A Pointed Stick or a Backhoe: Take Your Pick.

Suppose you need a trench dug. It needs to be 50 centimetres deep, 120 centimetres wide and 30 metres long. You’ve never had to undertake such a project before. You have a choice of tools: pointed stick, shovel or back hoe. It would take you no time to learn how to use the pointed stick, a small amount of time to learn how to dig with a shovel, but learning how to use the backhoe would take you a substantial amount of time. What would you choose to do?

Now, think about this. You have a choice. You can mobilize 1000 people to dig your trench, 100 people to dig it with a shovel or 1 person to do it with a backhoe. All three of these options would take exactly the same amount of time. What would you choose to do? 

I know what I would do in this situation. I’d hire the guy with the backhoe. I wouldn’t for a minute contemplate hiring 1000 people with pointed sticks to dig my trench. That’s because it’s realistic for me to make this decision in the time and place in which I live. Obviously, if I lived 30,000 years ago, I would not have the option of using a backhoe. A pointed stick would be my only option and I would easily be able to mobilize all the help I need among my tribal members. 

It seems like a no-brainer to think that history has been a steady progress towards more and more sophisticated technology: pointed sticks to shovels to backhoes. However, not everything is what it seems. Let’s see what this situation looks like for someone starting from scratch. Let’s make the scenario really simple. Let’s have you dig a trench 3 metres long, 30 centimetres deep and 20 centimetres in width. 

The pointed stick is indeed a very simple tool and can be gotten with very little effort, sometimes by just picking one up off of the ground under a tree. Simple tools like this allow a person to get right down to work.  A little sharpening with a sharp rock might help if an already pointed stick couldn’t just be found, and some hardening over a fire could make the tool more durable. 

The shovel is a whole other thing. To make a shovel, even a fairly basic one, requires some wood and shaped metal, preferably a hard metal. So, while the person with the pointed stick is hard at work digging the trench, the person who has chosen to dig the trench with a shovel is looking around for a suitable piece of wood for the handle. That shouldn’t be difficult, although the wood may need some shaping. But then finding a suitable metal by mining will be more challenging. Extracting the metal from the ore by smelting then forging the metal and shaping it before fitting it on the handle will complete the project. Chances are pretty good too that more than one person will be involved in the making of a shove. There may be a specialist wood worker, a miner, a smelter and a blacksmith. By the time the shovel is ready for work, the pointed stick wielding worker may well have finished digging his trench. 

The backhoe is hopeless if the challenge is to start from scratch. The guy with the pointed stick would have already cut half a million trenches in the time it would take a person, or even an army of people, to build a backhoe from scratch. 

The Social Character of Human Production

What this all means is that human labour must always be assessed in its social context. All of the tools mentioned above have a certain amount of labour in their making. The sum total of the time it takes to dig a trench with a pointed stick, a shovel or a backhoe is only part of the story. The time it takes to fashion said tools must also be taken into account when calculating the time it takes to make something or accomplish a particular task. The labour embedded in the tool prior to when the digging actually starts is called crystallized labour or dead labour because it’s no longer active, having already played its part in creating the necessary tools to do the job. There is very little crystallized labour in a pointed stick, a lot more in a shovel, and a massive amount more in a backhoe. So, which tool is the most efficient? It depends on the social conditions under which the task is undertaken. 

The reality is that the more sophisticated the tool, the more crystallized labour contained in it. In the case of the backhoe, there are centuries of accumulated knowledge, techniques of raw material acquisition, processing, shaping and assembly probably including thousands of workers in many parts of the globe over many, many years. It also includes the work performed in the petrochemical industries that bring the machine alive so it can perform its duties. The pointed stick and the shovel have no need for extraneous inputs in their operation. Of course, once a backhoe exists it can, with one operator and enough diesel fuel, cut in a month as many trenches as a person with a pointed could cut in a lifetime.[1]

The crystallized labour included in any tool is part of the necessary capital required to produce anything. The tools themselves are capital. Another thing: the amount of capital necessary to produce the backhoe is social capital. It’s taken masses of people centuries to come up with the backhoe. It’s not the work of any single individual. A major aspect of this process is that pooled capital is subject to appropriation by people who organize the productive process but who don’t actually produce anything themselves as individuals. A backhoe is a product of the accumulation of capital and its control by a small minority of the population. So, historically what has happened is that the productive forces, particularly the tools and knowledge needed to make things happen have been increasingly socialized then privately appropriated. That’s history, folks. But what exactly does appropriation mean? 

