Citizen, taxpayer, consumer, worker: no wonder people get so freaking confused.

So, I’m a consumer, a taxpayer, a worker (retired now), a voter, a citizen…all of these statuses contradict each other in one-way or another.  As a citizen, I get to vote every 4 years or so (woopty- doo) to elect people who are supposed to represent our political interests and pass laws to protect us all and provide a legal framework for acceptable individual conduct.  But, the government (our elected representatives) is dedicated to creating a prosperous and wealthy country and so their goal is to create economic development.  All other goals, for the government, are secondary to or support the first goal.  Kicking the shit out of the Employment Insurance scheme and skimming money from it to general revenue is a goal in support of economic development.

Economic development, of course, means private corporate enterprise.  So the government sees its prime goal as the support and driver of the private corporate agenda.  So we get to vote for the government every four years or so to represent our political/economic interests by promoting, encouraging and subsidizing private corporations so that they can, as the ideology goes, create wealth for all of us.  But there’s a problem here because as workers we suck away at private profit by actually getting paid to work.  Now that’s a problem for private corporations and the government.  Private corporations are dedicated to reducing the costs of labour because they’re a drag on profits.  That means using technology to replace workers as much as possible or reducing the value of their labour (as in McDonaldization).  Governments support that process in countless ways.  One way is by slowly and gradually, one project at a time, encouraging the use of foreign temporary workers or moving manufacturing and some services overseas where the wages are much lower.  As an aside, I read all the time in the newspapers about the ascendency of China with its huge cheap labour force and manufacturing capacity when in fact, it’s not so much China that’s ascended but American, European, Australian, Korean, Japanese and Canadian manufacturers that have set up shop in export processing zones in poor countries all over the world and especially China that account for the growth of the ‘Chinese’ economy.  What we’re seeing here is a leveling out of the value of labour globally.  Chinese workers are steadily getting higher and higher wages (by demanding them backed by lots and lots of labour unrest) while we are on a race to the bottom with our government telling us that we make too much money and that’s why Canada is not competitive.  What a load of crap!  In any case, back to my main theme keeping in mind that as workers we are apparently a burden on corporate profits and all the benefits we receive, including decent pensions are completely unreasonable.  The more I hear these stupid arguments the more I think that the government and corporations would like all of us to be making minimum wages…if that did happen, kiss goodbye to corporate profits because we wouldn’t be able to shop anymore, even at Walmart and they’d have to build bigger bridges so we would all have space to live under them.  What a cheerful prospect! So as citizens, we support governments that support our bosses who would like to get rid of us as workers because we’re too expensive but as I point out, lower wages mean lower profits in the long run.  So how are we doing as consumers?  Well, read on.

On CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio a few weeks ago we heard the President and CEO of the Credit Counseling Society of Victoria exhorting people to avoid getting into debt.  Apparently, we (Canadians) are in more personal debt (not counting mortgages) than in most countries. (at last count about 164% of income)  Well, I think that’s good advice.  By all means stay out of debt.  At the same time, however, we (at home here) get calls every day from credit granting organizations like banks urging us to borrow more and more.  They offer low interest rates and long repayment terms.  Not only that, but we face a daily barrage of exhortations to buy, buy, buy.  Cars, furniture, electronics, software, music.  How can we resist?  We need to feel good about ourselves.  We need to get the high we get when we buy things (more on this in a future post). And to compound the matter we get ‘consumer confidence’ numbers on our daily stock market reports. When consumers stop buying it’s bad for the economy, don’t you know.  So do we go with the banks or the Credit Counselling Society and Marc Carney’s Bank of Canada?  Obviously we buy things and get into more and more debt.  So as consumers of commodities, even debt (which has become a commodity), we are really doing our job.  The tipping point will come, however, when the margins we have between personal debt and the ability to repay get so squeezed that we must collapse, not only as individuals but as a society.

