The shadow which haunts the power structure is the danger that those who are controlled will come to realize that they are powerless only so long as they think they are. Once people stop believing they are powerless, then the whole edifice which they support is in danger of collapse.
Against All Odds
Believe it or not, some of us would rather not have customs officials and cops deciding what we can read or look at. We’d rather decide for ourselves.
The Ontario government has announced that it intends to bring in regulations to stop the police practice of stopping people at random and demanding their information. Of course this form of harassment, known as “carding” in Ontario, is far from random: everyone knows who is likely to be stopped, and what the colour of their skin is likely to be. Putting an end to it sounds good, but as always the devil is in the details, and the wording shows that nothing much is likely to change. Here’s a letter that I sent to the Toronto Star, which they published on October 31:
The end of carding? Not a chance. The new legislation will allow police to stop, question and document members of the public if they have a “valid policing purpose,” defined as “detecting or preventing illegal activities.” That’s a loophole big enough to allow any cop anywhere to stop and question anyone they want, as long as they claim that doing so might result in detecting or preventing some unspecified illegal activity. And, as always, most of those stopped and harassed will just happen to be black, or aboriginal, or poor. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
I’m in the queue waiting to vote in the advance poll in the federal election. I’m ambivalent, as always when I vote, since I don’t support any of the political parties, but I want to get the vile Harper Conservatives out. From the snatches of conversation I hear, getting rid of the Conservatives is a widely shared wish.
The wait is fairly long, and the Elections Canada people are doing what they can to make the experience as pleasant as possible. There are chairs for those who need them, and, for the kids, they have an unofficial ‘ballot box.’ Those who are old enough to be able to write can write a name on a piece of paper, and then put their ‘ballot’ in the box. Those too young to write can choose a marker to colour their paper with. The coloured ‘ballots’ also go into the box.
Behind me, a little girl asks her father, “What colour should I choose?”
“Any colour you like,” he replies. Pause. “As long as it’s not blue*.”
We smile at each other. “Got to teach them young,” he says.
[*Blue is the colour of Canada’s right-wing Conservative party, which went on to defeat in the October 19 election.]
A comment from Chip Berlet:
“Right-wing hate groups do not cause prejudice in the United States – they exploit it. What we clearly see as objectionable bigotry surfacing in Extreme Right movements, is actually the magnified form of oppressions that swim silently in the familiar yet obscured eddies of ‘mainstream’ society.
Racism, sexism, heterosexism ... antisemitism, [and now Islamophobia] are the major forms of supremacy that create oppression and defend and expand inequitable power and privilege; but there are others based on class, age, ability, language, ethnicity, immigrant status, size, religion, and more. These oppressions exist independent of the Extreme Right in U.S. society.”
I think your formulation has it backwards. You say that “Racism, sexism, heterosexism, ... antisemitism, [and now Islamophobia] are the major forms of supremacy that create oppression”.
I would say that, on the contrary, it is the structures of domination and power, that create racism, sexism, etc., in order to justify the existence of unequal wealth, power and the oppression that goes with them. Racism didn’t create slavery and the slave trade; racism was created to justify slavery. US/NATO aggression against the Middle East and the Islamic-majority countries aren’t a result of Islamophobia; Islamophobia was born out of the need to justify imperialist aggression.
But you’re correct to say that right-wing hate groups don’t cause prejudice: they feed on it and magnify it. Though one could argue that by exploiting it they are causing it to spread more widely, by giving people scapegoats to blame for their real problems. One recalls August Bebel’s comment, “anti-semitism is the socialism of fools.”
Of course, the big question is: how do we combat it?
John Holloway, best known for his book Change the World Without Taking Power, has written an essay ‘Read Capital: The First Sentence, Or, Capital starts with Wealth, not with the Commodity’ which focuses on the very first sentence of Marx’s Das Capital. Holloway devotes his entire essay to a textual analysis of that first sentence, arguing that it is extremely significant, the key the whole rest of the book, in fact. The following is my response to Holloway:
One can appreciate John Holloway’s stated intention, which is to show that “Capital, from its opening words, is a tale that pitches the forces of misfitting against the forces of an oppressive social cohesion. It starts from the dignity of rebellion, not from the horrors of domination.” I would broadly agree with that description of Capital, though whether this really needs to be said, yet again, I rather doubt. It’s not exactly breaking news that Karl Marx was a revolutionary who sided with the oppressed and put class struggle at the centre of his works.
Holloway’s method, and his reasoning, are highly questionable, however. He criticizes certain other ways of reading Capital with the comment that they “are so many procrustean beds, but procrustean beds that are inherently faulty.” Well, hello, John, time to look in the mirror! An essay that bases its interpretation of Capital on the very first sentence, as if that sentence, and that sentence alone, was the key to the whole work, could certainly be described as a Procrustean bed.
Holloway sets out to show – in an exercise that could only interest a handful of academics – that the common belief that Capital starts off with a discussion of commodities is false, and that in fact “Marx does not start with the commodity.”
One might beg to differ. I suspect Marx would have begged to differ. The title of the first chapter of Capital is “Commodities.” The subhead leading off Section 1 is “The Two Factors of a Commodity: Use-Value and Value (The Substance of Value and the Magnitude of Value).” The first paragraph reads: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities,’ its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.”
Marx doesn’t begin with the commodity? Really?
But the more important point is that Capital, and Marxist theory generally, can’t be interpreted on the basis of what he put in the first sentence of the book. As Marx said, “Whatever shortcomings they may have, the merit of my writings is that they are an artistic whole.” It’s worth remembering that in one of his letters, Marx suggested that, rather than start at the beginning of Capital, a reader could start off with Chapter 10, on the Working Day, and then move on to Chapter 13, on Co-operation, and then to Chapter 14, Division of Labour and Machinery, and then on to Chapter 26, Primitive Accumulation. Karl Korsch, in his Introduction to Capital (which appears in the front of the German-language edition on my shelf here) suggests the reader start with Chapter 7, then skim chapters 8 and 9, and then read Chapter 10.
It is a peculiarly academic approach (and I don’t mean that in a good way) to think that you need to start with the first sentence and subject it to rigorous analysis, and then write an essay based on that sentence alone, before you can move on to the second sentence.
As Marshall Berman said, “What makes Capital so exciting is that, more than anything else Marx wrote, it brings to life his vision of modern life as a totality. This vision is spread out on an immense canvas: more than a thousand pages in the first volume alone; hundreds of characters – shopkeepers and sharecroppers, miners and millowners, poets and publicists, doctors and divines, philosophers and politicians, the world-famous and the anonymous – speaking in their own voices. The amazing multiplicity of real voices that Marx brings forth, and the skill with which he propels and deploys them, carry us back to the glorious days of the nineteenth-century novel.”
If one wants, as John Holloway says, to “analyse the text and ask what it offers to the contemporary struggle against capitalism,” that analysis needs to be based on the “artistic whole” that Marx set out to create.
P.S. When I read John Holloway’s oh-so-serious textual analysis of the first sentence in Capital, I knew that it reminded me of something, some skit from way back, but I couldn’t call it to mind. After I posted the above comment in Facebook, it came to me: of course, it’s the Monty Python Novel Writing skit! Just replace “Thomas Hardy” with “Karl Marx” and there you go:
Announcer: (we hear the sound of a crowd in the background) “Hello and welcome to Dorchester where a very good crowd has turned out to watch local boy Thomas Hardy write his new novel ‘The Return of the Native’ on this very pleasant July morning. This will be his eleventh novel and the fifth of the very popular Wessex novels. And here he comes! Here comes Hardy walking out toward his desk, he looks confident, he looks relaxed very much the man in form as he acknowledges this very good natured Bank Holiday crowd.
And the crowd goes quiet now as Hardy settles himself down at the desk, body straight shoulders relaxed, pen held lightly but firmly in the right hand, he dips the pen in the ink (the announcer becomes excited) and he’s off, it’s the first word, but it is not a word... oh no it’s a doodle way up on top of the left hand margin. It is a piece of meaningless scribble, and he’s signed his name underneath it. Oh dear what a disappointing start, but he is off again and here he goes the first word of Thomas Hardy's new novel, at 10:35 on this very lovely morning, it’s three letters it’s the definite article and it’s THE, Dennis.
