Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau challenged Donald Trump’s nationalism at the G7 summit in Québec last month, but that doesn’t mean he provides the alternative people and planet need, writes Todd Gordon.
One of the few talents Donald Trump has as a politician is to make others around him look far more attractive than they really are.
Trump’s bluntly reactionary politics, caprice and petulant outbursts can leave a sheen on other political leaders who appear to not share his worldview and comport themselves in a more measured and respectful manner. This is especially the case for those who challenge him.
But not all that glitters is gold.
The Trump effect was in full force at the recent G7 meetings in Québec, where he lashed out at other leaders (and refused to sign the meeting’s closing communiqué). He especially directed his petulance towards Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who dared to challenge him on his protectionist economic measures against Canada and the European Union.
Trump has imposed tariffs on Canadian exports of steel, aluminium and softwood lumber; threatened tariffs on the auto sector; and is potentially imperilling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA — a destructive neoliberal trade deal involving Canada, the US and Mexico).
By virtue of criticising Trump and appearing to stand up to his bullying ways, Trudeau earned admiration, including from Americans who see in him as a progressive alternative to the extremely regressive Trump administration.
But this view of Trudeau speaks not to his actual record or ambitions as a political leader, but to the desperately low expectations of many Americans (and Canadians) opposed to Trump.
When we measure Trudeau not simply against Trump, but against his own project, a less rosy image starts to come into focus. His progressive character is skin-deep; the alternative to Trumpism some think he represents is not so meaningful.
Climate crimes and racism
For those less familiar with the actual practices of the government led by Trudeau’s Liberal Party, there are plenty of ready examples that make this point. For example, one could point to his government’s recent decision to buy Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline for C$4.5 billion (the full cost of getting the project up and running could be double that amount).
Carrying crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands across British Columbia in order to be shipped to East Asia, Trans Mountain represents an expansion of Canada’s fossil-fuel industry. It is opposed by environmentalists, the British Columbia government and many Indigenous communities whose territory it will traverse.
The decision to buy a major oil-and-gas infrastructure project comes on top of Canada’s failure to meet its Paris Accord obligations.
Trudeau wants Canadians and the world to believe that he can expand the exploitation of the tar sands while fighting climate change.
Shamelessly, he even accused opponents of the pipeline, including the British Columbia government, of endangering his carbon reduction strategy, as the Alberta government would never agree to a national climate change program if Trans Mountain does not get built.
One could also point to the Trudeau government’s refusal to comply with multiple orders by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to end discrimination against Indigenous children in its funding for child welfare services.
Then there is its continued denial of citizenship to hundreds of thousands of extremely vulnerable migrant workers or its jailing of immigrant children and support for the Safe Third Country agreement with the US.
There is also its diplomatic and financial support for Canadian mining companies wreaking havoc on the ecologies of poor communities in the Global South; its $15 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia; or its unwillingness to meaningfully improve funding for health care, child care and the unemployed.
Examples of the reactionary character of Trudeau’s Liberal government are not hard to find. Jordy Cummings’ 2016 article “Trudeau is not your friend”, published by Jacobin and SocialistWorker.org, offers helpful background on Trudeau and the Liberal Party, which has longstanding and deep ties to Canada’s ruling class.
But it is worth turning our attention to what Trudeau is actually defending in his fight with Trump, which seems to have escaped many observers, particularly those who celebrate him as a progressive alternative to the US president.
Behind Trudeau’s public criticism of Trump at the G7 meetings lies his unyielding commitment to a pro-corporate free trade agenda in general, and to NAFTA in particular — the importance of which is magnified by growing economic volatility in Canada.
While by no means escaping the impact of the 2007-08 global capitalist crisis, Canada nevertheless weathered it better than most wealthy countries.
As Geoff McCormack and Thom Workman show in their 2015 book The Servant State, a period of sustained capitalist growth in Canada from the early 1990s until well into the 2000s built up Canadian capital’s total mass of profits significantly. This served to dull the impact of the global financial meltdown.
Canada’s GDP contracted, for example, but it recovered more quickly than most advanced capitalist countries, even if it languished below pre-crisis levels. As business bankruptcies in the US grew sharply, in Canada they stayed below pre-crisis levels. Job losses were nowhere near as severe as in the US.
But as Geoff McCormack warns us in his “Blue Book Report: The Canadian Economy,” published last year by the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies — Canadian capital finds itself in a more precarious position in 2018. Both the rate and mass of profit have declined since 2014, the latter by $83 billion or 30% from 2014-16.
