Austerity in the Time of Abundance (Liberté)

Money, there is. But not for everyone.

By Julia Posca
Originally Published: Fall 2014
See the original French text here:

At a stone’s throw from the Colisée Pepsi, the former home of the Québec Nordiques, workers are busy on the worksite of the city’s new amphitheatre. The official opening of this four hundred million dollar project is scheduled for September 2015. As they await this exciting date, hockey fans in the capital region dream of attracting a new NHL team due to this arena that has been financed directly by municipal and provincial funds.

In mid-July, when journalists wandered around the new building in the neighbourhood of Limoilou to take in the progress of the construction, union members from the Laval CSSS were had their picket signs in the hopes of making themselves heard by the Minister of Health and of sensitizing public opinion to the consequences that the public will surely feel from the cuts of around twelve million dollars that had been announced by the Liberal government.  There are no cuts to the staffing framework currently planned, but we know already that night posts for auxiliary nurses will be cut and that the number of extra hours will be lowered.

Welcome to the reign of austerity in the era of massive wastefulness. All spending is allowed, so long as there is no question of making it seem to us, the little guys, that the purpose of government is to respond to the needs of their supposed constituents. Before treating me as a killjoy, know that my intention is not at all to take aim at our illustrious national sport. I will instead say this: the Neoliberal State is not a Lean State, that spends prudently like only a good father of a family could do. The Neoliberal State is rather one that gave, in 2011, to a company represented by a former political counsellor of the premier at the time, a two hundred forty million dollar contract to install forty thousand indispensable smart white boards in primary and secondary schools in the province. During this time in Montreal, students were chased out of their neighbourhood schools by dangerous mold that had made its home in the walls of their buildings. The situation has been going on for more than two years, but the Montreal School Commission, responsible for these infected buildings, also had to work towards budgetary equilibrium. In short, everything suggest that a solution is within arm’s reach in this case.

We could console ourselves by thinking that the corruption of the men and women hungry for power bears the most responsibility for these deplorable situations, and by concluding that this problem will soon by a thing of the past. Tony Tomassi, Gilles Vaillancourt, Michael Appelbaum, haven’t all of these “rotten apples” been replaced by a new breed of politicians who are perfectly transparent and immune to influence peddling? As proof of this, François Legault had no trouble admitting during the last provincial election campaign that he was sitting on almost ten million dollars’ worth of financial assets. What can one say in the face of such honesty?

It would also be tempting to comfort ourselves in thinking that at their core, these are exceptional measures justified by a context of prolonged economic crisis. The reduction of services for the population is necessary, because we must, as our banker Finance Minister says, “adjust to reality”; subventions for the private sector, tax relief, tax credits, even the dilapidation of public funds to finance projects for which we do not always grasp the pertinence, all of this is indispensable, because if not, how to stimulate growth? It is for this reason that in 2012, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had no choice other than to limit access to employment insurance, a program conceived to come to the aid of temporary workers and those involuntarily deprived of their salaries. This is also surely what obliged them to provide to the Canadian banking sector, according to a CCPA study done by David Macdonald (The Big Banks’ Big Secret, April 2012), punctual aid of at least one hundred fourteen billion dollars. If not, how could this country’s big banks have recorded profits in the order of twenty seven billion dollars between the fourth trimester of 2008 and the second trimester of 2011, while they were hit by the worst economic crisis since the 1930s?

* * *

Neither corruption nor exception, austerity has for more than twenty years been a doctrine that structures action for Québec and Canadian governments. That said, behind the issue of control of the debt there is something more than just the simple reduction of the State’s expenses. Austerity, like the Queen of England, “is just a symbol”. But let us not underestimate the importance of symbols. The information that they advance are never totally without sense. With regards to austerity, the message varies depending on the recipient. It consists firstly of a way to say to the ordinary citizen, better known these days under the name of “taxpayer”: “Deal with it yourself!” The days are over when rulers took the hands of your children to bring them to their neighbourhood school.  The days are over when the State would bring you a glass of warm milk to bed to appease your nasty cough. Over also is the era when the good government would offer a new hip to your mother in law to correct the advancement of her years and the arthritis in her weak leg. When times are tough, everyone is expected to do their part and each person must be responsible for their progeny, their throat, and the limbs of their elderly.

