Pub Poem


Can live without:

padded banquettes/gilded signs/

union jacks/football/

prints of mutton-chopped lords/fox hunters.

I come for worn hardwood

grooves

between bar and gents

and pints of bitter,

hard to get now,

being crowded out

by beards,

and over-hopped

craft beer.

 

Old guy at bar’s

eyes say: “Aye,

Its maker’s culture now, mate,

gettin’ too late for what you want.”

 

So far I have seen:

“authentic”

indonesian street food/jerusalem street food/

saigon street food/thai street food/

viet namese street food/mexican street food/

Have been to mexico/jerusalmen

ate  food

but no signs assured authenticity,

maybe because in jerusalem/mexico

street food sold on streets,

cheap,

not in

polished glass boites

at creative capitalism prices.

 

Worry my fun license at risk

for pointing this out.

 

He’s young

only has eye for

end game, so misses

the tiny tear

in her stocking

dot of white thigh

shows through

the run.

Sexiness in the subtleties,

Imagine

pressing finger into rip,

delighting in contrast

between flesh and fabric.

 

On train to Brighton,

Battersea power station

gutted,

being condo-ized,

emptied of history,

filled with money,

and authentic people

who need to be seen

and think

they are getting in on

the ground floor of something.

 

Must everything old

be wrong

and love of it nostalgia?

 

In Brighton, better pints,

warm oak panelling,

plaster ceiling

invites late afternoon drink,

and thinking.

Old people, pissed,

make naughty jokes,

laugh:  death one day closer,

one less thing to worry about.

 

Wandering through

hushed halls,

leading from Ain Ghazal’s

lime plaster eyes,

and pursed lips,

7200BCE,

to Giacommetti portraits,

brother and lovers,

seated,

awaiting the inevitable,

faces lost in grey,

save the eyes,

staring,

an aesthetic history

of dread and resoluteness.

 

40 years on,

last punk standing

sits in camden town pub,

sips guiness,

but all-consuming time

has last laugh.

Looks like

what it would sound like

to say:  “hep cat,”

or “daddy-o.”

 

Freedom:

no longer needing to be seen.

Getting old,

so I’ll drink old

 

Slainte!”

Freedom and Imagination, Art and Politics

We think of revolutions as essentially political events, but we should also see them as art, in two sense.  In the more familiar sense, every revolution throws old certainties into question and provides space for new forms of creative expression.   But in a deeper sense, revolutions are themselves creative acts in which the old world is cancelled and a new one created out of the collective imaginations of their protagonists, including those whose ideas and dreams were never considered relevant under the old order.  The oppressed and exploited have their moment to say and feel what they have not been allowed to say and feel, and their freedom to express these ideas informs the creation of new values and institutions:  a new world comes into being through the combined creative  power of ordinary people.  That revolutionary fervour subsides is not refutation of my claim that revolutions are not just political transformations but also collective creations which would not exist without human imagination.

Of all the powers of the human being, imagination is the most important.  Without the capacity to imagine we would not have the Bhagavad Gita, Carravagio’s The Passion of St. Matthew, Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, or Philip Larkin’s Aubade.  We would also not have the French or Russian Revolutions, because without the capacity to think about a possible world in opposition to the actual radical, deliberate, conscious change would be impossible.  Of course, not everything about a revolution can be planned (just as an art work does not proceed mechanically from mind to reality without unforseen set backs and changes.  Nevertheless, the point is that our ability to create worlds in thought that do not yet exist in reality is the precondition of our creative power over the given natural and social world.

Every revolution also comes with its moment of idol smashing, but perhaps because they are periods of maximum confidence amongst the oppressed, typically the greatest works of the old regime are preserved.  The Bolsheviks did not burn down The Hermitage, because they understood that great art is not a function of its overt political content.  You do not have to be a Christian to shudder in front of Valezquez’s Crucifixion. It is not a documentary about the death of God, it is an allegory of human suffering, which everyone will have to face in her or his own way.  Lenin did not decry Tolstoy as an anachronistic Christian utopian, but celebrated him as the master novelist that he was, lamenting only that millions of Russians were ignorant even of his existence, because they could not read. “If his great works are really to be made the possession of all, a struggle must be waged against the system of society which condemns millions and scores of millions to ignorance, benightedness, drudgery, and poverty.”  (On Socialist Ideology and Culture, p. 60). The goal of any genuine revolution is to emancipate the imagination of the oppressed, both by making available to them the great works of the past, and by creating space for them to become creative agents for the first time.  When political confidence is high, enlightenment, not suppression of dissent, creation, not destruction,  free expression, not censorship, are the ruling values.

We are not in a period of high confidence.  The left, as broadly or narrowly as you want to draw it, has been on the defensive for four decades.  This has consequences at the level of culture.  Where historical ideas for a new world have been discredited, but the problems of this one remain all too clear, and no new mass mobilizing emancipatory vision has emerged, people pick small, symbolic fights and spend more time apologizing than imagining, arguing, and building.  If fear of giving offense impedes the growth of imagination, then there will never be a recovery of any left worth belonging to

The heritage of modern revolutions, from the English Revolution in the middle of the 17th century, through the French and Russian Revolutions, to the wave of anti-colonial revolutions following the Second World War, were not afraid of the symbols, the art, and the ideas of the past.  Their leaders understood how to interpret art, how to critically appropriate it as exemplary of what human beings can be when they are furnished with the material and the time to fashion worlds for themselves.  They understood that the point of overthrowing degrading social conditions was to enable more voices to sing, not to pre-regulate in the interests of an imaginary moral consensus what the lyrics must be.  Once wealth has been freed to serve fundamental needs and political institutions created that really allow the majority to participate in their determination of their own lives, then revolutions  have to be about widening the circle of creative subjects, valorizing experiments in living (Mill) and free associations between people, more pleasure, personal freedom, and fun.

Yet there has always lurked across the wide left a censorious, dour, moralistic, ascetic streak that becomes more pronounced in periods of weakness and defeat.  It is, sadly, the dominant voice in North America today, making the serious arguments it has to make against racism and other forms of oppression easy prey to right wing critics of political correctness.  A glaring case in point recently:  the attempt to prevent the airing of the HBO series Confederacy before a single episode has even been written.  Censoring unwritten scripts is analogous to imprisoning people for uncommitted crimes. It is absurd on the face of it, but worse, it lacks the capacity for critical appropriation that, when cultivated, opens up hidden fields of value beneath politically suspect content.

One might rejoin that this demand is no different than demanding that statues celebrating the confederacy be taken down.  However, there is no analogy between the two demands.  The political meaning of those statues is unambiguous:  most were erected in the 1950’s and 1960’s as an overt political response to the civil rights movement.  They are pure racist propaganda and not public art.  Taking them down is no different than taking down monuments to the Nazi’s or Stalin.   In other words, there is no political ambiguity about their meaning.  The same cannot be said about a work of imaginary history:  its political implications cannot be pre-determined.  Works of imagination create spaces for exploration; no one can say what they mean in advance, and thus no topic can be ruled out as taboo. If art cannot explore the dark, what can?

Left guardians of the nation’s virtue also make mistakes going the other way in time.  Last year, the student council at the University of Guelph apologized for playing Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side because they determined it was “transphobic.”  Their ignorance of history and cultural politics is as dismaying as it is laughable.  From the days of the Velvet Underground through to his solo career, Reed’s music explored- affirmatively, it is apparently necessary to add — the sexual underground of New York, while he himself moved in social circles that were gay and transpositive, pioneered sexual ambivalence and fluidity, and was friends and acquaintances with repressive-norm destroying gay artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe– not to mention transsexual rock musician Jane–formerly Wayne– County).  Yet, because young activists have zero understanding of history, they embarrass themselves by castigating an artistic defender of sexual freedom as an enemy.  In addition to their historical ignorance, they also display a shocking incapacity to appreciate humour, irony, and nuance, and a total inability to critically appropriate artistic meaning.  One shudders to think what they would have done had the film society wanted to show Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues.  

A much better example of how challenging and controversial content should be handled is given by the African American artist Glen Ligon.  I saw his retrospective at the Whitney a few years ago.  One of the pieces was a critical interrogation of Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book, (a work in which Mapplethorpe famously celebrated the nude black male form).  From his perspective as a gay man, the black male body represented the height of erotic and aesthetic  beauty.  But one could legitimately ask:  was not Mapplethorpe indulging in racial stereotypes?  Did he not trade on cliche’s about black male sexual prowess by choosing only models with smooth muscled  bodes and large penises? Ligon, as an artist and a black man, posed the problems, but he did not argue that we should burn The Black Book.  Instead, he interrogated its contradictions by posting the images along with commentary that challenged us to think through the ambiguity of the original work.

