Was Marx right after all?

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While Marx didn’t say exactly that the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” he did state that under capitalism, poverty would inevitably increase while more and more wealth would concentrate in fewer hands. Increasing profits and increasing wages, he claimed, were contradictory. Adam Smith – the “father” of capitalism – said much of the same thing, by the way. They were right.

Karl MarxMarx’s economic and world views were fermented in the mid-19th century’s industrial age, an age without any of the mass communication technology of today. He was right about many things, but wrong about others. He did not, for example, see the rise of the financial class, nor did he predict the offshoring of manufacturing jobs. To be fair, none of his contemporaries did. But he got quite a bit right, given today’s economic crisis.

Nope, I’m not a Communist, let alone a Marxist, and certainly not an economist. But look around you: if you’re not a banker, investment or hedge fund manager, if you’re not the CEO of an international corporation whose products are being made overseas, if most or all of the manufacturing jobs in your town have moved overseas, if your wages are proportionately lower compared to your expenses than they were a decade ago, if your prospects of a good-paying job are slim because those are getting sparser in your city and being replaced by minimum-wage Mcjobs, or if you live in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland or Spain, then capitalism has probably failed you.

I’m not the only one who thinks capitalism today has serious problems (its failings have been analyzed to the nth degree since the last recession and the US bailout of its financial sector). Many now think that perhaps we should not have dismissed Marx so cavalierly when Communism fell. And some of those who think Marx may have got more than one thing right are pretty prestigious thinkers.

Over at the conservative Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque, author of Betterness: Economics for Humans and The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business, wrote about Marx in late 2011:

Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed. Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but. Yet nothing’s black or white — and while Marx’s prescriptions were poor, perhaps, if we’re prepared to think subtly, it’s worthwhile separating his diagnoses from them.

Marx, it seems, it getting a sort of facelift from intellectuals today; people are beginning to realize that after the Berlin Wall fell, that Communism – a fault-ridden, overly-bureaucratic system few will miss in the nations that cast it off – was not actually based on Marx’s theories, just used Marx as a sort of bumper-sticker economics, so perhaps the old guy deserves a re-think.

In spring 2011, Yale University Press published “Was Marx Right?“, by Prof. Terry Eagleton. He examines ten of the most common objections to Marxism and attempts to demonstrate “what a woeful travesty of Marx’s own thought these assumptions are.”

In an interview with Bezinga in August, 2011, noted economist Nouriel “Dr. Doom” Roubini stated that, “Karl Marx had it right. At some point capitalism can self-destroy itself. That’s because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to capital without not having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand.” Roubini continued, “We thought that markets work. They are not working. What’s individually rational…is a self-destructive process.”

The article that follows goes on to criticize Roubini for his comments, but makes the classic fallacy of not dissociating Marx from Communism, or rather from the systems that took the name Communism but were usually little more than military dictatorships with poorly implemented, centrally-planned economies, and only nodding allegiance to anything Marx wrote. It’s easy to point to the collapse of the Soviet economy and claim it proves that Communism and therefore Marx’s economic ideas were faulty. But that’s really Leninism, and not what Marx meant by “Communism.”

It’s popular among the uber-right in the USA to label anything left of Genghis Khan as “Communist” or “socialist” but that only underscores the intellectual poverty of the right. It doesn’t actually mean anything in the political debate except that you’re arguing with fools.

Communism as Marx saw it was never actually implemented, and probably never could be today. We’re as far from his industrial age world as the Internet is from Gutenberg. But that doesn’t mean that every aspect of Marx’s thinking was wrong. Despite being drearily dense and notoriously difficult to read, his economic works contain some valid points about capitalism that – like his predecessor Adam Smith’s writings – make some salient points about capitalism that we can’t reject by tossing them out with the Soviet-tainted bathwater.

None of the above writers would be classified as Marxists or even neo-Marxists, but there are still some old, dogmatic Marxist thinkers around who treat Das Capital as gospel. As Mike Beggs wrote in Zombie Marx,

What I call Zombie Marx is different – the reanimation of a corpse which still holds organically together in some way. This is the reconstruction of Marxist economics as a coherent body of thought, not a collection of quotations… the need to ground everything in a 140-year-old text…. it is obviously a lot of intellectual hard work to “interpret Marx correctly.” It cannot be taken for granted that Marx was right; it must be proven anew with each generation, against both rival interpretations and the revisions the previous generation had found necessary to make.

