Readings: John Brown: New Paintings

John Brown

New Paintings

Olga Korper Gallery

17 Morrow Ave.,


(until December 19th, 2015)



“The transitoriness of things is essential to their physical being, and not at all sad in itself; it becomes sad by virtue of a sentimental illusion, which makes us imagine that they want to endure, and that their end is always untimely; but in a healthy nature it is not so.”  (George Santayana, “A Long Way Round to Nirvana,” p. 59). Look, the column is separating and soon it will collapse.  No structure is so perfectly crystalline and internally stable that it can withstand time. Painting is not sentimental because it does not look back to what was, but makes a claim for eternity.  The painting that you are looking at is always now.  However, it too, being material, cannot last and must go under.  The column is separating and will bring the whole edifice down.  But not yet.



“At this stage you must admit that whatever is seen to be sentient is nevertheless composed of atoms that are insentient.  The phenomena open to our observation do not contradict this conclusion or conflict with it.  Rather, they lead us by the hand and compel us to  believe that the animate is born, as I maintain, of the insentient.”(Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe,” p. 59). There, right at the centre, do you see it?  Is that not a face emerging from the swirl of brush strokes, distinguishing itself from the block of material in the background?  Out of the universal swirl comes order.  The paint is affixed to the surface, it does not move, and yet it expresses dynamism and development, emergent coherence, structure, meaning, life.



“Only art restores the dimension of the senses to an encounter … Art, in all its forms, is a great reflection on the event as such.  A great painting is the capture by its own means of something that cannot be reduced to what it displays.”  (Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love, p. 78).  One wants to know, one demands, “what is that a picture of?”  But no painting is a picture of anything, it is a picture, a creation; knowing it, “understanding”  it, is not tantamount to reducing it to its origins “in the real world.” It is not a mystery to be decoded but a world to be entered into on its own term (terms which always change)  The painting is its own real world, re-invented every time it stops one in one’s tracks and forces one to look at it.  There is nothing hidden; the painting is the surface and the meaning is there, if anywhere.

Wrong Place Wrong Time

wrong place wrong time

Aesthetic form is not opposed to content … in the work of art, form becomes content and vice versa.”  (Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, p. 41).  The problem with all formalisms is that they are one-sided; products of prodigious cleverness or even genius, they nevertheless lack the reciprocity between form and content that truly arresting art possesses.  There is no versa (content becoming form) but only vice (form becoming content).  In formalism there is experiment and transgression of boundaries, and thus creativity and new openings, but the connection to ultimate problems is lost.  Attention is attracted, but not held for long. The arresting work is the unity of form and content established by the sui generis rule by which each work is composed.  The enduring work of art takes us somewhere else, down to the ground, to the real problems.

Green Figure

green figure

“It is not the artist’s job to restore a supposed “reality” that the search for knowledge, techniques, and wealth never stops destroying … The spirit of the times is definitely not geared to what is pleasing, and the task of art remains that of the immanent sublime, that of alluding to an unpresentable which has nothing edifying about it.”  (Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Representation, Presentation, Unpresentable,” p. 128).  Hence, what you see on first glance must be resisted– a dark figure emerging from a chrysalis, scowling, menacing.  However, seeing the unpresentable is also not a matter of treating the painted image as a symbol, a reference to something else.  Always, it is a matter of seeing the thing itself, the painted surface as a complete whole which pictures that which photography or the literal eye cannot record– the act, the art, of picturing.

Grimm 96

grimm 96

“”What distinguishes, among other things, man from the beasts is this capacity for abstraction.  All our forms of communication are are abstractions from the whole context of reality.  Moreover, one is able to chose on one’s own part the degree of abstraction one wants to be involved in.”  (Robert Motherwell, “On The Humanism of Abstraction.” p. 250).  That capacity distinguishes us, yes, but also, and moreso, the singularity of our faces.  All painting involves abstraction, but it is not all, thereby, “abstract.”   Then again, not is all painting that is not abstract is “representational.”  It is picturing, an act, not a classification.  The painting abstracts from the details of the face what is essential to the picturing of a human face– how little, indeed, is needed.  Look-  here is what a face is, concentrate on it.

Imaginary Portrait of Roy Orbison Singing Crying

imaginary portrait of roy orbison singing crying

“[The artist] must give the void its colours.” (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 84). And its humour.  Neither the dignity of the human person, nor the dignity of the human body, not the dignity of human creations elevate us above the pleasure of giving funny names to things. To not be able to laugh at others and oneself in turn is inhuman. If one had to choose, it would be better to be the laughing animal than the rational animal.  The void must be coloured and it must echo with our laughter.   From void to void our lives move in tragicomedy.  We are able to bare the terror of the idea of emptiness because there is music and laughter.

Yellow Head

yellow head

“When our first encounter with some object surprises us and we find it novel, or very different from what we formerly knew or from what we supposed it ought to be, this causes us to wonder and to be astonished at it.  Since all this may happen before we know whether or not the object is beneficial to us, I regard wonder as the first of all the passions.”  (Rene Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, p. 350). In a whole universe full of objects of wonder what is more wonderous than we ourselves?  Our motivations are endlessly opaque even to our own reflections, our bodies are beautiful in uncountably multiple ways, our senses and minds are constantly open to what may present itself.  Our wonder at ourselves constantly engenders new ways to look, picture, sound, relate, build and interpret, all in the service of providing answers to questions that must always be posed anew.

