Lessons From History: Herbert Marcuse: “Murder is not a Political Weapon”

The emergence of so-called “lone wolf attacks” purportedly inspired or directed by Daesh have become a new source of political anxiety within the Western security establishment.  These attacks should also be of concern to and condemned by the anti-imperialist Left.  First, contrary to its right-wing caricature, it is not a movement of unthinking ideologues and apologists for terror but human beings whose primary goal is the creation of the social conditions for human self-realization everywhere. Second, and following from the first, when the tactics of random terror are identified with anti-imperialist politics, they threaten its wider legitimacy.  In order to protect that legitimacy and extend it more widely, these tactics must be criticized from the left in the name of a mass democratic and internationalist alternative to both imperialism and the terrorist response it engenders.

Human beings cannot think when they are afraid.  By instilling fear, random terrorist attacks on civilian targets undermine the ability and desire of people in the West to think about the depth historical causes of terrorism.  A more or less blind compliance with the military-security apparatus agenda follows.  This agenda treats terrorism as an irrational phenomenon whose causes lie in the psychological pathology and demoniac immorality of the perpetrators.  No doubt there are psychotics and demons amongst the ranks of Daesh.  But the question must be asked:  how did they get so angry in the first place?  The answer is not to be found in their individual family or life-history but in the history of Western imperialist intervention in the Middle East and Africa.  The point is not that this history can explain any attack in particular, but rather that it contains the general causes of the emergence of anti-imperialist movements in the Middle East of which Daesh is a distorted expression.

Disagree?  Let us review very briefly the origins of Al Qaeda and Daesh.  Al Qaeda was largely the creation of the Cold War struggle between American and Soviet imperialism, armed by the United States to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Having successfully driven the Soviets out, they turned their forces against America in a classic case of what Chalmers Johnson called “blowback.”  Daesh developed out of al Qaeda in Iraq; its leader Baghdadi radicalized in an American prison camp after the Second Gulf War, which was itself an attempt to use the toppling of Saddam Hussein to rebuild a compliant and supine Middle East.  Psychotics attack anywhere at random in response to their own delusions.  But there are no examples of terrorist violence not claimed in the name of a specific, identifiable, political grievance that is not delusional, even if the hopes for success by these means might be.  Individual practitioners may or may not be violently psychotic; the politically important point is that the underlying causes of the emergence of a movement that allow those people to give expression to their revenge fantasies are evident, comprehensible, and explicable in historically clear and politically rational terms.

To say that the emergence of a terrorist movement is explicable in politically rational terms does not mean that the means adopted are rational or justified.  On the contrary, they are self-undermining and in contradiction to the underlying human values that legitimate democratic resistance to imperialism.  And that is why the anti-imperialist left should be concerned, politically, with criticizing these attacks:  they make even more difficult the already herculean task of transforming global politics in the direction of self-determination for the people of the world and away from their subordination to capital and the military and political power that protects it.

This problem has arisen before.  In the late 1960’s and 1970’s a wave of leftist terror attacks was perpetrated across Europe and North America in the (misguided) hope that they would create the conditions for working class revolution.  The thought was that the state would have to become more and more repressive in response to the attacks, thus teaching workers its true nature, disabusing them of social democratic illusions that the state could be their ally, and thus causing them to become revolutionary.  The state did become more repressive, but the workers were not moved to revolution.  The terrorist cells were dismantled and the activists either jailed or killed.

One of the most succinct and incisive critiques of this wave of kidnappings, shootings, and bombings was an article written by Herbert Marcuse in 1977:  “Murder is not a Political Weapon.”  In response to the attacks by the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof gang in then West Germany, Marcuse posed two questions:  1) did the attacks weaken capitalism; and 2) were they required by revolutionary morality.  To both questions Marcuse answered in the negative.  The same two questions could be asked today about the terrorist response to Western imperialism.  The same negative answers hold, and for the same reasons that Marcuse gave in 1977.

To the first point, rather than advance any progressive agenda, terrorists fatally compromise it.  They alienate potential supporters and they must be conspiratorial and secretive, making the construction of a democratic mass movement impossible. Their only effect is to strengthen the repressive power of their enemies.  Terrorism, Marcuse argued “strengthens its [the state’s] repressive potential without (and this is the decisive point) either engendering opposition to repression, or raising political consciousness.”  In the contemporary context, terrorism not only does not engender opposition to repression or raise political consciousness, it engenders support for repression at home and more extreme military violence in the Middle East and Africa.  As for political consciousness, far from raising it, it drives it down to the most crass atavism and xenophobic Islamophobia.  The strength of right wing populism in Europe and America is at least partly attributable to 9/11 and subsequent attacks.  The biggest victims of these politically degenerate movements have been the very people the terrorists are claiming to liberate: the Muslims of the Middle East and Africa.

Marcuse also argued that terrorism was contrary to “revolutionary morality.”  While the term sounds out of place today, its underlying idea remains important.   Socialist revolution was always justified in terms of freeing human life from the control of alienating, exploitative, and reified social powers so that instead of life being little more than service to money and its owners, it would become free self-realizing activity.  Revolutionary morality was the set of values that follow from this steering principle. “Its goal– the liberated individual– must appear in the means to achieve this goal.  Revolutionary morality demands… open struggle, not conspiracy and sneak attacks.  An open struggle is a class struggle.”  His point is that liberation cannot be achieved by violence alone, because a violent struggle requires military discipline, hierarchical structures, and leaders who command and followers who obey.  Revolutionaries schooled in that mode of struggle will not become people capable of democratic governance, because the principle of democratic governance is collective self-determination through full and free debate, not doing what the leadership commands be done.  As we can see with abundant clarity from the areas that Daesh rules, democratic self-determination is not their aim.  Hence, on this score too, the terrorist response to Western imperialism fails the test.

