I taught university level courses in sociology and criminal justice for over 30 years but now I'm retired and at 72 was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, bone marrow cancer. This site is now a chronicle of my journey with myeloma.
Lately I’ve been reading books from the 90s. The books by Kim Stanley Robinson, especially the Mars Trilogy are, not surprisingly, set on Mars and span a period of several hundred years. It seems Robinson is not inclined to write about earthly events and characters, focussing his attention instead on Mars, her moons, and the asteroid belt that he has also transformed by technology to support human life. The book of his I’m currently reading is called Aurora and is about the travels of humankind outside the solar system for the first time. Their destination is the Tau Ceti e system some twelve light years from the Terran Solar System. It takes them many generations and 170 years to get there, a scenario packed with angst about life and death.
In an earlier work, Robinson confronts mortality straight on. He concludes about the characters in The Mars Trilogy that:
A long life is not necessarily a good life.
Their lives were long, very long indeed if they took “the treatment”. They could not yet know just how long they could live because few of them had died of causes relatable to an ordinary life, of ‘natural causes’ not that they were invincible. It’s true that most inhabitants of Mars were over two hundred years old. Two had died in an explosion, one had died by violence, another by being swept into a roaring river of ice into the depths of a swift moving glacier. In his Mars Trilogy Robinson has cleverly endowed his protagonists with very long lives. However longevity does not equal high quality and death will not be denied.
“There were all kinds of madness, evidently. Ann wandering the old world, off on her own; the rest of them staggering on in the new world like ghosts, struggling to construct one life or another. Maybe it was true what Michel said, that they could not come to grips with their longevity, that they did not know what to do with their time, did not know how to construct a life.”
from “Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy Book 3)” by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Mars colonists may not know what to do with their two hundred or more years of life. What about us? How do we decide what to do with our lives? How do we construct a life whether we have a month left to live or two hundred years?
This is really an unfair question given the vast range of possible answers along a plethora of trajectories. But it’s a question that can generate some critical thinking about our lives and how we live them. For that reason I feel justified in asking it. Still I think that narrowing the focus of the question could be valuable.
The questions that interest me the most concern our relationship with death and immortality. These are ‘intellectual’ questions that have nothing to do with the material requirements of life. Of course, no matter how we look at it, life means movement. Death implies stillness. That may be why so many of us are gripped with the need to do…something…anything. Doing justifies living. Stillness or inactivity reminds us of death.
This photo is of me at a very young age, not sure exactly how old. That said, I am not the person you see in the photo. In fact, although arguably I am the person depicted in this photo, I have very little in common with that person. I could say that in the photo you see an embryonic version of me and that may well be true. We, the little dude in the photo and I, are obviously related; we share a life trajectory. But there is not one molecule in my body now that existed in the little dude back then. And the little dude hadn’t read Marx or Darwin. According to Milan Kundera in Immortality little dude would be in the happy first stage of life. The second stage is the preeminently active stage when we realize that death is real and that it is hounding us. To fend it off we must do, build a career, a family, a community. The trajectory in this stage is characterized by growth and the morality of the time expects material production from us. I am in the third and final stage of life, or at least I can be found transitioning into the final stage, the WTF stage, I call it. It’s the stage when strength is fast being replaced by fatigue and exhaustion. Kundera writes:
“Fatigue: A silent bridge leading from the shore of life to the shore of death. At that stage death is so close that looking at it has already become boring.”1
I’m bored, but only to tears, not to death. I’m just now standing on the crest of the bridge but I can easily make out the shore of death on the horizon which is becoming clearer and more distinct every day. According to Kundera, this third stage is where freedom can be found. If I knew what freedom was I might be more eager to actively pursue it. The third stage will come or I will die in angst fussing over the quality of my life experiences and my immortality which, of course, can only exist after my death.2
2. Kundera considers immortality as that view that encompasses an entire lifetime but is also restricted to it. It is a fixed entity that has no place except in the memories of those left behind. It is not soul based unless you can think of the soul as the totality of what we leave behind. It is not eternal life but the memory of a whole life lived. Death completes my life.
I’m finally able to write a few paragraphs. My neck has been such a problem lately that I haven’t been able to write much or draw and paint much either. It’s because my neck gets spasms easily if I look down at the computer screen for too long. Ten minutes at a time is about all I can handle. However, I remembered that acetaminophen works quite well for neck pain. I took a couple last night for my arthritis and degenerative disks in my neck and that seemed to help. I took a couple at around 8 AM this morning and now, although I still have neck pain, it’s manageable. We’ll see how long it works. I want to go outside and play.
