Escape 26: It’s all about you and me. Yes, it’s personal, but the personal is the social.

Escape 26: It’s all about you and me.  Yes, it’s personal, but the personal is the social.

So, I’ve managed to stay on schedule and write a blog post every day for the last 25 days.  It’s been an exercise in discipline as much as anything.  Why have I done this?  Why have I done anything in my life?  Why have you?  I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and reading all the relevant material I could get my hands on.  A lot of my attention has been and still is on the concept of morality and what it means to me as an individual and to the various groups I ‘belong’ to.  In thinking about this, I like to use the metaphor of the dance.

Life for each of us is a dance, a dance between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, between ego and group, between me and you and all of us.  As an individual animal I need to eat, drink water, sleep, breathe air, shit and piss.  I could say that I also need to have sex, but that’s really quite optional.  Obviously for societies to survive some people need to have sex for the purpose of making babies, but not every member of a group needs to participate, as long as a ‘sufficient’ number do.  So, I have my needs and you have your needs.  Like sex, we have needs that involve other people.  Sex is a basic social act.  We need to cooperate to do it.  Most of us have a sex drive (Freud called it the libido), but it varies in intensity from person to person.  One thing is certain and that’s that we need the company of others.  We are a social species.  Of course, in a sense, all species are social, but we don’t all equally enjoy the company of others of our species.  In some species life is pretty much a solitary experience, individuals coming together for sex and for not much of anything else.  We humans are quite gregarious, by and large.  We like and need contact with others.  We know how devastating it can be when we don’t have meaningful human contact with others; we languish and die.  We also know that the most devilish of all punishments is solitary confinement.  We literally feed off of each other, as Kirby Farrell wrote so eloquently about in his blog post I reposted here today.  Yet, there’s a problem we have to deal with as individuals in our social relations.  In fact, as Norbert Elias argues, there is no such thing as a human individual, we are really interweavings and interdependencies.  We know nothing, are nothing outside of our groups.  Maybe after long years of effort we can learn to live by ‘our own devices’ but only because we take a whole lot of cultural baggage with us including material artifacts, things to do things with, tools for instance.

A hundred years ago, Thorstein Veblen teased classical economists for their view of us as “homogenous globules of desire” bouncing off of each other in the market as if we and society were two separate things.  We are not.  We are society.  That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t exist without us.  No.  The existence of societies is not dependent on any number of discreet individuals, but only on the existence of a ‘sufficient’ number of individuals.  ‘My’ society doesn’t stop functioning because I die.  It’s not dependent on me.  I, however, am dependent on it.  To use an analogy, on the one hand, if I were a drop of water in a river, I could easily be ‘extracted’ from it and the river would still flow.  If the river dries up, on the other hand, there can be no individual drops.  Becker struggled with precisely these issues.

As individuals we need to feel that we have value.  We need to feel that the space we take up on this planet is justified.  We need to feel important, to know that our lives have meaning.  We do not get this meaning from our bodies, by eating, shitting and pissing.  So we do things as individuals to convince ourselves of our importance.

Enter the dark side of social life:  Becker says that we now have a general theory of human evil.  It’s the result of “man’s hunger for righteous self-expansion and perpetuation.” (p. 135) Often we exercise our hunger for self-expansion at the expense of others.  We do this as siblings vying for our parent’s attention, by cutting another driver off in traffic, by shouting at a clerk, but we also do it in large groups through warfare, ‘ethnic cleansing, scapegoating and discrimination.  The more power we have the more we can incorporate others in our self-expansive strategies.  If I say to you ‘thanks for your time’ I’m tacitly acknowledging that I’m using you for my own purposes.  If I ask you for a coffee I’m asking you to take time out of your life to do something for me.  That may be a small thing, but small things add up so that sometimes we all but become slaves to others.  Human relations are not always ‘win, win.’  Corporations appropriate the labour of thousands of people.  As Becker writes:

We might say that there is a natural and built-in evil in social life because all interaction is mutual appropriation…social life seems at times life a science-fiction horror story, with everyone mutually gobbling each other like human spiders….My point in lingering on this is to show that we can have no psychology of evil unless we stress the driving personal motives behind man’s urge to heroic victory.

