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9 must reads for the 99 percent

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement has gone global. POUND’s Simon Black recommends nine must reads for the ninety-nine percent. Don’t sleep on the books behind the revolution.

Follow the link here.

The Case for Equality

Friday, April 1st, 2011

In my lastest contribution to Canadian Dimension, I review Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level.

A review of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Penguin, 2010

The Spirit Level’s argument is simple: In rich countries, a smaller gap between rich and poor means a happier, healthier, and more successful population. Along a range of social indicators, including teenage pregnancy, mortality, reported happiness, obesity, drug use, and the incidence of violence, more equal countries perform better. Overall quality of life – for all citizens – is thus deeply related to levels of economic inequality.

Wilkinson and Pickett produce data from 23 rich countries and 50 states to make their case. Using plenty of scatter graphs, regression analysis, and short, punchy chapters organized around the various social indicators, The Spirit Level shows that increases in social inequality are the source of many contemporary social problems. More equal Scandinavia and Japan consistently score better than the highly unequal US and the UK. Canada typically sits somewhere in the middle, flanked by the likes of France and Switzerland.

With socialists searching for new answers to old questions in the wake of the global economic crisis, The Spirit Level marks one contribution to something of a social democratic redux. With Third Way social democracy utterly disgraced by its affiliation with neoliberalism, social democratic soul searching has produced some lively polemics of late, from Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land to Will Hutton’s Them and Us. Ed Miliband – who keeps a copy of The Spirit Level close at hand – may be the first leader of a major European social democratic party to openly question the nostrums of the Third Way project and commit to closing the gap between the rich and poor.

This rethinking of social democracy is important. Third Way social democrats weren’t overly troubled by economic inequality; they committed to reducing absolute poverty but left widening disparities untouched. Their focus on targeted social investments in human capital development (through policies like early childhood education and job training) was grounded in predilections about the inevitability of globalized capitalism and the need for workers to adapt to the new competitive environment.

And Third Way disciples such as Tony Blair praised financial deregulation and innovation for the role it could play in ‘growing the economy’. A bigger economic pie, they argued, meant a bigger slice for workers, just a disproportionately smaller one than was dished out to them under the post-war compromise, with CEO salaries and investment banker bonuses reaching grotesque levels under neo-liberalism.

The beauty of The Spirit Level is that it puts economic equality back at the center of social democratic politics. The book’s drawbacks are in failing to adequately address the political limits to economic equality under capitalism. Policies that will affect the distribution and redistribution of wealth, from increasing trade union bargaining power to more progressive income taxes, are recommended by Wilkinson and Pickett. But their argument that policies that create equality should receive broad support across class lines, as it stands to benefit all, is naively optimistic; class struggle still matters. The rich may fear the type of violence that characterizes highly unequal societies, but they are more likely to build bigger walls around their gated communities than raise the red flag of egalitarianism in response. It is the hard work of everyday politics – from community organizing to political education – that will bring about more equal societies. While The Spirit Level doesn’t pretend to be a ‘how to’ guide for political action, it does confirm with hard science what we on the left have known intuitively for years: equality is not only morally right, but good for the mind, body and soul as well.

Published in Canadian Dimension March/April 2011

Of Bails, Boundaries, and Revolution: A Tribute to CLR James

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” So begins Beyond a Boundary, the classic account of cricket and the colonial West Indies by the great 20th century socialist CLR James. The boundary is the outer line which encircles a cricket field; it demarcates the space in which the game is played like the fence and foul lines of a baseball diamond. James insisted that what happened inside the boundary influenced the world beyond it; sport could not be reduced to mere play divorced from the social world.

My column for Canadian Dimension has been, above all else, a cry for the left to take sports seriously; to move beyond a bread and circuses dismissal and see sport as a terrain of social, economic, and political struggle on which class conflict plays out in both odd and familiar ways, gender identities are shaped, formed and subverted, and issues of race and racism are ever-present.

In doing so, I owe debts to modern sports journalists like Dave Zirin, a frequent contributor to some of CD’s American equivalents such as The Progressive and whom I’ve previously featured in this space. But after recently taking the time to revisit Beyond a Boundary, I came to the conclusion that it is on the shoulders of James that many a critical sportswriter stands.

