The Royal We

Charles McCabe et al., Renewing the Social Contract: Economic Recovery in Canada from COVID-19. Ottawa: Royal Society of Canada, 2020.

Charles McCabe et al., Renewing the Social Contract: Economic Recovery in Canada from COVID-19. An RSC Policy Briefing. Ottawa: Royal Society of Canada, 2020; Link to policy briefing.

Monarchs often use “we” as a pronoun to refer to themselves. “By the Grace of God, We, Alexander I, Emperor of all the Russias,” tells us that when Alexander I speaks, we’d better listen. “We are not amused,” Queen Victoria probably never said, but had she done so, it would have been quite suitable for a person of her station, although eyebrows were raised in the following century when Margaret Thatcher announced, “we have become a grandmother,” which seemed a tad pretentious for a grocer’s daughter from Grantham. The pluralis majestatis seems best suited to those who are truly majestic, such as these august members of the Royal Society of Canada.

Or so one gathers from Renewing the Social Contract: Economic Recovery in Canada from COVID-19: An RSC Policy Briefing (December 2020). This document aims to inform Canadians about the perils and pitfalls of responding to a pandemic. It was prepared by 13 well-positioned academics under the leadership of Christopher McCabe of the University of Alberta, Chair of the Royal Society’s Task Force Working Group on the Economy, an expert on the pricing of patented medicines, and CEO of the Institute of Health Economics, which focuses on “reducing uncertainty and managing risk for the investors in, and providers of, health products, programs and services and establishing leadership position [sic] in key areas of competency.”[1] Less conspicuously, large parts of it were written by Dan Breznitz, the University of Toronto’s neoliberal Munk Chair of Innovation Studies and authority on the “Future of Prosperity,” and the University of Ottawa’s Stewart Elgie, chair of the Smart Prosperity Institute, which aims to deliver “world-class research and work with public and private partners – all to advance practical policies and market solutions for a stronger, cleaner economy.”[2] The first was co-author of two chapters, the second the author of one, and both might be fairly considered part of that vast swath of neoliberal quasi-institutions that have sprouted since the 1990s as ways of developing closer relationships between corporations and non-profit bodies. (One guesses the two of them did a lot of the heavy theoretical lifting in the Report, leaving the vague pieties and humanitarian sentiments to the actual Royals.) Still, all fifteen of our authors come packaged under the label of the Royal Society. The Society attaches to this document from a Working Group formed under its auspices the predictable caveat that the authors’ views do not necessarily reflect those of the Society, yet they are all published under the Society’s stately name with its impressive shield on the cover.

This is then, from the get-go, a complicated document, generated through an opaque process, with unclear authorship and no identifiable individual or institution standing fore-square behind its contentions – indeed, rather like a Royal Proclamation. Perhaps as a result, the “royal we” is everywhere. The first three paragraphs of the Executive Summary alone have eight of them, alongside “us” and “our,” all of which are in turn blended seamlessly into “Canada,” on whose behalf “we” feel entitled to speak and whose past and present is in “our” command. The collective authors – whom we shall now refer to as ‘the Royals’ – are presented to us as authorities, and their findings come backed up with no fewer than 188 footnote references, well-seasoned with oldies but goldies from neoliberal Chicago School economists. Our Royals, one easily infers, are people in the know, well-connected to official Ottawa and the Prime Minister’s Office (or, as these Royals somewhat enigmatically have it, “Prime Minsiters Office”), and one is never in doubt that in their own minds they feel entitled to speak on behalf of “Canada.”[3] They have, unintentionally, provided a sobering indication of the cognitive chaos and intellectual incoherence engendered by a pandemic that has proceeded under the auspices of, and been profoundly shaped by, a neoliberalism implied throughout this Report – but named in it, never. 

