Progressive Austerity, Canadian Nationalism & the B.C. NDP’s 2018 Housing Plan

The following article is based on a talk given by Alliance Against Displacement member Isabel Krupp at “All Investment is Global: A public panel on the foreign investment myth” held at Burnaby Neighbourhood House on March 7, 2018.

The NDP is associated with the era of social democracy, and the party banks on this association. This is what the NDP relies on to distinguish itself from the B.C. Liberals. But the NDP’s first budget after being shut out of office for 16 years is not social democratic; it neither redistributes wealth downwards from the wealthy to the working class, nor intervenes against capitalist markets. This contradiction begs two questions: Is social democracy even possible anymore given our contemporary economic, political, and social landscape? And, if it is still possible, is social democracy worth fighting for?

To answer these questions, we must first understand that the rise of social democracy in Canada occured at a very specific historical moment: a moment of post-war prosperity, which was a consequence of the imperialist domination by the U.S. and Canada over colonized, semi-colonized, and formerly colonized territories around the world. This prosperity contributed to the relative power of the Canadian working class, who organized, unionized, and engaged in class struggle. In this context, we can understand the post-war welfare state as a strategic bargain between organized labour, the colonial state, and the capitalist class. Moreover, we can understand this move as an effort to weaken the appeal of socialism and ultimately salvage and bolster capitalism.

One example of this politics is Byron “Boss” Johnson, who was the Conservative premier of B.C. from 1947-1952. When he was in power, he drew the Province into a public housing program that would eventually give rise to the development of Little Mountain, the first public housing project in B.C. and among the oldest in Canada. Premier Johnson established himself as a social reformer while also mobilizing the “red scare” rhetoric of the time, making statements like, “What is wanted in this province is free enterprise with a high degree of social security rather than an experiment in socialism.”

Social democratic policies were embraced by the Canadian government across the political spectrum in the 1940s and 1950s, in part to appease the then-powerful working class and undermine communism at home and abroad – and these policies were only possible because of the wealth accumulated through the imperialist domination over the Global South and the massive economic growth that the U.S. (and by proxy, Canada) experienced as the dominant industrial producer and global power after World War II. A symbol of both the rise of social democracy and its fall, the social housing project at Little Mountain was demolished in 2007 after the Province sold the land, in line with its broader austerity agenda.

“Towards the Dawn,” circa 1930s

J.S. Woodsworth and Assimilationist Multiculturalism

This understanding of social democracy in Canada as dependent upon imperial power and instrumental to anti-communism lays bare its nationalist foundations. Like the “free market” version, social democratic Canadian nationalism has always been a celebration of settler colonialism as well as white supremacy. For an example of this, we can look to J.S. Woodsworth, a “pioneer” of the Canadian social democratic movement. In 1932, Woodsworth founded the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which would later become the NDP. Woodsworth was a champion of assimilation. In his 1909 book, Strangers Within Our Gates, he offered a eugenic interpretation of human abilities and worth based on racial categories – specifically, based on the relative ability of different “races” to assimilate into Canadian society, defined explicitly in terms of Anglo-Saxon whiteness. The introduction to the book states, “Either we must educate and elevate the incoming multitudes or they will drag us and our children down to a lower level. We must see to it that the civilization and ideals of Southeastern Europe are not transplanted to and perpetuated on our virgin soil.” In 1932, with the founding of the CCF, Woodsworth’s assimilation model became unspoken labour party policy; with the rise of Canadian multiculturalism in the 1970s, this policy was expanded to include Asian, Black, and Indigenous people, who Woodsworth had called “unassimilable.”

While the language that the NDP and other social democrats employ today might be more sophisticated, slippery, and nominally post-racial, the underlying ideologies remain very much the same in the form of the assimilationist multiculturalism and settler nativism that are dominant across Canada. Rather than Woodsworth’s eugenicist fiction of biological “race” as the determinant, today’s B.C. NDP uses the legal fiction of the border to distinguish desirable from undesirable investor-citizens.

Photo credit: The Mainlander

B.C. NDP’s 2018 Housing Plan: Consolidating B.C. Liberal Austerity Policies

The B.C. Liberals were able to introduce sweeping attacks on union power and gut social programs during their 16 years in power, but they were not able to fully normalize these policies. Because of this failure, the B.C. NDP managed to win power in 2017 through a campaign of mild social democratic reforms. However, they have been unable to implement these reforms and, in fact, their first budget suggests that their real work will be to normalize neoliberalism, rather than resurrect social democracy.

The B.C. NDP presents their 2018 Housing Plan as a dramatic reversal of the neoliberal policies of the B.C. Liberals. The expansion of the previous government’s foreign buyers tax masquerades as a turn away from neoliberalism; as a protectionist measure, it appears to counter free trade and give advantage to local working people. But in reality, the foreign buyers tax does nothing to undo the harms of neoliberalism; it leaves transnational property developers fundamentally untouched, while serving to distract from the austerity measures being implemented under the B.C. NDP.

Neoliberalism is a complex constellation of practices, policies, and ideologies – fiscal austerity, privatization, deregulation, free trade, government stabilization – all of which is understood as part of a totality called “neoliberalism.” However, recent experiences with the B.C. NDP show that, rather than a totality, we need to understand neoliberalism as a tactic for Western imperialist domination and, here in Canada, the domination of the colonial state and capitalist class over Indigenous, non-citizen, and working class people. Neoliberalism has only ever worked for the benefit of Western imperialist nations – financializing their economies and locating production in the Global South. Now that these imperialist powers are facing some degree of competition – from China, for example – they are backtracking and introducing one-way tariffs like the foreign buyers tax. In this context, we can see that neoliberalism is not a totality; rather, it is a set of tactics that can be wielded by political parties of all ideological stripes, and adjusted to maintain power.

