The Trouble with Wealth

We all want to lead the good life, but what does ‘the good life’ mean? In our world it means to live a life in comfort, economic and physical security and good health. It means being a moral person. It’s hardly ever pointed out, but being a moral person in our world generally means conforming to the ideals and goals of a market economy within a system of private entreprise and possessive individualism. Morality, although it’s often thought of as a set of abstract principles detached from everyday life, is actually determined by the dominant socio-economic structures of our society. Being a ‘good’ citizen is, undoubtedly, an aspect of being a moral person, but most of us never give a second thought to the role that nations have played in our history or what roles they play in our lives now. Countries or nation-states like Canada, the US, Spain and France, are political structures that support private entreprise and that nominally employ a representative form of government that is generally believed to be democratic. I would argue that the states I mentioned above as examples are not democratic in their essence and do not act in the interests of their populations except in rare circumstances and often tangentially at that. Of course, their main objective is to convince you that they do act in your interests. Most of us believe it because we have no knowledge basis to think otherwise.

We’ve been convinced that the key to leading a good life is to get a ‘good’ job, work hard, be frugal and buy things, as many things as possible because they are often what give our lives meaning. I’ve written about this before. Do a search of my archives. I don’t want to get sidetracked here, so I’ll move on. Suffice it to say that one major ideal in our world is the achievement of prosperity with includes good health and enough wealth to lead a comfortable, secure life.

So, what are the social consequences of the drive to achieve prosperity, especially from the perspective of those who have it? Well, the achievement of a certain level of prosperity and wealth is a major moral imperative in our world. So, if you have prosperity, you are a moral person. If you don’t, if you’re poor or somehow lacking in the trappings of wealth, you are an immoral person. It’s really just as simple as that. Yes, there are exceptions and not all of us, by any means, buy into this ideology. What I am arguing is that most of our social institutions are geared to supporting private entreprise, the pursuit of wealth, and possessive individualism. So, for example, our governments are set up to treat the poor, the homeless and those with marginal physical and mental health with disdain and as objects of derision and opprobrium. Being poor carries with it shame and guilt because a person’s poverty is a clear sign of their immorality, of their incapacity to achieve the prosperity to which we all aspire. We rub people’s noses in their poverty at all possible turns.

Human life, in our world, has little intrinsic value. The value of human life is contingent on how productive we are, how prosperous we are, how clever and smart we are. Unfortunately, those qualities are much more easily achieved for some of us than for others. We do not have equal opportunity. Racist exclusion, the marginalization of women and generational inheritance of advantage all play a role in how we ‘end up’ in life.

I’m not saying that individuals have no responsibility for how they ‘end up’. They do. But the structures of our society militate against certain groups of people making them immoral even before they attempt anything. From a start of immorality, it’s very difficult if not impossible to achieve the moral objectives of prosperity and wealth.

Of course, this is all very complex. We can discuss that if you like, but, essentially, the one thought I want to convey here is the idea that poverty in our world equals immorality. So much of how we organize the world and think of ourselves and our neighbours stems from that basic principle.

Only 18.28% of Canadians voted for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2011

Just to be clear, as Stephen Harper always claims to be, I’m not arguing here that because just 18.28% of Canadians actually voted for Stephen Harper in the 2011 general election that he has no right to govern.  Given the ‘first past the post’ electoral system we have in Canada this is what we get, a prime minister who can rule the country with just a little over 18% of Canadians voting for him.  To put this in perspective, George W. Bush had only 14% of Americans vote for him when he first got elected president so Mr. Harper at least did better than George W.

Let’s look at the numbers.  On May 2nd, 2011, the day of the last federal election, Elections Canada reported that there were 31,612, 897 Canadians.  This does not jive with the Census numbers which came to 33,476,688, but that’s got nothing to do with the argument here.  Of those 31,612,897 Canadians, 24,257,592 (76%) were eligible to vote.  Some were only 1 week old and they were not eligible, neither were millions of others below the voting age.  A small number weren’t eligible to vote for a number of other reasons.

