Friday, July 23, 2010
A.J. Polan: Lenin and the End of Politics
One of the more stimulating and thoughtful examples of progressive “left wing” pluralism is A.J. Polan’s Lenin & the End of Politics*. Polan’s book is not merely an attack on the political and historical outcomes of Bolshevism; it’s an attack on the very logic that underlies Lenin’s most democratic and emancipatory analysis of the state, The State and Revolution. The central assumptions that ground this text, Polan argues, form a fundamentally “causal” element (p. 129) in the creation of the totalitarian Soviet state. In other words, Polan takes issue with Lenin’s “best possible case” (p. 58), one where Lenin temporarily veers away from his vanguardist theories and discusses the possibility of a society run by local workers’ councils, or soviets.
At the core of Polan’s critique is an epistemological belief in the limitation of human understanding, which in turn leads to a view of politics as, at least in terms of values, irreducibly pluralistic:
“The political realm has to deal with questions to which no answers have so far been found that have the status of absolute truth and can command the assent of an entire populace. Politics, therefore, is fundamentally the contest of conflicting value orientations. The answers to these fundamental issues can never be derived and formulated in the language of rationality and calculability that is the proud possession of the [bureaucratic] administrators” (p. 105).
Buttressing Polan’s analysis is his belief in the historically specific Western consciousness, a consciousness that – following Sartre – is self-aware yet chaotic. In the language of post-modern thought, subjectivity is both the product of and scourge to regularized power. The modern individual is a matter of possibility “produced by ‘conscience’, the possibility of choice. This is the ambiguous burden which the world of modernity inscribes in the heart of the human soul” (p. 213).
According to Polan, Lenin rejects such a view and invokes the Marxist equivalent of Rousseau’s general will (p. 73). The antinomies of Kant’s modern Man are reduced to a single Identity (p. 136 ff.). From the vantage point of the working class (and the Party), Lenin is incapable of viewing dissent or difference as anything but error. And since the Bolsheviks know the irrefutable truth, Lenin (and not just Stalin) is incapable of tolerating politics. To Lenin,
“[p]olitics is private self-interest made public. Thus Lenin’s first move is to abolish any possible distance between the gross economic position of an individual and his motivations; to abolish any space for ‘values’, and consequently, disagreement over values” (p. 175).
Lenin does what politicians of any age have done to their opponents: label their views as merely self-interested, and without principle or merit. But going beyond Western practice (at least until Fox News), Lenin’s opponents are “delegitimized a priori” (p. 174). Enforced by the Cheka and the Red Army, Lenin moves quickly to quash any possible opposition from the outside (liberals and Socialist Revolutionaries) and from within (the “Leftists” and the “labour aristocracy”). Opposition, in other words, is liquidated rather than regularized in parliamentary institutions. In Lenin’s view, why regularize falsehoods?
In the end, the key lesson I take from Polan’s book is that your view of truth has a critically important impact on your political theory, and it must be a consideration during any point of research, analysis and reconstruction. Alongside a view of human nature, a theory of knowledge is a necessary foundation for how you interpret the nature of political life, and formulate essential concepts like politics, autonomy and power.
* Polan, A.J.. Lenin & the End of Politics. Oakland: U. of California Press, 1984.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
Their woes are our gain
The current economic problems in Europe and elsewhere have become, at least for the time being, a moment of opportunity for Canada. Canada's relatively stable financial sector, low debt ratios and healthy consumer demand are attracting a great deal of attention from international investors. As a result, Canadian government bonds do not cost as much to repay, and our overall borrowing costs are therefore reduced.
... “The rest of the world loves Canada and thinks it’s a safe place to invest, and May was a month of panic, generally speaking, of deteriorating European prospects, and of flight to safety,” Eric Lascelles, a top strategist at TD Securities in Toronto, said in an interview.
“Risk-aversion ultimately resulted in extra demand for bonds backed by a strong fiscal position, credible central bank and healthy banking sector.”
The surging foreign demand means Canadian federal and provincial governments issuing debt can pay less to the investors buying it when the securities mature, a dynamic that is also helped by the rather limited amount of Canadian debt for sale.
While both Canada and the U.S. are running large deficits, Canada’s is substantially smaller even on a per-capita basis, less than 4 per cent as a share of gross domestic product, compared with almost 11 per cent in the U.S.
According to the debt-management strategy Ottawa released earlier this year with the budget, the Finance Department will sell $95-billion of bonds in the current fiscal year, less than the $102-billion in the previous year.
“The more appetite there is, the easier it is to issue bonds, and the less the Department of Finance needs to fret over the deficits that are being run right now,” Mr. Lascelles said....
Foreigners’ total net purchase of Canadian securities for the first five months of the year was $53.9-billion, slightly more than the $52.1-billion bought by overseas investors from January through May of 2009.
From The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-investor/foreign-investors-eye-canada-as-haven/article1644569/
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Interesting trade stats from British Columbia
British Columbia's long standing push to diversify its trade, and move away from a reliance on exports to America, appears to be gathering steam. Of course, as we found out in the late 1990's, a growing dependence on emerging industrialized countries - particularly when we're mostly selling raw resources - may also be perilous:
... Almost 12 per cent of B.C.'s exports went to BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, China] last year. That outpaces all the other provinces, with Saskatchewan and Manitoba the closest contenders at 11 per cent and eight per cent, respectively.
"British Columbia has got a bit of a jump start, if you will, on some of the other provinces," [Warren] Lovely said.
"I think you'll continue to see the country as a whole and British Columbia, perhaps in particular, orientate itself towards the part of the world where demand is the strongest -- and that's across the Pacific."
