The emergence of the neoliberal containment state in Canada


by Aiyanas Ormond

Reproduced with permission from author and The Mainlander: Vancouver’s Place for Progressive Politics

AUTHOR’S NOTE | This article emerges from 5 years of working as a community organizer for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). Thank you to the VANDU Board for allowing me to lean on their community organizing work and to collaborate in developing an analysis of the ‘mass incarceration agenda.’ And thank you to all the VANDU members who shared their experiences, challenged my ignorance and encouraged me to contribute this analysis to the struggle against the drug war and the war on the poor.


The last decade in Canada has seen the strengthening of the instruments of repression of the Canadian State such that we can now begin to describe and analyze the neoliberal containment state as a specific set of policies and institutions. These policies and institutions are aimed at containing the growing social ‘disorder’ and emerging resistance that have resulted from 30 years of the neoliberal economic order.

Far from being a sinister machination of the “Harper agenda,” the neoliberal containment state enjoys a consensus across the ruling class and between electoral parties. No mainstream political party is putting forward a coherent alternative vision for managing monopoly capitalism. The appeals to a softer gentler capitalism coming from the labour bureaucracy and the ‘left’ wing of the NDP have no coherent economic program attached to them. The reality is that the strengthening of the police/incarceration containment state is intimately tied to the social consensus of the bourgeoisie about how to manage capitalism and accumulation in this historical period. The neoliberal containment state is a necessary corollary of the other components of the neoliberal project in Canada:

  1. Trade liberalization beginning with the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA.
  2. Privatization of former state enterprises and public services.
  3. De-funding of redistributive social programs under the cover of austerity and debt reduction.
  4. Weakening and dismantling of regulatory frameworks including environmental and labour regulations.
  5. Diminishing the use function of social programs for working class communities and increasing their control function.

It is important to understand the institutions and instruments of this containment state, their connections to the economics of neoliberalism, and their functionality for the Canadian colonial capitalist project as we build movements of struggle, resistance and revolution.

Components of the neoliberal containment state

Legislating criminals

While people often view the components of the neoliberal containment state as purely a product of the Harper government, several important elements were already in place before the conservatives came to power. These include anti-gang legislation and anti-terrorism legislation which interact with and give ideological cover to the broader sweeping criminalization of poor people, drug users, Indigenous people, immigrants and refugees that has emerged in the legislation’s wake.

Under anti-gang legislation, concerns about ‘gang violence’ – stripped of any structural analysis of gangs, where they come from and why people join them – have become a justification for more cops on the streets. In particular urban working class communities of colour and Indigenous communities are targeted by increasingly militarized and violent gang units which exacerbate horizontal violence and effectively criminalize whole communities. As a component of the drug war, these police strategies are much more likely to target and arrest poor low level sellers and users (the low lying fruit) than the big time dealers. Poor people are singled out within what is essentially a criminalized capitalist enterprise with multiple layers of security protecting the upper managers from law enforcement.

Police use gang labeling in much the same way that the imperialist countries use terrorist labeling – to take violence out of its historical and political context and define large groups of people as simply ‘bad guys,’ justifying any level of repression against them.

The terrorism legislation, especially the list of ‘Listed Terrorist Entities’ which includes numerous movements of national liberation and resistance to neo-colonial oppression, has in practice been used as a means to sow fear within immigrant communities, to divide them from their liberation struggles, and to target institutions of Indigenous resistance. The first direct application of the terrorist legislation was against such an institution, the West Coast Warriors Society, in 2006. Since 2001, labeling of Indigenous resistance as an ‘internal terror threat’ has emerged as a normal feature of settler-colonial societies from Canada to New Zealand, Australia and Israel.

We can view these antecedents – anti-gang legislation and anti-terrorist legislation – as the thin edge of the wedge in the initial development of the neoliberal containment state. Main legislative components of the neoliberal containment state have, however, come under the Harper majority government since 2011. They include key pieces of legislation like the so-called ‘Truth in Sentencing Act ,’ the ‘Omnibus Crime Bill ’ – which includes the dismantling of the Youth Criminal Justice Act leading to harsher sentences for young offenders – and intensified criminalization of immigrants and refugees, including arbitrary and indefinite detention (incarceration) of im/migrants.

