Now is the Time!

We live our lives as socially self-conscious subjects, experiencing the world from our unique interiority.  It is this interiority that makes life both valuable and our own.  The essential difference between a human being and a robot is that while the robot can perform certain forms of movement and work, it does not know or care about what it is doing.

At the same time, our lives, experienced and valued subjectively, are caught up in complex webs of external objective  forces and dynamics that can undermine us even though we in no sense “deserve”  to be undermined.  Economic and technological change can destroy historically established forms of life and the subjectively valued lives that were dependent upon them.  People can thus exist “out of time”  with goals and skills valued in an earlier era but now obsolete.  But the obsolescence of skills does not kill the person, and those who are “out of time”  are damaged by the changes they had no say in approving.   Much of the manufacturing segment of the North American working class finds itself in this position today– alive, but no social demand for its skills.

Change in the objective circumstances of life that undermines demand for a certain from of labour does not negate the value of the people who formerly did that labour.   While this point might be acknowledged as an abstract moral principle, at the level of social organization those who find their former occupations eliminated by technological development or relocation to markets in which labor is cheaper are actively devalued.  They are lectured and hectored to get with the times, re-train, re-skill, re-invent; they are forced into precarious labour or service (servant)  industries without unions or bargaining power to dignify the work. Entire communities and working class cultures are gutted and left swamps of anger and addiction.

The simultaneous collapse of working class living standards and fighting organizations ignites anger and anger seeks immediately release.  Demagogic politicians have long used this anger to pole-vault to power.   Donald Trump is but the latest in a long-line of populist American politicians who have mixed legitimate white working class anger with the toxic  racism never far from the surface in America to create political momentum.  While his racism needs to be condemned roundly and repeatedly, it is also essential to acknowledge the causes of the real and legitimate anger of working class people.  I think a recent essay by McMurtry over-estimates Trump’s commitment to curtailing the power of money-capital and armed violence as the default policy of the United States, but his essay does lay bear those elements of Trump’s platform that (at least rhetorically) challenge the forces that have undermined working class living standards in the US.

Critics of Trump have not consistently acknowledged this legitimacy, tending to treat his supporters as little more than a racist mob.   While there have been awful displays of racist violence, the deeper issue is that Trump is giving voice (cynically, I would argue) to real and legitimate frustrations of millions of working Americans whose lives are being actively dis-valued by the loss of manufacturing industries.  Cut off from a past that is gone and shut out of a capital and not labour intensive digital future, without fighting unions or a working class party to constructively channel their frustrations, millions of white workers are looking to Trump to restore dignity to their lives and security to their livelihoods.   If there is such a thing as class-interest– and the capital-friendly policies pursued by governments everywhere prove that there is– then I predict Trump, should he be elected, will prove a disappointment.

At the same time, the political mobilization of working class anger should not be regarded as a bad thing– but it needs to be re-directed, away from nativist and racist anger against Chinese and Mexican workers and towards the global ruling class-  whose interest in accumulating ever more money-value is the reason for lack of investment in life-valuable work– and the system-dynamics of capitalism-  which unhinge objective social forces from the subjective good of individual lives.  There should be common cause between the white working class, youth, energized by sanders talk of “political revolution,” and the women and African Americans mobilized by the Clinton campaign.

While the particular experiences of white manufacturing workers, university students, and the sexually and racially oppressed are distinct, the structural conditions that cause the oppression are the same.  The collapse of manufacturing industry, the skyrocketing debt and predominance of precarious  employment for youth, the intensifying attacks on women’s rights and black communities and the growing backlash against LGBTQ gains have different experiential contours, but they all flow from the same underlying system-drive:  turn the world into an instrument of the production and accumulation of money-value for appropriation by a largely white, male, straight ruling class and use politics as a means of distracting and dividing those harmed by this dynamic.  This dynamic generates all the social pressures that set people in conflict with one another:  where life-resources are not democratically controlled their will be competition over access to them and where there is competition, there is the potential for conflict.  Where there is the potential for conflict there is the potential for it to be exploited by those who benefit  from the current arrangement, as well as opportunities for normalizing and demonizing campaigns, surveillance and policing, and repressive strategies of mass incarceration.

My point is not to say that the concrete expression and experience of racism, sexism, homophobia etc, is everywhere the same.  Instances of hate-driven mass homicide such as that which just occurred in Orlando cannot be predicted in their singularity from any model of society.  What is predictable is that in social circumstances where  political power depends, ultimately, upon the control a small minority exercises over universally needed resources, everyone who is not in that majority is set against each other in competition for the resources that they need.  This competition generates all manner of possibilities for the construction of demonizing ideologies.  Internalization of the demonizing ideology creates feelings of collective strength against the perceived opponent (White Americans against Mexican workers,  white against black, etc.,) but in reality weakens the group in the fight against the real opponent– the institutions of money-capital.  That result is of much service to the ruling class, which typically does not even have to consciously stoke such conflicts (although it can).  Setting everyone in competition for life-resources generates the social pressures necessary to engender invidious hierarchies and demonizing ideologies.

Today’s predominant metaphor for understanding the multiplicity of experiences of oppression is “intersectionality.”  The metaphor has the merit of highlighting the specificity of the historical development of different forms of oppression.  Moreover, it highlights the complexity of identity:  it is composed of individuated experiences of these histories and is not an undifferentiated point of consciousness.  However, while intersectionality is useful for highlighting complexity and historical specificity, it has the demerit, I would argue, of failing to capture the internal unity of social identity.  Roads intersecting are externally related to one another:  the path of one does not shape the path of the other; they just happen to intersect at a given point.  Social identity, however, is internally unified in such a way that each element shapes the others to form a person who experiences the world, acts and is acted upon, as this specific person.  Of course, different contexts might call attention to one or other element of that identity (at work class might predominate and in a relationship one’s sexuality)  but the person one is is the unified totality of the elements, not a crossing point where externally related factors happen to meet.

Why is this significant?  Politically, it is significant because it emphasizes the need for an internally unified social and political movement directed against the underlying structural causes of all oppression, alienation, and exploitation, rather than  an externally related coalition of different particular groups.  The specificities of histories of oppression need not be submerged in an abstract unity in which one difference (class, in the Marxist tradition)  predominates.  We get around the problem of domination of the movement by one difference by working beneath them all to the common cause:  all forms of oppression alienation and exploitation are different forms of being deprived of that which a human life requires to realize its life-capacities in concretely individual,  socially valuable and valued, and meaningful ways.  Racial oppression denies access to life-resources on the grounds of race and sexism on grounds of sex and one is not reducible to the other.  But the general cause and experience of deprivation is the same.

By all means we should each tell our own stories and learn from one another.  But common cause– which is what real social change ultimately requires- means finding a way of translating those particular stories into universal values.  When we find that key we stop demonizing others who are, objectively speaking, on the same side.  We do not dismiss unemployed white workers as racists when they lash out at foreign workers, we engage them in a debate that shows the underlying common structure of problems all workers face.  So too for the black sexist or the female homophobe. We don’t moralize and lecture at them;  we work down to the common ground that has impaired all oppressed groups from expressing their human capacities in concretely individual ways.

In a recent New York Times essay Thomas Friedman has argued that the Republican Party is a lost cause that should be abandoned for a new center-Right party.  The Left in the United States should draw the same conclusion with regard to the Democrats (but drop the qualifier “center.”)  This new party needs to find the common ground linking those who have been “left behind”  by the economy to those who fear for their future (the young people mobilized by Saunders).  It also needs to link together the best of working class politics (solidarity across differences and the discipline of democratic centralism)  to the legitimate concerns underlying the practically and theoretically problematic identity politics that attracts the passions of the young.  It also needs to  draw upon the rich cultures of community-based constructive politics of radical feminist and African-American history.

Clearly, building a new party and a new movement is not a short term project and there is no substitute for actual political arguments between activists on the ground to build it.  Nevertheless, the threats posed by either a Clinton or a Trump presidency indicate that now is the time to break free from all cults of personality– Trump, Clinton, or Sanders—  to build a new unified left movement for change.


Readings: Carlo Fanelli: Megacity Malaise: Neoliberalism, Public Services, and Labour in Toronto

Carlo Fanelli, Megacity Malaise: Neoliberalism, Public Services, and Labour in Toronto, Fernwood Books, 2016.

