Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit and fanning the flames of Racism. . . .

One needn't be an historian or an academic to understand that hate and racism often lurks in the shadow waiting for an opportunity to come out in the light of day. That opportunity is often offered by a process of public legitimation.

We saw this process of legitimation in Canada last year when the flailing Harper government began a concerted effort to use race hatred to bolster their election chances. They attempted to make the wearing of a niqab a major political issue because they knew that it would whip up their base and even garner support from those how are not so openly bigoted. Then they promised to establish a so-called "barbaric act tip line" so people could report on their neighbours for supposed culturally driven acts of an illegal nature. It is not difficult to see how such an effort was motivated by racism. Since people are already expected to report any illegal act to their local police force anyway, it remains entirely unclear how this tip line was supposed to contribute anything except the fanning of racist flames.

It was because the Conservative government opened up the public space and legitimized racist discourse that Canada saw a startling uptick in racist outbursts in the months around the Election.

We now see a similar phenomenon in Britain where the victory of the "leave" campaign in the Brexit vote seems to have opened up public space for racist hatred.

People have begun to document the outbursts of racism that are emerging now in Briton and the situation is not very pretty. Images such as these have popped up.



Meanwhile Twitter users are telling the world about the sudden rise of racism in their everyday lives. They talk about racists comments being yelled at people in public places, immigrants being told to "pack up and leave," and neo-Nazi posters and leaflets suddenly appearing. 

Now I am sure that most of these are relatively isolated incidents, and we obviously shouldn't suggest that all of those who supported the "leave" side in the Brexit vote were racists. However, it is the space that such events open up for racists to feel that their opinions are a legitimate part of the discourse that we really need to be concerned about. We all know that the far-right is on the move again in Europe and the Brexit campaign was a major focus for them because it afforded them the opportunity to demonize immigrants, refuges, and racialized people in general. And this space, now opened wide, is quickly spreading. In France and the Netherlands the far right is already talking about organizing their own EU referenda, and there can be little doubt that race hatred will be a major part of those campaigns if they come to fruition. 

In the past, when capitalism falls into a perceived crisis, certain political similarities between the far-right and the left in general emerge. This is because only those who are willing to significantly question the status quo are willing to admit and address the crises. But the similarities between the opposition are wildly different in motivation and goal, and the issue of race is one which demonstrates the important differences. The right is quick to blame "outsiders" and "foreigners" for the crises of capitalism. And where the rightwing talks about "sovereignty" and uses nationalist rhetoric, the left talks about democracy and the need for the economy to serve the needs of all people. 

The rightwing has always had an easier job; whip up fear, hatred, blame, and difference. The left has to assuage fears, build bridges, and encourage cooperation. It is, unfortunately, always easier to destroy than to build. And when a space opens up for the far-right to get its foot in the door of public discourse, our job just becomes that much more challenging. 




Saturday, June 25, 2016

The EU dilemma; A Socialist Perspective. . . .

From a socialist point of view, the EU has always presented something of a dilemma. The idea of the EU represented some important aspects of our socialist hopes: more international cooperation, less nationalist competition between workers, the idea of international labour and safety regulations, etc. In a globalizing world, a world where things like labour laws, environmental protections, and health and safety regulations all have international implications and impacts, the more international cooperation we can get the better.

Years ago when I lived in England, I was shocked to find out just how lax labour rights were in that country. And because England had opted out of the labour portion of the Maastricht Treaty, there seemed to be little that British workers could do. At the time you could be compelled to work 80 hours a week with no overtime pay, and if you refused you could be summarily dismissed and receive no unemployment money. The only way that workers partially overcame this terrible aspect of the labour market was by taking the British government to the EU and arguing that such condition violated the health and safety aspects of European law, which included aspects that the British Government had not opted out of. I don't know where things stand now because those events occurred nearly 25 years ago and I am sure that much has happened since, but this is an example of why the left held out a great deal of hope for what the European Union represented.

On the other hand, from a socialist point of view, the EU is also problematic, as demonstrated in the Morning Star's call for a leave vote. The Morning Star (once known as The Daily Worker) is a long standing socialist paper in Britain which, though once tainted with Stalinism, is the only Socialist daily in Britain. In the lead up to the Brexit vote the editors at the Morning Star reminded its readers that the EU hardly represents socialist ideals. In fact, as they also remind us, the great Tony Benn once said that the treaties of the EU are the "only constitution in the world committed to capitalism." If a genuinely socialist government were elected in any of the EU states, it would be largely unable to undertake a socialist legislative commitment. The Morning Star further points out that though there is a European Parliament, it is a largely "toothless" body and a great deal of what the EU does it does through de facto executive orders and a central bank. Perhaps the most troubling and telling actions of the EU in recent years, from a socialist point of view, is the way a democratically elected, left-wing government in Greece was treated. Instead of being able to enact socialist policies, the EU forced onto Greece one of the most horrendous austerity package in the world, a decision that has lead to terrible poverty, suffering, and even death.