The Canadian State has steadily increased the number of people cycling through the criminal justice system, experiencing regular punitive interactions with the police or other disciplinary arms of the State, and facing actual incarceration. This has taken place through a combination of criminalizing economic survival strategies, increasing prison time with mandatory minimum sentences, eliminating ‘double time served’ practices (where sentences are reduced by double the amount of time spent in a remand facility awaiting trial), making pardons and parole more difficult, and closing off legal avenues to status and citizenship for immigrants and refugees.


Mandatory minimums are a major new component in the war on drugs, serving as a mechanism for the criminalization and incarceration of poor people, particularly poor Indigenous people and Black people, in Canada. These provisions impose a minimum sentence for a range of offenses which are mostly linked to the production and distribution of currently illegal drugs. The legislation strips the judge of the ability to exercise discretion, including in cases where it is very clear that jail time will have no rehabilitative benefit and likely no social benefit.

While the rhetoric of mandatory minimums and the ‘tough on crime’ agenda is that these laws target ‘violent offenders’ and people involved in criminal gangs, the reality on the ground is that low level drug sellers – often addicted to the drugs that they are selling and frequently paid in drugs – are the ones who catch the vast majority of charges. Poor and overpoliced neighbourhoods in Canada’s major cities supply most of the ‘candidates’ for incarceration. In a recent case in B.C., where the judge refused to give the one year mandatory minimum, the ‘drug dealer’ is a poor man who is selling to support his own addiction. The mandatory minimum applies because of his previous ‘criminal history’ which includes a previous drug charge.

The legislative component of this containment state has both an ideological function and a control function. Ideologically, the legislation and ‘tough on crime’ discourse exploits and directs the economic insecurity of the middle class and more established working-class:

  1. Directing the anxiety (and hostility) of the increasingly economically insecure middle class towards ‘downstream’ threats: the ‘disorderly’ poor and unemployed; ‘criminals’; ‘Indians’ and ‘terrorists.’
  2. Exploiting intraclass divisions between the securely employed working-class and the unemployed working-class; and between working-class people with citizenship and working class people who are temporary foreign workers or migrant workers without status.

The control function also plays on different levels associated with maximizing the rate of exploitation and containing potentially unruly or rebellious populations:

  1. Physical control and intimidation of the systematically excluded portions of the working-class – workers with addiction; serious physical and mental illness, the elderly, single mothers caring for children and other caregivers with dependents. Physical containment and intimidation supports the slashing of spending on programs that support this group.
  2. Intimidation of new immigrants, temporary foreign workers and workers without status as a means to maximize the rate of exploitation by the Canadian capitalists who employ them.
  3. Identification and containment of Indigenous assertion of territorial and self-determination rights.

Strengthening the institutions of repression: Police

Despite the fact that the crime rate (including violent crime) has been falling since 1991, the aggregate expenditure on Canadian police continues to rise, reaching $13.5 billion in 2012. In 2012 there was a slight dip in the number of actual cops on the job (slightly less than 70,000), but this is only because new ‘authorized’ (funded) police positions have not yet been filled. Meanwhile, the trend of increasing numbers of private security guards also continued, with over 140,000 licensed security guards in Canada.

There are also about 7,000 uniformed Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers across the country of which more than 3,000 are armed with semi-automatic 9mm Beretta pistols. While most of the CBSA officers are deployed at borders, ports, and airports, a small proportion of these are engaged in internal policing and removal of immigrants, refugees and migrants. They constitute an important added layer of the containment state and of surveillance, harassment and violence in the lives of immigrant, migrant and refugee communities.

The main role of police in the neoliberal containment state is functional, as the enforcers of the criminalizing legislation. However, police also constitute a semi-autonomous interest group advocating ‘tough on crime’ policies to justify increasing budgets and perpetuating the cycle of criminalization through aggressive over-policing of poor neighbourhoods and communities, a practice that has been characterized as ‘mining for crime.’

