Saturday, February 27, 2016

Racism and Knownothinism as Capitalist Weapons. . .

One of Karl Marx's most famous dictums was that socioeconomic systems create the conditions of their own demise. This process could be said to happen in two ways. On the one hand, a system of production creates the conditions for a 'better' and 'more advanced' one to take its place. This rather teleological idea can be easily conceived like this - capitalism evolves such a complex system of production and distribution that mechanisms of cooperation and planning become more and more necessary. Forms of socialism become, in other words, necessary for the system to continue. One take on this process was famously outlined by Eduard Bernstein when he created (much to the chagrin of revolutionaries everywhere) the idea of evolutionary socialism. There is no doubt that capitalism has, indeed, created elements of socialism at its very heart (universal education, healthcare, an extensive public service, welfare, etc.). But capitalism has also evolved greater and greater mechanisms of exploitation, and society, by many accounts, is less equal today than it was fifty years ago.

This fact brings us to the second way in which a socioeconomic system creates the conditions for its own demise - the greed and stupidity of the ruling class. There is a growing consensus that in order to operate effectively capitalism needs to tend toward a surprisingly high degree of economic equality. Inequality leads to all sorts of socioeconomic crisis. The framers of the modern welfare state understood this clearly; they knew that without some degree of universalism, capitalism would lead inevitably to revolution. The reasons that this seems less clear today are globalization and the decline of traditional methods of industrial production in 'advanced' countries. If capitalists can effectively atomize society and production, the impulses for socioeconomic evolution are made considerably less acute. This process is both good and bad for the rich and powerful. In the short term it buys them space and time to amass unprecedented wealth while bypassing traditional revolutionary impulses. But in the long term it creates conditions for new, never before seen kinds of opposition and crisis (including potential environmental disaster).

History is littered with states and societies in which the ruling class failed to see the looming crisis, the crisis that would lead either to complete social breakdown or to the overthrow of their system of power. One of the ways in which societies attempt to draw out their period of demise is to get the 'common people' on side in their own exploitation. To do this, the ruling class has to convince the people that it is not the rich and powerful that are leading the society to inequality and disaster but that it is some external threat or that it is being poisoned from the inside by groups that are corrupting 'traditional' values. This internal target can be anything from a particular religion and/or ethnicity to intellectuals or homosexuals. These are all easy and soft targets which can be blamed for 'destroying the values' that once made the nation 'great.'

This kind of rhetoric has been much in evidence lately. Recall Stephen Harper's famous quip that we shouldn't "commit sociology," for example. The last thing leaders like Harper want is for people to attempt to analyze the origins of social threats or crises. Analysis leads to discovery of the actual socioeconomic relations behind such crises. The attack on intellectualism has always been a central weapon in the rightwing armoury. Just the other day Donald Trump said in his Nevada victory speech "I love the poorly educated." This offhand remark will surely go down in the annals of rightwing knownothinism. Jews were once the central internal target of diversion for the fascist cause. Today Muslims have taken their place. And Muslims are a much more effective target because they can be portrayed as both internal corruptors of our system as well as an external threat. When the racists ministers (and Harper minions) Chris Alexander  and Kellie Leitch stood up in front of the nation to announce a "barbaric cultural practices" snitch line, they knew exactly what they were doing; they were attempting to use race and ethnicity to whip up fear of an internal corruptor of "our" values. This classic smoke and mirrors technique goes to the very heart of capitalism's crisis, a self-made crisis of inequality that the rightwing wants you to believe is rooted in the threat of the 'other.'

I am not one of those radicals that says that capitalism leads "inevitably" to its own demise per se. I believe that as a socialist that position is dangerously hypocritical. If I believe that we can make society we choose, it would be problematic for me to claim that we can't make some form of more sustainable capitalism. But I do agree with Marx's basic premiss that a system creates the conditions for its own replacement with something different. I think some 'market' mechanisms will go on for a very long time even if we do choose to move toward a more socialist society. On the other hand, I think that within a modern context fascism is an inherently unstable system that will lead to disaster. At the moment the real political question for our generation is 'can we avoid the pitfall of the fascist impulse in the face of a capitalist crisis?' Can we see through the smoke and mirrors of scapegoating internal and external threats and come to grips with the fact that capitalism's present crisis is of its own making and the people we need to reject are the very ones pointing to the "other" while it is really they who are leading us to disaster?

