Neoliberalism and the Municipal Elections

The municipal elections taking place across Ontario this November have generated little controversy and even less excitement. This is all quite different from even three years ago when there was much interest stirred in the hope of a ‘new deal’ being struck with senior levels of government to rebuild Canada’s sharply declining physical and social urban infrastructures. In Toronto, there was also a great deal of energy generated by the prospects of sweeping aside of former conservative Mayor Mel Lastman and putting an end to the ‘crony capitalism’ that had come to dominate city hall. A changing policy context at the federal and provincial levels would be matched by a new political regime at the municipal level, dominated by a centre-left Council and Mayor, and anchored by a bloc of NDP councillors. A large coalition of the social left, along with the local labour movement and more radical groups, came together to plump for David Miller and a host of other candidates. A new space for a progressive agenda seemed to open up.

But local politics have become haunted by the same nightmare of liberal democratic politics as other levels of government: the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. The decline of Canadian cities continues apace, and no on in Canada and Toronto can even recall what the ‘new deal for cities’ was about. The crooks and cronies around Lastman in Toronto are gone (although some have resurfaced around Jane Pitfield’s bid for mayor), but neoliberal urbanism continues on, and none of the major agendas Miller came to power have been implemented. The ‘third way’ social democracy that has become the ideological vision of the NDP, in its pragmatic search for policies that are not pro-state and not anti-market, has again failed to deliver an alternative.

The last term of the Toronto Council failed to deliver a new urban transport agenda or a new waterfront policy; to rid the city of the disgustingly subsidized and hideous Island Airport; to build any significant block of social housing; to address tax reform in a way that stopped the shift on to property taxes and away from business; to reform an urban planning agenda that did not make every new development a game of ‘let’s make a deal’ (as it evolved under incompetent senior planning officials, the lacklustre leadership of NDP councillors, and the pro-development Ontario Municipal Board); to begin to place again under democratic oversight the Toronto police (which had gotten wildly out of control under Julian Fantino), and rein in the racial biases of policing; to begin to rebuild the underfunded school system; and to address the increasing commercialization of daily life and public spaces. This is but a brief list of some of what was not accomplished.

The election campaign at the mayoralty and council level has not clarified any issues that will be addressed in the coming term. Even the new City of Toronto Act, which gives minor new taxing powers to the city and creates a stronger executive around the Mayor at the expense of Council, has generated no discussion and debate. The NDP bloc of candidates is all over the political map, has no common agenda, and are competing against each other in a few ridings. More ‘green entrepreneurialism’, more ‘community involvement’, a more ‘creative city’, and better ‘transit systems’ seems to be on the agenda of every candidate. What these mean is anybody’s guess. Only the two ‘independent’ weeklies in Toronto seem animated by the race. They should be: the ‘market ecology’ and ‘creative city’ agenda, the vague localist politics, and the political regime of Miller are also theirs.

Most of the interesting campaigns have been quite apart from the main campaign itself – the work by the Labour Council on protecting local jobs; the various campaigns for a living wage and anti-sweatshop purchases by UNITE-HERE and others; the No One is Illegal work on undocumented workers; the work exposing the role of dirty development money in city politics; the campaigns for expanding public space and ridding municipal properties of commercial advertising; the Campaign for Public Education; the work on green energy and against the Island Airport by ecology groups; and many others. These campaigns, however, all work more and more against the power structure as it has come to dominate local government, even as many of the political actors change. The coalition of three years ago is all but gone, and the disorganization of the Left at the local level is now no different than at other levels of political action. This is, at the end of the day, the political space that neoliberalism thrives in. And it now dominates Toronto politics.

The Bullet here provides articles by Yen Chu and Greg Albo assessing the context of neoliberal urbanism, the last three years of the Miller government, and the urban left. These are followed by additional resources on the election and local issues.

The campaign for Toronto’s mayor is well underway with this year’s municipal election on November 13th. In the 2003 election, David Miller was the underdog councillor championed by many on the left. This time around, Miller is the mayoral incumbent, with a track record that has left some of his leftist supporters disappointed and others on the left not surprised. Miller’s supporters saw his victory as hope for change. Other leftists, however, have always believed that electoral politics is an ineffective vehicle for social change. Furthermore, municipal politics itself has its limitations, as it is often affected by and dependent upon provincial and federal decisions and funding, as well as global events and market fluctuations. But even based on the power and influence that mayors do have, Miller’s falls short as a reformer.

