The following is a piece written by contributor Kevin Harding and guest contributor Natalie Gan. The piece was written in 2010, but is being published on Politics Respun for the first time.
The issue of controversial corporate donations to public universities is a live one, with the Munk School at the U of T, the Ridell Program in Political Management at Carleton, and others being more and more discussed. Below is a discussion of the Goldcorp donation to Simon Fraser University.
We don’t want your dirty gold!
The pervasiveness of neoliberal capitalism and its continued impacts on every facet of our daily lives are realities that seem to be, all at once, immediately pressing, immense, and impossible to challenge. Recent experiences at Canadian universities and in the arts reinforce the immensity of the challenge, with corporate ‘donations’ being offered to cash-strapped institutions, continuing both the precariousness of public education as well as its marketization, or corporate patronage of the arts, commodifying art as a product of cultural expression to be sold. Worse, many of these donations— essentially purchases of commodified reputation or goodwill —come from corporations that have been accused of enormous violations of environmental, ethical, and human rights laws and standards. Adding to this already deep pile of problematics, some recent donations link areas of life that have not yet been fully ‘neoliberalized’ or completely and forcibly subjected to the vagaries and whims of the market, like education and the arts, with the realities of mining and resource extraction in the global south, solidly connecting different cycles and processes of capitalism and uniting them in a frenzy of accumulation by dispossession and capitalist expansion.
The recent $10 million ‘gift’ to Simon Fraser University (SFU) and its School for the Contemporary Arts by the Canadian mining corporation, Goldcorp, is an example of the interconnections: the corporation extracts gold from the earth in the global south, allegedly in ways that are brutally exploitative to the environment and the people, an example of the expansion of the capitalist logics of accumulation and reproduction. The money is used to ‘support’ (in reality, purchase) a university that is in need of money because of neoliberal government underfunding and effective privatization, while at the same time laying corporate claim to the domain of the arts and cultural life, through the newly named “Goldcorp Centre for the Arts,” the contemporary arts campus in the Downtown Eastside. The troubling interconnections between extraction and exploitation in the global south and new and continued attacks on social commons in the north are very visible. What is happening, we feel, is essentially the ‘gold-washing’ of allegedly brutal exploitation – reputation laundering or trading in commodified units of good press, good reputation, or goodwill – through the arts and education. This gold-washing puts students, faculty, and staff of SFU, along with residents of the Downtown Eastside, who involuntarily benefit from the alleged exploitation, in the position of being involuntarily complicit in it.
Despite all of this, we hope (and feel) that there must be ways out of this death spiral of accumulation and capitalism, as it attacks the things that make our lives and communities what they can and ought to be: vibrant, loving, and enriching ways to live together, grow together, be happy, and work for common goals. And there are some ways that this can be done, if we emphasize the very connections between all of us in the north and south and everywhere that neoliberal capitalism is seizing upon, breaking apart, and selling off. We can see, in the past and present, examples of activism that could show us a way for the future.
Here, we will look at a recent $10 million ‘gift’ to Simon Fraser University (SFU) and its School for the Contemporary Arts by Goldcorp, and the relations between this gift and processes of contemporary capitalism. We think that it is crucial to acknowledge the similarities between processes of capitalist expansion and accumulation by dispossession operating in different spaces and places: from indigenous communities in Guatemala, to Toronto, to Vancouver’s gentrifying Downtown Eastside, to the supposedly protected classrooms of our universities, to domains of cultural expression in the arts. It is the same processes, the same neoliberal imperatives, but different manifestations of oppression and dispossession that are in operation and connecting all.
And we think that it is these connections despite differences in experience that provide an opportunity for people to challenge and change the neoliberal processes, that offer an opportunity to reject destruction in the global south, gentrification in our neighbourhoods, neoliberalization of our education and our culture. Most of all, we think it offers us a chance to participate in the creation of a different kind of world, with a different kind of future than that which neoliberalism has in store for us. Echoing what organizers and activists in Vancouver have said in response to Goldcorp’s gift: we don’t want your dirty gold. We want instead our lives, our education, and our arts – our commons and our communities and ourselves.