Capitalist Appropriation

Appropriation means that ownership of the means of production has historically been privatized or concentrated in the hands of a few individuals as soon as there appeared the need for a division of labour or specialization in the productive process. The objective of appropriation early on was to remove control over the process from the people who actually used the tools and did the work. Frederick Winslow Taylor, in the early 20thCentury, created scientific management[2], a process whereby specialized workers, craftsmen, were removed as active agents in the factory to be replaced by managers who broke down the productive process into its constituent parts assigning workers, now disenfranchised, to accomplish just one task along an assembly line. Workers no longer individually created products but contributed only to one task in the process of the creation of a product. The quintessential expression of scientific management early on was implemented by Henry Ford in his assembly-line production of automobiles.

Workers were not too pleased about having their control over the productive process wretched from their large calloused hands so the early 20thCentury featured some of the most active labour protests and strikes in history. Needless to say, the process by which control over production shifted from workers to owners and managers started much earlier than in the 20thCentury as did labour strife. Regardless, the 20thCentury has proven to be THE century of capital’s monopolization of the productive process. In doing so, it has broken down the production of commodities[3]into specialized activities and has globalized the process, a situation made possible by shipping containers, cheap air transport, the internet, just-in-time production tied to supply chains, and the vassalization of countries.[4]It’s clear that the few individuals and the organizations they represent who control global wealth are finding it increasingly difficult to find effective investments. The reasons are simple in conception but complex when aggregate global capitalist activity is considered. 

A Shrinking Rate of Profit

As Marx noted, the only way a capitalist can make a profit through surplus value is by not paying his workers full value for their labour. In fact, profit is essentially the appropriation of unpaid wages. Veblen contested this Marxian notion in his The Place of Science in Modern Civilizationbecause, as he argued, who says workers deserve the right to the full value of their labour. Nevertheless, it’s still true that for many millennia human production has predominantly been a social affair so why shouldn’t we all share equally in what we produce? Well, we could and we might still, but we haven’t to date except for the odd ‘primitive’ situation millennia ago or in more and more marginalized indigenous tribal situations today. 

So, as we carry on today with increasing automation, computerization, AI, and technological innovation, the margins of profit continue to shrink because the more capital or dead labour is used in the productive process, the less room there is to extract surplus value from the process and make a profit. If, for example, Macdonald’s were to successfully replace all of its workforce with robots, it would find it more and more difficult to make a profit by paying its workforce less than the value that it produces. And, of course, robots don’t buy hamburgers, don’t pay taxes. The value of labour embodied in them as capital will allow for some profit to be extracted from the business of making hamburgers, but that basis for the creation of profit will quickly dry up. As the graph below shows, the amount of capital expended in the productive process is increasing historically while the share of labour in the process is steadily decreasing and/or devalued. Where we are along this process is anyone’s guess but I’m certain that we’re well past the midpoint and probably closing in on the far right side of the graph. 

So, as workers we have been systematically excluded from ownership and control over the productive process. Still, Marx found reason to be optimistic about the future. That’s the subject of my next post. 

Figure: Labour and Capital in Human History

[1]These estimates are completely arbitrary of course but are included to approximate the variation in values that are obvious in the scenario introduced.



[4]Vassalization: My word for the process by which the finance capitalist global oligarchy has come to treat countries. Certainly, since the 1970s but as a process going back to at least Bretton Woods, finance capital has turned countries or nation-states into vassals. From this perspective, countries are no longer sovereign or democratic, but instead are subordinate managers of the working class and guarantors of private property and private accumulation of capital. 

The Hedonistic Calculus: Do You Calculate Your Pleasure and Pain?

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) thought so. He’s the guy who formalized the calculus, also called the felicific calculus, but he wasn’t the first one to think along those lines. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) came up with the bones of the same idea much earlier and others followed, e.g. John Locke. It seems that the English were quite concerned with their hedonism and the notion that they should be individually in charge of it.

