Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Norm Kelly v Rob Ford: The Right Wing Mayor Is Dead. Long Live The Right Wing Mayor!

Happier days for the populist right

Well, it was indeed a circus at city hall yesterday. I wasn’t able to attend the performance live but did have the pleasure of watching some of it unfold via the miracle of the interwebs. Those Ford brothers sure know how to do a great imitation of The Sopranos – belligerent, bullying, pulling faces like a couple of 12-year old school yard pricks. Better writers than me have detailed the whole gory affair, including former fan club president, Christie Blatchford.

So, I won’t dwell on the specifics of their performance. Just to note that, in the end, Ford was stripped of much of his power. Of course, it came after a predictable performance that the Ford gang has realized will garner them international attention and ensure, if not a political future, it’s definitely building their media career. A lot of North Americans love UFC. The Fords played to that fan base.

What is more interesting, besides the easy to talk about spectacle, is just what we have gotten in replacement of Rob Ford: Norm Kelly. This is what the left voted for in stripping Rob Ford of his powers – they voted for Norm Kelly to take over the mayoral role. So, who is this guy? Well, certainly he will be less entertaining but will he be “better” for our city? I mean he must be, after all, even council lefty Gord Perks was tweeting that if the Ford bros. tried to remove Kelly before yesterday’s vote they’d just put him back in place so that they could make him interim mayor.

Kelly, made Deputy Mayor by Rob Ford himself, is a political veteran, having been in and out of various levels of office since Trudeau the senior was Prime Minister. He was also once the head of history at Upper Canada College – a prep school for ruling class boys in Toronto. And, most importantly, he’s just as odious as Rob Ford. As he himself said as recently as August, when he was made DM, on his role:
“There has to be a commitment to the core policies and core direction of the mayor...”

He’s not kidding there, in fact, he voted with Ford over 96% of the time. Like Denzil Minnan-Wong, Cesar Palacio and other council right-wingers, Kelly has happily played the role of Ford hatchet man whenever it was needed, removing the TTC chief General Manager Gary Webster back in February, 2012 – at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars – because he didn’t furnish Ford’s castle in the sky with the necessary furniture by endorsing his outrageously expensive and impractical subway plan. It should be noted that Kelly previously voted in favour of Miller’s transit city plan seven times. That’s the plan that Ford tore up as soon as he was elected because he wanted subways, not LRT. Of course, at the time Kelly was on Miller’s executive, which is both a demonstration of Miller’s judgment and Kelly’s opportunism.

Besides his role as chief toady, Kelly is also a climate-denier or, as he would say “we just don’t really know anything now do we?” Tell that to the families of the 10,000+ dead in the Philippines. Nor is this some recent aberration, according to this 2003 article in NOW:
[Kelly] holds the distinction of being the only TTC commissioner who doesn’t believe in increased funding for public transit. Member of the city’s powerful policy and finance committee and an unabashed supporter of the Island Airport expansion, Union Station, Front Street extension – you name it. Believes in privatizing waste, water and public housing. One of the worst voting records on council on the environment as well.

So, let’s be honest. Like Minnan-Wong and the rest of the Ford Nation minions at City Hall, the only thing that has changed for Kelly is that Ford’s incompetence has made it impossible for him to implement the austerity agenda that they support. Ford has fallen out of favour with the real powers that be in the city and with the mostly right wing, pro-austerity media. For certain this palace coup includes a fair share of careerist maneuvering by Ford’s former allies, but at its core it’s all about re-arming neo-liberalism on Toronto City Council.

And the left on council are playing the role of enablers – not of Rob Ford’s self-destructive, substance-abusing behavour – but of austerity and privatization. They are helping the right wing to re-arm by helping them remove the right’s own worst enemy. They could have exposed the tawdry nature of this whole spectacle, the dubious nature of the police surveillance operations and the opportunism of council’s right wing. Instead, what they seem to want is “business as usual”, calm and cooperation.

The city council left could have used this crisis as an opportunity to derail the austerity agenda. But they didn’t. And they aren’t alone. Andrea Horwath, provincial NDP leader raised no questions about what is going on at City Hall, endorsing the Liberal government's intention to now deal with Norm Kelly. “If Mr. Kelly is now the person who is the head action person when it comes to city of Toronto decision-making . . . then that’s the appropriate thing to do,” said Horwath. Really? All the NDP can do is big up right-winger Norm Kelly? And the union movement in the city has been no better sadly. Having failed to mobilize any sort of sustained fight against attacks on jobs and conditions by the council right wing, they did manage to make an effort to mobilize an audience in council chambers yesterday to support the right wing’s push to oust Ford. I’m sure Norm Kelly will reward Toronto’s public sector workers with better conditions…not.

Personally, I hope Rob Ford sues city council and exposes further the hypocrisy that resides here - like when Doug Ford opportunistically pointed out that the head of the Police Services Board going on a fishing trip with the Police Chief, Bill Blair, is a major conflict of interest. The more the flailing of the Ford bros tears apart the right wing, discredits these supposedly austere institutions helmed by the responsible elite, and sets them at odds with each other, the better. The left should not be aiding the right to be more effective, they should be "enabling" their self-destruction, helping them hoist themselves on their own petards and exposing their rotten politics in the process.

Seeing this debacle unfold has made me realize that the Rolling Stones had it all wrong. It’s not true that you can’t always get what you want. In this case the left got what it wanted but it most definitely isn’t what we need.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Ford Saga: Left Gives Cover To Right Wing Palace Coup

Cuts, what cuts? It's all about bad behaviour
photo credit: @HeartsOnTheLeft

Not one word about cuts. Not one word about privatizing garbage collection. Nothing about his refusal to ever attend a single Gay Pride Parade. Zilch about his actual politics. No, everything is focused on his drinking, his drug use and his public displays of such activities. Oh, and in case you didn't notice: he's fat (because that deserves serious political discussion with regards to the mayoralty). The closest we get to something progressive is a councilor pointing out the hypocrisy in Mayor Ford’s “zero tolerance” stance on illegal drugs when he himself has purchased illegal drugs in the last two years.

Make no mistake, this is a right wing coup to get rid of a difficult former front man. That the left is getting caught up in this is a sign of how off the rails the left is, how disconnected it is from ordinary, working class people. I don’t expect much from the “left” on city council. The best that they could do when they were needed was to vote for a study of how efficient garbage privatization was after it was implemented. And, as I’ve said before, when Ford put forward a motion during the G20 debacle to laud the police, most of the left voted for it with 5 members walking out of the chambers in order to avoid having their vote counted. They couldn’t even bring themselves to publicly abstain on a pro-cop vote after all the round-ups of innocents, the kettling, the home invasions, Officer Bubbles, the display of "weapons"by Chief Blair that included a chainsaw and some medieval role playing gear. I’m not sure how you could manage to be more lame and still get out of bed in the morning.

But now they’re all over this, crusaders for truth, justice and democracy – and being led by the nose by right wing Rob Ford ally Denzil Minnan-Wong to, uh, depose Rob Ford. (edit - except for Gord Perks, who opposes deposing elected officials - though I will never forgive him for leaving the room during the G20 vote).

Besides the city council “left”, I’ve also been shocked by some of the stuff I see on Facebook. I’ve seen articles posted attacking Ford’s drug and alcohol use by people who I know have used drugs and alcohol to excess in the past. And done it in public. Some of them even got into fights while doing it. (For the record I have used both, and made an ass out of myself in public more than once. I also strongly believe in decriminalizing drugs so that users aren’t sent to prison and the drugs trade isn’t turned into a high stakes criminal activity involving guns and violence). Then of course there are the fat jokes, always the fat jokes. And the faux outrage because Ford said "eating pussy". Are you serious? I hear people say worse shit in the cash line at the grocery store for God's sake. Who. Cares.

More seriously, look at the rallies to depose Ford at City Hall. I dare you to find a single sign opposing cutbacks, privatization or bigotry. You won’t because they don’t or, rather, these rallies aren't about that - they're about moral outrage. The kind of morals that are about contempt for the great unwashed, of which I am proudly a member. Let’s take a step back for a second here. As wildly delusional as Rob Ford and his brother are – I mean, they consort with Giorgio Mammoliti and Doug compared Rob to Jesus of Nazareth – they are right that this is a witch hunt. Perhaps, dare I say it, even a conspiracy.

The police staged an expensive and extensive investigation against Ford, including airplane surveillance, stake-outs, interviews, etc. all because he got wasted on tape. Does this strike no one as an unusual use of police resources? They found nothing, apparently, with which they could convict him – and yet the details of this surveillance of an innocent (yeah, the word chokes a bit in my throat) man are released to the media. Does nobody else find this disturbing? Would you be troubled if the cops staked out Maude Barlow’s house, or David Suzuki or Olivia Chow – and then the courts released photos, transcribed interviews and CCTV footage that smeared them without ever laying a charge? Do you think that this is a good precedent for dealing with politicians who rub the powers that be the wrong way? And rub them he does.