Although the basic driver of capitalist society is easy enough to understand, its system-need to turn money-capital  into more money-capital manifests itself as a series of intersecting contradictions: political, economic, social, and cultural.  These contradictions affect different regions of the globe and different groups of people differently.  In Guangzhou, China, the destruction of the industrial working class of Southern Ontario and the US mid-West is experienced as the birth of an industrial working class, with all the pain and promise that process entailed in the West one hundred and fifty years ago.  In the world’s ever larger megacities, the loss of manufacturing has been off-set by the explosion of finance and cultural industries as the main drivers of capital accumulation. Cities too small to act as a magnet for finance capital and cultural industry monster-spectacle are left desperate and dependent.

The contradictions of twentieth and twenty-first  century capitalist urbanization provide the socio-economic frame for Carlo Fanelli’s political analysis of labour struggles against austerity in Toronto.  While a mid-sized city by global standards, Toronto is by far the dominant city of Canada, with a metropolitan population bigger than Montreal and Vancouver combined.  As the mass culture and financial centre of Canada, Toronto is a a global city which sees itself (and not incorrectly)  as a key competitor with New York and London.  In the contemporary world, inter-national capitalist competition increasingly plays out as competition between major cities.  Finance capitalists and the captains of the culture industries are the winners, peripheral cities and  workers across sectors are the losers.  Yet, as Faneli shows, despite being obviously the victims, workers, and especially unionized workers, are blamed as the cause of their own demise.

Fanelli is uniquely positioned to both explain the socio-economic context of labour struggles against austerity and critique the limitations of their existing forms.  As a working class child and adolescent growing up in Rexdale he learned first hand the range and the importance of the public services the city offered.  After having benefited from those services growing up, he later helped to provide them, working for many years for the City of Toronto in different capacities.  During his career he was also an an activist member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 79– the largest union of municipal workers in the country.   He is also a political economist with a gift– due to his not having forgotten his working class background– for bringing complex economic problems down to their real world implications for working people.  Although the book focuses on Toronto, the lessons he draws are of general significance to Canadian public sector workers.

The book is admirably concise, managing in 100 pages to provide a brief constitutional  history of the status of cities in Canada, the global socio-economic causes of neo-liberalism and the austerity agenda, the local contours of those causes as they have shaped the political agenda of Ontario and Toronto over the past twenty years, an ethnography of two pivotal CUPE strikes in Toronto, a critique of the political limitations of the CUPE Toronto leadership, an affirmation of the public sector as a counter-weight to capitalist market forces, and general ideas about how that counter-weight can be used as a platform for the development of renewed union radicalism and anti-capitalist mobilisation.  Despite the number of foci, the book reads as a unified whole.  Theoretical claims are empirically substantiated. There is no extraneous detail, but the reader wanting more fine-grained content is always pointed to the primary sources.  The book needs to be part of any conversation around the political re-birth of the union movement and the re-invention of the Canadian left.  In that regard it could usefully be read alongside of Alan Sear’s The Next New Left.

Fanelli begins with a cogent explanation of the causes of the austerity agenda in Toronto.  These causes are both general and specific.  The general cause is the global reign of neo-liberal orthodoxy, according to which unions and the public sector have undermined the competitive dynamism of capitalism and slowed economic growth. Hence the goal of neo-liberal policy has been to weaken unions and privatize public services.  The tactic is the same everywhere:  first tax cuts create a revenue crisis, which leads to service cuts, which are blamed on workers high salaries and secure pensions, which are used to demonize workers, eroding public support  for job security and living wages at the same time as it increases popular support for state-led attacks on public sector workers.  “This is a recurring feature of neo-liberal administration in which tax cuts are firs used to degrade the quality and breadth of the service provided, which governments then invoke as justification for “tightening spending.”  When this fails … this manipulative strategy is then used to justify privatization.”  (p. 41)   Fanelli explains the logic of manufactured crisis clearly, substantiates his analysis with concrete examples from Toronto, and avoids repeating at length the historical development of neo-liberalism already well-analysed in works like Harvey’s Neo-Liberalism:  A Brief History.

The specific cause of the austerity agenda is the  constitutional status of cities in Canada.  Fanelli weaves his way through the relevant constitutional arcana to explain the core problem:  According to the British North America Act (1867)  and the Constitution Act (1982), cities are the creatures of the provinces with very little room for independent fiscal maneuvering.   Overwhelmingly, cities rely  on property taxes to raise the revenue they need to pay for public services.   Property taxes, are, however, regressive:  if home value rise property taxes will rise, but there is no guarantee that wages will rise in lockstep with property taxes.  In booming real estate markets working people, whose wages have been suppressed over the last three decades, can find themselves with a growing tax bill–  and moved by the resentment higher taxes and more or less fixed incomes  to set out looking for scapegoats.(p.33)  Right-wing politicians are happy to point them in the direction of public sector workers grazing by the side of the road.

These general and specific causes have combined with a series of disastrous (for cities) provincial decisions, beginning with that of the hard-right government of Mike Harris (1995-2003) to download significant new costs to cities (public housing, social assistance …),  without any corresponding increase in their ability to borrow or otherwise raise revenue in new ways.  Although a right-wing ideologue of the most objectionable sort, Harris was simply mimicking what his supposedly progressive federal Liberal counterpart, Jean Chretien, through the agency of then-finance Minister Paul Martin, was doing to “solve” the deficit crisis:  download costs to the provinces.  Martin set in motion a vortex of downloading at the bottom of which is the political unit least able to fiscally cope– cities.  Since most of the services that people depend upon for the day to day quality of their lives are delivered and paid for at the municipal level, the overburdening of city budgets by these newly imposed costs was felt in a very real way, especially by the poorest and most vulnerable:  fewer services,  higher user fees, and more encouragement from politicians for them to take their anger out on the workers who deliver the services.

Toronto city governments from the reign of clown the first Mel “Bad Boy” Lastman to clown the second Rob “Real Bad Boy”  Ford have claimed that Toronto faces a spending crisis.  But professional audits have revealed that the city is and has been very well-managed from a spending perspective.(p.26) The real problem, as Fanelli demonstrates, is “a revenue crisis rooted in the constitutional constraints of municipal government and public policies of the neo-liberal era.”(p.3)  However, failure to recognize the truth of the political economic situation has led the public to support, to various degrees of intensity in different periods, the overall program of “competitive austerity” successive governments have recommended.  Fanelli refers to Greg Albo to explain competitive austerity as a set of policies which makes “labour markets more flexible, enhances managerial prerogatives, reduces government services that act as a drain on competition, shedding public assets and weakening labour laws and employment standards, aiming to turn the state into a series of internally competitive markets.” (p. 28)  The program of competitive austerity can only be realized through the defeat of organized labour, since the entire point of organized labour is to shield workers from the life-destructive effects that unregulated market forces generate by pushing down real wages.  If competitive pressure increases, then the power of unions must  proportionally decrease.  Hence we would expect a period of competitive austerity to be a period of class struggle in the form of public sector unions trying to preserve past gains against cost cutting municipal governments.  That is exactly what we find in Toronto.  Its CUPE locals (79 and 416) have been involved in work stoppages in 2000, 2002, 2009, and 2012.  The results, as Fanelli explains, have not been catastrophic for CUPE, but they have been defeats.

The most important contribution the book makes is its political analysis of these strikes and the lessons for the future development of the union movement.  Fanelli is fair (and not out of loyalty to his CUPE brothers and sisters).  The bargaining situation for all unions in the context of competitive austerity is extremely difficult.  Anyone who thinks sloganeering or sideline invocations of the need for militancy can overcome these objective barriers to success simply has not been involved in union politics for the past thirty years.  There are reasons why concessions have been made: the increased mobility of capital has put workers in competition with each other, internationally, nationally, provincially, and between cities.   While public services are not subject to relocation in the same way a car factory is, private sector dynamics, as Albo noted, have been replicated in the public sector, weakening unions’ bargaining strength.  At the same time, legislative changes (making the use of scabs easier, declaring more and more workers “essential” in order to strip them of their right to strike) have coalesced with competitive pressures to objectively weaken the labour movement.  The objective forces have subjective implications:  workers feel beaten down, targeted, worried about job security, and thus defensive.  Mobilizing militant action in this context is extremely difficult.

Difficult as it is, it is also necessary (if the competitive austerity agenda and, beyond that, capitalism itself are to be eventually overcome).  Fanelli acknowledges the challenges, but he also (hopefully, not naively) teases out the possibilities for union renewal in the unique role public sector work plays in a capitalist economy.  As Fanelli notes right at the outset, public sector work satisfies real human needs, and in so doing, improves the lives of those who access those services.  These needs run the gamut from basic physical needs like health care when sick to socio-cultural needs like engaging in organized play and education.   Thus, the first step in recreating a fighting, progressive, and democratic trade union movement is for public sector workers to connect the life-value of the services to the workers who provide those services:  “The public provision of goods and services, well-managed in a way that fosters sustainable development and social justice initiatives, and which is accountable to the community, significantly improves standards of living …  It is necessary to ensure that the public at large understands this through community engagement initiatives led by unions.” (p. 86).  “Sustainable development,”  “social justice”  and “accountability” all need to be more clearly defined, but the general point that Fanelli makes is sound: the public sector constitutes a counter-logic to the money to more money sequence of value that determines the capitalist economy.   Its principle is: satisfy human needs regardless of ability to pay because good human lives demand need-satisfaction.

