New American Civil War?

I’m sitting here pretty much incapacitated by some undetermined health issues, anticipating yet another doctor’s appointment tomorrow to go over yet another set of lab results, and trying to distract myself from too much inward looking self-pity. At least I can still write. The brain fog I’m experiencing makes it somewhat more difficult than in the past, but I can still do it, especially if I write about something I have some passing knowledge of.

A new American Civil War? Perhaps. The first American Civil War in the 1860s was fought by agricultural capitalists in the South against industrial capitalists in the North but it was couched in state-based rhetoric: Northern states versus Southern states. During the war, there was less emphasis on the economic interests than on slavery, ‘freedom’, and the need for a ‘United’ States. Capitalism can tolerate slavery to some extent, but it really needs a labour force that is also a consumer force. Slavery is incompatible with a growing need for mass consumption. Of course the first American Civil War was fought using non-economic rhetoric and propaganda but the underlying logic of the war was economic and political. Contemporary Confederate flag wavers are not focussed on economic, but on some imagined lost ‘freedom’, and Southern solidarity: Us hard-done-by-Southerners versus You overbearing, holier-than-thou Northerners. The longevity and sustainability of Southern feelings of oppression by the North should tell us something about the depth of feeling in the US now. Looking at a map of the US featuring red and blue states illustrates that there are still glaring geographical differences in people’s attitudes and in their political loyalties. The Southern states, now including Texas, are still feeling hard-done-by. (Some of the northern mid-American agricultural/rural states likewise). Visiting Texas it’s clear that there is an underlying uneasiness and separatist impulses have not completely dissolved. I haven’t visited Idaho, Wyoming or Montana, but rural, agricultural areas are clearly alienated from New York and California. It may be the United States of America, but it’s not the Solidarity States of America. Internecine squabbles and jealousies abound.

The Second American Civil War may well have a rhetorical veneer of statism and rage (yes, rage) over perceived (and sometimes real) social and economic inequalities, but if Donald Trump is successful, it will be a moral war, one fought by people who have fully absorbed the moral imperatives of the capitalist promise of free enterprise (while hardly benefitting from it personally) against people they perceive to have abandoned American ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. The move to impeach Trump will only further solidify the camps, but Trump has not given the Democrats many options. I’ve recently read a number of articles in the New Republic and in other publications that argue that the way to combat Trumpism is not to call out Trump supporters as stupid, ignorant morons, but to engage in dialogue and community building with them so as to understand their grievances and support them in coming to a more reasoned assessment of the issues. I’m not sure there’s time for that.

Trump will continue to inflame passions with his frequent Tweet storms and rallies, accusing high level policy makers of treason and high crimes. How long can this go on? How long will it be before we see a convoy of Mad Max wannabes rampaging through the streets of America’s major cities randomly shooting people, raping and pillaging? How long will it be after the initial skirmishes and outburst will be see anti-Trump militias grow in defence of their families and communities? What of the police? Will they serve the American Constitution against concerted attacks on democracy from all sides? Will they be peacemakers or will they take sides? And what of the military? Will the military take sides? Would the military support Trump if he decided not to vacate the White House after a narrow electoral defeat in 2020?

It’s dreadful to even think about possible scenarios of violence, lawlessness, and totalitarianism but to not think about them is irresponsible.

I’m a Canadian. As Pierre Trudeau said decades ago, we are a mouse sleeping next to an elephant. Woe be the moment when the elephant rolls over in his sleep. For Canadians there is no isolation from American extremism. Over 80% of us live within a hundred miles of the American border. We have family and friends in the US. We worry about their safety and security.