In any case, of those 24, 257,592 who could vote, only 14,823,408 actually did for a voter turnout rate of 61%.  We won’t ask the 9,434,184 registered voters why they didn’t bother to vote, that would be rude and intrusive.

It turns out that the Conservative Party with Stephen Harper as its leader got 39% of the vote.  That means that he actually got 5,781,129 voters who actually turned out vote for him and his party.  Who knows what would have happened if all eligible voters had turned out.

Now, how did I get to the 18% I announced in the first paragraph above.  Well, the 5,781,129 people who voted for Harper account for about 18.28% of the population.  Like I said, calculating the numbers this way isn’t entirely fair to Mr. Harper and the Conservatives, but it does reflect a certain reality that cannot be ignored.  A little over 18% of the population actually went to the polls and voted Conservative.  They elected our current federal government.  To me this is a great argument for a new system of electing our politicians.  Maybe we should try proportional representation.  See how that goes.  Have a look at this video by my friend, John Higginbotham:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0MDty7oXsI

VIEW: Inequality hurts BC’s economy and democracy | The Hook

John Peters from Laurentian University is in Vancouver on Thursday, March 14 (today) at 7 p.m. for  a presentation at the Rhizome Cafe, 317 East Broadway of the book he edited called: Boom, Bust and Crisis: Labour, Corporate Power and Politics in Canada.  If you’re in Vancouver and interested you should check it out.  The article you can access by clicking on the link below outlines some interesting scenarios for our economic futures…

via VIEW: Inequality hurts BC’s economy and democracy | The Hook.

More from me soon on this topic.

The Tyee – Canada’s Reckless Banks Inflate House Price Bubble

The Tyee – Canada’s Reckless Banks Inflate House Price Bubble.

I’m back after having a nasty flu for the past 2+ weeks.  This article by Murray Dobbin lays out a scenario for a future crash in the ‘Canadian’ housing market.  The banks (finance capital) are in charge with the government following along like a loyal puppy dog.

Corporations  are sitting on a lot of cash right now.  That’s probably a good strategy for us as individuals: get liquid.  Not so easy to get done.  We are the unwitting dupes of  finance capital content with the sense that we are in control of our lives and every decision we make is self-generated and independent of larger social, economic issues.

The new globalized assault on labour

The first link below is to a CBC news article about the influx of Chinese miners in Canada and the second is about ‘right to work’ legislation in Michigan, but in other American states too.   Both stories are from yesterday’s National.  These stories may not seem to be linked at first glance, but they are.  They point to the internationalization of labour and the degradation of its value.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2012/12/10/chinese-miner-investigation.html

http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/12/10/f-rfa-macdonald-right-to-work.html

I’ve written about this in previous posts, but it’s worth repeating Thorstein Veblen’s observation that countries are subservient institutions to private capital accumulation, which is currently our dominant mode of production along with it’s modus operandi, business entreprise and the factory system.  The concept of private property is the legal expression of power over commodity production and accumulation.  I repeat: countries are now and have always been subservient to the capitalist mode of production.  Initially, they were created in Europe as a way of opening up markets for commodities and to ‘free up’ labour to move around beyond the confines of their feudal estates.  Countries are just another step in the historical trend towards the global consolidation of political power.   Still, countries have often been a focus of group loyalty, nationalism or patriotism.  This is not always pro-capitalism.  The problem for capitalism is that once countries are created they become more than what was first intended.  People soon consider them home.  They fall in love with them.  They aren’t entirely sure why, but they do.  Well, we’ve been told forever that countries are the way the world is organized.  Our citizenship defines us.  We are proud to be Canadians, Americans, Australians, Indians, etc… We don’t question this, it’s just the way the world is.  So we get upset when we find out that our governments seem to be doing things that we perceive as harmful to us and to our country.  We can’t figure out why our politicians would do such things.  Why, when the unemployment rate in Canada is fairly high, it would encourage the importation of labour?  Why would the state of Michigan attack collective bargaining, guaranteeing a reduction of average wages there, like it has done in other states?  It’s not that surprising, really.  Some governments, not all, are more business oriented than others.  The Canadian government, for example, is extremely pro-business.  As pro-business, it buys into the argument that lower wages are generally good for business.  The cost of labour is a large part of what it means to do business, so any way of reducing the costs of labour becomes government policy.  Attacking collective bargaining rights, as in the US, is a way of reducing average wages, and it will eventually reduce the costs of labour globally, so will importing cheaper labour from other parts of the world to developed countries.  Ironically, reducing average wages will reduce our capacity to buy commodities, the essence of the capitalist mode of production.  So, go ahead boys, cut our wages, cut our pensions. By doing so you’re cutting your own throats.

