Archives for category: Politics

Institutions get a bit of a raw deal. To be sent to an “institution” generally is interpreted as either going to prison or a mental hospital. To become “institutionalized” is to lose one’s personality and become slavishly indoctrinated to the regulations of whatever authority you’re living under. We associate the term with fear, omniscient control, and zealotry. The church is the perfect example. We are seeing a surge of people willing to define themselves as spiritual, never giving an account as to what that actually means, but embracing it nonetheless because it allows them to distance themselves from the institution of organized religion. Yet institutions make up a greater portion of our society than just our prisons, churches, and hospitals. Marriage is an institution. The law courts are an institution. Democracy is an institution. An institution is not an object, but the social implementation of an idea.

Religion is a well known institution, so let’s observe how those institutions were formed. Judaism is a religion built on laws. The Torah is an inherent institution because it takes an ideology and literally spells out behaviours and regulations one ought to follow. With Islam, Sharia Law similarly dictates behaviour among Muslims. Both of these religions have survived for millennia with little change in structure. Islam’s split into Sunni and Shia was due to Muhammad not naming a successor before he died, and each sect chose to follow a different path of leadership. There is no difference in doctrinal interpretations because everything was already laid out… except of course for managerial disputes.

Let’s contrast to Christianity. Jesus Christ did not stipulate strict laws to be followed, but offered guidelines in their stead. “Love thy neighbour” is a nice platitude that offers a pleasant way of being, but it’s not so rigid as “Don’t eat pork.” The institution of Christianity was not the result of Christ’s handiwork, but of Peter’s. Peter is the one who built up the church into an institution, and as there was no solid bond between the doctrine and the church, it was slow going. The canonical relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father was not officially decided until the First Council of Nicaea, 300 years after Jesus was crucified. The development of the church was done by individual popes, often on a whim, which set about the doctrinal revolution of the Reformation. The Laws of God were deemed greater than any papal decrees, and so rebelled the Protestants.

An important thing to remember is that Jesus Christ was not the only Jewish messiah. There was what is referred to as a “Messianic Fervor” during that time period where Jewish messiahs were popping up left and right. Even in the centuries after Christ, Jewish messiahs would crop up every now and then to develop one cult or another, and then fizzle out soon after the death of their leader. Jesus is the messiah we remember because he had a Peter.

My favourite forgotten saviour is Sabbatai Zevi. Zevi was a messiah who actually got quite popular during the 17th century in the heart of the Ottoman empire. I suppose they must have learned from Roman mistakes, since rather than martyr him, the Muslim rulers of the time forced him to convert to Islam. This lead to large swathes of people converting in his wake, and others holding out that Zevi was still secretly Jewish and converted because he was super cunning and sly, rather than fearful for his life. Whatever the case, there are very few people who now care about Sabbatai Zevi (to his credit, they do still exist).

The non-Jesus Jewish messiahs failed, not because they weren’t charismatic enough or weren’t putting forward ideas that the population could rally around, but because they focused on the feeling of Jew-ness, rather than any direct social implementation of their doctrine. They had no staying power.

Machiavelli spoke of a need for institutions to provide stability in any country. An institution by definition is something bigger than any one individual because it is a representation of the ideals of the whole. Machiavelli constantly referred to the Romans, and compared the two methods of government under which Rome was ruled: the Senate and the Emperors. The senate relied on codes of conduct, votes, and the voices of the (landowning, male) people by definition. The emperors relied on the temperament of individual. Certainly Caesar and Augustus were competent enough rulers, but the institution of Emperor was built on shaky foundations, and Rome was quickly under the sway of rulers like Commodus, Nero, and Caligula.

Compare this to current Western democracy. Though everything is now glaringly relative, George W. Bush was a terrible president. His term limit came to a close, and he was not so terrible that he left without a fuss. Stephen Harper won his seat in the last Canadian federal election, but by our own parliamentary method of government, he lost all his real power. Our institutions of democracy are bigger than the individuals within them, so we can transition between rulers without any coups or arbitrary lineage.

Our court system is the institution of justice. If one person feels wronged by another, they can sue or prosecute, and regardless of the result, will generally accept justice as having been meted out. There is little risk of personal vendettas escalating out of control because justice is seen to be represented by the institution.

Institutions, regardless of their bad rap, are what keep societies stable over the long term. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, communism didn’t fail because communism is a bad method of governance, it failed because Napoleon was able to stage his coup over Snowball with no repercussions. No institutions were in place to prevent such a thing, and the individual was allowed to become greater than the ideals of the whole.

Institutions need sacredness in order to preserve the representation of being greater than an individual, but they also need adaptability in order to survive. Just as the Jews developed the Talmud to address some of the growing concerns against the Torah and the old ways, so too have Americans amended their constitution. Laws frequently are changed, as are the ways of implementing them. The court system, as well as our current method of democracy, are in definite need of reformation. Modern contexts must continuously be applied to the “holy” laws of institutions in order to keep them relevant.

