Friday, November 25, 2011

History and the Swing Riots.

Like many bloggers, I have, of late, been commenting on the so-called "Occupy" movement, its significance and importance, and the need to take such movements seriously regardless of the degree to which they seem focused or significant in the moment. I think it is difficult for many people to understand the importance of such protest movements because many people have trouble seeing the wide scope of history and the way that dissenting voices (which are sometimes incoherent) have long-term affects on the process of history.

Regarding this process, let me point people to a now largely forgotten set of events known as the "Swing Riots," an uprising of the Southern English peasantry which began in 1830 in Kent. The Swing Riots were a set of violent actions undertaken by poor peasants who were reacting to the gradual decline in their living standards. The peasants took to destroying various agricultural machines, attacking workhouses, and even committing violence against some rich tenant farmers. These peasants, who lived in horrendous conditions for the most part and had little hope for a decent future, had little in the way of coherent organization, and not a very good idea of what kind of solutions to their conditions might be enacted. But in difficult and troubled times, people are often not presenting alternatives, but simply pointing to problems.

When the Swing Riots began the Tories had been in power in England, with a couple of short exceptions, for forty years. Reforms had been very slow in coming and the so-called "Poor Laws" often made things even worse for the working poor. Earl Grey showed some sympathy to the Swing Rioters and used the events to argue for various reforms which liberal thinkers had been advocating for two generations. The dreaded Duke of Wellington responded to Earl Grey by suggesting that no reforms were necessary because the English constitution was the most perfect that could be imagined. Wellington's callousness resulted in his home being attacked by some who sympathized with the rioters.

The Swing Riots had only a small direct effect on the fight for reform in English political and economic culture. However, in the grand scheme of history, they were an important part of the multi-fold movement for better economic and political practices. The rioters were, of course, condemned as thugs and lawbreakers and nineteen of them were eventually hanged for their participation in the movement. But the simple fact is that it was only the loud and violent effort on the part of the Swing Rioters that made many people pay attention to the real difficulties being faced by many agricultural workers. And though some paid with their lives, it is these kinds of political efforts, though they are sometimes vague and unfocused, that bring about reforms and make people's lives better. This is the way history has always worked. It is those people out in the lead who are fighting against wretched poverty and political and economic inequality, who drag the human race forward. They seldom receive thanks or even recognition, but they are the ones who have made my life and your life better. They often have to break laws to do what they do, but one generation's lawbreaker is the next generation's hero; just look at Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But these two famous men are fighters we remember because they were attached to large and clear social questions. But just as important as such "great" men are the thousands of little, seemingly unimportant, men and woman who are fighting anonymously against impossible odds for sometimes vague demands. These are the heroes of history.

I salute the Swing Rioters, and the members of the Occupy movement, without whom we would a civilization going nowhere.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Brief Lesson in Western Semantics. . . .

A brief lesson in semantics according to Western discourse. . . .

Here we have an Egyptian protestor in Tahrir Square, or a "noble, freedom-fighter committed to the cause of democracy, freedom and the people." 

Here we have a Wall Street Protestor or "a lazy, misguided, troublemaker, who has no 'right' to occupy public space and who should go get a job.

Here we have two Syrian Police Officers, or "brutal tools of a police state that thwarts freedom of speech and contravenes people's human rights." 

Here we have some members of the Toronto Police Department, or "committed civil servants who keep the streets safe from trouble-making thugs." 

Here we have Honsi Mubarak or "a viscous dictator who thwarts democracy." 

Here we have Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper or "a committed leader of a Western democracy who believes in the rule of law." 

Any Questions? 

(P.S. Both leaders in question have or had about the same percentage of public support) 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Subtlety of Modern Protest. . . . .