Friday, February 26, 2016

What Rules do Harper and Trump follow??

Watching the gradual deterioration of rightwing politics into racism, extremism, and economic and environmental disaster, it is surely shocking how easily, here in the 21st century, the bugs crawl out from their hiding places. As cynical as I am it even surprised me how quickly Harper's regression into overtly racist politics led to the sudden emergence of increased bigotry in Canada. As soon as leaders legitimize such ideology, as Harper and his minions did and as Trump is doing now, the real ugly underbelly of the rightwing emerges. And it is both depressing and shameful.

It seems to me that the deterioration of traditional conservative parties in both Canada, the US, and elsewhere, is largely a result of the gradual failure of neo-liberal ideology which has now fairly conclusively demonstrated that it leads nowhere. Traditional conservatives who so gladly backed neo-liberalism, are now left bereft of a meaningful way forward and as they flounder and tread water the vacuum of their failure is filled by the wackos who seem to know nothing about anything and so they largely simply rely on the politics of hate, anger, and scapegoating to fill their ever increasing void.

Here in Canada in the wake of a decade of such hate and anger, we now are faced with the embarrassing presence of an opposition leader whose ignorance about just about everything is matched only by her spiteful mean-spiritedness. I mean, who would have predicted 20 years ago that we would have an opposition leader who glorifies Ayn Rand??!! (The shear stupidity of Rand's thought is matched only by the ridiculous performative contradiction of claiming to be a Randian while simultaneously being a public servant. I mean you really couldn't make this stuff up)

The other day I heard a Trump supporter complain about immigrants by saying that "These people come here and don't want to obey the rules." There are many levels of ignorance on display here, but I will talk about the one that I find most telling.

When a rightwing wingnut talks about immigrants not "obeying the rules" what they are really saying, of course, is that they are not "obeying my rules." What this ignorant Trump supporter was conflating was the difference between rules and laws. Laws are things you have to obey, while rules are something with which you choose to abide. Laws apply (or at least should be applied) to everyone equally. Rules, on the other hand are largely things we voluntarily engage with depending on time and place. If we want to engage in certain professions, for example, we can chose to abide by the rules of the professional association that grants accreditation. If we want to join a gym we choose to adhere to certain rules about, say, clothing or wiping down the machines after use. At a wider scale, rules are really just norms and standards of behaviour. But these are flexible and we can choose to flout norms even if we pay a social price for that.

The reason I am making this distinction is that the conflation of laws and norms, so poignantly expressed by that Trump supporter, is very revealing about the decline of the rightwing into a movement of anger, hate, and division. Western Liberal democracy, imperfect as it has been, was founded on an assumption that while laws should apply to everyone, norms and standards of behaviour should be as flexible as possible to allow for the greatest degree of diversity and personal belief and action. But as Western Liberal democracy has begun to falter and fail (both as a result of direct attacks by the rightwing and a growing social/political/economic inequality) the rightwing leaders (largely in an effort to divert attention from their own ideological failures) have increasingly attempted to focus people's attention on the actions of the perceived "other." They don't want us to think about the fact that there has been a significant decline in people disobeying laws, and they want us to think about how people aren't abiding by our (read traditional white) norms of behaviour.