Funny how I used to take acetaminophen regularly for some kinds of pain and it worked marginally well. Then I forgot about it when I got into stronger meds after my cancer diagnosis. Hydromorphone is my go to pain reliever now, but I’m also taking a low dose of gabapentin on the advice of my palliative care docs.
Palliative care docs are specialists in pain management. They often get linked with end-of-life care, but their mandate is much broader than that and is tied to pain management generally. We talk every week, usually on Wednesdays always working to fine tune my meds to balance pain with my need to be able to do some activity. Of course, as my pain doc told me this week they could easily make me pain free. I’d be pretty much catatonic though so we’ll probably save that for when I’m closer to dying. No, the objective with my pain docs is to balance pain management with quality of life.
I must say that lately it’s been a bit of an odd dance. We tried nortriptyline but it made me excessively sleepy without doing much to lessen my pain levels. We tried a really low dose of gabapentin. That hasn’t seemed to have worked very well so we’re now increasing my dose of gabapentin to a bit of a higher dose to see if that makes a difference. That’s always on top of my basic hydromorphone slow release tablets that I take morning and evening.
I suggested to my pain doc yesterday that I should just go off of all pain meds to just see what happens. She said that I probably shouldn’t do that because the pain would be unbearable without some intervention. I have to agree, but it’s frustrating. It’s hard to know which med is doing what when I take a cocktail of meds. It would be simple to back off to just one med, but that wouldn’t work either because as I noted before, neurological pain is different from muscle pain with is different from bone pain, arthritis and disk disease. I need different meds for the various kinds of pain I have so a cocktail is required. Simple would be nice, but it’s not practical.
So, I sit here now banging away on my computer keyboard. My neck pain is manageable but really annoying. I’m hoping the increased dose of gabapentin will deal with the neurological pain I have in my legs, but we’ll see. It takes a while to kick in. I’ve had two MRIs this week. The first one was on Monday and imaged my lower back. The one yesterday was for my upper back and neck. I’m not sure how they may help with diagnosis or with determining what drugs will work for me, but at least they will give us a good baseline for subsequent tests.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the time I have left. I have incurable cancer so it’s like I’m on death row waiting to see if my next appeal (chemo course) works or not. I’m technically in remission right now. We’ll know in January how that’s going. I’m scheduled for blood tests on January 5th, the day after my 74th birthday. That will mark seven months that I’ve been off of chemotherapy. I hope those little bastard myeloma proteins take a long vacation and I can stay off of chemo for a while longer.
Inevitably though, chemo won’t work anymore and that will be that. Bring on the morphine and call in hospice and MAID people at that point. When I get to the point that I can’t DO anything anymore, I will probably welcome my exit from this mortal coil. The thing I regret is putting my family through a long, prolonged, slow exit. Maybe it would be better to pull the plug sooner than later. But I’m not ready to make that decision. So, we carry on, balancing meds, counting on chemo to beat back the myeloma proteins when they get out of hand, and hoping for the best.
I haven’t written at all about politics lately. I’m tempted to, but my neck pain may decide how much I can write, draw and paint. Politics is fun, but it’s not at the top of my list of priorities at the moment. Cancer has a way of focussing my attention narrowly on my life and possibility. I’m still interested in BC politics, Trump, etcetera, but they just aren’t centre of mind like they used to be for me when I was teaching. The pandemic is close to mind too, of course. I’d love to see my family as much as I can. Covid makes that impossible. Cancer and Covid are dominating my life right now. Not the best of scenarios, but I do have Carolyn to commiserate with and to share my Covid isolation.
I’m not sure how we can talk about happiness in the circumstances we are in. I’m not happy about any of this shit but that doesn’t help much either. It’s just that how in hell can anybody be happy right now?
Yes, today is World Kindness Day, a holiday celebrated in many countries since 1998. It’s also Friday the 13th, but let’s ignore that for the moment. You’ll be pleased to know that there’s a World Kindness Movement too. It’s front and centre in the kindness celebrations that are held in many places around the globe today.
I promised one of my blog readers that I would write about kindness sometime. This is an opportune time to do so. She also wanted me to write about recognizing others, a gesture that gives their feelings a boost and their existence added social value. To be snubbed is to be humiliated, as is being chosen the last player for the pick-up soccer team on the neighbourhood pitch after school. We yearn to be recognized and not ignored. There is an element of kindness to acknowledging others in social situations or at any time for that matter.
