Sameness and Difference: The Metaphysics of Worthwhile Urban Spaces

Written By: J.Noonan - Oct• 30•14

Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before

One of the first acts in the tragedy that has been the neo-liberal phase of capitalism was the financial crisis of New York City that culminated in 1975.  As David Harvey explains, decades of de-industrialization and out-migration to the suburbs led to growing decay.  This decay catalyzed the emergence of radical urban activists whose struggles were  successful in securing public investment in essential services and stable, unionized municipal jobs.  Then, as the stagflation crisis of the early seventies grew, the US federal government decided to pull its support for public investment in impoverished urban spaces.  Understanding that crisis is a time for decisive action, a group of investment bankers (who just happened to hold a sizeable proportion of New York’s debt) seized their opportunity to drive the city into (technical) bankruptcy.  Bankruptcy then provided the legal pretext to strip the city of its public assets and undermine the power of the municipal unions.  Harvey describes the outcome:  “The bail-out that followed entailed the construction of new institutions that took over management of the city budget.  They had first claim on city tax revenues …. The effect was to curb the aspirations of the city’s powerful municipal unions, to implement wage freezes and cut backs in public employment and social provision (education, public health, transport services), and to impose user fees.” (David Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, p. 45).  In relatively short order, a poor but culturally and politically dynamic city, the city of Leroy Jones, Lou Reed, Martin Scorsese, and the most incredible subway graffiti the world has ever seen, became the leading financial centre and  family friendly tourist paradise it is today.

If the bankruptcy of New York was the opening act, perhaps the curtain call for the neo-liberal phase of capitalism will be the bankruptcy of Detroit.  We shall see.  But at the moment, the script is being replayed, almost to the letter.

What is certain is that, as the court proceedings concluded in mid-October, the losers will be the people and public assets of the city of Detroit.  In powerful metonymy, one of the final decisions the court made was to finalize the closure and demolition of the Joe Louis Arena and hand the lands to a private developer.  Yes, yes, it is an arena mostly for white suburbanites to watch hockey and antediluvian rock bands, but its namesake, Joe Louis, was everything the ‘new’ Detroit is slated not to be:  black and working class.   (If you rotated the iconic sculpture of his fist that lines Jefferson Avenue in front of Hart Plaza 90 degrees,  it would form a black power salute.  Louis was not a political radical by any means, but his symbolic value goes beyond his own political commitments).  Corrine Ball, a lawyer for the city, explained that the decision was a  “‘turning moment for this area of Detroit.”  And indeed it was– it will be turned from a city owned asset with a unionized workforce into, first, a field of rubble, and later, no doubt, some generic condo-hotel monstrosity blocking working class Detroiters’ access to the riverfront.  Much has been made of the attempt to restore the city’s waterfront, but from the Renaissance Center to whatever takes the place of Joe Louis, almost the entire west side of the river walk will be separated from the city by corporate castles and their security details.

Same Difference

Forgotten in the “rebirth” of Detroit, of course, are the hundreds of thousands of mostly black citizens whose perseverance is the only reason there is anything at all left on the North Shore of the Detroit River.  Like the artists of Lower Manhattan in the 1980’s, they will soon be priced  out of the downtown and probably (irony of ironies) driven to the (poorer) suburbs by service cutbacks (i.e., having their water cut off) and land-clearings (a new American enclosure movement).  I am by no means romanticizing poverty and violence, but rather celebrating the tenacity, the ingenuity, the creativity, the love, and the struggles of the people of post-rebellion Detroit.  They will not be counted amongst  the “creative class” entrusted with the city’s latest transformation–  from backwater of French colonialism, to the birthplace of the second industrial revolution, to the “arsenal of democracy,” to Motown, to Murder City USA, and now, no doubt, to tourist-friendly sports-entertainment-condominium-land (The developer dreamt-up name of the area where the new arena is being built –The District– epitomizes the ahistorical vacuity of contemporary urban “development).”

Whatever one could say in criticism of the social processes that led to the old Detroit, there was never any doubt about where one was when was there.  I am not talking about the “disaster tourists” who over the past decade have come to document the ruins, but rather simply being there for a drink or to see a local band or a late night gallery opening.  Detroit had a feel to it, the feeling of uniqueness that is, paradoxically, shared by those spaces in cities across the world that make them worth visiting.  The shared feeling of being in a unique space depends upon long-evolved local histories that are preserved– architecturally, gastronomically, linguistically, rhythmically– in an ongoing pace of life, i.e., organically, because people still live like that, and not artificially, so others can visit it.  The feeling that arises in these spaces is one of being amidst a form of life that cannot be simulated, whose value is not reducible to a single abstract element but is an emergent property of the whole system of dynamic interaction in a space that has developed to satisfy local needs, as opposed to having been ‘developed’ with only land-values and tourists in mind.

The sameness of feeling oneself a momentary part of a system of evolved cultural uniqueness contrasts starkly with the absence of feeling when standing amidst the contrived differences of urban megaprojects which– like shoppers  trying to buy individuality– pay the same star architects to build signature spaces which all end up looking the same.  Stand in La Defence in Paris, the Canada Wharf district of London, or Bay and King in Toronto, shut your ears to the different languages and accents, and you would find yourself unable to say where exactly you are.  But do the same experiment in Montmartre, Brixton, or Kensington Market and you will know you are  in three very different spaces.

Yes, everything bears the stamp of the political-economic logic of the age, but that does not mean that the logic of life of local producers’ markets, local shops catering to immediate life-requirements, and local artists articulating the universal from the concrete local space they inhabit (and share) is something worth fighting to protect against the monotony of ‘urban renewal.’  What makes a city great is not its instrumentally-created signature pieces but its unintentionally-evolved  historical differences– the one’s that are bull-dozed first to make way for “turning points.” When I think of what a democratic socialist city might feel like, I think of the neighbourhoods I love in the cities I have lived in and visited.   Why?  Concrete instantiations of community, solidarity, historically evolved identity; each is defined by the energy and struggles and creativity of the people who live(d) there; people who create(d) not for the sake of tourists but for its own sake, and to express themselves in ways that only people who make themselves part of the history of the neighbourhood can create.  The living creation of worthwhile urban spaces, (arguably, the greatest creation of the humans species – the cauldron from which the boldest experiments in living endlessly bubble forth) is the non-alienated labour that persists despite capitalism.  This non-alienated labour is what struggles over urban space are really about.

Stephen Harper: An Imaginary Dialogue

Written By: J.Noonan - Oct• 23•14

Without positive, life-affirming values to coherently serve, our decaying “civilization” requires both spectacle and tragedy to perpetuate itself.  While the nihilism of money-value rules, people are kept both entertained and terrified– neither are states conducive to thinking, understanding, or solving problems.  In the past two days there have been two attacks on uniformed Canadian soldiers, the first in St. Jean-sur-Richilieu, Quebec and yesterday’s more spectacular attack on the National War Memorial and then Parliament itself.  In response, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a televised speech to the nation last night.  I use the complete transcript as the basis for an imagined dialogue between him and myself.


My fellow Canadians, for the second time this week there has been a brutal and violent attack on our soil. Today our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo of the Argyll and Sunderland Highlanders.

There are violent and brutal attacks on individuals every day in this country that pass without any comment from you.  Why?  Is there a fundamental moral difference between everyday brutality and politicized brutality?  If so, please explain what that difference is.  If you are concerned with violence and brutality as such then you should hold a news conference every time there is a murder.  Perhaps more to the point, if your concern is with violence and brutality, then you should, as Prime Minister, ensure that measures are taken, every time there is a violent and brutal attack, to understand why it happened, to grasp its specific and general causes, and then work out policies that address those causes so that violence and brutality end.   Yet, consistently throughout your mandate,  you have refused to address causes; in fact, you have denied that violence and brutality have structural causes.   So beyond decrying violence and brutality and, worse, using it for political advantage, what are you doing to solve them as social problems?

Cpl. Cirillo was killed today, murdered in cold blood, as he provided a ceremonial honour guard at Canada’s National War Memorial, that sacred place that pays tribute to those who gave their lives so that we can live in a free, democratic and safe society. Likewise our thoughts and prayers remain also with the family and friends of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent who was killed earlier this week by an ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and Levant] inspired terrorist.

What do you mean when you say “ISIL-inspired terrorist?”  What evidence do you have to support this claim?  Is there a manifesto somewhere?  A note?   More deeply, what sort of causal claim do you take yourself to be making?  Was the inspiration direct, i.e., explicitly encouraged by someone known to be in ISIL?  Or was this an act of someone who was going to act out violently for other (psycho-social) reasons  and simply latched on to allegiance to ISIL as a convenient self-explanation?  And then, does ramming a car into two soldiers really constitute “terrorism?”  It constitutes murder, yes, but why is it “terrorism?”  The word has become meaningless from overuse, so please explain what you mean by it. 