Ford is a populist windbag and right wing bigot with a neoliberal agenda that includes cutting services for the most vulnerable in society. But he was not the candidate of the city establishment – George Smitherman was. Ford won because, unlike the left (or Smitherman), he speaks a language and expresses an anger to which many working people can relate – including the non-white, immigrant heavy suburbs. That’s not the route of preference for the ruling elite who would rather see things stay respectable and passionless. (Unfortunately, it’s also not the route of preference for the polite left.)

Sure, after Ford won they were willing to work with him but it was begrudgingly because he’s such a loose cannon and because he’s not totally under their control. Doug Ford’s wild attacks on the Police Chief Bill Blair are demonstration enough of that. As the inability of Ford to drive through an austerity agenda became clear this very conditional support waned. And when he was unable to come up with a credible transit plan in a city where gridlock is costing significant profits (as in billions of dollars every year), there was growing alarm. Not to mention his (and Doug’s) tendency to come up with the most hare-brained ideas when it comes to city development (ferris wheels for the waterfront, anyone?).

At some point this draining of ruling class support became an active desire to remove him. Again, not because he was a right wing bastard but because he was an ineffective right wing bastard. And not because he stirred up some active opposition with his neo-liberal policies. Does anyone really think that the ruling class gives a rat's ass about some protests and a relatively small and contained strike by library workers? Really? Have you seen the ruling class of Greece veer away from implementing harsh austerity in the face of monthly general strikes? Opposition they can deal with - Mike Harris weathered a series of city-wide general strikes and a demonstration in Toronto of 250,000 or more people. He never once lost ruling class backing. This is not about the relatively minor (though welcome) opposition on the streets of Toronto. Mayor Miller, a candidate of the centre-left with labour backing, faced bigger resistance.

Whether the growth in the sentiment amongst the elite turned into active conspiracy, who’s to know. For myself, I have a hard time believing that there isn’t some coordination and discussion going on when the police dedicate a whole squad to following him (Including with airplanes!! I want to know how much that operation cost.), and then the results of those investigations lead to a progressive and systematic tightening of the noose. First, there are hints in the press that there might be some information damaging to Ford in the report. Then his driver, apparent muscle and probable dealer, Alexander Lisi, is arrested and charged with dealing pot. Then part of the report is released and the Chief of Police himself announces – at a press conference – that the crack video exists and that they have it. At each moment Ford has refused to step down and they have upped the pressure on him. My guess is that at some point, if he doesn’t cry uncle and leave office, there will be a warrant for our Chief Magistrate’s arrest. They will destroy him. I won't weep for the guy, given his mendacious and pathological behaviour, but I'll shudder at the precedent.

The left, by trailing along behind this palace coup and acting like it’s some sort of uprising from the people – have given cover to the right wing and the ruling class, putting a progressive gloss on the whole operation. They have facilitated a moral panic about drugs and alcohol and bad manners that won’t be used against cocaine snorting bankers, cavorting with high priced call girls. It will be used against “gangbangers” to launch attacks on visible minority communities and the poor. And the left will be tarnished as being responsible for these attacks and will be seen for the kind of downtown, whitebread, middle class snobbery of which Rob Ford has accused us.

A final note: in all this, where is Karen Stintz? She’s being very quiet and letting people like Minnan-Wong and del Grande – not to mention the left – haul down the big guy. Her name is conspicuously absent on the open letter calling for Ford to resign. She is positioning herself to be the grand unifier who has no blood on her hands. If Stintz, a Tory, wins next year, the left will have itself to blame. Stintz actually stood up to Rob Ford while the left was still cowering at the mention of Ford Nation. She doesn't need to attack him now, she already established her anti-Ford credentials - when it took a spine to do so - now she can reap the reward. The left is helping her become our next mayor. Good work, guys. Just what we need, a more effective conservative.

No, just because Rob Ford is a total bastard it doesn’t follow that all means of getting rid of him are good ways. And it sure doesn’t mean that all ways will lead to a better city. That so much of the left thinks so is a stark reminder that the left has lost confidence in itself and, even worse, lost confidence in the power of mobilizing, particularly working class people. This proxy victory – using right wingers, police chiefs, the courts and the media to eliminate a right wing mayor – is no victory at all. It is a hostage to fortune.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Three Reasons Why Ford Should Stay

Everyone’s clamouring for Ford to resign: he lied, he smoked crack, he was wasted on the job, the city needs a competent administration. Balls, I say. I’ve seen competent administrations and I can say for certain in the present climate that a “competent administration” will focus its attention on further austerity and attacking those who resist austerity. Need I remind that the entire left wing on council voted to applaud the role of the police in attacking G20 protestors? Well, a couple of them stayed away for the vote but you don’t get bravery points for that now, do you? So I can think of three good reasons why we will be better off as a city if Rob Ford stays and then runs in the next election:

1) His removal will be on a conservative basis that does nothing to strengthen the left. Sorry, folks – Police Chief Bill “martial law” Blair is the hero in this story, not the left, not the unions, not the LGBT movement. In fact the list of Ford’s enemies looks increasingly like a who’s who of the right in this city. The clamour for Ford’s head is not because he wants to close libraries, end daycare subsidies or because he refuses to attend Gay Pride. It is a moral panic about a guy who is too trashy to do the elite job of being a mayor. If he goes now he will be replaced by a new standard bearer who most of the right can rally around to implement the very same agenda pursued by Ford.

2) By Ford staying the right wing can spend the next year tearing the shit out of each other and can then proceed to split the vote three ways. A deeply fractured right creates more space to resist austerity and build a fightback. After Ford was elected there was a sense amongst the left on council and outside in the real world, that Ford Nation was unassailable. Pessimism leads to passivity and acceptance of austerity because there appears to be no alternatrive. Doug Ford’s call for Chief Blair and Polices Services Board chair Andrew Pringle to resign demonstrates that the dynamic duo have no red lines and they will escalate the fight as much as necessary to save their careers. These guys are not normal politicians. And Dougie is also correct: Pringle, the head of the body whose job it is to oversee the cops and keep them on a tight leash of accountability has no business going on a fishing trip with the damn chief. If the Ford's want to go down swinging and take down a bunch of right wing power brokers with them (saying things that the left has never had the spine to say) then I say let 'em rip. I'm not a fan of UFC but this is the kind of cage match that I could get into.

3) The left and the unions need time to rebuild confidence and activism. Let’s be honest – the left has been for shit. Besides the librarians – who fought a good strike and basically won – and one significant, union-led, anti-austerity protest of several thousand people at City Hall, Ford has faced less resistance than even David Miller. Garbage collection was privatized without a whimper from CUPE. If Olivia Chow is elected mayor – and, again, let’s be honest it will be with a Miller-esque team that includes “progressive” business leaders – and there is no anti-austerity movement in the streets or in the unions, she will implement a more socially progressive version of the same pro-business policies. I would bet money that her “cabinet” would include Karen Stintz, the anti-Ford Tory councilor who is chair of the TTC (and being touted as the person to beat Ford by the media). We’ve seen this story before with the Ontario NDP government – elected on high hopes, does progressive stuff for about a year, then collapses under pressure from the right into harsh austerity and scapegoating of the poor as the unions are split and provide little resistance. The unions, the NDP and the "social movement left" could start by mobilizing now against Ford on the basis of challenging his politics, not his lifestyle.

So, be careful what you wish for Toronto lefties because you just might get it. At worst you will end up with Stintz or, god help us, John Tory as mayor by this time next year. At best we will end up with effectively the same policies with a progressive gloss and the right wing will have ridden out a major crisis and been allowed to regroup.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Bye Bye Rob Ford, Hello Karen Stintz

There is the sound of champagne corks being popped and cheers in the streets. Everyone smiles at each other and winks, knowing that soon it will all be over. The hated burgermeister is falling and no one, except perhaps his family, will be sad to see him go. And he has been felled by none other than that champion of democracy, Toronto Police Chief William Blair.

Oh, wait a second. Bill Blair? The same Bill Blair who led the cops in their assault on G20 protesters a couple of years ago? The same Bill Blair who wheeled out props – a la the “Miami model” of protest disruption - and used “kettling” to corral not only peaceful demonstrators but unlucky passersby for hours without food or water? The same Bill Blair whose cops shot a man nine times on a streetcar before tasering him?

Something is rotten in Denmark.

I have watched the left go absolutely bananas with delight in the past week as the official right wing in Canada has imploded. Well, imploded is too strong a word, the game is hardly over for Harper as of this morning. And I’ve also been happy to see the vultures turn on each other. I mean, these guys are scumbags, lets face it. But it has been with growing trepidation.

