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There Are No Devils that We Don't Know

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

The place is South Carolina; the year, 1890. An election campaign is under way. The principal candidates vying for the office of governor are Benjamin Tillman, a progressive reformer who has fought vigorously for the rights of subsistence farmers, and Alexander Cheves Haskell, who is dedicated to preserving the dominance of the wealthiest landed families in the state.

Let us suppose that somewhere in the state there exists a voter of enlightened and humane sensibility. His duty, surely, is clear: he must cast his ballot for Tillman, or so it would seem. There is a complication, however. While Haskell shows himself nostalgic for the slave-holding glory days of ante-bellum Dixie, Tillman openly avers that he is seeking a mandate to impose baasskap with no veneer of Southern gentility.

Tillman won the election handily. His most notable action as governor was to amend the state constitution so as to effectively disenfranchise African-Americans, repealing the rights they had won during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. During his gubernatorial career, and later as a United States Senator, Tillman openly advocated the extra-judicial killing of black people. Few will be surprised to learn that a record number of African-Americans were lynched in South Carolina in 1890.

I find it hard to imagine that any leftist in Canada today would condone our "humane" elector's decision to vote for Tillman. While Tillman was certainly preferable to Haskell on financial issues (e.g., Tillman moved the first federal legislation restricting corporate spending on elections), both men were unregenerate racists -- with Tillman, if anything, even more hateful than his opponent.

As I see it, if the above supposition is correct then the Canadian left's attempt to unseat Stephen Harper's governing Conservatives in 2015 by promoting the Liberals and the New Democratic Party must likewise be considered morally dubious. This proposition will no doubt strike many as a non sequitur but the basic point is that it is unethical to support a politician or party that is pledged to however so many good policies, if at the same time that person or organization is committed to maintaining the tyranny of some group of people over another. For reasons I will indicate, I believe this applies as strongly to mainstream parties in Canada today as it did to Tillman and Haskell in their time.

While no one will have difficulty identifying the relations of domination that were upheld in the South Carolina gubernatorial contest of 1890, many will be puzzled as to how contemporary Liberals and New Democrats -- or even Harper's Conservatives -- could be held liable for a cognate offence. To be sure, I am not suggesting that any of Canada's three major parties condones, much less promotes discrimination in the way that Tillman and Haskell did of old. While there are doubtless various unreconstructed bigots still skulking at the corners of the House of Commons -- on the Conservative benches in particular -- that sort of naked prejudice is out of season in polite Canadian society, and party leaders know well enough not to countenance its public expression.

Indeed, there has been a near-complete reversal between the South Carolina of 1890 and Canada today. In the former a politician could successfully campaign on a program of curbing big business and defending the poorer members of society (provided, of course, that these people were white) while at the same time straightforwardly championing the subjection of one racialized group to another. By contrast, in Canada today it simply would not do for a mainstream party to openly advocate discrimination against any group protected under human rights law (though the Parti Quebecois has undertaken to do so in a "veiled" manner, as it were) but equally all major political formations in the country are unflinching in their support for corporate rule.

Here we come to the manner in which the Liberals and the New Democrats, no less than the Conservatives, uphold systematic oppression as a point -- nay, the very foundation -- of policy. They do so in several different ways but in the end what all of these amount to is making sure that nothing is allowed to disrupt the endless process of accumulation for the sake of further accumulation that is the sine qua non of capitalism.

This entails, in the first place, the cleavage of Canadian society into the small minority who own the means of production -- land, buildings, machinery -- and the large majority of us who can live only by placing our labour power at the disposal of an employer. This savages two of the most profound and fulfilling aspects of human life: our need to be in community with our fellows and our urge to work creatively for a meaningful purpose. The latter is debased into a mere quest for cash where the product of our labours is not evaluated according to its beauty, ingeniousness, utility or any factor other than whether it can be sold at a (sufficient) profit. As for the former: it is difficult or impossible to achieve where the logic of capital tells us that we are in a Hobbesian war of all against all.

It must be understood moreover that these features of capitalism are not merely adverse conditions in our lives, however challenging or unpleasant, like the intense heat under which many agriculturalists must toil, or the storms that mariners encounter at sea. Rather, they give rise to a mode of existence that in a very real sense categorically precludes our ability to fully be human.

All that being said, I recognize that many even on the left will not conceive of capitalism (in all its possible manifestations) in the terms that I have outlined above. Rather than trying to convince anyone of the validity of my characterization of the system (or rather of Marx's, which I have merely adopted), I will simply proceed to other points that I trust are largely beyond dispute.