These events led the editors at the Morning Star to say this - "Those who argue that austerity is a choice being made at a national level should ask why it is that governments ostensibly on the left in France and Italy are attacking worker's rights and public spending just as viciously as governments on the right. Seemingly it doesn't matter who we Europeans elect any more: austerity is what we get."

One of the primary problems with the EU is that it has been designed to resist reform. It's primary regulatory systems are enacted through treaties and those treaties require unanimous agreement to change. Economic treaties are fundamentally problematic from a socialist point of view, as anyone familiar with the TPP and NAFTA know. Many international treaties are designed to rob national governments the ability to undertake legislative protections of their workers and environment and often give corporations the power to force governments to do things that are against the national interests. This is why rightwing governments have been so eager to undertake these treaties; they know that they can tie the hands of future governments, which might be of a more leftwing persuasion, from undertaking legislative reforms of capitalism.

The rightwing has very different reasons for rejecting bodies like the EU, and these reasons are often racist and xenophobic. And this is where things get tricky and confusing. Rightwing populist rhetoric often takes a good game around sovereignty and national interests, but rightwing populists almost never follow up on such rhetoric. Politicians like Trump will yell and scream about international treaties and the problems that American workers face because of internationalized labour markets, but once elected, it's business as usual (and in the interests of business). The last thing a man like Trump wants is for working people to democratically decide upon a collective future. In many ways the EU is no different, it does enact certain protections for workers and the environment, but overall it mostly represents the interests of a capitalist elite. The problem is, of course, that many of those who are arguing against the EU are, in fact, so rightwing that they want even more freedom to exploit their workers and their environment than the structure of the EU allows.

It seems to be that any worker who is not confused, doesn't know what's going on.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit implications. . . .

Watching England vote to leave the European Union is a strange experience. It is one of those events which leave you dazed and confused but which may, a few years from now, prove to have huge implications of the future of Europe and the world in general.

Brexit will have a significant impact on the lives of many British people who have chosen to make their homes on Continental Europe. If those who have decided to work or retire in other countries, like Spain or Germany, don't want to go back to Britain they will have to seek naturalization in their chosen nations. This may or not be a possibility, only time will tell.

But beyond the significant ways in which individual lives will obviously be impacted, the exit of Britain will also have bigger, more ominous, effects. This morning the Scots are already talking about another independence referendum because they voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. There are also huge implications for Northern Ireland. The peace in NI was maintained in part because the EU allowed for an open boarder between it and the Republic of Ireland. The reintroduction of a hard border could easily reignite tensions and fighting in Northern Ireland, particularly given that they were another region that voted to remain in the EU.

Another important issue to consider is that Brexit could spell the doom of the EU in general. The victory of those who have pushed for Britain to leave the EU will galvanize those in other countries who want to leave the Union. The EU is, at the moment, even less popular in France than it is in England, a rather ominous fact. The failure of the EU could have terrible implications for the peace and stability of Europe in general.

But one of the things that the vote yesterday reminded me of was the generational political split that we see happening in many places, North America included. The young people in Britain voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. Young people everywhere seem to understand and embrace the need for greater cooperation, more regulation to control markets, and more open human and cultural integration. I have personally seen this generational split in people around me and it is noticeable and pronounced. In the US we have seen the amazing way that Bernie Sanders has brought young people into the political process, and this is good news for the future. But generational change can be a messy and disorienting business, and I can't help but think that the future of England and Europe in general looks rocky as an older generation, still steeped in an age of racism and Neo-Liberalism, seeks to hold on to its myths and power while a new generation comes up to redefine politics.

The split in American politics is as pronounced as that demonstrated by the Brexit vote. Old white folks have demonstrated a shocking degree of support for messages of division, racial hatred, and misogynistic rhetoric. Politicians like Trump use those simmering feelings to bolster a rightwing populism that talks about a return to the "good old days." But younger, more culturally dynamic people know that much of the "good old days" were terrible and they are looking for a way forward that embraces some of the post war drive for greater equality and cooperation without the racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and gender inequality.