Philosophy’s Role in Understanding Paris and the On-Going Crisis: 10 Theses

  1.  At the basis of all concrete identities: “Muslim,”  “Sunni,” “French citizen,” etc., lies a core human being, a capacity for self-making within the objective contexts of natural and social life.  Selves are made, identities forged, reproduced, modified, and developed through processes of work and affective-symbolic interaction with other people within and across societies.  Work relations and social interactions are contradictory– they are both creative and alienating,  mutualistic and antagonistic, peaceful and violent.  When politics loses sight of or ignores for partisan advantage the underlying human capacity for self-making and re-making it fixates on the abstractions.  A fixation on the abstract markers of particular identities leads to their reification, and  their reification leads in turn to false, quasi-natural explanations of conflict (the problems in the Middle east are the consequence of a  ‘clash of civilizations,’ racism is a result of the ‘natural’ inferiority of the demonized race, etc).
  2. Digging beneath the surface identity to the core human activity  of identity formation, reveals it as the result (always modifiable) of a process of practical and symbolic labour that unfolds in dynamic interaction with other selves and the objective world. Other selves, the natural world, and the social institutions that mediate the relationship between individuals and nature are themselves dynamic and change in response to changed activities.  Foregrounding this dynamic process and using it as a wedge against the stereotypes of reified thinking is the constructive political role that philosophical thinking can play.  While philosophers will also be motivated by concrete political evaluations of the relative legitimacy of conflicting positions, if they are to be active as philosophers, they must ground their political assessments in the deeper understanding of human self-making activity explained above.  By demonstrating the ways in which all sides to the conflict are struggling to forge a coherent and satisfying individual and collective identity and the social and environmental conditions in which that identity can be secured, the underlying humanity of all parties to any conflict is made clear.  Once this underlying humanity has been made clear, invidious contrasts between positions according to which one side is inhuman and monstrous, the other side human and pure, (positions which, because they are reversible, do nothing but ensure cycles of violence) break down, and the opposing sides can begin to think about the reasons why the other side behaves as they do.
  3.  History proves that human beings, when they identify themselves as a member of a community under existential threat, can convince themselves that the most abominable acts are justified as matters of group survival.  No religion, or culture, or ethnicity, or nation-state is prone by its very ‘nature’ to violence, but all can become violent when they are set in conflict with other religions, sects, nation-states in ways that impair the ability of the group to survive, develop, and flourish.  When these conflicts are interpreted as zero sum games, such that the victory of the opponent would mean (or is feared to mean)  the elimination of the group to which the self identifies, a logic of exterminism can be unleashed.  Victory becomes associated with the complete pacification through the total destruction of the other side.  Once this logic is unleashed, it appears impossible to arrest the cycle of violence, because any voice calling for restraint and negotiations will appear not only weak (which is typically politically unacceptable) but also suicidal.
  4. Nevertheless, those voices, the ones that sound most irrational and out of touch with “political realities” are the only ones in touch with the deeper reality, namely, that no matter how abhorrent the tactics adopted, the struggle is comprehensible and defensible in human terms as a struggle for security over the natural and social conditions of life. Killing in response to killing is not the mark of a strong leader, but of a person who is behaving predictably, i..e, the way a machine would, and not like a rational human being.  When thought is directed towards the causes of the opponents’ actions, the cyclical nature of violence becomes apparent.  A political conflict degenerates towards a violent confrontations, which further degenerates towards a logic of exterminism, which amps up fears on both sides and makes it appear that the cycle can be resolved only by superior violence, i.e., by completely destroying the enemy.  However, the struggle to destroy the enemy contributes to the destruction of the community one is trying to protect. The main victims of ISIS are Syrian and Iraqi civilians, hard won democratic freedoms have been undermined by the War on Terror.  Further steps down this path of ”victory’ via extermination can only further destroy all parties to the conflict.
  5. There is a time to assign blame and evaluate the relative merits of the opposing parties’ demands, but assigning blame and evaluating legitimacy, if it occurs outside of this deeper context and frame of the cross cultural human struggle to forge identities and secure the natural and social conditions of their development, will only allow the conflict cycle to repeat.  Philosophy seems useless because it thinks at different time-scales than politics.  Sometimes, the longer time scales in which philosophy thinks are useless–  decisions sometime have to be made right away.  But peaceful co-development between cultures formerly at odds with each other takes longer to develop and can only be grounded in mutual recognition of the different ways different groups can express their underlying human capacity for self-determination and self-making and the satisfactions that come with realizing that capacity.  The practical value of philosophy is not only to bring to light that underlying capacity, but also to defend the need for long-term perspectives on conflict resolution which depend upon transformations of self-understanding and re-interpretation of the reasons why former ‘enemies behaved as they did.
  6. The duty of philosophy in cases of violent conflict is thus not first of all to pick sides but to encourage each side to consider itself in light of the way the other sees it, and in light of the actual success or failure of its tactics.  ISIS might think that it is conducting a heroic struggle against Western imperialism, but on its current path it will accomplish nothing but to ensure the ever more complete destruction of the lands and cultures of those areas of Syria and Iraq that it occupies. Western leaders might think they are defending the highest values of Western civilization against barbaric terrorists, but they have eviscerated the highest constitutional principles that past democratic struggles have achieved and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians across the Middle East, stoking the very anger and hatred that fuels the desire for revenge that leads to terrorist attacks.  Both sides are destroying themselves as they try to destroy each other– irrationality at a mass scale.
  7. Pointing out this reciprocal irrationality is not a substitute for concrete political struggle, but rather a precondition of turning those struggles in efficacious directions.  All efficacious political struggles must be directed at the precise cause or causes of the problem threatening the groups.  In the case of the current crisis across the Middle East, the depth causes are:  the history of Western imperialism in the region, the destruction of the infrastructure of life-support by the “War on Terror,” and cynical exploitation of sectarian and ethnic differences by major Western powers and their regional allies.  Simple Western withdrawal from the region, while a precondition of solving the domestic conflicts, will not be enough to ensure lasting peace unless a constructive politics emerges within the region.  That constructive politics must stop targeting individuals in the West and justifying such attacks as justified vengence.  Such tactics undermine support for the legitimate demands of the peoples of the Middle East, embolden racist-militaristic forces in the West, encourage backlashes against Muslim and Middle Eastern citizens of Western countries, as well as refugees and ordinary Muslim travelers.
  8. Within the West, the political struggle has to be focused not only on particular governments and their policies, but the structural causes of military intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere.  That which must be contested is the principle that the world’s resources are valuable to the extent that they are controlled by Western corporations and exploited in the interests of their ability to maximize money profits and the world’s people valuable to the extent that they serve these interests (and legitimately destroyed ton the extent that they resist this subjugation). Both sides must work towards recognition of the deeper,  common life-interest in living in a society that ensures the satisfaction of their fundamental life-requirements, that is governed by institutions that allow individuals to make decisions democratically, and that is open to mutualistic, respectful interaction and growth between distinct cultures.
  9. Critics will respond to the last point in thesis 8 with the argument that there are radical differences between an enlightened secular cosmopolitan society and the reactionary, atavistic, irrational fundamentalism that drives groups like ISIS.  There can be no reconciliation between western liberal democracy and the reactionary fundamentalism of the caliphate, critics will rejoin, because to do so would betray not only our own ideals, but also the goals of the majority of people in the Middle East struggling to create liberal democracy.  In response, while I agree that Western philosophers should not make any excuses for religious fundamentalism of any stripe, at the same time we must not lose sight of the political dimensions of the conflict in the Middle East, i.e., we must not fall into the trap of seeing it as nothing but a problem of irrational sectarian hatreds.  A group like ISIS might have irrational elements driving certain of its more horrific propaganda stunts, but a careful analysis cannot but uncover legitimate demands amongst Sunnis in Iraq and Syria for protection against the violence of the Syrian and Iraqi states.  ISIS may be destroyed, but another movement will take its place until some political rapproachment is worked out by the parties to the domestic conflict themselves.  At the same time, it is appropriate to criticize religious justifications of the tactics that target Western civilians.  The legitimate critique of religious illusion should not be confused with Islamophobia (especially since most Islamophobes are Christian fundamentalists, who are equally irrational from the standpoint of enlightenment reason).  By the same token, the value of enlightenment ideals of rational analysis and argument should not be exchanged for an uncritical pluralism, or worse, a belief that groups like ISIS should be celebrated for their uncompromising anti-imperialism.  The struggle internal to the peoples of the Middle East is precisely  to create a broad, democratic, anti-imperialist alliance of secular left and critical Islamist movements (the later might be understood as an Islamic version of liberation theology).  Overall,  an effective philosophical analysis and argument needs to identify the rational and the irrational in the opposed camps in order to demonstrate the possibility of future co-development in which cultural, religious, and sectarian identities open towards their outside.  Beyond this outside exclusive communal closures give way to dynamic and democratic cultures that cross-fertilize and encourage creative ways of organizing human societies at all scales.  One historical example of this process is the triple cross-fertilization between the remnants of Greek antiquity, the Islamic society of the Middle Ages, and Europe.  When the Roman Empire closed the Greek schools and after Christian fanatics had burned the library of Alexandria, the works of Greek philosophy contributed to the flourishing of philosophy and medical science in the Islamic world, where they were preserved, built upon, and ultimately re-introduced to Europe through Morocco via Spain.
  10.  Nevertheless, it may also be objected that this argument is naive because it imagines that Western politicians will have to sit down with ISIS, that the caliphate will have to be reckoned with diplomatically and politically, its sins forgiven, and that it is inconceivable that such meetings could ever take place.  The actual process of political problem solving cannot be predicted at this point, only that the attempt to bomb ISIS out of existence will fail and provoke more attacks in the West.  The current moment does not bode well for a political, non-violent solution.  Nevertheless, thirty years ago, it was equally inconceivable that America would sit down with the Iranians who held American diplomats hostage and negotiate in good faith with them. Yet, this past year, American and Iranian negotiators worked out a treaty on the Iranian nuclear program.  It is thus true, as Lord Palmerston said, that nations have no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests.  What he did not understand– and this point is the most important– is that those interests are the permanent life-interest of the human beings who make up the citizenry of all nations, not the raisons d’etat that have typically treated those human beings as expendable cannon fodder and collateral damage.

Russian Lives (Don’t) Matter

I have been listening for a week now and have heard no lamentations for the Russian lives lost on Metrojet Flight 9268.  I can sit on my step and hear Detroit across the river, but I have not heard a peep about “ISIS barbarians,” renewing their  “war on civilization” by bombing a plane full of vacationers.  Russia must no longer be part of “civilization” as I cannot even hear any crocodile tears falling.  Just silence.  Stone, cold (like a tomb) silence.

From Britain too, (usually quick to sing tenor to the United States’ bass when it comes time to compose songs of mourning), silence.  As usual, one hears post-facto reports about terrorist “chatter” about the bombing, but no expression whatsoever of solidarity with the Russian people in their time of collective grief.  No “We are all Russians now” headlines,  pas de  “Je suis Russe” t-shirts, no “You are either with us or with the terrorists” ultimatums. Instead, a silence that tells us much about geo-political reality.

For all the posturing and poetry the “leaders of the free world” produce about the sanctity of life when it is their citizens being killed, their silence about the horrors of violent death when it is their opponents’ dying proves that for them it is not life that is sacred, but only strategic advantage.  Their ability to subordinate life to strategic advantage does not stem from some innate monstrous character deep within them, but from their willingness to manage a monstrous world-system.  They become monstrous in their differential apportioning of life value to friends and enemies, but just changing the people without changing the system means the same monstrosity will replicate itself.  Obama replaced Bush, and the Middle East continued to be bombed.  Trudeau’s “sunny days”  are shining on an Ottawa made grey by Harper’s dour and destructive politics, but there is little chance, beyond cosmetic changes, that our foreign policy is going to change decisively in the direction of dialogue, disengagement, and peace.

Willingness to manage this world-system means willingness to calibrate the value of deaths in relation to an overarching strategic vision. At the moment, this strategic vision involves constructing a new and completely unnecessary cold war with Russia.  Given that Russia has been reduced to “Putin-land”  and Putin-land has been demonized as a new Stalinism, no Western leader even bothers to offer public condolences.  Why?  because when “enemies” do exactly as we do– support their allies with (ill-advised, to be sure)  military adventures- and suffer “blowback”  (Chalmers Johnson)  they are just getting what they deserved (and what ‘we’ warned them would happen).  When the Russians suffer a terrorist attack, it is just the karmic wheel turning; when it is the United States or Britain, it is decried as unholy injustice of cosmic proportions.  Which proves:  neither preserving life nor fighting terrorism is the issue for our leaders, but only pressing their agenda and their advantage, by any means necessary.  