Of course, heroism is only possible within a society’s boundaries.  No one can be a hero in a vacuum.  Heroes can only be heroes if we collectively consider their actions heroic.  And, as we know, heroes can lead us all into an orgy of personal self-expansion.  That’s why we follow them with such devotion, but more so, we follow the group that creates the heroic possibility in the first place:

The individual gives himself to the group because of his desire to share in its immortality; we must say, even, that he is willing to die in order not to die. 

Of course: if our group is the source of life and if that group dies, then we die permanently, body and spirit.  So we have to defend our group with our lives.  Don’t forget the aphorism from the first chapter in EFE.  Evil is disease and death.  To defeat evil means to defeat anyone or anything that would contest the values, morality and power relations in the group.  “Men kill lavishly out of the sublime joy of heroic triumph over evil.  Voilà tout.” (p. 141)

I think it is time for social scientists to catch up with Hitler as a psychologist, and to realize that men will do anything for heroic belonging to a victorious cause if they are persuaded about the legitimacy of that cause.

­The ‘cause’ in the last sentence of the quote above could be a marriage, a friendship, a small business, art, a hockey tournament, saving whales, fighting Stephen Harper, building pipelines or opposing them.

Enough for now.

Escape 24: So, where do we go from here?

Escape 24:  So, where do we go from here?

At the end of Chapter 8 Becker has a short section on transference.  Freud wrote a book on transference, a phenomenon he observed in clinical practice where a patient would transfer to his doctor feelings she once had towards her parents.  Patients were quick to abandon their egos to the new power figure in their lives.  Others, among them Adler, Rank, Jung and Fromm extended Freud’s observations.  It’s because of them, Becker argues that “today we can say that transference is a reflex of the fatality of the human condition.  Transference to a powerful other takes care of the overwhelmingness of the universe.” (p.127).  Transference is an incredibly powerful impulse.  How is it that “men were so sheeplike when they functioned in groups – how they abandoned their egos to the leader, identified with his powers just as they did once before when as dependent children they yielded to their parents.” (p.127)

Years ago I taught courses on studying skills on the Knowledge Network.  As part of a course called Advanced Study Skills I talked about self-esteem and the need for self-esteem.  Well it seems that one of my esteemed colleagues, an administrator at the college he was, took exception to the idea of self-esteem.  He actually wrote a paper called Self-Esteem: The Scourge of the Twentieth Century.  In simple terms his argument is that any self-love detracts from the love of God.  A Christian, (but he could have subscribed to any number of immortality-ideologies and come up with the same conclusion) he argues in his paper must invest his whole being in his love of God.  The only being deserving of esteem is God.  I think that this is a classic example of extreme transference.  Of course, his logic is impeccable if you buy into his basic premise, which is that the body, the ego, the self, are the carriers of death and the only way to eternal life is by a complete abandonment to God, the ultimate symbol of the other side of life, the spiritual side, the one that doesn’t die.

Becker turns to transference in the last two chapters of EFE.  He wrote a whole chapter on transference in The Denial of Death.  In EFE his consideration is:  where do we go from here?  How can science deal with the fact that people are so willingly dominated by leaders who promise them health, prosperity and immortality, and the defeat of death?

My daughter, an evolutionary biologist, has always impressed me with her dedication to science and what Veblen called the search for truth.  For her and scientists generally, science does nothing but create models of how the world works.  Obviously ‘the world’ here refers to the physical world, the world amenable to our senses.  In practice, our senses can be extended by telescopes, microscopes and a myriad of other technologies.  We can ‘see’ into cells, DNA, galaxies and universes and create models for how they ‘work’.  We can also ‘see’ into the behaviour or plants and animals.  We can create models of how ‘things’ interact with each other and are interdependent.

