Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Monday, 31 December 2012

On Violence: 2012 In Review

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I'm incessantly paying attention to news stories and giving my opinions. If I had my way, blogging would be my vocation, but sadly it doesn't pay well, especially when you're a crackpot leftist talking mostly about economics. I'd have a better shot if I were reviewing music, talking about fine cuisine, or documenting myself through an important life change. But I digress: those who have the great pleasure of hearing me rant in person know that there are numerous items that I didn't even manage to post about, often issues that I'm deeply fascinated by. I'd like to pay to pay tribute to several stories that I, unfortunately, didn't have a chance to properly address from 2012.

The theme that I stumbled upon while trying to figure out what to ultimately write about is pretty significant, in my mind: violence. 2012 was full of it, from talk in the election of killing Osama bin Laden to riots during Black Friday sales to the nationalist rallying of the Euro Cup. Violence, as well as the horrifying discourses around it, was seen on a daily basis this year. Here are my thoughts.

This spring was a tumultuous one for Québec, where students were embroiled in a powerful strike movement unlike anything anyone's ever experienced in North America. Hundreds of thousands of students and sympathisers took to the streets daily in order to fight against the government's decision to raise tuition for students in Québec. The province has a strong welfare state, something that clashes rather significantly with the rest of Canada and the United States, and large media organisations such as Maclean's, CTV, and SunMedia were quick to label the protesters as lazy and entitled, and this was an attitude largely echoed by the anglophone general public. Perhaps most emblematic of this was the fatal shooting that occurred the night of the election in September. But protesters were acting out not only against specific changes, as miners were in South Africa this summer, but austerity in general. This is echoed by the turmoil that Greece has experienced of late. Regardless of whether or not the movement was justified, it was full of violence.

Much has been made of the violent acts of protesters, namely lighting a police car on fire and throwing a smoke bomb in the metro. These images are shocking and confirm what people want to see, that people who are standing up to the system are playing dirty tricks and deserve to be crushed. Naturally, the police brutality against the protesters has gone largely undetected - at least in the mainstream media. The internet, local community radio, and to a lesser degree CBC have been effective tools of circulating discourses and information from the perspective of the students. On all sides, violence is a tool, and each party involved has discourses about the appropriate use of violence, meaning that it's a complicated topic and that it is inherently very political.

Perhaps more shocking still is the violence in the Middle East, embodied in two very different yet eerily similar struggles: Syria and Gaza. Both of these conflicts are incredibly complicated and have generated massive controversy internationally. I've attempted to steer away from them, but I wanted to offer a brief summary and then talk about violence specifically.

In Syria there has been a longstanding conflict between the state and some of its people. Depending on whom you ask, you'll get a different name for the event: an uprising, a struggle, a crackdown, or a civil war. All the same, the world has had its eye on Syria since the start of the so-called Arab Spring in early 2011. While many parts of the Middle East had revolutions that overturned the status quo, Syria managed to entangle itself in a longstanding showdown between President Bashar al-Assad and many factions of the Syrian public. While both sides have sustained heavy casualties to this date, it is hapless civilians that tend to make up the largest contingent of the body count. Missiles, airstrikes, and firefights in urban locales have all contributed to a staggering loss of life. Again, the military and the rebels feel justified in their employment of violence, and they have both been backed politically and financially by players in the international community. The state, with its monopoly on the use of violence continues to fight against a large plurality of Syrians who believe that violence is necessary to produce social and political change. The conflict will continue for the foreseeable future as neither side is capable of defeating the other and both have widespread support from powerful partners.

The conflict this year between Isreal and Palestine was also dramatic. For several months the two states, which are perennially at war, engaged in sporadic clashes. Parts of Occupied Palestine have limited recourse for the abuses that they face at the hands of Israeli Security Forces. As has been the recent trend, groups within Gaza have fired rockets into Israel. Palestinian's are desperate, and placards like this one have attempted to sum up the injustices.: "You take my water, burn my olive trees, destroy my house, take my job, steal my land, imprison my father, kill my mother, bombard my country, starve us all, humiliate us all, but I am to blame: I shot a rocket back". The history is obviously very complicated, but the reality is that there is a massive power imbalance between Israel and Palestine. During peacetime Palestinians are forced to deal with violent acts being perpetrated against them, like having possessions stolen, or their rights taken away, also including economics as a form of violence.

Another terrible theme of 2012 that I feel needs to be addressed is the unbelievable amount of deaths from shootings in the United States. There are four that stand out: Chicago in August, Wisconsin in August, Aurora in July, and Connecticut in December. These events are remarkable for the fact that they were all examples of disgruntled and disturbed young white men who wrought violence on a group of surprised unarmed people. There has been a lot of talk about gun control, something which Americans have some interesting perspectives on, but strangely there has been limited discussion about other key elements. First of all, access to mental health services is lacking, and most Americans are keen to blame violent video games rather than systemic problems of dealing with depression, anxiety, or mental illness. Nonetheless, these psychological elements are certainly noted, but what's troubling from my perspective is that a wider sociological analysis is never really presented. It's much safer, from the public's perspective, to think of there being a small number of "defective" people out there rather than have to respond to the fact that violence occurs for very predictable social reasons, notably that we encourage men to express no negative emotions other than anger, we construct guns as the ultimate example of power (such as masculinity, whiteness, or whatever else), and our individualist society fails people who are not good at forming or maintaining interpersonal relationships. This is obviously amplified when we consider that the public mental health infrastructure in the United States is seriously lacking. All the talk of violence in public places is tragic enough, but many in America are seriously entertaining the idea of fighting fire with fire: the solution to the violence problem is to get more people carrying guns, presumably to stop other violent people. Simple solutions, like legislation or hiring security guards, are being favoured over smarter, more complicated, longterm solutions like reeducation.

Lastly, I'd like to talk about rape culture and the apparent divide between East and West. Recently, a woman was raped by several men in India, her lifeless body thrown off a bus. Media outlets in the West have taken this opportunity to point out that life is very dangerous for women in India. In addition, numerous statistics about the number of women raped in the country have been splashed across television screens. Approximately 22 000 women are reported to have been raped per year in India, though rape statistics are almost always problematic as they are usually vastly under-reported. Definitions of rape are not very clear, and there's a substantial threat to one's personal safety when a victim comes forward. The problem, however, is that India is four times the size of the United States, is the equivalent of 5 000 women per year being raped in the United States. People in the West have a general sense that discrimination based on sex is over, misogyny no longer exists, and that we are over rape. This is further warped by stereotyped notions that people in the developing world are uncivilised, especially with respect to how women are treated. The case is thus: rape is a problem in India but not in the United States. The hypocrisy is simply astounding to me for numerous reasons, especially given the gender gap in the 2012 Presidential Election. America has a serious problem with rape culture, and although it's worse than in the rest of West, it's a problem that exists dually in both developed and developing countries across all social and economic classes.

All in all, 2012 was a very violent year, though it may not be remembered that way, unfortunately. In Googling the top news stories of 2012, I came across numerous lists, though almost all of them included the following: Costa Concordia Incident, Stratosphere Jump, Presidential Election, Facebook's Initial Public Offering, Hurricane Sandy, the London Olympics and many other events. With that in mind, I will say that Global News had by far the best list of top news stories from 2012. They did not shy away from talking about numerous other cases, which you can look back on by following the above link.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Tis The Season

This post may be coming late given that Christmas is less than a week away, but I'd like to take a moment to make a brief post about gift-giving this year. I've seen a lot of campaigns going around on social media, encouraging people to buy certain products and to shop at certain stores. There are several principles that are important in consumption, and I'd like to articulate them here alongside some practical advice.