In their struggle to secure all of the world’s resources and subject everyone to their hegemonic decisions, they reject life as the ultimate and highest value.  Entire peoples can be destroyed directly or indirectly if they are on the wrong side, or even just in the way.  Doctors Without Borders’  hospital was knowingly destroyed and doctors gunned down in cold-blood by American forces, but neither their superiors, nor their political leaders, nor American religious leaders who never tire of shoveling their sanctimony in everyone’s face said:  “These people are deranged psychopaths and war criminals who deliberately destroyed a known hospital and trained their guns on people they saw fleeing from the wreckage.”  Since the hospital was in Kunduz, and Kunduz had recently fallen to the Taliban, the deaths of these doctors and patients means nothing to the perpetrators.  They will do it again (and again, and again) .  “Civilization,” when it is on the march, can kill whomever it needs to kill, and ignore the deaths of others if memoriating them serves no political purpose.

So don’t expect any condolences. In any case, who cares about that bombing and that over two hundred Russian vacationers are dead?  Didn’t you hear that their athletes have been cheating?

Pity Poor Windsor b/w The Importance of Being Philosophical

Pity Poor Windsor

Money follows money, and it also follows lack of money.  Growing urban centres whose economies are dominated by advanced industry and research clusters exert a centripetal effect on money-capital, drawing it in from around the world.  Massive inputs of capital  fuel cycles of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter) which knock down the old,   re-develop the freed up space, generate new technologies and methods of production, and experiment with new cultures of work, organization, and play.  For people at the centre of these city-regions there is unlimited money to be made– a building purchased today can be flipped tomorrow for double the price, companies compete for workers, driving salaries up, exciting urban neighbourhoods arise and spawn global styles that enrich the designers and chefs and lifestyle promoters that create and market it all.

But poverty also draws money, but for different reasons and with different effects.  In the impoverished, abandoned, and desperate small cities of the manufacturing heartlands of central Canada and the US Midwest, a massive reserve army of labour is in need of work.  Their need for work– exacerbated by cuts to unemployment insurance and public assistance– draws money capital too, but not to creatively destroy past accumulations of capital but just plain old destroy the hopes of the masses it has abandoned.  The creation happens in  Stanford and San Jose, the destruction is felt in Windsor and Gary, Indiana.  Those on the wrong side of the dialectic are hunted down by money-capital on the lookout for  impoverished and demoralized workers who can be repurposed as low-wage, non-unionized servants of the “creative capital”  working its magic elsewhere.

It is with this system in mind that we must understand the “major jobs announcement”  that had Windsorites holding their breath during the last week of October.  When we exhaled:  320 part-time positions at Sutherland Global’s existing call centre operation.  Hooray for  the company spokesperson’s attempt to make this announcement sound transformational.  She promised future workers that they would be answering phones for “a very hip, innovative and fast-growing high-tech company based in Silicon Valley.”  San Jose has its Google bus and Windsor has the Crosstown 2– not hip, but it does have wheels.

If the  12$ an hour salary (which wouldn’t by a Martini– hell, it probably would not buy a pint of craft beer– in Silicon Valley), is not enticing, the spokesperson promises a coffee bar  and, (perhaps if workers are well-behaved and do not call UNIFOR) “maybe” ping pong tables!  While a confidentiality agreement prevented the spokesperson from disclosing the name of the customer, she did note that the firm was “high value” (to Sutherland Global) and “known for its hipness.”  I am getting older, it is true, but “hipness’  and “corporate world” were once antitheses.  While Sutherland Global can only offer hipness via ping pong proxy, it is at least seeking the young, underemployed but well-dressed set to staff those phones (or whatever hip name phones go by these days).  Our Mayor, beating the same relentless drum beat of enthusiasm his mentor never tired of beating, no matter how grim the reality,  gushed:  “This is a really great announcement… We’ve been hearing from a lot of youth in the community looking for opportunities.”  Are part time, no benefit jobs the “opportunities” young people are seeking?  Maybe if they work hard one of them can graduate to the 120 000$ per year “sports tourism” position the city decided to create three days after these “opportunities”  were announced.

Madness, but little in the way of criticism from those who ought to be most critical.

Jaydee Tarpeh, the President of the University of Windsor Student’s Association, simply re-iterated the mayor’s enthusiasm:  “It is awesome news, sometimes it is very hard for students to find jobs.”  Indeed it is, but ought a student leader not question why it is hard for students to find jobs or, better, why society so disregards the intellectual value of scholarship that it sees no problem forcing students to work in soulless call centres part time while at the same raising the cost of  tuition and turning them into indentured servants of the banks for decades after graduation?  Alas, nothing seems able to motivate Canadians to question, criticise, and protest for something better .

In South Africa, by contrast, a country with far fewer financial resources, militant students have just forced the national government to back down from double-digit fee-increases.  The South African university system is not going to collapse, and nor would the Ontario university system were it forced by (an as yet non-existent)  student movement to begin to reduce its fees.

The issue is not affordability, but the principles that govern budget-allocations.  At present, neo-liberal policy continues to cut spending on public education on the basis of the claim that education  is a personal investment in one’s individual future (for which one willingly pays because it will yield positive returns in the form of a job).  We need a student (and faculty, and society-wide) movement that returns public education to its real value as an essential life-requirement of human beings.  When this requirement is satisfied, our understanding of the physical, social, psychological, ethical, and aesthetic worlds in which we live is increased.  In turn, this heightened understanding yields  more intelligent, far-sighted, life-creative action in those worlds, and more peaceful, mutually affirmative relationships between selves and societies.

The Importance of Being Philosophical

Different models of public expenditure in the service of different values are possible.  The victory of the South African students shows that political mobilization can change priorities. Cuts or fee increases that are announced as absolutely necessary can disappear from the agenda without the institutions collapsing, provided people understand how to expose false necessity and ideological generalizations.  Properly questioned,  the ruling power’s “necessity” can be exposed as an ideological construction, a sham, a stick to beat people into line.  Philosophy, in its most fundamental public expression, teaches us how to ask the questions that expose the ways in which power constructs false necessities.  In so doing, it clears the ground for thinking about the values that really are in the universal life-interest, how those values can be institutionalised, and how resources can be mobilised to pay for them.

Without philosophy (which is not the same thing as philosophy departments, or philosophy professors), social life remains hostage to ruling group interests and the power rulers employ to maintain that system.  No specialized methods are required to practice philosophy in this way, (although one does need to practice, always).  To begin, all one needs is the capacity to ask two questions:  1) Who is the stated beneficiary of a given policy championed by the ruling power? and, 2) what actual effect does the policy have on the lives of its stated beneficiaries?  Wherever the stated beneficiary is said to be “the public”  we must press beneath the rhetoric of universal inclusiveness and evaluate whether the public actually does benefit.  Where a contradiction is exposed between the justification and the outcome, we know we are dealing with a false universality asserted only to cover the real agenda:  the extension or consolidation of the ruling group’s power.

These questions work to expose ruling agenda at any level:  local, regional, provincial, national, or international.  Let us take two examples of local and provincial significance to illustrate my point.

First, a local story.  On Hallowe’en the Windsor Star reported that Windsor Chief of Police Al Fredrick was angered by the Ontario government’s decision to ban the practice of “carding,” i.e., stopping people at random, because, in the Chief’s words, they “look suspicious.”  Across the province, it turns out, that “looking suspicious” and being black are nearly synonymous.   Of course, the Chief is not going to admit to racially profiling Windsorites, but tries to sell his position on the grounds that it helps keep the streets safe.  In fact, in the article he segues, without any connective argument or evidence, from a general critique of the province to the suggestion (which readers are clearly supposed to interpret not as a suggestion, but as fact) that carding keeps guns off the streets.  In philosophy, a conclusion that does not follow from its premises is called a non sequitor, from the Latin for “it does not follow.”  Chief Fredricks certainly commits this generic fallacy.

But more, and deeper, the Chief tries to identify the good of the public (‘safe streets’) with the arbitrary power of the police to stop and question people for no reason other than that they “look suspicious.”  But there is no such thing, objectively, as “looking suspicious”  but only stereotypes about what criminals look like.  Now, these stereotypes can change.  Hence, any one is in principle “suspicious looking” depending upon whatever stereotypes about “criminal appearances”  circulate.  Thus, the public interest is actually in constraining police power, limiting it to the investigation of crimes actually committed and never permitting fishing expeditions like carding.  If public safety requires stopping suspicious looking people, would we not be safer if we moved straight on to imprisoning suspicious looking people?  Of course not, because if the police had the power to imprison on the basis of their “gut feelings”  we would be living in a totalitarian police state, and living in a totalitarian police state is clearly not in the public interest.

The second example concerns the announced sale of 60% of publically owned Hydro One. Despite a report from the Province’s Financial Accountability Officer  that demonstrates conclusively that the province will, in the long term, lose money on the sale, the Premier insisted that the sale would go ahead, because it is good for the Ontario economy.  Her argument is based upon speculation (because, projections about future economic growth as a result of infrastructure investment can only be speculative, there being no data from the future).  The FAO report, by contrast, is based on demonstrable fact:  Hydro One brings in 750 million dollars a year, and will do so in perpetuity, because electricity must be delivered to end users, and Hydro One controls the means of delivery.