Tonight we also pray for the speedy recovery of the others injured in these despicable attacks.

Fellow Canadians, we have also been reminded today of the compassionate and courageous nature of so many Canadians like those private citizens and first responders who came to provide aid to Corporal Cirillo as he fought for his life and, of course, the members of our security forces in the RCMP, the City of Ottawa Police and in Parliament who came quickly and at great risk to themselves to assist those of us who were close to the attack.

Fine, give thanks, and it is true that “first responders”  can sometimes be compassionate and courageous.  They can also be violent and racist, like the first responders in Saskatoon, whose preferred method of compassion for drunk First Nation’s men was to drop them at the edge of town, in minus thirty degree weather.   My point is not to undermine the good work of some by the bad work of others, but rather to suggest that there is no innate goodness that drives people to become police, but rather that the nature of first responders is too often determined, in this country, by the colour of the person’s skin whom they have been called to deal with.   Is the history of the RCMP a history of compassion towards people of the First Nations?  Is every Ottawa police officer compassionate to the homeless, or to the impoverished street criminal?  How often do they exercise the courage needed to not respond with violent force to the provocations of the enraged poor? 

Fellow Canadians, in the days to come we will learn more about the terrorist and any accomplices he many have had. But this week’s events are a grim reminder that Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world.

First, you have still not explained what you mean by “terrorist”  or why this is being called a “terrorist attack”  Was the explicit goal to achieve political aims by causing mass panic (one plausible definition of terrorism)  or to kill Canadian soldiers in a more targeted way (which one might call political violence, but not terrorism).  Beyond the question of definitions, and  without intending any disrespect to the two soldiers killed, I must point out that quantity matters in politics.  You cannot compare the deaths of two people in fairly random and not terribly sophisticated attacks using an automobile and a legal hunting weapon with the deaths of thousands on 9/11 or hundreds in the bombing of Madrid’s train station.  Moreover, an unsympathetic listener might think that you are happy, in a sense,  to now be able to include Canada under the umbrella of victim countries, the better to further your reactionary and authoritarian agenda.  Even if you disagree with me, there is still the even  bigger point:   the real comparison we need to make is between singular deaths at home and millions of deaths in the 20th and 2ist century in imperialist wars in which Canada has either been directly engaged or supported.  I am not asserting, necessarily, that there is a precise causal relationship between imperialism and these two attacks, or, that even if there were, they would be legitimate.  Progress comes by breaking out of revenge cycles, not giving in to them.  But, to exploit these killings to create even more of a police state by calculated cultivation of fear that the attacks do not warrant is morally abominable- it treats these two dead citizens as tools to gain  partisan advantage.

We are also reminded that attacks on our security personnel and on our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all.

Some Canadians do in fact embrace the dignity of all, and our constitution asserts it, but our country’s history has actively denied it,  for people here and abroad (and those from abroad who seek refuge here and are denied.  The most stunning denial of human dignity, of course,  is our colonial domination of the people of the First Nations.   Have you forgotten Attawapiskat already? 

But let there be no misunderstanding: we will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated. In fact, this will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts, and those of our national security agencies, to take all necessary steps to identify and counter threats and keep Canada safe here at home. Just as it will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores.

Why would anyone be any more intimidated by two isolated acts of violence than they are intimidated by any other random street crime?  The brutality of terrorists is of course real, but we need, again, to understand social and historical context.  ISIS(L) did not come from nowhere, they arose in the power vaccuum of post-Saddam Iraq and the Syrian civil war.  Again, the great unmentionable goes unmentioned- the unparalleled brutality of US wars of aggression throughout the Cold War and into the twenty-first century.  Savagery is causing a tenfold  spike in the cancer rates in Iraq by the use of depleted-uranium munitions. 

They will have no safe haven.

Who will have no safe haven and how far do you intend to go to deny it (once you have explained who, exactly, you are talking about)?  How many civilians will you be willing to kill in order to make good your challenge?  Leadership is not macho tough talk.  It requires the cultivation of understanding, not adolescent male posturing.

Well, today has been, without question, a difficult day. I have every confidence that Canadians will pull together with the kind of firm solidarity that has seen our country through many challenges. Together, we will remain vigilante against those at home or abroad who wish to harm us.

Let us hope that rather than herd solidarity people start to think about the reality of the global posture you have used your control over foreign policy to assume.   If you maraud around the world talking tough and killing others alongside the leaders of global violence, you put your own citizens at risk of revenge attacks.

For now, Laureen, Ben and Rachel and I join all Canadians in praying for those touched by today’s attack. May God bless them and keep our land glorious and free.

May God bless them after their loved one’s have been killed?  Did you really think about that concluding statement?

Bombs Do Not Raise the Dead

Written By: J.Noonan - Oct• 07•14

Poets:  More Adjectives of Outrage Please

The ideological struggle to build support for the bombing campaign against ISIS is foundering not only against the rock of The Pentagon’s open admission of its uselessness, but also against the hard place of an exhaustion of adjectives of outrage that can clearly  distinguish ISIS from last year’s devil– Basher al-Assad, against whom ISIS was/is fighting.


In announcing Canada’s commitment to the courageous bombing of an army with no airforce, Stephen Harper castigates ISIS for  “a campaign of unspeakable atrocities against the most innocent of people.”  Last year, as signatory to a joint declaration against Assad he condemned “in the strongest terms the horrific chemical weapons attack.”  

British PM David Cameron calls ISIS: “psychopathic, murderous, brutal people who will stop at nothing”  and Assad’s use of chemical weapons the cause of “appalling scenes of death and suffering.”

Obama denounced ISIS as “the cancer of violent extremism”  but warned   after the chemical weapons attack that “when “dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry  argued that “ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable,” while a year earlier excorciated Assad for using “the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”  Joe Biden reiterated for good measure that the use of chemical weapons is “heinous.” And John Baird, the Canadian Foreign Minister, in a speech at the United Nations denounced Assad’s “brutal and repressive regime”  for continuing to “slaughter … its own people,” while noting that  “the United Nations continues to fail to impose binding sanctions that would stem the crimson tide of this bloody assault. Until the last syllable of recorded time, the world will remember and history will judge Member States that are allowing the atrocities to continue.”  Perhaps he has spent the last year trying to understand what he meant by “the last syllable of recorded time,” (surely Member States, or those representatives with at least a high school education, know that time is not measured in syllables)  because he has certainly not spent it thinking about the contradiction between that speech and the government in which he serves now offering to seek the permission of this same “brutal and repressive regime” to bomb ISIS. 

How are spectators in North America and Europe supposed to pick sides and lay their bets if both sides are denounced with essentially the same epithets?  Last year, the overwhelming moral imperative was to overthrown the Assad regime.  Western leaders were more or less silent about the fact that ISIS was one of the few effective military forces in the Syrian opposition.  What changed?  ISIS moved into the Sunni heartland of Iraq, overrunning Kurdish forces and the Iraqi Army alike, looting American military equipment, and then beheading two American hostages.  As horrific as beheading hostages is, in the context of the unending mass killings that have characterized the Middle East for decades– primarily by America, its allies, and its proxies–  they can hardly be a justifiable pretext for a bombing campaign that will only add to the body count.  Moreover, as  George Monbiot argues in a superb essay, the “humanitarian” case for bombing ISIS is at the same time a case for bombing almost every regime in the Middle East.   If beheading is your preferred tipping point (as it seems to have been for the United States), then first in the crosshairs should be its stalwart ally Saudia Arabia, which last year alone  beheaded 59 people for such scientific, twenty-first century crimes as “sorcery.” 

Twenty Three Years of Death From Above

Of course, what is currently going on in the Middle East, and especially Iraq, is not  humanitarian intervention.  The idea “humanitarian” implies care for human life and that which protects and enables it.  Since 1991, almost without pause, the United States and its allies have been systematically killing Iraqis, destroying the infrastructure their lives depend upon, and creating a political vacuum into which murderous sectarian groups can operate and gain support.  By any objective measure– and they exist– the United States and its allies are the only real machine of death on the planet, and have been since the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823.  Bogey man after bogey man has emerged to justify the endless killing:  Saddam Hussein, Moqtadar al-Sadr, now ISIS.  Through it all, anti-war movements have come, burned out, and gone, but the UN and the International Criminal Court have remained-  silent and useless.  If the principle of Right to Protect (R2P in its Twitter and text friendly form- go ahead, hashtag it and save the world) is now a guiding principle of international law, it should mandate global intervention against the United States and its “partners,” including the disgrace of “democratic government” that currently rules my home, the dreadful Stephen Harper and his abhorrence of understanding the causes of social events.  Since it is the world’s wealthiest countries destabilizing, destroying, and killing the world’s poorest people– the overwhelming majority of which have done nothing that could be construed as a threat to the West, who wish to either be left alone or emulate what they (wrongly) think its values to be– then they are the one’s, clearly, who need protection.  What they need is not bombs– which sever heads, rather than restore them to those who wrongly an unjustifiably lost theirs– is a coherent plan, drawn up by the people who live in and understand the region, that will force the warring sects to sit down and work out mutually acceptable rapproachments.  Can’t happen?  Why not?  Europe solved 300 hundred years of almost unending war (The Thirty Years’ War to World War Two) without intervention from the Middle East.