One of us is a graduate student who, from 2006 to 2010, was involved in organizing defences of public education at Simon Fraser University, elected as a student representative to SFU’s board of governors and working with the Simon Fraser Student Society, SFU’s undergraduate student union. The other is an undergraduate student finishing a degree in international studies and contemporary dance, working in the Fair Trade movement, and organizing Art for Impact, a nonprofit group that raises funds and awareness for social causes through art. We think that our distinct and different perspectives combine here to understand better the interconnections between exploitation in the global south, and universities and arts in the north, and options for organizing and activism.
Goldcorp’s ‘gift’ to SFU
On July 15, 2010, the finance committee of the board of governors of Simon Fraser University voted, in a closed-doors meeting, to accept two five million dollar ‘donations’ from Goldcorp, Inc. The donation was only announced at the official opening of the new campus, shocking (and disappointing) many who attended the ceremony. Donations like this happen at almost every university; corporate influence and ‘support’ is, frustratingly, nothing too new. However, that the donor in question is Goldcorp is important. Goldcorp is a Canadian mining corporation with operations in Guatemala and throughout the Americas, and one that allegedly engages in harmful environmental practices and allegedly violates human rights. They describe this differently, of course, with a university press release promoting Goldcorp’s self-described “low-cost gold production […] located in safe jurisdictions in the Americas.” The sheer amount of euphemistic terms in this brief description is enough to raise a question or two, but understanding it in context of the contentious history of Canadian mining corporations makes it even more troubling.
According to the university’s press release, the donations are to fund the university’s contemporary arts campus at the former Woodward’s site in Vancouver’s disadvantaged Downtown Eastside community. The donations insert an additional layer of problems to an already problematic situation: SFU’s contemporary arts campus is part of a huge gentrification project at the former Woodward’s site at Hastings and Abbott streets, three blocks west of the centre of the Downtown Eastside. The new campus is entirely dedicated to the university’s School for Contemporary Arts, an historically underfunded department that had for decades existed in ‘temporary,’ poorly maintained buildings on SFU’s Burnaby Mountain campus. The relocation of the campus downtown marked a different approach to the arts: normally, the fine and performing arts occupy a tenuous position in the university, looked down on by the ‘academic’ disciplines rooted in empiricism or self-described ‘academic rigor,’ and seen as unprofitable and a nuisance draw on financial resources by administrators concerned with producing ‘marketable’ knowledge and research.
At the same time, the School for Contemporary Arts was not moved to any ordinary university campus; it is now located in the “Goldcorp Centre for the Arts,” at what was formerly known as SFU’s Woodward’s campus. Situated in a city block that used to be occupied by a vacant department store that was used as a squat by the homeless community, the campus is now part of a multi-million dollar development project that includes as tenants: expensive condominiums; a retail drugstore and pharmacy anchor owned by the university’s then chancellor, Brandt Louie; the university itself; and a small number of social housing units. The development project is troubling because of the tiny amount of social housing – only 200 units, with only 75 of them designed for low-income families – in a project with a giant residential tower of glittering new condominiums, providing an insufficient amount of desperately needed social housing.
According to the university’s press release, the Goldcorp donations will be used in two ways: half will be used to fund the technologies and costs of the new campus, and the other half to provide for a fund to support “community engagement” with the residents of the Downtown Eastside. What this means is not exactly clear. It is hinted that the community in the Downtown Eastside might be ‘engaged’ through the use of the donated funds; Andrew Petter, president of SFU, says in the press release that the money “will enable us [SFU] to offer new programs that are specially tailored to the needs of the local community.” The ambiguity surrounding what these programs will look like is telling. There are no suggestions that SFU will be doing such things as providing social housing or letting the very community who are to ‘receive’ the benefits of the Goldcorp money decide how to use it. Instead, it is likely that once again, behind closed doors, the university will decide, both alienating and disempowering an already disadvantaged community.
Members of the Downtown Eastside community are demanding that the university turn control of the Goldcorp money over to democratic and representative residents’ groups. Students, faculty, and staff of SFU are also calling for a response to the Goldcorp donations. SFU against Goldcorp and Gentrification (SAGG), a grassroots group that formed following the public announcement of the donations, is calling for the university to develop transparent and accountable policies on corporate donations, develop a process to give Downtown Eastside residents control on how the $5 million of Goldcorp money targeted towards community programming will be spent, advocate for full public funding for public education, and remove Goldcorp’s name from SFU buildings and programs.
