Liberalism in all forms, including left-liberalism, seems exhausted. It ceded to neoliberalism long ago: inequality, free market worship, anti-government, etc.
What else explains the right's ability keep trotting out empty ideas and phrases -- and win elections! Wednesday's Ontario PC leadership debate was remarkable for the lack of anything fresh or even … cogitative.
You had candidates who believed the clichés -- Ford and Tanya Granic Allen. And those who -- I'd bet my house -- don't: Elliott and Mulroney. But they all know the only way to win their party is by channelling Mike Harris via Trump, then run on those bromides and probably succeed, since polls say anyone can beat Kathleen Wynne. Argggh.
Who killed liberalism? The Clintons, Blair, Martin and Chrétien, above all Obama. They talked liberalism and delivered neoliberalism. Raise hopes, then dash them. Then, when your term's over, having not done all the things you promised, take the money, run, and sunbathe on David Geffen's yacht in Tahiti.
Kathleen Wynne fits awkwardly. She sounded sincere. She said she'd be the social justice premier. She's different, I'd say, in one, commendable sense. She came through well on many fronts: pensions, tuition, minimum wage, equal pay, pharmacare.
She blew it severely on just one: she sold Hydro (Hydro One actually, but everyone says Hydro). She stumbled blatantly only there. Yet it leaves a bitter taste people seem unable to shake. How does this compute?
On a cold night in Montreal recently (bear with me) I shared an Uber back from dinner with a millennial I know. He had an account. I don't. I have a generational reluctance because Uber undermines hard-won union rights. But I can recognize a great technology. (They come in minutes, no money changes hands.) I mentioned my qualms about Uber to the millennial. "That's why I think it should be nationalized," he said. "Along with Airbnb, Spotify and Netflix."
His is a generation so disillusioned with the garbage rhetoric of politicians left and right that they talk freely about socialism. (You must go that far back to escape the stains of liberalism -- as Sanders and Corbyn have.)
They know they'll never live at the level of their parents. Their dream isn't homeowning. At most, they hope to rent reasonably. They don't expect to ever have much private property so they don't fetishize it. They're open to public ownership. Neoliberalism failed them. And they distrust Wynne too. Why? She sold Hydro.
The sell-off of public goods is the quintessence of neoliberalism. Where did the computer and internet come from? Mostly from U.S. military research, funded by taxes. All key elements of the iPhone, Mariana Mazzucato has shown, came from that research. So why not nationalize payoffs like Uber, instead of exploiting those whose taxes made it all possible? Nationalizing Uber isn't theft, it's rectifying theft. It's taking back for the people, what came from them.
Hydro stands in the same relation. Water is the soul of all life. (Hydro means water.) It's our bloodstream. It's a social necessity. Ontario Hydro was a public undertaking funded by the public that returned benefits to all. You can't sell it, you can only swipe it and hand it over, as Wynne did.
The buyers won't do anything to improve it; they'll just squeeze it to extract profits. Classical economists of the 1700s and 1800s would've called them rentseekers -- the ugliest players in capitalism. Worse, she did this in the name of acquiring money for another public good: transit. It's robbing Peter to pay Paul. It's a scam.
(There was one stunning moment in that PC leadership debate. Host Althia Raj asked if anyone would renationalize Hydro, followed by TV's rarest event: prolonged silence. No candidate had the guts to say either yes or no.)
I think people sense a deep betrayal of principle in Wynne's Hydro sell-off. Something's very wrong and if Wynne was capable of it then she's not to be trusted either, no matter what else seems to prove her worth. She belongs to them, not us. To me the great mystery of this fascinating political season in Ontario is the loathing of Wynne. This is my attempt to understand it.
I think it's a harsh judgment on her, too harsh. But we live in an age of hideous betrayals and emotions far beneath the rational level are churning.
This column was first published in the Toronto Star.
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