Monday, November 29, 2010

Long Live the Order of Egoism and God Save the Planet

The exercise of sovereign power by a part of the nation over the whole is an inevitable consequence of the inequality consecrated by the Order of Egoism.

Some two hundred years ago, the Italian ex-patriot, Philippe Buonarroti writing about the French Revolution, characterized the struggle as one between the Order of Equality and the Order of Egoism. Despite the lofty rhetoric invoked by those who advocated fundamental equality to be found in Robespierre's Declaration of the Rights of Man, and of the Citizen, the Aristocrats have won the day.

They have done so by circumventing the desire for equality by appealing to the mass's own desire to become members of the privileged elite. Hereditary and lineage are things of the past. Today, what confers status is money and the things that it can buy.

Moreover, the acquisition of great wealth is no longer confined to landownership and the return on investments obtained from industrial ventures. Today's aristocrats earn billions exploiting currency exchange and financial derivatives. Lower down are the CEOs of publicly traded companies who earn hundreds of millions, followed by sports and entertainment stars who earn millions.

As the old adage goes, it takes money to make money and what we have seen over the last thirty years is a net transfer of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the very upper class, more precisely the top one percent of revenue earners.

What has also changed is that the lower classes have lost the ability to effectively mobilize in order to improve their lot. It's as if the ideology of egoism normally associated with the monied class has worked its way down so that those with significantly less aspire to become celebrities rather than self organize to challenge for a greater piece of the economic pie.

Indeed, YouTube has become the opiate of the masses. If only my video goes viral can I escape the banality of being a member of the precariously employed working class. If that doesn't pan out, I can pretend to be important by amassing a significant number of followers on Twitter, and if I really get lucky, I can get my 15 minutes of fame by appearing on a reality based television program.

The only people that I come across who reject the Order of Egoism outright are the deep greens who reject conspicuous consumption altogether in favor of voluntary simplicity that smacks of the desire to live in an egalitarian society. But their numbers are far too small. They don't comprise a critical mass that could actually contest the nature of the economic order.

So, I guess I'm saying that corporate capitalism has triumphed. Representative democracy is as good as it gets with its illusion that political legitimacy is derived from the people. In reality, it's the super rich that rule and they are hellbent on amassing as much wealth as they possibly can since their egos know no bounds. The vast majority, try as they may, attempt to follow in their footsteps, and if they're lucky, they might make enough to enjoy life in the realm of affordable luxury.

In the meantime, those of us who can lift our heads above the crass accumulation of material possessions can only watch and wait. Eventually, the non-renewable resources that sustain global economic growth will run out and then and only then will all hell break loose.

Will it happen in my lifetime? In the lifetime of my children? I don't know. Only in my dreams -- there probably exists a video game -- can I grab a rocket launcher and blow those egotistical bastards away.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Plutocracy Is Alive and Well in Quebec

Plutocracy is rule by the wealthy or power provided by wealth and let me tell you it's thriving here in Quebec. The name of the game is who do you know who's got the dough, and it don't matter how they got it whether it's the mafia, the construction unions, the Hells Angels or the Quebec Liberal Party.

In reality Quebec can be divided into two classes, the plutocrats who seem to be somewhat uncomfortable these days with all the accusations about money-stuffed envelopes being exchanged for favors, and the chumps whose tax dollars go to support the lifestyles of those who have direct access to the public purse.

Yesterday, the scene in the Quebec National Assembly was priceless. After surviving a non-confidence vote because Quebec retains a medieval electoral system that allows a political party to form a majority government with the support of less than 25% of the electorate, the members of Quebec Liberal Party stood up and gave Premier Jean Charest, who leads what is arguably the most corrupt provincial government in Canada, a standing ovation.

Way to go Jean! We get to keep our jobs and you get to fly off to Paris to see your buddy Sarkozy at taxpayers's expense.

Meanwhile, Quebecers continue to buy the newspapers that tell them that 3 out 4 people think the province is corrupt and that 8 out of 10 people have little or no confidence that Jean Charest will adequately address the problem of corruption.

Hey, if this state of affairs really pisses you off, you can go to the National Assembly website and sign a petition demanding that Charest resign and join the other 230,000 some odd chumps who think that somehow this futile gesture would have an effect.

In the end, don't worry, be happy. The chumps are apparently very happy with their lot.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

It's Ridiculous to Define Canadian Democracy as Rule by the People

Democracy comes from the Greek language and refers to a set of political relations in Athens some 2500 years ago. It existed then and has appeared rarely within small groupings but has never taken hold in modern state.

We can say that a nation is democratic if the majority of its citizens hold and exercise power. This is certainly not the case in any modern state so why do we get our shit into a knot when we discover another instance of a government acting in an undemocratic fashion?