One of the most clarifying approaches to that phenomenon has been provided by Quinn Slobodian, who suggests that rather than imagining neoliberalism to constitute a “liberating” of markets, we might better see it as a project of “encasing” markets, so as to protect them from the dangers of democracy.[4] And rather than seeing it as a “rolling-back” of the state, Wendy Brown counsels us, we might better see it as a “logic of rule,” one that entails the extension of monetary criteria of competitiveness, efficiency and the production of deliverable commodities into hitherto relatively uncommercial realms, such as government departments, academic and carceral institutions, and even personal life (whence all the advice about paying close attention to one’s personal “brand”).[5]

 Realizing, unlike many of their nineteenth-century liberal forebears, that free markets do not arise inevitably from human beings as they pursue their self-interested courses through life, but rather are acutely vulnerable to pressures from below and manipulations from above, neoliberals, operating both globally and locally, worked assiduously to nurture and protect them. What the World Trade Organization and World Bank defended globally, our university administrators and policy experts nurtured locally: a sense of society made up of propertied and competing individuals owing their fortunes not to the social formations in which they function and within which they were raised, but to their own efforts. Neoliberalism is hence just the most recent instantiation of liberalism tout court, the latest development of a pattern of “possessive individualism” extending back centuries, one most often strongly opposed to any claims from democrats that individuals must be made answerable to a logic superior to their own immediate interests.

The Royals, or at least some of them, seem to be quite at ease with this anti-democratic agenda. True, their Report contains no explicit calls for the suspension of rights and freedoms by a state whose sovereignty rests precisely on its capacity to govern strongly in a “state of exception,” to follow the lead of the Third Reich’s answer to John Stuart Mill, Carl Schmitt.[6] Yet a quietly authoritarian voice murmurs throughout. “Immediate political consequences, such as the government falling, need to be postponed to allow a cohesive, coherent and clear federal response,” write the Royals (34). (Pervasive, here and throughout the Report, is the passive voice, which not only obscures who is doing the postponing and why. Such a suspension of parliamentary practice seems simply to be a matter of common sense: somehow, the “consequences” themselves “need” this postponement). Writing in 2020, on the highly-charged fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of the War Measures Act in 1970, the Royals regret that “we” did not impose upon ourselves a Public Welfare Emergency under the auspices of the federal Emergencies Act. They evince nothing but disdain for the federal system, which has led to untold confusion and “misallocation, misalignment and inefficiency,” and blame “provincial-centric parties in opposition” for aggravating such problems in the context of a minority Liberal government: “In times of crisis – this crisis in particular – federalism has failed us by impeding a national response” (10). Although three of the Royals reside in Québec (at least if one may consider McGill a Québec university), they seem remarkably blasé about the extent to which provincial governments acquired legitimacy in large part because they were considered more accessible to popular pressure than the one in distant Ottawa, consciously designed to keep democrats at bay. There are some empty words about acknowledging First Nations interests; nothing about those of Québécois who might regard with some scepticism Ottawa’s claims to be acting on behalf of all of “us.” These Royals seem, with almost Schmittian intensity, focused on the need for the sovereign state to rule authoritatively in the state of exception constituted by the pandemic. And their quiet suggestion that the government should not fall in the midst of such a crisis – even if it should lose the confidence of a majority of members of the House of Commons, presumably – tells us a great deal about their distance from what are normally taken to be the age-old conventions of liberal democracy in Canada.

The Canadian Parliament buildings, photo by Reading Tom (CC BY 2.0).

Instead of imagining a parliamentary democracy, the Royals, channelling the venerable traditions of ancien régime Europe, imagine a polity made up of three estates: leaders, experts, and stakeholders. Exactly how these estates are formed is hard to decipher. Leaders, presumably, become such by virtue of their entrepreneurial (and perhaps hereditary) excellence, access to state power, and sheer genius. Experts, such as our Royals, can be defined by their command of their scientific specialities, such as public health economics. (Unhappily, at least if one may judge from this Report, it seems rather less necessary that Royals have a command of the Queen’s English). The stakeholders, i.e., those directly affected by decisions and with a claim to deliberations about them, are presumably, in a pandemic affecting pretty much everyone, all of us.

It is somewhat soothing to learn that “stakeholders more broadly, including those from at-risk and marginalized populations, need to have a voice in the process, ensuring that experts and leaders are aware of their concerns and experiences,” but if those experts and leaders decide to put such “concerns and experiences” to one side as they wrestle with a major issue—well, so be it (32). The ‘third estate’ in this scenario is not the fount of the state’s sovereignty; it is there to be advised, cajoled, selectively consulted, but not to rule, either on its own behalf or through parliamentary intermediaries. So  much for democracy.

