Archives for category: Social Criticism

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In the West, most people see communism as a failed social enterprise, relegated to the dustbin of history after its atrocious implementation during the 20th century. People look at the oppressive Stalinist regime, the brutality of the Maoist revolution, and the devastation of Pol Pot, and argue that while it works nicely on paper, communism is far too appalling, evidenced by precedent, to be taken seriously in any kind of discussion for the future.

Of course, no one seems to know what communism actually means. People use the term “cultural Marxism” to denounce pretty much anyone on the left that they disagree with, since the term is vague to the point of meaninglessness, making it easy to apply. It boils down to modern day McCarthyism against groups of people who probably don’t even identify as Marxist at all. People associate communism and socialism with welfare spending, and Big Government interfering in the economy, staying the invisible hand. In actuality, socialism is the equivalent of industrial democracy, and means that workers run their businesses as a collective, rather than under the autocratic rule of a monarch. Engels actually wrote that once socialism was in place, there would be a “withering away of the state” as it became obsolete, with people becoming more and more involved in the maintenance of their own communities. Communism, once realized, doesn’t involve Big Government at all, and is actually libertarian in principle. The difference is that power is diffused among the people, rather than maintained in tyrannical, non-governmental structures as in contemporary libertarianism. For the record, government interference to guide the economy is called Keynesian Economics, and is responsible for such things as FDR’s New Deal which incidentally brought the Americans out of the Great Depression. Unfortunately, this misinformation isn’t just propagated by the neo-McCarthyists on the Right, since Bernie Sanders, who essentially promotes New Deal-styled policy ideas, proclaims himself a socialist. Not to say that they’re bad ideas in the current economic and political climate, they’re just not socialist.

What separates communism from anarchism (or libertarian socialism, if you prefer), is the method of implementation, and here is where the problems start. Marx, Engels, and Lenin advocated the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which is the transitional state between capitalism and communism. In order for the transition to be successful, there must be centralized power which enforces the new ideological system, as outside forces will continuously threaten the newly established way of life. They give the example of the Paris Commune, which showed promise as a communist paradise, but was overthrown by hostile capitalists not long after its implementation. Had the Commune bolstered its power to enforce its ideals more effectively, it could have survived. Thus, the necessity of centralized power. Of course, once the threats dissipate, the state will allegedly wither away, but the anarchists believed that oppressive power is oppressive power, regardless of who wields the stick of oppression, be it the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. The anarchists wished to abolish all structures of power at the outset, without resorting to authoritarian methods to do so.

If the USSR never actually achieved full communism (a stateless, democratically organized society), and never even implemented any socialist initiatives (democratically organized businesses), how did it becomes the scapegoat for the so-called even-minded critiques of those doctrines? The blame mostly rests on the shoulders of the “liberal media” that has been propagating the capitalist imperative for decades.

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman published possibly the first thoroughly researched look at what has now become Fake News, in their book Manufacturing Consent. In it, they look at how the media portrays the objectives of capitalist elites as morally honourable, while demonizing those who disagree with the accepted model. For example, everyone knows about the Killing Fields of Cambodia, they even made a movie about it, and everyone knows that Pol Pot and communism in general are responsible for all those deaths. What is less known is that from 1969 to 1973, the Americans had been bombing Cambodia, creating a death toll comparable though slightly less than the numbers of dead under Pol Pot, and then after the Vietnamese ousted Pol Pot’s regime, the Americans covertly supported the Khmer Rouge since Vietnam was seen to be the worse evil of the two. When measuring outrage against atrocity, context is important.

For additional context, there is also the Indonesian genocide of the East Timorese which happened concurrently to the Cambodian one. The difference between the two genocides was that the Indonesian government was being supplied by the Americans, and were slaughtering those with left-leaning principles. Media outcry could very easily have ended the genocide, given America’s involvement in its process, but the outcry never happened, and many of those involved in the massacre are still a part of the contemporary Indonesian government. There was actually an independent film documenting the effects of the genocide today, The Act of Killing (2012), but its accusations of US complicity were pretty much ignored.

Chomsky and Herman give many more examples, such as media comparisons between a priest being killed in Poland and four religious American women killed in El Salvador. Or the media’s attempt to pin the assassination attempt on the Pope onto Soviet communists, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Their criticism of the media’s portrayal of the Vietnam War, commonly associated with media hostility to power, is that the media decried American casualties, and American blunders within the war, but it never criticized America’s right to intervene militarily in foreign nations, nor the devastation wrought to the Vietnamese. Similarly today, the legitimacy of the War on Terror is simply assumed, and weeping over American casualties and condemning certain methods remain the only viable criticism. The deaths of Middle Eastern civilians are basically shrugged off.