A lot of criticism has been directed at the 'Occupy Movement' because of a supposed lack of focus. And indeed the goals of these protesters seem to be vague and unclear. But the lack of focus is not, I believe, a result of an absence of difficulties facing society, but rather I think it is a sign of the real depth and broad nature of the crisis. The people of Egypt put up with forty years of harsh and clear dictatorship and the real crisis in the Middle East only came when the price of bread (and a host of essential goods) suddenly became prohibitively expensive. The 1789 revolution in France saw a similar evolution; the lead up to the storming of the Bastille saw a serious draught and a dangerous shortage of bread in the country. Western democracies are not, at least for the moment, facing this kind of acute crisis. Arguably, we are suffering under the yoke of a kind of dictatorship that is the result of a corporate monopoly on the political system, but out democracies still have a kind of flexibility that states like Tunisia and Egypt did not possess. Protest against a rigid political state is relatively simply; people just call for a loosening up of basic democratic operations and an end to harsh repression. Protest against a flexible state in which power has spred its tentacles fairly evenly throughout society is a much tougher target.

You see, I think there are many people within the "Occupy Movement," as well as many of its sympathizers, who are not radical socialists. Rather, many of these folks simply know that something has gone terribly wrong with capitalism as they know it. Too much corporate control of our political agenda, huge profits for corporations while many can't make ends meet, a growing disparity between rich and poor, stagnating wages for a disappearing middle-class, ever decreasing citizen participation in the democratic process, and a globalizing economy that sets all countries into a race for the bottom: these are all genuine problems facing Western Democracies, and one can be cognizant of them without being rabidly anti-capitalist. However, the bigger problem is formulating a clear political response to these problems, and not just a political response, but one that will get people up off their couches after a hard day at work and ready to do something. You see, if millions of people can't afford to purchase bread for their children, it is not difficult to motivate them. But if your society is eroding slowly from the inside, people lack focus and tend to drift toward cynicism. It is a little like the slowly boiling frog analogy - if you boil the citizens of Western Capitalism slowly enough, they will lack the focus to protest their own gradual decline. And when people are slowly lossing their democratic rights, working more or less constantly just to make ends meet, and most importantly, all are declining more or less at an equal rate, it is very difficult to get them out on the street on-mass to demand that, for example, we have a fairer rate of taxation or that we remove the money from the political process.

The protests of the 'Occupy Movement' seem vague because the problems that we are facing are subtle in nature. Corporations have slowly infiltrated our system and taken control of it, all the while using the media to convince people that corporate control and a lack of corporate taxation are the primary roads to prosperity. As a result people begin to live in a state of cognitive dissonance, essentially believing two contradicting things at once. And this cognitive dissonance leads to a subtle kind of collective mental illness in which people become profoundly confused about the society in which they live - its power structures and its basic operations. People know that everyone should have access to healthcare, and that presidents of corporations shouldn't be earning tens of millions a years while they are putting people out of work and average people's salaries are stagnating. Meanwhile they have been continually plied, since infancy, with an ideology that tells them that the endless pursuit of money and profit are beneficial to all. In other words, the rich and the powerful have done everything in their power to make any solutions, short of radical socialism, seem pointless and/or impossible. And it is easy to bash "socialist" solutions amid a population that has been so effectively taught to equate anything vaguely socialist with Soviet repression.

Thus people are vague and confused. How do we stop CEOs from making fifty millon a year while simultaneously bankrupting the country and putting people out of work? How do we stop certain political parties being the exclusive representatives of a corporate ideology without fundamental change to our political system; changes that some believe will threaten the 'freedoms' we take for granted? How do we reform a legal system that profoundly favours those with money and power? How do we change the lives of hundreds of millions of people who have been raised on certain kinds of technologies and modern conveniences? It is easy to demand the ouster of a dictator who routinely has thousands of dissidents arrested and tortured. It is not so easy to demand the reform of a system which most people believe has many effective and admirable aspects but in which power has gradually infested all areas of social life and corrupted it like a widespread cancer.

This is why the "Occupy Movement" is so important - it is an attempt by a weary and troubled population to start a dialogue about some profound problems facing our society, problems which, if gone unchecked, will most assuredly destroy everything we hold dear. We ignore such protests at our peril - vague though they might be. There is no doubt that it will be a difficult dialogue because the ideology with which we are struggling is subtle and powerful and we, as a society, are becoming badly divided as the crisis looms. Such divisions are a customary part of a social crisis, but in a milieu of cognitive dissonance it is a difficult problem to navigate for many. But make no mistake, it must be navigated or the corporate power and ideology our present leaders represent, will rob us of everything we are.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What is our Future?