Some of the theoretical undergirding for this approach is supplied by the liberal theorist John Rawls, accessed via the work of Norman Daniels and James Sabins, whose Accountability for Reasonableness is referenced at one decisive moment as an authoritative guide to present-day health politics. Daniels and Sabins write from within the U.S. healthcare system, have extensive contacts with American foundations, and leave largely unquestioned their country’s official reluctance to join most of the rest of the developed world in instituting some version of universal health coverage. Their focus tends to be on the dilemmas confronting the leaders of managed care organizations (MCOs), as they wrestle with competing demands upon their funds and struggle to reduce benefit costs, often in intense competition over market share with other MCOs.[7] They assume, that is, a dog-eat-dog framework in health care, and their seemingly innocuous suggestion that decision-makers should be accountable for their decisions seems unobjectionable until one grasps the intensely individualistic framing they bring to this particular form of “deliberative democracy.” That a given polity might make a collective decision that, as a fundamental ethical principle, no one should be unable to access needed medical care, that there might be a consensus about what that medical care should entail, and that most developed countries apart from the US have arrived at very different structures, seemingly does not register. Just as Rawlsian deliberative democracy was, from its outset, beset with limitations to its realism – “He does not see that the class inequality in his market system is bound to be an inequality of power as well as of income, that it allows one class to dominate another,” was C.B. Macpherson’s considered complaint – so too are the Royals unable to see class patterns in the pandemic nor perceive the social-structural reasons why their ‘social contract’ is at best an ideological construct serving a particular ideological purpose, not a neutral depiction of any past or present state of affairs.[8]

The Royals proclaim:

It is essential that policymakers and public institutions maintain credibility and the trust of the citizens. Establishing a public-facing crisis response team with a diverse range of expertise, incorporating deliberative public engagement into policy development; and using an intersectionality lens to identify disproportionate effects across groups, will contribute to maintaining credibility. However, these will not be sufficient. Transparency and clear communication regarding the decision-making process, as well as the uncertainty, risks and trade-offs inherent in any decision, are important for minimizing the threat of misinformation. Systems should be developed to increase transparency in the decision-making process at all levels of government. (39)

What is left unclear throughout these high-sounding principles, couched in the passive voice to maintain an area of studied vagueness, is who will be developing these systems, how the “crisis response team” can wield legitimate power, especially if it is imposing solutions harmful to some and beneficial to others, when that team, or another authority, will be in a position to determine that the crisis has passed, why a select and largely unelected minority should legitimately be entitled to wield sovereign power over the lives and deaths of others, and what concretely this strategy will mean in terms of loss of life when juxtaposed with corporate bottom-lines. “Identifying weaknesses in decision-making and planning processes may allow the development and implementation of better policies during the continuing crisis, and in response to future shocks,” we learn (32). Clear as mud, one might unroyally mutter — yet, the “Royal We” have spoken, with Delphic unclarity, and it seems distinctly gauche and decidedly un-royal to demand they come down to some brass-tacks specifics.  

Our Royals – if one may use that expression without being guilty of the grave crime of lèse-majesté – want to be taken seriously as political theorists. Renewing the Social Contract declares as much in its very title, and the “Social Contract” comes up almost monotonously: x is needed to renew it, y is implied by it, z might put it at risk. But – what is it? To the Royals, this fictional entity has a common sense, obvious meaning:

Sculpture of a crown, with red fabric in the middle surrounded by gold pieces which join at the top. There are fleur de lis pieces between the four gold strips.
Photo by Tim Green (CC by 2.0).

Central to the social contract in liberal democracies is recognition of the basic equality of all individuals in society and respect for the communities to which they belong. From this idea of basic equality, it follows that the social contract includes a) a commitment to equality of opportunity that empowers individuals to realize their potential and contribute to society, and b) a responsibility to accord all members of society equal worth, voice, and status, irrespective of their personal characteristics or socioeconomic status (12).