At present, therefore, Hydro One brings in 750 million dollars a year which, in principle, is available for investment in ways that the people of Ontario decide (I realize that the truth of public ownership in a capitalist economy is not as straightforward as I am making it out to be, but the principle, if not the practice, is clear:  public ownership means democratic control over the resources owned; private ownership means private control over the use of the resource and the money such use generates).  If publically owned resources are sold to private interests, democratic control is eliminated, in principle and in practice.  The citizens of Moose Factory or Kirkland Lake will see no improvement in their lives because of transit improvement in the Greater Toronto Area, (the stated reason for the sell off). GDP growth, assuming there is any following the infrastructure investment, tells us nothing about how the increased money is distributed or spent.  All we know for certain is who will benefit:  the private investors who gain control over  Hydro One.

The claim is that “Ontario”  will benefit, the truth is that “Ontario” gives up control over a public utility which provides necessary resources to everyone in the province and returns public money to the provincial treasury, money that is in principle under the control of the collectivity of Ontarians to invest in institutions and public goods from which we can all benefit.

Simple questions, answers that disclose the truth about the city/province/country/world we inhabit.  Without philosophical questioning (again, always to be distinguished from academic philosophy) those truths remian buried.

Readings: Chris Hedges: The Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt

The subtitle of this book sums up the problem with the global Left seven years after the start of a crisis that, from the standpoint of working people, shows no signs of abating.  Revolt  might be a moral imperative, but revolution is a matter of political organization.  Revolt is immediate, passionate, a response to a specific provocation or an exasperated flailing against structures of oppression that the oppressed can no longer bear.  Revolts can become revolutions, but not without democratic political organization.  Democratic political organizations alone can transform a righteous fight into a coherent, long term strategy of institutional change.  Hedges should not be faulted for not providing what no one else has yet provided:  a defensible alternative to the vanguardist Leninist parties that won power through the revolutions of the twentieth century but could not ultimately sustain the democratic energy from which they were born.  But he can be faulted for ignoring the question altogether.

In part, the criticisms I am reluctantly forced to make stem from the expectations that I brought to the book.  Books should be allowed to speak for themselves, and when the reader does not let them, because he or she has already formed a preconception of what ‘should”  be in the book, disappointment is inevitable.  I came the The Wages of Rebellion expecting:  a) a clear analysis of the structural crisis of capitalist civilization, in America and globally, b) an argument that demonstrated that the crisis is the cause of growing political mobilizations around the world, c) a systematic explanation of the form of organization needed to transform these mobilizations from spontaneous episodes of resistance and revolt into a cumulative and self-ramifying revolutionary transformation of global capitalist society, and d) a clear explanation of the values, institutions, and social dynamics that characterize the alternative society.  The book did not fully satisfy any of those expectations.  On the one hand, it did not because its real purpose was to tell stories of individual rebels rather than provide a systematic analysis of the causes of global crisis.(p.18)  On the other hand, when it does attempt analysis, it is not systematic, never clearly grounded in any definite political tradition, and, at the crucial moment, substitutes treacle platitudes for a more prosaic, but much more necessary, explanation of institutional alternatives and the concrete political steps needed to mobilize the numbers of people necessary to bring them into being.

The introduction foreshadows the problems from which the whole book suffers.  Instead of a clear statement of a)  what the real nature of the problem we are facing is, and b) a correspondingly clear statement of what we ought to do about it, we are instead given a tour through a picture gallery of famous revolutionaries.  The portraits are engaging but the underlying message is inconsistent.  Hedges defines the revolutionary ideal as “the vision of a better world, the belief that resistance is a moral act to protect the weak and the poor.”(p.6)  Note the way in which he defines revolution as a moral act “in defense of the weak and poor”  rather than as a movement of the weak and poor.  The political view of the entire book is coloured by this substitutionist-heroic understanding of revolution.  Instead of being understood as the democratic movements they historically have been, Hedges repeatedly reduces revolution to the moral psychology of revolutionaries, which he alternately extols, when they chose the path of non-violent resistance, or dismisses, when they chose the road of armed struggle.

My argument here is not that Leninist vanguard parties or peasant armies should be the preferred means of struggle at this point in the twenty-first century.  I agree with Hedges on this point, that anyone who still believes in that politics has not understood the political lessons of the failure of twentieth century revolutions.  Hedges is thus correct when he argues that “revolutions take time.  They are often begun by one generation and completed by the next.”(p.18) Rather, my objection is that, with the notable exception of his discussion of the Zapatista strategy of building the world you want to live in with the available means at your disposal, there is no discussion whatsoever of political mobilization.(pp.70-76).  The Marxist tradition is invoked periodically for certain insights about the process of revolution, but politically dismissed, with no alternative tradition of mass political mobilization ever being invoked as a superior alternative.  This history of feminism, of anti-colonial struggle (with the exception of a few vignettes about Nelson Mandela), and even the civil rights movement are left unexamined as sources of information about how massive numbers of people can be effectively organized to win major social victories.

Thus, the main problem with Hedges’ book, for all its exceptionally clear focus on the profoundly undemocratic and violent and dangerous state of the world, is that it is too much like every other political book published by major publishing houses: it is about personalities, not political and social processes.  The body of the book is not a defense of the claim that revolt is a moral imperative, it is a gallery of people who have stood up to power and paid for it:  Martin Luther King, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Cecily MacMillan, Thomas Paine.  The portraits are lovingly drawn, the political lessons of their individual struggles well-taken, the heroism of their personal examples obvious, their courage superogatory.   Yet, despite Hedges’ unquestionable commitment to justice and democracy, the majority of people never appear as agents of their own liberation in this book.  The most important argument Marx ever made about revolution (one that is too often forgotten)  is that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.  One can say the same for women, for racialized mainitorites, for demonized ethnicities, and any other group facing structural oppression:  their freedom must be achieved through their own struggles, and not as the reflex of the heroic acts of a saviour.

Amazingly, that point is never made.  Instead, the majority of the people on the planet appear either as passive victims awaiting salvation or as dangerous mob ready to explode. Despite the fact that the book asserts that there is a moral imperative to revolt,  Hedges often appears to be as fearful of mass political uprisings as the ruling class he rails against.  His is an individualistic view of rebellion: “The person with moral courage defies the crowd, stands up as a solitary individual, shuns the intoxicating embrace of comradeship, and is disobedient to authority, even at the risk of his or her life, for a higher principle.”(p. 59). This view of rebellion is typical of a liberal, great person theory of history.

Indeed, I found myself worrying that Hedges’ preferred audience for this book is not the mass of people, but the very “liberal class” whose death he lamented in the book that first brought him to public prominence.  Like Thomas Piketty two years ago, Hedges seems less interested in working out a theory of mass democratic political mobilization than warning the ruling class to begin to address structural inequality, sham democracy, and totalitarian surveillance, or face a violent and incohate uprising that will destroy everything in its blind fury. He alternates between charges that the public is compromised by an “inability to grasp the pathology of our oligarchic corporate elite” (p. 61) which makes effective resistance difficult and apocalyptic worries that without effective resistance the planet might be doomed.(p.28) At one point, he simply asserts that socialism must replace capitalism, (p.155) without defining what he means by socialism.  Yet, throughout the book, he laments the decline of unions and is skeptical about the power of the working class.  If socialism is not going to be achieved via the political agency of the working class, how is it going to be achieved?  By following, it would seem.  At the end, Hedges  asserts that the majority of people must follow those rebels moved by a “sublime madness”   to some indeterminate future of emancipated life:  “I do not know if we can build a better society.  I do not even know if we will survive as a species.  But I do know that corporate forces have us by the throat. … I do not fight fascists because I will win.  I fight fascists because they are fascists.  And this is a fight that in the face of the overwhelming forces against us requires that we follow those possessed by sublime madness.”(p. 226). Calling the current regime “fascist” sounds like bold iconoclasm, but when thought through in the context of the comment that follows, Hedges actually plays it safe.

That suspicion is bolstered by the complete lack of any discussion of what an alternative will look like, what its economy will be, and what values it will serve.  He inveighs against “corporate capitalism,” and details in chilling detail the Kafkesque machinations of surveillance state power, but does not discuss alternative models of democracy, what a democratic socialist and life-valuable economy might look like and how it might run, and what sorts of political parties need to be created in order to advance the agenda.  He does not discuss the struggle for twenty-first century socialism in Bolivia and Venezuela, he says nothing about Syriza or the attempt to re-energize parliamentary democracy through the creation of parties to the left of moribund social democracy.

