Commemoration

January, 2015 was a month of painful losses for me.  Below, a reflection, one year on, on the problems of memory, time, and life.

“But the dead know nothing, they have nothing for their labour, their very memory is forgotten, their love has vanished with their hate and jealousy, and they have no share now in anything that goes on in the world.”  (Ecclesiastes, 9:5-7)

It is time which is unjust, not we the living.  We remember, but time is indifferent to goners, always on to the next thing.  It won’t wait while we shed a tear or tell another story.  It insists, and we have no choice but to follow.  It is time that is unjust, not we the living,.

We mean no disrespect.  The dead, always gracious, do not accuse us.  We say: “It is not true, we do remember, we have not let you go gently into that good night, you are not lost, the thought of you still stirs our hearts.”  And it is true:  we walk around in a cloud of sorrow and every street corner reminds us of you.  We mean no disrespect.

But how quickly the details fade.  At first: “it is like he is here with us.”  But then:  a shrinking repertoire of stock stories.  And then:  a shadowy caricature, tragedy lost in comedy.  Finally:  we are gone too, and with us, our memories.  By what right could we task those who remember us with remembering our memories too?  How quickly the details fade.

If the individual mind is too small, let us remember together.  We will co-memorate, call matter to our aid in the struggle against time.  We will outwit time by inscribing in granite all the names of all the dead.  No one’s name will be forgotten.  If the mind of the individual is too small, let us remember together.

But after two generations, who visits?  The name detaches from the person and soon there is no left who can “put a face to the name.”  So who is the person, the face or the name?  If the face, then what good is the stone?  When the stone is, the face is not. We are creatures of time and our truth lives within it-  each of us comes to be, and each of us passes away.  After two generations, who visits?

It matters not how many names are remembered.  Of all who have lived, but a few names live on, and for how long:  a couple of millennia?  Are we to say that all those whose names have been lost amounted to nothing?  But they are your ancestors, and if even one had not been, you too might never have been.  It matters not how many names are remembered.

The dead escape the vanity of the living.  They do not ask whether or how they are remembered. Life does not tarry with the dead.  It urges the living on to fresh action.   Our work, not our names will endure, since it is what makes the difference.  No one knows the name of the painters of Lascaux, it is their deed that endures.  The dead escape the vanity of the living.

There is a reason we think in circles.  As you did before, so others shall do after you–live. Once, you looked to the sky and expected it to darken, but discovered that it did not even flicker. The sky does not change colour at anyone’s passing, the mountains do not surrender their majesty in sorrow,  and the dance starts up again after only a moment’s pause.  There is a reason we think in circles

“Who can tell if the spirit of a man goes upward, while the spirit of a beast goes down into the earth?  So I saw the best thing for man was to be happy in his work; that is what he gets out of life–for who can show him what is to happen afterwards?” (Ecclesiastes, 3: 21-23)

Universities and The Importance of Disciplinary Traditions

In “What is Called Critical Thinking”  I promised to provide a comprehensive analysis of Focus on Outcomes, Centre on Students.  The document provides an overview of submissions made to the government’s consultations on the future of Ontario’s university funding model. My reading has made it apparent that because it is an overview of positions articulated in the consultations on which it does not itself take a position, it does not lend itself to the sort of analysis I initially promised to provide.  A better approach seems to be to identify those sites where it appears that the government is telegraphing its position and examine those as potential trouble spots for academic freedom and institutional independence of centralizing political and economic agendas.  Thus, rather than a single overarching analysis and critique, I will develop specific arguments to address areas of concern as I discover them through careful reading of the document.   Today I focus on the implications the epigraph to the document might have for the future of discipline-based teaching and research at Ontario universities.  The epigraph reads:

The province no longer funds “universities” per se.
It funds quantifiable outcome(s) or achievement(s) it
wants from universities for the betterment of the public
good. The things to be measured and applied to
determining funding shares must be the outcomes that
matter to Ontario. In the past, this has been enrolment
growth. Today, as identified in government policy and
consultation papers, they are measures of “quality”
and “improving the student experience”.
Design Questions: Funding Models for Ontario
(Toronto: Higher
Education Quality Council of Ontario, 2015), p. 2.
The initially puzzling opening line “The province no longer funds universities per se” is HEQCO’s interpretation of the introduction two years ago of “Strategic Mandate Agreements” (SMA) between the province and Ontario universities.  The SMA’s detail for the province the institutional strengths of particular universities and explain how provincial finding will be used to support these strengths.  The SMAs were launched in response to an earlier report on the need for Ontario universities to differentiate themselves from each other.  At present, (at least judging from my own institution, the University of Windsor) the SMA’ s have not had any noticeable effect on teaching and research in departments and disciplines.  The real impact will be felt through hiring priorities, as those areas designated an institutional strength will be able to hire, while those which are not will face a more uncertain future.  However, at present the real problem is not explicit threats to disciplinary integrity and autonomy, but old fashioned underfunding of everyone, a problem for which current provincial policy bears a great deal of responsibility.
Nevertheless, if we read between the lines of the epigraph, and connect what is implied with what has been made explicit in other documents (like the differentiation strategy paper) we can detect looming threats to the traditional structure of universities as institutions organized around more or less self-governing disciplines.  “Outcomes” “student experience” and “quality are codes words, as I have demonstrated before, for “subordinating the acquisition of disciplinary-based knowledge to labour-market demand.”  Whenever student experience and quality are invoked in these sorts of documents they are never defined, save in terms of providing students with the generic skills that they will need to find paid employment.

The still-growing institutional and governmental push of disciplines towards centrally-managed and imposed learning outcomes is explicitly defended as an attack on archaic, elitist discipline-centred and specific knowledge in favour of generic skills-based approach to education which purportedly better prepares students for the “real world.”  For example, a document that my institution’s Centre for Teaching and Learning directs faculty to for an explanation of learning outcomes argues that

