Thursday, October 27, 2016

Turning our Backs on Prime Ministers, the necessity of Protest. . . .

"When we revolt it's not for a particular culture. We simply revolt because, for many reasons, we can no longer breath." 

-Franz Fanon 

Years ago (so long ago that I can't even find the post anymore), I wrote about the democratic deficits of modern democracy. The argument went like this - though democracy in general, and capitalist democracy in particular, is supposed to function on certain principles of equality, it fails to live up to these because power inevitably infects the process in such a way that some people's rights are not properly appreciated, or more importantly governments becomes expressions of elite interests rather than an expression of some kind of generalized will. Democratic deficits are visibly more noticeable when governments and courts fail to live up to basic principles of equality before the law. For example, for generations Canada has failed utterly to adjudicate fairly on the rights of indigenous people. Instead of upholding the law, judges have expressed their own white privilege in the way that they have decided on land-claims, equality of funding, energy issues, etc. Similarly, for a long time, even after the Charter of Rights and freedoms was enshrined, Canadian courts and politicians failed to properly recognize rights of the LGBTQ community.

I wrote in my original post that where democratic deficits exist, I believe people have the moral right (and even obligation) to use supra-democratic strategies to make their cases heard. Perhaps the greatest example of this was the Suffragette movement. Women actively disobeyed the law in their struggle for the vote because they felt that this was the only way to make themselves heard. Men (and many women) criticized the suffragettes, saying that their antics demonstrated that they weren't fit to have the vote; that they were criminals, or idiotic, or childish. The problem is, of course, those with privilege don't usually suffer from the effects of democratic deficits so they are really in no position to judge how those who do should express their dissent. Today, the Black Lives Matter movement is in a similar position. It easy for privileged white people to say that these activist are overdoing it, are "going to far," are "trouble makers," etc. But when people are suffering from fundamental injustices, they necessarily decide for themselves the pattern of their dissent.

The kind of privilege that I am talking about doesn't only express itself in such extreme examples. As a white, well-educated, man I have access to the kind of "disinterested," rational argumentation that makes it relatively easy for me to express myself. I am part of a very long tradition of privileged white men who have access this kind of discourse. It would be easy for me to demand that other people conform to my standards of dissent and rebellion, but it isn't reasonable or revolutionary, rather it would be and expression of my privilege.

This is not to suggest that I have no "right" to comment on the strategies or actions of a dissenting or marginalized group. What it does mean is that I have to be extra sensitive to the challenges that such groups face and make sure that I don't simply condemn the actions of others because they don't fit my own notion (as a privileged white man) of what constitutes "acceptable" dissent. It is really easy, even for progressives, to fall into this kind of tacit privilege. The extreme left has been doing it for generations, particularly in the intellectual Marxist traditions.

When any group is fighting for a more socially, politically, and economically equal and just society, I try to put my privilege and biases aside as much as possible and let them define their path of dissent. Because I know that even the best democracies are deeply flawed and protest and dissent are a necessary part of progress.

Politicians, no matter how much they smile, or claim that they are in favour of dialogue, or pretend to sympathize with a marginalized or progressive group, still represent the establishment in many ways. Thus they cannot always be spared from loud, messy, sometimes gut-wrenching protest just because it might not, at this historical moment, seem "appropriate."

I, for one, will try to remember this over the next few years as I watch millennials in particular find sometimes outrageous ways to overcome the democratic deficits that seem to have become endemic in our society. Others seem to have already forgotten the lessons of history.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

So-called "Free Trade" and the Presidential Election. . .

Trade is one of the stranger political issues in recent years. For more than two decades now the left has been saying that the trade deals (even going back before the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations), are not really "free-trade" deals at all, but are rather 'corporate rights' deals that are intended to strengthen the power of multinational corporations to set the economic agenda at national and international levels. There has always been plenty of evidence for this and the recent kerfuffle over CETA has demonstrated this remarkably well. These deals almost all contain clauses that strengthen the ability for foreign or multinational organizations to determine domestic economic and even social policy.