Dennis: Well this is true to form, no surprises there. He started five of his eleven novels to date with a definite article. We’ve had two of them with ‘IT’, there has been one ‘BUT’, two ‘AT’s, one ‘ON’ and a Delores. Oh that of course was never published...
Second Announcer: I am sorry to interrupt you there Dennis, but he's crossed it out. Thomas Hardy here on the first day of his new novel has crossed out the only word he has written so far and he is gazing off into space. Ohh! Oh dear...”
See: Monty Python: Novel Writing
When: Wednesday afternoon, September 16
Where: Outside the Bloor Hotdocs Cinema, Bloor Street near Bathurst, Toronto
What: Screening of This Changes Everything, directed by Avi Lewis and narrated by Naomi Klein. The film is being shown as part of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Lewis and Klein will be on hand after the screening to answer questions from the audience about the film’s anti-corporate message and the need for fundamental system change. Some of the most dramatic moments in the film concern oil spills, and the devastation caused by the tar sands.
The Scene: people lined up along Bloor Street, waiting for the doors to open.
Action: Two friends, who will be attending the film, start handing out flyers about Line 9, the aging leak-prone pipeline which Enbridge wants to reverse so they can ship corrosive tar sands crud eastward, crossing communities, farmland, and dozens of rivers.
They’ve barely started when one of the TIFF staff appears and tells them they can't hand out flyers. “Why not?” they reply, pointing out that the sidewalk is public space.
The TIFF functionary replies that the people in the line have bought tickets to the film, and therefore you aren’t allowed to hand out anything to them. The logic is unclear: They’ve bought tickets, so TIFF owns them? They’ve bought tickets, so they’ve given up their democratic right to accept a flyer if they want to? They’ve bought tickets, so TIFF now owns the sidewalk they happen to be standing on? It’s hard to figure out.
My guess would be that TIFF sees everything in terms of what their website touts as “Promotional Rights.” They promise prospective corporate sponsors that “With the support of the TIFF brand, execute consumer or trade promotions in the marketplace that create brand excitement and drive your marketing objectives.” In other words, free speech belongs exclusively to corporations with lots of money to achieve their “marketing objectives.”
In any case, my friends quickly set up a division of labour. One of them argues with the TIFF bureaucrat; meanwhile the other hands out the flyers. Naturally, hearing that they aren’t supposed to be given these flyers, the people in the line are all the more interested in taking one.
When the doors open, my friends go in – they’ve bought tickets too, of course. After the film, in the question period, one of them mentions to Lewis and Klein that they were handing out flyers outside about Line 9. Wonderful, Lewis and Klein reply. My friend says that TIFF staff tried to stop them, but that they’ll be handing out more of them outside afterwards. They do, and even more people are eager to receive the forbidden flyers.
1) Telling people they aren’t allowed to hand out or accept literature in public space is a great way to get people to take the flyers. Being banned by TIFF is an excellent way for activists to “create brand excitement and drive your marketing objectives.” Thanks for that, TIFF!
2) TIFF, though technically a non-profit, has become a corporate behemoth, saturated from top to bottom with corporate priorities. They’ve become a marketing machine for the film industry, beholden to its sponsors, its judgements skewed by the mentality they’ve adopted. Who can remember the original Festival of Festivals, with its emphasis on showing good films, rather than on marketing, back in the good old days when Hollywood refused to have anything to do with a film festival in Toronto?
Labels: Film Festivals
There has been some discussion about an article by Arturo Castillon on “The Problem With College Educated Revolutionaries.” (He uses the term “revolutionaries” to describe the people he’s talking about, though maybe a word like “activists” would be more fitting.) Castillon says of them (he’s talking mostly about the United States) that “Their experiences in college have profoundly shaped their politics in a variety of ways and these revolutionaries have never broken from these experiences. Worst of all, these college-educated revolutionaries unknowingly impose their particular experiences on the revolutionary movement, and particularly, on working class people. They have played a crucial role in unknowingly preventing any working class leadership from developing.”
Tom Wetzel initiated a discussion about the article with the comment ”I share this piece’s pessimism about the 'college educated left'. As it says, this leads to lack of ability to explain things coherently or relate to working class people, reliance on academic jargon.... This reminds me of those occasions when, during Occupy, I would open my mouth to say something about class or the working class, and another person (a college student type) would immediately say ‘class reductionist’. As if any talk of the working class is ‘class reductionist’. So, as this piece says, there is this view that is profoundly pessimistic about the working class.”
Matthew May said that in his view Castillon’s article is “Overly broad and generalizing in unhelpful ways. Also, not clear what sort of logic of causality is at work here. Are we college educated radicals to blame for the lack of “organic intellectuals”? How about those of us with organizing experience and working class backgrounds? How about the institutional constraints to professional development that make certain rhetorical choices imperative for continued employment? Etc.”
I agree with your comments about class, Tom.
I'm puzzled by Matthew May’s comment. He points out that there are “institutional constraints to professional development that make certain rhetorical choices imperative for continued employment” in academia, and seems to be suggesting that therefore people in academic institutions shouldn’t be blamed for what they say and do. I think the important thing in political analysis is to understand, rather than to moralize and lay blame. But, still, I do think people can be held accountable for what they say, write, and do. The fact that they are paid to do so doesn’t make the issue go away. It just helps to explain it.
But the broader issue is the role of universities in general. The primary ideological function of universities is to mould those in them to internalize and propagate the key elements of the ruling ideology. They perform this function very well.
I recall Noam Chomsky pointing out, during the Vietnam War, that opposition to the war was directly co-related with educational level. The highest degree of opposition was among those who had never attended university. The greatest level of support for the war was among those who had a post-graduate education. As Chomsky said, they had undergone the longest period of brainwashing.
One of the key requirements of ideological shaping is that those who are shaped should be unaware that they have been shaped. We see this reflected in the oh-so-common posturing of so-called ‘contrarian’ thinkers, who like to think of themselves as rebels outside of the mainstream even as they echo the most predictable cliches.
Today, in the neo-liberal phase of capitalism, neo-liberal ideology is dominant in the universities. Neo-liberalism denies the idea of class, denies that there are any alternatives to capitalism, and rejects so-called ‘grand theories’ which view capitalism as a historical period with a beginning and an eventual end. I think it is no accident that the rise of Thatcherism in the early 1980s, i.e. neoliberal ideology, was accompanied by the rise of a neo-liberal left in the universities, a milieu which gripes about society but refuses to engage with political economy, revels in identity issues but disdains class analysis, and which is totally uninterested in the idea of revolution or political strategy.
Tom Wetzel replied: “i think your point about the role of universities is well taken. The main role is to prepare people to fill the slots in the bureaucratic control class – high end professionals & managers – and (especially for the lesser universities such as state colleges) certain skilled occupations that don’t really have direct control over the working class but may help to control it in certain ways (teachers, social workers). But teachers & social workers share a similar structural position with the core working class & have their own reasons for trying to develop solidarity with the people they serve. It’s more the bureaucratic control class that are a part of the power of the dominating classes. So ideologies and assumptions in the university world will tend to be consistent with maintaining that control over the working class. “Radical” views that disparage the working class or ignore class help to play that role.”
Matthew May replied: “Ulli, I agree with your broader point. The main idea with that particular question was simply to suggest that all things that we (academics in the humanities who care about these type of things) write are not necessarily to advance the strategic theoretical grounds of an anticapitalist project. We are often enough judged and often enough dismissed by the amount of citations we get in top trade journals in our field. A lot of that work has to take place before (and often during) other more important political work. I get a bit tired of critiques of academics because, while some criticisms are indeed valid, some of us take very large risks to make very small steps forward in the way of opening doors to anticap politics both at an interpersonal level in our interactions with students, fellow workers, and administrations, as well as in our writing. A case in point is the review of my book on the Wobs in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review vs. the review in the Industrial Worker. It seems to me like the latter is in the spirit of building solidarity in new and imaginative ways while the former is simply casual dismissal. So, I suppose perhaps my own personal thing is getting mixed into my irritations.”
