Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

How to Critique Wealth Inequality without Caring about Poor People

5 Mar

This video on wealth inequality in the United States is currently making the rounds on social media – in my universe anyway – and it got me thinking.

 

It has clearly stirred some people who, in all likelihood, are already stirred about inequality. It probably resonated with people who already believe that the US (and Canada, and the UK) could do a better job ensuring that wealth is divided fairly, if not evenly. It would definitely move you if you cared about what happens to people in the lowest-paid jobs, people who lost their jobs, or people who can’t work for whatever reason. It would compel you if you already believed that no one should slip below a basic, minimum standard of living, no matter what.

But I couldn’t stop thinking of the people who couldn’t give a damn about other people’s well-being. What about people who think the current distribution of wealth – wherein the top 1% of the population takes home 40% (FORTY PERCENT!!!) of all the wealth in the country – is justified? Because there are people who think it’s justified. Or at least that it shouldn’t be messed with.

In the video, the narrator appeals to these folks by pre-empting one of their favoured arguments: that the CEO making 100 times as much as the low-wage worker deserves more because he’s (it’s a he, let’s be honest) working harder. Or he has more experience. Or bigger cojones. Or more “skin in the game.”

The narrator anticipates this retort and says, “sure. But is he really working 100 times harder?”

Even I know, as a young person who makes just enough to afford a house, a cell phone plan, and the occasional dinner out, that this kind of money doesn’t come easy. I’ll spare the details, but it involves both of us working nights and weekends and taking on short-term contracts on top of our full-time jobs, not because we’ll go broke if we don’t, but because we just don’t know what happens next year, or the year after, or when we want to send a kid to community college or retire. Because our jobs come with no guarantees of continuity. Because if we don’t take every opportunity that comes our way, someone will blame us and tell us we didn’t try hard enough when we don’t get permanent jobs in our field. Because the path to success as a young person in academia today is: work yourself to the bone. That’s what everyone else is doing.

But I digress.

As I was watching the video, I thought: how hard the CEO is working is not really the point, for some people. There’s another compelling argument to be made, something that could get the fires of dissent burning in unlikely places. And it revolves around the notion of productivity and economic growth.

When we think about productivity, we often think first of how hard people are working – how much effort they’re exerting, how quickly they’re producing whatever it is they produce, how many breaks they take, and so on. What we don’t always think about is the other key factor in the productivity of a firm, industry, region or country: capital.

In order for a business or a whole bunch of businesses to produce more at a more efficient rate, we need steady and proportionate investment. Wherever money is made, it has to get put back into the economy in order for the economy to keep growing. If the economy stops growing, especially if people keep producing stuff more efficiently by working harder and spreading themselves thinner, we’re going to end up with more people out of work and nowhere new to employ them. And if that happens, the whole capitalist American dream falls apart. The self-made man can’t make himself unless money is flowing freely. 

This has been Canada’s “productivity problem” since the first half of the 20th century. It has never been about ordinary Canadians not working hard enough. The problem has always and everywhere been that the richest people make their money and then they just sit on it. 

To me, this is seems like the most promising, compelling problem for people who don’t give a shit if the people slaving away in the lowest income bracket are eating cat food for dinner. They won’t be stirred by human suffering and indignity, but they might be incensed by the idea of some CEO — the solitary rich guy at the end of the video — not playing his part in a capitalist economy.  

The capitalist’s dream, after all, hinges on economic growth. And capitalists know that economic growth depends on the fluidity of capital. Money needs to flow! In their dreams, it’s always moving. It flows across borders and it never gets taxed. It doesn’t just sit there. But in reality — the reality Americans and Canadians just can’t come to grips with — capital does just sit there. It sits there as what my colleague Larry Haiven calls “lazy capital.”

The lack of investment in new businesses and improvements to existing ones puts lie to the idea that the high-flying CEO has more “skin in the game.” He doesn’t. His skin is safely tucked away in a bank account somewhere.

So I think it’s time we add another slogan to our protest regimen: if you want to be a capitalist, then act like one. 

Now, to let the money start rolling in…

14 Mar

You’ve likely seen at least one list, published in a newspaper’s ‘business’ section, of tips for how to manage that unruly influx of “young punks” wreaking havoc on workplaces around the world: the millennials (or Generation Y). Over at the CCPA’s Behind the Numbers blog, I’ve combined some old material with some newer numbers in a different format to produce my own list of 6 tips for managing millennials. Tip 1? Pay them more than subsistence wages. Read the full list here.