But what is kindness? Miriam-Webster defines kindness thusly: “the quality or state of being kind”. Well, that helps a lot. So what is the definition of kind? Miriam-Webster replies: “a group united by common traits or interests.” But wait, this is the definition of kind as a noun as in ‘what kind of car do you drive?’ So, what is the definition of kind as an adjective? Miriam-Webster helps us out again: to be kind is to be of a sympathetic or helpful nature.
Well, okay then: to be kind is to be sympathetic or helpful. That’s generally how I would use the word. However we still have to reckon with the noun variation of the word. The image below is of Marvin Harris’ Our Kind, a book he published in 1989 as a project designed to help educate college students (among others) who, at the time, were unable to recognize the boundaries of the United States or know who’s side the Soviet Union was on during World War II. Our Kind is a compendium of what makes us human, of “the evolution of human life and culture” according to the cover.
Humans are of one kind in essential terms, we are one species after all, but we are still divided in a myriad of ways. We are one with our kin (a word akin to kind) but the further away we get from our kin (our sibs), the less we feel bound to be kind to people. Who are the people we can expect kindness from? People who are kin to begin with, then anyone we can define as part of a kin-like group, a group that can be defined socially, politically, geographically, or in whatever way we decide qualifies as a membership pass.
The reader who suggested this topic to me is genuinely concerned with the divisiveness and viciousness of much of what passes for social and political discourse these days. The lack of civility is glaring in some quarters to the point where conversation is impossible. Shouting replaces discourse.
Harris, in the 1980s, was dismayed at the low level of civility and kindness exhibited by a large percentage of the population. He doesn’t say it, but I will. There will be no possibility of kindness, sympathy, and civility enduring as basic human values until we break down our current social and political boundaries and accept each and every human being on this planet as one of ‘our kind.’
It’s as simple as that, but as complicated as that too. The reasons we divide ourselves so earnestly into political and social groups according to Ernest Becker is partly as the basis for competition, competition designed to separate the winners from the losers in the eyes of the gods.
At the moment we are witnessing massive cleavages in the fabric of American society, cleavages that seem to be politically defined around political parties, but which are essentially about who qualifies for assent into the realm of the few divinely chosen. The religious has infiltrated the political in American society to the point where ‘opponents’ are seen as evil incarnate and where anything less than total victory is unacceptable and will not be tolerated because the alternative is death.
I am not particularly optimistic about American politics or about global politics for that matter. I don’t know if there is the will necessary to unite people and to set aside divisions of politics, class, race and sex so as to see everyone qualify to be included in our kind.
There seems to be plenty of will for division with the vast majority of social institutions organized to divide. Are things as dire as I portray them here? No, they aren’t. After all there are strong unifying forces in the world too.
Maybe more on this later. I’ve written about this before if you care to peruse my archives you’ll see what I mean, but I’m also willing to explore more fully some of the themes introduced here, particularly those around competition and division. These have an ‘animal’ dimension as well as socio-religious ones.
I’m writing today to let you know what’s up with me. I still don’t intend to embark on a regular program of blog posting, but things have changed for me over the past while and I thought I’d let you in on the changes to my situation. But first, a bit of a re-cap.
When I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in early October of last year, I was in pretty rough shape. It became clear to us then that I had had myeloma for some time before, probably for years. Over the past few years I’d had to back away from a number of volunteering gigs because I was too exhausted most of the time to be of much help to anyone. I was not much help around the house and property either. I stopped painting and drawing, and sculpture was out of the question. It was no fun at all. I felt rather useless. And because there was no diagnosis for years, I questioned my own sanity and vitality. The cancer diagnosis was patently not what I had hoped for, but it was an explanation for how I felt and for the pain and exhaustion I had experienced for years before. In some ways, I felt a sense of relief.
Then, in November, 2019, I became a full-time cancer patient. Myeloma became the main focus of our lives. We read everything we could about it online. We went to Victoria for a consultation with the oncologist I was assigned to at the BC Cancer Centre. That trip turned out to be a disaster. Aside from the myeloma that was causing me a lot of pain and distress, during that trip to Victoria I had to deal with a flare-up of a chronic degenerative disk problem, and of the arthritis in my neck I’ve had for years. I can’t tell you how discouraging that was. I was practically an invalid to the point that we asked around to see if anyone had a wheelchair we could use because we figured I’d need one.
The chemo regime I was initially put on caused me to get a huge rash all around my midsection, so my oncologists decided on a different cocktail of meds. This was quite discouraging because I wondered if there was any cocktail of chemo drugs that would work for me. Finally, my oncology team settled on the set of chemo drugs I’m on now. I’ve just started my fifth five week cycle of chemotherapy. I’m scheduled to continue on this program at least until late summer.
