True Ice: A Memoir

I have never skated on such perfect ice, as pure as lead crystal and as hard, but receptive to my skate, my stride, as if friction had been eliminated and there is no loss of energy between leg thrust and forward motion, the turns easy, (except the first, when my imagining the breakaway got ahead of my feet and I tripped over myself and landed an embarrassed heap).

It is as if, as if 30 years had disappeared and I was a lithe, lean boy, all body and no mind, and not a round middle aged man squinting without his glasses to see the other end of the ice; just limbs harmonized and agile; as if there there were no wobble to my left crosscuts, just a perfect arc you could trace with a compass, no ache in my knees, no worry that the pain in my left arm is a heart attack and not a bruise from falling, that energy doesn’t run out and late does not keep getting earlier; that I am and we are just flesh and no responsibilities in pure playful motion, all of us together, for no one and nothing, just to feel the wind of the sprint as we skate, with nothing pressing after this hour away, just pure playing bodies, smiling, laughing at the bottom of the bowl of 6000 empty seats; just the ice, the puck, the back and forth and up and down of the play, the adrenaline and sweat, the jerseys still mismatched and uncoordinated, but the passes a bit crisper, the back checking more determined, the desire for one more rush stronger.

I have never wanted to beat the defenceman to the puck as badly as on that last rush, to hang on to it rather than pass, to drive just a bit harder to the net, head fake, to score, not for the fun of scoring but for the fun of making the maximum effort, to feel my lungs and legs at the limit.

There was a collective fantasy of moving faster, of being at full speed with just one stride, of being able to play on and on and on; as if each rush left me just as strong as before, but by 12:45 lactic acid reality is back, and my arm does hurt from the fall, and my feet feel cramped, and my knees burn, and I am not a lithe lean boy, and I have to teach in the morning.

Second Last of the East End Bars (A Found Story)

A night that began in billowing, silver mists in Richmond Hill has led here: an improbable bar toughing it out between Greektown to the west and the Afghani and Pakistani neighbourhood to the east.

He looks like someone I know, but isn’t.

“Hey how are ya man, ya wanna shot?” he asks, before I even have my coat off.

You need people skills to drink in a place like this.

“No thanks man. I’m good with beer, but thanks, eh.”

He does a shot of whiskey.  “All ya got is friends, eh, that’s this place. Friends, ya. I’m Hal.”

Well, I have to shake his hand, no matter where it’s been.  “Hey Hal, I’m Jeff.” I nod and try to disengage so I can watch the hockey game.

He looks at me, glassy-eyed, smiling, head orbiting its drunken axis, wobbly: “We’ve all been there, eh brother?”

“Fer sher,” I reply, and turn to the television.

My shot goes instead to Tommy, the brother of Susie, the Vietnamese bartender and owner, cute in her grey tights and short-for-December skirt.

“Hey Hal,” she kids, “you owe me 200 dollar.”

Laughter.  An ugly man, soon to pull out a harmonica, tells Susie that she owes Hal the 200 dollars.


Susie skiffles off,  leaving Tommy and his iPhone to hold the fort.

There is a freezing rain warning, but I’m on foot.  “Tower of Song” comes on.  It reminds me of when I used to smoke.

“We invented NASA, all those guys who built the Avro Arrow, they went and built it. Hey Tommy, that’s good turkey, and I’ve been eatin’ turkey for thirty fuckin’ years.”

The time for more shots has arrived.  The ugly harmonica player is standing the round this time.  The play is clearly to get a woman (whose lower face seems to have shrunk to half the size of the top) even more drunk than she is.

All ya got is friends, eh?

“I’ll have the gold, the gold, ya know, gold, uh, cinnamon…”

“Goldschlager,”  Tommy helps out.

“Ya, Goldschlager,” she repeats, then downs the shot.

“Pay back, baby, pay back!” she cackles, hugging the ugly man, smiling, hanging off his neck.

All ya got is friends, eh?

At the back, a table of Ethiopians with the drained-of-hope look of seasoned Northern Ontario alcoholics works through another round of Ex and OV.  They chime in with half-hearted “Woy yoy yos!”  during “Buffalo Soldier,” but leave after the third in a row AC/DC song.  I wonder what dreams they packed when they emigrated.  I am betting that being piss drunk in a place like this was not one of them.

All ya got is friends, eh?

“Toronto and Chicago are almost the same size, man.  There were 60 murders in Toronto and 6000 in Chicago, 6000 that’s uh,10, 100, no, fuck, 1000 times more. Holy fuck, eh.”

I notice:  I am the only one here not wearing a baseball cap.

The harmonica has now been pulled from the pocket and brought to the ugly man’s lips.  He is trying to play along, (appropriately), with “Have a Drink on Me.”  He’s the closest thing to a rock star in here tonight so the woman with the shrunken lower face leers at him the best she can.  I don’t imagine them fucking.

“Wait, shit, maybe it was only, like 600.  Still, fuck.”

“We’re playin’ ball in hand, but we’re not playin it,” Hal announces in the general direction of the ugly man and the woman with the ill-sized face.

“There was an 18 year old running for parliament, did ya hear that?  What the fuck does an eighteen year old know?  What fuckin’ life experience he’s got?”

“We’re playin’ ball in hand, but we ain’t playin’ it.”


“Those are our fucking diamonds!!”

All ya got.

The Importance of Being Less Earnest

Of a Humourless Tone Adopted Recently in Politics

Iconic anarchist Emma Goldman is reputed to have said that if she could not dance in the revolution, she wanted no part of it.  In fact, she never uttered that precise phrase.  Here is her explanation:                                 

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.


I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world–prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.
[Living My Life (New York: Knopf, 1934), p. 56]

Goldman’s point, I think, is that exuberance and joy cannot be postponed until after the revolution, but on the contrary are signs, even in the midst of oppression and exploitation, that life is worth living.  If it is worth living, it is worth fighting for:  the real motivation for revolutionary struggle is not some abstract intellectual desire to see programmatic change, but to create the social conditions in which the exuberance and joy of self-conscious presence, friendly and loving interaction and relationship, and creative activity are constant and not fleeting features of life.  Like Democritus, revolutionaries should be laughing philosophers who fight because they love life and not because they hate an enemy.

I think political activists rightly anxious at the growth of right-wing populism in the United States and openly Nazi formations in Europe would do well to remember Goldman’s lesson today.  We are quite possibly present for the end of the liberal-democratic era.  If that is too alarmist, then we are at least in the midst of a serious crisis.   This crisis will not be resolved in favour of protecting the valuable gains of the past, necessary as a social plateau from which to build higher, without revivified and unified social movements and progressive parties.  To build those movements and parties, we have to be the sort of people who not only espouse good ideas, but who live life in ways that prefigure the joyful values that we think should organize a future society.

Building the movements and parties that need to be built means understanding what the real causes of the present crisis are.  Those causes are structural and rooted in private and exclusive control over the resources that we all require in order to live.  Progressive struggle needs to focus on reclaiming those resources:  as the Sioux of Standing Rock have just demonstrated, victory means taking back the land from capital.  And that means:  understanding who it is we should be fighting against:  the ruling class, not each other.

I understand that critical politics requires self-criticism, that many people, especially white men, who want to change the world bear the marks of having grown up privileged in the world as it is, and need to be reminded about the ways in which this privilege can shape their character, their assumptions about what is funny or sexy, in all sorts of problematic ways.  I understand that everyone needs to be reflective about the language they use and the hurtful implications it sometimes has.  Since speakers are sometimes ignorant of these implications, everyone needs to be open to listening to the voice of others when they try to explain why something the speaker thinks is funny is actually offensive.

At the same time, everyone also has to keep in mind that revolutionary change is about collective and individual self-transformation, not more repressive regulation by the authorities, and that individuals also have to be free to laugh and desire and relate to each other based upon their own tastes and interests, to the extent that those tastes and interests do not actively exclude, dominate, or impede others from doing the same.

There is such a thing as white male privilege, there are offensive jokes, and we do need to pay attention to what marginalized others want to be called.  But regulating jokes and relationships and pronouns are not the sole and ultimate ends of progressive political struggle.  While it may be true that all white men are privileged vis-a-vis historically oppressed groups, there are class differences that mean that some white men– a very small minority– rule the world, while most other white men are exploited and alienated.  Punctuating any intervention a white man might make into a political argument with the reminder that he speaks from a position of privilege might be true, but in itself does nothing to help understand this class difference.  It becomes a predictable refrain, and thus leaves everything as it is, including the problematic white male privilege. At the same time such mechanical repetitions can alienate a subset of white men who need to be allies in the struggle.  To overcome the very real problem of white male privilege requires changing the structures of liberal-capitalist patriarchal society.  That requires unified political movements and not lectures-  generally delivered by the highly educated (itself a site of privilege)- about privilege.