I am a retired college teacher. I told my students decades ago that America was headed for a civil war. The tensions caused by American corporations creating global markets and (at least for the moment) eliminating good paying jobs in manufacturing to exploit cheap labour in Asia, Africa and South and Central America, were bound to lead to widespread social unrest, nationalism and jingoism. I don’t think that global supply chains and markets are going to be easily dissuaded by Trump. They continue to create subsidiaries and engage contractors in China, India and elsewhere. North American manufacturers continue to expand their supply chains and are not interested in containing their activities to US territory nor would they be interested in repatriating manufacturing. I can’t imagine Nike returning to Oregon to manufacture its products. It has no capacity to do so in the US and it would be prohibitively expensive to build new factories in Beaverton, Oregon, the site of its headquarters. There are some agricultural corporations that are moving their processing facilities from Canada to the US in a move, in part, to placate Trump supporters, but they still need Canadian raw materials. The complexity of global capitalism is staggering and strangely enough, that is what gives me any hope at all that a second American Civil War can be avoided. Many US manufacturing corporations that keep research and development functions in the US but produce their commodities everywhere else on the globe are pushing back against Trump’s tariffs. For example, iPhones are made in several places, mostly in China (check out FoxxCon) but may also be made in India shortly. US tariffs will force the price of iPhones upwards, but that’s true for many so-called American products made in China and elsewhere. The world is now so economically intertwined and interconnected that starting a war with China, say, means crushing America’s own manufacturing and processing capacity. I’m hoping that America’s business leaders will have the guts to seriously oppose Trump. I’m not sure that will happen and they may just try to wait him out. I’m unconvinced, however, that any business opposition to Trump will be able to coalesce sufficiently to help ease tensions in the US domestically.

The picture is much more complex than I’ve presented it here, and I may be a victim, like many others, of hyped up, sensationalist news. However, I perceived, like others, this trend in America for decades, before social media, fake news and the gutting of the CBC and other formerly independent news sources. I read widely and I search out different points of view. Trump supporters are caught up in a cult-like mindset unencumbered by reason and will not easily be dissuaded even if dire predictions of the imminent collapse of America do not come to pass. Sadly, some extreme lefties are caught up in the idea that all Trump supporters are ignorant, stupid slobs. There isn’t much room for moderation, reconciliation, or peace in this extremism. Is it possible for the political ‘middle’ to assert itself and put a stop to all forms of extremism? If so, how would that happen? If not, where do we go from here?

Which is better, Up or Down? North or South? Left or right?

Which is better, up or down? North or south? Left or right?

Well, technically, up and down are just words. Most of us think of them as neutral words that simply indicate orientation in space. They are that, but they also contain a political and moral side that is undeniable.

Left and right. Are they just words that indicate a direction from a fixed point in space but they also carry a load of political and moral baggage.

The reality is that left and right are not just neutral words that simply indicate direction. They are packed with poIitical and moral referents. In politics, we refer to socialist, communist and anarchist parties, movements and ideas as those occupying the left-wing of the political spectrum. We identify liberal and conservative ideas, parties and movements as more or less right-wing unless of course you’re a con troll. For con trolls (conservative internet trolls) everything on the left side of Ayn Rand is evil. This is all highly significant because of the qualities we normally attach to the words left and right without really thinking about it. Right is good, left is bad.

Right and correct are often used as synonyms. We use them interchangeably. So, what can we make of that? Right-wing parties are correct parties? It would seem so. At least that’s what the use of right in this context implies. Who sits at the right hand of God? Why, Jesus, of course, although sheep do too, apparently. Thomas Aquinus was quite concerned about the significance and the symbolism of right and left with reference to God. For some reason I remember the angel Gabriel as sitting on the right of God and Lucifer, before he was cast into hell, on the left. Was Lucifer the first leftist? [1] It makes sense, especially when you consider how the political right sees itself as truly moral and correct.

 

North and south are great examples of how words that are supposed to simply refer to navigational directions on earth, have become politically charged. The North is good, don’t you know. It’s cool, collected, upright, hard-working, morally impeccable and just as pure as the driven snow. The South, by contrast, is hot, lazy, unpredictable and morally suspect leaning towards nudity and hedonism. So, where do northerners go to vacation and let their hair down? Why, to the hedonistic south, of course. And, if you look at any regular map of the globe, north is always on the top. Strange, but when I see photographs of planet earth taken from space, I don’t see those distinctions.

