The Dispensable Nation

Foucault famously maintained that power and knowledge form an integral structure whose function is to produce compliant, docile subjects.  Science is not a neutral investigation of facts and forces but a partisan in the struggle to produce people who demand only what the established society can provide.  Social institutions are the materialised form of power through which this knowledge is disseminated. However influential and illuminating the idea of power/knowledge complexes has been to the explanation of social reproduction, his account is one-sided.  There are indeed complexes of power/knowledge, but power is also always integrated with structures of self-delusion  that blind those in power, and those who support them, to the real implications of their actions.

Let us take the on-going horror show (there seems no better word to describe it) across the Middle East and North Africa as an example.  The full historical explanation of the greatest social disaster since the Second World War would have to go back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One, but let us confine ourselves to the more proximate causes of the current struggles in the late Cold War.  To orient ourselves, let us begin with then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s now (in)famous claim that America was the  “indispensable nation.”  This claim is a perfect example of the power/self-delusion complex that the ruling value system requires to convince its executors of the justice of the deadly implications of their policies.

Speaking on the Today Show in 1998 about the possible need for a ground invasion of Iraq to ensure that UN weapons inspectors had access to suspected nuclear and chemical weapons sites, she said:

“Let me say that we are doing everything possible so that American men and women in uniform do not have to go out there again. It is the threat of the use of force and our line-up there that is going to put force behind the diplomacy. But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us. I know that the American men and women in uniform are always prepared to sacrifice for freedom, democracy and the American way of life.”

The First Gulf War, recall, had removed the Iraqi army from Kuwait, but did not topple Hussein.  It did, however, unleash the forces that have culminated today in the near complete destruction of Iraqi society.  All told, the sanctions regime, the First Gulf War, and the ten years of intermittent bombing and more sanctions  killed an estimated one million people.  The Second Gulf War and ensuing civil war have killed, to date, over 100 000 people. Not only has no American or American ally been tried for a war crime (proving that faith in international law is a paradigm case of the power/self-delusion complex), no one in a position of power in the West has learned the obvious lesson– attempts to remake ancient societies from the outside, to turn millions of lives into instruments of imperialist policy, destroys established social stability without creating the forces needed to reconstitute stability on a higher level of social development, social peace, and democratic self-organization.

With 25 years of evidence now available for public scrutiny, no one can any longer deny that American policy in the MIddle East in the quarter century from 1990-2015 has been an absolute failure, on any metric one chooses.  One can choose the ideological metrics of the Americans themselves– the Middle East is not democratic and is more violent and hostile to American interests than ever. Or one can choose the life-value metrics that alone should decide the value of any political policy.  On every count:  public health care, social stability, education, the rights of women, democratic self-governance, control over natural resources and social wealth and their use for supporting social life-development systems, the situation today is worse everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa touched by the two Gulf Wars and then the   “War on Terror.”  In every theatre in which it has been fought, this war on the life-conditions of Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa has brought nothing but death and destruction of the social life fabric.  Not a single country invaded for the sake of ‘democracy’ is on any trajectory toward democratic peace in any foreseeable time frame.

On the contrary, the situation continues to get worse.  With the re-election of Netanyahu in Israel and the Saudi bombing (and possible ground invasion) of Yemen, the forces of anti-human repression are in the ascendant.  The failure of the Arab Spring to lead to the democratic transformation of the Arab world (largely due to American and Saudi intervention) has once again allowed the anti-imperialist struggle to be taken up by the most reactionary and brutal religio-political movements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia.

We have seen this story play out before.  More than thirty years before ISIS, the Iranian people rebelled against the US-backed Shah in 1979.  The ensuing revolution brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini, but what has been largely forgotten is that there was a struggle within the revolutionary movement between a secular-left workers’ movement and the ultimately victorious Islamists (the silenced history is brilliantly told in Assef Bayat’s Workers and Revolution in Iran, Zed Books, 1987).

It is a common refrain amongst even progressive commentators in the West that the Arab world lacks the internal democratic-scientific-secular impetus towards social development that drove (in their view) the history of contemporary liberal-democratic-capitalism.  What they ignore is both the role of imperialist plunder in the development of Western society, and the role the West played in undermining the emergence of analogous developmental forces in the Arab world during the Cold War.  From the end of the Second World War until the end of the 1960’s, there was a secular left-nationalist movement in the Middle East that managed to cross the sectarian divides that are the front lines of the shockingly violent civil wars aging across the region today. What is happening today is not the result of “backward” peoples  replaying ancient grievances; it is the continuation of the struggle against Western imperialism, in the absence of secular principles and movements that can connect across ethnic and religious divisions.

Those principles have enjoyed success in the region; however, they were demonized and attacked during the Cold War, destroyed by American proxies, including the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, and various mujahadeen groups in Afghanistan, elements of which went on to form Al Qaeda and the Taliban. .

These are the three most important depth historical causes of the current catastrophe.  In 1949 Mohammed Mossadeq formed the National Front Party; in 1951 he was appointed Prime Minister.  When his plans to nationalize the oil resources of Iran alarmed Britain and the United States, the MI6 and the CIA engineered a 1953 coup, which removed Mossadeq and left the Shah in power, whose brutality ignited the 1979 Revolution.

The ascension to power of Saddam Hussein takes a similar trajectory to that of the Shah.  His coup was supported by the US because he was willing to target and liquidate left-wing members of the military who advocated the nationalization of Iraq’s oil wealth.  The story of Afghanistan is better known.  The CIA backed any group (including Osama bin Laden) willing to fight the Soviets and their Afghan proxies.   The end result of that strategy was, as Chalmers Johsnon put it, “blowback” in the form of the 9/11 attacks.

Without a vital left current, Islamic forces of varying ideological stripes have filled the void with sectarianism rather than solidarity, military and paramilitary life destruction rather than political and social life-development.  While it might seem preposterous to hope for the development of indigenous left-secular political movements capable of confronting both Western imperialism and Arab ruling classes (including their religious-ideological support systems), it is clear that the development of some such movement–crossing Sunni-Shi’a and national divides–is the only hope for the region.  A short four years ago, just such a movement was emerging as millions of mostly poor youth rose up against the legacy of Cold War autocracy and empty religious rhetoric.  In that crucible the indispensable nation made its choice– for the geriatric generals of Egypt, for murderous instability  everywhere else, deluding itself and its embarrassing allies like Stephen Harper that  killing just a few more of the wrong sort of people would solve the problem that more than a million dead Arab bodies has failed to solve.  This mountain of bodies is the material reality of the so-called “moral clarity”  which Harper believes attaches to his Middle East  policy.

Until this power/self-delusion complex is deconstructed and the policies of the indispensable nation dispensed with, the people of the Middle east will enjoy no respite for the evils our “civilization” rains upon them.


The Public Value of Public Sector Strikes: A Solidarity Message for CUPE 3902 and 3903

The essence of an unjust society is to continually demand and take from those with the least the little that they have to support their lives and life-goals and add it to the money-value hoards of those have the power to restructure public life to serve their limitless appetites.  So we see a recurrent pattern of struggle across history:  Those with the least power are forced to fight the hardest just to maintain what little they have.

These two political and historical principles need to be kept in mind when thinking about the on going strikes by Teaching Assistants at York and the University of Toronto.   At York, the major issues, according to a striker I have spoken with are:

1) “To Preserve the agreement they made with us linking tuition to funding for all members.  This is “tuition indexation.”  All we ask is that the university keep to this agreement as they did from 2000-2013.  Since 2013, however, they have broken this agreement.  We are not asking for anything more than for the university to keep its promise from 2000 and preserve education’s financial accessibility.

2) Include LGBTQ equity language in our agreements.  It is necessary that all members of both our union and academic community have their identities recognized by the university and feel secure and comfortable in their learning and working environment at York university.

3) Gain a sufficient funding package for Master’s students (unit 3 generally) with which they can pay rent, not go hungry, and hopefully avoid debt. ”

At the University of Toronto, the issues are similarly focussed on securing a living salary for graduate assistants trying to work and study in the most expensive city in the country.