A rookie mistake in PoliSci 101 is to think that the ‘Social Contract’ refers to something that actually happened or to an actual set of documents — an actual signed and sealed “contract” as most of us understand this term — to which one might refer if one is in doubt about one’s rights and obligations. On the contrary: “social contract” was, instead, a thought-experiment, closely associated with Hobbes and Locke, meant to clarify the assumptions necessarily in place in a given political order underlying a state’s claim to legitimacy. (Rousseau, a third major developer of the theme, can be set to one side, since his suspect democratic enthusiasms are nowhere in evidence in the Royals’ Policy Briefing). The Royals’ quiet enthusiasm for a free-wheeling Ottawa able to move decisively without hindrance from pesky parliamentarians and bothersome provincials, in effect operating as Leviathan to protect subjects thrown into a State of Nature, a war of all against all, is suggestive of Hobbes. But more often we hear the very different accents of Locke’s Second Treatise, whose argument is centred very much on property. (“Property is the linchpin of Locke’s argument for the social contract and civil government because it is the protection of their property, including their property in their own bodies, that men seek when they decide to abandon the State of Nature,” writes Celeste Friend.)[9] Throughout the Report, the function of the legitimate sovereign, i.e. the federal government in Ottawa, is to safeguard and develop the interests of the propertied, who have a legitimate claim to that which they own by virtue of their hard work and entrepreneurship.

Yet these theoretical asides might pay the Royals too much credit, since repeatedly they simply assert that Canada in fact developed on the basis of a social contract (when? where? involving whom?) which now must be “renewed.” (One more question: then when did the last one expire?) Rather than constituting a limited exercise in speculative philosophizing, the Social Contract for our Royals has a thing-like solidity. It allows them to imagine a non-debatable essence to our polity. Not only is democratic Rousseau predictably side-lined, but so too are almost all the twentieth-century contributors to, and critics of, the theory. C.B. Macpherson’s emphasis on how the original theorists quietly prioritized the rule of property, John Rawls’s inconvenient insistence that civil liberties cannot be marginalized in the interests of economic growth, Carole Pateman’s argument that underlying social contract theory is an implied contract among men that they rightfully rule over women, Virginia Held’s case that the individual described in social-contract theory is “economic man,” an individual entering into contracts to further his own interests, and Charles Mills’s contention that social contract theory likewise set racial parameters around who qualified as rights-bearing individuals: all are conspicuous by their absence.[10] For the Royals, the “social contract” is treated not as an age-old thought experiment and a spirited debate, but a solid and verifiable thing.   

One can, in a sense, understand their drive to delimit and reify a doctrine so central to their ardent if implicit liberalism. In theory, and with more attentiveness to their nuances and complexities, both Hobbes and Locke could be brought forward as resources for readings oppositional to contemporary liberal orders. As historian Ellen Amster pointedly asked, “A government that does not allow its citizens to survive, to eat, to breathe, to live, is illegitimate. By what right does it rule?”[11] By failing to protect us from a war-like state of nature jeopardizing our very existence, the state has betrayed the social contract whereby a sovereign’s very existence is predicated upon their capacity to prevent their subjects’ degradation to such a condition – or so might a Hobbesian argument run. And a seventeenth-century Lockean, surveying the wreckage of so many small businesses, with more to come as the 2020s unfold with predictable tumult, might well wonder if those ruined by state negligence might not have a case for revolting against regimes so inattentive to the protection of their property rights.

Perhaps the Royals too realize that classical liberal contract theory might be open to these unsettling readings and awkward questions about a global liberal order that led us into so much mass death and suffering. “The rapidly evolving nature of our understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic makes the criticism of specific decisions of little value,” they remark (32), perhaps a bit uneasily – since many of our present dilemmas are consequences of quite specific decisions – the Liberals’ decision to devastate the healthcare sector in the 1990s and their austerity-driven jettisoning after 2015 of the country’s early warning system for such epidemics, or the policies of both Conservative and Liberal governments to allow capitalists to strip-mine seniors for profit in long-term care facilities, among many others – that became all-too-evident in 2020-1. (One might also mention Bob Rae’s NDP regime in Ontario, Liberal in all but name and perhaps the first to popularize the idea of the “social contract” as a way to hammer labour in the interests of deficit-cutting). Instead of pondering how the documented and tangible policies of actual governments have impinged upon present-day realities, it is safer to retreat to an imaginary time in which “we” were all agreed upon the contract that settled our destiny as a political community.

A front view of the red brick building where the Ontario legislature meets.
The Ontario Legislative Building, photo by Al_HikesAZ on Flikr (CC by NC2.0)

So, remarkably, the Royals indulge in the rookie mistake and treat the “social contract” as an empirically verifiable decision that “we” made – who, when, where, why and how left undisclosed – “to organize our society” (6). “Canada,” in their imaginations, is self-evidently the consequence of a social contract, so sacred in its transcendent purity that it escapes all definition. In truth, it is invoked to add solemnity to contentiously polemical interventions, which can be made to seem to be those which emanate, not from our well-heeled and -connected Royals, but from the essence of the country itself. “You are violating the social contract!” has more gravitas than “Hands off my property!”