I’m left-handed and us lefties, aside from being called sinistral, are often referred to as southpaws. The implications of this use of language is clear: left-handers are somehow morally suspect.

So, north is up and south is down. Go figure. Up and down are two other words that were initially intended to simply indicate direction, but have been recruited for political purposes over the years. Who knows exactly how that happens, how these language uses evolve, but they do, and they serve political[2] ends. We see them as being natural, neutral and anything but controversial, but they have their nasty side. If I’m feeling particularly chipper one day, I’m said to be ‘up.’ If I’m a little depressed because I just lost my job, I’m thought of as being ‘down’. “What’s wrong, why are you looking so down today?” Sheesh.

There are many more examples of politically charged words parading as neutral. Just think of east and west, over and under, standing and lying, top and bottom. I’ll let you think of others.

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[1] See: https://www.quora.com/Handedness-Why-was-there-prejudice-against-left-handed-people. Quora is not always a reliable source of information, but in this case, reliable enough.

[2] By political here I mean simply the distribution of power in society in a very broad sense. Politics is everywhere there is imbalance of power and some people have more executive license than others, more privilege, more resources, and, in their minds at least, the moral high ground.

Don’t buy into the right/left political divide.

My next blog post will be a follow-up of my last one about what a post-capitalist world would look like. Before I undertake that one, however, I need to get this off my chest.

There’s lately been a move among ‘leftists’ to describe themselves as progressives. That’s all fine and dandy, but the left/right distinction is still in common use. I’ve always thought it stank of conservative righteousness.

We know that right is generally associated with correct. Going back to biblical references there’s the whole right hand of God thing which implies the correct side of God. On the left side of God is nothing good and that’s in fact where we first find Lucifer. It seems that right is always associated with correct and with conservative politics. The left, as we all know, is sinister. The technical term for left-handedness is sinistral. Well, I’m left-handed and that designation, frankly, pisses me off. The left is generally associated with clumsiness, ineptitude and political parties like the social democrats (New Democrats in Canada). I know some of my more conservative friends would think that was just fine, but I think it is a complete distortion of reality and panders to the powers that be.

Moreover, man has long been associated with right and woman with left. Man with the sun, woman with the moon. That should piss women off too.

So, in future blog posts, I will not use a left/right model of political discourse. I suppose they can be useful shorthand terms, but I  think they profoundly prejudice, distort, and colour our thoughts about politics. Enough of that.

 

 

 

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.

Life is like that: staving off dementia

I haven’t posted on this site for some time because my life has taken me into other directions for a time now.  For instance, I’ve had physical injuries to consider and pain is my constant reminder of my humanity.  It also limits my mobility since some of the pain I’m experiencing is in my right knee.  The pain makes it difficult for me to walk any distance.  I also tore a rotator cuff and that’s a bummer.  Still waiting to see an orthopaedic surgeon on that one.  Yet, I’m happy to report, things are improving. The pain is becoming manageable and I’m taking fewer meds than I have been.  I’m trying to cut out some of my meds altogether but I’m no martyr so if the pain gets intense again, I’ll be right back there gobbling pills.  I’ve tried physiotherapy – different kinds – but the pain is not from muscular injury but rather from connective tissue damage so working on my muscles has limited effect, at least that’s what I think.  Besides, all that stuff is expensive and I don’t have a limitless pot of money to play with.  Still, things are moving along.