To people outside the university, strikes by graduate students might seem absurd– are they not just there to study and pay their academic dues (so to speak) before they too join the ranks of overpaid blowhards expounding at great breadth and depth about nothing?

Alas, were that only so.  The reality is that graduate students perform essential work without which the university could not function and students could not learn at the level they ought to demand from a university education.  There could be no essays in large classes without TA’s to mark them, no tutorials to provide more intimate intellectual spaces for more intense discussion of fundamental problems, no labs for science students to hone their experimental skills, no time for faculty to research and make the profoundly important contributions to human understanding that faculty are capable of making.

So what these strikes really come down to is an opposition at the level of value systems. On the one hand, the administration’s opposition to the unions’ demands is rooted in the austerity agenda the Wynne government has adopted.  As Dave Bush and Doug Nesbitt  explain: “Their approach has usually been different from the frontal assault of the Harris years. The Liberal government, especially under Wynne, has been adept at carrying out austerity by isolating potential struggles. Cuts and tough bargaining are directed against one sector of the public service, while others are temporarily left alone, to suffer under a slow strangulation of funds.”  The agenda is justified by appeal to the combined effects on the Ontario economy of the 2008 recession and cuts to federal transfer payments.  What is left unsaid, as Bush and Nesbitt note, is that “the Liberals have repeatedly cut the corporate tax rate, have written off $1.4 billion in owed corporate taxes, and wasted billions on privatized “P3” hospital construction.”

They have also signalled repeatedly, in a series of documents which began with the Drummond Report, that funding for higher education is not going to rise faster than the inflation rate.  The slated 1 % increases are in fact cuts if inflation is taken into account.   Yet, university revenues continue to rise.  How?  By increasing tuition and ancillary fees for students. That is why tuition indexing is a major target for the York administration– it is a hard limit on how much money can be drained from students’ pockets to fund administrative goals– goals which, across the university system are increasingly determined by unaccountable senior executives coordinating with private business interests to turn the university into  a node in a circuit of money-value production.

But of course, I am being alarmist. If we listen to the government’s own agency, the Higher Education Quality Assurance Council (HEQAC), there is only good news for students, educators, and the general public.  HEQAC was created by the provincial government with the ostensible task of studying the state of higher education in the province and to make policy recommendations with reagrad to how to improve “quality.”  Yet, if one examines the various documents released over the past three years, one factor becomes evident– the council never defines quality in other than quantitive terms decided by labour markets and economic growth.   Its most recent report concludes that:

“Educational institutions … ensure a vibrant and robust quality of life and economy. In every province there is a positive link between postsecondary education and labour market success, individual earnings, citizen engagement and contributions to the economy.” (p.3) Note that every metric save the vague term “citizen engagement” links quality of individual life to service to the economy.

This reduction of educational quality to money quantity matters to the present struggle. If education is really about job training, and people are eventually getting jobs, then the educational system is working.  No matter that students are graduating with ever larger debts, those who find work are able to pay them down to reasonable levels after three years.  In Ontario, the average debt three years after graduation is “only” $8800, according to the report.(p.15).
What is not asked by the report is why students in one of the richest parts of the world should graduate with any debt at all.  In Nova Scotia, the administration, faculty union and students’ union  at Cape Breton University are currently discussing ways to effectively lobby the government to eliminate tuition fees.  This alternative is unthinkable to the provincial body selected to monitor the quality of Ontario’s universities, because – and this claim can be verified by reading their reports– their conclusions never contradict whatever policy for higher education the government is telegraphing.
Whatever the details of that policy, one fact about it is clear and explains why thousands of graduate assistants are on strike:  the universities of Ontario will be made to fund more and more of their operations on the backs of student fees. Therefore, increases to TA salaries and reductions of tuition will have to be funded by cuts elsewhere in the budget.  Since TA’s are the least powerful group in the academic hierarchy, every effort will be made to split their ranks, set them against students, contract academic staff, and regular faculty.
These are not easy times to be on strike.  These are not easy times to build the sort of militant, broad-based solidarity needed to make victory more likely. Nevertheless, these are important times for worker-students to be on strike in the university system because worker-students are crucial to the future direction of the institutions. Will universities continue to be not only accessible, but truly educational institutions?  By “educational institutions” I mean institutions whose fundamental guiding purpose is the cultivation of intellect and imagination, in all the fields in which human beings are capable of exercising intellect and imagination, for the sake of exposing lacunae, contradictions, and unjustified limitations in existing social, political and scientific institutions, and putting the superior understanding cultivated to work improving the lives and life-conditions of everyone, now and into the open ended future.
Hence, the public significance of the strikes, the core issue that no one in the province can afford to ignore, concerns the future of public university education. Will collectively produced wealth be used to enable students to work and learn free from the burden of wondering how to pay the rent, or will it be siphoned of by tax cuts, leaving students to pay a higher bill for access to institutions whose priorities are less and less determined by academics and students and more by unaccountable owners of money-value wealth?


Time and Space in Digital Culture

In a recent essay in the New York Time Books Review, Leon Wieseltier brings to light the central problems the digitization of material cultural artefacts has caused:  the emptying of social space of nodes of material cultural distribution, the negation of the time-structure required for the creation of insightful and meaningful work, the reduction of the qualitative evaluation of human reality to quantified analysis of statistical patterns, and the elimination of the capacity to appreciate the intrinsically valuable by the ubiquitous command for everything and everyone to be useful.

The essay begins with a lament for the changing streetscapes of America:  “The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookshops and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry.” (“Among the Disrupted,”  January 24th-25th, 2015).  That which is being lost is not so much once viable commercial enterprises, but more zones of contact between people drawn out of their homes because the acquisition of meaningful artefacts (books, records) depended upon social interaction in public space.  Before the ebook and the .mp3, one had to venture forth from one’s private domicile into the streets in order to buy a book or a record.  The significance of this act is only apparent now that is becoming more rare.

To stand in the midst of records or books arranged by someone else was to give oneself over to the chance encounter. One might have left home with a definite intention, but then found something completely new– or met someone completely new– simply in virtue of being in a public space whose contents exceeded– and showed themselves to exceed– one’s own initial intentions.  The distribution of meaningful artefacts in material space exposed people to the interactive and interdependent logic of society.  The social self develops and grows not by abstractly autonomous choices but by creative response to encounters with other subjects and objects.  It is a logic of creative adjustment rather than (self) creatio ex nihilo.

Cyberspace abstracts from this crucial material dimension of encounters in social space-time. I am not denying that real connections can be forged in cyberspace, or that within it one cannot be moved by the unexpected.  Like any technology (as Weiseltier acknowledges) the nature and implications of digital communication and distribution networks depend upon how they are used and the underlying social forces they serve.  In a capitalist society, technologies are used in the final instance to increase the productivity of labour and facilitate the consumption of commodities. (And of course, record stores and bookshops also sold commodities).  Nevertheless, I think there is an important difference in the way cyberspace encourages people to construct themselves.  Cyberspace is seductive because it appears to abolish the material constraints on the constitution of self-identity, on choice, and (from the perspective of the marketer) the opacity of future consumer demand.

The last function is the ironic negation of the first two.  With every keystroke, the virtual self hopes to define itself as someone unique, but is in fact becoming a function of pattern-determining algorithms which will increasingly define the self.  The chance encounter is doubly negated:  you become your surfing history and you allow the autocomplete to determine your future; you instrumentally select your ‘friends’ and instrumentally construct your personae, showing only what you think other people want to see and being offered for sale only what your past purchases reveal you to have wanted.

