Don’t buy into the right/left political divide.

My next blog post will be a follow-up of my last one about what a post-capitalist world would look like. Before I undertake that one, however, I need to get this off my chest.

There’s lately been a move among ‘leftists’ to describe themselves as progressives. That’s all fine and dandy, but the left/right distinction is still in common use. I’ve always thought it stank of conservative righteousness.

We know that right is generally associated with correct. Going back to biblical references there’s the whole right hand of God thing which implies the correct side of God. On the left side of God is nothing good and that’s in fact where we first find Lucifer. It seems that right is always associated with correct and with conservative politics. The left, as we all know, is sinister. The technical term for left-handedness is sinistral. Well, I’m left-handed and that designation, frankly, pisses me off. The left is generally associated with clumsiness, ineptitude and political parties like the social democrats (New Democrats in Canada). I know some of my more conservative friends would think that was just fine, but I think it is a complete distortion of reality and panders to the powers that be.

Moreover, man has long been associated with right and woman with left. Man with the sun, woman with the moon. That should piss women off too.

So, in future blog posts, I will not use a left/right model of political discourse. I suppose they can be useful shorthand terms, but I  think they profoundly prejudice, distort, and colour our thoughts about politics. Enough of that.

 

 

 

The Wealthy Need The Poor

Just a quick note to start off the day. The title says it all. The wealthy need the poor. In fact, it doesn’t matter who ends up poor, it just matters that many people do. I mean, who can know if someone is wealthy if there are no poor people around to compare them to? No, poor people are essential to the wealthy for many reasons. First, they make a great cautionary tale, as in, “see what can happen to you, my child if you don’t put your nose to the grindstone, work hard, aspire to the things that make us rich and believe in free entreprise, because mygawd it’s our way to glory and eternity.” Of course, in the same vein, they are also a great example of how not to live your life. “Those people have made a poor choice in parents. You’ve at least started life not making that mistake!” They are also a great source of cheap labour and can’t save any money so everything they make goes right back into the hands of business. What a great setup.

Actually, it’s  really quite simple. We live in a class society no matter how much we attempt to deny it. Wealth and poverty are a consequence of that, not the cause. So we have rich and poor people as an inevitable consequence of the way our society has evolved. Wealth is a major moral goal so poverty must be a major moral failure. So we merrily blame the poor for their circumstances and for all the ills of the world. We don’t have the good sense to see who and what are really to blame.

Strangely enough, there is no such thing as ‘capitalism’, which is a word that would describe a system of wealth accumulation that can be compared to the evil isms, socialism and communism. Capitalism is an a-historical concept that fails to take history into account. Capital accumulation and the rapid concentration of wealth in finance capital will come to an end. What will come after? I have some sense of that in very broad terms but that’s the subject of another post.

Recent Developments in the Canadian Economy: Fall 2016

This Economic Insights article examines the extent to which the lifetime income of children is correlated with the lifetime income of their fathers—a topic known as intergenerational income mobility. The analysis uses data from Statistics Canada’s Intergenerational Income Database, which links together children and their parents using tax files. The data provides information that permits the comparison of the income of children to those of parents at a similar stage of the lifecycle.

Source: Recent Developments in the Canadian Economy: Fall 2016

This article by staff at StatsCan looks pretty straightforward at first glance. It tells the story of the ‘Canadian economy’ for the year leading up to this fall. However, the real story lies elsewhere. As I’ve noted a hundred times, Canada doesn’t trade, ‘it’ doesn’t produce goods. it doesn’t sell goods. Those activities are carried out by business, largely in the form of large multinational corporations. That’s where you have to look if you really want to figure out what’s going on in the world of ‘economics.’ More on this soon, although a search through my archives will yield a lot of writing on this topic.

 

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

by Roger JG Albert

[I published this post in November of last year on another one of my blogs now defunct. I thought I’d publish it again, because I think it is relevant now.]

I write. I used to teach. I suppose that in some individual cases I may have even convinced a few people to change their minds about the way they perceived the world. Mostly my efforts are and were in vain.

Our dominant ideologies around possessive individualism, the nature of countries and what we value in life are so powerful as to frustrate and flummox the efforts of the most competent of teachers to get people to change their minds about anything. 

