Roger Albert: Always a Sociologist?

So, I’m thinking of changing the name of my blog from Roger Albert: Always a Sociologist to Let’s See What Happens

The fact is that I’m off on all kinds of tangents all the time and I deal with art as well as politics and I comment on a lot of things not sociological. What do you think? Does it make sense? Any other blog names you might suggest? This is probably the shortest post I’ve ever sent out or will ever send out. Whatever. 

I’m out of control.

I’m working on a post about capitalism and democracy, a topic suggested to me by Jack Minard. It’s a great topic, but my post is growing beyond all bounds of reasonableness. I must be thinking  I’m writing a book or something. I’m up to +5000 words and I’m not done. Nowhere near done. So I’m not sure what to do now. I may just carry on with the post and finish it up as best I can. Problem is, for virtually every sentence I write, I’m left with the unsatisfying feeling that I’ve only scratched the surface of what needs to be said. So I may have to follow up this post with a number of others that deal with related issues such as nationalism (conservative and liberal versions), the ideology of internationalism, corporate supply chains and export processing zones, etc., always keeping in mind contemporary global events as they relate to the topics I just listed. 

What do you really know about corporate supply chains? Do you really believe that Canada trades with other countries? What does globalization mean to you? What do you think is the relationship between government and business? What do you think it should be? Why? 

Nestlé has 447 factories, operates in 189 countries, and employs around 339,000 people. It is one of the main shareholders of L’Oreal, the world’s largest cosmetics company. Nestlé is the largest food company in the world and is headquartered in Switzerland. Less than 5% of its labour force is in Switzerland. Is it a Swiss company? Of course it has to be headquartered somewhere, but what do you think about that? 

Oh, the questions! I have lots of them. I also have answers. Stay tuned for my epic blog post coming soon to a computer near you! 

So much to write about: death, sex, stupidity, ignorance and all of the above together! Oh, and political economy too.

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?

Stop with the Categorical Thinking Already!

Robert Sapolsky is a Stanford University neuroscientist. In this video he introduces a course he taught (7 years ago at least) on human behavioural biology to a freshman class. As he explains in this video, students don’t need any prerequisites for this course. They don’t need a science background. 

Although the course is called Introduction to Human Behavioural Biology, it’s about avoiding categorical thinking in science but also generally in life. 

Sapolsky is one of the most talented and entertaining lecturers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to and watching. I would have loved to have taken his course. It’s well worth watching this video in its entirety (57 minutes). The second video in the series is  1 hour and 37 minutes long, but again well worth the time to watch and re-watch. Aside from these YouTube videos Sapolsky was featured in a 2008 National Geographic video called Stress (available on YouTube) which I used in my classes. It compares olive baboons in Africa with stressed out British bureaucrats in Whitehall, London, the seat of the British civil service. 

If you want, you could watch the YouTube video now and after watching it continue reading below to see why I suggest you watch it. 

I’ve recently had to think about categorical thinking because of a comment made by a commentator to my blog who suggested, very innocently I’m sure, that it’s probable that older people get set in their ways. She wasn’t denigrating that outcome as she saw it suggesting that it’s likely natural (as I interpret her meaning). I had to think: is categorical thinking inevitable as we age and am I a ‘victim’ of categorical thinking? My answer to both questions is a categorical no! Categorical thinking is not inevitable and if there’s anything I have spent my whole career trying to avoid, it’s categorical thinking. 

At the moment I’m reading a (1999) book by Ellen Meiksins Wood called The Origin of Capitalism. Well, over the years I’ve read dozens of books on this topic from various perspectives within various disciplines. Every time I pick up a book, any book, I’m open to having my mind changed and my ideas modified. Otherwise, why read anything? In this case, Wood is presenting me with a viewpoint on the subject I haven’t seen before and I’m still wondering what to make of it. I keep shaking my head because her perspective is quite foreign to me. For one thing, she is focussed on the origins of capitalism. Capitalism is a word Marx never used. At best it refers to a political-economic system. When Marx discusses capital or the capitalist mode of production, he’s not referring to a system, but to a period in history. I have to re-read Wood to ensure that I understand her notions of capitalism and especially her contention that capitalism originated in English agrarian life. Equally strange is her use of the terms revolution and class. 

Reading Meiksins forces me to rethink categories. I will assess her perspective and incorporate it wholly or in part into my worldview or reject it based on the evidence. 

I just received another book in the mail today. It’s by R.D. Laing, one of favourite rogue psychiatrists. It was written in 1976, the year I entered grad school, and is entitled The Facts of Life.  After I’m done reading these books and watching more Robert Sapolsky on YouTube, something which always helps buoy my spirits, I’ll re-read Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Sapolsky is really high on this guy so I have to read it again in light of the video posted above. 