To really challenge the forces of what Hedges calls fascism does not require sublime madness but working through– critically, to be sure– the concrete lessons of past and present efforts at systematic change .  To blindly follow the lone rebel is to turn oneself into cannon fodder for a failed revolt.  The successful revolutions and mass rebellions of history  were not spontaneous uprisings of people led by a charismatic leader, they were meticulously planned and organized.  That is not to say that leadership is not important or that almost mystical visions of future harmony and beauty cannot be important motivating ideas.  It is to say that the protection and freedom of life that would define a society that manages to solve the problems of capitalism cannot be a virtuoso creation, but a project of long, patient, democratic struggle.  If the situation is as bad environmentally, economically, politically, and culturally as Hedges portrays it as being, then we need much better from public intellectuals like Hedges than “rebellion … requires honoring the sacred.  It requires an understanding that, as with the heros of ancient Greece, one cannot finally overcome fate … but that we must resist regardless.”(p.225). If, as this claim implies, resistance is doomed to failure, people will be forgiven if they do not even try.  Ultimately that message is a message more likely to lead to resignation than resistance, and it is therefore a message the ruling class will not be unhappy to have disseminated.

In the purple glow of “sublime madness”  a union meeting or a pro-choice rally or a demonstration against police violence looks grey and uninspiring, particularly if it is small.  There seems no way to get from the shabby union office or the wind-swept street to the conquest of the structures that oppress us.  Nevertheless, it is in shabby offices, kitchens, and on wind-swept streets that revolutions are made, and made not by those summoning followers to follow their inspired vision, but by leaders mobilizing ordinary people to become agents and leaders themselves.  I believe that Hedges would agree with this properly democratic conception of leadership and struggle, but if he does, it does not come through clearly in this powerful, but ultimately politically unsatisfactory, book.


On the Meaning of “Potential” in Politics

In “The Problem of Society,” George Herbert Mead argues that a most important outcome of the French Revolution was the incorporation of the principle of revolution into the basic institutions of democratic society itself:  “The French Revolution … in a sense incorporated the principle of revolution into institutions.  That is, when you set up a constitution and one of the articles in it is that the constitution may be changed, then you have, in a certain sense, incorporated the very process of revolution into the order of society.” (p.20).  If his argument is correct, then the age of violent revolutions should end with the universalization of the democratic principle, since the main aim of revolution– overcoming a systematic divorce between the interests of the ruling group and the majority of people– should always be corrigible by legitimate mass mobilization in the service of constitutional change.

Mead’s principle has been put to the test recently in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where citizen assemblies wrote new constitutions which challenged foreign and corporate control over these nations’ life-resources and asserted the principle that natural wealth and social labour are for the sake of need satisfaction.  Most crucially, these new constitutions formally repudiated the distinction-  central to most liberal-democratic constitutions– between politics as the public sphere and economics as the private sphere not subject to even regulation in the universal life-interest. The achieved results have fallen short of the principles, but where and when in history have the comprehensive progressive implications of a principle been fully realized in the first attempt?

What is more important than the setbacks is the demonstration that Mead’s argument is not- as it might at first blush be dismissed as being- liberal-pragmatic wishful thinking, but rather indicative of a hidden potential in liberal-democratic institutions that Marxists and others committed to fundamental social transformation might at first ignore.  That potential is that if people can be mobilized in support of a project of constitutional change, these constitutional changes can make inroads in the struggle against class power.   In the short term, there may not be dramatic effects on the extent of ruling class control over life-resources.  On the other hand, dramatic intensification of  ordinary peoples’  active engagement  in the democratic process can occur.  Whatever one believes about the necessary means to system-transformation, only those forms which involve the majority of the people becoming subjects of their own history, awakening to the fact that nature and labour, not money-capital, is the basis of life and social development, can be actually liberatory.

It seems a long way from processes of popular constitutional assemblies and society-wide debates over the sources of wealth, the centrality of labour to human life, the practical implications of the idea of democracy, and the real value of socialism (sustainable use of natural and social wealth for the sake of the free development and enjoyment of individual life-capacities) to a Canadian election campaign as intellectually and politically dreary as a grey October afternoon.  It is a long way, but still, it is important to look at every election as a crack in that facade of seamless institutional continuity which every society relies upon for its own reproduction.  While the undemocratic first past the post electoral system and the deep uniformity (beneath superficial differences) of major party platforms do well to hide the fact, every election cycle is, in principle, an actual holding up to question of the legitimacy, not only of the government of the day, but of the entire system.

However, this depth questioning, while objectively possible, is never systematically pursued.  Opposition parties question the record of the government, but never whether the ruling value system, class structure, and political institutions are consistent with the idea of a free society all invoke.  Such superficiality is not surprising:  mainstream politicians of all parties all have a material interest in preserving the legitimacy of the existing institutions and the value-system that makes them appear good, just, etc.  The mainstream media muckrakes, but never provides a forum for robust critical investigation of the crucial political questions in a democratic society:  does what is on offer in the policies of the contending parties satisfy the real life-interests of the human beings who make up that society, and, if not, what are those citizens going to do about that failure?

Election time is a time of much hymn making to the power of the people.  What is missing is any space for a philosophical intervention.  Because philosophy is not beholden to the empirically given as ultimate and final, it can articulate the deeper human values existing potentially within the problematic actuality.  The idea of “potential” is the idea of a hidden reserve of value lying unrealized within an already existing system.  No process of fundamental change can be initiated without the idea of potential–  if no one believes that there is anything left to be realized, no one can struggle to realize it.

Furthermore, since potential can be demonstrated by philosophical argument (drawing on the reality of historical change, one can demonstrate the actual role the idea of potential —  rather than ex nihilo invention– played in times of fundamental transformation)  it undermines the charge that the ideals fundamental change seeks to realize are utopian (u-topos– “no place”), and therefore irresponsible.  Potential is not an empty box into which any idea whatsoever can be placed, but is always emergent from the existing state of affairs.  If liberal democracies like Canada claim to be free, it follows that they must enable each of their citizens to fully exercise their life-capacities, which current economic and social structures clearly do not.  Since the material and social means to enable everyone’s life capacities do demonstrably exist, there is no magic involved in the claim that the potential for Canada to become a fully free society is present, but it requires removing the institutional impediments– and the values that legitimate those impediments as just and necessary– to the ability of each and all to fully express and enjoy their life-capacities.

Hence, there is nothing utopian or irresponsible with the argument that takes us from where we are (systemic blocks to people’s free activity) through the idea of potential (the existence of life-requirement satisfying resources combined with the idea of a different use of those resources), to where the idea of freedom implies where we should be (a social structure and value system which distributes resources on the basis of life-need, for purposes of free self-realization).  If that goal is not definitive of a free society, what is?

Liberal democratic institutions and the elections they require for re-legitimation do not so much deny the possibility of citizen mobilization (and therefore, political potential) as they do channel it in the least demanding ways.  Political potential is confined to the potential to change the government and the prevailing policy options, but not the values and the institutions that are the cause of the damage every party’s platform promises to solve but never does.

In order for people to realize the deeper potential that the idea of a free society contains, they need to mobilize as a collective (or interlinked collectives) and work to realize it.  In order to mobilize in the service of this potential, they must be exposed to arguments that it exists.  But neither candidates debates, nor the distractions of attack ads, nor the platitudes of speeches, nor the meaningless micro-analytics of ever fluctuating poll numbers refer to this idea of potential, even though real political action cannot even be imagined without it.  Real political action is not system-management, but collective work in the service of better lives for each and all.  Philosophy, therefore, is that which is missing from official politics.  A free society does not require philosophers to be kings, as Plato thought, but it does require them to intervene as critics who give voice to the reality of a potential for “real change”  (as both opposition candidate keep repeating, without specifying what it is they mean by that all important onto-ethical term “real”).

On Radicalism

The world capitalist system is obviously exhausted.  The values that distinguished it as a progressive alternative to feudal aristocratic-monarchical rule-  liberty, equality, fraternity- have been replaced by surveillance, inequality, and violent factionalization.  True, people are  still free to pursue happiness, but the form of happiness on offer–  the accumulation of money and consumer goods– is, on the one hand, impossible for more and more people because they lack secure and well-paid employment, and, more deeply, unfulfilling, even for those who can afford it.  The system lives on only through violence and distraction.

The distractions have become increasingly perverse.  Physicians for Social Responsibility, using well-established empirical and statistical methods, estimates that 1.3 million people have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan in the “War on Terror”  since 9/11, almost all of them Muslims, killed either directly or indirectly by Western armies. (By ‘indirectly’ I mean killed as a result of the sectarian violence engendered by Western intervention.  In this case the Western arnies are not the cause of death, but the cause of the cause of death; i.e., the force that created the conditions in which the sectarian could be enflamed).  Yet, absurdly, governments continue to portray our societies and our lives as under threat.  Disgracefully, unacceptably, too many citizens in the West allow themselves to be frightened by racist government led fear-mongering.

The lengths to which Western governments will go to excite this fear and to turn each citizen into a spy on his or her neighbour leap into the deepest wells of stupidity.  Recently, the Australian government published a guide for parents and teachers purporting to help them spot “radicalization”  in Australian teenagers.  Harkening back to the “listening to heavy metal leads to devil-worship” idiocy of my own teenage years, the pamphlet warns that one sign that your son or daughter might be planning to pack his or her bags and head for Syria is that he or she starts listening to “alternative music.”  If you do not believe me, throw a shrimp on the barbie, open up a big can of Foster’s, crank up your favourite Birthday Party album as loud as you can, and read it here (then weep).