Contemporary capitalism, the university, and the arts
Of course, the Goldcorp donations are not the first time that resource extraction corporations gave money to SFU, much less other educational institutions. SFU’s main downtown Vancouver campus, located at Harbour Centre, has corporate sponsors for each classroom, including other mining corporations. Goldcorp, along with other Canadian mining corporations, such as Barrick Gold, through its chief executive officer, Peter Munk, give millions of dollars to universities across the country. Yet another high profile example of this ‘gold-washing’ is the controversial Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, named as the result of a multi-million dollar donation from Munk. The arts are no stranger to corporate donations from mining corporations; Goldcorp lists a series of arts organizations that is has donated money to on its corporate social responsibility website, along with a large number of educational programs and institutions.
But what is it that links these corporations to universities and the arts? Without wanting to sound too much like crusty old marxists, we would suggest the answer is the system in which we live every day: neoliberal capitalism.
Crises of accumulation and their ‘fixes’
Okay, sure. It’s neoliberal capitalism. But what is it about neoliberal capitalism that so readily links these corporations with universities and arts groups, amongst other things we all like to hold dear as important institutions of common society?
Some political economy theory is useful to start to provide an answer. In a simplified sense, capitalism is founded on a cycle that sees capitalists invest capital in a commodity, modify it (normally through the application of labour), and sell the modified commodity for a profit. But this isn’t a closed cycle: the same commodity cannot always be repeatedly modified for profit, and more commodities are needed to continue the cycle. Demand is also necessary, as commodities need to be bought in order to keep the cycle going. But there are contradictions in capitalism: there is an imperative to reduce commodity costs in order to increase profit accumulation, and an imperative to expand capitalism geographically, in order to subject more and more of the world to capitalist relations, to make everyone a consumer and marketer of their own labour. But if commodity costs, which includes wages for workers decline too much, preventing workers from being able to buy products, or if the geographic expansion of capitalism gets stuck at borders or ‘new frontiers,’ or if new commodities to exploit become harder to find, then there is a danger of a crisis of accumulation: a risk that the cycle of capital will be halted, with accumulated profit unable to be profitably invested back into the beginning of the cycle, with too much capital ‘resting idle’ and not being used for further production or exploitation.
Despite its inherent tendency towards crises such as this, capitalism is a frustratingly tricky beast. As David Harvey says, there is an “inner dialectic of capitalism forcing it to seek solutions outside of itself” for its crises – and this is where so many of the vagaries of neoliberal capitalism come from. There are fixes to the crisis that capitalism encounters: Harvey describes the two key ways that neoliberal capitalism keeps itself going as “spatio-temporal fixes” and “accumulation by dispossession.” These ‘fixes’ are solutions with the same goal: to bring what is outside capitalism inside it and subject to it.
The fixes are interrelated. Spatio-temporal fixes involve expanding the reach of capitalism further and further in the world, effectively colonizing more and more of the planet’s area under its rule. Accumulation by dispossession is what Marx called “primitive” or “original” accumulation: the robbery and theft from people by the state of commonly held property and its sale to capital. Through these two ways (amongst others), capitalism tries to fix its internal contradictions, maintaining its expansion and cycles by invading realms that may have been safely distanced from capitalism at one point, be it land or commons of social expression and relationships, and bringing it under capitalist control.
So, how does this relate to Goldcorp and SFU and the arts? In too many ways. Neoliberalism has pushed continued accumulation by dispossession to the forefront of economic ‘progress,’ as so much of what we used to consider collective societal property has become privatized and capitalized. At the same time, accumulation by dispossession has been spread further and further geographically. The Goldcorp donation to SFU is one specific example of a linking of these processes, amongst others, but it is one that highlights the interconnected nature of contemporary capitalist exploitation, while at the same time possibly providing an opening for contestation.
Expansion and dispossession in the global south
It is probably most useful to trace the interconnection between these varied processes of contemporary capitalism in context of the Goldcorp donation to SFU at the source of the money: the global south. Goldcorp’s most well known mine, for better or worse, is the Marlin mine in Guatemala – a site that has been the subject of a large number of allegations of environmental degradation and human rights violations.
