The Space Merchants: The Prescient Misters Pohl and Kornbluth*

I love strange books with compelling titles and The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth fits the bill.  This book, first published in 1952 but with the seventh and last printing taking place in 1972, was printed in the U.S.A.  It’s based sometime in the future and looking back to it’s publication in 1952 from a 2012 vantage point is a bit  strange.  Pohl and Kornbluth obviously had to design a future that was credible to a 1952 readership still infused with memories of World War II and trying to deny the existence of the Korean War.  In some ways, that’s not too difficult a task, but in other ways the challenge is daunting.  For instance, the characters in the book still use phones like in 1952, board planes on the tarmack at airports and smoke incessantly, but space travel is common.  The book is about the marketing business and how it has evolved.  Lies are common and the bigger the lie the better.  Products are not simply advertized anymore.  Marketing businesses create products to sell not based on their utility but on their salability.  (How far is THIS from our current reality?) They are trying to sell people on Venus colonization.  How can they make Venus attractive to potential colonists?  It’s virtually uninhabitable.  I leave it to you to find a copy of the book to see how the main character in the book, Mitchell Courtenay, gets along.  What I want to highlight here is a simple paragraph on page 7 of my edition of the book which reads:

“Fowler Schocken inclined his head.  ‘Thank you, Matthew,’ And he meant it.  It took him a moment before he could go on.  ‘We all know,’ he said, ‘what put us where we are.  We remember the Starrzalius Verily account, and how we put Indiastries on the map.  The first spherical trust.  Merging a whole subcontinent into a single manufacturing complex.  Schocken Associates pioneered on both of them.  Nobody can say we were floating with  the tide.  But that’s behind us.”

Indiastries [my emphasis].  ‘Now that’s prescient,’ I thought to myself.  Pohl and Kornbluth project into the future a trend that was in its infancy in 1952 with post-war globalization and geopolitics, that is, the corporate drive to find cheaper raw materials and labour wherever they might be.  Of course, that’s a movement or trend that started long before epitomized by Christopher Columbus and his P3 venture, but did it ever take off after WW II.  Now, global business corporations scour the globe like bottom feeders, looking for the cheapest raw materials and the cheapest labour.  In the case of raw materials, its a little more difficult than with labour.  Raw materials are found where they lie in the earth.  It’s possible for hard rock mining companies, oil producers and other exploiters of the earth’s ‘natural resources’ to more to parts of the earth previously unexplored to uncover precious commodities like gold.  Canadian mining corporations are all over Mexico, Central and South America mining and exploring for minerals.  That doesn’t mean Canada has no gold left in ‘them thar’ hills, but the ‘business climate’ is much better in Mexico and the near absence of environmental regulation (or their enforcement) is just fine, thank you.  And labour is cheap, cheap, cheap. For secondary or value added manufacturers and businesses operating in the service sector, the ‘Third World’ is their oyster.  They’ve managed to cut deals with impoverished governments all over the world to set up export processing zones (EPZs) which are sometimes secured compounds, sometimes entire cities or regions, where powerful global corporations can set up shop, exploit cheap labour, pay no duties, no taxes, and face no environmental or health and safety regulations.  Corporations have flocked to the EPZs.  ‘Our’ corporations are abandoning North American, Japanese, European, Australian and South Korean labour and moving production to EPZs or other facilities in the ‘Third World’ at an exponential rate.  There is no turning this around.  China and India are big players in providing cheap labour for ‘our’ corporations making it hard to pick up any ‘consumer’ product these days that’s not manufactured there.  But make no mistake about it.  Those products are not Chinese or Indian products.  They are Nike, Apple, Dell, Monsanto, Nestlé, Wal-Mart, etc., etc, products produced by cheap labour in poor countries bypassing ‘expensive’ labour ‘here.’

So, Indiastries.  Looks like it’s well on the ways to reality. India harnessed as a whole by a single manufacturing trust. With how rapidly things are changing these days, how far down the road can that be? Pohl and Kornbluth were pretty prescient guys. Only problem I find with their scenario is who’s going to buy all these wonderful products made in India and elsewhere in the ‘Third World?’  Won’t be workers here because they’re putting us out of work as fast as they can.  We’ll see how it goes.