The Feminization of Pinterest

26 Feb

Pinterest, I’ve discovered, is something you learn by doing. And by “doing”, I mean getting sucked in to the site, like Alice going down the rabbit hole, picture-by-picture, pin-by-pin, only to emerge, feeling hungry and lazy (yet inspired), wondering where the last two hours of your life went.

But when you try to explain what Pinterest is, the conversation can go in circles. At least that’s what I found when I tried to explain it to two men. Their reactions were the same:

“But what does it do?”

“I don’t see the utility.”

“What else could you use it for?”

“Could companies use it?”

As someone who’s read a thing or two about gender, femininities and masculinities, it only took a second for me to realize that, in our short conversation, we’d bumped up against the devaluing of the feminine – the very same discursive act that makes remunerating domestic labour (performed for oneself anyway) seem ridiculous. It’s why the “feminization” of certain jobs and industries – sectors where we find more women than men working – usually means a concomitant decline in wages and work standards.

My men-folk don’t “get” Pinterest because they’ve been socialized to see all of the productive activity around kitchens, food, care, family, friendship, fabric, and art as merely aesthetic things people frig time away doing. These are forward thinking guys, mind you; but like the rest of us, they’ve got a lot of cultural baggage.

That’s why they could not see the “utility” of sharing recipes, fashion tips, décor options, kids’ craft tutorials, and ideas for activities and objects – even though these things all create, through their production and consumption, bonds between the people who make and use them.

They are also the sorts of things that contribute significantly to the reproduction of people – healthy, happy, clothed and comfortable people – who go out into the world and do other productive things. They are a crucial, oft-ignored part of what Miriam Glucksmann called “the total social organization of labour.

They’re imperative, connective threads in the social fabric, and yet they hardly register to men and women alike who’ve learned, just by living in a hegemonic-masculine world, to see them as superfluous to the productive stuff of the ill-defined “public sphere”.

Indeed, Pinterest is dominated and driven by women. It’s the first social media site to be that way. As such, it is not entirely surprising that it has become, in a sense, home economics, digitized and shared virally. After all, historically, in nearly every society, and even today (despite some huge changes), women have shouldered most of the responsibility for the labour we call “domestic.” A site dominated by women is going to reflect the offline things that are also dominated by women.

It’s also not terribly surprising that Pinterest is subject to the same commercialization that has crept – or stomped – into housework and carework in the offline world. While my feed on the site is dominated by DIY and one-of-a-kind pins and boards, a still-healthy proportion of the pins I see when I log in are pictures of consumer products – brand-name shoes, fashion magazine spreads, mass-produced pillows and quilts, and exorbitantly-priced furniture. Scrolling or clicking through those pins is like window shopping. I’m sure I’m not alone in pressing my nose to the glass, peering longingly at things I’ll never own.

Pinning designer duds or housewares, meanwhile, seems a rather innocent way to display one’s style without spending a cent. It’s a means of showing your followers what your tastes are, or what your tastes would be if you could have whatever you wanted.

Surely, Pinterest can, does, and likely will increasingly facilitate purchases, but even if there’s never any actual exchange of money for products, the act of pinning a company’s products to one’s board is an act of participation in consumer society. Alternatively, it might be an act of spectatorship.

Either way, it’s at this point in the analysis of Pinterest that another writer might feel compelled to ask, in light of its link to consumerism, whether it’s “empowering” to women.

I am not that writer, because it seems to me that women can’t have any fun without someone worrying about empowerment. I understand why, but I also suspect that often concerns about empowerment stem from anxieties about morality and purity that apply uniquely to women and not men.

I am, rather, cautiously encouraged by Pinterest, as I am by anything that appears to facilitate sharing, caring and ingenuity. I like that aspect of social media, even though I’d prefer to see people getting together in the flesh to cook and craft and care and turn old objects into shiny new ones. I’m not the first person to wonder about the differences between “real” and “virtual” communities and identities, or about what it means for societies and individuals when bonding and communicating takes place online. These are questions that warrant ongoing critical reflection. But they don’t necessarily warrant the alarmism, nor the romanticism about the “real” communities of the past, that they sometimes trigger.

