I taught university level courses in sociology and criminal justice for over 30 years but I'm retired now. Still, I'll always be a sociologist, engaging in discussions about learning and teaching sociology, commenting on current events and offering book, video and website reviews.
So, the other day I made a thirty minute presentation to a science pub night on beavers and colonialism in the Masonic Hall in Cumberland, British Columbia. Yes, I did that. I was one of four presenters and I was the only one to talk about dead beavers. All the others talked about beavers in wetlands, their role in water retention, their dams, their family lives and their newer reputation as troublemakers, especially for municipal infrastructure, highways, farmers and others.
My job was to talk about the role of beaver in colonialism. My emphasis was on how the political structure we call Canada came about as a result of the spread of Western Civilization into and across North America. It’s a sordid tale of violence, intrigue, greed, adventure, religious proselytization, and general ineptitude wrapped around a cloak of rapidly spreading mercantile and industrial capitalist expansion and the attractiveness of new European tools and technology for the indigenous populations of North America. The globalization we experience today had its major early impetus in 16th Century European economics and politics. Everyone in Europe and North America experienced massive transformation during the period 1500 to 1900 AD but, I daresay, it’s possible to say that about virtually every period in human history (if it’s even reasonable to talk about ‘periods’ of human history, it being a process rather than a series of ‘periods’). What makes this four hundred year timeframe distinctive is how life and work in North America were transformed. It’s impossible to outline here how the various indigenous groups in North America experienced that transformation because there were (and still are) a number of distinctive biomes that demanded of the indigenous groups various and different forms of work and life. For instance, in the eastern part of North America at the time of contact, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were agriculturalists, who along with their northern cousins, the Wendat (Huron) and other groups to the west of them, grew corn, squash, and beans along with, in some cases, tobacco and other crops. The indigenous people of the prairies had very different lifestyles based largely on the bison herds that roamed all over the prairie regions of the continent. The northern indigenous peoples such as the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Chipewyan (Dene) had lifestyles based on hunting and trapping beaver, fox, wolf, and especially moose (although it’s true that some Cree lived on the prairies, some in the parkland and some in the boreal forest). This kind of lifestyle extends from just north of the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains on a diagonal from south in Manitoba to northern British Columbia and the Yukon. The lifestyle is dependent on wetlands, rivers, lakes, forests of birch and maple. The diet of forest peoples is largely animal protein from a large variety of fur-bearing animals and fish.
The West Coast indigenous groups were, like the Haudenosaunee, longhouse dwellers because of their relatively sedentary lives based on a relatively stable source of animal protein, berries and other types of edible plants, roots and mushrooms. The northerly indigenous groups were not agriculturalists, but the ones in what is now California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico were. The Hopi especially lived in Pueblo villages and practiced agriculture much like the Haudenosaunee. The Apache, Comanche and Sioux lived in teepees, portable and easily erected. That said, getting the poles for teepee construction required yearly displacements to more forested areas. Living in villages and settlements requires very different social institutions than are required in forest dwelling indigenous groups.
Beaver fur, the staple product par excellence that drove the colonial exploitation of the northern half of North America was preceded in its importance to Europeans only by cod fish and other marine species both mammalian and fish. Hundreds of European fishing vessels occupied the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 16th Century. The beaver trade was incidental to the fishery for most of 16th Century and it wasn’t until Samuel de Champlain arrived in ‘Canada’ in 1602 that the beaver trade became a force in its own right.
Next post will deal with the importance of beaver for the indigenous populations around the St. Lawrence and on the eastern seaboard in the 17th Century. The hunt for beaver was to change forever the lives of the peoples of North America and those of Western Europe creating Canada along the way in its pre-war configuration.
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.
I have been fairly quiet on this blog lately. I got a cold brought to me by my grandson. I grudgingly have to say it was worth it because I saw my family in Vancouver, but I’m not a great fan of colds. I rarely get one, but when I do, it’s usually a doozy. They seem to trigger my immune disease too. Bacteria, viruses and whatnot are having a party in my arteries and veins. Sheesh.
Anyway, I’m reading a few books at the moment, a couple on sexuality and one on universal myths around the birth of heroes in classical literature, including the bible. I’m a little slow reading right now. I tend to fall asleep after about 10 minutes, and reading in bed is a waste of time because I seem to forget most of what I’ve read by morning. Well, I do remember a lot, but not much detail. That’s fine. I can live with that.