What more confirmation is needed that “Western civilization” has  hit a moral, spiritual, political, social, and cultural dead end then Leon Panetta’s claim that it will take the world’s richest and most powerful  armies 30 years to defeat ISIS?  Militarily, this claim is nonsense.  ISIS could be wiped out in a matter of twenty five minutes (as long as it takes for the ICBM’s to arc from North Dakota to Syria and Iraq).   What Panetta is saying, without saying it out loud, is that if America and its allies are not engaged constantly in war, people will begin to ask questions (as they did in Occupy, as they are doing in Hong Kong)  about what exactly justifies this way of life of alienation and exploitation for the many and inhuman luxury for the few?  And the answer, which they fear, is:  “nothing.”  The only remaining raison d’etre of the United States is to prolong military conflicts (ruining millions of others’ lives in the process) to distract people from this world-historical fact:  the enlightenment values of individual freedom, formal and substantive equality, reasoned political discourse, an end to government by superstitious idiocy, diversity, cosmopolitanism, anti-racism (read L’Abée  Raynal’s Histoire  Politique et Philosophique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans des Deux Indes, if you do not believe me), women’s equality (Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe des Gouges); those  principles that (imperfectly) animated the French and American Revolutions, are dead.   Once again, irrational fear of “terrorists” and political exhaustion will prevent an effective mobilization against this fanatical desire to kill Arabs and keep their societies destabilized.  As in Egypt, where the West abandoned pro-democracy activists in favour of the generals, so too in Syria, the west will opt to sustain chaos in which tens of thousands more people will die, all the while pretending to be on the side of the “Syrian people.”

We live in prisons or we live in shopping malls.  And the meaninglessness of that life must not be felt, so governments continue to amuse us with the spectacle of drone attacks and fighter jets, whose exhaust fumes cloud the soul-killing emptiness which is the twenty-first century.







On Leadership

Written By: J.Noonan - Sep• 30•14

Unlike John Lydon, I am not an anarchist (or the antichrist, despite what some may say).   Leadership- of social movements, of societies, of complex institutions– is, I would argue, both necessary and valuable.   In their moment of birth and initial development, “horizontal” movements and consensual politics allow the subaltern a voice and create a transformative experience of agency, of their capacity  to debate the rules they will live by, and to figure out means of enacting those rules.  However, horizontalism and consensus  have never proven to be sustainable over historically relevant periods of time in complex orders in which multiple and opposed perspectives have to be reconciled into a coherent organizational or social direction.  Allowing every voice endless play and never moving until everyone is convinced is not a recipe for viable democratic communities, but rather permanent instability and implosion.  The inability of Occupy to sustain itself for more than few months is a most recent case in point.

It does not follow that democratic self-organization and self-governance is impossible, but only that both require leadership.    Those who think that leadership is contrary to the democratic organization of societies or institutions confuse it with the power to command.  The power to command derives from the model of military hierarchy in which subordinates must obey their superiors.  But the power of leadership is not grounded in the capacity to use force against insubordinates, but the ever tested and ever proven capacity of the leader to discover the point around which diverse views can be unified.  Complex entities need leadership not because people need to be told what to do, but because they require unity of purpose.  Unity of purpose emerges out of deliberation and argument, but the coherence required for action depends upon there being someone a little above the fray, who can evaluate the relative merits and demerits of different perspectives, synthesize the perspectives as far as possible, and re-present the compatible parts as a coherent proposal for the members (of the movement, the society, the institution) to approve or reject.

Good leaders do not, therefore, substitute themselves for active membership.  On the contrary, the best leaders energize members to give the most they can give to the collective enterprise that brings them together.  They are replacing themselves even as they serve their term by helping to develop an active cadre willing and able to take over the reigns at any moment. Every leader should be challenged all the time, not by ambitious social climbers seeking the spoils of office (there should be no spoils) but by committed members serving the mission of the organization. The function of good leadership is indispensable, the person of the good leader should be fungible.  Any group dependent upon a single person for charismatic direction is doomed, since functions can be replaced, but not the unique characteristics of a person.

Commanders, by contrast, tend to identify their person and their role.  They tend to treat themselves as agents and everyone below as a passive object.  This fact is not accidental, since only passive objects can be commanded.  People who can and do think for themselves can be persuaded, but never commanded.  Democratic self-organization dies as soon as there are commanders, because the very existence of commanders proves that the followers have ceased to exercise their capacity to think for themselves.  As soon as they regain the confidence to demand participation, command becomes impossible. The commander who cannot lead people who have freed themselves from fear and apathy will soon lose the power to command.   Over the long term, fear has never proven to be an effective source of social stability.

Hence, one cannot lead by threat of sanction.  Leadership is exercised by persuasion.   Members argue, leaders listen, they channel, they pose problems, they encourage further argument, all the while gathering and unifying the elements that will become the position the group will have to decide upon.   Sometimes arguments fail, sometimes they bog down in splits, sometimes they are outright rejected by the members.   The coming to pass of those possibilities need not prove fatal to an organization or its leaders.  Changing, like staying the course, requires leadership as well.  The commander insists on pressing forward no matter what the cost; the leader understands that his or her duty is to the future of the organization, and has the courage to adjust a strategy when circumstances make that necessary.  The commander insists on his or her own way,  the leader, as I said above, synthesizes democratically expressed positions of the members.  Since in a living organization members are constantly democratically engaged, the work of synthesis never stops.  Command appears clean from the outside but its dogmatism ends up incapacitating everyone further down the hierarchy; leadership is messy and chaotic from the outside, but it ensures the long term health of the organization by constantly engendering the emergence of a new generation of leaders from the active cadre.  Leadership takes time, and takes it time.  Command is urgent.

Crisis generates a false sense of urgency.  A false sense of urgency allows commanders to assume the mantle of leadership.  They stand on the balcony and promise bold new directions– and the need for decisive action to break from the old ways.   Of course, crises are turning points.  Human life is not– and ought not be–static.  But when commanded rather than lead in a new direction, people do not have time to ask the crucial questions:  what lies beyond the horizon, where is it, in fact, the we are going?  Is the new direction consistent with the purposes which first brought us together, or is it a re/destruct-uring of those purposes masquerading as service to them?  Finally– and this is the most important question that does not get asked-  what is the cause of the crisis?  Is the problem in the operations of a particular institution, or is it in the basic dynamics of the society in which that institution is embedded and upon which the successful carrying out of its mission depends?  Is the particular being blamed for a problem of the universal, and being destroyed so that the whole society can carry on its problematic path, dragging every particular institution down with it?  If there is no time for question, argument, and dissent, if there is no time for reflection upon what the mission of particular institutions really is and/or ought to be, and how it can be organized to ensure that purpose is fulfilled, if, in short, people allow themselves to be commanded (for ultimately, it is only our acquiescence that allows commanders to function) then the real problems are not solved (they are not even understood) and the mission of institution and the purposes of social life in general can be undermined without anyone seeing the danger.


The Right to Strike: A Defence

Written By: J.Noonan - Sep• 17•14

Strike rates in Canada have been in decline since the 1980’s.   In the 1980’s  there was an annual average of 541 workdays lost per 1,000 employees.  By the 1990’s, this average had dropped to 233.  By the 2000s’s the average had declined further, to 203, far less than half the 1980’s rate.  The drop is not attributable to more enlightened labour policies– the same time line demonstrates growing inequality between those who derive their income from labour and those who derive it from invested capital (see Thomas Picketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century).  So what explains the long term trend?  There are two clear factors which reciprocally influence each other.  First, differences in labour costs and the scope and depth of legal protections have been exploited by international capital.  Zones of lower labour cost and weaker legal protections for unions and workers have acted as attractors of capital.  More mobile international capital has put pressure on states-  whose legitimacy largely depends upon their ability to ensure economic growth as measured by standard capitalist metrics– to prove to international capital that they are “open for business.”  In practice this cliché means– and this is the second factor–competition with low wages zones to drive down labour costs through coordinated attacks on existing labour law and unions.  These changes have made it more difficult to strike, on the one hand, and more risky, on the other.