So far on Pinterest, I’ve found instructions for making a bracelet out of inexpensive hardware and twine, and I made it for my best friend, who lives too far away and needs, whether she knows it or not, something to remind her of me. I also found a recipe for breakfast cookies (cookies! For breakfast!), which I made last week and fed to some people (and one animal) I love. I even got inspired to replace the straps on an ageing purse with found materials instead of replacing the whole thing.

If Pinterest can incubate virtual communities of people with that DIY ethic; if it can offer people the opportunity for conspicuous consumption without them ever having to actually buy anything; if it can give parents a way to share ideas directly with one another rather than through a magazine, between chunks of advertising; if it can bring giant waves of attention to tiny, unknown blogs and struggling artists and designers, then it’s doing something useful. The question is, can it survive and grow on a diet of mostly home economics and art? And what, if anything, will the success or failure of Pinterest tell us about the gendered economy? What might it reinforce? And what might it transform?

And now, for something completely different: A Lesson in Spanish, Civility, Hypocrisy and General Douchebaggery with Ezra Levant and Sun News

8 Feb

A few weeks back, Ezra Levant dropped the F-bomb on television. Well, more or less. He did it in Spanish, in the phrase “Chinga tu Madre.” It means what you think it means. The real media (i.e., not Sun), including social media, fired up in response, but the whole tizzy was shortlived. That night, Brian and I heard on the radio that the CRTC had received one complaint. That complaint was from Brian.  The following exchange took place between him, the CBSC and Sun Media’s, um… legal counsel.

First, the CBSC does not understand that the Youtube link Brian sent to them was not the original airing of the phrase. They think Ezra Levant’s show is on Youtube. Anyway.

Dear Mr. Foster,

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) has received your correspondence concerning The Source.  It was forwarded to us by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

Internet content does not come within the purview of the CBSC’s mandate. Since the Codes that the CBSC administers apply only to content broadcast on traditional radio or television, even if it is found on a broadcasters website we are unable to formally pursue your complaint and we definitely cannot deal with content on third party sites such as YouTube. However, if you have seen or heard this content on traditional television, we can deal with your complaint if you send us the time of broadcast for official taping and review purposes. The station, date and time are required for the CBSC to launch its formal complaints review mechanism which could include the review of the logger tape of the broadcast.

Please note that broadcasters are only required to hold logger tapes of their programming for a period of 28 days following the broadcast, so we would need this information as soon as possible. We have nevertheless forwarded your complaint to Sun News Network for their information while we wait for further correspondence from you.

Sincerely,

Mrs. XXXX
Communications Coordinator
Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Brian decides to be helpful and spell things out a little more clearly:

Hi there.
The complaint was about the television show. It aired on the show. On television. As I said in the original note. I also gave the date and the show name. The youtube content was only meant to show the version as it appeared on the TV show…Not sure what else I can do. I’ll forward your note on to my MP, though!  Maybe you folks could look at the tapes and pay attention to the news–where this received a lot of play.
The CBSC takes this one seriously, and informs Brian they’ll move forward with his complaint. They do, and this is how Sun News Network responds:

Dear Ms. Courteau and Mr. Foster:

I am legal counsel to the Sun News network (“Sun News”).  I am writing in response to Mr. Foster’s complaint to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (“CBSC”) set out below concerning a segment broadcast on Ezra Levant’s show The Source on December 22, 2011 in which Mr. Levant used the Spanish-language phrase “Chinga tu madre“.  The segment in question first aired at 5 p.m. ET, and Mr. Levant used the phrase “Chinga tu madre” at 5:10 ET.

The complaint is that the phrase “Chinga tu madre” translates into a particularly offensive insult.

In fact, it is incorrect to assert that that the phrase bears the single meaning cited by the complainant.  A blog post on the Vancouver Sun (which is not affiliated with Sun News) by a Mexican immigrant to Canada named Mario Canseco on January 7, 2012 addresses this point.  Mr. Canseco’s blog post may be found at the following URL:

http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2012/01/07/on-the-proper-definition-of-chinga-tu-madre/

In his blog post, Mr. Canseco discusses Mr. Levant’s use of the phrase in some detail and points out that “[I]n the strictest form, `chinga tu madre’ and `go f@ck yourself’ serve the purpose of a particularly mild phrase: “You are a nuisance, go away.”