We can say the same thing about humour.  Of course jokes can be sexist and racist and homophobic.  But in humour, context and intention counts.  Some jokes are racist and are intended to mock and harm.  Other jokes play on racial stereotypes in order to expose their absurdity.  Laughter can be harmful but it can also be liberating, a means of establishing connection across racial or ethnic divides, and we need to be able to tell the difference (and to laugh at ourselves, whomever we are).  If we are afraid to laugh because, as the character Richard Splett on Veep (a very funny stereotype of the sexually ambiguous male low-level Washington insider, brilliantly played by Sam Richardson) says “It’s not funny unless everyone can laugh” we are in effect abolishing humour from our lives.  Work out his principle as an argument:

It is not funny unless everyone can laugh. The ability to laugh depends upon one’s sense of humour.  But people have different senses of humour. Therefore, not everyone can laugh at the same jokes.  Therefore, no joke is funny.

But the argument, if true, is a reductio ad absurdum of the principle.

The real issue is not whether everyone can laugh, but whether the joke at which some laugh and others groan is spoken with hateful or loving intentions.  When jokes that play on stereotypes are told by people we love and trust they are funny; when structurally similar jokes are told by bigots, they are not.  We need to learn to better distinguish bigotry from humour.  Not only is life without laughter hardly worth living (perhaps not worth living at all), it also makes the left too easy a target for the right, who are happy to protect their bigotry by portraying us as dour prigs allergic to fun and prone to call the police every time we take offense.

The issue here is that if in our struggles against oppression we start to fear the spontaneity of desire and wit as the enemy we run the risk of seeing suffocating bureaucratic-legal regulation of every aspect of individual life and relationships as the solution to social problems.  In fact, the very need for bureaucratic-legal regulation is the sign of, not the solution to, those problems.  For example:  rape is not caused by too few legal regulations on sexual relationships, rather, the need for legal regulation of sexual relationships is a function of patriarchy and male sexual violence.  Hence  the ultimate goal should not be more and more detailed regulation of sexual lives and connections, but (as radical feminists and gay and lesbian activists in the 1960’s argued) a liberation of sexuality from its deformations under patriarchal capitalist relationships so that the very idea of sexual violence becomes oxymoronic.

Of course, this point does not mean that we should not be scrupulous about consent or responsive to the names by which marginalized identities want to be called, but rather that we understand that the deeper political project is to build a world in which we all treat each other as ends-in-ourselves, whatever our identity and in all relationships, so that there is never a question of coercion or violence, physical or emotional.  I know that this goal is a utopian horizon, but it is nevertheless the one towards which we need to be working.

The joyous essence of the emancipatory vision of radical politics that Goldman insists upon has animated the best of socialism, feminism, anarchism, black, and gay liberation movements (we can set aside the differences and difficult relationships between them for the time being).  We are not fighting to be tokens of types but individuals who fully enjoy our brief time on this mortal coil and contribute something of value to others who will take our place.  Let the light of Goldman’s defense of the “right to beautiful, radiant things”  shine in the darkness of the current political moment.



From a reductionist standpoint, humans are just organisms that occupy space for a very brief moment of cosmic time;  our life-activity mere survival and reproduction; our sensory relationships with the world focused only threat avoidance, mate finding, and energy consumption.  While there is nothing in this account which is, strictly speaking, untrue, it could apply to any organism in nature, and thus fails to capture that which is distinctively human about our embodied being.

Essential and definitive of human embodied being is an affective-interpretive-aesthetic relationship with the spaces we inhabit.  Human beings do of course depend on nature like all other life, and thus, we, like all living things, live in environments.  But we do not just subsist, we create worlds of meaning through the aesthetic and emotional work of interpreting the places in which we live.  Human beings not only occupy spaces in so far as we are bodies, we form emotional-aesthetic attachments to places of significance.

One might be tempted to posit some sort of “spirit” to places, an excess beyond the material features of environments, to explain their significance, but I think that this move is unnecessary.  Human beings have brains that, in social relationships with each other, develop languages, and languages, over millennia, have developed beyond instrumental signalling devices, through metaphor, symbolization, and allegory, to create a reality of meaning that is fully of this world, although not explicable in terms of the elements and forces of physics.  The meaning-world is still material, in so far as its emergence can be explained in terms of the practices and capacities of embodied beings, but not understandable in reductionist terms.  The “poetics of space”  (Gaston Bachelard) emerge from our felt attachments to places as differentially important to us as individuals because they are the contexts in which we form our identity.  My home does not feel the same to me as your home, one lake is just a body of water, the other where I learned to swim; one streetscape I can walk down with indifference, the other contains a bookshop in which, as a student, I first started to feel a true intellectual calling.  The geographer Edward Casey calls these spaces in which our identity is formed “place-worlds.”  “Places come into us lastingly” he writes, “once having been in a particular place for any considerable time– or even briefly, if our experience there has been intense– we are forever marked by that place, which lingers in us indefinitely.” (“Between Geography and Philosophy:  What Does it Mean to be in the Place-World, p.688.”)

Talk of the relationship between places of significance and identity raises very serious political dangers- the “blood and soil”  atavism that I discussed in my last post and the pernicious, racist doctrine of “ethnic pluralism”  (which says that every culture is valid in itself but that they should all stay in their traditional homelands and not “mix”).  Now, this sort of racist appropriation of place would not be possible if we did not have an affective-interpretive relationship with places.  People can be whipped up into a frenzy to defend “their place”  from others because they do in fact feel powerful attachments to it.  The way to combat this problem is not to appeal to a rootless cosmopolitanism that is indifferent to the differential significance of places for people, but to disconnect what in the racist and ethno-pluralist discourse is essentially connected: meaningful space to nation and nation to exclusive ownership and control over places. 

In order to disrupt the pathological implications of these connections, the first thing we need to  understand is that nations are not places.  Modern (post-French Revolution) nations are ideas, “imagined communities”  in Benedict Anderson’s phrase, identities produced by abstraction from differences, not natural kinds; slogans that can be used to mobilize some subset of the total number of people in a geographic-legal construction against enemy-formations that purportedly threaten the integrity of the in-group by violating borders or occupying space not rightly theirs.

Of course, history does know of the violent displacement of people-  not every threat is constructed or ideological.  At the same time, not every important aspect of human identity is political.  The personal is political, yes, but not every single aspect of the person.  We become concrete individuals through our actions in concrete, discrete, and specific places.  As opposed to an abstraction like “nation,” always constructed in relation to a history that exceeds the individual, places are always bound by the individual’s experiential field and linked to a personal history.  A meaningful place never exceeds what can be comprised by a singular and individual experience: “Joe Lake seen from my uncle’s dock,”  not “Northern Ontario.”

It is true that the people that occupy and relate to these places can be captured under higher level abstractions.  Today, almost every place, as a matter of geo-legal fact, is included in some national political space.  But what makes the place significant is one’s own connection to it, a connection which does not exclude anyone else from having similar or different identity-shaping experiences.  Nationalist discourse works in large part by saying:  “we have something special that no one else has.”  It becomes dangerous when it constructs non-nationals as threats to this special in-group possession.  But the places in which identity-shaping experiences develop are personal, not exclusive.  You can stand beside me and look at Joe Lake from my uncle’s dock, and it does not matter what your national identity is.  Maybe you do not feel about the view as I do:  it does not matter, you are free to interpret it as you like.  Maybe you prefer a different landscape:  all to the good, it is no threat to my feeling deeply at home in this one.

The meaningful texture of identity-forming experience occurs at a different scale than nationalist abstraction:  concrete felt presence, not abstract thought.  Through on-going acts of self-interpretation, multiple, innumerable place-worlds are built up out of the material geography of the planet.  These are not idealizations but concrete doublings of the physical space:  what an embodied, thinking, feeling, language-using bio-social being creates as it builds an identity for itself.  Without these place-worlds human life would revert towards the animal:  habitat distinguished by raw physical differences (climate, food supply, etc), but lacking meaning.  Cities would be like ant colonies without the “storied streets” that draw people to them and make them feel part of some grander creation.