This was prepared as a handout, designed to fit on a single sheet of paper, to give to people who might be considering voting for the Conservatives in the October 19 Canadian federal election. Of course, none of the other parties are worth supporting – they’re only slighly less bad than the Tories – but the destruction being caused by Harper, including his attacks on the right to dissent and protest, is so vast that it seems like a time to hold one’s nose and vote for the lesser evil.
Is putting all your eggs in one basket a smart economic strategy?
Stephen Harper has based his entire economic strategy on the oil industry, especially the Alberta tar sands. Energy companies get $34 billion a year in subsidies. Meanwhile other sectors of the economy, notably manufacturing, have declined dramatically. Manufacturing has been undermined through a series of investor-rights treaties that have resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of well-paid manufacturing jobs.
What kind of future?
The tar sands are one of the most environmentally damaging megaprojects on the planet. They drive climate change, devastate indigenous communities, as well as lakes and river, and endanger the health of the people who work there. And they tie Canada’s economy to a roller-coaster ride driven by the ups and downs of the international price of oil. Other countries, such as Germany and Denmark, have been working for years to develop alternative technologies and industries to prepare for the post-oil age. The Harper government, meanwhile, has slashed spending on research and green alternatives.
Where are the jobs? Why is youth unemployment so high?
Under the Harper government, unemployment has increased to 7%. Youth unemployment is much worse: twice as high, in fact. Those figures are bad, but even so they understate the real situation. People who have given up looking for work aren’t counted as unemployed. And anyone who has any kind of a work, no matter if it’s part-time, temporary, precarious, minimum-wage or marginally self-employed, is counted as having a ‘job’ in government statistics. At the same time, the government has sharply reduced eligibility for Employment Insurance, while raiding the Employment Insurance fund for $50 billion dollars to use for corporate tax cuts.
Are you better off?
If you are, you’re in a small minority. More Canadians are now working for low wages than at any time in decades and the average household debt-to-income ratio has gone up by more than 20% since Harper took office. Meanwhile, tax cuts for the well-off have translated into significant income gains for the top 10%, whose incomes have increased by 42% since Harper took office. The incomes of most Canadians, however, have stagnated or even gone down during that time. Meanwhile corporations have been handed $60 billion in tax cuts in the Harper years.
Easing up on wealthy tax cheats
Canada is estimated to lose at least $10 billion a year to tax evasion by the rich, notably through the illegal use of offshore tax havens to hide taxable income. When it took office, the Harper government laid off or reassigned the staff at the Canada Revenue Agency whose job it was to track down high-income tax evaders, even though they had been responsible for making tax cheats pay an additional $2.5 billion in taxes they owed.
The end of medicare?
Stephen Harper has always made it clear he wants to get rid of medicare. Because the public overwhelmingly support medicare, he has chosen to undermine it gradually, with year-by-year funding cuts. By 2017, federal funding for health care will have been cut by $36 billion. Stephen Harper’s idea is that if you can no longer get the health care you need, you’ll blame medicare, not him.
Is this responsible management?
The previous Liberal government had eight consecutive budget surpluses in the period up to 2006. Since taking office, Stephen Harper’s government has run seven consecutive deficits. During that period of time, the Harper government has also spent $750 million of public money on partisan political advertising boasting about what a good job it is doing.
Do we want to live in a police state?
The Harper government has launched an unprecedented attack on civil liberties, privacy rights, and dissent. Bill C-51, also known as the police state bill, shreds the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It gives the security agencies and the police sweeping new powers to spy on anyone and everyone they choose. Individuals can be prosecuted for anything that threatens the ‘security of the state’, for example, by opposing the tar sands. Though the rhetoric is about ‘terrorist threats’, it is clear from leaked documents and public statements that the real targets are anyone who disagrees with government policies, especially indigenous communities and environmental groups who are opposed to pipelines and the tar sands.
Contempt for Parliament
The Harper government has used so-called Omnibus Bills to ram through dozens of pieces of legislation at once without allowing discussion and without providing information about what they mean. Independent agencies and Parliamentary officers have been stonewalled, stripped of their powers, or fired. Former auditor general Sheila Fraser, the most respected authority on the functioning of the government, says that “Parliament has become so undermined that it is almost unable to do the job that people expect of it.”
Contempt for democracy
In the 2006 election, the Conservatives used the illicit bank transfers – the “in-and-out scandal” – to massively exceed campaign spending limits. After the election, the party was charged and convicted of breaking the law, but by that time the election was over and Harper was Prime Minister. In the 2011 election, the Conservatives used fake phone calls to send voters believed to support another party to the wrong polling station in dozens of ridings. After Elections Canada laid charges in the case, Harper passed legislation stripping Elections Canada of many of its powers. Under the new law, Elections Canada no longer has the power to investigate electoral wrongdoing.
Integrity in public life?
Nothing speaks more clearly about Stephen Harper’s character than the people he attracts and the people he chooses to surround himself with. Senators like Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau. Parliamentary secretary Dean Del Mastro, jailed for election law violations. Former insiders have described the atmosphere in the Prime Minister’s office as rigidly controlling, vindictive, and contemptuous of ordinary standards of ethics and democratic norms.
What can you do?
Inform yourself about the issues and the record of the Harper government. Talk to your friends, family, neighbours, co-workers about what is at stake in this election. Encourage them to vote.
Make sure you are on the voters list. Make sure you know where your polling station is. Make sure you have ID. If you aren’t on the voters list, you can still register at the polling station, but the rules have been changed to make it harder to register. Make sure you know in advance what ID will be required. See the Elections Canada website at www.elections.ca.
Don’t fall for phone calls telling you that your polling station has been moved. The Conservatives used this tactic in dozens of ridings during the last election against people believed to support other parties.
Strong voter registration campaign could mean the end for Harper
Austerity chokes Canada’s down-and-out as Harper, Flaherty look the other way
Canada’s prime minister wants to make it harder for people to vote against him
Canada’s top medical journal says Harper is undermining public health care
‘The Death of Evidence’ in Canada: Scientists’ Own Words
Dismantling Democracy: Stifling Debate and Dissent in Canada
Give Us Our Money Back! How Harper Protects Canada’s Tax Cheats
Harper government’s extensive spying on anti-oilsands groups revealed
Harper, Serial Abuser of Power: The Evidence Compiled. The Tyee’s full, updated list of 70 Harper government assaults on democracy and the law.
Harper’s Rule Breaking Rush to Crush Unions
Harper’s Seven-Year War on Science
Here come the thought police
Tracking Harper’s 9-year-long assault on unions
Voter Suppression in Canada: Harper's (Un)Fair Elections Act Could Spark Voter Surge
What progressive groups must do to defeat, or stymie, the Harper regime
The Arrogant Autocrat: Stephen Harper’s Takeover of Canada
Canada After Harper: His Ideology-fuelled Attack on Canadian Society and Values, and How We Can Resist and Create the Country We Want
Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada
Kill The Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know
A little ‘contest’ from Connexions...
With the polls suggesting that the Conservatives might be headed for defeat in the next election, Stephen Harper and his inner circle are undoubtedly searching their bag of dirty tricks for something that will turn things around. In the 2006 election, the turning point came when the RCMP Commissioner Guiliano Zaccardelli announced, in the middle of the campaign, that the RCMP was ‘investigating’ senior Liberals on corruption allegations. The allegations turned out to have no substance, but by then it was too late: thanks to the RCMP’s intervention, Stephen Harper won a minority and became Prime Minister.
This time around, what are the odds that a ‘terrorist plot’ will be ‘uncovered’ in the late stages of the election campaign, so that Harper can spend the final days of the campaign talking about terrorism, terrorism, and more terrorism?