Mr. Canseco goes on to discuss the general meaning of the root word “Chingar”, as follows:

“That being said, Chingar can have many, many meanings, depending on the context. “En chinga” means to be in a hurry to finish a task or project. “No estés chingando” means stop bothering me. “Qué chinga” means having to do something that is terribly cumbersome. “Chingadera” means that somebody, or something, hindered your path towards a specific goal. “Chingón” is a person who is great at what they do. “Se chingó” means things did not turn out quite as planned.”

Finally, Mr. Canseco cites the discussion of the word in the work The Labyrinth of Solitude, by the renowned Mexican writer Octavio Paz.  In that work, according to Mr. Canseco, Mr. Paz discusses the phrase “Vete a la chingada” and defines it as “an invitation to send the recipient into `a grey country, located nowhere, immense and empty.’ “

Mr. Canseco was later invited to appear on The Source on January 17, 2012, at which time he expanded on this discussion.   (Because Mr. Canseco’s discussion on that appearance is an important element of Sun News’ response to this complaint, I am arranging to send a copy of the logger tape for that appearance to the CBSC.)  As well as making some of the same points he made in his January 7 blog post, Mr. Canseco noted that “Chinga tu madre” can be (and commonly is) used to mean “Stop bothering me”, or “Get lost.”  Overall, according to Mr. Canseco, there are many ways to look at the phrase, and it is a mistake to regard the phrase as “inviting somebody to do something with their mother.”

The phrase, in other words, has many possible meanings.  Under the circumstances, Sun News submits that it would not be reasonable for the CBSC to conclude that it bears only the meaning asserted by the complainant.

In addition, it is important to note that Mr. Levant originally used the phrase at the end of a detailed substantive monologue concerning what Mr. Levant regarded as the unwarranted intervention of the Chiquita Banana company into the debate over Canada’s oilsands.  This topic is a matter of significant political interest, and Mr. Levant’s discussion of it is undeniably permissible under Article 5 of the CAB Code of Ethics.  The overall discussion, therefore, is fully defensible, both under all codes administered by the CBSC and as a matter of the right to free expression under Canadian law, including section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

By ending his discussion with the phrase “Chinga tu madre”, Mr. Levant was doing nothing more than forcefully expressing his opinion regarding the intervention of Chiquita Banana into the oilsands debate.  In effect, he was putting an exclamation point on his monologue.  Because the phrase is broader in its meaning than the complainant asserts, Sun News submits that its use in this context was entirely legitimate.

For that reason, Sun News submits that this complaint must be dismissed.

Macho Tyson (a pseudonym)

Director, Legal Affairs

Quebecor Media Inc.

Brian forwarded this to me with just one question: Did they just use Octavio Paz to defend Ezra Levant telling Chiquita Banana to go f&%$ its mother? He didn’t respond. But when he learned just yesterday that Ezra Levant was ranting about the CBC using tax dollars to produce “porn”, he was compelled to reply.

Dear Ms. Courteau and Sun News Legal Counsel,

I’ve stewed on this letter for a couple of weeks. I had hoped to address it with the detailed reply warranted by such a literary-studies defence piece. Alas, I simply haven’t the time, resources or interest to further pursue this beyond this note. That is, I suppose, precisely how this usually works. And it is likely why organs like Sun “News” are able to get away with this sort of dishonest, uncivil drivel.

The CBSC would only have to contact a professor of Spanish, or speak with any citizen of South or Central America, or Mexico, to discover that Chinga Tu Madre, without any doubt, is only translatable into an explicit insult. Despite what Mr. Manson claims, there is no hermeneutic ambiguity.

After speaking with Spanish-fluent colleagues and friends I was reassured that there is no alternate meaning. One of my colleagues noted that Sun News Counsel is correct to note that the verb “chingar” has a variety of interpretations in Mexican and South-Central American cultures, by virtue of their colonial past. But their reading of the phrase, as a total, is moot. There is only one possible translation for the phrase “chinga tu madre,” even if the tone with which it is expressed may vary. The same can be said of our use of “Fu#$ You,” which may sound angry, threatening, benign, or playful depending on intonation, but it still means “Fu#$ You.”

