Pity Poor Windsor
Money follows money, and it also follows lack of money. Growing urban centres whose economies are dominated by advanced industry and research clusters exert a centripetal effect on money-capital, drawing it in from around the world. Massive inputs of capital fuel cycles of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter) which knock down the old, re-develop the freed up space, generate new technologies and methods of production, and experiment with new cultures of work, organization, and play. For people at the centre of these city-regions there is unlimited money to be made– a building purchased today can be flipped tomorrow for double the price, companies compete for workers, driving salaries up, exciting urban neighbourhoods arise and spawn global styles that enrich the designers and chefs and lifestyle promoters that create and market it all.
But poverty also draws money, but for different reasons and with different effects. In the impoverished, abandoned, and desperate small cities of the manufacturing heartlands of central Canada and the US Midwest, a massive reserve army of labour is in need of work. Their need for work– exacerbated by cuts to unemployment insurance and public assistance– draws money capital too, but not to creatively destroy past accumulations of capital but just plain old destroy the hopes of the masses it has abandoned. The creation happens in Stanford and San Jose, the destruction is felt in Windsor and Gary, Indiana. Those on the wrong side of the dialectic are hunted down by money-capital on the lookout for impoverished and demoralized workers who can be repurposed as low-wage, non-unionized servants of the “creative capital” working its magic elsewhere.
It is with this system in mind that we must understand the “major jobs announcement” that had Windsorites holding their breath during the last week of October. When we exhaled: 320 part-time positions at Sutherland Global’s existing call centre operation. Hooray for the company spokesperson’s attempt to make this announcement sound transformational. She promised future workers that they would be answering phones for “a very hip, innovative and fast-growing high-tech company based in Silicon Valley.” San Jose has its Google bus and Windsor has the Crosstown 2– not hip, but it does have wheels.
If the 12$ an hour salary (which wouldn’t by a Martini– hell, it probably would not buy a pint of craft beer– in Silicon Valley), is not enticing, the spokesperson promises a coffee bar and, (perhaps if workers are well-behaved and do not call UNIFOR) “maybe” ping pong tables! While a confidentiality agreement prevented the spokesperson from disclosing the name of the customer, she did note that the firm was “high value” (to Sutherland Global) and “known for its hipness.” I am getting older, it is true, but “hipness’ and “corporate world” were once antitheses. While Sutherland Global can only offer hipness via ping pong proxy, it is at least seeking the young, underemployed but well-dressed set to staff those phones (or whatever hip name phones go by these days). Our Mayor, beating the same relentless drum beat of enthusiasm his mentor never tired of beating, no matter how grim the reality, gushed: “This is a really great announcement… We’ve been hearing from a lot of youth in the community looking for opportunities.” Are part time, no benefit jobs the “opportunities” young people are seeking? Maybe if they work hard one of them can graduate to the 120 000$ per year “sports tourism” position the city decided to create three days after these “opportunities” were announced.
Madness, but little in the way of criticism from those who ought to be most critical.
Jaydee Tarpeh, the President of the University of Windsor Student’s Association, simply re-iterated the mayor’s enthusiasm: “It is awesome news, sometimes it is very hard for students to find jobs.” Indeed it is, but ought a student leader not question why it is hard for students to find jobs or, better, why society so disregards the intellectual value of scholarship that it sees no problem forcing students to work in soulless call centres part time while at the same raising the cost of tuition and turning them into indentured servants of the banks for decades after graduation? Alas, nothing seems able to motivate Canadians to question, criticise, and protest for something better .
In South Africa, by contrast, a country with far fewer financial resources, militant students have just forced the national government to back down from double-digit fee-increases. The South African university system is not going to collapse, and nor would the Ontario university system were it forced by (an as yet non-existent) student movement to begin to reduce its fees.
The issue is not affordability, but the principles that govern budget-allocations. At present, neo-liberal policy continues to cut spending on public education on the basis of the claim that education is a personal investment in one’s individual future (for which one willingly pays because it will yield positive returns in the form of a job). We need a student (and faculty, and society-wide) movement that returns public education to its real value as an essential life-requirement of human beings. When this requirement is satisfied, our understanding of the physical, social, psychological, ethical, and aesthetic worlds in which we live is increased. In turn, this heightened understanding yields more intelligent, far-sighted, life-creative action in those worlds, and more peaceful, mutually affirmative relationships between selves and societies.