One rather likes some of the things the Royals want to bundle into this supposed contract. After so much discussion of settler colonialism, residential schools and imposed famines, the stigmatization and destruction of sexual minorities, the conquest and subsequent repression of so many Québécois denied their religion and language in many contexts, and so on, it comes as rather a relief to learn from our Royals that Canada from its very foundation made “a commitment to equality of opportunity that empowers individuals to realize their potential and contribute to society, and … a responsibility to accord all members of society equal worth, voice, and status, irrespective of their personal characteristics or socioeconomic status” (12). One would certainly hasten to sign a contract committing the federal government to provide “equality of access to essential public services, including health, education and environmental services (clean water, air, access to nature)” – let’s omit the Royals’ weaselly qualifier “greater” – and find it cheering to learn that our Royals imagine that a contract binds “the rich and the poor, the young and the old, those persons with disabilities and those without, the securely employed and the precariat, white and racialized people, and Indigenous and settler communities” (12). I rather like the idea of the state committing to provide its citizens with “clean water, air and nature” (14) (although admittedly the notion of “clean nature” represents another mystifying abstraction from The Royals.)

But such cloud nine liberal imaginings have almost nothing to do with historical or present-day realities. Is there an actually-existing “social contract” that spells out that “all Canadians can fully participate in society,” for example, via egalitarian access to digital networks? If there is, why do these networks still privilege the propertied who can afford their services? Is there now, or has there even been, an enforceable contract that commits corporations and states to safeguard the environmental health of working Canadians? Can Indigenous communities appeal to a “contract” when they battle boil-water advisories, some of them decades old?

In short, as the “animating absence” at the core of this brief, the “social contract” is rendered in it as “that which must not be questioned,” summoned as an abstraction too holy to be subjected to a rigorous, or even marginally intellectually interesting, analysis. And this is of a piece with the brief’s overwhelming preference for the passive voice and the copula verb – with their inherent tendencies to blur such blunt questions as ‘who did what to whom, where, when, and why?’

On the other hand, one is rather more suspicious of some of the imaginary social contract’s other features, which stem directly from Locke. The Royals insist that the “social contract” also implies “increased economic dynamism through policies that reward innovation and productivity, and that enable all members of society to share in the gains generated” (12). As Macpherson showed more than fifty years ago, in this form the “social contract” is all about the privileges of the propertied, here presented by the Royals as something all of us have an interest in preserving. As Wendy Brown argues, and the Royals confirm, neoliberalism entails the dissemination of a logic of competition throughout all of civil society. “Innovation occurs when there is competition, not only of ideas, but of institutions and approaches, private and public,” the Royals argue (28). If the Canadian track record has entailed lavish state subsidies to business for mediocre returns in research and development, the Royals are undeterred by it: the state should pump yet more money into corporate “innovation,” creating “flexible, arms-length institutions with stable, long-term funding to provide resources and programs to firms to spur innovation by sector and/or region” (41). It is up to the state to “identify clear specific missions for innovation policy,” which will “serve to align incentives and resources and provide a clear signal of the opportunities available to the private sector” (41). “Governments,” the Royals proclaimed with an hauteur worthy of the Habsburgs, “need to always remember that the only two agents of innovation in the market are firms and individuals, and hence, each policy or program needs to have a clear articulation of how its action leads to an increase in those agents and improves their success potential.” (Is “increase” quite the right word?) For the state to focus on other things means it has taken its “eyes off the ultimate focus of innovation policy,” i.e., enhancing the power and profits of the propertied (30). PPP, public-private partnership, is installed at the centre of this version of the ‘social contract.’ Those like economist Mariana Mazzucato who have explored The Entrepreneurial State and documented the extraordinary extent to which the state itself has performed as an entrepreneur are, by implication, simply in error.[12]

