Monday, January 19, 2015

There Are No Selmas in Cyberspace

Today is Martin Luther King day in the United States, a civic holiday, and the only one dedicated to the memory of a black man.  This would be a good day to go see the film Selma that captures very well the emotions and the historical significance of the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama marches.

Out of the violence and flagrant racism that characterized the response of the white authorities and their supporters against the predominantly black marchers, images that were broadcast to a stunned nation, who ironically tuned in on their black and white televisions, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was born.

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Fifty years later times have changed, but the underlying conditions of the black man in the United States have not.  An all-white Supreme Court struck down the key clauses of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and voter suppression is rampant in the US, both by undue voter identification requirements and the traditional gerrymandering of electoral districts to maximize the representation of the white electorate.

And the violence remains.  Last year, the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri by a white police officer and the death of a black man in New York City, strangled to death by another white police officer who applied a choke hold, brought about protests, but nothing changed.  Nothing equivalent of the Voting Rights Act, not even an indictment of the officers involved.

So, what the fuck happened over the last fifty years to render Americans so uncaring, so compliant, so blasé to the injustice around them.

Some would say, and I think Malcolm Gladwell would agree, is one thing that has contributed to the demise of meaningful activism is the rise of the Internet and, in particular, the rise of social networks.  In today's digitally-linked world social networks have become the opiate of the masses.

In making his comparison between today's and yesteryear's activists, Gladwell uses a sociological analysis to say that the bonds linking the activists during the civil rights movements during the sixties, like those between the Selma to Montgomery marchers, were much stronger.  No shit Sherlock.

In my opinion, over and above the problem of the lower level of engagement that social networks afford is what Alexander Solzhenitsyn bemoaned in his 1978 Harvard address: the demise of courage.

Without a doubt, the Selma marchers and the supporters were willing to risk their lives, and, in fact, some of them were killed.  Their cause was just and they would not be denied.  The best that we can do in North America is the Occupy Wall Street movement that quickly petered out.  All that is left are photos uploaded to people's walls on Facebook.

Although meaningful protests that bring about tangible results have become all too rare, ocassionally we witness the courageous will to confront the abuse of power as was the case in the Ukraine during the Maidan Square uprising.  Ordinary citizens massed and toppled a corrupt regime.  Their story is far from over, but at least they demonstrated to the rest of us not to give way to comfort and indifference.

So, today, while our thoughts are with Martin Luther King, I would like to wish those courageous citizens in Kiev and in the rest of the Ukraine all the best in their attempt to find their way to peace and prosperity.

Hopefully, some day we will look back at your struggles and recognize their historical importance.









Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Same as It Ever Was in 2014: America's Owners Kept Themselves Far From the Madding Crowd

George Carlin
Many years ago, Thomas Gray penned these famous words that still ring true and apply to the workings of those who own America:
 
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
                   (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)


In fact, the year ended with a lot of "ignoble strife" in America: white police officers killing black males; a black male killing two police officers in New York City.  And let's not forget about the CIA.  The Senate Report on CIA torture reveled details on how the agency tortured suspected terrorists, brutal in its methods and ineffective with regard to maintaining meaningful intelligence.

Same old, same old.  Different year, same old shit.  Only the names have changed.

Yet, above the heated fray that defines daily life in America, sit the owners of America, who go about quietly doing their business of sucking up as much cash as they possibly can.  No more ching, ching.  Just the noiseless transfer of zeroes and ones from our electronic accounts into theirs.

Although their methods have changed, the tenor of their ways have not, something best captured by George Carlin in his classic rant about the power structure of American society:



So, what can we expect for 2015?  Pretty much the same as 2014: increasing inequality and more weird weather as the planet continues to heat up.  These two things go hand in hand.

Nevertheless, I would take this opportunity to wish Happy New Year to all of you that take the time to read my blog.  May your year be filled with joy and love.