It is difficult to see beneath the sectarianism and factionalism that typifies Middle Eastern politics today any sort of class struggle.  Still when we look at the root cause of the chaos:  Western military intervention, the class interests that have been imposed upon the peoples of the Middle East are clear enough.  Western intervention in the Middle East is a direct function of its economic and strategic value.  If there were nothing there but Bedouin communities and dates, it would lack all strategic value.   Oil– and control over it-  is the ultimate (but not sole) driver.  Political struggles can generate their own immanent reasons for continuing once they have begun.  Amongst the most important are the fear that apparent weakness will embolden enemies  and the belief (fatal to gamblers) of thinking that past losses can be made good by more strenuous application of the same strategy.

The anti-imperialists of the Daesh strip claim to be resisting Western violence, but kill mostly Muslims.  What damage they do inflict on the West is-  while horrific from the human perspective- of no consequence from the standpoint of social stability.  No Western country will be destroyed by one-off terrorist attacks.  Those attacks will promote more and more hatred of Muslims as an undifferentiated and demonized group and thus more and more support for the very military violence the terrorists are claiming to fight against.  Marcuse’s 1977 conclusion rings as true of Daesh as it did of the Red Army faction:  “Their methods are not those of liberation.”

Windsor Spaces II: Ford City Parkette

This essay is the second in an occasional series of unambivalent notes of appreciation for some Windsor spaces that I like because they make me feel like I live in a city. (You can read the first essay, on Atkinson Park, here).

The guide books (are there guidebooks about Windsor?) won’t know about these spots,
so if you ever visit, seek them out and see what you think.
The second installment of the series takes readers to the heart of the Drouillard Road neighbourhood, the Ford City Parkette (Corner of Drouillard and Whelpton).


At the centre, la machine infernale touches the human hand and says, “it will be ok, follow where I lead,” which turned out to be oblivion, unemployment.  It arranges the workers in circular space around its structure, their strong hands gripping its appendages, the cables or hoses that feed it snake up and away from them, but have not been anchored to any ceiling.  Instead, the sculptor let them extend into space and disappear, a true deus ex machina fed by transcendent forces. A terrifying mechanism frozen in bronze, an  alien spaceship before everything became too clean and cgi; the workers masked and goggled and aproned  to protect themselves from its heat or its blasts; faces covered save one, whose handsome beard and attentive eyes testify:  we are still human beings.


At the street’s edge, still, human beings.  Two fellows talk theology while I sip water in the heat-heavy sun, sweating through my atheist society t-shirt, thinking:  “There is a difference between politics that (like the church across the street from which the disputants must have come) wants to save people by transforming them, and human respect that demands that those same people be left to be who they are.  Some people take a sedimentary rock approach to the afflicted and the addicted, seeing a neighbourhood like this as the bottom of an immense pile of shells and bones that gets crushed under its own weight into limestone; the people just fossilized remains waiting for a saviour to rescue them.”

But the people are, if anything, abundantly alive: laughing, some might say maniacally, but I will say exuberantly, debating, shuffling about in slippers and shower cap looking for a light, walking a giantly terrifying dog, and some, just sitting, forlorn perhaps.  (But is that wrong?  Not everything is funny).


In one of his “Questionnaires”  Max Frisch asks:  “Are you afraid of the poor?” and then immediately after:   “Why not?” (Sketchbook 1966-1971, pp.207-208).  He gives voice to every middle class person`s anxiety:  “If we do not do something, they will steal our shit.”  But if you talk to people you discover that they don’t want your shit, only the resources that they are entitled to so that they can shape their own reality ….


… the way the sculptor Mark Williams, (who was also a Ford journeyman) sculpted the extraordinary piece (the finest public art in the city by far) out of his own experience.  His figures are not those of a Raphael (who was celebrated for paintings that made people appear “more real than they are”).  Still less are they the cardboard heroes of socialist realism.  His exquisitely detailed workers appear to be just what they are:  workers- with hard hands and wrinkled clothes, trying to control a mechanism that would ultimately control them.

And this concrete and scraggy grass and faux-wood covered corner park is what remains.  Perhaps it is not worth the historic losses, but there are no scales to weigh the cost of the losses of the past against the gains of the future.  Some lose, and badly, and that is real, while others gain, and handsomely, and that is real.  Art does not change that reality, but it can at least say:  we were here, think about what that means.

Here, There, History

So it is a great space to sit and think about what that means, at the beginning (or the end, depending on whether you come from the north or the south) of this hardy historical neighbourhood.  It is a gathering place, not a dying place, and a sitting and probably a drinking place (and how is that wrong); a corner parkette not unlike the one’s you find everywhere in Manhattan (if you stop looking up and shopping for a moment you will see them, little anchors for the micro-neighbourhoods that make up and make great that immense metropolis so, so far culturally, from here).  But difference makes it worth being here when you are here and there when you are there.  The new and hip is generic and without place, the true and the real are contoured and shaped by their historical grounding in historical-material space.

Peter Singer Loses His Grip

In an obscure article translated by Walter Kaufmann, (“Who Thinks Abstractly”) Hegel responds to charges that philosophy is a form of “abstract” thinking.  His response is to demonstrate that it is not philosophers who think abstractly, but the general public when they cast around for simplistic explanations for complex problems.  To think abstractly is not to think in terms of general principles or universal causes, but rather to ignore both in favour of surface explanations that pick out (abstract) an empirical feature of a situation and posit it as the cause.  Hegel gives the example of a murderer. For the abstract thinker, a murderer is nothing more that a person who murders.  The complex history of events and experiences that combined to produce the murderer are ignored.  Thus, abstract thought is unhistorical:  it cannot explain how a given situation came to be or how it could be changed.   Moreover, it is not interested in how things came to be; it is happy with its surface explanations.

