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Friday, December 24, 2010

Gabor Maté: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

One of my favourite books of 2010 is Dr. Gabor Maté's In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

The following is a series of interviews with Maté, a Vancouver doctor who treats drug addicts in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver. The interviews are conducted by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now:

Posted by Colin Welch at 5:40 PM
Edited on: Friday, December 24, 2010 6:03 PM
Categories: Books, Canadian Politics, Education, In a Philosophical Mood

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Review of John Gray's False Dawn

John Gray’s popular critique of globalization and laissez-faire capitalism, False Dawn*, was originally published in 1998. It has enjoyed a resurgence as a “prophetic” account of our current global economic problems, but I think the book is better viewed as an incomplete analysis, and one that is riven with contradictions and equivocations.

Gray’s clearest and most consistent argument is that capitalism, and especially the sort of global laissez-faire capitalism promoted by the United States (i.e. the so-called “Washington consensus”) is not a natural state of being, and did not evolve naturally. On the contrary, laissez-faire capitalism is a politically constructed product, quite unnatural in most human societies and rarely long-lasting. Thus, the free market “that developed in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century did not occur by chance. Nor, contrary to the mythic history propagated by the New Right, did it emerge from a long process of unplanned evolution. It was an artefact of power and statecraft” (p.7). The system was contingent on an extensive and efficient colonial system, a government-led enclosure movement that enshrined private property, and a long-standing (but relatively unique) culture of individualism. On top of these elements, the British government engineered a laissez-faire economy through a number of extraordinary government measures: “The removal of agricultural protection and the establishment of free trade, the reform of the poor laws with the aim of constraining the poor to take work, and the removal of any remaining controls on wages were the three decisive steps in the construction of the free market in mid-nineteenth-century Britain” (p. 11). Indeed, only in mid-nineteenth century Britain, and in Anglo-American countries since the 1980’s, has laissez-faire capitalism been sustained in any meaningful manner. Gray concludes that the promotion of laissez-faire capitalism - an Enlightenment “universal civilization”, according to Gray – is as utopic as Soviet Bolshevism. The promoters of “neo-conservative” capitalism [now called neoliberal] are “as much captivated by the illusion that the historic sources of human conflict can be transcended as the most vulgar Marxist” (p. 102).

So what form of global economic system is likely to develop in the near future? According to Gray, it will be an eclectic mixture of different forms of capitalism, forms which respect local cultures and traditions, and which meet the primary needs of social cohesion and a baseline level of sustenance. Gray believes that the most successful economies will be the mixed economies in Asia. [Can Germany emerge as a successful and pragmatic member of the global economy? His answer (in Chp. 4) is a tortuous yes and no.] Though Gray wants to avoid generalizations about Asiatic economies, he nevertheless generalizes about Asiatic economies: “One of the appeals of ‘Asian values’ is that by adopting a thoroughly instrumental view of economic life they avoid the western obsessions that make economic policy an arena of doctrinal conflict” (p. 192). In comparison to Asian pragmatism, ideologically narrow laissez-faire economies are at a disadvantage: “In the contest between the American free market and the guided capitalisms of East Asia it is the free market that belongs to the past” (p. 131). The United States will continue to advocate for the Washington consensus, but its long-term prospects are dim. Indeed, evidence “of the superior economic growth, savings rates, educational standards and family stability of countries that have repudiated the American model will be repressed, denied and resisted indefatigably. To admit this evidence would be to confront the social costs of the American free market” (p. 131). America, in other words, will retard the successful acceptance of a framework “in which governments can protect what is distinctive and valuable in their economic cultures” (p. 204). Because of this, Gray is enormously pessimistic about the future of the global economy.

There are two profound problems with Gray’s analysis. The first is that inequality is only briefly discussed (see pp. 32, 108 and 114 ff.). For Gray, inequality is a social problem that leads to legitimacy issues for Western governments. Yet, as we’ve seen from the analyses of David Harvey, inequality is more than merely a political steering problem. Inequality is at the core of the housing bubble and the exotic debt instruments that have been used to create demand where real wealth does not exist. The wealth and income inequalities within states, and the growing trade imbalances between states, are simply not a major part of Gray's Tory worldview. In this manner, Gray’s book is not prophetic as one reviewer has stated.

The second major problem with Gray’s book is that he has two meanings of “anarchic” economies. The first meaning is clear enough: laissez-faire capitalism is enormously destructive of both political intervention (via Keynesianism and social democracy) and traditional social structures (so revered by conservatives). There is no longer any job security when global capital and trade flow freely across borders. And, ironically, the” free market seems set to achieve what socialism was never able to accomplish – a euthanasia of bourgeois life” (p. 72). In addition to social destruction, laissez-faire capitalism hollows out “the business corporation as a social institution” (ibid). Pensions and other long-term guarantees are no longer the responsibility of corporations, and the prospect of a life-long career seems an archaic relic. Finally, the ascendancy of financial capitalism in the West has meant that the “inherent instability of anarchic [emphasis added] global markets has been enhanced by the growth of an enormous, highly leveraged virtual economy in which currencies are traded for short-term profits” (ibid). In short, the laissez-faire project of reducing all relationships to self-interested monetary transactions seems at hand.