Now, the hedonistic calculus has far-reaching significance for capitalist social relations, our conception of the nature of society as consisting solely of market relations, liberalism and certainly for economics. It has also infected our moral sense in a big way.

The hedonistic calculus as conceived by Bentham looks like this:

A pleasure or pain varies in (1) intensity, (2) duration, (3) certainty, (4) propinquity; when we take wont oaccouzd the other pleasures or pains that might result from the act or event which produced it, it varies in (5) fecundity and (6) purity; and, when we take other persons into account, it varies in (7) extent. In directing our conduct, we seek that pleasure which is most intent, of longest duration, most certain, nearer, and so forth. These ‘dimensions of value’ as Bentham calls them, are significant only because they indicate Bentham’s conviction that we are able to fix these dimensions quantitatively, add up the quantities, balance the totals against each other with more or less mathematical precision, and select the greater. ‘Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side,’ Bentham advised, ‘and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it to be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.1

So, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham and the other classical liberals start their argument with the notion of individual sovereignty, that is, that the individual is the focus of their analysis and has complete charge of his behaviour which is always determined by a calculation of the pleasure or pain involved in any given act or situation. (I use his in the last sentence because for most classical liberals her was irrelevant.) Of course in pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain we must not harm others. That’s why Hobbes argued that we need a permanent sovereign. The sovereign’s role is as arbiter of disputes between individuals became, when you get right down to it, we are all in a power struggle with everyone else and we’re driven by fear, so someone has to keep order. Individualism is critical to classical liberalism. Society starts and ends with the individual or rather, society is just a set of market relations. It’s handy that the individual is in charge of himself because, then he can sell things and acquire things. he can’t sell himself, obviously, that would be slavery, but he can sell his property and buy and sell land. For the landless, however, with no land, the only property they have is their labour-power, their ability to work. So, men are free as individuals.

Because society is a set of market relations, the price of land, labour, etc., is derived in the marketplace. Logically, then, the market should be left alone to determine the value of everything, including labour power. The role of the sovereign in this should then be to protect the market, to ensure its independence and logic.

Conveniently, Hobbes, who was instrumental in getting classical liberalism off the ground, rationalized his view of man as derived from what he considered man in a state of nature. Macpherson suggests that Hobbes must have been smoking some good weed because he didn’t recognize that his ‘man in nature’ was really a particular specimen of ‘civilized’ man. It’s clear that none of the classical liberals were about to identify class as a variable in their theoretical musings, either. Men are individuals and their lives are determined by them alone. They owe nothing to society, nor does society owe them anything, unless it’s protection from violent death and market stability. Every individual is responsible for his own life and failure or success. Station at birth was meaningless. If you detect the ideas of quietism and social darwinism in these ideas, you’re probably on to something.

This is how Thorstein Veblen sees the hedonistic calculus as it applies to economics (and liberalism).

In all the received formulations of economic theory, whether at the hands of English economists or those of the Continent, the human material with which the inquiry is concerned is conceived in Hedonistic terms; that is to say, in terms of a passive and substantially inert and im- mutably given human nature. The psychological and anthropological preconceptions of the economists have been those which were accepted by the psychological and social sciences some generations ago. The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area, but leave him intact. He has neither antecedent nor consequent. He is an isolated, definitive human datum, in stable equilibrium except for the buffets of the impinging forces that displace him in one direction or another. Self imposed in elemental space, he spins symmetrically about his own spiritual axis until the parallelogram of forces bears down upon him, whereupon he follows the line of the resultant. When the force of the impact is spent, he comes to rest, a self- contained globule of desire as before. Spiritually, the hedonistic man is not a prime mover. He is not the seat of a process of living, except in the sense that he is subject to a series of permutations enforced upon him by circumstances external and alien to him. The later psychology, re-enforced by modern an- thropological research, gives a different conception of human nature. According to this conception, it is the characteristic of man to do something, not simply to suffer pleasures and pains through the impact of suitable forces. He is not simply a bundle of desires that are to be sat- urated by being placed in the path of the forces of the environment, but rather a coherent structure of propensities and habits which seeks realisation and expression in an unfolding activity. (page 74)

Classical economics and classical liberalism share the same psychological assumptions: people are responsible for themselves, they are basically lazy and must be ‘encouraged’ to work, they are fearful and basically want to kill each other all the time. Veblen was as strong critic of classical economics and liberalism as well as their psychological assumptions. In his The Instinct of Workmanship, Veblen makes the compelling case that we (humans) are born to act, we are not by nature quiet and still, needing to be prodded into action.

