Alberta, the hollow state

Alberta has all the trappings of a modern subnational government attached to a real life, honest-to-god state: political parties, laws, a bureaucracy, a guy in a fancy hat who carries a mace. But decades of conservative rule have hollowed out Alberta to the point where it is simply incapable of providing the services, support and guarantee of safety that a provincial or state-level government should provide.

The homelessness crisis unfolding before us every day provides a vivid example of this hollow state. In small and big cities alike the numbers of unhoused people continue to grow. Our emergency shelter system, privatized by the Klein government in the ‘90s and given over to politically connected religious charities, can’t house the homeless even on an emergency basis. When the provincial government announced 200 new emergency shelter beds recently they didn’t actually have the spaces ready, the announcement was just that money had been allocated to non-profits to provide them.

Both the provincial and the federal governments got out of public housing at any meaningful scale in the ‘90s, turning the construction and management of non-market housing over to municipalities and a patchwork of non-profits and charities.

And it’s not just homelessness. Carbon capture and storage and hydrogen are just giant handouts to the oil and gas industry. The UCP is actively handing over large parts of the healthcare system to the private sector with their privatized surgery plan. Alberta’s sold off its electricity generation and powerline systems to private interests and we have spiking power prices. Even this latest nonsense with pensions shows the hollow state in action as it’s really just a ploy to help oil and gas companies by delaying and watering down what is already piecemeal and insufficient climate action from the federal government.

This is how a state gets hollowed out. And I didn’t make up this term, academics came up with it in the ‘90s and it has a Wikipedia entry and everything.

But back to homelessness. Instead of actually solving homelessness with the full power and pocketbook of the state the Alberta government contracts and then underfunds third parties to provide something that is absolutely required for everyone–shelter.

As the state becomes less and less able to deal with crises it loses legitimacy. Alberta didn’t just go from a marginally functional subnational government to a hollow state right away; it took decades of work by the conservative movement to chip away at the supporting structures. Crisis by crisis and deal by deal things get worse and worse. 

Regular folks who aren’t politically connected insiders just see a sustained decline in their standard of living; Housing becomes unaffordable, it becomes impossible to get a family doctor, your kid’s class has 35 plus students in it. Health inspectors fail to shut down a ghost kitchen that provides food to hundreds of kids despite multiple serious health infractions. Wages stagnate while the cost of everything goes up and people become desperate. 

As things get more dire people turn away from the state for support and services. They look to a corporation, an affinity group, a church, or a gang or something new. These new groups, energized by this high level of loyalty, are also deeply obligated to reciprocate this loyalty with support and will become highly aggressive to take care of their member’s needs. 

Once this shift in loyalty occurs a downward spiral of violence, crime and corruption becomes entrenched. These are the consequences of hollowing out your state. 

And as society’s poorest, most marginalized and most mentally ill people live in broad daylight without the state providing so much as a garbage can for them in support the UCP are happy to use the police to “solve” the problem they’ve created. It’s a neat trick, the police are used both to control the message around public safety and to physically round up and control the homeless. 

The UCP plan to force people who use drugs into drug treatment at third party, non-profit facilities with little accountability is the hollow state in action. We know that forced treatment doesn’t work but that’s not the point, the point is to provide the feeling of safety, to let the public know that they’re doing something about the problem. 

But putting an armed police officer on every corner or arresting every unhoused person who uses drugs and press ganging them into “treatment” won’t solve the problem of public safety. It will take decades of investing back in publicly owned, democratically controlled social infrastructure to make that happen. The best time to start doing that was twenty years ago, the second best time is today.

Hollow earth image via Wikimedia Commons


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