A glaring example of the dangers of striking occurred in February of 2012, when workers in London, Ontario were taught a brutal object lesson in the reality of global capitalism.  Then Canadian Auto Workers on strike against the locomotive maker Electro-motive were given an impossible choice.  The company (a subsidiary of Caterpillar) demanded that the union agree to cut their existing wages in half, or face the closure of the plant.  Seeing that what was at stake was not just their plant, but the future of the union movement in the Ontario manufacturing sector, these workers heroically sacrificed themselves, went on strike, and watched their livelihood move to Muncie, Indiana.  Had they not stood up to the brutish tactics of Electro-motive, every manufacturer in the country would have been encouraged to make the same demands.  What boss wouldn’t want to cut her or his workers’ wages in half?  While the jobs were lost, the massive public outcry against legalized extortion preserved the possibility of meaningful collective bargaining in other plants, at least for the time being.

The heroism of the Electro-motive workers brings me to my main point.  Strikes are generally derided as selfish, as morally (if not physically) violent, because they “use”  people not directly party to the dispute as tools to secure the union’s victory, and as counter-productive.  What is worse is that these criticisms are generally not leveled by the owners of capital (they understand that in current conditions most strikes are doomed to fail after a fairly short period, so they do not need to get apoplectic in the press).  Rather, the criticisms tend to stem from the “general public”  the vast majority of whom must work for a living and would thus materially benefit from any improvements that successful strikes might win.   In all the hue and cry about “using”  innocent people as pawns, the violence to which working people are regularly subjected is almost never mentioned.  This violence is sometimes overt–as when 34 striking Platinum miners were murdered in Marikana, South Africa in 2012–  but more often invisible from the outside:  the ever increasing stress of rising workloads and fewer workers, the ever present threat of lay off, of losing benefits, of having one’s pension evaporate in a bankruptcy court.  Those already defeated, instead of taking heart from those still willing to fight, cheer from the sidelines, for their own side’s defeat!

Strikers are derided as selfish, while they in fact are the people who suffer the most.  They forgo pay, they suffer the opprobrium of myopic critics, they risk physical attack, and they risk  their jobs.

Yes, it is true, people can get caught in the middle.  But anyone who thinks that people go on strike to punish third parties has never been on strike.  People go on strike (at this point in history, at any rate) only in response to the most serious provocations.  For many workers, who live pay cheque to pay cheque, those provocations generally involve the threat of reduced wages.  For the temerity of demanding a living wage they will be denounced as greedy.  Note to anonymous comment trolls:  “greed” refers to the desire to amass wealth without  limit.  Demanding a pay increase of x-% is, by definition, a limited a demand, and therefore not greedy.   For others, (very few, today), still well-remunerated workers, the provocations can take other forms– serious threats to long established workplace rights, job security or pensions being the most common.  In a society supposedly free and democratic, ought not people willing to stand up to protect their rights– rights which others can and ought to enjoy too– be celebrated, rather than demonized?

Yet, given the very real stresses, difficulties, and dangers of striking, given the precarity of almost everyone’s job today, is it not the height of irrationality to strike?  In some cases the answer might be “yes.”  And, as I said above, no group of workers strikes for frivolous  reasons.  But what if current trends continue and workers the world over become too cowed to ever strike?  What will have been lost?  Some would say:  “nothing,”  others:  “a nuisance.”  But these answers, when not rooted in simple class prejudice, are extraordinarily out of touch with the history of democratic development.  Democracy, or those elements of it that exist, had to be fought for, because no ruling group has ever willingly limited its power to exploit those below.

When we focus on depth values, it becomes evident that what critics of the right to strike miss is that the right to withdraw labour is one of the crucial distinctions between being a worker and being a slave.  Slaves were the legal property of their masters; they worked when they were commanded and rested when they were allowed; they had no input into their conditions of work.  Marx used the concept of “wage-slavery” to emphasize the continuities between capitalism and slave economies, but he was not being ironic when he argued that the distinguishing characteristic of capitalism was that its workers were free.  Of course, the material compulsion exerted by the need to earn money is normally sufficient to limit the exercise of this freedom to trivial and non-threatening forms.  At the same time, legal freedoms are spaces carved out by struggle which workers can use to expand their collective agency and their collective and individual well-being.  Marx was always clear about the importance of trade unions in the struggle for democracy, and the importance of the struggle for democracy to the struggle for socialism.   As he noted, it took centuries of struggle for working people to achieve the legal right to freely associate in unions and to legally withdraw their labour:  “Only against its will and under the pressure of the masses did the English Parliament give up its laws against Strikes and Trades Unions, after it had itself, for 500 years, held, with shameless egoism, the position of a permanent Trades’ Union of the capitalists against the labourers.”(Capital, Volume 1, p. 691).   The right to strike is material proof that workers are human beings who have the capacity to help intelligently shape their conditions of life.  Behind this power stands the real object of ruling class fears–  the capacity of working people to recognise the superfluity of capital to the provision and institutionalization of the material and social conditions of life.  Lest that power be felt by too many workers, the right to strike has always been precarious– long denied, won only through the harshest of struggles, and always in danger of being undermined, by armed violence, by legal coercion, or by global market pressures.

Anyone who has been on strike has felt that power, the eros of common struggle, the euphoria of solidarity.  Anyone who has been on strike for more than few days has also felt these feelings of collective democratic power wane.  Strikes are very hard work, undertaken under conditions of extreme stress, in ever worsening economic conditions for the strikers.  But sometimes (not all the time) accepting some hardship is necessary to prove that one’s position in a  hierarchy does not determine the degree of one’s humanity.   Human beings determine the conditions of their social lives through the work that they do and the relationships that they build.  If people have no say over their conditions of work, they cannot meaningfully be called free human beings.  And sometimes it is necessary to struggle to protect or extend our rights as workers to help determine our conditions of work.

Of course,  it would be best to live in a world in which all disagreements were resolved through uncoerced negotiation and compromise.  But that world would  require deep agreement upon the purposes of social life and the democratic control over the resources needed to realise those purposes.  Sadly, that is not the world we inhabit.  So long as we do not live in that world, those most subject to the harms of unconstrained market forces, to austerity policies, to the power of capital and its servants, need means of protecting themselves, and the right to strike is one of those means.





Written By: J.Noonan - Sep• 10•14

The basil grows fragrantly alive

as I pluck its leaves,

but all I can think is:

What needs to be done tomorrow?


Is there a law that says

I shall not enjoy the sun,

Gently caressing my skin now,

its angle falling towards autumn?


Why is it better to struggle

than to tarry on this pier,

watch the boys test their mettle

against the lapping river,

and listen to the silence of ships

as they glide past,

bound for Duluth or Montreal?


I want know:

Why can’t I enjoy the cool humidity of my sweat

as I strain, pedalling hard against the slope,

stealing glances at the northern skyline,

still and silent as a painting,

too big for even Christo to imagine?


Who commanded:

Those who  give a fuck must sacrifice these moments?

And for what?

Didn’t sans cullotes just become lumpenproletariat?

Always the same, no,

some smell shit,

others smell basil?


[A Logically Possible Prayer:

O Sun, glint on the water and dance with my eyes

and then burn my papers,

vaporise the solder that holds together

this machine architecture through which I do my duty].


But I do not believe in prayers,

even those only logically possible,

so I have learned to float.

It’s easy, there are no incantations,

just swallow, drink, inhale.

Time expands, space contracts.


For a moment, there is just me,



But gravity is too powerful,

it drags even thoughts back to earth,

home of no lingering,

of endings and heavy beginnings,

that a gossamer instant of untension

is too frail to stop.


There is no reprieve.


Windsoria, September  10th, 2014.

A Labour Day Gift for Sisters and Brothers: Collective Bargaining in the Age of Unnecessary Austerity

Written By: J.Noonan - Sep• 01•14

I first published this essay in The Scoop, Issue 134, August 29th, 2014, Windsor, ON.  Thanks to the publishers for allowing me to repost it.

University Administration Tactics Threat to Labour Movement

On July 18th, 2014 the administration of the University of Windsor informed the Windsor University Faculty Association that they would cease to bargain.  Instead of continuing what had been a productive—if hard-nosed– set of negotiations, the administration chose to walk away.  But not only that, four days later, on July 22nd, a letter from President Alan Wildeman informed WUFA members that his administration would be imposing the terms and conditions of work contained in the July 18th offer.

