Welcome to the Occupation


In many ways, the most remarkable thing about the global Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) protests is that they haven’t happened sooner. It has been a full decade since the anti-globalization movement imploded in a mess of its own internal contradictions, and I am honestly surprised that left has taken so long to self-organize into another mass protest movement. I would have expected that the knee-capping of the world economy three years ago and the subsequent decision to make everyone except those primarily responsible bear the brunt of the pain would have catalyzed some sort of march on the plutocracy. 

Perhaps the left was biding its time waiting to see what Obama might bring to the table.  Perhaps it was wrong-footed by the Tea Party, which stole a march on the whole idea by taking to the streets from from the other side. Maybe it was still too busy with the wrong-headed troops-out campaign against the war in Afghanistan. And maybe this is exactly the sort of unrest that lots of smart people have predicting would be the consequence of unchecked growth in inequality. At any rate, no one should be too surprised at what is going on: by the mere swing of the pendulum, we were due for a gathering of the left-wing tribes.

Overall,  my views on the usefulness of this sort of protest have not changed much since The Rebel Sell. But my general disdain is leavened in this case by three thoughts. The first is that inequality is a growing problem that all of us need to pay more attention to. And second: to the extent that inequality is magnified by a financial elite that has effectively discovered a way to game the American banking system, then Wall Street is the right and proper target of mass protest.

But finally, and maybe primarily, I'm increasingly inclined to think that regular mass public gatherings are useful for their own sake. Since Canadian prime ministers both Liberal (Jean Chretien: APEC Vancouver 1997) and Conservative (Stephen Harper: G20 Toronto, 2010) have no problem spitting on the constitution and unleashing the full and illegal power of the state against protesters when it suits them, it is probably valuable to assert the right to freedom of assembly pretty much whenever it pleases, for whatever reason at all. 

With that throat-clearing out of the way, here are some pieces  -- some by me, some by people a lot smarter than me – that I think help put the protests in a wider intellectual frame.

An essay by Joe Heath on why the banks didn’t actually go crazy.

An article I wrote last year for Canadian Business on the hard problem of inequality, and a follow up blog post exploring why it’s even harder than I thought.

Trent history prof Robert Wright situates the #OWS movement within the longer traditions of left-wing popular protest.

A column by me for the Ottawa Citizen on what it will take for the protests to be successful.

An excellent analysis by the economics professor Mike Moffat on why the 99 percent don’t really want to fix inequality.

 A thinkier sort of column I wrote on why governments are suddenly so keen to talk about happiness instead of economic growth.

Finally, I'm quoted in this story for the Canadian Press about the intellectual origins of #OWS. And Joe Heath gets a look-in at the end of this story about how Mark Carney called the protests constructive.



Annals of Stunt Leftism

Photo: Pat McGrath, the Ottawa Citizen

Perhaps feeling a bit put-out by the media attention being (finally) devoted to the Occupy Wall Street (#OWS, for those on Twitter) movement, an alliance of Canadian and European anti-free trade activists wheeled a Trojan Horse up to the gates of Parliament Hill in Ottawa today. In case the point of the action was lost on those not versed in Greek mythology, or perhaps those who have been struck on the head by a large rock, Canada's celebrity trade opponent Maude Barlow was on hand to explain why Canada and the EU should not have a trade pact.

"Just like the Trojan horse behind me, this trade deal carries huge threats," Barlow said.

In response to the appearance of the 14-foot high theatre prop, Gerald Keddy, parliamentary secretary to Canada's Trade Minister Ed Fast, admitted that he finally understood why the trade deal was so wrong-headed. "I was a big supporter of free trade with the EU until I saw that horse coming up Wellington Street," Keddy said.

"Only now, thanks to this literal Trojan Horse, do I understand that a trade deal is a metaphorical 'trojan horse' introduced into the Canadian economy," he went on. "I wish to thank Ms. Barlow, and her European co-protesters, for bringing this to my attention in such an unmistakable manner. I will be consulting with Mr. Fast and advising him of my opinions immediately."