At the federal level, Stephen Harper’s troubles have nothing to do with his murder of thousands of Afghans in support of NATO’s attempt to subdue that country. It has nothing to do with his shutdown of the national daycare plan that Paul Martin put in place to try and save his own skin, or his scuppering of the deal he made with first nations people. Nor does it have anything to do with his policy record of the past decade – his cuts to cultural funding, his government’s attacks on funding for international women’s organizations that support choice on abortion or domestic religious groups like KAIROS that support Palestinian rights. It has nothing to do with his unbridled support for big oil and their enthusiastic destruction of the environment of Alberta and, indeed, the whole world with the tar sands. Nothing to do with his support for fracking to recover natural gas. The list goes on as to the odious reasons why Harper should be unceremoniously turfed from office.

Not one of those reasons has come up. And the same can be said for Rob Ford. Ford privatized west end garbage collection, leading to a degradation in working conditions for sanitation workers, and worse service. He tried to close libraries and de-fund childcare subsidies for single parents and poor families. He has attacked cyclists and environmentalists. He shut down the much needed transit plan for the city to wage an ideological fight for subways vs LRTs.

No, the reason why Harper is in trouble is a stupid, piddling, little scandal – a couple of his senators took extra expenses – a time honoured tradition in Canada’s undemocratic chamber of “sober second thought” (oh, the delicious irony of that title as I watched Duffy roast Harper last week). His office then tried to head off the scandal by covering the expenses of Mike Duffy. Aboriginal people are living in conditions worse than the developing world on many reserves and working class people can’t afford daycare – and I care that Duffy took an extra $100K?

Sure, it is Harper’s famous arrogance and micromanagement that is bringing him down. And if he goes the way of Brian Mulroney 20 years ago I won’t shed a tear. But we all ought to remember how that celebration ended. The Tory party was destroyed, not by the left, but because it was so thoroughly rotten and hated by both left and right (the right because Mulroney supported concessions to Quebec viz Meech Lake Constitutional Accord). It gave the Liberals 4 terms in office under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin. And it gave Canada the harshest austerity regime in the western world under Paul Martin. The fact that it was not a shift to the left was also expressed in the fact that out of the ashes of the Tories arose an even more right wing party, Reform – whose ultimate victory was that they got to remove the words “progressive” from the “Progressive Conservative Party of Canada” (confirming that they are, in fact, against any progress). In Ontario the NDP was decimated for a generation (by their own right wing policies, it should be said) and replaced by the rabidly right wing Tories under Mike Harris.

Not that the present round of defenestrations will necessarily end the same way. But people need to sober up and take a look at who is putting in the knife and why. That will tell us a bit about why it is happening and why now.

In Toronto the city elite have always hated Rob Ford. Their horse was George Smitherman – a smooth, connected lawyer with right wing politics and a progressive gloss because he’s openly gay. He would have had an easier chance of maintaining consensus while implementing austerity. Ford is a bumbling, personally troubled, brash populist with few political skills beyond brawling and personal insults. His agenda is no different than Smitherman, except in the details (in particular his weird opposition to a transit plan that was supported by the Chamber of Commerce, because gridlock is a big, costly headache for Ontario capitalists). At first, after the election, the city elite reached out to Rob Ford and tried to work with him. Some media supported him, just as they had supported Mike Harris years earlier because sometimes a right wing populist can break the logjam of “business as usual” to put things on the “right track” by harnessing popular anger in a pro-capitalist direction.

But Ford was too erratic, too self-serving, too unable to build a coherent team with a coherent agenda to get through what is needed from the point of view of Toronto’s corporate elite. And they hate him because he’s a trashy, nouveau riche, petty bourgeois piss-tank who won’t play ball the way they want him to. He gets drunk in public and is rude to people. He hangs out with trash and thugs. He behaves in ways that remind them too much of the dirty unwashed masses. That’s why the focus of attacks on Rob Ford has almost always revolved around his personal behavior. Does anybody think that it’s an accident that the police released a photo of Rob Ford taking a piss in a public park? Jesus, I’ve taken a piss behind buildings more than once – because there’s no freaking public washrooms anywhere in the city. Or, horror of horror, Ford has to sneak around to buy drugs? Um, I don’t know if any of you have ever smoked pot but you don’t buy it at the corner store either (and for all we know it could have been pot that Lisi was dropping in Ford’s car – not that I particularly care). Is Rob Ford a hypocrite on these things? Would he attack drug users and homeless people who are forced to piss behind buildings? Of course he would but just because he’s an asshole doesn’t mean I have to be. Build more public washrooms for crying out loud. Decriminalize drug use.

It’s so blindingly obvious I can’t believe the left doesn’t see this. When I talk to working class people who aren’t leftists it’s obvious to them. They know that Rob Ford is being attacked because he looks and sounds like them – he has family problems and swears and drives an SUV and he drinks too much and has trouble keeping it together. Surprise, surprise, so do most working class people (not exactly that constellation of challenges but similar ones). That the left hops on board this attack uncritically and says, frankly, the snobbiest, most elitist crap in attacking Rob Ford does the left no favours. The right wing will win on this terrain. I saw people laughing at Rob Ford yelling at reporters who were at his house and wouldn’t get off his property yesterday. I hate Rob Ford but I was sympathetic to him to be honest. The media are vultures and I’d have lost my shit if I were him too. I don’t find public dismemberment of anyone a pleasure to watch and while the left might think it’s fun because he’s so odious you ought to remember: this isn’t about you, it’s about the confidence of ordinary people to take control of their lives. Public humiliation of Rob Ford in this way isn’t going to raise their confidence in themselves. It’s going to further cement the idea that only rich, slick and connected operators – like Smitherman – are fit to run the city and the country. Notice the different coverage of Smitherman's family challenges about a month ago - his husband disappeared on some kind of binge, part of a long term problem apparently, and the police were called in - to Ford's troubles. Nobody laughed at Smitherman (nor should they, not for that). That’s why this idea that “Ford Nation” are stupid or brainwashed because they continue to support their man is so odious to me. On this one thing they are right – this is a concerted attempt to oust their man by city elites (though they are wrong that it has anything to do with the left).

Or Karen Stintz. Does anybody think that it’s an accident that Ford’s legal dossier was leaked now? Does anybody think that it’s odd that the police – on the basis of a newspaper report with no physical evidence – put their top investigators on the case to nail Ford? Since when have the police followed a politician to reveal his personal foibles or cared about political corruption? I mean, they released a report that doesn’t demonstrate any proof of illegal activity on the part of Ford. If they had any proof they would have arrested him. This is about destroying Rob Ford while there is still enough lead-time before the next municipal elections to rebuild the right wing on city council. This is about giving Karen Stints – who, coincidentally, announced her candidacy last week – a clear shot for the mayoralty. Stintz is also a Tory but one who knows how to work with city capitalists and who saved the transit plan from Rob Ford. And she doesn’t get drunk in public.

I would argue that a similar process is under way at the federal level. Not that there is a conspiracy (I do think that there’s a conspiracy to destroy Rob Ford, by the way) but rather a sense of malaise amongst the elite at the effectiveness of Stephen Harper. Let’s face it, Harper never really represented more than a fraction of Canadian capitalists. But he was the best alternative on offer after the meltdown of the Liberals because of corruption and infighting. But now the Liberals have recovered and Justin Trudeau is a rising star – while Harper’s star is on the wane. Everybody prefers consensus. This is true of workers as much as it is of capitalists. That’s always been the power of the Liberals – to implement the ruling class agenda through consensus, whenever possible, rather than conflict. That’s why they are Canada’s “natural governing party.” The Tories are the fallback position for Canada’s capitalists (and workers, traditionally). With a recovered Liberal Party and people getting tired of Harper’s open Machiavellianism and not-so-hidden right wing extremism, it looks like there might just be an opportunity to restore the historic coalition that the Liberals represented. Harper is now discovering just how shallow his support was in most of the country.

Will any of this benefit the left? Let's be frank, the union movement has done zero to resist austerity (outside of a few pockets of heroic, sectional struggles). Ford privatized garbage collection and there was not even an information picket. There were a few demonstrations against Ford on an anti-austerity platform and the strike by library workers – that was quickly settled, wisely, by Ford’s people before it could become a focal point. But that’s it. The Occupy movement was great - but it was small (compared to the tasks) and short-lived. It never generalized into a sustained movement.

Since the decline of the anti-war movement there has been almost zero public opposition to Harper’s agenda. And, of course, the ever-craven federal NDP under the leadership of ex-Liberal Tom Mulcair, is rushing to prove that they are the new Liberal Party of Canada. We’ll see how that goes for them. Even in Quebec, the PQ, which benefited from the brilliant student movement has managed to turn the debate away from austerity and towards attacking Muslims.

These are, in short, challenging times. And the over-the-top celebrations by the left at the predicaments of Ford and Harper is a sign of desperation. We’ll take any crumbs of hope that fall from the table. Sure, it’s true that splits in the ruling class can be to our benefit but it would be silly to think that the ruling class is split in Toronto. They are united in wanting Ford out – Blair is simply fronting for them. I expect that Ford will be getting some phone calls to offer him a cushy parachute if he jumps now along with a reprieve from criminal charges. The particular madness that is Alberta politics is, of course, always a problem for Canadian capitalists but when the Toronto Sun comes out for Harper’s neck don’t kid yourself that there isn’t a growing consensus at the national level.