First, all of the responsible ways to shop have been effectively co-opted by the retail industry. Public relations departments and firms, though something called "corporate social responsibility", have taken the path of least resistance to make either minimal change or change in name only to create the appearance that the product or service is more ethical than it indeed is. This is all purposefully designed to make us feel much less empty for immersing ourselves into consumer culture overdrive. It's virtually impossible to stay on top of this one, but it pays to be vigilant and do your best. There is no way to eliminate all the exploitation from your purchases, but that doesn't mean you should try.

Perhaps the most common recommendation from consumer watchdogs is "buying local". While this is certainly important, it's necessary to understand what exactly this means. Buying local can mean rather different things to different people, but the premise is generally to support your local economy. This is generally viewed as positive because there is minimal effect on the environment through transportation and players in the local economy are more active in terms of production, something which is increasingly being out-sourced - an entirely unsustainable practice.

As such, people will often shop at their local stores, foregoing Wal-Mart and Target. While this is presumably a good move, it's important to remember that it's not just the store - it's the product. Buying products made in China and Bangladesh at a local store only goes part way, for numerous reasons. The ecological cost of transportation is huge and the benefit to your local economy is going to be much smaller than buying something locally produced.

Another important angle is combating accumulation. It's no secret that the holiday season is full of excess, but why not keep that in check by buying gifts that people can actually use rather than getting them impractical stuff just because you feel compelled to get them something? The vast majority of North Americans have far more material possessions than they need already, so ask yourself if something actually needs what you are considering purchasing.

Most importantly, remember that it's the thought that really counts. Taking time out of your busy life to thank someone and show them that they are worth it is often all someone really needs. Instead of buying a gift for everyone, why not give your time? Spend time doing something you enjoy together or make them something that they could not have made themselves. Also, consider making a donation to charity in their name, or going to volunteer together. These are all more meaningful experiences than using your money to buy something and it will be guaranteed to be better than spending hours in a mall.

This should be a time of the year to relax and get away from the grind, though unfortunately it is rarely the case. I hope that your holidays are safe and enjoyable regardless of how you intend to gift for your loved ones. All the best!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Deconstructing the US Election

I have been really struggling for the past three weeks to break down the recent US Elections. After some significant thinking, I'm ready to write a very short blog about something that has been virtually forgotten since 7 November. The major issue I see is that there is just such a narrow gap between the Republicans and the Democrats, something that is traditionally talked about a fair amount during elections, though oddly not this time around.

These minor difference, in my opinion, are very much a product of the fact that the American political system is flooded with money. As a result, the two political parties are effectively corporate parties, representing, for the large part, the interest of business and the wealthy. The best example of this is that the working poor were never targeted as a group. Nor are the unemployed or youth, with the exception of "recent college graduates" who are about to enter the workforce for the first time.

Both the Democrats and the Republics are deeply entrenched in the policies of neoliberalism, and it's often difficult to look at an economic policy and see which party has introduced it. The Republicans may have bailed out corporate banks and insurance companies, but the Democrats bailed out auto manufacturers. The Republicans pushed for the further development of the offshore oil industry, and the Democrats have have articulated much of the same thing, looking to Canadian "ethical oil" to supplement American reserves. The disastrous 2010 British Petroleum incident has been largely forgotten. Moreover, both parties support free trade, both parties encourage direct foreign investment, and both parties argue that small business is the heart of American while making tax laws that favour larger corporations.

On matters of foreign policy there is a surprisingly similarity between the mainstream parties. Republicans and Democrats advocate for a military that can support America's economic interests. They are both keen to fight wars so long as the public will tolerate them. They are both committed to freeing Americans from terrorism. They have similar ideas about America's place in the world. Obama proudly declared that he took out Bin Laden, uses rocket attacks, and supports for Israel as a traditional ally.

The question, then, is why this corruption and narrowness comes from. There are numerous reasons, but I think that there are two that are salient.

Firstly, the system is simply terrible and the political culture is one of antagonism rather than co-operation. Having only two real parties to choose from creates a polarised attitude in Washington, even if there isn't much of substance to disagree about. The President and Congress also have to fight each other endlessly, wasting valuable time in lengthy disputes that often go nowhere except to further polarise the discourse. The Constitution was meant to protect the public from a dictatorial president, and thus there are numerous "checks and balances" in the system, all of which slow down the process of creating legislation. The status quo is thus favoured.

Secondly, there are significant financial barriers to participation in American politics.  Corruption effectively keeps clean parties out, because they fail to have the economic wherewithal to enter. The average cost of running as a candidate is in the neighbourhood of about $1 million dollars for the House and $7 million for Senate. As such, for the most part members of the Senate, House of Representatives, and the President all tend to come from similar class backgrounds. Most are older white males who are professionals and wealthy. They are usually well-connected to power in their communities, either in business, law, religion, or community associations.

By this point you're probably listing off all the items that differentiate the parties. And of course, there are many, perhaps most importantly women's rights and same sex marriage. I certainly don't wish to diminish just how important these causes are. The reality of Obama's win is that the cost of healthcare for women will likely go down, they will have greater access to contraceptives, and the discourse on rape can be bettered. The reality of Obama's win is also that openly queer individuals can continue to serve in the American military and pressure will continue on the conservative "Defense of Marriage Act". These materialist differences should not be understated: they make measurable impacts on the lives of millions of Americans.

However, from a larger ideological angle, it's somewhat troubling that the entire election in the United States was based on these issues. First of all, these are broadly social issues, and secondly, they represent well-organised groups within society: women and homosexual men and women. I realise that I say this with the privilege of being a Canadian male where marriage equality is not a political issue. I hope to be challenged on this notion. Many other groups aren't effectively organised into lobbies, like youth, hispanics, sex workers, farmers, or the unemployed. These groups need change, and America needs to seriously examine issues that were missing from the election campaigns: promoting a real green energy strategy, handling crime better, restricting free trade, creating more progressive immigration policies, combating homelessness, ending ghettoisation, or reducing consumerism and debt.

So what are the prospects for REAL change? It's a tough question, but traditional discourses on revolution point to an important correlation. The more conservative a government is, the more likely progressive change can take place through people getting involved with grassroots organisations or even protesting the state and demanding structural change. Americans need to wake up to the realities around them. Regardless of the political stripes of their government, they are being oppressed by an alliance between government and industry in a corporate police state. Occupy was a great start, but it only focused on being critical rather than proposing a concrete solution. I'm excited to see what's next, but I know that it needs to come soon as America, and the rest of the world, can't sustain itself environmentally or economically.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Thankfulness and Remembrance

This weekend is American Thanksgiving. Much like in Canada, it’s a festival filled with relaxing and spending time enjoying the company of loved ones. Beyond the crazy travelling, the turkey, and the fall colours lies a terrible disregard for what Thanksgiving is all about. Though thought to be based on several myths about indigenous peoples helping European settlers, the holiday is an anniversary of a great feast in Massachusetts. The strong currents of “Indian” culture are still significant in celebrations, and I wish to briefly talk about this in my short post today.

As earlier mentioned, Thanksgiving is about giving thanks for a plentiful harvest. In North America, this holiday celebrates the harvest season and the transition to winter. Though documents about the “First Thanksgiving” are sketchy at best, the holiday depicts a sense of harmony between the inhabitants of the so-calledOld and New Worlds. Artwork in the centuries since has focused on expressing sentiments of goodwill and co-operation. While this may have been the case in the seventeenth century, over successive centuries the relationship between settlers and indigenous people turned into perhaps one of the gravest histories of genocide.

