It’s your life, so sell it along with the rutabaga!

This is one way to think about modern capitalism. There are others.

Most of us glide through life not thinking particularly deeply, if at all, about the underlying forces controlling our lives.  In fact, we are taught all along that there are no forces that control our lives at all and that we are fully in charge of our lives whatever we make of them. That belief is actually part of the very real underlying forces I just mentioned, one that aims to line up our personal lives in such a way that we don’t question the forces that drive us to behave in certain ways and not in others.[1]

An example might help.  I’m sure you found yourself recently in a grocery store buying food for the week, or maybe just for dinner, assuming that is that you have enough money to actually shop in grocery stores and not in dumpsters, but that’s another matter I’ll deal with later.  Two aspects of this shopping scenario are of interest to me here.  First is the idea of the store itself.  How many of us actually question the very existence of the store? Not many, I’m sure.  

Stores are such a regular and ubiquitous part of life that we tend to think of them as just part of the landscape, as places to go buy things, certainly, that is if we think of them at all.   Well, a store is nothing more than a place where things are stored, awaiting distribution or for people to come along and pick them up in exchange for money. People have been storing things ever since the dawn of humankind.  

Finding secure places to store food and other goods has been a human preoccupation throughout history (and pre-history for that matter).  In a situation where food is readily available and there is no worry about spoilage because it’s consumed very soon after it’s collected, storage isn’t an issue.  This was true, for instance, of the !Kung San in Southern Africa before colonialism. It does become an issue when there is a large number of people to feed and where food can become scarce at times. Obviously, food storage is not so much an option for nomadic as opposed to settled peoples so it has been a very important pre-occupation of humankind especially for the last ten thousand years or so since the advent of large scale domestication, settlement and formal government.  Preserving food then becomes imperative and storing it securely even more so.  

So, we’ve needed to store food and other products for a long time.  Once food and other goods are in storage, they need to be made available to people for consumption.  Not just any people, of course.  In what we know of pre-history and early history, family was the most important unit of distribution.  People would pass around chunks of meat around the campfire. As we went along as a species especially in certain parts of the world we now know as the Middle East, Europe and the Far East, the units of distribution grew ever larger driven by domestication and urbanization.  Well, that was then, what about now?  

Eventually, political units tended to grow in size and motivations changed.  There was an increasing need to mobilize, equip and feed large numbers of people for various tasks like war, agriculture, large infrastructure projects like water diversions, roads, sanitation systems as well as religiously inspired projects like pyramids, cathedrals and the like. This historical development required innovations in storage management and distribution.  Centralized storage systems like granaries, warehouses and eventually freezing and cold storage facilities grew more prevalent.  But of course, human production never occurs in a vacuum.  Production, distribution and consumption, the three ‘moments’ of human production are not just economically but also politically driven for the most part and limited by the availability of raw materials, labour and technology.  In our time, and for the past three centuries, give or take a few decades, business has been increasingly dominant in all phases of human production.  Business. Yes, business. 

Business is a method, a way of organizing human activities, most predominantly economic activity.  That said, the ways and means of business have become pervasive in all types of organizations, governments and non-profit.  It’s a truism to say that businesses exist to make money. That’s not all they exist for, but if they don’t make money they don’t last long (unless they get government subsidies which they often do). And what is the interest of business in human production? Well, as I noted above, business is an organizational vehicle for the production, distribution, and often, the consumption of commodities. Note that I said business is in it for the creation of commodities not products. 

Commodities are products specifically created for the market. General Motors doesn’t make vehicles for its own use, it makes them to sell. Once a vehicle is sold it no longer holds any interest for GM. In fact, if people, car buyers, were more concerned with GM’s welfare (as GM thinks they should be) they would drive their vehicles into the first power pole they encountered upon leaving the auto dealer lot. That would mean an opportunity for GM to sell another vehicle to replace the one just smashed up against the power pole. Smashing up cars is good for business. 

Of course, the scenario I just painted is simplistic and the real situation is much more complex, but the truth is that business makes products to sell. We call those products commodities. Distribution businesses like grocery stores are also in the business of making money but their challenge is somewhat different than GM’s. Grocery businesses have conditioned us over the decades to expect a myriad of consumable commodities on their shelves. People (like you and I) get very upset when they see empty shelves or even half empty shelves in their favourite grocery store. I can hear people saying to themselves “What’s wrong? Why are the shelves getting empty? Should I stock up?” Fear and panic can set in. So, it’s better to keep the shelves topped up to avoid triggering a sense of doom and scarcity.