there is no question that the learning outcomes approach to developing curriculum does not begin with the question “what does my discipline traditionally teach at this level?” Most teachers consider this question as part of their strategy for determining curriculum. They also ask “will this curriculum adequately prepare students for subsequent courses in the discipline?” and faculty in so-called sending institutions must also ask “will this curriculum be acceptable to the receiving institutions?”
The learning outcomes approach does suggest  a different leading question: “what do students need to know and be able to do after they graduate (from this course, from this program, from the university…)?” In directing our attention to what students will ultimately do with the knowledge and abilities they acquire, the learning outcomes approach does ask us to look beyond the strict boundaries of disciplinary tradition and demands.
The paper does not reject the validity or importance of disciplinary traditions (although when outcomes are discussed in policy papers rather than academic papers the value of the disciplines is typically not recognized).  Rather, it cashes out their importance as vehicles for the teaching of these generic skills, whose value in turn is understood as an instrument of life-long-learning and successful job hunting.  Harvey Weingarten, the current head of HECQO argues, in this regard, that the priority for Ontario universities has to be the improvement of the teaching of these generic labour market skills:
Learning outcomes assessment is an exercise in continuous quality improvement, not punishment — a way of improving education, a way of identifying what is working and where remediation is needed.  By measuring critical learning outcomes, our postsecondary institutions would clearly identify areas for remediation and unambiguously document their value-added impact: the acquisition of these core skills that underlie professional and personal success. The key measure is not the absolute level of these skills; one expects the performance of students in different institutions to vary depending on the institution’s admission policies, target populations and other variables.  The critical measure is the change in the skill sets of students from the time they enter the institution to the time they leave.
It is distressing to  see the head of the Higher Education Quality Council reduce the value of education to a series of business press cliches.  Worse, he commits a category mistake of the highest order and fails completely to see it, confusing the increase in money value of a non-living commodity with the development of human talent and potentialities.  Someone who is supposed to have the best interest of students at heart blithely reduces them to mere things, objects to which (money) value will be added, as cars  add money value to the steel and rubber from which they are built.
My position is, unsurprisingly, the opposite.  Without in anyway being arrogantly dismissive of students’ practical concerns for their future, or reject completely the existence or value of generic intellectual skills (obviously, literacy and numeracy etc., are essential across the board) I want to argue that the life-value of discipline-based knowledge derives from the cultivation of specific “ways of knowing” which then connect in specific ways to the general demands of understand and improving the “real world.”
The value for students of discipline-based knowing is the development of specific methods of thinking, interpretation, and criticism which enable them to understand specific aspects of a complex world which, when brought together, contribute to a comprehensive understanding of that world and the ways in which its organization both enables and impedes the realization of human potential.
It is true that this life-value is often hidden because the organization of knowledge along disciplinary lines can be elitist and self-serving as well as overly specialized.   The careerist insularity of some defenders of institutional status quo open the door to system-serving critics of the traditional organization of universities.  Insularity and specialization is particularly problematic in a discipline like philosophy, whose life must go beyond jargon and technique to always connect with the abiding and universal problems of human life (truth, freedom, value, meaning) understood historically but engaged on the concrete terrain of life as it is lived today.  It is true that disciplines can become ways of keeping out the non-expert, distancing knowledge from everyday life, and treating students as submissive apprentices rather than active participants in the transmission and elaboration of knowledge.  A recent intervention by two philosophy professors in the New York Times is right to argue that:
Before its migration to the university, philosophy had never had a central home. Philosophers could be found anywhere — serving as diplomats, living off pensions, grinding lenses, as well as within a university. Afterward, if they were “serious” thinkers, the expectation was that philosophers would inhabit the research university. Against the inclinations of Socrates, philosophers became experts like other disciplinary specialists. This occurred even as they taught their students the virtues of Socratic wisdom, which highlights the role of the philosopher as the non-expert, the questioner, the gadfly.
However, we must be careful before we dismiss completely the importance of disciplinary knowledge, and the university as an institution that provides and protects the time and space necessary for its cultivation, transmission, and further development.   Philosophy can be cut off from life when it is institutionalized.  On the other hand, its institutionalization protects it (especially its critical expressions) from market forces which it would have to serve completely were there no university institution in which it can be pursued (more or less) without need to justify itself in money-value terms.  Without the time and space the university provides, philosophers would have to find a market for their ideas, which means that they would have to be marketed, which would mean that heterodox positions–those for which few would pay– would be far more threatened than they are now.
It is not only philosophical thought that would be threatened.  Non-commercial, basic research as well as science which exposes the material irrationality of the current model of “economic growth,”  (for example, climate science which has proven the link between capitalist industrialism and life-threatening climate change), would be far more exposed to political censure and silencing if it found no home in disciplinary traditions protected by the force of academic freedom (which is not a legal principle but protected only by University by-laws and faculty association collective agreements).
Disciplines did not arise just because of some desire to “discipline”  knowledge in the Foucauldian sense of the term (to link knowledge with power over subject matter and human subjects).  That form of discipline is real, but knowledge has also become specialized and organized around disciplines because diversity and complexity in the object of knowledge forced the differentiation.  In the Middle Ages, natural science was a species of philosophy-  natural philosophy– and remained such until the world-shattering discoveries of Galileo and Newton.  From the seventeenth century on, natural science has become separated off from philosophy, and particular sciences from one another, because new insights into the forces and elements of the natural world have forced this specialization.  if we want a comprehensive understanding of how the natural world works, then the distinct scientific disciplines are essential to building that picture in an open process free (as far as possible) from the exercise of repressive political and economic power.
Of course, understanding how nature works is not the only object of human inquiry.  Human beings also have to understand how their own bodies work (hence the need for medicine and nursing as practical arts and sciences of health).  Moreover, human beings are not just organisms, but social-organic beings.  Hence, there is also the need for  social scientific work of all sorts (sociology and allied disciplines, economics, political science, and so forth).  We also need to inquire into the symbolic and aesthetic dimensions of human life (literature and literary criticism, art history, etc., as well as continue to elaborate them through the arts themselves). Finally, we need a discipline whose province it is to search for unifying principles of meaning and value that make life as a whole worthwhile and good (at least potentially) and which, if uncovered, explain the universal purpose of all the other particular forms of research– not just to produce knowledge for its own sake but to contribute concretely to securing the natural and social conditions of human (and other sentient life) flourishing.   In order to make these contributions, philosophy and every other discipline must be free to cultivate their specific methodological procedures and conceptual  structures (as well as conduct freely the intra-disciplinary arguments about the strengths, blind-spots, contradictions, exclusions, etc., of different methodologies and conceptual structures and build organic, inter-disciplinary links and cross-fertilizations).  Out of those arguments and interactions come more comprehensive and coherent understanding, and out of more comprehensive and coherent understanding comes the practical contributions to good human lives all the particular disciplines ultimately aspire to make.
If the new funding formula prioritizes generic skills and pushes specific disciplines in the direction of cultivating them, to the exclusion of transmitting disciplinary traditions and histories for the sake of creating more comprehensive and coherent methods specific to each discipline, the result will not be better service to “the public good,”  but better service to labour markets, with no reflection upon whether the jobs on offer are adequate to students demands not only for a pay cheque, but meaningful, non-alienated, life-valuable labour.  Moreover, with no institutional protection of the time and space for discipline specific work, the particular problems current models of social organization will escape scrutiny as everyone is pushed into the manufacture of compliant workers rather than critically minded scientists, philosophers, sociologists; or poets, and artists whose works remind us of the real power and beauty of human creativity, or doctors and nurses capable of understanding the social causes of morbidity and understand how to attend to the ill as human beings.
Of course, it is easy to point out (and it should always be pointed out)  that disciplinary knowledge can easily become detached from serving more universal life-values, that departments can be dogmatic and closed and exclusionary and all manner of other problems I leave it to readers to think through.  The existence of those problems is not an argument to abolish the teaching of discipline-specific traditions of content and thought, but to criticize these exclusions etc. as barrier to comprehensive and coherent understanding.

Taxes and the Political Economy of Public Goods

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In capitalist society, surplus wealth beyond what is necessary for basic social reproduction is created by the exploitation of labour.  “Exploitation,”  in the Marxist sense means that labour produces more value over the course of the workday than it is paid in wages.  The argument is typically dismissed by mainstream economists who reject the “labour theory of value” on which it is based.  Briefly, the labour theory of value (which goes back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo) holds that value is created by the labour time expended in the production of a good.  In this theory, labour has a price (the cost of purchasing the basic goods and services that labourers need to reproduce themselves).  This objective cost of labour establishes the floor of wage rates (any lower, and workers cannot survive, any higher, and profits are cut into).  Let us say that workers require 10 dollars a day  to reproduce themselves, but over the course of a work day produce 30 dollars worth of shoes.  Once the shoes are sold, the capitalist pays the workers 10 dollars and reaps a surplus of 20 dollars.  After other expenses are paid, the capitalist appropriates the remaining surplus as profit.

One can make all the technical economic criticisms of this theory that one likes, but two facts remain unavoidable:  1)  if there is no labour, there is no product of labour, and 2) if there is no product of labour, there is nothing to sell, and therefore no possibility of realizing a profit. So whether or not one believes that the labour theory of value can explain the technical problem of prices, or whether labour contracts are formally just, there is no getting around the fact that labour cannot be paid the full money-value of the product it produces if there is going to be profit for capitalists to appropriate.

However, the real problem with capitalism is not the exploitation of labour in this somewhat narrow sense, but with the private appropriation of the surplus wealth that labour creates.  Profitable production is made possible by nature (which contributes raw materials) and multiple forms of labour (scientific, technical, physical), and protected by the laws  and institutions of capitalist society.  In other words, profits depend upon the cooperation of almost everyone in society, in one way or another, but most people whose labour creates the profits have no say in how they are re-invested (or whether they are re-invested). The surplus wealth generated by collective labour is appropriated for the exclusive use of individual capitalists.  This process of private appropriation of a surplus that depends upon collective labour is the underlying dynamic that drives the inequality that has become such a concern, even for critical mainstream economists (see, for example, Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

Both exploitation and inequality are real problems, but they are only expressions of the deepest problem of capitalist society:  there is no  system requirement that the surplus wealth produced by the exploitation of labour be invested in what McMurtry calls “life-capital” (“life wealth that produces more life wealth without loss and with cumulative gain”). Life-capital (food, homes, education, health care, the arts, etc.,) sustains life and enables the development of the capacities that make it meaningful and good.  The system dynamics of capitalism encourage capitalists to chase the highest monetary return on investment rather than contribute to life-capital development (expect accidentally).  This process is justified by the claim that when capitalists are allowed to decide as individual competitors how to reinvest their capital, the market works ‘efficiently.” There is a high demand for labour to produce goods and services that people want.  Workers are happy because there is work, consumers are happy because there are goods to consume, and capitalist are happy because their capital is producing profits.