At first the chemo drugs kicked the shit out of me. By that time, I was also taking a low dose of hydromorphone, a synthetic opioid, to deal with the pain, and I had to take Dulcolax to deal with the inevitable constipation brought on by hydromorphone. My peripheral neuropathy was extremely annoying in that my hands and feet would constantly go numb and tingly. My whole pelvic area seemed to be on fire at times.
The first three cycles of chemotherapy had me questioning whether or not I should just shut it down and deal with the consequences. I couldn’t see myself living for any length of time in this state of pain and exhaustion.
Then, something changed. I don’t know if it’s because my body has been getting used to the chemotherapy or that the meds have been very effective in dealing with the myeloma. Over the past while, my bloodwork has gradually indicated a complete attenuation of myeloma symptoms. My blood seems to be back to normal and the signs of myeloma have all but disappeared. That doesn’t mean I’m cured, by any means. It just means that I may be going into remission. How long that might last is anybody’s guess. When the myeloma comes back, my oncologist will put me on another course of therapy. That could carry on for years to come.
So, lately I’ve had a surge of energy and I’m now able to do things! Oh, I still have pain and I still get tired, but I can do stuff! For instance, I’ve been able to help Carolyn build boxes for her garden beds and yesterday we rebuilt part of the structure that holds up the massive wisteria we have that surrounds our deck. I even used my chainsaw! If you had told me in January that I would be using a chainsaw in April I would have laughed in your face.
So, yes, I’m still sick with myeloma, but I’m now without major symptoms of the disease, and the hydromorphone is dealing with the pain I still have and will continue to have for the rest of my life. I can live with that. Basically, I’m feeling well. My body seems to be tolerating the chemo drugs much better than over the past few weeks. Some of the side effects of the chemo drugs are quite nasty, but I know how to deal with them now. I’ve become a proficient cancer patient.
Now, if we could only get rid of MARS-Cov-2, I could, we all could, get back to some proper socializing and I could hug my grandchildren again. The truth is, however, that my life hasn’t changed much because of the pandemic. I’m highly susceptible to infection because of the chemo and I can’t be around sick people for that reason. Covid-19 has just made it so that we have to be extra careful.
So, I’m cleaning up my studio and my shop. I’m looking forward to doing some painting, printmaking, drawing, and sculpture. I’m working towards restoring our canoe. The fact that I can even contemplate these things has changed my life yet again. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way things are going.
The situation in the world is another thing entirely. The irrationality of modern neo-liberalism in the face of climate change and the pandemic continues to cause me consternation and worry. I hope we, as humans, can collectively get our shit together and build a more modest future, one in which we are in tune with each other and the natural world of which we are a part. I know so many good, caring people, but the structures of global capital run deep and are highly entrenched. Ignorance and denial still characterize large segments of the population. Even with the majority of the population consisting of good, caring people, I have no idea how to fight these massive reactionary forces. Covid-19 has shown us that massive changes is possible and desirable for our quality of life, although it’s probably not a good idea to leave desired social change to the recurrence of deadly pandemics.
I’m going to take a break from writing here for a while. I’m not sure for how long, but probably for as long as the pandemic has a chokehold on our attention. My life with myeloma seems to me pretty insignificant in the light of Covid-19. So sayonara. I may still pass along recommendations for your reading pleasure occasionally. The link below will take you to Charles Eisenstein’s website. The article highlighted here is called Coronation and is all about the Covid-19 pandemic and its ramifications. I could have written it myself but he beat me to it. If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll quickly see how closely many of his arguments are to mine. It’s a long piece, but you can handle it.
I’m always a sociologist so whatever happens to me triggers an instinct I have to do check it out, do the research, connect the dots. In my book, the more information we have the better. At the moment, we have an information deficit and that’s frustrating but, hopefully, that’s about to change.
In any case, one of my first research stops is Statistics Canada. What’s there to learn there? Well, for one thing, multiple myeloma (MM) is a pretty rare form of cancer and that makes me special, don’t you think? Stats Can reports that there will be about 3000 people in Canada diagnosed this year with it. That’s not a very high number. Stats Can also projects that from 2018 to 2022 only 70 men in BC will be diagnosed with MM in my age group every year. Because doctors seldom encounter it, it can be difficult to diagnose, but back to that in a bit.