Miller’s predecessor, Mel Lastman, was a brash conservative who was unapologetic in his aggressive denouncements of both unions and the homeless and in his racism (Lastman once told a reporter that he was afraid of going to Kenya because he worried that he would be eaten by the ‘natives’). This rhetoric was matched by equally harmful policies. Lastman pushed for the Safe Streets Act, which gave the police the authority to target the homeless and fine or arrest them for panhandling near bus stops or bank machines. He had a law and order agenda and refused to acknowledge that racial profiling existed on the police force. While sidelining poor communities, Lastman was a strong advocate of development. In his last term, his administration was in the midst of finalizing a deal to construct a bridge from downtown to the island airport. The city was also embroiled in a corruption scandal that Lastman tried to keep behind closed doors.

Miller’s campaign platform rested on the promise to scrap the island airport bridge and to sweep out corruption at city hall. The image of the broom came to symbolize Miller’s promise to clean up city hall as well as the city. After his victory, Miller succeeded in scrapping the deal to construct the bridge. Some on the left saw the issue of the bridge as a polarisation between those who cared about strong neighbourhood with good environments to those who only wanted to advance the interest of businesses at the expense of the environment and the community. For them Miller belonged to the former.

Others on the left remembered Miller’s progressive track record on social issues as a city councillor such as his outspoken criticisms of the police. In 2000, the Toronto Police Association printed Miller’s home phone number in newspaper ads in retaliation for his criticisms of the police’s Operation True Blue telemarketing campaign, which would raise funds to help the police target their critics. In the previous year, the Police Association revealed that they hired private detectives to investigate municipal politicians who were critical of the police. Miller was also critical of the Mike Harris government and their plans to fingerprint people on social assistance. But it was a different story once Miller became mayor.

Miller in Power

Miller put his broom to work and established the Clean and Beautiful City Initiative, which involved planting flowers along University Ave and adding more street sweepers to clean the city. However, for anti-poverty groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, Miller’s broom and Clean and Beautiful City Initiative are more than just about sweeping the garbage off the streets: they also included aspects of social cleansing. Just like Lastman, Miller does not want visible displays of poverty on Toronto streets. He and city council approved a ban on homeless people from sleeping at City Hall. In defending his action Miller said public space should not be turned into private space, implying that the homeless were turning City Hall into their private space. It seemed lost on Miller that homeless people sleep on public streets and spaces because they cannot afford private spaces. Also, public space is free and shared by everyone, while private space is controlled and policed. The homeless sleep at city hall at night when there is hardly anyone around. Nor do they prevent anyone from using the space if they had chosen to do so.

The further policing of public space by the city includes city workers fining the homeless who are found sleeping in parks with charges of camping in park without permit. The city is also moving to remove homeless people who live under the bridges of the Gardiner Expressway.

However, Miller has claimed that his Streets to Home initiative have found homes for about 500 homeless people. In April, Miller commissioned a survey on the homeless in order to do a needs-assessment. The survey has not resulted in much, except now the city has passed a motion to do research into establishing a law to ban panhandling. The limits of both the initiative and the survey have been widely criticised by housing advocates as yet another series of policy failures.

This social cleansing is paralleled by the gentrification and ‘condo-ification’ happening throughout the city’s core, where the professional middle-class has resettled in droves and pushed the working class to the margins. Walking through Toronto’s Queen Street district west of Spadina, used bookstores, thrift shops, greasy spoons, used appliances stores, modest restaurant and bars are being replaced by more upscale businesses such as fancy restaurants that sell appetizers for $15, hip bars crammed with the very fashionable and designer hotels.