This approach provides a model for how we should think about controversial creations.  We cannot banish them but have to enter into them and think through their contradictions.  If we demand that art (or philosophy, or science for that matter) be free of contradictions, we are really asking that there be no art, philosophy, or science, for nothing that pushes the limits is free of contradictions.  Contradictions are the product of the given world being confronted with its limits, and that is what real art, philosophy, and science does.  We cannot move beyond the limits if we do not understand them.

When it comes to art in particular, we have to keep in mind that its meaning and value does not lie on the surface of its content.  You do not understand War and Peace if you know it is “about”  the Napoleonic invasion of Russia.  Crime and Punishment is not a crime novel. Any true work of art is a world into which the one experiencing it is inserted as an explorer in uncharted territory.  Any work of art whose meaning is transparent on the surface and univocal is condemned to a short life.  Art is not social work; its function is not to propose policy solutions to historical injustice.  Its role is to provoke and challenge the acceptable, but as art, not superficial social commentary.  The best art is ambiguous as to its full meaning, thus allowing endless exploration and interrogation.

I am tempted to say that really great art is not “about” anything, but that would be going too far.  What I mean is that no art that has any value at all is just a straightforward representation of a given world.  Art that merely and only represents is documentary, not art.  Art transforms the given, it does not mechanically reflect it.  Nineteenth century French realism was not about making paintings that looked exactly like the world, it was about elevating everyday subjects, contexts, and people to the dignity of what in the eighteenth century had been reserved to grand historical persons and events.  Art transforms and transfigures; it makes us think precisely about the problem of “representing”  a world, about what the limits of painting it, singing about it, composing poetry about it might be.  Each era will discover its own limits and push towards new ones, hopefully while preserving the best of the old.  The derivative does not need to be burned as it will disappear once the context that made it relevant has disappeared.

The progress of art, if one wants to put it like that, including progress in overcoming the power of cultural elites to decide who has the right to artistic voice, can only be advanced if we reject censorship in all its forms and celebrate the value of free human imagination. If a work is bad, criticize it.  Anything that strengthens the censor threatens critical voices and challenging work.  It is also wrong in itself, because reactionary and fearful.  Moreover, it is also conservative in implication, insisting as it does that all work must pass a pre-screening of self-appointed experts who assert, but in reality lack, the right to speak for everyone in matters of taste and enjoyment.

The Politics of Gestures

In the wake of the murder of an anti-fascist protestor in Charlottesville, Virginia, US President Trump doubled down on his support amongst white racists by casting a pox on both the houses in conflict that day.  By establishing an equivalence between fascists and anti-fascists, he obscured the deep political and moral differences in their platforms, and thus attempted to mitigate the magnitude of the crime committed.  While we are not used to seeing politicians so easily baited into losing their temper and undermining their scripted response, the content of Trump’s remarks should not be all that surprising.  He was elected by successfully following the historical script of US right-wing populist movements, which identify “the people” as productive white American men threatened by internal and external enemies:  radicalized minorities, aloof elites, immigrants, terrorists, etc.  The fascist marchers in Virginia are the outer political limits of this construction, a group that Trump cannot afford to marginalize completely.  Given the fact that he lost the popular vote and carried the key mid-western states by tiny minorities, he cannot afford to lose a single voter, no matter what their politics.  Hence he gambled that calling out leftist opponents would not cost him support, even if it did sound to his critics as if he was being soft on hard racism.  We will see whether his gamble pays off.

If Trump is going to fold his hand and lose, the liberal and socialist left are going to have to start playing much more skillful political poker than we have up to this point.  Once again, the liberal left sounds completely discombobulated by its distaste for Trump, while the socialist left runs the risk of chasing the news to find a short cut around the long term organizing and education that needs to happen if it is to become any kind of credible alternative.  Both groups need to keep firmly in mind just what Trump’s oft-maniacal behaviour so easily distracts from: that he and his racist supporters are the symptoms and not the disease.  The disease itself is complex and has both general dimensions and features specific to the US context.  Neither can be fully dealt with in a single election cycle.  What is certain is that unless there is a re-focusing of political critique and mobilization away from Trump’s buffoonery and the over-estimation of the systemic threat posed by white supremacists re-aligned with reality, the disease will not be cured.

White supremacist movements are as old as the United States, but they achieved a new prominence after the Civil War, when the Ku Klux Klan emerged in opposition to radical reconstruction ( the attempt of newly freed African Americans to determine their own social and economic horizons).  It has flared whenever African Americans have asserted themselves politically.  Trump is part of the cause of the re-emergence of overt white supremacist movements today, but the resentments and anxieties that drive it go deeper than Trump’s immigrant baiting and will not go away if he fails to get re-elected.  Overcoming them and the politics they generate will require a multiracial democratic movement so large it overwhelms and totally marginalizes the racists, and continued progress towards real integration and equality that undermines the separation and fear that feeds white racism.   That 150 years on from the Civil War this task remains to be accomplished emphasizes the magnitude of the problem.

Contrary to Trump’s liberal critics, singing hymns about American values and ‘bringing the nation together’  are not going to work.  White supremacism is a core value of American history, undergirding slavery, Manifest Destiny (that lead to the wars of extermination against American Indians) and Jim Crow segregation.  Like every history, America’s too is contradictory, and contains not only white supremacy but heroic and inspiring fight backs against it.  But America has never been racially unified and Trump is hardly the first white politician to exploit it for his purposes.  Of course, Trump himself should be called out and criticized, but obsessive parsing of his speeches and self-righteous tut-tutting about his boorishness has grown tiresome and accomplishes nothing.  He should be criticized for his politics, not his personality; the contradiction between his actual policies and the interests of the white workers who voted for him has to be the touchstone of everything the left says about him.

By the same reasoning, Nazi’s and Klansmen need to be confronted, preferably by massive numbers that emphasize to those racists who are capable of thought that they do not speak for white people; that they are not a courageous vanguard, but a fearful and misled minority.  At the same time, they are a minority, even of Trump voters, and an expression of social, economic, and political weakness, not strength.  Real social power is not dressed in Klan hoods but the blue suits and brown shoes of Wall Street.  The ruling class is only too happy to sip Bordeaux and watch the spectacle of confrontation between white supremacists and antifa protestors.  As important as challenge and confrontation is, it is not a politics that will build the type of mass mobilization a revitalized left needs.  There is a certain amount of adolescent vanguardism at work in the antifa movement that needs to be channeled in a different direction.  Again, fascists should not be given free reign to march through cities and intimidate African Americans and other demonized groups, but they are not about to launch a successful putsch.  We are not in the 1930s’ and an organized fascist  take over of America is not in the cards (if for no other reason that that there is no mass Communist movement as there was in Germany that the ruling class wants to get rid of).  Capitalism may be in crisis for the working class, but it is working just fine for the capitalists, who, as I said above, are happy to have what serious opponents there are focus on spectacular street confrontations rather than think up workable policy alternatives to austerity and longer term institutional alternatives to capitalism.

Hence the need to be wary of a degradation of left-wing tactics to a politics of gestures.  By ‘politics of gestures’  I mean a practice which confuses the symbolically offensive with the structurally exploitative and oppressive, and considers the removal of the symbolically offensive with real gains.  By no means does this claim mean that the symbolic is not important in social life or politics.  It is:  but as an expression of underlying systems of oppression which are not affected in any way by changes to language or public space.  One could remove every statue to the Confederacy and absolutely nothing would change about American history or the current lines of racial conflict and inequality.  That does not mean that the statues should not be removed; it means that the demand is important only as a mobilizing tool to draw wider numbers of people into a movement powerful enough to bring about social structural changes.

The politics of gestures is problematic just because  symbols are powerful.  This power means that it easy to sidetrack debates which are really about racism and exploitation into debates about freedom of speech, expression, and “heritage.”  Passions run high, much heat is thrown off by the arguments, but, without most people noticing, the substantive collapses into the symbolic, a victory is declared, many people pack up their political tents and go home, satisfied that a major victory has been won, but the lives of the oppressed which were supposed to have benefited from the victory remain as they ever were.

Those lives can be changed for the better in the way they have always been changed for the better:  by cohesive, coherent, mass social movements that correctly understand where power lies, how it is organized and operates, and how it can be effectively challenged.  We are at a moment of intensifying social division and conflict but the left has not recovered from its long period of defeat and decline.  That Sanders was not red-baited into the sea, that Corbyn’s Labour Party made a dramatic comeback in the most recent UK election, that even mainstream economists are arguing that inequality is structurally caused by the dynamics of capitalism, that the colonial histories of the US and Canada are being seriously exposed and challenged, are all signs of hope.  But signs of hope and political power are different things.  We need the poetry of emancipatory visions, but we also need the prose of policies that people think will work in their short term interests, and plans that provide credible road maps to a different set of social institutions, value systems, and standards of economic success.  No movement which will be capable of those sorts of long term changes can afford to turn its back on the white workers amongst the 60 million voters who chose Trump.  Democratic politics– of which Marxism is a species– must assume that people are capable of change in response to changed experience and sound argument.  Both require time and patience.