Marx got some things wrong. And he got some things right. That’s pretty much true of every economic theory or policy since Adam Smith. Marx was probably more right than some – say Alan Greenspan, whose disastrous economic polices have led to much to today’s problems – but I think the point here is that we should be re-evaluating Marx in light of today’s failing capitalism and not simply dismissing him as the tail wagging the Communist dog.
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Santorum’s ‘faith’ attack incomprehensible

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyIZIiY81Ek”]I really don’t understand American politics. Watching the current campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for presidential candidacy only baffles me further. It’s stunning that so many of the Republican candidates appeal – and do so loudly and consistently – to the lowest common denominator among the population.

Topping my list of Republicans who bemuse me is Rick Santorum. His campaign only proves that you don’t have to be intelligent, open-minded, visionary, well-educated, focused or wise to run for president. He already proved earlier that any fool can become a senator. And now he’s proving that fool can also run for president and apparently get a lot of support.
The more obnoxious, narrow-minded, more critical and more hypocritical you are, it seems the more people will love you and cheer you on. Well, at least the people who share your myopic vision of the world. But there seems to be a lot of them in the Republican camp these days, at least according to the research.

Last week, Santorum turned his rabid attack away from his fellow candidates towards US President Barack Obama. Obama’s agenda, he told a meeting of the Tea Party (the uber-right-religious camp of the Republicans) is,

“…not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phoney ideal, some phoney theology — not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology…”

Despite this claim, Santorum was later unable to actually define what he meant by this outlandish and irrelevant claim, and made some confused statements about Obama “imposing his values on the church.” In a subsequent interview, Santorum clumsily backtracked, and tried to make his comments appear to be about Obama’s “world view,” stating, “I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that is what we’re here to do. We’re not here to serve the Earth. The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective.”

At that point, I would not have been surprised had he then criticized Obama for believing the earth orbited the sun, not the other way around. Santorum’s medieval attitude towards the environment shows that some ideas just never go away, no matter how bad or wrong they are.

To an outsider, even bringing religion into a political debate in a democracy is inexplicable. This is America, after all, not a Middle Eastern theocracy. It’s like criticizing someone because his shoe laces are a different colour. What relevance does faith have to someone’s ability to govern, to understand complex issues, to deal with social, cultural and military challenges? Faith is a private, not a public and certainly not a state matter. Dragging it into a political debate only underscores the paucity of Santorum’s platform. He obviously has scraped the bottom of his shallow barrel of ideas and now has to dip into the non-sequitor of religion.

It is equally baffling why anyone would even want to speak to the Tea Party. Everything I read and see about them further convinces me that they have slightly less understanding of political affairs than my cats do. There is more intelligence at conventions of village idiots than at the Tea Party marches I’ve seen online. Why would any political candidate want to appeal to people who are clearly fools (or as one illiterate Tea Party protester wrote on his sign, “morans” – more Tea Party signs here)?
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There is a real chance Rick Santorum could become the republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election. And if he does, all those bright Tea Party supporters will be expecting him to act in their interest. American may not be a theocracy today, but if Santorum or his religious-right ilk get into power, it will be soon.

Why not a Napoleon theme park?

Napoleon BonaparteThere’s a sarcastic, somewhat-tongue-in-cheek commentary in the Guardian this week, called, “Why not have a Napoleon theme park?” In it, Agnès C. Poirier editorializes on a recent proposal by a French MP to build a theme park in France dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. She writes,

Abroad, observers could be forgiven for almost choking on hearing this news: why not a Stalin or a Kim Jong-il theme park too?

That made me choke, almost pushing my half-swallowed tea through my nose. Imaginations must run very high among her set if anyone can associate Napoleon Bonaparte with two of the Twentieth Century’s most ruthless, genocidal dictators. Napoleon was no Gandhi, but he was certainly not genocidal. And by the way, North Korea just revealed a new, 70-foot statue of the dictator Kim Jong-Il, so can a theme park be far behind?

Agnes offers a backhanded compliment:

In fact, in France, many distinguish between Bonaparte and Napoleon, that is to say the man before and after he became emperor in 1804, when the child of the revolution turned insatiable tyrant. During his 10 years of folie des grandeurs, which cost the lives of more than a million men, he still achieved great things, such as emancipating Europe’s Jews.

Insatiable tyrant? No one who had read in any detail the history of Napoleon’s life and career would label him thus.

Calling Napoleon a tyrant was first done by the British press as a propaganda attack during the Napoleonic Wars. A nursery rhyme warned children that Bonaparte ravenously ate naughty people. Cartoons pictures him as shorter than his actual height (he was 5′ 7″, average for the time). In 1908, psychologist Alfred Adler named an inferiority complex in which short people adopt an over-aggressive behaviour to compensate for lack of height; this inspired the term Napoleon complex, and that has coloured popular impressions of Napoleon ever since.