It seems that there are daily more reasons to dispair. We are so fragile and even the luckiest among us are compelled, at one time or another, to watch someone we love die and we must see them put securely and irreparably into the cold earth. The great institutions into which we put our faith, such as churches or governments, seem to tend toward the actions which directly contradict their very purpose. Even those regions of life such a art and poetry which we hope will express the purest, most noble aspects of who we are, are subject to the vagaries of the human ego. One cannot read or watch news of current event without some story that potentially undermines our hope in what is good about the world. We watch the innocence of our children eroded before our eyes by bullies as well as teachers that lack the compassion which their job should necessitate. And how do we tell them that violence and bullying is bad when those who "lead" our nations make violence and bullying the cornerstone of their political strategies?

If someone were to come here from another world I would be hard-pressed to muster a defence of our race which is gradually destroying itself in the name of profit and money. I having nothing but one simple principle on which to hang the hat of my hope; love. There is no rational reason to get up in the morning. I must go on simple faith that love is worth saving and that it will, in turn, save us. I know it is not much on which to rest one's hope in the future, but it is all we have.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Some more thoughts on Democracy. . . .

Democracy is almost always a tricky matter. The most difficult aspect of democracy is that it is not, as one often imagines it is supposed to be, a process wherein we have a meaningful debate about policy and legislation and the outcome reflects the most effective and most "rational" argument. Life is never really like this, and it couldn't be even if we wanted it to be. All sorts of things come into our decisions both individually and collectively. We have certain social and individual beliefs that are not subject to any sort of rational discourse. Furthermore, we are swayed by all sorts of emotional and ideological elements in our surroundings. Thus not only are our goals based upon various religious, philosophical, and ethical beliefs, but we live in a world of complex events and interactions and we rely on information and arguments presented to us from other people who are better informed than we. The complexity of many issues makes it difficult to know when so-called experts or authorities are motivated, consciously or subconsciously, by ideological factors.

In relation to these complex ideological factors, the most glaring problem for democracy is fairly simple: money. If one is in any setting of discoure, particularly if that discourse involves a large number of people, certain people have a greater ability to control the agenda of that discourse. They may have this power through a 'natural' authority that derives from respect of the collective or they may control that agenda through power or manipulation. At a large social level, this discourse is manipulated through money. People in a position of economic power can manipulate knowledge, information, and opinion simply by projecting a presumption of knowledge. If a lot of rich and powerful people  say "IT IS SO" then a lot of people are going to believe it is so just because of the presumed authority of money and wealth. Then, of course, there is the simple fact that rich and powerful people own the media and they can say almost anything they want and many people will simply believe them based upon the presumed authority found in the power of volume. All of these issues are made more problematical by the inherent complexity of modern society. Science can be easily manipulated through selective funding and grants as well as through the fact that large corporations are obviously going to pursue those areas of research that promote their interests.

Then there are global complications to take into consideration. Countries have decreasing room for manoeuvre in a context in which a relatively small set of capital interests can cripple an economy with ease. Banks and financial institutions have so thoroughly manipulated the economies and government policies on taxation and regulation that people have become convinced that it is essential for banks to make billions in order for the economy to succeed even while the majority of people are barely getting by.

So while we are pursing some abstract ideal of democracy, the principle of meaningful and equal discourse has largely lost all meaning. And people can rise to power with all sorts or outrageous beliefs as long as they represent the larger goals which lay behind the monied interests. Even here in Canada, which suffers less than some countries from the undue influence of money in the political process, we have a government that is full of individuals who possess distinctly "anti-democratic" beliefs, who harbor deeply unpopular religious beliefs, who have antiquated religious and social ideas, and who are distinctly racist, sexist, and homophobic. But these people can come to power because discourse in democracy has come to mean a lot less than the ideological power of money.