I’ve been able to help Carolyn in the yard putting railings on the stairs, etc., in preparation for the garden show we were featured in this past July 27th.  I love my woodworking shop and have been spending lots of time in there. The garden show was fun, but leading up to it was hard work and required lots of meds and rest times for me to carry on.  Maybe I’ll post pictures here soon of what we’ve been doing. Strangely, I’ve been indifferent towards painting and drawing recently although I’m now feeling the stirrings and I’ve picked up the coloured pencils again.  I have a painting that needs finishing. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and planning how to tackle the next set of challenges with it, but I have time coming up so I’ll get back to it soon.  Doing portraits for some people is easy but I have to work at it.  That’s part of the fun of it.  I’m also working up to doing some sculpture in wood.  I need to get my tools sharpened and that in itself is a challenge.  I need to get lessons on how to do that quickly and easily.

All this to say I haven’t been spending a lot of time posting on this blog.  I have been thinking about what I want to do with the blog, but I have lots of doubt whether or not any of this is worth anything.  It’s not as if I have nothing to say, it’s whether anyone is listening that is the issue and what difference it might make one way or another.  It may be that I use this blog to work out issues I’m thinking about with regard to politics, social action, evolution, economics and such things just for the challenge of getting my ideas straight. It might just help stave off dementia as I get older.  At least that’s what I want to believe.

The Future of Drone Attacks: Automated Killing – FORA.tv

The Future of Drone Attacks: Automated Killing – FORA.tv.

One of my former students, Karina Sangha did a Master’s dissertation on Drones.  I attended a very informative discussion of drones and the ethical considerations of using drones for war and policing she presented recently at North Island College.  This video presents a hint of what the issues are.

Gwynne Dyer – A review of a recent talk: a lot right, some not so much.

Gwynne Dyer – A review of a recent talk: a lot right, some not so much.

 

Gwynne Dyer (http://gwynnedyer.com/) spoke recently at North Island College as part of the Institute of War & Peace being taught over the spring term by three faculty members from the English and Humanities and Social Sciences Department.  This is the third time I’ve heard Dyer speak and on every occasion he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to go on for an hour and a half without notes or even the benefit of a power point presentation.  Astounding!  But he is a compelling speaker.  When I was still teaching sociology at the college I often used Dyer’s films in my classes, one on the experience of Marine basic training on Parris Island, South Carolina and another great one on the ‘tribe’ as an organizing social and political force.  Dyer is an intelligent reporter and critic on world affairs, especially those with military dimensions.

 

In his recent talk at the college he covered three areas of ‘current unrest’ in the world, the Middle East, the Ukraine and the South China Sea.  His analyses often seem counterintuitive as one listens to them yet strangely plausible at the same time.

 

With reference to the Middle East, Dyer argues that there has been no major war to disrupt the area for quite some time.  He goes over the power and potential of the major states in the area, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and Iraq, but also of Egypt, to win a war with Israel.  He concludes that all out war between Israel and any one of those Arab states is highly unlikely.  Of course, the tension always seems to be there and there have been the odd military excursions here and there and punishing attacks by the Israelis in Gaza in ‘retaliation’ for Palestinian attacks like the wave of bus bombings in Jerusalem a few years ago.  The West Bank is slowly being overrun with Jewish settlements.  So what would be a viable solution to the ‘crisis’ if one were a Palestinian?  Well, the two state solution seems plausible with Israel taking the bulk of the territory but with the Palestinians at least holding on to some territory over which they would have sovereignty.  A better solution, still, Dyer proposes, might be a one state solution where Israel would cover the whole area from the Egypt to Lebanon and everyone would become a citizen of one country, Israel, whether Jewish or Palestinian.  Because of the demographics of the situation, and if the Palestinians had the vote which would be their right as citizens of Israel, power could realistically devolve to the Palestinians in a reasonable period of time.  Apparently, this scenario is gaining ground as a possibility among Palestinians but the impediments to such a solution are not easily discounted.  Plausible…as they would say on Mythbusters, but probably a long shot.