The wealth being generated by the financial and speculative industries now dominating the Toronto economy, however, have neither trickled down in the urban core, nor been redistributed throughout other parts of the city. Rather, in the city’s poorer neighbourhoods residents face high unemployment, poor housing, lack of services, and inadequate public transit. The increasing gun violence in the city can be attributed to this social deterioration. Much of this can be blamed on the federal government for toughening employment insurance eligibility and benefits, the Harris government for cutting social assistance and downloading social programs, and the federal and provincial Liberals for failing to restore those cuts. Although, the Miller administration has set-up programs such as training schemes as preventive measures (which reports suggest have been dismally taken up by employers), he also boasts of having the largest budget increase for the city’s police force. Adding more police officers to neighbourhoods where residents are mistrustful of the police will not solve the problems. The solution starts with addressing social, economic and racial disparities.

If it is true that all levels of government are responsible for addressing social problems, it is nonetheless telling that a cash-strapped city can manage to find more money for the police, but it is unable to hire more building inspectors to crack down on slumlords. If the city cares about safety, then they must also ensure that tenants live in safe housing. Miller and the city has made tiniest possible step towards this by providing a website with information on apartment standards based on status of inspections and orders to comply. But this, along with some construction of affordable housing, is not enough to alleviate the cities housing crisis. Housing activists have proposed quite feasible reforms that include expropriating property from landlords who fail to maintain their property to standard and the conversion of all vacant property to affordable housing.

Torontonians like to see their city as progressive. But this is more myth than fact. Some American cities have reforms that have gone further than Toronto and Miller’s policies. For instance, in several U.S. cities new developments must include a certain percentage of affordable housing. Certainly, this should not be a substitute for public housing, but it at least provides for some new affordable housing for the working-class in the city core. Also, many cities south of the border have implemented a ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy, which means that city workers will not ask for immigration status or share the nformation with federal agencies. Miller has expressed support for such a policy, but so far the city has not moved to fully implement this.

While some of his supporters may or may not be critical of his social policies, they have been critical of him on issues of governance and development. In an effort to make government more accountable and responsive to residents, Miller held a participatory budget town-hall style meeting. Yet Miller has been pushing for the new Toronto Act, which will include more executive power for the mayor and move budget decisions away from city council. CUPE, the municipal workers union, is working with other community groups to oppose this undemocratic provision for concentrating power to the mayor’s office. Miller has also been criticized for supporting the $255 million Front Street Extension, which will widen the roads near the lake, making the waterfront even less accessible.

If Miller has one thing going for him, it has been his commitment to keeping city services public. This has been the basis of support from some union locals, including those within OPSEU and CUPE. Many are also worried about his opponent Jane Pitfield, a conservative who has said that the city does not need unions and who spearheaded the campaign to ban panhandling. This is an important concern as the most reactionary forces in the city are still looking for a champion – as they had in the last mayoralty election in John Tory and in Mayor Lastman – to push city politics even more pro-business and neoliberal.

One More Time: Election 2006

At the end of the day, municipal politics is posing a recurrent dilemma for the left and social justice. As with many social democratic policies, Miller’s commitment on public service could be here today, but gone tomorrow. After all, Miller was originally opposed to the Front Street Extension. There are additional reasons to raise concerns: many of Miller’s advisors are Tories, as he has sought to build an encompassing coalition that embraces the Toronto business agendas as well; he has taken a strong stance against the TTC union in their efforts to protect jobs; and he shockingly participated in the spring Walk for Israel march in the middle of the crisis in Gaza.

The fight against social marginalization and for local democracy does not start or end at the ballot box. Even basic reforms, such as better housing, are not achieved from the goodness of a politician’s heart – it comes from community pressure, mobilization and activism. This has proven the case election after election. •

Yen Chu lives in Toronto and is active in No One is Illegal.

Neoliberal Urbanism and the New Canadian City

Greg Albo

Neoliberal globalization has played itself out in the politics of cities over and over again. The internationalization of financial markets, the geographical restructuring of manufacturing, and the consumer debt fuelling retail markets have formed the economic and physical landscapes of neoliberal urbanism. Policy initiatives for water, electricity and healthcare privatization, and cuts to social housing and welfare rates, have also been political battles over the quality of life of cities. The crisis of Canadian cities that has resulted has led to persistent calls of mayors from St. John’s to Victoria for a ‘new deal.’

