Thursday, October 25, 2012

Globalization and its discontents

             Globalization is based on "Free Market" ideology. Companies should be free, absolutely free, to invest anywhere, do what they want, no strings attached. At best, governments should serve as industry's handmaidens, not their masters. In the words of one neo-conservative luminary, government should be shrunk to the point that "it can be drowned in a bathtub":

              In practice, wo/man appears a more tribal animal than our ideologues would wish! Of course, ultimately it all comes down to a question of power. If you have the power to globalize, you globalize on the backs of those who are too weak to resist.  Western investment - often compelled by IMF / World Bank diktat - in third world economies? No problemo! Free markets foster wealth creation which wealth then "trickles down"  - The Golden Shower - and lifts the masses out of their poverty. That's the theory anyway. The practice may leave a bit to be desired..

              Haitian farmers, for example, have to compete with US subsidized rice which maintains them in poverty if it does not force them off the land into urban squalor. (Subsidized rice?? - Gee, we thought "Free Marketeers" were against subsidies. Guess it's a question of whose subsidy.. Third world farmers versus US agrobusiness, petroleum companies versus renewable energy producers..) But then a little suffering for little Haitian farmers: can't make omelettes without breaking eggs,eh?

             On the other hand, when it comes to third world (or ex-third world) companies investing heavily in important sectors of the North American economy? Not so sure, not so sure..

              A recent poll found, for example, that 64% of Albertans polled "opposed Chinese investment in the form of full ownership" in the Albertan oil sector while only 15% found it acceptable: that's more than 4 to 1 against full Chinese ownership of oil sector assets!! "Free Market".. Maybe, just Not In My Back Yard. 

              When it came to Chinese state-owned companies buying oil patch assets, things weren't much better: 53% against, 24% for - a bit over 2 to 1 against.

               As the French say, "un poids, deux mesures": one weight, two standards of weight. One standard for the first world, another standard for the third world :-D

Thursday, October 18, 2012

North American Autumn

"How will we say what this day means to us unless we enter it fully, consciously, and aware? How will we save what we love unless we are willing to be with our loved ones, to share their journeys and longings, their gifts and blessings? How will we come to know our world unless we go to it, our hearts open, ready always to receive and then to give back?

There are few things more important than to find a way to stop what we’re doing and look, look deeply, lovingly, fearlessly, unselfishly, without being anxious about what it might mean, how it might change us – and then to enter in."

              This is the primordial sense of "transparency": transparency, authenticity, openess towards oneself and the organic world around one (including the close circle of loved ones). If this primordial level of transparency is not attained, forget the rest: an inauthentic wo/man's judgement runs false at its source, the self..

               The existentialist philosophers of the last century understood this. They realized that one of the essential challenges of our time was to achieve the clarity of "authenticity":

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Pipelines aren't transparent, you've noticed?

Reversal of pipeline 9 between Westover and Montréal - Équiterre reveals Enbridge's real motives.

Montréal, October 4, 2012
Équiterre (environmental group) revealed today that Enbridge has concealed the real motivations behind its project to reverse oil flow in pipeline 9 between Westover, Ontario and Montréal. 

During public hearings before the National Energy Board last May, Enbridge claimed that this project was uniquely destined to supply the energy needs of eastern Canada.

However, according to information released today, the Canadian consulate approached the governers of the New England states, particularly Maine, in order to promote the sale of Albertan oil sands in the region. Information was obtained from the Natural Resources Council of Maine through the American Access to Information law.

"For several months, we suspected that Enbridge was hiding its real intentions for the reversal of oil flow in line 9. Now we have the proof that it was not to supply consumers in eastern Canada with Canadian oil nor to reinforce the energy security of our country! The goal was, and always has been, to export oil sand bitumen to the United States" stated Steven Guilbeault, adjoint director general of Équiterre.

"Given the fact that the federal government is in bed with the petroleum industry, we are appealing to the public, to municipalities as well as to the newly elected Québec provincial government in order to prevent this project from proceeding. Enbridge wants to transport one of the most polluting forms of petroleum through the second largest city of Canada (Montréal) via one of the oldest pipelines in the country! Are we going to let them get away with this?" concluded Mr. Guilbeault.

Our translation of the following press release from Équiterre

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Charbonneau Commission: when transparency dies

            Writing this blog has been instructive. The ambient cynicism / political passivity has probably insulated me from the important role transparency plays in healthy political, social and economic systems. I am surprised to discover the degree to which democratic societies are hostage to the word. Who controls the word and how it is spun controls (in the short run, at least) the nature of the political game and the power relations among the various players.