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The End of Empire and the Rise of the Intelligent Network


As 2014 comes to a close, a great many of us are keenly aware that something is amiss.  The great wars of the previous century are over, yet we are still not at peace.  While a tiny minority continues to amass more and more wealth, the vast majority of people in the developed world sit and watch as their living conditions slowly get worse, so much so that their is a general malaise concerning the quality of life for future generations.

Try as they may, common folk cannot bring about any meaningful change and for good reason: the political systems that we have inherited from our imperial past were never designed to promote the common good: they were designed and continue to function as a means of extracting wealth from a population and the territory they inhabit.

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From time immemorial, empires have used centralized hierarchies with their command and control structures to rule and to increase the wealth and power of those at the top.  Those at the bottom must be content with the scraps that are thrown their way, and they must be prepared to give up their lives for whatever cause the elites deem to be just and noble.

Yet, over time, technological change has brought about significant improvement to the quality of material life to entire societies.  We need just think about what consumer products now find their way into the homes of the majority and compare them to what we had as little as fifty years ago to understand the scale of the change.

And then came the Internet and its first cousin, the World Wide Web. 

Thanks to the rise of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), we now spend more and more time in cyberspace, a seamless world without borders that enables us to communicate with people around the globe twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

We now live in the Age of the Information Network, held together by competing ICT platforms and computing devices.  Indeed, power has shifted from territorial-based nation states to legal corporate entities that roam the world in search of ever increasing market share and profit. 

Years ago, real political and economic power was vested in those people who headed the ministries of the state.  Now, they appear to be little more than marionettes manipulated by their corporate masters.

Essentially, money controls the political process, especially in the English-speaking nation states.  There is a direct correlation with how much money gets spent during an electoral campaign and who gets elected.  The worst case is, of course, the most powerful empire in the world, the United States of America.  With corporations being able to invest as much as they wish in support of corporate friendly candidates, it should come as little surprise that the American Congress has literally become a millionaire's club.

The cornerstone of the political process that leads to the creation of a disenfranchised population is an electoral system that transfers the sovereignty of the people to one of two political parties, which are in reality two sides of the same coin minted by monied interests.  Low voter turnout reflects the widespread realization that the political game is rigged and that participating in such a process is pointless.

Historically, it was necessary to elect representatives because of the time and effort required to communicate information and the necessity to have the representatives come together for face-to-face meetings in order to make decisions.

However, this necessity of electing representatives in order to facilitate the process of making political decisions no longer holds true and is an anachronism of nations before the invention of  electricity -- an epoch when might made right.

Today, it is a common occurrence for someone to post an electronic document on the web and have millions of people download the document and then discuss its contents.

Why do we need intermediaries (our elected representatives) to interpret the information and make up our minds for us with regard to its relevance?  Furthermore, why do need the same intermediaries to tell us what should be done?

We don't, but the empire's elites do.

That's how they control the political process.  So, nothing changes.  We continue to elect politicians that have been bought and paid for, and they continue to pander to those who put them into office.

In order to break the stranglehold that the empire's elites have on the political process, it is necessary to knock over their command-and-control pyramid that sucks the wealth and well-being from those at the bottom and the middle to those at the very top.

Today, people no longer need others to make their decisions for them.  There is a wisdom that emerges from crowds when technology is used properly to ensure its release.

Conceptually, we need to scrap our belief that we need to organize ourselves into command-and-control pyramids and begin to organize ourselves into something we already belong -- intelligent networks.

In other words, let's use the organizational structure that gives rise to human intelligence as the organizing principle to guide our social lives.  The human brain, the organ at the very core of our existence, embodies a network structure.  Indeed, our very sense of being in the world emerges from a neural network interacting with the other systems of the body where no command and control center exists.  All human experience arises from the interaction of the brain's and the body's component parts.

Like the neurons in the brain, humans can function similarly.  Deciding yes or no are the human equivalents of a neuron being turned on or off.  Just as intelligence emerges from the pattern of which neurons are turned on or off, the same can be said of the intelligence that arises from a veritable democratic assembly in which the participants simply vote yes or no to the motions presented to the assembly.