Lessons From History IV: Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort

Government should come from us.  Now it comes at us with a propaganda machine in Washington that Hitler’s propaganda chief, Goebbels, would have  just envied.  We’ve got to put the country back in control of the owners.  And in plain Texas talk, its time to take out the trash and clean out the barn, or its going to be too late.

 

The day is not too distant when economic nationalism will triumph.  The … tidal wave of imports from Asia … [will take] down industries and [kill] jobs … there will arise a clamor from industry and labor for protection.  If that cry goes unheeded,, those who turn a stone face to American workers will be turned out of power.

 

We’re now one step closer to liberating our citizens from this Obamacare nightmare, and delivering great health care for the American people. We’re gonna do that too. And now tonight I’m back in the center of the American heartland, far away from the Washington swamp to spend time with thousands of true American patriots. [Chants of drain the swamp] We have spent the entire week celebrating with the hard working men and women who are helping us make America great again. I’m here this evening to cut through the fake news filter and to speak straight to the American people.[Chants of “drain the swamp” from arena].

Barns, swamps; shit, methane- yes Washington has stunk for sometime.   Goebbels, fake news, yes, the lies have never ceased.   Lost jobs and a bloated bureaucracy weighing down patriots who just want a hand up, not a hand out.  The glare of Trump’s narcissism has blinded us to history, but as the first two quotations remind (the first from Ross Perot, the second from Pat Buchanan) there is nothing new in Trump’s rhetorical appeals to internal corruption and external threat as means of consolidating hos own power.  The only difference is that he succeeded where Perot and Buchanan failed.  But his ideas have long vintage in the political history of the United States, a fact which comes through very clear in the brilliant history of right wing populism by Chip Berlet and Matthew M. Lyons.  Though published in 2000, Right Wing Populism in America:  Too Close for Comfort is required reading for anyone who wants to move beyond the vacuous whinging of CNN talk-bots and actually understand the reasons why a Trump could be elected, and what needs to be done to move beyond him.

Berlet and Lyons trace the history of right wing populism in America from Bacon’s rebellion in 1676 (in which a Virginia colonist mobilized a rebellion against the colonial  administration but which in practice was a pogrom against Native Americans) to the hard-right attack against Bill Clinton’s government at the end of the last millennium.  The history is compellingly told and frightening to read.  The conspiratorial, zealous, angry, xenophobic, racist, misogynist, anti-gay and lesbian, and always violent right-wing populist movements are “too close for comfort”  because they do not differ save in degree from the “acceptable” wing of the American right.  Trump is but the latest in a long line of American politicians going back to Andrew Jackson in the 1820’s who has mobilized white “productive”  Americans against “elites” accused of coddling “unproductive”  demonized others.  The demonized characters can change (American Indians to Blacks to Communists to sexual deviants to Islamic extremists)  but the formula is always the same:  manufacture a political identity by contrasting an ethically pure “American patriot”  against a threatening outgroup.

Trump fits the mold of what they call “right wing repressive populism”  perfectly:

We use the term repressive populist movement to describe a populist movement that combines antielite scapegoatting  … with efforts to maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power.  Repressive populist movements are fueled in large part by people’s grievances against their own oppression but they deflect popular discontent away from positive social change. … Right wing populist movements are a subset of repressive populist movements …. A right wing populist movement … is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution.(p.5)

Barack Obama was not a revolutionary by any stretch, but he was Black and a reformer, and that was enough to mobilize the backlash that Trump channels.  At the same time, as Berlet and Lyons are at pains throughout the book to remind us, despite the oft-times outlandish and unsupportable claims made by populist leaders, the oppressed who vote for them are moved by real unmet needs (but only a vague or wrong-headed idea of the causes of their deprivation).  This point is of essential importance:  right-wing repressive populism cannot be overcome by demonizing its supporters as incorrigible racists, uneducated idiots, or backwoods oafs.  It can only be overcome by building a left wing alternative that listens, that provides a better explanation of the causes of deprivation, and that builds alliances amongst all oppressed groups on the basis of a convincing program for progressive social change.  At present, the Democratic party is very far form being able to meet this challenge. Instead of political reconstruction, it is looking to the deus ex machina of the Russia investigation to save it from its own defeat.  It will not work.

The attempt to stop Trump through Congressional investigation and legal intervention from above rather than patiently building a democratic movement from below is typical of American history.  In the 1930’s, in the midst of a growing fascist movement, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was founded.(pp.151-152)  Yes, this is the same Committee that, in the 1950’s would launch McCarthy’s ant-communist with hunts.  In the 1930’s  the Committee tried to substitute state power for popular anti-fascist mobilization, for fear that the latter would develop into left-wing opposition to capitalism. Instead of seeing fascism and communism as opposites, the committee saw them as twin “Un-American” dangers, and tried to stamp out the first without activating movements for the second. (p.152) Still, many anti-fascists understandably supported the committee, unwittingly feeding a monster that would eviscerate the American left in the 1950s.

The problem here is general and a propos of our current political moment.  The problem is “the false belief that the U.S. state apparatus can be trusted with repressive powers.  The laws, congressional probes, and political police that liberal anti-fascists hoped would be used against the Hard Right boomeranged forcefully against leftists, workers, people of color, gay men and lesbians.  Far from being the means to free the United States from hatred and fear, these institutions became tools to safeguard and reinforce systems of oppression.” (p. 173)  Today, the danger is two-fold.  On the one hand, the Mueller probe into alleged Russian interference in the election can reinforce domestic oppression.  On the other hand, it will encourage the same violent interventionist American foreign policy that Trump has questioned in the past and which a trillion dollar American military budget relies upon for justification.

The anti-Russian hysteria is already strengthening repressive forces masquerading as patriotic opposition to Trump.  Included in the latest sanctions bill is a threat against anyone accused by the US State Department of “engaging in transactions with the intelligence and defence sectors of the Russian federation.”  Well, you wonder, so what, I am not engaged in transactions with the Russian defense industry.  No, but when you then realize that the sanctions includes such outlets as RT News (accused of being a propaganda vehicle for the Russian government), the implications come more sharply into focus.  Well, so what, you say, maybe RT is nothing but a propaganda vehicle.  But then you dig further and find out that Google recently announced that it has created–  quelle surprise— an alogrithm to root out “fake news.”  But the “fake news” it is going to filter out (by not including links to the web sites that carry it)  just happen to be websites with a generally critical disposition towards the established structures of power, mostly left wing, but also including libertarian sites opposed to interventionist foreign policies.   Slippery slopes are not always fallacious.

The threats to the free dissemination of information are real, but not as destructive as the foreign policy implications of the Russian witchhunt.  Here the hypocrisy of American liberals, so shrill in condemning the still unproven Russian “meddling”  is stupefying.  Russia may or may not have meddled in the election, but they did not cause Trump’s victory. But we do know for certain that America under Obama did actively intervene to help the overthrow of Russian-allied Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych, and hand picked his successor, Arseniy Yatseniuk)  This adventure has done nothing to advance the cause of democratic development in the Ukraine, but it has given new life to liberal interventionism.  As yet another new American “democracy development”  think-tank exposed by Glenn Greenwald proves once again, liberal interventionism is nothing more than American imperialism masquerading as democracy.  And that has domestic consequences for America as well.

Instead of creatively addressing the real problems of the white American working class, challenging the racism that is still too virulent within sections of it, inventing a platform that can advance the interests of working men and women of all colors, defending immigrants and combating xenophobia, political energies are wasted in a grand distraction that will make not one iota of difference to any working American’s life no matter how it ends, but does endanger the rest of the world as it flails around in anger at manufactured enemies and bogey-people.

NAFTA 2.0

On  Monday, 17 July, the Office of the United States Trade Representative released a document detailing their 5 priorities for the re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The re-negotiation of NAFTA follows President Trump’s denunciation of it as “the worst trade deal in history”  during the 2016 election campaign.   NAFTA has been very good to the American capitalists overall, but not, it is true, to American manufacturing workers, or some sections of domestic American capital.  Capitalism is a doubly contradictory system.  Overall, Gross National Product  can increase while standards of living for workers can remain stagnant and decline.  Between sectors, policy changes that allow some to benefit and grow can undermine others.  Free trade deals can thus benefit exporters while harming domestic manufacturers that rely on home markets and cannot compete with cheaper imported goods.  Sectoral contradictions explain the splits that sometimes open up with the ruling class between proponents and opponents of free trade.  Since workers tend to lose out either way, (having to attenuate wage demands in exchange  for job security or just losing their jobs as domestic manufacturing proves uncompetitive), nationalist arguments like Trump’s always resonate.