I was actually going to let this complaint wither away until I received this gem of legal reasoning from Mr. Manson. Not only is it probably the strangest legal document I’ve ever read, its reasoning is so absurd that it reads like a comedian trying to talk himself out of a bad joke. Not surprisingly, then, after sending this letter to several colleagues I was also told that Mr. Conseco’s reasoning–whose blog post is the core of Mr. Manson’s defence–is actually eerily similar to a number of Mexican stand-up comedians’ bits. It seems a bit cheeky to me, and ought to for the CBSC, that the best legal defence that a counsel can offer is a blog-post that is concerned with the etymology and connotations of Chingar as a word, when what is at issue is the use of a phrase.

Technically, the etymology of Fu#$ can be traced to a pre-obscene meaning in Anglo-Saxon culture, but that does not mean that it is not obscene profanity in contemporary discourse. So while we’re citing comedians, I would refer to the Monty Python bit on the meaning of “Fu#$,” which notes that that word actually comes from the German word “Frichen” which means “to strike.” And as my legal proof I submit the link to this Youtube movie.

Moreover, while we are being cheeky, perhaps I can refer Mr. Manson and the obviously unilingual and literalist writers at Sun News to wikipedia. Simply search Chinga Tu Madre on this page and you’ll see that Mexicans think it obscene enough that it is worthy of a financial fine if someone’s car horn emits the phrase.

Perhaps there is still too much hermeneutic wiggle room in this. So let me refer you to the common and widely used “Google Translate.” If you look at the attached screenshot, you’ll see that–without any doubt–Google translates this to mean “Fu#$ your mother.”

This defence is so cynical and poorly reasoned that it should “vete a la chingada.” By the reasoning of Sun Legal Counsel, I did not just say that this argument should “fu#$ off.” rather I am philosophically suggesting that this argument should be “vanquished to the grey country, located nowhere, immense and empty.” It seems an appropriate suggestion given that Mr. Manson and Sun News seem content to live in a land of grey space where there is, thankfully, no black and white meaning to obvious insults.

Perhaps I’ve made my point by now. This defence is absurd. Mr Levant insulted another person in a different language and will likely get away with it because of the CBSC’s lack of familiarity with Spanish. To the CBSC and Sun News I would say this: if the Mexican government thinks that a car horn that emits this phrase in a public space is fine-worthy, then it is appalling to think that one could use this phrase on Canadian public airwaves and then get away with it by sheepishly pointing out arcane definitions, and etymological root verbs and nouns.

The CBSC should deal with this the same way they would deal with someone saying “fu#$ your mother,” on television. Honestly, I don’t even care about the use of obscenities; I have no sense that some profane line has been crossed. But the hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness of Sun made this follow up impossible to not write. A few days ago Sun News attacked the CBC for using public dollars to create “pornographic content,” committing what Ezra Levant eloquently called the “peddling [of] smut on the public dollar.” I’m glad that Sun thinks we ought to hold broadcasters to some higher moral standards when they use public resources. But if, as Sun itself believes, use of public resources means that one must be held to some higher moral contract with the public, then they have breached that contract in their use of profane language on the public airwaves.

Or is that just another grey zone?

I look forward to a reply, and to the CBSC’s decision to levy some sort of punishment for this transgression of the moral standards that must, as Sun agrees, be held in the highest of esteem when dealing with public resources.

Brian Foster

 


Blog here, blog there

26 Jan

This week, my energy went to this piece on Rabble’s New Era Blog. Check it out, follow the blog, respond in the comments if you want to play along.

You are Working Class

17 Jan

If you’re reading this, you’re working class. Rather, you are probably or likely to be working class—as one of my favourite sociologists once said: “one should always speak statistically. It’s more precise.” Accordingly, I have the numbers to back myself up.

A breakdown of the 2006 workforce by occupational classification shows that, of all of the employed (roughly 85%) and self-employed (roughly 15%) people in Canada, just under 10% are in “senior management” positions. With the possible exception of a smattering of professionals in business and finance (2.5%), university professors (.3%), doctors, dentists and veterinarians (.6%), the majority of the rest of you have to sell your labour to make a living.