For the most part, the nationbuilding efforts of American education and media have largely omitted the incredible details of the shocking treatment of indigenous groups in the United States. As the United States has become more cosmopolitan it has struggled with various others. The construct of settler/native has been replaced with white Americans as native and immigrants as new settlers. This is very well summed up in the 1996 Simpsons episode about a fictitious“Proposition 24”.

In Canada, we very often castigate Americans for their blatantly genocidal actions. There is a greater awareness of the genocide here in Canada because there is no American nationalist ideology that has to protect a certain historical discourse. However, it’s often forgotten that our “Indians” have been treated with similar hostility, and likewise the story has been largely covered up or forgotten.

While in the United States war, disease, and displacement were the primary weapons used by the federal government, Canada employed a more benign-looking but equally sinister system. Canada’s numerous native groups were broken apart by geography and generation, with youth taken away to go to Residential Schools, formally introduced in 1876 and operating, shockingly enough, until 1996. In order to assimilate indigenous Canadians, the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, federal, and provincial governments forcibly removed children from their communities where they were sent to learn Western Christian tradition and learn to speak English or French.

The damage to hundreds of cultures was, and still is, totally overwhelming. The system, paired with other attacks on indigenous cultures (such as creating reserves and introducing private property) created cycles of substance abuse, violence, suicide, and other social ills. I witnessed first hand the devastation when I worked on the Indian Residential Schools Settlement, a programme introduced by the Federal Government in order to give reparations to survivors of the trauma. I talked to people who were sexually abused, who had lost several loved ones to suicide, and who had substance abuse problems. What these individuals all had in common was that they were incredibly impoverished financially and culturally, living in total dependency of government funds. It was heartbreaking to witness, and I felt powerless knowing how structural and pervasive these problems were. What’s more, I had studied history in my BA and this was my first real look at the residential school system.

All this said, we have forgotten what to be thankful for. I think it’s important that people reflect during Thanksgiving that the great society we claim to have is based on generations of exploitation and forgetfulness. Next Thanksgiving, remember.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Québec's New Direction?

Tonight I had the chance to listen to the inaugural speech of Québec's new premier, Pauline Marois. I heard it while I was in transit to Ottawa from Montréal, and it got me reflecting on the realities of Québecois politics, and why I'm proud to be a new resident of the province.

Marois, the province's first female leader, was elected in September. The party won only four more seats than the incumbent Liberals, ending nearly a decade of Jean Charest's continuous rule. Numerous scandals of 2012, notably the Charbonneau Commission investigating corruption, and the Printemps d'Erable student strikes, contributed to the waning popularity of the conservative and federalist Parti Liberal du Québec (PLQ).

The Parti Québecois (PQ) was widely expected to win the election, and they managed to win a minority mandate. Parliament first sat yesterday, and the inaugural speech (the equivalent of the throne speech) was this afternoon. In her hour-long address, she articulated the four planks upon which the government will stand, which will be explained below.

First, Marois committed her government to move toward eliminating corruption. She specified that corruption "not a Québec phenomenon", and that there needs to be a greater emphasis on getting money out of politics, evoking Réné Levesque as an inspiration. Montreal is currently at the centre of a massive corruption scandal, but it's important that the reach of money into politics is a significant problem in many other jurisdictions such as Ontario (with e-health and Ornge) and the United States (with its Super PACs).

Second, the PQ will focus on building the economy. Where the previous government introduced neoliberal reform in order to produce growth, the PQ is investing in making sure that economic activity is incremental, environmentally sustainable, and that it benefits the province as a whole. Potential reforms to taxes and financial regulations were hinted at, but the major thrust is investing in local economies rather than pursuing large international trade deals.

Third, the government wants to foster a better sense of solidarity. This is to be achieved in numerous ways, most notably through the expansion and defense of Québec's large social welfare state. Marois specifically discussed expanding access to the existing universal daycare programme, bettering school environments, offering in-home care, and hiring more physicians. These measures are designed to make sure that all generations of Québecers are being taken care of, and that everyone can participate in society. This was paired with a very strong rhetoric on the liberation of women, achieved by allowing the state to further encroach into the domestic sphere for care of children and the elderly.

Fourth, the PQ will continue to protect Québec's language identity. Obviously this is by far the most controversial item, but it is a solid principle nonetheless. Talk of separation was left out in favour of discussing the importance of fostering a strong Québec based around the French language as the tie that binds.

All told, there are some significant problems with Marois' speech. For one, it is entirely unclear how she intends to actually finance these proposed changes. The expansion of the social welfare state is indeed an excellent idea, but on a practical level, there was no indication from the premier about changes to income taxes, for example. Moreover, Marois was certainly playing politics regarding the anti-corruption plank. This was the policy position taken by the Coalition Avenir Québec, and now that there is a commission pointing out just how involved senior politicians in the province were, Marois is capitalising on the disdain coming from ordinary residents.

But with that in mind, Québec's political direction is one that I feel pretty proud of and that I can certainly support. Marois hit on some very important issues from my perspective, namely: resisting cultural hegemony through protection of the French language, propping up the social welfare state, emphasising the idea that all Québecers are important to the future of the province, and supporting green initiatives in order to protect the natural beauty of Québec.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Québec Summit on Co-operatives

Last week I spent four days at a once-in-a-lifetime conference, the 2012 Québec Summit on Co-operatives. The meeting attracted nearly three thousand attendees from over ninety countries. The Québec Summit was the first meeting of its kind, a gathering of the world's leading co-operatives, fleshed out with academics, activists, members of NGOs, and co-op federations and associations.

The meeting was truly a marvel. It showcased the unity of a somewhat disparate movement, demonstrating that it was very possible for co-ops to compete with business enterprises in the global economy. The atmosphere was charged, fueled by several high profile guests such as Québec Premier Pauline Marois, performer Gregory Charles, and alter-globalist Riccardo Petrella. While the experience was moving because of its sheer size, there are several aspects that jump out at me as concerns, which is the subject of this post.

The most auspicious in question was the role of Desjardins. Desjardins is a financial co-operative, a federation of caisses populaires, in Québec which has expanded outside that market. It is the largest co-operatively owned financial institution in North America, and it is also the largest financial institution in Québec, with 45 000 employees and roughly 80 per cent of Québec residents holding at least one account. Desjardins is an excellent enterprise with a serious focus on providing services that people need. It consistently ranks highly in terms of social responsibility projects, and it plays a key role in supporting the growth of the co-op sector. Of course the size of Desjardins speaks to the capability of co-operatively run businesses to become players in free market economies, but the issue is that Desjardins is virtually unchallenged in terms of its size and scope.

For this being one of two official ICA events in the International Year of the Co-operative, there was a sense that Desjardins itself had a disproportionately large stamp on it- perhaps explained by the fact that it was responsible for ensuring the success of the event, financially, logistically and in every other way.  Still, it would have helped enormously to have the Summit at least somewhat more participatory. Desjardins had 75 full-time staff organising the conference, with tasks varying from the logistical such as finding sponsors and designing logos to the substantive such as picking speakers. It is also a significant concern that the CEO suggested that Québec hold a second summit of this kind, organised and supervised by Desjardins again - however, I have since heard that she has backed down on this claim. While I am certainly glad that Desjardins was able to pool resources in order to put this event on, I am troubled by large institutions leading a movement without keeping close to democratic principles or the realities on the ground. Desjardins absolutely should continue to support summits and congresses, but it would be far more preferable that it come to to table as an equal player with other members of the co-op world.