The reality is that grocers can never sell all the commodities that grace their shelves so masses of produce, meats, dairy products and other perishable items get tossed in the garbage every day. That is of no fundamental concern to the grocer (can you say Jimmy Pattison) as long as on average and over the long term enough commodities get sold to still make a profit. The ‘wastage’ is collateral damage. If food producers and distributors actually made food to consume rather than to sell, there would be no hungry people on the planet. But that’s not the way our world works. We allow people to starve if they have no money to bring to the market to exchange for food. It’s all about the market.

People get consumed too in the productive process. We sell our labour-power to a buyer at the best price we can get if we’re lucky and that buyer then has the ownership of our time and our capacity to work. Our time spent at work is not our time. It belongs to our employer.

However, my point is that we have to own ourselves in order to sell ourselves just like we have to own a rutabaga to sell it. That’s a basic legal foundation of capitalism. As owners of our labour-power we enter the market as free players, at least in theory. And if we are free players in the market we must also be free players in other aspects of our lives. It’s a singular philosophical expression of the reality of life in a capitalist society. More on this in another post. This one’s long enough already. 


[1]Dr. Bruce Lipton explains how we get programmed early in life to accept the reality we are presented with:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TivZYFlbX8

Capitalism: On Its Way Out?

I’m going to try to keep this simple. The answer to my own question in the title of this post is: of course. All things come and go. The era of capitalist domination will inevitably come to an end one way or another. How long capitalist domination can hang on is open to conjecture but it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

I’m actually researching a series of blog posts on the relationship between capitalism, liberalism and democracy. Below I consider the most important dimensions of capitalism including its life-historical reality, its structure as a set of social relations, its difference from other modes of human production and its effects on morality and other aspects of life. If you haven’t read my post Is Canada a Capitalist Country?, now would be a good time. I may have been a bit too strident in that post, but I’ll try to make up for that here.

Some writers, actually many writers who might now be considered apologists for capitalism (and some left-wingers too) claim that the spirit behind capitalism has always existed in us humans. They argue that the key to capitalism becoming the dominant mode of production in history was removal of the fetters that kept it from emerging. I don’t buy that and neither does Ellen Meiksins Wood. Capitalism didn’t evolve next to feudalism and just wait until the time was right to overthrow feudal social relations. Capitalism grew out of the failing social relations of feudalism.

Simply capitalism is based on the system of wage labour. As feudalism was on its way out, there was a lot of stress between serfs and lords. Many lords couldn’t keep up with their responsibilities towards their serfs and serfs were reluctant to wait around for the lords to get their shit together. The productivity of agrarian England, particularly regarding wool production, for example, was rapidly diminishing to the point where in the 17th Century a half of English workers (called servants then) were wage labourers. I’ll not get into the specific mechanisms and forces that led to that outcome in this post but will explore it later in review of C. B. Macpherson’s book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford, 1962).

As workers we have a relationship to our bosses, our employers, based on wage labour. In a classic capitalist scenario, a capitalist hires workers to extend his or her own capacity to produce commodities for sale. It’s no surprise that businesses that mine oil and gas, for example, are referred to as petroleum producers. That designation does not include the people who work for those businesses. Hasbro is a toy producer. No reference to their workers as the real producers. Their labour power has been bought and paid for by the capitalist and he or she can therefore refer to it as his or her own labour. After all, it was bought and paid for.

Capitalists buy our labour power. Not our labour, but our labour power, our capacity to work. Of course a lot of us never work for an individual capitalist. We work for governments at various levels or non-profits. So, it’s more accurate to say that workers as a class work for capitalists as a class.

The system of wage labour has infiltrated every nook and cranny of our worlds. We expect to grow up to be nothing else than workers or employees (as many people prefer to be called) and we are trained at home and at school to expect no other outcome. We just want a good job. So few of us can ever become capitalists despite our dreams. Besides, the reality is that we, as individuals, are not very important in the scheme of things. It’s capital versus labour on a grand scale that counts historically. Individuals are simply personifications of our classes and no one is indispensable. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple died a while ago but Apple lives on. Us workers are a dime a dozen. You want to find meaning in your life? For most people it’s futile to even contemplate finding ‘meaning’ in their work.

