When democracy goes off the rails

French theorist Michel Foucault may not have predicted the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, but he did predict the conditions that led to it.


You could say Michel Foucault saw this train coming.

The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster—which killed 47 people and destroyed almost the entire downtown of the Quebec town after a freight train containing crude oil derailed and exploded in 2013—is admittedly only one example. But according to Tyler Dunford, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Alberta, the tragedy was symptomatic of a pervasive, emerging mentality the great French philosopher and social theorist identified in his analysis of power decades ago.

Although initial blame for the deadliest rail disaster since Confederation fell on the lone engineer for failing to set enough handbrakes, a subsequent report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada came to a different conclusion. It castigated Transport Canada for failing to enforce its own safety requirements but also accused the country’s transport watchdog of relinquishing too much regulatory oversight to industry, assuming it could police itself.

"I was really upset by the fact that 47 people died and the company (the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway) didn't seem to have to pay for it,” said Dunford of his reasons for first taking up his study as a master’s student.

“It might sound strange as a sociologist, but I actually believe in capitalism—but regulated capitalism. I believe in privatized profits but also privatized losses, so the taxpayer shouldn't have to pay for them."

And that’s where Foucault enters the picture, said Dunford. In his famous critique of power, Foucault argued that “the state must govern for the market, not because of the market.” In other words, the market should serve the needs of the state, not the other way around, or the safety and welfare of entire populations are at risk.

Foucault and the flaw of market rule

Foucault recognized the inherent flaw in market rule when he came up with the concept of “neoliberal sovereignty” to describe what he saw as a growing trend toward the eventual eradication of regulation in the name of corporate profits. And because he saw power as discursive—that is, surrounding us everywhere, embedded in language and social relations, and often involving our unwitting complicity—abuse can happen right under our noses.

Neoliberal sovereignty, the endgame of deregulation, "is basically the idea of corporations having sovereignty to do what they want, which contributes to deaths and other damage,” said Dunford. “It absolves corporations from responsibility for protecting human life.”

And along with deregulation, said Dunford, come the criminalizing of environmental movements and threats to freedom of expression and association—anything that challenges corporate power.

At its worst, said Dunford, “this absolute market mentality merges with state sovereignty and eliminates existing safety and regulation frameworks to pursue unregulated corporate profits.”

You can see the creeping trend everywhere these days—the U.S. government’s plan to defang the Dodd-Frank Act meant to protect consumers from the banking industry, President Donald Trump’s executive order to eliminate two regulations for every new one in federal agencies, another just last week scrapping regulations preventing mines from dumping waste in streams, and even the failure of Canada Health to ensure that medical marijuana is free of harmful pesticides.

The downside of the Alberta Advantage

Closer to home, as political scientist Laurie Adkin points out in her recent book, First World Petro-Politics, the Alberta Advantage was unabashedly based on a neoliberal ideology that persists to this day.

“The Alberta Advantage was built on an ecological subsidy,” argues Adkin in the book, “a gift to the oil and gas industry that takes the forms of an emaciated department of environmental protection and lax environmental statutes and regulations.”

But the trend toward neoliberal sovereignty in Canada along with its deadly consequences were perhaps nowhere more forcefully demonstrated than in Lac-Mégantic, said Dunford. He argues that the deregulation of Canada’s rail industry had been happening for years before the derailment.

It began when the Canadian Transport Commission was formed in the 1960s, the ambitions of which “shifted away from regulatory compliance to financial concerns,” holding that “regulations should not be restrictive,” said Dunford. But even then the CTC still “ensured that safety regulations superseded economic interests.”

It was the formation of Transport Canada after the disbanding of the CTC that “fundamentally transformed regulatory authority.” In 2001 it introduced a document called Safety Management Systems, effectively transferring regulatory authority to the rail industry, “which contributed to increased railway accidents.

"It gave corporations the ability to self-govern, which is problematic given that their main focus is to make profits,” said Dunford. “Transport Canada inspectors weren't carrying out mandatory checks, and the ones they were carrying out when they spotted non-compliance, they didn't follow up on."

To make things worse, said Dunford, Transport Canada failed to introduce safety measures to address the increased risk posed by Bakken oil, which can ignite at temperatures as low as 20 C.

Many would argue pipelines are one solution to the dangers of transporting oil by rail, because they are assumed to be safer. But Dunford fears that will only hold true if the pipeline industry is sufficiently regulated—and the environmental opposition is allowed its rightful voice.

"We need natural resources but we need to do it safely. Big oil is going to flow no matter what, but (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau needs to stand up to Trump, and we need to have significant regulations.”

As Dunford sees it, remembering our Foucault might just be one mental check to keep democracy on track, reminding us that, despite our best intentions, power can move in invisible and at times nefarious ways. The French theorist warned us that without constant vigilance, damaging shifts of power—those that put lives at stake—can become normalized, and therefore seem natural and inevitable.