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Archive for the ‘society’ Category

Misha Collins as Paul Bernardo in ‘Karla’ (CTV-Movie, of all things)

Rarely do I encounter the truly aggravating religious in my day-to-day life. It is rare that the dogmatic and unpleasant (not always synonymous) intrude into everyday experience, especially not in the blunt manner forced upon me today.  A home school tour visited.  A tour like this is always something of a Russian roulette, with the majority pleasant blanks.  Today was a bullet. The problem was not the children.  They were eager, well-behaved, generally intelligent or at least inquisitive and far more patient than I would have been at a similar age.  This, perhaps, is the benefit of home schooling, but it wouldn’t take long to rummage up an equal number of publicly educated children with the same characteristics.

The problem was the parents.  One spent the whole time arguing with a volunteer about how useless rehabilitation of any sort was, using cooked up numbers and a complete misunderstanding of sociological information about crime to justify Biblical-style punishments.  (One of the children knew the standard number of lashes given by the Romans, because they whipped Jesus).  I was faced with a woman who repeatedly told me how crucial religion is for prisoners, but not because it brings, say, peace of mind or guidance to a troubled soul.  No, the solution was much simpler: if criminals were religious, they wouldn’t be criminals.  To her, and these are nearly exact words, “Paul Bernardo would never have murdered if he was a Christian.”

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Heard a strange little show on the CBC today, on Family Day, our lovely government mandated holiday round this province wherein we get to take a day off and not spend time our families in lew of drinking and such like. Rewind, hosted by CBC regular Michael Enright which repeats old shows from the CBC archives, had a special for the day, on the definition of the family from the 1940’s until today. A rich part in the beginning: Mr. Enright affirming with all seriousness that the CBC once was dominated by politicians, pundits, intellectuals and stars, but no longer; the misses quipped rightly ‘sure, now they have call in show occasionally.’ Then the segments, all of them interesting for the particular attempts to deal with the changing role of the fathers, the freedom of teenagers and woman’s place in the home and workplace. The first dealt with….well, with not much at all, just interviewing a couple about the possibilities of post-war prosperity in 1945, but the way in which the CBC framed their interview is a telling sign of how much ‘the middle class’ was a construction even then. The CBC opined that this small shopkeeper, who runs a shop out of the front of his house and makes (in 1945 dollars) $2000, is part of the largest social group in Canada, the middle class, and is a part of that great prosperity that so distinguishes Canada. The actual shopkeeper and his wife seem less certain, but eagerly agree that they are just like everyone else, privileged, wealthy, happy, bourgeois. They are the backbone of society.

It has long been an argument, voiced as much in Barthes and Sontag as in any classic or canonical Marxist text, that the bourgeoisie assumes universalism, assumes that its mode of life, aesthetic sense, cultural mores and political beliefs are universal and shared by all; actually, this is more likely a liberal bourgeoisie attitude, because I can’t imagine the conservative or monarchist financiers of Paris arguing they ever had much in common with the shopkeepers. That the majority of the CBC’s reporters now, as then, are bourgeois, upper middle class, educated, professional, travelled and mostly intelligent, should be a given. That they impose their own sense of what is right about politics, war, society, the economy, on what they report, without doing so actively or even in some cases realizing it, and assume that their listeners all hold stocks, think politics is about soundbites and image, care about the Dalai Lhama and the employer’s eye view of the world, is not as popular an explanation. It makes more sense, I think, though it would need to be sketched out much more, than the Chomsky thesis from Manufacturing Consent (I suspect his later works are better than this), that all media is bought out and controlled by governments and corporations; I’d argue that plenty of reporters for a figurehead of the liberal, business establishment like the CBC don’t need to be bribed to follow the narrative of the War on Terror or fret over employer’s and their problems, because they genuinely assume those issues are of universal concern and are approached in the same way by all Canadians. It isn’t an agenda, it’s just being upper-middle class professional reporters. Now, this analysis can and should be more complete, and far be it from me to discount the fact that their political editorial lines at Canwest or the CBC, or that many reporters are deeply moral people who care actively about reporting injustice and corruption;  but try telling me when they ramble on about stocks in the business reports that that isn’t for a specific, privileged demographic who actually has an extensive portfolio they manage themselves.