Of course, this principle exists in tension with the driving force of money-capital accumulation in capitalism.  Fanelli acknowledges this fact:  “”Public services address real needs and result from previous rounds of class struggle, but they also address the need of the capitalist state to reproduce class society.”(p. 83).  Moreover, public sector workers can often also stand in relations of power over and against the communities they serve, often in racialized and sexist formations (welfare case workers vis-a-vis their clients, for example).  Overcoming the later contradiction requires building alliances and coalitions with communities, while the former requires defending, extending, and democratising public services; a reverse process of publicization against the privatizing agenda that has dominated over the past thirty years.  That campaign requires militancy, and militancy requires education and member mobilization. “Considering the concerted attacks against labour, should unions wish to regain their once prominent role in the pursuit of social justice and workplace democracy, they will need to take the risks of  organizing working class communities and fighting back … This requires a radicalized perspective that seeks to develop both alternative policies and an alternative politics rooted in class-oriented unionism.”(p. 61)  It should be added:  it will also take a new layer of younger leadership educated in the history of militant trade unionism while attentive to contemporary realities and open to and capable of inventing creative responses appropriate to the twenty-first century.   One worries (or I do anyway)  that the culture of expressive virtual individualism works against the emergence of such a leadership layer.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish and ahistorical to simply abandon the union movement as a potentially transformative movement while it still organizes millions of workers (and especially the public sector union movement, where union density is far higher than in the private sector and where the services the workers provide must be fixed in local space).  As long as there is a union movement, it needs spurs to reinvention such as Fanelli has written.  Still, arguments like Fanelli’s are always subject to the objection that despite their forward-looking rhetoric they are rear-guard actions whose conditions of historical possibility have passed.  The only sound response to the objection is practical success, for which the author cannot be held responsible, since success will require contributions from thousands of people acting politically over open-ended time-frames.

At the level of argument,  Fanelli’s set of reform principles:  coalition building, community engagement, internal democratization,  and member education steered by the goal of preserving public services and extending the logic of public provision are sound and what one would expect.  There is one blind spot that is worth mentioning.  In Fanelli’s version of cities, what makes them great is the range and depth of public services available to citizens.  I agree without reservation, but would venture to add that the cultural and intellectual dynamism of great cities needs to be included.  Fanelli is largely silent on the cultural wealth of Toronto:  its bands, performances, public talks; its eccentrics, artists, and folk heroes, its neighbourhoods, galleries, universities, clubs, restaurants, and book stores; its magnificent cultural, intellectual, and sexual diversity.  Unlike David Harvey (whom he cites)  Fanelli’s version of the “right to the city”  is largely confined to affordable housing,transit and other (vitally, vitally important, no doubt)  basic human needs.(p.78).

But human beings are creatures of mind and imagination too.  The right to the city must also include the right to access the extraordinary cultural (and intercultural) dynamism of the world’s great cities.  Often times the barriers here are not financial, but cultural:  the snobbery and closed-mindedness of cultural elites who often (although not always) function as gate-keepers to these institutions and events.  Working people are often made to feel as thought they lack the “symbolic capital”  to borrow a phrase from Bourdieu, to take advantage of cutting-edge art and thought that cities incubate and nurture.  And that is wrong, for art and thought are not the preserve of financial and cultural elites but should be open to everyone.  The left needs to extend its historical commitment to egalitarianism beyond access to the requisites of life to the requisites of a liberated mind and imagination.

The modern city is certainly a creature of capital, but it is also a creature of human labour and human imagination.  Great cities have long been attractors of genius and eccentricity and spaces where difference can be protected from bigotry by force of concentrated numbers of the like-minded and tolerant and experimental.  Cities are contradictory spaces just because they concentrate in a relatively small geographical space the most inventive and forward-looking human beings with the most brutal indignities that capital can inflict.  The struggle for the city must be a struggle to overcome the structural causes of those dignities, but also a struggle to open the horizons of working people to the creative and intellectual wealth that already exists.  Beyond opening up access to what already exists, a re-vivified struggle for the right to the city must also be a struggle to widen and deepen that wealth by enabling people to live as subjects of their own activity and not objects of money-capital.  Fanelli has written a short but important intervention into the debate over the shapes that that struggle should to take.



Against “Innovation”

Is there a more ubiquitous category mistake (Gilbert Ryle) today than that involved in the use of the term “innovation?”  Categories are fundamental concepts which do not name things but instead different modes of understanding reality.  “Tree” names a type of plant.  There is an actual tree in my backyard, and the  seed it produces is a potential tree (if it takes root it will become an actual tree).  If we confused the potential tree with the actual tree, we would be making a category mistake.  We might understand what a tree is, but not the difference between potentiality and actuality.

In the case of “innovation”  the term is merely descriptive but is constantly used in a normative sense which makes no sense, unless further qualified.   Descriptive terms simply assert the way things are or name the things of the world.  Take for example the statement:  “The internal combustion engine was an innovation in transportation.”  The term “innovation” refers to a novel feature of reality, typically created by human thought and action.  As a descriptive term it says nothing about whether the innovation was good or bad, but only that at time t the innovation did not exist and at time t1 it did.  However, if we look carefully at the way in which the term is used in the media, by government officials, and business leaders, it becomes clear that when they use the term normative content is smuggled in:  the change in question is assumed good just because it is a change, when in fact the goodness or badness is in fact still in question.  The normative content is illegitimate because change is not necessarily good just because it introduces novelty.  A moment’s reflection makes it clear that the new and the good are conceptually and ontologically distinct (that x is new does not entail that x is good).  Hence to argue as if everything that is “innovative”  is good, i.e., better than the thing it changes or replaces, is to commit a category mistake.

Let us take two obvious examples to illustrate the point before coming back to the real social implications of the confusion.   Plutonium is amongst the most toxic substances in the known universe.  One could imagine scientists devising an innovative method for vaporizing it and disseminating it throughout the entire atmosphere, thereby poisoning everything that breaths.  That would be an innovation, but it is hard to see it as in anyway good.  Perhaps one objects that the example is too hyperbolic in its negative implications.  Granted.  Let us take a more mundane example, the size of a smartphone.  Having run out of qualitatively new technical capacities for the time being, smartphone manufacturers have been reduced to touting merely quantitative alterations as “innovations”  worth opening your wallet to acquire.  But is a marginally bigger or smaller phone really better in some important way?  The answer depends upon information that the term “innovation” alone cannot capture.  We have to know what the device is for before we can decide whether the given innovation is good .  An innovation is good only to the extent, a)  it enables a thing to better accomplish its purpose, and b)  that purpose is itself essential to the health, well-being, and meaningful life-activity of human beings.

The problem should now be clear.  When a descriptive term is confused with a normative term, then its uncritical adoption commits people to accepting the merely different as good.  When we accept something as good we validate it as a goal to which we should aspire.  So, when politicians and business people talk about the need for innovation, they are asserting that whatever changes governments or businesses introduce that can be sold as innovative are good, and we should not only accept them, but think of ourselves as “change agents”  whose goal in life should be to “innovate” as well, in all spheres of life, just because contemporary socio-economic dynamics demand it.  However, without critical reflection on the purpose of the processes and things we aim to change, and especially on our own (human)  purposes and what sorts of social institutions support and what sorts undermine them, we can in no sense ensure that we are making things better just because we are making things different.  

Let us take a concrete example to better explain my concern.  In a recent series of articles in The Toronto Star, Don Tapscott argued that Ontario’s universities need to  innovate in order to stay relevant to a new generation of students:  “If there is one institution due for innovation, it’s the university. It’s time for a deep debate on how universities function in a networked society. The centuries-old model of learning still offered by many big universities doesn’t work any more, especially for students who have grown up digital.”   I will come back to the substantive claims he makes about teaching methods and students in a moment.  First, notice the category mistake.  Tapscott clearly means that universities cannot fulfill their function unless they change (innovate).  Innovation is identified with the better and stasis with the worse.  But before we can accept that equation we must know what universities are for, what it is they are actually doing, and where, in what they are actually doing, they are failing (and where succeeding) to fulfill the purposes they serve. There may indeed be changes that need to be made in some areas of university life and others may be perfectly fine.  But blanket statements of the form “universities need to innovate’  clearly confuse a mere change with “better fulfillment of the function,”  because “innovate” is being used in a normative sense to imply that change as such is good.