Now, it might seem as though the personal connection between place and meaning turns the public private and in effect establishes a property relation over the meaning of places.  This conclusion would be wrong. Property relations depend upon legal-political constructions; the meaning of places depend upon our creative-interpretive powers and our need to find or create meaning in our natural and social environments.  Meaning is not my property even if I create it since the whole point of creating it is to share it, not to own it.  My identity, constructed through self-interpretations, interactions, and feelings in diverse place-worlds does not exclude anyone else’s identity as illegitimate.  One’s own interpretations of a place are never normative for everyone else.  There are an open and unlimited number of interpretations of place-world’s possible:  their accumulation obeys the law of abundance (more for everyone)  and not scarcity (I take mine and you fend for yourself).

What matters to the production of meaning in place-worlds is attention to the material details of the place and the feelings that they arouse.  The places can be anywhere:  the production of meaning is not parochial and the sense of our individual identity is not nostalgic:  where there is life and attention there is development of identity.  It is not a static and abstract self-consciousness opposed to a chaos of empirical details.  The empirical is not chaotic, it is made sense of by attending to the real contours of places.

Since identities are formed to be shared, we can say that places-  which are the contexts in which identities are created in an on-going fashion- are one crucial material condition of friendship.  In an on-line world we are apt to forget about the importance of shared place-worlds for the formation of friendships.  Here, two points are significant.  Friends share over-lapping place worlds, the place-worlds which they experienced together and on that basis forged the friendship.  But they are also the occasions for sharing the differences that friendship also depends upon:  no one’s experience of a place world is exactly like that of any other.  Friendship is non-instrumental sharing of the self as a materially particular person with another materially particular person.  The physical distinction and difference between the friends is crossed by the stories of shared-place worlds that link their distinct life-histories.

Whereas private property depends upon you not having what I have, (which means, in conditions of unequal distribution, poverty for some as a direct consequence of wealth for others)  the sharing of the experiences that we create through our interpretations of meaningful places enrich us all as meaning-needing beings.  The interpretation of  a place-world is not the same as the domination of space.  The construction of  a concrete, particular identity is no threat to the construction of other concrete identities.  Rather, the differences between our personal identities, forged in the place-worlds we have inhabited, is a condition of there being anything important to share with others, and thus one foundation for the construction of a world of human wealth in which it is worth living.

Re-Thinking Enlightenment Internationalism in the Age of Right-Wing Atavism

The election of Donald Trump has renewed attention to the problem of the conflict between national belonging and international obligation.  Two particular questions have dominated the debate:  whether free trade deals have served the interests of workers and what obligations nation states owe to refugees, political and economic, and immigrants, documented or undocumented.  Something called “globalism” has appeared as a target of criticism but, like its contrary “communitarianism,” it is too generic a term to lead the debate in useful directions.  It demonizes “the global” without distinguishing between different types of global value system.  Just as there can be life-valuable and life-destructive forms of community, so too can there be life-valuable and life-destructive forms of international and global interaction and interconnection.  Critical judgement requires that we always distinguish between the two, always rejecting the life-destructive in favour of the life-valuable.

The life-destructive form of global interaction we can call by the name “imperialism.”      It can take many forms, but always involves the subordination of economically and militarily weaker countries to the economic and political interests of the ruling system of more powerful countries, whether that subordination is exercised through direct colonial domination or via debt and economic dependence.

The life-valuable version we can  call “internationalism.”  It traces its history back to the struggle against European colonialism in the 18th century.  The unfortunately and unjustly maligned universalism of the Enlightenment was the foundation for a philosophical and  practical solidarity between progressives in Europe and black and indigenous victims of colonialism in Africa and the Americas.  We would do well at this point in history to remind ourselves of the origins of the idea of international solidarity as a political litmus test to expose the phony progressivism of Trump and his ilk’s critique of ‘globalism.”

A critique of Enlightenment universalism as an ‘essenialist” imposition of European norms on the kaleidoscope of culturally diverse humanity was a staple of the post-modern philosophy of the 1970’s to the 1990’s.  The legion of criticisms directed against the philosophes rarely engaged in the textual work of close reading that these ‘deconstructive” critics nevertheless claimed to practice.  That is, they never looked beyond the slogans of the era (liberté, egalité, fraternité, the rights of man) to examine in detail exactly what the most politically advanced Enlightenment figures actually had to say about the struggles of colonized people against European rule.  In their practical and philosophical  expressions of solidarity they argued that humanity was on the side of the victims of colonialism, and not so-called European “civilization.”  They cut through the rhetoric of Europe’s “civilizing mission’  in the non-white world and courageously exposed it for what it was:  inhuman subordination and domination rooted in  racism on the one hand and greed on the other.  Let us take just two examples to illustrate the point.

The first is from Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique de progrès de l’esprit humaine.  While he does indeed see European philosophy and science as main sources of progress, he is careful to note the contradiction:  while these were internally progressive in so far as they undermined the legitimacy of the  Church and monarchical power, externally they either ignored or helped to legitimate colonial rule. But their ideological use was in fact the very opposite of their truth, which is to free ideas of humanity, equality, freedom, and reason from their identification with one particular culture and instead establish them on a truly universal foundation from which a critical understanding of the value of any particular form of life-  including the European-  can be developed.  Hence, against his own European culture he argues:

Les philosophes des diverse nations embrassent, dans leurs méditations, les interêts de l’humanité entière sans distinction des pays, de race ou de secte, formaient, malgré la différenace de leurs opinions speculatives, une phalange fortement unie contre toutes les erreurs, contre toutes les genres de tyrannie.  Animé par le sentiment d’une philanthropie universelle, ils combattaient l’injustice, lorseque,étrangere à leur patrie, elle ne pouvait les atteindre; ils la combattaient encore lorseque leur patrie meme qui s’en rendait couplable envers d’autres peuples, ils s’élévaient en Europe contre les crimes dont l’avidité souille les rivages de l’Amerique, de l’Afrique, ou de l’Asie.  Les philosophes de l’Angleterre et de la France s’honoraient  de prendre le nom, de remplir les devoirs d’amis, de ces même Noirs que leurs stupide tyrans dedaignaient de compter au nombre des hommes. (pp. 230-231)

(The philosophers of diverse nations embraced, in their reflections, the interests of humanity as whole, without distinction of country, race, or religion. They formed, despite the differences of their speculative positions, a strong, united phalanx against all forms of errors, against all types of tyranny.  Animated by a spirit of universal love for humanity, they fought injustice outside of their own countries when it was lacking, and they combated it even more, when it was their country that was guilty of being its cause.  They rose up, in Europe, against the crimes of greed that soiled the coasts of America, Africa, and Asia.  The philosophers of England and France were proud to take the name of, to fulfill the duties of friendship towards, these same blacks whom their stupid tyrants disdained to count as human beings).

It would be a gross misreading of this argument to think that when Condorcet says that the philosophers of England and France were proud to “take the name” of the blacks of Africa and America that they were usurping the voice of the victims of colonialism and slavery.  On the contrary, he is saying that they have listened to the voices of the oppressed and are responding by attacking the very European powers dominating them.  This is an expansion of the idea of humanity beyond its racist enclosure to white European reality.

Two centuries later, in his classic essay Discours sur la colonialisme, Aimé Césaire would echo Condorcet and expose the contradiction between “civilization”  and colonialism: “Et je dis que de la colonisation à la civilization, la distance est infinie; que, de toutes les expéditions colonial … on ne saurait reussir une seule valuer humaine.”  (p. 10)  (“And I say that between colonization and civilization the distance is infinite; that in all the colonial expeditions one will never find the realization of a single human value.”  From Condorcet to Césaire the consistent foundation of the critique of colonialism has been to expose the way in which it constructs the colonized person as inhuman.  The struggle against it therefore is a struggle through which colonized people prove their humanity to those who would deny it.  Franz Fanon made essentially the same point in Wretched of the Earth.

As powerful a statement of solidarity as Condorcet’s is, he does not examine in any detail the material forces underlying colonial  domination, nor call for its revolutionary overthrow.  That task is taken up by the Abbé Raynal in his Histoire politique et philosophique des établissments et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes.  Whether, as some maintain, the history was actually written by Diderot or by Raynal, the text is a classic of anti-colonialist criticism.  It exposes the nonsense of viewing European expansion as the spread of “civilization.”  It was, on the contrary, a most uncivilized, violent subordination of non-European peoples, their lands and life-resources, to the economic interests of the European ruling classes:

Et vous, vous, pour avoir de l’or vous avez franchi les mers. Pour avoir de l’or , vous avez envahi les contrées. Pour avoir de l’or, vous en avez massàcré la plus grande partie des habitants. Pour avoir de l’or, vous avez précipité dans les entrailles de la terre ceux que vos poignards avoient épargnés. Pour avoir de l’or , vous avez introduit sur la terre le commerce infâme de l’homme & l’esclavage. Pour avoir de l’or, vous renouvelle tous les jours les mêmes crimes.(p.558)

(And you, you, for the sake of gold have crossed the seas. For the sake of gold, you have invaded countries and massacred most of their inhabitants.  For the sake of gold you have buried in the ground those that your daggers have spared.  For the sake of gold, you have introduced onto the earth the infamous trafficking of people and slavery.  For the sake of gold you have repeated these crimes, day after day).