This co-optation was very much reinforced by the use of several studies that were commissioned to showcase co-ops. Firms such as McKinsey and IPSOS were contracted to legitimise research that would be palatable to people outside the world of co-operatives. These organisations polled various groups in order to determine where the co-op sector was successful and where it was not. The information, in a lot of regards, was very helpful, notably that many people just don't know what a co-operative is, and that the best way to remedy this would be to state this more clearly. However, the sleek packaging of these reports was designed not just to present some useful data, but the medium is the message. Data from a respected, international, mainstream, and "objective" firm is designed to help co-operatives fit better into the existing economic status quo, rather than work to change it by being a recognisable alternative. Further, a very significant focus was placed on profit. This discourse of profit was not situated in terms of keeping the co-op operational, nor was it tempered by sustainability either socially or economically. The idea was the pursuit of profit, much in the same sense that it is routinely discussed by large transnationals.

Another issue was the lack of diversity amongst panelists. Predominantly, this relates to youth, women, and non-Westerners. There was a serious rhetoric that these groups flourish in co-operatives and that they are indeed not only the future, but the present of the movement. While the keynote speakers were very diverse, the plenary discussions (which were essentially roundtables) were surprisingly homogenous. Very few plenaries featured speakers who were female or from outside Europe and North America. What is perhaps more shocking, however, is that youth were virtually excluded from speaking.  

One last element that I'd like to mention is that there was an incredible lack of emphasis on the role of the state. Whether from the leaders of large co-ops, from researchers, or from other organisations, there seemed to be few that argued that it was the prerogative and responsibility of the state to invest in the strengthening of the co-operative sector so that it can become self-sufficient. There was even a roundtable discussion about capitalisation, but this was effectively balanced out by another plenary that suggested that government involvement (from a regulatory perspective) tends to create trouble. What was interesting was that intervention was shaped as state funding paired with crippling regulation, without really having a positive discussion of them together and how that might manifest itself.

I don't intend to paint a monolithic picture of the Québec Summit as negative. While these are elements that I, and many of my colleagues, found distressing or uncomfortable, there were certainly some incredible highlights. There were two associated events, the Imagine Conference, presented by St. Marys University, and a conference on Worker Co-operatives presented by Le Reseau. These events were great, but the registration was separate from the main conference, and thus not everyone benefited from them (the Imagine Conference, for example, had about 600 participants instead of the 2800 at the Summit).

Another important element was that the conference billed co-ops as high profile, essentially attracting public interest, attention from activists, and serious academic analysis. The event was actually well covered in the media, in particular the French-language press in Canada. This function was also supported by the Imagine Conference, which presented a radical perspective about economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Among other things, the Dean of the St. Mary's Business School, Dr. Patricia Bradshaw stated that St. Mary's University was committed to continue to disseminate the research findings.  She stated, "We want to collaborate with other academic departments.  We seek to form a network of university partners committed to co-op development.  We need to develop programs whereby students can run co-ops."

Fortunately, one of the most impressive parts of the summit was the keynote address, made by Riccardo Petrella, an Italian co-operator, economist, and alter-globalist. His address challenged the notion of development, urging the co-op sector to focus on meeting social needs, remaining close to communities, to nature, and to values of democracy.

In all, the conference was an excellent chance to meet fellow co-operators, and as someone who is brand new to the sector, it was a remarkable chance to see just how diverse the movement is. Speaking to colleagues and to new friends allowed me the chance to see what some of the major debates and tensions are within the movement.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Modern Islamophobia

Everyone who knows me knows that one of the causes I am most passionate about is fighting Islamophobia. I've blogged about this before, most notably with a post I wrote called "Draw Muhammed Day". Islamophobia is a trend that ebbs and flows in the Western world. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 there has been a very visceral attitude of secular and religious Westerners to Islam, one that can be turned on and off with virtually the flick of a switch.

The most recent episode has been one of such frenzies of media attention. A low-budget production called "The Innocence of Muslims" was launched onto youtube, seen countless times by countless people around the globe. To not have heard about this controversy, you'd have to have been far removed from any media or anyone with access to media. My post this time around has to do, predominantly, with the media coverage of this event and, secondarily, with the general attitudes of the West toward Islam.

As I mentioned a second ago, 9/11 played a mammoth role in politicising Muslims as others. There has been a long history in the West of vilifying Islamic peoples and their cultures, but the climate after 9/11 brought a new perspective, with Islam threatening not Christianity, but democracy, capitalism, individualism, freedom of expression, secularism, pluralism, and other pillars of a modern Western society.

The film itself is something that I won't really comment on much. I think it's an atrociously poorly produced piece, but it's full of hate, stereotypes, and ignorance. The film, according to its producers, is designed to point out the hypocrisy of Islam and its prophet, Muhammed. The film has been viewed by hundreds of millions of people in countries all across the world. The response to it has been mixed, with many promoting the right to freedom of speech and others indicating that this is blatant hate speech. The debate is a challenging one, as striking a balance of censorship and expressive license is a major issue in most modern democratic states.

The film aside, the majority of the media coverage has centred around the rather noteworthy reactions in the Islamic world. Throughout the Middle East there have been significant protests since the middle of September. Groups of Muslims, largely urban youths, have gathered to express their anti-American sentiments, offended at the defamation of their god. These protests, which are an authentic expression of their religious fervour, have been augmented by a growing resentment in the Middle East toward American politics and culture. While the vast majority of these protests were peaceful, some protestors turned to violence, notably in Libya, where the US ambassador was murdered.

These events prompted the standard arguments. Islam is violent, or Muslims are uncivilised, or any other Islamophobic drivel. These presumptions and stereotypes are not at all new. These constructs are part of over a millennium of contact between Christianity and Islam, often marred with violence. The Islamic world is presented as brutal and savage while the Christian world is characterised as peaceful and ordered. There is a false sense of superiority on the part of Westerners that our societies are more advanced than those in the Middle East. Overwhelmingly, proponents of such a worldview are totally failing to understand Islam and are not deconstructing their privilege as Westerners.

The first part of this is not understanding Islam. Few realise that Islam is very close in content to Christianity. Because of the unfortunate history of conflict between the Christian West and the Middle East, Muslims have overwhelmingly been constructed as untrustworthy, immoral, unintelligent, foul, and aggressive. These characterisations were based on selected interactions with Muslims and ignore the significant contributions that Muslims have made to art, math, philosophy, and science.

The second element is the blatant hypocrisy. Muslims are thought to be intolerant and violent, which of course is contrasted with Western pluralism and agreeability.  This is absolutely incorrect for two reasons. Firstly, it suggests that there are not high rates of intolerance and violence in Western societies. This is clearly untrue, given the amount of discrimination and aggressive crime in places such as the United States. Moreover, in the historical context it is quite evident that Christians have been terribly aggressive, such as the sectarian violence of the Thirty Years War, the persistent persecution during the Reconquista, the brutal colonisation of Africa, and the Holocaust. Secondly, it holds Muslims to the same standards as the West, where different social, economic, and political factors have produced a vastly dissimilar realities. It's forgotten all too quickly that not only have Christians committed atrocious crimes against humanity all through the twentieth century, they continue to do so now.

I find this troubling because Westerners think that Islamic societies are backwards compared to North America or Europe. The reaction of Westerners to the protests and the murders has been predictable: Muslims are characterised as reactionary and blinded by their religious attitudes. This is quite clear in examining news media, but it's also a trend on the internet. The two best examples of this are an article published by the Onion, and a meme comparing Islam to atheism. Both of these are offensive because they treat Muslims as immature fanatics, incapable of operating in a pluralistic world like "everyone else".