Please, enjoy Sapolsky. Find his other videos on YouTube. He’s a delight!

Bank of Canada’s Poloz might be spooked by an unnatural economy: Don Pittis – Business – CBC News

Many Canadians with high debt loads fear the potential impact of interest rate hikes. Given some strange factors in the economy, it’s difficult to predict when the next hike might come.

Source: Bank of Canada’s Poloz might be spooked by an unnatural economy: Don Pittis – Business – CBC News

This is a pretty bizarre story. Pettis reports that Stephen Poloz, the Bank of Canada chief, says his usual models for figuring out what’s going on in the Canadian economy aren’t doing the job anymore. The economy, he argues, is behaving strangely.

Well, I don’t think ‘the economy’ is behaving strangely at all. In fact there is no such thing as the self-contained ‘Canadian Economy’ any more that there is such a thing as exclusive Canadian weather. The problem Poloz is having is that his models have never worked and will not work in the future either. His models are based on the country, Canada, as the basic unit of analysis when in fact, global finance capital should be considered the basic unit of analysis.

Not all of them, but most countries are beholden to global finance capital. Veblen would call politicians and the likes of Stephen Poloz “Guardians of the Vested Interests”. There is very little left of national sovereignty. Harold Innis argued in the late 1940s that Canada only had sovereignty for about 6 months in 1926 when the British and American empires were almost equally influential north of the 49th parallel. Since then it’s been downhill.

More important, the shift to globally based production makes a mockery out of the notion of ‘Canadian’ manufacturing.  Corporations based in the West have transformed Chinese society (and many others in the so-called Third World)  by moving most of their productive capacity there. The Chinese have gotten jobs, certainly, but also killer pollution. We, in fact, have exported jobs and pollution. We should be proud of ourselves. Of course, it could be no other way and we, as ordinary citizens, are not to blame. It’s almost impossible to figure out what’s really going on out there but we get the odd hint now and again from the mainstream media, although they are focussed on scandal and misbehaviour like tax evasion rather than on the real story.

The course of history is pretty much fixed: globalization has been in the works for centuries and will end with the complete integration of the globe’s economic power. It’s getting to the point where national governments are becoming a major fetter to the process of the expansion of finance capital and will be soon in a position where they won’t even be able to pretend that they have any control over their own economic lives. Their currencies are objects of speculation with traders making billions guessing on which currency will go up relative to others. Their ‘trading’ relations are increasingly governed by international bodies like the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and other multinational agreements. One example of how silly the situation: when General Motors moves a  car from Brampton, Ontario to some place in Michigan, the economists call that international trade. Who’s leading who around by the nose here?

Of course Canada has stagnant wages and low inflation. There is a growing divide between labour’s productive capacity, including knowledge and training, and the needs of business and industry. Labour is not ready for the new global economy and, frankly, governments don’t give a shit because if corporations need cheap labour they know where to find it, and it won’t be in Canada. Jobs in Canada are increasingly precarious, often short term, without benefits and job security. There are a few people driving around in Mercedes’ and BMWs, but most people are sucking air driving their Toyotas they bought on credit over 7 years, and just hanging in there hoping things don’t change too radically, too quickly.

People are strung out on personal debt. Yet Poloz says the economy is doing just great. Poloz and his counterparts all over the world need new economic models, ones that are global is scope and focussed on capital accumulation and concentration if they want to understand anything about what’s going on. Statistics Canada, like all national statistical agencies, is seriously behind the times too, collecting national statistics. A long time ago Harold Innis told a gathering of his colleagues that it was about time that they (e.g., social scientists, economists, political economists, and historians as well as the statisticians at Stats Can) ceased allowing national governments to lead them around by the nose. I’m not holding my breath waiting for this to happen. There are some good international agencies collecting statistics, but unfortunately they have to rely on national agencies like Stats Canada. We need a real, global agency that can follow the bouncing buck wherever it leads.

So Poloz should go trick or treating. A big bag of Nestlé’s chocolates might tell him more about what’s going on than his outdated models of how the world works.

Of course, the situation is not as simple as I’ve laid it out here. The complexity of the global economy has got to challenge the best computer modelling software that exists.This is just a teaser. I haven’t even mentioned export processing zones. Fortunately, there are scholars out there trying to figure things out. Bill Carroll at UVic is one of them. He’s working on corporate supply chains. We need more Bill Carrolls. Enough for now.

 

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.

____________________________________________________________________________

[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.