So, why will capitalism die? Because of its own efficiency and effectiveness. Due to severe stresses often caused by periods of overproduction of commodities, the capitalist class embarks on a program of renovation that changes the relationship between capital and labour. Globalization is a result of that renovation. Capitalists seeing their profits drop from failing sales have some options. They can curtail production and they can make their production processes more efficient, meaning that it takes fewer units of labour to produce the same product. They can also move production around like build a factory in Sri Lanka to take advantage of low wages, favourable labour and safety laws, better access to raw materials, and new markets.

Let me back up a bit to a very simplified illustration of what happens when someone wants to produce a product. Let’s look at a hypothetical product called a widget. It’s for ducks to perch on. So Sam McGee, a prominent local duck hunter and entrepreneur decides he wants to produce widgets. What does he do? Well, he gathers together all the things that he will need, what I call INPUTS in the table below. He hires a manager and the manager gets on with it. Sam sits back and watches the whole thing unfold from his condo in Panama.

The dollar values on the right in the table below are the costs per widget. In this case they add up to $28.50. He envisions making a profit of $12.50 per widget. Not bad. Note that McGee has to hire workers before he starts operations. Workers are part of the inputs. Workers do not share in the profits of the business. Workers’ labour is part of the costs of production like the land, equipment, and raw materials. McGee has agreed to pay market value for all the inputs. In this scenario, McGee gets $40 per widget which he also sells at market value. So how does McGee make money?

Sam McGee’s World

The Widget factory
 INPUTS
raw materials$2.00
equipment$4.00
land$5.00
buildings$5.00
labour$8.00
power$0.50
overhead$4.00
TOTAL$28.50
OUTPUTS
Widgets $40.00

Well, McGee is a clever kind of guy and he’s figured out that he can make money as things are. All he has to do is make sure that his costs of production amount to less than what he can get for widgets on the market. If the workers shared in the profit, the table above would look somewhat different. The $8.00 Sam pays his workers would rise to $20.50. So, the only way Sam cam make money is by not paying his workers full value for their labour. The $12.50 in profit comes from not paying his workers a full share of the market value of the widgets.

His cleverness will be tested, however, when the market for widgets collapses because he’s now produced a lot of widgets and he’s saturated the market and because he also now has competitors that pay lower wages and make even more money than he did. Damn. What to do? Cutting production is an option. The problem is it takes 10 workers to make 100 widgets a day. They can’t make any more and if they make any less, the costs of labour per widget go up. So what to do. Sam, the clever guy, knows a guy in welding and fabrication who says he can build Sam a piece of equipment that will allow for the same output of widgets but using half the current employees. Not only that, the equipment will allow Sam to tailor his production of widgets to any number he wants. Bonus! Sam gets on that right away, installs the equipment and fires half his staff. He also cuts back on production temporarily and lays off half his staff again. He’s now down to 2 workers and is still producing widgets, but a lot fewer of them. Sam is still making money but his workforce is not doing too well by him. As a side thing, Sam needs to also figure out how to make flimsier widgets. The ones he makes last way too long. He has to cultivate a forever returning clientele.

I know this is a huge simplification of how capitalism works, but it’s the essence of the thing at least from the production end of things. Of course, there’s money to be made in the distribution of commodities too and in their consumption. And if Sam needs to borrow money all the better. Then Goldman Sachs can get rich too.

What I’ve just shown here, simplified as it is, is the way that the labour force is being squeezed right out of existence. Either production is automated to eliminate workers altogether or the value of labour power is so reduced that workers can’t survive on the wages they are offered. We’re in that place right now. Simply put, there is a greater and greater amount of capital going into production at the expense of labour and as the system gets closer and closer to essentially eliminating necessary labour, the margins of profit drop, and capital can no longer exploit workers.

Oh, but it’s so much more complex than this. Governments have gotten into the picture helping Sam McGee in his time of terrible trouble partly by helping to manage and maintain his now mostly unemployed workers. (On EI, they are always free to come back to work. They constitute a free pool of labour for Sam). Banks too have joined governments to ensured that Sam will be fine. After all, Sam is the creative producer and his workers are nothing more than part of the cost of production. Sam needs our help!