The main political parties in many Western nations have overwhelmingly supported these deals and done a great deal to hide the fact that these deals are not really concerned with open trade per se, but with the suppression of national governments' ability to institute policies that will protect their populations from outside forces. The Democrats and the Republicans in the US, for example, have always, with few exceptions, promoted these deals. Thus it comes as some surprise that a guy like Trump, who as far as I can tell never spoke against these deals until the past year or so (and has certainly taken advantage of these deals to increase his own wealth), is suddenly telling people that NAFTA and other such "trade deals" have been bad. (It is not, of course surprising that Bernie Sanders has spoken against such deals; he has been consistent on this issue throughout his career) It is predictable that much of the Republican establishment is upset by Trump's critique in this regard, given that the Republicans (even more than the Democrats) have promoted and benefited from these deals.

What is a little bit surprising is to see some Republican operatives (people who have supported so-called free trade for years or even decades) try to criticize Hillary Clinton for being in favour of them. Many Republicans have tried to use leaked speeches given by Clinton in which she talks of "open borders" as a strike against her, even though what she has actually said matches exactly what the Republicans have always said. The problem is, of course, that the phrase "open borders," a phrase that used to be associated specifically with the freer movement of goods and services, has now become associated with the movement of people. This is because of the way the rightwing in the US has been talking about the issue of undocumented workers and the perception among many Republicans that Democrats just want to fling open the borders with Mexico and let everyone stream across into the US. (Whether any Republicans actually believe that any Democrats sincerely want this, is somewhat irrelevant. What is important is that they have used the idea as a political tool) But when Ms. Clinton used the phrase "open borders" there is no reason to believe that she meant the free movement of people (in economic theory terms we can read the word "labour" here). Because with the exception of the European Union, no modern trade deal has ever included the free movement of people as individuals who are trading the commodity of their own labour power.  The kinds of deals that Clinton and the Republicans have supported for decades are never concerned with the most common and most traded commodity in the world: labour power.

Thus when Trump's various surrogates (particularly men like Newt Gingrich and Rudi Giuliani) criticize Clinton for 'secretly' wanting to open the borders to anyone in North and South American who wants to come the the US and work, they are knowingly misleading people, and being supremely hypocritical. They are fully aware that Clinton's agenda is the expansion of already existing "free-trade" deals that are concerned with a) reducing trade barriers, and b) (and more importantly) giving corporations and other nations the ability to suppress social and economic programs in other countries.  But even if Clinton were talking about a North/South American Union similar to the EU, where people were allowed to cross borders to work in different countries (and there is absolutely no reason to believe that she has ever promoted this), this would, in fact, be the logical outcome of any real notion of actual 'free-trade,' since to exclude the free movement of labour from a trade deal actually means to exclude the most important and commonly traded of all commodities.

Either way, if you look carefully, you can see Donald Trump's pant on fire.

Monday, October 24, 2016

What's a Progressive to do?

As much as I would like it to be otherwise, I really think that any optimism that the Liberal government would be significantly different from the Harper government on some of the most substantive issues, has turned out to be misplaced. I understand why a number of progressives are having a hard time letting go of their hope for Trudeau, but that hope is beginning to look increasingly naive. There is no doubt that Trudeau brought a different tone to government, and on foreign policy, though he has yet to face a significant test, he certainly seems like an improvement on Harper in a number of ways. However, on healthcare, energy and the environment, native issues (and this a particularly painful one to face), and on the neo-liberal trade approach, Trudeau is really so close to Harper that there is little to choose between them.

Here are some interesting stories concerning this difficult dilemma -

On the Economy - Thomas Walkom has some interesting observations.

On Progressive politics - Tom Parkin has this to say.

On the Precariate - Bill Morneau (who is married into one of the richest families in Canada) tells the rest of us we just need to suck it up.

On Native issues - Dene Moore reminds us that indigenous leaders are already giving Trudeau a failing grade. And you can hear Murray Sinclair saying that Trudeau is breeching the "Indian residential schools" settlement.