Capitalist propaganda is why we associate Russian Gulags with communism, but not the Western assassination of the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953 with capitalism. Mosaddegh was trying to limit the powers of Western oil companies in his country while trying to keep the profit derived from his nation within his nation, and was killed for it. That’s not capitalism. Or the Great Bengal famine, when the British East India Company implemented crop policies that reduced the production of edible crops for those that were more viable on the international market. The food shortage that erupted resulted in the deaths of 10 million people. Again, not the fault of capitalism. Donald Trump today wants to reinvigorate the Afghanistan war, instate an American Viceroy, and claim ownership of Afghan mineral deposits as compensation for the 16 year war that America started. Using war, death, and destruction to enrich resource-driven oligarchs could never be categorized as a staple of capitalist doctrine. Those who denounce Venezuela as a failed socialist state ought to maintain that Haiti, the Philippines, Guatemala, Chile, Iran, and many, many others should be capitalist utopias due to the intervention into their politics that emphasized private power over public ownership. A system where the ultimate goal is profit at any cost could never result in anything terrible. But it does, obviously, since that doesn’t make sense at all. Communism at least works on paper.

Where does propaganda end and reality set in? The USSR, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and Maoist China all resulted in terrible atrocities, and that is something that no one will deny. But are they appropriate examples of communist principles in action, or even socialist ones? If you are going to criticize socialist states, there are examples where the ideal was realized. Israeli Kibbutz, starting before Israel was even a thing, are socialist communities that still flourish today. Catalonia, Spain, prior to Franco’s attempt at fascism, was a successful anarchist society. It was even described with reverence by famed author of Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell, in his book Homage to Catalonia. Orwell, being an ardent socialist, was quite fond of the experiment. The Diggers in 17th century England are another example. Today, Marinaleda, also in Spain, admits to being a successful communist utopia, and economically speaking, far surpasses the surrounding cities which gives credence to its claim. There are certainly criticisms that exist of these places; the Kibbutz are mired in Judaic and Israeli cultural/political intrigue, there are few opportunities for ambition in Marinaleda, and the Diggers and Catalonians were wiped out by their ideological opponents (Is being wiped out a criticism? Marx thought it was, but perhaps these examples exist better as a condemnation of an ideology, ironically driven by competition, that cannot abide competition. Fukuyama’s End of History is essentially the monopoly of a system that claims such a development is a destructive failure).

We shouldn’t dismiss misunderstood ideas without proper analysis, and we shouldn’t read Animal Farm and assume that the solution is to leave Mr Jones in charge. Communism is certainly associated with a sordid history, but how much of that is reality and how much is propaganda? How does it fare against the reality and propaganda of capitalism? There are reasonable precedents that we can learn from without being blinded by the grotesque theatre of the common strawmen. We don’t have to strive for an anarcho-communist utopia, but neither should we dismiss it out of hand.

The 1% get a lot of flak. They’re told that they ought to pay for all the world’s problems. They need to pay so that lazy poor people can continue to be lazy under the luxurious welfare system. Socialism means that those who earn their money have to pay for those who don’t. The current liberal media demonizes wealth, suggesting that even heaven is out of reach for the 1%, comparing it to being equally likely as passing a camel through the eye of a needle. Oh wait no, that was Jesus.

Before Jesus was Plato, who believed that the corrupting influence of wealth ought to be excluded from leadership. His Guardian class would be isolated from any form of money, to prevent greed tainting their decisions. Aristotle after him declared that inequality of wealth prevented the function of democracy, though not in the traditional left-wing sense. He believed that if a minority hoarded the wealth, then the majority poor would overthrow them. Since revolution is a bad thing, Aristotle suggested wealth redistribution to avoid the potential for a disastrous calamity. Machiavelli too saw that there is an issue with an unrestrained bourgeoisie, and noted that the aristocracy is always inclined to amass more fortune, whereas the common people simply want to live their lives. Given this observation, a government is necessary to mediate between the two classes, lest the one exploit and oppress the other unduly.

Looks like the rich have been considered assholes long before even Marx got around to taking a stab at condemning them. So why are people so mean to the 1%? What have the rich ever done?