On one hand, we can speak of it as an ideal, something to be strived for, and when we fall short of the ideal in practice, it could bring about a response. On the other, it should be recognized that when most people, especially politicians, refer to democracy they are not referring to government of, by, and for the people, but a process of authorization in which by holding popular elections (in our case, far from being democratic) an electorate transfers its political power to an oligarchy headed by professional politicians. The subsequent use of that power is then deemed to be legitimate by those who have obtained power and their supporters since it results from holding a popular election. Importantly, the traditional conception of democracy as rule by the majority is reduced to simply the sporadic authorization of hopefully a majority of citizens participating in the electoral process.

As could be expected, the so called democratic legitimacy gained by the authorization process varies considerably relative to the quality of the electoral process in use. Those countries using a proportional voting method come closer to a form of representative democracy in which political power is at least held and exercised by the elected officials that represent the majority of voters.

This is not the case in countries such as our own where the government rarely has the support of the majority of voters. For example, today in Canada and in Quebec the ruling party wields the power of a majority with the support of less than 25% of the electorate.

As a result, people should be extremely wary when politicians or political pundits start making appeals to democratic principles in advancing their positions. In reality, our system of governance is a form of contested authoritarian rule where two or more political parties compete to win a popular election that legitimizes the domination and control of the political party that gains the most electoral districts during a general election. This process is much closer by nature to medieval feudalism than to Athenian democracy.

Hence, I find it ridiculous when the supporters of the Climate Change Accountability Act (legislation that I strongly support) bemoan the fact that the Bill was killed by an unelected Senate and that Stephen Harper was making a mockery of democracy.

Hello there, wake up and smell the coffee!

Since when did Canada become a democratic state? The Conservatives like the Liberals before them use the political power that is afforded to them by the political institutions that are in place. Private Member Bills from opposition parties that don't have the balls to defeat the government, force an election, and then go on to form a governing coalition that would empower them to both adopt the legislation in the House of Commons and to control the nomination of Senators are completely useless. Such actions sidestep the much more important issue of the distribution of power. Until we have a semblance of democracy in Canada, effective climate change legislation remains something to be wished for, and frankly I don't have the time to engage in magical thinking.

In a similar vein, it is even more ridiculous when Jean Charest tries to normalize his rapidly growing unpopularity in Quebec as a result of his refusal to hold a public inquiry into the ever growing scandals in the construction industry by saying that we live in a democracy and it's normal for people to disagree.

In fact, Jean, you couldn't be more wrong. In this instance, the vast majority of Quebecers are extremely pissed off that you are not giving the people what they want. We want a public inquiry and you insist on a police investigation. So, the real point of contention is that the majority of Quebecers realize that their desires trump your authorization process. Somewhere in the collective memory that has become part of the national character there is a sufficient belief in a future that carries with it the hope of living in a democracy and the people are not fooled by what you are trying to pass off as the real thing.

Hopefully, this collective realization that we need not bow to a form of authoritarian control will not be fleeting and that real substantive change will come about so that we no longer deal with the symptoms of the problem but get to the root cause, the undemocratic nature of our political institutions.

Let's not replace one elected dictator with another.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Canada's Growing Empathy Deficit

When I was a young man growing up in the prairies I was under the impression that I lived in the kinder, gentler part of the Americas. We had a quiet, subdued sense of pride that led us to stitch on red maple leafs on our backpacks before we went off to see the world.

Now, I'm not so sure. It's as if Canada has become Uncle Sam's mini-me, a smaller version of a set of qualities we once thought were exclusive to our neighbors to the south.

At the heart of my disappointment is the realization that Canadians at a fundamental level no longer give a shit about people outside their immediate family. Call it what you will, but for me it arises out of a lack of empathy for others, especially those on the fringe of our society.

In my opinion, the real test for empathy arises in our ability to share the feelings and emotions of those who are much different from ourselves. It's much easier to be empathetic to those who share our core beliefs and conform to our expectations of personal conduct.

Warning, the following paragraphs are intended to make you feel uncomfortable.

If you are a parent or can imagine yourself some day becoming one, a healthy dose of mirror neurons would make you cringe when thinking about the plight of Omar Kkadr. In his story we find two of a parent's worst fears: your child is led astray and then once his misdeeds are revealed, there is no compassion shown and the powers that be decide to make an example of him. Forget that he was a child soldier brainwashed by his terrorist father. Forget that the Supreme Court of Canada found that his rights had been violated and forget that he was tortured in order to extract a confession in the hell hole of Guantanamo Bay. All that love that you poured out of your soul into your child doesn't matter. Your child is a terrorist and that's the end of it.

Sure there were many Canadians who could not allow for this injustice to go unnoticed, but they were a tiny minority. The majority of Canadians were wholly indifferent and were untouched or turned away when they saw the boy in a captured video take off his shirt to show that he had been beaten and that he cried for his mother. No big deal, we'll do a plea bargain.

