WE DON’T COUNT ON CAPITALISM WHEN THE CHIPS ARE DOWN. That’s just one of the singular insights Linda McGuaig offers up in her latest book The Sport & Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich are Stealing Canada’s Public Wealth.
McQuaig reminds us that it was public enterprise that saved our bacon in World War II—not private enterprise. This fact is never featured in any official history. Neither are the many other major public enterprise successes in Canada. The reason is plain enough: the success of public enterprise doesn’t fit the capitalist storyline—ever.
The approved truth is now, and always was, capitalist. It’s first commandment is that there is no better enterprise than private enterprise. Period. McGuaig reveals that this has never been true in Canada—no matter how the official histories spin things.
Victory in WWII
Private enterprise failed the biggest test it ever faced. It simply could not deliver all we needed to fight and win WWII. We used public enterprise to do that.
We created 28 different Crown corporations to organize and carry out all the research, development and production we needed to fight overseas and survive at home. Canada often led the way, as we did with radar.
But, with the war won, it was back to big business as usual.
C. D. Howe, the industrialist who was in charge of all our war production, told the House of Commons there would be no necessity for any more public enterprise for research or anything else. Anything worthwhile could be done best by private companies. In a demonstration of big business genius, he asked the MPs to imagine how something like radar could have any possible use with the war over.
Hydro power was people power
Hydro electricity was a huge public enterprise success—on purpose. The premier of Ontario in 1905 (a Conservative) was determined that everyday people should not become “the sport and prey of capitalists”. He was determined that since the Ontario waterways belong to all the people, all the dams, power stations, transmission lines and vast electrical generating infrastructure should also be theirs and theirs alone.
People in Toronto marched in the streets to support his decision to keep hydro public. A crowd of eight thousand filled the streets of Kitcherner, Ontario to celebrate the success of the public enterprise that brightened their days and nights.
The Connaught Medical Research Laboratories were one of the most successful enterprises in Canada ever—private or public. But that wasn’t enough to keep them ours.
Dr. John G. FitzGerald set up the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Toronto in 1914 to cure the ill—not make money. Diptheria was the number one killer of children in Ontario at the time. The lab developed a diphtheria antitoxin. The government of Ontario committed to buy the antitoxin at cost and distribute it for free.
Connaught Labs carried on that way for 72 years: developing, improving and distributing drugs like insulin and penicillin and the polio vaccine, as well as many, many others, including drugs to fight typhus and help with organ transplants and heart surgery—always as a public enterprise. Whatever money the labs made it was turned back into providing lifesaving drugs at the lowest price possible.
None of it mattered to prime minister Brian Mulroney. He sold the labs to a private drug manufacturer in 1986. Today they are owned and operated by the fifth largest drug company in the world. The company keeps all their profits for themselves.
McGuaig believes that it is only by telling these stories that we can save ourselves from the inevitable economic and cultural devastation capitalism brings.
We don’t know these stories
“I’m trying to make Canadians aware of this wonderful history we have. The United States excels at private enterprise. We excel at public enterprise. But we don’t know those stories,” she told CBC radio host Michael Enright.
Enright put it to McGuaig that capitalism is not all bad. It’s a proven fact that capitalism has improved life for many millions.
McGuaig pointed out that whatever benefits came from capitalism were unintended consequences; the things people did to try and survive under capitalism.
She told Enright: “In fact, the real thing that has benefited people at the bottom is not capitalism. It’s actually the forces that have resisted capitalism.”
When capitalism first began five centuries ago, the peasantry was thrown into absolute misery. Their life expectancy decreased initially. What changed that was the public health movement that figured out: “Oh! Sanitation would be a good idea. If we could clean up that sewage water, we could save lives.” And they did.
What followed later was the push for unionization, healthcare, education, etc. That was what really raised living standards around the world.
Philosophers tell us “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The story of our public enterprise past that McGuaig tells in The Sport & Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich are Stealing Canada’s Public Wealth is one we need to remember and seriously consider repeating.
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