Windsor Spaces III: 201 Shepherd Avenue East

Windsor Truck and Storage Company, 201 Shepherd Avenue East


There is something about brick:  solid, sensible, built to endure by subtly yielding to the elements, not absolutely resisting them.  Brick bears the marks of its history, like a middle aged face; the sheen of youth exchanged for the wisdom of struggle.  It is unpretentious, but responsive to the demand that a building– even an industrial building like this one– be form and not just function.

Brick also has a way of making buildings seems bigger.  I know that the size of the building is a function of the underlying structure,  but something about the iteration of the individual bricks makes even modest sized structures seem grander.  In that way too bricks are like living elements, the cells that in their connection construct the organism.

It was the brick and the scale that drew my attention to this building.  Truth be told, it is not that big, but it stands out amidst the small factories and bungalows along what, it must be said, is something of a backstreet.  I had not expected to encounter anything of note as I rode along it a year or so ago.  The only reason I was on Shepherd was because friends told me that it was the best bike route from their home in the east to mine in the west.  So seeing the building was an unexpected pleasure.  I felt like I re-discovered some forgotten architectural treasure.

As I neared, details emerged.  The structure that first caught my eye was a clock tower,  maybe three stories high. It had an Albert Kahn-ish look:  handsome, a bit brooding, a little sinister, open about what it is, but not afraid to be noticed as architecture.  The two tone brick that runs in vertical columns up its walls emphasize its height, and the softer coloured stonework that crowns it completes it aesthetically.  The main body of the building extends along Windsor Avenue to the south.  Geometrically, it is just a box that nests others boxes, but there is still pleasing attention to detail:  the sign is painted, as they used to be in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, brass or iron designs bolted in rows along the western wall, a stone frieze that runs the entire length of the wall.

The best part is still the clock tower, and especially its impressive iron roman numerals.  In memory it soars, but memory can exaggerate. So let’s say it looms, empty,  the clockworks have long since been removed.  Nevertheless, there remains something sternly Victorian  about its message to the neighborhood:  see what time it is people, and get back to work!

an unnatural light,

Prepared for never-resting Labour’s eyes

Breaks from a many windowed fabric huge;

And at the appointed hour a bell is heard,

Of harsher import than the curfew-knoll

That spake the Norman Conqueror’s stern behest–

A local summons to unceasing toil!

(Wordsworth, The Excursion)

I like it better empty.  The danger of a botched and cheap renovation is avoided, while the eye is free to attend to its best features:  the glass and iron clock face, without thinking about what time it is.

The building is clearly of a different era of urban industrial architecture when structures were built under the assumption that work was permanent and grounded in space. If the building is not exactly the Battersea power station on the south bank of the Thames in London, it is no Quansa hut or prefabricated sheet metal shell either.  Ours is a more liquid age, used to comings and goings, openings and especially closings, and thus has become indifferent to factory architecture.

In a city with Windsor’s history one would think that there would be hundreds of examples of serious industrial architecture, but there are not.  A few small Albert Kahn buildings, the magnificent Ford Power Station on Riverside Drive, and not much else.  There may once have been, but their traces have been erased. So it is a fitting metaphor for Windsor, stuck somewhere in the past, one is not quite sure when, (there is no dated cornerstone that I could find), but lagging somewhere behind history, for worse and for better.

Alternative Facts: Humanitarian Edition


The election of Donald Trump has created a new sport:  catch the President lying.  To try to cover up one of his lies:  that he drew more people to his inauguration than Obama, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, argued that there were “alternative facts”  to explain the clear photograhic evidence that there was far fewer people for Trump than Obama.  Much mocking and hilarity ensued on CNN.