Raynal not only exposed the inhumanity of the colonial project, he called for its overcoming– not by an act of European noblesse oblige, but through anti-colonial revolution.  As C.L.R. James notes in his magisterial The Black Jacobins, Toussaint L’Ouverture, the slave who would lead the world’s first successful anti-colonial revolution against France, was inspired to take up arms after reading Raynal’s call for revolt.  Inspired by European philosophy against European practice, L’Ouverture’s armies would, over more than a decade of struggle, defeat, in succession, French, Spanish, and English armies and establish what is today Haiti as the first post-colonial, independent nation.

Through their success, the slave army of San Domingo proved a point made by Kant (perhaps a surprising source of justification of anti-colonial revolution).  Nevertheless, against those who maintained that only some groups of human beings are capable of self-government, Kant affirmed the power of political self-determination as anchored in the universal rational capacities of humanity, thus exposing once again the racist and ideological function of the arguments that denied those capacities to some groups:  “I cannot admit the expression, used by even intelligent men: A certain people …
is not yet ripe for freedom; the bondsmen of a landed proprietor are not yet ripe
for freedom; and thus men in general are not yet ripe for freedom of belief.
According to such a presupposition freedom will never arrive; for we cannot yet
ripen to this freedom unless we are already set free– we must be free to use
our faculties purposively in freedom [and] we never ripen to freedom except
through our own efforts, which we can make only when we are free.” (Quoted in
Arendt, Kant`s Political Philosophy, p. 48).

The political agency that led the revolution was indigenous, but the ideas according to which the slaves under L’Ouverture organized and legitimated their struggle were imported from France.  Which proves:  not that French Revolutionaries were being culturally imperialist in asserting the rights of man, but that the rights of man were powerful tools in the struggle against imperialism, and thus universal in a materially effective way far beyond what could have been the intentions of their French authors.

What is the lesson for today?  It is that there is a difference between trade deals that open borders for capital but keep them lacked for the human victims of capital and genuine international solidarity between workers and the oppressed.  Trump and his fellow travellers like Nigel Farage have effectively played on the fears of some segments of the white working class in the United States and Britain.  They have promised greater economic security by repudiating and repealing trade deals, and that is all well and good, to the extent that those trade deals serve only capital’s interests.  But capital’s interests can be served in nationalistic ways too.  Working class supporters of Trump need to ask him if he will work to repeal the reams of anti-worker and anti-union legislation that has so compromised American workers’ ability to fight back.  I think we know what the answer to that question will be.

At the same time, what has most worried people– and rightly so– is not the critique of NAFTA or the TPP, but the demonization of non-whites and immigrants.  They have buttressed the economic argument through full-throat fulminations against immigrants and foreigners which call to mind, even if they do not exactly repeat, the blood and soil atavism of the worst moments of human history.

Against their racist fear mongering opponents need to affirm the revolutionary anti-colonialism that was first expressed by the most politically advanced thinkers of the Enlightenment.  Working people advance within nations when conditions between nations are most ripe for successful struggles.  We might think that the pre-NAFTA, pre-WTO world was a Golden Age for workers.  It was not.  But there were real increases in working class living standards between 1945 and 1973.  Some of those gains can be explained by the rapid growth of productivity during those years. But productivity gains can just as easily be consumed by capital as profit as paid out in wages.  Hence, the other side of the explanation is that capital was willing to share a higher per centage of profit as wages because there was the ideological need to legitimate capitalism in the face of what looked like a real communist alternative.

In no small part communism appeared as a real alternative because of the many anti-colonial uprisings supported (even if for cynical reasons)  by the Soviet Union and China.  The democratic vitality of these revolutions was not in their funding source but in the agency of the oppressed which sustained them and led them to victory.  Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution (to take only one example, most a propos today) had many internal political limitations, but he was not hated by Western rulers because of the abominable way his party treated gays and lesbians or their refusal to allow the formation of free trade unions.  He was hated because, over fifty years, he defied their arrogance and was an unfailing supporter, ideologically and materially, of people fighting racism and colonialism, from Angola (where 25 000 Cuban troops fought against the apartheid-backed forces of Jonas Savimbi), to Venezuela today.

One could thus say, with some truth, that American, Canadian, and European workers owe a debt to the revolutionaries of the Third World whose heroic struggles sowed the seeds of doubt in Western ruling classes about the stability of the international system.

This history, the history of international solidarity, is the one that needs to be recovered today.  The left will not revive, nor the shared life-interests of workers be served,  by retreating into localized particularisms.  The interests of the colonized, the displaced, and those in search of refuge, are human interests.  That is the lesson the Trumpites need to be taught.

The Bigger Story: Don’t Pontificate, Organize!

Amidst Defeat, An Opening

Trump’s selection of Steve Bannon to be part of his transition team confirms everyone’s worst fears about the role race played in the campaign, and portends the worst about the role it might play in his administration.  The so called “white nationalist”  movement to which Breitbart news gives voice is– like the “men’s rights movement”– a transparent attempt to cloak a history of being the oppressor in the cloak of being oppressed.  Still, the implications of an election are not determined mechanically by the team that the President elect chooses to bring about the transition of power.  On going political action matters:  no one is powerful enough to resist mass action for ever (witness the overthrow of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe through concerted workers’ struggles.

In that light, perhaps the biggest story of the American election is not that Donald Trump won, or that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote, but that 45% of eligible American voters did not cast a ballot.  As of November 12th, Clinton had won the votes of 26.5% of eligible voters, Trump, 26.3%, about 3% to third party candidates, and the remaining 44 % did not vote.  One can interpret these numbers as signs of political apathy, or as signs of a tremendous opening for new political argument, mobilization, and party building.

Apathy comes in two forms, let us call them negative apathy and positive apathy.  In either case one cannot be moved to perform some task, but in the case of negative apathy it is because one really does not care at all about the task one does not perform, while in the positive case one might in principle care, but for whatever reason does not like what they are being asked to do on a particular occasion, and uses apathy as a form of protest.  I do not know what the distribution of negative and positive apathy is in the case of the 2016 election, and it does not really matter:  both positive and negative apathetic voters represent an opportunity on the Left for the construction of a new political movement and party.

Think the matter through.  Whether one could not be bothered to vote because one thinks the task a waste of time, or whether one was actively protesting the choice between Trump and Clinton, (as many Sanders supporters seem to have done), one is rejecting American politics as it is currently organized:  an either or choice between two massive  political machines, both of which are deeply in the pockets of corporate donors and lobbyists, both of which have presided over the expansion of a totalitarian surveillance state, increasing inequality, economic crises, and military adventures abroad.  Any dispassionate analysis of American politics would lead to the conclusion that with rare exceptions, for the past forty years, the range of policy options pursued has not changed the conditions of life in any positive way in any fundamental respect  for working class Americans of whatever race or gender.  Inequality has continued to grow, precarious labour has continued to replace secure full time work, and working class Americans form the bulk of the foot soldiers sent off to foreign wars in a failed effort to subordinate the world to American interests.  Race and gender make these economic and political problems more intense, but this difference is one of kind, not degree.  I will return to this important point below.

If we treat apathy as a political position and not a political failing (as too many Clinton supporters are doing, railing against those who did not vote as the reason why she lost rather than reflecting with the appropriate degree of self-criticism on the problem of why she did not move those people to vote for her), then the task for the American Left over the next four years is clear.  Nearly half of eligible voters rejected the choices on offer:  figure out how to build a movement and party that they will vote for and back in movements beyond the White House and Capitol Hill.

No doubt my math is overly crude:  45 % of eligible voters is about 80 million people and in a set of 80 million people political positions are bound to vary widely.  Nevertheless, as heterogeneous as the positions might be, they have one important feature in common:  they rejected both the Republican and Democratic parties.  Assuming that it is almost impossible to not care at all, in any conceivable way whatsoever, about political problems (which are, after all, just problems about how we organize the public and collective aspects of life in which we are enmeshed as individuals), this silent 45% is not a lost cause but an opportunity to take American politics in a new direction.

Don’t Pontificate, Organize.

The old Wobbly slogan  “Don’t mourn, organize!” is a propos of the given moment.  The phrase comes form a telegram sent by Joe Hill to Big Bill Haywood while Hill was awaiting execution.  His point was that what matters in life is what we do for the future:  we do not honour the dead by memorializing them, but by carrying on the valuable tasks to which they devoted their lives.