To better understand the specific and the general social problem involved with this confusion let us examine Tapscott’s argument in more detail.  He argues that universities fail to take advantage of the full possibilities that digital communication technologies provide for collaborative learning, that they remain wed to hierarchical pedagogical styles (especially the lecture), and that their insistence on testing the knowledge of students treated as abstract individuals is in tension with the collaborative learning today’s students have grown up with on social media.

On empirical grounds much of what Tapscott argues is simply false.  No area of university life (save buildings and administrative positions) has received as much funding as teaching and learning centres.  For the past decade North American universities have dedicated themselves to trying to understand better what makes for an effective learning environment, what best pedagogical practices are, how to assess effective teaching, and how to help professors value and improve their teaching capacities.  Moreover, there have been massive investments in technology (smartrooms, campus-wide WiFi, software platforms for student interaction…), on-line course delivery, digitization of libraries and archives, open source journals, and more overt collaboration between the campus and the community.  If anything is archaic, it is Tapscott’s understanding of teaching and learning in the twenty-first century university.

The more important question remains to be asked:  has any of this investment improved the teaching mission of the university, and is technological change (innovation)  identical (as Tapscott implies) to effective learning?  The answers here are “of course”  and “of course not.”  Tapscott complains that professors are still lecturing, some even (heaven forbid!)  reading notes, instead of taking advantage of technological possibilities for collaborative learning that better fit with students’ experience of interaction through social media.  The implied disjunct:  either “traditional” lectures or on-line collaboration is false.  The use of lectures for one purpose does not rule out the use of new media for others.  Beyond the fallacious false dichotomy is the absurd implication that human beings interacting in shared physical space (the lecture) reduces students to passivity while only virtual interaction is cyberspace counts as active learning.

Lectures– good lectures, in any case– are not one way transmissions of information to a passive audience.  To be effective they must be interactive.  For the interaction to be effective, however, students must develop an understanding not only the meanings of the ideas at issue, but the historical context of their emergence and the purposes to which they were put.  These are not just facts that can be gleaned from a book or website:  proper explanation requires expertise, and that is the reason the professor is there.  An effective lecture is a dialectic in the original sense:  a dialogue that develops through opposed perspectives on a shared subject matter:  the effective lecturer does not transmit information but explains so as to engage the interest and critical capacities of the students such that they become the main drivers of the subsequent development of the conversation.  The shared co-presence is essential:  the tension and challenge of face to face interaction is essential for learning (development of cognitive capacities to more comprehensive scope and not just information acquisition).

The point:  “old” techniques like lectures are not worse because they are old and new technologies like on-line networks are not better because they are new.  Good and bad, better and worse in education, as in all fundamentally important social practices and institutions, is determined by whether and to what extent the technique and the technology satisfy the human needs that bring people together in the institution in the first place.  It would be as contrary to the realization of essential human purposes to forbid old techniques that have proven effective for millennia as to ban the introduction of new technologies that open up new forms of satisfying the needs that the realization of the purposes presupposes.

In order to have a rational conversation about how best to satisfy human needs, it is necessary to avoid the category mistake of confusing the novel with the good.  The novel might be good, but it might also be bad, while an old practice or technique might be good and its elimination bad.  But the category mistake is no mere logical error.  Behind the conceptual confusion lies social and economic interest.  The supporters of innovations always have something to sell:  the innovation.  In order to cure the conceptual problem the self-interest behind the sales pitch needs to be exposed in all cases.

In Defence of Libraries

In its colloquial image the library is a place of quiet contemplation and withdrawal from the conflicts of the world.  In fact, since the burning of the library of Alexandria in 391 CE libraries have been at the centre of those conflicts.  The library seems to be a strange target for religious and balanced book zealots alike, but if we think through the principle on which the library is based, the (sometimes literal) political  firestorms in which they get caught up is not surprising.  Libraries are repositories of knowledge, testaments to the range of human thought and creativity, material proof that not everyone thinks the same way.  Hence they are always a danger to dogmatism, because within their walls opposed perspectives can be found. That is why the Christians of Alexandria burned the library: it contained “dangerous” pagan philosophy and literature.

Today there are no Christian mobs threatening to burn libraries (although groups still do get vexed by this or that book). Today the library is not so much in danger of being torched as axed by budget cuts. The most recent threat is in Newfoundland, which announced that nearly half (54) of the libraries in the province will be closed because of a one million dollar budget cut.  Presumably the Newfoundland government is not threatened by the content of the libraries’ collections, but the effect of the cut will be to deprive rural Newfoundlanders of access to the ideas and stories contained in those collections. And to save what? One million dollars!

Think of that sum and what the citizens of Newfoundland are getting for such a modest expenditure: 54(!)  libraries, for one million dollars. That strikes me as an incredibly productive investment in public education and edification.  Yet, might we not see this efficiency (great public benefit for minimal public expenditure) as the underlying reason that libraries are under threat:  they constitute objective proof that competitive markets are not always the most efficient means of distributing resources.  Their brilliant success as public institutions is proof positive that collective investment in accessible institutions can–contrary to neo-liberal dogma that rejects all public institutions as inefficient when compared with independent firms competing for monetary advantage– meet shared needs and enable life-capacities.

For  a very modest investment the public library returns vast stores of life-capital in the form of literacy, education, edification, and communication.  It is a maximally open institution: there is no tuition fee, you do not have to explain to anyone why you are there, they are at the forefront of the struggle against censorship; their entire raison d’etre is to make the world of ideas accessible to everyone.

The right-wing disdain for libraries has long roots.  In the nineteenth century, forerunners of today’s neo-liberals denounced public libraries as “socialist continuation schools.”  They were not, at least in the direct sense in which M.D. O’Brian intended when he denounced them as such.  (M.D. O’Brian, “Free Libraries, A Plea for Liberty, p. 415).  However, the principle of the public library is socialist:  collective contribution to an open institution through which individuals develop their understanding and interests through their own decisions:  from each according to his ability (paying through taxes), to each according to his needs (for education, edification, enjoyment, etc).  They are proof that this socialist principle works.  And that is why, from O’Brian to Rob and Doug Ford, critics of public institutions have always included libraries in their attacks.

But libraries are not only valuable because they demonstrate the economic rationality of publicly funded institutions open and accessible to each and all, they are also essential for scholarship.  Google seems magical, an anticipation of your thoughts, but it in fact it can narrow the scope of research in very pernicious ways. The search algorithm knows nothing about the subject it ‘searches’ for,  and there are all sorts of tricks to move websites higher up the search engine rankings.  Invariably, the Wikipedia entry for almost any serious subject is the first one that appears and people usually click on the first link, assuming it is the most authoritative.  But it is not:  it is only the site with the most hits.  Hence, a tool like Google can grossly limit the scope of information that people actually access.  As Jean Noel Jeannneney, director of France’s Bibliotheque Nationale argues, the main problem with Google as a research tool is that it operates according to the principle that “success breeds success, at the expense of newcomers, minorities, marginals.  Its a system that could seriously harm the balance and energy of world cultures unless other forces, eschewing market interests, intervene.” (Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge, p. 45).  In intellectual and cultural life quantity is not quality, the number of hits and links does not ensure the most penetrating insight or profound revelation (although it can translate into the most advertising revenue).

Compare this logic of sheer quantity to a professionally organized library.  The key to a great library is not only the size of the collection, but the contiguous organization of books by field and sub-field which permits, assuming a certain level of comprehensiveness to the collection, the immediate grasp of the history and the state of the art in the field.  To walk the stacks (rather than surf the web) is to be exposed to the (more or less)  full range of thinking in the field, and thus to encounter directly approaches that you might not have been aware of when you came in, but which claim your attention as you look for the book for which you were looking. In twenty years of being a professor who still spends time in libraries, I have never not encountered a book other than the one for which I was searching that I thought I would have to read at some point.   The physical presence of the unexpected is crucial to pushing scholarship to ever more comprehensive scope.

Of course, the library is not simply a collection of books anymore.  Sadly, it has grown to include the abominable “e-book,” but it has also expanded its role (and the work of librarians) from cataloguing and organizing a physical collection to helping people negotiate and think critically about information in cyberspace.  Hence, librarians can help to counter-act the uncritical use of tools like Google (which are of course useful, provided that they are understood and used effectively and treated like the screwdrivers they are and not the mind of God).  Moreover, libraries today are also one of the few places those without the financial resources to own home computers, pay for high speed internet, or afford a data plan for their phone can access the Internet.  Closing libraries- as with closing other public institutions–is thus another front in the war on the poor.