For the Royals, it seems to be strictly verboten to imagine that the state itself can go beyond such facilitation to be an active shaper in its own right of the economic order. As they imagine the world, “firms and individuals are the key agents of technological innovation,” even though governments are allowed a supporting role in “setting goals and ensuring that firms (public and private) and individuals have the resources and incentives to innovate, adopt and customize innovation to their needs,” and there might arise moments of failure or uncertainty in which “governments and civil society” might do a bit more (27). Nonetheless, it is simply not on to imagine that anyone or anything can replace “the real agents of innovation—companies and individuals—at the centre of policymaking” (28). Universities, for example, encouraged since the 1990s to become sources of innovation and technology transfer to firms, should rethink their position as corporations-in-the-making– not, revealingly, because they are meant to be centres of learning and not business, but because their products have not proved profitable: “Firms have not been interested in most of those patents, and university spinoffs have yet to make significant contributions to the Canadian economy. Increasing the scope of proprietary approaches to university, college and government laboratory research has cost Canada a public domain that feeds ideas, takes on high-risk projects, and reduces barriers to exchange, which is vital to firms’ capacity to innovate” (28).

When the Royals come to specific issues raised by the pandemic, their Thatcher-like neoliberal instinct is to recoil whenever the state might go beyond facilitation to direction (and thereby infringe upon the carefully-encased market). It is inconceivable, for instance, that we might wish to restructure the conjoined global patterns of agribusiness, tourism and trade that, as a substantial number of epidemiologists now argue, contributed massively to the pandemic and will play an even bigger role in global climate change. In their books, we need, not to rethink global supply chains in all their opaqueness and absence of democratic accountability, but to improve the ones we have: “In light of COVID-19 challenges, Canadian businesses, and their global peers, are moving to develop new, more resilient supply chains that take into account the possibility of low probability but high impact events such as regional and global health crises” (24). The catastrophic global patterns the Royals studiously ignore suggest that their phrase “low probability” is ill-chosen indeed. Equally ignored are the down-to-earth problems suffered by the elderly in long-term care facilities and workers in the agribusiness sector.

And yet, this Report’s more sympathetic readers might ask, doesn’t it actually transcend neoliberalism in its ringing calls for social reform?  

COVID-19 has… demonstrated that previously unthinkable policies can be implemented, both nationally and globally. Over the first six months of 2020, the global economy was essentially paused. Those who have argued that incrementalism is the only feasible strategy for addressing even society’s most pressing issues, have been proved wrong (6).

Indeed, “we” Royals found the pandemic to be a revelation into how the other half lives.

We have discovered the scale and depth of the Canadian precariat — those individuals and households who live with combinations of insecure income with little or no savings to rely on, employment, housing and residency which make for a profoundly and relentlessly insecure life. COVID-19 has shown us how the unintended creation of the precariat, through decades-long pursuit of lower labour costs, has created a large pool of individuals who simply cannot afford to follow policies that are essential for the good of society (10).  

Cognitive chaos: the Royals seem to recommend both intensified integration with the patterns of capitalist globalization that paved the way to the pandemic and a quasi-Keynesian package of social reform measures unlikely ever to have appealed to Friedrich Hayek. Paid sick leave. Accessible childcare. A reinstituted inheritance tax. A greener economy. A basic income guarantee complemented by wage insurance.[13] There might even be something in this liberal smorgasbord in the way of support for early childhood education and more accessible internet.   There is even the now-obligatory bow to ‘intersectionality’ and beleaguered mothers in the job market. (“The application of intersectionality theory during the policy development and implementation can help leaders identify and address the distribution of the burden from both the crisis and policy response across different population groups” – a good example of the vagueness and passivity of the writing and the Report’s heartfelt identification with our “leaders” (38.) And better data – we need much better data! “The data required to monitor impact, inform expert analysis, and determine the costs of different policies across different groups has not always been collected by governments or other institutions” (35), the document points out, as it perpetuates the mistaken belief that “data” is a singular noun. And it also complains that, during the pandemic,

it was not always clear what information led to the adopted public policies. Uncertainty around this information, and how policy evolved as new information emerged, was opaque. Initially, politicians and public health officials appeared reluctant to acknowledge the uncertainty and trade-offs inherent to their decisions (38).

William Lyon Mackenzie King

Congruent with a longstanding liberal belief in the salutary effects of publicity, one developed at great length by Mackenzie King, the patron saint of Canadian Liberals, the Royals call upon the state to “fund and facilitate better data collection, including health, economic, education and environmental indicators, ensuring that these data includes [sic] demographic and socioeconomic indicators and is [sic] readily available to experts based within and outside of the public service” (41).