The problem is not only that markets  are not always efficient in the real economy, but also that even if they were, they would waste resources in the production of goods and services with no value as life-capital at all.  There is no reason why a  capitalist should not invest in a chemical weapons plant if she can make more profit there than invest in an organic farm in her home town.  Nor is there any requirement that capitalists invest in any physical good or service at all. As of 2014, Canadian corporations were sitting  on cash reserves of 630 billion dollars.  This money is not creating any jobs, is not being invested in anything that anyone needs; it is only earning more money by being invested in stocks and bonds and other securities, enriching the owners but contributing nothing of life value to anyone else.

Just because the socially produced surplus is controlled by individual capitalists with the right to invest it to further enrich themselves, the surplus is always an object of struggle.  Workers have typically struggled to secure as much of the surplus as possible in the form of wages.  The struggle for higher wages is an important element of the struggle against inequality, but on its own does not solve the deeper problem noted above:  individual workers can spend their wages as they see fit, and how they see fit to spend them does not always coincide with the consumption of life-valuable goods and services.  A vast network of consumer industries has arisen since the 1920’s devoted exclusively to finding ways to get workers to spend their money as soon as they are paid, thus returning to the capitalist in the form of expenditure the capital he just paid out as wages.

However, while it might be more ‘fun’ in the short term to buy a dune buggy than a bicycle, life (and good lives, too) ultimately depend upon investment in life-capital.  Some life-capital takes the form of goods that are best distributed through producers markets and consumer choice (healthy food, for example), while institutionalized forms (water treatment plants, schools, hospitals, libraries) require public investment.  Alongside the struggle over wages (which, if spent wisely, procure life-capital for individuals) there is a struggle over the social re-appropriation  of the surplus.  Taxes have been the primary vehicle for this social struggle.

Historically, the struggle for socialism was a struggle to overcome the private ownership of the universal means of life-support and development.  Taxing capital and the high incomes that derive from it does not on its own overcome this structure of private control.  Nevertheless, historically, taxes, and especially progressive income taxes, have been the primary means by which capitalist states have been pushed by workers’ struggles to control inequality and reclaim part of the social surplus as a pool for investment in public goods.  The anti-tax ideology of the ruling class is directed against the role progressive taxation has played in redistributing wealth.  Their argument is couched in the language of taxes as “job killers,”  but this argument assumes that all surplus wealth not taxed will be invested in the domestic market to create jobs, which, as we saw above, is not always the case.  So, the argument that there is a necessary connection between lower tax rates and job creation does not stand up to analysis.

The forgoing argument provides some context to decipher what is at stake in ubiquitous debates about the value or disvalue of taxes.  Let me take one example, the now eight year saga of property taxes in the City of Windsor.  In December, Windsor City Council approved its 2016 budget which held the line– for the eight straight year– on property taxes.  The right-wing press crowed at this triumph of fiscal prudence, but even they cannot ignore the fact that frozen property tax rates have done nothing to attract either investment or people to the city.

Between 2007 and 2014, youth unemployment has held steady, at around 16%.

Youth unemployment rate by CMA, 2007 and 2014. Kingston, Peterborogh and Oshawa have faired the poorest.

Souce: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Ontario

During the same period, the city has failed to recoup the jobs lost during the recession.  In 2014, there were  almost 4% fewer jobs than there were in 2007.  The overall unemployment rate stood at 10 % in November, 2015.  Holding the line on taxes has not produced the “private sector”  investment  tax-freeze champions cite in support of their policy.

Percent change in number of jobs since 2007 by CMA. Again London has faired the worst as the city saw a decrease of 4.1%.

Well, one might respond that the tax rate applies to property taxes and property taxes alone are not positively correlated with business investment.  Let us grant the objection for the sake of argument.  One would expect that property tax rates would be positively correlated with population growth, but that is not the case here.  Windsor has a shrinking population despite frozen taxes.  If low and frozen taxes were the panacea they are supposed to be, should Windsor not be reaping the rewards in terms of population growth?

Chart of Western Cities Leading the Way in Population Growth

Source: Conference Board of Canada

Of course, there are a wide variety of factors that determine where people live.  My point is that not raising tax rates has clearly not helped to address the severe economic problems the city continues to face, while the right-wing argument hangs everything- jobs, population growth, the good life itself– on lower taxes.  I am not claiming that simply raising tax rates will address those problems either:  taxes are neither good nor bad in themselves, but a means of raising revenue.  They become good when they are progressive, when they leave individuals with sufficient income to purchase the life-goods it makes most sense for people to purchase as individuals as well as to save, and when they are used as a pool of investment for life-valuable public goods.  And that is really the argument that citizens of Windsor (as elsewhere) need to be having:  not whether to raise or lower or keep tax rates the same in the abstract, but whether the revenue existing taxes are raising is adequate to the public goods required.  Related to this debate is a debate on whether existing public spending is directed to the public goods required.  We have seen that not raising taxes on Windsor property owners has not led to economic development or attracted new people to the city.  Perhaps focused investment in the life-capital of the city:  bike paths, cleaning up polluted brownfields, adding green space, community gardens, supporting local producers markets (but not subsidizing the individual producers), libraries, galleries, and other public cultural institutions, a strategy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, subsidies for workers’ cooperatives rather than private corporations, schools, and protecting public sector jobs, etc., will.

Fer Windsor (Re-gift Version)

A re-gift (for my friends, colleagues, family, Josie, and fellow Windsorians) of my piece “Fer Windsor.”  It was first shown in the exhibition, “Stories of the City 2015,” Organized by the (in)Terminus collective at the School of Creative Arts (SOCA), University of Windsor.  Thanks to Michael Darroch and Lee Rodney for organizing the exhibition and  Sasha Opeiko of SOCA for her lay out work.

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What is Called Critical Thinking?

On December 7th, 2015 the Ontario  Ministry of Education released a report  detailing what it heard during its year long consultation with university educators and administrators regarding planned changes to the province’s university funding formula.  The report does not make recommendations, but it does telegraph the government’s position that any new funding formula be tied to measurable outcomes.  This position is not new, and I do not want to concentrate on the general problems raised by the belief that everything of value in an education is subject to quantifiable measure.  That which I would like to examine is the suggestion-  repeated three times in the report-  that one key outcome of a quality education is the development of “critical thinking skills.”  The problem, as the report notes, is that there is no agreed upon method to measure the development of these skills:

Many jurisdictions are trying to find ways to measure learning outcomes – an attempt
to capture growth in cognitive abilities that should reasonably be expected to occur as a result of an undergraduate education.Problem solving, critical thinking, and communication are all higher-order thinking skills that are generally agreed to be core to an undergraduate experience, yet these are not transparently or consistently measured, assessed, or validated across the system.(p. 38)

Before we can agree on how the development of critical thinking skills can be measured, there needs to be some agreement on what “critical thinking”  is.  The report makes no effort to define the term.  Hence my interest here is not to propose a metric, but to answer two questions:  what is critical thinking, and do all disciplines equally cultivate it.

Let us start with the second question.  One danger of tying funding to outcomes and defining outcomes in terms of generic skills purportedly subject to definitive quantitative measure is that in an effort to protect their funding, all disciplines will be forced to engage in bad faith re-descriptions of themselves in terms of whatever buzz-word the government has latched on to as its preferred criterion of quality.  If “critical thinking” catches on and funding becomes tied to demonstrating that each discipline cultivates it, then you can be certain that Chemistry, Business Administration, and every other academic department will start producing arguments that purport to show how they teach critical thinking skills.  They will not define “critical thinking,” but instead simply repeat what they have always already done– teach chemistry, etc., but call what they are doing critical thinking.

I think that there is a good faith sense in which any department can teach critical thinking.  However, before we can understand what that sense is, we must turn to the first question and try to come up with a working definition of critical thinking.

Let us begin by treating each element of the compound term “critical thinking” separately.  In colloquial language to be “critical” means to point out flaws in the object of criticism.  If it is possible to point out flaws in the object of criticism, then it must be the case that the object is subject to better or worse states.  Criticism is thus an evaluation that demonstrates the ways a given object of thought falls short of whatever criteria of excellence properly applies to it.  Is critical thinking therefore nothing but the application of given standards to given objects?

