In our new video, Avi Lewis explains how Canada’s corporate class has gotten rich off public handouts from their friends in government.
“Welfare bums”. It’s a term that right wing politicians use to vilify some of the most vulnerable people in society. Much of the time, it’s also a racist dog whistle.
But the “welfare bum,” or the “welfare queen” is not just an ugly smear – it’s a central part of North America’s economic mythology – an invented story that has real-world impacts on all of us.
It goes like this. #1 The poor need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. #2. they’re freeloaders who are dragging down the the rest of us: we can’t afford to support people who can’t support themselves.
Now the word “bum” may have lost some of its edge over the decades, but the victim-blaming it represents is still a key feature of modern capitalism: if you’re exploited, discarded, or marginalized, it’s your own damn fault.
Back in the 1970s, when my grandfather David Lewis was the leader of the Federal NDP, he set out to turn that story on its head. He coined the term “corporate welfare bums.”
That put the blame for inequality and poverty where it truly belongs: with big corporations, who were accumulating wealth and power with the eager help of their friends in government.
As David once put it, “Governments and big business are holding hands – in your pocket.”
In response, he called for “an all-in peoples movement” to tilt the scales in favour of the majority and strip money and power away from the corporate welfare bums.
That phrase struck a chord, and helped bring Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau down to earth with a minority government in 1972. But it didn’t stop the actual phenomenon.
In fact, corporations, their owners, and executives were just beginning to feast on the riches of the state. It was the most audacious transfer of wealth in living memory.
Corporate taxes were cut, and cut, and cut again. Of course that meant that working people paid a higher and higher proportion of what the government brought in.
And that public revenue, as David meticulously highlighted, was then poured into the mushrooming coffers of corporations.
From oil companies to real estate developers, from mining to logging and more — they got billions in handouts, publicly funded R&D, and the right to rip resources out of Indigenous lands.
Today, you gotta think David’s rolling over in his grave: we’ve gone from corporate welfare to straight-up corporate kleptocracy.
And, as the corporate welfare state has swollen, our social welfare state has shrivelled – with Canada dropping near the bottom of industrialized countries on social spending.
So what do we get for those billions in handouts and tax breaks? We’re told that businesses will use them to stimulate the economy and create more jobs. But a singular feature of corporate welfare is that it’s almost always free of any conditions to ensure those benefits actually occur.
Think of the biggest bailouts in recent memory – Tory and Liberal governments giving billions to General Motors or Bombardier – only to see those companies pad their executives bonuses, layoff employees, and move their plants out of the country anyway.
The bonzana never seems to end — the era of COVID-19 has seen the corporate welfare state go into overdrive.
Canada’s biggest companies – like SNC-Lavalin, Imperial Oil, CN Rail – have received billions intended for emergency wage subsidies – and turned around and paid out huge dividends to shareholders.
In 2020 the federal government announced $18 billion in support to the oil and gas sector alone – a figure that would have made even my grandfather speechless. And that almost never happened.
Meanwhile, a quarter of a million households have been unable to make their rent or mortgage payments.
If David Lewis were alive today, he’d say: we’re overdue for a reckoning. We’ve got to pry apart the hands of government and big business — and get them out of our pockets.
Let’s make Canada’s largest corporations pay more taxes, end their handouts, and start funnneling resources to the needs of the many, not the few.
The wealth we create as a society could fund affordable green housing, zero-emissions transit and care for our neighbors and elders — creating public luxury, rather than private opulence.
All we have to do now is build that all-in peoples’ movement — and let the corporate bums know it’s payback time.