I think that social scientists can also create models for how the world works.  It gets more complicated when ‘looking at people (to use a visual metaphor) because we are people too and we are involved in our social worlds.  It’s difficult to get enough detachment from the social world to study it ‘objectively.’  Becker advocated the scientific approach, but for him science had to contribute to making the world a better place.  Many social scientists make the same assumption.  So where do we go from here?  Well, in the next chapter Becker takes on social theory, particularly Freud and Marx.  As scientists, he argues that we have to “conceive of the possibility of a nondestructive yet victorious social system.” (p.126)  He writes (and I end on this):

One of the reasons social scientists have been slow in getting around to such designs has been the lack of an adequate and agreed general theory of human nature…right  now it is important to direct the reader to the quest for an agreed upon general theory of human nature to exactly what cripples the autonomy of the individual.

Well, maybe.

Escape 23: Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.

Escape 23: Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.

Since there is no secular way to resolve the primal mystery of life and death, all secular societies are lies…Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.  But no mortal, nor even a group of as many as 700 million clean revolutionary mortals, can keep such a promise…it is not within man’s means to triumph over evil and death.  For secular societies the thing is ridiculous…cultures are fundamentally and basically styles of heroic death denial. 

 If each historical society is in some ways a lie or a mystification, the study of society becomes the revelation of the lie…We can then ask empirically, it seems to me, what are the costs of such denials of death, because we know how these denials are structured into styles of life.  These costs can be tallied roughly in two ways: in terms of the tyranny practiced within the society, and in terms of the victimage practiced against aliens or ‘enemies’ outside it.

 Enough for today.  There is much I could disagree with Becker on this assessment of the role of the study of society and it begins with how Thorstein Veblen would coldly address the basic issue here and that is whether or not human life has intrinsic value. More importantly, would an assumption of intrinsic value form the basis of a valid social science.

Escape 21: C’mon, ya gotta make sacrifices to get ahead!

Escape 21: C’mon, ya gotta make sacrifices to get ahead!

On page 100 of EFE, Becker takes on The Mystery of Sacrifice.  I must admit that I learned a lot from Thorstein Veblen about recognizing assumptions and separating them out from research findings.  There’s no question that Becker makes loads of assumptions about value in his work.  Even his concept of evil is based on a view that he must have about non-evil or good.  For him, evil is often measured by the wonton destruction of human life and environmental destruction.  His assumption is that human life has intrinsic value and should not be destroyed in the name of an ideology of immortality.  The ‘should’ there is the key to understanding Becker’s moral assumption here.  In the world of animals, there is a great deal of killing and sometimes for the equivalent of an immortality project.  When a wandering male lion challenges the dominant male in a lion pride and kills him, he also kills the cubs so that the females will immediately go into heat and bear his cubs.  He instinctively knows that his genes are superior to his defeated foe’s and must therefore be the ones to take the pride into the future.  In fact, lions are much more predictable than humans in their behaviour, but not entirely.  We often feel that the world is driven by irrationality.  I mean how else explain the 1994 Rwandan massacre or what’s happening in Syria today.  However, according to Alex Comfort, as Becker points out, “the Freudian revolution in thought…revealed to us that the irrational had structure and so we could begin to understand it.” (p. 101)

For Becker and many others before him, such as Brown and Mumford, to whom he acknowledges an intellectual debt, sacrifice is a barter with the gods.  It’s an acknowledgment of the “pitiful finitude and powerlessness of man in the face of the mysterium trememdum of the universe, the immensity of what transcends him and negates his significance.” (p. 101)

Sacrifice, then is not an ‘irrational aberration,’ but a basic human reflex of truth, a correct expiation of natural guilt. 