  • This is a re-blog of a post I wrote in 2012. I think it’s quite relevant following my last post.

Now, back to writing. Do you have any themes you’d like me to address here?

Time to get back to writing. Several ideas have come to mind as themes for blog posts. One is mapping. In the 1980s and 90s I taught mind mapping, a note making method created by Tony Buzan, and that spurred me to research mapping in general as a means of understanding the world using line and metaphor. That, in turn, motivated me to look into language, semantics and semiotics. That led me to the work of Alfred Korzybski and especially his book, Science and Sanity (I have a copy). He coined the famous phrase: The Map is not the Territory. It is one of the most complex books I have ever read on mapping and metaphor and destroys the myths we have about sanity, insanity, science and reality. It also dissects the idea of science. I also discovered many books by the likes of Umberto Eco (The Theory of Semiotics), Mark Johnson and George Lakoff. Lakoff and Johnson wrote one of my favourite books. It’s called Metaphors We Live By. I used all of these books – and hundreds of others, of course – extensively in my lectures. Words are metaphorical by their very nature as are maps and all representations. Dictionaries are essentially closed systems of metaphors. There’s lots more to be said on this subject, making it a strong candidate for future blog posts.

 

Another theme, one that I’ve already addressed quite a lot, is the relationship of nationalism and capitalism, especially as they relate to the rise of global finance capital and what we call globalization. The rise of global finance capital was bound to produce the kinds of backlash among the working classes of the world as labour becomes an increasingly smaller component of capitalist production. The general public tends to cling to the notion that the nation-state is a means of controlling and promoting economic production and jobs in the face of growing finance capitalist expansion. People don’t think using highfalutin terms like I use here. They do, however, know that their world of work has become more and more precarious, tenuous and fragile. They know that little by little jobs ‘Canadian’ jobs are being eliminated by automation and exportation. They don’t know that there are no “Canadian’ jobs, just jobs in the capitalist world. They have also been convinced that having a job is the way to happiness. Anyone in their right mind knows that ‘work’ is not often a means of acquiring happiness, whatever that means.

Employment is alienating, no matter how we cut it. Work, however, is a different thing and humans by their very nature are producers of goods, makers of things (homo faber).

As we get squeezed between the need to pay our rents and mortgages and the increasingly insecure labour market, something has to give. The tension brought on by ‘austerity programs’ and ‘structural adjustment programs’ imposed on debtor countries by the World Bank and other transnational organizations in cahoots with national governments will be released somehow. Can you say ‘open rebellion’ and ‘violence in the streets’? Trump’s disaffected followers are just the spark that could ignite and then fan the flames of violence in America. People will find scapegoats upon which to heap their fears because they have no idea who their real enemy is.

Part of this theme revolves around the nature of capital and the evolution of social, economic and cultural systems. This form of evolution has been a major theme in my teaching practice.

I just might pick up this theme again in future blogs.

How could I leave out sex? Of course I will deal with sex and its role in our lives in future blog posts, but I want to also consider aspects of our language around sexuality and the pornography industry in particular. Why do we so often refer to sex as dirty? And what do we make of the fact that we are born between shit and piss? How do we  culturally and psychologically address the mess that happens in labour with the wonderfulness of babies and their eventual and necessary deaths?

Contradictions abound in our cultural creations around sex and sexuality. We love the act of sex and lovemaking, but we are supposed to do it in very prescribed ways between approved partners. Tell that to teenagers with sex pheromones bleeding out of every pore of their bodies and it becomes ludicrous. Bodies will trump social rules more often than we would like to consider. Of course, sexual mores have become increasingly lax over the last few decades, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve completely vanished.

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

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

by Roger JG Albert

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Significance of the UK leaving the EU?

What is the Significance of Britain leaving the EU?

 

Not much in the long term. In the short term, there will be some consequences, but probably not many for ordinary folks. Nobody’s going to war over this one although the political map may see some ‘adjustments’. One might argue that this is just a slight correction, a reminder to the 1% and to finance capital that globalization will not be an easy, carefree ride into a glorious future of one world for the benefit of capital accumulation. There will be push back by the people negatively affected by globalization, especially the poor and those workers who can easily be replaced by automated machines.

