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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Whither Go We?


Phil Burpee - To the old dictum ‘all great events and personalities in world history reappear in one fashion or another’, Karl Marx added – ‘the first time as tragedy, the second as farce’. I think it could be argued that we are currently in the second phase. Little Rocket Man and The Donald? Has it truly come to this? These are comic book characters – utterly laughable were they not so obliquely dangerous. With the odd bright exception, the current crop of the great and the mighty who bestride the lives of the global masses seems to be wrought from a rogue’s gallery of charlatans, demagogues, apologists and fools. The lust for power and wealth has always been a corrosive agent in the social contract within which we strive to enact our collective lives, yet on almost all fronts it has now become the prime motivator for the pursuit of positions of governance. And along with it come the reactionary and revanchist fever-dreams of those who would return us to some dimly-perceived past glory, when acquiescence was the order of the day, and a man surely knew his place – or perhaps more to the point, a woman.

   And so, putting aside those ‘events and personalities’ which do not seek to control our lives, how then shall we seek to govern ourselves amidst all this ugly turmoil we see around us? – Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Trump in the U.S., Xi in China, Kim in North Korea, Assad in Syria – shameless liars and dissemblers of the rule of law. Whether or not they are voted into power or merely assume it as dynastic inheritors, the result is the same – the progressive disenfranchisement and disempowerment of the people. There are some clues and indicators beyond the obvious, however. So, it is well to understand the reality that surrounds us at each particular juncture.

   There are several recognized forms whereby human societies form government – or, at least, systems of power and control. They are as follows: -

Autocracy – the rule of a single individual – aka dictatorship
Oligarchy – the rule of the few
Plutocracy – the rule of the rich
Totalitarianism – the rule of the State
Ochlocracy – the rule of the mob
Theocracy – the rule of a god through a priesthood
Kleptocracy – the rule of the thieves
Democracy – the rule of the people
Anarchy – the absence of rulers or a state

There are variants such as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and ‘anarcho-syndicalism’ and ‘libertarianism’ and various other -isms and hybrids, but the above list pretty much covers the conventions. I think it is therefore not difficult to zero in on the appropriate moniker for the current format of rule, in the industrialized western world at least. It is made apparent in the electoral uprisings in democratic countries referred to as populism – both of the right and the left. It is also well-documented over the last number of years in the news-play given to the 1%, and the vast and growing disparity in wealth between the miniscule top tiers of society and the roiling masses down below who are falling ever farther behind, even as their pockets are further picked by the ultra-rich. Yes, by any reasonable set of indicators we are living under a plutocracy – the rule of the rich, where the rich make the rules, and where the deliberate and sequential disempowerment of what the ancient Greeks referred to as the Demos – the personification of the people – is wrought on every front.

Now, the rich, and especially the ultra-rich, tend to be persons of remarkably low productivity. Their main trick is having learned how to amass capital. Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Donald Trump and David Koch have not improved the lives of humanity one whit. What they have done, however, is to position themselves squarely in the cash-stream of working people to such extent as to divert unimaginably large chunks of those folks’ sweat-equity into their quenchless pockets. The financial crisis of 2008-2009, it should be recalled, was nothing more than the remorseless fleecing of millions and millions of hapless schmucks who took the bait and signed on to their own undoing – sub-prime mortgages, junk bonds, ponzi schemes, gutted retirement funds. It was a massacre. And then the victims were forced to pay for their own victimhood through their hard-earned tax dollars, as the perpetrators went scot-free, laughing all the way to the bank, even as those same banks were being bailed out by the government funded by those same aforementioned tax dollars. Indeed, the last white-collar train-robber to see any jail time was dopey old Bernie Madoff – and that was well before the whole Lehman Brothers debacle. Wall Street just put on a blank expression and grinned goofily – “Who? – us?” – and sniggered into their martinis. As was quipped at the time – capitalism on the way up, socialism on the way down. Which is to say that while the earning is fat – all hail capital enterprise. But when the cash-cow is suddenly gutted – out come the begging bowls in the halls of opulence and power, crying to the very government that let them get away with it all in the first place. What’s wrong with this picture?

None of the above-mentioned ‘entrepreneurs’ invented a cure for cancer, or provided any succour for hungry children. They produced not one widget or thing of any recognizable use, and here I include a string of tawdry hotels. What they did – are doing – is pander to the most vulnerable elements of gullibility and crass consumerism. Their unearned wealth represents, as Adam Smith would have had it – ‘the income of men who love to reap where they have not sowed.’ They are swine. And they run the show. Capitalism itself is, of course, a somewhat bedraggled mechanism these days. The so-called rising tide of prosperity was meant to ‘lift all boats’. But recalling the observation by the American essayist Edward Abbey that ‘growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell’, it might fairly be said that we are in need of some fresh idea. The luxury super-yachts have left the dock quite some time ago and the tide is well on the ebb. The rest of us are left standing along the pier wanly waving our tattered hankies.

For a start, then, it would be well to remember this aphorism from the Canadian political philosopher Frank H. Underhill – “The basic principle regulating production, distribution and service must be the common good rather than private profit.” Indeed. It must be noted, of course, that there are thoughtful and well-intentioned proponents of capitalism as an economic system. It has its defensible merits, and no better tool has yet been devised for the sheer ability to create employment. But at what cost? It has long been bitterly realized that capital has a pernicious tendency to accumulate at the top, much to the chagrin of those who would tout its supremacy as a social panacea. And it is to the deep embarrassment of such persons that the current situation of egregious wealth disparity belies capitalism’s ability to funnel greed to the betterment of all. More’s the pity, given our servitude to its precepts.

What are we to do, then? Well, whatever it is we better get at it. For I have a dystopian vision of impending hell to lay out. And it has already begun. We might start by stopping our starry-eyed admiration for the rich. They don’t deserve it. They are one-trick ponies who have a whole bunch of money and stuff and power exactly because a lot of other people don’t have that money and stuff and power – it’s all been appropriated and tied up at the fat end of society. A good hockey player, or a hard-working farmer, or a single Mom who toughs it out for her kids are worthy of unqualified admiration – a billionaire is not. The super-rich are a drag on society and represent a bloat that gibbles the social contract. And they work assiduously, tacitly or otherwise, to see to it that legislation concurrent with their needs is accordingly engendered. Increasingly too, they like to see their own in the governmental halls of power. Even noblesse oblige, wherein the rich felt morally obliged to share somewhat with those ‘less fortunate’, has gone by the boards. Trickle-down economics has now morphed into trickle-up voodoo, and there is no limit to how deep these parasites will plumb the depths of the pockets of an already struggling populace.

Here’s the dystopian part. These folks love robots – all kinds of robots – robot servants, robot clerks, robot cars, robot factory workers, robot cops, robot teachers, robot slaves, robot soldiers! They envision a world where troublesome human workers with their expectations of wellness and fair wages and decent working conditions and affordable health care and proffered education for their children and representational governance and meaningful employment and a lack of duplicity and a humane and responsive social fabric all become fanciful things of the past. Let the robots do it all and to hell with all the blue-collar whiners. Even the likes of Elon Musk, my personal favourite billionaire entrepreneur who otherwise celebrates the human condition and pursues products to mitigate climate change (well, rocket ships is another matter), has built his giga-factory in the Nevada desert to produce lithium-ion batteries for his electric cars to operate almost entirely without human input – all robotic. That’s how things get done these days. Facebook has a pathetic payroll as compared to its capital valuation - a gaggle of Millennials perched in front of computer screens quaffing kale smoothies and munching on quinoa muffins, but otherwise just algorithms and a deep artificial intelligence running the shop. Not much opportunity for labour action here. And there is the point. The ‘masses’ are an inconvenience and the sooner they are dispensed with the better it will all be. The best we might expect from these new overlords is a form of perverse socialism whereby the extraneous common folk are given a basic income, lots of drugs, and an endless parade of escapist trash entertainment designed to make them forget their utter irrelevance - oh, and remove any notion in their addled heads of challenging authority or seeking to speak truth to power.

Getting back to Mr. Marx, then – his articulation of the dynamic balance between labour and capital was accurate in his day. So was his suggestion that capital has a tendency to accumulate upwards and that the essential societal struggle was between classes, between those of privilege and those who toiled. And yet, how could he have anticipated the current mish-mash of reality? The struggle has become essentially classless, even as the labour force itself is hollowed out from within by automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and rampant factory closures. And the watchers are everywhere. Hey – do a jaywalk in any big city in China these days and you get tagged by a facial-recognition camera and the fine is extracted from your bank account. If it is deemed a criminal violation you get scooped by the coppers. Nice, huh? Ditto for any public gathering – drones fly in and tag your faces. ‘Bad’ people disappear. This is the ultimate and happy dream realm of the plutocracy. The rich simply don’t want anybody telling them they can’t be rich. So they make a world where everybody behaves – or else. Check it out - it’s already forming around us. George Orwell’s appalling dystopian hell pales in comparison. But he had the essentials otherwise dialled in pretty good.

Ah, but cheer up. There is actually brightness all around if you stop to look. The zombies and automatons have by no means yet won the day. Smart, incisive and highly inspirited people are rising to the challenge of the times and rattling the cages of the squalid plutocrats who would govern us. And these hyper-wealthy vermin fear two forms of social manifestation more than any other – the people, and the mob. The mob (not the mafia kind) is, of course, a useless tool of social evolution, having, as it does, no brain – just torches and pitchforks, etc. All it can do is destroy. The People on the other hand – the Demos – is quite another thing. For the People can achieve personification on the highest moral grounds when so moved to do so. And representational governance, the rule of the People, aka democracy, is the finest idea yet made manifest for the moulding of the common good. It is therefore the highest desire of the plutocracy to discredit the democratic process and convince the people that voting is worthless. We call this voter disenfranchisement, and it has many forms both active and passive – all of them dangerous and insidious.

Let us therefore recognize and celebrate the warriors who would scale the ramparts on our behalf. Alexei Navalny in Russia risks life and livelihood to challenge the kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin, the stolid and decent Angela Merkel in Germany stands as a bulwark against populist demagoguery so keenly deployed by shadowy oligarchic forces, Alexandria Ocacio-Cortez emerges from the ranks of the Democratic Party in New York City to unseat a corporate-sponsored hack, Gisela Mota, the first female mayor of Temixco, Mexico who went up against the money and guns of the drug cartels and paid with her life, Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman and former sex-slave under the violent, shambling caliphate of Islamic State who speaks out against the totalitarian impulses of religion run amok, any and all of the women of Iran and Saudi Arabia who struggle against the bloated theocracy which seeks to dehumanize them, that guy with the shopping bag who stood in front of the tanks outside Tiananmen Square, and last but by no means least, our own Rachel Notley here in Alberta who sees the power of concentrated wealth for what it is and strives to undo a decades-long toxic legacy of corporate larceny and compliant government that stood by and watched as the coffers of the people of the province were systematically drained and spirited away by trans-national snake-oil merchants.

Theirs is vital work – and sometimes, yes – lethally dangerous. It takes effort. The status quo grinds away at us like some persistent stomach-ache that just won’t go away. The rich self-perceive as being deserving of their wealth, just as they in turn perceive the poor to be deserving of their poverty. And so this noxious gaggle of plutocrats gather in to themselves ever more of the booty of the land, ever more of the birthright of all peoples. They are close to being out of control – but not quite. We may yet reign them in through the applied use of our rights and freedoms and the heritage of those who have laid out for us the pathways to justice, fairness and equality. But it means engagement – and it means believing in the better tomorrow. This is mindfulness – and our minds they have not yet entirely usurped. The next time an election comes around, take the time to ask prospective candidates just how they plan to reinstate our birthright and return what is ours from the swollen vaults of the few. Don’t shy away from such questions, and don’t accept glib answers either. Things are out of whack. There is still time to make fixes. In this country we still have the rule of law and a vigorous, if somewhat faded, democracy. The tools are there for us to use – if only we will so choose. They rain down lies upon us and hope to stymie us into a state of stupefaction. How else do you think it worked for Trump? – and now he is the most powerful man in the world. It’s well past time to wake up and smell the coffee.

One more thing about Karl Marx – “What I do know,” he said, “is that I am not a Marxist.” Intriguing. Go figger. But then, when you think about it, Jesus Christ wasn’t a Christian either. So what’s in a name? There is work to be done.

Phil Burpee
July, 2018

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