But, of course, a lot of people have written about the power of democracy in recent years, both from the academic and journalistic point of view. It seems that people are increasingly aware that our democracies are suffering from some serious problems and the so-called financial crisis as well as the increasing gap between rich and poor are some of the outward signs of a crisis of democracy. Of course, those who continue to have an interest in the status quo desperately spin these factors in a way that takes people's focus away from the real causes. They will tell people that the financial crisis is a result of public sector pensions and union power. And for a while this spin will surely work, as it has already. The banking bailout in countries like the US saw billions of dollars going from average tax-payers into the private accounts of already wealthy bankers and brokers. And in many countries governments are talking about new austerity plans. The problem is, of course, that these plans will just make things worse and when more an more people realize that they have no financial future and that their children have little chance of a decent education, decent housing, and any kind of pension, people will start to wake up. People will be particularly angered when they see that through all their hardships, the rich are just getting richer, becoming more comfortable, and are using the working masses as a cheap servant class.

There is a reason that greed has always been considered one of the so-called seven deadly sins. The problem with greed is that it is self-replicating. Greed breeds more greed just as the thirst of capital becomes unquenchable. Those individuals who seek tremendous wealth or run corporations have no stoping point. Unlike the old-time family-based capitalist enterprise, the nature of the modern corporation and market makes it technically impossible for corporations that rely on private investors to be satisfied with a certain amount of profit. Corporations must drive to ever greater profit rates and this creates a psychological syndrome among people that similarly drives them toward greater and greater wealth. The impact of this ideological shift is devastating for society - it not only creates a war of all against all but it undermines institutions of social unity at all levels.

Western capitalist democracies must find a way to deal with this fundamental problem if it is to avoid absolute crisis and total breakdown. The problem is, or course, that many among the rightwing do not even acknowledge the nature of the crisis. But history will eventually make the options clear - a more equal and socially oriented society or total barbarism.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What I Remember on Remembrance Day, The Unpopular Recall. . . . .

I honestly believe that Remembrance Day (or Veteran's Day as it was in the States when I grew up) does a significant and and lasting disservice to veterans of all wars and to our nations in general, at least in its modern incarnation. One would have to be blind not to see that Remembrance day has become not an effort to remember the horrors of war and need to avoid armed conflict in the future, but rather has become an exercise in blind patriotism. I think that an argument can be made that certain armed conflicts in, say, the past hundred years have been necessary, or even justified. But one would have to be deeply ignorant of 20th century history to imagine that the lion's share of armed conflicts that the Western nations have been involved in during the last century had anything to do with freedom or democracy. Such a claim is, quite frankly, counterfactual. But the 'patriotic' element in the Remembrance Day process has come to spin the events this way for a couple of reasons. The first is that no one wants to believe that any of the soldiers who were killed (on our side that is) died fighting for some ignoble goal; as though if we suggest that soldiers of the line were somehow duped into fighting for the wrong reasons, this belittles them as men. Another reason that this spin on on war must continue is that we continue to fight in wars that are part of a Western Capitalist agenda of money and geo-politics. And so the History Channel airs movie after movie that portrays our "good soldiers" on the one side and the the "bad guys" on the other. And on Remembrance Day everyone seems to forget that war is, almost literally, 'hell,' and a real and meaningful Remembrance Day would do a proper service to veterans and nations if we recalled all the terrible things of which our own country and our allies have been guilty as well as the good things. This would help us remember that war should be avoided at all costs and that the silent victims of war such as the millions of women that have been raped and children that have been killed and abused over the past hundred years in armed conflict are all too easily forgotten on these days when we are supposed to remember. My great-grandfather was in the First World War, a pointless horrible conflict that was really about colonialism, and he suffered from mustard gas poisoning. He blamed the leaders and the rich for the war and he hated war ever after. And it is his stories of the war that come down through our family. He believed that the war was committed in the service of big capital and that the workers were the cannon fodder for a battle over business turf. People can suggest all day long that I am disrespectful of the veterans, but as far as I am concerned each Remembrance Day is deeply disrespectful of my great grandfather because people have tried to romanticize and justify the slaughter of innocents and average workers.