These are just the articles I found in a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, to see a startling example of how the Liberals are mimiking the Conservative's arrogance and total lack of concern for real people's lives, we only have to look at what Liberal MP Nick Whalen had to say.

I know a few progressives are desperately trying to give Trudeau and the Liberals the benefit of the doubt. But in my experience, governments veer further away from their promises as time goes on, not closer. I think it is little short of folly to imagine that Trudeau isn't another neo-liberal who, despite his smiles and selfies, is quickly making it clear that three years from now, working-people, indigenous people, and the environment will be little or no better off than they would have been under the Conservatives. (Granted, of course, that the Conservatives might have gotten considerably worse if they had actually won another election)

I am willing to give kudos to Trudeau for steering us away from the racist rhetoric that the Cons were, and still are, spew. On the issue of democratic reform, we will just have to wait and see.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Neo-Liberalism, Sexism, and the Presidential Dilemma....

I oppose Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for some of the same reasons: I am a socialist and they are both part of the financial elite; they support the neo-liberal economic agenda; they have both supported radically pro-corporate trade policies (Trump acts as though he hasn't but he has for years), they both defend a capitalist, racist, imperialist nation that has, for generations supported dictators and undermined democracy and socialist efforts worldwide. I think these are pretty good reasons to resist the US and its politicians. You don't have to be that radical to say politics in the US is clown show with few alternatives from the capitalist agenda that has been helping to destroy the environment, suppressed democracy, and enshrined poverty in the very system itself.

But even as a socialist, you don't have to be wildly pragmatic to make an important distinction between Trump and Clinton. They both have records of corruption. But Trump's is much more dramatic than Clinton's, as John Oliver outlines here.

So while they are both corrupt, Trump is demonstrably more corrupt that Clinton. But Trump is also openly racist and promotes racism and conflict at the core of his political agenda. He is openly misogynist and has boasted about his sexual assault behaviour. Electing either Trump or Clinton as president will more or less continue the neo-liberal economic agenda, neither will do much for democracy, for poverty (at home or abroad), nor will they make the radical changes to environmental policy that are necessary. But as president, Trump will legitimize racism and misogyny through his beliefs and behavior. While they will both continue the same kinds of capitalist agendas, Trump threatens to open up a floodgate of violence and hate against women and racialized people. I think that even if you don't believe in the system, these factors make Trump demonstrably worse that Clinton. Some might say that the policies of both are a bit like someone rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic as it is sinking. That may be true, but that doesn't mean we should support the guy who is going to encourage people to beat the hell out of, and sexually assault each other as it goes down.

But there is another factor here that should be talked about. Clinton may have a dubious record concerning certain aspects of corruption during her time as a public figure, but if you compare that record to, say, the last Republican presidency, she's a paragon of purity. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney orchestrated illegal wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Tens of millions of dollars (if not billions) went totally unaccounted for as wads of cash were reportedly given out to terrorist group as bribes to stop them from undertaking violence. And Bush and Cheney benefited personally from all this through their oil interests, and through corporations such as Halliburton and Blackwater. To compare any contemporary US political corruption to what Bush and Cheney have been responsible for, de facto robs the very notion of corruption meaningless. If Trump supporters were interested in sending anyone to jail, they would never stop calling for the incarceration of Bush and Cheney, two men who destabilized the whole globe, made fortunes doing it, and, arguably, permanently undermined the status and legitimacy of the US as a democracy.

If, like me, you are a socialist with little or no faith in the political/economic system, it is understandable to be dubious about Clinton and Trump for the simple reason that they are both corrupt in various ways and they both represent the capitalist status quo. But if you believe in American capitalism and its supposed democracy, if you believe that, despite its blemishes, the US basically represents what is good in economics and human rights, then to portray Hillary Clinton as some kind of outlier of corruption is just hypocritical because as corruption and dubious behavior goes, she somewhere near the middle of the pack, and in my opinion she comes off much better than Trump.