When rightwing ideology (which even at its best is largely a defence of selfishness) fails over a long period to "deliver the goods," it is left with an empty shell of hate and anger. Where it fails to legislate this negativity (largely because courts have prevented it) it refocuses attention on the more abstract and more easily manipulatable notions of norms of behaviour. Ironically, the phenomena of Harper and Trump is actually a sign of the failure of rightwing ideology to deliver the promised prosperity, just as a bully who is losing an argument reverts to physical violence. The rightwing want us to believe that norms of behaviour are the most important thing in society not because they believe in peace and social harmony but because they have failed legally and legislatively and so they want us to believe that the apparent failures of our society (for which they are most responsible in the first place) are a result of people who have come into "our" society and don't want to play by "our" rules.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Democracy and the Internet. . .

Lorne over at Politics and its Discontents posted an excellent essay today on the decline of democracy that is occurring in part because of the death of newspapers and professional journalism in general. I have been thinking a lot lately about the other side of this issue - the rise of the internet in every facet of our lives - particularly because my daughter is doing a Masters in Communication with an focus of the use of digital media by unions. She and I regularly discuss the issues surrounding democracy, digital culture, and leftist ideology.

Lorne is right about the need for newspapers and professional journalism in bringing important issue to light in civil society. This is particularly important given that collusion between government and big capital is not always easy to see or understand. Lorne rejects the notion that the internet truly democratizes information. I generally agree because when you really research the issue you find that the internet continues to be dominated to a surprising degree by powerful corporations. However, I would say that we really don't know yet the ways and degrees to which digital media will impact society and human beings in general.

My daughter and I were discussing this issue the other day because her T.A. duties required her to talk to the students about Marshall Mcluhan. She was shocked when she found out that not a single one of the students had even heard of Marshall Mcluhan. Granted, these were first year students, but they were all communications majors and Mcluhan is, after all, a very famous Canadian. We discussed this issue and broadened it as I wondered out loud why it is that despite so much access to information so many young people are ignorant of so many things. I thought back to when I was helping my son with an essay on Kerouac's On the Road. As I was discussing the book with him I started mentioning various cultural figures who Kerouac talks about throughout the text of On the Road, I realized that though he had read the book he was unfamiliar with almost all of these cultural icons. This lack of knowledge was not, in and of itself, surprising. However, given that he was reading On the Road specifically for a university class with the intention of writing an essay, I was shocked that he hadn't looked them all up as he was reading. After all, a nearly infinite wealth of information is at our fingertips at all times. These facts led me and my daughter to wonder if the internet is actually having the opposite effect on new generations than what one would assume. Perhaps instead of leading many young people to seek out a lot of new information, the internet is actually causing people to not bother trying to find many things out. The reason for this could be that the ubiquity of information could lead to an assumption that everything that we need to know will automatically come to us. Before the internet our relationship to information was clear in as much as we understood that knowing things required effort. We knew that there was a lot that we didn't know and if we wanted to know such things we had to go (for the most part) to books in order to find out. However, when information is so accessible and presumably ubiquitous, I think many young people (that is to say people who have no memory of a pre-internet experience) assume that what they need to know about culture they either already know or it will be shortly bestowed on them by this ubiquity itself. It is not a very complicated hypothesis. If you are continually barraged by information of all kinds, the idea that you might have to go out and make an effort to research and find things out seems strangely absurd.

I wonder if this phenomenon is sort of like the flip side of the death of newspapers and journalism. Our relationships to newspapers, for example, was very physical, particularly broadsheets. We had to get the newspapers and sift through them in a way that is quite distinct from how we get information on the internet. Furthermore, the physical limits of the newspaper itself was sensually understood. Newspapers were slices of information and further information required the reader to seek out another medium. The message of the internet, on the other hand, is ubiquity. If, getting back to Mcluhan, the medium is the message, then the message of the internet is potentially that in the act of opening the internet, we are information and information is us.

I have no doubt that democracy can only be meaningful to the degree that people are informed. There is no doubt that the death of the newspaper and professional journalism will close down much of society's information exchange. This is not a difficult relationship to understand, though finding a way to fill the void that it leaves is more complicated. The assumption that the internet bestows on people might be considerably more dangerous to democracy because when people assume that they are informed but aren't, they become the fodder of rich and powerful.