Cricket, the sport of the British colonizer, James argued, cannot simply be understood as a tool of oppression, a sporting companion to the dominant colonial ideology which permeated the institutions and public discourse of the pre-independence Caribbean. The game was a social and historical phenomenon which shaped and was shaped by the social relations of colonialism, class, and race in which it was embedded, and most importantly for James, a site in which these relations could be challenged and transformed in emancipatory ways.

This may seem a heavy burden for a sport which most North Americans view with a combination of curiosity and confusion. But the beauty of Beyond a Boundary is that a reader with little or no knowledge of cricket can appreciate the social weight to which James ascribes the sport. This is both a tribute to the author’s fine analytical skills and brilliant political mind, but also to the simple elegance and rhythm of his prose.

Reading Beyond A Boundary, one sees how the campaign for a black man Frank Worrell (which incidentally James led) to become the first black to captain the West Indies cricket team turned the hierarchy of the colonizer’s game on its head and inspired the struggle for Trinidadian independence. Through James’s critical lens, riots which could greet a bad call by the umpire became expressions of social tension between oppressors and oppressed. And for James, the choice to play for one cricket club or the other reflected desires for social mobility and the state of race relations in Trinidad’s pigmentocracy. James was writing a sociology of sport before sociologists had invented the field.

Brilliantly, James shows a capacity for deep analysis of what can appear to an outsider as the trivial intricacies of cricket. Accounting for the batting prowess of a boyhood hero, James moves through references to Edmund Burke, Michelangelo and Hegel. This is no mere intellectual pose; James weaves the literary with the carnal, the physical with the philosophical throughout Beyond a Boundary. The analysis extends to his own morality, an ethics derived not from Marx but the code of ‘fair play’ to which all good cricketers adhere: “This code,” writes James, “became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me.”(Reading James on cricket one is reminded of Albert Camus’ reflection, “All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”)

Beyond a Boundary was first published in 1963, some twenty years after James’ classic history of the Haitian revolution The Black Jacobins appeared. Born in 1901 into a lower-middle class Afro-Trinidadian household, by the early sixties, James had rubbed shoulders with Leon Trotsky, written and acted in a play with Paul Robeson, served as cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, made significant contributions to Marxist theory and Pan-African thought, organized and agitated for revolution in the United States and national independence in the Caribbean and west Africa. A teacher, novelist, philosopher, historian, and activist, upon his death the Trinidadian polymath was described by the Times of London as the “black Plato of our generation.” (A paragraph-length biography is surely to do violence to one of the great lives of the 20th century; I recommend Paul Buhle’s CLR James: The Artist as Revolutionary as an apology.)

Before James, with few exceptions, sports writing was blind to the ‘social’ in sport, and much of it remains so today. But when sports journalists ask critical questions of the Vancouver Olympics or graduate students develop theses on the cultural meaning of Tiger Woods, knowingly or not they are paying homage to Beyond A Boundary and its author CLR James.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension Vol 44 #5 September/October 2010

From The Flood to an Eathquake: A review of Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Even the most natural of disasters have man-made dimensions. Droughts, tsunamis, and earthquakes do not occur in political and economic vacuums. If Hurricane Katrina had alerted us to this point, Haiti’s earthquake is a tragic reminder.

Just days after the earthquake struck, the US military had commandeered Port-Au-Prince airport, diverting a number of aid shipments from NGOs to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, creating a 48 hour delay in their delivery; priority landing being given to American troops. And while the 82nd Airborne Division was parachuting into the ruins of Haiti’s presidential palace, doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres were scouring Port-Au-Prince markets for a saw to carry out amputations; such was the lack of medical supplies. All this would come as no surprise to someone who has read Peter Hallward’s contemporary history of Haiti, Damming the Flood. Even in the time of their greatest need, the needs of empire seemed to displace those of the Haitian people.

A professor at England’s University of Middlesex, Hallward is better known for his writings on continental philosophy than for his political analysis. But in Damming the Flood, he has produced a biting history of Haiti, uncovering in detail the imperial machinations behind the country’s economic misery and political turmoil. And importantly for a Canadian audience, the role of our government does not escape his critical pen.

Hallward devotes Damming the Flood’s opening chapter to the first two hundred years of Haitian history. Broad in its sweep, chapter one provides the socio-historical context – including the US invasion and occupation of 1915-1934 and American support for the Duvalier dictatorships – necessary to understand the rise of Lavalas (“the flood” in Haitian Kreyol) and its charismatic leader, the liberation theologian and activist Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A popular movement rooted in Haiti’s poor majority, after winning the 1990 presidential elections Aristide and Lavalas challenged the country’s rich and powerful by starting to “dismantle the structures of military and paramilitary oppression that had dominated life on the island all through the twentieth century”. A coup soon followed as the Haitian elite took revenge on Lavalas. Yet under domestic and international pressure, the Clinton administration restored Aristide to power in October of ’94; but this was just the beginning of a decade long struggle between popular forces and those invested in the country’s status quo.