Cities and Capital Accumulation

As one of the most open economies in the world, it should come as no surprise that globalization has acutely impacted Canadian cities. Capitalist development pits urbanization and growth of the world market in a direct and contradictory relationship. This can be seen in Karl Marx’s theory of capital accumulation. The opening section of Capital points to the tension. The commodity as a use-value is always particular, worked up from specific resources by the concrete labours of workers embedded in particular communities and social relations. But the commodity as an exchange-value is universal and capitalists seek out the entire world market for its sale. Marx directly links local production and world trade: ‘The production of commodities and their circulation in its developed form, namely trade, form the historic presuppositions under which capital arises.’ The particular and the universal, the local and the global, are different dimensions of a capitalist world market.

The dynamics of capital accumulation directly shape the built and natural environments of the city. The accumulation of capital leads to an intensification and concentration of the forces of production. The mass of fixed capital put in motion by any individual worker increases in its organic mass, technical complexity and value. Simple craft and factory production aided by steam power dominated the 19th century. Today we have robotized, nuclear and fossil-fuel powered, 24 hour-a-day, just-in-time factories consuming acre upon acre of industrial parks. The growth in the army of business professionals defending capitalist interests at every turn has been even more explosive. The former low-rise offices for lawyers, accountants and bankers have become the massive complexes of office towers for the business bureaucracies that dominate the skyline of the capitalist city.

The growing organizational complexity of capital depends, in turn, upon a parallel process of ‘statification.’ As the fixed capital required for factories and offices becomes increasingly intricate, and the technical labour required to staff these facilities also grows, government support for infrastructure, research and development, technical training, financing and regulatory intervention becomes necessary. Government revenues and resources become progressively more mobilized in the interest of accumulating capital for the owners and senior bureaucrats of corporations. This is the idea that the accumulation of capital is the production of space as a built environment. Capitalism is always urbanization. David Harvey has argued that ‘it is through urbanization that the surpluses are mobilized, produced, absorbed, and appropriated and that it is through urban decay and social degradation that the surpluses are devalued and destroyed.’

The politics of urban development occupies a central spot on the political agenda the world over. Cities have come to reflect key contradictions of neoliberalism and capitalist development. The recent UN-Habitat, State of the World’s Cities 2006-07, reveals social processes of world historical proportions. Half of the world’s population of 6.5 billion now lives in cities, and is predicted to grow to 5 billion out of global population of 8.1 billion by 2030. There will soon be 500 cities of over 1 million people. An astonishing one in three live in urban slums, as migration from rural areas actually begins to lead to a population decline of people living outside cities. Tokyo is now an urban conglomeration of some 35 million, and it is joined by meta-cities of over 10 million on every continent. The largest urban growth is in Africa and Asia, but North America is – and will remain – the most urbanized continent in the world. Canada is more urbanized than the U.S., with the Greater Toronto Area being Canada’s meta-city, with a population often tallied at 8 million. The surrounding urban environment spreads hundreds of kilometres from Oshawa to Fort Erie.

If it is difficult to draw out the implications of the raw numbers on urbanism, the social dimensions of urbanization are also demanding. For example, some 4 million worldwide are dieing annually from urban air pollution. The ecological implications of waste treatment, garbage, water usage and energy needs are under strain and causing major problems everywhere. The failings of urban transportation and development planning are causing a plague of traffic gridlock for all cities. Commuting times for increasing numbers of workers is extending the length of the work-day back to the worst days of industrial capitalism. Key centres of economic power are also emerging, such as Mumbai, Sao Paolo and Shanghai in finance and Bangalore and Seoul in information technologies. These reflect new dynamics of global capitalism. Canadian cities are implicated in these same social pressures and economic imperatives.

Neoliberal Urbanism in Canada

Neoliberal urbanism in Canada can, in some respects, be dated back to the 1970s when the federal government abandoned playing any direct role in urban development. Housing policy was reoriented to increased support for private sector mortgage markets and developers. The provinces also began to push for merger of cities and rationalization of municipal services at this time, hoping to bolster the attractiveness of cities for business investment. Through the 1980s industrial restructuring drastically increased the population dependent on welfare. Manufacturing deindustrialization both downsized workplaces and shifted many industrial plants to lower-tax, lower-unionized ‘greenfield’ sites and ex-urban regions. At the same time, financialization led to a huge expansion of the speculative activities and bureaucracies associated with the banking and insurance sectors. With the North American free trade agreements and the increasing inter-penetration of Canadian and U.S. capital, these economic developments intensified. Neoliberalism consolidated as the unquestioned policy framework through the 1990s.