I continue to believe that the angry, vociferous opposition to Clinton by many Americans is little more than simple sexism. She is not an atypical Democratic nominee in policy matters or in her dubious record. But she is atypical in her qualifications, in as much as she is unquestionably the most qualified candidate to run for president in living memory.

As most of us have heard many women defend Trump's predatory behavior over the past couple of weeks, it is easy to see just what a powerful thing sexism is.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Narcissism and the Growth of Hate Politics. . . .

David Brooks wrote an excellent op-ed piece for the New York Times today entitled Donald Trump's Sad, Lonely Life. Brooks recounts the genuine state of mental illness and isolation in which Trump lives. Most poignantly, Brooks writes:

 "Trump continues to display the symptoms of narcissistic alexithymia, the inability to understand or describe the emotions in the self. Unable to know themselves, sufferers are unable to understand, relate or attach to others. To prove their own existence, they hunger for endless attention from outside. Lacking internal measures of their own worth, they rely on external but insecure criteria like wealth, beauty, fame and others' submission."

Admittedly, it is difficult to feel truly sorry for a guy like Trump because his mental/emotional problems make him a mean and angry person. But his problems are, I am sure, quite real and essentially rob him of the kinds of human contact and affections that most of us enjoy. I remember as kid I knew a bully who finally tried to bully the wrong new-kid in class. After getting beaten up in front of a cheering school-yard crowd the bully just sat there weeping on the grass as everyone walked away. And despite the fact that I had been one of his victims, I felt a very profound sense of pity that has never really left me. Because I saw at that moment that this boy had nothing, his only sense of self-worth was gained by dominating others and I knew at that moment, even as a nine year old, that he was never going to know the real joys of friendship and intimacy. Brooks continues:

"Bullies only experience peace when they are cruel. Their blood pressures drops the moment they beat the kid on the playground. Imagine you are Trump. You are trying to bluff your way through a debate. You're running for an office you're completely unqualified for. You are chasing some glimmer of validation that recedes further from view. Your only rest comes when you are insulting somebody, when you are threatening to throw your opponent in jail, when you are looming over her menacingly like a mafioso thug on the precipice of a hit, when you are bellowing that she as a 'tremendous hate in her heart' when it is clear to everyone you are only projecting what is in your own."

I get what Brooks is saying here. It is right on point. Of course, I don't lie awake nights worrying about what a sad, pathetic, and lonely man Trump is. His racism and misogyny might be rooting in childhood trauma, but that doesn't make them any easier to tolerate, nor does that make Trump any more likable a man.

But reading Brooks' piece got me thinking about what has happened to politics, not just in the US but in many places. The Conservative party in Canada, is no less pathetic than Trump; we have a host of Conservative leadership candidates who fall over themselves to say more despicable things about other leaders as well as the weak and vulnerable. England has a new Prime Minister who seems to pride herself on a lack of human empathy. But politicians are so often the worst kinds of people, people who are hungry for attention and power, just like Trump.

What of their followers and supporters? That is the question that keeps haunting me. It is relatively easy to see a pathetic man like Trump as not quite stable, perhaps a victim of some kind of trauma or mental illness. It wasn't even that hard, at times, to see Canadian Prime Minister Harper as a troubled narcissist who never really knew intimacy or friendship but only hungered for dominance and authority. But this new crop of "hateful" leaders are inciting a new generation of hateful followers; seemingly average people who revel in the vitriol and hate spouted by these pathetic leaders. This is, in a way, much more troubling than the leaders themselves. You only have to watch television or read internet comments to see that there are thousands, even millions of people who are getting off on this stuff, they love to see some politician legitimize their own hatred and anger.

What conclusions can we draw from this? Are we entering a new age of mass delusion, mass anger, and mass narcissism? Has it always been this way but just gets muted at some stages? Is there a prevailing sense of fear motivated by growing social insecurity and social shifts that are causing the weaker minded to lash out with anger and hate? I really don't know what's going on but it has, I am sure like many others, shaken me to the core.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Trump and the new Fascism. . .