In any case, like I said, I have a list of topics I want to write about, but I’d sure like to hear from you about what topics you’d like me to address. If you’ve read any of my posts in the past you know that I’m all over the map. I’ve taught courses in introductory sociology, deviance, racism, love and sex, research methods, cultural and physical anthropology, Canadian history, Canadian Justice systems, study techniques, both basic and advanced. I’m an avid reader. I’ve done a lot of research in political economy, Marx, Veblen, Elias, Mills, psychoanalysis (Freud, Rank, Brown) , psychology, evolution, sexuality, nationalism, history, language, pain and mental ‘illness’, and classical studies including books on mythology, ideology, and heroism. Check out my archives. Anything you’d like me to explore further?
I’ll tell you one thing. The post here that’s got the most hits by far is: Is Canada a Capitalist Country? Maybe I should comment on that issue a bit more. It’s one that is very difficult for people to figure out because it’s so difficult to break through the veil of ideology surrounding the relationship between nations (countries) and the capitalist modes of accumulation and production. Got any ideas?
This is too funny. I used to use a book called What Is History by E.H. Carr when I was teaching sociology decades ago. He wrote the book in 1961 or so and I have a paper copy of it somewhere but for convenience, I just opened a pdf copy of it online. Well, in a way that is quite common, the scanner they used to create the pdf wasn’t perfect and it interpreted a few words in a highly questionable manner. The following text appears on pages 12 and 13 of Carr’s book and it speaks for itself:
Let us take a look at the process by which a mere fact about the past is transformed into a fact of history. At Stalybridge Wakes in 1850, a vendor of gingerbread, as the result of some petty dispute, was deliberately kicked to death by an angry mob. Is this a fact of history ? A year ago I should unhesitatingly have said’ no \ It was recorded by an eye-witness in some little- known memoirs2; but I had never seen it judged worthy of mention by any historian. A year ago Dr. Kitson Clark cited it in his Ford lectures in Oxford. Does this make it into a historical fart? Not, I think, yet. Its present status, I suggest, is that it has been proposed for membership of the select club of historical farts. It now awaits a seconder and sponsors. It may be that in the course of the next few years we shall see this fart appearing first in footnotes, then in the text, of articles and books about nineteenth-century England, and that in twenty or thirty years’ time it may be a well-established historical fart. Alternatively, nobody may take it up, in which case it will relapse into the limbo of unhistorical farts about the past from which Dr. Kitson Clark has gallantly attempted to rescue it. What will decide which of these two things will happen? It will depend, I think, on whether the thesis or interpretation in support of which Dr. Kitson Clark cited this incident is accepted by other historians as valid and significant. Its status as a historical fart will turn on a question of interpretation. This element of interpretation enters into every fart of history.
So, I’ve come to the last chapter of Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil in this series of posts I’ve come to refer to as my Becker marathon. In this post and the last 2 to follow in the next couple of days, I work through this last chapter called Retrospect and Conclusion: What is the Heroic Society? It’s divided into 4 sections, History, Psychology, The Science of Man and the Conclusion [to this last chapter] Today, I take on his section on History, tomorrow, the section on Psychology and on the last day, this Thursday, The Science of Man and the Conclusion.
In this last chapter, it’s clear to me that Becker is grasping at straws. He has produced this mind-boggling analysis of what drives us and has driven us throughout history, our fear of death and our fear of life. Now what? How are we to suddenly lose our fear of death and put down the weapons we’ve used in their increasingly terrifying effectiveness in our determination to eliminate evil on the planet in the form of the ‘other’? We’ll get to his final thoughts on this in the last post in this series, but for now, History.
In the opening three paragraphs of this chapter Becker notes the emptiness of a classical Marxist analysis for the ‘liberation’ of humankind, which it claims will come after capitalism has run its course. I don’t think Becker is correct in his analysis of Marx because the only foray into utopianism that Marx attempted was in his book The German Ideology and he regretted that for the rest of his life. After he got over his youthful enthusiasm and humanism, he sat in the British Museum and studied until he got bum boils and concluded that the only thing he could say for sure about the fall of capitalism was that there would be no more exploitation of labour by capital because capital will have virtually eliminated labour in successive waves of overproduction. Becker wants to see Marxism as a failed potential immortality ideology for the masses. So, what is to be done? [Yes, that’s the title of one of Lenin’s books]
Well, we now know a lot more about the psychodynamics of history. It’s…
From the outside a saga of tyranny, violence, coercion; from the inside, self-delusion and self-enslavement.