So, the left shouldn’t pretend that this defenestration has anything to do with us or with workers or social programs or any of that good stuff. This is a night of the long knives, a ruling class drama that is entertaining, perhaps, but will do little to strengthen the ability of our side to take back that which was taken from us. And, in the case of Ford, the snobbery can actually damage our side’s confidence.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Pythons & Media Generated Paranoia

My partner and I have been talking much about the horribly tragic death of two boys in New Brunswick a couple of days ago. KP is snake-o-phobic and this just confirmed her worst fears, especially with a reptile shop around the corner that sells large snakes.

For me, while it horrified me as a father of two young children to think of losing my kids so senselessly, what was also striking was how utterly random and titillating it was meant to be as a news item. I was reminded of one time when I was standing on a subway platform, waiting for the train and reading the newsfeed screen. There was a "breaking story" that kept scrolling again and again across the bottom of the screen: 12 people had died when their boat capsized in Lake Victoria. In case you don't know, Lake Victoria is the world's second largest freshwater lake, next to Lake Superior. It also happens to be in Africa, providing an interior coastline to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Now what, you might ask, is the purpose of telling me (and a couple of hundred thousand other commuters) about the tragic deaths of 12 people in a boating accident on the other side of the world? Probably the same thing as telling us about the tragic deaths of two young boys in New Brunswick, more or less. I won't be the first to say this but the widespread publicizing of events like this reminded me that these items are publicized for a reason. It's not that the individual stories, in and of themselves, provide us with any sort of useful information. (Well, I suppose it might be useful to wear a lifejacket when on a boat or to ban predatory, wild animals that are large enough to kill children. But I don't think that's why these stories are in the paper.)

I mean, look at the follow-up on the python story. A quick glance at thestar.com and I can see a video on the eating and hunting habits of the African Rock Python. There's an accompanying story that suggest the python might have been attracted to the boys because they had been petting farm animals earlier in the day and they smelled like prey as a result. And, finally, there's a story about how the python has been killed in punishment for the crime of being a large, deadly predator. There will be more in the days to come but that's four stories on one news site in two days. Millions of people are talking about this story, forming opinions on it, arguing about it over coffee and drinks, at the water cooler at work, etc. etc.

It's my opinion that the reason stories like this are considered news in this way is the fundamental acceptance of the political and economic system under which we live. Sure, there are pushes by newspapers to win support for their particular reformist bent - the Star wants less austerity, the National Post wants to cook and eat the poor to save money so the rich can buy bigger yachts. But they both fundamentally accept the dynamics of a system based upon profit and competing nation states. Thus the problems in the world aren't fundamental to the system itself. They are of the nature of accidents, individual acts of cruelty, or stupidity. It becomes difficult to differentiate in importance between a boat capsizing in Lake Victoria and a drone attack in Yemen or a war in the Congo, sponsored by different major powers jockeying for control of important resources.

In other words, the media through its undifferentiated focus on tragedy as a series of disconnected accidents, tells us that the world is incomprehensible and that accidents, personal foibles and, especially, crime and criminals are as much a threat (or more) than political and economic decisions. The latter are seen in isolation from their impact. The poverty in Africa that leads to mechanically faulty boats still sailing Lake Victoria, crammed with people to save money, isn't connected to the competition to keep the price of smartphones low, using key minerals from Africa, etc. etc. The relationship between keeping enormous pythons that kill children and immediate political and economic policy is rather less straightforward (and we should allow for some people to be the kind of idiots who think that such dangerous predators are charming pets). But I do believe that the craving for the exotic - usually defined in relationship to colonialist narratives of the dark continent and places like the Amazon - and for adventure is related, on the one hand to the mundane and monotonous existence that most people have to endure (go to work, repeat tasks endlessly & without purpose, come home to repeat tasks endlessly, go to bed, go to work...on the weekend get drunk to forget about the week, repeat). On the other hand the definition of what is exotic and exciting is shaped by historical and continuing policies in relationship to the developing world.

Nonetheless, the larger point here is that the media obfuscates the truth not just in terms of misrepresenting actual events, through the use of language that shapes meaning (is someone called a "Jamaican immigrant" or a "bank CEO", for instance) but also through the repetition of meta-themes (eg. tragedy is the result of accident, etc), the placement of articles in relationship to each other, etc. This has the impact of making the world more difficult to comprehend and generating a kind of paranoia of everything amongst the population. Death and injury could be lurking anywhere at any moment, when the truth is that most premature deaths and serious injuries in the world are the result of being features of the system and the policy choices that flow from it.

It also means the media shamelessly exploits the unfortunate tragedies suffered by ordinary people in order to sell newspapers. A good story is defined by how much gory detail a particular newspaper can uncover. It is not defined as something that allows us to better understand the world in order to change it and make it less tragedy prone. Given that almost all media is dominated by major corporations, this shouldn't surprise us. It should, however, disgust us.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Blogging, Democracy and Revolution

I came across this well-written piece on the role of social media in social change, written by Jesse McLaren. I've often thought that the role of new media, social media etc etc has been under-theorized by Marxists. You tend to see stuff that goes in one of two directions: either an uncritical boosterism about social media as the motor of revolutions or completely dismissive and contemptuous. Jesse has a nice balance, pointing to the contradictions - the corporate dominance of the internet, on the one hand combined with the internet's ability to spread information rapidly; the fact that social media is nothing without the mobilization of actual people combined with the equally relevant fact that social media can provide a powerful mobilization tool, broadening and deepening activist networks, etc. As he concludes:
To make the most of social media we need to see it in context: as a communication tool that can magnify resistance movements, and whose online potential is related to its connections offline.
In all those senses it is a welcome tonic to the one-sidedness that has dominated most discussions I've come across. On the other hand I did feel like it missed some key points that were worth exploring. For instance, Jesse says the following about the mixed nature of ideas:
Social media doesn’t inherently “erode normal human relations” any more than it has magical powers. It simply reflects the ruling ideas, and as the German socialist Karl Marx argued: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” These ruling class ideas don’t completely dominate: most people have contradictory consciousness—and the experience of collective struggle can expose the contradiction and through the process people’s ideas can change.
But this isn't just that people accept living under capitalist relations and therefore the online ideas reflect that. It's like the film industry. It's not just that people like right wing action movies or celebrity-worshipping superhero blockbusters because they reinforce the experience that workers have every day. It is a much more active process: Hollywood will spend upwards of $100 million on marketing alone to get that $100 million superhero movie on the lips of everyone in North America, Europe and, increasingly, China. The same thing applies to the internet. Perform a search for any particular product or service you might want, or for an artist whose work you love. You will be met first and foremost by a series of "sponsored search results" courtesy of Google's adwords program. Those who pay more are more likely to end up at the top of search results.

Secondly, the internet fits into the web of media that provides global advertising and ideological coverage to reinforce the dominant players. Some of that $100 million blockbuster marketing budget goes into banner ads, sponsored twitter campaigns, Facebook campaigns, cross-platform marketing campaigns (including complementary video games, youtube videos with sponsored ranking and banner ads), pinterest campaigns. You name it, the big players have that social media covered.

Thirdly, the dominance of the big players also applies to news and the message that gets out about domestic and international events of any importance. I may write this blog on what happened in the Middle East this week or last but when you check the news in your Google search it won't be my blog that provides the top hit. Not to mention that while it's great to get news instantaneously, most news content is now written by a few large newswire services like Reuters. Newspapers from the New York Times to the Globe & Mail use the newswires for their stories, ensuring a nearly homogenous worldview is conveyed by the big media players.

Fourth, the internet seems to exist in the ether: I just type an e-mail and it ends up in your inbox, like magic. But it doesn't. It requires a lot of physical infrastructure to make it work and that infrastructure is easily monitored - as we've seen with Snowdon's revelations about the NSA's global data-mining of innocent people - and easily disrupted. During the Arab Spring governments regularly shut down the internet in their own countries. In Egypt, of course, they discovered that the revolution wasn't really on Twitter after all because even shutting down the internet didn't stop Egyptians from overthrowing Mubarak. Here in Canada, effectively all of the internet infrastructure to homes is owned by a few companies like Rogers and Bell. Even the smaller, "independent" ISPs rely upon renting infrastructure belonging to one of the big players.