 If one feels blocked, immobilized, guilty in a word, the solution is to expiate that guilt and reassert the flow of life by sacrificing life to the gods.  The gods give life, but they want the sacrifice of life in return or their gift giving may just dry up.  Gift giving must be reciprocal between the gods and us.  Now, of course, the expiation of our guilt is a social-political affair. People are quite willing to put up with much tyranny “because of its rewards not only to their stomachs but also to their souls.” (p. 101)  Becker writes:

They support tyranny by willingly marching off to war, not only because that reduces the frustration they feel at home toward authority, not only because it enables them to project their hatreds on the enemy, but also because it expiates their guilt.  How else explain the parents that we read about during each war who, when told about the tragic death if their son, have expressed regret that they had not more to give?  This is  the age-old essence of primitive gift giving; it chills us only by the nature of the sacrifice that they make so willingly and by the secondhand god to whom it is offered – the nation-state.  But it is not cynical or callous: in guilt one gives with a melting heart and choking tears because one is guilty, one is transcended by the unspeakable majesty and superlativeness of the natural and cultural world, against which one feels realistically humbled; by giving one draws oneself into that power and emerges one’s existence with it. 

 Of course, there may be choking tears and genuine gratitude to the gods for providing us with life, but there is celebration in sacrifice too.  A scapegoat, in the original meaning of the word was really a goat over which a ritual was performed so that all the tribe’s uncleanliness and weakness was transferred to the goat which was then killed or run off leaving the village clean.

Men spill blood because it makes their hearts glad and fills out their organisms with a sense of vital power; ceremoniously killing captives is a way of affirming power over life, and therefore over death. 

 We want to feel as though we have casual control over powerful forces.  Becker notes that Detroit car makers sell power and speed –“with their businessman’s realism about the truth of life –“ (p. 102) They knew that to sell cars they would be wasting their time talking about how great their cars were on gas.  It’s no coincidence that car ads on TV always show the manufacturer’s car with no other car in sight barreling down a highway, the driver with not a care in the world.  Perfect control.   The sacrifice in this case may be personal indebtedness but what is more important, having a sense of power driving a special car or living a prosaic, meek, invisible life with nothing obvious to show how great a person you are?   We feel guilt for driving an inferior vehicle or getting stuck in traffic unlike those fortunate, strong people in the car ads who apparently never experience traffic jams.

To bring this to an end for today, I think this quote from Becker is appropriate:

if you kill your enemy, your life is affirmed because it proves that the gods favor you.

 Does this analysis make any sense to you in trying to figure out what Harper and the conservatives are doing in Canada?  Harper is desperate to know that the gods of capital favour him.  He seems to be willing to sacrifice everything for that to happen.  Whatever it takes.

Escape 15: If your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die.

Escape 15: If your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die.

Half way through this exercise.  Becker is in my blood, it seems, not because of him as a person.  He is not my Christ.  What he does do for me is summarize and synthesize ideas that I slowly came to accept over 40 years of scholarship.  Actually by 1975 only a year after Becker’s death I was already ‘predisposed’ to accept his arguments having spent many hours reading the ethologists, Emile Durkheim, the Bible (2 versions), as many ethnographies as I could get my hands on, Thorstein Veblen, Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Will Durant and scores of others.  The idea of an immortality-project that became the centre of people’s lives and embodied all of their hopes for eternal life, I had already intuited but not articulated as such.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as I read Becker and his muses, Norman O. Brown and Otto Rank, I felt that I found my way home.  Of course, the irony hasn’t escaped me that this could very well be my own immortality-project, but I’m OK with that.  We as humans can’t exist alone, as individuals.  We need company, meaningful company and we gather life from it.  We get stronger with every association we make so it’s not surprising that we hunt down every ‘like’ we can get on Facebook.  We need others to share our project because there’s strength in numbers.  As Becker writes:

Each person nourishes his immortality in the ideology of self-perpetuation to which he gives his allegiance; this gives his life the only abiding significance it can have. No wonder men go into a rage over fine points of belief: if your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die.  Your immortality system has been shown to be fallible, your life fallible.  History, then, can be seen as a succession of ideologies that console for death. 