The downloading of service provision and responsibilities from federal and provincial governments needs to be signalled out. It has been an important policy and administrative tactic for advancing neoliberal objectives. Downloading has served as an administrative mechanism to move from universal non-market provision of social services, with democratic pressure to advance to higher standards, toward market provided services that are both priced and delivered at lower standards for the average user. The objectives of service downloading has been: the lowering of taxes; the withdrawal of government from providing services as much as possible; the lowering of public sector employment and wages; the addition of pressure on private sector wages by norming public sector wages to lag private sector settlements; and the creation of new profit opportunities for business.

Under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the federal government began to limit fiscal transfers to the provinces in terms of equalization payments but also the funding of key social programmes. The downloading process accelerated under the Liberals in the mid-1990s with the new Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST). The CHST radically cut the level of transfers, and in particular withdrew the federal government from directly funding of many social programmes and influencing provincial government expenditures in these policy areas. In turn, provincial governments, freed from federal fiscal constraints and facing increased costs and less revenues, offloaded more programmes and funding responsibilities on to the municipalities. This included their support to cities and provincial municipal affairs departments.

Fiscal support to cities thus failed to match the new demands on city budgets. Cities in Canada are largely dependent upon the property tax system, and have little access to other sources of revenue and none to the major sources of revenue in the income and corporate tax systems. The property tax system, under pressures from business and the logic of neoliberalism, has also seen a decline on business levies on commercial property and an increase on residential property taxes. By adding to the regressivity of the overall tax system, neoliberals in Canada have sought to fuel a property tax revolt at the municipal level.

The result of downloading and the policy driven tax constraints is that municipal governments have faced intense funding problems. In particular, they have lacked the funds for welfare, transportation, schools and emergency services. In other words, neoliberal policies strapped cities for cash in the main areas of local spending in Canada. The result is that cities have been hit with mounting problems everywhere you look: lagging infrastructure maintenance; public transit deterioration; crowded schools with facilities shutdown at the same time; community services trimmed; and social polarisation due to cuts to welfare, disability services and social housing. At the same time, police budgets have increased in terms of personnel, new weapons and hardware, and surveillance. This has pushed cities into a fiscal crisis, re-creating aspects of the fiscal disaster of the 1930s in Canada, when services were last downloaded so thoroughly to municipalities.

The fiscal bind and deteriorating urban infrastructure led Prime Minister Paul Martin to propose a ‘new deal for cities.’ This was hardly bold stuff: it included some minor sharing of gas tax revenue to support public transport, and recycling commitments to social housing and public infrastructure. The quick ouster of Martin from office this year let even these modest proposals fall to the side. The Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper have said nothing about urban issues, seeing this in strict constitutionalist terms as a matter of provincial jurisdiction. Their voter basis has, moreover, partly been built on an anti-urban agenda. The Conservatives are the central political force maintaining the anti-democratic rural biases of the electoral system at the federal and provincial levels where they have greatest voting strength. Indeed, the main urban initiative of the Conservatives is law and order, particularly expanding the security state as they seek to align Canadian policy with U.S. views on ‘homeland security.’ But they also show a willingness to supply fiscal support for the spectacle architecture projects and international events such as the world fair and Olympics that have the backing of economic elites, notably in Vancouver and Toronto.

Neoliberalism in Toronto

As Canada’s largest city, the planning and social disaster of neoliberal urbanism has struck Toronto particularly hard. The cuts of the federal Liberal government were matched by the hard right policies of the Conservatives of Mike Harris at the provincial level. Under Harris, municipalities had to assume greater responsibility for public transit, local airports, libraries, policing, water and sewage, social housing and culture and parks policies. The Tories also pushed through a deregulation of rent controls and urban planning controls over development. While cutting tax rates for the highest earners, Harris also cut welfare rates by 20 percent in 1995 and then froze them for the rest of his term. While Premier Dalton McGuinty has lifted the freeze, welfare assistance has barely improved. The cuts to social assistance and shelter allowances have directly impacted on cities and their responsibilities for administering many of these programmes. The Ontario government cuts to child care had a similar impact in downloading wage costs, resource centres and special needs programmes onto local governments. Both levels of government have extensively downloaded immigration and settlement costs to cities, a particularly heavy burden for Toronto where the largest portion of immigrants settle. Finally, McGuinty has off-loaded provincial responsibilities of some $380 million to restore municipal employee pensions and $870 million for upgrading water supplies on to the municipalities.