Importantly, the work of a democratic assembly deliberating in terms of a network logic does not experience the same limitations imposed by the physical constraints of time and place experienced by a traditional elected body.  In short, a virtual assembly can have its members carry on the work 24/7.  Working documents are easily posted and people can participate in smaller groups through the use of applications and in larger groups via webcasting.  In such a context, having the financial means to liberate oneself from the time it takes to earn a living is no longer a prerequisite to meaningful participation in the political process.  Today, those with limited means no longer need the well off to represent them, which is a good thing since the immediate interests of these two groups seldom coincide.

For the most part and for most of the time, political power should reside primarily with the polis, a group of citizens who live in close proximity to each other and who consequently share a common concern about the quality of life to be had in their locality.  Concerns of a greater scale, the well-being of the network of networks, and of a longer time period, what we would like to happen in the future, can still be deliberated by representatives, but there is no need to transfer the sovereignty of the local network to a single individual who will decide on behalf of his or her constituents.  Modern technology allows for decisions made at the level of the local network of citizens to work their way upwards in concertation with other local networks very rapidly in a manner that mimics the way the brain functions.

Of course, the motivation for implementing a network structure of governance is to harness the collective intelligence of the people in order to advance the common good.  As a result, those who are interested in accumulating wealth have no interest in seeing such a model of governance come about.  The model represents the antithesis of the wealth extraction normally found at the heart of all empires.  It goes against the immediate self interest of the elites who seek at all costs to obtain and maintain a disproportional share of a nation's wealth.

Therein lies the challenge.  Presently, the existing political structures are designed to perpetuate themselves and the privileges that they confer to the elites that control them.  To bring about the necessary organizational changes to bring about a network form of governance requires people that are willing and able to disperse political power to the masses and to safeguard the integrity of the new political process from those who would try to coop it for their own benefit.

It's a tall order, one that is totally out of the realm of possibility for the English-speaking nations.  Perhaps, a late bloomer, a nation recently liberated from its colonial past and that believes strongly in the advancement of the common good could make it happen.          













Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Challenge of the 21st Century Is To Extricate Ourselves From Existing Empires

Some empires change outward appearance over time.  For instance, the British Empire has morphed into the American Empire; the Russian Empire went from the czar to the communists to Vladimir Putin; not to be undone, the Chinese Empire also had a flirt with the communists before returning back to oligarchic rule; finally, the European Union today looks a lot like the former Holy Roman Empire. 

Some Empires shrink back to their original territory.  I am thinking of the former French, Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese Empires.  These were the losers in the struggle for imperial conquest.  Each one had its day, only to be eclipsed by a rival empire: the French, Dutch, and the Spanish lost out to the British, while the Japanese were crushed by the Americans.

Perhaps, the world's greatest empire, the Roman Empire, did not disappear altogether but simply shifted its focus from military conquest to the struggle to control men's souls.  Taking into consideration the expanse of the Roman Catholic Church's assets and revenues, the fear of god is as much a potent force to subjugate a population as is a Roman legion.

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At the heart of each empire, regardless of the manner in which it is constituted or the means employed, is the desire to reduce people to subjects, which is to place them under the power of another, the king, plutocrats, oligarchs, or a sovereign assembly.

The means of maintaining empire consist of using military conquest or the threat thereof, ideological domination that excludes alternative ways of thinking about organizing a society and its economy, and religious zealotry.  Most often, a ruling elite will make use of more than one of these methods to maintain its ironclad grip on the reins of power.

As a Canadian citizen, I live in a country that is a vestige of the British Empire.  As a result, I am subject to the laws of Parliament, a most undemocratic elected assembly, that provides oligarchic rule in which its adopted laws must receive the Royal Assent from a representative of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, before they come into force.

Only in rare circumstances are people capable of escaping the clutches of those who want to expand or maintain an empire without a massive amount of bloodshed.

