Friday, August 26, 2011

Jack Layton & Steve Jobs

I'm a tech nerd and a Mac Head, for sure. I have a Macbook Pro and an iPhone and we have an Apple TV. I'm almost embarrassed to say that I'm a little bit excited to see the new iPhone 5/4S and only pushing the limits of my common sense has prevented me from getting an iPad (for my daughter, of course). But I'm also a socialist. As a result I've been reading the coverage of both the passing of NDP Leader Jack Layton and the resignation of Apple CEO and founder Steve Jobs. And I've been thinking a lot about what both of these men mean to me.

The tone and focus of the coverage of the two men has a lot on common, in some ways - with lots of discussion of their leadership abilities, their ability to inspire, their ability to have their finger on the pulse of ordinary people, their ability to save a moribund brand from disappearing, etc. The lost of both men has, in different ways led to much hand-wringing about the succession and the hole they leave in their respective organizations. But it's the ways that they are different which is more interesting.

When Jobs left Apple, Tim Cook stepped into the breach immediately. Within 24-hours he had sent out a letter Apple employees to indicate that he was in charge and that everything was great, even though they were sad to have lost Jobs at the helm. The NDP will now go through a lengthy leadership process that will likely last until January, with Nycole Turmel as an interim leader - basically powerless to drive things forward. A neo-liberal would suggest that this shows how efficient is the corporate world. I guess in a certain sense that is true. And Cook has justly earned reputation as a Chief Operation Officer for establishing an enviable supply chain that has assisted making Apple the world's largest tech company. But it is a dictatorship - one that we all accept with few second thoughts - where the thousands of Apple employees have no say, the consumers who buy the products have no say, and the people who work for the companies, like Foxconn, who depend on Apple ordering the components they produce, have no say. If we drill down a little deeper we see in the paeans to Jobs the reminder that he was once ousted from his top job at Apple, only to be asked back in 1995 to save the company - which he is credited with doing. Now, spread this model across the economy as a whole - decisions made in thousands of boardrooms, sometimes by less than half a dozen men, affecting the lives of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions. Part of what we're celebrating when we celebrate Steve Jobs is that process - in his case it "worked out" - we got some great gadgets, he helped to drive forward tech innovation, etc - but as we see with the present disastrous state of the global economy, that method doesn't always work out so well. The tops at the investment banks made decisions to slice up, package and sell bad debt as good investments. A few other guys at the rating agencies were paid by the guys at the banks to say that the bad debt was a good investment.

When we celebrate Jack Layton, we're celebrating a man who was chosen democratically as the leader of a party. That choice receives further affirmation - or doesn't - from the electorate. So, what Jack represents is the messiness of political democracy. But there's more to it than that. Jack's success - his democratic success - was in selling a vision and in building a machine to promote that vision across the country. What Jobs did at Apple was no doubt impressive but, when it comes down to it, what he did was sell us gadgets. I love my gadgets. Lots of people love their gadgets. But those gadgets don't set us free. They don't make it easier for the single-mother to find childcare or the pensioner to cover their bills. Steve Jobs had a strong understanding of what consumers want and of how to make marketing work. You look at the brand that Apple has created - hip, progressive, creative, iconoclastic even. These values or attributes are only mobilized to sell you the gadgets. They are abstractions and empty. Owning an iPad or an iPhone has nothing to do with being progressive or creative. You will challenge no moribund social values and institutions by working on a Macbook Pro.

Iconoclastic - literally smashing icons - is resisting the drive to war in Iraq when the media and most politicians are telling us that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction (a lie), that he is an imminent threat (a lie) and to not support invading Iraq is to support tyranny and dictatorship (also a lie). Layton very publicly did this. And he did it on the even more difficult question of Afghanistan, earning him the monicker "Taliban Jack" from the ever odious Tories. Being "hip" and "progressive" was to support full equality for gays and lesbians when even the NDP couldn't bring themselves to do it, as Layton did. Being creative was to take the NDP brand, project it into the province of Quebec - where the NDP has barely ever had a toehold - and less than a decade later lead a near sweep of the province's ridings.

And, ultimately, what is at stake for the NDP and Apple in losing their leader? For Apple it is clear: profit-making gadgets. As the Globe & Mail asks:

But can the company continue to churn out ground-breaking products without the rigorous, emotional demands of Mr. Jobs?
Losing Layton as leader of the NDP leaves the party with a big hole in its ability to sell it's product: hope. Jack, as he repeated in his farewell letter, thought that the party needed to give people that hope - hope that they could have a better life; hope that they could have a government that responded to the needs of ordinary, working class people and not just to corporations that were only interested in, well, profit-making gadgets. And, in the end, which is more important to your quality of life: your iPod or affordable daycare and a decent public healthcare system? The answer, I think, is apparent in the fact that while Jobs has gotten hundreds of articles, the memorials to Layton have extended beyond the media to thousands showing up to bid him farewell or write on a memorial outside of Toronto City Hall or attend the service on Saturday.

Luckily, unlike with Apple or any corporation, Layton led by inspiring others to use their own creativity  and energy to help make change. Under a dictatorship, the only real active, creative element are the people at the top who have the final say. In a movement, the ultimate say is with the people who put their efforts and hearts into the hard work of promoting an ideal or organizing a campaign or leading a strike.

I should say that I'm not a member of the NDP and have no intention of joining but I'm a socialist, like many in the NDP. I have hope that the mutual inspiration that Layton generated and received from the movement that he led - which extended beyond the boundaries of the party - will carry that movement in good stead. The dignified and courageous way that Jack left us - the letter, the funeral that he organized to inspire us to continue the hopeful struggle for a better world that inspired him - makes me confident that, if anything, his passing will serve as a reminder of what our tasks are. That reminder could well raise our movement to a new level.

Oh, and I'm sure that the iPhone 5 will be awesome even without Steve.

With Jobs out, Apple faces pressure to echo his triumphs - The Globe and Mail
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