These allegations are just as numerous as they are concerning. Because mining operations like Goldcorp’s often use cyanide to extract gold from the earth, toxic chemicals allegedly leach into the groundwater in the areas around gold mines, potentially polluting the water that people rely on to live. At the Marlin mine, concerns about increased levels of toxic chemicals in the groundwater led to the Guatemalan government’s suspension of the mine’s operations. According to reports from non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, local activists in Guatemala who campaign for human rights in areas affected by mining operations have allegedly received death threats. Consequently, Amnesty lists local activists such as Carmen Mejía as individuals at risk. The very existence of the mine perfectly characterizes accumulation by dispossession, as it continues to operate despite a majority of local communities voting against it, with Goldcorp “relocating” local residents away from the site. There are many more allegations along these lines.
In context of SFU’s description of Goldcorp as a leader in “low-cost” gold production, these allegations are even more concerning – what does low-cost actually mean? And at what cost? The answers to these questions are in the logic of capitalism: resource extraction spreads from the north to the south, from Canada to Guatemala, as a result of the spatio-temporal fix of capitalist expansion. And it is through processes and practices like these, with all of their alleged violence and destruction and exploitation, that Goldcorp and other Canadian mining corporations like Barrick Gold make their profits – and it is those profits that are ‘donated’ to universities like SFU and the University of Toronto, and to arts groups, bringing these domains of social activity into the neoliberal capitalist reality.
That SFU and other universities accept these donations is frustratingly unsurprising; they are chronically underfunded and forced to seek out corporate cash to continue operations. However, by accepting these donations, the universities reinforce their place in the neoliberal capitalist logics. They put up parts of their operations essentially for sale – enabling and pushing forward what accumulation by dispossession, the continued enclosure of publics and commons, dispossessing us from our collective resources and selling them off. This is only part of the problem here, of course, as the donation ties into the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside and the money is polluted by the allegations of brutal exploitation that cloud Goldcorp’s reputation. The key, however, is that universities, which are supposedly public resources, actively engage themselves in subjugating themselves to neoliberal capitalism.
My experiences as an elected student representative on SFU’s board of governors served to solidify my understanding of the immensity of the challenge facing public education. By law, boards of governors of universities in British Columbia must approve balanced budgets for their institutions. At the same time, the funding from the provincial government doesn’t increase to cover the gap between increased costs and the expectation that the university will teach more students and engage in more programming. In short, universities are required, by law, to do more with less.
I would argue that this situation is the undercurrent that exposes all of public education – from primary education through degree granting post-secondary education – to the vagaries of neoliberalism. Underfunding educational institutions forces them to find money where they can, and when it comes to universities, there always seems to be private corporations willing to step in.
And while all university administrators will tell you that corporate donations are only accepted if there are ‘no strings attached,’ preserving the allegedly sacred status of academic freedom from corporate influence, the reality seems to be something entirely different. Reading the leaked donor agreement between the Peter and Melanie Munk Foundation and the University of Toronto, the amount of influence large corporate donors can and do have becomes apparent: the university is committed to the expansion of the Munk School of Global Affairs, and the cash is contingent on a positive evaluation of the university and school’s progress towards a vaguely described “objective,” that the University of Toronto becomes “one of the world’s leading institutions for research, study, and teaching in this field.” The university would likely argue that the vagueness of this objective protects academic freedom, but I would argue that it does precisely the opposite: it creates a situation in which the Munks and their foundation have effectively purchased a significant amount of control over the University of Toronto, as they can define success. A number of people involved in challenging and questioning the Goldcorp donation to SFU have requested, under the Freedom of Information Act, any donor agreement in existence, but to date SFU has delayed releasing the document. I think that it is quite likely that similar provisions exist.
This sale of parts of the university is a result of accumulation by dispossession – the neoliberal expansion of what can be bought and purchased. While, in the past, universities may have been regarded as public resources serving the public good (while how this is defined has been problematic), they are now a public asset that can be privatized and sold off. Adding to this is the complication that public education is being bought with money that may well have been obtained through allegedly brutal exploitation, destruction of the environment, and repression of human rights. And when this dirty money is used to buy public educational institutions, we all ‘benefit’ by becoming complicit in the exploitation. This is not what we think the role of public education, as a social commons, ought to be. Not a precarious system to be commodified under neoliberalism. Not something up for sale.
Like education, the arts can be seen as cultural expression and commonality. And like education, the arts are placed in an increasingly precarious situation, up for sale, in neoliberal capitalism. Not productive in the way that factories or banks are, the arts are often either ignored by government or exploited as a marketing gimmick, strategically placed in the face of the public almost as if to say: look, we support the arts! The existence of the arts inside education is just as dubious, if not more so, often being relegated to last-tier importance or attention.