Since I don’t really have any sources for Biblical times to see the deeds of the rich with which Jesus disagreed so much, I’ll use modern examples. Like the Bhopal disaster of 1984! A pesticide plant exploded in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands and injured hundreds of thousands. It’s considered the world’s worst industrial disaster, and is still impacting the area today, since, you know, chemicals exploded everywhere. The most likely reason for the explosion is the same one that caused the Deepwater Horizon explosion which inundated the gulf of Mexico with a gigantic oil spill: cutting corners to save money. Now, Union Carbide, the corporation who owned the pesticide plant, says that it was sabotage, but then in the subsequent legal suit, it paid $120 million more than the plaintiff against them said would be fair, despite the alleged mountain of evidence dismissing them of any wrong doing. Rather than face the courts of India, the CEO of Union Carbide, after having been arrested in Bhopal, was immediately bailed out and smuggled out of the country with the help of the Indian government. Despite being charged, he never returned to India.

To return to Machiavelli, average people usually try to buy sturdy, long-lasting equipment because they know it’s cheaper than constantly replacing things in the short term. Of course, blatant poverty precludes that kind of financial managing, but BP and Union Carbide are not exactly begging mendicants. However, any kind of expenditure for the safety of the population or the environment gets in the way of the largest profit possible, so fuck it, right?

Foxconn, an electronics factory in China, had a suicide problem. Workers would routinely hurl themselves from the roof since their jobs were essentially sweatshop labour. After a huge media outcry, since Foxconn produces America’s iPads, Foxconn decided to make new employees sign a waiver saying the company would not be blamed if they decided to kill themselves, and then they put up nets to catch any falling bodies that had decided that risking literal hell is worth fleeing Foxconn’s metaphorically hellish conditions. The aristocrats, always trying to get more, stoop to these levels in order to do it.

Normal people are actually making less and less money. Real wages have stagnated since about the 1970s, even though workers are producing significantly more. It’s pretty stark when you look at it:

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With globalization driving down wages, the decline of unions, increased automation, and other factors putting workers into a tailspin toward oblivion, the rich are celebrating. Flexible labour markets, which basically means part-time shift work with no benefits or job security, are touted as the necessary requirement to economic growth. The argument goes that if a person isn’t tied down, they can follow work wherever it goes, tramping across the country in a boxcar, asking in at every town if work is available; you know, like back during the depression. This is great for businesses because it means that there will always be new workers, and they’ll never have to pay them very much. It’s great for workers too because everyone is always losing their job, so if you’re unemployed, certainly a new opportunity will present itself soon! I mean, if a worker wants to start a family, settle down, and, you know, live, well then I suppose a flexible labour market doesn’t really help them there.

You remember slavery? Terrible thing. Interesting enough though is that plantation owners fed, clothed, and sheltered their slaves since the slaves obviously couldn’t afford to do those things on their own, being that they were, as mentioned, slaves. When slavery ended, business owners realized that they could actually pay their employees less than would be required to keep them alive, and then simply blame them for their poverty if they didn’t make enough money to provide for themselves. This is why the term “living wage” gets thrown around in reference to the “minimum wage”, since ideally businesses should put in at least as much effort into keeping their employees alive as slave owners.

Workers obviously try to fight back every now and then. Unions are a thing. Civil rights groups are a thing. People notice when they’re being fucked over, and propaganda can only go so far. Except the rich fight back, and they’re the ones with all the money. During the early 90s, Caterpillar employees went on a few strikes. After the first strike, Caterpillar Inc. started making a bunch of money, and rather than use that money to improve the conditions of its already frustrated workforce, it built excess capacity factories abroad. The next time the workers went on strike, Caterpillar could continue producing their wares in the areas it had built new facilities, thereby allowing them to ride out the strike while the workers obviously could not. The factories were not built because there was any increased demand, they were built so that the corporation could crush dissent in its workplace. This is why free trade agreements are so popular among the ownership class: it’s a lot easier to move capital around than it is labour, so companies can set up shop wherever is easiest for them to make money, and then if conditions become too difficult, move again to another place starved of employment. Labour wars are wars of attrition, and the system is rigged in the favour of the rich.

Not content with simply allowing the rigged system to continue its merry course, the rich actively try to rig it even further. Lewis Powell, a former president of the Chamber of Commerce (a corporate lobby group in the US), wrote a memorandum in the early 70s that basically stated that the woe-begotten rich, who have never had any influence over how the country is run, ought to do more to influence policy. Powell was mad because consumer advocacy groups were complaining that car manufacturers and cigarette companies were knowingly murdering their consumers, and people were getting pretty upset over it, and were trying to change the way businesses were run. According to Powell, it’s totally fine to knowingly sell people death traps, you can even lie to them about the risk involved. If you try to change things though, and, you know, avoid being literally killed by corporate greed, well then you’re going to get the full force of the rich man’s power coming down on you. Powell’s memorandum focused heavily on influencing educational institutions, not just university students but children too, and sought ways within them to inculcate the beauty and magic of capitalism. Powell was later appointed a Supreme Court judge, and since the memorandum, universities in particular are now run like businesses with an emphasis on profit over education. Students are now loaded with over a trillion dollars of debt, and what better way to make them succumb to capitalism than with the imposing threat of debt looming over their heads?