Within the Canadian establishment there exists what might be termed the "Ottawa Consensus." This is a framework of governance that functions as a catechism for anyone who wishes to be taken seriously as a commentator on public affairs or as an aspirant to significant political office. Doubtless there are some NDP backbenchers who have deep misgivings about the Ottawa Consensus but NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair will no more tolerate open dissent from the catechism than does Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Yet, there are at least five major aspects of the Ottawa Consensus that are just as much an outrage to human decency as was South Carolina's Jim Crow regime of the 1890s. These are, to wit: corporate rule at home; unrestricted global surveillance; super-exploitation of the developing world; global ecocide; and worldwide repression of resistance to any of the preceding quartet (with particularly exemplary violence meted out overseas).

If not everyone on the left would agree that capitalism as such is inherently anti-human, there can be few or none who are untroubled by the enormous and ever-expanding power of big business. One of the more obvious ways in which corporate rule is instantiated is through international trade tribunals of a type originally established by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a commercial treaty between Canada, Mexico and the United States.

Whenever a government that is party to the agreement can be construed to have acted in such a way as to reduce the expected earnings of a corporation headquartered in one of the other NAFTA countries, that company can bring suit against the ostensibly offending foreign government in a special type of court that was created by NAFTA's Chapter 11. These tribunals conduct their business in private and records of the proceedings are likewise confidential. In these hearings states are not permitted to defend their actions by reference to public interest justifications such as protecting the environment, promoting local economic development or safeguarding the health and well-being of citizens. The verdicts issued by the tribunals are final and cannot be appealed. To top it all off, governments are obligated to pay the costs of the proceedings -- which can entail millions of dollars in legal fees -- regardless of whether the court upholds or dismisses the charges against them.

Both Canada and Mexico have been successfully sued on numerous occasions using this provision of NAFTA (though the United States, unsurprisingly, has yet to lose a case). As a result, Canada has had to pay out tens of millions of dollars in penalties to litigants. The Canadian government, moreover, is known to have either rescinded or decided against introducing legislation for fear of legal action under Chapter 11.

Such arrangements clearly fly in the face of any traditional understanding of liberal democracy. Neither the state nor still less the citizen can be said to be sovereign when a country's laws are explicitly subject to peremptory challenge by foreign corporations and ruled upon in secret by an unelected and unaccountable cabal.

Yet not only are the NDP -- and still less the Liberals, on whose watch the treaty was signed in the first place -- not demanding that NAFTA be abrogated, but both parties are on record as approving of the Conservatives' negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership as well as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union. While the draft text of these treaties has been kept secret (from the parliamentary Opposition; prominent Canadian business people have been briefed on both documents), it is considered a foregone conclusion that each will include an "investor/state dispute resolution mechanism" -- in other words, trade tribunals on the model of NAFTA's Chapter 11.

As can be seen, the Ottawa Consensus deprives Canadian citizens of any meaningful say over public policy. If Canada's politicians can make so bold as to annul wholesale the rights of those to whom, at least in theory, they are subject, it is only to be expected that they will be even less delicate in dealing with people elsewhere. While all elements of the Ottawa Consensus are operative in Canada as well as abroad, they tend to assume their sharpest forms in the less economically developed regions of the planet.

Thanks to the efforts of journalist Nicky Hager, it has been widely known for nearly 20 years that the "Five Eyes" (the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have eavesdropped on telecommunications worldwide since the signing of the UKUSA pact of 1947. However, it is only with Edward Snowden's disclosures this past year that the mind-boggling extent and technological sophistication of this enterprise have been made apparent. In one of the files released by Snowden the US National Security Agency (NSA) boasts of its intention to effectively know everything about everyone in the entire world by the year 2016 ("anyone, anytime, anywhere").

Such machinations are obviously inherently and absolutely inimical to any substantive form of democracy. Just possibly Liberal and NDP politicians might be excused from criticizing the NSA on the grounds that this would be interfering with the internal affairs of another nation (if one was to overlook that said nation was itself interfering in the internal affairs of every other country on the planet) but Snowden has also shown that the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) has worked hand in glove with the NSA. More specifically, it is now known that CSEC, using the cover of Canada's "good guy" international image, has covertly established monitoring stations in a score of countries that were off limits to the NSA.