Reform is a difficult process because traditionalists hold on to the divine nature of institutions, and rightly they should, just as progressives rightly need to push for continuous adaptations. It is of very serious consequence to disregard the institutionalization of ideals because the result otherwise is generation-dependent chaos as each group, for good or ill, implements the whims of whoever holds the most power. If power is in the hands of something abstract and timeless, no one person can fuck it up. It would take a whole lot of people to fuck it up, and if it gets to that point, that institution probably needed a good fucking up anyway.

Institutions can of course be corrupted, or killed by a thousand cuts. Starve The Beast politics is certainly one way to destroy public institutions without overtly stating that that is your aim. Democracy too could be said to be an illusion, as partisan politics, voter suppression, lies, lobbying, special interests, and propaganda essentially eliminate any genuine democracy taking place in so-called “democratic” nations. I think if progressive individuals wanted to make headway in solidarity with conservative peers, touching on the traditional sacredness of the institutions being condemned and mutilated by Conservative politicians might be a good place to start.

Are there modern institutions that I believe should be abolished, rather than reformed? Certainly. Do I know how to do that without succumbing to chaos? Not really. Those who denounce reform in favour of revolution must ask themselves how they plan on cementing their ideology in place, and what might their society look like in 200 years, and how might future changes to their society take place. Lenin was very clear on the need for authoritarianism in revolution, and he was right. To overthrow an institution is a huge risk, and it would need to be replaced by another in order for society to maintain stability. How that stability is implemented is the difference between a fascist state and a democratic one.

To decry institutions is fallacious. To call for revolution without something solid to replace it is to place your hopes in a dead phoenix. Each perspective, conservative and progressive, need to coexist so each can maintain their proper function. Our goals cannot be to “win” over the other, but to maintain social institutions as best we can, and help them grow alongside the rest of us. To fear and malign them is just as much a failure as it is to believe them to be impervious to change. And when we each fail, we fail as a whole.

What does it mean to be a patriot? Obviously loving your country is the baseline from which we must work, but what form ought that love need embody? Frequently this love is merely blind obedience. For instance, while disastrous foreign intervention is often portrayed as bumbling or ridden with mistakes, and the methods may be challenged, the actual right to intervene is never questioned. The patriotic state is morally infallible, even if its arbiters are only human in their expression of that impossibly righteous doctrine. Those who claim the highest degree of patriotism often have the strongest distaste for the elites of their country, despite them representing the very mechanisms for how that country operates. This contradiction illuminates that patriotism can represent a disturbing level of authoritarianism, as even if the masters of society are held in contempt, their deeds and motivations at their core are ultimately indisputable. Patriotism as a guise for authoritarianism is not built on a foundation of love but one of control, so clearly that option must be discarded.

If not obedience, why not disobedience? John Stuart Mill said, “Laws never would be improved, if there were not numerous persons whose moral sentiments are better than the existing laws.” Moral infallibility is certainly not the property of any state, which means that the people are the ones responsible to hold it to account. Participating in the system is quite often nothing more than a concession to the very nature of that system, which means that disobedience is possibly one of the few ways to hold those in power to account, as is our responsibility. Consider these quotations from anti-suffragettes. Emma Goldman, the radical feminist and anarchist, said:

The history of the political activities of man proves that they have given him absolutely nothing that he could not have achieved in a more direct, less costly, and more lasting manner. As a matter of fact, every inch of ground he has gained has been through a constant fight, a ceaseless struggle for self-assertion, and not through suffrage. There is no reason whatever to assume that woman, in her climb to emancipation, has been, or will be, helped by the ballot.

Helen Keller, yes, that Helen Keller, was a socialist dissident who also believed that enfranchisement was the wrong direction to take:

Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee . . . You ask for votes for women. What good can votes do when ten-elevenths of the land of Great Britain belongs to 200,000 and only one-eleventh to the rest of the 40,000,000? Have your men with their millions of votes freed themselves from this injustice?

These women were not creating objections based on misogynistic ideas of a woman’s place in society, but were objecting based on the principle that the country belongs to its citizens rather than the ruling class. The idea of political disobedience is never disobedience for disobedience sake, but rather to improve the state of the world so that the lives of the people are improved along with it. It is an ideology of communal unity, where the bond of the people is driving forward the mechanisms of change. This is a patriotism of love. This is a patriotism that believes the state can be improved because the people within it deserve the best of all possible worlds. Dissent is not a rejection of the nation; it is its embrace, believing it can do better because it deserves to be the best. We are our nation. We deserve the best.