During the election, Trump, like a host of right-wing populists before him, from George Wallace in the 1960s to Ross Perot in the 1980s and Pat Buchanan in the 1990s effectively exploited real working anxiety about job loss and stagnant wages by tying it to demonized foreigners.  While Trumpmanagaed to win strong working class support in some areas, it was still a shock to read that one of the administration’s 5 key objectives  would be reading labour rights directly into the agreement.  The text in full:

– Bring the labor provisions into the core of the Agreement rather than in a side agreement.
– Require NAFTA countries to adopt and maintain in their laws and practices the
internationally recognized core labor standards as recognized in the ILO Declaration,
including:
• Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
• Elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;
• Effective abolition of child labor and a prohibition on the worst forms of child labor; and
• Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
– Require NAFTA countries to have laws governing acceptable conditions of work with
respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.
– Establish rules that will ensure that NAFTA countries do not waive or derogate from their
labor laws implementing internationally recognized core labor standards in a manner
affecting trade or investment between the parties.
– Establish rules that will ensure that NAFTA countries do not fail to effectively enforce their
labor laws implementing internationally recognized core labor standards and acceptable
conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health laws through a sustained or recurring course of action in a matter affecting trade or investment between the parties.
– Require that NAFTA countries take initiatives to prohibit trade in goods produced by forced labor, regardless of whether the source country is a NAFTA country.
– Provide access to fair, equitable, and transparent administrative and judicial proceedings.
– Ensure that these labor obligations are subject to the same dispute settlement mechanism that applies to other enforceable obligations of the Agreement.
– Establish a means for stakeholder participation, including through public advisory
committees, as well as a process for the public to raise concerns directly with NAFTA
governments if they believe a NAFTA country is not meeting its labor commitments.

These principles are clearly in the interests of workers everywhere, but we have to remind ourselves that they both originate from workers struggles from below and are only enforced by those same struggles.  The Office of the United States Trade Representative is not interested in the well-being of workers anywhere, but they are interested in ways of reducing the competitive advantage of unorganized, low wage Mexican labour.  Hence the inclusion of these principles in their statement of objectives.  Like other fine sounding constitutional principles, they can and will be sidestepped, weakened, or simply ignored when they are not actively defended by workers themselves.

We can be quite sure that no party renegotiating NAFTA will be serving the interests of workers, because the whole point of treaties like NAFTA was to free capital as a whole from the constraints that national trades union movements had successfully imposed upon it from the late nineteenth century to the early 1970s.  Of course, these trade deals can work against the sectional interests of some domestic capitalists, but, overall, they have greatly facilitated the mobility and growth of capital as a whole and funded the spectacular rise of inequality that even mainstream economists can no longer ignore.

So, can workers look to existing trade unions to protect their interests?  A few days before the document from Office of the United States Trade Representative was made public there was a joint statement from the Canadian union representing auto workers, Unifor, and the United Auto Workers (UAW)  in the US.  It more or less adopted the same position on labour rights as the US government document, but gave them a different political interpretation. The Unifor/UAW document states that

It’s essential for auto workers in the United States and Canada to not be persuaded by those who wish to portray Mexican auto workers as the problem. Workers in every country have the right to develop their economy, advance social conditions, and to seek a higher standard of living. But for far too long successive Mexican governments have failed to protect and advance workers’ fundamental rights and auto companies have been all too willing to reap the windfall of repressed wages and weak standards. The future of North American auto workers is already intertwined, and the best prospect for making gains is to raise conditions for all.

The document gestures rhetorically towards solidarity with Mexican workers, but does not lay out an action plan for building it.  It does say that Unifor and the UAW would have welcomed the participation of Mexican unions in preparation of the document, but that independent unions do not exist.  While this claim is true as regards Mexican autoworkers in the Maquiladora zones, it is not completely true, as we will see below.  Given the fact that there was no effort made to reach out to independent trade unionists in Mexico, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion than that Unifor and the UAW share the same hopes as American domestic capitalists:  that an improvement in working conditions in Mexico  would reduce its competitive advantage and reverse the flow of capital.  Within a capitalist system, economic development proceeds through competitive advantage, and lower labour costs are a prime source of competitive advantage.  This reason explains why any attempt to advance the interests of all workers in a global capitalist economy is bound to fail:  the system must put capitalists and workers into competition, and in any competition, the loser will do worse than the winner.

So if the UAW and Unifor are serious when they say that “the best prospect for making gains is to raise conditions for all,”  then they need to start mobilizing their members for a long term struggle for a different socio-economic system.  However, as soon as one makes that claim one is immediately confronted with the not unreasonable rejoinder:  the bills must be paid in the short term, workers cannot afford to indulge utopian dreams.

The objection is not unreasonable because it rests on the truth that life is lived in the present.  At the same time, the future is not some void opposed to the now, but is constantly engendered present action.  The contradiction between short term and long term, present and future, is overcome by forms of struggle that achieve short term gains by encroaching on the structural power of capital to shape the whole field of human social and political life.  Instead of (implicitly or explicitly) allying with domestic capitalists, workers must build links with each other and make demands that cannot be achieved without forcing capital and the state to cede some degree of control over the wealth and resources that capital’s power depends upon.

This claim again sounds very abstract but it is not.  It is just a programmatic statement of processes that are always at work, albeit in very fragmented and attenuated ways.  In the present case, the coherent advance of the interests of American, Canadian, and Mexican workers starts with the construction of real solidarity between the three.  As I noted above, there is an independent Mexican trade union movement, and it has recognized the need to build these links from below.  At a meeting in Mexico City three years before the renegotiation of NAFTA was announced, the independent trade unions met to discuss a common response to the failure of NAFTA.  A report from the UCLA Labour Center notes their key demands:

  1. Better understand the lessons of trinational networks to guide future actions.
  2. Analyze new trinational initiatives and campaigns that build on a culture of transnational labor solidarity between Canada, Mexico, and the United States.
  3. Develop a collective understanding of labor at the transnational level and the opportunities and obstacles for workers’ struggles.
  4. Promote the exchange of ideas and strategies between participants to strengthen the culture of solidarity among trade unionists from the three countries.

In contrast to the UAW/Unifor document, the independent Mexican unions start from the need to examine what is actually happening at the level of real interaction and political work between workers and movements from all three countries with an eye to identifying strengths, weaknesses, and areas of development.  They do not commit themselves from the outset with working within the established framework of capital and state formations for an undefined “fair share.”  Instead, the idea is to build real networked movements that can express and articulate a set of shared demands:  a workers counter-project against the ruling class project of free trade, revised or otherwise.

It goes without saying that such a politics cannot solve immediate problems of de-industrialization of Southern Ontario and the US Mid-West, or any of the other myriad problems that beset American, Canadian, and Mexican workers.  What it could do, if it were to ever gain traction and numbers, is create a real counter-weight to free trade that could exert political and social pressure on the state to take workers’ interests into account.  Capital cannot soar around the world if it has no place to land, and landing rights are controlled by the state.  Movements can generate new political forces that can re-shape short term policy, and short term policies that stem from and enhance workers’  power can create the space needed for the imagination and progressive realization of deeper structural changes.  As a recent essay from the Canadian Socialist Project put the point:

Third, we must move toward democratic planning. This must be a two-tracked strategy. It means building workers’ struggles in workplaces and in communities for control over investments in infrastructures and plants and the flows of surplus capital and profits. And it means, if these struggles are at all to be successful, directly struggling over – and entering – the state with an orientation to transforming its institutions and building the capacities to allow for the democratic transformation of the economy, with all this necessarily means in terms of transforming social relations.

For democratic planing to solve the problems that free trade deals cannot, it will have to be based in an explicit understanding of what all workers shared life-interests are, framed by the recognition that limitless quantitative growth of output is impossible, and build in some formal mechanism allowing for international coordination of production and trade.  Those are not easy problems, but they are ultimately the one’s that working people in America, Canada, and Mexico are going to have to solve.

Critical Distance

The other night I was sitting on my second floor deck when I noticed a spider spinning a web.  It started by dropping a vertical thread.  It made a ball of silk in what would become the hub of the web, crawled back up the vertical shaft, shifted a few degrees, and dropped another vertical thread to connect to the centre.  It continued weaving spokes around the full 360 degrees and then began the process of connecting them. Starting from near the centre it connected the spokes, moving outward at what was doubtless a determined ratio. The speed and precision of the work were astounding, as was the beauty of the finished construction.

Yet,  what is most astounding of the all is that the spider had no idea what it was doing.  Unlike a human craftsperson or artist there is no idea to which the spider seeks to conform its actions, just the instinctually programmed actions.  What separates the worst of architects from the best of bees, Marx said, was that the architect first erects their structure in mind, and then realizes it in nature, whereas the busy bee builds its magnificent celled honeycomb unconsciously.  No matter how beautiful and complex the honeycomb, it is inferior to even the poorest examples of human architecture, he believed, just because the human architect acts intentionally.