I kid. He actually dismissed the concerns as being raised by "special interest groups ideologically opposed to free trade."



A Local economy yes, but only if it's hip

Over the course of what could have been just a routine column about gentrification, transit, and the demise of local manufacturing, Ginia Bellafonte of the NYT takes the argument over the future of the Brooklyn Navy Yards to a very interesting place:

The value of a well-maintained and high-functioning public transit system — vital to people, vital to the economic ecosystem — would seem self-evident; the value of ambitious job creation, equally so. In a sense, another obstacle to these plans is cultural: the romance much of the country still has with American manufacturing doesn’t really hold sway in New York, where love affairs, now, are more likely to be forged with the artisanal pickler, the imaginative sausage-maker, the émigré in Red Hook who would seem to possess a doctorate in mahogany. New York would do well to revitalize (and glamorize) old-school labor; the city should feel more hospitable to working people than it looks.



Welcome to the desert of the young

From silver jumpsuits to feather-haired space-babes, seventies sci-fi got the future wrong in any number of ways. But perhaps the most laughable prediction is that western society would suffer from gross overpopulation, which would force us to either euthanise anyone except the young (e.g. Logan's Run), or turn the extra people into food (e.g. Soylent Green). What has come to pass is something far more sinister, viz., a nearly child-free gerontocracy where the entire productive capacity of society is directed towards the needs of the aged, while children are hounded from the streets and playgrounds by Baby Boomers in search of late-model forms of self-actualization.


You don't have to live in Japan to see where things are headed; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada will do just fine. Last week was back-to-school – which once was celebrated as the time when the fruit of our collective loins would go off to play and learn and generally become socialized into our cultural norms, so that they could grow up and get jobs and have kids and keep us in our own, inevitable dotage. But in Ottawa, a group of sour-faced old-timers decided that the mere sight of children on their way to school was an affront to their preferred lifestyle.


The residents of Farincourt Crescent, an “adult lifestyle” housing development in the city's east end, were outraged at the parade of school buses (NINE of them!) that used the crescent each day. No kids were being picked up mind you, they were just turning around. One of the residents, Pat Carriere, had this to say:


“We feel that as an adult lifestyle community we should be allowed that peace of mind,” Carriere said. “Our children are grown up, we’ve lived through this.”

But Carriere insists that her group does not want to be seen as anti-child. Not at all:

“We don’t want to be seen as crotchety old grey-haired people,” she said. “We bought into this lifestyle. We paid extra money for it and we feel we deserve our peace and quiet now.”


Except that's the precise definition of being anti-child, namely, that you will pay money to keep them out of sight, and are willing to even picket the buses to keep them off your street. Even if that street is actually a public roadway, as Farincourt Crescent is.


My colleague at the Ottawa Citizen, David Reevely, thinks that while the anti-kid sentiment is unpleasant, perhaps the city should try to find some way of meeting the demands of the adult-lifestyle crowd. I'm not so sure. The demographic crisis that we are heading into is probably the single most serious problem that we face. The view that kids are just another lifestyle choice, and one favoured by an unpleasant minority at that, is one that needs to be cut off at the knees.


As our population ages, we are becoming extraordinarily risk averse. To see this in action, go to any playground and watch the helicopter parents hovering around Schuyler and Banjo as they bump their kiddie bike helmets against the soft sand of the playground. Increasingly, this deep-seated aversion to risk is permeating the culture, with entrepreneurialism and adventurousness giving way to a fixation on comfort and security. People approaching retirement are less keen on long-term or volatile investments, and to the extent that the economy of the future will be built on creativity, flexibility and innovation, the absence of high-risk venture capital will make us more rigid and brittle. Eventually, our entire social infrastructure will tilt toward the needs of the elderly; spend an hour watching the ads on the CBC and you can see that soon enough the only growth industries will be life insurance, reverse mortagages, and cures for erectile dysfunction and incontinence.

