Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. Image credit: Chrystia Freeland/Facebook

“All the world’s a market, and all the people merely products.”
– Someone in the future, probably

Among the many investments included in the budget tabled by the federal government on April 19, the $30 billion over a five-year period pledged toward child care and early childhood education was positioned as the central component. Indeed, the $30 billion represents the single-largest line item in the 739-page budget.

The investment was cited as a response to the catastrophic economic impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women. Recent analysis conducted by Statistics Canada found that nearly 500,000 women in Canada who lost their jobs due to the pandemic remained unemployed at the time of the report’s release in March.

The federal government is pointing to this child-care investment as an essential method of helping women return to work. It was already true, prior to the pandemic, that women take on a majority of unpaid and domestic labour. During the pandemic, this disparity increased further. Additionally, 81 per cent of single-parent households in Canada are led by women. Recognizing this, the government has argued that the program will pay for itself; that investment in child care will grow the workforce and spur economic growth.

Without government action, the pandemic threatens to decimate the progress that women have fought for and won in the economy, labour market, and towards liberation in recent decades. And, insofar as economic activity is beneficial to the well-being of life on this planet, increased economic activity can certainly be presented as a good thing. (The degree to which it does serve this purpose is, of course, to be debated.)

However, in a general conversation about policy priorities, is economic benefit to the country the most pertinent aspect of a (as argued) transformative investment in child care? Or, does it harm the broader pursuit of justice and liberation to present — and indeed, justify — policies this way?

The fact that women take on a majority of unpaid and domestic labour is evidence of patriarchy and the ongoing structural oppression of women. These same structures influence the fact that a majority of health-care workers in Canada are women, and that a majority of front-line workers are women as well. For those facts alone, a child-care program is absolutely necessary. Further, the program itself is an opportunity to make an immense, non-monetary contribution to the lives of children and families throughout the country. The benefit of that contribution would be shown in the experience of lives lived, not on fiscal balance sheets.

The government’s framing raises the question: if the proposal would not “pay for itself” through a boost to GDP, would they still believe it to be worth pursuing? Would their arguments about the program being a transformative social investment fare as well if it’s no longer a transformative economic one?

Now, it could be argued that this is merely rhetorical strategy; that the government anticipated Conservatives’ inevitable rejoinder about deficits and debt, and so wished to get ahead of that argument. However, that manner of assessment is ubiquitous in the present political era, and can be insidious when applied liberally (no pun intended).

Back in 2019, the Conservative government of Ontario proposed a program to tie the funding of public post-secondary institutions in the province to the schools’ respective performance on a rubric of 10 measures. The rubric — designed and applied by the government — was focused on the degree to which graduates attained post-education employment, including aspects such as graduate earnings, employment rate, and institution-specific economic impact metrics.

Assuming good faith, support for this proposal would surely make the case that stressing employment is simply a means of measuring the degree to which schools are serving students by preparing them for post-graduation life. But that argument reveals the issue: that perspective considers the core purpose of education to be propelling people into the labour market. In this conception, education is wholly sublimated to the interests of employers — and so, in many cases, the interests of profit-seeking corporations.

In April, Laurentian University announced that it would be discontinuing 69 educational programs and terminating 151 faculty and staff. Claiming insolvency, the university sought creditor protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA). The CCAA proceedings froze pensions and nullified the provisions of the negotiated collective agreement.

As noted by Canadian educator, activist, and filmmaker Min Sook Lee, the CCAA process is designed for private, profit-seeking companies, not public institutions. Despite this, the Conservative government, which did nothing to address the foreseeable crisis in the months leading up to the cuts, is now claiming this crisis is reason to take more control of post-secondary institutions’ finances.

It may seem fanciful — naïve even — to argue that education must be a treasured thing, dedicated to exploring the world and oneself. If, for example, receiving a publicly sanctioned education does not enable one to understand what is required to provide for oneself, I believe the student would have fair cause for complaint.

But, it is equally a disservice to students — if not a greater one — if our education system seeks to enable students to survive in the world without also seeking to help them understand the world, how it came to be in its present form, and how they may pursue changing it if they wish to. It is always valuable to be reminded that present circumstances do not represent the permanent condition of the world, inevitable as they may seem.

In The Great Transformation, begun in the interwar period and published in 1944, prodigious Austro-Hungarian economist and philosopher Karl Polanyi attributes the seeds of the Great Depression, the catalyzation of fascism in Europe, and the Second World War to the laissez-faire free-market system. Fundamental to Polanyi’s critique of capitalism was his rejection of the notion that there is anything natural, innately efficient, or inherently self-regulating about markets. Though the work is nearly 80 years old, it seems politicians and political observers in the present era have neglected Polanyi’s findings.

Consider again the government’s argument about child care. Arguing for a GDP boost from a growing workforce, in the context of a labour market dominated by private-sector employment in profit-seeking corporations, is to argue that the interests and incentives of profit-seeking corporations are a beneficial means through which to structure collective prosperity.

While this may be true, it’s surely conditional and not inherent, and therefore subject to change: while it may be the case that the wide-scale provision of wage labour in the private sector does benefit the well-being of life in this country, those are the present circumstances, not the permanent condition of the world.

Indeed, from a structural perspective, the interests of profit-seeking corporations only incidentally align with the public interest in particular circumstances, and often are directly opposed to it. And, cases in which the interests of profit-seeking corporations do align with the public interest are often produced by incentives which involve public money being transferred to private, profit-seeking firms, which imperils the entire argument.

In The Great Transformation, Polanyi describes what he refers to as a “market society,” (emphasis mine);

“…the peculiarity of the civilization the collapse of which we have witnessed was precisely that it rested on economic foundations. Other societies and other civilizations, too, were limited by the material conditions of their existence — this is a common trait of all human life. Indeed, of all life, whether religious or nonreligious, materialist or spiritualist. All types of societies are limited by economic factors. Nineteenth-century civilization alone was economic in a different and distinctive sense, for it chose to base itself on a motive only rarely acknowledged as valid in the history of human societies, and certainly never before raised to the level of a justification of action and behaviour in everyday life, namely, gain...Within a generation the whole human world was subjected to its undiluted influence.”

I would contest but one aspect of this passage. I would argue that, however one regards or describes the market society, it most certainly is not “civilized.”

Chuka Ejeckam is a political researcher and writer, and works in the labour movement in British Columbia. He focuses on political and economic inequity and inequality, both within Canada and as produced by Canadian policy.

Image credit: Chrystia Freeland/Facebook

Chuka Ejeckam Photo (1)

Chuka Ejeckam

Chuka Ejeckam is a writer and policy researcher based in Toronto. The son of Igbo immigrants to Canada, Chuka grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His work focuses on inequity and inequality, drug policy, structural...