John Ibbitson, the conservative shill who told us not that long ago that Harper's Conservative Party would be in power for a century, (to give you some idea of his ability to predict the future) wrote in the Globe and Mail today that "He'll likely lose - but Trump is the final warning to elites." The headline tells the majority of the story since, as with most of Ibbitson's articles, the rest of the text is a rambling hodgepodge of poorly written blather.

But what is the narrative that Ibbitson (along with Trump and many of his supporters) is trying to sell here? That Trump, despite being a billionaire who rubs shoulders with every kind of political and business mover and shaker is not an elite? Well, denying that Trump is an elite is obviously only for the most ignorant and simpleminded of the Trump audience. We know Trump is an elite. The unspoken narrative here is that there are two groups in society, on the one hand a "political elite" who have been running the political system and in the process lining their pockets and screwing up the system. This elite, so the story would go, is not telling it like it is, they are hiding behind a rarified field of money and assumed political correctness to maintain their power and continue to line their pockets. On the hand, the narrative would have us believe that over and against this political elite there is everyone else, rich and poor, who are getting screwed by this institutionalized political elite. Thus Trump (or Kellie Leitch for that matter) claim that despite being wealthy and powerful, they somehow represent everyone else who should be opposed to this supposed political elite.

The problems with this narrative are so many that it seems fascicle. For one thing, in most countries the political elite are active members of the financial elite. When was the last time, for example, the man who was elected president wasn't rich? Most of them start out rich, but if they don't they are rich long before they make their way to the oval office. This is true of the top politicians in most other countries too. Furthermore, the excessively rich, the so-called One Percenters like the Koch Brothers, for example, are very active in politics behind the scene and have been for as long as we have had modern politics. These ultra-rich are the actual source of the kinds of policies that politicians have been pursuing for ever. The neo-con agenda was formulated by the financial elite, and the political elite, being their proxy actors, were more than ready to oblige in instituting that agenda.

Trump has always supported these policies and the only time he began to badmouth modern trade agreements, for example, was when he decided to run for president. You see the only thing that has changed here is that the neo-con agenda pursued for so long by both the political and the financial elite has begun to break down under its own weight. It is becoming clearer and clearer each year that these policies have not only failed to deliver on the promise of general prosperity, but they have systematically made things worse. The left has always known this but only since a general dissatisfaction began to grow a few years ago did the mainstream political left (long in the thrall the neo-lib policies) begun to panic and try to address the issue is small ways. Meanwhile people like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corben have come out and said point blank that the system isn't working and needs reform. The rightwing, on the other hand can never admit that the past forty years of neo-lib policies were never intended to deliver on prosperity for everyone but were, in fact, intended to increase economic inequality. This puts them in a kind of double bind. The rightwing response is once again the same as it has always been, divert the people's attention by blaming others for the failure of our system over the past decades. Their targets are painfully predictable - foreigners and the supposed elites. Both Trump and Leitch's approaches so far have been textbook; maintain the same financial policies that have brought us to this point and failed so miserably to deliver prosperity, but suggest that foreigners and some imaginary elite have screwed things up and that they are the only ones who can put things back in order, despite the fact that they are the ones that have been exporting jobs for decades and giving away their national sovereignty in corporate trade agendas.

In England the people have reacted more swiftly than the rightwing politicians believed that they would. As a result those voters who were foolish enough to believe that foreign workers had taken their jobs and foreign politicians had rigged the system against them, unexpectedly opted to leave the EU. This is a very temporary set back for the rightwing in Britain who will quickly respond by feeding this narrative to maintain their power. Because anyone who thinks that leaving the EU will help the average people in Britain (without a radical left government) has just bought into decades of neo-liberal lies.