By mid-century, this continent will be a de facto gerontocracy. For the few children who do manage to make an appearance, living here will be like one long visit to grandma and grandpa's house. Remember what that was like? All the attention was nice, and it was fun to get a handful of sweets or a ride in the old clunker.

But the place smelled a bit strange, and the environment was really not all that welcoming to kids. Fun as it was, it was always a relief to leave. Where the kids of 2050 will escape to, when the whole country is one big retirement village, is anyone's guess.



On the true true

I asked Meronym if the Abbess spoke true, when she said the Hole World flies round the sun, or if the Men o' Hilo was true sayin' the sun flies round the Hole World.

Abbess is quite correct, answered Meronym.

Then the true true is different to the seemin' true? said I.

Yay, an' it usually is, I mem'ry Meronym sayin', an' that's why true true is presher'n'rarer'n diamonds.


David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas


Delinquents discover the flashmob: How Plato explains the London riots

When Canadians trashed their prettiest city, Vancouver, after the Canucks lost game seven of the Stanley Cup finals earlier this summer, I argued that the simplest explanation was that rioting is just great fun. I don't see much going on in London that inclines me to change that analysis in any significant way, notwithstanding the usual parade of columnists singling out the usual contradictory mix of suspects: race, poverty, the police, the welfare state, and so on. 

There are a few aspects of the English riots that distinguish them from what went on in Vancouver, the most obvious of which is the viral or contagious angle, with the rioting skipping from London to Birmingham to Liverpool, Leeds, and other cities. Another is the presence of widespread looting, which played a minor role in Vancouver. 

What all this demonstrates, I think, is that in any society, at any given time, there is a certain number of people, mostly young men, who would gladly engage in criminal behviour with very little prompting. What they face is the same problem that confronts rioters and criminals alike: it is a coordination problem. Just as guys who want to riot for fun have difficulty finding a critical mass of fellow rioters, criminals have a hard time identifying and coordinating their behaviour with other criminals. 

That is why there is such a thing as organised crime. And that is why organised crime resembles the family or the state in so many ways: For much of human existence, the family and the state have been the most effective mechanisms for solving coordination problems amongst self-interested individuals. 

Social networking, especially BlackBerry Messenger, provides a simple way of solving the coordination problem. Kids have been organising flashmobs for years now, descending on subways and city centers to have impromptu dance parties or pillow fights. In China, consumers have been using social networking to organise group shopping expeditions, where they descend upon a retailer and use the pressure of 50 to 100 orders to extract deep discounts from the shop owners. It is not a big step from that to having 100 people show up to loot the electronics shops. 

But doesn't this indicate a deep social malaise? Isn't there something deeply wrong with a society where so many people are willing to act in a criminal and even violent manner with very little prodding? Well yes, and you can't discount the role of poverty and especially unemployment. Being unemployed sharply reduces the risks associated with getting caught: If I get caught rioting, I'm probably going to lose my job and my professional reputation. If the local chav on the dole gets caught, what does he have to lose, really? If anything, an ASBO or a spell in prison will increase his status.

But that sort of explanation operates on the margins. At the core of what is really happening in London, as in Vancouver, is the power of social networking tools to provide instant and large-scale anonymity. Who knows what evils lurk in the hearts of men? Plato knew. Or at least, his mouthpiece, Glaucon, knew. In Book 2 of the Republic, Glaucon tells the story of Gyges of Lydia, who finds a ring that has the power to make in invisible. He uses this power to make his way to the palace where he seduces the queen, and with her help he murders the king. Is Gyges any difference than the man on the Clapham omnibus? Glaucon thinks not:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.

Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.

For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. --Republic, 360-b-d

Is Glaucon just a cynic? Are most people genuinely just?  If you don't think that merely becoming anonymous has the capacity to suddenly turn someone into an anti-social monster, then you haven't been reading the comment boards on the websites and blogs run by Maclean's, the Globe and Mail, the CBC, and so on. Those horrible people writing those nasty things aren't drooling troglodytes sitting in their parents' basements; they are your husbands and wives, your colleagues, your doctor and your lawyer and everyone else you know. 