With manufacturing hit harder than other major sectors of the Canadian economy due to its heavy reliance on exports to a sluggish post-recession US, the real-estate sector has been an important engine of economic growth. It has been buoyed by capital in search of higher profits and, related, low interest rates.
The real-estate sector was the biggest contributor to GDP last year, comprising 13% of the total.
The consequence of this has been an unsustainable real-estate boom and high household debt levels. These amounted to $1.8 trillion at the beginning of 2018. Canada’s household-debt-to-GDP ratio has been higher than that of the US (where the ratio has been declining) since 2010, and continues to grow, if not at the pace of the pre-crisis period. It stood at 101% in 2017.
Capitalist profitability problems — which may slow investment further and negatively impact job growth — only make this situation more precarious, especially if they deepen.
In this context, as the Trudeau government seeks to moderate the real estate boom and address household debt levels — it has, for instance, introduced new borrowing rules — the last thing it wants or needs is increasing uncertainty in its relationship with the US.
Despite the US’s relative decline in importance as an economic partner, it remains the most important export and foreign investment destination for Canadian companies. The US still accounts for three quarters of total Canadian exports, worth just over $400 billion last year.
From the Trudeau government’s perspective, shared by Canadian business, access for investors and exporters to the US market without cumbersome restrictions that undermine the principles of free trade — and thus capitalist property rights, the cornerstone of free-trade agreements — is imperative.
Hence the Trudeau government’s increasing frustration with Trump.
Fossil fuel industries
The flip side of Trudeau’s challenge to Trump regarding trade policy, in fact, is the decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Trans Mountain is not one piece in a grand strategy of cutting carbon emissions, as Trudeau absurdly tries to get us to believe. In the face of the precarious situation of Canadian capitalism and the unpredictability of a US governed by Trump, there is a lot at stake in the production and export of oil to East Asia.
Trudeau and Canadian capital are simply not going to let opposition from Indigenous peoples, environmentalists and the British Columbia government stand in its way.
Along with manufacturing and real estate, the oil-and-gas sector remains one of the biggest contributors to the Canadian economy, constituting $113 billion of economic output in 2017, McCormack reminds us. Thirty percent of total Canadian capital stock is found in this sector.
Yet with the decline in world oil prices in 2014 and a persistent need for improved pipeline infrastructure in order to realize the tar sands expansion potential, the rate of accumulation in the sector has slowed down considerably. While it declined from its pre-global financial crisis average of 10 percent after 2007-08, it dropped further still in 2014. In 2016, it was a meager 0.7 percent.
Restoring more robust growth in this sector is paramount to Trudeau’s economic agenda, whatever the ecological consequences, and that means seeking alternative markets to the US, principally in East Asia. Tied to this project is the pursuit of a free-trade agreement with China and signing onto the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which the US itself pulled out of.
Trudeau, then, is not the defender of a progressive, internationalist alternative to Trump, however much he may pretend to be — and some within the anti-Trump camp may wish him to be. He is a defender of a multilateral, free-trade-oriented, global capitalist status quo, which he and corporate leaders see as the best way of advancing the interests of Canadian capital.
That may, for the time being, put him at odds with Trump’s more protectionist orientation — and how deep or long-lasting Trump’s commitment is to that orientation remains to be seen — but it does not put him on the side of workers, Indigenous people or the environment.
When Trudeau or leading members of his government present Canada as a defender of some abstract international “rules-based system” and offer Americans some neighbourly counsel about the importance of these rules to the US’s own interests — as Canada’s foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland recently did in a speech to a Foreign Policy forum in Washington — it is important to understand what rules and system they mean.
It is presented in an abstract manner — as if it is obvious that there are general rules that benefit everyone, and no reasonable person would ever deny or seek to undermine them.
Power over people and planet
But what they are talking about are rules established to facilitate capitalist power over people and the planet through a deeply entrenched regime of transnational corporate property rights.
This international rules-based system they are defending codifies nothing for human beings and their ecologies. Instead, it has contributed to the intensification of environmental plunder, economic insecurity and alienation of the last quarter century.
In her speech, Freeland connects, for good measure, the embrace of such international rules and opposition to authoritarianism — as if there simply is no democratic alternative to free trade.
It is important to maintain perspective on the imbroglio between Trump and other world leaders. Trump does not set the bar high for other rulers or for a political, economic and environmentally sustainable alternative.
So if we use him as a measure, we do ourselves and our struggle for a better world a serious disservice. We lower our expectations and our sense of what is possible.
It is up to us to build the kinds of movements that raise peoples’ expectations and that point to alternatives — and not rely on leaders who clash with Trump over how best to bespoil the planet. Trudeau is still not your friend.