For instance, the wars in the Middle East followed the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the retreat of European colonialism, plunging the region into successive bloody conflicts between rival factions.  The same can be said of the Balkans, whose peoples had the misfortune of being subjected to repeated imperial conquests of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet empires.

To make matters worse, "a drowning man will clutch a dragon."  Taking advantage of a people's desire to escape the repression of imperial occupation, despots first seize power and then extract a nation's wealth for their own purposes.  This was the case in Libya Iraq, Syria, and Romania.

But there are exceptions.  The Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) were able to escape from Soviet rule without armed conflict just before the collapse of the Soviet Empire.  Similarly, Tunisia, the pearl of the Arab Spring, having been freed from French colonial rule, overthrew a despot and has become a democratic nation.

It should be noted, however, that each of these countries is rather small with regard to territory and possesses a highly homogeneous population, making it much easier to channel the desire to create an autonomous state.

Today, we are witnessing the Ukrainian struggle to create an autonomous state from a former empire.  Historically, they have been the victim of successive imperial conquests.  As well, in seeking independence from Putin's Russia, they must also deal with their own recent history of widespread corruption throughout their newly minted political system and the ethnic divisions that exist within the present Ukrainian borders, due to the melding of national groups into a single political entity, a throwback to the old divide and rule mentality of former empires.  Moreover, given the recent austerity measures adopted by the European Union, which reflects the domination of a neoliberal ideology that rewards financial elites at the expense of the common people, alignment with a competing empire may simply mean changing one set of problems for another.

The overwhelming challenge for the Ukraine resembles the struggles for the creation of veritable democracies in other former colonies, both in the developed and developing world.  The question that needs to be asked is whether it is possible to dismember existing nation states that were born out of imperial expansion into smaller democratic nations, where the principles of democracy trump the politics of nationalism.

This is not an easy task since those who maintain empire, for the most part, control the media and the use of state-sanctioned coercion.  It is extremely difficult to mobilize a population to confront the oppression from within; it is even more so to move toward a political system that is based upon the fundamental equality of its citizens and to have this equality reflected in the political process.

But this is the challenge. 

Previously, we could think that it was just a matter of time, quite often a very long time, before an empire collapsed.  Today, we can no longer afford to wait such long time because the economic exploitation of the planet brought upon by ever-improving technological advances threatens the planet's ecosystem.  In the face of catastrophic climate change, there will be no place to take refuge.  All humans, the powerful and the powerless, will have to confront the possibility of a massive die off.

Importantly, only smaller political entities that provide government of, by, and for the people are up to the challenge of making the necessary changes to effectively reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. 

Empires by their very nature are geared for continual economic expansion because it is only through expansion that those who rule can attempt to satisfy their need to ostentatiously display their wealth.  In reality, this need is unsatiable, and those who have their hands on the hands of the steering wheel give no second thought at the possibilty that they are driving us off the cliff.  If anything, they are pressing even harder upon the gas pedal.

Consequently, our shared future on the planet will either go in one of two directions: the breakup of the existing empires established in the twentieth century into smaller democratic nations, or the planet-wide devestation of the planet's ecosystem.

No wonder more and more films like Interstellar, depicting humans fleeing earth in search of other habitable planets, are making their way to the cinemas worldwide.  The theme has become part of the Zeitgeist of the 21st century.













Thursday, October 9, 2014

After Five Years, This Democrat Is More Disgruntled Than Ever


Well, a little more than five years have passed since I started writing this blog.  Despite the efforts of a number of agents for social change, we are as far away from living in a veritable democracy as ever.

And it's not for a lack of trying.  At the provincial level in Canada, there have been four referendums on changing the voting system to make it more democratic, one in the UK with the same objective, and a referendum on independence in Scotland.  Each democratic initiative did not pass.

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As for me, I chose to go way of the courts to challenge the constitutionality of the first-past-the-post voting system only to have the Supreme Court of Canada refuse to hear our case for reasons unknown.