The Liberals are hardly like to express outrage at any of this given that they expanded CSEC's funding and powers exponentially when last they were in office. The NDP are no better, however. Instead of denouncing these police state operations, the party ineffectually called for the establishment of a parliamentary committee "to improve transparency and strengthen parliamentary oversight of all the security and intelligence activities of government," knowing perfectly well that the motion would fail. When, predictably, it did, the NDP dropped the matter, satisfied that it had done enough to mollify left-wing critics while ensuring that the people who really count had no occasion to seriously doubt the party's commitment to the Ottawa Consensus.

The inevitable, and risible, excuse offered for the activities of the Five Eyes was that everything was done in the interests of countering terrorism. If anyone initially believed such manifest bunk -- still less agreed that this would be sufficient justification for such outrages against human rights -- they ought to have been thoroughly disabused by the release of documents showing that the United States was spying on the personal communications of the German head of state, as was Australia on Indonesia's top office and Canada on Brazil's.

From the above examples it is obvious that the global surveillance network run by the NSA and its adjutants is not primarily concerned with securing their citizenry from external physical threats (the traditional rationale for international espionage) but with securing national economic advantage. A further indication that this is so is provided by the practice, common to both the US and Canada (and doubtless the other three Eyes as well), of briefing the executives of major corporations on select intelligence gleaned through these operations.

This brings me to item three of the Ottawa Consensus: making certain that the global South remains a suitably compliant source of dirt-cheap labour, materials and products. This ensures that ordinary people in the richer nations can enjoy an artificially elevated standard of living, which helps dampen social unrest in these countries. More importantly still, this arrangement allows multinational corporations to extract maximum surplus value and thus realize higher profit margins than could readily be attained in developed countries.

Needless to say, such a system necessarily entails a great deal of what the US military is pleased to style "collateral damage." It gives us a world in which over two and a half billion people are without the most basic means of sanitation and over a billion people subsist on less than $2 a day; a world in which roughly a billion people suffer from malnutrition and more than a billion lack access to safe drinking water. It gives us a world in which the aggregate wealth of the planet's 85 richest individuals is equal in value to the combined assets of the three and a half billion people that constitute the poorer half of humanity.

How could it be otherwise? How could Apple -- the most profitable company in the world -- charge a 50% mark-up on its I-phones if Foxconn workers in China didn't routinely spend 15 and 16 hours per day assembling the devices for a handful of pennies?

What do the Liberals and NDP have to say about all this? Naturally they lament such deplorable circumstances; but what do they suggest should be done about them? Perhaps add some piddling increment to Canada's foreign aid budget -- which, of course, will then be used to pay consultancy fees to Canadian experts in international development. Maybe moot the rescheduling of sovereign debt for certain select regimes -- the ones most amenable to foreign intervention, obviously, not the ones that most need it and still less those, like Jean-Bertrand Aristide's in Haiti, that have the gall to suggest that people should not have to repay monies embezzled by dictators with the eager help of banks in the developed nations. Above all, the Liberals and New Democrats will proclaim the unexampled virtues of international commerce ("managed trade," in the preferred formulation of the NDP), the elixir for all that ails anybody. Needless to say though, they won't mention the systemic advantages that ensure that, as always, the elimination of global "barriers" to commerce will only serve to further entrench the privileges of those who monopolize capital worldwide.

Marx noted that capitalism only advances through the systematic robbery of the two original sources of all true wealth: the worker and the soil (the latter a synedoche for the natural environment). It is no surprise then that the Ottawa Consensus is profoundly anti-ecological. At one point Thomas Mulcair dared to venture some tepid resistance to extracting bitumen from the tar sands, but after his comments came under a barrage of withering criticism from commentators on Canada's public affairs he soon reaffirmed his allegiance to the project. This despite the fact that James Hansen, the world's leading expert on global warming, has said that it will be "game over for the climate" if the tar sands are fully exploited. Who cares about a little thing like whether the planet will be able to support future life when petro-dollars are at stake?

Cataclysmic as the threat of global warming is, it is hardly the only environmental catastrophe that humanity faces. Pollinator populations are on the point of collapse, global fish stocks are almost exhausted, toxins are -- literally -- everywhere, supplies of phosphorus and other essential agricultural supplements are likely to be exhausted by mid-century, huge amounts of topsoil are lost every year, sources of water for drinking and irrigation are fast being depleted worldwide -- and on and on and on. Has anyone noticed the Liberals or NDP raising a hue and cry about these or similar issues?

Marx wrote: "If money, according to [Marie] Augier, 'comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,' capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt." The conditions outlined above, though they are very far from being an exhaustive catalogue of capital's ills, are so horrendous that the system could not possibly be maintained without the routine application of naked force.