I have a general distaste for puns, though I do maintain two exceptions: sexual innuendo for those prime “That’s what she said!” moments, and puns which are communist themed. For example, pet names based on communist ideologues are one of the few acceptable uses of a play on words: Karl Barx, Fidel Cat-stro, Meow Zedong, Pol Pup, and Kim Jong Gill for all the fish aficionados. With this in mind, I find there to be absolutely zero hypocrisy when I had a socialist epiphany in the form of a pun: “I don’t see how you can be a feminist and not be a socialist. You are literally demanding control over the means of production.” This originally started out as one of the rare examples of a hilarious pun, and… it is a good one. I mean, consider the follow up that if you do not have control over the means of production, you become alienated from your labour. The puns basically write themselves. However, the more I thought about how brilliant and hilarious I am, the more I realized that the similarities between feminism and socialism are quite abundant.

Let’s first spell out a basic feminist premise. Women ought to have control over their reproductive rights. She ought to have a say in the conditions within which that reproduction takes place (eg. consent is important), and she ought to be able to have direct control over the reproduction itself (eg. birth control or an abortion). From here it is a simple matter of replacing reproduction with production; after all, producing something with her hands compared to producing something with her uterus is only superficially different based on what part of the body is doing the production. If she crafted a perfect AI, indistinguishable from human consciousness and passing anything Alan Turing could concoct, the differences would become even more minute.

The quality of the product is not important. Whether the woman begets the next brilliant physicist or endures a tragic stillbirth, it is the means of that production that she has the rights to; the outcome is irrelevant. Similarly, if she handcrafts an AI brain-chip or merely pushes a button to have a machine do it for her, she is still producing something, be it the action of pushing the button or the brain-chip itself. Regardless of how menial the labour, she still ought to have a right to direct control over the conditions of her production and the nature of that production itself.

Now hold on, you might say, the person pressing the button shouldn’t have the same rights in brain-chip manufacturing as the person who designed it. There is a huge production process with each person contributing something different with scaling value regarding the finished product. The designer has contributed more energy than the button pusher. And you’re absolutely right, but that still doesn’t disprove the initial point, it just adds more people to the process. Each person has their own right to their individual labour, but production is a collective action, which is why collective ownership over the means of production is literally the definition of socialism. It’s simply applying democratic principles to labour rather than autocratic ones. Dads don’t contribute very much to the production of a child, but typically they want a say in how the baby is raised.

There are going to be critics who say that the person who puts the money upfront for production ought to have the lion’s share of control. Except that person is not generally a person but a bank, and banks usually recuse themselves once the money has been repaid. We’ve already established that the idea for a product and its production doesn’t negate the necessity for worker ownership since everybody is contributing collectively, so the foundation of a company really ought not to bear on its collective ownership. It’s like a judge saying that they have the right to decide how women ought to reproduce since they are the ones dictating the legal recourse for rape. That’s apparently how it works in our current system, but that doesn’t mean that that is the most morally righteous way of doing things.

Perhaps there are libertarians out there who believe that ownership of personal production is great, but that production can be contracted out to companies willing to pay for it. My first response is that this immediately puts the two in conflict; the contractor will try to get as much from the company for as little as possible, while the company will do the same with the contractor. If they were willing to work cooperatively rather than against each other then they would be socialists, so the conflict stands. This also puts our contractor in a predicament, since they are likely to need the job to eat and keep a roof over their head, and so desperation would negate any bargaining equality between the two. It’s the premise behind and the counter-measure to strikes. Each side is waiting for the other to run out of enough money to become desperate enough to agree to a biased deal.

My second response is that we started out this article by comparing production to reproduction, and we already have a slur for the women who contract out their reproduction: whore. Personally I believe that if everything else is commodified, and the woman has control over her production of sexual pleasure, then there are no problems since a service job is a service job. However, many people still feel that prostitution is a cheapening act. Perhaps this is no different from classical liberal philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt’s criticism that every instance of renting one’s labour is a cheapening act:

“…man never regards what he possesses as so much his own, as what he does; and the labourer who tends a garden is perhaps in a truer sense its owner, than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits…In view of this consideration, it seems as if all peasants and craftsman might be elevated into artists; that is, men who love their labour for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and inventive skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character, and exalt and refine their pleasures. And so humanity would be ennobled by the very things which now, though beautiful in themselves, so often serve to degrade it…But, still, freedom is undoubtedly the indispensable condition, without which even the pursuits most congenial to individual human nature, can never succeed in producing such salutary influences. Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness…

…we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is.”

So there you go. Not only do you have to dabble in anarchism to be a feminist, but it turns out that socialism is necessarily required as well.

Post-script: If I’m equating feminism to socialism, I think feminist ideologues ought to have an equal right to pet names, like Mary Woofstonecraft, Simone de Bow-wow, Emma Goldman Retriever, and maybe bell hoofs if you’re lucky enough to get a pony.