All that said - and the above discussion could be deepened and expanded much further - the internet is overall a positive thing. Just like the printing press allowed capitalists to more efficiently produce propaganda to win support for, say, an unjust war - so too did the printing press allow the workers movement to organize and share ideas and experiences. The internet takes the printing press, makes it instantaneous and international. It allows us to perform research into, for instance, the historical economic data on the USA going back to the 19th century - without having to pay the outrageous sums demanded by university libraries if you aren't faculty or a student there. In Toronto recently, the internet met smartphone tech to demonstrate brilliantly that while there is increased surveillance (watching from above) there is also increased sousveillance (watching from below). When the cops shot and killed 18-year old Sammy Yatim, the sheer brutality of the response was known by tens of thousands within a few hours because people nearby filmed it on their cellphones and then uploaded it to YouTube. That helped to generate the response that brought thousands of protestors on the streets within 24-hours and put the police on the back foot.

But these points really only expand upon what Jesse wrote in his piece. The bigger absence, the elephant in the room if I may, is the lack of discussion of blogs and the blogosphere. Blogs basically fit into the overall discussion about the relationship of social media to progress, social change, freedom, etc. However, there is a significant debate in some socialist organizations - in particular, in the socialist Tendency of which Jesse is a part, the International Socialist Tendency - about the role that blogs can play in relationship to debates in the party, in the movements, etc. The general view has been that individual blogs are OK, if unimportant, when they comment on the broader world. But they are to be shunned as tools to further debate and clarity inside of socialist organizations. They are deemed "unaccountable", "elitist", "undemocratic", et al. because they are the preserve of unaccountable individuals, not to mention being subjected to the same sorts of selection pressures as discussed above (though a discussion about how items and blogs and videos go viral is in order, as it provides an exception to the rule of big money dominating the internet).

However, the flip side of this is that the internet can provide a means to encourage and spur spontaneous and horizontal engagement and activism. It may be chaotic and inconvenient but surely we want our members and activists debating with each other in each and every forum possible. This can lead to problems - like substituting internalized debate that isn't tested in practice in the outside world for the kinds of activism that can help clarify ideas. It can lead to expanding small differences into large ones. And, of course, anybody can write anything - a lie, etc. and might not have to fear suffering the consequences. But all these things apply to all forms or media and all forms of organization. Even without social media socialist and activist organizations were quite able to end up in unproductive infighting, with people making defamatory claims and counter-claims against each other. In the 1980s ACT-UP, an AIDS activist group that had some explosive growth as the AIDS crisis radicalized tens of thousands of LGBTQs, imploded a few years later as it turned inward. Similar things have happened to other movements in the last 30+ years. It happens. Avoiding debate is not the way to deal with it. Better is to build an organization of outward looking cadre with strong and clear politics, unafraid to grapple with debate and challenges because they are confident in their politics.

What's more blogs and other forms of social engagement - Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, et al - offer the opportunity for people who never get published to have their say. They don't have to have perfect grammar or a university degree. There is much less pressure to be perfect because the stakes are lower - there's no printing bill to pay, no need to organize distribution via physical shipping, etc. It allows for spontaneous and ad hoc groupings of radicals and activists to unite around a virtual publication, engage in debate and then, once the struggle has passed or the moment of crisis that generated the flurry, the publication can shut down. It can re-emerge later in a new form, with a new collective, etc. Counterposing formal structures of accountability to this kind of dynamic and fluid method for engagement is conservative and bureaucratic in its impetus. Of course our movements need structures but debates, crises, and upsurges don't wait for approved structures to emerge and take account of them. They emerge already in motion and our structures must adjust to meet them and engage with them. Structures and structural traditions can help to shape such insurgencies into accountable forums. And insurgencies are the lifeblood that make structures relevant and renewed.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Genes, Robots & The Internet: How Capitalism Revolutionizes The Planet