Now, #NotAllRichPeople is an important distinction to make. I’ve been making generalizations this whole post for the sake of audacity, but the reality is that a lot of rich people are decent human beings. Identity politics should not enter into a legitimate discussion on class, but this is a blog, so I’m allowed a few liberties for the sake of panache. However, the #NotAllRichPeople is a useful comparison, since even the most ardent #NotAllMen advocate wouldn’t suggest that we abolish rape laws. Think of Glass-Steagall being repealed which contributed to the 2008 global financial meltdown. Think of the subsidies that governments bequeath to the already super rich. Think of how cutting social spending to reduce taxes is basically getting poor people to pay so that the rich don’t have to (If a program gives 100$ for a bus pass to the poor, and that program gets cut to lower taxes, that means the poor person now has to pay the $100 that the rich person gets back). Inaction against oppression leads to the same outcome as condoning it, and political participation, especially by the wealthy, goes a long way. Not every company is a Caterpillar, a BP, or a Union Carbide, but the complicity of silence allows these companies to behave as they do.

Post-script: What about doctors, lawyers, and others who aren’t business owners? Though not directly responsible for the same catastrophes as corporations, their role in wealth redistribution is still vital. Now, you might think, a doctor earned their position without exploiting anyone, why should they have to pay more taxes? Well except the term “earn” is debatable. University professors have put in just as much time and money into their education, but live in relative squalor. Artists have usually dedicated their entire lives to their craft, and make even less. Wealth is based not on any individual achievements or efforts, but on social demand. Society says doctors are more important than professors and artists, so they get paid more. The distinction is arbitrary. The perfect example is motherhood. Despite popular belief that motherhood does not have a salary attached to it, it does, but it only presents itself very rarely: divorce courts… maybe not so rarely. While mothers perform many traditionally paid roles (nurse, maid, cook, chaperone, teacher, counselor, social worker, etc.), they don’t get paid for them until they leave their husbands, and then they get approximately half of his earnings. Her economic value as a mother is based entirely on the man she gets lumped together with. Like I said, arbitrary. And before you say that nurturing is natural to women, and that’s why they don’t receive traditional compensation, let me remind you that providing is allegedly naturally male. If natural behaviours don’t merit pay, then things like farming and house building shouldn’t be paid either. Since wealth is arbitrary, redistribution becomes much more palatable, even for doctors and lawyers.

Today is Canada day. Allegedly, Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday, since that was the point when anything worth mentioning started happening here in this vast expanse of land. But what happened 150 years ago that was worth celebrating? What exact event took place? What was its context? What were the consequences of that event, and given those consequences, do we really want that event to define us as a nation?

As is commonly known, Europeans came to this land, and took it from its native inhabitants; some might say stole. The method of acquisition is a bit hazy, since most of British Columbia, large parts of Quebec and Atlantic Canada, and a number of other spots are areas of land that were never actually added to Canadian confederation. These are lands that were never signed away in treaty or annexed through conquest. Even beyond the ambiguities of treaties ceding ownership from a people who had no notion of land ownership in the first place, and the barbarity of stealing land from a murdered people via conquest, throughout a large portion of Canada, Europeans, now calling themselves Canadians, just “took” ownership of the land. The Canadian Supreme Court recently ruled that Aboriginal people in theory do still own the right to that land that they never actually gave up, which Canadian governments are now doing their utmost to circumvent. A most telling example is BC’s former-premier Christy Clark referring to the people “up there” (demarcating them as an Other from the predominantly non-indigenous southerners) as being the “forces of no” who are simply too unreasonable to blindly follow the economic fancies of the Liberal party’s oil and gas lobbyists. Ignoring the environmental concerns of a gas pipeline sullying First Nation’s traditional fishing grounds, what about simple respect for a sovereign people dictating their own affairs in their own land?

I don’t think most people would wish to celebrate 150 years of ongoing land theft, so what else has Canada been up to otherwise if we wish to only acknowledge 150 years? I mean, we all sort of know that white people used to be terrible to “Indians” back in the day, with terms casually thrown around like “genocide” without really appreciating that the term is one we commonly use in conjunction with atrocities like the holocaust: a great way to start the birth of a nation! However, we tend to ignore that. Stephen Harper infamously stated that Canada does not have a history of colonialism. If the Prime Minister of the country succumbs to the idea that Canada is just super polite and never does anything wrong, then I guess willful ignorance is one of those “Canadian Values” that people keep clamoring to demand of our immigrants.