So once again we find the most glaring hypocrisy at work in our public discourse.  Politicians never cease singing peaens to the supreme importance of education at the same time as they defund or underfund or undermine it.   Which is, of course, madness, since the humanity of the human project lies not in the transmission of DNA (which is but a material condition) but in the critical appropriation, development, and transformation of the values and ideas that regulate our societies and which determine the extent to which the lives of each are meaningful and good.  If we lack access to alternatives, if we are unaware of historical differences, if we are cut off from the magnificence of human literary creativity, if we cannot connect with the wider world, then challenging oppressive conditions of social life is all the more difficult.  Attacks on libraries, whatever forms they take, are thus attacks on the ability of people to access the richness of the intellectual and artistic heritage of human beings as well as to find silences that call out for new voices.  This attack is thus directed against the future development of that heritage itself.  Those are the real stakes of budget cuts.

The Persistence of Misery

Fantasies of Classlessness

The justification of re-distribution through taxation is that by this means the wealthy contribute to the commonwealth of the nation.  It is a justification that presupposes that all citizens of a nation share a common interest in each other’s material well-being.  This assumption of a shared national interest has always been contradicted by the reality of class interest, which, in economic matters, typically trumps the ideology of shared citizenship.  That classes and class interest are still real and not just a problem of the past or a construct of Marxist argument is  proven once again by the revelations contained in the Panama Papers.  

While the revelations contained in these papers cost a few sitting politicians their jobs and occasioned promises for investigation and change, the key political truth that the papers revealed is that most of the practices that allow the wealthy to shield their income from national taxation by hiding it in tax havens are legal.  Those methods that are not strictly speaking legal are not pursued (typically) with the diligence one would expect if the law were really no respecter of persons.  It might not be a respecter of persons in their individuality, but it is certainly a respecter of class.  How could it be otherwise:  the poor do not write the law; they are its objects, not its subjects.

And When They Try to Become Subjects…

…they are demonized and attacked no matter what means of resistance and change they choose to employ.  The latest victim of the global right-wing reaction is Dilma Rousseff and the Brazilian Workers’ Party.   She is suffering from the same mobilization of anti-democratic forces that have largely undermined the Venezuelan experiments with new models of socialist development.

Anti-democratic?  Did I say anti-democratic?  How can massive street demonstrations against proven corruption and obvious economic crisis be anti-democratic?   The answer demands that we think through the value-implications of the term “democracy.”  By “value-implications”  I mean the goods that animate the struggle for democracy and the institutional requirements the realization of those goods entail.

We can start to get at these implications by looking historically at who has led the struggle for democracy.  In all cases, excluded groups have been central to the mobilizations against entrenched elites.  While ancient and modern conceptions of democracy are distinct, as are liberal, republican, and socialist conceptions, what they all have in common is a rejection of the principle that political power is the proper preserve of a noble class fit by their superior nature to rule.  In a democracy the shared interest is supposed to rule.  It is because there really is a shared interest in access to fundamental means of life and life-development that demands for democracy arise wherever these life-goods are denied by a ruling elite claiming the mandate of heaven or nature to rule.  Spartacus and the protesters of the Arab Spring were united by the rejection of the idea that it is ever just to prevent the majority (who do the necessary work of society) from accessing the means of life and life-development by excluding them from political and economic power.

If we look at the current mobilizations against Maduro and Rouseff, it is clear that many of the protesters are working class men and women, but they and their life-interests are not driving the movement.  While the specific history of state development in Latin and South America encourages corruption (for the case of Brazil, see Perry Anderson’s excellent article in this month’s London Review of Books) corruption is the surface justification but not the real driver of the mobilization.  The leaders of the reaction are the leaders who have been displaced from their historical positions of power by the “Bolivarian” Revolution in Venezuela and the Worker’s Party in Brazil.

The right-wing reaction has been made possible by the end of the boom in commodity prices.  It was this commodity boom that allowed the Venezuelan socialist party and the Brazilian Worker’s Party to fund real improvements in the lives of working and poor Venezuelans and Brazilians.  As prices collapsed, government income was reduced, an inflation crisis hit Venezuela, and austerity measures introduced in Brazil in an effort to placate the right wing.  But rather than placate them it has emboldened them to discredit the socialist parties as the cause of the economic crisis (when in fact of course the cause was the banking industry, centred in New York and London, not Brasilia or Caracas).

The real democratic movement was the mobilization of the social power of working people and the poor that Chavez and Lula were able to ride to victory (and, in the case of Chavez, mobilize to defeat a right-wing coup attempt).  If anyone has any doubts about the real social achievements of Chavez (vastly improved medical care in alliance with Cuban doctors, public housing,  the slow emergence of a parallel solidarity economy,  nationalization of key industries)  they should read Gregory Wilpert’s superb account of the first ten years of the Bolivarian Revolution (Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, Verso, 2007).  Wilpert is far from uncritical,  but puts paid to the slanderous misrepresentation of the Chavez government that is typical fare in even the best North American newspapers.

While the achievements (and limitations and problems) were real in both Venezuela and in Brazil, the decline in commodity prices has exposed the fatal flaw of the model pursued by both countries. In neither case were there system-wide efforts to change the structure of property ownership. As a consequence, economic power remained in the hands of the traditional ruling class.  So long as there was a lot of money flowing into the state, public infrastructure projects could be advanced and the lives of the poor improved. But as soon as that money dried up, the traditional elites struck back, asserting the power they never lost over the economy and exploiting the local effects of a global economy to discredit the alternative model (very tentatively)  explored by the left wing parties.

This leads us to what me might call a paradox of transition: if electoral parties of the left pursue a vigorous transition to socialism through wide-spread expropriation and socialization of property, they risk the coup d’etat and civil war their electoral alternative to armed revolution was supposed to avoid.  On the other hand, if they avoid civil war by being cautious, they leave preponderant power in the hands of the right wing and risk being undermined from within, as is currently happening.  There is no easy or obvious solution to this paradox.  To simply allow the achievements of the past decade to be undone by a right-wing re-conquest of power would be a defeat that would undermine the credibility of the South American left for the foreseeable future.  At the same time, with unfavourable global economic conditions, a return to policies that helped consolidate the legitimacy of the alternative will prove difficult if not impossible.

The Political Stakes

Whatever policy decisions are ultimately made, the crucial political task is to defend the democratic legitimacy of the Bolivarian Revolution and the PT.  That does not mean uncritical support for either; it means that democracy remains rooted, as it always has been, in the shared life-interests, and the struggle for democracy with those popular forces whose life-interests are most threatened by undemocratic forms of social organization.  Those undemocratic social forms are the very social forms the right-wing is trying to drag Brazil and Venezuela back to, and they are why people who support democracy in the Global North must avoid being hoodwinked by mainstream media reporting about the “democratic” opposition to authoritarian and corrupt socialist governments.  The structures that feed corruption (as Anderson shows)  long pre-dated Lula and the PT and the real authoritarianism is the authoritarianism of capital, which claims the sovereign right to rule over everyone and the shared life-interest, unaccountable to and unconcerned with real life-conditions on the ground.

Windsor Spaces: Atkinson Park

This essay will be the first in an occasional series of unambivalent notes of appreciation for some Windsor spaces that I like because they make me feel like I live in a city.  Moving from Toronto to Windsor more than a decade ago generated some ambivalent (to say the least) feelings.  Still, Windsor is now home, and I think, without being overly sentimental, that we should appreciate the place we call home (which does not preclude criticism of it, when necessary). Windsor’s governance and leadership often leave much to be desired.  For someone who thinks, as I do, that the living intensity and cultural and creative dynamism of cities are the greatest achievement of human social interaction, the suburban attitude that too often prevails in civic life here is lamentable.  Nevertheless, while Windsor is a small city, it is a city, and these essays will share with the readers my admiration for some spaces that I find intensely urban.  The guide books (are there guidebooks about Windsor?) won’t know about these spots, so if you ever visit, seek them out and see if your feelings coincide with my own.  First up:  Atkinson Park.

No one will mistake Atkinson for Central Park.  There was no Olmstedian moving of heaven and earth to shape it.  It is an ordinary one square block flat field stretching from Riverside to University between Rankin and Partington. It is simply laid out:  some picnic tables (far enough apart to conduct sheltered conversation, close enough to share if you prefer), to sit and listen to Detroit hum, to watch the ships go by and the river dance from slate grey to tropical turquoise, depending on the light or, in the dark, to see the water become a mirror, perfectly reflecting the lights of the bridge.  A little further in, a utilitarian change room, swings and monkey bars for kids, a wading and an adult pool, a soccer pitch, and skateboard park.  It is not a memorable work of landscape architecture.  But parks are not museum pieces, artifacts, they are spaces for gathering and play.