Perhaps I should not poke fun.  It is true that there are a large number of foreign fighters in ISIS, but, as with their targets, these are mostly young men (and some women)  from the Middle East. The  latest estimate puts the number of foreign fighters at 30 000, from 100 countries, but of those 30 000 only 250 are known to be American (out of a total US population of 318.9 million) and, from our cousins of the Southern hemisphere, a grand total of–wait for it– 61 from Australia (population, 23.13 million).

By contrast, there are an estimated 100 000 satanists in the world, most of them in the United States.  Statistical correlations between membership in various satanic churches and having been a metalhead as a teenager were not available, but on the basis of the raw data we can conclude with certainty that devil-worshipers are much more effective recruiters (about 400 times better)  than ISIS, at least in America.

More seriously:  since 2004, Americans have killed 316 545 other Americans with firearms.  During the same period, 313 Americans have been killed by terrorism.  In other words, “ordinary”  gun violence in America out kills terrorism by a factor of 1000.

While these numbers show that the endless droning about how ISIS is coming to steal your baby to be moronic, it does cause a real problem. It diverts critical intelligence away from the real issue.  The real issue, the real threat to peaceful co-existence in the world, is the messaianic zeal with which the West destroys other societies and cultures from the air and then blames the victims as “enemies of civilization.”  Astounding, no, that our governments can get away with destroying what civilization there was (functioning health care systems, schools, water treatment facilities, museums, family and social life, …) in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and so on, and then blame forces like ISIS, which were able to grow only because of the power vacuum our assaults caused?  That they can get away with it suggests that the problem is not radicalization of Western youth, but rather the de-radicalization of almost everyone.

The Australian government’s pamphelt and analogous ideological devices hope to link ‘radical,”  “radicalization,” and “radicalism”  with “violence,” and to frighten people on that basis from doing or saying anything that can be construed as radical.  Yet here again an astounding inversion of reality obtains– these political masters of the world’s most lethal military machines, these directors of global surveillance and police regimes,  these hoarders of the earth’s wealth, call those who would merely criticise them “supporters of violence” for the act of pointing out the truth– they are the cause of most of the violence in the world.

It is true that such arguments are radical.  But “radical,” (as Marx famously argued in 1843) derives from the Latin for “root.” All a radical agenda or a radical person demands is to understand the causes of problems.  In this proper sense, science just as much as philosophy or politics can be radical. Think of the leading work scientists have done to expose the links between fossil fuel consumption  and global warming, or the heroic efforts of Physicians for Social Responsibility to uncover the true death toll of the War on Terror.

Violence is always a substitute for understanding– where everyone concerned knows and acts on the truth- or at least agrees on the procedures by which the truth may be discovered– violence is impossible, because irreconcilable opposition of interests has been set aside in favour of a joint search for solutions. If everyone together looks to find the cause, the root of the problem, then it becomes apparent what the real danger is:  not  the radical demand to understand, but the distractions and the ideological obfuscations that impede understanding. Radicalism is not violent, it is the opposite of violence; the obfuscation in itself is not violent, but it prevents the real causes from becoming known.

Properly understood, all thinking is radical in so far as it aims at the truth.  When we confront any social problem:  poverty, anomie, violence against women, climate change, and, yes, terrorism, the properly attuned mind wants to know the cause, so that appropriate measures can be taken to solve the problem, by addressing the cause.  We know whether or not our account has captured the truth by whether or not the problem is solved, or keeps recurring.  Let us perform a simple test to see whether the War on Terror has gotten to the truth, or addressed the causes of, terrorism.  In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, the avowed aim of the War on Terror was to eliminate Al Qaeda and its Taliban sponsors.  Al Qaeda has been weakened, but it still exists, the Taliban have been toppled from power, but are still very much active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a new force, which did not exist in 2001, ISIS, now currently controls half of Syria and Iraq.  Insurgencies have also cropped up in the Sinai peninsula, and a brutal, US-Saudi enflamed civil war is raging in Yemen.  In my assessment, these facts spell failure, on the War on Terror’s own terms.

Nevertheless, it would be naive to expect that Western policies will be changed.  First, there is no political pressure behind demands to change course and deal with the causes.  Far too many people in the West fear terrorist attacks, although there is almost no evidence that the groups they fear will carry them out– ISIS above all, right now– have any capacity to do so, their internet blather notwithstanding.  More deeply, there is little reason to expect change because change would require admitting that the West itself has caused the problems it projects on to others.  As the Palestinian activist and intellectual Rami G. Khouri argues, any approach to the problem of “violent extremism”   “that leaves in place existing Arab, U.S. and Israeli policies merely perpetuates the colonialist idea that violence is a consequence of alien values or mindsets in the Arab and Islamic world.”  Unless those policies are radically challenged, there is no reasonable hope that the violence everyone in the West claims to abhor will stop.



On Corbyn, Compliance, and Confidence

Second Time Farce?

Less than one month after Syriza’s capitulation to the combined forces of European and and global finance capital, the UK Labour Party has, surprisingly, elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.  (See Democracy Against Capitalism and Capitalism Against Democracy for my analysis of the Syriza situation). Corbyn articulates many of the same structural criticisms of capitalism as the original Syriza program, and is advocating an analogous set of radical reforms.  By “radical reforms” I mean policies which challenge the principle that collectively created wealth belongs to the owners of capital exclusively, and that that proper use of such wealth is to create more capital for the owners.  Instead, Corbyn defends a program which would end austerity, re-invest in public institutions, re-nationalise certain industries,  replace a foreign policy based upon military adventurism with one based upon diplomacy and dialogue, and promote environmental health through support for ecological localism.  As an open letter from the leadership of the Socialist Worker Party to Corbyn rightly argued “his success is a clear sign of the feeling against austerity, racism and war. His victory is an utter rejection of the warmongering and veneration of big business that were the hallmarks of the Tony Blair era.”   The same letter points out the danger he will face.  “There are 20 Labour MPs who really back Corbyn. There are 210 who don’t.” While new members to Labour attracted in the wake of Ed Milliband’s disastrous election campaign forced this new direction (which is, in essence, a journey back towards the sort of labour Party Tony Benn and others in the left opposition wanted to see), the party establishment is certainly not on board.

Syriza stirred similar hopes (mine included) that a new generation of socialist politics was emerging in Europe, learning the positive lessons taught by Venezuela under Chavez and Bolivia under Morales,  in which the power of past democratic victories, embodied in parliamentary institutions with the formal power to change property relations and make in roads against ruling class control over universally required life resources, would become the primary vehicle of struggle.  The power of this politics (I and others hoped, and still do) derived from its democratic legitimacy.  A party duly elected on an explicit platform of investing collectively created wealth to serve the shared life-interests is (as the United States found in its long history of trying to undermine Chavez) almost impossible to discredit.

Thus far, Syriza itself it has disappointed those hopes, although not to the point where everyone on the Greek Left has abandoned it.  Still, its performance lends support to critics like Richard Seymour who have argued that Syriza’s disintegration in the face of ruling class opposition was a world historical defeat.  Whether Corbyn’s election signals an over-hasty rush to judgement on Seymour’s part about the radical potential of parliamentary socialist parties remains to be seen.  In any event, Leo Panitch is correct (even thought he was not correct in his own rush to defend Syriza) that “the kind of democratic socialist struggle that we are embarked on is a marathon, not a sprint.”  However, even marathons have ends, and if runners are not periodically refreshed along the way, they will die.  Unless a movement like Corbyn’s insurgent candidacy, or Syriza, or some other movement attains some sort of concrete victory soon, this new path of socialist struggle will be found along the roadside next to the corpses of Third Way social democracy and Leninist vanguardism.

Fuck You, I Won’t Do What You Tell Me.

The election of Corbyn is a refreshing example of people doing exactly the opposite of what the power brokers told them to do.  They were irresponsible, they took a risk, they turned their back on the polite alternative.  Such refusals are rare.  As if Corbyn and others struggling against austerity and eco-environmental crisis did not have enough objective- structural opposition to contend with, there are also powerful subjective headwinds impeding the ability of socialist to build a unified and powerful movement. Even though the necessity for fundamental change cannot be rationally denied in the face of the evidence (faltering economies, a culture of cynical withdrawal from mainstream politics, a global refugee crisis, unending wars, the manifold threats posed by climate change), this necessity has not proven sufficient subjective motivation for new movement building in most of the Global North.   A culture of compliance dominates working class consciousness that complicates organizing the sorts of mass movements parliamentary socialist parties need as goads to stay consistent with their transformational platforms.

Two examples, one seemingly frivolous (but not), and one serious, (but presented as frivolous) illustrate my point.

We are all shaped by the culture of our origins, and for me that means loving hockey and wasting time reading about it in the sports pages.  Training camps are opening and the papers are full of analyses and prognostications about each team’s prospects for the coming year.  The news from the Toronto Maple Leafs camp is focused on changes to management (which is itself telling).  One story in the Toronto Star last week noted how in response to an edict from the new General Manager, Lou Lamoriello, the players have shown up to training camp clean shaven.  It turns out Lamoriello does not like beards and has banned his players from sporting them.  It would seem all have complied, without argument.