An urban fiscal crisis from policy downloading has been a central characteristic of neoliberalism. But it would wrong to see neoliberal urbanism as being imposed on Toronto from other levels of government. Local ruling classes and many municipal politicians, particularly in the political coalition that came together to support both the megacity merger and Mayor Mel Lastman, have favoured neoliberal restructuring. They consistently supported contracting out of public sector work, privatization of city corporations, more market friendly development and rental markets, and a reorientation of city policies toward boosting inter-urban competitive capacities, particularly for financial and real estate interests. This new ruling bloc in Toronto politics successfully broke the old reform coalition that had dominated city government since the 1960s. Indeed, what remains of the old reform group on city council – mainly representing wards in the inner city core – has accommodated itself to the neoliberal city.

Toronto developments have been characteristic of ‘world class cities’. The concentration of wealth on Bay Street and a few residential enclaves has been stunning. It is matched by the spiral of decline that continues everywhere else. From the first ‘mega-city’ Mayor Mel Lastman to the current Mayor David Miller, the list of the failures of the City of Toronto is the same and just as endless: homelessness and the lack of social housing; the never-ending delays to waterfront revitalization and closing of the Island Airport; one architectural horror followed by another from the deregulation of urban planning guidelines; the lack of a mass transit plan and continual cuts to services; the continued shelving of plans to revitalize Union Station; the deterioration of city schools and recreational facilities; the fiasco of shipping Toronto garbage to Michigan; the lack of a social policy to address the racialization of poverty; the ever increasing budgets for a police force that is ever less democratically accountable; and many others.

Several central issues over the term of the Miller council illustrate the grip of neoliberal urbanism in Toronto. First, although Miller and NDP councillors have been able to deflect some of the rants of neoliberal fundamentalists on Council and in the bourgeois media, the policing pole of addressing social problems is still clearly dominating social policy expenditures. This can be seen in the criminalization of the homeless around City Hall under Miller’s watch, and the empty exercise of counting the homeless in order to downplay the levels and needs. Similarly, in dealing with gun violence, it is police budgets that are growing while recreational services in Jane and Finch, Malvern, and others continue to stagnate.

Second, municipal economic policy remains focused on the ‘competitive city’ model. Public sector cuts are still on the city agenda to maintain promises to keep taxes low. Moreover, Miller supported the steady shift from commercial to residential taxes over the next 10-15 years in order to keep competitive with the 905 district and rival international cities. The waiving of zoning and density requirements in city plans to support real estate developers and bolster urban revitalization, particularly for the housing needs of professionals in the inner city, has become standard fare. Since releasing its major report in 2003, the Toronto City Summit Alliance has acted as key advisory body to the city on various ‘progressive’ measures to promote Toronto’s international competitiveness. The most publicized has been the idea of Toronto as a ‘creative city’, promoting its social and ethnic diversity and concentration of media and arts, as a means to aid the tourist, high-tech and financial sectors.

Third, the reorganization of governance of Toronto has strengthened executive power at the expense of developing local democracy and popular planning. Miller’s initial effort to widen public input into city budgetary policy surely counts as one of the briefest and most minimal attempts at local democracy on record. At the prodding of political elites and the Toronto ruling bloc, he has supported steps in the opposite direction. Even with some amendments, the new City of Toronto Act coming into effect in the fall follows the ‘strong mayor’ model of concentrating power in an executive at the expense of Council and public input. Similarly, the Waterfront Development Corporation, which is to have oversight of the massive plans for development along Lake Ontario, is an appointed board dominated by business interests, with little transparency over its decision-making or operations.