Gathering:  from around the world the soccer players come every spring, summer, and autumn afternoon that it is warm enough to play.  From Africa, from across the Middle East,  from Pakistan and India: whomever shows up seems to be included.  I have never counted, but on good days there are certainly more than eleven aside.  The game is played hard, but relations between the players seem friendly.  Sometimes, when I see foreign students by themselves walking past my house I can see the depth of their loneliness in the desperation with which they clutch their phones.  They are realizing that, ultimately, there is no substitute for shared presence.  They find that shared presence on the pitch, where no one is lonely and laughter, calling for the ball, sighing after a missed attempt on goal together sing an atonal symphony of languages and accented Englishes.  The joy of strangers together playing…

… playing and not talking into their devices the local boys (and sometimes girls, but mostly boys) risk a broken bone or a gashed knee (no helmets or knee pads for most) if they should spill.  They nevertheless dare the jumps and ramps to upend them, hopping in real pain when the trick fails but always laughing too after even the nastiest of crashes.  I admire their adolescent resilience from the soft safety of middle age rotundity.  The equipment is now densely graffitied: an action painting has emerged from the overlapping and crowding of the individual tags.  The Rothko-coloured store wall that frames the west side of the park is still relatively empty, an inviting blank canvas.  If not for this park I might forget that kids and teenagers laugh, tethered as they usually are, staring mindlessly into a screen with ears plugged in, cut off from the material world that nevertheless won’t go away.  But here phones are not, skateboards and BMX’s are, carrying bodies (not avatars) in happy sweating motion, recovering a long suppressed truth: where movement is, boredom is not.

On occasion the acrid fun of pot smoke wafts across the park, and sometimes passing through on my bike I have to brake quickly to avoid running over shards of broken glass.  But there is no moral panic from the neighbourhood-  minding your own business can be a virtue in a city, and it is not that difficult to stop, bend over, and pick up some glass.

On other occasions a different moral panic threatens:  The costs!  The costs!  Of what?  The pool, used mostly by lower income kids from the social housing units on Union Street and the elderly residents who still live in the West End in great numbers but whose existence is almost always forgotten and ignored by the rest of Windsor.  The vitriol directed against the meager costs of the meager pleasures of the poor and old tells one all one’s needs to know about this world.

Or rather, it does not, for there is the other side: the commitment the community has shown to protect the park from the budget choppers.  Atkinson’s most engaged protectors have helped to create and preserve a small zone of urban neighbourhood life at the edge of the mostly uninspiring sprawl that concludes the country at its southwestern border.

So it comes to pass…

In Fear and Loathing in Ottawa, I worried that Bill C-51 contained provisions that made it analogous to the self-undermining Law on Suspects from the French Revolution.  According to this law, the police could arrest anyone based only on the accusation of another citizen that he or she harboured anti-revolutionary sentiments.  The end– protecting the revolution against monarchical enemies– was good, but the means– arrest without solid evidence or trial– was certain (we can now see in retrospect) to help destroy the democratic politics necessary to ensure the revolution’s success.  Allowing arrest on mere suspicion could not but become a political tool to eliminate not only monarchical opponents, but also factions within the revolutionary camp who disagreed with the  leadership.  From being a tool justified in the name of democracy, the Law on Suspects contributed to the undoing of the revolution as a democratic mobilization of the majority of (poor) French citizens.

The analogy with Bill-C-51 can no longer be denied with news of the arrest of Kevin Omar Mohamed under the “fear of terrorism” provisions contained in Bill C-51.  Supporters of the bill will no doubt rejoin that extraordinary conditions (the ever-present threat of terrorist attack on civilians, a threat only reinforced by the Belgian attacks) justify extraordinary measures (i..e, measures which contradict the long-established principles of liberal-democratic right).  Moreover, they might say, the authorities cannot simply round up anyone they chose, but must have some real evidence to support their fear that an individual under suspicion really is about to commit a terrorist act.

Let us start with the last point first.  It assumes that there is some way to tell the difference between a person who is merely ‘talking’ about terrorism and a person who is on the verge of translating theory to practice.  However, a recent story in the New York Times reports that all psychological and social scientific attempts to date have failed to isolate any set of factors consistently correlated with terrorist activity.  If there is no consistent correlation, there is no known causal connection that determines what sorts of people become terrorists and what sorts do not.  If there is no knowledge of causal connection, there can be no prediction, and if there can be no prediction, there can be no justification of preventative arrest on the grounds that someone fits a profile or that there was a high probability– based only on what the suspect said-  that he or she was likely to commit an attack.

Worse, fixation on “fear” of terrorist attacks over-valorizes the role of increased surveillance and more totalitarian police activity in the prevention of terrorism.  This fixation displaces effort from what alone can, over the longer term, help prevent terrorist attacks:  critical reflection upon the life-destructive implications of American (and allied) foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa.  While there might not be any consistent psycho-social markers of terrorist behaviour, there is a consistent political marker, typically ignored by governments and the police, because it exposes Western complicity with the terrorist outrages they claim unique power to prevent:  opposition to the destruction of Muslim life by American and NATO armies and their local allies.  As Sheldon Richman points out in a recent essay, “telling the full story about the terrorists’ objectives might inadvertently prompt a fresh look – maybe even a reevaluation – of America’s atrocious foreign policy. The ruling elite and the military-industrial complex would not want that.”  So instead of self-scrutiny, self-criticism, and self-transformation, Western nations continue to portray themselves as the victims and persist with the same failed policies.

(As a corollary, it is worth pointing out that those who choose the terrorist path are also pursuing the path of murderous failure.  Each attack in the West only intensifies the violence of the Western response, ensuring only more suffering in the Middle East and North Africa.  Revenge cycles are irrational by definition, since they never achieve satisfaction each side desires.  Instead, each side provokes the other to more of the same life-destructive behaviour that motivates the desire in each for revenge on the other.  Desire seeks satisfaction, so rational behaviour in this dimension of human activity is activity likely to ensure the satisfaction of the motivating desire.  Revenge cycles ensure that the desire can never be satisfied.  Hence their structural irrationality).

However, it is not my main purpose here to examine the irrationality of revenge cycles or propose a fully worked out solution, but to respond to the counter-argument to my criticism of the “fear of terrorism” provisions of C-51.   The other plank of that counter-argument was that extra-ordinary measures are required in the wake of Paris and Brussels to disrupt terrorist plots before they result in attacks.  The problem with this argument is not only that this policy will not prevent some attacks from happening– as long as there is wide-spread revulsion with Western policy there will be attacks,– but that there is no specifiable limit to interference with freedom of thought and political expression if something as vague as “fear” of terrorism is allowed as cause for arrest and preventive detention.

Let us take two examples– hypothetical, but hardly hyperbolic.  A Muslim author writes a fictional account of a sleeper cell organizing an attack in a major Western city.  The narrative is crafted in a realist fashion to be as accurate as possible to the known training and communication methods of Islamic terrorist groups.  On reading it, a number of citizens become alarmed and start to worry that the novel is not a novel but coded instructions to a real sleeper cell.  can we not imagine this author being targeted for arrest and interrogation?

For the second example, let us consider a politically charged debate in a university classroom (let us say, in a political philosophy class), about the legitimacy of terrorist methods.  Free inquiry, as as well as a good faith attempt to understand terrorism in order to solve the problem, demands that all perspectives on a given problem be aired.   Is it unreasonable to imagine a group of students who object to the tenor of the debate and complain that the professor or another group of students are terrorist sympathizers, again sparking an inquiry and perhaps arrest?

Opponents might object that I am committing a slippery slope fallacy (drawing outlandish conclusions from limited or no evidence).  I am certainly exploring worst case scenarios– the loss of artistic and academic freedom if imagination and critical discussion are confused with advocacy, and advocacy confused with the actual commission of political crimes.  However, there is abundant evidence that unless restrained by clear legal limits, police authority will push beyond traditional liberal legal constraints on their surveillance activities.  Moreover, there is some evidence that even the threat of surveillance causes people to censor themselves.  A recent study by Elizabeth Stoycheff of Wayne State University has found that people are more and more reticent to express challenging political positions on Facebook for fear of attracting the attention of the police.