The Brexit marks a moment in the battle for a new way forward. The battle was lost, but the fight will not go away because the ideas of those who voted to leave the EU are inexorably being replaced. The battle is slow but it's not going away.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Watch out, the "NDP sex Marxists" are out to get you!

Why is it that some people (and rightwingers are particularly notorious for this) think that they can just throw out provocative words and imagine that they are saying something?

Such was the case the other day when the perpetually failed candidate of Alberta politics Larry Heather tweeted out that "NDP sex Marxists are dissolving the basis for the cohesion of Alberta, leading to the breakup of the Province."

Now, I don't know what a "sex Marxist" is but I personally think it sounds pretty interesting. Larry not so much. Mr. Heather's syntax and grammar, much like his politics, are perpetually confused (and certainly confusing). When questioned by another tweeter, "what the hell is a sex Marxist?" Larry replied, in his inimitable style, "Marxists seek to dissolve the class system and family control - the attack against Gender [sic] is certainly a part of this."

Well, that's about as clear as mud. Now, while criticism of the economic and social class systems is certainly part of much of Marxist discourse, the issue of "family control" is a bit out of left (or should I say right) field. What exactly "family control" means is a bit of a head scratcher to begin with. However, if you have spent any time with Central American, Marxist-inspired groups you know that traditional family ties continue to an important part of their social philosophy. While, no doubt, most leftwing activists encourage the principle of questioning authority, this is a far cry from dissolving "family control" unless Mr. Heather is talking about jettisoning arbitrary authority, in which case let's have at it.

More importantly, what exactly do rightwingers like Larry Heather think "the attack against Gender" is? And why is the word "gender" capitalized? The very idea of an attack against gender is nonsense. Instead, there is a rebellion against the imposition of strict gender identity, and that is very different. The difference lies in the fact that when you impose a gender role on someone, you are de facto attacking them because you are attempting to create their identity for them from outside.

But more importantly, the issue of gender, as it is currently being seen and discussed in contemporary society, has nothing to do with Marxism as a philosophy. I guarantee that 90% of people who question traditional notions of gender are not Marxists, nor could they identify Marxism any better than Mr. Heather. And this is the only reason that it is worth discussing an obscure and insignificant conservative activist like Larry Heather, because in their political efforts such rightwingers will simply throw out provocative words, in an uninformed, intentionally inflammatory manner in order to scare people who, like them, don't even vaguely understand the concepts and philosophies that they are addressing.

Marxism is, of course, partly about greater social and economic equality. But then, most people who strive for greater equality are not Marxist; they don't identify as such, and probably wouldn't even if they understood the complexities of Marxist philosophy. Putting aside the syntactical absurdity of Mr. Heather's statement (an abusrdity that would be akin to me accusing someone of being an "exercise Freudian" or a "hamburger Hegelian"), this kind of thing is typical of the rightwing, throw out some provocative words and hope you can whip up the fear and anger of the rabidly conservative and perpetually ignorant base.

There is, unquestionably, something going on in society. People are questioning all sorts of traditional roles and beginning to call for greater equality in a society that has become marked by a significant increase in inequality over the past generation. This is very good news for us as a society. But when such a change begins to creep into our social discourse some people are inevitably threatened. And in our society, those who are most threatened are white, heterosexual males who see their power slipping away. Such people often turn to religion, and unfortunately to violence, to bolster their traditional claim on power. Through the struggle continues, we are fortunate that not all white men are as backward and slow-witted as Larry Heather.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Minister Wilson-Raybould is Apparently Above the Law. . . .

Well, it seems pretty clear now that those of us who have been questioning the Liberal's commitment to the constitution were right. Sorry Simon and all the rest who have been so eager to give the Liberals the benefit of the doubt. It seems fairly clear to me that Minister Wilson-Raybould has settled it.

In a so-called 'background paper' sent out by the Minister on Monday, Wilson-Raybould says fairly unequivocally that the Liberal government is above the law. When the Minster says that her government does not have to comply with the Supreme Court's Carter ruling the message is clear. Wilson-Raybould says that the issue is not whether Bill C-14 complies with the Carter decision but whether it complies with the Charter, she is saying very clearly that she and her government are the final arbiters of the Charter rather than the Supreme Court. There is no way for Liberals to parse their way out of this conclusion for the simple reason that the Carter decision IS a reflection of the Charter. The Constitution is not that complicated. The Court is the final arbiter of the Charter not the government of the day. And when the Court unanimously handed down the Carter decision, they were telling the government what the Charter had to say on the issue of assisting dying. They weren't saying "Well, this is how we feel, but the government should interpret the Charter the way it sees fit"!!! Wilson-Raybould should resign immediately because she has just made it clear that she is believes, to quote another oligarch, L'Etat, C'est moi.