I would not be so bold as to suggest that Hobbes and Locke in the 16th Century were looking for a philosophical justification for capitalism. Macpherson writes in his book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism that by the mid 17th Century in England, more than fifty percent of the population were servants, that is, wage workers. Their living conditions as well as those of the upper classes begged for theoretical justification.

It’s really quite astonishing to me that since the seventeenth century (and before to some extent) the kinds of ideas produced by the classical liberals still hold in most of the world. Of course, they have been modified according to historical circumstance and place. They have also taken into account (with Bentham certainly) social obligation and have evolved into the liberalism of the welfare state among others. However, there seems to now be a move back to classical liberal ideas. Libertarians are pretty much classical liberals although you’d never want to call them that to their faces. They would explode right there in front of you. ‘Liberalism’ is again a bad word but there is so much muddle out there right now, it’s almost impossible to use words in any meaningful way when describing politics and sovereignty. Members of the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative party in Canada would quiver and shake at being described as liberals, but liberals they are if we define liberals as focussed on (at least the semblance of) individual freedom, etc. They bear all the marks of classical liberals. They eschew taxes, want small government, release the market from any constraints, dismantle all social programs or at least privatize them, and hate ‘socialism.’ You might find it strange for me to even entertain the idea that Russian or Chinese societies are basically liberal, but they are in a real sense. They’re never been communist, but that’s an argument for another day.

Frankly, I don’t hold out much hope that humanity will turn itself around, realize how stupid the assumptions of classical liberalism are and act accordingly. The values of classical liberalism are the dominant moral ideals today: work hard, don’t be lazy, no matter how shitty your job is go to it every day, be responsible for your actions, buy things, lots of things, don’t ask questions. So sad, it’s not even funny.


  1. From Harry K. Girvetz, 1950/1963. The Evolution of Liberalism. New York: Collier Books

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.

Tyranny Springs from Democracy.

The long quote below is by Benjamin Jowett, one of the many translator’s of Plato’s Republic (1973). This is an ebook available free from Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm

I won’t comment on this quote here. It speaks for itself and is cannily prescient. Read on.

Tyranny springs from democracy much as democracy springs from oligarchy. Both arise from excess; the one from excess of wealth, the other from excess of freedom. ‘The great natural good of life,’ says the democrat, ‘is freedom.’ And this exclusive love of freedom and regardlessness of everything else, is the cause of the change from democracy to tyranny. The State demands the strong wine of freedom, and unless her rulers give her a plentiful draught, punishes and insults them; equality and fraternity of governors and governed is the approved principle. Anarchy is the law, not of the State only, but of private houses, and extends even to the animals. Father and son, citizen and foreigner, teacher and pupil, old and young, are all on a level; fathers and teachers fear their sons and pupils, and the wisdom of the young man is a match for the elder, and the old imitate the jaunty manners of the young because they are afraid of being thought morose. Slaves are on a level with their masters and mistresses, and there is no difference between men and women. Nay, the very animals in a democratic State have a freedom which is unknown in other places. The she-dogs are as good as their she-mistresses, and horses and asses march along with dignity and run their noses against anybody who comes in their way. ‘That has often been my experience.’ At last the citizens become so sensitive that they cannot endure the yoke of laws, written or unwritten; they would have no man call himself their master. Such is the glorious beginning of things out of which tyranny springs. ‘Glorious, indeed; but what is to follow?’ The ruin of oligarchy is the ruin of democracy; for there is a law of contraries; the excess of freedom passes into the excess of slavery, and the greater the freedom the greater the slavery. You will remember that in the oligarchy were found two classes—rogues and paupers, whom we compared to drones with and without stings. These two classes are to the State what phlegm and bile are to the human body; and the State-physician, or legislator, must get rid of them, just as the bee-master keeps the drones out of the hive. Now in a democracy, too, there are drones, but they are more numerous and more dangerous than in the oligarchy; there they are inert and unpractised, here they are full of life and animation; and the keener sort speak and act, while the others buzz about the bema and prevent their opponents from being heard. And there is another class in democratic States, of respectable, thriving individuals, who can be squeezed when the drones have need of their possessions; there is moreover a third class, who are the labourers and the artisans, and they make up the mass of the people. When the people meet, they are omnipotent, but they cannot be brought together unless they are attracted by a little honey; and the rich are made to supply the honey, of which the demagogues keep the greater part themselves, giving a taste only to the mob. Their victims attempt to resist; they are driven mad by the stings of the drones, and so become downright oligarchs in self-defence. Then follow informations and convictions for treason. The people have some protector whom they nurse into greatness, and from this root the tree of tyranny springs. The nature of the change is indicated in the old fable of the temple of Zeus Lycaeus, which tells how he who tastes human flesh mixed up with the flesh of other victims will turn into a wolf. Even so the protector, who tastes human blood, and slays some and exiles others with or without law, who hints at abolition of debts and division of lands, must either perish or become a wolf—that is, a tyrant. Perhaps he is driven out, but he soon comes back from exile; and then if his enemies cannot get rid of him by lawful means, they plot his assassination. Thereupon the friend of the people makes his well-known request to them for a body-guard, which they readily grant, thinking only of his danger and not of their own. Now let the rich man make to himself wings, for he will never run away again if he does not do so then. And the Great Protector, having crushed all his rivals, stands proudly erect in the chariot of State, a full-blown tyrant: Let us enquire into the nature of his happiness.