Sadly, it is not only the general public that thinks abstractly in this sense.  Philosophers are, contra Hegel, often guilty as well.  A recent case in point is the ever-controversial Peter Singer.  In a story reported in the Jakarta Chronicle, he is quoted as saying that if smart young people want to save the world, then they should become investment bankers.  No worries about their obscenely high salaries, “if they are able to live modestly and give a lot away, they can save many lives.” Well perhaps, but what about the lives they ruin by providing the funds for “investments”  that destroy landscapes, indigenous ways of life, public goods and services; their collusion with autocrats against unions, social movements, and indigenous cultures; their blind infatuation with money above all else?

Singer’s error is to abstract the issue of charitable giving from the more complex reality of what is valued in the global economy and what is selected for investment.  For Singer it is simply a matter of what you do with your money once you have it, not how you get your money in the first place, or the overarching economic system that determines the relative pay scales of different occupations.

Singer’s argument is analogous to claiming that if you want to save lives then you should stock up on poison and its antidote, administer the poison to people, and then the antidote, just before they die.  At the very least, that is a pretty roundabout way of saving lives.

The worst aspect of the argument is that it leads to the morally odious conclusion that those who make money speculating on currencies, stripping public services by privatizing them, working with governments to drive down wages and eliminate benefits, raid pension plans and condemn the young to a life of precarious servitude actually do more good (if they give away some of the income that they derive from destroying lives) than poorly paid workers:  nurses, support care workers, teachers in most of the world, whose labour is actually and directly life-serving.

I am not a long-standing critic of Peter Singer’s work.  His contribution to animal ethics is path-breaking, his commitment to life-protective universal global ethical principles is one I share (although not his utilitarian interpretation of that ethic).  I think he has been unfairly criticized by disabled rights activists who have interpreted thought experiments designed to sensitize us to the suffering of animals as hateful attacks on the disabled.  But I have long worried that his focus on charity as the means of solving the problems of poverty and oppression was politically incoherent, and the comment quoted above seems to bear my concern out.(See for example Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, p. 195).

The first problem with charity is that it operates in a political, economic, and social vacuum.  As I argued above, it fails to ask how the money that the charitable donor deigns to redistribute was acquired.  The second problem is that it smacks of noblesse oblige:  the fortunate (usually, white Western) donor, media in tow, appears in the midst of the huddled masses of the Global South and distributes manna.  Bellies are fed for a day, but true freedom from poverty- freedom that can only come from collective struggle against the private ownership of life-resources and their exploitation for money-value that accumulates in private (and mostly Western) hands- is impeded. Real freedom from poverty requires the expropriation of the investment banks and turning them to the truly democratic and life-serving purposes of investment in universally accessible public infrastructure and goods.

In other places (One World, for example) Singer has sounded a more critical tone towards global capitalism, but he has always pulled back from calling for collective action in support of an alternative value system in favour of abstract calls for charity.  Individualistic solutions to social problems, ethics in abstraction from social philosophy, and structural analysis of the global economy result, in this case, in an obscene inversion of values:  the destroyers of life appear as its servants, its real servants, the mostly indigenous poor of the world, appear as helpless beggars awaiting salvation.

Perhaps Singer would rejoin that not every business venture is life-destructive. If every one were, then capitalism would have long ago killed off the species.  Fair enough.  But it is obvious that all investments in capitalism are contradictory (and many are outright destructive of indigenous lives and life-ways).  Every investment depends on the exploitation and alienation of labour, and the overwhelming direction of economic “development” in the past forty years has been against collective protections for working people and in favour of privatization and precarity.  Investment banks line up the funds for all of these projects.

Perhaps he would further rejoin that need is immediate and social transformation is a long-term project, if it is even possible.  Again, there is some truth here. However, it is a practical truth that any number of politicians or UN bureaucrats or Western do-gooders can make. The world does not need philosophers to state the obvious.  If there is any public value at all to philosophy it is that it stands somewhat above the day to day fray, not so that it can ponder the heavens “in abstraction”  from real life, but so that the deep underlying principles that regulate everyday life can be made the object of reflection and criticism to the extent warranted by the state of peoples lives.  Philosophy that panders to the given in the way that Singer does in this case contradicts its vocation-  which in many other respects Singer has upheld to the highest degree-  to make the hard, the non-obvious, argument that takes us beyond where we are now to a place it would be better for all to be.

Readings: Beyond Capital

Michael Lebowitz’s 1992 classic Beyond Capital:  Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class established him as the most philosophically astute Marxist economist of his era.  Lebowitz argues that there is a tension at the heart of Marx’s work between the humanist values that ground his emancipatory vision of socialism and the mechanical scientism of Capital.   Lebowitz does not argue that the analysis of the dynamics of capitalist society in Capital should be rejected but rather that it must be read as one element within the totality of Marx’s work.  What is absent from Capital, according to Lebowitz, is just what is central to Marx’s work as a whole:  the understanding of working people as subjects, as active creators of their own history, as agents of their own emancipation.  In Capital, by contrast, it is the “laws of motion” of the capitalist economy that are the subjects, while people are treated as “but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.”(Capital, Volume 1, p.60).  Consequently, both the politics and economics of Capital are one-sided. 