If we see liberal democratic rights as important victories on the road to a fully democratic and life-valuable society in which problems are solved by mutual understanding and not violent destruction of the opponent, then we must be loath to allow the ruling power, against whose interests the rights were initially secured, to weaken or undermine them.  When the ruling power is allowed to weaken democratic rights, people are never made better off.  If-  as defenders of emergency measures maintain, citizens can be made better off by having some of their democratic rights curtailed, then would they not be best off with no rights at all? Of course not.  But this totalitarian logic is implicit in the fear-mongering and unwillingness to change our own geo-political course that underlies wrong steps like Bill-C-51, whose most dangerous implications now appear to be coming to pass.

America on the Brink?

In 2006 I was attending the ReThinking Marxism conference at UMass Amherst where I heard a paper by Michael Roberto and Greg Meyerson.  In as richly detailed and engagingly presented paper as I have heard at an academic-political conference, they examined the political, economic, and cultural tensions in America as they had intensified since 9/11.  They concluded that American society was headed towards a crisis of such severity that a fascist solution could not be ruled out.  “In
” they argued, “the
fascist tendency in the United States.”  They were careful to avoid a superficial identification of fascism with the particular appearances it assumed in Italy and Germany in the 1920’s and 30’s.  They defined it in class terms as a unified ruling class response to a structural crisis of capitalism which could not be solved without the elimination of political pluralism and formally democratic institutions.  The fascist solution is a single party that gains mass support with the promise to save the nation from imminent catastrophe before revealing the ruling class interests that actually drive it as soon as it gains power.

Fascism in this sense need not rely on uniformed armed thugs like the SA in Germany or mass spectacle propaganda.  What is essential is  ruling class political unity in eliminating existing democratic avenues of working class and subaltern opposition.  “If 
 – the
 class.”  Their fear in 2006 was that the still-reverberating aftershocks of 9/11 would be exploited to produce consensus around the claim that any opposition to whatever a government of national unity commanded as necessary to “fight terrorism” would be labeled treasonous, and liquidated on that basis.

It was a superb paper, and, with the spectre of The Patriot Act looming over the conversation, not without empirical support.  Still, I left the room wondering whether their conclusion was rather too alarmist.  I was not convinced that the crisis (of the economy and of democratic legitimacy) was as severe as they argued.  As it turned out, despite the American financial sector leading the world into a recession from which it has still not recovered, Obama won the next American election.  The central pillar of their argument– that American fascism would come wrapped in bi-partisan embrace of the Stars and Stripes– seemed to collapse.  If anything, American politics in the last ten years has become more polarized, even as the economic crisis and the political crisis of Pax Americana has become more severe.  While prospects for a fascist movement in Roberto and Meyerson’s sense has retreated under deepening splits in the American ruling class, talk of fascism has escaped stuffy classroom at UMass and entered the mainstream of American political discourse.

The never-to-be-confused-with-a-Marxist-or-alarmist Roger Cohen has warned twice in the New York Times of parallels between Trump and Mussolini and Weimar Germany and contemporary America.  The parallels are superficial– at the level of rhetoric one the one hand and political stasis on the other and do not add up to conclusive proof that a Trump victory would lead to the destruction of liberal-democratic institutions and fascist rule.  On the other hand, that even a conservative like Cohen is sounding the alarm against Trump’s race baiting, Islamophobic, the-country-is-on-the-brink-and-only-I can-save-it rhetoric highlights the real danger of the forces that Trump has mobilized.

While Trump is obnoxious, megalomaniacal, has not shied away from encouraging thuggery, and has warned of riots if he is somehow denied the Republican nomination, he has not invented the deeper-seated ideological tropes he is relying upon to build his base.  Trump did not create Islamophobia and he is hardly the first American politician to race-bait his way to popularity (does anyone remember George Bush Sr. and Willy Horton)?  By the standards of official organized violence directed against Civil Rights protesters in the 1950’s and 1960’s (often unleashed by Democratic state governors) Trump’s campaign had been mild.  That is not to say that the forces that Trump is trying to cultivate are not dangerous.  They are.  But they are the same dangers unleashed by any xenophobic campaign:  the nation is reduced to supporters of the candidate and everyone outside is demonized as a threat to the nation’s survival and “greatness.”

Rather than a fascist, Trump is perhaps better understood as an example of the phenomenon that Max Weber called “plebiscitary democracy.”  Andre Gorz’s explanation accords well with what we are seeing from Trump.  When a “society has disintegrated and been replaced by an industrial-bureaucratic megamachine, [it] can only gain the loyalty of the masses through the person of a charismatic leader.  This leader must possess both the majestic authority that befits the driver of the state machine … and a sympathetic concern for the interests and everyday problems of the people called upon to leave the management of the state in his hands.”(Critique of Economic Reason, p. 49). Trump exemplifies both sides of Weber’s charismatic leader: he promises to bring his business expertise to bear on the problems of the economy, and puts on an effective “I feel your pain”  routine that has proven quite successful thus far with a large subsection of disempowered white workers.

Under constant social and economic pressure, seeing little hope for the future, a large section of the white working class see in Trump some sort of saviour.  The Tea Party has already blazed the trail that Trump is following:  Obama+Mexicans+the Chinese+radical jihadis are ruining and threatening America.  All that is needed to solve the problem is a leader with the balls to stand up to them (which Trump has promised-literally– he owns).  The machismo spills over into overt violence when anyone has the temerity to challenge the position– as the black protester punched by the Trump supporter in North Carolina found out. Still, the unity of the movement is not found in its macho-aggressiveness but in the magic-thinking involved in the belief– based on no evidence at all- that a billionaire is fundamentally concerned with changing the socio-economic structures that have undermined the life-conditions of the white working class.  For magic thinking, material forces do not exist– they can be eliminated simply by the word of the magician.  And so Trump will speak, the economic forces that have led American manufacturing industries to Mexico and China will be overturned, and steel mills will return to Pennsylvania and Nike factories will sprout up in the corn fields of Ohio.

The attraction of magic thinking is that it does away with the need for collective political work.  If structural social and economic problems can be solved by incantation, then nothing is required of the victim save to trust.  Whereas the trade union and socialist movement argued that only the working class could solve the problems of the working class, magic thinking invests supernatural power in the leader to vanquish enemies and restore the nation to its mythic greatness.   While right-wing commentators crow about how Trump proves the vitality of American democracy, what he in fact demonstrates is the loss of mobilizing power of the idea of self-emancipation in favour of magic thinking.

The relationship between Trump and mass passivity is not accidental.  The demobilization of working class politics is the other side of plebisctary democracy.  Trump (or any charismatic leader)  needs crowds to generate the feeling of collective power, but at the end of the day he can succeed only by substituting himself for democratic collective action.  If people organized themselves in a political movement that identified the causes of the threats to their livelihoods and well-being they would not need Trump.  But self-organization and understanding takes time and effort, whereas Trump is promising immediate solutions.  Time and again, despite the fact that abundant and easily accessible evidence proves that those who promise everything to the working class will deliver nothing, too many people choose to cast their lot with magic.

Is the Bernie Sanders’ campaign the sort of mobilization I am talking about?  No.  While the fact that Sanders can call himself a democratic socialist and run a competitive campaign for the Democratic nomination is historically significant, Sanders is not running to create an extra-parliamentary movement that can carry him to victory and start to make the sorts of structural socio-economic changes that would begin to improve workers’ lives.  Instead, he is mobilizing supporters to fund his run for the Presidency but to otherwise leave matters in his hands to address in a top-down way.

Let me be clear.  Of the alternatives on offer, Bernie Sanders is by far the best candidate for President.  But simply electing a social democratic president is not sufficient to bring about the structural in-roads against the social power of capital that must be made if real improvements in workers’ lives are to be accomplished.  The history of the working class movement in Europe (and to a far lesser extent in Canada) is littered with the corpses of social democratic politicians who de-mobilized the movements that brought them to power as soon as they took their seat in government.  So, while it is understandable that American socialists are excited by the success of the Sanders’ campaign it is far too hopeful to say, as  Brad A. Bauerly and Ingar Solty, recently said, that:

“the American left has won by establishing Sanders’ concrete left-wing social-democratic and/or transformative transition demands in the American political landscape and imagination: single-payer health care, free public education, a federal living wage of $15/hour, the Workplace Democracy Act facilitating unionization, fundamental banking reform (even if focused on dismantling instead of socialization…). Hence, the American populace is now much more aware about the real tertium-non-datur alternative: A left-wing Social Green New Deal as a general, inclusive and solidarity-based high-road exit strategy from the crisis, which would re-shift the relationship of forces between capital and labour and could function as the most coherent entrance project to a post-capitalist future, or the global neoliberal unity coalition’s low-road exit strategy of austerity with further immiseration, nationalist exclusion and destruction of the public good.”