Why should that make such a difference?

This question arose for me as I thought about the spider.  It occurred to me that what I was watching was essentially a programmed function, and in that sense the spider was just like a robot that has been programmed to carry out certain complex tasks.  In both cases there is absolutely no intentionality, no conscious comparison between idea or plan and outcome, but there is an outcome.  If we do not need intentions or consciousness for the creation of things, was Marx wrong to exalt human intentionality as the mark of the qualitative superiority of human craftspeople and artists?

Many contemporary technotopians and transhumanists would be prepared to say yes, if not vis-a-vis spiders, then certainly vis-a-vis computers.  The long quest for artificial intelligence is essentially for machines that can, like the spider, create without knowing that they are creating:  autonomous function without self-conscious internal steering.  If the spider can weave a web so beautiful I want to preserve it just to admire it, and we all agree it does not do so consciously, why should critics of AI  put such a stress on self-consciousness as a key condition of intelligence?

After all, it is “artificial”  intelligence that the programmers are building, which allows for differences from the human original.  Still, if intelligence involves the capacity to carry out complex instructions, adjust to unforseen obstacles to the carrying out of the task, and revision of the program in response to those obstacles, then we are certainly on the cusp of the age of intelligent machines.

But is intelligence nothing but rule following and recursive self-correction?  I do not think so.  In fact, I think these aspects are the least interesting aspects of intelligence.  I am not saying that rule following and self-correction are unimportant.  What I am saying is that human intelligence also involves the capacity for criticism and that criticism involves an element of self-consciousness that creative species like spiders lack and which computers cannot begin to simulate.

Criticism is not simply the ability to determine when a rule has not been followed properly.  If I was supposed to cut a plank to 3 feet, and I instead cut it to 4, then I have made a mistake.  There is no reason why a computer cannot be programmed to infallibly cut boards to 3 feet, and there is no reason why it cannot come with a diagnostic program that senses whether it is carrying out its program correctly.  Thus, while the computer can detect errors and mistakes, it is not capable of genuine self-criticism, because genuine self-criticism involves a normative dimension that  depends upon social self-consciousness.

Let us stick with the trivial board-cutting example.  The carpenter asks me to cut a three foot length, and I cut a four foot length instead.  Let us assume he is a patient person, but I am hard on myself.  I say “I am such an incompetent assistant, I am really not cut out for board cutting.”  Here I am not just saying that I made a mistake. I am saying, first, that I have fallen short of an ideal, and second, that this falling short tells me something about myself.  In both cases I have to think of the task assigned me not simply as a set of instructions to be followed, but as a challenge to myself.  The rules are not external to me or indifferent to my sense of self; I regard my ability to do or not do the job as reflective of my identity, my talents, my abilities, and these all matter to me in a way to which I cannot be indifferent.

When we criticize ourselves, or someone else, or a work of art, or an institution, or society as a whole, we are not just saying that there are rules and that I, or the artist, or the authorities, did not follow them.  We are saying there are rules, and there are values that rule above the rules, higher order principles that provide reasons for caring about the way things are or are not and offer goals towards which we ought to strive.  Moreover, there are values and there are higher level values, which claim to tell us what our “oughts” ought to be.   Criticism is always evaluation:  reflective judgment regarding whether some human practice was carried out as it ought to have been, or, at a higher level, whether this “ought to have been” is as it ought to be (whether the values according to which we govern our lives are the best we can imagine and create).

Whatever the content of those values, it should be clear that nothing can govern itself according to values unless it has a sense of itself, its interests, and its goals.  Without self-consciousness, therefore, it is impossible to criticize in the sense of evaluation.   I cannot judge myself by a higher standard if I have no sense of my ‘self.’  However magnificent its creation or precise its operations, neither the computer nor the spider has that sense of self, and neither, as a consequence, can criticize.  The spider can sense if the web needs repair, but it cannot say “Man, that is a beautiful web.” The broken computerized board cutter cannot feel bad that it has failed in its vocation, because it cannot feel any intrinsic connection between its performance and its worthiness.

Why is this distinction important?  It is important because the space for criticism as evaluation is shrinking as the demand for assessment  according to quantitative metrics is expanding.   I am not opposed to assessment.  Societies have to be concerned with what programs cost and whether they accomplish the goals that they set out to accomplish.  They also need to criticize the ruling goals and values.  If there are food banks, then it makes sense for those who run the food banks to ask if they are connecting with the target population.  But anyone who cares about human beings also has to ask:  what is wrong with a society that allows some people to be so poor they have to depend on food banks?  The first question is a matter of assessment which takes the given as give, the second is a matter of opening a space for genuine social criticism

What does this issue have to do with spiders and computers?  In its initial expression, AI was an attempt to model human intelligence.  We are in danger at this point of inverting the relationship, and seeing our own intelligence in the mirror of the computer.  Intelligence becomes what computers can do, rather than what computers can do being judged as a replication of one aspect of human intelligence (rule following).  But human intelligence is not just rule following and rule assessment. It is also rule criticism, rule breaking in the name of higher rules (moral and political principles) and new rule creation through processes of social change governed by commitment to higher values that define ideals we would life to embody, as individuals and collectives.

If criticism is reduced to assessment, then all change will be within established value parameters. If those values allow core human needs to go unmet and vital possibilities to remain unrealized, and we cannot grasp the reasons why because we have allowed the higher dimension of value criticism to be closed off, we will trap ourselves within the given world as ultimate, even as it remains deeply problematic.  Problems we do not know about cannot be changed.  Hence the need to preserve the space for social criticism.  Part of preserving that space requires that we defend a multidimensional understanding of human intelligence.  The truly distinctive dimension that makes intelligence human is the linked capacities for evaluative criticism and creative transformation of the given in light of the results of critique.  If we give up the difference between criticism and assessment, creation and rule following, we give up the possibility of transformation towards better worlds.

Planned Obsolescence

“Man–this is the mystery of religion– projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject.”

Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity

With that insight Feuerbach hoped to bring us back to ourselves from the religious projections to which we subordinated ourselves.  God, for Feuerbach, was nothing but the perfection of the human species– intellect, love, creativity– abstracted from earthly limitations and embodied in the idea of a transcendent being.  The perfections attributed to God were nothing but idealizations of our own powers.  Critical insight into the human origins of the idea of God would, Feuerbach hoped, transform human life and relationships.  If we recognized that the perfections that we worshiped in God were just our own highest potentialities, the narrow egoism and selfishness of earthly life could be overcome by the loving mutuality reserved for our spiritual relationships.

The power of projective abstraction has proven much more difficult to overcome than Feuerbach thought.  The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have proven that the need to project our own powers onto a being which we imagine to be independent of ourselves runs very deep.  It dominates the scientific mindset as much as the religious.  Alongside the traditional religions we thus find today a religion of technology.  Like the monotheistic God, worshipers of technology see it as a force independent of individual and collective will, to which individual and collective choice must always bend, because the good is identical to whatever happens as a consequence of untrammeled technological development.

If you think I am drawing specious and superficial analogies, ponder the words of Ray Kurzweil.

In every monotheistic religion God is … described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation:  infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, infinite love … of course, even the accelerating growth of evolution never attains an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves rapidly in that direction.  So evolution moves inexorably towards the conception of God, although never quite reaching the ideal.  We can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking. Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, p. 389.

Kurzweil is no backwoods preacher fleecing an uneducated flock of their hard earned money.  He is a leading computer scientist, inventor, and head of Google’s Artificial Intelligence project.  And yet he explicitly, and in all seriousness, identifies the monotheistic god with a future supreme computing intelligence which will redeem us and raise us from the dead.   But what he does not realize is that he actually sells himself short in his genuflection before his own creations.

Technology, like God, is not a force independent of human intelligence and activity, but their product.  Yet, like the idea of the divine, the actual relationship of dependence is reversed, and the creators subordinate themselves to their own creation, at immense cost.

Kierkegaard argued in his essay Fear and Trembling (a mediation on the story of God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac)  that divine command produces a “teleological suspension of the ethical.”  That fearsome phrase just means that God can command us to set aside ordinary human conceptions of right and wrong for the sake of the higher good of obeying His will.  The problem is (and Kierkegaard understood this, although it did not change his mind) that only God knows what the higher good served by obeying his will is.  Hence, from the human perspective, we are left in an absurd situation:  having to renounce our own ethical duties for a higher good we cannot possibly know.  What we do know is that violating the ethical norms will cause harm, but we do it– if we have faith– just because it is what God commands.