Undisguised state-sanctioned violence is still relatively uncommon in this country because it is largely unnecessary: our high standard of living coupled with the stupendous ideological apparatus at capital's disposal leads most Canadians to conclude that they stand to lose much more than their chains by rebelling against the system. In most other parts of the world, however, the current political economic order is so immediately and manifestly destructive that people are wont to resist at least its more vicinal instantiations.

When subjected to the poisoning of waterways and landscapes by Canadian mining companies in Latin America, or to the imposition of apartheid in the territories occupied by our ally Israel (Thomas Mulcair: "I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all instances and circumstances"), or to a coup masterminded by Canada's Liberal Party against a popular, progressive, democratically elected government in Haiti, those affected tend to fight back. Then, as Thomas Friedman admiringly expressed it, one is apt to see the mailed fist without which the invisible hand of the market cannot operate: paramilitary goons employed by the mining companies; tanks and white phosphorus shells in Palestine; United Nations "peacekeepers" in Haiti who shoot unarmed protesters while supplying weapons to gangsters and war criminals.

In a famous essay published shortly after the Second World War, George Kennan of the US State Department pointed out that his country held 6% of the world's population but 50% of its wealth. Clearly, Kennan observed, people outside the United States would not willingly acquiesce to the maintenance of such disparity. If the US was to maintain its hegemonic position, Kennan argued, it would be necessary to abandon ethical considerations in the formulation of strategy -- though such sentiments could and should continue to be trotted out as ideological cover -- and to adopt whatever methods, however foul, would serve the project of making the United States master of the planet.

Kennan's counsel has guided United States foreign policy ever since. Throughout the world for almost 70 years the United States has sought to suborn or destroy every challenge to the capitalist world system, and to its own "indispensable" role (as Bill Clinton would have it) within this order. It continues to do so today.

These actions by the United States (and its proxies) have killed more people than did Hitler or Stalin. Additionally, the United States has consistently maintained a "first strike" nuclear policy. During the Cold War this brought the planet to the brink of Armageddon on more than one occasion. Currently the relentless and incredibly reckless pressure that the United States is exerting on China once again raises the spectre of nuclear war.

Canada has been a loyal camp follower of the United States since the Second World War but historically the Liberals were if anything even more complaisant than the Progressive Conservatives. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's resistance to the stationing of US nuclear missiles in Canada led to the US government orchestrating his downfall. By contrast Lester Pearson, the Liberal who succeeded Diefenbaker as Prime Minister, had no scruples about accepting the deployment of US nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, for all that he had earlier been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

The tradition of Liberal support for US militarism has continued down to more recent times. Though Prime Minister Jean Chretien officially refused to join the "coalition of the willing" assembled to invade Iraq in 2003, the US government later revealed that Canada had rendered more support to the invasion than all but a handful of countries, but had insisted on doing so off the record.

The New Democrats, it's true, have been marginally more critical of US foreign policy than have the Liberals. Of course, it's always easier to take the moral high ground when you have no prospect of holding office, and until the most recent parliament the federal NDP had never achieved more than third-party status (and not always even that). Certainly, since becoming the Official Opposition the NDP has bent over backwards to demonstrate its adherence to the Ottawa Consensus, not least in its unflagging support for US military interventions.

If New Democrats still occasionally express some misgivings about the use of armed force it is only certain operational details that are ever called into question; the prerogative of the US to bomb or invade other countries at will is taken as self-evident. In this way the NDP reproduces in domestic politics the role traditionally assumed by Canada on the world stage: by posturing as "an honest broker," while implicitly accepting that the US can fundamentally do no wrong, each in their own sphere helps burnish away the sharp edges of the system.

In sum, there may well be important policy differences between the Liberals and New Democrats on the one hand, and the Conservatives on the other; there were between Tillman and Haskell back in 1890. Yet, for all that Tillman espoused some progressive notions, it would have been reprehensible to have supported him since, just like Haskell (if not, indeed, more strongly), he considered that the tyranny of whites over blacks was condign. So too would it be an offence against morality to stump for either the Liberals or the NDP in 2015 given that, in common with the Conservatives, they share an unwavering allegiance to the world-spanning system of oppression embodied in what I have labelled the Ottawa Consensus.


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awesome!

Great read about the moral bankruptcy of voting/supporting any of our political parties by Antoni Wysocki. Something to really think about. Well done Fellow Worker Wysocki!

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