In 2013, Vancouver Police Department Chief Jim Chu earned $314,000, enough to put him squarely in the 1% along with other top police and RCMP managers. Even the rank and file cops, however, make as much as high level managers in capitalist firms – 650 VPD members make more than $100,000 and 3,000 Toronto cops are in this range. They are very highly paid for a job that is neither particularly dangerous (not in the top ten most dangerous occupations in Canada) nor requiring any particularly specialized skills. Moreover while police do not directly exploit workers, they enjoy a high degree of autonomy, prestige, and exercise a huge amount of ‘delegated’ class power as part of their job. So the material interest and class position of cops tie them profoundly to the ruling order.

Associations of chiefs of police as well as various police associations act as lobby groups for ‘tough on crime’ policies, despite their demonstrable ineffectiveness, exploiting the profoundly ahistorical and ideological construction of police as neutral and disinterested ‘protectors of public safety.’

Strengthening of the institutions of repression: Mass incarceration

Canada is currently undergoing what the National Post described in 2011 as “ the largest expansion in prison building since the 1930s .” Some of this expansion is happening in the federal system (about 2,000 spots under construction at the time), but the vast majority of the spots (about 9,000 – some of which have now come online) are in the provincial system. Mostly these are remand spots. Remand is prison for people awaiting trial who have not yet been convicted of the crime for which they are charged. The new Edmonton Remand Centre (pictured below) is an example of this type of facility. It is a 16 hectare maximum security facility built at a cost of $580 million and built to house 1,952 prisoners, with room to expand by almost 1,000.


B.C. is also expanding remand space. The province is spending about $500 million to build new prisons in the Lower Mainland and the interior of the province. The recently completed 216-cell remand centre in Surrey makes the Surrey Pretrial Centre the largest jail in the province . In the interior a new 378 cell remand centre is being built on land owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band. In addition to considerably increasing the overall capacity to lock people up in the province, especially individuals who have yet to go to trial, these new prisons are almost entirely privatized. The staff and administration of the prison are public employees, but every other aspect of the facility is privatized: a contract to build-design and operate the facility (in the case of the Surrey facility this was awarded to Brookfield International, one of the largest and most profitable real-estate management companies in the world); health services; food services; and laundry. So while the profiteering is not as crass as it is in the corporate prisons in the U.S, there is nonetheless considerable profit taking in the neoliberal containment state.

Remand is where poor people being cycled and recycled through the criminal justice system do the vast majority of their time. This includes months awaiting trial, often without having committed any violent crime. Remand facilities are built as short term holding facilities even though they are now where the majority of prison time in Canada is served. They are maximum security, with one or more people locked in a tiny cell for 23 out of every 24 hours. They have no access to educational or self improvement programs, and no pretence at rehabilitation (after all the people in these facilities have not yet been found guilty of a crime).  On any given day about 60% of incarcerated people in Canada are in remand.

Conditions in remand are so punitive that some people charged with minor crimes will plead guilty just to speed up the judicial process and get out of remand and into a less punitive prison environment (like a low or medium security facility) or on to some kind of parole. But the conditions of parole are often unreasonable, frequently resulting in rearrest and contributing to the massive numbers of people incarcerated for administration of justice type charges.  For highly criminalized populations, the accumulation of convictions makes individuals increasingly vulnerable to re-incarceration. Administration of justice charges (failure to appear in court, breach of a court order, breach of a condition of parole) now constitute the most common charge in Canadian criminal courts (21% of all cases) and 42% of all charges in B.C .

In a 2011 Op Ed for the Toronto Star , Conservative Senator Hugh Segal notes that “less than 10 per cent of Canadians live beneath the poverty line but almost 100 per cent of our prison inmates come from that 10 per cent.” Segal cites the work by Star journalists Sandra Contenta and Jim Rankin whose analysis of a ‘one day snapshot’ of who is in Toronto jails showed that the vast majority of prisoners were drawn from a few very poor neighbourhoods. This is a process – referred to above as ‘mining for crime’ – driven by heavy police presence, stop and search practices, and the policing of so-called street disorder.  In these neighbourhoods the police criminalize almost everyone creating conditions for easy and frequent arrests – especially for warrants for failure to appear, for breaches, for minor drug offences and street disorder charges like panhandling, vending and public drunkenness.