No. it is not, and in order to understand why not, we must turn to the second term:  thinking. What does it mean to ‘think” about an object?  First, if we think about objects, it is clear that thinking and the object of thought are distinct.  Thinking is, therefore, in the most general sense, the subjection of the objects of thought to concepts.  This subjection is not random or arbitrary:  when we think about a given object, we are trying to discover something about it:  what elements it is made of, or what categories of classification apply to it, what its mass is, etc.  An innumerable number of empirical questions can be asked of any object, and it is by various types of empirical thinking that these questions can be answered.

However, as our analysis of “critical’ revealed, not all questions are descriptive or empirical.  There are also evaluative questions.  If a descriptive question asks (in general)  “what is x,”  an evaluative or critical question asks “what is a good x and is y a good example?”  Hence, critical thinking is in the most general sense the subjection of objective reality to evaluative (critical) appraisal. Here we find a role for all disciplines to teach critical thinking.  Rather than just teach students to follow the rules of the discipline, teaching that develops critical thinking skills must enable students to evaluate the content and history of the discipline and subject its methods to critical appraisal.  By teaching students to think critically about their discipline their capacity to think beyond the established consensus in the field is enabled:  they will be able argue about why theory x is a good theory, and not just that it asserts a,b, and c.

Despite the spirit of positivism that still too often rules discussions of the value of higher education, the objects of thought are not limited to the objects of the empirical disciplines. Thinking can become its own object, not (as in psychology) as a function of brain operations, but as the defining human practice of trying to understand our world as a meaningful whole.  Philosophy is the discipline that studies thought in this sense.  The most fundamental form of critical thinking is the critical evaluation of thought itself:  what is good thinking?  The philosophical understanding of critical thinking will be (as it was in the empirical disciplines)  evaluative, but its object of evaluation will be universal in a way in which the empirical disciplines cannot be.

The first point to note is that when we approach thinking as practice of understanding our world as a meaningful whole, the strict distinction between thought and world breaks down.  A “thing”  may be distinct from the thought of the thing, but “meaning”  is a creature of human reality alone.  When we think about the meaning of objects we cannot radically divorce the reality of the object from the concepts that we apply to it, concepts which are not thought up ex nihilo but develop out of human historical experience.  When we think about things philosophically, it becomes apparent that thinking itself changes reality, converting it form a mere set of givens to a set of problems or questions that concern the reasons why we confront one reality and not others and whether the reality that we inhabit is the best reality possible. Philosophy thus allows a gap to open between the reality that is given, alternative realities that are possible, and thus the question of which reality, the given or the possible, is better.

The fundamental problem of philosophical critical thinking is, therefore, the problem of the criteria by which given possibilities for living can be evaluated:  why is one form of life better than another form of life?  Again, we cannot answer this question in abstraction from the systems under which people have actually lived.  Hence, an important element of critical thinking in the philosophical sense is understanding that human life has a history.  No past form of life proved permanent, and if no past form of life proved permanent, then none (in their details) were natural or necessary.  Still, although no particular way of life has proven natural or necessary, they may share some common features that help us discover the criteria of better and worse living in general.

The idea that there are objective criteria according to which better and worse ways of living can be determined has been subject to skeptical criticism since ancient times and the work of Sextus Empiricus.  However successful skepticism has been in destroying naieve illusions and one-sided theories of truth, there is always one reality which no skeptic has been able to undermine, and that is that human beings are (as are all life forms) vulnerable to external threats to their life.  There is therefore an objective basis to distinguish better and worse ways of living.  Those ways of living which protect us from objective threats to our existence are better than those which do not.  As threats can be both natural and social, the critical judgement applies to all human activity and organization:  the better way to live is to ensure that all are protected from the natural and social threats to their life and well-being (leaving open the question for now about the meaning of “well-being.”)

Societies can both protect well-being (for some, the ruling groups and those who unquestioningly serve them) and damage the life and well-being of other groups (who are subordinate and meant only to serve, and who are attacked if they cease to comply).  As philosophy makes inquiries into the principles that governed different ways of living, it is impossible not to notice that in all cases of subordination and servitude, the subordinate groups eventually become conscious of their subordination, organize against it, and articulate a set of more comprehensive principles for life-organization which demand that their interest be included in the circle of interests recognized and protected by society.  And from this insight comes the basic criterion of better and worse lives:  those forms of life are better that “coherently include”  the satisfaction of the life-interest of everyone, now and into the open-ended future.(McMurtry, The Value of All Values). In every case of real growth of understanding, what happens is that a new,  comprehensive, more inclusive system of thought replaces an older system reduced to the status of legitimating the power of ruling (social, scientific, etc) groups.

Since human life is complex and multidimensional, many disciplines can contribute to the “coherent inclusivity” of better forms of life.  To cite just one example recently in the news, the science of climate change has helped promote a growing global consensus (at least in theory) against the dangers of over-consumption of fossil fuels.  However, the critical value of the empirical disciplines depends upon their insights being integrated into an overall criticism of the systematic blocks to the formation of a society that coherently includes and satisfies everyone’s fundamental life-interest.  Hence, philosophical critical thinking remains basic and foundational to the critical thinking other disciplines might cultivate.  All contributions are valuable, but philosophy’s is essential because only philosophy can integrate distinct insights into an overall criticism and alternative.

Thus, in its philosophical sense, critical thinking is thinking that exposes the contradiction between established systems of thought and the steps that would have to be taken to improve the conditions of life and the goodness of life itself.  How to measure the growth of critical thinking is a practical question which concerns the degree to which the social commitment to the satisfaction of life-interests is advanced by the solution to pressing social problems.  Universities can contribute to this advance to the extent that disciplines are allowed to cultivate the desire to pursue the truth free from government and market demands to produce commodifiable research.  In order to do this work the real funding problem must be solved:  not absence of bureaucratic-generic measures, but a steady decline in public investment in the space and time necessary to inquire into (and teach about) social life, its natural foundations, the problems current social organization poses, and the alternatives that can make life better in the terms defined above.

The Speech I Would Like to Hear

President Barak Obama is scheduled to address the American people on the evening of Sunday, December 6th, regarding the attacks in San Bernadino, California.  Here is the imagined speech I would like to hear him give.

My fellow Americans,

Once again our nation is forced to confront the spectre of gun violence, but this time the issue is complicated by the fact that the shooters were, in some way that is still unclear, inspired by ISIS.  While it is too early to say definitively what the precise nature or degree of external influence on their decisions was, it is clear that there was a political dimension to this shooting.  The stark reality of bloodied and dead bodies that just moments before had been enjoying a holiday celebration forces us to confront some hard questions, and make some hard choices.  The truths I feel compelled to share will be painful for you to hear, as they are painful for me to speak, because they require us to shed the illusions that we have been living and acting under since 9/11.  However, at this late day in my Presidency, I want to be the leader that  millions of people thought I could be.  I speak not to ensure any legacy for myself, but rather to try to stop the headlong rush to openly Nazi tactics that some of my Republican colleagues are calling for, and to stop the decline of our nation towards a cowering police state domestically, and murderous imperialist abroad.

The first truth that must be spoken is that absolute security is  impossible.  Since 9/11 our nation has undermined the constitutional freedoms that our revolutionary founders secured in their struggle against British imperialism.  The Patriot Act, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, mass surveillance, bulk collection of phone data, the militarization of the police, and the illegal rendition of suspects has pushed the United States towards the sort of authoritarian police state we used to abhor in our long struggle with Stalinism.  Yet, none of this surveillance has provided any protection against the primary violent threat to our lives:  death by gun at the hands of a fellow citizen.  The truth is– and this truth is brought home very clearly by San Bernadino– no one can know who is harbouring a murderous grudge, or what its source may be.  It can be purely personal, it can be delusional, it can be racially motivated, it can be inspired by ISIS, but the actual event cannot be predicted.  Since it cannot be predicted, it cannot be prevented by police-state methods.  If there is a solution, it has to be political and philosophical. Politically, we need new laws which immediately remove military assault weapons from gun store shelves as a prelude to much stricter gun controls across all types of firearms.

That will not be easy.  Yet it will be far easier than the philosophical work we need to do as a nation.  Philosophically, we need, first, to stop fearing one another.  Second, we need to stop valorizing violence as the only means of resolving conflict.  Thirty thousand of us were killed by guns last year.  Guns do not kill people, people kill people, it is true.  But why do we kill each other at such higher rates than other countries?  Fear and the belief that only violence can solve the problem of violence.  It is clear that there are racial and gendered dimensions of each problem.  Why are we more fearful of each other than the people of other nations?  No doubt that is a complex question.  But certainly part of the answer has to be:  the foundation of our country is not only Enlightenment ideals, but also slavery.  In order to justify slavery,  African Americans were constructed as violent sub-humans ready at any moment to destroy white “civilization.”  This racist ideology has worked deep into the American psyche, and drives the fear that fuels the gun sales that put assault weapons in the hands of people all-too-ready to use them.   So we need to overcome the fear and the racist roots that nourish it.  That will not be a short process, but it has to begin.