Now think of Sam McGee as the totality of global commodity production and think of his workers as the global labour force and you will begin to get the picture.

In my next post I tackle how capitalism along with its essential liberal legitimation has infiltrated our very psyches, our values and our morality, and I will address how that infiltration is not as solid as it might seem.

Are you self-absorbed or self-effacing?

Recently, Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s White Coat, Black Artinterviewed Elizabeth Rathbun, a 66 year-old Vancouver resident with severe MS. Her story is compelling but it’s not the focus of this blog post. The focus here is narrative clues to the tension between us as individuals and society. I use Goldman’s interview with Rathbun as a vehicle only. I could pick millions of similar interviews or conversations that have the same dynamic and I have many in computer files. The fact is, I’ve just listened to the most recent episode of White Coat, Black Art and this interview struck me as prototypical example of the type of narrative I want to analyze here. 

For a long time I’ve been interested in individualism versus society. There’s a lot of great literature around this topic but Norbert Elias tops the list of sociologists I think of when I try to parse out the relationships we have with ‘society’. In psychological terms the relationship between the individual and society is bound up with all manner of confounding moralisms and ideological constructs. Like a number of other sociologists I find that conversation and narrative are a treasure trove of hints and hypotheses about our social relations. 

So, aside from the story itself, what is it about what Elizabeth Rathbun says to Brian Goldman that catches my attention? Read the following three paragraphs from the interview. Rathbun is talking about her experience with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Her MS is a particularly debilitating strain, leaving her in a mechanized wheelchair to get around, and in constant need of care. 

“What you discover about yourself is an enormous capacity for denial. Denial that it’s happening. Denial of what the future might hold … and a tremendous reluctance to give up the ways in which you look after your family, and the ways in which you contribute in the community.”

“Each time you think you’re there, there’s more progression. There’s a new development, a new thing to be incorporated in your lives and you start all over again.”  

“If you value independence so supremely that you do not want to help with the most basic things like dressing or brushing your teeth or showering … then that may be your line in the sand, but it’s not mine. I couldn’t care less,” she said, adding she’s “thrilled” the government now allows people to make the choice to have an assisted death.

Before going on I will now edit Rathbun’s comments a little and reproduce my edits below. See if you can tell the difference between the originals and my edits. Here are my edited versions of her comments:

“What I discovered about myself is an enormous capacity for denial. Denial that it’s happening. Denial of what the future might hold … and a tremendous reluctance to give up the ways in which I look after your family, and the ways in which I contribute in the community.”

“Each time I think I’m there, there’s more progression. There’s a new development, a new thing to be incorporated in my life and I start all over again.”  

So, why did Rathbun not use I in her comments on her MS? Let’s be clear, I’m not picking on Rathbun nor finding fault with the way she answered Goldman’s questions. Back in 2006 a number of my students in a research methods course undertook some research on what we called pronoun bending. Pronoun bending describes the use of the personal pronoun you rather than I in daily conversation, interviews, etc., when I often seems the most appropriate pronoun to use. One of the research papers we used as a source for trying to figure out the meaning of this phenomenon was called The Indefinite Youby Hyman (2006).[1]He concluded that the use of the indefinite you was in his words youbiquitous. Rathbun is not alone in her use of the indefinite you. We all do it! I’m adding the paper my students put together in 2006 to a page here. It would be helpful if you read it now, especially the findings at the end of the paper. 

At times people being interviewed or in daily conversation will start off by using I then switch to you at certain times. My students were most interested in why that happened. Hyman (2006) and Senger[2](1963) in a much earlier paper suggested a few possible reasons. It could be a defense mechanism or a means of distancing oneself from a painful reality. It could be a way of showing that we’re not so self-absorbed that we can’t relate to other people and their problems.

One clear moral/behavioural principle in our world is that we shouldn’t brag always using I, I, I in our conversations. It’s okay to be an individual, but we must also recognize our social connections and our reliance on others. Self-effacement is problematic, but it’s non-threatening too. When Rathbun says with reference to dealing with a debilitating disease like MS that “What you discover about yourself is an enormous capacity for denial,” she is unconsciously appealing to our sense of belonging and understanding. She could just as easily have said “What I discovered about myself is an enormous capacity for denial.” In using the indefinite you, she is implicitly imploring us to agree with her. She is subconsciously saying “You know what I’m going through, don’t you. I’m not alone in feeling this way.” 