I’m in good company too when it comes to MM. Jim Carr, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre and Minister of International Trade in the Federal Cabinet, was diagnosed with MM the day of the election (Monday, Oct. 21st) when he went into the hospital complaining of flu-like symptoms. By Tuesday he was receiving chemotherapy and dialysis and by Thursday the CBC was reporting that the Minister said he was doing fine, felt okay and was going to continue serving his constituents and the Canadian People. I’m so happy for him. He won’t be cured, but he will probably be able to function quite well for some time to come. By contrast, my doctors knew I had MM three weeks ago and I have yet to see an oncologist and will have to drive 225 kilometres to Victoria for the pleasure. Living in the boonies as we do, access to specialized health care can be spotty at best and will only get worse if the Vancouver Health Authority has its way. (That’s the subject of another blog post but DecafNation, George Le Masurier’s excellent blog, has been on to this for some time). It’s true that an oncologist in Victoria is on my case and has already prescribed medications for me and I got an infusion of a drug a couple of days ago at the hospital here to help with the pain and ‘strengthen bone’. Still, I feel that I’m not getting the level of care I would have gotten if I were a member of the Canadian political aristocracy or if I lived in a large metropolitan centre. My age likely has something to do with it too. I’m an old guy and not likely to live too long anyway and besides, I’m no longer a contributing member of the economy having retired from teaching at North Island College in 2012. Does that sound like sour grapes? It may be, but socio-economic status (class, gender, age, and geographical location, etc.) has a lot to do with health care provision whether we like to admit it or not.
Alright, so back to my situation. I’ve probably had MM for a long time. I have low B12 and was diagnosed with pernicious anemia at one time by a locum (temporary replacement for my regular doctor) , but my doctor didn’t really accept this diagnosis and prescribed B12 monthly injections (which I do myself). The thing is, I had been going to my doctor for years complaining of being tired, having brain fog, being in lots of pain, and suffering from peripheral neuropathy. To give my doctor credit, he ordered MRIs of my brain and spinal cord, lower back, ultrasounds, etc., because there is a history of Multiple Sclerosis and other immunological diseases in my family. To add to this, I has a kidney removed in 2002 because of renal cell cancer, leaving me with one kidney. For a long time we tested my creatinine levels to ensure my kidney was functioning properly and it did for years. In the last three or four years however my kidney showed signs of being very unhappy. Creatinine levels were rising and still are, and I was getting weaker and weaker all the time with worsening symptoms.
My social life was taking a huge hit. Over the past few years I’ve had to pretty much give up going out in the evening because I’m exhausted. I had to give up life drawing, printmaking and sculpting. I had to resign from the Village of Cumberland’s Homelessness and Affordable Housing Committee and I had to resign as Chair of the Board of the Comox Valley Art Gallery (although frankly I had been doing that long enough). I can no longer go on long walks with Carolyn, something that we both really enjoyed.
After a while, I think my doctor kind of gave up trying to figure out what was wrong with me and I was beginning to wonder if it was all in my head.
About a month ago, all that changed. We had gone camping in Strathcona Park in August. I was not feeling great, but well enough to get the canoe out and paddle/sail/motor around a bit. A couple of times, however, we got into bucking huge headwinds and were forced to paddle hard. Carolyn and I are seasoned paddlers and we know what to do. I felt pretty strong and we handled it fine. Of course we had some muscle pain, but scotch helped out with that a bit! Then my daughter and her family joined us. One day as I was sitting at the camp site doing nothing, my back started hurting something awful. By the time I decided to take some ibuprofen (not to be taken by anyone with any kidney issues) my pain was pushing 9 or 9.5 on a 10 point scale. I was taking T3s like they were candy. When it was time to go home, my son-in-law drove the truck and trailer. I rode shotgun. I have driven very little since and not at all for the last month.
A short time later, I made an appointment to see my doctor to let him know about the back pain and my use of ibuprofen. He figured we had better do some blood testing and we did. He was headed out on vacation for three weeks so I wouldn’t be seeing him again until Oct. 22nd or so. Well, he called me on Friday at around 5:30 and told me that my kidney was leaking protein into my urine and that he had referred me to a kidney specialist in Nanaimo. That was a bit of a shock. I didn’t quite know what to say so I left it at that.
Over the weekend, Carolyn and I sat down and wrote down all of my symptoms and questions to which we wanted answers. On Monday, I called the medical clinic and got an appointment to see a locum to ask questions about what a protein leak meant and to lay out my symptoms. Well, he ordered more blood tests and imaging. We saw him again on Thursday by which time he already had a strong suspicion that I had multiple myeloma. On Friday he called and pretty much confirmed the diagnosis. On Monday we saw another locum and she ordered more tests and imaging as well as a bone marrow biopsy. She also referred me to the Cancer Clinic in Victoria.