Back to the 1945 middle class. The concept of the middle class is ideological, a product of a universalising assumption and tendency integral to the bourgeois. That there is a middle class is beyond question, of course, and its existence can be objectively proven, as much as possible, through census data on incomes, mobility, jobs and such. But far more people, just like those shopkeepers in 1945, belief they are middle class than is actually demonstrable by any census data. This may very well be an artifact of the post-war world, the result of a prosperity that allowed even millworkers like my dad to afford a big house, televisions and two cars, and that continues to inform many of our assumptions to this day, that owning a computer, an iPod or a car is a symbol of being ‘one of us,’ that universal middle class. The inscription of objects with class values has a long and storied history of its own, from sabots and sans culottes to peaked caps or tails to denim and bow ties, so it isn’t really a surprise that it still occurs to this day. But it is a confused identification, for the costs of those items have gone done, most obviously in the cases of appliances and electronics, and because so much of our culture is popular, and denim is no longer a class signifier.  It is a confusion that leads Labour governments in Britain to argue ‘we are all Middle Class now’ even if such uniformity is bought by cheap tricks on censuses and the manipulation of poverty measurements, so that the lower you go, the more middle you are (and this just isn’t in stats and figures, I remember reading an article in the Guardian by Polly Toynbee in which City bankers were certain an employee would ‘only’ need 20,000 pounds a year to live, which is below the official poverty line). And even if Canada is more egalitarian and less class conscious and allows for more ‘upwards mobility’ than Britain, or even ‘egalite, liberte, fraternite’ France, or the United States, that a universal middle class does not make.

That the project to make a middle class is so old did surprise me, as ten years earlier in 1935 it was quite clear there was something called a working class, which made up a good percentage of the population; ten years and one depression and one world war later, we are all middle class. The shopkeeper, the miner, the lumberjack and steel worker and textile worker and professor and doctor, all middle class, all friends, the bedrock of our democracy. That was what the CBC said in 1945, telling the petty shopkeeper he is now a member of the good class, it does the same now, in 2009. There are some potent democraticising elements there, especially when compared to the fierceness that Tories, capitalists and the Church clung and endorsed hierarchy and aristocracy even today, and rail against popular culture, that is to say working class culture, of a sort, which has triumphed against all odds over its more rarified but universaling bourgeois antecedents; indeed, popular culture now makes those same claims, that it is represented by all, and counter culture and subcultures are placed in the position of railing against their own forebearers.  There is something very nice that my father is no longer as openly snubbed by doctors and teachers, even as they both behind each others back mutter curses.

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The McCarthy era saw redoudled efforts to search out and punish “gender inverts.” Targets abounded: “egg sucking phony liberals,” East Coast intellectuals, and emasculated “pinks, punks, and perverts” were all part of government that was, in the words of one of McCarthy’s aides, “a veritable nest of Communists, fellow travelers, homosexuals, effete Ivy League intellectuals and traitors.” Even Adlai Stevenson did not escape such bashings: the New York Daily Mail called him “Adelaide” and ridiculed his supporters as “Harvard lace cuff liberals” to whom Stevenson spoke in a “fruity” voice.

Military expert and Pulitzer-Prize winning Hanson W. Baldwin put the matter starkly: “Can American man – after years of protective conditioning – vie with the barbarian who has lived by his wits, his initiative, his brawn? Will he retain the will to fight for his country?” He was not optimistic. American virility had been replaced by a boyhood and manhood enfeebled by “sedenterianism, push buttonis and indoorism…from this emerges a picture – not of an American who can lick any two or three enemies, but of a slow-witted, vacuous adolescent with an intellectual interest keyed to comic books and a motivation conspicuous by its absence.” Soft bellied American boys could not stand up to hard-muscled Communist youth…

Disparities in military hardware might be dangerous, but defieciencies in bicep circumference might be fatal. Bodies unsuited by for military combat were unsuited for the Cold War world. “For the indubitable muscle gap between us and those who would bury us,” opined the radical turned conservative Max Eastman, “may well in the long run prove more disastrous than any missile gap ever will be.”

– from Robert L. Griswold, “The ‘Flabby American,’ the Body and the Cold War,” in A Shared Experience: Men, Women and the History of Gender. Edited by Laura McCalled (NY: New York University Press, 1998 )

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A Simple Reminder

By Micheal Yates from The Monthly Review (via Lenin’s Tomb):

“Workers and owners are fundamentally connected and antagonistic along a number of dimensions:

  • It is through the labor of the working class that the goods and services necessary for our survival are produced.
  • It is through the ownership of society’s productive wealth (land, machines, factories, etc.) that the owning class is able to compel that this labor be done. Workers must sell their capacity to work in order to gain access to this productive wealth, since no one can live without such access.
  • In terms of society’s “reproduction” the relationship between labor and capital is essential. So much of what we do presupposes the successful sale of labor power. Without the money from such a sale, nothing appears to exist.
  • The essence of production in capitalism is the ceaseless accumulation of capital, the making of profits and the use of such profits to increase the capital at the owners’ disposal. Competition among capitals both drives accumulation and is driven by it, in a relentless dance.
  • But to accumulate capital, employers must make sure that workers cannot claim possession of all they produce. This means that employers must strive for maximum control of the entire apparatus of production and any and all social forces and institutions that might interfere with this control (for example, the state, schools, and media). At all costs, workers must be prevented from getting the idea that they have rights to the output they produce.”