Then there's the recent push back from the Ontario Superior Court's decision to strike down the Canadian laws surrounding prostitution, an act which is not illegal. Again, imagine your little girl or little boy being led astray and ending up in the sex trade. Not something anyone would want for their child, and can you imagine that your child would then be brutally murdered and have his or her body fed to the pigs that the murderer kept on his farm a la Robert Pickton, who claimed he wanted to kill one more woman to make it an even fifty.
What's more important protecting sex trade workers from horrific acts of violence or clinging onto the outdated belief that our laws surrounding prostitution are effective deterrents? Seems that holding up the moral order of things is more important, and if bad things happened to those people, well, they deserved to be punished.

Finally, for my last example that makes me shake my head in disbelief, let's move from the fringe into the heart of Canadian society to see how cold a heart that wears the maple leaf can become. Yes, I'm talking about the former Commander of Canada's largest military base, Colonel Russell Williams.

In his case, we find a sociopathic lack of empathy. This is a man who thought up and starred in his home-made snuff videos. This is a man who was thought to be a upstanding member of the community, but in reality was a monster. This was the guy next door.

Of the many things that I find shocking in the Williams case is how is it that no one was aware of what was going on? I don't believe for an instant that he hadn't given himself away before he was arrested. In his murder of Cpl. Marie-France Commeau he used his position as Base Commander to find out about Cpl. Commeau whereabouts. Nothing of this kind of behavior ever appeared previously? This smacks of complicity, but we'll never know; he pleaded guilty to his horrific crimes and will most likely spend the rest of his days in prison.

In closing, I think we need to drop the pretense that we are morally superior to the Americans. Over the last thirty years, we've lost the ability to plumb the depths of human despair and take notice so that we act in a compassionate manner. In case if you hadn't noticed we have dropped from first on the United Nations Human Development Index to eighth, largely as a result of the growing disparities amongst the people who call Canada home.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Godfather of Quebec and the Omerta Binding the Liberal Party

Another bizarre week in Quebec. First, the alleged godfather of the Rizzuto family which is said to control criminal activity in Montreal is gunned down in his home by a professional hit man. A few days later, an investigation by Radio Canada reveals collusion between the mafia, a number of construction companies, and one of the province's certified unions in the construction and resale of a condo unit.

The week before, the book, Mafia Inc., was released alleging that a consortium of fourteen companies in Montreal colluded to control the bidding process for public projects and that the member companies would pay a fee of 5% of the value of the contracts obtained to the Rizzuto clan. As well, two mayors of large municipalities were forced to step down concerning affairs where blatant conflict of interest came to light and a third is under investigation.

Yet, the Charest government remains steadfast in it's refusal to hold a public inquiry into the construction industry despite the accumulation of glaring irregularities that continue to pile up. Furthermore, all the while things get progressively worst in what Macleans magazine labelled the most corrupt province in Canada -- funny how the collective indignation that Macleans magazine brought about is long gone -- we are supposed to sit tight and wait for the results of Quebec's provincial police inquiry ridiculously referred to as Operation Hammer.

Give me a fricken break, how can I have confidence in a process where the political personnel in charge opt for a label out of a seventies cop show that overwhelming invites derision? How stupid do they think we are? Stupid enough to have elected them to a third term?

As could be expected, the continued refusal to hold the public inquiry incited Charest's political foes to make the connection between him and the mafia. During the week, a member of the PQ taunted Charest in the National Assembly by saying that Charest's refusal to act made him complicit to the collusion. On the weekend, the leader of the ADQ, Gerard Deltell, accused Charest of being the godfather of Quebec's Liberal Party, a charge that Charest tried to turn to his advantage by saying that he had become a victim of a personal attack.

What I found telling was how the mafia's code of silence, the omertà, had taken hold of the Liberals during the Party's national congress. One of the Party's militants actually went up to the microphone during a plenary session to move that the Liberals hold a public inquiry into the construction industry. The president of the assembly asked if there was anyone to second the motion, and despite the fact that 75% of the population wants the inquiry to be held, there was deathly silence in the hall holding more than 500 people and no one seconded the motion.

Talk about unwavering loyalty and blind obedience to authority. It was as if the Liberals were out to show the mafia how the omertà should be applied within a political party.

My only question is how long are the Liberals going to obey the dead man walking Premier? Isn't there anyone within the Party with the cajones to take on Charest?

For the rest of us, we'll have to make due with a petition posted on the Quebec National Assembly's website demanding that Charest resign as the Premier of Quebec. To sign the petition visit the site at:

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Rule of the Professional Politician

Democracy means that the people hold power and exercise rule, but as Joseph Schumpeter maintained, electoral democracy as practiced in Western nations, in particular Canada, is in reality the rule of the politician.