I’ve changed my mind a number of times in my life but generally in line with added knowledge gained from reading and researching writers and authors who compelled me to see beyond what I had previously accepted as true. I came to understand fairly early in my career that there is no absolute truth, only tentative truth which must be abandoned when confronted with superior ways of explaining things. 

For the first few years of my career as a sociologist I was a Marxist through and through. That early dedication to Marx’s work was soon tempered in many ways by the works of Harold Innis, Thorstein Veblen, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, Ernest Becker, Otto Rank and many others. It’s been a ride. Although I’ve gone beyond Marx in many ways, I still often come back to one of Marx’s aphorisms about history in which he said (and I paraphrase): Human history will begin when we stop being so barbaric towards one another. 

He was an optimist who actually believed that this would come to pass with the eventual eclipse of class society, a time in which there would no longer be any reason to kill and exploit because of the rise of technology and the elimination of labour exploitation. 

 

Faced with the litany of accounts of death and destruction perpetrated by groups of people over the face of the earth going back millenia and it becomes difficult to accept Marx’s promise. I also being an optimist agree for the most part with Marx on this especially given globalization, the concentration of capital, the erosion of national sovereignty and the degradation of the natural world. These aren’t particularly uplifting processes for me, but they all point to a time in the future where capital will do itself in by increasingly attenuating the profit margin. 

Strangely, I write this knowing full well that the vast majority of people who on the off chance might read this will not have read Marx and will have no idea of what I’m writing about here. People are generally quick to dismiss ideas that don’t agree with their preconceived notions about things. That’s certainly true when it comes to Marx’s work. People can easily dismiss Marx (and most other fine writers in history) by thinking they know what Marx (and most other fine writers in history) argued and can therefore cheerfully scrub him (and the others) from their minds. Or they think of themselves as anti this or that, in Marx’s case ‘anti communist’ so that anything that Marx argued just cannot be ok. Mind shut, let no light enter. 

One of Marx’s most important ideas was that the division of society into classes would inevitably be relegated to the dustbin of history and along with it barbarism of all kinds. I like that idea, but ‘inevitably’ in this context will probably still be some time in the future. There’s plenty of time left for ignorant, highly suggestible “cheerful robots” (a term from C. Wright Mills) to commit mass murder or other kinds of atrocities in the name of eliminating the evil that they feel is blocking their prosperity or their road to heaven. 

Probably the most influential writer for me over the last 40 years of my career has been Ernest Becker.  His little book Escape From Evil published in 1975 after his untimely death in 1974 of cancer at the age of 49, has most profoundly influenced my way of thinking and seeing the world. Escape from Evil, in my mind contains all the knowledge one would ever need to explain the bloody massacre in Paris on November 13th or all the other atrocities ever committed by us towards others and vice-versa over the last 10,000 years, or for the time of recorded history, and probably even further back. It’s all there for anyone to read. But people won’t read it and even if they do, they will read it with bias or prejudice and will be able to dismiss it like they dismiss everything else that doesn’t accord with their ideology or interests. And there’s the rub.

It’s people’s interests rather than their ideas that drive their capacity to change their minds. Change the way people live and you just may change the way they think. It doesn’t work very well the other way around. 

Given Marx’s long term view on barbarism and senseless violence we cannot hope for much in the short term. We just have to wait it out. Of course our actions speak louder than our words, so within the bounds of legality, it’s not a bad idea in my mind to oppose talk that can incite some unbalanced people among us to violent action. It’s also a good idea to support peaceful solutions to conflict rather than pull out the guns at the first sign of trouble. Violence can easily invite violence in retaliation. We can resist that. It’s tough when all we want to do is smack people for being so ignorant and senselessly violent, but we can forgive rather than fight, tough as that may be. Turn the other cheek as some historical figure may have said at one point a couple of millenia ago. 

We will be severely challenged in the years to come to keep our heads as globalization increasingly devalues our labour and the concentration of wealth makes for more and more poverty. Sometime, somewhere we will have to say enough is enough and mean it in spite of the forces trying to divide us. We can regain our humanity even though it’s tattered and in shreds at the moment. It’s either that or we won’t have much of a future on this planet.

Don’t get me started on Syrian refugee refuseniks!

For the moment I will allow  that this is a democratic country and people have a right to their opinions no matter how ‘out there’ they might be.