As for the valorization of violence, can we not see here all too clearly the psychology of the adolescent male who thinks that his masculinity requires him to respond to any challenge with physical force?  Whenever there is an attack, whether politically motivated or not, the demand from almost all quarters is:  respond with more devastating violence.  If there is a killing in  a church or a school, the “solution” is to arm the priest and the professor.  If our nation is attacked, the “solution” is to kill orders of magnitude more on the other side.  We have tried both.  We are the most heavily armed nation on earth, and our wars have led, directly and indirectly, to the deaths of 4 million people in the Muslim countries of the Middle East, Asia, and East Africa since 9/11.  Saddam Hussein and Mohammar Gadhafi are dead, but their nations lie in complete ruins.  We eliminated Al-Qaeda in Iraq only to watch it be reborn as the far more deadly and effective ISIS.  All the evidence is clear:  we cannot destroy violence with superior violence.  You cannot kill every enemy.  As long as there is an enemy who remembers that we have killed some of his comrades or her family, the possibility will always exist that he or she will want revenge.  And if the desire for revenge is there, the possibility of its being exacted exists too.  We cannot kill our way to peace and security.

Three weeks ago, my mind clouded by sorrow at the deaths of over 100 citizens of France, I agreed with President Hollande that we needed to intensify our attacks against ISIS.  I can now see that this approach is not only futile, but irrational. It is not driven by a coherent political strategy, but only anger and the desire for vengeance.   It is time now to break out of this cycle.  In the place of vengeance we need understanding.

Let me be absolutely clear:  “Understanding” does not mean sympathy for the perpetrators of attacks against unarmed civilians. At the same time, I have to say that Prime Minister Cameron is grandstanding in the worst way when he called MPs who voted against expanding the British bombing campaign terrorist sympathizers.  Until last night, I would have agreed with him, but I now see that such attitudes are exactly what keeps the conflict moving in perpetual cycle.  That cycle keeps the terrorists happy, because we furnish them with excuses to attack us.  It keeps the generals and the military industrial complex happy, because they can demand more bombs which arms industries will happily supply.  But for the people of the Middle East it means more life-destruction, and for the people of the United States it means more fear, which drives more gun sales, which ensures more killing of Americans at the hands of other Americans.

There is a terrible tradition, not only in this country, but throughout political history, of equating leadership with hard choices and hard choices with killing people.  The first link is true:  leadership does involve hard choices.  The second link is not:  when you have unchallengable military superiority over any foe, especially a foe like ISIS, which has no sophisticated weaponry or air defenses, the choice to kill more is easy.  No one can stop us from killing weaker enemies.  But look at the evidence– this approach has not eliminated the threat it is supposed to eliminate.  Instead, ISIS  is spreading, from Iraq to Syria, from Syria to Libya.  The truly hard choice is to not strike, when one has the power to strike, and when everyone else is urging you to do so.  Yes, the hard choice is to work to understand the causes, and start the political process that can lead– over the long term,– (let us not kid ourselves, the roots of these conflicts are deep, and cannot be solved over night) to real progress.

What can be solved over night is our involvement.  In closing I am announcing that all US military forces are being withdrawn from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and anywhere else they are currently operating.  Our presence is doing nothing save to exacerbate the sectarian conflicts that only the parties to those conflicts, the members of those cultures and religious traditions, can solve for themselves.  We hope that they will find their way to peaceful resolutions, but also know that wars sometimes have to exhaust themselves before they end.  But they do end.  Who, in 1983, would have thought that Lebanon could become a relatively stable and peaceful society in which the factions to its long civil war learned to work together?  But they did, and eventually, in some configuration, the parties to the current conflicts will work things out, if they are allowed to do so.  The United States would never tolerate foreign political and military intervention to solve our racial conflicts, it is nothing more than arrogance to think that others genuinely desire our meddling in their business.

So, in closing, I say to everyone, Americans and others around the world, we have made many errors in our dealings with the Arab World, mistakes which have fueled anger and the desire for revenge.  Yet, the anger of the Arab world has fed tactics that have caused us to respond in ways ever more destructive of Arab societies.  It is time to change course.  From tonight on you are free to resolve your conflicts with no more counter-productive intervention.  Our door is not closed to constructive interaction,  but our bomb bay doors are closing once for all.  We have erred, and we will try to correct those errors.  As for your conflicts, you are free, as we all are, to resolve them as you will.

Thank you, and good night.

Readings: John Brown: New Paintings

John Brown

New Paintings

Olga Korper Gallery

17 Morrow Ave.,

Toronto

(until December 19th, 2015)

Untitled

untitled

“The transitoriness of things is essential to their physical being, and not at all sad in itself; it becomes sad by virtue of a sentimental illusion, which makes us imagine that they want to endure, and that their end is always untimely; but in a healthy nature it is not so.”  (George Santayana, “A Long Way Round to Nirvana,” p. 59). Look, the column is separating and soon it will collapse.  No structure is so perfectly crystalline and internally stable that it can withstand time. Painting is not sentimental because it does not look back to what was, but makes a claim for eternity.  The painting that you are looking at is always now.  However, it too, being material, cannot last and must go under.  The column is separating and will bring the whole edifice down.  But not yet.

Untitled

untitled2

“At this stage you must admit that whatever is seen to be sentient is nevertheless composed of atoms that are insentient.  The phenomena open to our observation do not contradict this conclusion or conflict with it.  Rather, they lead us by the hand and compel us to  believe that the animate is born, as I maintain, of the insentient.”(Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe,” p. 59). There, right at the centre, do you see it?  Is that not a face emerging from the swirl of brush strokes, distinguishing itself from the block of material in the background?  Out of the universal swirl comes order.  The paint is affixed to the surface, it does not move, and yet it expresses dynamism and development, emergent coherence, structure, meaning, life.

Windsor

windsor

“Only art restores the dimension of the senses to an encounter … Art, in all its forms, is a great reflection on the event as such.  A great painting is the capture by its own means of something that cannot be reduced to what it displays.”  (Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love, p. 78).  One wants to know, one demands, “what is that a picture of?”  But no painting is a picture of anything, it is a picture, a creation; knowing it, “understanding”  it, is not tantamount to reducing it to its origins “in the real world.” It is not a mystery to be decoded but a world to be entered into on its own term (terms which always change)  The painting is its own real world, re-invented every time it stops one in one’s tracks and forces one to look at it.  There is nothing hidden; the painting is the surface and the meaning is there, if anywhere.

Wrong Place Wrong Time

wrong place wrong time

Aesthetic form is not opposed to content … in the work of art, form becomes content and vice versa.”  (Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, p. 41).  The problem with all formalisms is that they are one-sided; products of prodigious cleverness or even genius, they nevertheless lack the reciprocity between form and content that truly arresting art possesses.  There is no versa (content becoming form) but only vice (form becoming content).  In formalism there is experiment and transgression of boundaries, and thus creativity and new openings, but the connection to ultimate problems is lost.  Attention is attracted, but not held for long. The arresting work is the unity of form and content established by the sui generis rule by which each work is composed.  The enduring work of art takes us somewhere else, down to the ground, to the real problems.

Green Figure

green figure

“It is not the artist’s job to restore a supposed “reality” that the search for knowledge, techniques, and wealth never stops destroying … The spirit of the times is definitely not geared to what is pleasing, and the task of art remains that of the immanent sublime, that of alluding to an unpresentable which has nothing edifying about it.”  (Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Representation, Presentation, Unpresentable,” p. 128).  Hence, what you see on first glance must be resisted– a dark figure emerging from a chrysalis, scowling, menacing.  However, seeing the unpresentable is also not a matter of treating the painted image as a symbol, a reference to something else.  Always, it is a matter of seeing the thing itself, the painted surface as a complete whole which pictures that which photography or the literal eye cannot record– the act, the art, of picturing.