Now consider Rathbun’s third paragraph above. I repeat it here:

“If you value independence so supremely that you do not want to help with the most basic things like dressing or brushing your teeth or showering … then that may be your line in the sand, but it’s not mine. I couldn’t care less,” she said, adding she’s “thrilled” the government now allows people to make the choice to have an assisted death.

In this paragraph she is using an indexical use of you. In other words, she is pointing to you specifically and saying that may be where you would draw the line in the sand, but not me! “I couldn’t care less.” Wow. She’s owning that one. There is a switch in this quote from using you to using I, but it’s a ‘natural’ one, not one from I to an indefinite you. 

This post is plenty long enough already, so instead of going on and on, I’d like to challenge you to pay close attention to the conversation you have or hear and try to pick out speakers’ uses of the indefinite you. I think it’s a fun exercise. And please read Pronoun Bending on this blog. 


[1]Hyman, Eric, “The Indefinite ‘You,” English Studies, 2004, P.161-167

[2]Senger, Harry, L.,  “The Indefinite ‘You’- A Common Defense Mechanism,” Comprehensive Psychiatry, Vol. 4 No. 5 (October), 1963, P.358-363.

Computers:Woe is Me!

Sometimes I love my computers. Often I hate them. And I have mixed feelings about the networks and such that my computer consorts with. Yesterday, my early 2011 old MacBook Pro decided it was a good day to die. If that wasn’t bad enough, our internet connection decided it no longer wanted to play either. In the case of our internet connection, it’s probably the Shaw Hitron modem that’s the issue, at least that’s what the Shaw tech guy I talked to in Winnipeg thought when I called on Sunday. It’s not the first time we’ve had issues with our internet connection. A Shaw tech guy (no, not the guy in Winnipeg) is supposed to come out later today to look into the issue, I hope whoever it is can fix the damn thing. Trying to type emails on our phones is almost as frustrating as having the internet connection itself go down. At least we have some communication with the outside world using data on our phones. Our WiFi network is working fine, it just hasn’t found a way to dance with our internet modem.  Oh well. 

As far as computers go, my old MacBook Pro is certainly dead. I operated on it, took its hard drive into My Tech Guys in Courtenay, our local dealer, and were told that it was toast. I was hoping maybe it was just the video card or the mother board but no, the hard drive is kaput as is the battery. I already replaced the keyboard on the thing and a few other parts and that’s my third battery in there, so, now is the time to surrender. I’ve raised the white flag. I give up. No more money to be spent on expensive operations. 

So, what to do? Buy another computer of course. I’m pretty cheap when it comes to buying some things. I really feel that way about electronics. I expect my computers to last at least a tenth as long as me. That’s been the case so far. Our Macs have done very well, actually. We have one old blue iMac that came out in 2002 and it’s still working fine and we have another desktop model Mac that has three hard drives in it and has tons of storage capacity. It’s at least 10 years old. Problem is I can’t pack those around and I often want to pack a computer around. I’m not going to say I need to pack one around, because that wouldn’t be the truth, but I surely want to. I’m retired so needing is a bit of a stretch. I’m mostly in want mode these days. It’s like I need my sleep but I want my computer to be portable. 

Now I have a brand new Mac Air. It’s a solid state computer. No hard disk, just 128 gigabytes of storage. I’m used to more than that, my old MacBook Pro had a terabyte drive, but I can always store photos and videos on our external drives. Problem is, my old dead drive had a lot of files and passwords in it that I would dearly like to have access to now. I wasn’t too worried about it because I have a backup system, but I just tried to access that and wasn’t able to. Yikes! Is it time to panic? Well, maybe not quite yet. It may be that our whole computer universe is waiting for the Shaw tech guy to come and get us plugged back into the world. I hope so. Today will tell. 

Addendum: Josh, the Shaw guy came over yesterday and checked things out here. Turns out we had too many ethernet connections from the shaw modem to the Apple modem. Easy fix. My bad.

I was able to retrieve everything off my old computer. Now I just have to select the files I want to use. The others can stay on the external drive.

Fun and games.

The Trip (at 12,130 meters).

Flying often makes me wistful and pensive. There’s something about being strapped in a 737 flying over varied prairie and mountainous landscapes at 12,130 meters that brings it on. Well, flying in a much smaller Bombardier turbojet between Edmonton and Calgary also got me musing, especially about the place of humans in the world and about time.