I was hoping to get to this sooner but life intervened (and technology in the form of a sick computer), along with the second Egyptian revolution, which has been riveting, inspiring, frightening. Nonetheless I wanted to complete my thoughts on the question of Marxism, capitalism and technological advancement – at least this portion of it. In the future I want to write something on Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity movement, which has accumulated a significant following, particularly amongst a section of the Silicon Valley types and the geek diaspora. Kurzweil’s ideas are often reduced to "mind uploading" as the ultimate goal (this side of the Singularity) but are actually more complex and philosophical than that and deserve a fuller treatment. But I digress. Thus far what I’ve argued has been that Marxists have too often denied the dynamism of capitalism, seeing only its propensity to crisis and have confused macroeconomic stagnation with the end of growth, progress and innovation under capitalism. They’ve also confused the fact that capitalism is obsolete – in the sense that the technological level of society is sufficient that a better, more efficient and humane economic system is possible – with the idea that it can no longer advance.
On the other hand, as I argued in my second piece on the subject, technological advancement under capitalism is systematically distorted by the need to generate profit, leading to a number of negative elements in its development and application. In fact, in retrospect, my analysis of capitalism’s failings in this regard was too focused on economic and political pressures and missed at least one other distorting factor: capitalist ideology. This requires a fuller discussion than I’m going to give it here but the basics are that the way that we organize production, with bosses, corporations, forced labour (did you have a choice about going to work this morning?), imperialism, oppression, etc. lead to a set of ideas about human nature, the natural world, etc. that serve to justify the present set-up. So, for instance, in its sociological form we are taught that humans are naturally greedy, violent, etc. In other words there is a certain notion of a fixed human nature. In its scientific form this leads to genetic reductionism: the search for the gene for crime or alcoholism or intelligence. While the failure of the Human Genome Project to deliver easy answers to the causes of inherited diseases (let alone complex behaviours) has led to a rethinking of the role of genetics. At least I believe that's the case amongst biologists who actually work with genetics, if not amongst ideological warriors of the evolutionary psychology ilk (such as Richard Dawkins). In fact, I just read an excellent overview of the history of genetics in the most recent issue of the International Socialism Journal by socialist scientist John Parrington. Definitely worth a read.
Yet, nonetheless, capitalism develops technological and even social advancement and innovation and this can’t be denied, as I’ve suggested previously. The rise of the steam engine and the development of computer tech that led to Moore’s law are just as real as the importance of electricity, which Lenin saw as an enabler of socialism. China has gone from no high-speed trains to something like 15,000 miles, more than the rest of the world combined, in about ten years. These are real advances. How is this possible? There are a number of elements that are worth exploring and have an impact on how we situate Marxism as an ideology and methodology for social transformation. In fact, I would argue that the ability of capitalism to continue to advance, in the face of all its distortions and inefficiencies, is one of the strongest arguments for socialism.
Let's start at the economic level and work "up" from there. The first place to start is in the very foundations of the system: competitive accumulation. This is the alpha and omega of the system, the drive for profit, and is expressed through both individual companies, regions, nation states, trading blocs, etc. The struggle to stay ahead has many effects upon the production process and upon society - not all of them, or even most of them, directed towards technological and social advancement. Competition creates pressure to pursue shortcuts, to externalize costs (like dumping carbon into the atmosphere for someone else to have to clean up), to lie, cheat, murder and steal. But it also has made capitalism the most dynamic system in history, pushing different sizes of capital to innovate, a fact that Marx started from in the Communist Manifesto in a lengthy discussion of the transformative power of capitalism. It is this competitive power that is behind recent innovations in robotics. America has lost a lot of manufacturing jobs to low wage districts and simply can't compete for those jobs on the basis of labour costs. Doing so would cause massive economic damage - and even short-sighted capitalists would be loathe to want to reduce the purchasing power of domestic workers as low as, say, Bangladesh. Better to invest in labour-saving capital that makes it cheaper to produce domestically given the unavoidable costs of shipping around the world. This has led to several developments in the area of advanced manufacturing. DARPA, the advanced research arm of the Pentagon has, for instance, a program for developing advanced 3D printing technologies to make custom manufacture cheap and scalable. In the private sector Rethink Robotics, one of several robotic manufacturing companies, founded by Professor Rodney Brooks (who previously founded iRobot) came out of stealth mode last October to launch Baxter an advanced industrial robot for light manufacturing that will cost USD$20,000 instead of hundreds of thousands - at minimum - and which doesn't require a team of engineers to program it, as most industrial robots do. An unskilled warehouse worker can "train" the robot to, for instance, pack widgets into boxes in about 15 minutes.
There's also a second reason why innovation and dynamism continues to be a central feature of capitalism. Even though the capitalist imperative demands that all production and innovation be for profit, ie. competitive accumulation, this is not without an in-built contradition. That contradiction, fundamental to capitalism, is between use-value and exchange-value. That is to say, capitalism produces use-values – things that we need like shoes or food – but does so for the purpose of exchange in the service of profit.  This suggests a number of things.
The first thing is that a large number of innovators are driven by use-value as well as exchange value (and sometimes exclusively by use-value only to reap exchange value as an initially unintended side-bonus). The discovery of antibiotics is an obvious one - pharmaceuticals make billions from the production (and over-use) of antibiotics. Yet its initial development was not for the purpose of generating profit - ie. its exchange value - it was to save people who were dying from bacterial infections like TB. But in a perhaps less obvious way I was also struck recently by a Google campaign to provide internet to Africa using high altitude balloons. Google is one of the largest and most profitable corporations on the planet and and yet there is a drive to provide for human need, whether in the form of autonomous cars or internet for the two-thirds of the planet that lacks this. I'm not one of those cynics that believes that even those who run corporations as large as Google are simply driven by profit as the alpha and omega. But at the same time, whether meeting a human need is sought (or generated with marketing), the ability to sell for a profit is what ultimately determines whether an innovation is developed further or not. I discussed this previously in relation to cancer research and whether a certain type of immunotherapy would be developed because it would be difficult to patent and, of course, if it cured cancer (as opposed to making it a manageable disease, which meant the continued sale of drugs), this would cut off future profits for the pharmaceuticals.
This further suggests the need for a concrete and specific analysis of the ways in which the drive to create use-values (literally useful things) is distorted by the pressure to meet the demands of exchange value (ie make a profit). Sometimes this is straightforward and obvious, particularly where industries are long-established (like petrochemical corporations that seek to retard cleaner competitors) or where it directly serves imperialism (such as the design of smart weapons). Other times it has a more indirect relationship such as with the internet, which the powers-that-be struggle to control. Particularly in the latter case a very specific and nuanced, concrete analysis is necessary to understand the ways in which exchange-value distorts use-value and thus how in a society based upon production for use, democratically determined (ie. socialism) certain technologies would be different or transformed. Literally, what would we retain and what would we dispose of. This isn’t always obvious. Lenin, famously, at the head of a new revolutionary republic insisted upon introducing Taylorism (modern factory methods) into Russian manufacturing, even in the face of severe criticism from radicals. He understood that until they could produce enough to meet the needs of their country there would be no possibility of socialism.
Lack of resources isn’t a problem that we face today (the reallocation of defence spending could solve illiteracy and hunger, for instance) and yet what we’ve forgotten is that technology is still something that we need to make a better world possible. I have a feeling that the isolation of Marxism has combined with the anti-modernism of the 1960s – the last period of significant and sustained social radicalization – to blur the vibrant modernism of earlier Marxist thought. In the defeat of the strongest elements of that period – the Black Panthers, French general strike of 1968, et al - we have taken on board the weakest aspects of that period’s critique, which is a rejection of modernity. Marxists ought to celebrate modernity’s advances without being seduced by them or forgetting that they are subservient to the imperatives of capital.
Back to the spaces that exist within capitalism that allow for advance we need to also account for a theory of agency within constraints. Marx wrote that "humans make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing." Typically Marxists apply this to the political struggle - for instance, in Egypt the people are fighting for liberation and are making history but they are doing it in the context of imperialism, Islamism, etc etc. However, this also applies to the economy and to technology. The economic manifestation of that is in the uneasy marriage of use-value and exchange-value as discussed above. It means that capitalism, while a "totalizing system", is not always a totalitarian system. In fact, it needs to leave open a managed space in which people can think and create more or less freely in order to keep capitalism vital. That space changes and is ultimately subordinate to both profit and political stability (in order to secure profit) but it rarely disappears entirely. Even in North Korea, perhaps one of the most repressive regimes at present, the system must allow for a certain amount of "innovation" at least in the field of rocketry and nuclear technology (and perhaps in means of repression as well - freedom for the purposes of repression?). And this was the logic behind Glasnost and Perestroika in the waning years of the USSR. It was an attempt to open up space for greater innovation to save the Soviet economy. Besides the governmental and economic limitations on this freedom there are also ideological (self-policing) limitations, for instance in the field of embryonic stem cells. But, again, that space always exists. However, the fact that it must be managed in order to be measured against an inefficient and parasitic "middleman", ie. profit or repressive ideology, is a demonstration not only of the fortitude of human creativity but also of the need to move beyond an inefficient system.
This also implies something else: human creativity always threatens to go beyond the artificially imposed limits of capitalism. Marxists have always understood this, again, in relation to political struggle. Ideology tells us that capitalism is the end of history, there is no better way to organize society - there is no alternative - and yet we see from the upheavals in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, et al that workers resist the capitalist imperative to accept speed-ups, pay and benefit cuts, service cuts, etc. The same applies in the realm of technology (brilliantly discussed by Walter Benjamin pre-WWII in his essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"). Not only are technologies invented that are problematic for capitalism in that there is no immediate way to generate profit from them but even those that are invented with profit in mind have gaps and holes in which non-profit or anti-profit uses take hold. Again, the internet is one of these. If you've read this far you'll be aware that I'm not generating any personal profit from this activity but at a more significant level the internet constantly challenges the ability to make profit from the distribution of information - piracy of films, software and music being the most obvious example. The struggle by corporations to control the internet has been going on for at least two decades without success. The attempt by Adobe, for instance, to recently launch a cloud-based version of its expensive Creative Suite software in part as a means to circumvent piracy was hacked within one day even though they spend tens of millions on digital rights management.
At a more abstract level, this suggests a theory of historical time that is polyphonic (if that's the right term). Basically, we experience time as a singular stream of events - each day has 24 hours, each year 365 days. One thing follows another all at the same time. And yet the pace of history is not uniform. Sometimes the political developments move quickly and sometimes much more slowly, and always at different paces from country to country and even region to region. Egypt is going through a period of rapid history in which the masses and their culture are changing more quickly in months than it did previously in years, perhaps decades. The Mubarak dictatorship had lasted decades and then was gone. The Muslim Brotherhood was the only domestic opposition for even longer and they are now in disrepute and have lost the support of millions of people in the space of a year. Politics is moving much more slowly in Canada at present. But there are also other layers of society - the economy, technology, sports, film - that move at their own pace. Even as they are related, of course, they have their own relative autonomy (as the old Marxist phrase goes). Technology can also develop more quickly than, say, political consciousness. We see some of this, for instance, in the rapid dominance of Chinese manufacturing in significant sectors of the North American economy, without, for a long period, the impact of this being felt in terms of political and cultural developments. All of which is to say that history has many streams that exist side-by-side, that pour into each other and then separate again or, perhaps more accurately, history moves in a way similar to fluid dynamics, involving multiple vectors and velocities within the same space. To understand history - in order to change it - we must be able to understand at each moment how these different streams interact with each other.
How does this effect Marxist propaganda? Of course the primary role of any radically oppositional ideology will be to expose the failures and weaknesses of the system. But we ought not to highlight the succeses of the system and attempt to pretend that they are failures. For instance, the generally brilliant writing of Hilary and Stephen Rose has dismissed the Human Genome Project and genomics more generally as a failure. And yet, as John Parrington points out in his article, while the naive expectations in the flush of success were unfounded, the HGP has revolutionized the field of gene research. It's also true that genomics and synthetic biology are serving industrial needs in ways that are potentially dangerous and, especially in agricutlure, really about forcing farmers to buy seeds of dubious value. But it is not the case that those sciences are in and of themselves a failure and have provided no advances. Recent work in regenerative medicine, stem cells and gene therapy (including work on improving results in heart failure recovery, fighting autoimmune diseases, HIV, Muscular Dystrophy, etc) has advanced enormously in part as a result of the insights gained by the HGP and the more recent work on epigenetics that was the focus of the ENCODE project. The problem, that this suggests, is not that capitalism doesn't provide revolutionary advances in science, technology and production. It is that it does so in a way that is inconsistent, contradictory, inhumane and often just downright destructive. To take full advantage of the gains that capitalism has wrought we need a system whose sole purpose is the satisfaction of human needs, not as an occasional and secondary by-product of profit-making.


1) Marxism, Capitalism & Technology

2) Frankenfoods, Toothpaste, & Justin Bieber: Capitalism & Technology II

Monday, July 8, 2013

Massacre in Egypt: Is Revolution Worth The Price?

As I sat down to write this post the news of a tragic massacre of at least 32 Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated protestors, and the injury of 300 more was plastered all over the internet. That much is clear, the rest is yet to be disentangled (if ever) from two completely opposing stories by the Egyptian military and people on the scene. This is now one more massacre in a two year revolutionary process in which hundreds have died, chaos has reigned and nothing has been settled. I'm sure that millions of people in Egypt and even more around the region and around the world are asking: Is this what is necessary to win democracy and freedom? Is the price worth it?

There is obviously the danger of being glib in writing a judgment on the value or danger of  revolution from the safety of my office in Toronto, Canada - a country founded on the solid business principle of avoiding the messiness of revolution; a country that hasn't seen war in any significant way in 200 years. I'll try to avoid that as much as possible.