 I found the whole process to be a farce because in order to gain status before the courts to question the constitutionality of the voting system, I had to demonstrate that I was personally affected by vagaries of the voting system in question.  In the lower court, we gained cause and were allowed to proceed.  Thereafter, having participating in the electoral process as a candidate for the Green Party was then used to sufficiently demonstrate that my democratic rights were not impinged upon by the very fact that I could become a candidate.

Talk about a Catch 22 situation.  Gain the right to bring the question to court because I was a candidate for a small political party, but then have the question tossed aside because I had been a candidate for a small political party.  All the evidence that we brought to the Court was not even considered.  The judges couldn't be bothered even to address a single one of our arguments to show that we had erred.  WTF?  The fix was on.

Now that a couple of years have passed and the dust has settled, I can see things more clearly.

What I notice is that throughout the Anglo-American Empire there really isn't much of an appetite for democracy.  That being said, it is an impossible task to try to graft onto a body politic a set of cultural values that are foreign to its core set of beliefs.

From top to bottom, the societies of the Anglo-American Empire are all about the accumulation of material wealth.  From time to time, prosperity is shared on a wider basis, but it usually takes a series of catastrophic of events, like the Great Depression followed by Second World War, to bring about this state of affairs.  Most of the time, in most of the countries within the Empire, the rich get richer while the poor are lucky if they can tread water and keep their heads above the poverty line.

Let's not kid ourselves.  Democracy is quintessentially an egalitarian ideology.  The market is not.  So, when doing a survey of the countries with the Empire, it should not come as a surprise  that they are all market-based political economies.

For the most part, the entire population buys into this set of beliefs.  Yes, there are a few individuals that would prefer to live by a different set of values, but each political system in the Empire has a political system rigged so that alternative views to free market thinking never gain traction.

In fact, the composition of the societies in the UK, the USA, Canada, and Australia are remarkably similar.  At the top is the rentier class, the top one tenth of the top one percent of the population, who can never get enough because they are always struggling to maintain face in the social sphere of extreme ostentatious consumption: no yacht, no mansion, no private jet is ever good enough. Beneath, come the petit bourgeois of the lumpen professional class. If they intermarry, they can earn enough to send their children to the best of schools so they can perpetuate their socio-economic advantage.  Further down, we have the vast majority who try as best they can to hang on and not fall into the ranks of the destitute.  Oddly, within this class we find a massive instance of Stockholm syndrome in which huge numbers of the population actually identify and empathize with their crony capitalist captors, accepting the free market cant as if it were gospel while watching their quality of life deteriorate.

Forget about trying to bring about democratic reform in these countries within the present socio-economic context.  The super rich own the political process which controls the armed forces; the smart ones are only looking out for themselves: and those who would have the most to gain be living in a democracy are simply too fucking dumb to know any better.

So, what is a democrat to do?  Suck it up and try to live one's life so one doesn't feel soiled at the end of the day?  Maybe, it would be better to simply move on to somewhere where people actually get and value living in a democratic society.

I wonder if I could claim status as a politic refugee and become a citizen of one of the Nordic countries?

















Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Should We Go or Should We Stay Now: Can Scotland Escape the Status Quo Trap?


Two days to go before the Scots will decide in a referendum whether to create their own independent country or to continue as part of the United Kingdom.
Apparently, the upcoming result is too close to call.  Although the "No" side had a substantial lead six months ago, the "Yes" vote has increased substantially as the date of the referendum approaches.

But is it enough?

I'm very sad to say that I don't think so.

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The arguments to create a new independent country free from the dysfunctional governance of Westminster and the City couldn't be clearer.  I would highly recommend George Monbiot's excellent op-ed piece, "A yes vote would unleash the most dangerous thing of all -- hope".

But these reasons to vote yes are not sufficient to carry the day.  Unfortunately, there exists in Scotland a large bias towards the status quo that is simply part of human nature.

In short, better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

It's that simple.