Yes, I understand  that the current federal government was elected with less than a 40% majority and yes, I know that the Conservatives would take a very different approach to the issue of refugees.

Yes, I’ve had a look at what it takes to become a refugee to Canada from Syria and I’m sure that all those women and children are potential ‘terrorists’ but let me tell you that if my neighbourhood was bombed to smithereens like many in Aleppo as shown in this SANA image, I would be looking to get my ass out of there pronto. And if I didn’t get a helping hand to get out of there and resettle instead of rotting in a camp somewhere in Jordan or Turkey, I might just consider a career with ISIS.

Put yourself in the shoes of the average Syrian and you may get a little sympathy for what they’re going through. If you believe that they’re all terrorists, there is nothing for me to say to you.

Yes, the odd miscreant may slip  through the immigration dragnet and come to Canada to later rob a grocery store, but that’s to be expected of any population. We have our own homegrown miscreants of course, quite a few of them, and they’re not all petty crooks and jail fodder. I’m confident the Syrian refugees will not add at all to the quota of miscreants we already have.

Most refugees don’t want to be refugees. They would much rather go back to their homes. But just look at the photo above and tell me what there is  to return to.

So, please stop with the fear-mongering. Stephen Harper is gone and we don’t have to be afraid anymore of Muslims under our beds waiting to slit our throats as soon as we fall asleep or some terrorist suicide bomber blowing herself up in downtown Cumberland. We never did have to be afraid of those things.

Make no mistake, there’s no 100% guarantee of your safety. There never has been and  there never will be. One thing for certain is that women in this country are in more danger in their own homes via domestic violence than they will ever be at the hands of a Syrian refugee.

One thing though, if Syrian president Assad should ever apply for refugee status, we need to deny it. We already have enough assholes here.

 

Does big business serve us or do we serve big business?

Thorstein Veblen, the controversial American economic historian and philosopher who died in 1929, just before the Great Depression, understood the capitalist mode of production better than most.  He wrote extensively on Karl Marx’s work (in The Place of Science in Modern Civilization) and found it to be internally logical but based on the moral premise that workers deserve to receive the full value for their participation in the productive process.  According to Veblen’s interpretation of Marx, work is a social activity but the output of that activity is appropriated privately.  We know that workers do not receive the full benefit of their participation in the work process, their employers pay them only part of the value workers create.  Otherwise, surplus value and profit could not be possible.

Just as a quick aside, Marx understood that workers did not share in the value they produced except in the receipt of wages, a value pre-determined in the productive process by and large.  Workers sell their labour-power (that is, their capacity to work) to the capitalist in the labour market. A capitalist has to have all the elements of productive capacity in place before production begins and that includes labour. So, labour is part of the cost of production determined before production can begin.

It’s interesting how screwed up we are about our place in the world, particularly around our role in the productive process.  So, business evolved historically as a means to satisfy certain human needs and wants.  It’s a method by which production and distribution are organized.  Ironically, as business capital came to dominate industry more and more, we, as members of societies in our capacities as productive beings, came to serve business rather than the other way around.  Of course, we have the idea that we all live as citizens in democratic society, free to move around from employer to employer if we want.  In other words, we have the illusion of having some control of our lives, but that’s just what it is, an illusion.  The fact is that we are supposed to be served by business but we are essentially the servants of, and work at the whim of, business.  The world has been stood on its head.  Make no mistake about it though, business cannot exist unless we offer ourselves up as workers to it in the labour market. (I’ll deal with public sector work and small business in the next post.)  We are workers, citizens and consumers but it is our role as worker that is the most important in our world.

Business is becoming more and more global in scope and reach.  With some exceptions it used to be that businesses hired workers locally for local production and distribution and for local consumption.  That all changed starting in the 15th Century but the 19th Century was when this movement increased dramatically.  Workers in the Canadian forest industry (employed by British companies) produced timber for British manufacturing plants and to build tall ships. Later workers in BC produced lumber predominantly for the American housing market.  In truth, Canada has always been a source of raw materials intended for processing elsewhere as much as possible.  That’s not entirely true, but as a basic thrust and overall aim, it is accurate.