Let us start with the economic problems.  In Marx’s presentation in Capital, the valorization process takes place as if workers were inert functions of the system of production.  Wages and the rate of profit are determined as if working people and their struggles did not matter.  Technically, the problem, according to Lebowitz, is that Marx assumed for the sake of his analysis that the amount of goods necessary to ensure the reproduction of labour-power was fixed.  If it was fixed, then the money-value of labour could be assumed to be constant (the money-value of labour is determined by the amount of labour time it takes to earn the money equal to that bundle of necessities).  “Marx’s discussion in Capital take the constancy of that set of necessary means of subsistence as given.  It is on that basis that we proceed to explore the production of  surplus value.”(p.16)  This seemingly innocuous methodologcal assumption on Marx’s part has profound political implications.

Marx’s assumes for the sake of his understanding of the production of surplus value that the cost of labour is fixed.  What this means is that the extent of workers’ basic needs is assumed to be fixed.  But this means that what we are dealing with are not real people and real societies in comparison with each other, but with an abstract methodological construction of a static theory-construct.  In real life, and in real economies, according to Lebowitz, that which is physically necessary is subsumed beneath what is socially necessary.  In the twenty-first century it is socially necessary to have access to computers, in the nineteenth it was not.   Since people are not inert functions of system-dynamics but socially self-conscious agents who see and feel what is happening to the world around them, they organize and fight for higher wages so that they can access that which socially necessary to life in the society in which they live.  Consequently, an adequate economic model must understand dynamic wages rates, and in order to understand dynamic wage rates, working class struggle must be taken into account.

Marx does not take workers’ struggles for higher real wages into account in Capital.  “In short, the existence of unfulfilled social needs underlies the worker’s need for more money, her need for a higher wage.  But, that, of course, involves a struggle for higher wages …. There is, however, no discussion in Capital about the struggle for higher wages.”(p.30).  Thus, what is missing from Capital is the political economy of the working class.  The political economy of the working class would centre on the struggle over real wages as the social foundation of the quality of life that workers are actually able to live.  Capital focuses exclusively on the political economy of capital:  on the production of surplus value through the exploitation of labour.  What it is missing is the economic impact of workers’ struggles against exploitation.  Viewed from the side of workers as human beings, these struggles constitute a production process as well:  not the production of money-capital, but the self-production of human beings as subjects: “what happens during free time is a process of production, a process in which the nature and the capability of the worker is altered. It is ‘time for the full production of the individual.’” (p.51).  Marx does examine workers’ struggles for a shorter working day in Capital, but not the other side of that struggle:  the struggle for higher real wages which is the essential condition, under capitalism, of people being able to realize themselves in the time they have outside of work.  In sum, “there is a critical silence” in Capital Lebowitz argues,which permits the appearance that, for the scientist, the only subject … is capital, growing, transcending all barriers, developing—until, finally, it runs out of steam and is replaced by scientists with a more efficient machine.”(p.11).  The problems with the economic analysis produce serious political problems, unless the arguments of Capital are situated within the whole of Marx’s work.

Like Gramsci before him, Lebowitz worries that Capital taken on its own implies a mechanical and necessary transition to socialism as a consequence of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism.  Gramsci saw the Russian Revolution as a revolution against the “naturalism and positivism”  of Capital, as an assertion of the creative power of human collective action against abstract conceptions of the “iron laws”  of capitalist society.  Lebowitz similarly worries that by ignoring struggles within capitalism for more free time and higher real wages, orthodox Marxists ignore those zones where workers are organized and actually fight.

Although he does not make this point explicit, I think it also follows from Lebowitz’ argument (and if I am right I think it is the most enduring philosophical-political contribution that it makes) that we need to conceive of the struggle for socialism not as an all or nothing battle leading to a revolutionary cataclysm, but as an open-ended process arranged along a continuum of better or worse lives for workers.  These struggles occur in multiple spheres and are led by many different organizations as workers struggle to satisfy their multidimensional needs.  Workers are human beings and human beings have needs.  These needs and people’s ability to satisfy them are modified by people’s concrete identity.  Lebowitz thus arrives at an expansive conception of class struggle as the multi-dimensional struggle of alienated, exploited, and oppressed human beings against capital as the systematic impediment separating them from the resources and institutions that they need.  A struggle for schools is just as much a class struggle as a strike; a struggle against racial profiling or police violence is just as much a class struggle as the demand for higher wages, because workers are not generic tokens of a type but students and black and women and gay.

Lebowitz thus rejects any antithesis between what were called at the time “new social movements”  (broadly, the struggles of the oppressed organized by identity and not class) and socialism:  “A strategy calling for ‘external alliances’ between workers and new social actors takes as its starting point the theoretical reduction of workers to one-dimensional products of capital.  Rather than an inherent opposition between ‘new social movements’ and the struggle of workers as a class against capital, the former should be seen as expressing other needs of workers, and as the development of new organizing centres of of the working class, functioning ‘in the broad sense’ of its complete emancipation.’ (p.147) In other words, a properly organized left would coherently include the struggles of all oppressed people, not as optional add-ons, but as an internally unified expression of the complex ways in which capitalism impedes the satisfaction of the totality of human needs as they are actually experienced by real (i.e., differently identified) people.

If anyone needs proof of the failure of the North American left to reinvent itself in a practically effective way it is that the oppressed continue to organize (and effectively, for example, most recently, in the Black Lives Matter movement) outside of and apart from a still moribund labour movement and socialist left.  Twenty five years on from Lebowitz, essentially the same arguments are being made on the left for internally unified struggles against multidimensional exploitation-alienation-oppression, still without effect.  The problem, I believe, is not the theoretical incoherence of the proposal, but the legacy of defeat:  the left simply has no credibility at this point to give people the confidence that they can put into practice that which they claim is theoretically possible.