Whether you’re in a clerical job (10%), in sales and service (24%), a tradesperson, transport worker or equipment operator (16%), some other sort of labourer in manufacturing (6%) or primary industry (4%), you only get paid if you sell your physical, mental and emotional toil to somebody else, who in turn sells it to a consumer for a profit: a profit you, personally, do not see. Even in the public sector, the police and other protective services (1.6%) and bureaucrats like program officers (1%) have to sell their labour. Their employers don’t necessarily sell it at a profit, but when they look for ways to break even, labour costs are some of the first to get cut.

That’s capitalism, as we know it.

That makes most of us workers.

And that makes us, for most intents and purposes, in the ways that matter to our well-being and security, working class.

Are you still with me?

Class is, and has been for some time in Canada, somewhat of a four-letter-word. Into the ongoing public exchange about Occupy, income inequality, CEO pay, plant and factory closures and labour disputes, a few people have tossed the phrase “class warfare.” Some of them, dismissing critics of income inequality as “envy peddlers,” accuse those critics of raising the issue of CEO pay to incite class warfare, or deem the revelation of upper crust salaries an act of class warfare itself.

Others distance themselves from the term – like My Favourite, Margaret Wente, who tepidly agrees that CEO pay should be “brought down to earth” but reminds us, as though we could ever forget, that she is “no class warrior.”

More often, people don’t want to talk about class at all.

Several writers pointed this out about Western media coverage of the Arab Spring. They noted that most news stories worked with the boiled-down, black-and-white narrative of youth revolting against despotic leaders, ignoring the fact that the real fuel for those fiery revolutions was a rapid decline in material living standards. These were and are class revolts. The despots just made the enemy a little easier to identify.

In the West, even Occupy had to find purchase with numerical categories – the 99% vs. the 1% – instead of the language of class.

But it’s not that class is taboo, necessarily.

In the last federal election, parties fought tooth and nail to win over the “middle class”, a “shrinking” category of Canadians who ostensibly sit “around the kitchen table”, send their grown children to universities and colleges.

Rather, it’s that class has become detached from its more logical moorings to one’s position vis-à-vis the “means of production”—the levers of power, really—and has drifted to the shores of income, lifestyle and subjective distinctions between certain “tastes”, as Bourdieu might put it.

Class has become something you decide and display, with the things you buy, what you wear to work, where your kids go to school. It has come to be determined, in our minds anyway, by your place of work and the company you keep, and not the very simple division between those who have to sell their labour for income, and those who buy the labour of others and reap the profits on whatever that labour produces.

The division is simple, yes, and in many cases overly simple.[1] It’s way simpler than how Marx would put it. But generally, there is one very important difference between the two groups: the amount of control they have over what is done when profits slip, or when it becomes possible to increase profit by decreasing labour costs. And therein lies the inescapable bit, no matter what colour your collar: it is only in the immediate interests of one group to decrease labour costs.

I hate to break it to you, honey boo boo chile: you likely aren’t in that group.


[1] Admittedly, there are groups, e.g. university professors, who sell their labour but have a great deal of control over the “means of production”—in this case, their brains—but they lack control over certain working conditions, and they are increasingly at risk of having benefits chopped and job security minimized.

What we are waking up to

13 Nov

Historian Niall Ferguson’s newest book, Civilization: the West and the Rest, argues that the West achieved its “dominant” place in the world by developing six “concepts” that other polities did not: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. The development of these six stars of Western society meant, and continues to mean, that other societies have been left in the dust.

The tautology of it aside (the West has these 6 things, the West is dominant, ergo these 6 things are the markers of success), along with its exceptionalist and colonialist underpinnings, there’s a growing reason to doubt Ferguson’s argument.

Parade of Cree Indians at H.B. Co.'s 250th Anniversary Celebration, Edmonton, Alberta. 1920. Library and Archives Canada / PA-040722

The book has launched just as the West’s superpowers are waking up, to varying degrees, to something discomfiting: the possibility that they might not qualify for the title of “dominant society.” The West may well be “dominant”, sure – but it is hardly a “society.”

I’ll explain.

There is a dead-end street in my hometown, steps away from one of the largest shopping malls in Atlantic Canada, where the houses are large, the driveways are wide, and there isn’t a sidewalk or a front porch in sight.

