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  • Lindsay McLaren, Elizabeth McGibbon, Ted Schrecker, and Ron Labonté

Towards an equity-centered political economy

We are living in an age of 'polycrisis' but alternatives are at hand.

The problems are becoming inescapable. Extreme weather events like Canada’s 2023 wildfires show that human-caused climate catastrophe is with us here and now.

There are crises of affordable housing across the country, with more and more households facing housing precarity or homelessness, while property developers and their investors get richer.

The quality and safety of our schools, workplaces and transportation options are eroding.

And downstream, Canada’s health care systems are imploding.

We live in an age of “polycrisis”, which lies at the intersection of a failure to prioritize social and ecological determinants of health, including their structural roots.

The World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health began its still highly relevant 2008 report by pointing out that the unequal distribution of health-damaging experiences “is not in any sense a ‘natural’ phenomenon but is the result of a toxic combination of poor social policies and programmes, unfair economic arrangements, and bad politics.”

Our contribution to this discussion comes from our shared personal and professional concern about the health equity consequences of our economic system, or what some have described as neoliberal epidemics, which intersect with racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of systemic discrimination to create highly unequal (and avoidable) health outcomes.

In short, inequities in health reflect inequities in power embedded within our economic and political systems.

Following the 2008 global financial crisis, austerity was the dominant policy response in much of the world, predictably bringing negative health effects.

As Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, noted, “Austerity is an instrument of malice … What is promoted as fiscal discipline is a political choice … that deepens the already open and bloody wounds of the poor and precarious.”

While the 2008 crisis shattered the credibility of the neoliberal agenda and presented an important opportunity to advance a new political economic paradigm, corporations and their allies—including in governments across the political spectrum—doubled down to obstruct changes to the policies that caused the crisis in the first place.

Likewise, the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the profound gaps and injustices built into our public services and supports and our decision-making structures.

In Toronto in 2020, Black people and other racialized people made up over 80 per cent of reported COVID-19 cases while only making up half of that city’s population.

Across the country, high COVID-19 incidence and death rates were documented for aged care home residents (especially in for-profit care homes), people with low income and difficult or unsafe working conditions, low levels of education, and recent immigrant status—all illustrating deep injustices that were in place well before the pandemic.

Many of us hoped that the pandemic would provide the push needed to take transformative steps towards an equity-centered economy and society, and indeed, some measures showed, at least temporarily, that governments could be effective in doing this.

But once again, we have largely returned to business as usual.

A federal election is due in October 2025, unless one is called earlier. Recognizing that none of our existing political parties is up to the task, we are grateful for the opportunity provided by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Think Upstream platform to start thinking and talking about an alternative political economy in Canada and in the process, to connect with and support others who are already doing so.

By alternative political economy, we mean a different kind of paradigm for the relations between governments, market forces, and civil society, which re-thinks how “growth” is understood and provides a pathway out of the toxic and highly inequitable social and ecological consequences of neoliberal economic and social policies.

Our focus includes (but is not limited to) austerity; the damaging effects of privatization of public services; the steady erosion of workers’ rights; harmful deregulation of sectors and industries; the seeming inability of our governments to wean our economy off fossil fuels; tax and spending measures that magnify inequality; ideologically driven lowering of barriers to trade and investment; the increasingly significant positioning of social media in normalizing these trends and eroding public scrutiny; and how the inequitable effects of all of these trends are magnified through alignment with white supremacy, patriarchy, and other oppressive structures.

We urgently need workable options, ideally with demonstrated effectiveness at scale, that can be mobilized rapidly towards a system that puts all people and the planet first.

We invite you to join us as we explore ways to build an alternative, equity-centered political economy, which naturally lies at the intersection of critical scholarship and activism, and to reach out with it in Canada.

Some of our initial thoughts and questions include:

· How can support and resources best be mobilized for strong, social democratic and public-sector oriented visions of public policy?

· Is more research really needed, or is the need rather to fully expose the depth and breadth of the current polycrisis and to mobilize support for what is already known to work?

· How can we promote the critical message that reducing health inequities is inseparable from understanding that “Tax Is Not a Four-Letter Word”?

· More broadly, how can we meaningfully push back against harmful but dominant narratives and the groups that are promoting them, to advance an equity-centered narrative and vision?

· In pursuing an equity-centered vision, how can we navigate the political realities of Canadian federalism, alongside the imperative of strengthening and empowering jurisdiction and sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples?

· How can we ensure that the necessary transformation away from fossil fuel dependency (the Just Transition for All advocated by the Canadian Labour Congress) creates no new costs for workers and communities?

· How can we best complement and support other Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives longstanding and flagship initiatives, including the Alternative Federal Budget, the Trade and Investment Research Project, and others?

· How can we best maintain humility around our own biases, and avoid racist, sexist, and classist (and other) assumptions in our work moving forward?

Lindsay McLaren, Elizabeth McGibbon, Ted Schrecker, and Ron Labonté are a part of the Think Upstream Research Network.


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