If one wants to insist that there is social being wherever there is communicative interaction, I will not disagree.  But at best the on-line self is an abstraction of social being– the idea of communication without the embodiment that makes it ultimately meaningful and valuable.  Caught up in the illusion of total control over self-presentation, we forget that ideas and representations must ultimately forge a material connection to be meaningful.  Songs shared through speakers sound differently from songs beamed right into your ears through head phones.  We read books alone, but they inform how we understand our lives, the histories from which they have derived, the goals they serve, the value of the relationships with other people we must try to forge.  It is our social being and not simply our own private taste that literature cultivates; the erotic intensity of a concert can never be duplicated by watching it on line or listening alone on an Ipod.   Cyberspace encourages a dissociation of the content of music and literature from the richer appreciation of the natural and social world from which that content has derived and whose value it must ultimately serve in order to be meaningful (‘liking’ something does not make it good.)  The generic individualism of cyberspace, its constant enducements to “personalise” our shopping cart and then share its contents with our ‘friends’ collapses personality into consumption and instrumental self-presentation.  It tries to separate the work of becoming a person from the risks, the uncertainties, and limitations of being a material being.  Does it succeed?

If one is convinced that the good in life comes down  to convenience and control, then one might be tempted to answer yes.  But think of how much of what is good in life depends upon relinquishing control to the process or relationship in which one is involved.  This point applies most of all to the process of thinking itself.  While it might appear to be the case that thinking is the clearest expression of our autonomy, it is in fact an almost complete giving oneself over to form and content which one did not create.  The meaning of words, the rules of grammar and logic are givens within which we work (even if we creatively work against them). More generally, the time of thought is determined by the labour of thought itself.  But in cyberspace, as Wieseltier notes,  “words cannot wait for thoughts.” Cyberspace is full of words, but words without thoughts are vacuous, and thoughts emerge and develop and become articulate at their own pace.  Learning to think is above all learning to be patient and to follow along.  “As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes,” he observes.

But this argument matters only to people who are concerned with the quality of expression.  What matters here is not how rapidly one responds to events, but how cogently one understands their meaning and implications.   But Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat are about content and quantity, not quality.  Nothing need be tempered by reflection, counter-argument, editing, or discriminating judgment.  But the problem goes further.  After all, diaries throughout the ages have contained saccharine poetry, and many a family photo album could use some discriminating judgement.

The real problem is epistemological– in this mass of words without thoughts the truth of ourselves is supposed to emerge. Big Money and Big Data collide, claiming to be able to decode the recesses of the soul in the unintentional patterns that emerge from intentional individual behaviour. The NSA and your bank are equally interested in these patterns– the truth is in the Data (as it used to be in genes, and before that in the character and influences, and before that, in the soul).  But the contemporary passion for data exceeds the zeal even of the orthodox believer, who at least admitted that there are mysteries of the faith.  Not so the analyst.  There is no recess of the heart or mind so dark that the light of numbers cannot make it shine on the LCD screen. “There are metrics for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured.  Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers.  Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms.  Economists are our experts on happiness.” And why not, if happiness is nothing more than a mechanical function of consumer desire-satisfaction?

But as anyone who has felt the creeping boredom with the new purchase can tell you, happiness is not a function of shopping.  But this does not mean– as Wieseltier argues, that happiness is not a material goal for human beings. The depth problem that Wieseltier exposes is not the limits of materialism, but rather its perversion by its standard psychological and metaphysical meanings:  selfish consumerism on the one hand and mechanical reductionism on the other.  According to the first, happiness is produced by the unlimited acquisition and ownership of commodities, and according to the second, the real is coextensive with the measurable elements and forces that determine physical nature.

But these are too narrow versions of materialism.  Unless we believe in ghosts and spirits, there is only this universe of matter and energy that individuals inhabit for a short time.  But we inhabit this universe not as machine functions, but as living social self-conscious agents who interpret the world we help build according to values we ultimately create.  Our symbols, our values, are every bit as materially real as electrons and nucleic acids– they are the purposes by which we determine our goals and act in the world; and it is through our collective acting in the world that social life is created, maintained, and changed.  That which is materially real is that which has causal efficacy, and it is certain that in human life, values have causal efficacy (people do something because they decide it is good, they desire someone because they are beautiful, and not because their genes mechanically determine them to survive and pass on their “genetic material”). Values and goals are the material substance of human social life.  Life goes wrong when they serve the reproduction of a system that reduces its living members to mere functions of its own reproduction.

That is the problem we face.  It is a problem that is exacerbated by a mathematical idealism that wants to reduce the truth of people to functions in an algorithm designed to predict (and steer) consumer behaviour. Against the multi-dimensional truth of the material universe– physical, chemical, biological, social, political, emotional, aesthetic, each layer nested in and emergent from the previous–  we are left with mathematical moonscape– Wieseltier’s metrics for things whose value cannot be measured quantitatively.

The antidote to this reign of abstraction is true thinking about meaning and value, and true thinking about meaning and value can only be cultivated through humanistic and philosophical study.  But the humanities and philosophy are being destroyed faster than record stores and bookshops by the relentless mantra that only that which serves the money-value system is valuable.  Against the reign of money and utility, against a society which believes that the processing of information is “the highest aim to which the human spirit may aspire,” Wieseltier defends the “defiantly nonutilitarian character,” of the humanities and philosophy, the way they uniquely enable individuals to learn that there is more to things than  “how [they] work, and to “develop their power of discernment and judgement, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty.”  He errs only in not seeing how truth and goodness and beauty, while not measureable properties of things, are essential to the material reality of human life. An immortal, spiritual being would neither make art nor philosophise, because it would exist outside the matrices of finitude that pose the challenges to living that art and philosophy try to meet.


Theses on Physician Assisted Suicide From a Life-Value Standpoint

On February 6th, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that sections of the Canadian Criminal Code banning physician assisted suicide violated Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which asserts the rights to life, liberty, and security of the person.  The Court reasoned that a)  to deny a person with a terminal or chronic illness that is causing them unrelievable pain the right to physician assisted suicide is tantamount to forcing them to commit suicide on their own (and is thus a violation of their right to life), and b) a violation of the values of autonomy and dignity that underlie the right to security of the person.

The judgement reads: “Insofar as they prohibit physician‑assisted dying for competent adults who seek such assistance as a result of a grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes enduring and intolerable suffering, ss. 241 (b) and 14  of the Criminal Code  deprive these adults of their right to life, liberty and security of the person under s. 7  of the Charter . The right to life is engaged where the law or state action imposes death or an increased risk of death on a person, either directly or indirectly. Here, the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable. The rights to liberty and security of the person, which deal with concerns about autonomy and quality of life, are also engaged. An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.”

While to some people the ruling is obviously correct in its underlying moral foundations and practical implications, the decision has, unsurprisingly, proven politically and ethically controversial.  As so often in the age of instant reaction and commentary, the critical responses generally worry that “the sanctity of life” will be compromised if Canada allows rational adults to choose to end their lives rather than continue to exist only to writhe in pain.  What is meant by life and its sanctity, however, is typically assumed rather than explained.  The sanctity of life is indeed a bedrock moral principle, but, as the following theses hope to prove, is not in any way threatened by the principle (and carefully governed practice) of physician assisted suicide.

1)  Life is the foundation of all value in the universe.  If there were no living things conscious of their existence and their environment as a field of life-support, the universe would not matter,  because there would be no creatures capable of valuing it as the origin and basis of their lives.  Once there is life, there is striving to continue in existence, and therefore valuation: of life as such, of that which supports life, and of the universe as a whole as the ultimate source of that which sustains life.  With the emergence of life, material nature is trasnformed into what McMurtry calls the “life-ground of value”: “the connection of life to life’s resources as a felt bond of being.” (Unequal Freedoms, p.23).

2) The objective value of life is thus proven in the first instance not by philosophical argument  (or religious belief)  but by the actions, interactions, and struggles of living things to survive and  reproduce their lives, and to maintain and improve (to the extent that different species are capable) their conditions of life, in a present which opens onto an open-ended future.