 

Dyer’s comments about the Ukraine are less optimistic than are his thoughts on the Middle East.  He sees a lot of outright stupidity and bravado there but he is cautiously optimistic that war will be averted as long as Western countries keep their noses out of it but that the tension could very well devolve into something more serious than a skirmish.  Dyer is much more knowledgeable about the situation than I am.  I freely admit that I know very little about the politics of that area of the world, but I still feel there is something lacking in Dyer’s analysis, a feeling I get from my general knowledge of the global political economy over the past few centuries, particularly since the first serious wave of the spread of European capital to other parts of the world in the 15th Century. (let’s not quibble about the Roman empire).  Back to that later.

 

Dyer ended his talk with a note on the South China Sea where China and Viet Nam are now in a dispute about the ownership of some islands that coincidentally are on top of substantial oil reserves.  We know from the news that Chinese nationals are being attacked by Vietnamese in Hanoi and other cities causing thousands of Chinese to return in haste to China. Dyer also talked about longstanding disputes between Japan and Korea over islands (of course).  His main point in his talk about the South China disputes is that China is headed into a deep recession.  Its in need of a diversion so that its citizens are focused on an external ‘threat’ thus inflaming an always present but sometimes dormant nationalism.  For the Chinese leaders this is a much better outcome than having China’s workers brooding on the fact that their jobs have disappeared and having them get revolting over that. There’s already enough unrest in Chinese factories with workers demanding pay increases and better working conditions.  Don’t need any more of that!   I don’t believe I’ve misinterpreted Dyer in any of this but I’m open to be corrected if need be.  That said, I left Dyer’s talk last week a little dissatisfied.

 

Dyer, being a specialist in military and political history, can be forgiven for not integrating political economy into his analysis more completely.  In reference to some situation in the Ukraine that I can’t recall at the moment, although it may have had something to do with the sad state of productive capacity and outmoded means of production and competition from other jurisdictions, he made an offhanded remark that ‘well, that’s just business.’  Well, business, especially at the scale we’re concerned with here, is never just business.  When Dyer mentions that a coming recession in China is driving foreign policy he’s getting it, sort of, but not essentially.

 

I want to step back here for a moment and consider why there has been no major military battles in the last 70 years on this favourite planet of ours.  It could be argued, I suppose, that assured mutual destruction may have something to do with it.  Launching nuclear weapons is a no-win game and everybody knows it.  That doesn’t mean that some nut job in the Pentagon or the Kremlin hasn’t thought about it.  So far more rational heads have prevailed.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

 

I believe, however, that the main reason for the fact that bombs aren’t flying between major powers in the world today is much more about the fact that countries are not really the drivers of economic activity, multinational corporations are.  I know not everyone agrees with me on this, but from my reading of European history, the driver of the formation, configuration and constitution of countries (states) from as far back as the 14th Century is capital expansion.  In the Middle Ages the acquisition of land, often violently but mainly by treaty and intermarriage, was the way wealth and power were accumulated.  After all, it was the prospect of new territory that prompted Queen Isabella of Spain to bankroll Christopher Columbus on his little jaunt into the Atlantic Ocean.  Columbus himself didn’t care a hoot about territory. He was interested in ‘stuff’ he could bring back from India or wherever he landed to sell on the European market to make himself rich.  For his class of people, the bourgeoisie, commodities, not the conquest of land were the source of wealth.  That’s still the way it is today although today we’ve come to a time when the world is becoming highly integrated in economic terms.  Companies with head offices the whereabouts of which matter very little anymore, produce (or contract other local businesses to produce) goods in export processing zones all over the world.  They then move them to ‘consumer’ markets mostly in Europe and North America, but increasingly to every corner of the planet by just-in-time processes of distribution.  In whatever country a corporation has a head office (usually just because it first saw the light of day there) it’s likely to lobby hard and get the support of the national government to champion its interests even though those interests may clash with those of the citizens of said country.  The larger the corporation the less likely the national government is to ignore it.  And if, as with the petrochemical or auto industries, a number of corporations lobby hard through their non-profit lobbying societies like the Canadian Petroleum Producers Association, then the government takes the call no matter what time of the day or night.