So, in less than ten days, the locums had figured out that I had cancer and were moving fast to get me treatment. Possibly all that it took was a fresh set of eyes on my case. Certainly, the referral to the kidney specialist would have got me some results but I’m not scheduled to see him before November 7th. I wondered what my regular doctor would say when he got back from vacation. I am definitely pissed off that I went so long undiagnosed, but I don’t really blame my GP entirely for that. I may not have impressed on him the real state of my distress and MM is not easy to diagnose because it shares symptoms with so may other ailments. Besides, raving about past injustices will get me nowhere. I need to focus my full attention on the present and the future.
So, in any case and in the meantime, I called the Cancer Clinic and a person there confirmed my referral, gave me an ID number and said that I would be seeing such-and-such a doctor. Well, my regular doctor informed me just this past week that there had been a mix-up in the referral and that I would be seeing another doctor at the clinic. We have yet to hear from the Cancer Clinic. If I don’t hear from them by tomorrow afternoon I’ll be calling them again. We need some goddamn answers and I need to get some goddamn treatment. Stay tuned.
I’m sitting here pretty much incapacitated by some undetermined health issues, anticipating yet another doctor’s appointment tomorrow to go over yet another set of lab results, and trying to distract myself from too much inward looking self-pity. At least I can still write. The brain fog I’m experiencing makes it somewhat more difficult than in the past, but I can still do it, especially if I write about something I have some passing knowledge of.
A new American Civil War? Perhaps. The first American Civil War in the 1860s was fought by agricultural capitalists in the South against industrial capitalists in the North but it was couched in state-based rhetoric: Northern states versus Southern states. During the war, there was less emphasis on the economic interests than on slavery, ‘freedom’, and the need for a ‘United’ States. Capitalism can tolerate slavery to some extent, but it really needs a labour force that is also a consumer force. Slavery is incompatible with a growing need for mass consumption. Of course the first American Civil War was fought using non-economic rhetoric and propaganda but the underlying logic of the war was economic and political. Contemporary Confederate flag wavers are not focussed on economic, but on some imagined lost ‘freedom’, and Southern solidarity: Us hard-done-by-Southerners versus You overbearing, holier-than-thou Northerners. The longevity and sustainability of Southern feelings of oppression by the North should tell us something about the depth of feeling in the US now. Looking at a map of the US featuring red and blue states illustrates that there are still glaring geographical differences in people’s attitudes and in their political loyalties. The Southern states, now including Texas, are still feeling hard-done-by. (Some of the northern mid-American agricultural/rural states likewise). Visiting Texas it’s clear that there is an underlying uneasiness and separatist impulses have not completely dissolved. I haven’t visited Idaho, Wyoming or Montana, but rural, agricultural areas are clearly alienated from New York and California. It may be the United States of America, but it’s not the Solidarity States of America. Internecine squabbles and jealousies abound.
The Second American Civil War may well have a rhetorical veneer of statism and rage (yes, rage) over perceived (and sometimes real) social and economic inequalities, but if Donald Trump is successful, it will be a moral war, one fought by people who have fully absorbed the moral imperatives of the capitalist promise of free enterprise (while hardly benefitting from it personally) against people they perceive to have abandoned American ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. The move to impeach Trump will only further solidify the camps, but Trump has not given the Democrats many options. I’ve recently read a number of articles in the New Republic and in other publications that argue that the way to combat Trumpism is not to call out Trump supporters as stupid, ignorant morons, but to engage in dialogue and community building with them so as to understand their grievances and support them in coming to a more reasoned assessment of the issues. I’m not sure there’s time for that.
Trump will continue to inflame passions with his frequent Tweet storms and rallies, accusing high level policy makers of treason and high crimes. How long can this go on? How long will it be before we see a convoy of Mad Max wannabes rampaging through the streets of America’s major cities randomly shooting people, raping and pillaging? How long will it be after the initial skirmishes and outburst will be see anti-Trump militias grow in defence of their families and communities? What of the police? Will they serve the American Constitution against concerted attacks on democracy from all sides? Will they be peacemakers or will they take sides? And what of the military? Will the military take sides? Would the military support Trump if he decided not to vacate the White House after a narrow electoral defeat in 2020?
It’s dreadful to even think about possible scenarios of violence, lawlessness, and totalitarianism but to not think about them is irresponsible.
