesian view that the deficit should not be of great concern, given a lot of slack in the economy, was seen as increasingly problematic.
One lesson many on the left as well as the right drew from the retreat to austerity of the French Socialist (Parti Socialiste de France) government of François Mitterrand was that “Keynesianism in one country” was no longer possible. Economists had no clear answer as to how fiscal and monetary policy should address the stagflation of the 1970s, though most came to place the priority on low inflation. From a right-wing perspective, deficits and debt were bad, and many in the NDP cited Tommy Douglas to that effect, while forgetting that the ability of the federal government to finance deficits is much greater than that of the provinces. From a left perspective, high deficits were the result of high unemployment, and should be responded to not only through macroeconomic policies of stimulus, but also through more direct industrial and trade policy measures to boost private investment. That was the core message of Ed’s Hamilton speech on the deficit in 1982, drafted by Jim Laxer. This caused a storm of controversy, since it was wrongly seen by both the media and many NDP activists as a step to the right rather than an attempt to rethink how to obtain full employment in a changing economy.
I got to know some serious socialists in the NDP caucus, such as Steven Langdon from Windsor (assisted at the time by my friend and later CCPA executive director Bruce Campbell), the Reverend Dan Heap from Toronto, the fiery John Rodriguez from Sudbury, Bill Blaikie from Winnipeg, who embodied the social gospel tradition of the CCF, and Jim Fulton from Skeena, who was also a strong environmentalist. Famed for slapping a whole salmon on his desk in the House during question period, Jim went on to run the David Suzuki Foundation. Svend Robinson was a gadfly who was a voice of the extraparliamentary left, though some of his colleagues considered him to be a bit of a prima donna. Margaret Mitchell of Vancouver East was a strong voice in Parliament for feminist socialists.
I attended most caucus meetings, and was often struck by the high quality of debate. I recall Ed making the point quite strongly that the party should take positions on issues based on social democratic principles, rather than mindlessly oppose every government initiative or just seize on and chase the media issue of the day. Ed was feisty and combative in the House of Commons at a time when we got almost daily coverage in the national media. I recall staying up late (too late) with Ed for an emergency debate on foreign trawlers operating in Canadian waters, followed the next morning by headlines about “Gunboat Ed” who had called. for sending in the navy. His principal secretary, Bill Knight, was not amused.
Ed’s strategy was to win over progressive liberal voters by standing definitively to the left of the Liberal party. Ed’s cardinal rule was, and remains, to never be outflanked on the left, an unfortunate truth that was unfortunately never learned by Tom Mulcair, who, in my humble opinion, will be remembered as a Liberal interloper.Read more
We are fortunate to live in Canada. One of the things that makes this a great country is that change – even major change – is possible. Since the founding of Canada in 1867 Canadian citizens have fought for a better, more just society. The struggle of workers to unionize and of women for voting and other rights began before the formation of Canada but gained momentum after Confederation. Many other movements have also made progress through years of activism. Change was slow often taking decades. But over time substantial progress was made, often at great sacrifice and always accompanied by reaction. Occasionally opportunities arise to advance social and political change much more quickly. Now is one of those times.Read more
As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, the flaws in our healthcare system have become glaringly obvious. Each wave of the pandemic reignites concerns about the state of long-term care homes and renews existing calls to improve our healthcare system.Read more
People are struggling. As front-line workers in emergency rooms, isolation shelters and clinics, we see how the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated health and livelihoods. We’ve witnessed the toll that the last several months has taken on workers, families, and marginalized communities.Read more
On April 2nd, political economist and giant of the Canadian left, Mel Watkins, passed away.
Digital and social media technologies are transforming democratic society. But even as technologies changes how we do things, they reproduce old problems in new forms. Hacking, trolling, micro-targeting, and the monopolization of public and semi-public space by large firms present the same sorts of challenges that democratic societies have been dealing with for decades. The difference today is that digital versions of these practices of exclusion, exploitation, and manipulation are backed by greater speed, reach, volume, and force than before. The digital realm has also lowered both the difficulty and risk of influencing public discourse in dishonest and untransparent ways, whether it be through armies of fake accounts on social media or the capacity to infiltrate state and private servers and accounts to steal information.Read more
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is breaking new ground and hitting international air waves in her recent win of the democratic nomination over a 20 year sitting Congressman in New York's 14th Congressional District (Bronx and Queens), where a majority of residents are immigrants and working class people. At the age of 28, Ocasio-Cortez, is not only the youngest candidate for congress, she also comes from a working class background, and being the first Latina to represent her district is a victory in and of itself.Read more