Neo-liberal crisis/social reproduction/gender implications.

Author:Cohen, Marjorie Griffin

    Neo-liberalism has had a profound impact on social reproduction in Canada. I will make three main points in this paper. First, periodic economic crises accelerate the marketization of social reproduction and the withdrawal of the state from social security supports. The marketization of social reproduction did not originate in the economic climate of crisis, but rather has been a long-term project of neo-liberalism that proceeds even in times of prosperity. Second, the shift in the relative contributions by the state to social reproduction in turn has a negative implication for the ability of the state to manage crises. There is an architecture of inequality that has become exaggerated with neo-liberal policy and this affects the recovery of economic cycles. And third, the management of crises by the state has gender implications that are often masked by the focus on short-term effects of the crises. The gender bias in both crisis management and long-term neo-liberal economic policy contributes to the increasing instability of economic activity.


    Governments normally treat issues of social reproduction fairly narrowly and as an aside to economic performance. (1) Its usual association is in reference to policies and actions related to the household. This, then, tends to relegate its discussion by governments to 'social policy,' since it is not seen as integral to economic performance. Any gender discussions associated with social reproduction by both governments and the business sectors also tend to get marginalized as being significant, but only to women. My intent is to show that the undermining of state support for social reproduction and the disregard of social reproduction's role in the economy contributes to increased instability in the capitalist system.

    Social reproduction needs to be seen as not only the reproduction activities that occur in the household, but all of the myriad ways that some feminist analysis understands social reproduction and how it is accounted for within a specific stage of capitalist development. Social reproduction includes the activities of both males and females, and the ways that the market, the state, the community, the household, and the individual are involved in meeting the direct needs of people. The state's role includes activities that directly and universally support the household (medical care, education, pensions, labour regulation and support), as well as specific programs that are more targeted to meet the needs of specific populations (social assistance, disability aid, employment insurance, child care).

    At various capitalistic stages each share undertaken by the actors in this process is different, with the state assuming a larger or smaller influence on the social security to support social reproduction, depending on the time, state of development, and political ideology in ascendance. (2)

    As is well known, the neo-liberal approach to social reproduction is to replace as much as possible of the state's responsibilities with private market or private household activity. In Canada this has been a very successful project, beginning with the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, greatly accelerated by the Liberal governments of Jean Chretien/Paul Martin, and carried out in varying degrees by provincial governments throughout the country. (3) While the privatization and the deconstruction of the social role of government has been the main focus of the neo-liberal approach, economic crises have given governments throughout the country a handy excuse to accentuate the need to undermine their roles in supporting popular features of policies related to social reproduction.

    Major economic changes are rarely accompanied by appropriate ways to deal with instability in social reproduction. With the rise of the market system, over a very long period of time, the ability to meet the needs of the market with the competing needs of social reproduction found some reconciliation through the mechanisms of the welfare state, in all of its very different forms. (4) But the neo-liberal shift associated with the last decades of the 20th century that has undermined the state's role in maintaining social reproduction is at serious odds with the economic demands on both individuals and families. There is some indication that this shift may be profound, although in Canada there has been a tendency to see the neo-liberalism that arose in consort with the trade liberalizing agreements as a softer neo-liberalism than that experienced in the U.S. This was primarily because at its earliest stages neo-liberalism's manifestations appeared to be confined to economic neo-liberalism and did not spill over into the social realm to the extent than had occurred in the UK and the US. This changed, however, over a fairly short period of time and largely stems from the move toward a free trade regime with the US. Most significant is that the kinds of arguments that were used in Canada during the free trade debates to show how social reproduction needs could be reconciled with the macro-economic objectives in Canada--i.e., that free trade would bring greater wealth that would allow for expanded social programs--disappeared once the agreements were signed. (5)

    The motivation on the part of governments for instituting free trade agreements is very significant in understanding the direction of social provisioning in a regime of trade liberalization and globalization. In Canada free trade agreements represented, to the elite classes, a way to undermine democratic institutions by ensuring that the kinds of programs that people supported would be more easily be undermined by governments that were inclined to do so. That is, it was not always the requirements of the agreements, per se, that undermined social programs in Canada, but that the agreements were able to provide a structure that allowed governments to more easily pursue more restrictive social policies.

    Governments across the country retreated from social provisioning through arguments related primarily to costs and individual responsibility. Cost became a serious issue mainly because tax cuts dramatically reduced government revenues from taxes on corporations and high-income individuals. The justification for reduced taxes was that it was necessary both to make Canadian business competitive in the new liberalized trade regimes and to encourage investment. At the same time, other neo-liberal tenets became firmly established in public policy and justified government privatization and program cuts. Most notable is the demand that governments throughout the country institute and maintain balanced budgets. (6) Some provincial governments even went so far as to demand this through legislation. But also significant were the ways that responsibility for funding social programs was shifted to the provinces through a series of federal government changes. This, effectively, separated economic from social issues at the federal level while, at the same time, less money came from the federal governments to the provincial governments for social programs. In a very short period of time the federal government's spending on social programs decreased dramatically. In 1989 the Federal Government spending on social services, including transfer payments to other levels of government, accounted for 59% of total government spending. By 2007 it accounted for only 47% of all spending. (7) Similarly, while spending on social services by the Federal Government in Canada accounted for 16% of the GDP in 1991. By 2001 this had been reduced to 11.6%. (8)

    The gendered implications of the impacts of the neo-liberal changes in Canada have received a great deal of attention over time. The usual markers of gendered distinctions associated with the labour market, such as rates of unemployment, gendered wage gap, and labour force participation rate, did not adequately capture the way that women and men were affected and treated differently. Often the traditional markers of comparison masked shifts in structures that were not so easily measured. This led to a wider focus by feminists on both the nature of labour market changes, and the various ways that public policy had shifted from one that actively focused on women's issues, to one that assumed that policy implementation was gender neutral. (9) The analysis deepened to depict the ways that public policy uses the male as the archetype for shaping policy with female characteristics seen as a deviation from what was considered the 'norm.'

    In the shift to a more neo-liberal social policy approach to economic and social issues in Canada all workers have been affected...

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