The other side of B.C.'s export rainbow is a reduced reliance on the troubled U.S. economy. With 50 per cent of its 2009 exports headed to the U.S., B.C. has the country's lightest reliance on the U.S. as a trading partner.
Runners-up in the U.S. lite trade category are, again, Saskatchewan at 61 per cent and Manitoba at 67 per cent. Nationally, 75 per cent of exports flow to the U.S....
Lovely cites B.C.'s considerable progress in weaning itself off the U.S. In 2001, almost 70 per cent of the province's trade headed to the U.S., he said....
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Canada's corporate media remains unchanged, even though the extensive Canwest newspaper chain has been sold (for $1.1 billion) and renamed Postmedia Network Inc.
From a July 17, 2010, story from the Vancouver Sun, we see that the major players are merely changing their jackets:
... The senior team, which will run the country's largest metropolitan newspaper chain, will be led by newly-installed CEO Paul Godfrey and includes Kirk Allen, former senior vice-president of advertising sales within Canwest, as well as Doug Lamb, the firm's former chief financial officer, a company said in a statement.
The pair will assume the same roles with Postmedia Network and will be joined by Kevin Bent and Gordon Fisher, who were appointed executive vice-presidents of operations in Western and Eastern Canada, respectively.
Fisher moves from publisher of the National Post to president. Editor-in-chief Douglas Kelly has been appointed the new publisher of the chain's national newspaper. Deputy editor Stephen Meurice replaces Kelly as editor-in-chief....
Friday, July 16, 2010
Elizabeth Warren: The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class
The following lecture features Elizabeth Warren speaking about the current crisis in (and looming collapse of) the American middle class.
This presentation is almost 58 minutes, but I highly recommend it for anyone interested in long term social and economic trends and the future of the middle class. Warren is a Harvard law professor who is a well-known commentator on debt and family issues. (She's even appeared in Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story.) In this lecture, her basic thesis is that the typical American family (two parents, two kids) does indeed earn more income - even adjusted for inflation - than its counterpart in the early 1970's. This is mainly due to the addition of a second income, usually from the wife. On the other hand, there have been many extraordinary increases in costs (mostly inelastic) that have overtaken this increase in income, to the point that the 1970's family actually has more disposable income and more financial flexibility.
There are many impressive aspects to her
presentation. First, it shows the relevance and usefulness of good
statistical data. It is culturally fashionable to dismiss statistics,
but the evidence Warren uses is illuminating and provocative. It
confirms some things I felt were true, but have never been able to
confirm or quantify. Second, her conclusions seem difficult to ignore or
refute, and they are plainly scary if one thinks about them for too
long. Warren's point about the move from a three-class society to a
two-class society is particularly chilling. Third, while certain cost
challenges are clearly American in nature (e.g. health insurance), many
others, like housing and education, pertain to middle class Canadians
like myself. Finally, her insights into the declining costs of food and
clothing, as opposed to the increasing costs of electronics and child
care, provide a sense of fairness and balance that is often missing in
popular political discourse. Generally speaking, this is a
thought-provoking use of an hour.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
David Harvey: Getting to the Heart of the Matter
For all of the discussion about the causes of the latest economic meltdown, it's mystified me why inequality has been largely ignored.
The blame is almost always laid at the feet of proximate factors like negative savings rates, ponzi-like housing bubbles, exotic debt instruments, deregulation and a neo-liberal faith in the corrective nature of unbridled capitalism. But none of these explanations really get to the heart of why the crisis occurred. These explanations aren't irrelevant, to be sure, but they seem to be intermediate factors at best, factors which themselves are the consequences of deeper and longer-term problems. Just like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was merely the spark that ignited a host of issues that built up before 1914, this current economic downturn has longer and more serious causal antecedents.
To me, the key issue is inequality. I don't mean inequality in moral terms, which is often how it is cast. I mean inequality in terms of a functional problem for capitalism. In economies where consumer spending predominates (the USA, 67% of GDP; in Canada, 56%), the prime concern is getting money (back) into the hands of those who will immediately reintroduce it into our communities. Spending is the life-blood of our western economies. Without a doubt, saving and investment are important for long-term growth, but consumption is the key to economic circulation and moving savings to investment. Yet this has been a problem since the 1970's, when real income and wealth, adjusted for inflation, started to stagnate or decline for all but the richest quintile of North American citizens.
In this context, policies and programs designed to encourage people to spend have had to encourage debt, because the money isn't otherwise there. Debt, in other words, is the inevitable by-product of pro-consumption policies that ignore systemic inequality. This is where David Harvey comes in. His analysis is unabashedly Marxian, but, to the extent that his explanation strives to uncover the root issues, it's clear that such an analysis can't be ignored. Of course, I'm not really mystified why we are silent with regard to inequality. Once you admit that inequality is a central explanation, then a Marxian analysis is almost unavoidable. And capitalists and capitalist societies simply don't want to open that debate. (Well, not always.)
The following is a succinct and visually
arresting summary of David Harvey's argument:
Monday, July 12, 2010
America's Housing Crisis - A Moral Dilemma?
The following video from 60 Minutes is a sobering look at America's continuing housing crisis.
It's also an interesting discussion of a central contradiction in capitalism. On one hand, business people and corporate entities often make bloody-minded decisions that leave individuals jobless and homeless. As "rational actors" pursuing "the bottom line", these capitalists are rarely condemned by our elites. Indeed, their "tough minded" decisions are often lauded as good business. On the other hand, the very same economic decisions by individual citizens and unions are almost always assessed (and condemned) in moral terms, terms which North Americans have historically internalized against their own interests.
Yet it now appears that this ideological
double-standard is being exposed by the mortgage problems faced by
millions of Americans. As a result, we can catch a glimpse of the
political underpinnings inherent in the supposedly amoral world of