Most of the Democratic establishment and the academic liberal left in the United States piled on.  Forgotten of course was a long standing critique of the mainstream media (anyone remember Manufacturing Consent?)  that demonstrated, in precise analytical and empirical detail, how the media works with “official sources”  to construct ideological narratives and present them as established, unquestioned fact.  My point is not that Spicer was correct in the particular case:  there are no grounds for doubting there were more people at Obama’s inauguration than Trump’s.  The issues is rather  that the chest thumping about how sacred the media is to a democracy forgets that a now silenced critical tradition once exposed the way in which the corporate-owned media were impediments to democracy.

There was also once a mass anti-imperialist, anti-war movement in the United States.  That too has disappeared in favour of right-wing conservative isolationism on the one hand and moralistic liberal interventionism on the other.  The former are at least consistent with their principles; the later live in a land of their own illusions; a liberal fantasy realm of alternative facts supporting policies that have failed and are causing far more damage to Arab and African lives than Trump’s stupidity around his inauguration has.

For three months the Democratic party and its fellow-travellers have been madly leaping on any bandwagon banging an anti-Trump line.  He is anti-woman and anti-immigrant and anti-worker; he colluded with Russia, he stole the election, he lies, lies, lies.   And then:  redemption:

A reading from the Gospel of Nikki Haley:  Blessed are the Tomhawk missile launchers, for they shall inhabit the kingdom of human rights.

Not Gander

For weeks we have been hearing of the need for an independent investigation of  the links between the Trump camp and Russia.  The principle at work:  interested parties cannot conduct impartial investigations.  Therefore, impartial investigators are needed for politically contentious problems.

That applies to Washington, when Democratic interests are at stake.  In Syria, new rules, as Bill Maher would say.  In Syria, the conclusion that  Assad ordered the strike and that the Russian counter-narrative is false is asserted as necessarily true with no evidence cited.  A typical example was Neil MacFarquhar, writing in the  New York Times: “Even as the US condemned Assad for gassing his own citizens and held Russia partly responsible … the Kremlin kept denying that Syria had any such capability.”  (Reprinted in The Toronto Star, Sunday, April 9th, p. A2).  Or consider the open revisionism of this explanation of the origins of ISIS by another New York Times writer, Thomas Friedman: “ISIS was the deformed creature created by the pincer movement — Russia, Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah in Syria on one flank and pro-Iranian Syria militias on the other.”  Friedman’s position is truly astounding alternative fact in contradiction to known reality:  ISIS is the direct product of collapse of al Qaeda in Iraq.  Al Qaeda in Iraq was organized to fight the American invasion and its leader was radicalised in an American prison camp.

A Chomskean critique might point out the way in which these accounts always position the American narrative as authoritative, without ever explicitly saying so, and opposed positions always as self-interested responses, without ever explicitly saying so.  MacFarquhar’s article, for example, implies that the Russians have raisons d’etat that explain their support for Assad, while the Americans, ever righteous, have none.  A serious critique might go on to suggest that the present American government has an enormous interest in play: deflecting congressional attention away from alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.  It might further contend that a government that is complicit in the starvation of Yemeni children is probably not losing sleep about Syrian children (especially since it is trying to ban any Syrians from entering the United States).  It might even go so far as to point out eerie similarities between the Russian claim that Assad’s jets inadvertently caused the chemical leak by bombing a weapons dump controlled by rebels, and the United States’ allied Iraqi government’s explanation that the US planes that caused mass civilian deaths in Mosul had hit an ISIS truck bomb.

Those are the sort of questions that a “free press”  which provides vital services to democracy might ask and the sorts of counter-arguments they might bring to bear on complex, politically charged incidents.  That would indeed be useful and democratic, but there was little in evidence, only the by now typical boasting, breast-beating, and bleating of the sheep following the trajectory of US missiles.  All of a sudden, politicians who lose no sleep over the piles of bodies that lay at their doorstep are moved for “moral” reasons to kill yet more people.  Right.