Grimm 96

grimm 96

“”What distinguishes, among other things, man from the beasts is this capacity for abstraction.  All our forms of communication are are abstractions from the whole context of reality.  Moreover, one is able to chose on one’s own part the degree of abstraction one wants to be involved in.”  (Robert Motherwell, “On The Humanism of Abstraction.” p. 250).  That capacity distinguishes us, yes, but also, and moreso, the singularity of our faces.  All painting involves abstraction, but it is not all, thereby, “abstract.”   Then again, not is all painting that is not abstract is “representational.”  It is picturing, an act, not a classification.  The painting abstracts from the details of the face what is essential to the picturing of a human face– how little, indeed, is needed.  Look-  here is what a face is, concentrate on it.

Imaginary Portrait of Roy Orbison Singing Crying

imaginary portrait of roy orbison singing crying

“[The artist] must give the void its colours.” (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 84). And its humour.  Neither the dignity of the human person, nor the dignity of the human body, not the dignity of human creations elevate us above the pleasure of giving funny names to things. To not be able to laugh at others and oneself in turn is inhuman. If one had to choose, it would be better to be the laughing animal than the rational animal.  The void must be coloured and it must echo with our laughter.   From void to void our lives move in tragicomedy.  We are able to bare the terror of the idea of emptiness because there is music and laughter.

Yellow Head

yellow head

“When our first encounter with some object surprises us and we find it novel, or very different from what we formerly knew or from what we supposed it ought to be, this causes us to wonder and to be astonished at it.  Since all this may happen before we know whether or not the object is beneficial to us, I regard wonder as the first of all the passions.”  (Rene Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, p. 350). In a whole universe full of objects of wonder what is more wonderous than we ourselves?  Our motivations are endlessly opaque even to our own reflections, our bodies are beautiful in uncountably multiple ways, our senses and minds are constantly open to what may present itself.  Our wonder at ourselves constantly engenders new ways to look, picture, sound, relate, build and interpret, all in the service of providing answers to questions that must always be posed anew.

Philosophy’s Role in Understanding Paris and the On-Going Crisis: 10 Theses

  1.  At the basis of all concrete identities: “Muslim,”  “Sunni,” “French citizen,” etc., lies a core human being, a capacity for self-making within the objective contexts of natural and social life.  Selves are made, identities forged, reproduced, modified, and developed through processes of work and affective-symbolic interaction with other people within and across societies.  Work relations and social interactions are contradictory– they are both creative and alienating,  mutualistic and antagonistic, peaceful and violent.  When politics loses sight of or ignores for partisan advantage the underlying human capacity for self-making and re-making it fixates on the abstractions.  A fixation on the abstract markers of particular identities leads to their reification, and  their reification leads in turn to false, quasi-natural explanations of conflict (the problems in the Middle east are the consequence of a  ‘clash of civilizations,’ racism is a result of the ‘natural’ inferiority of the demonized race, etc).
  2. Digging beneath the surface identity to the core human activity  of identity formation, reveals it as the result (always modifiable) of a process of practical and symbolic labour that unfolds in dynamic interaction with other selves and the objective world. Other selves, the natural world, and the social institutions that mediate the relationship between individuals and nature are themselves dynamic and change in response to changed activities.  Foregrounding this dynamic process and using it as a wedge against the stereotypes of reified thinking is the constructive political role that philosophical thinking can play.  While philosophers will also be motivated by concrete political evaluations of the relative legitimacy of conflicting positions, if they are to be active as philosophers, they must ground their political assessments in the deeper understanding of human self-making activity explained above.  By demonstrating the ways in which all sides to the conflict are struggling to forge a coherent and satisfying individual and collective identity and the social and environmental conditions in which that identity can be secured, the underlying humanity of all parties to any conflict is made clear.  Once this underlying humanity has been made clear, invidious contrasts between positions according to which one side is inhuman and monstrous, the other side human and pure, (positions which, because they are reversible, do nothing but ensure cycles of violence) break down, and the opposing sides can begin to think about the reasons why the other side behaves as they do.
  3.  History proves that human beings, when they identify themselves as a member of a community under existential threat, can convince themselves that the most abominable acts are justified as matters of group survival.  No religion, or culture, or ethnicity, or nation-state is prone by its very ‘nature’ to violence, but all can become violent when they are set in conflict with other religions, sects, nation-states in ways that impair the ability of the group to survive, develop, and flourish.  When these conflicts are interpreted as zero sum games, such that the victory of the opponent would mean (or is feared to mean)  the elimination of the group to which the self identifies, a logic of exterminism can be unleashed.  Victory becomes associated with the complete pacification through the total destruction of the other side.  Once this logic is unleashed, it appears impossible to arrest the cycle of violence, because any voice calling for restraint and negotiations will appear not only weak (which is typically politically unacceptable) but also suicidal.
  4. Nevertheless, those voices, the ones that sound most irrational and out of touch with “political realities” are the only ones in touch with the deeper reality, namely, that no matter how abhorrent the tactics adopted, the struggle is comprehensible and defensible in human terms as a struggle for security over the natural and social conditions of life. Killing in response to killing is not the mark of a strong leader, but of a person who is behaving predictably, i..e, the way a machine would, and not like a rational human being.  When thought is directed towards the causes of the opponents’ actions, the cyclical nature of violence becomes apparent.  A political conflict degenerates towards a violent confrontations, which further degenerates towards a logic of exterminism, which amps up fears on both sides and makes it appear that the cycle can be resolved only by superior violence, i.e., by completely destroying the enemy.  However, the struggle to destroy the enemy contributes to the destruction of the community one is trying to protect. The main victims of ISIS are Syrian and Iraqi civilians, hard won democratic freedoms have been undermined by the War on Terror.  Further steps down this path of ”victory’ via extermination can only further destroy all parties to the conflict.
  5. There is a time to assign blame and evaluate the relative merits of the opposing parties’ demands, but assigning blame and evaluating legitimacy, if it occurs outside of this deeper context and frame of the cross cultural human struggle to forge identities and secure the natural and social conditions of their development, will only allow the conflict cycle to repeat.  Philosophy seems useless because it thinks at different time-scales than politics.  Sometimes, the longer time scales in which philosophy thinks are useless–  decisions sometime have to be made right away.  But peaceful co-development between cultures formerly at odds with each other takes longer to develop and can only be grounded in mutual recognition of the different ways different groups can express their underlying human capacity for self-determination and self-making and the satisfactions that come with realizing that capacity.  The practical value of philosophy is not only to bring to light that underlying capacity, but also to defend the need for long-term perspectives on conflict resolution which depend upon transformations of self-understanding and re-interpretation of the reasons why former ‘enemies behaved as they did.
  6. The duty of philosophy in cases of violent conflict is thus not first of all to pick sides but to encourage each side to consider itself in light of the way the other sees it, and in light of the actual success or failure of its tactics.  ISIS might think that it is conducting a heroic struggle against Western imperialism, but on its current path it will accomplish nothing but to ensure the ever more complete destruction of the lands and cultures of those areas of Syria and Iraq that it occupies. Western leaders might think they are defending the highest values of Western civilization against barbaric terrorists, but they have eviscerated the highest constitutional principles that past democratic struggles have achieved and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians across the Middle East, stoking the very anger and hatred that fuels the desire for revenge that leads to terrorist attacks.  Both sides are destroying themselves as they try to destroy each other– irrationality at a mass scale.
  7. Pointing out this reciprocal irrationality is not a substitute for concrete political struggle, but rather a precondition of turning those struggles in efficacious directions.  All efficacious political struggles must be directed at the precise cause or causes of the problem threatening the groups.  In the case of the current crisis across the Middle East, the depth causes are:  the history of Western imperialism in the region, the destruction of the infrastructure of life-support by the “War on Terror,” and cynical exploitation of sectarian and ethnic differences by major Western powers and their regional allies.  Simple Western withdrawal from the region, while a precondition of solving the domestic conflicts, will not be enough to ensure lasting peace unless a constructive politics emerges within the region.  That constructive politics must stop targeting individuals in the West and justifying such attacks as justified vengence.  Such tactics undermine support for the legitimate demands of the peoples of the Middle East, embolden racist-militaristic forces in the West, encourage backlashes against Muslim and Middle Eastern citizens of Western countries, as well as refugees and ordinary Muslim travelers.
  8. Within the West, the political struggle has to be focused not only on particular governments and their policies, but the structural causes of military intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere.  That which must be contested is the principle that the world’s resources are valuable to the extent that they are controlled by Western corporations and exploited in the interests of their ability to maximize money profits and the world’s people valuable to the extent that they serve these interests (and legitimately destroyed ton the extent that they resist this subjugation). Both sides must work towards recognition of the deeper,  common life-interest in living in a society that ensures the satisfaction of their fundamental life-requirements, that is governed by institutions that allow individuals to make decisions democratically, and that is open to mutualistic, respectful interaction and growth between distinct cultures.
  9. Critics will respond to the last point in thesis 8 with the argument that there are radical differences between an enlightened secular cosmopolitan society and the reactionary, atavistic, irrational fundamentalism that drives groups like ISIS.  There can be no reconciliation between western liberal democracy and the reactionary fundamentalism of the caliphate, critics will rejoin, because to do so would betray not only our own ideals, but also the goals of the majority of people in the Middle East struggling to create liberal democracy.  In response, while I agree that Western philosophers should not make any excuses for religious fundamentalism of any stripe, at the same time we must not lose sight of the political dimensions of the conflict in the Middle East, i.e., we must not fall into the trap of seeing it as nothing but a problem of irrational sectarian hatreds.  A group like ISIS might have irrational elements driving certain of its more horrific propaganda stunts, but a careful analysis cannot but uncover legitimate demands amongst Sunnis in Iraq and Syria for protection against the violence of the Syrian and Iraqi states.  ISIS may be destroyed, but another movement will take its place until some political rapproachment is worked out by the parties to the domestic conflict themselves.  At the same time, it is appropriate to criticize religious justifications of the tactics that target Western civilians.  The legitimate critique of religious illusion should not be confused with Islamophobia (especially since most Islamophobes are Christian fundamentalists, who are equally irrational from the standpoint of enlightenment reason).  By the same token, the value of enlightenment ideals of rational analysis and argument should not be exchanged for an uncritical pluralism, or worse, a belief that groups like ISIS should be celebrated for their uncompromising anti-imperialism.  The struggle internal to the peoples of the Middle East is precisely  to create a broad, democratic, anti-imperialist alliance of secular left and critical Islamist movements (the later might be understood as an Islamic version of liberation theology).  Overall,  an effective philosophical analysis and argument needs to identify the rational and the irrational in the opposed camps in order to demonstrate the possibility of future co-development in which cultural, religious, and sectarian identities open towards their outside.  Beyond this outside exclusive communal closures give way to dynamic and democratic cultures that cross-fertilize and encourage creative ways of organizing human societies at all scales.  One historical example of this process is the triple cross-fertilization between the remnants of Greek antiquity, the Islamic society of the Middle Ages, and Europe.  When the Roman Empire closed the Greek schools and after Christian fanatics had burned the library of Alexandria, the works of Greek philosophy contributed to the flourishing of philosophy and medical science in the Islamic world, where they were preserved, built upon, and ultimately re-introduced to Europe through Morocco via Spain.
  10.  Nevertheless, it may also be objected that this argument is naive because it imagines that Western politicians will have to sit down with ISIS, that the caliphate will have to be reckoned with diplomatically and politically, its sins forgiven, and that it is inconceivable that such meetings could ever take place.  The actual process of political problem solving cannot be predicted at this point, only that the attempt to bomb ISIS out of existence will fail and provoke more attacks in the West.  The current moment does not bode well for a political, non-violent solution.  Nevertheless, thirty years ago, it was equally inconceivable that America would sit down with the Iranians who held American diplomats hostage and negotiate in good faith with them. Yet, this past year, American and Iranian negotiators worked out a treaty on the Iranian nuclear program.  It is thus true, as Lord Palmerston said, that nations have no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests.  What he did not understand– and this point is the most important– is that those interests are the permanent life-interest of the human beings who make up the citizenry of all nations, not the raisons d’etat that have typically treated those human beings as expendable cannon fodder and collateral damage.