In the 1920s the British Empire was losing power over its colonies including Canada while the United States was growing stronger and more influential on a global scale.  In that period of time, the Canadian government succeeded in negotiating the Auto Pact with the US whereby cars sold in Canada must be made in Canada.  Since that time, the US has been on a mission to erode those early gains by Canadian workers, and the Auto Pact has been unravelling for at least a couple of decades now helped along, I may add, by free trade agreements.

This is all to argue that business, and us as workers, used to live primarily under the banner of citizenship.  It made sense to think of Canadian business and American corporations.  (This is also true for union, by the way)  That’s no longer true for the largest global corporations.  More than ever, capital dominates industry and production on a global scale but it still has certain national ties that make it seem as though it serves national interests, including those of ordinary citizens.  That is no longer true and is getting to be a more and more dangerous illusion.

The seemingly miraculous rise of China as a global economic power must be understood as arising from a massive shift of capital by Canadian, American and European business to productive capacity on (for example) Chinese soil in factories using cheap labour.  “Canadian” business has no loyalty at all to Canadian workers.  That’s clear.  Its business logic and primary mission is to accumulate capital.  If that means shutting down factories in Oshawa, Windsor, Hamilton and Montreal and opening them in export processing zones in China or by creating “Chinese” contractors to manufacture consumer goods, so be it.  Now, work is also becoming obviously global with the shift of manufacturing capacity to China (and other countries like India, Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, etc.) and the rise of the new class of ‘temporary’ workers in Canada.  Things are shifting all over the place.  It’s hard to keep track of it.

The problem with modern capitalism is that it’s completely anarchistic.  There’s nobody in charge.  Corporations are all in it for themselves and countries are becoming increasingly powerless to do any planning that does not put corporate profits first, that is, if they were ever  really interested in doing so in the first place.  Citizenship counts for very little anymore in a world where corporations like Monsanto, Nestlé’s and Exxon call the shots and politicians serve them in any and every way they can.  This includes looking hard to find every way possible to  shift wealth from public to private hands including public-private partnerships (P3s) and the systematic dismantling of government services and their replacement with private contractors doing the same work.

To use a business metaphor, the bottom line is that we are in the throes of a massive shift in the global distribution of capital and labour.  For the foreseeable future, it doesn’t look good for us as workers or as consumers.  As we lose our jobs we will not be able to afford the products produced in China by corporations based in North America, Europe and Australia, even if they are getting relatively cheaper and cheaper.  That can’t be good for businesses that rely on us buying their products made in China but they aren’t going to change the way they do business because they are caught in the treadmill of needing more and more profit and accumulated capital in order to survive.  And they’ll do anything to survive including encouraging global fascism while dismantling democratic institutions (what’s left of them)  as a means of ensuring the ongoing concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands, while pushing harder than ever using advertizing to convince us to spend, be individualistic, mistrust government, oppose taxation, and ‘get ahead’ by ‘working hard’.

Global Corporate Charters

http://www.gtinitiative.org/documents/IssuePerspectives/GTI-Perspectives-Global_Corporate_Charters.pdf

So, I’ve been researching and teaching about the expansion of the global capitalist system for decades.  From all the research I’ve done, it strikes me as just about inevitable that business will soon break away from its national charter licence system to one that is supra-national.

International law as it now stands is virtually toothless, but it won’t be long before a global justice system with enforcement capabilities will be necessary.  When large business corporations no longer operate nationally, but have their headquarters in one country, research and development in another and production in several others with no one country able to legislate their activities, it’s time for a change.  The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association, formerly the Canadian Manufacturers Association, has no problem representing businesses who produce nothing (or virtually nothing) in Canada.  Businesses that formerly produced (manufactured) refrigerators, stoves and other appliances in Canada but who now produce them in China in their own factories or under licence to Chinese companies or in other countries with low wages and virtually no health and safety standards for workers are still considered Canadian manufacturers.  To me that’s pretty odd.

As business corporations become more and more global they will need to be regulated more and more globally if we have any hope at all of avoiding becoming nothing but fodder for the creation of obscene corporate profits. Of course, it’s much more complicated than I’ve stated it here.  I’ll have more to say about this in subsequent blog posts.  In the meantime, have a look at the article for which I’ve included a link above.  Check out its provenance,  the Tellus Foundation.  What they propose in this article is a new global charter system for business corporations.