Around the world, rich countries are making plans for a post-pandemic future. Coined by Joe Biden, the phrase “build back better” has led many to believe that the era of neoliberalism and austerity is finally over. Things are, however, not as they seem.
In the United States, the Supreme Court has swept aside lackluster efforts to postpone a catastrophe of mass evictions. In the UK, the removal of measures of enhanced income support, implemented during the pandemic lockdowns, has food banks preparing for the “busiest and most difficult winter on record.” Acting in lockstep with its Group of Seven (G7) counterparts, Canada is gearing itself up for a return to business as usual.
Who Pays for the Crisis?
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has long been an expert at putting a progressive spin on a regressive agenda. He has turned these skills up to eleven over the course of the pandemic. Last autumn, his government used the opening of a new session of Parliament to deliver a throne speech that offered a stirring but decidedly vague post-pandemic vision of “a stronger and more resilient Canada.”
The Canadian media has lapped up these vague platitudes, treating this year’s federal budget as evidence of a decisive break with decades of austerity. This fanfare is unjustified. There is a marked difference between unavoidable stimulatory measures, taken in the face of a disastrous economic downturn, and a decisive break with neoliberal policy.
Admittedly, in January, Trudeau asked his finance minister to use “whatever fiscal firepower” is needed to stave off pandemic-related shutdowns. However, this fiscal largesse came with the proviso to “avoid creating new permanent spending.”
As the lockdowns took effect, the Liberal government did provide significant additional income support to people who had lost work or were otherwise dispossessed. However, these supports were necessary in order to prevent a social crisis and the drying up of consumer spending. Trudeau assured the Financial Times that the enhanced programs were “something that works right now.” However, he was perfectly candid about the fact that such support could not “automatically continue in a post-pandemic world.”
The Liberals are clearly charting a path back to austerity. They have already cut the Canada Recovery Benefit and are preparing to eliminate it. By presenting these policies as merely emergency measures, Trudeau’s party has laid the groundwork for their hasty removal.
Snipping Social Safety Nets
There is strong evidence that provincial governments across Canada are preparing to make working-class people shoulder the cost of the pandemic. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador established a Premier’s Economic Recovery Team (PERT), chaired by Moya Greene. Greene oversaw the privatization of the UK’s Royal Mail, where she served as chief executive from 2010 to 2018.
The “Big Reset” report that she and her accomplices put together calls for a 5 percent cut in the province’s budget combined with a 20 percent cut for many government agencies. It lays out plans for a drastic attack on public sector workers and an assault on the provincial public health care system.
Because of the unprecedented spending during the pandemic, an attack on social infrastructure is all but inevitable. A major assault on public health care is already underway in Alberta, sparking strong opposition to the [Alberta premier Jason] Kenney government. The right-wing government in Manitoba, meanwhile, has been unflagging in its commitment to austerity throughout the pandemic. Ontario’s Conservatives are already planning to impose ten years of austerity on the state’s seriously overstretched health care system.
One of the clearest indications of the course ahead has been the treatment of homeless people in Canadian cities. In Toronto, as the pandemic struck — and inadequate shelter provision failed to meet the needs of the situation — many encampments were set up by people trying to survive the crisis.
Some of these encampments were in public parks in the central area of the city. Toronto’s city hall is now moving to clear out these camps, unsympathetic to the fact that, for many, there are very few alternative places to stay. The city has dispatched police who have brutally cleared the homeless from public spaces in a number of high-profile incidents.
Evictions of this kind have taken place in other cities, including a particularly vicious operation in Halifax. This violent uprooting of encampments reveals the real costs of the Liberals’ attempt to return to “business as usual.” Trudeau’s government will not address homelessness, but it will drive the homeless away with batons.
A Just Recovery for Whom?
The idea of a “just recovery,” which has its origins in the trade union movement, is gaining popularity among Canada’s working class. In essence, it proposes ecologically sustainable production and a guarantee of living wages for all. The concept’s profile has risen considerably over the last two years, primarily because it charts a sane and equitable road map for life after the pandemic. It is an idea to aspire to, but it cannot be realized without overcoming obstacles.
A just society cannot be achieved with minor improvements. In Canada, the pandemic has cracked open fissures of social inequality and racial injustice. These social and economic rifts have determined who has paid with their lives, who has suffered hardship, and who faces a harsh and uncertain future.
The wealthiest in this country have profited obscenely during this period. To simply blunt the edge of these glaring inequalities would fall far short of anything that could be considered equitable. We must challenge capitalism itself if we want a just recovery.
We can’t underestimate the seriousness or complexity of the multifaceted crisis that confronts us. We have entered an era of pandemics and climate crisis. There is no set of tepid reforms that is adequate to these problems. The only way forward is to advance demands that are based on working-class needs.
If we are to make gains in the period ahead, we will need to confront those in power in order to ensure that they pay for this crisis. For this, we will need rejuvenated trade unions and strong social movements. A more just recovery, let alone a truly just society, is not going to come from on high in Canada or anywhere else. The post-pandemic situation will be dominated by the issue of who pays for the crisis, and it will be settled through social and political struggle.