Forget the value of the oil in the North Sea, whether an independent Scotland could continue to use the pound, and what happens to Scotland's share of the UK's accumulated debt.

The real ballot box question is whether independence is worth the bother.

If the Scots decide yes, they'll have to deal with a lot of shit that is now being decided for them at Westminster and in the City.  Certainly, things will become a lot riskier for the Scots and there are no guarantees that life will become better.

So, given the uncertainty, why not let the status quo remain?  Life ain't all that bad.  Have a cuppa and watch a wee bit of what's showin on the tele.

Robbie Burns must be rolling in his grave.







Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The American Rentier Economy: Has the US Become a Failed Nation?



 
When I first started to write this blog five years ago, to make the point about how the concept of the economy is used to the detriment of the vast majority of the population I distinguished between the real economy and the zombie economy.  Essentially, those who derive their wealth from non-productive financial practices prey upon the living who exchange real goods and services in the real economy.
 
To be more precise, I now prefer to use the term rentier economy because although the practice of wealth extraction is still the same, the term rentier has been used for a great many years in traditional economic discourse.

In a great article posted on the web, The Age of Rentier Capitalism, Guy Standing asserts:

Rental income enables people to make money simply through the possession of scarce assets. Sometimes assets may be “naturally” scarce: if fertile land is owned by a few landlords, they need not work themselves but can rent it out to others for a high price. This income is rent, not profits from a productive activity, as the landlords do nothing to earn it aside from owning the land.

These days, rental income is mainly derived from “contrived scarcity.” This is explained by the Lauderdale Paradox, named after the eighth Earl of Lauderdale, who in 1804 observed that as private riches grew, public wealth fell. This is because the more the rich own, the more they can limit the availability for others, driving up the price. Today, such contrived scarcity has become pervasive and global, which is paradoxical, since globalization should have resulted in a surge of extra goods and services.

While there are indeed more goods and services than ever, the means of obtaining rental income have multiplied. They include control of natural resources by a few corporations and plutocrats, a new intellectual property regime, a system of state subsidies that go to asset holders, and myriad mechanisms that entrap people in debt.

Importantly, today there is a greater return on investment from seeking rents and the exchange of financial securities than from the profits generated from the exchange of goods and services.  This means that there is less money that gets invested into economic activities that require human labour.

 
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For instance, entrepreneurs who become billionaires as a result of their business acumen no longer need to maintain their entrepreneurial skills once their accumulated financial assets generate more profits than their businesses. 
 
Once this happens they can successfully cash in their chips by selling off their shares in their business adventures and live in extreme comfort from the rents that their financial portfolios generate.

Moreover, the CEOs of America's biggest corporations earn more from their stock options and their subsequent manipulations than they do from salaries generated from the profitable management of real assets in the real economy.

As a result, corporations now imitate the members of the rentier class.  Just as the
ultra-rich transfer their financial assets to offshore tax havens to avoid paying taxes in the countries where they reside, corporations now transfer the location of where they are legally incorporated, moving the legal entity offshore to as well avoid paying taxes in the countries where they first prospered.

Like rentiers, American corporations are now sitting on huge piles of cash, estimated at more than two trillion dollars, with no intention of investing in real economic activity, which has effectively reduced the cash flow into investments that would generate jobs.

The economic term that describes this state affairs is "secular stagnation",  a condition of negligible or no economic growth in a market-based economy, a term, in my opinion, as hollow as "collateral damage" which is used to describe the unintended civilian casualties caused by a military operation.

In this case, the civilian casualties are those unlucky enough to be living and working in the real economy.  The damage inflicted upon their lives results from the unbridled greed of those who profit from the machinations of the rentier economy, which, however, is anything but unintended.

Given this state of affairs, it makes me wonder whether the US is heading down the road to become a failed nation, one in which extractive economic practice overwhelms any attempt to bring about inclusive economic policy.

I don't think that it would take much to convince the estimated 46 million people living on food stamps in the US that the nation has already failed them.