There is far less chaos, though, than meets the eye. The Royals consistently steer clear of those demands that would imply the state’s obligation to plan and structure the economy in the interests of its citizens or that would infringe directly on the rights of property. The critique in general terms of state data collection in the pandemic omits any mention of the scrupulous attention most governments paid to the privacy rights of corporations, which meant details of outbreaks at meatpacking plants and Amazon warehouses were often scarce or unobtainable. The call for paid sick days overlooks the entrenched hostility of employers to any such impediment to their capacity to micro-manage their workers’ time and derive maximum profits from them. Predictably, there is nothing on the ways in which the pandemic has revealed the urgent necessity for workers of any gender to be respected as essential to the creation of social wealth and the reproduction of society. In fact, the Royals want deregulation of trades to which workers have been able to limit entry. They want ramped up immigration, presumably in the interests of capital accumulation and not as an altruistic experiment in multiculturalism. They want the reduction of those interprovincial barriers that impede our “common economic market” (19). And they want more and better, not fewer, global supply chains. Canadians should never imagine they can do much about the global supply chains in which they were enmeshed, and they are certainly ill-advised to imagine the country could, for instance, manufacture its own vaccines.

The development of pharmaceuticals entails very large fixed costs that are best spread across many countries. Shortages of expertise and crucial resources will inevitably arise when health research has to shift to a new disease, even in the largest economies. And, during a pandemic, many different drugs and treatments need to be simultaneously pursued, most of which will turn out to have little or no therapeutic value. No individual economy, even less so a relatively small one like Canada, can expect to rely on its domestic health-science industries to address the challenges of a pandemic.

Beyond the general challenges of innovating drugs during a pandemic lies the simple fact that Canada has not successfully built or sustained a global firm able to develop and market a drug or vaccine. This illustrates that Canada is not and is unlikely to be (in the medium-term at least) a major player in this field. Instead, Canada ought to focus on being an integral part of global drug and vaccine development efforts (24).

Leaving aside what would seem to be the empirically wobbly claim that the country has never forged a firm ability to develop and market a drug, the well-attested aversion of Big Pharma to pursue vaccine developments without prospects of early profits, and the Royals’ curious certainty that vaccine development can only occur within big rich countries under the auspices of powerful multinationals (which would certainly come as news to the vaccine-developing Cubans), we should emphasize their almost visceral rejection of anything savouring of a radical break with corporate globalism. That “our” state might enter the inevitable next pandemic with something more than promissory notes from Big Pharma seems beyond the bounds of reason. Rather, “we” should aim to embed the country and its health care professionals yet more deeply in global circuits of research and accumulation. No “moonshots” – no efforts to make Canada “a world centre for pharmaceutical innovation” should be on the table (30). “A risk assessment of Canada’s exposure to global supply chains to identify essential commodities which might merit the repatriation of manufacturing capacity” is as far as we should go – and it seems a safe bet that the postulates of that risk-assessment exercise will be those supplied by the utilitarian calculus inherent in neoliberal economic theory (7).

In short, what might seem to be “progressive concessions” are all framed in such a way that they are peripheral to the the document’s main thrust – and, given both mainstream parties’ propensity to appear to be listening to popular demands while subtly draining them of all their life and then quietly side-lining them indefinitely, those who believe in such things as pharmacare or an end to the corporate exploitation of the elderly might be well advised to file all such utopian ideas in that ever-expanding file folder labelled “Pigs, Airborne.”

The Royals take care to couch their vague neoliberal pronouncements in non-controversial terms, but there are moments when they stray a bit. They refrain from critiquing the country’s political leaders, except in the most general terms, but they do allow themselves the privilege of lighting into Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer. In April, Tam had disagreed with the emergent advocacy of “herd immunity” as a strategy in a country as yet lacking vaccines, on the grounds that young people got sick with Covid-19 too (an observation more than fully borne out by the variants doing the global rounds in 2021). Yet, on the Royals’ skewed reading, Tam’s comments suggested

Theresa Tam

that the federal policies were prioritizing any policy that could lower the spread of the disease regardless of the costs of the policies on other dimensions. To the extent that these comments reflect the realities of the behind-closed-doors decision making process, they reflect a one-dimensional approach to policymaking that stands in sharp contrast to our view that optimal policy must balance trade-offs across multiple dimensions (36n).