Do not our ruling technotopians council the same?  Never reflect about the values that we want our society to embody but always do that which it becomes technically possible to do.  By fiat, the benefits will always outweigh the costs.  Whatever harms technological development causes will be cured by more technological development.  The responsibility of politicians and people generally is simply to adapt and obey the priest-class that produces the marvels.

Behind these injunctions to adapt is the real driver of capitalist society:  economic competition.  Individual firms must strive to increase productivity, to produce more product in less average time.  Technological innovation decreases socially necessary labour time, decreases per unity costs, and thus (other things being equal)  increases profit.  That is not to say that every technological development is a mechanical reflex of economic forces, or that science is nothing but ideology.  It does help explain the reason why no labour saving innovation is ever rejected by capitalists, and why rulers cheerlead every technological innovation no matter what the social costs for the workers who lose out, or, more irrationally from a system perspective, society’s long term stability.

Everyone can see that a society in which:  a) people must buy the goods they need to survive and b)  are by and large dependent upon paid labour to earn that money will enter into a fatal crisis, if c) it allows technology to replace labour without any system-wide planning to find new ways of ensuring that people can live and that social services can be funded.  The history of capitalism is largely a history of ignoring the social costs of technological development and letting those workers made redundant fend for themselves and gradually die out.  That would seem to be the approach that is on offer at this point,  but there is a difference, or a potential difference, that means it will most likely not work.  Past rounds of technological development did create new and increased demand for labour.  The emergence of Artificial Intelligence threatens to break with this pattern, reducing the overall demand for labour, or at least full time workers with secure jobs.

(Some economists dispute this view and argue that technology is just an ideological excuse to draw attention away from anti-labour political choices.  No doubt there is some truth to this argument, but at the same time it seems safe to at least conclude that if technology will not anytime soon eliminate all jobs, it is contributing to their continued degradation.  For a clear articulation of this argument see the report from the Economic Policy Institute The Zombie Robot Argument Lurches On.)

Let us assume for the sake of argument that there will at some point in the future arise a structural crisis due to severe declines in demand for labour.  This possibility helps explain recent discussion of Guaranteed Basic Income projects in some parts of the capitalist world.  In the form on offer in Ontario, for example, it will be little more than the existing welfare system by another name.  It will provide poverty levels of income support and keep people tied to commodity markets (rather than free public services)  to satisfy their needs.

If business consultants like Martin Ford (author of two studies of the future of work that are worth reading:  Light in the Tunnel and Rise of the Robots) the structural crisis of capitalism noted above is inevitable, as the technical achievements in AI become self-ramifying and abolish the need for human labour in ever more domains formerly judged exclusively human.  If Ford and others are correct, (and again, they may not be, but one must plan for worse case scenarios) the looming crisis creates an opening on the left for political mobilization around creative policy responses (massively reduced hours of work without loss of real income, GBI at levels sufficient to free individuals from the need for paid labour) that will be difficult to resist, because mass unemployment always spells massive trouble for the legitimacy of capitalism.   But it poses another challenge often not remarked upon on the Left, which is has its own indigenous technotopian wing.

To this point in human history, labour has been a natural necessity, a socially imposed necessity, and a source of meaning and value in human life.  People had to work directly on the land to live (as in agricultural societies); they have to work in order to earn the money they need to exchange for the goods their lives require (as in capitalism), and people’s labour has made them feel like valuable contributors to the lives of other people with whom they share the world.  If we are moving to a technological stage of history in which the natural necessity for human labour is abolished or seriously attenuated, then its social necessity will be abolished as well (although whether that takes a form that is in the interests of displaced workers or not depends upon the success of future left struggles).  But even the resolution of that problem in the interests of workers would not solve the third, and the left needs to think philosophically about its response to the potential catastrophic loss of meaning in a world without work.

Marx foresaw the possibility that capitalist technological development would eventually do away with the need for human labour.   In The Grundrrisse he welcomed it as a necessary step in the final liberation of human beings from naturally and socially coercive material circumstances.  In Capital he attributed the falling rate of profit to the increase in the “organic”– i.e., technological– composition of capital.  Capitalism was doomed over the long term to collapse, he thought, because it requires an increasing rate of profit that its own competitive trajectory makes impossible.

But in his early works, where he thought of labour not only as the means of producing life, but– in so far as it was non-alienated– also a means of producing meaning in life, his emancipatory vision turned not on freeing human beings form labour, but freeing labour form the meaningless forms it takes under capitalism. Thus, people would free themselves to labour in ways that were valuable for others and meaningful forms of self-creative activity for themselves.  Later thinkers like William Morris continued this tradition of looking to creative, highly skilled labour as the deepest normative foundation of the struggle for socialism.

There are few William Morrises left on the left.  The dominant voices tend to look to a post-work future rather than a non-alienated work future.  A recent example of this vision is Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future.  While it would be self-contradictory for a position like mine to deny the value of technological development (what better example is there of human intelligence and creativity than the history of science), we also must resist the intellectual pathology of projective abstraction discussed above.  That is, we must remember that science and technology are not really independent historical forces and can always in principle be subjected to critical and evaluative criteria that derive from considerations of: a) what our real needs are at a given moment in history, b) whether, in light of those needs, we need to replace a given form of labour with automated systems, and c)  what the costs will be if a given form of labour is replaced with an automated system, because d) that form of labour is life-valuable in its non-alienated form.

Do we really want to be treated by robot doctors and nurses?  Do we really want to “learn”  from on-line modules and not actual human teachers?  Shall we listen to nothing but music “composed” by computer programs and read “news”  compiled by algorithms?  Is it sensible to replace pilots with ground based systems, given the awe that controlled flight inspires in people who want to become pilots?  Do we want all of our food grown by automated greenhouses without any connection between human hand, soil, and produce?  Will a world without booksellers and record shops and the conversations between devotees they enable really be richer?

The questions can be answered either way, I think, in the case of any particular form of labour.  What cannot be answered either way, I also think, is the question of whether life can remain meaningful when there is nothing essentially required of us.  By “essentially required of us”  I mean a demand on our time, exerted by the recognized needs of others, that causes us to work, not in the first instance for money, but because we acknowledge a good in the satisfaction of the others’ need that our labour fulfills,  Meaning derives from recognizing ourselves as people who can respond to the demands that others’ needs exert upon us.  This form of recognition draws us out of the self-satisfaction of an ego-centric cocoon and allows us to devote some of our lifetime and life-actviity to something outside of ourselves.  If that sort of devotion to the not-self is not the ethical foundation of socialism then I do not know what is.

Through non-alienated work we make ourselves real for others and contribute to the present and future of the human project.  That is not the whole of what makes life valuable.  We need to play as well as work; we need time for ourselves as well as others,  we need to be idle as well as active, as both Sir Bertrand Russel (In Praise of Idleness) and Paul LaFargue (The Right to be Lazy), remind us.  But life has to be more than game playing and amusement.  Both get boring for a reason:  they make no existentially compelling demands upon us.  No one commits suicide because their team loses the Stanley Cup; people do commit suicide when they feel they have failed others whom they regard as rightfully depending upon them in a given instance.

What does that tell us?  It tells us that people distinguish between things they have to do in life which make it unbearable if they fail, and things that are optional.  We might think that life would be better without the first, but it would not, because it would be a life, not just without work, but without necessary connection or devotion or obligation to anything.  It does not follow that we should not exploit technological power to free our time from forms of work that are so degrading, servile, and mundane that they choke rather than give voice to our creative abilities.  It does follow that we must govern our own technological powers rather than allow them to blindly lead us into the oblivion of a society in which we have no more real need for each other.

Year Six in Review

If there is one problem that stands out as I look back over last year’s posts it is that that Donald Trump was given far too much air time.  A catastrophe of unheard proportions to hear Democrats tell the tale, the real problem with Trump is the way in which he exposes the total failure of the left to develop a coherent progressive program that can mobilize a majority of Americans behind it.  As the mobilizations against Trump have shown, there is a huge constituency for democratic transformation and development.  Even in the seemingly most rabid zones of white working class support for Trump there is concern about the loss of health care benefits that the repeal of Obamacare  will cause.  Activists on the ground are skillfully employing this fear as a basis for mobilization against the repeal.  Hopefully it can become a wedge issue to build a powerful public movement against the anti-worker, pro-war Republican agenda as the mid-term elections approach next year.

That will not happen if people remain fixated on the personality of Trump or hope to be freed of him by the deus ex machina of impeachment.  I think that the Russian collusion narrative is just transparent political theatre meant to distract from:  a) the overwhelmingly destructive role of American intervention in the Middle East, b) justification for the monstrous sums America spends on a military used primarily to kill the poorest people on earth, and c) to distract from the Democrats’ electoral failure and their own Machiavellian intrigues against Sanders and in support of Clinton.