Nevertheless, if we adopt Lebowitz’s (that is, Marx’s wholistic) conception of workers as human beings, and understand human beings (as I have argued elsewhere) as embodied, socially self-conscious agents, and embodied social self-conscious agents as requiring definite natural and social resources and relationships if they are to live and express themselves freely, and understand that people will always struggle in different ways to satisfy their needs, then short term failures of the left to produce a complete structural transformation of society are not fatal to the project.

Instead, the measuring stick of success should be the real conditions of workers lives:  The question is not whether struggles are “revolutionary”  in an insurrectionist sense, but whether they are demonstrably:  a) democratizing the workplace, b) enabling workers to better satisfy their physical, socio-cultural, and temporal life-requirements, c)  creating forms of non-alienated labour which enable the enjoyable expression of our talents and creativity, d)  in forms which are sustainable over the open-ended future, and e) overcoming systemic structures of oppression and political violence, at the local, national, and international level?  These are not all or nothing goals but can be more or less fully realized.  Cumulatively, they are incompatible with the rule of capitalist market forces and money-value over human life.  History suggests, however, that they cannot be realized at a single go.  It also suggests (as Lebowitz discovered concretely while working with the Chavez government in Venezuela), that anything less than complete success leaves past gains vulnerable.

There is no solution to the precarity of gains:  revolutionary leaders can be corrupted or undermined by events, reforms that leave the ruling class in power but improve lives can be rolled back.  There is only vigilance and collective effort to keep the line moving in the right direction; no social or natural force guarantees total and permanent emancipation.  Beneath stereotypes, class struggle is just the on-going efforts of working people in their concrete situations and identities fighting to reclaim as much time, space, and activity as possible from the forces of alienation and exploitation.  Twenty five years on, Beyond Capital continues to make that essential point with great clarity and humanity.

Fractals of Violence

Fractal geometry studies the ways in which certain natural structures appear to replicate the same pattern at different scales.  For example, the branching pattern that shapes the tree as a whole is replicated in the branching pattern of its major limbs, and the branching pattern of its major limbs is replicated in the smaller branches that grow out from them.  We can observe an analogous phenomenon in the world of political violence.  As fractal geometry helped mathematicians model irregularity in nature, so too can a close attention to scale help us understand the seemingly random and irrational nature of political violence today.

We live in a violent world:  a banality if ever there was one.  But what does it mean to say that we live in a violent world?  The world is multi-scalar.  There are global organizations and interactions, national states which are composed of formal and informal regions, cities, neighbourhoods, households, and individuals.  In order to understand what the term violent world means, we have to examine the world at each of these scales.  “The world”  is an abstraction which contains these different scales as subsets, but we cannot understand violence–  save in a politically ineffective moralistic way-  if we think abstractly.  We have to see how a global pattern is replicated in the smaller scales from the global and international down to the individual if we are to understand the meaning of “violent world” in any politically efficacious way.

To see the self-replicating structure of a tree we have to learn to follow its lines of branching with our eye.  To understand the self-replicating structure of violence, we have to learn to follow the lines of political division and opposition.  Wherever one finds violence one will always find a line of force that divides a potential whole (humanity, citizens, etc.) into opposed parties.  One party has, if not a monopoly on the means of violence (as Weber said of the state) a much higher capacity to impose its will by physical force, if decides to so use it.  The powerful nation state that unleashes its superior armed forces on a weaker adversary, the city that unleashes its police force against strikers, the gang that controls the streets of a neighbourhood, or the man who rapes a woman behind the wall of his house are all enacting the same sort of social script at a different scale.  The party that resorts to violence defines its interests in opposition to the interests of the target victim and decides that its interests alone count.  Since the other is constructed either as having no interests of its own, or the wrong sorts of interests, or “better off”  if it would adopt the interests of the stronger as its own interests, violence is seen not only as functionally legitimate, but normatively sound, the right thing to do.

In this way the violent agent can override sympathetic-empathetic fellow feeling that, when operative,  produce powerful psychic bulwarks against violent assault on others.  We only feel sorry for that which we care about and we only care about that which we think either a) has legitimate interests that must be respected, or b)  appears as an entity onto which we can project legitimate interests (as we do when we invest inanimate objects like works of art with intrinsic value that we then act so as to respect).  When people, acting as individuals or officers of some collective, deny or disregard the legitimacy of the opposed interests of others, they free themselves from the psychic bulwarks against violence and target their opponent for destruction.

Let us now examine the other side of this relationship.  Human beings, as Hegel knew, are subjects and not passive objects of nature and social power.  When they are treated as objects, they eventually resist.  This resistance to power takes the form of counter-power:  if someone tries to destroy me, I try to destroy him, not for the sake of removing the threat but for the sake of proving to the person who would reduce me to an object of his interests that I am a subject with my own interests, a free and not a dependent being.  Hegel was interested in the underlying dynamics and the conceptual form of struggle, not its political realities.  Hence, he treats every fundamental struggle as a struggle to the death, with no attention paid to the crucial issue of legitimation of the struggle.   Hence, he missed an essential imbalance in the discourses through which violence is justified:  the powerful not only have superior physical power on their hands, but superior communicative power (control over the means of communication)  and will use this to legitimate their own violence and demonize the violence of resistance.   In the real world of violence, the violence of the group or person with superior physical power (economic, political, and military) is always affirmed, the counter-violence of the victim is always demonized.