I’m a Canadian. As Pierre Trudeau said decades ago, we are a mouse sleeping next to an elephant. Woe be the moment when the elephant rolls over in his sleep. For Canadians there is no isolation from American extremism. Over 80% of us live within a hundred miles of the American border. We have family and friends in the US. We worry about their safety and security.
I am a retired college teacher. I told my students decades ago that America was headed for a civil war. The tensions caused by American corporations creating global markets and (at least for the moment) eliminating good paying jobs in manufacturing to exploit cheap labour in Asia, Africa and South and Central America, were bound to lead to widespread social unrest, nationalism and jingoism. I don’t think that global supply chains and markets are going to be easily dissuaded by Trump. They continue to create subsidiaries and engage contractors in China, India and elsewhere. North American manufacturers continue to expand their supply chains and are not interested in containing their activities to US territory nor would they be interested in repatriating manufacturing. I can’t imagine Nike returning to Oregon to manufacture its products. It has no capacity to do so in the US and it would be prohibitively expensive to build new factories in Beaverton, Oregon, the site of its headquarters. There are some agricultural corporations that are moving their processing facilities from Canada to the US in a move, in part, to placate Trump supporters, but they still need Canadian raw materials. The complexity of global capitalism is staggering and strangely enough, that is what gives me any hope at all that a second American Civil War can be avoided. Many US manufacturing corporations that keep research and development functions in the US but produce their commodities everywhere else on the globe are pushing back against Trump’s tariffs. For example, iPhones are made in several places, mostly in China (check out FoxxCon) but may also be made in India shortly. US tariffs will force the price of iPhones upwards, but that’s true for many so-called American products made in China and elsewhere. The world is now so economically intertwined and interconnected that starting a war with China, say, means crushing America’s own manufacturing and processing capacity. I’m hoping that America’s business leaders will have the guts to seriously oppose Trump. I’m not sure that will happen and they may just try to wait him out. I’m unconvinced, however, that any business opposition to Trump will be able to coalesce sufficiently to help ease tensions in the US domestically.
The picture is much more complex than I’ve presented it here, and I may be a victim, like many others, of hyped up, sensationalist news. However, I perceived, like others, this trend in America for decades, before social media, fake news and the gutting of the CBC and other formerly independent news sources. I read widely and I search out different points of view. Trump supporters are caught up in a cult-like mindset unencumbered by reason and will not easily be dissuaded even if dire predictions of the imminent collapse of America do not come to pass. Sadly, some extreme lefties are caught up in the idea that all Trump supporters are ignorant, stupid slobs. There isn’t much room for moderation, reconciliation, or peace in this extremism. Is it possible for the political ‘middle’ to assert itself and put a stop to all forms of extremism? If so, how would that happen? If not, where do we go from here?
In my last three posts I considered the fur trade in the northern half of North America. I suggested that indigenous peoples traded fur (beaver as well as otter, mink, fox, muskrat, lynx and many others) for manufactured European tools, the most important being axes, hatchets, kettles, knives and guns. The trade began we don’t know quite when but possibly as early as the early 15th Century incidentally to fishing on the Grand Banks and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I also wrote that the trade didn’t really get off the ground until the 17th Century when Samuel de Champlain made several trips to the St. Lawrence in search of furs or whatever else he could return to Europe for a profit.
Indigenous peoples as early as 1534 when Jacques Cartier entered the St. Lawrence on the first of his three trips to North America, were eager to obtain European trade goods. That’s not in dispute.¹ The superiority of European iron, brass, and copper tools was not lost on indigenous people although some might argue that this superiority is strictly one that is adapted to capital accumulation and commodity production rather than for the creation and use of tools designed for immediate use. Still, the Indigenes, by all accounts, were driven to adopt European tools and soon lost the capacity and the skill to use their old tools.
To say that Indigenous people were driven to adopt European tools is not to say that Indigene and European were equal in the trade. Hunt (see footnote 1) goes so far as to say:
The great desirability of the trade goods to the Indian who had once known them became shortly a necessity, a very urgent necessity that permitted no renunciation of the trade. As new desires wakened and old skills vanished, the Indian who had fur, or could get it, survived; he who could not get it died or moved away. But, whatever he did, life for him could never again be what it had been: old institutions and economies had profoundly altered or disappeared completely at the electrifying touch of the white man’s trade, which swept along the inland trails and rivers with bewildering speed and wrought social revolution a thousand miles beyond the white man’s habitations, and years before he himself appeared on the scene.