The population of Canada’s prisons says much more about the racist and colonial nature of the Canadian society than the ‘crimes’ of the incarcerated. Indigenous people make up about 4% of the population of Canada but are more than 23% of people incarcerated in the federal system. In the Prairie provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) Indigenous people are about 50% of the incarcerated population in the federal system, and an even higher proportion in the provincial system. The mass incarceration of Indigenous women is even more disproportionate, with Indigenous women making up about 4% of all women but 41% of all incarcerated women.

Along with Black people who make up about 2.5% of the Canadian population but over 9% of the prison population, Indigenous people account for much of the 75% increase in ‘visible minorities’ in Canadian prisons in the last decade. Each of these statistics demonstrate the continuing significance of systemic racism and colonialism in shaping the criminal justice system, and this is without including the nearly 10,000 migrants jailed in Canada in 2013 for a total of 183,928 days or 504 years.

Restructuring of social programs to maximize the control function

Under the historic welfare state, government social programs – unemployment insurance, welfare, public education, public healthcare, public transit – were developed to transfer a small portion of the socially generated surplus back to the working class. These programs served both a use function (for the working class communities that rely on them economic stability and survival) and a control function (for the ruling class who uses them to cover up the underlying system of exploitation and to tie people ideologically and materially to the current order). As part of the basic economics of neoliberalism these programs have been gutted through a mixture of privatization, contracting out, and shifting the burden of payment onto those who rely on the program (through user fees), thus undermining their redistributive function. These changes erode or eliminate the use value of social programs for working class people.

Under the neoliberal containment state, the role and purpose of social programs is further transformed. More specifically, new structures and processes are introduced exclusively to increase the control function of social programs, which become increasingly intertwined with institutions of repression.

Transit in Vancouver is a good example. In the first decade of the 21st century the regional transit authority rapidly increased fares, decreasing the redistributive function of the public service for transit dependent working class people (who are disproportionately women and people of colour). At the same time Translink created a new police service , armed with semi automatic pistols on the buses and skytrain. The role of this police force is to ticket, publicly humiliate, and in some cases violently arrest those unable to pay the fare. Translink is also paying $171 million to install fare gates in the metro stations to capture (by their own figures) about  $6 million per year in unpaid fares.

Another example is welfare in B.C. The welfare rates have not risen substantially in 30 years, and are now so low that the Dieticians of Canada published a report showing that a person cannot eat properly on the current BC welfare rates, even if they were to spend their entirely monthly disposable income on food. Meanwhile the control function of welfare, mainly aimed at forcing people into any kind of exploitative low-wage work available, has increased with wait times to get on welfare, regular demands for proof of job searches, and mandatory participation in ineffective job search programs. Most relevant to emergence of the neoliberal containment state, however, is the increased securitization of interactions with welfare and the increasing direct involvement of police.

Under the new set up all requests and inquiries be made over the phone through a centralized call centre and the only face to face interaction in the remaining welfare offices is with clerical staff who accept and give out forms but don’t have any actual decision making power. These offices are routinely staffed by private security guards and all interactions take place through security glass. People on welfare no longer have an assigned social worker with whom they can develop an ongoing relationship.  In interactions over the phone, ‘tone of voice’ or any degree of emotion are used by social workers to hang up and end the interaction.  Thus the predictable anger of people who are being literally starved amid the conspicuous consumption and waste of Canadian capitalist society is met with ‘security’ and containment.

A further illustration is the provincial legislation enacted in June 2010 whereby people with an outstanding warrant anywhere in Canada can be denied or cut off welfare; thus the welfare state institution is transformed in such a way as to prop up and support the neoliberal containment state.

The Containment State as an Instrument of Canadian capitalism, colonization, and imperialism

People Waiting in Line at a Food Bank

Labour market management: Controlling the ‘surplus population’

Managing the labour market is a major function of bourgeois governments in a capitalist economy. This means maximizing the rate of exploitation of the working class while mitigating resistance, rebellion or disruption to capitalist accumulation.