Of course, as a worker, I get paid and taxed on my income.  That makes me a taxpayer.  There’s even an organization in Canada called the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation (CTF) that is supposed to be protecting us against our governments spending too much money on useless things.  Of course their definition of useless is not my definition of useless, but there you go.  It’s almost as if the CTF seems all the money governments spend on programs etc. as money stuffed into a toilet bowl or down an empty well or mineshaft never to be seen or used again.  The reality is that governments spend money, wisely or not, and that money gets circulated in ‘the economy.’  I was a college instructor for 36 years.  During that time I made pretty good money and it mostly came from taxpayers via the provincial government.  I paid taxes 0n my income and on my property…all of it going to support businesses and local government infrastructure and programs.  So as a worker I paid taxes but got some of that money back in exchange for teaching all those years.  My wages and taxes (now my pension and taxes) go to support business and government.  As a resident of BC and Vancouver Island in particular, I want to see good, well-maintained roads (cleared of snow at the moment) and for that I have to pay.  Every cent the government spends goes somewhere. Ask the contract snow-clearing guy if he thinks the government should spend less.  The more I get paid the more I can pay back to support this kind of thing.  But it seems that the CTF wants us to pay lower taxes so we can presumably contribute more to corporate profits by buying more burgers and fries.  The truth is that governments spend strategically and because of commitments to ongoing contracts have only a certain margin of cash to play with.  They frantically need us to believe their bullshit ideology so we go on seeing ourselves in fragmented ways as either citizens, taxpayers, workers, or consumers.  We are all of those statuses combined in ways that cannot be profitably seen in isolation.  Think about it next time you hear someone ranting about spending way too much money on taxes or about goddamn union members making way too much money and sitting on their asses all day long.

To summarize, it seems we spend too much money and that puts us in terrible personal debt.  We also don’t spend enough money and that’s bad for ‘the economy.’  We get paid way too much (which allows us, of course, to spend so much) and pay way too much in taxes but are dependent on those very taxes to keep government subsidies to business high.   We vote every four years within a system that guarantees the preeminence of corporate profits, much of that going to weakening our national sovereignty.  In that way we continue to weaken our own position as workers or as members of a community with common interests.  Divide and conquer is and has been government policy for decades.  As citizens, we’re supposed to be in charge, but our role there is contradicted by our role as workers because we are a drag and an impediment to corporate profits with our high wages and corporate profits are the main concern of government.  It’s all pretty crazy.  More later.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners meet your Potential Modern Inheritors

Yes, the title is a wee bit provocative but let me explain.  In 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.  This book, from the back cover on my edition, “…lays to rest many myths about the Holocaust: that Germans were ignorant of the mass destruction of Jews, that the killers were all SS men, and that those who slaughtered Jews did so reluctantly.  Hitler’s Willing Executioners provides conclusive evidence that the extermination of European Jewry engaged the energies and enthusiasm of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans.”  Goldhagen systematically addresses many conventional explanations for The Holocaust: 1) the perpetrators were coerced, 2) that they were merely following orders, 3) that they were under very severe psychological pressure, 4) that they were petty bureaucrats needing to perform whatever tasks assigned them for the sake of their own career advancement, and 5) that people performed isolated and fragmented tasks so that they couldn’t appreciate the significance of their actions.  He then addresses each of these explanations and rejects them categorically.  He argues that a great deal of horrifying brutality and genocide was exercised not by insane people, but by ordinary people carrying out their sacred duty to The Fatherland.  This may be hard to believe, and the only real antidote to this scepticism is a thorough reading of Goldhagen’s book, but he is very convincing in his argument.  His book is carefully researched and highly insightful.