Here at Connexions, we’re sponsoring a contest to guess the date the next ‘terrorist plot’ will be ‘uncovered’. Send your entry to mailroom [at] connexions.org. Bonus points will be awarded for guessing what exactly the plot will be. No bonus points will be given for predicting the uncritical media reaction.
The prize? Your very own ‘Stop Harper’ button, sent to everyone who guesses the correct date. (Unfortunately, that’s all we can afford in the way of prizes.)
Sorry: this contest is not open to employees of the RCMP, CSIS, CSE, or Harper’s inner circle.
It’s a pity that the Conservative candidate caught peeing into a customer’s coffee cup has resigned. He’d make a perfect Environment Minister in the Harper government. What he did in one kitchen is pretty much exactly what the Conservatives have allowed corporations to do to lakes and rivers across the country.
Nick Fillmore wrote a short piece recently explaining neo-liberalism to people who are unfamiliar with the term. He sketches the basic ideology, the introduction of neo-liberal reforms under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and the increasing power of institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury, accompanied by the rise of so-called trade agreements and increasing inequality. I wrote a quick note commenting on his overview:
Thanks for this post, Nick. There are three things I would add:
1) The economic system you describe is Capitalism. From Day One, capitalism has always been based on exploitation of working people, private appropriation of common resources, and all the other things you describe.
2) The key to understanding neo-liberalism, in my opinion, is power, not ideology. Capitalists have always sought to get everything they possibly can, while resisting any controls on capital and its activities. They have been constrained, historically, to the extent that working people have been able to fight back and impose some controls on capital and some rights for working people. The current neo-liberal stage of capitalism is defined by capital’s success in increasing its power, and the corresponding loss of power by working people to assert their interests.
3) Neo-liberalism is actually a form of state capitalism, marked by ever-increasing government intervention and state spending. The fairy tales about “free markets,” “liberalization,” “down-sizing government,” and so on, are just that, fairy tales. Under neo-liberal regimes, beginning with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, state spending has increased significantly. It’s true that social spending, on health care, welfare, environmental protection and so on, has been slashed, but spending on the military and wars, “national security,” police, corporate subsidies, and corporate bailouts, have grown and grown.
Testifying at a Parliamentary hearing into the Conservative government’s proposed new “anti-terror“ legislation, which will give the government sweeping new powers to spy on the population and designate political opposition as a danger to national security, Canada’s “Public Safety” Minister Steven Blaney said that freedom of speech in Germany led to the Holocaust. My comment:
Who knew? The Nazi Holocaust, according to Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, could have been prevented if only Germany hadn’t suffered from an excess of freedom of speech.
So much for the established historical view, according to which Germany was set on the road to totalitarian horror by a right-wing government which passed a series of emergency laws that abolished freedom of speech, outlawed all opposition, jailed critics, and set up a secret police apparatus to spy on the entire population, all in the name of “public safety.”
Clearly we should all embrace the government’s new “anti-terror” legislation. With people like Steven Blaney, Peter MacKay, and Stephen Harper deciding how much freedom we are allowed to have, what could possibly go wrong?
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
In times of disaster, the capitalist state shows its true face.
In the Philippines, in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, thousands are dead, bodies lie uncollected in the streets, tens of thousands of homes and buildings have been destroyed, and survivors are without food, water, shelter, medical care, or essential supplies.
Meanwhile the police and the military are guarding stores “to prevent people from hauling off food, water” and other supplies (CBC report)
Stop. Let it sink in. Not only is the state failing to provide water and food, it is sending in its armed forces to prevent people from getting water and food.
A CBC report says that “an Associated Press reporter in the town said he saw around 400 special forces and soldiers patrolling downtown to guard against further chaos.”
“To guard against further chaos”. Chaos, from the perspective of the capitalist state, is people helping themselves to goods from stores in order to survive. Desperate survivors wandering among dead bodies in the street: that is not chaos. An government incapable of responding to a disaster: that is not chaos.
Rebecca Solnit has written about this in her marvellous book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.
Writing about Hurricane Katrina, she says “the media focus was for a while on the retail outlets on dry ground reportedly being plundered. The hysteria about looting became so intense that two and a half days after the storm, on August 31 Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco called emergency responders – police and National Guard mostly – off search and rescue to focus on combating looting. They had chosen protecting property over saving lives. Put that way, the decision sounds bizarre, but the term looting itself is maddening to some minds, creating images of chaos, danger, and boundless savagery. What difference would it make if we were blasé about property and passionate about human life?”
“Looting is an inflammatory, inexact word that might be best excised from the English language. It pools together two very different activities. One might be called theft; the other requisitioning, the gathering of necessary goods in an emergency – think of the Salvation Army volunteers and affluent professionals breaking into drugstores in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake to get medical supplies for the injured. Such circumstances, a choice of survival and aid over the rules of everyday life.”
“Survival required requisitioning. As the short-term emergency of the hurricane turned into a long week during which people were trapped in New Orleans, food, water, diapers, medicine, and more ran out and were replenished from stores. Left-wing media people forwarding e-mail images, and eventually Soledad O'Brien on CNN pointed out that news photographs of African Americans gathering necessities were titled looting, while whites doing the same thing “gathering supplies”. Opportunistic theft and burglary are, historically, rare in American disasters, rare enough that many disaster scholars consider it one of the “myths” of disaster. Some such opportunism happened in Katrina. The first thing worth saying about such theft is who cares if electronics are moving around without benefit of purchase when children's corpses are floating in filthy water and stranded grandmothers are dying of heat and dehydration?”
Marx breathes dialectics and revolution. For Marx, radicalism means going to the root, and Marx’s radicalism seeks to go to the root of capitalism, to comprehend its essence dialectically, to understand its inherent contradictions – and the seeds of revolution it contains.
The social reality he sees is not fixed and static, but charged with inner tensions and contradictions, which build up until they burst through the constraints of the present order to assume new forms, again with their own tensions, containing the seeds of yet further transformations. In capitalist society, he writes, “All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
Marx comes to socialism, unlike his predecessors, not by drawing up blueprints for imaginary utopias, but through his involvement in the real struggle for democracy.
Here is the heart of his politics: there can be no democracy without socialism, and no socialism without democracy.
He starts to study economics, not because of theoretical preconceptions, but because, as a radical journalist, he is trying to better understand the oppression of the poor peasants whose struggles he is striving to bring to public attention.
Marx never constructs a finished system: on the contrary, he struggles to finish anything he writes because there is always more to learn, always further complexities to study and analyze. He hopes to finish the manuscript that becomes “Capital” in a few months; twenty-four years later, it remains only partially completed, and his friend Friedrich Engels has to complete it after his death.
Marx is always deepening his analysis in response to events: from local struggles of weavers and the rural poor in Germany, to the resistance to British imperialism in India, to the struggle against slavery in the United States, to the Paris Commune, to the long campaign to win the eight-hour day.
He continuously adjusts his theories to the facts, not the facts to his theory. Exasperated by pedantic admirers who proclaim a “Marxist” orthodoxy, he growls “If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist.”
His investigations bring him to an understanding of the class nature of society: how economic relations, relations of production, shape a society, including its state forms and ideology. He sees, too, that class struggle is inevitable, and that, further, it is the force that can transform societies.
Marx’s analysis shows that the contradictions of capitalism cannot be resolved: capitalism is a system of continuous crisis, capable of destroying the planet on which it feeds in its endless need to extract more profit, more surplus value, and accumulate more capital. Marx is clear about the danger capitalism poses to the earth: he writes angrily about the destruction it wreaks, and reminds us that we are “not the owners of the globe,” that, on the contrary, we have a duty to “hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”
At the same time, Marx understands clearly that, for all of its contradictions, capitalism will not fall on its own: it needs to be overthrown. He is a revolutionary, not an economic determinist.
Marx believes that there exists a social majority – the working classes, the people who do the work of the society – who are capable of overthrowing capitalism and the capitalist state, and who in doing so can liberate themselves, and all of society. He believes that revolutionaries should engage themselves in the struggles that confront them where they live, but he is clear that finally a revolution that overthrows capitalism, a global system, must be an international revolution.