But not only demonized.  The primary tactic of de-legitimizing the counter-violence of the victims is to invert the real causal order:  the victim, i.e., the effect of the objectifying violence of ruling powers, is made the cause of their own objectification and targeting for violent assault.  The rape victim is made to appear as the cause of the rape, the anti-imperialist movement is made the cause of imperialist violence, and so on.

Take the recent example of the killings of police officers in Dallas.  As soon as that happened the focus of the corporate media shifted from a discussion of the long history of police violence against blacks in America to black violence against police.  Although it is not metaphysically possible for an event which occurred later in time (the killing of the police officers)  to provide the grounds for an event which happened prior in time (the police killings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis)  the media make it sound as if the fact that five police officers were murdered in response to the police killings somehow retroactively legitimated those police killings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis.

This inversion makes the general pattern and causal texture of violence in the world invisible, and ensures that we remain trapped in revenge cycles.  Instead of understanding how general patterns of violence (colonial, racial, sexual, etc) are replicated at the scale of the individual as responses to their objectification and demonization, the individual as such is posited as the cause of violence which must be ‘dealt with’ by more intense violence.  The shootings of police result in more intensive and aggressive policing, terrorist attacks result in more ferocious military assaults.  Both tactics ensure that the cycle will continue, because the systematic causes are not addressed.

Let us test this proposition on the international scale.  Has the “War on Terror”  that began in 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan stopped terrorism?  Not only has it not, it has actually caused it to spread to areas in which it was formerly absent, most notably, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.  What is the common element linking these states to the growth of terrorism?  Destablizing western intervention.  To point to destabilizing western intervention as the cause does not retroactively confer legitimacy on the autocratic rulers of those nations; it does condemn regime change imposed by neo-imperialist powers pursuing their own political and economic interest as incapable of creating stability and justice for local populations.  The collapse of central authority in the absence of unified pan-social democratic movements led to civil war and civil war to the creation of uncontrolled spaces where groups like Daesh were able to organize.  The application of ever increasing military force only exacerbates this problem, which means that it will not disappear even if Daesh is rooted from Raqqa and Mosul.

Even if this argument is true, it does not lead to the more hopeful political conclusions that twentieth century criticisms of colonialism generated.  One wonders what sort of victory or concession would satisfy a group like Daesh.  Consolidation of its territory?  But its odiously repressive politics would mean that it would exist in a state of permanent conflict with the local population, and never be accepted (as anti-colonial movements were) as the legitimate  expression of the popular-democratic and national will.   Once the American invasion had been finally repulsed, Viet Nam ceased to be at war with the United States and it set about he task of reconstructing its society.   So too with the post-colonial revolutionary regimes of Africa.  There was a coherent and politically and economically progressive goal which, once achieved, ended the formal hostilities between the parties.

It is difficult to understand Daesh along these lines.  At the same time, the Western means of dealing with it:  insect metaphors and vows to exterminate it– ensure that it can portray itself as the victim of imperialist violence and continue to recruit on that basis disaffected and racially and ethnically marginalized youth.  The global pattern replicates itself fractally at the individual level; individual acts of violence like in Istanbul give fresh impetus to the global pattern, and the sad bloody spectacle goes on and on.

What is absent here that was present in the twentieth century is a coherent democratic-nationalist alternative as the vehicle for a constructive anti-imperialist politics.  We can say the same thing in the domestic American case (although here perhaps Black Lives Matter can evolve into the overarching political movement that has been absent since the end of the Civil Rights-Black Power movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s).  The  only alternative to fractal replication of violence is constructive political movements that justify themselves by their success in building democratic alternatives as opposed to wantonly destructive acts that achieve nothing more than to bring down the ever more fearsome wrath of arms.

Clearly that sort of constructive politics (which we saw in the Arab Spring before the United States conspired with the Egyptian secret police to end it) can develop only over the long term.  And it is this long term that keeps the prophets of armed destruction and policing in charge of policy.  It is too easy for politicians to stand in front of the latest pile of bodies and declaim against the barbarians who caused it and promise revenge.  But revenge for Paris did not prevent Istanbul, and revenge for Istanbul will not prevent the next attack.  By all means, let us favour pragmatism over utopianism.  But pragmatism demands that the solution actually work.  Avenging individual violence with social and political violence simply has not worked.

What it has done and continues to do is to legitimate an arms race in which state power always emerges on top.  This arms race has led to the militarization of policing and the mechanistic autonomization of the military.  These interrelated developments have reduced the capacity for effective political resistance.  One cannot build barricades against drones and you cannot negotiate with bomb-wielding robo-cops.  There is no insurgency that can hope to succeed against the awesome killing power of the world’s most advanced military systems:  the inability of America to win its wars in the Middle East has not meant the people of the Middle East have won.  Instead, they suffer day after of day of life-destruction.  There will be political solutions to these conflicts or none at all.  If the shared life-interest is to prevail, new democratic political organizations with a coherent positive vision for transformation must emerge in these long-suffering states as in the black neighbourhoods and cities of America.

Fragments From Days Spent in Paris

Paradox of the World City

There is a paradox at the heart of every great world city.  Each occupies a specific geographical location and defines itself by a specific historical culture.  The culture draws visitors to the location, but as more visitors come, their spending has the cumulative social and economic effect of commercializing the historically evolved culture that attracts them in the first place.  The question is thus posed:  what does one come to experience, and what does one actually experience:  the living culture, or the commodified museum culture?  What is living and what is dead in the world city?