In a monopoly capitalist economy, high rates of unemployment and underemployment are considered normal and desirable. Unemployment has an active function, operating as a downward pressure on wages and a fetter on the rate of inflation. The rich want inflation kept low because when it rises it erodes their accumulated wealth. Moreover, monopoly capitalism as a system tends not to reinvest the surplus (profit) extracted from the working class in job generating activity, instead sinking a high proportion of the surplus into socially harmful activities like advertising, speculative financial activities, real-estate and the war economy.[1] Monopoly capitalism therefore generates high rates of unemployment and, particularly in its neoliberal form, fewer and fewer stable, ‘well-paid’ jobs.

Under neoliberal capitalism the real rate of unemployment has increased substantially, especially since the ‘great recession’ of 2008-9. The official unemployment rate does not reflect the experience of millions of working class people: ‘discouraged’ workers no longer looking for work; the vast increase in contract, temporary and part time work ; and most importantly those who are considered ‘unemployable’ under capitalism. The latter group are those who are not considered good candidates for extraction of surplus value and would require social supports in order to participate in social production under capitalism – people with physical differences (‘disability’), ‘mental illness,’ with addictions or with dependent family members. This is the vast pool of labour energy and talent that capitalism not only cannot absorb but actively seeks to marginalize and contain.

Under capitalism these portions of the working class are played off each other in order to keep wages down and keep workers insecure. But the large ‘surplus’ population also creates problems for capitalism. People who are too poor or hopeless, and who lose any sense of faith in or connection to the system, will eventually become rebellious.

The Welfare State had a certain way of containing discontent and the potential of militancy and rebellion among the working class:

i. Redistributive programs like unemployment insurance, public health insurance, welfare and public education paid for by a ‘progressive’ income tax regime. These programs did not challenge the basic capitalist principles of private ownership and control of the economy, operating instead through progressive taxation, where those who make more money pay a higher proportion in taxes.

ii. A relatively high union density, including business unions who play a dual function representing workers in the collective bargaining system but also disciplining workers and ensuring that they continue to play within the rules of the ‘the game.’ This role has been very evident in the period of transition where the union leadership has acted as a break on working class militancy and resistance to austerity, i.e. ‘Operation Solidarity’ in B.C. in 1983, the ‘Days of Action’ against Mike Harris in Ontario in the 1990s, and the the Hospital Employees Union strike in B.C. in 2004.

iii. The “Canadian Dream” – the promise that if you work hard your children will have opportunities for upward mobility and a better life (materially). This promise has historically been real for the white working class and farmers based on settler privilege in the colonial system and the super profits of imperialism. During the welfare state period this ‘dream’ was extended to many immigrants and refugees from non-European countries as well, although the levels of exploitation and self-sacrifice demanded from these groups was higher.

Under neoliberalism the economic basis for these containment strategies has been dismantled or evaporated:

i. Adaptation to ‘globalization’ and debt hysteria were used to justify slashing social spending and re-configure the taxation regime in favour of the rich. Redistributive programs that remain have been restructured to increase their control function while reducing their use function for working class people.

Unemployment Insurance (ideologically rebranded as ‘Employment Insurance’) is one very good example of this shift. While benefits have been cut back and made harder to access for the workers who pay into the program, the rules have been changed to force workers into whatever crappy, sub-standard jobs are available. Examples of this include changing the definition of ‘suitable employment,’ as well as new punitive and patronizing measures to ensure that unemployed workers are engaged in a ‘job search.’ Meanwhile tens of billions of dollars in surplus from the program have been rolled into general revenues, essentially comprising a new regressive tax on workers.

ii. Unionization rates have decreased significantly dropping from 38% of all workers in 1981 to 30% in 2012. Some of this is due to the shift of industrial production to the South in response to free trade agreements and liberalization of international trade. Individual capitalists also take advantage of their relative strength to bust unions or prevent them from starting altogether in order to maximize profits. While unions still play an important mediating role – especially in the remaining industrial economy and the public sector – their relative weakness is demonstrated by the willingness of governments to use legislation to send striking workers ‘back to work,’ no-strike clauses in collective agreements, and the rolling back of benefits and pension plans. Amidst shrinking union density and ineffectiveness of the unions that remain, the union bureaucracy can no longer credibly claim to represent the working class, nor sell their ability to ‘manage’ the class as a whole.