For certain the revolutionary process in the Middle East more generally, since the launch of what has become known as the Arab Spring, has had its share of chaos and tragedy. Dozens died in Bahrain in the struggle for democracy against a US/Saudi client regime - and suffered greater repression as a reward for their efforts and aspirations. In Yemen hundreds died only to see their aspirations deflected into a shabby compromise  that suited regional power-brokers - Saudi Arabia and the US (their involvement in aborting democratic movements is a theme and not a coincidence). In Libya, the west and their backers in the Middle East, in particular the Qatari emirate, swooped in quickly to ensure that the initial explosion of grassroots opposition to the Gaddafi dictatorship was controlled using western arms and logistics to suit the ends desired by the big oil companies, the US state department and the agenda of the EU. In Syria the repression of a popular movement led to civil war and the sickening sight of various imperialist powers - all of whom have happily repressed democratic movements around the world for generations - jockeying to gain the upper hand through the cynical manipulation of the various players caught in the Syrian tragedy. As always it is at the expense of local civilians, whether man, woman or child. As a former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, once put it when asked about US sanctions against Iraq that had killed perhaps a million children: "We think that the price is worth it."

And yet, it isn't as though the region or Egypt, in particular, is descending into tragedy from a state of pre-revolutionary bliss. The meddling of imperialism - from US financing of the military in Egypt and of the Occupation in Israel/Palestine to Russian arming of the Syrian dictatorship - has ensured a repressive and inhumane set-up in the region. And for the people of Egypt, in particular since the Camp David Peace Accords of the late 1970s, which won the compliance of the Egyptian state to the American agenda in return for billions of dollars in "aid", it has meant decades of, effectively, martial law, police repression, torture and dictatorship in all but name. The compliance of the Egyptian regime also freed Israel's hand to steal more land, kill more Palestinians and launch wars and attacks on their neighbours whenever it suited their colonialist agenda. All this was largely ignored by western media who, when they even bothered to notice, usually put the blame at the feet of "uncivilized Arabs" who needed "strong regimes" to maintain control and protect Israel, the "plucky little democracy" of the region.

What has changed in the present moment is that the masses, the tens of millions of people who have endured the tender mercies of imperialist-backed dictatorships, have attempted to force their way onto the political and historical stage. The "chaos" and "instability" that the media and governments bemoan is really the emergence of democracy in the form of the people waking up to their own power to control their destiny. In the first instance this is, by definition, chaotic as the old institutions, designed to guarantee dictatorship and the rule of both state and market capital, are destabilized and collapse. The ruling class loses many of the levers, primarily fear and quiescence, that it once had to maintain "order" and "stabillty". On the other hand, the newly awakened people haven't yet created their own institutions to replace the old. In this gap between old and new is a ferment of experimentation. Some of it involves the creation of new forms of organization - Egypt saw neighbourhood committees to defend the revolution appear and disappear, only to reappear again during the past two and a half years. There has been an explosion of independent trade unions involving millions of Egyptian workers, after decades of top-down, state controlled "unions". 

But they also attempt to use their old organizations and old institutions in new ways. Thus the Muslim Brotherhood, which has existed for almost a century as an organization that sought to alleviate the conditions in Egypt through charity and moral uplift (basically, obedience to a hierarchical and conservative interpretation of Islam) became the immediate beneficiary of a revolution that they didn't support. Similarly, the military has retained the allegiance of the masses from the reflected prestige of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the Free Officer's Movement that overthrew the Egyptian monarch and promoted a form of secular nationalism that challenged imperialism (before being sold off to US imperialism by his heirs) and delivered land reform and social progress. The revolution has become an intense testing ground for these institutions and organizations to see if they fit the needs of the masses.

First the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took over the direct rule of the country after they facilitated the overthrow of the dictator Hosni Mubarak. But their habitual use of repression, torture and corruption, not to mention genetic opposition to the extension of democracy and social justice created growing anger and mobilization that forced them to surrender office to the Muslim Brotherhood. For the SCAF the conservative MB seemed an excellent vehicle to contain the aspirations of the revolution. They would allow the MB to implement their cultural agenda, a certain degree of Islamization of the Egyptian state, and in return the MB wouldn't touch the institutions of the state security apparatus, including the SCAF itself. The bourgeois led MB also happily went to the IMF for loans and imposed austerity on their own supporters at home in order to implement a neo-liberal agenda. The result was an increasingly mobilized opposition that drew up to 20 million demonstrators on June 30.

It was this "dangerous" mobilization, as with the overthrow of Mubarak, and the threat of major strikes that pushed the SCAF to remove Morsi from power and attempt to replace him with another set of faces, a grand coalition, that would be more acceptable to the masses, It was a pre-emptive attempt to prevent a deeper, more radical revolution. In this sense it was a major victory.

There are several dangers unfolding and that will continue to unfold until the revolution can be completed (and spread to other countries in the region at least, especially Saudi Arabia). Because the military facilitated the removal of Morsy it can empower and embolden them to use their renewed popularity to clampdown not only on the MB but also on the revolutionaries and the popular organizations as well. SCAF's intervention "from above" can also stop the rapid disintegration of the MB that was taking place "from below", giving them the mantle of victim of a Mubarak counter-revolution. This can draw even those skeptical of the MB leadership's intentions and abilities to rally round them in the belief that they are defending the revolution - a revolution that the MB leadership never supported and tried to abort as soon as Mubarak was gone, including supporting the SCAF at every turn (except the one that booted them out the door). This polarization of "masses against masses" as opposed to "masses against the state" opens the door to a potential civil war, on the one hand, and provides an excuse for the SCAF to elevate themselves as being above the fray and thus the legitimate vehicle to separate the two sides and impose a neutral order on the Egyptian people. 

It remains to be seen if the massacre of MB supporters outside of the Republican Guard barracks today was the result of a MB attempt to storm the facility and free former president Morsy from his arrest (with the side benefit of portraying themselves as victims of an army assault if they failed) or the army decided to raise the stakes to provide justification for declaring a state of emergency - or if it were all the result of trigger happy soldiers firing on riled up MB supporters who got too close to barricades (there is no shortage of such "accidents" of history). What is clear is that navigating this confusing terrain and clarifying the next steps in the struggle will require a clear leadership with roots amongst the Egyptian people in order to avoid the twin dangers of supporting the army against the MB or falling in behind the MB as the defenders of the revolution - either of which could lead towards a civil war and defeat of the revolution. That leadership isn't about a few brilliant individuals calling the shots, it will have to be a collective leadership of thousands and tens of thousands of revolutionaries whose collective experience will help them to navigate the chaos and work with others inside the revolution to move things forward. In other words, a revolutionary party.

That doesn't exist yet in Egypt but there are thousands attempting to build one. In the meantime, what is clear is that as in all places the people who have power have no interest in giving it up and will stoop to any depth necessary - murder, torture, conspiracies, lies - to defend what they have. The tragedy and chaos of the present moment is not the result of the revolution, it is the result of that unaccountable an unequally divided power. The solution to ending the tragedy of massacres and misery is not to surrender to the power that imposes such tragedy upon the people. It is to decisively defeat that power so that it is unable to prevent the people from living in freedom and true democracy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Frankenfoods, Toothpaste, & Justin Bieber: Capitalism & Technology II

In a previous post I argued that too often Marxists fail to recognize the ways in which capitalism remains dynamic and continues to advance technologically and socially. This one-sidedness distorts analyses and perspectives and threatens to give Marxism the feel of a millennial doomsday sect. Instead Marxism ought to be perceived as a powerful critical tool for explaining the contradictions of capitalism and providing strategic answers to create a better world without them. To do so means that Marxism must be flexible and dynamic. It must not fear the strengths of capitalism but rather must build itself on the ways that capitalism has made a better, more efficient and humane system both possible and necessary. That failure is a result of an ideological defensiveness and ossification arising from the isolation of Marxists from workers struggle (at least in the English-speaking world) for longer than a generation. I want to now posit some thoughts on the way that technological development takes place under capitalism, how it is distorted by the profit-motive and by the prerogatives of the capitalist state – and yet still manages to create forms of progress that are often quite dramatic.

To summarize what I previously argued, billions of people now have access to the internet (though two-thirds still do not). China and a number of other “developing nations” are growing at a rate unprecedented in modern times, at least in terms of scale. China has plans, for instance, to urbanize an additional 500 million people over the next decade or so. Private companies, most notably SpaceX, are bringing down the cost of space travel (potentially by a hundred-fold if they manage to establish reusable rocket components) or, in the case of Planetary Resources, developing business plans to mine asteroids. Regenerative medicine is working on the development of 3D printing of organs, regrowing lost teeth and even reversing male pattern baldness. Gene therapy, long shunned after some earlier false starts, is moving a number of therapies for MD, AIDS, hemophilia, blindness and even the common cold, through clinical trials. Moore’s Law has advanced computing to the point that supercomputers from the 1970s that were housed in entire buildings are now contained in a smartphone that can be bought for under $500. The world has never seemed to change as quickly in human history as it is today.