What this assessment ignores is the fundamental importance of what Sanders is not building:  a political organization outside the Democratic Party that can sustain the struggle for those laudable objectives between election cycles and after the disappointment and disillusionment with Sanders sets in.  And set in it will, because the forces that will align against Sanders should he be elected will stymie him at every turn.  If you think that Congress undermined the progressive heart of the Obama administration, what do you think it will do the agenda of a self-declared socialist?  The only hope to moving Sanders`agenda forward (and then once it has started moving forward, to push it to the left)  is a movement outside the Democratic Party that is broad and deep enough that it cannot be ignored and can bring business-as-usual America to a halt.  It would have to link a revitalized labour movement to the young people and students who are propelling the Sanders`candidacy at the moment and build bridges to African-Americans and their myriad, creative, and powerful community-based organizations.

That said, the American left has indeed won something:  the opportunity to build a new political movement that can make it relevant and effective for the first time in decades.   And a relevant and effective American left could not be ignored by the rest of the world or have terms dictated to it by the financial industry.  The worst thing that could happen this election cycle is not a Trump victory, but the squandering of the political energy of millions of hopeful Sanders supporters.  Another generation lost to political cynicism could prove fatal to any future form of the American left.

Ten Theses: A Coda

In the past five days more than 17 000 people have read my Ten Theses.  This number of readers is two orders of magnitude greater than my previously best read posts.  If anyone still thinks that the contemporary university does not take teaching seriously, the scope of interest in the piece and the seriousness of the debate which followed is evidence that it does.  I do not expect my position or the criticism it aroused to be the final word.  I have been making these arguments for a decade (without much practical success at the institutional level) and, while I am always open to counter-argument and to developing my own pedagogy in light of others’ good ideas, I remain committed to a more open practice of teaching which I do not think is well-served by learning outcomes.  For those who in good faith disagree and argue that without clear objectives students’ interests are compromised, I ask you to look at the debate here.  It was not framed by any extrinsic outcomes, was not steered or conducted by any extrinsic goals, but developed spontaneously through the considered interventions of the participants, but a coherence evolved that enabled all of us to learn a great deal, just by virtue of our participation and not because we gave each other assignments to assess.  I prefer the higher intensity of face to face argument to the flatness of electronic communication, but even so, the argument as it evolved here is an excellent illustration of what I meant in the post where I identified the dialectic of problem-question-re-posing of the problem as the life of a well-taught class.  I do not mean that I assumed the role of teacher here, but rather that this spontaneous energy of idea development is analogous to what happens in a class when it is doing what it should:  stimulate in the students the desire to think and contribute and see where the argument leads.  Thanks to everyone for their contributions.  The conversation can of course continue and I will respond as best I can to subsequent comments and criticisms, but other projects call.

Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes

1. Teaching at the university level is not a practice of communicating or transferring information but awakening in students a desire to think by revealing to them the questionability of things. The desire to think is awakened in students if the teacher is able to reveal the importance of the discipline as a way of exposing to question established “solutions” to fundamental problems of human experience, thought, activity, relationship, and organization. Teaching does not instruct or transmit information, it embodies and exemplifies the commitment to thinking.
2. True teaching is thus a practice, a performance of cognitive freedom which awakens in students a sense of their own cognitive freedom. Both are rooted in the most remarkable power of the brain: not to simulate, not to sense, not to tabulate, not to infer, but to co-constitute the objective world of which it is an active part. In thinking we do not just passively register the world, we transform it by making it the object of thought, i.e, an object that can be questioned and changed.  To think is thus to cancel the alien objectivity of the world and to become a subject, an active force helping to shape the order of things.

3. All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives. This result is very different from mastering a certain body of knowledge or learning to apply certain rules to well-defined situations. To love to think is identical to feel and be moved by the need to question: the given structure of knowledge in the discipline, its application to the problem-domain of human life that the discipline ranges over, the overarching structures of human social life within which the discipline or subject matter has its place, and the overall problems of life as a mortal, finite being. To love to think means to remain alive to the questionability of things in all these domains.

4. Thus, the person who loves to think is critically minded. The critically minded person is not an undisciplined skeptic, but one who can detect contradictions between principle and practice, and between principles and the values to which they purportedly lead as means. Critical thinking is not the ability to solve problems within the established parameters of social, economic, political, aesthetic, and intellectual-scientific life. Change is impossible if all that people can do is apply the given rules mindlessly. If the problem lies with the established rules (and fundamental problems in any field always concern the established rules), then confining critical thinking to “problem solving” always serves the status quo (i.e., repeats the cause of the problem as the solution).

5. Every class in which the love of thinking is cultivated must be a class in which the interaction between teacher and students lives through the collective effort to open to question a purportedly settled issue, to see how these solutions came to be, what alternatives they excluded, and what alternatives might be better (as well as what constitutes a “better” solution).  Of course, learning to love to think is always developed in relation to a specific subject-matter and definite methodologies. However, these elements of learning are always means to the real end: awakening and cultivating the love of thinking. Learning outcomes confuse the ends (thinking) with the means (content and skills) and set out to measure how well the students are mastering the content and the methods.

6. Learning outcomes are justified as proof of a new concern within the university with the quality of teaching and student learning. In reality, they are part of a conservative drift in higher education towards skill-programming and away from cultivation of cognitive freedom and love of thinking.  Ironically, the passive, consumeristic attitude that learning outcomes encourage in students works against students becoming motivated to learn even the skills and the information that the learning outcomes prioritize.

7. While they are often sold to faculty as means to improve teaching and better serve the interests of students, what they in fact achieve is a narrowing of the scope and aims of classroom interaction to skilling and information transfer. (See further, Furedi, Frank. (2012). “The Unhappiness Principle,” Times Literary Supplement, November 29th, 2012; Stefan Collini, Who Are the Spongers Now? London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No.2, January 21, 2016). Skills and information acquisition (that which the learning outcomes try to specify and enforce) are not, however, ends, but only means of opening up the discipline (and the world) to question. Nothing will kill student engagement faster than drilling them on information or skills. The really valuable learning happens when the dialectic of question and answer, problem, provisional solution, and then deeper problem excites students sufficiently that they start to want to follow the emergent thread of ideas wherever it leads, because they start to feel themselves actively contributing to that direction.

8. As metrics, they are either redundant (doing nothing but state the obvious, i.e., that a class on Greek philosophy will cover Greek philosophy, and a class that involves essay writing will enable students to learn how to write essays), or useless (if what they aim to measure is something like love of thinking, which is an inner disposition and not subject to quantitative measure). In their belief that only that which measurable is real, defenders of learning outcomes show themselves to be another example of a society-wide cognitive derangement that confuses the value of practices and relationships and activities with their measurable aspects (the “externalist fallacy,” John McMurtry, “What Is Good, What is Bad, The Value of All Values Across Time, Places, and Theories,” Philosophy and World Problems, Volume 1, EOLSS Publishers, 2011, p. 269).

9. That which can be measured is “customer satisfaction.” Even if they are never explicitly justified in these terms, it is clear that when thought within the context of society-wide changes to public institutions and attacks on public sector workers (which include professors in Canada), learning outcomes presuppose and reinforce a consumeristic attitude towards education. They present the purpose of pursuing a course of study as the purchase of a defined set of skills and circumscribed body of information which can then be used as a marketing pitch to future employers. Learning outcomes submerge the love of thinking in bureaucratic objectification of the learner as a customer, a passive recipient of closed and pre-packaged material.


10. Hence, there is no clear pedagogical value to learning outcomes. If there is no pedagogical value how are we to understand the current fad? As part of the attack on the professional autonomy of professors because it constitutes a barrier to the imposition of market discipline on universities. (See, for example, Jonker, Linda, and Hicks, Martin. (2014). Teaching Loads and Research Outputs of Ontario University Faculty Members: Implications for Productivity and Differentiation. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario;  Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services (2012). “Post-secondary Education,” Deem, Rosemary, Hilyard, Sam, Reed, Mike. (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Mangerialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Bruneau, William. (2000). “Shall We Perform or Shall We Be Free? The Corporate Campus: Commercialization and the Dangers To Canada’s Colleges and Universities. James L. Turk, ed., Toronto: Lorimer; Massy, William F, and Zemsky, Robert. “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity.” If professors are allowed to define their own terms of work (legitimated by appeal to academic freedom and professional autonomy) they escape the discipline of market forces to which other workers are subjected. This allows them to extract rents in the form of higher wages, and it also constitutes a barrier to “higher productivity” (more graduates produced per unit input of academic labour). Learning outcomes are only one aspect of this broader political-economic assault on academic labour, but the motivation behind them—whatever their institutional supporters might say—cannot be understood outside of this context.