Marx is clear in his views, but practical in his politics. He throws himself into the work of the First International, which at the beginning is not even explicitly socialist, because he believes it is important to work with others who are engaged in struggle. He never tries to form a political party, and while he usually describes himself as a “communist”, he also at times calls himself a “socialist” or an “anarchist”, without troubling himself much about the terminology.
Running through everything he does is a profound and passionate belief in self-emancipation. He has no time for would-be dictators and saviours who want to bring ‘liberation’ from the outside. Liberation, for Marx, can only be self-liberation: the collective act of individuals working together to emancipate themselves. “Free association” is his watchword, both for the struggle and for the society that we hope to bring into being.
He knows that he won’t live to see that future communist society whose watchword will be “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” but he devotes his entire life to bringing it about.
Grassroots Archives and the Battle of Memory
CONNEXIONS and Beit Zatoun are spotlighting grassroots archives this November with an open house and networking event November 24, a talk and discussion November 27, and an exhibit (November 16-27).
Grassroots archives play a valuable role in what has been called “the battle of memory”. Mainstream media and institutions of power consign inconvenient histories, struggles, and alternative visions to what George Orwell called “the memory hole.”
People’s history projects such as grassroots archives preserve and share stories of resistance, hidden histories, and alternative visions. Their role is particularly important as official archives are forced to restrict acquisitions, limit access and discard materials as funding is slashed.
Join us at Beit Zatoun in looking at the future of grassroots archive projects.
Exhibition: Memories of Resistance A display of social justice materials from the Connexions Archive. November 16 - 27
Is that an archive in your basement... or are you just hoarding? An open house and networking event for amateur archivists, keepers of the radical past, and friends and supporters of independent libraries, grassroots archives, and people’s history. Bring your stories, ideas, and examples of grassroots and radical history. Saturday November 24, 2:00 - 5:00 pm
Preservation as subversion: Do grassroots archives have a future? The Connexions Archive is looking for a secure and permanent home for its collection and the team of volunteers who work on cataloguing and digitizing. It isn’t alone. Other grassroots projects and “basement archives” face similar problems in preserving and sharing the history of activist groups and movements. They all believe that a knowledge of the past can be inspiring and subversive.
How can we preserve the history of our movements? Where can we preserve them? Can we work together to digitize and share: ‘Archive locally, share globally’? Join us at Beit Zatoun for a talk and discussion with Ulli Diemer of Connexions.
Admission free but contributions welcomed. Tuesday November 27, 7:00 pm
Beit Zatoun, 612 Markham Street, Toronto.M6G 2L8 Bathurst subway stop on the Bloor line (exit Markham Street)
Connexions: 416-964-5735 Beit Zatoun: 647-726-9500
Is that an archive in your basement... or are you just hoarding?
Securing a future for the past
Connexions Oral History and Memoirs Focus page
Connexions Radical and Left History and Memoirs Focus page
It was one of those boxes that sits unopened for years. The treasures it contained seemed important enough – at the time they went into the box – to keep them safely stowed until the day they would be needed again, and retrieved from the box. Finally, on a recent winter’s day – after many winters had passed – I got around to looking inside at the all-but-forgotten contents.
There, among various strange and wondrous things, were my math books from high school and first-year university. In those days, I had entertained the notion that I might go on to become a mathematician. I didn’t, and it’s safe to say that the field of mathematics has not suffered as a result. Nor have I. It turned out we weren’t meant for each other.
So there I was, sitting on the floor, holding those old math books covered with my notes, calculations, and doodles. As I looked through them I was – what? Surprised? Bemused? Disconcerted?
I couldn’t understand any of it. None of it made sense to me any more. Here were algebraic problems to solve. I had solved them once, easily. Now I couldn’t even figure out how I would start.
No big deal, of course. What you don’t use, you tend to forget. When you haven’t looked at something in years, it’s not going to be as fresh in your mind as it was when you were immersed in it. I wondered, though, as I leafed through those old textbooks: could I understand math again if I put my mind to it? I didn’t spend much time wondering about it, though, because I quickly realized that there is no way I could ever motivate myself to study math again, even if I had the time. There was a time when mathematics interested and excited me, but that spark is well and truly gone.
Then I started thinking about chess, another one of my passions in the days when math was exciting. For about ten years, through to the end of high school, I was an avid chess player. I belonged to a couple of chess clubs, read chess books, played in tournaments. In my first term at university, I skipped so many calculus classes to play chess that I failed calculus. In retrospect, that wasn’t a bad thing: it made it clear to me that I wasn’t meant to continue in math. I took a history course to make up the lost credit, and the rest is, well, history.
But I also stopped playing chess. I wasn’t enjoying it any more....
Read the rest of the article here.
[News item: Toronto mayor Rob Ford says gang members should get out of town. “I want ’em out of the city. Go somewhere else. I don’t want ’em living in the city anymore,” Ford said.]
Rob Ford is a genius! What a brilliant idea: stop shootings by telling the guys with guns to get out of town. Why didn’t we think of that before?
We could use the same approach to solve a lot of other problems, too. Bedbug problem? Bedbugs, get out of town! Coyotes scaring people in the park? Coyotes, get out of town! Bicycles clogging our roads? Cyclists, get out of town! Pinkos derailing the mayor’s agenda? Pinkos, get out of town!
And – why not? – idiot mayor problem? Idiot mayor, get out of town!
Medicare is in many ways a Canadian success story. It’s far from perfect: barriers and inequities certainly exist. Poor people, Native people, temporary foreign workers, undocumented immigrants, are among those who face those barriers. Certain kinds of health care are not covered by the system or are severely rationed: dental care, pharmaceuticals, physiotherapy, mental health.
But most Canadians can now take it for granted they will receive high-quality health care when they need it, without financial barriers. In a country where we compare everything we do with what happens south of the border, we are surprised but pleased to find we have fashioned a health care program which delivers better care, with better results, to a much higher proportion of the population, at a much lower cost, than in the United States.
Most of the media, however, present a very different story. The air is thick with prophecies of doom and prescriptions for drastic surgery. Canada’s health care system is supposedly in crisis – gravely ill at best, perhaps even on its death-bed. The complaints rarely deal with the inequities and barriers that need to be overcome – on the contrary, there are constant calls for a two-tier system that would create vastly greater inequities.
There isn’t much mystery about the agenda that drives the media’s attack on medicare. It’s the same fundamentalist-capitalist dogma that dominates most political discourse. That dogma holds that everything in all areas of human existence should be owned and controlled by private corporations whose purpose is to maximize profits. Everything is a commodity to be bought and sold in the private marketplace. Any service that is provided on the basis of human need rather than profit is an outrage that cannot be allowed to stand.
However, since medicare is an extremely popular social program, the media and right-wing politicians have learned that it is unwise to attack it directly. Instead, they propagate myths designed to undermine public support for, and confidence in, the health care system, with the goal of gradually undermining and dismantling it. What follows is a brief guide to some common health care myths.
Read the rest of the article here.
The National Post – a newspaper which fills its pages, not with news, but with the peevish grumblings of right-wing cranks – never tires of attacking that evil socialistic plot called medicare. A recent whiny piece by columnist Jonathan Kay exemplifies the “horrors-of-socialized-medicine” genre.
This particular horror story – Kay calls it his “run-in with the system” – begins when he shows up at his local hospital’s emergency room with an infected knee. The trouble is with his left knee, he tells us – reinforcing his belief, no doubt, that anything on the left is unreliable and troublesome. The inefficient socialistic health care system sends him off for treatment within ten minutes – not too shabby, most of us might say – but it takes a lot more than efficiency and high-quality appropriate care to please a National Post columnist. Soon he is lying in a public hospital bed, intravenous clindamycin trickling through his veins, and thoughts about how much nicer a private hospital bed would be flooding through his brain.