The Local Left

Capitalist development concentrates populations, production and power in cities. This has always posed strategic dilemmas for the Left. The Marxian tradition has focused on the Paris Commune, workers’ councils and developing organizational capacities. It has sought the reorganization and decentralization of economic activity. But it has also argued that building up local bases of power and administration had to be connected to projects to transform national state power and to internationalize political struggles and alliances against the world capitalist market. The French writer Henri Lefebvre saw building a new urban space as central to revolutionary prospects: ‘A revolution that does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses.’ An alternate politics depends upon a political capacity to contest the dominant social powers that control existing urban space, but also the ability to command and produce a new space. Such liberated ‘red zones’ can take many forms in the struggle for a radical democracy. But they cannot be avoided.

In contesting neoliberal urbanism, the Left in Canada has taken up a large number of issues, such as urban poverty, contracting-out of work, racism and migration, defence of public space, and urban ecology. It has largely done so on the basis of individual campaigns of an activist group, the agenda of a Left councillor, or by a particular union fightback or organizing struggle. In Vancouver and Montreal (and to a lesser extent Winnipeg) the Left has formed wider political groupings. But these have all been more city-wide electoral pacts than political and campaigning organizations of the Left to develop an alternate agenda for urban space and to contest the capitalist city.

In Toronto, the NDP has a quite loose municipal caucus, and it has been years since a socialist presence on city council making the anti-capitalist case and demanding a more radical local democracy could be heard. The local Left has all but dissolved as an active force contesting local centres of power. The ‘Chow-Layton-Pantalone’ years of the last decade or so at Toronto City Council have largely been that of an individual alderman attempting to leverage minor social measures out of the latest development scheme and condo complex, negotiating the trimming of municipal services on the least unfavourable terms, and supporting local – preferably green – entrepreneurs and markets.

The obvious still needs saying about the current term of Council: despite the mobilization of a large social bloc behind the mayoralty candidacy of David Miller and a number of NDP councillors, the last three years are most notable for how little has changed. This period has been, more or less, one of ‘third way’ social democracy without anyone calling it as such. The first Miller term has neither offered an alternative to neoliberal urbanism and the socio-economic decline of Toronto, nor contributed to building a new urban Left. It has only yielded more of the same neoliberalism, but now wrapped in the corporatist gloss of the Toronto City Summit Alliance and the latest ‘pop urbanism’ of the creative city movement.

The quiescence of the Left at the local level in Toronto is little different than the disarray at other levels of political struggle. The silence of labour, environmentalists and the social left in criticism of the Mayor and city council has been deafening. Miller and the NDP councillors will be supported in the November election. But this will be because of even less enthusiasm – and justified fears – of all the rest. While the Left has been dissolving as a political force, the neoliberals and Toronto business have been organizing and planning to contest progressive councillors and push their anti-tax, law and order, all-out development municipal agenda. The challenge for the Left will be to piece together at least some political agenda on a few key items that can act as a pole in the election and serve as a basis for mobilization afterwards. Neoliberal urbanism has served an ample supply of issues to be taken up. But can a new urban Left in Toronto – and indeed Canada – begin to form? •

Greg Albo teaches political economy at York University.

Toronto Electoral Platforms:

A number of groups have put out assessments of the candidates and of some key election issues. The Toronto and York Region Labour Council’s ‘A Million Reasons to Vote’ platform and list of endorsed candidates can be found at

The Toronto Environmental Alliance surveyed candidates and voting records, in it’s Elect Environment Report Card
and also at

You can find out who’s running in your neighbourhood in Toronto, what the issues are, links to candidates websites and more at a general website put together by public space campaigners.
It is at:

For additional articles on neoliberal urbanism and Toronto check out Relay, No. 13, September-October 2006 at:

  • Keys to the City: Waterfront Development in Canada, Jennefer Laidley and Gene Desfor
  • Weak Policies for Strong Neighbourhoods, Ahmed Allahwala
  • Getting Creative in Toronto… Not Your Parent’s Neoliberal Urbanism, John Grundy
  • Hipster Urbanism, Deborah Cowen
  • Whose Streets? Their Streets! Greg Sharzer
  • Organizing Against Hunger and Poverty in the Somali Community, John Clarke
  • I’d Rather be on Stage, Rinaldo Walcott
  • The Future Face of Policing, Hicham Safieddine
  • Planet of Slums, Angela Joya