Well, so what– team sport is a school of conformity, one might quite sensibly reply.  It is that, to be sure.  On the other hand, hockey players are also unionized workers.  Moreover, they are unionized workers many of whom have talents that are for the most part irreplaceable.  On top of that, many of them have guaranteed contracts worth millions of dollars, which gives them tremendous leverage in any conflict with individual owners and managers.  No one is going to pay to watch a 72 year old authoritarian scowl from a press box.  In other words, had the players all said:  “Go to hell.  We are adults and we will dress however we want to dress,” (i.e., had they reached the level of political consciousness of adolescent girls in Toronto High Schools fighting against dress codes)  Lamoriello would have had to back down.  But they have not.  They did what they were told.  And if even the most wealthy unionized workers cannot stand up to the petty totalitarianism of management, that tells us that working class power has been profoundly undermined by four decades of neo-liberalism.

The second example is, at a substantive level, far more troubling.  A recent story reported by the CBC reports that the latest trend in worker oppression is a badge worn by employees that records everything they say for later analysis.  “The information from the badges,” the story explains,  “which were created by the Boston-based company Humanyze, was gathered anonymously, and workers were given personalized dashboards that benchmarked their performance against that of the group.”  One might expect that workers would immediately see what these technologies are really about– complete control over all thought and action in the work place– but by and large they do not.   One of the directors explains just how effective the technology is at making workers want to change their day to day performance:

‘”The minute that you get the report that you’re not speaking enough and that you don’t show leadership, immediately, the next day, you change your behaviour,’ says Silvia Gonzalez-Zamora, an analytics leader at Deloitte, who steered the Newfoundland pilot.”

“It’s powerful to see how people want to display better behaviours or the behaviours that you’re moving them towards.”

There is something bewitching about these technologies which makes managerial domination seem fun.  Instead of throwing them out the window, they are embraced as games in which people compete against themselves to conform and become more productive– serving the bottom line of the company, revealing information that could be used against them, all the while believing they are engaged in an amusing self-improvement project.

It is true, of course, that part of the culture of compliance is real and heightened vulnerability of workers to management power. Still, even in those cases where workers have a high degree of job security (like hockey players or tenured professors)  too often the response to increased bureaucratic oversight and interference is:  comply first, complain (over drinks) later.  Compliant is not critique:  the path to change begins with protecting existing workplace rights and ends with overthrowing the exploitative and alienating structures of capitalism.

Looking, Not Leaping

The culture of compliance is not a function of individual character flaws, but a real crisis of confidence in working people borne of decades of defeat.  Hence we find ourselves in a catch-22-  in order to break the cycle of compliance, we need confidence, and to gain confidence, we need a victory, but to win a victory, we need to stop complying, but to stop complying we need confidence.

People are confident when they feel that other people have their backs and that there are organizations and institutions in place that can protect them from reprisals.  But solidarity and the fighting and protective organizations working people have created over two centuries of struggle have been the targets of neo-liberal globalization.  Where labour markets are tight, workers can easily be set against each other, non-unionized labour undercutting unionized labour, unionized labour in the Global North seeing lower cost labour  in the global South as the enemy.  Everyone’s bargaining position is weakened, everyone becomes fearful of losing even more than they have already lost, and the idea of an offensive struggle to reclaim form capital what we all need for life sounds insane.

Thus, when a movement like Syriza or Jeremy Corbyn makes noises about the need to make those sorts of structural inroads against capital, they are mocked and called mad.  Like the fool in King Lear, they are actually speaking the truth, but it takes confidence to listen to fools.

The Politics of Humanitarian Disaster

“Even the mind of the small man is no different.  Only he himself makes it small.  Therefore when he sees a child about to fall into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration.  This shows that his humanity (jen) forms one body with the child. (Wang Yang Ming, Confucian philosopher, quoted in McMurtry, Unequal Freedoms, 1998, p.368.

And when millions of people see a dead child washed up on a beach in Turkey, their anger and their outrage and their demand to help the suffering refugees fleeing their destroyed homes in the Middle East and Africa proves that their humanity forms one body with this child.  Wang Yang Ming’s observations, as moving as any I have read in 20 years as a philosopher, still ring true across cultural differences and 2500 years because they state what most of us know to be the case from our own lives:  when we pay attention to the suffering of another living being, we suffer too and cannot bear it, and we instinctively want to do something about it.  This capacity of fellow feeling (what McMurtry calls the life-ground of value) cuts beneath all differences of culture, nationality, gender, and species.  If you let your consciousness focus on anything that is clearly suffering you will suffer too, and be moved to try to relieve it (or flee because of your inability to help).

The conscience of the world has been aroused, and our shared humanity recognized and affirmed.  Ordinary people in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany have been reaching out in support and solidarity and doing what they can to assist their fellow human beings.  As one volunteer from Austria, when confronted with the fact that it was illegal to transport refugees in her car from Hungary to Austria said, “It’s a global problem.  It’s very important that we, altogether, give this big sign that refugees — the people that need our help and come from the war — have our solidarity and support.” This type of solidarity and support is pre-political, the fellow feeling from which demands for institutional changes derive and without which critical politics is just words.

But if this response is in a sense natural to human beings, why is it not universally expressed?  Not everyone has responded with support and solidarity. The Israeli, Hungarian, and Macedonian governments are building barbed wire fences to keep refugees out, the chilling spectacle of razor-wire enclosed camps has returned to Europe, and neo-fascists have attacked refugees in Germany.  Just as it is natural for functioning eyes to see, but what they look at and notice depends upon where the brain directs their attention, so to our capacity to feel the suffering of others and respond in solidarity depends on our directing our attention to the other person.  It is when our focus is on our own self, “our” country/land/resources/wealth as exclusive private possessions, that we see the needy other as a threat, and work to fence them out.  However,  it is always possible to redirect the eye, for people to open themselves to the needs of others.  The suffering that the eye sees is all the ethical argument needed:  suffering cannot be borne, so it must be alleviated, and that is the material basis of any conception of the human good.

Getting people to shift their focus, from holding on to what they have to sharing it with vulnerable others is made more difficult by the fact that there is often political advantage to be gained from exploiting xenophobic fears.   But as the massive outpouring of critique against the Canadian minister of Immigration Chris Alexander proves, xenophobia can always be trumped by human heartedness.   At the root of xenophobia lies ignorance:  of the actual wealth of this country, of its capacity to help without noticeable cost to Canadians, but also, the ignorance lying behind the nonsense that refugees are lazy and greedy, simply looking for “handouts”  and a free ride.  It is obvious to the eye that looks at what is really happening that  people do not  undertake life-threatening ocean crossings and then walk hundreds of kilometers on foot unless they have concluded there is simply no other way to save their lives.   Windsor has the highest unemployment rate in the country, but I do not see people trying to swim across the river and walk to California in search of work.  People flee their homes only as a last resort.  And that which they must undertake to reach their destination is work if anything is, and the hardest imaginable.

Again, no theoretical sophistication is required to understand this truth.  Moving voluntarily can be an exciting and life-affirming experience, but people will also fight to stay in their homes.  Whatever “home” means exerts a powerful emotional pull on human beings and they do not easily abandon it.  That is why civil wars are so brutal and deadly.  Both sides claim the same space as home, and neither can be driven out. Likewise, to those who pay attention to their humanity,  refugees elicit a sympathetic response precisely because everyone with a home understands how traumatic it would be to have to leave it under duress.  Thus, they reach out to try to help.

At the same time as everyone who can must be willing to help in what ways they can, it is also true that individual acts of solidarity are not going to be enough to solve this crisis. First of all, the scale of the crisis already exceeds what individual sponsors will be able to solve.  That is not an argument against individual sponsorship or the human heartendess from which it flows.  But no individual or family acting alone will be able to house, clothe, feed, provide language training, help re-start careers, deal with the psycho-social trauma the experience of war will have caused in the refugees, ensure that they have access to health care and can re-activate their lives in meaningful ways.

Individual responsibility is real and must be assumed to the point of everyone’s individual capacity, but we must not lose sight of the collective responsibility we have as citizens of a global North whose ruling classes have pillaged and stolen the wealth of the rest of the world to hold those ruling classes and the governments that serve them to account.  The Conservative government would like nothing more that to privatize ethical responsibility– “if you love them, you save them,”  while continuing its policy of starving public institutions of the publicly created wealth they require if they are to serve the needs of Canadian citizens and refugees alike. Exercising our collective responsibility means not only forcing the government to become the primary sponsor of refugees, but also not letting them blow the ideological smoke of the need for ‘security screenings’ in our eyes, and most importantly, of ensuring that the government makes available to the refugees allowed in the full range of public institutions and resources they require.