 

The European Union is just one of several political structures that, at least in political and financial terms, override countries and their sovereignty. But there is a whole new level of organizations like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization that has been messing with national sovereignty for decades in the name of securing the free flow of capital and labour in increasingly global markets. When the World Bank can impose austerity measures and structural adjustment programs on countries who have borrowed money from the WB and are having trouble paying it back, you know that national sovereignty is on borrowed time.

 

That said, countries come and go. Nothing is permanent in our world. There was no Canada before 1867 and Newfoundland was a British colony until 1948 when it voted by a squeaker of a margin to join Canada. The UK used to have a vast empire spanning the globe. Not so much anymore. Now it seems Brits want to pull back into insularity but they can’t hope to get their empire back. Get their country back? Hardly, because they never actually had control of it. Parliament, voting, elections, politicians are there to draw attention away from the real action and that happens behind closed doors in corporate boardrooms everywhere. There is no democracy in finance. Money knows no borders. Democracy is for us, and is meant to give us the impression that we have some control over our lives. Of course, sometimes people take that impression very seriously and Brexit is a consequence of that. In the long term, Brexit won’t change anything. In the short term, things can get ugly especially with people like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump fanning the flames of popular discontent.

 

Obviously, the ‘leave’ side tapped into a well of discontent among voters. Globalization is changing everything for everybody and the changes are not always comfortable or beneficial to a majority of the population. Employment insecurity tops the long list of grievances that many ‘ordinary’ people feel when their jobs disappear and seem to reappear in China or somewhere else, given to workers who make a fraction of what British, European or North American workers made in the presumed glory days of rapid industrial expansion after World War II erasing important gains in worker safety and security won by unions everywhere. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher rode out of the West to change all of that to launch decades of austerity for workers in ‘developed’ countries. Voters are looking for people to blame for their waning fortunes and are finding them in visible minorities, immigrants, especially from the Middle East and former British colonies and everybody else that isn’t what some consider ‘purely’ British and, of course, China, India and other countries which are presumably ‘stealing’ good British jobs. The ‘other’ is blamed for just about everything. Don’t be surprised by that. Outraged maybe, surprised, not.

 

Discontent due to disenfranchisement can often lead to conflict and violence given the ‘right’ leadership. Britain has had its share of violence and public insurrection over the centuries. We could end up with more of the same.

 

The EU is a highly visible and present symbol of globalization and consolidation of power in the hands of global finance capital. What better target for popular hatred? It stands for everything older Brits seem to be feeling pissed off about, but globalization is not going away any time soon, nor is the creation of larger and larger political units like the EU and organizations of global management organizations like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Work will continue to be moved around the globe as corporations look for cheaper and cheaper sources of labour and resources. No, leaving the EU will not mean an end to globalization for the UK.

 

That said, human beings live in communities, not in global organizations and labour for most people means employment in local enterprises or government (education, health care, etc.). As I noted above, a consequence of globalization is the disappearance of steady, predictable, good paying jobs, especially for people whose jobs can easily be automated. When we see our communities attacked by austerity measures and global ‘structural adjustment programs’ we get angry. The EU, as a political unit, represents distance and is seen as anti-democratic and it is. The EU is a mechanism for securing the ascendency of finance capital, but it had better be careful not to piss off people who live locally and don’t think globally. It’s hard to convince a bloke who just saw his factory job of 20 years disappear and re-appear in China two months later that globalization is a good thing. For him or her, it’s not. So there is push back.

 

Part of the push back will be in the form of popular unrest and violence. At the political level, there will be lots of re-negotiating to do as the UK leaves the EU, but at the local level, there may be random acts of violence, but there are some promising developments that should at least get the attention of global capital and that’s the movement to greater and greater local autonomy and control over food supplies, power generation, waste management and social services. People may not get their countries back, but they may, over the long term, get more local control as technologies present opportunities for greater local autonomy.

 

We are in a period of transition when global capital has proven itself capable of exploiting every part of the globe. I think we are getting close to the end times of the glory days of capitalist expansion when profit margins inexorably diminish because there are no longer cheaper workers to be found or resources become too expensive to exploit and when markets are flooded with consumer products that are increasingly at the margins of utility and no longer producing the satisfaction we all seek in our lives.