On the other hand, Gray also uses “anarchic” to refer to a period of globalization when the laissez-faire experiment has failed: “Every economy is being transformed as technologies are imitated, absorbed and adapted. No country can insulate itself from this wave of creative destruction. And the result is not a universal free market but an anarchy [emphases added] of sovereign states, rival capitalisms and stateless zones” (p. 194). Technological interdependence, environmental degradation and resource scarcity will render the current set of national and international institutions powerless to stop increased strategic conflict.

It’s unclear whether Gray is aware of the two meanings of anarchy, but he occasionally offers a synthesis: “Worldwide mobility of capital and production triggers a ‘race to the bottom’, in which more humane capitalist economies are compelled to deregulate and trim back taxes and welfare provision. In this new rivalry all the varieties of capitalism that competed during the post-war period are mutating and metamorphosing” (p. 218). Gray appears to be arguing that laissez-faire capitalism causes its successor (post- laissez-faire capitalism). This might actually make sense, but the transition is never fully explained, and it does not reflect his other argument that the Asian and German economies will resist laissez-faire capitalism. To the extent that they are successful in resisting the transformative nature of capitalism, then neither form of anarchy appears inevitable. Of course, it could be that the second meaning - of technology and resource-driven global anarchy - is really just moving the laissez-faire project to its most extreme form. The two anarchies are not conceptually distinct nor successive stages; they are part of the same process. In his original conclusion, Gray seems to be pointing that way, even if it contradicts his earlier discussions:

“The spread of new technologies throughout the world [Gray’s second form of global anarchy] is not working to advance human freedom. Instead it has resulted in the emancipation of market forces from social and political control [laissez-faire capitalism]. By allowing that freedom to world markets we ensure that the age of globalization will be remembered as another turn in the history of servitude.” (p. 208)

This confusion and equivocation is seen throughout the book, and particularly in its conclusions. To be sure, Gray’s book does have some strong elements. The arguments about the artificiality of market capitalism and America’s fateful intransigence are consistent and well argued. Nevertheless, the inconsistencies betray his argument. Does laissez-faire capitalism cause or succumb to a new form of global anarchy? Are they really the same thing? Will the Asian economies resist the demands of laissez-faire capitalism? Gray believes they will, but Asia (as Gray admits) seems weakened compared to the West after 1997. And, finally, if the Asian countries do resist laissez-faire capitalism, isn’t their pragmatism likely to overcome global anarchy? If so, Gray’s Hobbesian pessimism may derive from the wrong problems.


*Gray, John. False Dawn, 2009 Edition ed. London: Granta, 2009. Print.

Posted by Colin Welch at 2:32 PM
Edited on: Thursday, September 02, 2010 8:14 PM
Categories: American Politics, Books, Global Issues, Modern Culture, The Economy

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.

Posted by Colin Welch at 1:05 PM
Edited on: Monday, August 09, 2010 6:46 PM
Categories: Books, In a Philosophical Mood

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Reading Wolin, Part 2: Plato and Politics

What is “politics”? According to Chp. 2 of Sheldon Wolin’s Politics and Vision*, it’s certainly not an intellectual conception he shares with Plato.

Plato’s vision of politics is of the Good: the right and just principles that are common to all rational beings, and that ought to govern their political community. It is a philosophical conception, in the sense that his vision is derived from reason, yet practical because it reflects a serious attempt to imagine a real and tangible Good Society. But Plato’s quest for a tabula rasa, on which society is to be reconstructed with the help of a philosopher king (as in The Republic) or a philosopher-legislator (as in The Laws), always points to the same conclusion: “absolute power yoked to absolute knowledge” (p. 45). To be sure, Plato does not aim for a totalitarian solution. Far from it. Plato is repeatedly concerned with the excesses of power. His solution is a search for the Forms, eternal verities which transcend time, place and historical convention. With knowledge of the Forms, and the leadership of Rational people suffused with a “deep longing of the purified soul” (p. 52), Plato argues that the corruption of power will be overcome. In Wolin's words, it is the assuring logic of all Rationalists: “when political power is joined to knowledge it loses its compulsive element” (ibid).

Wolin disputes this vision of politics. According to Wolin, politics is defined as the activity of citizens within a given geographical area who work (or struggle) to resolve common problems under the condition of scarcity (of resources, status and authority). It is fundamentally a vision of conflict (p. 11). From this perspective, there is no real sense of politics in Plato’s writings, precisely because Wolin's politics is a communal activity that does not aim at Truth. Plato contributes little to issues like political participation, because such concerns imply a need for consent and conventionality that have little time for the Universal Good. Against Plato, Wolin argues that any political “agreement that issues from participation is not intended as a symbol of truth but as a tangible expression of that sense of belonging which forms a vital dike against the forces of anomie” (p. 58). And beyond legitimization, politics “involves a judgment concerning claims, all of which possess a certain validity” (ibid). In other words, it is a balance of competing “opinions” that leads to “tentative stabilities within a situation of conflict” (p. 60).