3) The value of particular lives is not a fixed quantity but increases or diminishes in accordance with the quality of the activities through which it is expressed.  Since human beings have a greater range of life-capacities than an amoeba, our lives are, correspondingly, more valuable.  That is not to say that the amoeba is without life value, but that the life of an amoeba would not be tolerable for a human being.  As the distinctive features of human life:   social-self-conscious agency, community engagement and connection, a wide-circle of care and concern, the capacity to love and be loved in turn, the capacity for creative work that contributes to the satisfaction of other people’s life-requirements- degrade and disappear, that life loses life-value.

4) That which is often referred to by the vague phrase “quality of life” is the range, depth, and life-value (for self and others) of the expressed life-capacities of human beings.  Quality of life may be determined by application of McMurtry’s Primary Axiom of Value to concrete cases. The axiom reads”  “X is value if and only if, and to the extent that, x consists in or enables a more coherently inclusive range of thought/feeling/action than without it; where these three ultimate fields of value are defined as: thought = internal image and concept (T), feeling = the felt side of being (F)/ senses, desires, emotions, moods, action = animate movement (A). (Philosophy and World Problems, Volume 1:  What is Good, What is Bad:  The Value of all Values Across Time, Places, and Theories, p. 213)  By stipulating that the growth of life-capacities must be “coherently inclusive,” the axiom rules out forms of life-capacity expression and enjoyment that unsustainably destroy the natural environment or depend upon the exploitation or oppression of other people.  Any form of enjoyed expression of such capacities are not life-valuable, but rather  exclusive and destructive forms of individual self-maximization rooted in a confusion between the desires of self  that ignores its dependence on nature and interdependence with others in society.

5) Human individuals are not isolated atoms but socially self-conscious agents who must reflect continually upon their needs for resources and people outside of themselves  as well as the future implications of their individual activity. Not everything that it is possible to do is good to do.  When that which it is possible to do would damage life and life’s conditions, either our own or others’, the materially rational and life-valuable choice is to refrain from doing it. Just because metabolic activity can be sustained by mechanical means does not entail that the life that remains retains any value, much less sanctity.

6) Materially rational decisions require the adoption of a philosophical disposition towards life.  The proper course of conduct is rarely obvious, but demands inquiry into the forces determining any choice-space and the range of alternatives available.  This philosophical disposition must be cultivated early.  Because the need to make hard choices can arise at any time, people must constantly reflect on the fundamental principles that make a good life possible,  and prepare themselves to make the life-valuable decision in any situation.

7)  All human choices are framed by our mortality.  The most general fact about individual human life is that it will end in death.  Of all the things a philosophical disposition towards life must comprehend, the inescapability of the death is the most important.  “We must live each day as if it were our last,” goes the cliché, and like all clichés; it contains some truth.  The truth it contains is that we must always strive to make the right decision and live according to the right principles, so that, when we die, we have made ourselves into the best person we could have been; that is, we have created a life that was valuable to ourselves and valued by others as having made real contributions to their development and enjoyment.

8) The best person is not necessarily the longest lived.  There is no essential connection between a good life and a long one, although, other things being equal, a long life is better than a short one.  Nevertheless, to believe that maintaining mere biological functioning is the same as living a meaningful and good life is a failure of philosophical reasoning.  Once our capacities for sentient experience, animate motion, thinking and imagination, and mutually rewarding relationship have been destroyed by disease, meaningful life has ceased (even if assisted respiration has not).

9) It does not follow from this claim that the lives of those with disabilities are without value. Ability and disability are  two ends of a continuum along which all real people lie.  All living beings face limitations, but the power of human beings to invent forms of life-valuable expression is such that people with physical and developmental disabilities can–provided social resources are used to create accessible environments– find innumerable ways to express and enjoy the capacities they do have and thus to create lives as valuable as any other.  Disability alone is thus not grounds for suicide– physician assisted or otherwise, because it is not the total negation of life-value.  Only once bodily damage has passed the point where further human activity is impossible does suicide become a life-valuable option.

10) In this context, Socrates’ claim that philosophy is a preparation for death takes on a new meaning. (Phaedo, 64a-b)  Once we have properly understood life-value, it becomes clear that with the on-set of a debilitating, excruciating, incurable illness, the choice to commit suicide, with or without the assistance of a physician, is a life-valuable choice, even though it ends one’s life somewhat sooner than otherwise.   By understanding life-value as expressed and enjoyed activity, experience, and relationship that contributes to others’ capacities for the the same, we realize that we do not lose anything by committing suicide, but remove a source of real life-disvalue — irremediable suffering of oneself and one’s loved ones.

11) That dying often entails prolonged suffering (for the self and one’s circle of intimates and friends)  and, in  private (or poorly resourced public) health care systems, enormous expenses does not generate , as John Hartwig argues, a duty to die.  There is  a responsibility to reflect upon the limits of human life, the fact that everyone must die, and to prepare oneself (as far as one can be prepared), to make rationally informed decisions about end of life care. (Is There a Duty to Die? pp. 126-7). One legitimate decision can be to die sooner than if one simply let the disease ‘run its course.’  But this is a decision that the dying person must make (in dialogue with whomever she feels needs to be involved), and not one that can be imposed by a generalized duty to die so as to relieve others of suffering or spare families the expense of prolonged treatment.  The later problem can be resolved by adequate public funding of health care, the former is a cross that some people and families may legitimately choose to bear.

12) By like reasoning, there is no duty to prolong one’s life past the point where one’s existence is nothing more than pain making life-valuable expression of human capacities impossible. There is nobility in suffering, as Nietzsche argued, but only in such suffering as one chooses to endure. (Beyond Good and Evil, p.171).  To be forced to suffer prolonged agony by the law is tantamount to torture– knowingly and systematically inflicting  needless pain on another human being.   Everyone can bear the cross he or she chooses; no one should force another to carry one whose weight he or she rejects as too much.

13) By like reasoning, no one may relieve another of the burden of suffering if that person has chosen to bear it, or if they have not clearly expressed their preferences on the matter before hand.  The disabled community– long treated as objects by scientific medicine and the broader community– has good historical grounds to worry that this decision could make their lives more vulnerable to doctors and even family members who decide for them that there lives are not worth living.  The Robert Latimer case looms large in their concerns.  Their worries can be obviated if the letter of the Supreme Court’s judgement guides the writing of the new law.  The Court is clear that only competent adults may chose physician assisted suicide for themselves. Unless, therefore, there is a clear and unambiguous written or verbal choice to die, there can be no physician assisted suicide.  By its very definition, “suicide” means “choice to take one’s own life.”  If there is no choice, there is no suicide, but rather homicide, which is not, obviously, what the Court’s decision, allows.

14) Every attempt to translate principle to practice involves hard cases which opponents will try to exploit as reasons that invalidate the principle.  Sufficiently clever people with enough time on their hands can always think up slippery slope arguments.  For example:   what about the case of a person who is in a near vegetative state but who can still communicate with hand gestures.  His care giver asks: “Do you want to die by physician assisted suicide?” He gives the gesture he had been giving for ‘yes.’  The court accepts the gesture as a sufficient expression of consent.  But now we have a form of consent that is neither verbal nor written.  This opens the door (here is the slippery slope) to people claiming, like Robert Latimer claimed about his daughter, to “know” what the person would want even in the absence of any capacity on their part to express their preferences.  And thus we have other people choosing death for those who cannot speak for themselves.   Hard cases like this one are important means of testing the implications of principles, but the slippery slope arguments derived from them are fallacious.  The fact that a worst case scenario can be imagined does not prove that it will arise.  Hard cases should not undermine principles that are otherwise life-valuable, but make us attentive to the possibility for mis-interpretation and abuse.