If anyone objects that Canada cannot afford to take in anymore refugees, they need to be confronted with some of the comparative numbers.  First, let us take the case of Germany.  Germany predicts that within a year it will have welcomed  800 000 refugees.  The population of Germany is 81 million people, and its GDP  is 3.4 trillion US dollars.  That means that Germany is taking in 1 refugee for every 101 Germans.  Canada has a population of 33 million people and a GDP of 1.61 trillion dollars.  If Canada took in 1 refugee for every 101 Canadians, we would be welcoming 300 000 (instead of the 25 000 that opposition parties are talking about).  GDP per capita in Germany is  approximately 41 000 US dollars, and in Canad approximately 48 000 US dollars. If Germany is not worried about bankrupting the country or imposing impossible costs on its citizens, then neither should Canada be reticent about taking a proportional number of refugees, given our higher per capita income.

But there is another comparison that needs to be made.  Venezuela has just volunteered to take in 20000 refugees.  Although it is suffering an economic crisis in part caused by the decline of the price of oil, in part by a capital strike driving up inflation, and partly by on-going hostility from Washington because it has, since the Bolivarian revolution of 1998 had the gall to expropriate capital and use national wealth to satisfy the needs of and politically empower the poor, the Maduro government understands what is most important:  to share that which one has with those who have even less so that their lives are maintained.  The per capita GDP of Venezuela is roughly 12 000 US dollars– about one quarter of Canada’s.

Pointing out the mismatch between Canada’s resources and willingness to help and that of a struggling country of the global South only emphasizes the life-blindness of the Conservative government.  It has ideologically committed itself to the geo-political economic system that is the underlying cause of this crisis.  For more than a century the lives of people in Africa and the Middle East have been treated as expendable to the machinations of European and American Imperialism.  The natural wealth of Africa has been plundered and the life-spaces of Arab peoples manipulated to the detriment of all save the elites who are willing to sacrifice their own people for the sake of local political power.

The crisis, therefore, is a crisis of the money-value system and the politics of military violence that supports it that is causing millions of people to flee their homes.  This crisis is certainly not caused by “jihadi terrorism”  as Chris Alexander argued.  Rather “jihadi terrorism,” in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria is an effect of, a reaction to, imperialist intervention in the Middle East.  That is not to say that it is an effective response– it has simply provided the pretext for more destructive intervention, but it is clear that ISIS would not now exist had there been no second Iraq war.  The main organizers of ISIS are former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army.

Unfortunately, path dependency exerts a powerful hold on politicians.  Once you have invested money, materiel, and people in “military solutions”  it becomes more and more difficult to admit failure.  Instead, like a gambler trying to recoup his loses by placing another bet, the architects of war think they only need to refine their strategy, or bring in more allies, or attack another target.  Thus, last week we heard Prime Minister Harper argue that the only solution to the refugee crisis was military victory in Iraq and Syria. Victory for whom, however?  The Western alliance, which (historically, since the end of the Ottoman empire) and proximally (since the first Iraq war) has been the cause of the life-destroying instability in the first place?  ISIS, who will benefit most of all from a “no fly zone,” in Syria, calls for which have now been renewed?  Assad?  who only a year and a half ago was being compared to Hitler?  The secular revolutionaries of Syria?  That would be excellent, but it is obvious, no matter what one’s political affiliations, that they are marginal to the struggle.  The Shiite government in Iraq, whose allied Shiite militias have perpetuated the massacres that have pushed Sunni villagers into supporting ISIS?  Iran, who, despite the recently concluded nuclear treaty, is still itself threatened repeatedly with invasion of bombing?

In situations like these, where millions of lives are in the balance and the warring factions lack the strength to win but are not weak enough to lose, temporary solutions that save lives and allow for the constitution of progressive political forces has to be the short term goal of anyone who actually cares about the refugees.  That means that somehow- and it will perhaps prove impossible– all sides, ALL sides, including ISIS, need to be politically engaged, to sit down and to work out some sort of calming compromise.  If that cannot be accomplished– and frankly, I do not know who in this world has the credibility, power, and political intelligence and human heartedness to do it, there will be no end to the refugees crisis no matter  how heroic the response of individuals who stand up to help.

The Unsaid

Unlike the physical world studied by natural science, political reality is not simply given, but is in part the outcome of people’s beliefs, actions, and interactions. There are of course objective structures and forces in social life (laws, institutions, resources), but their effects on people are not like the force of gravity (which is indifferent to peoples’ beliefs). Instead, objective social forces change as beliefs and actions change and give rise to new patterns of interaction in the service of different goals and values. One way to understand political power is as the collective capacity to define and change the given reality in according to a guiding value system.

Struggles for institutional power always involve struggles to define the scope of possibility for political action. Mainstream politicians of parliamentary parties all define political reality in such a way that changes to the objective forces that currently structure social life and the existing money-value system that legitimates those forces appear unchangeable. The way they accomplish this goal is to not speak about these objective forces as social, political, and economic products of collective human action and interaction, but as permanent constraints on human life which must be accepted as limits within which “realistic” policies must operate.

Hence, to understand the deeper identity of interest that all mainstream politicians and political parties serve, we need to pay attention to what they leave unsaid. Their differences—always superficial—are disclosed in their policies, platforms, and pronouncements, but to understand what they are really about we need to bring to light the unstated assumptions about what they take the field of legitimate political action to be.
One of the most difficult, but also most important abilities, that critical social philosophy teaches is this ability to uncover and understand the relationship between the unsaid in political speech and the attempt to make changeable institutional forces appear as unchangeable natural laws. While understanding the way in which what mainstream politicians keep silent helps them make the historical appear natural does not in and of itself lead to the solution to key problems, it is a first step in understanding why parliamentary politics never solves the problems the different parties all claim to want to solve. They never solve the problems because they accept the real causes of those problems as unalterable structures of social life. The result is that the real issues never even get discussed, let alone systematically addressed. Let me illustrate my point with three examples drawn from recent history and relevant to the on-going federal election campaign.

A few months ago the Truth and Reconciliation Commission examining the history of residential schools and their destructive impacts on the lives of people of the First Nations submitted its final report. It made a number of far reaching recommendations about how the historically oppressive relationship between the Canadian state and the people of the First Nations could be transformed and equality and justice promoted. While all political parties are courting the aboriginal vote, there is complete silence about the report. Why? Because the testimony, analysis, and recommendations it contains all smash key elements of the myth of Canada: as a historic compromise between two founding nations, as the triumph of conservative (in the true sense of the word) pragmatism over mutually destructive confrontation, and of democratic accommodation over revolutionary violence. Judged from the perspective of the people of the First Nations, the truth of the Canadian state is the opposite on every score: not a compromise, but an all-out attack on First Nations’ societies, not conservative, but destructive of First Nations’ cultures and institutions, and not democratic, but a colonial expropriation of First Nations’ lands. All of that must remain unsaid, because all parties (with the exception of the Bloc Quebecois, which relies on a different myth of origins) tie their own legitimacy to the resonance this myth has with many Canadians.

As always, “the economy” is the focus of most of the arguments between the three major federal parties. Occasionally, mildly critical arguments erupt about the level and extent of inequality, about the disappearance of ‘good jobs,’ and the need for financial security in old age. What is always left unsaid in these arguments is an explanation of why our society is so unequal and growing moreso, what a good job is and why they are disappearing, and why the financial security of more and more people, and not only the elderly, is being undermined. To answer those questions would mean using the term “capitalism” and lead into an analysis of its class structure. An analysis of its class structure would provide strong evidence that poverty, inequality, menial and poorly paid labour, and financial insecurity for everyone but the very wealthy is not a function of bad policy-making by the government of the day, but endemic to an economy that produces profits through the exploitation of labour, that treats working human beings as disposable “human resources” and has tied personal income security more and more to volatile stock markets that work for major corporate investors but only rarely for working individuals. To raise these questions would again jeopardize each party’s election strategy: of positioning themselves as the best party to manage the economy. Instead, it would allow people to ask the question of whether we need to build a different economy on the basis of a different value system if the goods of equality, meaningful work, and life-security are to be served.

Finally, let us take an example from international affairs. The refugee crisis gripping Europe might seem to have little to do with Canada (beyond the debate about whether the Conservative government has allowed enough Syrian refugees into the country). While the government`s response thus far has been shamefully inadequate, there is again an unspoken dimension to the problem. In large part the refugee crisis is testimony to the failure of the neo-liberal political-military and economic agenda in Africa and the Middle East, a set of policies which is never exposed to view by any of the parties, (even if some its results are lamented by the NDP and Liberals). No one is exposing to light the destruction of African economies through IMF structural reforms imposed through the 80s and 90’s until today, or the way in which the collapse of stability in the Middle East is a consequence of Western intervention. Instead, all sing from the same hymn book about ISIS and wave the flag in support of our bombing missions and blind, unthinking support for Israeli colonialism, when it is clear that no solution that can restore peace to the Middle East be achieved through bombing and that a better future for everyone will require the end of the occupation of Palestine and the creation of democratic Palestinian state.

Bringing these unstated assumptions to light shows us that mainstream political parties accept as necessary the very structures that cause the fundamental problems of our world. Understanding these causes cannot on its own solve the problems, but there is abundant historical evidence to support the claim that unless we understand and address the causes of key social problems, solutions will never be found.