Did you know that Aboriginal people did not get the vote in Canada until 1960? For comparison, black people in the United States, that horrible place with slavery and endless racism, got the vote in 1870 when the 15th amendment was added to the constitution (yes, voter suppression precluded black people from voting at the time, and is still ongoing). Women got the vote in 1918. What this all means is that if we want to celebrate 150 years of Canadian history, a good portion of that 150 years is an apartheid state.

Perhaps that is a bit extreme. Sure Canada isn’t actually Canadian land and we’ve excluded Aboriginal people from any kind of political participation, but we must have at least been polite about it! We’re Canadian, after all! Well, except that the head of Indian Affairs in the early 20th century said shit like this in regard to kids dying in Residential Schools:

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.” [emphasis added]

The emphasis wasn’t added by me, but by the source from where I got the quotation. I decided to keep it because as far as final solutions go to ethnic-based problems, there aren’t many positive comparisons, and me choosing to use the term ‘apartheid’ seems more reasonable over other options I could have chosen, now doesn’t it?

But yeah! Residential Schools! They sound so benign, but you gotta remember that they were places where Aboriginal children were raped and tortured until they acted as white as they possibly could. Children were abducted from their families to be placed in these (well, we’re avoiding a certain comparison so I won’t say death camps even though more than 3000 children died, so we’ll stick with school) schools from the 1830s to 1996. Have some graphic imagery:

Girls were sexually abused and raped. Boys were forced to masturbate while wearing plastic skirts and showering together. Children were stropped, beaten with all manner of objects and were put in the electric chair; for punishment, for no reason at all and for simple entertainment. Children were forced to eat their own days old vomit.

Canada also had Indian Hospitals, which served a similar function to the Residential Schools, where segregated health services were delivered to abducted Aboriginals of all ages. Again the goal was to eliminate their culture, more so than any physical disease. The natives would become “civilized” whether they wanted it or not.

Canada never actually got tired of abducting Aboriginal children, however. During the 1960s, Canada’s intrepid social workers would venture into the Reserves and take children; ‘scoop’ them up, as it were, and now we have the delightful term “Sixties Scoop” to refer to this time period. Rather than place them in frightful Residential Schools, the government placed the children into white foster homes for even more “civilizing” missions against these savage people. Foster care is of course marginally less abusive than the Residential School system, so at least some degree of progress was made on that front. Still though, it ain’t great even today and abuses were (and are) abundant.

When I said Canada never got tired of abducting Aboriginal children, it should be noted that there is now what is referred to as the “Millennium Scoop” since there are more Aboriginal children under government care today than there was during the height of the Residential School period. In 2011, 85% of children in Manitoba’s foster care were Aboriginal. Another “Canadian Value” ought to be persistence, since we haven’t given up on that Final Solution during our much-celebrated 150 years. Aboriginal communities live in Third World conditions in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. Their drinking water is undrinkable. Their health, infant mortality rate, and life expectancy is comparatively abysmal. Suicide rates are described in epidemic terms.

I mean, I guess you could be racist and say that Aboriginal people are just biologically determined to live garbage lives, but their livelihood prior to those 150 years shows otherwise. We now use terms like “intergenerational trauma” to described the impact the last 150 years have had on Aboriginal people, and I mean if you really want to celebrate that, enjoy being a shit person, I guess.

Perhaps you’re wondering that someone could in theory celebrate other aspects of Canadian life this Canada Day. Not everything is terrible. Insulin was invented in Canada. That’s pretty neat! We also invented basketball and Trivial Pursuit. Hooray for us! But by labeling Canada 150 years old, what we’re doing is saying that the Aboriginal People who have lived here a lot longer than that don’t fall into the Canadian narrative. We’re saying that we’re just going to ignore the legacy of what started 150 years ago, that Final Solution, and pretend that we never participated in colonialism. If we’re going to mark our calendars for an acknowledgement of 150 years, it should not be a day of celebration, but one of remorse. You don’t celebrate the beginning of genocide.

Why not acknowledge that the First Peoples of this country helped found the nation that we now call Canada? Why not say that the history of Canada is a history of all Canadians? We’d be a lot older than 150 years if we did that! We would see that the tragedy of Aboriginal life is not a permanent fixture, and we would see that their sovereign power is a right imbued in the history of our vast and diverse nation.

I am a patriot. I love my country. I just see my country as a collection of its people, rather than the illusion created by the public narrative. I celebrate Canada by celebrating Canadians, every single one of them, which means I celebrate too those who have been here since time immemorial.

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Party on, Canada!