As an emerging artist, I have had and will continue to have ample opportunity to fight these overwhelming odds. In the spring of 2009, the BC Liberal Government presented a budget that outlined devastating and unprecedented slashes to arts and culture funding. At the time, local MLA Spencer Herbert estimated that approximately 90% of support to the arts would be retracted by 2012. Citizens were quick to organize in protest. After the outpour of outrage, the government decided to reinstate a meager portion of an already meager amount back into the arts. And while the protests have subsided for now, many artists, companies and programs alike are reeling from the blows.
Why are the arts constantly struggling for the right to exist, the right to support and to be supported? Why are we as artists met with eyes of bewilderment and disbelief when arguing that being an artist is a ‘real’ profession? Why the skepticism when we talk about the value of the arts to society? The spirit of neoliberalism and the market economy have dangerously altered the ways in which we view what is valuable on society and to our daily lives. In its capitalist frenzy, our system demands we put profit at the forefront of our values. These pressures drive a stake into the heart of the arts community as artists and art programs are pitted against one another in competition for insufficient funds.
I have seen how art brings people together. As a dance instructor, I have observed how the arts can provide a safe and nurturing space for many who have nowhere else to go. It is easy to take for granted the colourful murals we find on the walls of our community spaces, or safe and enriching places for our children to develop creative and open minds. For many, it is easy to be indifferent towards the nature of arts funding and trust that artistic programs and projects can come to fruition on their own. After all, they don’t make money, so why would we contribute money to them? The truth is, the arts cannot thrive without support. And it shouldn’t be asked to.
It is both the lack of recognition that arts are vital to community and common life and the willful forgetting of their precarious nature that exposes the arts and its vulnerability to neoliberalization. Like education, the way we understand art shifts from a public good and a cultural and social activity to a domain that can be sold – we are dispossessed of the arts, and the arts become commodities to be used for capitalist accumulation. Commercialization breeds alienation. And the more alienated we become, the more the market drives every aspect of our lives. And as we lose perspective of how important the arts are to us, the more we take for granted, and the less we will have to take for granted if these trends are not reversed
Arguably, this could be why the arts could be seen as taking ‘refuge’ in the university, itself supposedly a ‘protected space’ from neoliberalism. According to SFU, the School for Contemporary Arts (SCA) plays an integral role in BC’s arts scene, attracting students from all over North America. The SCA is deemed a ‘cultural legacy’, producing graduates that have made significant contributions locally, nationally and internationally. All these achievements have taken place trailers perched at the end of the campus, built in the 1970’s as “temporary” units but that remained the home of the SCA until 2010. Prior to this, arts students worked in unacceptable and unsanitary conditions year after year, training for hours in under-heated, leaking facilities.
What is it that makes the fine and performing arts so difficult a thing for universities and broader society to invest in? Is it because the “return” on the “investment” in the Arts cannot be quantified? Well, if anyone took a moment to look at the numbers, they would find this to be a myth. According to the government of British Columbia, every dollar invested into arts and cultural organizations returns between $1.05 and $1.36 in tax revenues, while the city of Vancouver estimates that every dollar spent on cultural activities generates almost twelve dollars in economic activity. The provincial government event went so far as to say that the “creative sector” generates $5.2 billion in economic activity each year and employs more than 78,000 people. But while British Columbia has the highest concentration of artists in the country, its per capita arts funding is among the country’s lowest. It is therefore no surprise that many BC artists are found living close to the poverty line.
But the numbers can distract us from what is at the heart of the matter. I make the profit argument first out of defense, because artists seem to always need to make a case for the legitimacy of our craft in contemporary capitalist society. I believe that the arts are under attack because art, at its core, is not about money. Art is not about the packaging of an easily consumable, easily marketable product. While some art does take this form, often they are erroneously used to represent all forms of art. This is an integral part of the reason why we as a society have such trouble appreciating the relevancy of art in our lives.
Statistics do not complete the picture. They fail to illuminate how arts as culture enriches our lives, how vital art is to the health and vibrancy of communities, how art strengthens personal and communal identities, how it prompts us to think critically and creatively, to cherish diversity and allows us to connect with one another in profound ways that cannot be achieved otherwise. Acknowledging this transformative power, it should be of no surprise that arts-based community projects have witnessed remarkable achievements. Several projects all over the world are using art for conflict-resolution and healing with marginalized populations, in war-torn areas, with at-risk youth and in many other realms that are vital to protecting our social fabric.