Clinton is no Joe Hill.  She certainly did not devote her life to mobilizing the working class to improve its conditions of life and free itself from domination by capital.  Nevertheless, her loss is being portrayed as a loss for progressive social forces.  It is certainly a loss for polite liberals, and, in so far as the polite liberals lost to a campaign that consciously stirred up racial anxieties, deliberately targeted immigrants and Muslims (and the establishment politicians who have purportedly abetted them) as the primary cause of America’s decline, and portrayed African Americans as ghettoized objects of failed Washington politics, the loss is significant.  At the same time, the question should be posed:  if Clinton was the progressive alternative, why did she not motivate more young progressive people to vote for her?

The question can only be meaningfully addressed by getting out into local communities everywhere and asking it.  But not only asking it.  Political mobilization presupposes political argument.  Of the many troubling features of this campaign, the seeming impossibility of conducting a political argument, i.e., a more or less structured attempt to prove the truth of a conclusion through reason and evidence, which the opponent must either accept or reject by appeal to superior reason and evidence, is perhaps the most worrisome.  The only alternatives to political argument are ideological sloganeering and overt violence.  We have seen much ideological sloganeering and some overt violence in the wake of Trump’s victory.

The empty sloganeering has affected the anti-Trump side as well.  It is fantastic to see young people demonstrating across America and people criticizing his tactics on social media.  But demonstrations peter out and Facebook chatter changes nothing at the level of fundamental social structures.  Ultimately, new political movements require people to commit time and energy to finding ways to institutionalize a set of values not adequately served by the established political parties rather than just re-assuring those they already agree with that they are free from the most odious traits of their opponents.

It is certainly the case that Trump’s campaign was odious.  It is also certain that Trump was able to effectively tap into a section of white working class America that has not been well-served by the changes to the capitalist economy over the last forty years.   They too must be listened to if effective political arguments in support of a new political movement and party are to be marshaled.

The most difficult thing about political argument is that it requires us to engage with people with whom we disagree.  The more meaningful a political argument gets, the more heated it becomes.  There is nothing wrong with the heat, in fact, it a proof that the argument concerns problems of vital importance.  Nevertheless, because they get heated, these arguments are uncomfortable.  It is easier to talk to people with whom you agree, and confirm for each other the superiority of one’s own beliefs and values.  However, where there are real divides and conflicts in society, where lines are drawn, those who worry that those on the other side of the line are motivated by racist or other forms of demonizing thinking have an obligation to cross over the line and engage with their opponents.  How else will people come to see that low wages and insecure work are not caused by illegal immigrants but changes to the way in which capitalism was organized and governed since the 1970’s.  How else to make the case that immigrants from Latin America are the victims, not the beneficiaries of those same policies, if people do not go into the truck stops and bars and neighbourhoods where Trump voters live and make the case?

Every effective argument starts with listening to your opponent, proceeds by finding common ground, and concludes with the opponent seeing that what they initially took to be the solution to their problem and in their interests really is not a solution and not in their interests.  But the first step must always be to listen.  It is impossible to work out effective  counter-arguments if you do not listen carefully to what the opponent has to say.  In the case of Trump supporters, one will undoubtedly hear hard core and probably unshakeable racists beliefs.  But those positions will be in a very small minority.  More likely one is to find people who are frustrated, scared, angry, and feeling isolated from social forces that seem, from that position of isolation, uncontrollable.  Over and over again in political history (Plato was the first to theorize the phenomenon in the 5th century BCE) powerless and voiceless people throw their lot in with demagogues who promise to solve their problems for them.  They have always been disappointed.

Workers and the oppressed have improved their lives when they rely upon their own collective agency.  The labour movement was the primary political and economic vehicle for the improvement of working conditions and standards of living, the civil rights movement overthrew Jim Crow laws in the US South, the women’s movement in its multiple manifestations has enfranchised women and given them control over their own bodies.  But these movements were not the mechanical result of social forces but were built through political organizing.  Political organizing requires political argument: with conservative members of the constituency one is trying to mobilize, and the enemy one is trying to defeat.

Ultimately, stable solutions require convincing enemies as well as friends.  So, unless one thinks that human society is better when it is in a permanent state of disorder and conflict, (and the people who do believe this tend to be able to live outside of the conflict they endorse as good) argument in support of values which really would ensure access to the goods and institutions people require in order to become social self-conscious, self-determining agents, are necessary.  Success in political argument is never guaranteed, and cannot be expedited.  It takes time.  How much time, no one can say.  But more than a bare start should be achievable in the next four years if progressive Americans take up the task.

50 000 000 Trump Fans Can Be Wrong

In the end, Van Jones and not Slavoj Zizek is right.  The Trump tide, Jones argued, was a “whitelash,” not just against eight years of Obama, but more deeply against the idea of what 59 million mostly rural and small city whites regard as America.  Given the intensity of the race and immigrant baiting in Trump’s campaign and given his total lack of appeal to Latino and Black voters, racism has to emerge as the dominant explanation of his victory.

What that means for the future is not-  as the lamentable and politically stupid Zizek thinks- a final provocation which will push Americans towards communist revolution– but the emboldening of the most politically backward and vicious elements of American society.  When Trump fails to deliver on his promises towards them they are not going to become Communists, they will double down on their hatred and xenophobia.

On what basis do I make this assertion?  The media relentlessly tracked Trump’s lies, they obsessively repeated his violent sexist comments about women, they interviewed the women whom he allegedly assaulted, they made fun of his gaffs and mannerisms, they mocked his qualifications, they catalogued his business failures, and it made no difference.  He deflected every criticism in the same way:  “The establishment”  is thwarting me.  Stand by me.  I am with you.”  Who can say now that this strategy was not stunningly successful?  When the steel mills of Pennsylvania and the auto factories of Michigan fail to re-open, he will deflect blame again, and, absent any coherent and credible response form the left (and there might be a coherent response but it will not be credible, at least not in the short term) he will survive, cocooned in the racial anger underlying his success.

If there is going to be a coherent and credible response, where will it come from?  The radical left?  They (we) will have the  appropriate (and defensible)  arguments, but insignificant numbers of people will read them.  The respectable left-liberals of academia, the quality press, and the intelligentsia of Democratic Party?  Last night’s results answer this question.  They will make arguments that appeal to the 58 million people who voted for Clinton, but there is no evidence they can move the 59 million who voted for Trump to their camp.

In the early nineteenth century Hegel wrote that a historical period in which the contradictions of social life had become polarized needs philosophy to help resolve those contradictions.  Philosophy would resolve the contradictions by revealing the point of overlap of the opposed positions on which a synthesis can be constructed.  Marx, eschewing synthesis for revolution, nevertheless still stood in Hegel’s shadow when he argued that radical social transformation occurs only when the conditions are right, only when classes cannot cooperate in any way any longer, and the subordinate rise up to reconstruct society on the basis a more comprehensive set of values that ensure the satisfaction of their life-interests.  He also noted another possibility:  the mutual ruin of the contending classes.  The depth of opposition in the United States right now feels more like a situation that threatens mutual ruin than one which will lead to resolution on the basis of a more comprehensively inclusive value system.

The analogy with Marx here is imprecise, because the class struggle going on right now in the United States is not between the working class and the ruling class, but between at least three segments of the working class.  On the one hand, the traditional white working class, the working class of industry and industrial unionism, is, through the desperate rear-guard action of electing Trump,  trying to re-establish a secure place in the contemporary capitalist economy.  Their lives and life-conditions have been ravaged by the last forty years of capitalist globalization, of freeing capital and keeping people (except the rich)  pinned in place.  Their jobs have disappeared, their pensions have been stolen, the future of their children jeopardized.  They are angry, and they should be angry, and their needs must be satisfied.

However, in the absence of a trade union movement and radical left with:  a) a coherent policy response to these changes, and b)  the numbers and credibility to put theory into practice, the rage of the white industrial working class is being directed to two other segments with whom they ultimately need to build alliances.  On the one hand is the Black and Latino working class, working in the same or worse precarious service jobs, under the table employment, or unemployed.   On the other hand is the newly emergent working class of educated urban professionals and their support staffs (workers, in Marx’s sense, because they do not own the means of production, but ‘middle class’ in the popular imagination).  This section has acquired the education and skills to find or build niches in new techno-culture industries.  They live in large cities,  typically on the east or west coast, far from the “fly over states” where some of their parents and families might still live.   Just as young Britons were shocked and angered by the Brexit vote, so too will these young professionals be appalled by Trump.  They should be, but they need to spend a weekend at home and listening to and arguing with their families.  Dismissive epithets are understandable, but the problems that America is facing right now are going to require understanding the anger of the abandoned America.  And once that understanding has been achieved, then everyone can sit down and figure out politically a new way forward.