Mr. Kay returns to the hospital the next day for a follow-up treatment, and this time – the horror! – he has to sit and wait before he’s seen. In fact, he tells us, “all but the most acute cases” have to sit and wait their turn. There is – hard to believe, but it’s true – no special queue for the affluent and the privileged, not even if they are National Post columnists. So Mr. Kay sits and seethes.
Read the rest of the article here.
Labels: Bureaucracy - Canada Health Act - Canadian Health Care Myths - Health Care Access - Health Care Costs - Health Care Costs/Comparative Systems - Health Care Funding - Health Care in Canada - Health Care in the United States - Health Care Privatization - Health & Class - Health Determinants - Health Insurance - Health Sources - Insurance/Health Services - Medical Insurance - Medicare - Private Clinics - Privatization - Public Sector - Single Payer System - Socialized Medicine - Universality - User Fees
I’m waiting for a slice of pizza at La Festa, the pizza place across the street from my office, chatting with the owner. She’s originally from Eritrea, now settled in Canada. There’s a TV up on the wall behind the counter, currently showing scenes from Eritrea. As one can see, it’s sunny and hot in Eritrea. It’s bitterly cold outside here in Toronto, and the sun is nowhere to be seen.
She sighs. “Ah, I miss Eritrea.” A long pause. “But I don’t miss the dictatorship.”
The Ontario government appointed a high-profile banker, Don Drummond, to come up with recommendations about how the government should deal with difficult economic times. The results were predictable....
The Drummond report is a typical instance of how to make sure you get the wrong answers by asking the wrong questions and appointing the wrong person to answer them.
Step 1: The government rigs the game by stipulating that taxing corporations and the rich must not even be discussed.
Step 2: It appoints a wealthy banker who has no knowledge of what life is like for ordinary people to write a report impacting the lives of millions of people.
Presto! You get the predictable result: a report that proposes across-the-board cuts to services for working people and the poor, while the wealthy are left free to keep getting wealthier.
I needed to come up with a concise version of my politics for my Facebook profile. An interesting challenge: here’s what I came up with.
I am a libertarian socialist. My goal is the end of capitalism and its replacement by socialism, ‘an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’
Socialism is fundamentally about expanding the realm of freedom to the greatest possible extent. It requires ridding the world of capitalism, which crushes human lives and potential while increasingly threatening the planet. The malignant heart of capitalism is capital, so ending capitalism means eradicating capital.
Social reforms, no matter how valuable and worth pursuing, cannot in themselves defeat capitalism. That requires a revolution: the overthrow of the rule of capital and the state forms through which it rules. Revolution can take many forms, but a socialist revolution inescapably means ripping off the straitjacket of capital’s political and legal structures.
Capitalism’s contradictions are pushing us down the road to destruction. We have to end it before it destroys us.
Labels: Alternatives, Anti-Capitalism, Capital, Democracy, Eco-socialism, Free Association, Freedom, Libertarian Socialism, Marxism, Participatory Democracy, Radicalism, Revolution, Revolutionary Politics, Self-Emancipation, Socialism, Socialist Revolution.
The topic of ‘grand narratives’ came up in my Facebook circles yesterday. Doug Henwood posted an article, by Bhaskar Sunkara in Dissent, in which Sunkara criticizes the spread in some of the anti-globalization movements of “an anti-intellectualism that manifested itself in a rejection of ‘grand narratives’ and structural critiques of capitalism.” As an example, he cites Naomi Klein’s comment that she has little use for “grand projects of human freedom.”
There were comments pro and con. Here’s my reaction:
Those who reject ‘grand narratives’ (Naomi Klein for example) have simply bought into the hoariest grand narrative of all, the one which says that capitalism is all-powerful and eternal. The energy of the anti-globalization movements is great – it opens up the possibility that they may evolve to become anti-capitalist movements in the fullest sense of the word. But as long as their perspective is limited to making capitalism nicer and fairer, they are ultimately going to be about living with capital, rather than overthrowing it.
Let’s be clear: when people say they reject ‘grand narratives’ they aren’t referring to cultural theorists like Northrop Frye (The Great Code) or Robert Graves (“there is one story and one story only that will prove worth your telling”). They’re talking about the Marxist tradition.
It seems to me that the pejorative term ‘grand narrative’ is similar in function and intent to the term ‘political correctness’. It’s a glib way of saying “Don’t give me none of that Marxist shit.”
Typically, it’s code for rejecting a coherent historical analysis of capitalism, for rejecting a Marxist analysis of capital and the inherent contradictions of capital accumulation. All-too-often, it signals an unwillingness to seriously consider how capital and the capitalist state can be brought down. Which tends to lead to wishful thinking like ‘changing the world without taking power’.
Me, I prefer Marxism.
Two workshops with Ulli Diemer on developing and communicating progressive messages.
The right has been enormously successful in framing the terms of public debate, not just about particular issues, but in shaping the context in which issues are discussed.
Progressives, on the other hand, are often frustrated by our inability to get our message across.
Figuring out how to frame issues is not just a media relations task but a key challenge for developing strategies for social change.
In these workshops we’ll talk about how we can frame our messages more effectively – and how we can do better at getting media coverage.
We will begin with framing: defining the essence of an issue in a way that connects with the values of the people we want to reach. For progressives, this often means establishing an alternative frame to compete with the way the corporate media present the issue.
It may also mean being aware of our tendency to sometimes get caught up in rhetoric and jargon that fails to communicate and that turns people off.
We’ll look at examples of successful – and self-defeating – framing. We'll look at how the right has framed particular debates, and how the left has. We’ll try to understand why the right has been so successful in setting the terms of debate. (Hint: the fact that they own most of the media certainly helps, but it’s not the only thing.)
We’ll analyze examples of framing together, and we'll brainstorm ideas for how we can do better.
In the second workshop, we’ll look at effective media relations. We’ll consider questions such as:
What and who are the media?
Who works for the media?
Who decides whether – and how – a story get covered?
What should a media release say – and how should it be sent out?
What are common pitfalls to avoid in dealing with the media?
What should one say during a media interview – and what should one not say?
How do we get our message out in the soundbite context of the commercial media?
What are alternatives to the mainstream media?
Both workshops will be led by Ulli Diemer.
Bring examples of your own communications materials – leaflets, posters, news releases, etc. for discussion!
Need to know:
Workshop #1: Saturday, September, 24, 2011. 1:00- 3:30
Workshop #2: Saturday, October 29, 2011. 1:00 - 3:30
Cost: $15 per workshop or $25 for both.
Location: Beit Zatoun, 612 Markham Street, Toronto. (near Bathurst subway station)
Grassroots media relations
It was good to see Naomi Klein tearing into the Toronto police for their violence and abuse of power at the recent G20 summit in Toronto. However, I can’t agree with her at all when she tells the police to “do your goddamned job”.
Fact is, the police ARE doing their job.
Their job is to protect the wealth and power of the ruling elite against any challenge. That involves – among other things – intimidating and suppressing anyone who is not respectful and subservient.
Upholding law and order in a society whose ‘order’ and legal system are based on inequality and oppression depends, first, on an ideological system that tries to make people believe capitalism is good or at least inevitable, and second, on using violence or the threat of violence to deter challenges to the power of the powerful.
The police are the enforcers of the capitalist system. No need to tell them to do their jobs – they’re already doing them, and they’ll keep on doing them as long as capitalism survives.
For more than 60 years, Israel has engaged in a unceasing campaign to dispossess Palestinians of their land and their rights. Its ability to do this has depended on three factors in particular:
* overwhelming military superiority;
* keeping public opinion, especially in North America and Europe, on its side;
* making ordinary working-class Israeli Jews believe that it is in their interest to support Israel’s Zionist elite rather than making common cause with ordinary Palestinians.
Israel’s military dominance is unchallenged, thanks to unconditional support and limitless supplies of advanced military technology and equipment provided by the United States and its allies (including Canada). However, military dominance has not been able to achieve Israel’s ultimate goal: forcing Palestinians to stop resisting and to acquiesce in their dispossession and oppression. Israel’s relentless onslaught has been met by equally determined Palestinian resistance which, despite the odds, steadfastly refuses to accept the injustice of occupation.
