Freedom: Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose?

I’ve been relatively quiet about the ‘freedom’ movement in Canada. The ‘freedom’ convoy in Ottawa earlier this year set off a fairly entrenched opposition to vaccine mandates and other freedoms purportedly lost according to the leaders of this movement, at least one of which is still in jail for an inability to respect bail conditions. It’s impossible to know how many adherents the ‘movement’ has, but it is definitely a small minority of Canadians at this time. Who knows, however, what the future holds. 

Hyperbole is rampant in recent pronouncements from the leaders of this movement, one even suggesting, according to an article by Sarah Richie in The Canadian Press, reporting on statements by a ‘leader’ of the movement, Canada is facing a civil war. If it were true that Canada is facing a civil war, I’m not sure what the fighting sides would look like. Maybe anti-vaccine types on one side and everybody else on the other? I don’t know. I can’t seem to wrap my head around the notion of a civil war over vaccine mandates. 

Now, if the ‘freedom convoy inspired protestors’ represented a real political movement that, for instance, rejected the overriding influence of public corporations (global ones, primarily) in politics, I might sit up and take notice. However, I don’t see anywhere in the press or on alt-right websites that anything like a coherent platform for revolution or civil war is extant. Right now, it just seems that the only policy they have is flailing arms, shouts of ‘freedom’, flag waving, and rank ignorance of history, politics, and common sense. 

The whole notion of freedom and the purported loss of such is singularly misguided. Where does the idea of freedom originate? The idea of personal liberty and ‘freedom’ (although I hesitate to even use the term) can be traced back to the beginnings of a capitalist mode of production in Europe as far back as the thirteenth century, but really taking off in the sixteenth century. By the nineteenth century, the transformation of the peasant class into the urbanized working class was solidified. Along with the real transformation of people’s lives from rural to urban came the idea that people were now free to move around, change employers if they so desired, giving the impression that individuals were now in charge of their destiny. Veblen’s book The Instinct of Workmanship (1918), although makes for ponderous readings to some extent, is probably the best analysis of the creation of the urbanized working class that I have read. It’s not possible to summarize Veblen’s argument here. It’s a complex analysis of the rise of the business class and the idea that although we, as humans, long to do things, to work, we are not particularly suited to employment. The distinction between work and employment is basic to his argument. 

It’s always been true that individual human beings have agency. We are not like billiard balls subject to movement only at the invitation of the cue, although strangely there is some truth to this view. In fact, as Thorstein Veblen points out in the early twentieth century, that idea is the foundation of modern classical economics.

At this point I invite you to read a blog post I wrote in early 2019. It’s about the hedonistic calculus and what Veblen does with it in his dissection of neoclassical economic theory. It’s not a post wherein I write about my experience with myeloma because I hadn’t been diagnosed yet. I would also invite you to read my blog page on critical thinking which is based on an earlier article I wrote for teachers. It addresses the fact that we generally lack awareness of our place in the world because the school system systematically, via its prescribed curriculum and in spite of the efforts of individual teachers, fails to systematically address our social responsibilities. 

This brings me back to our ‘convoy’ protestors. The ignorance expressed by the ‘leaders’ of this ‘movement is astounding. They insist that they want freedom without ever telling us what they mean by that except to suggest that they don’t want vaccine mandates. They feel that vaccine mandates infringe on their ‘rights’. They should consider that they live in societies that require some individual compromise to ensure the safety and security of its citizens. 

Don’t get me wrong. I have no love for the Federal government’s unfailing support of often dangerous and completely self-interested business corporations, sometimes not even Canadian ones. But, like I said before, if the convoy goofies had an even basic understanding of Canadian political economy I might be inclined to hear their arguments. But they have no analysis, just empty opposition to perceived grievances. 

Their anti-mandate grievance and calls for ‘freedom’ have no place in a social world. We drive cars, but we need licences to do so. We can’t simply get out on the road  without a licence or insurance and expect to be left alone to do that. A world without rules and regulations would be an impossible world. There are countries where ‘rules of the road’ are mostly non-existent, but there are unstated agreements among motorists and others sharing the road as to how to conduct themselves on the road. Those unstated agreements are social contracts nonetheless. We rely on social contracts every day of our lives and in everything that we do. We depend on other people always to provide us with services for our comfort and security. Yes, we are individuals, but we always act socially and, in fact, we couldn’t exist as individuals. 

To think about how dependent we are on others, just think about how often you interact with others every time you buy groceries or fill your car with gas. What of the roads we drive on? We don’t build those as individuals. We build them collectively through our taxes (although not always without complaining about it). We, most of us, have water piped to our homes, electricity to power our heating systems, to refrigerate our food, and sewage lines to take away our effluent. Without millions of people all over the world ensuring that we have what we need to live comfortable lives, we would be living cold, brutish lives in caves. Imagine if you were only allowed to wear clothes you made yourself from material you yourself gathered. That’s not possible in this day and age. 

There are people who want to live off the grid. That’s fine, but even that means buying arrays of solar panels, having vehicles to transport goods, seeds, livestock, and the means to access health services if necessary. We may try to live as socially distanced as possible but we still need to acknowledge how dependent we are on others and why we should have some consideration for their health and security because in the end our health and security depends on theirs. 

It seems to me that the ‘freedom convoy’ folks don’t have a coherent platform, nor do they have even a basic plan. What they seem to have is a diffuse and incoherent opposition, maybe a sense that their lives are meaningless, but that they would be filled with meaning if only the government would be removed or there were fewer rules and regulations. The fact is that rules and regulations arise often out of a need to live in society with others and to resolve conflicts between them. To be moderately safe we all need to drive on the right side of the road. If even a small minority of people refused to accept this rule and started driving wherever they wanted to we would all be in serious trouble. If someone does drive on the left in Canada, and insisting they have a right to do that, they could have their license revoked, just as anti-vaxxers can lose their jobs if they refuse to be vaccinated. Nobody says you must be vaccinated unless there is, like in the military or in health care, a need for absolute safety (or as close as we can get to it). So, get over it. Play by the rules or play another game somewhere else.

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.