One condition of ultimate success in this project is that all hope for short-term recovery must be abandoned.  A few days before the election left-liberal pundits were speculating that the Republican party’s future was in question.  Really?  They have the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.  It is the Democrats who are in crisis.  They have alienated completely their most politically energetic and progressive constituency:  the young voters who mobilized in their millions for Sanders, (who taught, at the very least, that the word socialism can be a mobilising tool in the United States).  This whole new layer of activists were taught two nasty lessons.  The first, in party real politk, that entrenched leaderships will conspire against heterodox candidates.  The second, in political dynamics, that in times of crisis (or perceived crisis)  the safe option does not win.

Now is the time for those young people to have the courage of their convictions and get out of the Democratic Party once for all.

There needs to be some new national political force built, one that does not see the old as sacrificial victims of the new but prioritizes transitional programs for people displaced by new technological developments, so that they can move from manufacturing to other forms of meaningful work rather than brutalized and degrading precarious employment.  This new movement needs to continue to push for living wages and revitalized, democratic, multi-racial unions, but it also needs to draw conservative white workers into a conversation about why gay and lesbian and trans culture is not a threat to them, why the traditional is the way things were done but not the way they have to be done, that new horizons of possibility open up with technological and cultural change, and that diversity can be an exciting cultural strength, not a threat.

It needs to draw on the history of American Freedom that Eric Foner traced, a history in which individual freedom was understood socially and not as a gift from God, as the result of collective struggles (against the British colonialists, against white slave owners, as in the brief period of Radical Reconstruction after the Civil War, of the sit down strikes and struggles to legitimize trade unions, the civil rights struggle, and the myriad of radical struggles through the 1960’s.

But history does not work according to a logic of abstract demands.  People do not do what theories predict they will do. (As a case in point, consider that the polls were, once again, off, as they were in Brexit.  This fact should give pause to everyone who thinks human life and struggle can be mapped and comprehended by machine algorithms).  I expect that the broad left in the United States (liberals, in their idiosyncratic use of that term)  will be in for many dark nights.  But they will not emerge from this crisis unless they turn to the spirit of American inventiveness to start to build some new political vehicle for their values and goals.  And they will not be able to build that vehicle unless they listen to what “the other America” of the twenty-first century said last night.  The important lessons in politics are taught by voices progressives would rather not hear.

Poem for Autumn

Who knew dying could be so beautiful?  A still life in the golden light of autumn.  I can see the bridge through the bare trees now.  In the garden, crimson grass is justification enough for the day.

An atmosphere of humid muskiness.  The temperature:  an absence, a clarity.  The soil:  yielding.  A branch has fallen.  It snaps easily for the fire.

A wind, more heard than felt, stirs itself.  Clouds scudder across the sky; brittle leaves swerve in the vortex.  Here below, the chill I have been waiting for has arrived.  I can wrap my imperfections in scarves and sweaters.

It is a time for walking along rivers.

At the lip of the impact crater, the High Falls happily slide down billion year old rocks. We nervously clambered down, stopping to stare into star-shaped shattercones.  A black bear left its claw marks on a poplar tree.

The Detroit is a working river.  A small tug fights against the whitecaps, dropping beneath the horizon of the undulating grey cold.  The blue has gone out of the water.

The Avon is more decoration than work.  I followed the trail until it stopped at a sloping graveyard. A single oak bow, incandescent orange in the mist, made me feel sorry for the dead.  The thoughts etched in granite born of despair and sorrow:  “Asleep in Jesus.”  “Til he comes.”

I thought:  “We have no roots into which our life can withdraw until spring.”

Chilly mornings when you can first see your breath are a blue darker than black. Above the peak of the garage implacable Orion, there.  I feel intensely alone, even frightened.  The stars bear witness but cannot intervene.

Later, the fax-crackle and squelch of birds happy for their wild grapes will begin.  A squirrel will  drop a quince, having found it too bitter.  Traffic.  Talk.  But here and now: A moment for hesitation, a stopping.

I am the eye that knows that it sees and the ear that knows that it hears.

Here.  Now.

Lessons From History II: Bernard Williams: What Hope For the Humanities?

To hear influential people in politics, the media, business, and university administration tell the tale, the sole point of life is to find “jobs.”  Even union leaders join the chorus, although they usually add the qualifier “good” jobs, but do not define “good” save in terms of wages and benefits. I can imagine a young couple laying in bed, amourous, hopeful for the future, looking at one another and saying:  “Lets make a baby tonight, honey, so we can watch them grow up and find a job.”  What passes for political argument today lionizes “the job creators”  (even though they do not seem to create enough of them), and wise council for the young always instructs them to instrumentalize their entire life, including their education, so that everything they do  and study helps them find a job.  “Don’t post a picture on Instagram of you smoking a joint, it might hurt your chances of landing a job.  Don’t waste your education on frivolous subjects, find out what employers want and study that, so that you can land a job.”  This is the cultural narrative today that is creating an enrollment crisis in the humanities.

While the crisis is real, it is not the first time that the humanities have been in crisis.  Writing at the end of the Thatcher nightmare, the great British philosopher  Bernard Williams confronted problems similar to what humanists (classical scholars, historians, scholars and critics of literature, philosophers)  are confronting today.  Such is the similarity of the cultural narrative between 1987 and 2016 that, from reading the first sentence of his short essay (“What Hope for the Humanities?” Essays and Reviews, 1959-2002) it would be difficult to decide in what year he was writing:  “It will be no news that Humanities Departments in UK universities are suffering from a lack of morale, lack of recruitment, and from pressures exerted by cuts in the past and more it seems, to come.”(p.267)  (And come they did in the UK, in the form of devastating cuts to grants to students who chose to study the humanities).

In the face of historical and on-going cuts, the humanities required a defence then, and they require a defence now.  But as William’s essay reminds us, it matters not just that they be defended from those who would chop them, but also on what basis that defence is mounted.  One line of argument, which Williams dubs “The Leather Blotter” defense is easy and effective, as far as protecting the humanities being taught in some generic form for the sake of rounding out the education of (mostly privileged) people who will go on to do more serious things in business and science.  “One style of defence of the Humanities says “the Humanities are cultivated in a  civilized society.”  The defence is put forward for a variety of motives, many of them excellent, and what it says is also, as a matter of fact, true.  The trouble is that it can be too easily associated with some views that are very bad defences, because they effectively accept the luxury status of the Humanities.  These assimilate the Humanities to aspects of expensively cultivated life, to such things as select outings with a well-behaved company and an adequate aesthetic content.” (p.268) These sort of defences are bad for three reasons.

The first, as Williams wittily implies, is that it reduces humanistic education to the spit and polish of white bourgeois finishing school, the rounding out that gentlemen (and now ladies) historically needed to acquire in order to be interesting dinner companions and give the appearance of all-round cultivation.  In this version, the humanities are preserved, but only as a superficial sheen of aesthetic cultivation laid over an essentially commercial world view that governs social life and individual motivation.

The second, not fully unpacked by Williams but clearly implied by his critique of the Leather Blotter view, is that this sort of defence is class-bound and exclusionary.  If all that the humanities cultivate is dining room patter, the ability to quote snippets of poetry, and voice semi-intelligent remarks at galleries or the theatre, they are useless for people who do not go to galleries or the theatre.  Their study will be reserved for those who can pay to acquire a superficial survey of the canon. At the level of the university system one can imagine the humanities surviving in some form at the most expensive private universities and disappearing from smaller ones, which would hasten their decline to the status of technical institutes.

The third reason why this sort of defence is bad is because it does not defend robust social and institutional investment in thriving humanities departments within which research in the humanities takes place.  “What has to be discussed first is the pursuit of certain subjects— the organised, funded, necessarily institutional pursuit of certain subjects, of certain kinds of knowledge.” (p.270)  Few who criticize the humanities criticize their being taught in the Leather Blotter form.  No, what they object to is research in the humanities, i.e., thriving humanities departments in which people study because they want to become philosophers or scholars of renaissance poetry.  Since that research does not produce money-value for private appropriation (i.e., it has no economic value in a capitalist society), these critics conclude that the humanities have no value at all.  And if the humanities have no value at all, there are no grounds for using public funds to support humanities departments. (For more on the relation between the teaching of the humanities and the crisis of academic labour, see Sami Siegelbaum’s fine essay “Once More on the Crisis of the Humanities”).