 

That means the opportunities will abound for us in our communities to get creative in finding local solutions to some of our most pressing problems while we connect to the rest of the world on the internet and create communities there as well, communities of ideas and mutual help that don’t imply direct political involvement or control.

I think Brexit is a wakeup call for capital. That is certainly true, but we must find in it a resolve not to descend into xenophobia, racism, brutish nationalism and violence while seeking solutions to problems in our lives for ourselves, by ourselves, ironically using the tools global capital has so generously provided us. We must resist the urge to blame and scapegoat and instead turn our attention to our communities creating in them the means of living meaningful lives.

 

 

The power of what we think is true or: Marx was a dumbass, everybody knows that! With a commentary by Paul Whyte, political scientist and former colleague.

-This is a blog post which appeared here on November 17th, 2015. A former colleague at NIC, political scientist Paul Whyte, wrote a response to the post below but for some technical reason was unable to leave a commentary. I respect his knowledge of Marx and his capacities as a teacher so I’ve decided to repost my November 17th post with his comments in tow. 

Please read his comment if nothing else. They follow my post. 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Whyte’s comment:

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

I too taught – actually alongside you for close to 30 years! Our disciplines were different [mine were Political Science and Introductory (Western) Philosophy] but shared a common past and crisscrossed each others field of expertise. We were, and still are, passionate about knowledge and driven to explore and share with others, primarily students and colleagues while working, but quite frankly anyone who so much as feigned an interest in the things that captivated us. I write also -surprise, surprise! [cheap seque to invite you to check out my new blog site at paulswhyte.com]. Whether our individual efforts prove to be in vain is really for others to judge and regardless of the answer, we/I must admit we were driven to it and not for any accounting of the number of ‘conversions’ we made [and not even for the fame and fortune!].

   “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” K.Marx

It is true to acknowledge the existence of a dominant ideology within society, but freedom of thought arises from the critical analysis of those underlying oftentimes philosophical thoughts and values, questioning their truth especially within a historical framework. History is littered with ‘dominant’ ideologies that were transformed and/or deposed. It may also be true for example as you state “that there is no absolute truth” but that itself is a historically contingent claim. Our inability [to date] to assert ‘an absolute truth’ does not necessarily negate its existence, but simply denotes only our present limitations to human knowledge.

The trajectories of our academic careers are remarkably similar. My early exposure to the writings of Marx, limited like every other English-speaking student/scholar of our generation by the sheer lack of translations of much of his work into English (now it is all available) was nevertheless profound and revelatory. My appetite became voracious leading me to graduate schools in the UK and a lengthy dissertation on Marx’s theory of revolution and the SDF in late 19th c. British politics.

I concur wholeheartedly with your statement about the gains that accrue from a lifelong practice of reading and research. The list of authors whose paths I have crossed now seems legion. Has my earlier career’s affection, and more importantly, affiliation to the Marxist viewpoint wavered – yes many times; altered – not fundamentally; been abandoned – never. Marx’s detailed and nuanced historical materialist conception, particularly as applied to industrial capitalism, seems more accurate today (as you say) in the expansion of globalization and the widening income inequality gap.

I likewise see Marx as an optimist about the unfolding of human history. The class struggle is at the very core of his theory and ‘projections’ about its “inevitable” disappearance [in a future communist society] still strike me as essentially correct. Where I think I depart from you, and many others as well, is in the hope or assertion that such a transformation can ultimately be achieved by peaceful and democratic means. Greater “participatory democracy” might be an advance on the current situation, but I am reminded of the earlier hope placed in the trade union movement to significantly change the overall conditions of the many in a capitalist economy, and we both know how that has turned out.

You are right to state that peoples’ material interests are foundational, and consequentially that their ideas are forged within the context of their particular class affiliation. Most are blinded/hoodwinked from this truism by a dominant ideological lens, representing as Marx said

  “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling    material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” [German Ideology]

This creates for our time promotion of the merits of possessive individualism and the fruits of capitalist accumulation. 

Take courage and write/speak on because as one of Canada’s greatest contemporary troubadours [Bruce Cockburn] said so eloquently, “but nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight, got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Corporate Charters

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

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

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

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