For Goldhagen, The Holocaust was not the result of aberrant individuals, bureaucracy, indifference, ignorance or individual pathology of any kind and it was only possible because Germany and Germans, ordinary Germans, were systematically changed  into anti-semites in very large numbers well before the war started. It was, he argues, the culmination of a process by which the German people, ordinary Germans, were convinced over decades that the biggest impediment to Germany’s apotheosis, its rise to true glory, was the Jewish people.  Over decades before the war, Jews were portrayed as the greatest evil that Germany faced as a nation.  So, it seems that Germans in their passionate love of The Fatherland were not only willing executioners of Jews (and other groups of people seen as a threat, either to The Fatherland, as in the case of Jews, or the Aryan race as in the case of people with mental or physical disabilities, the Romany, etc.), but enthusiastic, gleeful, inventive, proud and patriotic perpetrators of unbelievable brutality towards Jews.  There is a photograph in Goldhagen’s book of a German soldier, an ordinary German soldier, shooting in the back of the head a young mother while she holds her child in her arms.  He did it in front of the camera, proud of his patriotic deed.  Obviously, human beings are capable of incredible personal barbarism but that barbarism is more often than not released against ‘the other,’ the perceived source of all evil and danger to the group, whether it be the marriage, family, community, town, city, province, country or ideology (pick any one).  The soldier who shot the young mother did not see his deed as barbaric, but rather as patriotic, as one more step in the elimination of the Jewish evil infecting glorious Germany and threatening to weaken the Aryan race.  From this viewpoint, every time a German kills a Jew, man, woman or child, Germany gets stronger.  Essentially, the Jewish people were offered up as a sacrifice to ensure the future prosperity of the German nation. From here on, my argument gets a little complex and much of it arises in Ernest Becker’s work summarized in his posthumous book Escape From Evil (1975) in which he writes:

…the psychology of the Nazi experience, […] served as a grim refresher course on the metaphysics of mass slaughter.  Leo Alexander, in his outstanding paper on the SS, points out how much the Nazis were animated by what he calls a ‘heathen concept’: they had a whole philosophy of blood and soil which contained the belief that death nourishes life.  This was ‘heathen’ indeed: we recognize it as the familiar archaic idea that the sacrifice of life makes life flow more plentifully…Goering, for example, made a statement early in the war that ‘with every German airman who is killed by the enemy our Luftwaffe becomes stronger. (p.103)

So the logic of mass murder becomes clear. The ‘cleansing’ of Germany of the ‘dirty’ Jews was supposed to make Germany stronger, an idea that had been brewing for a long time in the German mind.  In essence, Goldhagen’s insistance that Germany was infected long before the Nazi era with a profound antisemitism fits in perfectly with Becker’s observation that The Holocaust was not an ‘event’ in history, but a consequence of a profound and longstanding insecurity that ordinary Germans had regarding the state of Germany.  Relief from this insecurity culminated in the execution and torture of masses of Jewish people.  It became the duty of all right-thinking, patriotic and heroic citizens to participate fully in the elimination of the Jewish evil, an evil inherent in every sub-human Jewish man, woman and child, the evil that threatened, in their minds, the very source of their life and power, The Fatherland.  Of course, the whole enterprise was a lie.  No amount of killing could save the German nation.

So, what can we now make of Goldhagen’s contention that it was ordinary Germans who were the perpetrators of Hitler’s program to eliminate Jews from Germany (and everywhere else given enough time)?  What we can say is that most evil in the world is not the result of the actions of aberrant individuals -although they definitely express their aberrance when permitted  to or encouraged by the state – but of ordinary people expressing their love for country or idea (racial purity, the uselessness of the poor, God, the glory of money, etc…).  As Becker states it, “…evil comes from man’s urge to heroic victory over evil.” (p.136)

What lesson can we learn from Goldhagen (and Becker – but more on that later)?  That blind nationalism and unquestioning faith in God and country have, and can still, lead ordinary people into committing the most atrocious, genocidal actions possible.  The Rwandan massacre of 1994 is an example of just such a thing and let us not think for a moment that it will never happen again.  From the vitriol I’ve been reading in comments following articles on the Idle No More movement, I expect that ordinary Canadians could be led into the same genocidal frame of mind as ordinary Germans were during the Nazi era.  Canadians are not anywhere close to becoming genocidal now, but systemic racism, scapegoating and a profound ignorance of the actions of their own government towards aboriginal people can set the stage for popular descent into crass racism and incivility.  When the government’s agenda are dominated by the private accumulation of capital, any perceived impediment to economic growth such as treaty negotiations will be seen by some as a threat to Canada as a nation and it’s sovereignty.  Once aboriginal people are openly scapegoated and blamed for a poor economy we will have to be doubly vigilant to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand and degenerate into widespread and open hostility towards First Nations.

Why is Kevin O’Leary so smug about being on the right?