But “austerity” is also the code name that politicians who are responsible for sending the business community a clear message use: “here, let’s be clear, investors are welcome”, “here, we raise the fees for electricity for Mr and Mrs Everybody, because we cannot spend more than our means, but we sell it at a discount to Alcoa, because that is good for real business”, “here, don’t you worry, we will no longer waste our time with the young, the sick and the elderly.”

No offense to the adversaries of the “governmommy” – an unsanctioned expression that emerged straight out of the fertile mind of Joanne Marcotte, an activist from the Réseau Liberté-Québec -, the Québec model contrasts distinctly with their fantasy of a State stuffing its citizens with free services it has provided, moreover, by generously paid bureaucrats who are so protected that you need a reason to get rid of them (scandal!). To the contrary, the government is seeking to cut the cord between itself and its citizens. It would like to reduce as much as possible the contributions of taxpayers, a way of saying through accounting language that the social state should become a relic of the past. Ideally, it would content itself by being a service provider among others for a mass of consumers concerned about investing at times in their health, at times in the professional development. When austerity becomes the solution to the presumed bankruptcy that the province is keeping an eye out for, this “threat” that “enslaves our freedom”, according to the proportionate judgement of the good Dr. Couillard, the citizen consumer who is concerned with their money learns on their part to be moderate in their expectations of the State, and breathes a sigh of relief each time that Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s confirm Québec’s credit rating. The weight of the debt related to the GDP of Québec has nevertheless been declining for twenty years. According to the numbers colligated by economist Pierre Fortin, this ratio went from 60 to 50% between 1997 to 2008, before going up to 54% at the beginning of 2014 due to the 2008 financial crisis and its consequences on the global economy. One must believe that myths die hard.

Jean-François Lisée argues that in 1996, Lucien Bouchard judged that it was preferable to attain budgetary equilibrium before organizing a third referendum on the question of the province’s independence. Far from being a personal whim, this new profession of faith was instead in line with the Québec elite’s new conversion to the religion of the capital, completed successfully after the 1995 referendum defeat, as François L’Italien explained in the February 2014 issue of L’Action nationale. Since then, this elite, “does not wish so much […] to abolish [the institutions of Québec society] but rather to reorient them in service to their ends and their own interests”, which, to summarize, signifies making the State in service to the growth of private profits.

In this way, through their passion for asceticism, the Québec political class does a poor job of hiding the fact that they have turned towards a new guru, a nebulous one named “finance” that talks principally through the diffused voice of the markets and through the distinctive one of credit rating agencies. The devotion of the political class towards financial actors is such that if those who preach in favour of a zero deficit donned priests’ garb, we would believe they were fanatics; as they generally wear suits and ties, they have succeeded in convincing us that their attitude emerged out of a greater lucidity.

It is only at the cost of its sovereignty that a political community can satisfy these businesses that are formally specialized in financial evaluation but who are unofficially gifted in dictating to governments, that we still please ourselves by qualifying as “democratic”, orientations to give their political budgets. Our representatives have chosen their camp and repeat ad nauseum that they do not swear by anything but the control of public expenses. In doing this, we seem no longer to be stirred by the idea of a State that, otherwise, is always ready to untie the knots of funding when large corporations seeking a “favourable business environment” come knocking on its door – a euphemism concocted in the shadow of a business school to designate what we should maybe consider as having roots in the jurisdiction of complacency. Yet, as long as the silent majority will be terrorized by the question of the equilibrium between expenses and revenues, it will risk becoming less preoccupied with knowing why we spend and how we fill public coffers. At the moment, the location of power has shifted, and we are watching the sovereign from far off rather than taking the helms of the ship.

Julie Posca is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at UQAM and a research at the l’Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques (IRIS).


Translated from the original French by Language and Dissent, a collectively-run blog supporting the anti-austerity struggle in Quebec. These are amateur translations written by volunteers; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may have their flaws. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us via email (languageanddissent [at] gmail [dot] com). Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.

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