Even if– and I think it is highly unlikely– he were impeached, Democrats would still be left to deal with the key problems of their foreign policy as well as the fact that the half of American voters who voted for Trump would likely resent the removal from office of the man they voted to be President.  They would, in all likelihood, see that outcome as yet another betrayal by East Coast elites.  That reaction would be a further setback on the road to building a democratic, progressive movement.  The way to deal  with Trump is not through legal machinations and ad hominem speculation about his sanity (much as his behaviour invites it) but politically, by exposing the contradictions of his economic and foreign policy program and by presenting a more coherent alternative that better serves the cause of peace, self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East, and the interests of American workers.

Philosophy has to focus on principles and not personalities.  Hence,  less Trump in year Seven.  On the positive side I hope to continue with the “Lessons From History” posts that emerged last year.  The idea here was to read an essay or book in light of a contemporary problem, using it to shed light on ways of understanding it and addressing it.  They were not reviews (I will continue to review books when the mood strikes) but tactical deployments of older arguments given new life by current challenges and contexts.  I also hope to continue the series `Windsor Spaces:` my love-hate critical homage to my city.  I have a few places already in mind, and my walks and bike rides will turn up others as yet undiscovered, I am sure.

As I have for the past five years, all of last years posts have been collected as Thinkings 6.  Anyone interested can download the .pdf here or click the link on the side menu.  I will keep a few of the more well-linked (if not always well-liked) posts from the past two years on the site.  Otherwise, the older posts are in Thinkings 6, and I begin year seven with a clean slate.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your arguments and comments in the year ahead.

The new photo on the  home page is the steel plant on Zug Island, Detroit.

Sunday Morning

Cigarettes.  He must need cigarettes.  Skinny,  straggly hair, screaming at the  impassive window of the corner store:  “Man, are you not open?  Are you closed?  When you gonna open, man?”  Cut off sleeves and dirty baseball hat.  He flexes his thin, muscular arms. His ire is building; he is not thinking about what I think of him screaming at a locked door.  Rage makes one totally un-self-conscious.  Seneca said:  when you get angry, think how ugly you look, and calm yourself.  I am guessing that he has not read Seneca; that he is not in the mood for a lecture.

My bike’s momentum carries me past before I have a chance to feel sorry for him; to wish I still smoked so I could help him out.

The sky pends grey over the dirty street.

Everything is closed for several blocks either way, the street empty save for the poor.  A grimy, bearded man, also in a cut off t shirt, holds a tray of coffee.  Something  to wash down the hangover.  An anxious woman with a hard face, staring at the dive across the street, muttering to herself, “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon.”  The clients of the Mission all put out at the same time, milling about on Victoria Street facing another day with nothing to do; the residents of the low-rent nursing home wheeling themselves out for a morning smoke.

Is the sky low and heavy enough for rain?  It hangs, still, grey.

Two blocks and a world away from the Mission and nursing home three little girls play on their handsome stone porch, shouting happily about something only children can imagine.  Can the father who smiles over them imagine his little girl one day standing on the street corner (the bad corner, just a few blocks north) rocking on her heels, a shivering meth-head, praying,  “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon?”   So close, so far.  Here, social space is not measured in meters.  Mapping it requires a geography of dollars and cents.

Will it rain?  That wind feels pretty strong.

You could say it is a city of contrasts, but that describes every city.  Here the contrasts are house to house, half block to half block, corner to corner.  There is no “wrong” side of the tracks here, every side is right and wrong at once:  sturdy nineteenth century brick homes sit next to boxy post-war houses that sit across from monstrous factories neighbored by empty fields abutting half-razed industrial ruins; 1960’s housing projects arrayed in random intervals, low-slung and stuffy, mid-sized parts plants here and there, parking lots and more empty fields.

Bike trails give respite from terrifying six lane streets.  They become alleyways that lead into magical little micro-neighborhoods where the houses and streets seem too small, fairy villages a universe away from the oppressive humidity and haze of two countries worth of car exhaust. People sit on their front porches, looking at me.

That sky looks heavy, their eyes say, he might get rained on.

When you bike you can hear a world you only see when you drive.  Behind the van plant, its transformer station hums with the menace of deadly high voltage.  Across the street, a freight train clangs and creeks and groans its way to life.  Low cinder block warehouses line the broad road; grey walls to frame the black cracked asphalt.  Not a person about.

If the sun could escape the clouds, it would be oppressively hot.

The city gets everything wrong except the non-city parts.  Across Lauzon, a hidden little Pelee opens up.  Sycamores and honey locusts line the smooth curves of the trail leading to the lake. “The River and the land sustain us,” but the lake feeds them.  The forgotten preserve of the yacht-y set, healthy seniors in their hiking and biking gear, money as far as the eye can see, from here across the bay to Grosse Pointe and St. Clair Shores.

It is cooler here, shaded and breezy.  Back in the city, the wind only blows to move the trash around.

The sky darkens.  It comes down, finally, hard.  Then the clouds open; plate tectonics on fast forward.  I see imaginary cities in the breaking clouds, the blue sky as inlets allowing ghost ships passage into the cloud continents, and then finally just blue as if none of this had happened.

Rights and Responsibilities: Free Speech and Academic Freedom as Social Values

Historical Context and the Principles at Issue

Three recent controversies have raised questions about the value and limits to free speech and academic freedom.  The first involved the paintings of Canadian artist Amanda PL.  She claims that her paintings were  inspired by the work of the Anishnabe artist Norval Morisseau.  She has been criticized by the Chippewa artist Jay Soule as coming close to committing an act of  “cultural genocide.”  The second concerns an editorial penned by now-former editor Hal Niedzviecki in Write magazine.  He called for a “cultural appropriation prize”  for the author best able to write characters not of their own culture.  The third concerns a paper published in the journal of feminist philosophy Hypatia.  The paper argued that there was an analogy to be drawn between trasnsexualism and transracialism:  if people celebrate Caitlyn Jenner for changing sexes, then they should, by analogous reasoning, celebrate  Rachel Dolezal, (a white woman who lived for years as a black woman), for wanting to change races.  The article provoked an unprecedented public campaign that demanded the journal retract the article.

I will work through each of the criticisms in turn.  However, before any useful light can be shed on the controversies, the historical context of the emergence of the principles of free speech and academic freedom need to examined.  One of the most lamentable facts about public discourse in the age of Twitter is that even thoughtful people do not– indeed, cannot, because immediate comment is demanded– stop to think through the historical process through which contemporary political values  have emerged.  When we do stop and think things through historically, the political implications and limitations of the value in question become clear, and we are then better able to negotiate controversies and work out appropriate forms of response to controversial instances of their use.

On February 17th, 1600, the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome.  His execution was ordered by the Pope because Bruno’s teachings:  that matter itself could be understood as the active, self-forming principle of reality and that an all-powerful god would create a universe teeming with other forms of life were deemed heretical.  One hundred and fifty years later the Enlightenment would confront the violent dogmatism of theological authority with the rational principle that disagreements be settled by the better argument.  My point is not to compare critics of potentially offensive speech to the Inquisition, but to remind everyone that the right to free speech was (and should still be) a social value.  It defended the right of individuals to question orthodoxy and repressive  power.  As such, it was a powerful tool in the struggle against all forms of oppression.  It is not–as it is sometimes thought of today– a right to say whatever one wants and give offense just because one can.  Rather, it was a right, in its origins, to explore alternatives and criticize; to expand the scope of human understanding; to protect the voices of the less powerful; to create a social space for the formerly voiceless to speak; and to catalyze non-violent forms of social and political change.

Academic freedom is a species of the genus free speech.  It has no constitutional grounds but is protected only by convention and faculty collective agreements.  In Canada its origins date to the firing of Harry Crowe.  In 1958 the history professor was fired for criticizing the religious authorities who ran United College (today the University of  Winnipeg).  His firing spurred the formation of the Canadian Association of University Professors, whose core mission includes protection of academic freedom from threats inside of and outside of the academy. The only reason any critical voices are heard in universities anywhere today is because of the space academic freedom protects.  Marxists, feminists, trans-activists, and critical race theorists would all be gone if academic freedom did not protect their right to criticize established structures of power, gender and racial norms, and anything else that can be made the object of critical scrutiny.  Struggles around free speech, free expression, and academic freedom have often been led by the most marginalized and oppressed groups.  Their struggles to give public expression to their realities and needs  has radically transformed the cultural landscape of liberal-democratic-capitalist society for the better.

That free speech has been an important vehicle for the struggles of oppressed groups does not mean that it should never be limited.  What principles should govern its limitation?  If the basic social value of the right to free speech is that it allows for the expression of perspectives that would be silenced otherwise, then the basic limitation on free speech, expression, and academic freedom is the opposite:  when one group’s free speech actively silences another group or explicitly targets them for destruction (as in anti-Semitic hate or racist hate speech that calls for the extermination of the demonized group) then the speech is no longer properly understood as falling under the category of free speech, but becomes an expression of oppressive ideology.  Merely giving offense does not pass this test.  To be offended is not to be silenced (if it were, no one would know that someone is offended, because the offended party would be unable to express their displeasure).