Napoleon was a complex character, and became increasingly dictatorial as he aged. But I find it hyperbolic to compare him with modern-day tyrants. The term tyrant orginally meant “one who illegally seized and controlled a governmental power in a polis.” It later added “connotations of a harsh and cruel ruler who places his or her own interests or the interests of an oligarchy over the best interests of the general population, which the tyrant governs or controls.” History, as Napoleon famously said, is written by the victors. Thus he has come down to us as a tyrant, rather than a hero.

Napoleon certainly placed family interests over state interests at various times, but also placed state interests over personal ones at times, when he tried to solidify his Europe-wide union of states through marriage and appointment. His reign was not that simply defined as the label suggests. Poirier realizes this, but it seems a grudging acceptance:

Napoleon is a fascinating subject, the study of which requires nuance and subtlety. The man was a tyrant, a genius, a liberator and a conqueror. What you’d call a bundle of contradictions. More than 80,000 books have been written about him and a theme park, rather than just an awkward idea, fits the current fashion in France for “war tourism”.

She then refers readers to a novel by Anthony Burgess, The Napoleon Symphony, rather than any of the thousands of non-fiction works of history, military history or biography. Myself, I’d refer people to Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon for a better appreciation of the man’s military genius. However, Chandler does not cover his social, cultural and political activities (and does not cover the bloody campaign in Spain, because it was conducted by Napoleon’s marshals rather than by Bonaparte personally).

Napoleon’s life is fascinating and complex, and no one can deny he reshaped Europe (not just France) irrevocably. Some of his changes brought Europe into the modern world – he planted the seeds of a united Germany, united Italy, created a continental trade system that resembles today’s European Union, he changed the way armies fought (and how they treated civilians), he emancipated Jews from their ghettos, he challenged social beliefs in the divine right of monarchs, he rewrote laws, promoted science and learning, restored the church that had been almost destroyed in the French Revolution and established religious tolerance, founded institutes and schools, set up networks of communications, improved roads and sewers. He replaced feudal laws with the Napoleonic Code, based on equality and justice.

But why Napoleonland, a theme park based on Napoleon? Probably because it’s about the rise of nationalism in an increasingly complex and difficult European Union (beset as it is with financial woes), it’s about reaction to the popularity of Disneyland in Paris (which attracts 15 million visitors a year and is Europe’s most popular theme park), and it’s about a changing, modern perspective on French history.

Perhaps Napoleonland will be garish and kitschy, as opponents suggest. But perhaps it will instead help the world remember and celebrate a complex, challenging but ultimately great individual whose life and work still resounds throughout Europe today.

What Shall We Do With the Mountain View?

Globe Hotel, 1913Here’s a new song for Collingwood, sung to the tune of What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?

Unbeknownst to council, the town wants to own the Mountain View Hotel for $1.9 million. This little-known fact appeared in the 600-plus page budget document without any fanfare. or even any other sort of notice. You’d have to dig through page after page of mind-numbing arrays of figures to find it.

Normally, when the municipality wants to buy property, we go in camera to hear a staff report that justifies the purchase and we discuss the legal ramifications of the offer. This is done behind closed doors to prevent the potential seller from raising the price, and to prevent competitive bidders from becoming aware, so the property can be bought, then flipped at a profit to the municipality. So I wouldn’t be able discuss it under those circumstances.

This time, however, it’s public, part of the proposed budget. Everyone is able to hear about it before we make any move. Page 364 of the budget reads,

This project is for the completion of the First Street (Hwy 26 Connecting Link) at the Hurontario Intersection. Purchase and removal of Mountainview Hotel, Brownfield restoration and construction of the five lane section as per the First Street design.
This project is subject to MTO funding and successful agreement to purchase the Mountainview Hotel. The project will not proceed without prior funding approval of MTO

I don’t see a lot of “restoration” in this proposal, however.

Globe Hotel, late 1800sOdd thing, that process. Not at all expected. Council never had the opportunity to have a say in the matter before this and it wasn’t identified in our recent strategic planning sessions. During the early budget debate I said the process was flawed: first council should decide if it wants to own the building, then what to do with it, and only after that discussion should we be discussing how much it will cost.

And, I added, it should involve the public in the process.

The Mountain View is the former Globe Hotel, one of Collingwood’s oldest hotels, built in the mid-1800s, just after the town was incorporated. It had one of the most beautiful interiors – stunning woodwork and banisters – in the region. I’m told some of that that woodwork was removed for use in a private home when the hotel was closed. The first pavement sidewalk was laid in front of the Globe. Quite a lot of history in that old building.