I am not making moralistic arguments to counter moralistic arguments with which I  disagree.  I wish there were amongst politicians principled stances against chemical weapons, and every other kind of weapon; a principled stance in favour of treating human beings as intrinsically valuable and not just tools of geo-political strategy; a principled stance in favour of politics as real problem solving in the shared life-interest and not the private advantage of one ruling group over and against others, with everyone else treated as collateral damage.

I take my stand against the Trump response on the basis of a simple demonstrable truth:  killing, whether justified or not, does not bring the unjustly killed back to life. Taking that truth as my foundation, I next ask:  But is there evidence to support the claim that sometimes violence is necessary to counter worse violence.  The answer is:  yes, of course, in some cases such evidence is exists.  So the final question is: is it justified in this case?

A genuinely popular-democratic resistance to Assad and ISIS would surely be justified in an armed struggle to free Syria of both.  Trump will prove no friend to a genuine popular democratic resistance.  His interests are not their interests.  His interests are in isolating Iran and distracting people from the congressional hearings at home.  To reiterate:  he is enabling the starvation of Yemeni children, and no one who does that is really moved by feelings for the lives of children.

But let us not count children’s tears but stay within the circle of evidence.  Assume that Trump really was motivated by love for the Syrians he does not want in his country.  Is his response likely to succeed in ending the civil war?   Let us examine the demonstrated results of US intervention in the Middle East since 2001.  Afghanistan:  on-going civil war.  Iraq:  on-going civil war.  Yemen:  on-going civil war.  Libya:  on-going civil war.  In the face of this evidence the only conclusion consistent with the facts is that deeper US involvement in Syria will only exacerbate and not solve the on going civil war there.

The war in Syria will end through politics or not at all.  A negotiated political solution cannot happen until the many sides to the conflict:  ISIS, al Qaeda, the Syrian government, the Kurds, the array of secular rebel forces feel weak enough to have to make compromises and a deal.  So long as each has its enablers:  the Saudis, the Americans, and the Russians, none will feel weak enough to have to concede.  And the war will go on.  And people will keep dying, whether of  sarin, or bullets, or bombs.

Tangled Web

The dynamic nature of capitalism makes it impossible to predict, in any straightforward and simple way, the shape its contradictions will take.  The dynamism continually unsettles the composition of the working class, but it also unsettles the political allegiances of the ruling class.  This unsettling effect helps to explain in part the extraordinarily fractured state of official politics in the United States at the moment.

As technology develops, old industries are threatened while new ones are engendered.  From an abstract systems perspective there is no problem so long as profits overall rise and employment overall remains within politically acceptable limits.  However, from a concrete human perspective a dying industry kills your profits (if you are the owner) and your livelihood (if you are the worker).  Since in real life it takes time and money to adjust and adapt to changing circumstances, a system in rough equilibrium overall can still damage individuals who own or work in uncompetitive industries.

Let us take an example much in the news.  According to the most recent report of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are a total of 53 420 people employed in the coal mining industry in the United States, and the number is shrinking.   By contrast, in 2013 there were 143 000 people working in the solar energy field in the United States, and that figure represented a 20% increase over the previous year.  The (somewhat vaguely defined)  field of “renewable energy” as a whole employed well over 3 million Americans in 2015.  If we judge solely by the numbers the advice to coal miners is clear:  your industry is dying.  You need to leave Kentucky or West Virginia and move to California and work in a clean energy industry.

The human reality is much more complex.  People are tied to places for a complex set of reasons:  economic, cultural, familial.  It costs money to move.  Moving can be tremendously alienating.  Home has a psychological and aesthetic value to some people that cannot just be dismissed.  Family ties and responsibilities (caring for elderly relatives or children) keep people tied to a place.   Add to these challenges the fact that jobs in clean energy projects tend to demand higher levels of education than jobs in the extraction industries and we can start to see why overall equilibrium in a system can mask profound regional and local variation.  If those who are dying cannot reach those who are thriving (because they are too poor to move, or are too wed, culturally, to a place, or lack the education and are too old or sick to retrain) then their plight remains a political problem, even if, in the abstract, in a system that is growing overall, it is not an economic problem.