 In this sense all cultures are sacred.  Becker does not subscribe to the common idea that cultures contain sacred and profane elements.  For him, all culture is sacred because it promises victory over death and disease.  So, now we get to the critical point:  it’s the group and the group alone that confers immortality.  There is no immortality outside of the group’s promise of it.  Furthermore, the power of the group can only be released with the proper ritual executed to perfection.  The group can demand from us countless practices, ideas, behaviours, scarifications, tattoos, lip plugs, genuflections, tips-of-the-hat, and what have you because in the end these things will get us immortality.  Not doing them or not doing them properly voids the contract and we die.

Unlike Freud, Rand argued that all taboos, morals, customs, and laws represent a self-limitation of man so that he could transcend his condition, get more life by denying life.  As he paradoxically put it, men seek to preserve their immortality rather than their lives.

 That’s all for today.  This is a short one but I’ve been at this keyboard for many hours today and I’ve had enough.  Tomorrow is a new day and a new post.

It’s about time I publish a new post!

Not much action on this blog lately! Truth of the matter is that I got very ill early in March and stayed that way for most of the month. Nasty flu. Then I confess that I’ve had outrage overload for a bit and find myself uninspired to write. So, what I’ve decided to do is leave current affairs alone for a while. I’ve got over 50 posts on current affairs and I want to give that interest of mine a break. [We’ll see how long that lasts!] Instead, in this blog, I want to address some issues around evolution, particularly the notion of evolution as it applies to social institutions. As Harold Innis (1894-1952), the economic historian and political economist who spent most of his career at the University of Toronto after getting a PhD from the University of Chicago, was quick to point out, following many others including Thorstein Veblen, that empires come and go. There is no example to the contrary. Every empire in the history of our species on this planet is either deceased or moribund. Go back as far as you like. Empires don’t last forever, So the question is not whether or not an empire – say, the U.S.-centered finance corporate empire – will survive, the question is how will it die? How did the Roman Empire wane and die, for instance? Or the British Empire? Are there patterns in these events or processes? Indeed there are. Imperial overreach is a concept used to try to explain why empires fail. There are different versions of it (http://www.mmisi.org/ma/32_03/lankevich.pdf) as these two reviews of Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 make clear. But for me, it’s fairly straightforward, say in the case of Rome. Here’s how it works.

An empire is born in the ruins of previous failed and exhausted quasi-states. Said empire begins to grow slowly by conquest. In that it faces sometimes strong external opposition but also domestic strain because the more military conquest is the favoured instrument of international relations, a ‘thinning’ of the young males in the population is inevitable. As well, there is the stress of volatile consumer markets caused by military conquest. But wait! The empire grows stronger. Conquest brings wealth and new recruits. Military success fuels more military activity and the armies get spread farther away from home. In order to maintain conquered lands, military leaders from the Empire’s armies become governors and bureaucrats of far-flung provinces. There aren’t enough Romans to keep this machine in play so one strategy is to free trusted slaves or not enslave some of the opponents of the Empire, the really nasty ones (warlords, really) in what we now know as France, Germany, and Britain, negotiating with them instead entry into the Empire’s sphere of trading activity while allowing them to maintain land holdings of their own. Once this practice becomes commonplace, there is an internal threat to the Empire and that is the erosion of slavery, the real economic base of the Roman Empire. Rome grew too widespread geographically to control all of its subject peoples from Rome. Communications strategies just can’t keep up with the logistical and military demands of maintaining an empire like Rome, keeping enemies at bay and conquering new territories. That’s imperial overreach. The American Empire won’t fail for the same reasons because essentially there is no ‘American’ Empire.