This Palestinian resistance has called into being an ever-growing international network of support and solidarity. In dozens of countries and hundreds of communities around the world, organizations and movements have emerged to demand that Israel be made to adhere to international law and to basic principles of justice.
Israel and its supporters see these international campaigns as a huge threat. Israel has escaped the sanctions that have been applied to other states which commit human rights abuses and violate international law only because the United States automatically vetoes all attempts to hold Israel accountable. Israel is also crucially dependent on huge annual inflows of foreign aid, to the point where it is conceivable that the state would collapse if the flows of outside cash which prop it up were to be withdrawn.
Anything that undermines public support in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, therefore, threatens the external backing on which the Israeli state depends for its very existence. It is true that the governments which turn a blind eye to Israel’s violations of international law mostly ignore popular opinion in their own countries as well, but this could change if support for Israel were to become a serious political liability. In this regard, what is particularly worrisome from Israel’s point of view is the fact that support for Israel among Jews in the United States and Canada, especially among younger Jews, has declined dramatically. If Jews stop supporting Israel, then all foreign support is in jeopardy.
Threats to Israel’s international legitimacy bring with them an even greater internal danger: the danger that Israeli Jews will themselves start seeing the Zionist formula – in essence, a militarized apartheid state holding down the Palestinian population by force – as a dead end.
If working-class Israeli Jews were to see their interests as being different from those of the ruling elite – if they come round to the view that their long-term interests will be better served if they join Palestinians in working for a democratic secular state with equal rights for Palestinians and Jews – Israel’s ruling class would find itself in the same untenable position that the white elite in apartheid South Africa faced in the early 1990s. Already, Israel’s rulers are debating what to do about the ‘demographic threat’ they are facing: Israeli Jews are leaving the country in increasing numbers to move to other countries, while the Palestinian population continues to increase.
The Palestinian resistance, and the growing international support which it has attracted, have had a substantial effect in changing the way Israel is perceived. Increasingly, international public opinion is no longer willing to turn a blind eye to ethnic cleansing, house demolitions, systematic humiliations, imprisonment, torture, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, children as well as adults.
Faced with the erosion of its credibility and support, the Israeli state has lashed out by using ever-increasing repression against the non-violent Palestinian resistance. One of the centres of this resistance is the village of Bil’in, which has been fighting the expansion of an illegal Israeli settlement on its land with weekly non-violent protests for more than five years now, protests which have turned Bil’in into an international symbol of non-violent resistance. The Israeli state has been using ever more extreme tactics of harassment and brutality to attempt to crush the village and put an end to the protests, which it correctly believes are causing substantial harm to Israel’s international image. Similar tactics of harassment and imprisonment are being used against other Palestinians who resist, as well as against Jewish Israelis and international solidarity activists who support the Palestinian cause.
At the same time as it attempts to crush internal resistance, the Israeli state, aided by its supporters in the United States and Canada, has launched extremely aggressive and well-financed propaganda campaigns abroad whose goal is to counteract the decline in support for Israel.
A telling characteristic of these campaigns is that they by and large do not focus on attempting to justify Israel’s behaviour. One has to assume that the architects of the propaganda efforts realize that it is no longer possible to explain war crimes and human rights abuses in a way that the international public will accept.
Instead, the focus has shifted to attempting to shut down criticism of Israel by targetting the most outspoken critics with crude smear tactics and outright censorship.
On a growing number of campuses, for example, this has involved harassment and firing of outspoken professors (e.g. Norman Finkelstein, Joel Kovel), as well as attempts to ban events such as ‘Israeli apartheid week’.
In Canada, we are now seeing an attempt to silence criticism of Israel by labelling all such criticism as ‘anti-Semitism’ and therefore as hate speech. This tactic has a triple purpose: to suppress public awareness of what Israel is doing; to discredit critics by smearing them as ‘anti-Semitic’, and to keep Jews onside by frightening them with the spectre of anti-Semitism.
In Canada, the Harper government, fanatically pro-Israel, is fully involved in this effort. It has cut funding to groups which have supported Palestinians in their quest for justice, and it has set up a Parliamentary body charged with coming up with the legal rationale for making it illegal to criticize Israel.
If the Harper government is successful in getting its way, statements such as the following, all of them expressions of generally accepted principles of human rights and international law, will henceforth be classified as anti-Semitic hate speech in Canada:
‘A state must be the state of all its citizens.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it implies that the Israeli state has a duty to serve and represent all of its citizens equally, Palestinians as well as Jews.
‘Everyone born in a state, and everyone who has been a permanent resident for a specified and reasonable period of time, is entitled to citizenship.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it would mean that Palestinians under the rule of the Israeli state have the right to be citizens of Israel.
‘All citizens of a state must be equal under the law, equally entitled to the rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. A state may not favour, or discriminate against, citizens, on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, or race.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it implies that Israel has to dismantle its discriminatory, apartheid-style system of laws.
‘Every state must accept its internationally recognized borders and must renounce all claims on territory outside of its borders.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it would mean that Israel would have to stop seizing land beyond its borders.
‘All states must abide by international law, including the Geneva conventions, laws against collective punishment, laws against torture, etc.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it implies that Israel has to stop engaging in ethnic cleansing, collective punishment, and other violations of international law.
‘Refugees have a right to return to the lands from which they were expelled by an invading army or occupying power.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it means that the Palestinian refugees expelled from their homeland by Israel must be allowed to exercise their right of return as guaranteed by international law.
‘Sanctions should be applied to those who violate international law.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it implies that Israel should face sanctions for engaging in collective punishment and ethnic cleansing, for practicing torture, for committing war crimes, for defying UN resolutions and World Court rulings, and for other illegal acts.
The attempt to outlaw criticism as Israel by labelling it as ‘anti-Semitism’ is a serious threat which needs to be exposed and challenged. At the same time, it should also be recognized as a tactic of desperation, a tactic that has become necessary because of the ever-growing opposition to the crimes of the Israeli state.
The resort to increasingly blatant open repression is a symptom of loss of control. In the past such tactics would not have been necessary because any criticism of Israel was confined to the outer fringes of public debate. Now it has become mainstream, and those who support an ethnically defined, apartheid-style Israeli state are feeling increasingly threatened. Those of us who support a democratic secular state should feel encouraged, even though the struggle is far from won.
December 27, 2009
Amira Hass: Danger: Popular struggle
Britain’s Jews in crisis over national loyalty, identity and Israel
Jonathan Cook: Israel Seeks Ways to Silence Human Rights Groups
Art Young: Pro-Israel Lobby Alarmed by Growth of Boycott, Divestment Movement
Free Speech and Acceptable Truths
Murray Dobbin: Criticizing Israel isn’t anti-semitism
Paul Craig Roberts: Criminalizing Criticism of Israel
Jewish Canadians Concerned About Suppression of Criticism of Israel
Israel/Palestine: Resources for peace, justice, and human rights
Neve Gordon: On Palestinian Civil Disobedience
Michael Warschawski: Free Abdallah Abu Rahmah, Now!
Ali Abunimah: Why Israel Won’t Survive
Henry Lowi: Why Israeli Anti-Zionists do NOT “recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.”
Ulli Diemer: The single state solution
Ulli Diemer: Small countries, big crimes
Michael Neumann: What is Anti-Semitism?
Last April Fool’s Day, I added my two cents’ worth to the ongoing debate about ‘Israeli apartheid’ by writing and distributing a statement purporting to come from an organization called ‘Alumni for Responsible Speech’.
As part of my work with Connexions (www.connexions.org) I maintain an online compilation of resources on Israel and Palestine, so I have become quite aware of the extent to which the tactics of the pro-Israel lobby are now aimed at shutting down criticism of Israel, rather than attempting to rebut it.