In the early days of his tyranny he smiles and beams upon everybody; he is not a ‘dominus,’ no, not he: he has only come to put an end to debt and the monopoly of land. Having got rid of foreign enemies, he makes himself necessary to the State by always going to war. He is thus enabled to depress the poor by heavy taxes, and so keep them at work; and he can get rid of bolder spirits by handing them over to the enemy. Then comes unpopularity; some of his old associates have the courage to oppose him. The consequence is, that he has to make a purgation of the State; but, unlike the physician who purges away the bad, he must get rid of the high-spirited, the wise and the wealthy; for he has no choice between death and a life of shame and dishonour. And the more hated he is, the more he will require trusty guards; but how will he obtain them? ‘They will come flocking like birds—for pay.’ Will he not rather obtain them on the spot? He will take the slaves from their owners and make them his body-guard; these are his trusted friends, who admire and look up to him. Are not the tragic poets wise who magnify and exalt the tyrant, and say that he is wise by association with the wise? And are not their praises of tyranny alone a sufficient reason why we should exclude them from our State? They may go to other cities, and gather the mob about them with fine words, and change commonwealths into tyrannies and democracies, receiving honours and rewards for their services; but the higher they and their friends ascend constitution hill, the more their honour will fail and become ‘too asthmatic to mount.’ To return to the tyrant—How will he support that rare army of his? First, by robbing the temples of their treasures, which will enable him to lighten the taxes; then he will take all his father’s property, and spend it on his companions, male or female. Now his father is the demus, and if the demus gets angry, and says that a great hulking son ought not to be a burden on his parents, and bids him and his riotous crew begone, then will the parent know what a monster he has been nurturing, and that the son whom he would fain expel is too strong for him. ‘You do not mean to say that he will beat his father?’ Yes, he will, after having taken away his arms. ‘Then he is a parricide and a cruel, unnatural son.’ And the people have jumped from the fear of slavery into slavery, out of the smoke into the fire. Thus liberty, when out of all order and reason, passes into the worst form of servitude…

This lengthly quote is from the translator’s introduction to Plato’s Republic. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm

Why Are You Cutting My Umbilical Cord?

I’m reading The Facts of Life by R.D. Laing from 1976. You can read more about Laing in Wikipedia, but I’m not so much interested here in his biography as in the state of him mind. He died in 1989 at the age of 62. He was a character, that’s for sure. Most of his work is highly critical of psychiatry, his chosen profession. I have and have read many of his books. He was a scientist but he assuredly dabbled in psychotropic drugs and allowed himself some very unscientific musings like this:

“I am impressed by the fact that “I” was once placenta, umbilical cord, and fetus.