At the heart of Damming the Flood is Hallward’s quest to understand why the international community, including prominent NGOs, came to see Aristide as a ‘threat’ to Haitian democracy a decade after rallying to restore him to power. Re-elected in 2000 with a landslide majority, Aristide was deposed a second time four years later, escorted onto a US forces plane while Canadian troops secured the perimeter of Port-au-Prince’s airport. This curious turn has much to with a President and party who refused to play by the rules of the neoliberal game and sowed the seeds of a social revolution that threatened US imperial dominance. As Hallward writes, since the slave revolt of 1791 which established the world’s first black republic to the emergence of Lavalas, “Haiti is the place where people broke the chains of imperial domination not at their weakest but at their strongest link.”

Hallward reminds us that at its height, Lavalas represented a movement to change Haiti, to wrest control from an elite who have long colluded with international forces in the exploitation of everyday Haitians, leaving them poor and powerless. That movement now lays lifeless under the dust and rubble, the concrete hopelessness of a Port-au-Prince slum. Its resurrection will be testament to a people who have consistently refused to be history’s victims, despite the disasters, both natural and man-made, they’ve so bravely confronted.

Published in Canadian Dimension Vol 44 (2), March/April 2010

Not a Dismal Scientist: A Review of Jim Stanford’s Economics For Everyone

Friday, September 11th, 2009

On the cover of Jim Stanford’s book Economics For Everyone there is a blurb by Naomi Klein that reads, “Stanford is that rare breed: the teacher who changed your life. He has written a book — both pragmatic and idealistic — with the power to change the world.” Anyone who scoffs at Klein’s description is not familiar with the work of Jim Stanford. For Stanford is anything but a dismal scientist: in his economic writing he makes clear complex concepts and processes, cuts through the ideology of the ruling class and their servants in the economics profession, and empowers the everyday people upon whose labour our economy rests. And he does this mercurially through a variety of mediums, whether in his column for The Globe and Mail, appearing on CBC television and radio, or in his work for the Canadian Auto Workers union. He’s Canada’s answer to American public intellectuals such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz — only more radical — and indeed our most formidable political economist since John Kenneth Galbraith migrated south so many years ago.

It’s only fitting then that Stanford would undertake the sorely needed task of writing a popular introduction to modern capitalism. Such books face a dilemma: do they provide a thorough but lengthy guide to the subject or risk dumbing down the material in the cause of accessibility? To his credit, Stanford has written an accessible but methodical introduction to the economics of capitalism which explicates the subject from the ground up, beginning with a discussion of the basics (work, tools, and profit) to the complexity of globalization, financial markets, and the causes behind the peaks and troughs of our volatile economic system. The book’s conclusion, A Dozen Big Things To Remember About Economics, is an excellent capstone which lays bare the absurdity of neoclassical economics. The witty illustrations of Tony Biddle that accompany Stanford’s text make the most serious and demanding subject matter a little more bearable.

Socialists might be somewhat disappointed with the space that Stanford devotes to a discussion of alternatives, but the absence of a blueprint for a democratically controlled socialist economy is less a comment on the author than it is on the current impasse of socialist politics and thought. With the current economic crisis, the book may be in need of a second edition. While the imbalance between the real productive economy and the speculative paper economy that has been a theme of Stanford’s work for years gets decent treatment, Economics For Everyone was published just prior to the global meltdown of the capitalist economy. However, a great addition to the book is the accompanying website (www.economicsforeveryone.ca) which contains lesson plans for educators, including a sample course outline, lecture slides, and a comprehensive glossary of terms. While the lesson plan section of the site is not complete, it is due to be finished in the near future.

All in all, Economics For Everyone is an invaluable book and a necessary addition to the library of popular educators, trade unionists, activists, or any person trying to make sense of the conundrum that is modern capitalism. And as Stanford makes clear, the first step to transforming the system is knowing how it works and for whom. To this end, Economics For Everyone has made a vital contribution.

Published in Canadian Dimension Volume 43, Number 5 Sept/Oct 2009