So, Canada came into existence officially in 1867.  When do you think it will die?  There’s no question that it will. When and how are the questions, not if.  Will the death of Canada come from the outside, from invasion?  Not at all likely, unless it’s the US over water.  No, Canada will come apart at the seams, much like the US will, bit by bit.  Omnibus bill by omnibus bill.  Harper decree by Harper decree.  But don’t worry, it won’t happen for a few years yet.  A hint might be though that 95% of the petrochemical business in this country is foreign controlled.  Now with the Nexen and Progress deals paving the way, outright ownership is on the way.  And don’t believe a word Harper utters about tightening the rules.

Labour has always been a necessary part of the capitalist mode of production, but labour is being replaced by capital (by the use of technology and automation) or cheapened by the same process.  The inevitable result locally and globally will be a few very rich people and the rest of us.  How far do you think we are away from that outcome?

Countries are about to lose their reason for being (Part 1).

Some of us, many of us, really have the sense that our country is one of the most important things that give us our identity as individuals and as cultures. But what is the origins of this thing we call ‘country’ or ‘nation-state?’ Does it ‘deserve’ our undying loyalty, love and respect?  I wrote a script for The Knowledge Network many years ago (1992 to be precise) in which I address these questions and other related ones with regard to Canada.  If I were to write it today, I wouldn’t change much, but I will update this commentary in a new post soon.  Now, read on and comment if you like.

Is Canada a Capitalist Society?  Interesting question and not as simple to answer as it seems, I think.  Generally, when this question comes up, people immediately think about Capitalism and Socialism or Communism.  Canada isn’t communist, that’s clear…but is it socialist?  Well, what does socialism mean?  Many people think of socialism as government ownership and control.  For some, socialism means no more free enterprise, no more freedom of choice and no more good life!   For others it means Medicare, EI,  Canada Pension and Social Services.  If socialism means government takeover of private business, then the W.A.C. Bennett Social Credit rabidly free enterprise government of  B.C. was one of the first socialist governments in Canada.  It took over B.C. Electric and made it into B.C. Hydro, took over responsibility for ferries in the province and monopolized the sale of alcohol.  Well, most people would never think of the Social Credit Party as socialist, but there you have it.  Just kidding of course…but it still leaves us with the problem of coming up with a way of deciding whether or not Canada is a capitalist society.  Is it mostly capitalist with some socialist policies?  Can we talk of shades of pink, or is it one or the other?  Well, maybe there’s another way of approaching the whole question.

 

Let’s stand way back and check out the view from there.  We are very accustomed in this part of the world to seeing things from the perspective of our countries.  I’m not saying that we’re nationalists, necessarily, but that our frame of reference is our country.  We think of “Canadian” society, the Canadian educational system, the Canadian political system, the Canadian legal system, the Canadian transportation system, etc.  We view Canada as an entity, a thing in itself.  We use Canada as “containing” our society.