For all these reasons, on Remembrance Day, I chose to remember all the horrible things that all sides in all armed conflicts have engaged in, as well as all the silent victims of our bombs and our guns that had nothing to do with the choices of the leaders and the elites. And if I want to really remember who gave us our freedoms, I recall all the Unions activists like my Grandfather Thomas Evans who spent his life fighting for workers rights, human rights, and democracy - not against foreign invaders but against the capitalists and the elite of his own country who did everything they could to keep such rights away from the people. If you are looking for someone to thank for your freedoms, go to your nearest union and you will find people that are fighting everyday to save our country from tyranny, and remember it is not vague, faceless enemies from across the sea somewhere that are the threat to your rights, it is people right here at home like Stephen Harper. Remember that!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Don't Let them Tell you. . . . . .

You have to give credit to the rightwing to one thing at least - the way that they have convinced so many people that our society is broke and we can't afford pensions for the elderly or living wages for the mass of working people. And they have managed to convince people of this at a time when our society has never been wealthier. "But," I hear you say, "aren't we in a financial crisis?" And the answer is, of course, yes. But it is not a crisis of wealth, rather it is a crisis of distribution. There is plenty of wealth in the world but the bulk of it is in so few hands that governments cannot afford to function the way that they should. And at a time when corporations are making record profits and the rich have never been richer, somehow the rightwing has convinced people that the financial crisis is the fault of a guy fixing your roads in Sarnia who just wants enough to send his kids to college, or a nurse in Athens who can't afford her own house, or auto-workers in Michigan who want decent healthcare and want to retire without living in poverty. It is not the fault to these people that capitalism is in crisis, it is a corrupt banking system, lack of a proper tax on the rich and on corporations, and the greed of people who are comfortable with keeping millions and millions while many working people can't afford the basics.

Imagine that society is a family of four with an income of one hundred thousand a year. Not bad, but not a fortune with today's housing prices etc. That family can get along reasonably well. But now let's say that the father buys a seventy thousand dollar new car every year and the mother takes two vacations in Cancun. Now when his kids come to the parents and say they want to go to college the parents say, we just can't afford it. Well, of course they can't afford it if unless the parents are willing distribute the income properly in the family and invest in the family's future in the form of educating the children.

The rightwing wants you to think that it is complicated. They want you to believe that unions have bankrupted the economy by asking for decent wages. They want you to think that all the people are spending all their money on wine, women, and songs - and the rest they are just wasting. But don't believe it. Instead demand common sense - a healthy society is one in which the wealth of that society is distributed well throughout all groups, where everyone has a voice, where the media is not at the behest only of the wealthy, and where we are investing in the future.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Freight Train, Freight Train, Going so fast. . . . .

I am certainly not a constitutional expert, but you don't have to be an engineer to see a freight train coming your way. And I suspect that a freight train in the form of whole slew of legal problems and possibly a constitutional crisis is headed in this direction. All of us who have been paying attention have a growing sense of danger as various issues are clearly moving toward real legal conflict between various groups and provincial governments and this atrociously self-absorbed, ideologically driven federal government. Legal battles over breaches of previous SCOC rulings concerning collective bargaining, gun-registry data, and of course provinces potentially refusing to implement the new federal crime bill are all pending. This is not even to mention the possibility that Harper will attempt unilateral senate reform. Of course loses on all or any of these issues will make the conservative base livid with talk of obstructionist courts or "activist" judges and this will further solidify that part of the CPC support. Furthermore, these issues could help to once again ignite separatist sympathies in Quebec, something that I suspect Harper wants because a Canada without Quebec is one that would be easier for the Conservatives to control.

I would contend that most of the various conflicts on the horizon stem from the simple fact that the Harper government is not satisfied with just creating conservative legislation but is a result of their broader goals of destroying the country in general. They not only hope to see the separation of Quebec in order to strengthen their political power, but they want to undermine the courts by effectively doing away with hundreds of years of precedent law and put the courts completely in the hand of the PMO, eliminate the Charter of Rights (or marginalize it to the degree that it becomes meaningless) eventually eliminate all unions, eliminate all sign of socialized medicine, completely eliminate all rehabilitation efforts in the legal system and increase the prison population by tens of thousands, eliminate the principle of innocence before the law, and essentially take away the structure of human rights which underpins this society.