Now, there is something right in this argument:  if some institution has no value at all, then it should not be the recipient of public funds.  The question is:  is money-value the only value that there is?  The answer here is obviously “no.”  A moment’s reflection on ordinary usage is sufficient to remind us that we regularly talk about aesthetic value, sentimental value, political value, moral value, nutritional value; the value of friendship, the value of family, the value of laughter.  One could go on.  Having established that there are many more kinds of value than economic value, the question is:  what sort of value do the humanities create.

There are two sorts of answers that have some truth, but are not the primary forms of value that defenders of the humanities should focus upon.  The first maintains that, contrary to their economistic critics, the humanities do produce monetary value, and should therefore be supported for the same reasons as investment in mathematics and engineering is supported.  While it is true that some work in the humanities can lead to the production of economic value, this defence is not the strongest, since it simply accepts what is in fact the primary cause of the crisis of the humanities:  the belief that there is no other value than money-value.  If supporters of the humanities rely on this argument alone, they will not be able to protect all forms of scholarship in the humanities, but only those which can defend themselves at the court of money-value.

A second and closely related argument maintains that the humanities are instrumentally valuable because they teach “soft skills,”  like communication and open-mindedness, which are useful on the job market.  The term “soft skills”  is (or should be)  repugnant to anyone who works in the humanities.  It connotes that there is no value to the actual subject matter studied in our disciplines, and that there are no demanding and rigorous methods whose mastery requires decades of devotion and effort; that all the humanities are good for (so it does not matter which you study) is the breezy acquisition of generic skills, which stand in invidious contrast to the “hard”   skills of scientifically serious work. But as Hegel pointed out,  the fact that you have the measure of your shoe in your foot does not mean that you know how to make your shoes.  The idea that there is really nothing to the humanities save opinion and soft skills proves only the ignorance of the person who makes the claim.

Now, if it is true that there is more to life than jobs and wages, we must ask what perspective makes this truth apparent.  Not an economic perspective (at least not an orthodox economic perspective)  since it assumes that people are rationally self-interested and rationally self-interested people are bent exclusively on maximizing their money-holdings.  Not from a natural scientific perspective, which (unless it smuggles in principles from philosophy) must treat human beings as material systems with no intrinsic value.  It is only from the perspective of disciplines which study the ways in which human beings treat and make their lives meaningful that life has more value than as an instrument of money-value creation.  And those disciplines are the humanities.

Hence, the real line of defence for humanistic scholarship and research has to run through the idea– unavoidable from a first person perspective but incompatible with natural scientific principles– that human life is meaningful.  But meaningful how?  The answer is not obvious, but demands reflection.  But reflection on what?  Not one’s own individual existence which, outside of socio-cultural context, is an abstraction.  So what is left?  Precisely the socio-cultural systems, in all of their institutional, political, symbolic, aesthetic, normative, and spiritual complexity in which human beings have made their existence meaningful by living, loving, struggling, fighting, building, destroying, and changing their worlds, and thinking about all of this while or after they do it.

But also:  the methods, and methodological disputes that the attempt to study these systems, not just as dead facts but living realities which meant something to those who lived in them, demand and give rise to.  And:  the sorts of problems that arose in these socio-cultural wholes, and within the different specific domains of practice (art, etc.,)  of which they are composed, which is the dynamic element in history, creating the need and opportunity for change.  And:  the sorts of exclusions that given socio-cultural wholes and the specific domains of practice that compose them have imposed on the sub-altern and the heterodox.  And:  together, the possibility– but only the possibility– of not only determining, on the whole and in the specific fields of practice, the better and the worse,  but insight into how we can go on today, correcting the worse and making it better, on the whole and in the specific.

In short, the value of the humanities comes down to two inter-related factors:  complex historical understanding, and the possibility of social criticism.  “The classic error of thoughtless conservatism,”  Williams argues, “is to forget that what is old is merely what used to be new.  One form it can take is to invest the traditional with a sacred quality, another, and at the present time more destructive form, is to forget that anything has a history at all, and to suppose that the social world simply consists of a set of given objects to be manipulated by go-getting common sense.  No such views are likely to survive unchanged by the enquiries of a truthful and imaginative history.”  (p. 273)  To understand that we have a (political, cultural, social, aesthetic, moral, spiritual) history is to understand that human life is shaped and changed by human thought and practice.  The belief that the forms of human life are timeless is the enemy of social criticism and change.

Natural laws may (in a sense)  be timeless, but social laws are not. To understand them we need to pay attention to the play of opposing forces, to context, to belief, as much as to more basic material conditions in which these factors play out.  There is no engineering or algorithmic solution to the crisis in Syria or global warming precisely because political beliefs and normative choices (that Sunni interests can only be protected in the Caliphate, for example, or that the raison’ d’etre of life is to consume as much as possible, without regard to the energy requirements) enter into the play of forces.  No idea has ever been destroyed by mere force, but only defeated through arguments that change convictions.  Arguments alone are never enough, but again, as Hegel said, the conceit that will not argue is inhuman and a primary impediment to political progress.

Is there any higher conceit today than that money decides the truth?  And if there are no historians, philosophers, and students of literature to insist that in fact there are other and better human motivations, who will be left to make the case?  And if there is no one left to make that case, what hope for concrete solutions to the problems humanity faces today?  The crisis of the humanities is thus a crisis of the world that needs the humanities (to contribute the historical-critical self-understanding that practical solutions to the crisis requires) but cannot tolerate the underlying spirit of the answer they give, which is to affirm the creative and the imaginative over against the pecuniary and what merely serves the powerful.

Just as everyone has an interest in the fruits of natural scientific understanding of the physical world, so too everyone has an interest in the fruits of humanistic understanding (and criticism) of the social world.  If that claim is true, then we need to vigorously defend humanistic research, and, as a vital part of that defence, the sort of university in which that research can be undertaken and taught.  This sort of university is, as it was in 1987, under threat.  That it survived is perhaps cause for hope that it can make it through again, but not without a fight.

Identity Politics, Cultural Appropriation, and Solidarity

The Political Aesthetics of Abstraction

It is easy to change the appearance  of political arguments by abstracting them from the historical context in which they emerge.  Just as the apparent colour of an object can be changed by altering the light in which it appears (an object under ultraviolet light looks to be a different colour than under infrared or sunlight) so too serious political arguments can be made to appear frivolous when separated out from their historical background.  Certain figures in the media are masters of the parlour trick of cherry picking titles and argument-fragments that, in abstraction from the argument as a whole and a longer-term view of history, sound absurd.  Margaret Wente is a paragon of this intellectual non-virtue.  In a recent article she makes fun of academic cultural studies for making what sound like non-sensical critiques of the “whiteness”  of pumpkin latte and the sexism of glaciology.

Let us be fair:  if you only read the title, and you do not link the particular claim (about lattes or glaciology)  to longer term histories of racism and sexism, then it does sound ridiculous to claim that pumpkin lattes are racist or the study of glaciers sexist.  But is it ridiculous to argue that there is a history of sexism in Western science or that Tim Hortons has built a coffee empire on an advertising construction of a very white Canadian cultural practice:  early mornings drinking coffee at the rink while your boy (and now girl) plays hockey.  How many women scientists were there in 1820?  How many black Canadians do you see in Tim Horton’s commercials?  Not many, because the image of Canada those commercials are conjuring is an anachronistic image of the cultural essence of Canada as the small town arena and hockey as a democratic cultural glue.  Now, there is some truth to that picture (I lived it in fact) but it is only one fragment of a much more complex cultural picture, and it leaves out of the frame everyone who cannot afford to play hockey or who does not care about it.

When we put the deconstruction of the pumpkin latte in this context its claim is not so silly.   What makes it seem silly is the micro-focus on a drink, and peoples’ assumptions that something so trivial as a cup of coffee cannot be so pregnant with offensive symbolic meaning.  But a cross abstracted from context  is just two pieces of wood intersecting at a right angle. What could be more banal?  But put that banal construction in a Christian Church and it becomes symbolic of the suffering and redemption of humanity.  The same general process of the inflation of symbolic value is at work in the Tom Horton’s commercial.  When set in the context of the construction of Canadian culture around spaces and practices that are predominantly white, the symbolic value of the coffee cup rises, and it can be a fit subject for cultural criticism.  So:  seemingly insignificant elements of a culture can have profound symbolic importance, and the value of work that brings this importance to light is that it opens a space for critical reflection and the democratic construction of new cultures in which more voices are heard and new practices born.