15) The argument that physician assisted suicide violates the sanctity of life because it interferes with death as  natural process is absurd.  Every living organism is threatened by death every moment.  If life-value requires accepting death as a natural process, then it follows that no organism should ever do anything to prevent its own death– any interference with it being, on their argument, unnatural.  As Hume pointed out more than two centuries ago, if suicide is morally objectionable because it is an “unnatural” shortening of life,  then so too is medicine morally objectionable as an “unnatural” prolongation of life. ( “Of Suicide,”  in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, p.100-101).  It is beyond comprehension how people who proclaim the sanctity of natural death (by which they sometimes mean death when “god chooses”) can reconcile their absolute subservience to mechanical means of prolonging biological functioning (and/or chemical means of reducing pain) with their conception of “natural.”

16) The death of individuals is not bad in and of itself and therefore need not be fought against as one fights against an unjust enemy.  All things which are– and not only living things– come to be and pass away in time.  Not even the universe is immortal.  All individuals have valuable capacities to share with others, capacities which, when realized in coherently inclusive ways, make life good. But the future belongs to those who are not yet, and all people must at some point stand aside so that new perspectives on the universe-  new beings–can come into existence and feel and see and think and act and connect and create in ways that would never come to pass if those new individuals were not born.  The deep reflection required to ask for help dying once one’s potential for life-valuable activity has been exhausted affirms the value of life as  enjoyment and contribution.  The sanctity of life is not a biological fact but a value which we honour by living well, striving to ensure there is a future for new life, while accepting the limitations of our own.



Fear and Loathing in Ottawa


That the Conservative Party  is using the murder of two Canadian Armed Forces personel and the Charlie Hebdo attacks as justification for their anti-terror bill (Bill C-51) is not surprising.  That they will exploit the memory of these attacks to provoke mostly ungrounded fears of more in their re-election bid is not surprising.  That they will invoke “jihadism”  as the cause of these attacks rather than explain it for what it really is — nothing but a name signifying no  unified ideological or political movement and the cause of nothing– is not surprising.  When the politics that one supports regularly select for violent military attacks on countries and cultures when it serves purposes of domestic or geo-strategic convenience, one must suppress rational investigation of the complex of causal factors behind attacks like those named above.  Too much analysis would uncover the fact that Western military policies in the Middle east are a contributing cause of the terrorist attacks they are supposed to be preventing.

Instead of rational investigation of causes and historically informed debate about solutions, we get what we have seen in France last month and in Canada last week– legalised assaults on the very “freedoms’  the “terrorists” are supposed to hate.  The so-called “trade-off” between security and freedom is nothing of the sort.  Life-valuable security includes freedom as its highest goal, and is not the province of police surveillance and “preventative arrest,” but an achievement of life-coherent forms of social organization.  Life-coherent forms of social organization, on the international plane, would require an end to neo-colonial domination of other cultures’ life-spaces and politics, a withdrawal of military forces and an end to cynical playing of different religious and ethical groups off against one another, and, most of all, the racist division of humanity into some lives that major global powers decide are worth protecting, and other lives that those same powers decide are expendable in the name of “security” and “sanctity of life.”  On the national plane, life-coherent social organization requires the hard political and philosophical work of progressive social transformation.  The priorities of that open ended struggle must be:  an economics of sustainable life-requirement satisfaction, a politics of democratic self-governance that recognizes material limits to what it is rational for collectivities to choose, and cultures that are equal parts preservative and inventive of life-valuable creations, practices, and forms of human interaction and relationship.

But the hard-headed (and hearted) realist critics will rejoin:  “the wolf is already at the door.  The bomb is ticking.  We have no time for philosophical platitudes and long term strategies.  We do not have time to search out causes.”  The search for causes, Alan Dershowitz once argued, is tantamount to support for the terrorists.(Why Terrorism Works, p.24)

But the great achievement of the Enlightenment liberal societies — the one’s whose freedoms the terrorists supposedly hate– was the courage to pursue the search for causes of injustice no matter how deeply into the halls of power that search led.   Because the search for the causes of terrorism will lead back to Western imperial and neo-colonial policy since the end of World War One, people who are concerned about preventing further attacks–especially in the Middle East, where the overwhelming majority of terrorist violence is occurring– are warned off searching for causes by those who manage the legacy of that policy.  Instead, the “rational response” we are told, is to first become afraid of dying in attacks whose probability is near zero.  Then, we should overcome that fear by giving up the very freedoms the fear-mongers in government call sacred.  Then, we can all live happily shopping from home, safe in the knowledge that CSIS will be tracking our purchases.

If one examines the actual situation in wealthy liberal-capitalist societies, one soon discovers that no currently operating terrorist group poses any “existential threat” to them.  In the United States, there are far more mass shootings than terrorist attacks, but not even the murder of dozens of children in Connecticut could motivate the US Congress to tighten gun laws.  But a largely fictitious “terrorist” threat is sufficient to undermine two hundred years of constitutional government.

Thus, there is no evidence to support the claim that  it is realism about threat avoidance that underlies talk of “the need to trade freedom for security.”   Real realism, not the ideological sort, teaches that compromise, dialogue, admission of errors, and allowing people to find their own ways through the conflicts internal to their histories produces life-valuable security– i.e., security that does not need to be purchased at the cost of a totalitarian surveillance state.  The proof of this claim is the history of Western society itself– it has struggled with racism, sexism, exploitation, intolerance, and bigotry of all sorts.  All of these problems remain, but they have also been attenuated by internal struggles led by the oppressed groups themselves, and not foreign military powers arrogating to themselves the right to pick winners and losers.

So if it is not  life-valuable security that is at issue in Bill C-51, what is?   True realism exposes the real agenda:  whenever and wherever a politician invokes a trade off between security and freedom, it is the security of the interests of his class and party that he has in mind, and it is the freedoms of everyone else-  especially to oppose the interests of that class and party– that will be undermined.

In Canada, Bill C-51 reminds one of nothing so much as the famous “Law on Suspects” enacted by the Jacobins  during The Terror.  The law charged “Surveillance Committees established in accordance with the law of March 21st”  with the responsibility “for drawing up lists of suspects, with issuing warrants of arrest against them, and with placing their papers under seal.” Bill C-51 allows our “Surveillance Committees,” i.e., CSIS and the RCMP, as well as local police forces, who, when they  “believe on reasonable grounds that a terrorist activity may be carried out”  can arrest any person they decide it is necessary to arrest, if it “is likely to prevent the carrying out of the terrorist activity.” (p.39). But how is it possible to prove a preventative measure actually prevented that which it claims to have prevented if the act was not already underway but only discussed?  There is a great difference between word and deed.  That is why it is permissible to think and write about that which it is impermissible to do.  Was not the hue and cry about the Charlie Hebdo massacre all about the sanctity of freedom of thought and speech?  Can we now expect Canadian editorial cartoonists who mock the excesses of Bill C-51 to be arrested? Maybe it is time for them to put their money where their stylos are and challenge the government to show its hand.

So far, the cartoonists have remained mostly silent but the bill has sparked widespread opposition amongst civil liberatrains and extra-parliamentary critics.  Sadly (but predictably, official politics being what it is– a nest of opportunism) it will likely pass.  Already the Liberals have vowed to support the legislation,  fearing being outflanked by the Tories on the racist fear-mongering front.  The NDP have opposed it on the weakest possible terms- calling for more parliamentary-judicial oversight of CSIS and the RCMP but silent on the main problem–it is a totalitarian solution to a mostly non-existent threat.

If there is no parliamentary road to stop it, there is another tactic to resist  after it has been passed.  Let us assemble the abundant evidence that Western policy is the cause of the terrorism it claims to oppose. Canada has been a part of the various “coalitions of the willing” happy to destroy the life and life conditions of Middle Eastern peoples.  Bill C-51 makes it a crime to support terrorist activity.  I would argue that being a contributing cause to terrorist activity is a means of supporting it (on the principle that if causes are addressed, effects cease).  No one in government can claim ignorance of this causal relationship: most are well-educated, have access to the relevant historical documents, as well as the media, in which attackers have tied the justification of their attacks to Western military violence in the Middle East.

So, let us struggle against the bill’s passage, but if we lose on that front then, once it has been passed, let us demand that senior members of the Conservative government be charged under it.   Government supporters can either refute the charge in court, or accept the penalties for supporting terrorism under  the act. I look forward to the trial.