Wolin rebukes others, like Leo Strauss, who laments that “agreement may produce peace but it cannot produce truth” (quoted in Wolin, p. 57). Plato, Strauss and others have refused to see politics for what it is: an activity that is necessary in and of itself, and which can’t be transcended. Arguing otherwise, says Wolin, is simply “fatuous” (ibid). As such, political philosophy cannot ignore judgments of conciliation and compromise. It must be about conciliation and compromise, and the communal nature that frames these “tentative stabilities”. A “political judgment, in other words, is ‘true’ when it is public, not public when it accords to some standard external to politics” (p. 58). Moreover, any idea of transcendence leads to a “hollowing out of political content”, and makes the issues of political obligation, political community and the existence of competing interests “dangerously irrelevant” (p. 48). Dissent and contrary political views, from Plato’s logic, can only be seen as untruth, and untruth is mere steps away from a totalitarian solution.


I find myself very sympathetic to Wolin’s critique of Plato. It certainly mirrors my own reading of Plato (particularly The Republic), and reflects the shock I had when I first read Plato’s prescriptions for a new and better world. Two concerns do surface, however. First, Wolin never satisfactorily explains the irreducibly pluralistic nature of politics. It’s posited with a few examples, but there is no systematic discussion to buttress his point of view. Perhaps we shall see more about this later. Similarly, I am somewhat disenchanted with Wolin’s conception of power. So far, it seems very simple and clear-cut; power is explicit decision making on behalf of particular interests over others. It seems much like the first level in Steven Lukes’ three levels of power. Maybe later we will see a greater concern with non-decision making and the covert shaping of desire… and discourses of truth.


* Wolin, Sheldon. Politics and Vision, Expanded Edition (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 2004.

Posted by Colin Welch at 7:20 PM
Edited on: Sunday, May 23, 2010 5:24 PM
Categories: Books, In a Philosophical Mood, Language, Sheldon Wolin

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road

I have a rather ambiguous opinion of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. On one hand, it’s a beautifully phrased novel, full of powerful images and rich language. On the other hand, the plot is rather pedestrian, and the author’s defiance of writing conventions is tiresome.

There’s no doubt that McCarthy is a gifted writer. Many passages are profoundly beautiful and show McCarthy’s daunting command of language. He is a fabulous painter of words, utilizing an often inventive terminology. For example, the boy is described in an impressively figurative manner: “Knobby spine-bones. The razarous shoulder blades sawing under the pale skin” (p. 218). Quite often, individual words surprise and enrich: “rasping”, “viscera”, “dentil”, “macadam”, and so on. In an age of anti-intellectualism, where so-called “big words” expose a person to abuse like glasses do in a Khmer Rouge nightmare, McCarthy’s breadth of vocabulary is impressive, perhaps even inspiring. Finally, the relationship between man and boy seems genuine and real, and moves beyond the easy nihilism for which McCarthy is often accused.

Nevertheless, there many disappointing parts to the novel. The plot is predictable and surprisingly linear: look down at a town or house; search town or house for food; discover amazingly well-preserved food stores just in time to avoid starvation; avoid grisly cannibals when necessary; climb to the top of the next hill and consider the depravity of man (or at least flat caricatures of depraved beasts); repeat sequence at least four times. The plot seems awfully amenable to a screen play, almost as if The Road was written as a novelization of a movie. McCarthy’s well-known aversion to grammar rules also grates, and I personally think it overwhelms the linguistic and emotional side of the book. I don’t really care about the lack of apostrophes or quotation marks; I get the rather bludgeoned symbolism about the artificiality and fragility of society. But the apparently random use of sentence fragments becomes incredibly annoying. I spent much of my time filling in the subject or the predicate, or both. Such undue effort led me to skip-read much of the novel, only occasionally slowing down to savour an occasional passage. Are such rules of writing really so imposing? McCarthy seems to be saying yes, but it’s a bit like arguing the colour scheme of traffic lights is fascist, when such conventionality is really about moving on to more important things. In the end, the fragments and other broken rules seem like gimmicks, and convince me that McCarthy should have spent more time on plot development rather than the arbitrary rules of grammar.

So The Road leaves me perplexed; maybe it’s his Pulitzer Prize for the novel, and maybe it’s because other people lavish such praise on his book. If Oprah loves the novel, it must be good, no? Yet for me, it has the whiff of pretentiousness. McCarthy is a great writer, no doubt, but beating up sentences and punctuation does not replace good old fashioned story telling.

Posted by Colin Welch at 11:39 AM
Edited on: Sunday, January 31, 2010 4:54 PM
Categories: Books, In a Philosophical Mood, Language, Modern Culture, Movies