Russian Lives (Don’t) Matter

I have been listening for a week now and have heard no lamentations for the Russian lives lost on Metrojet Flight 9268.  I can sit on my step and hear Detroit across the river, but I have not heard a peep about “ISIS barbarians,” renewing their  “war on civilization” by bombing a plane full of vacationers.  Russia must no longer be part of “civilization” as I cannot even hear any crocodile tears falling.  Just silence.  Stone, cold (like a tomb) silence.

From Britain too, (usually quick to sing tenor to the United States’ bass when it comes time to compose songs of mourning), silence.  As usual, one hears post-facto reports about terrorist “chatter” about the bombing, but no expression whatsoever of solidarity with the Russian people in their time of collective grief.  No “We are all Russians now” headlines,  pas de  “Je suis Russe” t-shirts, no “You are either with us or with the terrorists” ultimatums. Instead, a silence that tells us much about geo-political reality.

For all the posturing and poetry the “leaders of the free world” produce about the sanctity of life when it is their citizens being killed, their silence about the horrors of violent death when it is their opponents’ dying proves that for them it is not life that is sacred, but only strategic advantage.  Their ability to subordinate life to strategic advantage does not stem from some innate monstrous character deep within them, but from their willingness to manage a monstrous world-system.  They become monstrous in their differential apportioning of life value to friends and enemies, but just changing the people without changing the system means the same monstrosity will replicate itself.  Obama replaced Bush, and the Middle East continued to be bombed.  Trudeau’s “sunny days”  are shining on an Ottawa made grey by Harper’s dour and destructive politics, but there is little chance, beyond cosmetic changes, that our foreign policy is going to change decisively in the direction of dialogue, disengagement, and peace.

Willingness to manage this world-system means willingness to calibrate the value of deaths in relation to an overarching strategic vision. At the moment, this strategic vision involves constructing a new and completely unnecessary cold war with Russia.  Given that Russia has been reduced to “Putin-land”  and Putin-land has been demonized as a new Stalinism, no Western leader even bothers to offer public condolences.  Why?  because when “enemies” do exactly as we do– support their allies with (ill-advised, to be sure)  military adventures- and suffer “blowback”  (Chalmers Johnson)  they are just getting what they deserved (and what ‘we’ warned them would happen).  When the Russians suffer a terrorist attack, it is just the karmic wheel turning; when it is the United States or Britain, it is decried as unholy injustice of cosmic proportions.  Which proves:  neither preserving life nor fighting terrorism is the issue for our leaders, but only pressing their agenda and their advantage, by any means necessary.  

In their struggle to secure all of the world’s resources and subject everyone to their hegemonic decisions, they reject life as the ultimate and highest value.  Entire peoples can be destroyed directly or indirectly if they are on the wrong side, or even just in the way.  Doctors Without Borders’  hospital was knowingly destroyed and doctors gunned down in cold-blood by American forces, but neither their superiors, nor their political leaders, nor American religious leaders who never tire of shoveling their sanctimony in everyone’s face said:  “These people are deranged psychopaths and war criminals who deliberately destroyed a known hospital and trained their guns on people they saw fleeing from the wreckage.”  Since the hospital was in Kunduz, and Kunduz had recently fallen to the Taliban, the deaths of these doctors and patients means nothing to the perpetrators.  They will do it again (and again, and again) .  “Civilization,” when it is on the march, can kill whomever it needs to kill, and ignore the deaths of others if memoriating them serves no political purpose.

So don’t expect any condolences. In any case, who cares about that bombing and that over two hundred Russian vacationers are dead?  Didn’t you hear that their athletes have been cheating?

Pity Poor Windsor b/w The Importance of Being Philosophical

Pity Poor Windsor

Money follows money, and it also follows lack of money.  Growing urban centres whose economies are dominated by advanced industry and research clusters exert a centripetal effect on money-capital, drawing it in from around the world.  Massive inputs of capital  fuel cycles of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter) which knock down the old,   re-develop the freed up space, generate new technologies and methods of production, and experiment with new cultures of work, organization, and play.  For people at the centre of these city-regions there is unlimited money to be made– a building purchased today can be flipped tomorrow for double the price, companies compete for workers, driving salaries up, exciting urban neighbourhoods arise and spawn global styles that enrich the designers and chefs and lifestyle promoters that create and market it all.