This week brought home to me how far we are from being a democratic state on two fronts. The first is the extension of the mission in Afghanistan without the approval of Parliament, and the second is the continued refusal of the Charest government to hold a public inquiry into the construction industry in Quebec.

In both instances, professional politicians make the decision on behalf of the population, and in both instances those making the decisions have the support of approximately 25% of the electorate.

What I also observe is that the majority of Canadians, including Quebecers, are more than OK with allowing professional politicians to make the major decisions, regardless of the lack of democratic legitimacy in the process.

In fact, the population is only called upon sporadically (once every four years) to lend some semblance of democratic legitimacy to our system of governance, but looking at the plummeting participation rates during general elections, it appears that in the near future the majority of Canadians couldn't even be bothered to show up to the polls in order to decide who will govern.

It has occurred to me that I'm living in a land largely populated by drones. By this I mean that life for most Canadians consists of, for the most part, fulfilling some occupational function which affords them some low grade honey that makes life bearable. Sure, there are some bumble bees in the land that are able to take flight into the realm of ideas, make discoveries, get excited and return to the hum drum of the hive only to find that not only are the drones profoundly uninterested but that given the choice of being a drone or a bumble bee, almost all the drones are quite content with their lot and would spurn the offer of becoming a thinker bumble bee.

Professional politicians are like beekeepers. Their job is to keep the hive happy and productive, and they do this by making sure that the bumble bees never get the rest of the hive buzzing with excitement with the thought that the bees could swarm and effectively move the hive elsewhere.

They know all to well that the only dangerous mob is a hungry mob and that we are amongst the fattest on the earth.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Have the Conservatives Gone Bi?

I have a confession to make. Politically speaking, I'm bi, that is to say biconceptual, and I have suspicions that the Conservative Party of Canada also has some bi tendencies that for the longest time have been kept in the closet.

In his brilliant book, The Political Mind, neuroscientist George Lakoff demonstrates that culturally dominant metaphors become hardwired into the brain at the level of the synapses. For Lakoff, the conceptualization of the nation is divided into different metaphors of the family, the authoritarian strict father represented by the conservatives, and the empathetic, nurturing parents represented by the progressives. He observes that the political spectrum is not a left/right continuum, but a continuum of progressives on one end, conservatives at the other, and in the middle those that are biconceptual, meaning that in some contexts these people will have their progressive cognitive frames activated and in other contexts it will be their conservative cognitive frames that dominate.

As a evidence-based democrat, I find myself wavering between the two frames depending on the context. Most of the time, I am a progressive, but there are times when the conservative networks in my brain get activated. For example, here in Quebec, we run a program called Act Differently, which is designed to reduce the incidence of high school drop outs. Unfortunately, research shows that after a number of years and $40 million later, the program has had no effect on bringing about its intended change. When I see this type of intervention into the social sphere, I become fiscally conservative within this particular context. I don't, however, generalize and transfer my conservative cognitive frame to other social contexts.

During the last week, we have had two significant political decisions made by a Conservative government that demonstrate that they too, within certain contexts, can be progressive. In refusing to let the Prosperity Gold and Copper Mine go forward in British Columbia and to intervene so to prevent Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan from being taken over by an Australian based company, BHP Billiton, they appeared to be acting in a manner more becoming of a progressive, social democratic party like the NDP.

Since it appears that a single party majority government in Canada is something of the past, perhaps in our political future bi is the only way to fly if we want to have good government.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Take the Time to Read This To the End

As the late Tony Judt told us oh so well, fear is re-emerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one's daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.

Yes, we are fearful. Speed kills. It kills our relationship to the world around us. It kills our perceptions of who we are and the knowledge of how did we get here.

The world moves so fast, propelled by ever-increasing volumes of information, that we tend not to see the past any more as guide to the present and the future or see the future as the effects of acts having been taken in the past. We simply have less time to devote to anything else but the task at hand.

The effect is that we are not only less reflective, but also less critical. To be less critical, to be less able to critique an issue or the society in which we live makes us less politically powerful. In our efforts to keep on top of things, in the know, abreast of the latest trends and developments, we are drained of the energy and the ability to connect the dots, to see the big picture.

If we allow it, life moves so fast that it causes us to lose touch with any deeper connections to the world and to the reality of the economic, political, and technological processes that drive us.

Time's up. Crunch time. Deadlines. Get it done yesterday. Time to separate the men from the boys. No time to loose. Overtime. Won't give me the time of day. A waste of time. Time is money. No sense of time.

But wait. Time out. Down time. Quality time. Time to catch my breath. Time well spent with friends. Family time. A time for all seasons. Timeless. Endless Summer. These were the best of times.

Now, turn off your computing devise and be kind to yourself: take a walk, and think about your very short time here on the earth.