Syriza as Turning Point?

It took less than 24 hours for the warnings and fear mongering to begin.  This is what happens when you elect a party whose English name means Coalition of the Radical Left– you are lectured by the likes of David Cameron and Angela Merkel about being a de-stabilising force.  Destabilising indeed.  But what are the values of human beings that would not welcome a party that is promising to de-stabilise a system that has raised the unemployment rate to 28%, has cut the elderly off from their pensions and health care, and has raised the suicide rate by 30%? Money-values. Cameron and Merkel fear the destabilization of money flows from Greece back to German and European banks; the destabilization of a “bail out” composed mostly of loans that allow Greece to pay the interest on its debt. So they hope to destabilise the destabilisers before they can have any positive effect and inspire other movements across Southern Europe to repudiate debt and begin the real task of building an alternative democratic life-economy.

If it achieves nothing else, Syriza’s victory  in the Greek election on January 25th, 2015 at least exposes the absolute contempt for democracy and life-value that the maintenance of capitalism  actually requires.   Just as free speech ends where the sacred cows of the ruling class begin, so too democracy extends only so far as rubber stamping debt-servitude and exploitation.  Elect a government that promises to end the subordination of life-requirement satisfaction to money-value and the ruling class begins to organise its forces for a coup.

However, Syriza’s capacity to make a difference is threatened by internal dangers as well. In general, Syriza finds itself facing the double bind that all parties and movements to the left of moribund social democrats face.  On the one hand, they could run on a promise to implement their radically alternative economic model and risk losing out on a chance at power because too many people lack confidence that the alternative model can be realised.  On the other hand, they could focus narrowly on the promise to manage the economic crisis differently, drive a harder bargain with the European Union and its central bank, offer the Greek people immediate relief while leaving the structural problems of capitalism (and not just Greek capitalism) unaddressed, but gain election.  In the end, the later course has been chosen.

Having chosen the narrow road, Syriza must now confront the particular dangers of compromise, of which two very significant ones have already arisen.  First, because they won “only”  one hundred and forty nine of three hundred seats, the party was forced into an alliance with the right-wing nationalist Independent Greeks party in order to govern.   Second, their choice for finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, is a very far from radical left academic who has said publically that Syriza’s program for systematic economic transformation is “not worth the paper it is written on,” and seems exclusively concerned with renegotiating the terms of debt repayment.

That Syriza has chosen an vitriolically nationalist party as an ally of convenience should be of concern to its Greek and international supporters.  In giving the Independent Greeks an effective veto over government policy, Syriza has virtually guaranteed that it will not be able to implement the more structurally transformative demands of its program.  In the most likely scenario, the government will use its mandate to try to renegotiate the terms of its debt repayment, but  unless it decides to leave the Eurozone, which Varoufakis has ruled out, it has little leverage in talks and thus little chance of succeeding if it sticks to the road of negotiation.  Judging on the basis of just these two initial compromises, it is little wonder that critics like  Panagiotis Sotiris were worrying even before the election about the rightward turn of Syriza’s leadership. 

Still, we are only a few days into their mandate.  Let us imagine another set of possibilities.  Millions of Greeks have just voted for the “Coalition of the Radical Left.” They have tasted the poison of capitalism in crisis.  They have experienced their lives and livelihoods attacked and dismantled so that money that could support life-productive enterprise can be shipped to banks to be turned into more money for the bankers.  They are ready for a fight.  Let s assume that the holders of Greek debt are unwilling to make anything more than cosmetic changes to the Greek debt.  What then?

Capitulation is a possibility.  But so too is a fight, a fight that would have to be  mobilised in the streets. I do not mean an afternoon of demonstrations after which everyone goes home, but a disciplined and organized extra-parliamentary movement that can push Syriza to implement its full program– strikes, demonstrations, occupations, teach ins, factory take over, land reclamations, all co-ordinated with the left of the party. All of this would have to be defended on the basis of a different value-system–  the priority of life and life’s development over money accumulation in private hands.   And then this movement  would need to be spread to Spain and Italy and everywhere else the ‘austerity agenda’  is undermining public institutions and their life-serving function.  That includes Canada.

As in the whole history of socialism, the national struggle will either succeed in sparking international mobilization, or it will die in the nation state that tries it first.  Venezuela has survived as long as it has because it spread the movement to Bolivia and Ecuador and (to a lesser extent) Nicaragua and (to a lesser extent still) Brazil, and had an ally in Cuba. The concrete reality of internationalism is political control over national policy; the condition of successfully transforming national institutions is international allies and counter-institutions of credit and finance that free governments from dependence on predatory capitalist banks and international  institutions like the IMF.  The problem, of  course, is that those counter-institutions either do not exist (in Europe) or only in early, embryonic form (in South America).  But unless Syriza plays offence and actively builds a mobilization in the streets of Greece and inspires the streets of Madrid and Rome, it will find itself overwhelmed at the conference table.  But the streets of Madrid and Rome are ready for anti-austerity mobilization, and if they start to move, then Syriza’s election could be the turning point the left has needed for thirty years.

Last Train to Mallaig (For Jim)

I think you knew it was a one way ticket.  They don’t tell you when you get on, but we all figure it out sooner or later.  At first, you think you will be there to admire the glen and the loch forever, that there will always be time for one more dram and another pint of heavy and to tell just one more story at the Horseshoe’s long bar. But then…

Ah well. In the end, we leave small traces that are hard to decipher sometimes.  Who we are, it comes down to those etchings we leave in the minds of others.  But there is no translation guide, and everyone is allowed their own interpretation.

On me, you left the mark of your stories.  Not this tale or that, but the unruly spirit of creation with which you spoke worlds into being.  Serious people would get tangled in the web of words you spun and say:  “Is that true?  That cannot possibly be true.”

But let serious people attend to business, which is a bore.  Stories are for we who love life, for we who understand that the truth of the story is the telling, the free ride to somewhere else that feels a little better than where we are, the spark they light in our eyes.   I never saw that spark extinguished in you, because I always listened.

I always listened and I always laughed. Was that irresponsible?  Would a firmer hand have helped?  Maybe friendship is too easy, forgives too much. I don’t know.  But I do know that I would rather be a friend than God. I am not good at judging.

Maybe you did not know how to be helped.  You had a hard life, and were hard in turn.  But you never turned to stone.

There is no app for becoming friends.  Some people, they just vibrate at the same frequency.  But it puts them out of phase with others.  So be it.  Love and friendship, they are not obligations, with some they last, with others they do not.  Breeches, partings, failures– we know they are possible, but they are hard to predict.  Human beings find innumerable ways to do wrong to one another.  No one is innocent.

But if love and friendship end, there has to be a good reason, not just that life has become difficult.  Life is always difficult.  Where there is love it persists through the difficulties.  It finds its way through.

So I persisted as your world contracted. You always made me laugh, and we always loved a drink, and we weren’t very good comrades, we, who’d rather pay for another round before paying our dues.  We never took matters seriously enough, but everyone ended up at our end of the table.

It is easy to stop feeling sad.  You just have to put your mind to work at something else, or raise it up high (like a philosopher) and say:  life and death, it’s just a big swirl and we come in one side and go out the other.  The universe will put our elements to work again in something new.  One must get on because it will be one’s turn to exit soon enough.

So why be sad?  We are all orbiting the same black hole that draws us closer every circuit, and I hear that even laughter cannot escape its gravity.  So we should let our laughter ring through the heavens while we can, and not weep. And that is true.

But missing people is also true. And what we miss, we mourn.  And you deserve someone to feel sad about you. And so I will.



The Ruse of Unreason

The Theatre of the Politically Absurd

Hegel believed that historical developments were guided by an emergent rationality operating behind the backs and beneath the conscious awareness of individual agents.  Slowly, violently sometimes, but inexorably, the world was evolving towards a constitutional society whose institutions confirmed, rather than denied, subjective freedom.