Cases in Point

I think that of the three cases, only the case of Amanda PL comes close to crossing the line towards forms of expression that are justly censured.  However, even in this case I think the gallery was wrong to cancel the show.  The case of Niedviecki is a case of misinterpreted satire that was then exploited by right-wing forces who have nothing to do with Niedviecki.  The Hypatia case is a debacle of the highest order and a serious threat to academic freedom.

1. The artist at the centre of the controversy, Amanda PL, studied at Lakehead University and claims inspiration from Anishnabe artist Norval Morriseau.  From what I have seen of her paintings, they would be better described as vastly inferior mimicry rather than works of art.  The colours, the motifs, the enclosing of structures within coloured spheres all linked together with curving tendrils are obviously reminiscent of Morriseau and other Anishnabe artists.  But as Soule points out, in PL’s case, it is all surface and no cultural-spiritual depth.  Morriseau, according to Soule, was giving painterly expression to stories that PL did not know and whose spiritual depth she could not understand.

Soule is right to criticize her for cultural appropriation.  Even though she acknowledges the source, the source is so obviously grounded in a cultural tradition that informed the work, and which has not become internationalized (in the way, say, that the blues or jazz have) that her mimicry is illegitimate.  Cultural appropriation is different from being influenced and inspired by a foreign culture.  Beckett wrote in French to make language seem strange, to force himself to think about the task of writing, but he lived in France and learned the language.  Amanda PL has not served any sort of cultural apprenticeship amongst the Anishnabe, has not tried to get inside the culture to learn the stories or the connection between style and story.  She has tried to advance her art career with derivative paintings that nevertheless look enough like admired Anishnabe work that it might sell.

That said, I cannot agree with Soule that the work counts as cultural genocide.  The United Nations defines genocide as:

Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnical racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Cultural genocide would then be a set of practices, imposed by the dominant group upon the oppressed which is designed to systematically eradicate their culture.  The forced teaching of English in residential schools would be a clear example. There is nothing in PL’s work to suggest that she intends to destroy the Anishnabe way of painting, or to prevent its transmission and teaching. Her work is bad, but it does not prevent Anishnabe painters from continuing their traditions.
Because it does not directly prevent Anishnabe painters from painting, or criticizing her for her derivative work, I would argue that the gallery was wrong to cancel the show in response to criticism.  The show perhaps should never have been offered on grounds that the work is not good enough, but, once offered, it should have been seen through.  The principle here is: fight back with the weapons with which you are attacked.  If the weapon here is derivative art and the attempt to make a name for oneself by superficial copying of others’ traditions and practices, the response should be to publicly call attention to the problem and critique the work. Force her to answer and to become a better artist,  to find a way to creatively give expression to influences genuinely felt without just copying their surface appearance. Argue and critique, don’t ban.

2. The Niedzviecki controversy overlaps with the Amanda PL problem because it to concerns the matter of who speaks for First Nations, Inuit, and Metis.  From my perspective it seems much less serious a violation of their voices than the Amanda PL case. Niedzviecki was clearly being satirical when he called for the creation of a cultural appropriation prize. The main thrust of his editorial was not about cultural appropriation but the importance of imagination to literature.  Literature is not just recounting stories, it is the invention of literary worlds.  Invention forces authors to go beyond their own private experiences to create worlds that do not exist in material reality.  Dostoyevsky did not have to murder a miserly slumlord in order to explore the psychology of guilt and the ethics of redemption in Crime and Punishment. If we limit art to mere description and representation, we destroy art, whose truth is the invention of worlds and not the accurate description and proportional representation of real members of this one.

Part of that invention has to be the imaginative occupation of perspectives different from one’s own.  If not, every work of literature would be nothing but monologue (but maybe even not that, since we are not transparent to ourselves but have different sides).  All writing therefore takes us beyond what the self has directly experienced. That was the main philosophical and artistic point he was making, but it got lost completely in the critique of an obviously satirical call for cultural appropriation and the cultural appropriation prize.

In humourous utterance, intent matters.  Niedzviecki intended to provoke, no doubt, but to provoke thought about the role of imaginative transposition, not to support cultural appropriation.  Now, I say this as white male philosopher not aware, from the inside, of what it feels like to suffer deprivation of voice. I am sure my history influences my reading. At the same time, I am not saying that Niedzwiecki is beyond criticism, but only that reasoned criticism takes time:  our world demands instant response, and instant responses are rarely wise.  A more productive conversation and critique might have been had had a moment’s reflection on context and intentions preceded the calls for retraction and resignation.  These do little to solve the deeper problems of First Nation’s and Inuit and Metis lives, but they do engage/enrage the right wing (like former national Post publisher Ken Whyte) who did intend to harm and humiliate by offering to fund the prize.

Niedzwiecki’s comments might have hurt the feelings of members of vulnerable cultures, but they were included in an edition of Write! given over to First Nation’s writers.  Clearly, in terms of actions, Niedzviecki was their ally, not their enemy.  All satire, all humour, runs the risk of giving offence to someone.  Do we really want a world without satire?  A world where everyone has to triple guess themselves before they speak lest some ears take offence? I’ll book my ticket for Mars — I’ll take a room in the Don Rickles suite, please– if jokes, satire, hyperbole, farce, and laughter are forbidden on earth.

Again, the principle is: fight back with the weapons that attack you (although in this case I do not see an attack).  If someone makes fun of you, make fun in turn.  It is better to laugh at each other than to destroy each other.

3. The cases of Amanda PL and Niedzwiecki at least raise important questions about cultural appropriation.  Hopefully these questions will generate on-going dialogue that explores the crucial issue:  how can members of dominant groups speak responsibly when exploring  problems stemming from histories of cultural oppression, and how can members of historically oppressed groups criticize that history as forcefully as they need to, without in effect silencing satirical voices.  The Hypatia affair has no such virtues.

The signatories to the letter demanding the retraction of the Tuvel piece are in open violation of the norms of academic freedom, and really over a paper that is eminently reasonable, whether or not one agrees with her conclusion.  The paper proceeds from the principle that thought must:

hold open a space for real intellectual curiosity, for investigations that deepen our understanding of how identity claims and processes function, rather than rushing to offer well-formed opinions based on what we already think we know” (Stryker 2015, quoted in Tuvel, p. 264)

The paper unfolds according to this logic of respectful inquiry and is sensitive to the ethical and political complexities involved.  Others may disagree:  they should do so and respond, but there is nothing in the paper that would warrant its retraction.

If we conspire to undermine academic freedom in the way proposed by the signatories of the letter we will all suffer.  I subscribe to the American Association of University Professors’ electronic bulletin.  Almost everyday it relates a horror story of a professor fired for running afoul of administrations or governments.  Turkey is in the midst of a purge which has seen thousands of academics lose their jobs.  The Turkish government’s position is clear:  academics serve at the pleasure of the President. Anyone who criticizes his line forfeits their job.

We cannot mince words here:  the principle that underlies the demand to retract the Tuvel piece is identical:  conform your thought to a reigning orthodoxy (or some self-elected group’s definition of orthodoxy)  or be placed on the Index.  That Hypatia is a path-breaking journal of feminist philosophy makes the demand all the more disgraceful.  Hypatia would not exist unless feminist scholars had successfully contested academic orthodoxy.  Academic freedom was a vital principle  in that struggle.

Philosophers, as philosophers, simply cannot call for any other to be silenced.  Ever.  Philosophy responds to untruth with better argument, always, everywhere, in all cases,  or it is not philosophy.  Not every political problem can be resolved by argument, but when we are active as philosophers, whatever our identity, we argue, we do not silence.  If people’s sensibilities and anxieties make it impossible for them to hear certain arguments, then philosophy is not for them.  “The study of philosophy is much hindered,” Hegel wrote,  “by the conceit that will not argue,”  a conceit which “relies on truths which are taken for granted and which it sees no need to re-examine.”  The truth in philosophy is always contested:  argument is the means of contestation:  no limits, no hurt feelings allowed.  Philosophers listen, think, criticize, accept criticism, re-think, revise, and re-argue, forever if need be.

The actual criticisms articulated in the letter may very well be sound. They should be developed into a rebuttal and published, perhaps with a response from Tuvel.  Maybe a special issue of Hypatia could be devoted to the controversy.  But the demand to retract smacks of the worst sort of moralistic Maoism.  Shall we have re-education camps next (or maybe just mandatory training)?  Thinkers who want to be taken seriously as philosophers have to speak out against this reactionary and repressive politics in the most forceful terms.