Here's the thing - if a Conservative minister have even hinted at this position, liberal bloggers would have spared no vitriol in condemning him/her. If Peter Mackay, Rob Nicholson, or Vic Toews had floated this idea, every progressive blogger I know in Canada would have gone crazy. And any that deny it are just being hypocritical.

I see no reasonable way to misinterpret this. Wilson-Raybould is simply saying the Government doesn't have to listen to the Supreme Court on matters of Charter interpretation, but rather only has to be responsible to itself on such matters. This is exactly the kind of thing we spent years fighting against the Harper government for.

One doesn't need to be an expert like Josh Patterson or Peter Hogg to understand that the Liberal Government has pushed the envelope here into very dangerous territory, territory that violates the very principles of our system of government.

Of course if the Government rejects the Senate amendments to the Bill, and the Senate refuses to comply, we will be at a stalemate that will de facto mean that there is no law at all governing assisted suicide. If the Senate capitulates and the Trudeau government has its way, the SCofC will smack it down the very same way that it continually smacked down the Harper government on similar issues. If I had any doubt before, I have less doubt now, for the simple reason that the Government is de facto saying that it is above the Court on such matters and the Court, to ensure its authority, will, if called upon, rule on the issue with renewed vigour.

Until that day comes, we will continue to have a government that appears to think it can make any law it wants because it will decide what the Charter means. For those who have been eager to give the Trudeau the benefit of the doubt, I think it is time to review that optimism in light of a Minister of Justice who thinks she IS the law.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Bill C-14 and the Liberals: What's up with that???

I must say that this whole assisted dying brouhaha baffles me.

First of all, it always baffles me when conservatives say that the courts are "making laws," as the 'seldom correct, but never in doubt' Rona Ambrose claimed the other day. This claim always seems to illustrate nothing more than the fact that conservatives either don't really know how our political system works or they are wilfully blind to its operations. The Supreme Court of Canada's job (as with many such courts world wide) is to interpret the legality of laws based upon a founding document or constitutions (written or otherwise). Thus, they don't make laws, rather they make laws consistent with principle. I understand that rightwingers love to whip up their base with talk of courts making laws because one thing the rightwing hates is constitutional principle. This is usually because constitutional principles are about protecting average people and minorities from the majority or the arbitrary power of governments to discriminate.

But while that is a story that is always with us, one can't help think, while listening to Ambrose, that sometimes the rightwing isn't even saying this stuff to whip up the anger of their base, but that they just don't know any better, that they don't really understand our system of government and they get hopping mad when the Supreme Court defends some basic principle that they don't like.

But what baffles me even more in the recent debate over Bill C-14 is the question of "what in the world Trudeau is playing at?" For years we were used to the Harper writing and passing bills that were clearly unconstitutional. They wrote bills that they knew wouldn't pass judicial review for a number of reasons. One, as already mentioned,  they hated the Charter of Rights (or any legal principle that protects average people and minorities). Two, they didn't like the idea that we have a separation of powers and, like a bully on a playground, they were continually driven to assert their power (a power which, we all know, they secretly wished was total and absolute). And three, they just couldn't help from acting in rabidly ideological ways; they thought that ideology should trump not only reason but legality too.

But I must say, that while we got used to the absurd actions of the Harper and his minions, even if one isn't a active supporter of Trudeau, his actions in this regard seem surprising and inexplicable. Now, I have no doubt that Trudeau can be, despite his manufactured public image, a bit of an ideologue. But then, what politician isn't an ideologue in one way or another? But presenting a bill that they know full well does not comply with a recent Supreme Court ruling, just seems weird to me given that Trudeau was a man who continually defended (at least rhetorically) the Charter and the Court's right to define laws in relation to the Charter. And then for Minister Wilson-Raybould to suggest that they would override the Senate's amendments to the bill (amendments whose only real import is to bring the bill inline with the Carter Decision) is just bizarre, and frankly puts into doubt this government's commitment not only to the Charter but to a Senate, an institution that has found its biggest political defender in recent years in Trudeau himself.

If Bill C-14 is the first real challenge of the Trudeau government, I must say that it is failing quite dramatically. And their failure here is disturbingly reminiscent of the Harper government's many failures - a failure entirely and wilfully manufactured by themselves.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Whither the NDP?