You want to know what sort of person joins in a riot and trashes their city and loots their neighbour's shop? Look around you. Or better, look in the mirror. 



Art, Alcoholism, Amy Winehouse

I remember the first time I heard Amy Winehouse sing: I was driving with a friend, she said check this out, and put on “Rehab”. I loved it immediately – for the song and her voice, yes, but mostly the lyrics: The casual defiance, the stick-it-to-the-man refusal to go along with Square Society’s medicalization of boozing.  Which is weird, because I actually co-wrote a book critizing that very attitude – the studied rebellion that treats every institution, from grade school to the hospital, as part of the great conformist system of mass society.

But love it I did. We all did, for mostly the same reasons. Why should Amy Winehouse go to rehab? After all, weren’t her problems – her drinking, the drugs, the depression and the self-harming – the very font of her art, her creativity, and her soul?  “Rehab” became a rallying cry for barflies everywhere.

In a previous blog post, I wrote a bit about how that sort of thinking might have helped underwrite her creative authenticity, her license to sing the blues. But it strikes me that there’s another problem, which is that the popular reception of a song like “Rehab” shows that, despite decades of public education on this issue, we still don’t take seriously the proposition that alcoholism, drug abuse, and even depression, are actual illnesses.

Imagine if, instead of being an alcoholic, Amy Winehouse had cancer. And imagine she wrote a song called “Chemo” with the lyrics “they tried to make me go to chemo, I said ‘no, no, no’”.  Or if she had an infection, and she sang “they tried to give me antibiotics, and I said ‘no, no, no.” It would be a joke. Yes, there are some people out there who believe that chemotherapy  and even antibiotics are a medical conspiracy, but they’re lunatic fringe.

But deep down, most of us don’t quite accept that alcoholism is a disease like any other. It’s self-destructive, sure, but there’s also something romantic about it.  These are not new observations: the celebration of fucked-up artists is one of the defining features of our culture. When Amy Winehouse recorded “Rehab,” she was telling the world that she didn’t buy into the notion that her drinking was an illness that needed treatment. When we bought the record by the millions and gave her a Grammy for it, we told her we agreed.



The American President

“What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” contains at least a partial truth. “What’s good for the Presidency is good for the country”, however, contains more truth. Ask any reasonably informed group of Americans to the identify the five best presidents and the five worst presidents. Then ask them to identify the five strongest presidents and the five weakest presidents. If the identification of strength with goodness and weakness with badness is not 100 per cent, it will almost certainly not be less than 80 per cent.

Those presidents – Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Wilson – who expanded the powers of their office are hailed as the beneficent promoters of the public welfare and national interest. Those presidents, such as Buchanan, Grant, Harding, who failed the defend the power of their institution against other groups are also thought to have done less good for the country. Institutional interest coincides with public interest. The power of the presidency is identified with the good of the polity.


-- Samuel Huntington, "Political Development and Decay"


Amy Winehouse and The Authenticity Trap

Before I could rouse myself to write something on this, Amanda Petrusich has done a bang-up job for Salon. Her central claim is that Winehouse's struggle with addiction gave her the sort of credibility to sing the blues that normally wouldn't be open to a young, white, jewish, girl from London:

Addiction is a fundamentally different kind of hardship, but Winehouse’s life wasn’t charmed. She had credibility, suddenly, and that trumped everything else -- race, circumstance, origin. She made dozens of unforgivable professional and personal mistakes, but no one could accuse her of being full of shit.

Read all of Petrusich's piece, I think it gets it exactly right. The only thing I would add is that I wonder to what extent, if any, Winehouse felt obliged to continue to draw from that well of authenticity. That is, I wonder if Winehouse, like others before her, bought into her self-image as a messed-up singer of the blues, which made it that much harder for her to get clean.