The unilateral, authoritarian move has understandably alarmed and angered WUFA members.  It ought to alarm and anger all unionised workers in the city.  It is not a well-known fact that  employers have the right, under the Ontario Labour Relations Act, to dictate terms and conditions of work in the absence of a signed collective agreement.  It is not a well-known fact because most employers chose not to exercise this right.   So why is the University of Windsor administration behaving more like Caterpillar, (who moved their Electro-motive locomotive plant from London to Muncie, Indiana two years ago after insisting on impossible-to-grant concessions from their workers),  and less like academic colleagues devoting some of their career to administrative duties?

The answer is complex.  It involves intensified pressures on public universities as a result of the 2008 financial crisis and austerity ideology, endless demands from government for ‘accountability’ measures that waste time and resources but make administrators feel like they are the only people standing between the institution and oblivion, and policies that have put universities and other institutions of higher education in competition with each other, increasing the pressure of market forces and making administrators feel more like bosses in private business than colleagues in  a university.

These factors are important, but on their own insufficient explanations of the Wildeman administration’s approach to bargaining.  These pressures exist across the university sector and our sister institutions have been able to settle fair collective agreements.  In the past couple of weeks Carleton and Brock have settled difficult negotiations on terms better than currently being offered by the University of Windsor, even though Windsor is not in worse financial shape than either.

In addition to the political economic pressures being exerted on all public universities, Windsor seems to suffer from a leadership style that has no place in a twenty-first century public university in a democratic country.

Leadership is important.  Boldness of vision is important.  Investment is important.  No one faults the President for doing his job, articulating a vision, or investing in new infrastructure and buildings.  But investments are supposed to create work, not come at the expense of it.  Over the last six years the University of Windsor has lost 48 full-time faculty while increasing its enrolments modestly.  That means fewer courses, larger class sizes, and a threat to the comprehensive nature of the University of Windsor.

It does not have to be this way.  Universities are not for profit business in which the owners appropriate the surplus as private property.  There is no structural conflict of interest between administration and faculty in the way there is between owners and workers.  If relations between administrators and faculty take on the adversarial character of relations between owners and bosses, it is because administrators start to act like bosses.  (Faculty members typically are more interested in their own research and teaching than union politics).

The problem at Windsor takes the form of an administration that simply cannot get along with its workers, its faculty, or its students. Last year CUPE 1393 was on strike for more than a month.  The President regularly took to the press to denounce the CUPE leadership for not understanding fiscal realities.  Last March, an attempt by students to organize a boycott of products made in the occupied West Bank created a campus wide controversy which, while sharp, is just the sort of controversy one hopes for on a university campus.  It potentially gave students an opportunity to put into practice the communication, argumentation, and criticism skills they are supposedly here to learn.  But rather than let students democratically figure out a solution on their own, the President intervened to effectively suspend student government and take over the finances of the University of Windsor Student Alliance.  This shocking move came after an organized protest was successful in preventing the election of a full slate of UWSA councillors.  Now, as summer of 2014 draws to a close and the beginning of the fall term nears, the University again finds itself at a critical moment.  Instead of finishing the job of negotiating a collective agreement with WUFA, Wildeman has once again put his interpretation of the problems ahead of democratic deliberation and compromise and has attempted to impose terms he finds acceptable on the faculty.

Faculty, of course, have rejected this unilateralism.  On August 14th ,we took a successful strike vote.  81.4% of faculty voted in favour of job action if it proves necessary to achieve a negotiated agreement.   Regardless of what Windsorites may think of the university’s offer (and it is not as generous as it has been made out to be by the administration or The Windsor Star, and does not meet norms in our sector), all working people have to be concerned, and ought to raise their voice against, the tactics of the administration.  For most working people, terms and conditions of employment are arbitrarily dictated by management.  The great benefit of belonging to a union—indeed, the great advance for democracy represented by the union movement—is that unions enable working women and men to help shape their work conditions through the collective bargaining process.  If the university administration’s draconian tactics are allowed to stand, the hard won rights of collective bargaining are put in jeopardy for all workers.

Please visit WUFA’s website: for more information on solidarity actions and WUFA’s position on the state of negotiations.  If you are alarmed by the unilateralism and authoritarianism of the tactics being pursued, please email President Wildeman to voice your opposition:




Pattern Recognition

Written By: J.Noonan - Aug• 27•14

Shout Louder God, I Couldn’t Hear You

Maybe, apostate that I am, God is not talking to me.  Either that or my hearing is not as good as I thought it was.  I say this because God has been raising his voice in Missouri, but I had to find out about it from CNN.  According to the Reverend Fred D. Robinson,  “What God is Screaming”  in Ferguson, MO is for America finally to face up to its history of structural racism.  Now, one might ask a) why God would have thrown its lot in with a country premised upon the racial violence of the slave trade, and b) why it has taken so many instances of racist abuse for God to raise its voice?  But who am I to question the Divine, I, who cannot even hear its voice.  What I can hear and understand is the political point the Reverend is making:  angry demonstrations are not accidents, or the fault of  “a few troublemakers.”  They are predictable and legitimate responses to long-standing patterns of injustice.

Boy, Stephen Harper Dislikes Sociology

I am sure that Canada’s most Reverend Stephen Harper thinks he hears the divine voice too, but so far as I can tell, in a whisper, because I cannot recall any instance of his claiming to have been publicly directed to a course of action by the Almighty.  Too bad.  The Eternal could have explained to Harper, as it is explaining, loudly, to Americans, that a) there are patterns in social life, and b) the existence of patterns is strong evidence that there are underlying structural causes at work.  None of this sociology for our great helmsman, who boldly steers social science back through the twenty-first, twentieth, nineteenth, and eighteenth century to the fictional state of nature where there is no society, no social forces or powers, no social structures of any type, just “individuals,” their choices, and their responsibility for them.  Now the seventeenth century, it had a god who wore big boy pants, smiting the guilty and leaving the shouting about “causes”  to the professors.

Yes, there is a specter haunting 24 Sussex Drive again, the specter of sociology.  In 2013, remember, after an alleged plot to blow up a VIA rail train was “foiled,”  Harper warned Canadians that it was not the time to “commit sociology” by searching for underlying causes for terrorism.  Last week, in response to the murder of 15 year old Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg, the Prime Minister was once again preaching against the dangers of looking for causes.  There are no causes, there is no social injustice, there is no history of institutionalized racism against Canada’s First Nations, there is no systematic threat to aboriginal women.  Crime is “not a sociological phenomenon,”  according to Harper, in one of the most stunningly non-sensical claims I have ever heard a person with a post-graduate degree assert.  Perhaps because that degree happens to be in economics he really does believe that choices arise ex nihilo from atomic selves pursuing their own interest.

That the individuals who commit crimes have made choices is a tautology.  The interesting question is not :  did person ‘a’ choose to commit the crime he committed (if there were no choice, there would have been no crime), but rather, why, if crimes are purely a function of the atomic choices of distinct individuals, are there patterns of criminal behaviour and victimization?  Why are young black men in Missouri more at risk of being killed by the police than young white men in Connecticut?  Why do rates of violent crime track poverty rates?  Why do aboriginal women in Canada, who make up approximately 3  per cent of the Canadian population,  make up approximately 10 % of homicide victims?   If there is no structural explanation for that statistic, that would be an anomaly beyond belief.  Clearly, the question that Canadian society has to ask itself is:  what are the factors that explain why aboriginal women are in such dangerous proximity to men who choose to murder them?

Preaching, Practice

I do not know whether we need an inquiry to answer that question.  But whether one favours an inquiry or not, every thinking person has to accept that there are social structures and dynamics that affect differently identified groups of people differently.  If there are only individuals and choices, then holding individuals to account suffices. But suffices for what?  A guilty verdict holds the individual accountable for what he did, but it does not explain why he did it.  Guilty verdicts do not get us closer to understanding the causes of patterns of crime.  Therefore, they do not get us closer to solving violence as a social problem..  There is no contradiction, (as Harper seems to think there is) between social scientific understanding and individual responsibility.  In fact, the relationship is the opposite–  it is only when we understand the real forces at work on individuals that responsibility becomes a meaningful category.

If all the justice system does is incarcerate particular individuals, it leaves the structures of social injustice in place.  That failure to address causes guarantees work for itself as social conditions manufacture the same sorts of people who commit the same sorts of crimes.  To be fair, though, it is unreasonable to expect that one social institution acting in isolation will be able solve deep-seated social problems.  The Reverend Robinson is correct– Ferguson (or Winnipeg) is a  test.  But it is not God that asking the questions, it is the racially subaltern asking white Americans , and the people of the First Nations asking  Canadians, if we will take responsibility for the history of domination we are parts of (even those of us who opposite it in theory and practice).  It is amazing how quickly people who preach individual responsibility point in every other direction when it is they who are asked to accept responsibility for themselves.

Readings: Thomas Picketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Written By: J.Noonan - Aug• 16•14

As a book-object, Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century reminds me of nothing so  much as my Progress Publishers hardcover and onion skin edition of Marx’s Capital, which I picked up for a few dollars when the Communist Party of Canada liquidated its warehouse on Spadina Ave. 25 years ago.   Harvard University Press has produced a handsome tome indeed, and there can be little doubt that the marketers hoped to play on the shared title to help move the product.  On the dust-jacket, “Capital”  is three times the size of “In the Twenty-First Century.”  Stylistically, too, the book, with its expansive historical vistas, its personal digressions, its illustrations drawn from literature, and its rhetorical positioning of itself as the antidote to collapse, reminds one of its namesake.  Picketty the writer lacks the power of Marx’s poetry.  But there is a Marx-like commitment to science for the sake of social action, a disdain for academic hairsplitting and obscurantism, and an honesty about the severity of the problems the world faces.

But capital in the twenty-first century is no Capital:  A Critique of Political Economy.  As Marxist critics like David Harvey and Tomas Tengely-Evans have noted, Picketty is not a critic of capitalist society as a whole, or the basic assumptions about the nature of capital, or the legitimacy of private property in universally required natural resources, or the meaning and value of economic growth in capitalism, or markets as resource distributors, or the exploitation and alienation of labour.   The book is  a very much needed demonstration, against prevailing economic orthodoxy and neo-liberal ideology, that capitalist markets do not produce prosperity for all but ever widening inequality (as Marx also argued, albeit in different terms).  But it does not question the ruling money-value system of the capitalist economy, or focus on the material impossibility of limitless economic growth.  It does not offer, in other words, a comprehensive and systematic alternative to capitalist society.  Still what it does offer is of signal importance to anyone who is theoretically and practically engaged in the task of trying to reconstruct such an alternative.  Socialists of the twenty-first century need to read Capital in the Twenty-First Century and learn from it.

The Argument

This is a large and complex work divided into four Parts.  The first explains the difference between income and capital and the relationship between them.  This section lays the theoretical foundation for the substantive arguments of Parts Two to Four.  Part Two examines the historical evolution of the capital/income ratio.  Understanding the forces that affect this ratio is essential to Picketty’s main aim, elaborated in Part Three, of explaining the patterns of inequality he observes from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century.  Finally, in Part Four he makes concrete proposals for reducing the growing inequality he observes.  I will not comment separately on each part but instead construct an overview of the argument as a whole.

To begin, we need to understand what Picketty means by income and capital.  Income is a flow that “corresponds to the quantity of goods produced and distributed in a given period.” (p.51).  Capital he treats as a stock, “the sum total of f nonhuman assets that can be owned and exchanged on some market.”(p. 46)  On first glance, there seems to be an insurmountable difference between what Marx’s and Picketty’s definition.  As both Harvey and Tegely-Evans point out, for Marx, capital is essentially a process.  Firms exploit labour to produce commodities which, when sold at a profit, realise the surplus value labour produced.  This money is then re-invested to expand the cycle of production.  That is why Marx called capital value that creates more value.   For Picketty, profits are not counted as capital, but as income.  That which he calls capital Marx would have viewed as accumulated capital– dead labour, in his terms.  The difference, however, while significant, is not absolute, because Picketty discovers a dynamic at work similar in the most important political respects to what Marx observed.  Unless there is consistent real growth of output, “capitalists do indeed dig their own grave:  either they tear each other apart in a desperate attempt to combat the falling rate of profit … or they force labor to accept a smaller and smaller share of national income, which ultimately leads to a proletarian revolution.”  (pp.228-9) Picketty is talking about the past,  but he does not them as possible futures.

These are futures that he thinks can be avoided because he is hopeful that it is always possible “to find new and useful things to do with capital.” (p.221)  Thus, he believes that constant real growth is in principle economically possible (whether it is materially possible is a question he touches on only in passing, and a problem to which I will return in my conclusion).  So long as there is growth of productivity, capitalism can survive.  “To sum up, modern growth, which is based on the growth of productivity and the diffusion of knowledge, has made it possible to avoid the apocalypse  predicted by Marx and to balance the process of  capital accumulation.”(p.234).   On the other hand, just because the apocalypse has been prevented, it does not follow that it will  be staved off forever, as Picketty reminds the reader.  However, the horseman is more likely to be levels of incompatible with cohesive democratic societies than the falling rate of profit.  The central economic argument of Picketty’s book is to explain why growth of inequality is not an accident but a structural feature essential to capitalism.

The historical evolution of capitalism can be understood according to what Picketty calls two fundamental laws.  The first law describes capital’s share of the national income.(p. 52)  Mathematically, it is expressed as:

α=r X β

where α= the share of  capital in the national income (i.e., the share derived from rent on real estate, stock market or bond market investments, and so on, as opposed to wages or salaries);

 r= the rate of return on capital (for example r=5% means that on a 1 million dollar investment one would earn 50 000$/year);

and β = the capital/income ratio, which is the value of capital expressed as a percentage of the national income (on average in the wealthiest countries capital is  worth around six years of national income.  If the national income were 1 trillion dollars, the accumulated capital would be worth 6 trillion, or 600%.

Capital’s share of national income will grow the higher the rate of return on capital.  The higher the rate of return on capital the more it accumulates and the and the higher the capital income ratio becomes.  Growth of the value of α is an important factor in explaining the reasons why inequality is a structural feature of capitalism, but a complete understanding requires the second fundamental law.   The second fundamental law explains how the capital/income ratio is determined. It is expressed mathematically as

β = s/g

where s= the savings rate and g = the rate of growth (corrected for inflation and demographic growth).  In other words, if the money value of output grew by 10 %, with 5% inflation and 3% population growth, there would be, in real terms, 2% economic growth.  Even after factoring in the fact that there are more people claiming a share and each share is worth less, there would still be 2% more available for consumption, investment, and so on.  One does not need to be a mathematician to see that the lower the rate of growth, the higher  the capital-income ratio will be.  Let us start with Picketty’s example.  Assume that in aggregate terms society saves 12% of the national income each year and  the growth rate is 2%, then β will equal 600%.  If we hold the savings rate constant and decrease the rate of growth to 1%, then the value of β would double over the long term, to 1200%  As Picketty explains, “This formula, which can be regarded as the second fundamental law of capitalism, reflects an obvious but important point.  A country that saves a lot and grows slowly will over the long run accumulate an enormous stock of capital.”(p.166).  Were capital divided equally between all citizens, or collectively owned, this accumulation in itself would not pose a problem for social cohesion and justice.  But capital is not equally held.  And in low growth environments (which capitalism has been in for most of the twentieth and all of the twenty-first century, according to Pickety’s statistics), with high rates of savings, β grows.  If most of the capital is held by a small minority, and the capital income ratio is going up, that means that society is becoming more unequal.

While these formulae are not really predictive laws (they do not tell us whether β will grow or not in the future, or even what factors drive growth), they do help explain the structural tendency towards inequality that defines the history of capitalism.  Holdings started out unequal, the more holdings you have the more you can save (where ‘save’ means ‘not spend on consumables’ but invest or otherwise store up).  In low growth environments, the more you can save the more you can earn and the more you earn the more you can reinvest the earnings in more savings.  This dynamic drives inequality.

Picketty’s results contradict what had become the orthodox position on inequality, the work of Stanley Kuznets.  Working in the 1950’s with a more limited data set, but also in the midst of the Cold War (whose politics were more than accidentally connected with his conclusions)  Kuznets argued that the pattern of inequality was an inverted u-shaped curve.  In other words, capital accumulation initially heightened inequalities, but these were gradually reversed as education and higher labour productivity created more wealth. (pp.13-15).  Picketty’s data definitively prove that Kuznets’ inverted U-shaped curve was an anomaly, the effect of the massive destruction of capital in two world wars and redistributive economic policies and investment in public institutions following the war.  In other words, political struggle and public policy can make capitalism more equal, but “it is an illusion to think that something about the nature of modern growth or the laws of the market economy ensures the inequality of wealth will decrease and harmonious stability will be achieved.”  (p.376).   Distributions of wealth are eminently political.

In capitalism, no one gets what they deserve but only what they fight for.  In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the unprecedented destruction of wealth and resources during World War Two, strong unions in the West, sometimes in alliance with radical students (as in France, 1968)  were able to win political parties to a politics of wealth redistribution and public investment.  The oil shocks and ‘stagflation’ crisis of the 1970’s discredited these policies and the institutions that made them possible– unions, social movements, public corporations and state-funded social services.   A new politics of privatization, globalization of capital flows, tax-rate competition, and union-busting was launched.  The results are clear.  Taking the United States as my example (Picketty’s statistics cover all the largest European and North American economies) the share of total income taken by the top ten percent of was about 50% in 1930, dropped to about 35%  between 1950 and 1970, and then began a steady and still continuing increase to stand at 50% again in 2010.  This U-shaped curve is found in every major European and North American economy.

The structural cause of this long term trend is, to repeat, a low growth and high savings rate combined with organized political attacks on labour and social services.  The higher the rate of return on capital, the more large fortunes will continue to grow regardless of whether they are invested in enterprises which create employment for those who have only their labour to rely upon.  “When growth is slow, it is almost inevitable that this return on capital is higher than the growth rate, which automatically bestows outsized importance on inequalities of wealth accumulated in the past.”(p. 423).  This structural cause (which explains the long term pattern) is combined with deliberate policies of privatization and lowering the taxes on income derived from capital explains the upswing in inequality since the 1970’s:  “the proportion of public capital in national capital has dropped sharply in recent decades … in all eight leading developed economies… In other words, the revival of private wealth is partly due to the privatization of national wealth.”  (p.184)  Of course, this privatization of public wealth was not evenly distributed.  Those who could afford to buy public assets put up for sale added them to their existing, already massively unequal holdings.  The overall result is the accumulation of more and more capital in fewer hands.

The wealthiest are thus freed from the need to work or contribute anything of any life value to anyone else.  With a large and diverse enough portfolio, the wealthiest one percent can live without doing anything productive at all, and continue to increase their fortunes without building anything, creating anything of use for anyone else, or in any way aiding the the sort of growth of need-satisfying economies require.  They can use their financial power to ensure that political parties continue to adopt policies that allow them to accumulate even more capital, and then pass this wealth on to their children, who become spectacularly wealthy without having to do anything more than be born.  Picketty warns that we are returning to the age of the robber baron and the rentier, the age of “patrimonial capitalism,’ in which workers scramble to find lower and lower paying work while the richest one percent control an ever increasing share of national income, not because they do anything to deserve it, but just because they can expect a predictable rate of return on their capital.  “As global growth slows and international competition for capital heats up, there is every reason to believe that r will be much greater than g in the decades  ahead.  If we add to this the fact that the return on capital increases with the size of the initial endowment, a phenomenon that may well be reinforced by the growing complexity of global financial markets, then clearly all the ingredients are in place for the top centile and thousandth of the global wealth distribution to pull farther and farther ahead of the rest.” (p.463)   If this trend continues (and Picketty is clear it will, unless counteracted by oppositional movements) democracy will become impossible.  “The people”  cannot rule themselves if their “countries are owned by their own billionaires” who use their money to create nothing but more money for themselves in a cancerous spiral to the bottom.(p.463).  (For an explanation of the cancerous nature of this devouring of whole societies by the moneyed elite, see John McMurtry, The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, 2nd edition, 2013).

This is not the news most economists are paid to deliver.  Picketty knows it, and embraces the role of idol smasher enthusiastically, providing the evidence needed to put paid to five key myths of contemporary capitalism.

Five Myths Exposed

1) Perhaps the most commonly heard argument in favour of inequality (and it is not new, but goes back at least to Adam Smith), is that it promotes economic growth from which all classes benefit.  If the more industrious are rewarded with higher incomes, they will be motivated to reinvest that income in productive enterprises, thus creating jobs and public benefits.  While Picketty does not reject this argument out of hand, his statistical analysis reveals that the lower the growth rate, the higher the inequality, proving that there is no positive correlation between inequality and economic efficiency or growth.  “Historical experience shows,”  he concludes, “that such immense inequalities have little to do with the entrepreneurial spirit and are of no use in promoting growth.”(p. 572)  Instead, they represent, as Marx also concluded, the domination of living labour by dead labour.

2) The second myth is that the rich have earned their higher incomes through superior talent and effort.  This is the “meritocratic” argument.  In fact, Picketty accepts the idea of meritocracy, he just demonstrates that the richest people in no way deserve the spectacular fortunes they posses, because the sheer amounts cannot be plausibly explained by proportional superiority of talent.  Picketty (and Marx, for that matter)  do not believe in some mathematical ideal of equality that abstracts from concrete differences of talent and contribution.  What he objects to is the unargued assertion that any degree of inequality is explained by superior merit.  In many cases, the person who currently controls the fortune has contributed nothing to its existence.  As he says of, Liliane Bettencourt, the richest woman in France, “she has never worked a day in her life,” and yet has seen her fortune grow just because other people have invested it for her.  She lives off the labour of others.  Where is the superior talent?

3) The third myth is that education is the royal road to social mobility and greater income inequality.  This myth is the darling especially of the Richard Florida-creative capital crowd, but it is nonsense.  First, the same inequality that characterizes income distributions characterizes the quality of educational  institutions. The richest people go to the richest schools where they learn to organize and govern society so that it is reproduced in ways that preserve their private interests.  “Inequalities of training have largely been translated upward, and there is no evidence that education has really increased intergenerational mobility.”  As for the “creative capital” thesis  there is again no evidence to support it.  In localized contexts, some de-industrialized cities have been able to reinvent themselves (Pittsburgh, for example, or Waterloo, in Ontario), and capital will concentrate in areas where it is already highly concentrated (in the san Francisco bay area in the case of the information technology sector).  These are local phenomenon, however, and do not establish the central claim that we are on the cusp of a new era of spectacular, ‘creativity’ driven growth.  While “skill levels have increased markedly over the past two hundred years”  it is nothing more than “mindless optimism”  to believe that “capital has lost its importance and we have magically gone from a civilization based on capital, inheritance, and kinship to one based on human capital and talent.” (p.224)

4)The fourth myth is that the wave of privatization that has occurred across the globe has contributed to higher economic growth rates.  As I noted above, Picketty demonstrates that it has had negligeable effect on the growth rate and is really a case of redistributing formerly public assets to the ruling class, further enriching them at the expense of the majority of people.(p.184)

5) The final myth that Picketty puts paid to is that the real problem today is not class inequality but intergenerational inequality.   The claim simply abstracts from the observable realities of income inequality, which fall along class lines regardless of the generation.   There are rich young people and rich old people, and their wealth has nothing to do with which “generation” they belong to.  The wealth of the world is not being consumed by the post-World War Two generation; it is, all available evidence suggests, being re-distributed upward to the top centile of the population of the eight wealthiest countries, who will pass it on to their children.  “The concentration of wealth is actually nearly as great within each cohort as it is for the population as a whole.  In other words, and contrary to a widespread belief, intergenerational warfare has not replaced class warfare.”(p. 246)

Cold and unfeeling numbers, clearly presented, are often the most powerful political rhetoric.

The arguments and the evidence are more sophisticated and detailed than I can hope to reproduce in this reading.  They are persuasive, knock-down, as they sometimes say in philosophy.  They destroy the myths of the market and prove beyond any reasonable doubt what the overall goal of neo-liberal policy has been, and what the effects of (more or less) untrammelled market forces are– the concentration of capital and wealth in fewer, richer hands.  Now that we understand the causes of the problem, let us turn in conclusion to Picketty’s solution.

A Tax on Capital?

The boldness of Picketty’s critique of the dynamics of wealth distribution is not matched, unfortunately, by his proposed solution.  After demonstrating in the most convincing fashion that inequality is growing, threatening the social foundations of liberal-democratic society, the only solution Picketty suggests is (by his own admission)  a modest progressive global tax on capital.   His suggested upper rate is 10% on the largest fortunes of one billion or more Euros.  The main purpose of the tax, he argues, “is not to finance the social state, but to regulate capitalism.” (p.518)  It is not clear, however, how such a modest tax could achieve that much grander purpose.  It would not even reduce inequality.   If the largest fortunes increase by  10% per year through wise investment strategies the tax would fix inequality at existing levels.  True, it would stop the growth of inequality, but it would not alter the class structure of capitalism in the least.

But it also does not address the real problems of capitalism, of which inequality of wealth is a symptom.  Capitalism generates inequality of income because it is rooted in inequality of power over life-conditions.  Those who live off of their capital do not need to work; those with no capital do.  This is the fundamental problem of capitalism that underlies all the rest.  Those who live off their capital do so because they own the natural and productive wealth that everyone needs in order to live, develop, and enjoy their lives.  Because they are in a position to determine the life conditions of everyone else, the ruling class can also exercise preponderant control over the institutions of the state.  Since state institutions have the exclusive authority to make law and set public policy, control over the state, rooted in control over life conditions, confers control over law, policy, and the institutions of social life governed by them.  A tax on capital that merely fixes inequalities at existing levels does nothing to address this undemocratic and life destructive structure of power.

Nor does it expose the material irrationality of the ends of a capitalist economy.  Like a shark, capital must move or die.  As we have seen, Picketty agrees with Marx on this point.  However, despite some superficial and unsystematic references to human needs, and a teasing comment about “real democracy and social justice” requiring specific institutions of their own, “not just those of the market”(p.424)  he does not anywhere contest the ruling norm of capitalist society– growth of money value as the supreme end to which life and social institutions must be bent.  What he fails to note is that money-capital growth ultimately depends upon the exploitation of natural and social life-support systems.  When it becomes the sole end of society it threatens and destroys what McMurtry calls the collective life-capital upon which our existence depends.  Collective life capital is “what enables life to reproduce and grow rather than degrade and stagnate through time. We defend it and our health by buying life goods and nothing else. The turning point is as old as physical and cultural evolution. Every human advance is by knowing what enables life from what does not.” (“Winning the War of the World,” p. 10).   Picketty concerns himself with a real problem–  extreme inequality and the undermining of democracy–, but he does not see the deeper material irrationality of capitalism.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is thus an important, but ultimately unsatisfying book.  Like the “equality of what debate”  that consumed Anglo-American political philosophy in the 1990’s and 2000’s, the book exposes the unjustifiable extent of inequality today, but does not work down to expose the depth normative and social problems of capitalism as a whole.  Picketty mentions “real democracy,” but does not tell us whether the institutions of “real democracy”  are the existing institutions freed from the distorting effects of extreme inequality, or new institutions.  Of economic democracy of the sort envisaged by, for example, Pat Devine, in Democracy and Economic Planning, he has nothing to say.  The impression one gets is that Picketty thinks that existing institutions are sufficient for real democracy, provided that the market forces that threaten them are constrained and regulated.  If so, then he needs to pose the question to himself:  if capitalism can be regulated by existing institutions, why are they currently being used to de-regulate it?  He knows the answer– they have been captured by ruling class interests.  Thus we return to the real issue, not inequality of wealth in the abstract, but class power dominating all of society for the sake of life-destructive increase of its money-value holdings.  Taxes cannot fix that problem, but only an alternative democratic life-economy based on the principle that resources are to be sustainably employed to comprehensively and universally satisfy the fundamental life-requirements of all people.

Politics of/and Reality

Written By: J.Noonan - Aug• 01•14

“All men by nature desire to know,”  begins Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which presupposes that we do not already know.  (Metaphysics, 980a19)  The system of the world is independent of the unreflective contents of our minds, and so we must discipline our thoughts, conduct them methodically, if we are to satisfy the desire to know.  Aristotle assumes that thought, properly conducted, will conform to the truth of objects, which further presupposes that people will let their preconceptions go if they should turn out to be disconfirmed by the world.  In the case of conduct as well as science, classical philosophy assumed a basic material rationality on the part of people:  if people understand reality, they will normally act in a way that conduces to their survival and happiness.  One may wish to fly by flapping one’s arms, but one will not thereby overcome the force of gravity.  One can still try, of course, but (depending upon one’s starting point) the consequences could prove fatal.

Perhaps surprisingly, the lethality of acting upon materially irrational opinions has rarely proven an obstacle to people’s conduct.  Why this seemingly anti-evolutionary drive to act according to desires either not grounded in or hubristically dismissive of objective reality has also long been understood.  Perhaps its first systematic elaboration was in the Antilogic of Protagoras. According to contemporary reports, the antilogic taught students “that there are two mutually opposed arguments on any subject.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers).  There may be a truth of the matter (an objective state of affairs), but well-conducted arguments can make it appear that the opposite of what is in fact the case is the case.  Since human beings are not mechanically determined to act, but move themselves on the basis of their own interpretations of the objective world confronting them, they can be persuaded to act even contrary to what is in fact the case.  “Human beings are the measure of all things– of things that are, that they are, and things that are not, that they are not,”  Protagoras argued.  (R.McKirahan, Philosophy Before Socrates, p. 379).  Note that he does not say that human beings are the creators of all things, but the “measure” of all things.  That there is a world of objects independent of human beings Protagoras does not deny.  What he claims instead is that what things are or are not apart from human evaluations is of no consequence, since we act according to our judgements and interpretations, and these (as the antilogic teaches) in no way need to accurately reflect a “mind-independent”  reality in order to be convincing.

However much it might offend classical philosophical reason and its commitment to the truth come what may for self and factional interest, one cannot survey human history and fail to acknowledge that Protagoras has expressed an essential truth of political action.  Politics, in the Protagorean view, would be the art of constructing through argument a reality that suits and justifies factional purposes.  In human affairs, appearance of being the stronger argument and being the stronger argument coincide, because the stronger argment is the one that people act on, and the one that people act on is clearly not always the one that best models empirical reality or best serves long term interests.   Consciously or unconsciously, Karl Rove, in his much mocked dismissal of Ron Susskind of the New York Times and the “reality based community” in which he mockingly included Susskind, was echoing Protagoras’ insight.  Susskind relates the story:  “The aide [Rove] said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. [Rove] cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”  Whatever one thinks of the politics of Karl Rove and the Bush regime, his arguments should be taken seriously, because they contain an important truth (although the implications of that truth are the opposite of what Rove thought).

The truth, to reiterate, is that human society is not the mechanically determined result of objective physical-chemical-biological-genetic-psycho-physiological processes, but the ever-constructed and reconstructed product of human actions.  These actions presuppose the whole history of the evolution of matter-energy, but they are not determined in any direct way by those laws, because actions follow from interpretations and evaluations whose efficacy as motivations is by no means contingent upon their being objectively true.  The implication of the fact that we construct social-political reality from interpretations and evaluations, from Rove’s (and Protagoras’) perspective, is that those with political power can construct and reconstruct reality  to suit their purposes.  If reality can always be reconstructed to suit the purposes of the powerful, then it is impossible for critics to establish objective foundations for their criticism, which can always be rejected as merely a contrary opinion.

The real implication, which Rove misses or ignores, is that the empire builder’s construction of reality can ever be stable or permanent so long as it has not completely overcome or wiped out these contrary opinions.  Behind these contrary opinions is the material reality of opposed political forces, whose resistance to empire’s construction of reality contests the truth that ruling power seeks to construct.   The power to construct reality and define the truth is always a power that is contested.  In order to successfully establish their “truth,” the empire builders must refute their opponent’s claims.  So long as there are opponents, there will be disputes, and material reality (that which is objectively the case) appears able to re-enter the argument as the matter in dispute.  The matter in dispute between the ruling powers and their targets is whether and for whom the real life consequences of political actions are good and bad.

In order to find the ‘real-life-consequences” beneath the opposing arguments we have to isolate and focus upon the points where the arguments contradict each other.  It then seems to be an easy matter to resolve the contradiction-  we examine the real event around which opposed interpretations are built and determine which the available evidence better supports.  The problem is, however, that even in cases where the evidence is not disputed, the meaning or the ethical-political value of the evidence can be (and always is)  contested.  We get back to material reality only in order to have it slip away again.

As a result, and despite the hopes of “enlightenment principles,” political conflicts are almost never resolved by the force of the better argument.  People do not consider evidence apart from the question of what the evidence is supposed to support, with the result that the same empirical evidence can be cited by opposed sides as proof of opposed judgements.  To take a generic example from the 2014 Gaza war, the same pile of bodies can be cited as evidence that Israel is committing war crimes, and that it is doing everything it can to avoid civilian casualties.  The unlimited multiplication of testimonials and perspectives made possible by social media does not help resolve the argument.  It does not matter how much evidence there is if that evidence is always going to be interpreted relative to a political position whose truth is treated as absolute.  No matter how high the pile of Palestinian bodies grows, it will always be interpreted by the Israeli side as proof of the savagery of Hamas.  It is not that people deny the existence of the objects cited as evidence, but (worse) that the meaning of those objects is always taken to confirm the truth of one’s own position.  No evidence is ruled out of court, but it is always spun so as to support one’s own position.  The goal here is not necessarily to win the argument outright, but to keep it going forever, thus preventing an effective judgement being passed against one’s own side (ever being convicted of war crimes, to continue with the example)

The opponents of empire might respond:  so what, enlightenment reason is at best naïve and at worst complicit with the structure of power which is the problem.  I do not think the political implications of the incapacity of knowledge and reason to overcome ruling power is so happy.  If rational persuasion and objective evidence fail to constrain the ruling powers, there is only force of arms left.  The fight may be dignified and justified, but comes at extraordinary cost (as Gaza is again proving) and without compromising in any serious way the structure of power and violence it opposes.