Many people seem to confuse the placenta with the uterus. The placenta, amniotic sack, umbilical cord (and all the fetal “membranes”) are cellularily, biologically, physically, genetically, me. Similarly for all the rest of me I left behind in the womb, or was cut off from forever when my umbilical cord was cut.

It seems to me more than likely that many of us are suffering lasting effects from our umbilical cord being cut too soon.

Is it necessary to cut them off at all?

If one waits, it withers away “of its own accord.” What’s the harm in waiting? It has been suggested that we may lose 30 percent of the blood we would have if our cord and placenta, together with the circulatory system connected with them in us, were allowed to phase itself out naturally. Since it does do so naturally, why interfere with the natural course of events?

If all goes well, there seems to be no risk involved to the life of mother or child in not clamping and cutting the cord, at least before it has stopped pulsating.

Under such happy circumstances, not cutting the cord does not seem in the least to affect adversely the onset of breathing. In fact, I suspect that usually, in normal circumstances, breathing and the rhythm of the heart are greatly disturbed, perhaps for life, by clamping (throttling) the umbilical cord and then cutting it, while it and the placenta are still fully functionally us

                        comparable to the guillotine?


So, do we sever the umbilical cord as a convenience to the medical staff present so they can get on with other duties? Why do we cut and rush the process? Was (is) there any thought given to the effects of these seemingly simple, harmless processes on the rest of a person’s life? Why are we so impatient? 

*From: R.D. Laing, TheFacts of Life: An Essay in Feelings, Facts, and Fantasy, 1976 Pantheon Books.

Stop with the Categorical Thinking Already!

Robert Sapolsky is a Stanford University neuroscientist. In this video he introduces a course he taught (7 years ago at least) on human behavioural biology to a freshman class. As he explains in this video, students don’t need any prerequisites for this course. They don’t need a science background. 

Although the course is called Introduction to Human Behavioural Biology, it’s about avoiding categorical thinking in science but also generally in life. 

Sapolsky is one of the most talented and entertaining lecturers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to and watching. I would have loved to have taken his course. It’s well worth watching this video in its entirety (57 minutes). The second video in the series is  1 hour and 37 minutes long, but again well worth the time to watch and re-watch. Aside from these YouTube videos Sapolsky was featured in a 2008 National Geographic video called Stress (available on YouTube) which I used in my classes. It compares olive baboons in Africa with stressed out British bureaucrats in Whitehall, London, the seat of the British civil service. 

If you want, you could watch the YouTube video now and after watching it continue reading below to see why I suggest you watch it. 

I’ve recently had to think about categorical thinking because of a comment made by a commentator to my blog who suggested, very innocently I’m sure, that it’s probable that older people get set in their ways. She wasn’t denigrating that outcome as she saw it suggesting that it’s likely natural (as I interpret her meaning). I had to think: is categorical thinking inevitable as we age and am I a ‘victim’ of categorical thinking? My answer to both questions is a categorical no! Categorical thinking is not inevitable and if there’s anything I have spent my whole career trying to avoid, it’s categorical thinking. 

At the moment I’m reading a (1999) book by Ellen Meiksins Wood called The Origin of Capitalism. Well, over the years I’ve read dozens of books on this topic from various perspectives within various disciplines. Every time I pick up a book, any book, I’m open to having my mind changed and my ideas modified. Otherwise, why read anything? In this case, Wood is presenting me with a viewpoint on the subject I haven’t seen before and I’m still wondering what to make of it. I keep shaking my head because her perspective is quite foreign to me. For one thing, she is focussed on the origins of capitalism. Capitalism is a word Marx never used. At best it refers to a political-economic system. When Marx discusses capital or the capitalist mode of production, he’s not referring to a system, but to a period in history. I have to re-read Wood to ensure that I understand her notions of capitalism and especially her contention that capitalism originated in English agrarian life. Equally strange is her use of the terms revolution and class. 

Reading Meiksins forces me to rethink categories. I will assess her perspective and incorporate it wholly or in part into my worldview or reject it based on the evidence. 