 

There is another way of thinking about these things.  It is very difficult, though, because we take our conventional view of things completely for granted.  We have difficulty even conceiving of another way of seeing things.   It requires a real perceptual shift.  But let’s try this on.  Think of the concept of Capitalism as a basic reference point rather than the idea of Canada. In this conceptual scheme capitalism has time and space dimensions but I want you to think about it more as a set of institutions or way of doing things, organizing ourselves and thinking.  The primary institutions of modern capitalism are private property, business enterprise, the machine-process, the class system, wages, the division of labor, the market and the price system.   Taken together, these institutions, along with others, make up what we might call the economic basis of capitalist society.  I’m not talking about people here, but about the ways that have evolved by which we relate to each other in society.  The primary institutions are those concerned with how we organize ourselves to make a living…that being the basis for the rest of social organization.  We have to make a living as societies before we can do anything else.   In order to survive…and this is an evolutionary perspective…capitalism generates a whole range of other institutions, or it appropriates them, borrows, begs or steals them historically from previous societies.  These institutions  we usually define as being political, social, legal, educational, etc… And they evolve  themselves and together…like all the organs of your body evolve together.

 

From this perspective, the way we organize official learning, in classrooms with the teacher as authority and children conceived of as empty vessels to be filled with standardized knowledge is a basic educational institution of modern capitalism.  Whole organizations, plants and facilities we call  schools, colleges and universities are created to service this institution which itself serves to ensure the survival of capitalism.  What kids learn in school is more important than just math and social studies.  In the way the school is organized, in the way they are regimented and disciplined, kids learn their eventual place as workers within a capitalist society. It could hardly be otherwise.  An educational institution that would contradict the basic way that we organize ourselves to make a living wouldn’t last long.

 

Countries as we know them are political institutions that arose in conjunction with the rise of capitalism in Europe.  They are the products of the growth of capitalism:  they exist to regulate the flow of capital and labour; to provide infrastructures such as roads for the movement of capital and labor (not always successfully); to defend capitalism, or sometimes the interests of a group of capitalists in competition with another group; to provide a context for law and order and the right “climate” for investment, etc… Once in existence along with the institution of citizenship, countries tend to legitimize the notion that citizenship is a status more important than that of worker.    Citizenship, with all of its caveats and rights,  is the political/legal expression of your right to sell your labour on a market.

 

Canada, then, is by definition a capitalist institution.  It “fits” into a now global system of political institutions that exist to perpetuate capitalism…and make no mistake about it, capitalism is the more fundamental institution here.  It makes little sense to speak of “Canadian” capitalism or even of “Canadian” society, for that matter.  Canada, the political institution, is part of a global capitalist society.  It makes much more sense to speak of the role of the Canadian state in the perpetuation and  survival of the growing capitalist global system.  If the government takes over the operations of a losing propositions such as B.C. Electric, then it does so to ensure that capitalism can still grow and prosper.  Capitalism needs cheap power.  There’s no money in it, but it is nonetheless necessary.  Why not get workers, as citizens and taxpayers, to subsidize it?    If the government sets up systems to train potential workers (i.e., the school system), to support unemployed workers, to nurse them back to health, to provide them with pensions upon retirement, it relieves the pressure from the capitalist to do so, a pressure that the slave master or the lord of the manor had in totality with regard to the well-being of his slaves or serfs.  So, in a big way, the governments in our country help to manage the working class.  And through the tax system arrange to have the working class cover the expenses for its own management and even cover the costs of capitalist risk-taking itself, again through the tax system.

 

This may sound cynical and negative, but I don’t think it is.  Nor do I think that the system stinks and that all capitalists and politicians are lying, good for nothing exploiters of the working class.  I’d rather be a worker with only half of my waking life in the service of someone else than a slave with my whole being and life in the service of someone else.  Besides, capitalists and politicians are harnessed to the needs of capitalism as we all are…much as all the cells in a human body are harnessed for the survival of the body as a whole…and the whole thing will live just as long as it has not exhausted all the resources it has to keep it alive.  Countries are one of those resources that serve the ends of capitalist survival.  Canada is one of those resources.