I'm not suggesting she was simply playing a role, or that she killed herself in the name of cred, but there is a powerful looping effect in all of our identities. All identities are social constructs which get their power from being recognized by others. As a result, there is a looping effect in our identity construction, where we internalise the norms that govern our chosen (or assigned) identities. When the norms of a given identity contain a built-in mechanism for both radicalisation and self-destruction (as they do for an identity like "messed-up singer of the blues"), it is not hard to see how it could become literally inescapable.

I made a similar argument in my refereeing of the spat between M.I.A. and Lynne Hirschberg, for Mediaite:

The problem is that M.I.A. herself buys into the authenticity hoax. This drives her to counter the charge that she’s a hypocrite or a sellout by ramping up the “political” dimension of her art and her persona – she needs people to see that for all her money and security, she’s still Maya from the ‘hood. And so we get her recent video for the song “Born Free”, which features what appears to be an American SWAT team hunting down and killing red-headed males. Politically, it’s completely obtuse, but it is pretty much what happens when the need to be seen as “radical” overwhelms all other artistic considerations.



Against Farmers' Markets

Via @withoutayard, a short, sharp, (and self-aware) takedown by Jay Rayner of the pretensions of the farmers' market:

We believe that, in spending ludicrous sums on this wonderful food, we are making a stand against The Man. We are turning our faces against the supermarkets, promoting true British agriculture, supporting a way of life that is in danger of being lost. There is a technical term for all this: bollocks.




About that debt-limit crisis...

Political liberty—that is, the ability of societies to rule themselves—does not depend only on the degree to which a society can mobilize opposition to centralized power and impse constitutional constraints on the state. It must also have a state that is strong enough to act when action is required. Accountability does not just run in one direction, from the state to society. If the government cannot act cohesively, if there is no broader sense of public purpose, then one will not have laid the balance for true political liberty.

A political system that is all checks and balances is potentially no more successful than one with no checks, because governments periodically need strong and decisive action. The stability of an accountable political system thus rests on a broad balance of power between the state and its underlying society.

From Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Public Order, p.431



The confrontations of philosophy

It's been a while since there's been a good philosophy bunfight. Certainly, nothing to match the glory days of the late nineties, when Daniel Dennett engaged in a couple of running disputes, one with Jerry Fodor, another with Stephen Jay Gould. (The Gould one got particularly nasty; at one point Gould wrote something like "if Thomas Huxley was known as Darwin's bulldog, Daniel Dennett is Richard Dawkins' lapdog").

But there might be one a-brewing. For years now, the ethics community has been waiting for Derek Parfit's two-volume epic, On What Matters, drafts of it have been circulating for a while. I've never liked Parfit's work -- I was forced to read his Reasons and Persons as a grad student, and I'll never forgive my supervisor for insisting on it. Nor do I find the overarching mission of On What Matters -- to show how Kant and Mill can be shown to be arguing the same thing -- to be an interesting or useful project.

I'll never read the books, but the reviews from people I respect are devastating. Tyler Cowen writes "I see the biggest and most central part of the book as a failure, possibly wrong but more worryingly “not even wrong” and simply missing the questions defined by where the frontier — choice theory and not just philosophic ethics — has been for some time." And that's no good, since Cowen had earlier been cheerleading the work as the philosophical equivalent of a Beatles reunion tour. 

But more devastating still is the review from Simon Blackburn, which the FT declined to publish. Blackburn opens his review by praising the publisher for getting the book's price point down to a nice level, and the compliments only get more backhanded after that. As for the question that leads the second paragraph ("So is this, as Peter Singer hailed in the TLS, the most significant contribution to moral philosophy since 1874, when Henry Sidgwick sculpted his own great tombstone, The Methods of Ethics? Or is it a long voyage down a stagnant backwater?"), it's probably not necessary to say upon which horn of that dilemma Blackburn impales his subject.

Given how much time and intellectual effort Parfit has spent on this, and how many people's reputations are at stake (Parfit apparently lists 260 philosophers who have helped him), there has to be a response. It can only get more entertaining from here.