I just received another book in the mail today. It’s by R.D. Laing, one of favourite rogue psychiatrists. It was written in 1976, the year I entered grad school, and is entitled The Facts of Life.  After I’m done reading these books and watching more Robert Sapolsky on YouTube, something which always helps buoy my spirits, I’ll re-read Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Sapolsky is really high on this guy so I have to read it again in light of the video posted above. 

Please, enjoy Sapolsky. Find his other videos on YouTube. He’s a delight!

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 2: Teaching

If you read my last post you got some general idea of my life trajectory in broad terms. In this post I want to pay special attention to how and why I became a college instructor with a couple of side trips on scholarship and the philosophy of teaching. Many of my colleagues teaching at the college level get their first taste of teaching in high school. Not me. I never intended to teach in high school. Something about high school teaching appealed to me, but I wasn’t interested in going to university in the Education faculty for a year of professional development which would have allowed me to teach in BC high schools. So, what was my alternative? It was going straight from university into college teaching. University faculty don’t need professional development, or so they have insisted for decades. Theoretically, aspiring university teachers learn the teaching craft by watching and emulating their professors. I always though that was a bit strange because of the variability of skill exhibited by faculty. Still, working as a teaching assistant was a form of preparation for eventually taking over the big job. Frankly though, I got a job teaching on a sessional basis at Douglas College as I entered graduate school so I had no real previous experience teaching or managing a classroom. I learned by doing what my colleagues were doing but I also learned from books, lots of them. I questioned everything about teaching, including the setting, the materials, the psychological, sociological, political, and economic assumptions, the goals and the means.

As a student of the social sciences I was already prepped for a critical stance with regard to what I was doing. The time was the mid to late 1970s. I graduated with a B.A. in 1975 and went on to study for my Master’s degree in 1976 after I was recruited by the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU to be a teaching assistant. We needed the money, so it was a no-brainer. I was definitely cocky enough to believe that I could pull it off and I think I was pretty good at it. Academia suited me to a T. At the same time, most of the colleges in BC were either in their infancy or about to be built. Most of them were begging for teaching staff. One of my former teachers at Douglas College asked me if I would consider teaching there. I only had a B.A. but was in a grad program and that was enough for them. I started then on a 5 year stint as a sessional faculty member at SFU, Douglas College and eventually Kwantlen College before moving to the Comox Valley in 1983 to teach at North Island College (NIC), although at NIC we were called tutors and not instructors. The college started as a distance education organization which worked closely with Athabasca University to provide university-level courses to people in the northern half of Vancouver Island. Eventually it morphed into a regular college and by 1992 had pretty much made to transformation completely. I worked at NIC until 2012, the year I retired. Now, reading back on the words I have just written I can assure you that I’ve only provided you with some of the backbone events and circumstances that make up my story as a teacher. The reality is much more nuanced and complex. Teaching is all about human relations and love. Yes, love*.

Going to university as an undergraduate was a fairly new thing for someone of my class background. SFU, and the newly named University of Victoria, were a new kind of university set up to train a much needed workforce in a new world of work that demanded a higher education than ever before. The BC college system came into existence around the same time and for the same reasons.

Social roots and standard teen silliness

Coming from a basically working class family with hints of an agrarian past, I had no expectations of going to university. Initially I worked in lumber mills and at odd jobs here and there, jobs that were easy to come by at the time. I was not a particularly stellar kid and for a time hung around my brother-in-law’s used car lots. I tried selling used cars but I just didn’t have it in me. I was wracked with indecision, bounced around from job to job, smoked and drank way too much. I was like a lot of my peers. Because we’re raised to think of ourselves as quintessentially individual, I though the world revolved around my belly button and had no idea about what anyone else was doing, nor did I care. Eventually, as I got older and worked my way slowly, painfully, and hesitatingly out of my teens and into my twenties, my interests changed as did my attitude and behaviour. I got involved with a French-Canadian organization and found in that group a mentor, Roméo Paquette, who helped me understand my potential and encouraged me to get more involved. I had a lot to learn if I was going to go to university and much of my interest started with my French-Canadian connections. At that time I also struggled with by Catholic upbringing. It wasn’t easy. For some time I had ceased to believe in the teachings of the Church and I had an increasingly clearer and clearer appreciation of evolutionary theory. Church teachings just didn’t make sense to me any longer especially in the light of science. Still, I loved my parents and I knew that my newfound perspective on the world was something they could not understand or accept. It’s strange in a way. My parents were very proud of me and my academic career yet they were never able to relate to my life in the least. Their faith in the Church was what sustained them and they could not understand anyone abandoning that faith. They prayed for me. For me, a break from Catholicism was inevitable. I haven’t looked back since.