There was much derision directed towards Trump’s executive order that rolled back the Obama era’s legacy of environmental protection and incentives for clean energy.  No doubt, the derision is richly deserved.  But effective political criticism has to try to comprehend why a seemingly irrational policy choice was made.  Trump was not elected by Californians who make fuel cells, he was elected by (amongst others) Kentucky coal miners and unemployed steelworkers in Pennsylvania.  They voted for him because he promised to restore their industries.  The executive order was a tangible sign to them that he intends to keep his promise.

If we think of the executive order in the context of the numbers cited above, we can see that historical trends almost guarantee that it will be unsuccessful.   Capitalism depends upon technological developments opening up dynamic new sources of profitability.  Clean energy is attracting more and more capital, not because the health of the environment is recognized as an intrinsic and instrumental life-value, but because technological change is making them more viable and profitable.  Trying to revive the coal industry in this environment is like trying to protect the manual typesetting industry in the age of desk top publishing.  There are some boutique mechanical presses in the world, but as an industry manual typesetting is dead.

That does not mean that those who lost their jobs did not suffer or that their elimination is justifiable by the increase in employment opportunities in the new industry.  The problem with the abstract economic analysis of labour market dynamics is that workers are reduced to numbers:  if there are 3 jobs lost here and 10 created over there, then the system is judged good.  And, in one sense, it is, for the 10 people working, but not for the 3 people not working.  But their pain is not recognized by econometric equations, which is why we need politics.  Democratic politics is the opportunity for numbers to become people again and tell their stories, express their interests, and mobilize around their demands.

Whatever legitimate criticisms there are to make about Trump (and they are legion) he gave the appearance of responding to these stories and these concerns.   He has thus successfully exploited a division that runs through the American working class and the American ruling class, between those that are working in the remnants of nineteenth century industries like coal and those that pushing the scientific and cultural boundaries of American life.  The older industries tend to be more rooted to specific places (you cannot relocate a mine) and they thus tend to foster strong local identities and attachments.  For peculiarly American reason they also foster the most virulent strains of nationalism,  which Trump has also been able to exploit.

Capitalism is technologically dynamic, but not every capitalist is.  If they can  keep the old industry they own alive with government support they will do so, even if they decry government interference as ‘socialist’ in all other cases not affecting them.   While “progressive” capitalists (i.e., those who rely on high skilled foreign labour or hope to get subsidies for green energy research) have come out against Trump’s travel ban and executive orders around environmental protection, those still wed to older industries are happy to support both.

This political split is sowing unprecedented conflict in the American ruling class.  It seems bent right now on tearing itself in two (and not just along Republican-Democrat lines).  If this conflict is to be effectively exploited then the American left needs to coalesce around understanding what the political strategy is behind Trump’s agenda, grasping it in the context of the overall state of social and economic forces, and articulating an agenda that addresses the real concerns of workers still dependent on uncompetitive industries:  re-training, a geographically more equitable distribution of subsidies for investment in new clean industries, and worker involvement in local economic transformation for those who are in a position to leave or change careers; pensions, retirement incentives, adequate health care, and other social supports for those who cannot leave or retrain.

These concrete policies need to be underwritten by respect for people and their work histories.  Coal miners did not make coal environmentally destructive.  The dignity of their work as human labour needs to be acknowledged and their interests– including their attachments to their communities– need to be taken into account.  Abstract social forces are incapable of doing either, so we need politics to recognize and respond.  From on high it is clear that Trump and his coterie of millionaires will not ultimately serve the interests of the historically displaced, but democratic politics has to be at work on the ground.  If the people who are most damaged by dying industries believe that Trump will help them, and no one else is there to contest it, then he will be able to maintain his hegemony, even in the face of chaos, scandal, and failure.