Monday, June 09, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Buttonwood weighs in on the disproportionate influence of the ultra-rich when it comes to making policy choices which affect all of us:
But the analysis backs up earlier work by Larry Bartels of Princeton, author of a book called “Unequal Democracy”, and the general thesis of the late political scientist, Mancur Olson, that government can be in hock to special interests. This may be truer in America than elsewhere since its campaign-finance laws are so liberal: $6 billion was spent on the 2012 elections. This system forces candidates to spend much of their time raising money from the wealthy and from business. Even if no direct quid pro quos are involved, candidates may simply absorb the views of the better-off by osmosis.

The danger is of a vicious cycle in which politicians adopt policies that favour the better-off; this gives the wealthy more money with which to lobby politicians, which leads to more favourable legislation and so on. The surge in inequality over the last 30 years could perhaps be attributed, in part, to this process.
(Though of course I'd dissent from the column's conclusion that the most important problem with a concentration of wealth and power at the top is that it might cause people to start questioning their betters.)

- Joe Fantauzzi discusses how austerity has been used to attack social connections in Ontario and elsewhere. Kev reminds us of the disconnect between continued (though not enhanced) productivity gains and stagnating wages since the neoliberal revolution took hold. And Russell Jacoby contrasts Thomas Piketty's call for somewhat improved equality against Karl Marx's focus on a struggle over ownership:
(E)galitarianism as an idea and demand also contains an element of resignation; it accepts society, but wants to balance out the goods or privileges. Gays want equality, the right like everyone else to marry. Fine, but marriage is still marriage, the imperfect institution that society cannot give up or improve upon. R.H. Tawney, the British leftist historian, noted the limits of equality in his 1931 book Equality, a broad defense of egalitarianism. The working class movement, he writes, puts its faith in “the possibility of a society,” where a higher value is placed on people and a lower value on money. But that movement is liable to fall short. “When it does so, what it is apt to desire is not a social order of a different kind, in which money and economic power will no longer be the criterion of achievement, but a social order of the same kind, in which money and economic power will be somewhat differently distributed.” This straightforward sentence cuts to the heart of the matter. Equalizing pollution pollutes equally, but does not end pollution.
Piketty anchors inequality in what he calls “the central contradiction of capitalism,” the disjuncture between the rate of return on capital and the rate of economic growth. Inasmuch as the former inevitably eclipses the latter, favoring existing wealth over existing labor, it leads to a “terrifying” unequal wealth distribution. Marx might not disagree, but again his focus is on work, which is where inequality originates and plays out. Marx argues that the accumulation of capital leads to partial, casual and permanent unemployment. It would be difficult to declare that these are not pressing realities in the world today, but they do not surface in Piketty.

Of course, Marx begins with a different proposition: labor as the source of wealth. Again, today this might seem quaint, but also signals something about capitalism that hardly is resolved. Capitalism both requires and dispenses with labor. In other words, capitalism both hires and, increasingly, unhires. It needs workers as it expands, but sheds workers as it cuts costs and automates, reducing its work force. Marx discusses at length how an advancing capitalism produces “a relatively redundant working population.” This takes two basic forms, releasing workers already hired and ceasing to add new workers. As a consequence capitalism produces “disposable” people or a reserve army of unemployed. As wealth and capital advance, so do the underemployed and unemployed, the truly unequal.
- Meanwhile, Brad Hornick examines the link between the resource economy and class politics in British Columbia:
It is not "the people" that are at the forefront of championing this fossil fuel economy against any alternatives. It is the corporate CEOs, the shareholders, the investment bankers, the marketing companies, the corporate lawyers, the conservative pundits that lock us in to this particular future against any substantive alternative.

That is why we can say that we are not in this together, that this great problem we are now facing is not "anthropogenic" climate change. All humans do not all equally contribute to the problem of climate change. Nor do we all equally invest in the system that leads to climate crisis. The crisis we presently face is "capitalist" climate change, driven by those who champion a certain kind of economy that serves the interests of a certain group of people.
Fossil fuel capitalism operates within neo-liberal economics and politics where even the pretense of social solidarity and justice has been increasingly abandoned. But the climate crisis is opening up political and ideological space to discuss the entire system we live in (that is, the centrality of capitalism). There are signs that both economic crisis and ecological destruction are de-legitimizing political systems and helping people to question capitalist ideologies that ignore the social and ecological costs of fossil fuels.

It is because this system excludes populations from both economic activity and political participation that new antagonisms and struggles are developing. One only needs to observe among many other examples the plebiscite in Kitimat, the growing challenges to Kinder Morgan in Burnaby, or the intervention by the UN special rapporteur, James Anaya, over the concerns of proposed projects in First Nation territories.

There are political and activist forces coalescing today within British Columbia to challenge not just fossil fuel interests, but also the systemic forces that drive large capital. They are challenging fossil fuel capitalism at the point of production and extraction, and attempting to network allies amongst the traditional environmental forces.
- Ron Waller takes a look at the unrepresentative nature of first-past-the-post politics - but also rightly cautions Ontario voters against falling for "strategic voting" scams.

- Finally, Sean Holman offers a reminder that Daniel Therrien isn't the first federal Privacy Commissioner to represent a controversial appointment - though the Cons, like the Libs before them, have chosen not to make the selection process more palatable. And Robyn Benson argues that we have no reason at all to trust the Cons when it comes to our privacy.

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