The Royals return to the point a little later on in the main text:

the COVID-19 lockdown policies reduced health costs of the outbreak on vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with chronic pre-existing conditions, but imposed economic and health costs on some groups of workers and business owners, mothers, fathers and school children. When governments closed schools to control the spread of the virus, harm to children’s educational prospects was foreseeable. As the disruption of children’s schooling has continued, this harm and its unequal distribution, has become increasingly manifest (37).

Once more, vagueness and passivity rule: the Royals decline to spell out the ethical arithmetic that tells them how to evaluate the “trade-offs,” and the casual reader might come away with the impression that the “commodities” traded on one side, i.e., the “costs” imposed on the lives of seniors shut away in often unspeakable long term care facilities, could be somehow placed in a balance against those of the young confined to educational set-backs and domestic boredom.[14] (It is a problem haunting so much neoliberalism: how does one measure the units of utility upon which so much of mainstream economics depends?) Here the Royals echo the Great Barrington Declaration touted by the right in the US in the fall of 2020, without mentioning it – perhaps because doing so would have made all too obvious the neoliberal postulates they share with the Declaration’s many out-of-the-closet neoliberal architects.

Resorting once more to the passive voice, the Royals reach a less-than-thundering conclusion:

Systems should be developed to increase transparency in the decision-making process at all levels of government. Such transparency is important for maintaining credibility and public support, particularly given the diversity of opinions available online and the prominence of misinformation. It will reassure groups within the population that their concerns are being heard (39).

Their studied vagueness obscures some down-to-earth questions. Does hearing the “concerns” of front-line workers translate into understanding why they need strong unions? How do we decide if one policy is better than another?

Will Renewing the Social Contract make a difference? In one sense, likely not: because it so unerringly regurgitates bien-pensant liberal opinions, it will likely blend into countless other statements of the hegemonic ideology. In another, perhaps it will: because in its chaotic blend of neoliberal nostrums with pseudo-Keynesian panaceas, it may well stand for future generations as a sign of how the pandemic incited a sense of cognitive chaos, and perhaps an incipient cultural revolution, that this document can barely register, let alone contain. The “Royal We” functions as a way of implying that a select few, close to our Sovereign in their sympathies and interests, can speak for us all. But there may be other, more revolutionary versions of the “We” out there, drawing from Rousseau, from Marx, from Gramsci – from, in short, the radical democratic tradition. And that “We” may want to ask some very different questions about power and pandemics than have crossed the curiously unfocused and at time seemingly poorly-educated minds of our Royals.

[1] Institute of Health Economics, “Creating Value Through Collaboration,” Link to article.

[2] Smart Prosperity Institute, “About Smart Prosperity Institute,” Link to article (emphasis added).

[3] Renewing the Social Contract: Economic Recovery in Canada from COVID-19. An RSC Policy Briefing, 45, n.95.

[4] Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2018), 2.

[5] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2015).

[6] For a useful recent collection, see Carl Schmitt, The Sovereign Collection, trans. C.J. Miller (London: Antelope, 2020).

[7] Norman Daniels and James Sabin, “Limits to Health Care: Fair Procedures, Democratic Deliberation, and the Legitimacy Problem for Insurers,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 26, 4 (Autumn 1997), 303-350.

[8] C. B. Macpherson, Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 92.

[9] Celeste Friend, “Social Contract Theory,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Link to article.

[10] See Virginia Held, Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); C.B. Macpherson, Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973); Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988); John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

[11] Ellen Amster, “History’s crystal ball: What the past can tell us about Covid-19 and our future,” The Conversation, Link to article

[12] Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (New York: Penguin, 2015).

[13] As the Royals explain, “Chapter 2 outline [sic] the vision for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) as the main pillar in an income support program,” (25) but “wage insurance differs from the Basic income Guarantee… in that its intend [sic] is to insure against shocks to earnings experienced by workers that [sic] find themselves in industries that are undergoing rapid structural change” (25n). Even the state’s efforts to provide social security may have provided a disincentive to return to work at low wages (although on this point the Brief is cagey and hedges its bets: “the evidence is mixed” (13).

[14] Or “boredome” [sic] as the Royals enigmatically would have it, p. 44, note 69.