We had flown from Comox on Vancouver Island directly to Edmonton in central Alberta a few days earlier to visit my sister-in-law who lives in the Dickensfield care home in Edmonton and to see my brother who has recently moved from Regina to Edmonton. The day before yesterday my niece drove us to the Edmonton International Airport for the start of our trip home. At this time of year Edmonton is covered in dirty snow and when it thaws a bit and then freezes again, the side roads can get treacherous, but the highways were clear and the traffic was light. It was 6:30 AM and the temperature in Edmonton was -8 ˚C and steadily dropping. I took the picture below with my iPhone somewhere between Edmonton and Calgary. I don’t know at what altitude we were flying but it couldn’t have been more than 3,000 meters. The patterns created by carving up the prairie into quarter sections is clearly visible in the photograph I took from the cabin. The snow helps delineate the quarter sections. The other photograph is a screenshot of the Alberta township system map that you can find here. Every square inch of the land is marked by human intervention. The symmetry evident in both photographs is superimposed on the landscape and is obviously not natural. Still, the grid is plain to see in the photograph from 3,000 meters up. Fences and tree breaks attest to the surveyor’s work and our penchant to delineate land to own, clearly separate and distinct from our neighbour’s land, forces us to recognize our pretence of dominance over the land. The scars are real.

Where is there room for burrowing owls, bison, prairie dogs? In patently very few places it seems. That’s plain to see. Humans have been transforming this landscape for centuries, millennia even, but nothing on the scale of the past 100 years. Alberta is the playground of humans for now at least. Wildlife (freelife) must find pockets of compatible space in the interstices of human culture to build homes and forage for food. In another 10,000 years, the scars that are evident from 3,000 meters up will likely be erased. ‘Alberta’ as a political entity will be no longer. Burrowing owls will likely be extinct. In a hundred million years new species may roam the land. In a half a billion years, the prairies may be lake bottom or the Rockies may migrate further east. The continents as we know them will be undone and redone. I don’t know how the future will unfold in detail. Geomorphologists know about these things, about plate tectonics and the like. All I know for certain is that everything will change radically over time.

Regardless, the way we think of time is conceptually extremely limited. Brian Edward Cox OBE, FRS, English physicist who serves as professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester and BBC documentary commentator argues that the universe is finite and will come and go in the blink of an eye. Our human lifespans are infinitesimal yet we live them as though they are forever. The Prairies and the Rocky Mountains seem forever but they are not. They will ‘die’. The speed at which they will die is extremely slow, of course, from our perspective, but there are other perspectives which have alternative assessments of the passing of time. Cox, for example, argues for a different conception of time than the one that rules our lives. For him time on a universal scale is vastly different than how we perceive of time at the human scale. However, for him, that matters little. All time happens in the blink of an eye.

My grandparents are dead. My parents are dead. I’m next in line. My children and grandchildren will follow me into the void. My life has passed in the blink of an eye. It really does seem that way to me. On a planetary scale, the Rocky Mountains will be gone in the blink of an eye as will the scars that crisscross the Alberta prairie.

Flying over the Rocky Mountains, then the central valleys of British Columbia and finally over the Coastal Mountain Range at 12,130 meters, before descending over the waters of the Salish Sea to the airport in Comox, it was evident that the landscape was not conducive to carving up the way Alberta has been into quarter sections. Mountainous terrain is hard to do anything with from a human point of view. Agriculture is sparse. Of course there’s always mining, logging and skiing, but only in limited areas. Many of the mountain ranges are inaccessible, the peaks are sharp and the mountain sides are stratified attesting to the fact that these peaks were once pushed up from deep inside the core of the continental plates. The Burgess Shale, close to Field, BC, in the Rockies contains innumerable fossils. From the Burgess Shale website:

The locality reveals the presence of creatures originating from the Cambrian explosion, an evolutionary burst of animal origins dating 545 to 525 million years ago. During this period, life was restricted to the world’s oceans. The land was barren, uninhabited, and subject to erosion; these geologic conditions led to mudslides, where sediment periodically rolled into the seas and buried marine organisms. At the Burgess locality, sediment was deposited in a deep-water basin adjacent to an enormous algal reef with a vertical escarpment several hundred meters high.