The constant undermining of the arts is a warning that tells us of the kind of world that our neoliberal capitalism plans to leave for our children. As we battle financial crises and their ensuing recessions that are symptomatic of market economies, the arts are pitted as a frill, as a luxury, as irrelevant and dispensable. They are enclosed; they are made commodities. As our lives become more intertwined with the workings of capital, we must work harder than ever to protect all that is not profit-driven.
It used to be the case that the university could have been a place of refuge for the arts. The effective purchase of the SFU School for Contemporary Arts through the Goldcorp donation shows that as universities become victims of accumulation by dispossession and capitalist expansion, so too do the arts. All artists studying at SFU are now graduates of the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. Without having had any say in the matter, the donation renders all past and present contemporary arts students as unwilling ambassadors for Goldcorp, students from a program they could have been proud of, had it not been sold. That the money being used to continue this dispossession is dirty money, both through the alleged exploitation of Goldcorp and through the continued gentrification of the Downtown Eastside only makes the situation worse as students grapple with being involuntary beneficiaries of exploitation and injustice.
Connections and differences: gold-washing and reputation laundering
The cases of gentrification in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, allegedly brutal exploitation in Guatemala and around the world by Canadian mining corporations, the privatization and sale of public universities surreptitiously and piece by piece, and the precarious nature of the arts may seem to be discrete and disconnected problems. The problems are different and distinct from each other, but they are intimately connected through the logics of contemporary neoliberal capitalism.
Each of these cases revolves around common, social, human issues: in Guatemala, lives and health are threatened by allegedly dangerous practices. In Vancouver, shelter is scarce and too expensive while shiny new condominiums are constructed in the midst of the city’s poorest neighbourhood. Universities, which are supposed to be places that serve the public good by engaging in crucial and critical examination, are being underfunded, cut up, and sold off. The arts, offering creative spaces to invest and investigate the quality of our lives, are under attack and increasingly susceptible to being purchased through ‘sponsorship’ and corporate gifts.
The commonality to all of these problems is capitalism. Integral to the capitalist paradigm are key contradictions in its operation: it needs things, commodities, labour, territories, from outside of itself in order to continue to function. Fixes to the contradictions involve expanding the reach of capitalism further and further – from Vancouver to Toronto to indigenous territories in Guatemala – and by continuing the original theft and robbery that we can understand as accumulation by dispossession, by privatizing things we used to collectively hold as commons, such as our creativity or our education, indeed, even our lives.
In our contemporary capitalist situation, education and the arts are particularly susceptible to the effects and ravages of continued accumulation by dispossession. Governmental decisions, such as continued education system underfunding or cuts to arts groups and grants, place these and other important domains of societal growth, development, and expression in a place where they are vulnerable and need to seek out financial support. Unfortunately, this financial support is all too readily available from the corporate sector, in the form of gifts and sponsorship and donations.
Specifically, it is interesting to note how education and the arts seem to be particularly linked to the interests of Canadian mining corporations such as Goldcorp. Indeed, arts and educational donations account for almost half of the projects that Goldcorp advertises as donations and sponsorships on its corporate social responsibility website. The projects listed are interesting in their own right: of the thirteen donations identified in the educational sector, all but one relate directly to issues of mining or geosciences, while SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts is not mentioned. The final project, which supports research in human rights and international security, is also related to Goldcorp’s extractive operations, especially with regards to the allegations levied against the corporation. Under the ‘community’ grouping of donations, the United Way is featured prominently, with a connection to the Downtown Eastside. A variety of arts groups are listed as recipients of funding.
This listing may provide an understanding of why mining corporations are so interested in supporting education and the arts: first, they may obviously benefit from any technical, scientific, or social research that is directed at mining operations. At the same time, donations supporting the social activities of education and arts are incredibly valuable in terms of public relations and reputation. We would argue that mining corporation donations to cultural domains such as education and the arts allow Goldcorp, Barrick Gold, and other extractive corporations the opportunity to effectively ‘gold-wash’ their reputations, purchasing goodwill through effectively purchasing things that used to be commonly held as public goods that have been made private.