That world has come, that world has gone, and without creating the conditions for the communist society that Marx claimed would fulfill liberalism’ s formalistic promises.  In an age in which one form of social life has proven itself exhausted, but with no systematic alternative proven practically possible, a ruse of unreason seems to have taken over from Hegel’s ruse of reason.

The ruse of unreason operates on two levels, individual and political.  Individually, it means to act without reflection, to respond to every scenario from a script rather than thinking it through with unique attention.  ‘The prophet must be avenged,’ ‘civilization must be protected,’ ‘the nation must remain unified,’ ‘structural causes must be addressed…’  This reduction of individual thought to slogan recitation produces a politics of stasis, and stasis when change is needed is the political expression of the ruse of unreason.  Each new crisis produces exactly the same responses from exactly the same cast of characters with exactly the same result– the stage is prepared for a repeat performance because a globally convincing answer to the question:  “What is to be done?” is missing.

Hegel saw social contradictions as learning opportunities that made novel responses to old challenges possible.  Marx had essentially the same idea.  The capacity to learn is one of the hallmarks of humanity– it allows for real progress in history to be made.  Real progress means that social institutions cease to serve the interest of one class exclusively and instead enable all to cooperate (which is different from mindless agreement).  Cooperation means allowing opposed perspectives to overcome their differences through creative synthesis rather than all-or-nothing destructive struggles.  But that kind of progress presupposes openness to doing things differently when the old ways prove inefficacious.

The young Hegel argued that philosophy is needed to overcome fixed opposition– its role is thus revolutionary, to expedite a new synthesis when historical conditions proved one is necessary.  If he is correct, then philosophy is needed today.  The ruse of reason would ensure that somehow the arguments needed to move our world past its defining problems– neo-colonial violence, terrorist forms of resistance, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and human labour– would be heard and heeded.

The ruse of unreason is a repetition-compulsion disorder expressed in a global incapacity to move beyond the failed forms of social, political, and economic life.  Instead of creative synthesis, every side holds fast to its one-sided truth and insists that the problem lies on the other side.  In their struggle to destroy each other they only end up undermining the values they claim to protect.  Everyone suffers except the police, who end up as the heroes of liberal democracy.

Ironic, but not funny.

Is That a Dog I Hear Barking?

No.  There is no question here of cynical disengagement from the world.  One hopes for a different outcome after each outrage, the unleashing of some kind of movement capable of creating the conditions for understanding the social conditions of peace, multicultural vitality, and individually meaningful forms of life.  But they do not appear.  Only more scripted responses (which is not a condemnation of the individuals involved as lacking intellect or creativity, but simply a recognition that there is nothing new to say, because the problems remain the same, and convincing solutions are lacking). Alternatives exist on paper, but nowhere in effective political reality.  And no one knows how to produce the missing political efficacity, so they simply repeat what they said the last time …

… and the repetition disorder sets in.  One groups defends (the drone strike, the shooting, the hostage taking); the opposed group condemns the same, and system critics outside the zones of institutional power and direct combat try to provide the nuanced analysis and historical perspective necessary to understand the structural causes of terrible events.  But– and this is another manifestation of the ruse of unreason– no sooner is one aspect of the truth disclosed by one set of system critics than another set points out the one-sidedness of the first.  Again however, no synthesis of criticism is achieved, but the potential whole disintegrates before it can form into irreconcilable camps that forget who the real enemies and what the real goals of social criticism should be.

The end result (which is just the beginning of the next act of the same drama) is that the instituted powers recite their platitudes, link arms at the front of the march, and swear by ‘liberty’ while all the while continuing to extirpate it in the name of security.  At the same time– and here again the ruse of unreason rules– the legitimate demand from the colonised targets of this state violence that the right to life of everyone be respected is backed up by deranged assaults on chocolate and laughter.   Such self-undermining politics can only have one effect– more closely binding potential allies to hardened ideological conceptions of “Western values” that legitimate intensified authoritarianism and military violence.





Moon, January 2nd, 2015 (For Herb)

Finally, tonight there is a chill in the air.  Some coolness in January feels right.  To the east, a nearly full moon rises, back-lighting the tree across the street.  Though helpless in its winter inertia, its limbs, like worked old hands, stretch skyward, defiant, strong.  In between its gnarled fingers the landing lights of a jet appear.  It banks to begin its final approach to Detroit.  The world is silent; the party is over.  Behind the night, the unrelenting gloom of Southern Ontario winter hides.  But the moon makes the grey beautiful.

Of all the things  I imagine the dead will miss, it is these simple, unexpected, undeserved, unpriced moments.  Yes:  work, struggle, success,  triumph, victory are good, but they exact a cost– failure, the vanquished, the losers.  Through them, life is enabled, but not enjoyed.  But the moon- crescent or full– is there every 28 days, and craggy old trees, and spring shoots, and the sparkle in the eye of your beloved, the wave of a friend, home– wherever and whatever that means– a favourite street, the smell of the dinner we cook for each other, the song that won’t let you not dance, all these things just seize us and make us glad, just for being there, nothing else.

All these things say:  “Life is good, and should last.”  But everyone knows, life is not (all) good, and does not last.  With each birth, a unique perspective on the order of things is born,  an intrinsically valuable centre of social self-consciousness comes into being, a thinking body that feels and acts in ways never to be repeated in the whole future of the universe.  There is no balance sheet of being– each birth an absolute gain, each death an absolute loss of a unique world within the world.   The coming to be of the new does not compensate for the ceasing to be of the old.  Persons cannot be substituted for one another, despite what our stupid culture tries to make us believe.  It fears mourning and grief because they put us in touch with the unreplaceable, when it requires that everything be replaced, endlessly.

It thus teaches people to say: “He lives on in memory.”  We know:  That is not true.  Memory is the past, the over and done with; life is the present and future; the-we-do-not-know-what-yet.

Past life, therefore, can only live on in what it continues to inspire in the present and the future.  It is therefore right for the still living to live.  One feels:  “He is dead, the world should stop.”  But the world does not stop, and nor should it.  Because if the lost life was good, it enabled and enriched other life still living .  Its goodness, therefore, continues in the lives it nourished.  If the world stopped, it would be a betrayal of those whose goodness keeps the world going.  Life would really be in vain, if there were no future.

Neither art nor science can cure us of the sadness of death.  But sadness over the loss of someone good is good.  So why should we seek a cure for that which is good?  Could there be a worse person than someone’s whose death was mourned by nobody?

There is no consoling the loss of that which is not recoverable.  But the moon will rise next month, and jets will land on runways and reunite lovers, and there will be people to see them, and be glad.



Against the Politics of Punishment

The main challenge faced by any social philosophy or theory that tries to uncover structural causes of oppression and violence is that they complicate the grounds upon which individual blame for particular oppressive or violent acts can be legitimately assigned.  If class exploitation is a necessary structural feature of a capitalist economy, can the boss be blamed as an individual for laying off employees?  It would appear not, if the Marxist analysis of  market competition is correct.  By like reasoning, if we live in a sexist rape culture, as many feminists maintain and  abundant evidence supports, to what extent can individual men, who have been raised since infancy surrounded by images of women as sexually subservient to men’s desires, be held accountable for sexist attitudes and violence against women?  If it really is the structure that causes the behaviour, then it would seem that the structure, and not the individual, must be held accountable.

The problem with this sort of structuralist functionalism  is obvious:  structures do not act and they cannot be held accountable in the immediate aftermath of a damaging assault.  Being held accountable means having to answer for your actions, and structures do not act, and they cannot answer.  Only individuals (or groups of individuals) can act, and only individuals (or groups of individuals) can be held accountable for their actions.