It is particularly frustrating because Westerners are not deconstructing why Muslims are angry. Few Americans, for instance, realise that residents of the Middle East don't understand American-style individualism. The protests have been vociferously anti-American, and this is primarily because Muslims living in rather collectivist undemocratic societies presume that the video was produced or disseminated in part by the United States government. And it seems to make perfect sense from the perspective of Muslims that Washington might be participating in this given the terrible suffering that Muslim populations have experienced as a direct result of American foreign policy, particularly since the end of the Cold War.

There is much more to say about this topic, but I'll leave you with a final comment. The film and its reaction have highlighted what I believe is the new Islamophobia. It's not about attacking people's religion directly, it's about attacking all the items affiliated with it (terrorism, oppression of women's rights, lack of religious freedom, dictatorships, immigration) in order to discredit the religion and its culture. I'm very worried for the future of relations between the West and Islam given the incredible tension that is produced between government and between cultures.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Mistress

I recently watched a new television show called "The Mistress". Starring Sarah Symonds, a former mistress, the programme showcases women who are looking to get out of the lifestyle of being in a relationship with a married man.

The show is terrible on numerous levels, but the most outrageous implication of the show is that affairs are the fault of women. It is the wife or the mistress, but oddly never men (who evidently can't control themselves), who provide an environment for men to cheat. Men, naturally, are only acting on their evolutionary imperatives.

As such, Symonds has hosted various seminars, written articles, appeared on talk shows, telling women to "affair-proof" their relationships. This idea is at the heart of what "The Mistress" is effectively about. Men are apparently naturally promiscuous and the only way to keep a man is to constantly work on making sure that his every need is met. Not only does this have serious practical ramifications, it also means that women have to saddle yet another responsibility. Women are already often forced to take on work outside the home while simultaneously taking care of the household, the so-called double burden. I would argue that Symonds, along with numerous other personalities like Oprah Winfrey and Tammy Nelson, is advancing a triple burden. Women are responsible for taking care of the home, making money, and preventing their partners from straying from the relationship.

It is common knowledge that both men and women are attracted to people they meet on a daily basis. These attractions are not inherently scary, nor are they dangerous to a relationship. Our society, however, doesn't give individuals the tools to really examine attraction outside of relationships and move forward with it. Effectively, we are taught that these feelings will destabilise a relationship and that it is best to keep them secret. In that sense, the discourse that comes from so-called relationship experts like Symonds is that we should be valuing monogamy over honesty.

Beyond this, there are also some rather odd suggestions that Symonds makes on the show. The first is the wedding dress. She has the mistress don a white dress and look at herself in the mirror in order to instill a sense that she should find a man who can give her a stable, monogamous, marriage. Marriage is supposed to embody all the cultural attitudes about love that are instilled in us from childhood. Think Disney, romantic comedies, and popular loves songs.

What's perhaps even more troubling is Symonds suggestion that women put themselves in certain positions to meet men. Here's a secret for any woman looking to land a man, evidently all you have to do is go to a place where men are doing things they enjoy. Golfing is a perfect example of such a place, and for more than the aforementioned reason. Women should be putting themselves in positions where they are inferior to men. Symonds tells these women that they should find men to share interests with by having them take on submissive roles, like student for example. It is absolutely crazy to suggest meeting men through sharing men's activities, rather than something both men and women can enjoy together.

I was unimpressed with the show, but I feel that this sort of dim television is more than just harmless entertainment. It actively reinforces the attitudes that men and women have towards each other, that people have toward relationships, and that shape our concepts of morality.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Some Thoughts on Philanthropy

As many of you know, I recently rode in a charity ride around the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia. The organisation I supported, Coast to Coast Against Cancer Foundation, raises money to provide support services for children living with and beyond cancer. During my brief adventure I spent many an hour contemplating the place of philanthropy in modern health care. Here are some of my thoughts.

Going into the ride I was sceptical. I've recently become increasingly more leery of philanthropy as I've gotten older. For the most part this has to do with the fact that philanthropy is largely becoming the stand-in for the social welfare system. The broader trend over the past decade in Canada has been that public subsidies for health care have decreased, despite legal protection in the Canada Health Act. Provinces, and more recently the Federal Government, have made significant cuts to public services, health care included. These cuts make services less affordable and ultimately ensure that the quality diminishes over time. The claims are then made that public systems are inefficient in order to justify more privatisation. The cycle continues such that the social welfare state is in a serious retreat in all of Canada. This is part of the neoliberal model, an ideology designed to free up markets even further.

The difference between subsidised public health care services and a private system is that private health care is for profit. In Canada there has been steady growth in private-for-profit operations which are fee-for-service, meaning that people are paying for health care out of pocket. This is significant because it shifts the burden from broad (taxpayers) to narrow (users). Moreover, the profit imperative means that society is paying more for healthcare when it is privatised than when it is nationalised. This is best evidenced by the fact that the United States spends significantly more money on health care than Canada - our public system is more efficient.

The importance of this background is that it sets a particular context: health care costs in Canada are rising. This, of course, is happening when the quality of service is consistently being called into question. What's worse, there is much talk about our aging population, the so-called apocalyptic demography. In this context of health care needing saving, philanthropy is largely becoming an answer. In Canada various organisations operate as charities: the MS Society of Canada has several bike rides, the Canadian Brest Cancer Society has Run for the Cure events, the Heart and Stroke Society has a lottery, and various Children's Hospitals have pledge drives. Large organisations that once relied on public funds are now expanding their staff in order to get access to more resources. Effectively, this means that these organisations are becoming more inefficient without public support as they now need to become larger and more bureaucratic.

The reason why this system works, however, is because it removes the burden presumably from everyone. People aren't forced to support health care; instead they have choices. They can choose to support or to opt out, and more than that, they can also pick exactly what causes they want to advance. The results are predictable - instead of money being allocated by government departments based on perceived need, people are choosing for themselves and the most flashy campaigns are the benefactors. By virtue of being more affluent, these organisations can also afford to invest in more and better fundraising. The cycle continues and it is marketing like any other private service.

The rationale here is important, and it brings me to the Coast to Coast Foundation. The organisation was formed about a decade ago and provides support services. Unlike the other charities I listed, Coast to Coast does not provide treatment and it does not finance research. Nonetheless, it fits under the umbrella of care because it helps to support children and their families. Coast to Coast doesn't actually provide services that were ever part of the public mandate. As such, what the organisation does is, effectively, auxiliary to the system. Coast to Coast is not undermining public health care, nor are they promoting privatisation by way of philanthropy.

Nonetheless, I made some observations. Most of the participants for the ride were from Ontario (myself included). I was riding in the Maritimes, so this is obviously a long way away. Part of the reason why many people rode was because they wanted the experience of biking the Cabot Trail, so tourism or having a personal challenge was an impetus for many participants - something that a taxpayer doesn't get when they support public systems. Almost all of these Ontarians, and in fact many of the Maritimers as well, were comparatively wealthy. I don't mean this to disparage: they are the type of wealthy that are successful in the private sector as senior managers and business owners. These people work hard and are looking for a meaningful way to give back to the communities around them. And it makes sense - those with wealth have extended networks of peers that they can draw donations from. I see that, for each participant, the ride is personally meaningful. There is a sense of connection from volunteering time and resources to share with those in need. This is amplified by the fact that what they are doing is entirely voluntary. Participating in a charity event allows those who are fortunate to feel that the position they hold in society is just: they are leveraging their privilege for the betterment of society. While I do agree that what they are doing is noble, I can't help but think of how much more effective it would be if people were simply levied more taxes.