            I have come to look for examples of what happens when transparency breaks down, when structures and political actors become opaque, when information does not flow freely, when news is distorted or "spun" to attribute a desired meaning or signification to an event..

             The province of Québec is a "small" society. Demographically and, especially, ethnolinguistically, it is a small island of francophonie in English speaking North America. This status, this mentality, has its advantages and its disadvantages. The relatively lowered mobility of our elites (the language issue) means that our big shots - nos gros légumes - know each other. They inhabit a small world, evolved from the ancestral farming village where you knew your neighbors and were probably related to them. "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" was a survival strategy before the invention of the modern State and insurance policies. Unfortuantely this philosophy, in modern societies, leads all too often to political corruption and the exploitation of unfair advantages: those with money purchase politicians and judges. Québec, as a small society, must therefore constantly be vigilant to eradicate corruption. The seeds of the disease must be extirpated before they have time to spread and infect the entire culture.

                The Charbonneau Commission is investigating corruption in the provincial construction industry. Evidence is coming forth in Montréal that a cartel of ten favored contractors received the lion's share of contracts with the provincial or municipal governments.This favoritism was bought with kickbacks to politicians and "taxes" payed to the Mob (about 3% of project cost in the city of Montréal). Cartel members, in turn, inflated their costs in order to pay for this privilege. And of course, in the final analysis, it is the poor taxpayer who foots the bill. We pay about 30% more for provincial tenders than in the neighboring province of Ontario, for example. How much of that difference is due to political corruption in the construction industry? Perhaps the Charbonneau Commission will shed some light into dark corners. (I suspect a horror movie is coming..)

                 This is what the breakdown of transparency engenders in modern, nominally democratic, societies: public theft, gangsterism, public apathy and cynicism toward the political process. Our declining infrastructure - some shoddily constructed in the first place - has reached the point of posing a physical danger to the public. 

Book Review: Chris Hedges, American Fascists

American Fascists, the Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges, Free Press, NY, 2006

       In this brave - even noble text - Chris Hedges delivers a cautionary tale of a tragically, perhaps terminally, flawed society brought low by the very forces which gave it dominion over all other nations.

       The Ancient Greeks recognized in hubris (excess) and hybris  (arrogance) tragic vices which, like alcohol, could take possession of a person's or a nation's soul and draw them toward self-inflicted destruction. Such a collective dementia, Hedges suggests, has seized - or is seizing - the American national consciousness with unknowable - but surely ominous - consequences.

       American Fascists is the best book I've yet read on the Authoritarian Personality. It is not easy reading except, perhaps, for inveterate, knee-jerk America bashers. Most readers, though, will find a cautionary tale, a warning: there, but for the grace of God (or simply a relative delay in our cultural trajectory relative to the US.), go we.. In reality, the disease Hedges describes is endemic and the "American case" is merely more acute, more advanced, more overtly virulent (everything there is oversized!)

       As Le Monde columnist Hervé Kempf has already shown - How the Rich are Destroying the Earth, Chelsea Green Publishing - our society of "emulative" hyperconsumption is unsustainable and thus, in the long run, a failure: nature operates on the long run, what counts is what survives - Darwin.

      We are taught, as children, that those who possess much are "winners" and to emulate them, we, too, must consume big (even if that means consuming beyond our means and working ourselves sick to earn the prestige of being a big spender). Such a patently sick, constricted, vision of human life over-stimulates the economic sector (which, of course, is the "goal"). In reality, our economic system - advanced or Late Capitalism - requires such over-stimulation: investors demand future returns on present investment (profits). No profit to be made - no investment! But future return on present investment implies, logically speaking, infinite growth which is impossible in a "closed" - finite - physical world. Consider physical constraints: depletion of finite resources, the negative impacts of pollution in closed cycle systems, the obvious limits of physical space - territory - for human population growth.. In short, the "System" is screwed: it is now collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions. The hypocrisy - if not cynicism - and self-deception of those who profit from the "System" is boundless; that's one thing at least that's infinite! I recall my prof of Economics 101 pointing out that the economic "axion" of "infinite intersubstitutibility" of resources was, in all likelihood, BS. Yet he continued to teach it year after year.. In this case, it seems the blind do not WANT to see.

      To his credit, Chris hedges stresses the psychological effects of such a perverse culture. U.S. blue collar - and many white collar - jobs were exported to the 3rd world during the "globalization" mania. Why? To maximize profits for international megacorporations, their high living CEOs and shareholders by exploiting cheaper overseas labor. U.S. workers got screwed of course which made them even more paranoid then they were after 45 years of Cold War. And 9-11 didn't help..