This critique is liable to get people’s backs up, because they sometimes think that if the symbolic value of something which they enjoy has racist implications, then they are being called racists for enjoying it.  Sometimes claims of cultural appropriation are made with an air of self-righteousness moralism that makes them easy targets for rejection on these defensive grounds.  It is certainly not the case that every white person who wears dreadlocks is a racist any more than heterosexual white transvestites are sexist for wearing women’s clothes.  In matters of politics, intentions matter as much as actions, and sometimes the intention is just to look a certain way, or respectfully (and playfully) participate in a practice that one finds valuable even though participation demands a certain degree of transgression of cultural or gender-boundaries.  Sometimes a dreadlock is just a dreadlock.

But sometimes  not, too, and again it will be context and intention that determines the political meaning.  Wearing dreadlocks because you love reggae is one thing, going in blackface to a hallowe’en party is another.  Wearing blackface has an undeniably racist history; reggae, while rooted in a trenchant critique of the slave trade and colonial domination, nevertheless (at least in its original expressions) preaches a universal set of values:  peace between nations and cultures and the equality and dignity of all people. Burning Spear’s magnificent song The Invasion begins with the line “They take us away from Africa, with the intention to steal our culture,”  but continues with the invocation of the need for “Love in Africa, Love in America, Love in Canada”  i.e., not retreat into a closed community but openness towards difference and reconciliation (but without forgetting the history of violence, either).

So:  the problem of cultural appropriation is real, but becomes pernicious only when it involves the permanent appropriation of essential elements of a group’s conditions of life and self-understanding, as in the history of colonial domination.  The aim of opposing cultural appropriation should not be to prevent real communication, inter-cultural dialogue, and the creation of new forms of expression and identity, but to ensure that all members of all cultures have secure access to that which they require to live freely.

Against the Politics of Banning and Apology

Unfortunately, the goal of cultural critics is not always to widen the space for novel cultural interactions  and inventions but to justify banning and silencing and to demand apologies for arguments and theories that give offense.   It would be wrong to argue that there are never grounds to ban certain forms of speech or representation. However, the bar must be set very, very high:  1) There must be demonstrated and pervasive harm to an identifiable group and not a merely asserted harm to a random individual or individuals claiming to speak for the whole group, and 2) harm must be understood as equivalent to a physical barrier preventing the group from exercising its full range of life-capacities.  So, it would be reasonable to ban Ku Klux Klan outfits from a university campus, because the Ku Klux Klan is inseparable from a history of racist violence, and any black student who saw people walking around in Klan gear would reasonably fear for their safety, and this fear could well prevent them from freely enjoying campus spaces and feeling safe enough to think and study.  Racist jokes, on the other hand, while offensive, should not be banned, but their teller challenged, because it is not always the intention of the teller of racist jokes to promote racial intolerance. Often times the teller does not think that they are racist, because they think that humour changes the literal meaning and implications of words– a not unreasonable position that must be answered with a reasoned critique. The ensuing argument can thus be a moment of productive political engagement and education rather than the regressive alternative:  censorship imposed by the ruling powers.

This argument applies with double force to the lamentable and frankly reactionary practice of trying to silence theories and political positions which might give offense to some group by banning speakers from campuses or trying to control the content of courses.  Academic freedom is not a liberal platitude but has been, overall, a force of progressive change, and a crucial contributing factor to why there is any political criticism on campus at all.  There would be no women’s studies department without the struggles of women academics, but those academics would never have survived the wrath of the boy’s club without the protection of academic freedom, because it gave them the space and time necessary to defend the integrity and value of their work from charges that it was intellectually weak.  There is no doubt who will be swept out the door if academic freedom is fatally compromised by misplaced political outrage and moralistic whinging:  feminists, queer theorists, Marxists, and critical race theorists as well as heterodox critics of the history of science will be gone and universities returned to what they were formerly:  transmission belts of the ruling ideas of the age, taught to the sons (and only much later) daughters of the ruling class.

Thus, activists and critics need to recover the value of political argument.  If there are fault lines in a society, then it follow as a direct consequence that there will be groups on the other side of an issue, and they will not go away unless the fault line is  sealed through some sort of fundamental social change.  Silencing the opponent through whatever means has never worked (even revolutionary attempts to ‘liquidate the class enemy’ have never succeeded).  There is no alternative but to argue (not only argue, obviously) and convince the opponent to change their position.  Hegel is correct:  the conceit that refuses to argue impedes political progress because the “achieved community of minds”  which our rational nature makes possible depends upon the “power of the negative,” his name for the ability of philosophical thinking to detect and overcome contradictions.  If the other side does not speak, the contradiction is hidden from view but not resolved.  The strategy of banning and silencing is therefore self-undermining and must be rejected save in the most extreme cases of overt advocacy of violent assault on vulnerable groups.


However, rejecting a self-undermining politics of the silencing (but not defeat) of the opposed position leaves open the more difficult question of how the positive programs of movements against different forms of oppression can be brought together in some sort of coherent political synthesis.  A coherent political synthesis would allow for the elaboration of shared goals without requiring the submerging of particular histories or subordinating the particular identities to an imposed agenda.  It is crucial to remember that the emergence of radical feminism, Black Power, the American Indian Movement, and the gay and lesbian rights movement in the 1960’s was in part made necessary by the woeful failure of the Marxist left to acknowledge the political reality of different histories of oppression.  Of course, these movements were made necessary by those histories, and their successes owe to the intelligence and energy of their organizers.  At the same time, part of the reason why these movements had to split off from the Marxist left was due to a mechanical and dogmatic insistence on the “primacy of class.”  There is a non-dogmatic argument to be made for the primacy of class, but I am not going to make it here.  Instead, I want to conclude with a different account of how solidarity might be built in the present, which draws on some core ideas of Marxism, but re-interprets them in light of contemporary political realities.

The core problem of building real solidarity is how to identify real common interests and articulate them in such a way that their pursuit does not demand subordination of particular identities to another identity presenting itself as universal. The historical problem of the dogmatic Marxist approach was that, from the perspective of a radical feminist or black power militant, class was itself an identity as particular as the Marxist charged feminism or black power with being.  If a common interest is to be found, it has to be deeper than class.  I think we find this deeper ground in the idea of a shared set of socio-cultural human needs whose satisfaction allows anyone to realize their latent human power of living as a social-self-conscious agent; i.e., a person who has the power to shape their own identity rather than than be dominated as an object of oppressive power.  When we focus on needs first, it becomes apparent  that oppression is essentially about demonizing specific groups of people and using that demonization to justify the fact that they are systematically deprived of one or more of the set of fundamental human natural and social needs.   They are oppressed because they can live as full social self-conscious agents, and they cannot, not because they are not essentially social self-conscious agents, but because they are deprived of that which they require to live as such.

So, to give only one example, when women were denied the vote (their need to participate in the determination of the laws they were forced to obey) sexist ideology argued that women lacked the intellectual capacities to effectively participate in government.  When African Americans were denied the same means of satisfying their need to participate, racist ideology argued that they were similarly intellectually unfit for self-government.  Here we have two distinct groups denied the same means of satisfying a political need  by reference to a false construction of their nature and possibilities.  The details of the histories of their respective deprivation differ, but the cause is the same:  the system-need of the ruling class to ensure the conditions of its own rule.  If the ruling class is primarily white and male, then the demands of women and blacks for political power is a threat, and racist and sexist ideologies a means of warding off that threat.  Solidarity in the struggle can be constructed by appeal to the shared need, while the specific identity of the group is preserved because they orient their contribution to that struggle on the basis of their own particular experience of the general causes of the deprivation.

This example abstracts from a great deal of complexity of the contemporary political terrain, but I believe that if people examine fundamental problems of structural oppression, they will discover at the root of that oppression deprivation of needs that are also felt by other groups.  I have defined and defended a theory of what fundamental human needs are in two previous books, Democratic Society and Human Needs and Materialist Ethics and Life-value.  The practical implication of the argument is that all the particular histories of oppresion converge on the control of natural resources, social wealth, and social institutions by a ruling class.  Solidarity in struggle is rooted not in everyone identifying themselves as working class against the ruling class, but in all oppressed and exploited groups articulating the specific ways in which they experience the deprivation of their needs, and working together to reclaim the resources and institutions that can satisfy them.

Politics cannot ensure that no one is ever offended, and if it tries to do so, it will degenerate into irrelevant squabbling (or worse, demands that the authorities solve the problem through repressive measures).  Progressive politics is about people seizing the power to solve their own problems by changing the system at the foundations.  It would be best if this were a simple and swift problem to solve, but it is not.  Because it is not, and because opponents cannot be wished out of existence or completely destroyed, the patience of argument will always have to be part of the tools of struggle.