Educated sophisticates are tempted by arrogant and elitist distinctions:  I am not a tourist like those gauche Americans, I want the real city.  But he does not take the bus out to the banlieus where reality lives but stays in the historical centre.  She talks about elegance and grandeur and connects the history she has studied to the square where she sits to eat her baguette.  They ain’t fooling anyone:  try as hard as they can to roll their r’s properly, the locals can suss them out.

But then again:  is this not part of the show that everyone comes to see?  I mean, tourists are part of the world city, indeed, they make the world city, do they not?  The world city blurs the distinction between local and visitor. It is a city of flows (of money, of politics, people, ideas, spectacles).  The identifiable culture that serves as the initial attractor dissolves into these flows once you are in the midst of a world city.  Maybe this is the element that entices and excites:  to be part of this electric current of human movement before having to return to the decidedly more static world of the parochial local city?

Notes for a Philosophy of Sitting

If, as Frederic Gros argues,  walking slows the passage of time and deepens our experience, ought we also not affirm the value of sitting, and for analogous reasons?  To sit is to relinquish control over the sensory field, to give oneself over to what happens, to let thought work through and elaborate the ideas that emerge during a long stroll.  The clock ticks, inevitably, but, if one is solitary (as a proper sitter should be), it loses its mechanical rhythm and stretches out langorously, making an hour seem an entire afternoon.  To sit even when the world demands that you move is an affirmation of the joy of being-here over the accumulation of money-wealth, (think of a sit down strike).  It is a rejection of quotidian fussing about getting things done.  Sit, sip your beer, linger in the grotto while the rain taps the rhododendron leaves and  misty light gently envelops you; sit and think.  The world continues, it does not collapse.

Cell Phone– Sorry, Smart Phone– Apocalypse

If you are so uninterested in the art, if you are so indifferent to thinking or feeling anything you have not already thought or felt before, why bother visiting?  Do you think that you are producing a watchable video, walking furiously along the corridor pointing your phone at the paintings?  No, of course not. You do not expect anyone to watch the abomination your phone is recording, you just want to post it, not so that others will watch it  (in any case, watching it would demand the capacity to pay attention that your friends lack too), but just so that there is a document that you were here, that can be added to a list, that can later be compiled into a bigger list.  The more comprehensive list can later be reviewed by your network and a judgement rendered.  But you are the same as you were before, there is a record but no memory; an external event that you passed through but no internal transformation through which you grew.

Indifference reigns.

The Mona Lisa:  Why?

The Mona Lisa is in the Dennon Wing of the Louvre.  To get to it you first pass through a room of frescoes, including a crucifixion by Fra Angelico.  No one captures the human-hearted mourning that is the poetic core of the passion and death of Christ better than Fra Angelico.  The two standing at the base of the cross look in tender sadness at a tortured and dead friend, not the majestic Son of God, and the sombre feeling is emphasized by the muted tones of the fresco.

The next room is full of pre-Renaissance Italian work, including another extraordinary crucifixion by Giotto.  Giotto is all mystical complexity and awe, angles (are they visible to the people at the foot of the cross?) swirl about Christ’s body in its death agony.  The more spiritually charged atmosphere is reinforced by the vivacity of his colours.  Almost no one stops to look at either.  Instead there is a pell mell dash for Room Six.  For what?  For La Gioconda– The Mona Lisa.

Why?  It is as sentimental and uninteresting a painting as there is on earth.  The misty mountains romanticize in a thoroughly cliched way the Tuscan countryside.  And the smile, the mystery of the smile?  What is the mystery?  She is sitting for a portrait, why shouldn’t she smile?  And even if she is harbouring some secret, it would be thoroughly banal.  Maybe she has cuckholded her husband with Leonardo just before sitting for the portrait?  Maybe she is drunk?  Who cares? It does not elevate the painting to the status of masterpiece it somehow has attained.

Claude and Erik in Montmartre

Tell me, Erik, my friend,

Why you wallow here

Night after night,

in the stink and the drink,

amidst these obnoxious whores

draping themselves everywhere?


Claude, you have answered your own question.

As life gets harder,

the problems more dire

the answers get simpler,

more precise and sharp.


It slows the music,

makes it clear,

and lets the humour shine through.

What is Our Position on Fashion?

The fashion industry seems to concentrate all the problems of capitalism:  the elevation of priced style over substance, the “eternal recurrence of the new”  (Benjamin)  that keeps the money flowing, anchoring desire to the pursuit of unattainable ideals, normalizing an objectifying male gaze, and the super-exploitation of the labour that actually produces the clothes.  And yet, is there not an analogy to be drawn between architecture and fashion that complicates the picture?

If you think about it, a building and a jacket, for example, serve the same function:  to keep the elements out. Both functions could be served by the most utilitarian coverings, and yet no human civilization that I know of has ever rested content with pure function over form (the International Style, one can see now, was every bit as concerned with form and appearance as the art deco it replaced).  We invest our coverings, whether buildings or clothes, with symbolic value, which means style in excess of functional requirements.  To my knowledge, there are no socialist critiques of the stylization of buildings through architecture.  So why so many of fashion?

Brecht provides the answer.  In The Messingkampf Dialogues (about the theatre and problems of aesthetics and the politics of art generally)  he quips that sometimes “one must chose between being human and having good taste.”  Indeed, one must.  On the street around the corner from our apartment there was a pop up fashion show for Men’s Fashion Week.  Later that night, after the party ended, we saw a homeless man asleep in one of the discarded wardrobe boxes in the entrance way to the store.  When it is a matter of homes verses skirt lengths, homes win.