The Mountain View was purchased in 2004 from owner John Wheeler, and closed. However, neglect led to internal problems and for a while it looked like it would be demolished. The building was not included within the Heritage District boundaries, nor is it designated a heritage building. Why not? I have no idea. I have asked the heritage committee to comment on it.

The provincial Ministry of Transport, we’re told, wants to widen Highway 26 at the intersection with Hurontario Street, and add a fifth (turning) lane. That isn’t possible, apparently, without demolishing the building. The MOT has not conveyed that request to council, however. As I understand it, this is part of the long-term plan for Highway 26, presented and approved a couple of councils back. We have been told by staff that the MOT will pay for the purchase through “connecting link” payments to the town.

In my view, if the MOT wants the road widened, let the MOT buy it. I would not even consider such a purchase without a written request that not only confirms immediate repayment of any costs (including legal, engineering, etc.), but also acknowledges that it is the province that wants to demolish one of the oldest buildings in town, not the town. I certainly don’t want the town to be the agency that tears it down.

In fact, if the town DID buy it, I would move to have it restored and turned into a community arts and cultural centre. Not demolished. Based on the brouhaha over the Tremont and Livery buildings (and comments made at last Saturday’s open budget session), I would suggest the public would not look favourably on the town demolishing it.

Globe Hotel stampEven if the town gets the money back, the cost (almost $2 million) would probably be debentured – adding to our debt. Most debentures have to be paid out over the full term, and don’t have early closing clauses. Would the town be on the hook for demolition costs as well? Legal and other costs? I don’t know, but suspect so.

Once the road is widened, what will the town do with the oddly-shaped piece of land that remains? It will be too small for development, too small for a park. Wait, I know, a commemorative plaque showing a faded photo of the glory that used to be the Globe Hotel. Or sell it, no doubt at a loss.

As for widening the street: why? As I understand it, narrowing is a commonly used method of traffic calming. It’s used throughout Europe to get drivers to reduce speeds. Isn’t that supposed to be important here,too? It’s mentioned in our active transportation plan. The current street design performs the important role of slowing down traffic at a critical intersection, rather than letting drivers race through town unimpeded. Let’s keep it like that.

The issue will return towards the end of the budget debate. I expect financial considerations will put the proposal on hold, and give council the opportunity to properly discuss it, with, of course, public input.

Let’s get the terms of this debate correct

Aborton cartoonThere’s a recent story in the Winnipeg Free Press with the headlines that, “Liberals fear pro-lifers trying to take over weakened federal party.”

Gawd, I hate such inaccurate, slanted reporting. It’s bad enough when politicians engage in it, but the media should be more objective.

Let’s get the terms straight, shall we? Then we can try for objectivity.

To call one side “pro-life” is to give credibility to the implication that the other side is “anti-life.” That’s spinelessly accepting a one-sided spin on the debate. It appeals to the emotions, not the facts, and certainly not to logic.

Neither side is “anti-life” – unless that life happens to belong to one of your opponents’ abortion doctors. Then it seems to be okay to commit murder. It’s inappropriate to put a ‘pro-life’ label on someone who condones murdering doctors. “Pro-life-except-for-abortion-doctors” is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s honest.

The abortion issue is better described as “pro-choice” versus “anti-choice” – a debate over who has the right to choose: the pregnant woman or some third party, a person usually not associated with the woman by marriage or family ties, and usually whose religious beliefs are not shared by the woman in question.

I doubt that the religious people on the anti-choice side would take well to the notion of someone from a different faith making them follow their different rules. Would they, for example, accept a Taliban decree that all Christian women must wear the hijab? Unlikely. Yet they are quite comfortable making more important and life-altering decisions for people who do not share their particular brand of faith. That’s hypocrisy in my books. But I digress.

Pro-choice versus anti-choice is at least a more accurate label. But it’s also a bit hazy as a description, because some of the anti-abortion side would agree that abortion might be allowable under some conditions (such as the mother’s life being in danger, incest or rape). They may not be entirely anti-choice (although from what I’ve read, they still want an outsider with specific religious views to have the final say, not the woman). Calling them anti-pregnant-woman’s-choice-except-when-we-permit-it, however, is also a bit clumsy for a headline.

You can argue that it’s really “late-life” versus “early-life” supporters, because one of the key issues is when individual life actually takes effect – at conception, at some point in the womb, or at birth. That begins to sound a bit too intellectual and distant from the issue. You also learn when trying to pinpoint a time that there are not two clearly-defined sides on that question, but rather several shades of grey.

In the strictest terms, it is a pro-abortion versus anti-abortion debate, and should not be categorized by any of the emotionally-laden terms each group prefers to see itself as cloaked in. Let’s call it what it is, and not indulge anyone in their propaganda efforts to position their side on the moral high ground.