From ocean floor to mountain peak in a few million years. In fact, when the Burgess Shale was created, the planet looked entirely different than it does today. This map from the same website noted above shows that the continents were not yet formed as we know them.

British Columbia has been carved up for the needs of humans, and some of those carvings are visible at 12,130 meters, but not in the same way as Alberta. BC has nowhere near the absolute symmetry of Alberta’s political-economic divisions. Mountains and prairies offer very different options for human interference. In a million years that human interference will not likely be evident at all.

So, things come and go. People, mountains, plains, continents, planets, even universes. We are all finite. We all have our turn to get transmogrified with every atom of our bodies converted to other uses for other organisms. From that perspective, mountain ranges and prairies are no different from each of us as individuals.

That’s life. Flying gets me thinking about these things.

GM Committed to Canada?

GM, on its website claims in very large text that it is committed to Canada and its employees in Oshawa.

Well, although I don’t doubt the sincerity of the person who actually wrote this material and even of the GM company itself, it’s obvious that GM is not and cannot be committed to Canada ahead of its commitment to itself and to profit. It will sacrifice whatever it needs to in order to stay alive as a viable company.

Be warned, the Oshawa layoffs are just the beginning of a trend in GM towards hiring new kinds of engineers, many out of Silicon Valley, with a plan of producing electric and self-driving vehicles. According to the company’s website and to industry analysts, GM sees Cadillac as its first electric car offering to compete with Tesla. Now that’s interesting! It proudly states that unlike European carmakers GM has not opened a factory in Mexico for 10 years. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean that its current plans don’t include bringing parts from all over the world to its assembly plants in North America where their cars are ‘made’. It’s future does include layoffs of over 20,000 workers. In that, GM is not much different from any other large global secondary manufacturing organization.

Obviously, GM is in the business of selling cars and trucks. It doesn’t help the company’s image among nationalists that it’s willing to put 2600 Oshawa workers out of work leaving the plant ‘unallocated’. Unallocated means they have no plans to produce anything in that plant after the plant closes in December or ever. So, to mollify the opposition, GM says that over half of its employees at Oshawa Assembly were due to retire anyway. Its website reports that:

  • GM Canada has committed millions of dollars to help our Oshawa Assembly employees transition and retrain – so our employees and their families know that if they choose not to retire on their GM pension (more than half of our hourly workers at Oshawa Assembly will be eligible for their GM pension when production ends at the end of 2019), there will be an opportunity for them to transition to one of 5,000 good available new jobs in Durham Region and GTA and GM will help fund the transition training for them.

It’s true that GM is making some generous offers to their outgoing employees. These include help transitioning to other jobs, allowing the continuation of employee benefits and even a $20,000 voucher towards a new car. So, even as they go out the door of GM’s Assembly plant, workers can drive away in a new GM car! What have the employees to complain about?

Well, they may have a lot to complain about, but I’m not sure a lot of people are going to listen to their complaints. They’ve had very ‘cushy’ jobs with good pay for decades now. No one promised you a rose garden, right? I can’t imagine a lot of Alberta oil sands workers being very sympathetic. “Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark!” “We’re losing our jobs, it’s only fair that you would lose yours too!” No, sympathy is not a quality we should expect to see expressed much anymore. Liberalism and libertarianism have conditioned us to believe that whatever happens to us is our own responsibility, our own fault, good or bad. Piss on all the rest of you!

Getting back to a point I alluded to earlier, GM is not committed to Canada, at least not per se. It will be committed to Canada as long as it serves its economic interests. GM’s economic interests and survival as a global corporation easily trump any commitment it might have to Canada or any other country for that matter, including the US.

In fact, Canada as a political organization is dedicated to providing the environment necessary for GM and other companies like it to continue to make a profit. Canada and the Ontario government have just invested $150 million in Algoma Steel, a company which is based in Sault St-Marie, now owned by an Indian company and is now called Essar Algoma Steel. To “Canada” it matters not who owns a company and where its head office is located as long as the government can claim that ‘Canadian’ jobs will be protected and saved. Inevitably, Canada cannot protect all of ‘our’ jobs all of the time. Business corporations are the ones to decide on jobs although government itself also creates a lot of jobs, many of them in agreements to help out ailing parts of the country, in policing and regulating our activities, in ensuring that we have the education business needs and in any other way to make us job ready, more or less healthy and well-fed.