And Goldcorp, Barrick Gold, Syncrude, and the rest of the extractive corporations purchase this public relations press, good reputation, goodwill, and newly privatized parts of what we used to collectively and commonly hold dear, with profits that have been made through operations that are allegedly destructive of the environment and of human rights across the global south, and indeed, the rest of the world. This is the connection between these discrete and different problems: to return to the rather obvious statement we made earlier, it’s neoliberalism. Neoliberal capitalism is the capitalist expansion and accumulation by dispossession that creates the allegedly exploitative processes in Guatemala and elsewhere, which create the profits that are used to purchase newly dispossessed and privatized parts of ourselves and our still-existing commons. It’s all neoliberalism.
Organizing and responding
But neoliberal capitalism, as the current and most virulent form of capitalism that we are faced with, still contains contradictions in how it operates that we might just be able to use against it. Organizing around exploitative capitalist projects show that this might be possible – and past experiences might provide hints as to how we can strategize and organize and respond now.
One of capitalism’s most powerful and defining logics is division. Neoliberalism, with its ruthless emphasis on individuals as economic actors, divides workers from workers, students from indigenous populations, artists from students, and each self from the other. It divides the mine in Guatemala from the low-income housing in Vancouver from the university and dance studio in Burnaby. This division prevents us from seeing commonalities amongst ourselves, but it also pits us against each other in fights to survive. But as neoliberal capitalism creates and deepens these differences between each of us, perhaps we can acknowledge these differences and their common root as a way to challenge the system, and to change it.
SFU Against Goldcorp and Gentrification (SAGG) is a grassroots group of students, faculty, and staff that has organized in response to the Goldcorp donation. They have been active in organizing protests, open forums, teach-ins, and other actions to publicize the connections between the dangerous practices of extraction allegedly employed by Goldcorp and the issues of university funding and gentrification in the Downtown Eastside. Their mode of organizing is both educative and agitative: they expose the capitalistic connections between the varied spaces of Guatemala, the university, and Vancouver, and encourage people to oppose the continued exploitation. They have been so successful at raising attention and concern about Goldcorp’s practices and the donation to SFU that there is a suggestion that they may have been threatened with legal action in the form of a strategic lawsuit against public participation. Other university-based activists are publicly voicing their concern over the connections between the mining industry and the university: University of Toronto PhD student Masrour Zoghi publicly rejected his diploma at a recent graduation ceremony, protesting the Munk family donation to the university. Organizers responding to the many issues of the tar sands in Alberta are connecting the different issues of indigenous rights and environmental damage as they highlight the problems of the tar sands.
In these different ways, organizers and activists are connecting issues that, when divided, are easily ignored. Perhaps in the future, we can take a page from the relative successes of the anti-sweatshop and Fair Trade movements that have had a measurable impact on public discourse: connect the realities that we in the north enjoy with the conditions under which producers and locals in the global south must eke out a living, expose complicity, involuntarily or otherwise, in exploitation and suffering, and challenge people to make a difference.
There is a double-edged reason that Goldcorp and other extractive corporations choose things like universities and arts groups as targets of their money: they are the victims of neoliberal accumulation by dispossession and through this up for sale, and they are things that society allegedly holds dear. The value that society places on common projects such as education and the arts means that corporate cash can buy public support and goodwill. At the same time, many people likely find the allegedly brutally exploitative extraction processes troubling and concerning.
The key for the future might be to connect these things publically. We can be educative as we tell the stories of alleged exploitation and environmental destruction. We can use art to express and display and show the realities around the world. We can connect the realities and existences that neoliberal capitalism works so hard at keeping separate and disconnected.
If money that is the result of exploitative and destructive resource extraction is used to fund our universities and our arts, then everyone who benefits from this funding is involuntarily complicit in the exploitation. And we all benefit. If the dirty money is used to purchase what we used to hold commonly, then we all lose. In the north, in the south; in Vancouver, Toronto, and Guatemala. Only capitalism wins.
About the Authors
Kevin Harding holds an MA from the Graduate Program in Political Science at York University in Toronto. A graduate of Simon Fraser University, he served as an elected student representative on the board of governors and senate.
Natalie Gan is a student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, in International Studies and Contemporary Arts. Natalie is a director and a co-founder of Art for Impact, a non-profit organization that raises funds and awareness for social justice groups through performances and installations.