I’ve long been interested in the way language embodies class and power relations.  Obviously, our language embodies much of our culture, so it’s not surprising that it would embody class relations.  The word ‘poor’ is used to describe many conditions of inadequacy.  ‘Rich’ can describe a chocolate cake or a wealthy person, both desirable components of a valuable life.  ‘Right’ does not only indicate a direction in it’s most obvious sense, but also correctness.  To be correct is to be right, as in right-handed.  In contrast, to be left-handed is to be sinister.  The ‘proper’ adjective used to point to my left-handedness is ‘sinistral.’  Left-handers are sinister.  Of course ‘left’ indicates nothing good.  The sun is bright and right, the moon dark and left . Both these terms in turn are symbols for men and women respectively.  The moon is the domain of women, the sun belongs to men.  After all, who is at the right hand of God, and who at the left?  It’s fairly clear that Jesus sits to the right of God, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty among Christians about who sits on His left. Probably better not to go there.  Where are women in heaven? Not particularly evident, at least not in the heaven I learned about as a young Catholic boy.

Turning this discussion to politics it’s clear what we can expect.  Any conservative political party is on the right of the political spectrum and the socialists, liberals and communists occupy the sinistral left.  Now, isn’t that convenient?  Right is correct, left is just plain wrong, isn’t it?  Our language pre-conditions us to think about conservative (Republican in the US) parties as being right, as in better than those on the left.  Kevin O’Leary, that obnoxious and rude commentator on the CBC about business and finance has no doubt that he is right because he’s on the right.  After all, he represents the interests of business and finance, the natural elements of conservative thinking and of what C.B. Macpherson called possessive individualism.  After all, who can be against business success?  Our prosperity depends on it, or so the argument goes.  The poor are immobile, the walking dead, the wealthy have money to allow them mobility.  The poor are what’s ‘left,’ and they get what’s left when we’ve finished eating.   The wealthy always eat first and are always on the right path…don’t you know?

The new globalized assault on labour

The first link below is to a CBC news article about the influx of Chinese miners in Canada and the second is about ‘right to work’ legislation in Michigan, but in other American states too.   Both stories are from yesterday’s National.  These stories may not seem to be linked at first glance, but they are.  They point to the internationalization of labour and the degradation of its value.

I’ve written about this in previous posts, but it’s worth repeating Thorstein Veblen’s observation that countries are subservient institutions to private capital accumulation, which is currently our dominant mode of production along with it’s modus operandi, business entreprise and the factory system.  The concept of private property is the legal expression of power over commodity production and accumulation.  I repeat: countries are now and have always been subservient to the capitalist mode of production.  Initially, they were created in Europe as a way of opening up markets for commodities and to ‘free up’ labour to move around beyond the confines of their feudal estates.  Countries are just another step in the historical trend towards the global consolidation of political power.   Still, countries have often been a focus of group loyalty, nationalism or patriotism.  This is not always pro-capitalism.  The problem for capitalism is that once countries are created they become more than what was first intended.  People soon consider them home.  They fall in love with them.  They aren’t entirely sure why, but they do.  Well, we’ve been told forever that countries are the way the world is organized.  Our citizenship defines us.  We are proud to be Canadians, Americans, Australians, Indians, etc… We don’t question this, it’s just the way the world is.  So we get upset when we find out that our governments seem to be doing things that we perceive as harmful to us and to our country.  We can’t figure out why our politicians would do such things.  Why, when the unemployment rate in Canada is fairly high, it would encourage the importation of labour?  Why would the state of Michigan attack collective bargaining, guaranteeing a reduction of average wages there, like it has done in other states?  It’s not that surprising, really.  Some governments, not all, are more business oriented than others.  The Canadian government, for example, is extremely pro-business.  As pro-business, it buys into the argument that lower wages are generally good for business.  The cost of labour is a large part of what it means to do business, so any way of reducing the costs of labour becomes government policy.  Attacking collective bargaining rights, as in the US, is a way of reducing average wages, and it will eventually reduce the costs of labour globally, so will importing cheaper labour from other parts of the world to developed countries.  Ironically, reducing average wages will reduce our capacity to buy commodities, the essence of the capitalist mode of production.  So, go ahead boys, cut our wages, cut our pensions. By doing so you’re cutting your own throats.