And:

“Workers comprise the subordinate class. They are normally in the position of having to react to decisions made by others. They are dependent upon employers, and they are at the same time apprehensive of them, since employers hold the power to deny to workers the life-sustaining connection to the means of production. Exploitation, dependence, and insecurity—in a system where workers are bombarded with the message that they and they alone make the decisions that determine their circumstances—make for a toxic brew, which when drunk often enough, creates a personality lacking in self-confidence, afraid to take chances, easily manipulated and shamed (of course, on the bright side, these injuries have given rise to a massive “self-help” industry).

The very subordination of workers, combined with the market mechanism that ratifies and reinforces it, means that capitalist societies will display ineradicable inequalities in variables of great importance: wealth, income, schooling, health care, housing, child care, and so forth. What is more, the market will, absent powerful countervailing forces, not only reproduce inequalities but deepen them, as we have seen so clearly in the United States over the past thirty years. This inequality itself generates its own class injuries. In my book, Naming the System, I cite research comparing the impact of inequality across the United States. It was discovered that, all else being equal, the greater the inequality of income within a state (as measured by the share of income going to the poorest 50 percent of households in each state), the higher the mortality rate. It appears that the psychological damage done to poor people as they contemplate the gap between themselves and those at the top of the income distribution has an independent effect on a wide variety of individual and social health outcomes. Everything we know about the correlation between health and other social indicators and income (a decent though not perfect proxy for class) tells us that working people will suffer in every way.”

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Somnambulant vacuum

The precariousness of short-term contracts and high staff turnover is now taken for granted everywhere, in supposedly worthwhile careers as well as in the temp bargain bin. There is a constant pressure, from the moment of getting a new job, both to keep hold of it and to start looking for another one, as well as actually doing whatever you are paid for; and this means constantly looking over one’s shoulder for the ‘team leader’ wielding the stick of performance targets and appraisals, while also looking ahead at the carrot of career fulfilment kept dangling forever just out of reach. Of course these extra duties leave very little room for other interests, as so much time outside work is spent searching and applying for more jobs (in writing this piece, for instance, I am aware that I am frittering away the ‘free’ time which I should be using ‘responsibly’ by searching for the next vacancy), and work -time recreation is reduced to furtive text messaging or sneaking onto the internet between spreadsheets. Such low-level rebellion has been programmed into the operating systems of working environments, inoculating the institutional network against any real threat: without their umbilical apparatus of mobile phones, iPods and websites, the workforce would surely be unable to function at all. It’s no wonder that, with people drifting off into their disparate myspaces, any atmosphere of camaraderie or collectivity in these transient zones has been replaced by a somnambulant vacuum. Meanwhile, the constant reconfiguring of internal policies, jargon and technology deters contemplation of any larger picture, including the context of the job and how worthwhile or damaging it really is. The scenery never stays still long enough to be able to orientate yourself. “

– an excellent piece from http://shykitten.livejournal.com/24691.html

I feel on the edge of such a situation, never entirely forced into the ‘somnambulant vacuum’ of exhausted dejection and resignation. I have yet to work in a job where I am micromanaged, held to a level of efficiency that is almost inhuman (and certainly will never allow creative or intelligent, independent thought) and fired for showing the least bit of spirit. The waste of bleak, grey water, a sea of computer screens and sloughing eyelids, awaits; I’ve never been in debt, but I may end up there, and destitution and the uselessness of my HBA may bring me under. Unpleasant dystopia, in the most literal sense, because it exists, after all. The capitalist culture at the heart of this is not some passing fade, either; it is institutionalized, firstly, and made a part of ‘management culture.’ A recent article in Profit magazine, amongst several other cold-blooded pieces, argued that an employer should ‘hire slow, fire fast’, solidifying the situation what the post excerpted above made clear: we are to grovel and expend tremendous energy to find a job, but if we should deviate in any way, make a mistake, have an emergency or an injury, we are gone, out on a limb, a used husk to be cast away. Even the ludicrous seminars and help groups the unemployed must visit are ludicrous: how is imposing a ludicrous, jargon-laden way of approaching resumes and interviews anything more than a further way to demonstrate our servility?

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Happy Valentine’s Day

“All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.”

– Karl Marx

“Kenya is gripped by post-election violence and death, and now its prized export is under attack.

Armed escorts are being used to ensure Kenyan roses arrive in time for Valentine’s Day. Kenyan flowers, mostly roses, account for a quarter of Europe’s cut flower imports, and Kenyan growers have been pushing to keep exports up for the holiday.

Ethnic violence has paralyzed Kenya.

Growers have chartered planes, enlisted police to protect flower-truck convoys and made pleading calls to frightened workers urging them to return.

It seems to be working – European buyers say they haven’t seen a shortage of Kenyan roses.

However, flower exports require predictability and, if unrest continues, Kenya’s flower industry could quickly follow tourism as the next shattered pillar of the economy.”

– from the CBC (http://www.cbc.ca/cp/world/080212/w021266A.html)

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