II. The Ontario Election, Austerity and The Social Commons

In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke argued that land, when Common, was fallow and unproductive. Mixing one’s labour with the land, such as growing grain or picking an apple, however, privatized the land and allowed access to the fruits of the labour.[1] Eventually these private, “productive” lands were enclosed, most often by fences.

In Part I, I took up the issue of the use by political actors of euphemisms to avoid substantive discussions about cutting government services — and the debates around the same. This post is an attempt to be substantive about what exactly is being cut.

An austerity and privatization agenda is arguably an attack on the Commons in modern times. The Commons here are not land but a series of social programs and services that provide the foundation of the social welfare state: self-evidently programs that cannot be delivered by individuals and must be by collectivist entities. These are programs including social assistance, education, unemployment insurance and socialized medicine.

  • I propose that austerity is process of enclosing the modern, Social Commons. The reasoning for this appears to be for state actors to politically qualify productivity via privatization and this is accomplished through enclosure. To explore this, I will examine current discussions during the Ontario provincial election.

    RedSoxFan274/Wikimedia Commons

Locating Austerity in the Ontario Provincial Election

Overt discussions about austerity are easy to find in the provincial election. Some politicians vying for government in Ontario propose a wide-scale reduction of public sector employment, which would throw thousands out of work. The incumbent premier has said that Ontario spending increases must be capped at a low rate and that austerity must reign for years ─ even after the provincial budget is balanced.

Others propose to root out inefficiency via the creation of a government ministry. Ontario’s cherished health care system and its post-secondary education system would be among the targets.

This kinder, gentler approach is arguably a form of crypto-austerity; the use of austerity language but the ostensible intention of strengthening the welfare state through nebulous “efficiency.”

The Social Commons and Austerity 

So-called “waste”, of course, can’t be quantified in an objective way in any political context — including in Ontario. The very notion that there is waste to be found in the state apparatus is subjective and demands conversations about the role of the state itself. The theme that waste is to be found or guarded against has been adopted by the main contenders for control of the provincial legislature, however. So it is from this point we will proceed.

The social welfare programs provided for by the provincial state are Common Goods, are paid for by tax dollars and are designed to be used by all. Attacks on this Social Commons via threats to underfund, stop funding or guard against their growth starve the Commons of their resources. But, in a society used to these Common Goods, they are not luxury items but necessary social commodities, existing due to a contract between the people and the state as public and accessible to all — like the common land associated with an estate.

Austerity serves as an enclosure by forcing crises such as reductions in public employment and potential de-listings of services. These services either disappear creating poverty and a vicious cycle of dependency on a social welfare system that has been gutted, or they will go elsewhere if the state refuses to provide them. This “elsewhere” will be private service delivery: either (a) the few private sector companies capable of delivering such government services or (b) state-approved charities.

To the former, some large companies have proven capable of handling social service delivery, such as the design and implementation of  when those services are privatized. Lockheed Martin, better known as a military contractor, was “awarded millions to design and implement welfare to work and welfare reform projects in California, Florida and Maryland.”[2]

As for the latter, I point to a study of neoliberal policy in New Brunswick, which has revealed that while government cutbacks have often been sold under the cloak of efficiency, a larger yet more subtle change has allowed the state to disengage from responsibility for social services ─ and yet still control the agenda. After conducting interviews and research in Fredericton and St. John, New Brunswick, the authors, who include Karen Bridget Murray, now of York University, argue the reduction of the state’s role echoes historically punitive approaches to social problems that blamed poverty on individual character failings. Market forces also allow local community workers to become gatekeepers by deciding who gets help as well as when and what type of help they will receive. A reduced state involvement creates holes in policy due to a lack of enforced standardization, the authors argue. Opposition by street-level service providers to government policy is also shunted to the side because of cutbacks and an emphasis on competition for state dollars, which demands co-operation if an organization wishes to survive.

With this established, I offer two conclusions:

  1. The altering of the contract upon which the Social Commons rest can and must only be done by the people in order for the new contract in order for such action to enjoy legitimacy. This very notion encounters real issues when the next provincial governments will be formed, as all others have been: in a first-past-the-post system with a plurality of votes and no safeguards for the protection of minority rights — for example, the needs of social services — swept away by those pluralities.
  2. The altering of the social contract for austerity and efficiency (read: productivity) purposes, even with the consent of voters, is a fundamental breach of the contract by which the Social Commons stands. The Social Commons were never supposed to be at risk of being qualified by subjective standards of efficiency and productivity, which are in fact codes for reduction and/or elimination.The question of who gets left out social citizenship in Ontario when the Social Commons is enclosed by austerity must be taken up.

I put it to you that austerity in the social welfare realm, amid a culture of reducing corporate and personal income taxes which strengthens private actors at the expense of the Social Commons, lacks legitimacy.


[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (Indianpolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980, originally published 1690), 19.
[2]Richard Girard, The Weapons Manufacturer That Does it All: A Profile of Arms Giant Lockheed Martin, Polaris Institute, November 2005, http://www.polarisinstitute.org/files/Lockheed%20Martin.pdf, 10.
[3]Karen Bridget Murray, Jacqueline Low and Angela Waite, “The Voluntary Sector and the Realignment of Government: A Street-Level Study.” Canadian Public Administration 49, no. 3 (2006): 375-392.

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