While it is true that only individuals and groups can be held accountable, it is equally true that individuals do not act in a vacuum; they become the people they are in definite familial and social contexts.  Notwithstanding the achievement of formally equal rights between men and women, the dominant constructions of masculinity and femininity remain contaminated by the association of masculinity with dominance and femininity by subservience.  Those constructions in turn deform the relationships between actual men and women.  As Nancy Hartsock argued, the consequence of the way men are raised in patriarchal society is that they construct their sense of self “in opposition to unity with the mother”  which then “sets a hostile and combative dualism at the heart of both the community men construct and the masculinist worldview by means of which they understand their lives.”(“The Feminist Standpoint,”  Feminism and Methodology, p. 169).  If that analysis is correct, then individual men are born into social relationships over which, as infants, they have no control, and assimilate, before they are capable of critical consciousness, destructive forms of masculinist self-understanding.

The search for social causes for individual action thus seems to run into a contradiction between theoretical truth and practical justice.  Understanding the social causes of action undermines the legitimacy of punishing individuals for the harm they cause to others, but failing to punish individuals for the harms that their actions causes leaves them unaccountable for events that issue from decisions they have made.  The victim is re-victimised the victim as she must listen to the perpetrator employ a discourse meant to further understanding be misapplied as an excuse.  It does the victim of crime no good to inform her she was, in fact, the victim of social structures and not an individual criminal.  The particular person has been the victim of the actions of another particular person, and justice seems to demand punishment.

This response is understandable, both psychologically (the victim desires that the perpetrator pay) and sociologically (social stability seems to depend upon punishment as a disincentive to crime and violence).  However, if the society that is being reproduced is itself, in its depth structures, the cause of individual violence, then system critics cannot support its reproduction, but must demand that it be changed.  If society is exploitative and oppressive, then it does no social good to simply punish the individual without working to change the structures and dynamics that damaged those individuals in the first place.  Everyone knows that prisons do not solve the problem of crime.

At the same time, individuals are not mechanical products of circumstances.  Although individuals develop within social structures and symbolic cultural codes, they are not inert registers of those external forces, but thinking, reflective agents who interpret and respond to context in distinct ways.  Not every man who grows up in a sexist culture is overtly sexist.  Every man’s attitudes may be marked in subtly sexist ways, such that even the best of men display traces of the culture in which they grew up, but when these traces are pointed out and men made to publically account for them, they can work to overcome them.  In other words, people come to bear responsibility for their actions the more they become aware of the forces acting on them.  People whose behaviour helps to reproduce  sexist or racist structures, or who harm others through criminal acts, need to be held accountable for their actions, but in a way that enables them to understand (and then work to change)  the social forces acting upon them.   Punishment rarely accomplishes this end.

By “punishment” I mean the infliction of negative sanctions on an individual with the intention of making the person suffer for the for his actions. Punishment assumes that agency is absolute; that actions originate in the mind of the actor ex nihilo, with no external causes whatsoever. Individuals are assumed to be uniquely responsible for their actions, and thus whatever harm they suffer in punishment for those actions is justified.

In contrast, being held accountable in ways that promote self and social transformation holds both individual and the social structures within which people develop and act responsible.   The perpetuation of oppressive systems through individual activity is not an abstract moral failure on the part of those individuals, it is a sign of social failure as well.  There is responsibility here, but it is shared between the individual as a socially self-conscious agent and society as a network of institutionally mediated social interactions which produces the individuals who act within it.   The goal in making people answerable for their actions is not to harm them,  but to increase their capacity for a form of self-determined action that takes into account, in the very conception of the goal, the interests of other people.

What is most important in terms of addressing the causes of harm and violence is thus not punishment, but accountability.  There must be consequences for harming others, but those consequences need not involve harming the perpetrator in turn.  Contrary to Plato, punishment is never good for the one punished, because it typically only makes him angrier further alienates him from society.  Punishing individuals  doubles the harm without exposing the social dimension of the causes of the actions for which they are punished.   It thus leaves one half of the problem unaddressed.

I raise these issues in the context of the debate surrounding what to do with the Dalhousie dentistry students who started the misogynist Facebook group.  Many students and faculty are calling for their expulsion, and for understandable reasons.  All student, faculty, and administrative conduct must be governed by the principle that the classroom is a space in which everyone feels secure-  fear is the enemy of learning.  If it is the case that the women who were named in the Facebook posts can no longer feel secure in the midst of classmates who objectified them in ways equal parts puerile and threatening, then the administrative response must ensure that their fears are removed.

But does removing the fear require removing the members of the group through expulsion?   Perhaps not.  A recent post by some members of the Dalhousie faculty, without ruling out expulsion, (or mentioning it by name) argues for  “an integrated approach to the problem of sexualized violence on our campuses – an approach that (i) responds to the specific harms caused by incidents that have recently been reported that reflect a pervasive culture of misogyny and disrespect for women and sexual minorities and (ii) addresses the underlying systemic causes.”  The faculty statement grasps the complexity of the (specific and general)  problem, and implies a dialectical understanding of the relationship of the kind I sketched above between perpetrators and victims as individuals and as members of a society that is still structured by sexist practices and representations of women.

A complete solution to this particular issue needs to involve the perpetrators in a process through which they come to understand the harm their “private” Facebook group caused.  Quite often in cases of sexist abuse in which no one is directly and physically harmed, the perpetrators respond to criticism and the threat of sanctions with the generic response that they were “only joking,” and often they mean it.  Punishment satisfies the desire for revenge, but it does not generate a learning process through which the perpetrator gains insight into the reasons why the behaviour was unacceptable.  It thus misses an opportunity to turn someone from being a perpetuator of sexist stereotypes into an opponent of them.

Two years ago I was involved in an analogous situation at the University of Windsor.  The issue here involved an announcement for a student St. Patrick’s Day Party advising attendees that “rape juice” (a nickname for a vodka-based drink) would be served.  The announcement was brought to the attention of the senior administration, other faculty, students, and the human rights office.  The young man who posted the offending comment, along with many of his friends (including women)  responded to the storm that ensued with the argument that the comment needed to be interpreted in context.  They maintained that everyone for whom the post was intended would understand that the comment was made in jest, that there was no intent to incite actual rapes.  While a few people called for the student’s expulsion, which would have punished the individual but left a deeper exploration of the core issues unaddressed, a more productive strategy was pursued.  The human rights office arranged a meeting with the student who posted the offending message at which the underlying issues were discussed:  the impossibility of communicating humorous intentions in uncontrolled on-line environments and the reasons why the extreme violence rape involves renders it an unfit subject for joking.   In sum, the approach to the problem was not to punish or lecture from above, but to engage in a sharp but respectful argument through which the person himself came to see the problem with his actions.

One might object that such a response places undue, even authoritarian, limits on humor; that humorous intent changes the meaning of words such that statements that would be harmful or disrespectful if meant literally are not (or ought not to be) if meant in jest.  I believe that this point is true as a general epistemological claim about language use and meaning, but it does not apply in the Dalhousie (or any analogous cases) in which the ‘joke’ involves the targeting of specific, named others for sexual (or other forms of) violence.  While the members of the group may have thought they were being funny amongst themselves, they were in fact naming potential victims who were not part of the conversation and could not (even if they wanted to)  ‘play along.’   Lines of good taste can be crossed amongst good friends when everyone knows the aim is playful, but threatening violence (even if not seriously intended to be put into practice) behind the backs of the targets is a different situation entirely.

At the same time, it is important to point out that odious as the comments were, no actual violence was perpetrated.  Hence, the way is open to enlighten rather than punish through expulsion, to ensure that these students do not become a real threat to their female classmates by ensuring that they change themselves, with whatever institutional support and monitoring and enforced public explanation and proof of change is necessary.  The goal should be to use institutional power to create a desire within the perpetrators  to change themselves and prove to their classmates, and the wider community whose trust they will have to earn as dentists, that they have changed.  Such an approach to wrongdoing politicises rather than demonizes, but also insists that individuals acknowledge, understand, and explain the problem with their behaviour.  Changing one person or a small group does not change the world, but it does change a small part of the world, and turns vectors for the perpetuation of sexism into vectors that challenge it.