If we didn’t have transference, we wouldn’t be able to stand life. We localize our fear and terror, make it manageable all the while exchanging our freedom for life. We are sorry creatures indeed, because unlike other animals we have ‘made death conscious.’ (p.148) Evil is in anything that makes us sick, wounds us or even ‘deprives us of pleasure.’ (p.148)
The result is one of the great tragedies of human existence, what we might call the need to ‘fetishize evil,’ to locate the threat to life in some special places where it can be placated and controlled. It is tragic precisely because it is sometimes very arbitrary; men make fantasies about evil, see it in the wrong places, and destroy themselves and others by uselessly thrashing about.
We do this so much it’s quite pathetic, really. Note what the Ugandan government has just done. The Ministry of Ethics and Integrity there is charged with seeing gays and lesbians punished and outlawed. Several US states would do the same and some are actively pursuing action against gays and lesbians. They see gays and lesbians as threats to their values. Wow, they obviously have very weak and precarious values to see gays and lesbians as a threat to them. As Nietzsche concluded, ‘all moral categories are power categories; they are not about virtue in any abstract sense.’ (P. 149)
Purity, goodness, rightness – these are ways of keeping power intact so as to cheat death; the striving for perfection is a way of qualifying for extraspecial immunity not only in this world but in others to come. Hence all categories of dirt, filth, imperfection, and error are vulnerability categories, power problems.
You can see why Tea Party Republicans and their counterparts in Uganda are so intent on persecuting gays and lesbians. They are vulnerability categories in their world! They need to be eliminated. Of course, we all need to individuate ourselves, to feel that our lives are meaningful. What better way of showing that we are special and deserving of power and life is to dedicate ourselves to eliminating dirt, filth, imperfection and error? Now that’s a heroic thing to do.
In other words, man is fated, as William James saw, to consider this earth as a theatre for heroism, and his life a vehicle for heroic acts which aim precisely to transcend evil…To be a true hero is to triumph over disease, want, death.
Even better sometimes, to be a true hero is to lay down one’s life to secure the lives of others. Think here of Jesus and scores of other heroes in history who died to secure mankind…‘by their blood we are saved.’ (p.151)
Freud was very pessimistic about the future of humankind. For Freud we humans are doomed by our own instincts for evil. Becker doesn’t buy that. For him, we are born hunters so it may seem that we ‘enjoy the feeling of maximizing [our] organismic powers at the expense of the trapped and helpless prey.’ (p. 152)
The tragedy of evolution is that it created a limited animal with unlimited horizons. Many is the only animal that is not armed with the natural instinctive mechanisms of programming for shrinking his world down to a size that he can automatically act on…Men have to keep from going mad by biting off small pieces of reality which they can get some command over and some organismic satisfaction from.
The thing that feeds the great destructiveness of history is that men give their entire allegiance to their own group; and each group is a codified hero system. Which is another way of saying that societies are standardized systems of death denial; they give structure to the formulas for heroic transcendence. History can then be looked at as a succession of immortality ideologies, or as a mixture at any time of several of these ideologies.
And so it came to be that we could only become heroic by following orders. Oh, I’m really summarizing Becker here and doing him an injustice in the process, no doubt. He seems most comfortable when he is chastising our species in a sense for a history filled with greater and greater paradigms for death denial, ones that expect us to be heroes as individuals, all right, but by ‘following orders.’ This is as true for Christianity as it is for Capitalism. Follow orders and you will be saved. The word ‘orders’ here may seem a little harsh and arbitrary because this is not a military type order. It’s a prescription for salvation that does not tolerate defiance. In capitalist terms, the ‘order’ means to consume.
Now a new type of productive and scientific hero came into prominence, and we are still living this today. More cars produced by Detroit, higher stock market prices, more profits, more goods moving – all this equals more heroism. And with the French Revolution another type of modern hero was codified: the revolutionary hero who will bring an end to injustice and evil once and for all, by bringing into being a new utopian society perfect in its purity.
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.
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?
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.