I have tended to see this as an indication that they know they are losing the debate. Faced with declining support for Israel’s behaviour even among Jews, and finding it increasingly difficult to come up with plausible arguments to defend Israel’s human rights abuses and violations of international law, they are resorting to straightforward attempts at intimidation and censorship – including the old stand-by of labelling any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.
The ‘Alumni for Responsible Speech’ satire took particular aim at recent developments at several Canadian universities, where administrators and faculty who like to pose as valiant defenders of academic freedom and free speech were showing themselves to be proponents of prohibition and censorship when it comes to ideas which they – or the university’s funders – find unpalatable.
At the University of Toronto, for example, pro-Israel faculty took out a full-page ad in the National Post urging the university administration to ban ‘Israeli apartheid week’ events from the campus. The U of T administration tried to get the Toronto police to do their dirty work for them by soliciting a ruling on whether it is ‘hate speech’ to accuse Israel of practicing apartheid. This craven eagerness to abandon the university’s responsibility to defend freedom of expression backfired when the cops proved to be more liberal than the university’s bureaucrats, telling the university that they saw no problem.
At McMaster University, the administration tried to ban the very use of the term “Israeli apartheid” on campus. This led to vigorous protests, including one from the student union at York University (which was also hosting Israeli Apartheid Week events) calling for the ban to be rescinded “in accordance with a basic commitment to freedom of expression and organization in the democratic context of the public university.” They went on to state that “This strange and unprecedented ban is a blatant violation of democratic freedoms of speech and dissent, and an attack on students’ right to organize. It is the position of the YFS and GSA that universities are sites where discussions and debates about difficult geopolitical questions should be promoted, not stifled. International controversy about use of the phrase ‘Israeli Apartheid‘ cannot be resolved through repression, but through ongoing intellectual exchange.”
My Alumni for Responsible Speech “statement,” on the other hand, mischievously took the position that universities should “tolerate free speech” only “as long as it doesn’t upset anyone.” It called on university administrations to “protect students and faculty from being confused by exposure to incorrect or harmful ideas” and suggested a number of pro-active measures (largely inspired by George Orwell’s 1984) including a University ‘Department of Acceptable Truths’ “to ensure that only safe ideas are taught”, as well as strong measures against “thought crimes”.
“The Alumni for Responsible Speech” satire made the rounds on the Internet, circulated on number of campuses, and received praise from people who enjoyed the way it skewered people who ‘support freedom of speech’ only for views they agree with.
In our times, however, satire has little chance of competing with reality. The battle over ‘Israeli apartheid week’ on campus had barely subsided when the York student union quoted above (“universities are sites where discussions and debates about difficult geopolitical questions should be promoted, not stifled”) waded back into the free speech fray. This time round, the same people who had fulminated about the “democratic freedoms of speech and dissent” and condemned those who would infringe “students’ right to organize” were deciding, by a unanimous vote, to prevent anti-abortion groups or individuals affiliated with them from organizing, leafleting, speaking, holding meetings, or engaging in other anti-choice activities.
Read the rest of the article here.
As I write this, the “world’s most humane army” is once again demonstrating its humanity, this time by slaughtering half-starved refugees in the Gaza ghetto, the open-air prison in which Israel has kept one-and-a-half million people interned for more than 40 years.
The killing frenzy is being matched by equally frenzied efforts by Israel’s propaganda apparatus – which includes most of the North American media – to portray Israel’s crimes against humanity as necessary acts of self-defense.
One of the stock phrases Israel’s apologists repeat, parrot-like, is that Israel is “a small country”. The idea is to make us feel sympathy for Israel, the plucky little country standing up to dangerous foes. But what does it actually mean to say that Israel is “a small country?”
Does it mean it’s hard to find parking spots for the thousands of tanks, armoured vehicles, self-propelled artillery, and other equipment that comprise Israel’s massive armed forces? Is that why Israel keeps sending them into its neighbours’ territories?
Or does it mean that the pilots in Israel’s ultra-modern air force have to be careful not to bump into each other when they return from bombing schools and hospitals and houses in the Gaza Strip or Lebanon? Or is it that Israel’s size makes it difficult to find enough suitable locations to deploy the hundreds of nuclear weapons in its arsenal?
More likely, it’s a psychological defense mechanism Israelis use to persuade themselves that they have the right to keep seizing and occupying other people’s land and to use extreme violence against anyone who resists.
The “small country” ploy becomes much less plausible when one remembers that some of the most brutal colonialist powers of modern times have been small countries with small populations.
Portugal’s population was around one million when Portugal subjugated and largely destroyed the indigenous people of Brazil, who numbered at least five million when the Portuguese conquest began. Superior military technology combined with utter ruthlessness enabled the Portuguese to prevail there, and in its other colonies in Africa, India, and the Pacific.
Tiny Holland, with fewer than two million people but with a large and powerful navy and modern weapons, was able to take over and rule the territories that became the Dutch East Indies and the Dutch West Indies.
Belgium, another little country with modern military technology, ruled over the vastly more populous Belgian Congo, crushing resistance with methods that resulted in the death of half the native population within 25 years.
With its reliance on modern military technology to crush indigenous opposition, Israel follows the model of these earlier colonial-settler states in many ways. But it has one additional advantage that none of them had: the patronage of the ultimate imperial power: the United States. Given the role of the United States in funding Israel’s economy (Israel is the largest aid recipient in the world) and in sustaining the superiority of the Israeli military, it becomes meaningless to call Israel “a small country” – one might as accurately call it a huge military base.
One has to hope that enough Israelis come to understand, sooner rather than later, that there is no future in living in an armed camp that is always preparing for the next war. We for our part have to make sure that they understand that the world will not accept an apartheid state ruling over the Palestinian people by force.
January 10, 2009
Jonathan Cook: Outcry Over Israel’s War Crimes
Adri Nieuwhof and Daniel Machover: Abettors of war crimes will be held accountable
Uri Avnery: Israel Is Losing This War
Tony Karon: The War Isn’t Over, But Israel Has Lost
Justin Podur: Turn off the Canadian Media, Please
Rick Salutin: Olive oil, opposition and Gaza
The single state solution
Israel/Palestine: Resources for peace, justice, and human rights
Books on Palestine: Explaining the Israel-Palestine conflict
The November issue of Toronto Life carries an article by Mary Rogan, “Girl, Interrupted: The Brief Life of Aqsa Parvez”, which tells the story of a sixteen-year-old Toronto girl who left her parents’ home after disagreements with her father, was lured back home, and was then killed. Her father and brother have been charged with her murder.
The Toronto Life story, which characterized the murder as an “honour killing” because of the circumstances, involving clashes over the girl’s lifestyle choices – has predictably come under attack from the usual self-appointed gatekeepers of acceptable public discourse. The blinkered zealots of multiculturalism claim that the article is anti-Muslim because – wait for it – it draws attention to violence against Muslim girls.
Ironically, the dogmatists who seek to sweep this issue under the rug describe themselves as ‘feminist’, but theirs is a peculiar form of feminism, a version which condemns violence against women in principle, but seeks to silence those who speak out about violence against Muslim women.
The double standard is sad, but perhaps it is not surprising. History gives us numerous examples of social movements which come, over time, to adopt positions directly opposed to the principles on which they were founded. It appears this has happened with those feminists who argue that we shouldn't make a fuss about the ‘honour killing’ of a brown-skinned Muslim girl. However, the fact that those who take this position cloak themselves in progressive rhetoric doesn’t make their attitude any less racist or any less misogynist.
What is particularly distressing is the way the hard-core multiculturalists betray the very people they claim to be defending. Progressive groups and individuals within Muslim communities are struggling hard against fundamentalism and for women’s rights – and meanwhile the multiculturalists are busily allying themselves with the most reactionary leaders and change-resistant institutions in those communities. Leaders of a movement which used to stand with the oppressed and powerless against patriarchal power structures are now on the other side, providing cover for those power structures. They have become part of the problem.
December 16, 2008
También disponible en español: ¿Por qué protestar por el asesinato de una chica musulmana de piel oscura?
Also available in Arabic.
Also available in Chinese.
Also available in Portuguese.