Philanthropy is not going to disappear: it's a lucrative industry in Canada where many people make a good living. That said, it comes off the backs of a sustainable public health care network. What's ultimately important is that the notions of "crisis" in health care are largely overstated. More importantly, the problems with our system are not the result of some inherent disadvantage in being public but instead the direct result of privatisation. Crisis is manufactured by reforms that put profits before people, but there are very successful public relations campaigns out there dedicated to making us believe that public systems are "luxurious" or a "privilege". Health care is a right and Canadians need to organise around infrastructure that protects citizens from an outrageous financial burden.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

What's Wrong with the Internets?

George Bush caused quite the stir when he referred to cyberspace as "The Internets". Those who know me well know that I generally use this language of "the internets" in my everyday speech. Those same people also know that I really don't know anything about technology. Nor do I claim to. What's really interesting, though, is that we all make assumptions about the internet despite the fact that there are so few people out there that understand both the technical and ideological sides of the equation.

It's no surprise that I have an insatiable appetite for knowing about the social, economic, and political implications of the internet despite my glaring lack of understanding for the way it works. Enter "CBC Spark", one of my favourite productions on CBC Radio One. This programme really looks into the aforementioned intersection of technical and ideological components of the internet. The main idea that I get is something like this. The internet is both entirely abstract and an actual physical construct, though as I mentioned, it is rarely recognised as such. Education around the internet and technology in general is exceptionally poor in my opinion. The primary reason for this, I would argue, is because we are taught only to embrace technology as a necessary tool for economic and social survival. This emphasis ignores an important concern - understanding it the internet through a deconstruction of what it means on a personal level and on a wider political plane.

The reason why I'm writing this short blog is because I just came across a story earlier today and it troubled me deeply. A 17-year-old survivor of sexual assault is facing serious legal issues after publishing on the internet the names of the minors who attacked her. In North America there are already troubling enough discourses around sexual crime, notably blaming the victim and letting the perpetrators off. I think it's evident where I stand on this issue, but I will make it patently clear regardless. The fact that sexual assault still happens to roughly 25 per cent of North American women is despicable. What's even worse is the pervasive idea that these sorts of crimes aren't happening and don't need to be talked about. The worst part, however, is that our legal systems aren't prepared for the twenty-first century realities of the internet.

On the macro level, the issue that the aforementioned case brings up to me is that the internet is so new (in a historical sense) that its affects on society are barely understood. The cultural ideas about law (which are traditional) and the internet (which are just forming) often aren't being discussed together. I find this very troubling, though not at all surprising. Just how should publication bans work in the digital age? Is someone's social networking page, blog, or website considered public or private? The lines are being blurred, and the legal ramifications are much more significant than people would initially believe.

A more critical discourse of the technology in our lives is a must. It already exists, but its on the fringes of public consciousness: academic reports and blogs by activists. I understand people just want the convenience, the immediate gratification, and the status that comes with social media, the internet, and new technology. I really understand these social expectations.

I hope that in the near future people will start realising that the internet is a merely a repository for society - a mirror that reflects the myriad ways we construct the world around us. The internet, as a form of mass communication, needs to be taken seriously by law. We need to learn from history - the introduction of the printing press in the sixteenth century radically changed the way that information was both produced and consumed, and laws changed to reflect that. The same needs to happen today, but it won't unless people fight against the status quo of the internet being a tool used to support the status quo of privilege for monetary expansion, for expressing hate, and for strengthening conformity.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Politicising a Non-Partisan Issue?

As many of you who occasionally read my blog know, I recently went to the House of Commons to hear a motion about the creation of a special committee to look into what role the federal government should take in helping co-operatives. Yesterday, I went to see the committee in session in downtown Ottawa, and I aim to write about the proceedings of yesterday's meeting in a wider context around the issues that co-operatives are facing.

Again, I will reiterate the fact that I recently started working in the co-operative sector for an amazing organisation called the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation. In the past eight months (since I was first properly introduced to co-operatives while at Occupy Ottawa) I have learned an amazing amount about what co-operatives are and how they can ameliorate environmental, social, and economic problems, all of which play into political discourse. In this blog post, I'm going to talk about the historical trajectory of the movement, including the current political climate and what impact it will have on the sector in the short term and in the long term.

The co-operative was an alternative social and economic relationship, forged during the Industrial Revolution in England. Co-operatives allowed people who had little access to resources to stand up against the bourgeoisie - the class of wealthy industrialists who owned the factories, the stores, the housing, the fields, the media, and who thus dictated social and economic life. Over the course of the nineteenth century, co-operatives grew in Britain, and the model spread around the world by the turn of the twentieth century. In Canada, co-operatives sprouted all across the country, notably around agriculture. Some of the oldest still in operation today include: the Canadian University Press (since 1938), The Co-operators (since 1945), Desjardins (since 1900), and the Guelph Campus Co-op (since 1913). The co-operative movement has remained strong, but Canadian co-operatives are unique in the global movement. Firstly, many co-operatives are not integrated with one another. A lot of this comes down to the fact that these enterprises are often geographically far away from one another (many co-operatives exist in the most remote of communities), that the movement is rather fragmented by language, and that regional co-operative associations tend to be more closely connected to communities than larger federated structures.

This lack of a united co-operative front is exacerbated by the same issue that co-operatives experience around the world. Hegemony in a capitalist society means that the elite have economic, social, and legal mechanisms which reinforce the status quo by maintaining order. The co-operative movement is Canada is already fragmented, meaning that it suffers from a relative inability to articulate a complex series of ideas in simple, easy-to-understand ways. This is amplified significantly when media outlets are run by the elite for the elite. Despite the fact that new media have emerged in the past two decades, effectively democratising discourse, the general public still views traditional news sources like television newscasts and daily newspapers as "trusted" media. This reality produces mammoth problems for those who are trying to articulate alternatives.

Let's briefly look at some examples. Bell owns CTV. Rogers owns CityTV and Omni. Shaw owns Global. This leaves the CBC, which the government is currently slashing, as the only national news media that is not in fact owned by a corporation. While this trend is certainly true in television, it is most certainly mirrored with large radio stations as well as newspapers.

The reason why I have gone to great length to describe this reality is because it shapes the potentialities that the co-operative sector can in fact take. Co-ops, which pose a threat to the idea of recklessness, greed, and exploitation, pose a threat to large corporations and thus pose a threat to media outlets. The hegemony to which I earlier alluded is rampant in our modern society, acting as a malicious force that keeps alternative viewpoints from gaining traction and ultimately being implemented on a large scale.

For the most part, the Special Committee on Co-operatives that is currently in session this summer is exploring not whether co-operatives are useful, but whether or not they should promoted. This discourse played itself out very interestingly during the session I attended yesterday, and I will now go on to comment on this. Co-operatives have largely been supported by people from across the political spectrum because they serve to meet people's social and economic needs. As such, co-operatives have managed to remain (particularly in Canada) a very non-partisan issue. One of the comments that was made at the meeting yesterday (from an NDP committee member) was that co-ops unite us all, but that the Conservatives are turning co-operatives into a political issue. This is being done both with the policy changes themselves and with the characteristic lack of transparency.

Largely, it seems that the division on the committee is that the government feels that co-operatives are doing well for themselves and that they should not receive any supports from the state. The opposition, however, do not characterise the current landscape as a level playing field, and this is of course for a variety of reasons. Co-operatives often don't get much media exposure because they pose a threat to the status quo. Additionally, they make up a significantly smaller part of the volume of the market, meaning that they are a minority. They can sometimes struggle to gain access to capital, and they are often not taken seriously by potential investors. They usually have flatter organisational structures without public relations departments, making it difficult for them to be heard above the white noise. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they are not part of general knowledge on economics and society, likely because they are not explained in public schools.