Understood in this context, the NDP’s 2018 Housing Plan is revealed as part of a broader neoliberal agenda. The plan is full of ambiguities, but broadly seeks to “stabilize demand” through market reforms that offset all blame for the housing crisis onto individual “foreigners,” rather than the corporations and governments that drive gentrification and displacement. Corporate tax disappears from discussion altogether, and we are left with only consumer taxes that do nothing to impact production.

A central goal of the housing plan is to distract from the fact that the NDP’s pledge to build 114,000 new housing units was nothing more than an electoral ploy designed to manipulate voters based on their longing for the lost era of social democracy. When confronted about the NDP’s retreat on housing, Premier John Horgan blamed voters for “misunderstanding” his party’s policies. He told the CBC, “The plan certainly is to continue on with the goal over 10 years to get to 114,000 units. That’s […] not just social housing. […] It’s the continuum of housing. What you would find in a community.” Here, in Horgan’s comments, we see the cynical mobilization of the concept of “community” to refer to neighbourhoods already ravaged by gentrification. In the past, Horgan has said, “Governments don’t build houses; the development community builds houses.” Now that the development industry has become a community, the word has lost its meaning and has become a weapon to be deployed in the interests of the colonial state and capitalist class.

Alongside this retreat on social housing, we have seen similar moves with regard to the NDP’s commitment to a $15-an-hour minimum wage (which they delayed to appease business owners), $10-a-day childcare (which they shrugged off to a 10 year vision), and protections for renters against renovictions (which they seem to have dropped altogether). It is becoming more and more clear that the role of the NDP is not to challenge the austerity regime established by the B.C. Liberals, but to normalize and secure it – to enshrine the years of cuts to housing, healthcare, education, social assistance.

The same is true of Trudeau after Harper and, arguably, Obama after Bush – as well as earlier generations, like the B.C. NDP “Third Way” government after the Social Credit restraint program and, in the U.S., Clinton after Reagan and Bush Senior. In all of this, the role of so-called “progressive” governments is not to save social democracy. The welfare state is not being revived – it’s being destroyed beyond repair.

Canadian Nationalist Populism and Regimes of Citizenship

To cover up their consolidation of neoliberal reforms, the NDP appeals to Canadian nationalist entitlement with a right-populist gesture that directs resentment for the housing crisis against foreign buyers. In their housing plan, “foreignness” is determined not through recourse to scientific racism, as was the case with J.S. Woodsworth, but rather through a regime of citizenship based on both the legal fiction of the border, as well as the “contribution” of individuals to the provincial economy. The plan states, “Foreign buyers should contribute to our society in return for the high quality of life they enjoy when they move to B.C.” Of course, this supposedly “colour-blind” citizenship regime is deeply racialized. If this is not clear within official NDP rhetoric and policy itself, it is very much evident in all of the conversation surrounding the foreign buyers tax.

This citizenship regime is also classed

This citizenship regime is also classed; it not only casts “foreigners” as “non-contributing” and disciplines them on this basis, but also has implications for homeless, poor, unemployed, and Indigenous residents of B.C. This matrix of race, class, and citizenship has particularly dangerous implications for those living at its intersections – for example, urban Indigenous communities, or those who are both undocumented and unemployed.

This is not the first time an NDP government has defined people’s worth on the basis of economic contribution. In the 1990s, Premier Harcourt promised to crack down on “welfare cheats, deadbeats and varmints” and did so through a host of anti-poor legislation. The B.C. NDP today takes a different tack, but one that is equally dehumanizing and dangerous. If today’s NDP sees homeless people as “varmints,” its response is not to exterminate them outright, but to “tame” and cage them, so that they no longer pose a political threat.

We can look to the 2018 Housing Plan for evidence of this approach. Within the plan, homelessness is treated as separate from the crisis of affordability and is, instead, framed as the result of mental health and addiction. The NDP individualizes the crisis of homelessness as though it is an issue facing the “hard to house” individual rather than a threat haunting the whole of the working class – and posing an especially real threat for its most oppressed members. The NDP depoliticizes homelessness in order to reconstruct it as a problem of individuals in need of care, to contain homeless people as patients in so-called “supportive” housing rather than as tenants in social housing. There is much to be said about “supportive” housing but, in summary, it is the legal redefinition of housing that strips residents of their rights and introduces surveillance into the homes of the poor, wrapping them in 24 hour staffing outside of any legal framework of accountability or rights. It is a site of social control, and another side of the B.C. NDP’s use of the border to exclude or contain social groups that threaten the settler-capitalist norms of Canadian nationalist domestic power.

The B.C. NDP’s 2018 Housing Plan does address housing affordability, but only insofar as it promotes economic growth, which is to say, capital accumulation for the colonial state and capitalist class. This explains its focus on the so-called “missing middle” – for example, when the plan states, “Skilled workers […] are finding it difficult to find and afford quality housing. This hurts people, it hurts businesses, and it hurts our economy.”

Citizenship regimes defined by “contribution” to the capitalist and colonial economy are not progressive. These policies and ideologies will do nothing for those who experience the housing crisis at its highest and most violent level – which is to say, poor, homeless, undocumented, and Indigenous communities. Rather, the B.C. NDP’s housing plan and other frameworks that perpetuate the foreign investment myth only serve to mobilize white supremacist, xenophobic, and settler nativist discourse in order to cover up and consolidate austerity and reestablish differential regimes of citizenship based on the ability and willingness to contribute to the very economy that we should all be working together to destroy. The NDP sings us the siren song of social democracy and we are enchanted at great cost to ourselves and our movements, which need now more than ever to be doing the work of imagining and building radically different – and better – political formations.

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