       Into this menacing climate of economic, ecological, geopolitical, existential and cultural insecurity stepped the "dominionists" and "apocalyptics" of the radical "christian" Right. Dominionists believe that America has a duty to God to impose a "christian" vision on the rest of the world and to turn the U.S. into an Iranian style "theocracy".

       Dominionists also reject established science and support the absurd, suicidal agenda of the fossil fuel industry: God, they claim, gave man "dominion over" nature (Book of Genesis) and this goes as far as suspending the laws of physics, materializing resources out of thin air!

       "God is not capricious. He's given us a creation that is dynamically stable. We are not going to run out of anything."

       So you've god God's permission: consume! consume! consume!

       Alternatively, although potentially equally dangerous from a geopolitical perspective, are the apocalyptics who, at least, grasp that the world is, in fact, going to hell in a handbasket. They, however, in a massively intellectually and morally dishonest move, attempt to shift the responsibility for the state of the world onto God's broad shoulders. Ecological crises are "re-framed", re-contextualized and re-interpreted to support the fossil fuel industry agenda: they are not the results of human greed and stupidity but manifestations of "God's plan". Ecological crises are nothing less than "signs" of the "End Days", of the Second Coming of Christ, when the world we will be destoyed in a universal conflagration. Only a "remnant" of humanity will be deemed "worthy" to ascend into a paradise of eternal bliss. The rest of us will be condemned to eternal torture, even well-meaning people who have the misfortune of worshipping the wrong - or no - God! (This is a "God of love"??) In the apocalyptics' delusional system, greens "oppose God's will" by trying to save the world from human greed and stupidity. They are, in fact, knowingly or not, "Satan's agents" in their opposition to God's will for humanity. This is heady stuff! Think of the witch hunts of the early modern era which killed, probably, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women. Think also fo the rise of fascism in Europe in the first half of the 20th century..

       Hedges, chippily enough, concludes his book on a positive note (why I'm not sure!) He believes in the common sense and the basic decency of the American people. He also believes that by returning to traditional American values, "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity", America can regenerate itself, heal and progress. He understands, rightly, that this will require rebuilding a sense of community in grassrooots America, of rediscovering a common sense of purpose and shared values - not in unending passive consumption. Community can only be rediscovered / rebuilt by working together with neighbors on common projects. Remember! For hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years our neurological circuits, our genetics, were programmed / molded by a hunter-gatherer existence. We still ARE hunter gatherers! Our nature, despite neoconservative propaganda, is to live and cooperate together in communities on communal projects. This is how our species evolved, survived and prospered for millennia..

       We must relearn, somehow, to rediscover - or create - the sense of meaning of life in our social existences. The ancient Greeks, who already understood that hubris and hybris are tragic vices, also understood that wo/man is wo/man ONLY within a webwork of mutual / reciprocal familial / social / economic / cultural / spiritual relations. The economic is but one dimension of human life and, perhaps in a healthy socieity, one of the lesser ones.

       For some insight into the incursion of neocon style propaganda and tactics onto the field of Canadian federal politics:

       If you consider youself a green activist or a social activist and you only have time for one book on the authoritarian personality, its origins, its nature, its objectives and strategies, let this be the book!

       I can conclude no better than citing Chris Hedges himself, American Fascists, page 33:

"If this mass movement [ the "Christian" Right] succeeds, it will do so not simply because of its ruthlessness and mendacity, its callous manipulation of the people it lures into its arms, many of whom live on the margins of American society. It will succeed because of the moral failure of those, including Christians, who understand the intent of the radicals yet fail to confront them, those who treat this mass movement as if it were another legitimate player in an open society. The leading American institutions tasked with defending tolerance and liberty  - from the mainstream churches to the great research universities, to the Democratic Party and the media - have failed the country. This is the awful paradox of tolerance. There arise moments when those who would destroy the tolerance that makes an open society possible should no longer be tolerated. They must be held accountable by institutions that maintain the free exhange of ideas and liberty. The radical Christian Right must be forced to include other points of view to counter their hate talk in their own broadcasts, watched by tens of millions of Americans. The must be denied the right to demonize whole segments of American society, saying they are manipulated by Satan and worth only of conversion or eradication. They must be made to treat their opponents with respect and acknlowledge the right of a fair hearing even as they exercise their own freedom to disagree with their opponents. Passivity in the face of the rise of the Christian Right threatens the democratic state."