For the government, acknowledging these problems could mean taking on a position where they might have to provide social, economic, and political support for co-operatives. Given that the Conservatives have repeatedly articulated their "economy first" neoliberal agenda, it seems unlikely that they would want to invest in a sector of the economy that shares growth fairly. Conservative members of the committee generally spent most of their questioning time asking relatively mundane questions about the functioning or profitability of co-ops, mostly to illustrate that existing co-operatives seem to be healthy. Additionally, the argument was advanced that the purpose of investing in co-operatives should be solely to make markets more competitive, anything else is "just ideology". All this, of course, was to reinforce that the government should have a "smaller footprint" on the sector (this coming from several government agencies).

The opposition, however, used their time to ask pointed questions of the witnesses, trying to understand broader ideas around the co-operative sector. Moreover, the question was repeatedly asked why the witnesses thought that the government was cutting a programme that was both so effective and so inexpensive. Witnesses answered saying that the cuts were part of austerity or that they were ideological, but either way suggesting that the cuts were a poor decision and that the sector is in need of government support. Perhaps most interestingly, a witness stated that it's rather strange that governments around the world are using taxpayer money to bail out failing corporations while they hold out on co-operatives. The question of whether or not the sector needed monetary support was addressed by every witness, though the best response was that "co-operatives don't need favours, we need fairness".

Ultimately, it seems that the lines are drawn. Conservative committee members, who are meeting during their normal summer break, are unhappy with spending time in committee. Many seemed unprepared and they were often not even paying much attention. The chair of the committee, a Conservative, was perhaps the most disengaged from the process. He also abused his position as chair to silence Mauril Bélanger when he attempted to engage in points of process (notably the sharing of communiqué from the Canadian Co-op Association with the full committee). The aloofness of the government, however, was very much a political position - failing to be transparent and failing to take interest both spoke volumes about the Conservative position.

With that in mind, I'd like to very briefly talk about politicisation. When I heard Wayne Marston comment about politicisation, I was worried that this would be divisive and could harm the co-operative movement. But upon further reflection, it seems that making it a political issue could have serious benefits, such as closer liaising with governments, more awareness on the part of the public, and a stronger sense of solidarity. At this point, it is incredibly unclear if politicisation will be positive, negative, or both. Additionally, it's also uncertain if it could prove to be more problematic in the short term, but pay off later, or vice versa. Regardless, I look forward to seeing and hearing more about this from colleagues, from the public, from the media, and from the special committee.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Bikeday Sundays

Every Sunday from Victoria Day to Labour Day, the National Capital Commission closes 65km of parkways in both Ottawa and Gatineau to traffic. This practice, called Bikeday Sundays, has been around since 1970. Every Sunday about ten thousand people get out between 6am and 1pm, exploring the region by biking, walking, skating, running, and longboarding.

I rode my first Bikeday Sunday last June, and I rode every Sunday that I was in Ottawa last year. I have the ambition to do the same in 2012. I think that it's important to support a movement like this because it breathes so many valuable positives into a community.

There are very crucial physical benefits to Bikeday Sundays. They promote being physically active - an important lifestlye requirement for everyone. Given that less and less Canadians are getting enough exercise, the importance of a free and local activity is significant. Also, the event makes cycling accessible and safe. I've always maintained that "if cycling infrastructure is built, people will use it". However, another critical piece in the puzzle is getting people to feel safe and comfortable when on a bike. When people feel security on their bikes, they are likely to have a great time. In fact, they may start to bike more and make cycling a more central part of their lives.

There are also important social benefits to Bikeday Sundays. The part that strikes me most is the shared use of space, something which is dwindling in our society. Bikedays is, effectively, people taking back the roads and using them in a democratic and co-operative way. Moreover, the fact that so many people are participating on a weekly basis means that cycling has become, for many people in the National Capital Region, part of the culture. This is something I remark on frequently - whenever I am riding in Ottawa-Gatineau I am surprised at the number of cyclists I encounter. Cycling is a growing trend in Ottawa, and despite the rather lethargic action of the local government, Ottawa tends to appear in lists of best places to cycle. This is more and more becoming part of what it means to live in Ottawa. The fact that Bikeday Sundays is so well supported by the police and by local volunteers also speaks to the fact that the state, business, and community all value a programme like this for its social capital.

With all the political talk around cycling today, such as the removal of bike lanes in Toronto, Ontario potentially introducing legislation to make wearing a helmet mandatory, and municipalities like Kingston creating a more comprehensive cycling infrastructure network, it is heartening to see a non-issue in cycling - something that everyone can get behind with the acknowledgement that a programme is good for individuals, the community, the environment, and the economy.

Friday, 15 June 2012

A Tale of Two Leadership Conventions

2012 has been an interesting year for politics in North America - and the year has just begun. In both Canada and the United States the opposition parties will select new leaders in 2012. While both contests have been exciting and well-covered by the media, they could hardly be more dissimilar. In this post I am going to explore the differences between the NDP Leadership Convention in Canada and the race for the Republican Nomination in the United States.

In the past year a lot has happened politically in Canada at the federal level. In the 2011 General Election, Stephen Harper's Conservatives won their first majority government. They accomplished their rather unpredictable feat largely through none of their own work. The collapse of large parties in the House of Commons, the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois, led to a greater splitting of the vote than ever. This had the duel effect of propelling the Conservatives to a majority and netting the NDP over one hundred seats in the legislature, their best ever result. The euphoria was short-lived, however, with the passing of NDP leader Jack Layton in August of 2011. In the seven months since the party has recovered from this blow and selected a new leader.

In the United States, the primaries have been going on for what seems like an eternity. In the wake of the poor performance of the Republicans (or GOP) in the 2008 election, the party has undertaken a long process of selecting someone to run this November. In the elections for Congress in 2010 the Republicans made a comeback both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, mostly because many "Independents" felt that Obama was not moving forward with "repairing the economy". The leadership race in the United States is far from over. At this point, nearly half of US states have yet to vote, and the convention where a leader will be chosen, will not take place until the late summer.

But what exactly are the differences between these two political competitions? As best as I can tell right now, there are at least four significant differences between the NDP and GOP leadership races. Here they are below:

The most obvious difference is in terms of duration. The NDP race has been cited as taking seven months; however, the competition did not even start until November, meaning that four months would be a more appropriate characterisation of length. In the United States, meanwhile, the race for the Republican nomination has already lasted nearly a year, and the competition charges on.

The main purpose that Americans take so long to choose a candidate is generally because they want to thoroughly vet the candidates. The process of the primaries will examine if the leader has the physical and mental stamina on the one hand, and if they are electable on the other. That said, the NDP leadership candidates were well-known by the media and by delegates within the span of about four months, and the field of candidates was nearly twice as large.

Secondly, the participation in selecting the leaderships is quite different. In the United States, the vast majority of the population is participating in selecting the next leader of the GOP. While this is widely seen as more democratic, it doesn't allow the party membership, or even the party supporters, to select a leader of their choosing. Democrats in the United States are allowed to vote, and they are affecting the leadership choice significantly. In Canada, however, only the card-carrying members of the NDP participated in the selection of the leader. This process, though mired in other logistical and ideological problems, allows the party organisation and its membership more control over its future.