iii. Under neoliberal monopoly capitalism the “Canadian Dream” is a fantasy, even for the white working class, but especially for new immigrants and refugees. Canada’s immigration policies have always been shaped by the labour requirements of Canadian capitalism. Under welfare state capitalism there was a sense that, after a certain period of super-exploitation, immigrants or their children would eventually reap the benefits of Canadian citizenship – albeit within a profoundly racist and colonial state.[2] Under the neoliberal capitalism this ‘reward’ is no longer on offer, as exploited workers from the South are forced into a state of permanent precariousness, vulnerable to criminalization and deportation even after having ‘achieved’ citizenship. Individually these workers are super-exploited under Temporary Foreign Worker Programs, which hugely ramp up the power of capital and management. This  exploitation by Canadian capital extends to whole oppressed nations because the cost of reproduction of these workers (childcare, education, health care and elder care) are born by those countries of origin, particularly by poor women in those countries. Meanwhile Canadian capitalists exploit their labour power during the period of their life when they are the most ‘productive’ in the conventional capitalist sense. Thus, it is fair to say that the record profits of Canadian banks are based in a very real way on exploiting the ‘women’s work’ of working class and peasant women of the ‘Third World.’ This dynamic, which has always existed within the patriarchal and racist framework of imperialism, is heightened in this period of neoliberalism.

The neoliberal strategy for managing monopoly capitalism has definitely eclipsed the welfare state strategy of a previous era. Today the elements of the welfare containment state dissolve, giving way to a strategy of neoliberal containment rooted in police, prisons, and criminalization. The increased capacity for the exploitation of the working class relies on the increased repressive capacity of the neoliberal containment state.

Criminalization and Mass Incarceration as a tactic of colonial control

In addition to the their national oppression under Canadian settler-colonialism large numbers of Indigenous people in Canada have historically been exploited as workers. In 19th-century British Columbia, Indigenous workers were super-exploited within a (formal) racialized labour structure in numerous industries. In the first half of the 20th Century Indigenous workers played a vital role in key ‘resource’ industries as skilled and ‘semi-skilled’ workers. Indigenous workers have also acted as special ‘reserve army of labour’ in the capitalist labour market, employed in large numbers seasonally or in times of economic boom, returning to traditional or communal economies in the offseason or in periods of economic ‘downturn.’ Under neoliberalism the ‘last hired, first fired’ integration of Indigenous people into the capitalist labour force continues, with Indigenous workers having a lower labour market participation rate and much higher rates of unemployment. Thus the numerous ways in which the neoliberal control apparatus is used to discipline and control working class people generally also applies to working class Indigenous people.

However the massive disproportionate number of Indigenous people incarcerated and cycled through the criminal justice system cannot be explained exclusively by their place within the Canadian class structure. This is especially the case when we see that historically the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people begins to escalate only in the 1940s – prior to that the proportion of Indigenous people incarcerated roughly reflected the proportion of Indigenous people in the population generally. To understand this change and massive disproportion in incarceration rates we have to understand the neoliberal containment state as also being linked to a new regime of colonial control.


Image from residential school.

One way to understand the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people in Canada is as a ‘successor system’ to residential schools. Residential schools, with the stated objective to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ were a central tactic of the genocidal Canadian colonial strategy going back to at least 1874 when the federal government took up a role in financing and administering residential schools. The kidnapping, indoctrination and torture of Indigenous children in these institutions was conducted within the main Canadian colonial strategy of forced assimilation. The number of children in residential school peaked in 1931 and declined steadily until the closure of the last school in the 1990s. But during the period of decline the number of Indigenous children in ‘foster care’ began to steadily increase and beginning in the 1940s the disproportion of Indigenous people incarcerated also begins to steadily increase.

Therefore mass incarceration is referred to as a successor system to residential schools because so many Indigenous people who are incarcerated are survivors of residential school or the children and grandchildren of survivors. It is not surprising that these survivors would be concentrated in the most highly criminalized sectors of society (the homeless, extremely poor, drug users, and the chronically ill) given their experience of family and cultural disruption and social, physical and sexual abuse in residential schools.