It was the incursion of Europeans into North America that eventually wrought the decimation of Indigenes in North America through intertribal war, smallpox, measles, whooping cough and displacement in the face of settlement. If a real accounting of the European invasion of North America were done, one would find that the Europeans had ‘won’ the contest hands down. I’m not sure, however, that the ‘win’ is especially sweet given the current state of our land, sea and air, our societies, our ways of ‘making a living’, and our often strained interpersonal relations. That said, I’m not sure all Indigenous people would want to return to pre-contact times. Life then was not as idyllic as we would like to think and the ‘noble savage’ was neither particularly noble, nor savage, at least no more or less than the rest of us.
We must keep in mind that the commercial fur trade based on the beaver lasted almost three hundred year as a dominant industry with the period 1670 to 1870 standing out as the most active. A lot can happen in two hundred years. For generation after generation, the Indigenes were driven by the lure of European trade goods but in the process, they transformed themselves and were coerced, often with the help of the clergy, into becoming the workforce of European capitalists. Old rivalries turned into bloody conflicts with the arrival of European guns and other weapons. The Mohawk, who numbered at most 12,000 people and who had been dominated for a long time by the Algonquin and Huron, who numbered probably 100,000, crushed the Huron in a bloody war culminating in 1649-50.
It can be argued that early on in the fur trade, Indigene and European were on a much more equal footing than there were to be later, say in the 19th Century. Early on, Europeans relied as much on Indigenous technology as the Indigenous peoples relied on European technology. The canoe made the early trade possible and Indigenous agriculture fed the drive of the trade inland. After 1830, and the decline of the demand for beaver fur in Europe along with the virtually complete destruction of the bison and the rise of forestry as a staple trade, the need for Indigenous workers in the fur trade declined. They were abandoned more and more to their own devices. Starvation was rampant and disease murderous. In all of this in what we now know as The West, Catholic clergy vied with the Protestants for the souls of the remaining individuals. The Oblate missionaries declared the Protestants as the ‘agents of Satan’ but to their chagrin, the Protestants were often aligned with the British trading out of Hudson’s Bay and their work was doubly challenging as a result.
By 1870 when the Hudson’s Bay Company sold Rupert’s Land to the Canadian Government the tragic trajectory of the Indian Act was about to be played out. Indigenous people became wards of the Canadian state and are still technically so with some exceptions. Indigenous people were crowded onto reserves and their rights eroded with several amendments to the Act. Nevertheless, resistance was always a factor in Indigenous life and the flowering of Indigenous political activism and individual success, even at the white man’s game, business enterprise, is testament to the resilience of Indigeneity. Still, the structural disadvantages and personal racism Indigenous people face are staggering.
To study the fur trade and the colonization of the northern half of North America is to study the trials and tribulations of Indigenous North Americans coming to grips with the inexorable, inevitable, spread of Western Civilization into their lands, into their families, their social relations and their ways of life. Their struggles were human struggles, not unlike the ones we experience today. Their lives weren’t simpler than ours. In fact their lives were often more precarious and more complicated than ours. Their loves were no less so. Alliances were often sealed with marriages between Indigenous women and European men although sexual intimacy and desire don’t need the sanction of politics to flourish. Indigenous men and women were as capable as we are of subterfuge, of lying, of deceit, and of treachery. They were also as capable of love, joy, caring, mutual support, as well as profound grief from loss of family members from disease and death as we are. They had dreams and arguments. They ‘othered’ people as we do. They had an idea of who was ‘good’ and who was ‘bad’, just like we do. They were just as powerless in the face of historical, global political economic forces as we are. In the end, they lived and died, just as we do.
¹ See esp.
Hunt, George, 1940. The Wars of the Iroquois: A Study of Intertribal Trade Relations. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. The introduction is most relevant here, especially pages 4 and 5. Also see:
Innis, Harold, 1930. The Fur Trade in Canada. New Haven: Yale University Press. See especially page 392 but the whole book is about the spread of the fur trade west from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
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.
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?
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, 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 commoditiesinto 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.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.
These estimates are completely arbitrary of course but are included to approximate the variation in values that are obvious in the scenario introduced.
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.
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.
In a comment on the hedonistic calculus as conceived by Bentham Girvetz writes:
A pleasure or pain varies in (1) intensity, (2) duration, (3) certainty, (4) propinquity; when we take into account 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 individuals are the focus of their analysis and have complete charge of their behaviour which is always determined by a calculation of the pleasure or pain involved in any given act or situation. 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 because, 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 determined 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 instability. Every individual is responsible for his own life and failure or success. Station at birth is meaningless. If you detect the ideas of quietism and social darwinism in these ideas, you’re probably on to something.
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 realization 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 a 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 have 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.