The prevailing empire in the world today is not based in any country or nation state and it’s not geopolitical. It’s financial. As Thorstein Veblen was keen to point out, states are creatures of higher order institutions like private property and class power. Capital rules. In our times (for the last 700 years or so) merchant capital slowly gained in power at the beginning of the feudal period and held on to power pretty well into the early 19th century in Europe. It was replaced as the dominant form of capital by industrial capital which itself slowly gave way to finance capital in the second half of the 20th century. This is an evolutionary process. Marx sees the driver of this as the process by which capital replaces labour in production. Of course this is too simple a presentation of a very complex process, but essentially, that’s it. Of course all capital is a product of human labour, but capital has had a smaller and waning use for labour in the productive process as automation, Fordism and technology become prevalent. The price of labour-power varies in different parts of the world and for different occupations, but there is a long-term tendency for the value of labour to fall everywhere.

My point is that countries are not in charge, nor are politicians. Capital is and has been for some time. For centuries it’s been in a struggle with labour, the only reason capital exists, to gain a larger part of the value produced by human labour. For centuries now, capitalists have tried and largely succeeded in reducing the value of labour with the help of the state. In the US now we have the spectacle of corporate business leaders and politicians openly sharing the same bed, seemingly without any guilt or shame whatsoever. And we have the pathetic spectacle of vast numbers of people completely ignorant of how they are being manipulated by the state and its communications corporations blithely going about their lives in the belief that the American (and in my case, Canadian) government acts on their behalf. Flags fly everywhere. Patriotism is a powerful force. However, it’s not powerful enough to counter the despair and angst that will drive many marginalized and disempowered people from turning on each other and others in a desperate search for meaning in their lives in the absence of a good, well-paying job and a sense of social security.

The end of the finance capitalist empire will come only when it has reached and dominated every nook and cranny on the planet and when it has exhausted itself in trying to eliminate labour. Finance capital is well on its way to dominating the entire planet. Countries are still based on land and borders and are thus restricted in their activities. Corporations have few restrictions now and want even fewer in the future. Countries and their citizens don’t stand a chance against finance capital because they operate within an old paradigm. That paradigm is based on the false assumption that countries have economies, trade with one another and are the basic global unit of analysis. Yes, countries can still go to war with one another, but the more finance capital and production infiltrate every corner of the planet it makes less and less sense to bomb the hell out of your own factories in the target countries because chances are that where you’ve located them to take advantage of low wage costs. Global war is a thing of the past as global production drives us and our labour-power into a global market. That doesn’t mean that threats of war and local military operations aren’t useful to reduce domestic dissent by targeting a foreign enemy. We’ve experienced over the last hundred years or so the consolidation of states into larger and larger units. The European Union is an example of this type of consolidation but so are the plethora of free trade agreements that are part of the geopolitical map these days. And why this expansion? To help in the free flow of capital and labour. Globalization is foremost a process of freeing up capital to move as it sees fit unencumbered by elected parliaments and other political institutions. It’s also about the control of labour by the free movement of production. If a ‘Canadian’ forestry company moves one of its sawmills to the Philippines to take advantage of cheap labour there, it’s effectively controlling labour in Canada.

After decades of study and observation of geopolitics and capitalist production I can’t help but conclude that the future will be fraught with uncertainty as governments give up power to finance capitalists and we are left with no democratic way of deciding anything about our lives. Politicians have sold us out for a pittance and now we’re increasingly at the mercy of the big banks and business corporations that are psychopathic by their very nature, unrestricted in their expressed need to pollute the planet at will, dominate our lives with pharmaceuticals aimed a lot less at making us healthy than to making corporate profits, and privatizing all public lands and services. Profits rule. Who gives a shit if they serve to help us or kills us.
Marx predicted that the end of the capitalist mode of production will come when labour has been largely replaced by capital in human production. Machines don’t buy commodities so by eliminating workers and replacing them with machines, the capitalist class is eliminating itself. What’s the fate of countries like the US and Canada? Well, before it gets better it will get much worse. There is bound to be class war in the US and all over the world, it’s just a matter of time. Throw enough people out of work and out of their homes, make cities impossible to live in and see what happens. We haven’t suffered enough yet to push us into precipitating a revolution, but we’re headed in that direction. What can stop the momentum?