Certainly there are moments in human history when providing the basic necessities of life was of paramount concern.  But even in those circumstances, given the chance, people would reach for stylistic surplus.  There is a hilarious scene in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita when Mephistopheles rains sexy underwear on the crowd at a Moscow theatre, setting off a frenzy amongst the women desperate for fashionable lingerie.  I have spent a few nights in Stalinist apartments, I don’t want to think about what Stalinist underwear felt like.

My point:  we are not at  a moment in human history where it is materially necessary to reduce human life to the provision of bare physical necessities.  There are abundant resources and wealth, if only they were equally shared, democratically controlled, and governed by considerations of long-term sustainability.   We need clothes; if there are no objections to the exercise of imagination in relation to what our buildings look like, I do not see any reason to object to its use in relation to clothes, provided, of course, the basic necessities have been universally provided.

For a socialism of beauty across all dimensions of human life.

Five Friends Meeting in the Marais

First three, then two more join.  Young girls meeting for a night out.  Trying to look sophisticated, still a little self-conscious, smoothing skirts, checking phones, but eyes sparkling.  What is more beautiful then the eyes of the young, dancing towards a future not devoid of hope?  The whole secret of life-value philosophy is in young eyes:  wide open and alive to the adventure of discovery; longing to know but not yet knowing what everything is and feels like.  Over time the dusk of knowledge and experience will matte the twinkle, (the eyes of the old, who have seen too much, are harder and sadder); wrinkles born of the sharper focus the “realities” of life demand will form around their edges, the lids will droop with the fatigue of earning your keep.

Pay no mind tonight!  Look upon the world together wide-eyed and happy, and, if you would, permit me to gaze a moment on the joy of your anticipation, just a quick glance at those hopeful mirrors of the world when it is still unknown.

Two Old People Walk Down Boulevard St. Germaine

This is trust, this is love:  a tremulous hand, attached to a rotund but weak body, holds fast to his wife’s arm, the other on his cane.  The eyes are almost closed by age, and whether they can see anything through their almost clenched lids is open to doubt. They appear of modest means but proud, dressed for their promenade, and moving in the world like they still belong to it (as indeed they do).  They battle their frailties as they must have battled each other through the years, and they survive, shuffling like a single organism, he trusting her and she trusting her ancient memory to take them where they need to go.  The Boulevard St. Germaine is busy, for a moment they look confused, but she strides confidently (but slowly, so slowly) into the street.  A moment later, they are at their destination, embracing the restauranteur who has come down the steps to meet them.   Their eyes no longer sparkle but express a different beauty, the beauty of enduring life.

Books and Water

If this were all it would be enough:  les bouquinistes, their green book stalls lining the Seine, their patience as one browses the books, their persistence– 300 years– and their commitment to the patience of the written page in the age of the world distraction.  Yet the sellers seem almost as old as their wares; not as old as the tradition they maintain, but who will keep it alive after this generation?  In a few years will there be an empty bank where they once stood with an electronic interface where one can download and then project a hologram of what used to be?

Those future people, robbed of material reality, never having felt the pleasure of old paper, the rush of unexpectedly finding a volume for which they had long searched,  will think they have had a real experience, that the projection actually enables them to inhabit the past.  They will be wrong.  There will be no musty paper to really smell, no real person to take your money and approve, smilingly, of your purchase, no real social exchange.

If not for real and novel social exchanges, why travel?

Five Years

In an uncomplicated childhood the experience of time is stretched:  the anticipated moment seems impossibly distant, the wait for its consummation unbearable, but delicious. Life becomes more routinized the longer it goes on.  Or, if it does not become routinized, it becomes more difficult to anticipate the way a child anticipates:  one has done more, one has experienced more, there is less to truly look forward to because one knows, more often than not, what is coming.  So the sense of the passage of time accelerates and one can hardly believe a year has gone past.  Or five.  The blog has now been running for five years.  It really does seem like only last week that I sat on my back porch with a gin and tonic, fiddling with templates and terrified I was going to screw something up before I had posted word one.

When I began the blog it was to provide a convenient means of communication that did not have to answer to the formulae of academic writing.  As I look over the posts from the last year I can see that they have a more serious tone than my first efforts, a function, perhaps, both of stylistic evolution on my part and the seriousness of the global situation.  I wanted to free myself from academic conventions, not from serious content, and I vowed only to never force myself to write a post for the sake of posting according to some schedule.  I believe that I have remained true to that principle.

Five years seems an appropriate point to pause for a moment and ask what good the blog does.   Clearly, no individual voice is going to be able to turn back tidal socio-historical forces, and I often worry that the site is little more than a vanity project.  I suppose there must be some vanity in any creative act– one is not sharing generic data but one’s own position, in which one’s self is to some extent shared and reflected.  I do not believe anyone who says that they never look in the mirror.   While the blog is not going to change the world, I do think that it effectively intervenes in debates that could lead to movements that could change the world, and intervenes, I hope, in ways that are not identical to what one can find elsewhere, on other leftist, socially critical sites.  My aim is to think through and differently, to bring some philosophical nuance– and maybe give voice to ambivalence and doubts that are sometimes lacking from serious social criticism, but without giving into the temptation to simply be different for the sake of standing out.

For the rest, my evocations, take them for what they are, occasional wanderings in the forest of language in which I hope to trace a path that touches on an emotional and not conceptual level, but which instigates thinking too.

Thank you to all who have read and commented in the past year, and over the whole history of the site.  As has been my wont, I have collected last years posts as Thinkings 5.

The new header photograph is the French River where it meets Highway 69 North, an hour south of Sudbury, where Northern Ontario begins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Ten Theses: A Coda

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

Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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