The Importance of Being Philosophical
Different models of public expenditure in the service of different values are possible. The victory of the South African students shows that political mobilization can change priorities. Cuts or fee increases that are announced as absolutely necessary can disappear from the agenda without the institutions collapsing, provided people understand how to expose false necessity and ideological generalizations. Properly questioned, the ruling power’s “necessity” can be exposed as an ideological construction, a sham, a stick to beat people into line. Philosophy, in its most fundamental public expression, teaches us how to ask the questions that expose the ways in which power constructs false necessities. In so doing, it clears the ground for thinking about the values that really are in the universal life-interest, how those values can be institutionalised, and how resources can be mobilised to pay for them.
Without philosophy (which is not the same thing as philosophy departments, or philosophy professors), social life remains hostage to ruling group interests and the power rulers employ to maintain that system. No specialized methods are required to practice philosophy in this way, (although one does need to practice, always). To begin, all one needs is the capacity to ask two questions: 1) Who is the stated beneficiary of a given policy championed by the ruling power? and, 2) what actual effect does the policy have on the lives of its stated beneficiaries? Wherever the stated beneficiary is said to be “the public” we must press beneath the rhetoric of universal inclusiveness and evaluate whether the public actually does benefit. Where a contradiction is exposed between the justification and the outcome, we know we are dealing with a false universality asserted only to cover the real agenda: the extension or consolidation of the ruling group’s power.
These questions work to expose ruling agenda at any level: local, regional, provincial, national, or international. Let us take two examples of local and provincial significance to illustrate my point.
First, a local story. On Hallowe’en the Windsor Star reported that Windsor Chief of Police Al Fredrick was angered by the Ontario government’s decision to ban the practice of “carding,” i.e., stopping people at random, because, in the Chief’s words, they “look suspicious.” Across the province, it turns out, that “looking suspicious” and being black are nearly synonymous. Of course, the Chief is not going to admit to racially profiling Windsorites, but tries to sell his position on the grounds that it helps keep the streets safe. In fact, in the article he segues, without any connective argument or evidence, from a general critique of the province to the suggestion (which readers are clearly supposed to interpret not as a suggestion, but as fact) that carding keeps guns off the streets. In philosophy, a conclusion that does not follow from its premises is called a non sequitor, from the Latin for “it does not follow.” Chief Fredricks certainly commits this generic fallacy.
But more, and deeper, the Chief tries to identify the good of the public (‘safe streets’) with the arbitrary power of the police to stop and question people for no reason other than that they “look suspicious.” But there is no such thing, objectively, as “looking suspicious” but only stereotypes about what criminals look like. Now, these stereotypes can change. Hence, any one is in principle “suspicious looking” depending upon whatever stereotypes about “criminal appearances” circulate. Thus, the public interest is actually in constraining police power, limiting it to the investigation of crimes actually committed and never permitting fishing expeditions like carding. If public safety requires stopping suspicious looking people, would we not be safer if we moved straight on to imprisoning suspicious looking people? Of course not, because if the police had the power to imprison on the basis of their “gut feelings” we would be living in a totalitarian police state, and living in a totalitarian police state is clearly not in the public interest.
The second example concerns the announced sale of 60% of publically owned Hydro One. Despite a report from the Province’s Financial Accountability Officer that demonstrates conclusively that the province will, in the long term, lose money on the sale, the Premier insisted that the sale would go ahead, because it is good for the Ontario economy. Her argument is based upon speculation (because, projections about future economic growth as a result of infrastructure investment can only be speculative, there being no data from the future). The FAO report, by contrast, is based on demonstrable fact: Hydro One brings in 750 million dollars a year, and will do so in perpetuity, because electricity must be delivered to end users, and Hydro One controls the means of delivery.
At present, therefore, Hydro One brings in 750 million dollars a year which, in principle, is available for investment in ways that the people of Ontario decide (I realize that the truth of public ownership in a capitalist economy is not as straightforward as I am making it out to be, but the principle, if not the practice, is clear: public ownership means democratic control over the resources owned; private ownership means private control over the use of the resource and the money such use generates). If publically owned resources are sold to private interests, democratic control is eliminated, in principle and in practice. The citizens of Moose Factory or Kirkland Lake will see no improvement in their lives because of transit improvement in the Greater Toronto Area, (the stated reason for the sell off). GDP growth, assuming there is any following the infrastructure investment, tells us nothing about how the increased money is distributed or spent. All we know for certain is who will benefit: the private investors who gain control over Hydro One.
The claim is that “Ontario” will benefit, the truth is that “Ontario” gives up control over a public utility which provides necessary resources to everyone in the province and returns public money to the provincial treasury, money that is in principle under the control of the collectivity of Ontarians to invest in institutions and public goods from which we can all benefit.
Simple questions, answers that disclose the truth about the city/province/country/world we inhabit. Without philosophical questioning (again, always to be distinguished from academic philosophy) those truths remian buried.