The bottom line is that ‘Canada’ is the partner of global corporate capitalism for the maintenance and management of the labour force using coercion or ideology, as well as for ensuring a good environment for global business. It also serves to provide the political/legal framework for our individual liberty to sell our labour power to whoever we want and for any capitalist with money to buy our labour-power. All countries are to a varying extent. Canada is not a stand along political entity with its own economy, society, legal system, etc. In fact the only thing that holds this country together is not economy or society but our shared citizenship and residency (for the most part). Attempts to rally Canadians around economic or social initiatives are bound to fail. It’s only in sports that Canadians can get together when ‘our’ team plays against the ‘Americans’ in the World Cup of Hockey.

The Wet’suwet’en Question.

I’m no expert on this issue, but I have enough experience as a sociology and anthropology teacher and researcher to know a few things that could be of interest.

First, as a number of Indigenous writers have pointed out, the tensions between elected tribal and band councils and hereditary leadership is often palpable. Some of my Kwakwaka’wakw acquaintances years ago discussed the tensions in Alert Bay (specifically) between the elected councils and the hereditary chiefs. It’s my belief that the situation is much the same today and in my opinion is squarely the responsibility of the Federal Government’s paranoia regarding Indigenous peoples.

In fact, the Federal Indian Act of 1876 laid out a new way of governance for First Nations. They were no longer to be led by hereditary leaders. They were now obliged to establish elected band councils, a process overseen by the ubiquitous Indian Agent in a highly paternalistic relationship with First Nations peoples. Thus, band and tribal councils are creatures of the federal government and are funded by the government with the underlying threat that funds could be in jeopardy if government policy was not followed. Besides, First Nations had to become democratic, now didn’t they? No more of this hereditary leadership stuff!

My intent here is not to suggest that all band and tribal council members are toadies and meek adherents to government objectives. Some are, there’s no doubt about that, but many are clearly dedicated to their members and are honest and hard-working. That said, the tribal and band council structure is still a creation of the federal government and that has repercussions impossible to ignore.

It’s been widely reported that the elected councils in the Wet’suwet’en territory are at odds with hereditary chiefs. That seems clear from an industry website that posts the names of the 20 band councils who support the TransCanada pipeline. That list includes the Wet’suwet’en and Witset First Nations. The Hereditary Chiefs, according to the BC Treaty Commission, are at Stage 4 treaty negotiations at the moment. They write on their website that “Our office is governed by the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs residing throughout the traditional territories. The Chiefs meet at least monthly and often weekly to address specific issues that management needs direction for. Meetings are held throughout the territories in various locations.”

First Nations in BC have been placed between a rock and a hard place by the paternalistic and racist federal government for the last 140 years. The government has done everything it can to tear First Nations communities apart, marginalizing them and taking their land. It has largely been successful in doing that. The current federal government, rhetoric aside, seems bent on the same course of action set decades ago by its predecessors. However, there are First Nations who are not ready to lie still and take it. They are fighting an uphill battle because it seems that the government’s support for private business entreprise trumps all relations with the hereditary leadership of First Nations all over this province every time. Moreover, First Nations themselves have to deal with the divisions within their own ranks while resisting bribes and threats. It’s not an easy situation to be in.

The RCMP

Some would say that the RCMP are just doing their job in enforcing an injunction granted by the courts in favour of TransCanada’s Coastal Gaslink Pipeline. Others including the AFN and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs have denounced the RCMP tactics. The federal and provincial governments have argued that they are taking an ‘arms-length’ approach to the BC Supreme Court injunction and that the parties involved need to settle their issues responsibly and peacefully. That’s disingenuous in my mind.

What I find particularly troublesome about the RCMP presence is its militarized aspect. The members attending are dressed in military garb, not an inducement to peaceful settlement of this issue. Put your regular uniforms on people. Nobody in the encampments is about to shoot you.

Government Involvement

Scott Fraser is my MLA and at this moment I’m not impressed with what he or his government is doing. He and his government must take a leadership role in this situation. The battle for the Bulkley Valley is not one between equal combatants. I don’t know what the answer is, but I would like to see my MLA engaged publicly. Is there a solution to this issue? Do the First Nations have to again give up more of their traditional lifestyle? If so, tell them that, to their faces.