But it is not as though the mass incarceration of Indigenous people is just a colonial hangover of a previous ‘bad policy’ as many progressive-liberal narratives would have it. Mass incarceration is also a successor system because the “prison pipeline” (child apprehension –> foster care –> group home –> youth detention –> prison) has replaced residential schools as a key colonial instrument for disrupting, dividing and controlling Indigenous populations. The mass incarceration of Indigenous youth – 41% of federally incarcerated Indigenous people are under 25 years of age – is a pretty good indicator of who the Canadian state and Canadian ruling class view as the greatest danger to ‘stability’ and ‘order’ in Canada. The colonial mechanisms of child apprehension, foster care, criminalization and incarceration of youth are a highly effective disruption of Indigenous families and communities, and a barrier to youth becoming connected to their communities, history of struggle, and militant resistance to Canadian colonialism. Thus the mass incarceration of Indigenous people is a main instrument of colonial containment.[3]

Picture 3

A historical materialist analysis of the emergence of the neoliberal containment state

The transition from welfare state containment to the neoliberal containment state has been described as capitalism switching from it’s left hand to it’s right. This description is apt in the sense that the same basic mechanisms of capitalist exploitation endure, based on racist colonial domination, and on the patriarchal super-exploitation of women, especially women’s reproductive labour.

However, it is inaccurate in the sense that Capitalism cannot easily switch back and forth between regimes of containment. These regimes are historically shaped by underlying economic, political and ideological factors. The neoliberal containment state adapts existing state institutions and practices to better support and perpetuate the economic and political superstructures of neoliberalism.

Looking at the the 30-year development of the neoliberal project in Canada it becomes evident that the dismantling of the monopoly capitalist welfare state in Canada and its replacement with monopoly capitalist neoliberal state has been carried out by successive governments with different leaders and members and under different political labels:

1984 – 1993, Progressive Conservative Party (PMs Brian Mulroney & Kim Campbell): free trade agreements  – liberalization of international trade in the interest of capitalists; privatization (Air Canada/ Petro Canada); beginnings of debt hysteria and austerity;

1993 – 2006, Liberal Party (PMs Chretien and Martin): debt panic; austerity  – dismantling of redistributive and social wage programs; restructuring of tax regime;

2006 – Present, Conservative Party (PM Harper): neoliberal containment state; restructuring of immigration policy to increase exploitation of immigrant workers from the Third World; aggressive development of extractive industries (oil, gas); militarization of foreign policy.

To whatever extent there was a debate within the ruling class class about whether Canadian capitalism would adopt a neoliberal economic framework it would have been during the ‘great free trade debate’ of the 1988 election and was decided decisively in favour of neoliberalism.

To understand the ideological roots of neoliberalism – not it’s intellectual roots, but the historical factors shaping the outlook and worldview of the ruling class – we have to go back  farther and look at the actual class experiences of the ruling class that generated the welfare state, versus those of the ruling class who generated the neoliberal state. The great historical events of the 20th century – inter-imperialist war; the Russian Revolution and the wave of working class militancy and rebellion that followed it; the collapse of the global capitalist economy and the failure of fascism as a reliable option for capitalist rule -– had a profound ideological impact on all classes. For the capitalist ruling class in particular these experiences undoubtedly created a fertile ground for the ideas of Keynesianism and an approach to managing capitalism that could mitigate some of the most destabilizing and potentially explosive class contradictions. On the other hand the ruling class that gave rise to neoliberalism has a very different class experience: U.S. hegemony; the postwar economic boom; division and weakness of the International Communist Movement; and the success of State sponsored anti-communism.

Welfare State (1940s to 70s) Neoliberal State (1980s to now)
Containment regime Business unionism, social democracy & Canadian “left” nationalism/ public education/ official anti-communism Police, prisons & security/ market fundamentalism/ individualism / “anti-terrorism”
Economic policy framework State mediation of class conflict/ redistributive programs in ‘core’ capitalist countries/ neo-colonization and plunder of the ‘Third World’ Privatization, liberalization & deregulation/ imperialist globalization/ ‘free’ trade/ export of capital and exploitation of the ‘Global South’
Ideological orientation of the ruling class Keynesianism/ managed capitalism/ anti-communism Neoliberalism/ laissez-faire capitalism/ anti-welfarism
Historical period & balance of forces inter-imperialist war/ Russian revolution/ economic crisis/ great depression U.S. hegemony/ post war economic boom/ division and weakness in ICM
Economic base Monopoly capitalism/ imperialism Monopoly capitalism/ imperialism

The containment regime is built to complement the economic policy of a given historic period. This economic policy is determined by the ruling class, whose consciousness is shaped by their material reality and experiences – the balance of class forces, degree of economic boom or crisis, and the potential of revolution and defeat.