The new globalized assault on labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armageddon, Capitalist version.

We have a hugely inflated sense of our own self-importance in our part of the world, but people everywhere probably suffer from the same ailment to some degree.  It may derive from the Christian notion that ‘man’ is made in the image of god.  Now that’s pretty impressive.  So, as God-like beings, we have reason to be smug, I suppose.  It’s not a moral failing on our part, or poor cognition or the inability to make the right choices that account for us being so self-centered and unable to play nicely in the sandbox with others.  It’s rather the need for us, as individuals in a capitalist society, to enter into contracts of all kinds as free and equal agents engaged in markets of all kinds. But it’s a massive illusion.  It’s a con, actually.  We are not independent and free agents just waiting to enter into contracts designed to maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain.  There is no more telling an analysis of this than Thorstein Veblen’s The Limitations of Marginal Utility. (www.elegant-technology.com/resource/MARG_UT.PDF) Veblen wrote this article in 1909, but he was spot on, in my estimation and still relevant a hundred years later.  He identifies the ‘hedonistic calculus’ as being the core assumption of classical economics.  This is simply the idea that as humans we are “homogenous globules of desire” always trying to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  Our decision-making is always based on this ahistorical, non-contextual cognitive platform.  That’s why classical economics can never be an evolutionary science.  Its basic assumptions are just plain wrong and limited just as anatomy and physiology are inadequate in biology, but they do serve the ideological needs of capital accumulation.  Still, it’s reasonable to ask the question: if we have been ‘fooled’ for centuries into thinking that the way life in ‘capitalist’ society is natural, then will it ever be possible to align the reality of capital accumulation and the eventual reduction of the labour component of production with how we think about our lives as we live them in daily life?  Will we ever understand the real role we play in history? 

 

After all, it seems as though we are completely and unequivocally active and individual agents and responsible (as adults) for our actions.  We are told that every day of our lives in every way possible.  But, like I said, it’s a con.  We are led to believe that our lives are based on our citizenship in a free country, that we are free, willing, and even required to make our own decisions as rational, thinking beings.  They are anything but that.  The shape, nature, scale, extent, import and value of our decisions are pre-ordained, decided for us by capital accumulation and it’s army of ideologues and marketing persuaders and political mercenaries and flack-catchers (Tom Wolfe’s term).  Free will is a joke.  We are free, alright.  Free to buy products and services that are aimed not at our wellbeing but at generating as much corporate profit as possible.  Wouldn’t General Motors be happy if after all the wonderful cars that are produced in their wonderful factories all over the world were driven out of the factory, taken to dealers, bought by a bunch of drunks and promptly driven into the nearest power pole?  Oh yes, they would be.  And that would be good for the GDP too.  Does that make sense to you?  It doesn’t to me, but it’s true. 

 

Furthermore, we are led to believe that our political ‘leaders’ are really in charge of things.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Just as soon as Ferdinand and Isabel got into bed with Christopher Columbus the jig has been up.  The politicians are not in charge.  They are hired guns, mercenaries, paid for by their invisible corporate powers, and they are kept on a short leash.  A commercial fisherman I once knew who, after I challenged him to explain to me what he would do when the last fish in the ocean had been captured, said: “I want to be the guy to catch that last fish!  Then I’ll do something else,” is a model for the current corporate ethic.  That attitude, underpinning all corporate decision-making will take us on a final ride for our lives.  After making the world unlivable by their insatiable drive for profit at all costs, we will be as one… after what the Christians call the apocalypse.  But it won’t be the Christian version.  It will be the ‘secular’ version.  Those people who remain after the end of the capitalist mode of production will have to rebuild the world from scratch.  Who knows what that might look like.  Who in ancient Rome would have predicted the rise of the internet?  But mark my words, we’re on a ride to the end of this madness.  Marx believed it would end with us all unemployed (not out of work, just not at work for a salary or wages), equal on that basis, supported in large part by automated production.  But more on that later.

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.