And yet there are serious problems and great dangers that face humanity from hunger, diabesity (diabetes and obesity) and poverty to war and climate change. Ice caps are melting, the economy is stagnating (though with recent signs of life in the USA) and we face challenges never before faced. How is this possible? It is fundamentally rooted in the contradictions of the way that capitalism organizes the economy, research and more. I want to argue that the problems are rooted in at least six ways that capitalism distorts research and technological development. These are as follows:

1) Capitalism only develops technologies that can generate profit, and usually only those that can generate short-term profit. This has a few results:

a. Capitalism produces technologies that we don’t need. We don’t need a new smartphone every year or a new flat screen TV or remote controlled lawn mower. More than anything capitalism uses advertising and marketing to get us to buy dumb shit. This is rooted in part in alienation from our own productive capabilities as human beings. Because our labour is forced we seek reward in consumption, literally in buying things or in our animal desires – eating, sex, etc. – rather than in what makes us human, our ability to labour (ie. Transform nature) because that ability is taken from us by forced labour (work for someone else or starve).

b. Capitalism doesn’t develop technologies that we do need. If it doesn’t produce an obvious profit, technologies are neglected. 

c. Capitalism produces stuff that is simply garbage and doesn't work but which continues to be produced because it generates profits. Think of GMOs, these are very big business. Yet, many recent studies suggest that they don't do what they say - increase crop yields. (There are also many potential dangers in relation to human consumption, et al). But GMOs have the benefit, from the point of view of capitalists, of allowing agribusinesses to dominate the agricultural production because they can patent the seeds and thereby outlaw their "illegal use" such as seed banking (which would permit farmers to avoid having to buy more seed and fertilizer every year. It also allows the corporation to generate sales of ancillary products like fertilizer and pesticide, since their seeds are designed to be used in conjunction with their specific products. Again, with no clear, uncontested evidence of the seeds being useful for producing more of anything except profit.

2) Related to that last point, capitalism is only interested in technologies that it can enclose using legal measures like copyright, patents, etc. We are all aware of the music and film industries and their struggles to stop “piracy” (much of which is actually just freely sharing, involving no money or profit) but this extends to many fields, including the recent decision by the US Supreme Court to negate the right of companies to patent naturally existing genes (as opposed to synthetic genes, such as with GMOs). While it's good that companies can't go so far as patenting, in this instance, the genes that lead to higher breast cancer risk, in the years to come patented synthetic genes will become an obstacle to research and meeting human need - just as patented pharmaceuticals have contributed to tens of thousands of deaths from AIDS in Africa, where people and governments couldn't afford the exorbitant prices.

3) Capitalism produces technological developments that achieve false, rather than true, efficiencies by externalizing as many costs as possible – on the environment, onto workers, etc. The most obvious one here is fossil fuels. There has been talk for decades, for instance, as to when solar power will achieve the same cost as coal, natural gas, oil, etc. But if we account for the future cost of cleaning the environment; the cost of extreme weather events and the melting of the polar ice caps; the cost of healthcare for children with asthma, the cost to the deterioration of buildings in cities, etc. – this point was probably already reached a while ago. The inefficiencies are hidden and offloaded to the general population. At a more "mundane" level, the recent deaths of over a thousand garment workers in Bangladesh is a stark demonstration of exactly what it means to "externalize costs" onto workers.

4) The technologies that capitalism invents that could make life better – for instance robotics and other forms of automation, etc. – instead cause dislocation through unemployment and provides a downward pressure on wages through deskilling, offshoring, etc. This is pretty straightforward – the rise of the internet has made international trade more possible, permitting the off-shoring of jobs, from low-skilled manufacturing to service jobs. Websites like designcrowd.com and Elance.com allow the hiring of freelancers in the developing world for half or less the cost of paying for those services in the first world. Foxconn, which produces the iPhone and many other high-tech items announced a plan in 2011 to utilize three million robots within a few years. This will come at the expense of jobs in China.

5) Capitalism attempts to use technology to solve problems that are created by social conditions, not lack of technology.
a. An obesity pill is a really obvious human health issue. Obesity is caused by the rise of processed foods that lack nutrition but which are craved by time and cash-strapped working families.

b. Greater crop yields – Monsanto and other companies seek to patent genetically modified crops (related to the above point about enclosing tech and bogus technology) but the problem is not production it is that people can’t afford food. There is no food shortage, there is a shortage of “effective demand” – people who can afford to buy the food.

6) Of those technologies that capitalism is interested in that don’t have immediately apparent profit opportunities, the only ones that usually get developed have benefits for the state, usually in the form of its military arm.
a. Drones – these have become widespread, first for foreign military purposes (literally to bomb people in the Middle East and places like Afghanistan). They are now being utilized by police and security services as a way to perform surveillance on domestic populations.

b. Even in healthcare, the areas that get funded are in large part that have a military component, like treating soldier’s who suffer major trauma.

These are, of course, only a small sample of technologies and technological dynamics that are distorted by capitalist dynamics. I may well have missed some and invite other to add to this list. But it nonetheless suggests that capitalism is both inefficient and destructive in the ways that it develops technology.


1) Marxism, Capitalism & Technology

2) Genes, Robots & The Internet: How Capitalism Revolutionizes The Planet

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Fall Of The House Of Ford

Taking a moment to pray for peace
You gotta admit that it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Rob Ford is a bully and a hypocrite - quick to condemn the perceived weakness of others, to pounce on the supposed privileges of unionized workers or the effete absurdity of riding a bicycle instead of driving an SUV in our congested city. And yet he is clearly a man with many personal flaws whose (unearned) privilege as the son of a successful businessman has not only shielded him but has allowed to rise above his ability to function. Were he not the same guy who wanted to cut daycare subsidies for single mothers and wanted to close libraries, I might have had some sympathy for him. But I don't.

Nonetheless, I have to say that I honestly don't care if Ford smokes crack or performs Satanic rituals in his basement. The more I hear people - especially media commentators - talk about his personal failings the more uneasy it makes me. Most of it, frankly, just smells like nothing so much as simply snobbery and elitism. Ditto the comments about the fact that Ford's support base hasn't wavered in the face of the scandal. The Fordites are stupid and dogmatic, a cult, etc etc etc. Funny thing, I had a conversation last week with a Ford voter in a local haunt. He also smelled the snobbery of the whole thing: "the media hate him because he's a regular guy and not a slick politician." I mean, that piece in the Globe & Mail about Doug Ford selling hash in high school? Really? It might dismay the city's elite, who will drink martinis and snort cocaine but who would never stoop to something so pedestrian as hash or, god forbid selling it (it's one thing to buy the stuff, but dealers are so... so... gauche). But for most of us we probably knew people in high school who sold grass or hash or LSD, etc. It was like a higher paying, higher risk part-time job, more fun than working for McDonald's but with higher potential consequences. Very few high school dealers went on to become Scarface. If you don't like teenagers furtively selling dime bags and doobies in the school smoking area, it's pretty simple really - decriminalize it. They some big corporation can sell it and hire the former teenagers for half the pay and put them in stupid uniforms.

But I digress.
Personal attacks & mockery make Ford's base support him more

Normally, I'd say that the decimation of a (minor) right wing dynasty would be something to relish, particularly if the possibility existed to discredit the right wing more broadly. But this stuff is so apolitical that it will do nothing to advance an anti-austerity agenda, or more progressive politics in the areas of equal rights for LGBT, women, minorities, etc. The clamouring for Ford's noggin is not about creating a greener, more equal Toronto. It is a clamouring for a more effective, slicker, right wing dirtbag. As Rosie DiManno put it recently in The Star, "this is not about left or right." And that's exactly the problem. I say that if we have to have a right wing, pro-austerity, anti-equality mayor, I want an incompetent one.

The one bright light in this whole fiasco - I mean besides the sort of sports fan, voyeuristic pleasure one gets from watching a mock-Shakespearean tragicomedy unfold - is the way that it has expanded with the police drug raids to implicate Ford in a broader criminal conspiracy. Again, Rosie DiManno put it succinctly when she wrote:

"Yet this is no longer about the contents of a video that’s been seen only by three journalists. Toronto’s mayor, however peripherally, remains a character in a criminal tableau that now encompasses a sophisticated network of alleged drug trafficking, gun-running, robberies, a Dixon-turf street gang and attempted murders, and the mysterious plunge from a Fort McMurray apartment where police made an arrest three weeks ago linked to the alleged Ford crack video."

I have no doubt that the elite are only too happy to use drugs - likely something "higher class" than crack - while condemning dealers and low end users. If this at least exposes some of that hypocrisy - and the rumour is that the late Anthony Smith, of the infamous photograph, was a "dealer to the stars", then it will have been worth something. However, one of the many unfortunate sides of all this - the moral panic from the chattering classes about drug use, the snobbery, etc - is that Ford's political demise should have and could have been precipitated on a political, left wing basis if any of the leaderships of the official left or the trade union movement had ever really stood up to Ford and mobilized in a serious way to defeat him. Ford was always a shell and it was only the left's fear of his supposed invincibility that made him so. Instead of celebrating the defeat of an austerity warrior all we get is a soap opera spectacle.
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