Back to 1971

I spent 18 months at Douglas College as a student, then transferred to SFU in 1973, the year we got married. By 1976 I had gotten a BA. Carolyn and I decided it would be fun to travel a bit and we did. We packed up our car and a travel trailer, stayed with my sister in 100 Mile House for a bit, found out Carolyn was pregnant, then moved on to Edmonton easily finding jobs. Our intention had been to make it to Ottawa so I might find work, but our plans changed with the pregnancy and we moved back home to BC. I happened to go to SFU upon my return and was offered a job as a teaching assistant. That clinched it for me. As I started work as a teaching assistant the faculty just assumed that I would enter grad school there so I did. I studied at SFU until 1980, got my MA and decided to apply to the grad program at the University of BC. I studied at UBC for a couple of years on a PhD, but couldn’t keep it up because I needed to work and help raise a family. Still, that was my introduction to teaching. I sort of fell into it. I readily took to teaching. I loved it. In 1983 I got a job at NIC as I already noted. That job lasted 29 years.


Of course, teaching was only a part of what I was up to at the time. I did graduate work and settled on a dissertation about Harold Adams Innis’ work. Innis was a well-known but entirely misunderstood scholar teaching at the University of Toronto until his untimely death in 1952. My dissertation was an attempt to set the record straight on Innis. I don’t think it had much of an impart on scholarship but it got me my M.A. Working in my dissertation I had to deal with my previous studies of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, etc., but a new scholar entered my life at that time. I discovered him through Innis. His name is Thorstein Veblen. He was born who knows when but he definitely died in 1929. His work blew me away and laid the groundwork for much of my later research. His influence on me was closely followed by Ernest Becker and a panoply of scholars associated with his work including Marx, Freud, Rank and many others. The archives of this blog are filled with references to their work.  Later, I read Norbert Elias and was immediately struck by the lucidity and strength of his analysis about the relationship of the individual to society. For Elias we are interdependencies and interweavings and it’s barely logical to speak of individuals unless the immediate qualification is that we are essentially social.  All of that time, I also read voraciously authors like the French social historian Fernand Braudel, the economists David Ricardo, Adam Smith, iconoclastic psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. I’ve never stopped reading. I must say, though, that there has been a consistent thread running through my reading and that’s been the rise and fall of empires and the globalization of capital. My library at home is replete with books on the nation-state, revolution, European history, ideology, and capitalist expansion.

Of course, if you took a tour of my library you’d figure out quickly enough that the above hardly scratches the surface. The scholars I mention above are but the high points on my literary landscape. The meadows and valleys are filled with books on Canadian history, religion, philosophy, language (semiotics and pragmatics), sexuality, ethnography, evolution, biology, psychoanalysis, and art. Now, my attention has also turned to YouTube and other digital formats. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, a neuroscientist, has a series of lectures on YouTube that are brilliant to say the least. To a non-expert, they explain clearly the social class basis of stress not only in olive baboons on the African savannah, but also in Whitehall, the seat of British government bureaucracy.

The above is not a trip through my intellectual story, but it does provide a scaffolding for more interesting backstory commentary. Neither is this a place for a wander through my intellectual trajectory. I suppose I have to get down and write that sometime for me, if anything. The archives here contain a lot of insight into my worldview, but it’s not condensed and focussed. That condensation and focus really defines a retrospective for me. I can do that. What I hope you will get from this is some appreciation of the time and effort it takes to put together the worldview I have. It’s unique and idiosyncratic. You could never duplicate it. Parts of it are accessible to all, but not the whole thing. There are just too many elements to it, too many connecting strands that I alone have experienced. That makes it infernally difficult to share. I will try.


*Love is a word that begs definition. Maybe in a future blog post.