Zizek on Western Buddhism and Authentic Fundamentalism

A friend flagged me a ten year old piece by Slavoj Zizek on the relationship between global capitalism and Westernized forms of Buddhism that advocate milquetoast exercises in  "retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being."

Making the necessary changes, that's pretty close to my argument in AH that the search for authenticity is an attempt at carving out an inner space of original meaning, hiving the self off from the disenchanted world of liberalism/secularism/capitalism. We also seem to agree on the upshot of that move, which is that "although 'Western Buddhism' presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement." That is to say, Western Buddhism/authenticity-seeking is not an antidote to the modern world, but a chief driver of its worst excesses.

But that all comes in the opening paragraph, and the rest of the piece is typical Zizek -- moments of real insight larded with pretentious musings that don't go anywhere. He quickly  abandons the idea of Western Buddhism and its relationship to capitalism, and instead wanders into a debate about the difference between a symptom and a fetish, then slides into a long excursion into our views on Tibet. I guess there's a connection there, but I don't really see it.

But then he comes back to something interesting at the end, when he distinguishes authentic fundamentalists from those fundamentalists who look on with a combination of horror and envy at the activities of sinners. For Zizek, this is the difference between the Amish and the Moral Majority, though there is obviously room for a riff on forms of Islamic fundamentalism as well. He concludes, then, with this not entirely crazy consideration of multiculturalism (my emphasis added):

Moral Majority fundamentalists and tolerant multiculturalists are two sides of the same coin: they both share a fascination with the Other. In the Moral Majority, this fascination displays the envious hatred of the Other's excessive jouissance, while the multiculturalist tolerance of the Other's Otherness is also more twisted than it may appear—it is sustained by a secret desire for the Other to remain "other," not to become too much like us. In contrast to both these positions, the only truly tolerant attitude towards the Other is that of the authentic radical fundamentalist. ­

The remaining question, then, is whether one can be authentically multicultural, on Zizek's terms? I think so. It seems to me that Zizek is relying on a rather narrow, and perhaps more European, notion of multiculturalism that rests on the notion that cultures are encouraged to retain their traditions as much as possible, and that asking them to assimilate is to do violence to their authentic identities. To the extent that that is how European multiculturalism works, perhaps Zizek has a point. But it isn't how multiculturalism has to work, and it certainly is not how it functions in a country like Canada. I've explained how Canadian multiculturalism works in a column for Maclean's, and explore the consequences for these differing Euro and North American approaches in a followup piece online, about assimilation rates for Muslims.




Death of a Counterculturalist

Theodore Roszak, the sociologist who coined the term counterculture, has died at 77. His book “The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society” was extraordinarily influentional. Or should I say, is extraordinarily influential: the book was published in 1969, but it remains the definitive critique of the alienating effects of techno-capitalism, and his proferred solution -- youthful dissent -- is the air that every self-styled political non-conformist breathes.

More than any other book (including No Logo), Roszak's Making of a Counter Culture was the chief foil for the argument that Joe Heath and I advanced in The Rebel Sell. In his last work, Roszak argued that "the idealistic values of the 1960s would inspire millions of baby boomers in their last years"; the sad truth is that he was right. The hippies didn't sell out when they became yuppies, they simply traded their VWs for SUVs. And now that they are heading into retirement, they are looking for authenticity. The hoax, unfortunately, remains the same.




Health and the City: "Suburbs Rule!"

From today's WSJ, a report by Melinda Beck on the latest County Health Rankings that gives state-by-state comparisons of health measures in every U.S. county. City people are healthier and live longer than people in rural areas, but the real action is in the suburbs:

In many measures, residents of suburban areas are the best off. They generally rate their own health the highest and have the fewest premature deaths than either their urban or rural counterparts. Suburbanites also have the fewest low-birth-weight babies, homicides and sexually transmitted diseases.

"Suburbs rule!" says CHR deputy director Bridget Booske, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute, which produces the rankings with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


For further reading, here's a piece I wrote last year for the New York Post, In Defense of the Suburbs.


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