There is an ahistoric and eurocentric view that seeks to detach the (supposed) accomplishments of social democracy and the welfare state from:

1) the massive global impact of the Russian and Chinese revolutions (and the profound impact they had on the political consciousness of both the ruling class and the oppressed classes, throughout the world), and

2) the economics of post-war imperialism and the degree to which super-profits based on military and economic domination of the Global South and super-exploitation of the internal colonies provided an economic basis for the post war ‘welfare state.’

The idea that the ruling class would go ‘back’ to the welfare state absent a threat of losing much more presumes a degree of substance to bourgeois ‘democracy’ inconsistent with all historical experience. This position ignores the conjunctural nature of post-war ‘class compromise’ and the welfare state, a conjuncture shaped by two major (world) inter-imperialist wars, a decade of depression, and the first wave of socialist revolutions encompassing roughly ⅓ of the world’s population at the time.

We should also keep in mind that the ‘golden age of the welfare state’ may have been less golden for colonized and nationally oppressed people throughout the world. This was also the age of massive U.S. war crimes in Indochina; of imperialist orchestrated coups in Iran (1953) and Chile (1973); mass murder of communists and progressives in Indonesia; the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Palestine and establishment of Israel as an outpost of imperialism in the Arab heartland; U.S. proxy wars throughout Latin America; Indian residential schools; the Bhopal disaster; the beginning of the ‘war on drugs’ and escalating mass incarceration of Black people in the U.S.A.; apartheid in South Africa; and the generalized plunder of the non-Euro-American world.

Pick a bigger weapon…

An imagined retreat to the welfare state remains the explicit objective of many liberal-progressive forces in Canada including trade union federations, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the ‘left’ of the New Democratic Party. It is also implicit in many of the demands put forward by activists and radical reform groups who view these reforms as the only ‘achievable’ option in the current context.

As radicals we need challenge the false promise of a return to the welfare state. ‘Socialism or barbarism’ (or maybe its ‘Liberation or annihilation’) is a much more accurate summation of what is on the menu for working class and oppressed people. The post-war ‘class compromise’ did not come about as a result of demands for a kinder and friendlier capitalism but as a result of the real threat of revolution and the final overthrow of capitalism. We therefore need to challenge the movements we participate in to develop demands that challenge the power and control of the ruling class, and move us in the direction of transformative social change.

The sheer violence and reach of the neoliberal containment state creates the possibility for an alliance between poor people, super-exploited and criminalized immigrant and refugee communities, drug war survivors and Indigenous people. Such an alliance would connect currently disparate practices of resistance and create a broad base calling for de-incarceration and reparations. It would be organically and politically connected to Indigenous struggles for sovereignty and self-determination, and to the struggles for im/migrant rights, economic justice and drug user liberation.

But its not good enough that we demand a less violent and more comfortable form of containment. If we want liberation, if we want to dismantle the racist and patriarchal order of the Canadian settler colonial state, if we want a world where every human being has the opportunity to realize their full potential, then we need to put revolution back on the agenda.  Without this discussion the best we can do is to stretch and test the limits of the Capitalist containment state. If we want to break it wide open, and create the possibility of liberation, we need to start talking about a revolution.


[1] I focus on the exploitation of the working class as a class rather than the extraction of surplus value from individual workers because this better captures the critical role played by the exploitation of unpaid reproductive labour, mostly from women, and from the super exploitation of colonized people, including the plunder of their land and resources.

[2] As discussed below this was not based on any benevolence of Capitalists but on the formidable revolutionary, anti-colonial and working class struggles of the first half of the 20th Century.

[3] In the 21st Century the mass incarceration of indigenous populations can be understood as a ‘normal’ part of settler-colonial societies as is clearly indicated by the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people  in New Zealand , Australia and the U.S.A. and the massive incarceration of Palestinians by Israel .