So, Canada came into existence officially in 1867.  When do you think it will die?  There’s no question that it will. When and how are the questions, not if.  Will the death of Canada come from the outside, from invasion?  Not at all likely, unless it’s the US over water.  No, Canada will come apart at the seams, much like the US will, bit by bit.  Omnibus bill by omnibus bill.  Harper decree by Harper decree.  But don’t worry, it won’t happen for a few years yet.  A hint might be though that 95% of the petrochemical business in this country is foreign controlled.  Now with the Nexen and Progress deals paving the way, outright ownership is on the way.  And don’t believe a word Harper utters about tightening the rules.

Labour has always been a necessary part of the capitalist mode of production, but labour is being replaced by capital (by the use of technology and automation) or cheapened by the same process.  The inevitable result locally and globally will be a few very rich people and the rest of us.  How far do you think we are away from that outcome?

Living in interesting times: Stephen Harper’s betrayal of Canadian Sovereignty.

It’s interesting to me that a Conservative prime minister like Stephen Harper could be so anti-nationalist while constantly protesting his love of Canada.  He had good teachers, however, in Brian Mulroney and the Liberals Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien, who, each in their own way, undermined Canadian sovereignty.   It seems odd, doesn’t it, that the ‘leader’ of a developed country like Canada would be so intent on seeing it marginalized in the name of capital.  I’ve written about this in previous blogs. Of course, there’s always been tension between the interests of the nation-state and that of capital.  Now it seems we are living in the end times of the much-beloved institutions we call countries and the Harper government is leading the charge over the cliff, carving off bits and pieces of the resources of this country and making them available at rock bottom prices to global finance capital while we, the citizens of Canada, must sit by and watch our country being slowly dismantled.

Not that I’m a huge nationalist myself.  I’m not any kind of ‘ist’ in this discourse.  I understand the dynamics of history, particularly the political economy of capital accumulation, the impoverishment of greater and greater segments of the global population and the destruction of the environment along with the disappearance of countless species of animals.  Studying all of this has been my life’s work.

Historically, we’re on a course, a course that will not be reversed and at best can be slightly mitigated in its negative effects on all of the global inhabitants, especially humans.  Things will eventually get better for everyone, but not before they get a lot worse.  The Harper government is the handmaiden of your disenfranchisement and  the leading thrust in the destruction of the democratic process.  We’re inevitably on our way to a world government with the global population having no voice in governance.  Oh, there may be elections in the future, but they will be token nods to the concepts of real democracy, just as in Canada today.  Our education system is designed largely by people who have drunk the Kool-Aid of national sovereignty, trade between countries and parliamentary political representation. Our youth know nothing about global capital accumulation and the inevitable intensive concentration of capital.  If anyone learns anything these days about how the world really works, it’s in spite of the education system not because of it.

Private capital accumulation created countries during the bourgeois revolutions in Europe starting in the 11th century or thereabouts, but that evolutionary process was not without variation.  Some European countries got a leg up with the early concentration of political power in fewer and fewer hands in larger and larger political units.  Countries as we know them slowly evolved out of the amalgamation of small, independent political units.  France was, for hundreds of years, made up of clans, the Breton, the Normand, the Alsaciens, the Savoyards, etc… Britain was, as we know, an amalgamation of many, sometimes warring factions, such as the Normans, the Saxons, the Angles, the Danes, the Welsh, Scottish, etc… In the 19th Century, these same countries imposed the same kind of political organization on much of the rest of the world with virtually all of Africa split up between European colonial powers between 1873 and 1896.  Same thing happened all over the rest of the world.  Now the process is being rationalized with the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund among many other organizations encouraging the global release of restrictions on global capital accumulation.  The indebtedness of many countries is contrived and used as a means of disenfranchising national sovereignty, and that process proceeds apace.   As I noted above, private capital accumulation created countries, and it will lead to their destruction.

Look forward to a more concerted assault on national sovereignty by national governments and, in response, the need for greater and greater vigilance and social action.  What we’ve come to know as the Arab Spring will look like a picnic compared to what we will can expect in the future.  Syria is a case study in how national leadership can make war on its own people.  Expect more of that, much more.