But poverty also draws money, but for different reasons and with different effects.  In the impoverished, abandoned, and desperate small cities of the manufacturing heartlands of central Canada and the US Midwest, a massive reserve army of labour is in need of work.  Their need for work– exacerbated by cuts to unemployment insurance and public assistance– draws money capital too, but not to creatively destroy past accumulations of capital but just plain old destroy the hopes of the masses it has abandoned.  The creation happens in  Stanford and San Jose, the destruction is felt in Windsor and Gary, Indiana.  Those on the wrong side of the dialectic are hunted down by money-capital on the lookout for  impoverished and demoralized workers who can be repurposed as low-wage, non-unionized servants of the “creative capital”  working its magic elsewhere.

It is with this system in mind that we must understand the “major jobs announcement”  that had Windsorites holding their breath during the last week of October.  When we exhaled:  320 part-time positions at Sutherland Global’s existing call centre operation.  Hooray for  the company spokesperson’s attempt to make this announcement sound transformational.  She promised future workers that they would be answering phones for “a very hip, innovative and fast-growing high-tech company based in Silicon Valley.”  San Jose has its Google bus and Windsor has the Crosstown 2– not hip, but it does have wheels.

If the  12$ an hour salary (which wouldn’t by a Martini– hell, it probably would not buy a pint of craft beer– in Silicon Valley), is not enticing, the spokesperson promises a coffee bar  and, (perhaps if workers are well-behaved and do not call UNIFOR) “maybe” ping pong tables!  While a confidentiality agreement prevented the spokesperson from disclosing the name of the customer, she did note that the firm was “high value” (to Sutherland Global) and “known for its hipness.”  I am getting older, it is true, but “hipness’  and “corporate world” were once antitheses.  While Sutherland Global can only offer hipness via ping pong proxy, it is at least seeking the young, underemployed but well-dressed set to staff those phones (or whatever hip name phones go by these days).  Our Mayor, beating the same relentless drum beat of enthusiasm his mentor never tired of beating, no matter how grim the reality,  gushed:  “This is a really great announcement… We’ve been hearing from a lot of youth in the community looking for opportunities.”  Are part time, no benefit jobs the “opportunities” young people are seeking?  Maybe if they work hard one of them can graduate to the 120 000$ per year “sports tourism” position the city decided to create three days after these “opportunities”  were announced.

Madness, but little in the way of criticism from those who ought to be most critical.

Jaydee Tarpeh, the President of the University of Windsor Student’s Association, simply re-iterated the mayor’s enthusiasm:  “It is awesome news, sometimes it is very hard for students to find jobs.”  Indeed it is, but ought a student leader not question why it is hard for students to find jobs or, better, why society so disregards the intellectual value of scholarship that it sees no problem forcing students to work in soulless call centres part time while at the same raising the cost of  tuition and turning them into indentured servants of the banks for decades after graduation?  Alas, nothing seems able to motivate Canadians to question, criticise, and protest for something better .

In South Africa, by contrast, a country with far fewer financial resources, militant students have just forced the national government to back down from double-digit fee-increases.  The South African university system is not going to collapse, and nor would the Ontario university system were it forced by (an as yet non-existent)  student movement to begin to reduce its fees.

The issue is not affordability, but the principles that govern budget-allocations.  At present, neo-liberal policy continues to cut spending on public education on the basis of the claim that education  is a personal investment in one’s individual future (for which one willingly pays because it will yield positive returns in the form of a job).  We need a student (and faculty, and society-wide) movement that returns public education to its real value as an essential life-requirement of human beings.  When this requirement is satisfied, our understanding of the physical, social, psychological, ethical, and aesthetic worlds in which we live is increased.  In turn, this heightened understanding yields  more intelligent, far-sighted, life-creative action in those worlds, and more peaceful, mutually affirmative relationships between selves and societies.

The Importance of Being Philosophical

Different models of public expenditure in the service of different values are possible.  The victory of the South African students shows that political mobilization can change priorities. Cuts or fee increases that are announced as absolutely necessary can disappear from the agenda without the institutions collapsing, provided people understand how to expose false necessity and ideological generalizations.  Properly questioned,  the ruling power’s “necessity” can be exposed as an ideological construction, a sham, a stick to beat people into line.  Philosophy, in its most fundamental public expression, teaches us how to ask the questions that expose the ways in which power constructs false necessities.  In so doing, it clears the ground for thinking about the values that really are in the universal life-interest, how those values can be institutionalised, and how resources can be mobilised to pay for them.

Without philosophy (which is not the same thing as philosophy departments, or philosophy professors), social life remains hostage to ruling group interests and the power rulers employ to maintain that system.  No specialized methods are required to practice philosophy in this way, (although one does need to practice, always).  To begin, all one needs is the capacity to ask two questions:  1) Who is the stated beneficiary of a given policy championed by the ruling power? and, 2) what actual effect does the policy have on the lives of its stated beneficiaries?  Wherever the stated beneficiary is said to be “the public”  we must press beneath the rhetoric of universal inclusiveness and evaluate whether the public actually does benefit.  Where a contradiction is exposed between the justification and the outcome, we know we are dealing with a false universality asserted only to cover the real agenda:  the extension or consolidation of the ruling group’s power.

These questions work to expose ruling agenda at any level:  local, regional, provincial, national, or international.  Let us take two examples of local and provincial significance to illustrate my point.

First, a local story.  On Hallowe’en the Windsor Star reported that Windsor Chief of Police Al Fredrick was angered by the Ontario government’s decision to ban the practice of “carding,” i.e., stopping people at random, because, in the Chief’s words, they “look suspicious.”  Across the province, it turns out, that “looking suspicious” and being black are nearly synonymous.   Of course, the Chief is not going to admit to racially profiling Windsorites, but tries to sell his position on the grounds that it helps keep the streets safe.  In fact, in the article he segues, without any connective argument or evidence, from a general critique of the province to the suggestion (which readers are clearly supposed to interpret not as a suggestion, but as fact) that carding keeps guns off the streets.  In philosophy, a conclusion that does not follow from its premises is called a non sequitor, from the Latin for “it does not follow.”  Chief Fredricks certainly commits this generic fallacy.

But more, and deeper, the Chief tries to identify the good of the public (‘safe streets’) with the arbitrary power of the police to stop and question people for no reason other than that they “look suspicious.”  But there is no such thing, objectively, as “looking suspicious”  but only stereotypes about what criminals look like.  Now, these stereotypes can change.  Hence, any one is in principle “suspicious looking” depending upon whatever stereotypes about “criminal appearances”  circulate.  Thus, the public interest is actually in constraining police power, limiting it to the investigation of crimes actually committed and never permitting fishing expeditions like carding.  If public safety requires stopping suspicious looking people, would we not be safer if we moved straight on to imprisoning suspicious looking people?  Of course not, because if the police had the power to imprison on the basis of their “gut feelings”  we would be living in a totalitarian police state, and living in a totalitarian police state is clearly not in the public interest.

The second example concerns the announced sale of 60% of publically owned Hydro One. Despite a report from the Province’s Financial Accountability Officer  that demonstrates conclusively that the province will, in the long term, lose money on the sale, the Premier insisted that the sale would go ahead, because it is good for the Ontario economy.  Her argument is based upon speculation (because, projections about future economic growth as a result of infrastructure investment can only be speculative, there being no data from the future).  The FAO report, by contrast, is based on demonstrable fact:  Hydro One brings in 750 million dollars a year, and will do so in perpetuity, because electricity must be delivered to end users, and Hydro One controls the means of delivery.

At present, therefore, Hydro One brings in 750 million dollars a year which, in principle, is available for investment in ways that the people of Ontario decide (I realize that the truth of public ownership in a capitalist economy is not as straightforward as I am making it out to be, but the principle, if not the practice, is clear:  public ownership means democratic control over the resources owned; private ownership means private control over the use of the resource and the money such use generates).  If publically owned resources are sold to private interests, democratic control is eliminated, in principle and in practice.  The citizens of Moose Factory or Kirkland Lake will see no improvement in their lives because of transit improvement in the Greater Toronto Area, (the stated reason for the sell off). GDP growth, assuming there is any following the infrastructure investment, tells us nothing about how the increased money is distributed or spent.  All we know for certain is who will benefit:  the private investors who gain control over  Hydro One.

The claim is that “Ontario”  will benefit, the truth is that “Ontario” gives up control over a public utility which provides necessary resources to everyone in the province and returns public money to the provincial treasury, money that is in principle under the control of the collectivity of Ontarians to invest in institutions and public goods from which we can all benefit.

Simple questions, answers that disclose the truth about the city/province/country/world we inhabit.  Without philosophical questioning (again, always to be distinguished from academic philosophy) those truths remian buried.