As the model of capitalism that the rich and powerful have been pursing for decades begins to breakdown, the rightwing knows that they have a major problem; if the people realize what they have been up to for so long, the idea of actual capitalist reform will work its way onto the agenda. In a desperate effort to avoid this they are once again fanning the flames of xenophobia and pointing to an imaginary political elite. It is a strategy that can work, but only with the most dire of consequences. And in the end, the problems that they say that they are going to solve will only deepen until disaster results.

Unlike what Ibbitson would have us believe - that Trump is a final warning to the elite - what he really is is the first salvo in a new effort in modern fascism.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Our Era; enlightenment in reverse . .

Mr. Britling, the title character of H.G. Wells’ 1916 novel Mr. Britling Sees it Through, is haunted by the reality of the First World War, a conflict that had been years in the making but which, with his optimistic and compassionate sensibilities, he had always publicly and privately denied as a genuine possibility. The arrival of war in Europe turns Mr. Britling’s intellectual and emotional reality upside down as he is forced to face the possibility that people are simply not as good as he believed, and that perhaps the race to which he belongs is not as mature as he gave them credit for. Though Mr. Britling is in his fifties, Wells’ novel is a coming of age story, an unexpected bildungsroman of a middle-aged man who has been living in the pleasant and quite bubble of Matching’s Easy, a sleepy English village in Essex county.   
For those of us born in the last years of the so-called baby boom, it is easy to empathize with Mr. Britling, for lots of reasons. In the wake of the War in Vietnam there was fostered a significant mistrust of the military adventurism of Western States. This mistrust gave rise to the era of largely covert militarism in the late 1970s and 1980s. Our rather childish faith that the public wouldn’t again be so easily fooled into supporting economically motivated wars, was quickly dashed in the early 1990s when we watched the first George Bush commit the West to a war for oil. In an ironic homage to George Orwell, the first Gulf War ushered us into an what seems to be an era of permanent war and the protests against Vietnam are little more than a distant memory of generation now over-leveraged and looking for a comfortable retirement in age when economic security is a thing of the past. Worse than this, the global insecurity which Thatcher and Reagan, the Bushes and the Clintons gave birth is now having the knock-on effect of reigniting the xenophobia and fascism of the 1930s, only this time it comes with the added complication of climate change, global food and water crises, and potential nuclear conflagration. As the late Kurt Vonnegut would have said, so it goes.
Karl Marx told us that History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. If so, we are well into an era of farce, but one that promises everywhere to end in tragedy. But the unfulfilled promise that the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era left us, is more than an era of permanent war and shock capitalism, it is also an renewed ideology of “know-nothingism,” that strange pride that people take in their own ignorance and willfully offensive opinions and beliefs. And this know-nothingism is gaining speed and popularity against a monumental digital transformation of culture, a cultural transformation that can surely only be compared in significance to that brought about by the printing press.   

Our “Mr. Britling” moment is partly the realization that the progress of the human sensibilities is nowhere near what we had hoped and that if you give people a uniform, a rifle, and a marching band they will willingly follow you anywhere, blithely beating the drums of war. But this is our individualized “Mr. Britling” moment. At a wider, cultural level, we are witnessing a bildungsroman in reverse; a huge faction of our race that, though we tried to drag them forward into an enlightened future, is happily reverting back to quagmire of blissful ignorance, racism, xenophobia, and the active peddling of hate. Unfortunately, the wilful rejection of rational discourse and the adoption of childish, hate-filled, squealing (so well illustrated by political figures like Donald Trump), is happening against the backdrop of a digital transformation of culture that seems to be, counter-intuitive as it sounds, chipping away at literacy skills and undermining the kind of intellectual expansion that we once took for granted in the golden age of reading, when people sat down for long stretches not only to absorb the imaginative power of novels but read long, syntactically complex journalism and nonfiction, rather than simply clicking on a link, looking at a headline and then blathering some uniformed opinion in the comments section. What would Mr. Britling, a thoughtful essayist and cultural commentator, make of a generation that has an infinite amount of information at its fingertips but watches cat videos instead and happily, even proudly, follows leaders who make ignorance and hate-mongering their modus operandi?