The past few days have not been great for public services in Canada. Canada Post will be phasing out home delivery of mail. Expansion of the Canada Pension Plan was scuttled at the finance ministers’ meeting. In the grand scheme of things, however, these are not extreme cutbacks. It’s not as if Canada Post is to be dismantled completely or our public pension fund to run completely dry. This government has long brought us death by a thousand paper cuts and those from the past days are just a continuation of the strategy.
There is a particular common thread that runs through all such small cutbacks. Corey Robin’s recent article in Jacobin, “Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness”, helped greatly in seeing and naming it. Let us call it insourcing.
This kind of insourcing refers to taking a collective public service and making it into an individual responsibility. Perhaps James Moore recently summed up the insourcing philosophy best, “Certainly we want to make sure that kids go to school full bellied, but is that always the government’s job to be there to serve people their breakfast?” Serve your own breakfast, get your own mail, don’t wait too long to die.
Settled human history from the earliest has been one of gradual outsourcing and specialization. Not everyone has to know how to build a house, make shoes or even bake bread. There are carpenters, shoemakers and bakers for that – or, in today’s parlance: condo developers, global clothing retail chains and agribusiness. Today, you don’t even need to know how to raise a child or live a coherent life; enter the nanny and the life coach.
All societies have regulated outsourcing to some extent, creating collective institutions to manage outsourced functions. Agricultural irrigation services and armies are two examples with a long history. The development of the capitalist welfare state has greatly expanded the scope of such collective outsourcing management. Some outsourced problems that are now collectively managed have been with us for all human history – having enough resources put away to survive old age – while others are the creation of modern societies – exchanging items over incredible distances in short time.
Since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 80s, the trend towards greater collective outsourcing has been reversed. It is not that we have all become our own carpenters and bakers again; indeed, if anything, our activities are more and more specialized with ever greater parts of our lives outsourced to others. The change has been in how these activities are regulated. For a time, the number of outsourced activities that were – to various degrees, but at very least nominally – collectively controlled by citizens grew. Today, that pendulum is swinging in the other direction. More and more activities are now privately managed and contracted over. We are increasingly consumers rather than citizens.
Insourcing is the midpoint on this journey between citizen and consumer. Often, before an activity is moved from the collectively-managed to the privately-transacted sector it comes back to the household – the swamped modern household making do in a very complex society. For some, the time and energy costs of dealing with this newly individualized responsibility are often too great, so the task is very quickly outsourced again, albeit this time to the private sector. For others, it is, on the other hand, the financial costs that are too great, and the task is simply dropped. In the first case, rather than public pensions, we get private investment funds – with higher management fees and greater risks – and Happy Meals. In the latter, people simply don’t save for retirement or children go hungry.
Call this the in-and-out trick. It is an integral part not only of the death by a thousand cuts strategy, but necessary for an economy that requires growth to function. One means of growth entails finding new sources of profit. Collectively-managed institutions make for excellent targets: something that people already need and use can be reconfigured as a source of private returns.
The in-and-out trick allows this to happen in an orderly fashion. The political and social instability in Greece and other parts of the world wrecked by large-scale austerity demonstrate what can happen if (re-)privatization happens too quickly. Many people do not want their collective management taken away. Taking it away small piece by small piece can obscure the true scale of what is happening.
What’s more, this can all be done under the seemingly sensible guise of responsibility and choice. Insourcing naturally provides such language. Something taken away (boo!) is being given back (yay!). No one likes stealing. Yet the new-found choice is often ephemeral and the responsibility comes from a place of burden rather than a freedom. Small choices – should I go to the big mailbox down the street? should I have a bigger RRSP? – lead inexorably to larger choices – should I have mail service? should I save for old age?
The responsibility to individually take care of such matters simply adds another drain on time and energy. Society once decided to collectively manage them, partly in order to free individuals from the burdens and risks of individually solving such problems. Insourcing does not solve a problem; it simply creates it anew and as a larger drain. The complexity of everyday life in an advanced capitalist economy, the volume of work needed to survive, the sheer geographic dispersion of our obligations, all are factors that work to make our time increasingly scarce and our communities more disconnected.
In these conditions, piecemeal insourcing not only quietly leads back to outsourcing, now private and for-profit, but taxes our time and our communities even more. Take the two examples from the past days. The argument that the new “super”-mailboxes will be community gathering places is all the more bizarre in this context. It takes more than a metal box on the corner to build community, especially if the metal box is the means by which another collective institution is transferred into the private realm. Similarly, outsourcing retirement saving to investment managers. Here, the destructive component is even more pernicious. A process whereby society collectively takes it upon itself to care for its members in old age by pooling resources and minimizing risks is slowly transformed into a private scheme where individuals are each out to do the best for themselves only.
What then is a left-wing strategy if not collective outsourcing on the widest, most democratic scale possible? We live in a complex society and for now cannot return to a do-it-yourself primitivism (climate change may tell us otherwise, but that’s a story for another day). This complexity does not, however, condemn us to less time, to more personal risk, to weaker communities nor to the buying-and-selling of nearly all doings and things. To think it does is to fall for the old in-and-out trick. The easiest way not to fall for it is not to wait for the inevitable out, but defend and expand the public realm before the in can begin.