 

In fact, with a few exceptions, the governments of our world are all too eager to serve corporate interests to the detriment of those of its own citizens.  A recent article in The New Republic suggests that a number of ‘American’[1] corporations are already whining about how economic sanctions against Russia would be sanctions against them because they do billions of dollars of business a year in Russia and have high hopes for Russia as an emerging market for US goods (some produced, no doubt, in China). There are Pepsi and Coca-Cola signs all over Moscow. (Vinnik 2014)  Now this has a critical impact on the likelihood of open interstate warfare, especially where nuclear weapons are concerned.  It’s really not about territorial expansion anymore, anyway.  It’s about control of commodity markets, including those for cheap labour power.  Particularly strange would be for the US to decide to attack China with bombs.  It’s true that if Walmart were a country it would be China’s 8th most important trading partner.  I can’t imagine Washington attacking Walmart’s factories in China!

 

In fact, in a perverse kind of weird way, I think that the fact that corporations, in looking for the cheapest sources of labour and raw materials, spread themselves all over the globe is a deterrent to all-out war between states.  Of course the fear of war is important because that justifies feeding billions of dollars into arms producing businesses.  But skirmishes here and there use up some of that arms production as do military exercises like patrolling the South China Sea, something the American Navy has done since 1945.  Still, an American government aiming to protect ‘its’ corporations is not likely to send in the troops when that would lead to dropping corporate profits.  Nowadays, war is not always good for business and its clearer now than ever that corporate interests come first in our world.  I hate to admit it, but corporate global expansion may be a strong deterrent to interstate warfare. (Vinnik 2014)

Works Cited

Vinnik, Danny. These U.S. Corporations Are Probably Scared of Sanctions on Russia. March 4, 2014. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116853/economic-sanctions-would-hurt-american-companies-russia.

 

 

 

 

[1] Corporations are considered legal individuals in the US and in Canada but it’s a stretch to think of them as ‘national’ when capital supercedes state in the way the world is organized these days according to Thorstein Veblen and other commentators for whom I have a great deal of respect.  Although the relationships are complicated, it’s more accurate to say that capital created the modern nation-state than the other way around.

How to turn a world lacking in enemies into the most threatening place in the universe – Le Monde diplomatique – English edition

How to turn a world lacking in enemies into the most threatening place in the universe – Le Monde diplomatique – English edition.

Tom Engelhardt has published an interesting analysis of America today and its leadership in this article.  Read this article, it’s well worth it.  However, Engelhardt is missing a crucial dimension in his analysis.  He argues that Americans are lead by people who create ‘enemies’ at every turn, not real ones, but made up ones all over the world, enemies incapable of doing the US much harm at all, if any.  He argues that external enemies can be useful and so they are.  They provide a way of maintaining domestic solidarity and compliance in the face of perceived external ‘enemies.’  Without these ‘enemies’ Americans may have the time and inclination to really think about what the real problems are with their country.  Engelhardt refers to the number of people who die every year in the US by suicide by gun (19,000), homicide (11,000) and automobile crashes (32,000 and rising again) as evidence that Americans have selective outrage when it comes to how people die.  More people die on American highways every year than are killed in all of its ‘wars.’  All of this is fine analysis but it leaves out one important issue. What is the real reason for the need for enemies?  That’s where Ernest Becker comes in.

Some social scientists may dispute the lack of empirical evidence in his work, but I fail to see their point.  No, Becker’s analysis of the role of ‘the enemy’ in his book Escape From Evil was not arrived at following lab experiments.  It was arrived at after careful historical and anthropological analysis of how and why we make war, why we kill and take joy in it, why we are so quick to follow a ‘leader’ who promises us prosperity.  Becker aims to show how our fear of death and yearning for immortality lead us to all kinds of very distasteful behaviour towards our fellow women and men.  According to Becker we perpetrate evil in our attempt to eliminate evil.

So, reading Engelhardt should be followed by a reading of Escape From Evil which will help to put his work into a more fundamental context.

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.