It would be an overstatement to say that the neighbourhood’s residents don’t see each other, but it probably isn’t far-fetched to say that its design means that neighbours are more likely to see one another through the windows of their cars than they are to encounter one another outside, face-to-face.

At the end of that dead-end street, there is a small playground—one colourful play structure jutting out of a bed of pea gravel, bordered by pressure-treated railway ties. It belongs to no one, and is accessible to anyone. A few metres away, in the modest backyard of the large house closest to the playground, there is an almost-identical play structure, intended only for the members of that household.

1930s Playground - St. George's Island, Calgary. Library and Archives Canada / PA-040791

This is the Canada in which my generation—and even more of its successors—grew up. It is a place where the costs of good living—of recreation, education, health care, arts and culture—are increasingly shouldered by individuals, rather than shared collectively by a community.

It is tempting to blame governments for doing this to us, but it only takes a look around (at redundant, private playgrounds where community playgrounds are within spitting distance, at people driving cars to work on the same routes that near-empty buses take) to realize that we have done it to ourselves.

King Street East, Toronto. 1907. Library and Archives Canada / RD-000422

People in other Western polities are fidgeting in the face of this realization too. In a recent interview in the Toronto Star, prominent U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs relayed the basic premise of his newest book, also about civilization. It caught my eye because Sachs put it, as I do, in generational terms:

“I have found in my own generation, among my colleagues and among people whom I know well, a kind of loss of civic virtue, a disappearance of responsibility, and I have hoped and believed that the young generation is ready to help lead in a new era…”

The “loss” Sachs is talking about struck the same chord as Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay did a few days earlier, speaking on CBC radio about his city’s response to the Occupy movement there.

Unlike my hometown’s mayor, who sneakily evicted Occupiers from Grand Parade after they agreed to move temporarily to make room for the city’s major Remembrance Day ceremony (the ceremony that celebrates veterans who fought for our right to express dissent and speak freely – a principle integral to liberal democratic society), Montreal’s mayor welcomed the Occupiers. “We’re willing to spend time to show the world that we care,” he said.

“The leaders of state in 1948 signed a declaration of human rights; everyone wants equality and liberty which are two of the values in that important charter, but they forgot there’s another value, which is fraternity, or if you prefer brotherhood and sisterhood or solidarity.”

(The full transcript of Tremblay’s segment is available on Tim Querengesser’s blog.)

Sachs and Tremblay are just two of the voices echoing in a void that many others do not, or do not want to notice. That void is where we would find fraternity, responsibility, civic virtue and the other forms of true interdependence that make a society a society and not just a mass of individuals who happen to be standing side-by-side.

The void did not happen overnight. Sociologists and Political Scientists, mostly in the U.S., were the canaries in the coal mine, shrieking warnings about the imminent “collapse” of community (Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone), the dangers of individualism (Robert Bellah and colleagues’ Habits of the Heart) and the “corrosion of character” that happens when individuals and communities get “confused” about their proper connection (Richard Sennett’s Corrosion of Character).

These warnings were troubling in their time, but they were also shrugged off. Critics responded that the U.S. had never been all that much better, or that these “diagnoses of decline” saw a disappearance of community where there was, in reality, just a reorganization of it.

But what we are waking up to now, in certain circles and with varying degrees of clarity, is the realization that so many of our putative “advances” have actually marked the blurring of the once-defended boundary between the market (whatever that is!) and the civil sphere; we have allowed society, as an idea and ultimately as an entity, to be subsumed and supplanted by market.

The latter has the capacity to give us the narrowest, economic version of “equality and liberty” we want – or so we thought, until Occupy reminded us how far we are from both ideals, in economic terms – but unregulated and in the absence of critical reflection, it cannot give us the values that spring from recognizing our interdependence: fraternity, civic virtue, and community responsibility. In fact, the market-society (a contradiction in terms), actually survives (and thrives, for those shrinking few on whose whims the stock markets rise and fall) on our collective blindness to the things that bind us together in relations of interdependence.

It survives especially on our reluctance to be dependent on anyone but ourselves, our castigation of those who are dependent on others, and what Sachs called “the demonization” of the main economic measure (redistribution via taxation) that is meant to institutionalize and streamline our interdependence. What we are waking up to is the sad fact that we need these measures to be institutionalized, because without them, we will let each other down.

%d bloggers like this: