Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Critical Theory

I'm reading an interesting book, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas, on the intellectual movement founded by the Frankfurt school -- a group of like minded academics and critics whose analyses on culture, capitalism, and society attempted to refigure the impracticalities of Marxian orthodoxy. In a summation of Marxian tenets, David Held, the book's author, offers this.

The progressive rise in the organic composition of capital -- the amount of fixed capital per worker -- exacerbates the inherently unstable accumulation process. In order to sustain this process, it's protagonists’ utilize all means available -- including imperialist expansion and war.
p. 42
Though an obvious point, it is also compelling on many levels. For instance, the relative move towards trade liberalization, fostered by institutions such as the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF, has sustained the appetites of growing multinationals (usually Western) looking for new and pliant markets (almost always developing countries). Western industrialized nations are no different in this respect and, in essence, underwrite the political legitmacy of these international institutions. The Iraq war has been perceived through this lens, as critics see its rationale to be more convoluted and involving the unintelligible logic of capitalism. To this effect, the London Review of Books had an essay in April's issue entitled Blood for Oil? Its conclusion is eerily persuasive and, therefore, needs to be excerpted at length.

But something has clearly shifted over the last ten years. Even as recently as the late 1990s, there was confidence that the new world of capital penetration would come about essentially by means of agreement between governments and corporations, ‘fiscal discipline’, fine-tuning of subsidy and bail-out, and non-stop pressure from US creditors. What constellation of forces put all this in question is still open to debate. But it happened – precipitately. Cracks began to appear within the World Bank establishment: Western Europe fought with the Washington consensus, and the South often refused to take its bitter medicine. The grotesqueries of Third World indebtedness and First World subsidies to corporate agriculture became more widely recognised. The back-slapping and mutual congratulation of the Uruguay Round descended into the fiasco of Seattle, and then Doha and Cancœn. At Cancœn, an in-house insurgency of 20 nations refused to endorse the massive US-EU subsidies to North Atlantic agriculture and the WTO rules crafted to prevent the South from protecting itself.

This is the proper frame for understanding what has happened in Iraq. It is only as part of this neo-liberal firmament, in which a dominant capitalist core has begun to find it harder and harder to benefit from ‘consensual’ market expansion or corporate mergers and asset transfers, that the preference for the military option makes sense.

Marx had no illusions about the role of force in his own time. But he did seem to believe that the age of violent expropriation was at an end. It was capitalism’s strength that it had internalised coercion, so to speak, and that henceforward the ‘silent compulsions of economic relations’ would be enough to compel the worker to ‘sell the whole of his active life’. We are not the first to think Marx too sanguine in this prognosis. In fact it has turned out that primitive accumulation is an incomplete and recurring process, essential to capitalism’s continuing life. Dispossession is crucial to this, and its forms recur and reconstitute themselves endlessly. Hence the periodic movement of capitalism outwards, to geographies and polities it can plunder almost unopposed. (Or so it hoped, in the case of Iraq.)

Will military neo-liberalism endure? With the US deficit rolling along at $600 billion annually, and the national debt rising to $2.5 trillion, the cost-benefit balance of the strategy looks dubious. And, two years after the tanks rolled across the Euphrates floodplain, the occupation and its Vichy surrogate barely have control of Baghdad. With unemployment running at perhaps 50 per cent, the Mahdi army steadily draws new support from the ranks of the urban unemployed in the slums of Sadr City and Basra, now twice dispossessed: once by Saddam, once by Bush. Even the lustre of the privatised contract economy has tarnished. Of the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds allocated by the US Congress in October 2003, less than 9 per cent had been spent a year later – and untold amounts of that was spent on ‘security’. During the same period, more than a hundred criminal investigations of contractors were launched, and cases opened on hundreds of allegations of fraud and ‘waste’. As if to confirm falling expectations, Halliburton is reported to be putting Kellogg, Brown and Root on the block because it has become so unprofitable. So much for the Great Iraqi Oil Robbery. As Rumsfeld has admitted: ‘We lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.’ However you calculate it, in the present equation a few more million barrels of oil won’t matter a damn.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The Neo-Mainstream Media Agenda

Wake up. Early this morning, bleary eyed and cotton mouthed, I heard an interesting report on CBC radio. ‘The public is losing confidence in politicians and public officials in general…’ I was unsurprised. Should such a platitude be so unobvious to the media? For the media the public had even lower regard.

One in three people polled said they had little or no confidence in the media – unchanged from a year earlier. Only 11 per cent had a great deal of confidence in what the media had to say.

I was flummoxed to hear that 'bloggers' may have higher repute with the public than the Mainstream Media (MSM). This is supremely silly; I say: enough already with the blogger triumphalism. If you want your political slant steeper, you’re substance the consistency of a watery broth, the scope and focus negligible, read a political blog. At least this is the case for amateurish political blogs, present company included. Political journalists who maintain blogs are a staple for me; so are fledgling public intellectuals qua writers—for no other reason than ideas shape the world. Political Journalists are backed by incredible news gathering organizations that pay them. Anyone else with a political opinion and the requisite leisure time can register there inaudible gripe.

Why should I find the argument that the public is skeptical of the media misconceived, or merely miss-framed? One reason: if the public has grown skeptical of politicians because of the rise of personally invasive journalism, it should follow that they also appraise this invasive journalism as scurrilous on the media’s part, therefore lowering the opinion they hold for reporters and journalists.

Terry Eastland, in a piece from Wilson Quarterly, speaks to this point.

The negativity in the news may have resulted from the more personalized or interpretative journalism that began appearing in the 1960s. It represented a break from the old norm of objectivity by which reporters were obliged to keep their own views out of articles, and it was thought to help in uncovering the “real story” beyond any official statements and scheduled events. Perhaps the urgent need to compete for smaller pools of viewers and readers also played a role in the rise of negative news. But to judge by opinion polls, the public wasn’t impressed. The negativity, not to mention the arrogance with which it was often served up, caused many to tune out.

So whether the chicken or the egg came first -- if I can construct this awkward analogy -- is difficult to assess and will remain an open question for now. I'll be back to this in a moment.

The good days. Eastland offers up a historical sketch of the idyllic past of the MSM.

The media establishment emerged at a time when Americans generally respected those in authority. But when, beginning in the 1960s, authority took a severe beating, the media establishment was the one authority that actually gained in strength. Crusading reporters and editors became cultural heroes—the rebels and nonconformists who refused to kowtow to anybody. The Watergate scandal in particular confirmed in the media the sense they had of themselves as independent guardians of the public good and the very conscience of the nation in times of crisis. Over the years, judicial decisions also went their way, securing greater protection for the exercise of media power. For the establishment media, life was very good

An improper, slovenly analyzed, postulate: Doesn’t public cynicism greater reflect the electorate’s discernment and sober thought, aided and abetted by journalism’s aim at demystify conventional political fictions? Another query—if the electorate is so malleable, then why is it so disillusioned and jaded? So, is it that the media has been doing it's job overzealously? Maybe.

(Notwithstanding the ideological pall cast by an unintelligible, self-manifesting, disparately unknowing and self-perpetuating, shiftless mass that is the Neoliberal agenda.)

And now back to the politicians. This passage from the CBC report irked me.

The Conservatives came in at 22 per cent – the same level as last year. The NDP, however, was picked by 23 per cent – up four points from last year. But 23 per cent of those polled said none of the parties is best able to run a government with honesty and integrity. That's an increase of five percentage points from last year.

Does it really matter what the respondents to this poll think? Really--that 23 per cent of them believe none of the political parties can govern with honesty and integrity is irrelevance bordering on…. I don’t know, ridiculously, trite irrelevance. Voters already have their own built-in prejudices, either as a result of economics or social experience, so accessing which party can govern with relative probity is patent self selection: you’ll define honesty and integrity on the metric that suits you’re political allegiances—you’ll elide any inconsistencies that don’t agree with these definitions.

(I do this all the time.)

The eternal cynics don’t vote, regardless of the poking and prodding, yet still complain about government. They’re hemming and hawing is of no consequence. (Electoral reform is another issue entirely. And if you are to believe that our current political system is acrimonious, the experiences of PR electoral systems, though definitely fairer as regards plurality, appear far more bizarre and surpassingly acrimonious--'minority governments anyone'?.)

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Revenge of the Sith

Last Saturday, like many people, I watched the third and – oddly enough, considering the anachronism – final installment of the Star Wars sextet, Revenge of the Sith. The movie was good—very, very good. Good enough to have me strongly considering an apostasy from the Anglican Church to follow The Jedi Order. I was completely blown away by the scale and proportion of this fictive far, far away universe; surprisingly, the story was far more engaging than I was expecting. We know that Anakin is slowly being seduced by the dark side yet, though we (the audience) cringe as he makes his descent there, secretly cheer him along.

This is my opinion at least.

There are, to be sure, schmaltzy dialogue exchanges – particularly between Padme and Anakin – and an excess of special effects, some of which are apropos and many others just plain excessive. At one point Ben Kenobi is riding this creature that essential looks like an iguana: It’s ridiculous but cool. One gets the feeling that this is all taking place in some miniature world. And it very well may be. But, for me, the movie pulls the narrative tight together. Lucas accomplishes a reasonably fulfilling end: a fitting dénouement to a Sci-Fi classic.

(The aberration of the appalling Attack of the Clones(2002) is unforgivable.)

But, as I said, last weekend I went to an actual theater to watch the Sith. Not even a week later, though I’m loath to admitt it lest the MPAA is monitoring this blog, I downloaded and watched the Sith, comfortably ensconced in my dank, fetid room. I think it’s terrible, really. Think of all the money George Lucas is losing? This is a canard.

The money, the MPAA suggests, isn’t being lost by Mr. Lucas but countless others involved in the production and distribution of movies—the little guy. And I’m not sure whether this year’s meager box office is a persuasive argument against piracy; but it sure seems like it should be.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Of Montreal

The Public Places By-law prohibits smoking in certain public places in order to protect the city of Ottawa's inhabitants from the public health hazzards and discomforts of second-hand smoke.


Any indoor area to which the public has access is a public place including such places as retail shops, hairdressers, restaurants, bars, bingo and billiard halls, bowling alleys, taxicabs and limousines. There is no provision for designated smoking rooms in the by-law.

By-law No. 2001-148

This is an excerpt from one of two Ottawa public health by-laws that prohibits smoking in public places—the other one relates to workplaces. If an analogous by-law had existed in Montreal, I have strong reason to believe that my trip there would have been more enjoyable.

This is not to say that there weren’t parts of the trip that I did like. There were a few, actually.

For instance, pursing through the social sciences section at a Chapters on Ste-Catherine, I happened upon a pair of forest green Nike throwbacks who, quiet auspiciously, were on the feet of Garden State(2004) writer and director Zach Braff. Initially I had to convince myself that it wasn’t Zach Braff and that it would be incredibly untoward to corner the innocent celebrity look-a-like. But at this point I was already making my move in his direction.

The Last Kiss is filming in Montreal, which happens to be starting Zach Braff, among others; the screenplay, interestingly enough, was penned by London, Ontario, native Paul Haggis, and is an adaptation of Italian director Gabriele Muccino L'ultimo Baccio (2001).

This was reason enough to assume that it was in fact Zach Braff wearing the forest green Nike throwbacks. “Hey” I said with some incredulity. He replied back hey, and after a few inert moments of mental vacancy, at which time I was trying not to call him Benjamin, I eerily and very inexplicably called him Braff. (Garden State was essentially homage to Mike Nicholas’ film The Graduate--the main character, Dustin Hoffman, was Benjamin Braddock).

Since he did actually extend his hand while replying yes I’m assuming it was Zach Braff. I quickly turned to my friend, who was himself flipping through a book, and motioned at Zach Braff, in hopes that my friend would recognize him. He didn’t. Now this was awkward. “Garden State” I said. My friend recognized him and Braff graciously offered his hand.

I should have asked him if he was going to the Decemberists show that night at La Sala Rossa, or maybe if he needed another member in his entourage, or maybe offered him some script ideas for a tenth Police Academy. I could have asked him a lot of things, but I didn’t. That’s not how we do in Canada.

Sufficiently star struck, the rest of the day consisted of good eating at the Peel Pub then the Decembrists show at La Sala Rossa, and finally a diversity of night spots on St-Laurent and Crescent. Omnipresent during all of this was the carcinogenic aroma of smoke. The Decembrists show was cool, although the prevalence of smokers, especially in such close proximity to each other and me, was very disconcerting. Being out at some of the "trendy" Montreal clubs left me longing for the staid, sterile clean air of bars in Ottawa, Waterloo, and London.

Montreal—Quebec, for that matter—has astonishing cultural sites which I’ve been to. That a socially progressive city, a darling among the top cities of the world, still hasn’t passed by-laws against smoking in public places is a little troubling. With New York already limiting smoking in public places, it’s time for other major cites to follow suit. The economic interest of private ownership has to be balance against the social interest of public health. But on balance Montreal was alright.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Hyper-speed prediction-falsification is not the case with my earlier thesis that the Liberal government wouldn’t fall as a result of being defeated on Thursday’s budget vote. As if this should be news to anyone, Belinda Stronach, former CEO of Magna, former Peter MacKay flame, perpetual political neophyte, did a fancy two-step across the figurative floor of the House of Common to join the Liberals. So astounded was I with this development that I literally (literally) jumped out of my shoes—my feet returning to the ground minutes later. Now my reaction should come as no surprise since, as has been stated prior, I’m a Liberal partisan.

(This is for no other reason than the electoral viability of the NDP is, well, feeble. Though they are considered the most ethical political party in the country, the NDP aren’t likely to form government in my life time.)

And now a digression, if you’ll indulge me. The jilted lover meme is stirring and incredibly poignant. Whether it’s purely political strategy or an honest account is difficult to assess; though, to be fair, the two can’t be mutually exclusive in this case. Seeing Peter MacKay nearly in tears as he spoke of the close affection he had for Belinda, her children, and her family, and then speak of the inexplicable betrayal (although he didn't use that word) of her decision was decidedly plaintive. The cameraman attempted to focus onto MacKay’s eyes as he fought back tears—a person shudders.

But on with the political machinations. The Liberals and NDP are now up one seat to 152, which ties the Conservative and Bloc seat count. Two independent MP’s, Chuck Cadman and David Kilgour, will determine the outcome. Kilgour looks serious but undecided and his appeals for increased attention and funding to Darfur is worthy political quid pro quo. However, there is something about Kilgour that strikes me as being incredibly flaky. Cadman, a jovial, ready-to-please type, appears more pliant. He’ll bring home the vote. Everybody that thought they had clout yesterday is doubling back, understanding that falling in line with the governing party is canny political strategy.

Apres Nous, Le Deluge. Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams is one voice among many advising two regional MP’s, Loyola Hearn and Norm Doyle, to vote yea on the Liberal budget, as it would assure the passage of the Atlantic Accord act—an act that means $2 billon for the Atlantic provinces. This seems to be working. And what of the remaining Bloc and Conservative MP’s who, after realizing it unlikely they’ll defeat the budget bill, consider the electoral calculus of voting against a healthy pork budget? If they’re smart, thoughtful to the necessity of political survival, they’ll vote for the bill.

Let me explain: the budget bill is a beautiful document because it’s like a pristine brook that reflects a sumptuous image. A person looking at the bill sees what they want— since it’s essentially designed to be everything to everyone. Vote against the bill -- when it’s going to pass anyway -- and leave yourself vulnerable to the argument that “You voted against childcare, against the municipalities, against monies for health care, against struggling students, against the environment, against the west, against the east—you sir, or madam, voted against Canada.” Very persuasive indeed.

So even if the Liberals do call an election after the Gomery inquiry adjourns -- the public outrage from which, by that time, would have already dissipated -- the Bloc and Conservatives will be open to this line of attack. However, the Conservatives, logic says, would be more vulnerable to this than the Bloc.


Funny how things change so quickly. It wasn't even a week and a half ago that the Liberals lost two consecutive confidence votes on Bloc and Conservative motions. Procedurally these motions weren't considered actual confidence votes and, therefore, the Liberals weren't required to disslove government. But they nonetheless made the Liberals look feckless--notwithstanding the house work they also impeded. And now, a week hence, the Liberals scooped Ms. Stronach, secured the vote of Chuck Cadman, and passed a fairly socially progressive budget bill.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Not so hot.

Ok, maybe this month of May hasn't been as unusually hot or warm as I had suggested in an earlier post. The last two days have been unseasonable chilly --down right cold -- despite it being generally sunny. But the political wrangling hasn't cooled down. Another day—another sanctimonious demand for the Liberal’s to step down and call an election.

The Bloc and Conservatives, again, pushed through and passed a motion to adjourn the house, bringing to a halt any house proceedings of substance or action. It becomes farcical when an opposition, in anticipation to a confidence vote they’ll likely not defeat (the Liberal Budget), stymie any convincible government work. Although most work is done within the “committees”, think it unlikely that anything of consequences is being accomplished.

In an interesting aside, Stephen Harpers thinks it's "shameful... disgusting and disgraceful" that the Liberals are holding their budget vote a day after Darrel Stinson's -- Conservative MP from British Columbia -- cancer surgery (queue the violins) . But to the rescue is our perpetual social conscience, the NDP: Ed Broadbent has suggested, and the Conservatives have duly accepted, that a member from his party not participate in the May 19th vote out of fairness.

I’m still steadfast to my earlier assessment that the Liberal budget will pass. However, I think it may be misconceived for two reasons. First, I grossly underestimated the organizational union the Conservative and Bloc have entered into. It’s not an unfair trope to say that the ‘Conservatives are sleeping with the Separatists’. (They clearly are, and why shouldn’t they? They have nothing to be ashamed of; both the Conservatives and the Bloc have at least one thing in common—they both hate Canada. I should, to be fair, put the point finer, and less infelicitously: they both hate, or strongly dislike, the federal government. The Bloc wants Quebec out of Canada, this much is obvious; while the Conservatives want the federal government, already seen as considerably diffuse in its centralized powers, shrunk down to the size of a pin head, leaving provinces to transact business between each other – without, of course, the invasive hands of the federal government in the way.)

Second, they seem to be really, really serious. The Conservatives and Bloc are frothing at the mouth. It’s time to put this rabid dog down.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The government won't fall...

On Thursday May 19 Parliament will be tasked to vote on the Liberals proposed budget bill. If it is voted down, Canadians are back to the polls—again; and only 10 months after the last election. As the heat and humidity rise in this unusually hot month of May, so does the political rancor and vituperative rhetoric. The Conservatives and Bloc are affecting all the right histrionics of the politically indignant, anxious to defeat the visibly damaged Liberals.

This is only made worse by the daily revelations of further and more troubling Liberal misdeeds coming out of the Gomery Inquiry. Meanwhile, the NDP, our country’s erstwhile marginalized social conscience, is doing what it can to help buttress the Liberals seat total, against that of Bloc and Conservatives combined. Some suggest that by acceding to a few of the particulars in the Liberals re-amended budget – the delaying of the corporate tax-cuts being one; which were initially taken out of the budget as per Jack Layton’s request – the NDP are playing useful idiots to Liberal hegemony.

I, on the other hand, see this differently. Before Jack Layton, in Stephen Harper’s words, made a deal with the devil, the Liberal budget allotted only $10 million for student loans and student debt relief, and $250 for social housing and miscellaneous social project. Those numbers, respectively, jumped to $150 million and $1 billion after Layton’s Faustian bargain.

I like that math.

But still, a push is being made for an election call even before the Liberal’s budget bill can be voted on. The Liberals lost a putative non-confidence vote yesterday – a procedural motion emanating from the public accounts committee – resulting in Conservative and Bloc demands that they step down and call an election immediately.


As matter of form, constitutional convention dictates that a government only falls on a loss of confidence from a vote by a majority of the house—when this vote deals specifically with a money bill. The precedent here is the Mackenzie King government resigning after a motion of non-confidence that was unrelated to a money bill. However, since then, money bills -- the budget specifically – are considered the only legitimate confidence votes.

So why aren’t Bloc and Conservatives willing to wait for a legitimate confidence vote, like next week’s budget?

One reason: the budget will pass. And here’s why. During the last month the Liberal government has scattered the seeds of its success all throughout the country: $3 billion dollars to the Provincial government in Ontario, $338 million to British Columbia, child care monies for various Canadian municipalities, redistribution of the gas-tax to the cities, %100 royalties from offshore drilling to the eastern provinces. The Liberal government will not fall for all of these reasons and much more.

The Bloc and Conservatives know this. In fact, though the deciding vote will come down to the speaker of the house – Milliken, a Liberal – count on a number of Bloc MP’s to support the Liberal budget; a budget that is so incredibly socially progressive that it would hurt their constituency cred if they voted otherwise. So this is my prediction—the vote will be 155-150 for the Liberal budget.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

To the wilderness...

Revising history can be a rather thorny venture -- especially if done purely out of spite. Chuck Guite, former mandarin and trafficker in the venal art of patronage, is doing some incredibly heavy lifting for Jean Chrétien; at least this is what I'm suspecting. Testimony by Guite in the last two days has implicated both Paul Martin and, yes, John Manley.

(Remember Manley the prime ministerial hopeful but two years ago. This was only the case as a result of Martin pushing Chrétien out of office earlier than he was comfortable with.)

And now: Jean Chrétien is exacting his revenge indirectly, if at all -- which may be considerable. He's doing this through one of his hatchet-man-- Chuck Guite; and the bloodletting looks like it could hurt the future of the Liberal party. From the Globe and Mail is this paean:

And Mr. Martin went to lengths again Thursday to ensure that his denial was clear, telling reporters after a cabinet meeting, that Mr. Guité's claims that he had discussed assurances that Vickers & Benson would not lose federal work were also discussed with former industry minister John Manley and former public works minister Alfonso Gagliano were also false.

Fortunately the veracity of Mr. Guite's accusations are in doubt given that they can't be verified -- his claims aren't only hearsay, the individual who provided him with said information has passed away. Still, I'm beginning question Chrétien’s ominous presence, as it appears his attempts at retribution could have dire consequences, both politically and culturally.

These tactics are desperate and telling of a personality bent on persevering personal legacy rather than purging an arrogant clique within the Liberal party. (Did I just say that?) But understand this -- it is only a theory. My theory.

If Chrétien is responsible for any of this scorched-earth razing -- because we know he has the influence to direct Guite to lie down -- then his legacy, as written by the political historians in the decades to come, will be a pitiful one. He will be the man who sent the Liberal party into the political wilderness.