Will they succeed? I don't know, I really don't. Countries have spiraled into fascism before and to think that it couldn't happen here is just naive. My hope is that people will smarten up and either oust this government through mass action as happened in Egypt or Tunisia, or at the very least get rid of it at the ballot box by concerted effort at electoral cooperation if necessary. Keep in mind that it won't be easy. Events at the G20 demonstrate to anyone who has any idea of history and politics that our government would be just as ready as any other to use any degree of violence if their existence was threatened. Furthermore, do not discount political assassination being used on any opposition leader that shows real signs of gaining popularity which threatens this government. (Maybe this has already happened).

And if you are tempted to call me crazy - JUST READ HISTORY!!!!!!!!! These things have been happening since the beginning of time and to imagine that somehow it is all in the past or that we are somehow above all that is naivety and pure egoism.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Whither Greece?

Anyone who has been a close observer of democracy knows that Western countries have only ever been committed to democratic principles to the degree to which they support and strengthen Western (generally capitalist) interests. Western countries love to talk about democracy but when they don't like the results that a democratic process promotes they quietly (or sometimes loudly) ignore or condemn the process. From the early days of the Trilateral Commission worrying about "too much democracy" to the election of Hamas, the West shows itself again and again to be interested in democracy only to the degree that it promotes their interests. Recently our own government in the past several years has done everything in its power to avoid established democratic processes and principle.

This anti-democratic tendency among the world's nations and the capitalist elite was on full display today when Prime Minister Papandreou suggested that his nation should hold a referendum on the policy that will have perhaps the greatest effect of any legislation on Greece for a generation, and governments and capitalist around the world reacted with disgust and panic. Imagine letting the people decide on something so important. Now, I am not naive and I know that there are cases in which so-called direct democracy can be a problem. But the cases in which democracy can be overridden are those in which the rights of the few are going to be overridden by the bigotry of the many. Federal and supreme courts in many countries can override democratically elected governments in cases such as human rights in which the majority is attempting to prevent certain people in society from enjoying equal rights. Such cases have been seen in things like so-called "interracial" marriage or gay marriage. Furthermore, I am sure that there are cases in which the "people" do not act in the real, longterm interests of the nation. However, in the case of Greece we have a nation that has been pushed to the brink by the irresponsibility of the banks and by a deeply corrupted taxation system in which the rich and corporations have paid almost no tax for decades despite so-called 'socialist' governments. Now, even though they have been paying for generations, the people are once again being asked to bear the brunt of the rich exploiting the system in their own interests. Bankers, large market investors, and the rich in general dread the idea that Greece or any nation could ask the people what is right and wrong when it comes to economic interests. This is what capitalists have always feared. But socialists (and in the old days even Liberals) have been saying for a long time, the economy is hear to serve us not the other way around, and if we decide that banks or capitalist shouldn't be allowed to act in certain ways then frankly that is just too bad for the banks. Despite what rightwingers might tell you, corporations are NOT people and the people can control, and always have controlled markets in various ways. If the people of Greece reject a solution to an economic crisis entirely brought about by banks and the rich syphoning off billions of dollars that should be distributed more fairly throughout the economy - that is a victory for democracy, and those who fear it are those that fear democracy in its most basic and principled form.

UPDATE - Shortly after I wrote this our dear Finance Minister Flaherty responded to the issue of a referendum in Greece. Trying not to sound too outrageously anti-democratic Flaherty said "It is not for us to dictate terms to the Europeans." But he we went on to say that "delay endangers the global economy." The real message from the Harper Tories has consistently been that democracy is dangerous to THEIR goals unless they can get something out of it for themselves. Remember that this is the man who, as finance minister of Ontario left a six billion dollar deficit during a time of global prosperity and then tried to hide his incompetence during the election. Naturally, for this remarkable feat, Harper put him in charge of the nation's finances.