The Shock Doctrine, Toronto Style

I doubt Rob Ford reads Naomi Klein. Between studying committee reports and football playbooks, the new Mayor likely doesn’t have the time or the inclination to keep up with Canada’s most prolific left-wing journalist.

Nevertheless, Ford’s approach to urban governance cannily resembles the political strategies of right-wing politicians laid bare in Klein’s international bestseller The Shock Doctrine.

The book traces how, beginning in the 1970s, neo-liberals and neo-conservatives have exploited crises (economic and otherwise) to advance an agenda of deep cuts to social spending, government deregulation and privatization. Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman calls the shock doctrine an “agenda that has nothing to do with resolving crises, and everything to do with imposing their (the right’s) vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society.”

Take the case of post-Katrina New Orleans. In the wake of the disaster, think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (Canada’s equivalent to the Fraser Institute) and Republican politicians descended on the city, pushing the privatization of public housing and public education, dismantling what little of a welfare state New Orleans had. This served the ‘free market’ ideology, most clearly articulated by American conservative Grover Norquist, who once said “I don¹t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” But privatization also served the corporate interests close to the Bush administration who cashed in on the fire sale of public assets. New Orleanians, displaced and distraught, had little say in the matter.

Canadian neoconservatives have long casted an envious eye at their American cousins, and Toronto’s new Mayor has surrounded himself with strategists and backroom players whose membership in the Conservative Party, the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, and think tanks like the Fraser Institute neatly overlap. The Common Sense revolutionaries, many of whom cut their political teeth in the downloading and amalgamation years of the Mike Harris Tories (from which the city has yet to financially recover), have reappeared in urban guise, finally having won control over a much sought after prize: the left-leaning City of Toronto, with its myriad social programs and ‘big government’.

Yet according to the logic of the shock doctrine, Ford’s team needs a crisis to push through its agenda. Since only 25% of eligible Torontonians voted for Ford, a full-scale assault on the City’s social services would not be popular. Fortunately for Ford, he rose to office during a world economic crisis that left many Torontonians more economically insecure, wary of tax increases and ‘misspent’ tax dollars. From Europe to North America, governments are calling for austerity in the name of debt reduction and fiscal balance. Ford won the election by articulating a simple narrative of what was wrong with the city: too much wasteful spending; City Hall’s so-called gravy train. Ford named lavish retirement parties and councillors’ penchants for taking taxis, cleverly avoiding labeling the City’s social services ‘gravy’.

Most Torontonians do not regard nutritional programs for low-income children or green energy initiatives as wasteful spending. Many agree that such programs are the markers of a world-class city. While people are rightly concerned when councillors casually spend tax-payer dollars on superfluous expenses or when a public agency is careless with its budget, actual instances of this are few and far between. Ford’s strategy has hinged on reframing most, if not all, government spending as inherently wasteful. To his chagrin, potential allies on Council, like Mary-Margaret McMahon, have discovered that “the gravy’s not flowing through city hall like originally expected.”

The second crisis that has opened the door for Ford’s agenda is the crisis of confidence in public institutions. The outdoor workers’ strike, the media hammering of errant TTC employees and the events at Toronto Community Housing have all played nicely into the Mayor’s hands. Union-busting is at the centre of the shock doctrine, as public-sector unions are the first line of defence against cuts, deregulation and privatization.

As Klein notes, in post-Katrina New Orleans, the introduction of charter schools (effectively privatizing public education) broke the back of the teachers¹ union. More recently, the Republican governor facing a fiscal crisis in Wisconsin has wiped out the collective bargaining rights of almost all public sector employees.

With a complicit provincial government, Ford has succeeded in designating the TTC an essential service and plans to privatize garbage collection, effectively firing the city’s unionized employees. The Toronto Community Housing ‘scandal’ has provided the Mayor with the necessary excuse to review the city’s role in public housing, again with an eye to privatization. We can expect Ford to shed the city’s unionized public child care centres in the next round of budget cuts, contracting care to non-union, for-profit providers. Freezing property taxes and eliminating the vehicle registration tax ensure the need for increased user fees and higher TTC fares; creeping, less obvious, forms of privatization.

The Ford agenda has very little to do with resolving a crisis, real or perceived, and everything to do with remaking Toronto in a right-wing image: a leaner, meaner city, where the market is free and the public sector and its unions disciplined.

  • Simon Black is a researcher at the City Institute at York University

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