The third difference I see is in the degree to which the races are competitive. In the NDP, the debate was largely friendly, with the primary goal of selecting a leader who can unite progressives under the banner of the NDP. Naturally, this is rhetoric, but it is an important component. NDP supporters are not monolithic on their views on a wide variety of topics, and it is not surprising that the top three candidates happened to be a labour, a green, and a centrist. It is entirely unsurprising that Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair ended up in the top two spaces given that they were effectively othered against one another (principled socialist versus a centrist reformer).

In the United States, however, the differences in beliefs and policies was perhaps much wider. Moreover, the way in which this often manifested itself was in personal attacks. Beyond criticising one another's platforms and performance in professional and public spheres, members of the GOP openly attacked each other on personal grounds, such as their sexual lives and their familial arrangements (neither of which, in my opinion, have anything to do with politics). This is not, in my opinion, the fault of the GOP, as this is widely part of the political discourse in the United States, and something that the general public finds interesting when it comes to politics. Republicans want to maintain media attention and Democrats want to make sure that attention is negative. The bipartisan atmosphere in the United States is certainly toxic. Regardless of where you decide to lay blame, however, the race for the nomination is hyper-competitive, to the point where the unity of the party may be seriously damaged.

Finally, there is a distinct difference in the diversity of candidate. The field in the United States was relatively narrow to start with, and it has grown narrower since Christmas. There were no serious candidates who represent any minority group: no women, no young people, no indigenous people, no non-Christians. Admittedly, there is a reasonable amount of diversity in terms of policy, from libertarian to Christian conservative.

This stands in stark contrast to the NDP's leadership race. Serious contenders for the title of leader included a Greek immigrant, a Cree, and a Sikh, not to mention to the presence of women, people of all socio-economic classes, and francophones and anglophones. Perhaps even more interestingly, candidates represented urban, rural, indigenous, and northern communities from all across the country. In Canada, where there is a entrenched regionalism, this was an imperative part of the selection process. Although the field was certainly deep, the top three candidates were all middle-aged, white, secular, heterosexual, and male.

Ultimately, both races have been interesting and set the stage for the larger political contests of the future: the 2012 elections in the United States and the 2015 General Election in Canada. With one leadership race out of the way, the other is charging on, hoping for a dramatic climax in August. Whether you love these proceedings or you have entirely checked out, this is democracy at work!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Canada's Economic Future

Although I have now lived in Ottawa for two years, I haven't taken the time to visit Parliament until recently. Since the spring I've now attended three sessions, and I must admit they have all been very interesting - and for rather different reasons. Last week I caught the end of question period and stayed around for a ninety minute debate that stood to change the course of formal public support for the co-operative sector in Canada.

I recently started a new position, working for an organisation called the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation. Not only am I new to the CWCF, I am also inexperienced with the world of co-operatives. In October 2011 I was fortunate enough to meet Mark Goldblatt of the Canadian Co-operative Association. I was active in the Occupy Ottawa movement, and Mark wanted to put on a workshop about the power of co-opeartives as an alternative to business corporations. I helped him get his word across, and a friendship was formed. Over successive lunches he gave me a deep appreciation for the values, the history, and current climate of co-operatives. I learned that co-operatives were special because they were a democratic way of providing goods and services. Moreover, these businesses can share profit fairly - a way that a investor-owned corporation would never even dream of.

I am now someone who proudly works in a vibrant sector, but I am leery of just how sustainable co-operatives will be able to remain given the position of the Canadian government. In April, a release from the Ministry of Agriculture announced that the Co-op Development Initiative (CDI) was going to be cut. This was devastating news. The thousands of struggling co-opearives across Canada will lose a valuable financial lifeline. Additionally, the federal Co-operatives Secretariat has been almost eliminated, meaning that valuable statistics-gathering, research, and partnering with the sector will no longer be a role seriously played by the federal government. Moreover, co-op owners and members will lose the sense of socio-political support from the government, a critical player that can keep co-ops competitive in a sloped playing field. To add insult to injury, this injustice was coming during the United Nations International Year of the Co-operative.

Resistance to the cuts, however, has been minimal. The general public, for one, has not been aware of the cuts. Traditional news outlets have failed to make this a news story - not even CBC Radio One. Alternative news sources have led the charge but this content is only online, where it competes for attention with myriad other important social, environmental, and political issues. The response from the co-op sector has been interesting. While some organisations (the CWCF included) have written letters and lobbied the government, many co-ops have been silent. Broadly, this can be explained two ways. Firstly, it seems that there is a general sense that this one can't be fought. The fact that the general public is essentially unaware of this issue lends credence to the prevailing idea that it may be best to wait until 2015. Secondly, the co-op sector is replete with individuals who are pushing their limits with their involvement. There are physical and monetary obstacles that are preventing many from trying to organise an effective campaign to fight the decision.

Despite the general unawareness of the public and the inability/unwillingness of the sector to reply, the Liberals appointed Mauril Bélanger as "Advocate for Co-operatives". Though no such formal title has existed in federal politics before, this shows the commitment the federal Liberal Party is taking on an important socio-economic issue. Though he has only recently taken on this position, he immediately started working on bringing a motion to the House of Commons to address the severe cuts that the Conservatives have made.

This motion, presented last Wednesday, set to establish a special committee on co-operatives. Bélanger's vision was to create a standing committee that would report to the House of Commons on the state of the co-operative sector in Canada. Formed of twelve parliamentarians, the committee would conduct analysis, bringing forth witnesses and experts from within the sector to determine whether of not continued economic support would be necessary. Moreover, it would address specifically how the state would provided assistance to co-ops (such as reinstating the CDI or creating a comparable programme).

Thankfully, it passed a vote in Parliament. However, despite the cheery attitude of agreement, there is some serious work that needs to be done to ensure that the establishment of this committee will result in meaningful social, economic, and political support in the long-term. Overwhelmingly, it appears that the NDP, the Liberals, the Bloc Québecois, and the Greens showed real support for the co-operative sector in a rather non-partisan way. The four parties demanded that the government reevaluate its position. However, the Conservatives, who were represented by Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Industry Mike Lake, spoke in platitudes about the co-op sector while simultaneously failing to explicitly state that they would continue formal support. In fact, Lake wanted to make an amendment to the committee so that its scope would be far wider than simply co-operatives, eclipsing the need that the special committee is designed to meet.

This was recognised by Malcolm Allen, NDP member for Welland and Critic for Agriculture Canada (and thus co-operatives), who stated that there is a significant difference between rhetoric and action. Moreover, he told an anecdote about how co-ops serve all Canadians - including his parents when they were new immigrants. He remarked that Canadians should "trust the credit union and be leery of the bank".

Overall, it is good news that the co-op motion passed. However, I am concerned about what the establishment of the committee will mean. Firstly, there are seven members of the committee chosen from the Conservative bench, against five from the opposition parties. This means that, should the government not wish to do anything, they can prevent a solution that would have positive benefits for the sector. Secondly, it was rather evident from the proceedings in the House of Commons that the Conservatives were only interested in paying lip service to the idea of supporting co-ops - presumably because it would have made for bad press if they refused to even talk about the possibility of helping co-operatives. Thirdly, before the committee even starts to function, each party must appoint the requisite number of members, by Friday 8 June - and it's not entirely clear that will happen. Finally, my concerns are with the fact that the government does not seem to recognise that co-ops aren't a fringe movement - they are an integral part of economies, rural and urban areas alike. Taking co-ops seriously means not only supporting the sector, but also examining the existing relationship between the neoliberal state and corporate interest. All told, I am cautiously optimistic about last Wednesday, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the next six months.