There is, I think, a prevailing mistake in the way that many are looking at the downfall of Thomas Mulcair. People see him as a failed candidate, a guy who lost an election that was his to win, a man whose political style didn’t fit the NDP values that many people cherish. And he is, in fact, all of these things. But Mulcair is something more than this; significantly more. Muclair represents a fundamental failure of of social democrats (and society at large) to face up to profound crises of capitalism and democracy. Mulcair represents the idea that we can go along like things have not fundamentally changed and that we can simply shift a few policies and things will look up.

The word crisis has historically, no doubt, been overused. But the reasons that I think capitalism and democracy are in this state are, I think, fairly basic and clear. The crisis of capitalism is a crisis of revenue. We live in a time in which there is more wealth than there has ever been, and yet everywhere around us, here and around the world, we see people struggling to just get by; they are working harder, earning relatively less, they have no pensions or secure futures, and their kids are facing a rare state of affairs, one in which they will be less secure and less well off than their parents. But if there is more wealth than ever before, how can this be? Though the mainstream media is horrifyingly silent about this issue most of the time, we all know the answer to this. There is more and more money in fewer and fewer hands. This state of affairs is obviously bad for average people, but it is also bad for capitalism in he long run. For the reason that it is a problem for our economic system I direct you to the work of economists like Thomas Piketty.

The crisis of democracy leads directly from this economic issue. Even people with no economic training and little political savvy understand at a gut level what is going on here. People increasingly understand that there is more wealth and that it is in fewer hands, and they also understand that politicians, even ones that we thought of traditionally as leftists, are saying little or nothing about it. Democracy is falling into crisis because people see massive inequalities, they see themselves and their neighbours struggling, they see the rich buying fancier cars and bigger houses, and they don’t see politicians addressing the problem at all! In this context politics become a mere spectacle; a hollow charade that means nothing to many people’s actual lives.

This is where Thomas Mulcair and the NDP come in. Mulcair thought that reciting a few platitudes about childcare and pharmacare would address people’s (particularly people on the left) growing sense of angst about the future of themselves and their children. Meanwhile, the backroom movers and shakers of the NDP (people like Brad Lavigne, Brian Topp, and Anne McGrath) are little more than politicians of convenience, people who seem to have a commitment to justice only as far as it furthers their careers or doesn’t threaten the status quo of wealth production, oil production, and luxury goods.

The crises of capitalism and democracy grow more pressing with each passing year, not just for us but more significantly for people in places like Africa and Latin America. Politicians like Justin Trudeau are slick and smiling snake-oil salesmen who have seen that the successful contemporary politicians job one is to create a big ‘feel-good’ factor while doing little for the basic injustices that plague our system and they certainly have no intention of addressing the growing inequality. Making people “feel” better about politics in dark and uncertain times is not just their personal road to power but the very motor of keeping the system’s legitimacy alive as it spirals down to greater inequality. But the reason that many on the left and in the NDP lost faith in Mulcair is that he didn’t actually represent anything different amid these feelings of crisis and fear. The NDP hasn’t represented a meaningfully different agenda for a long time. For a while (years, in fact) that didn’t seem to matter very much. But now that the crisis is sinking into people’s very consciousness, it’s not going to wash any longer.

The raging anger around the LEAP manifesto is perfect demonstration of just how significant the NDP’s failure has become. What is a relatively tame document that really just says we need to shift away from a carbon economy as fast as possible, has become in the eyes of many some kind of statement of radical environmental madness. And yet the proscription for our future is fairly simple; create a much more economically equal society while shifting our energy away from fossil fuels and into creatively new technologies. But in a world where billionaires bankroll politics, where modern oil barons live in multi-million dollar mansions and own six cars and two yachts, there is little political will among the most powerful to change the status quo. And many people (even in the NDP) think that the option is between leaving many average workers in sectors such as energy to lose their houses and their jobs, or maintain the status quo. Meanwhile politicians like Mulcair pick at crumbs that fall from the tables of the wealthy as though those little nuggets will solve people’s deep-seated problems.


Mulcair failed because he is just another average politician in a time that requires loud and vociferous voices that tell truth to power. A growing number of people are feeling the angst. The ones that are prone to too much fear are turning toward the dark lords of fascism the way they once did. But some are looking for real solutions, and real and inspiring leaders, not ones that once had the gall to praise Thatcherite politics and now think that they can offer the masses a few daycare spaces and everything will be ok. And I suspect the next leader of the NDP will similarly fail because the party will probably elect another angry, middle-aged, white man who truly doesn’t see that nice suits, flowery words, and a less expensive drug plan will do nothing to address what is really going on.