‘The Sixth Extinction’ and our looming catastrophe

24 Apr

Carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is warming the planet, melting glaciers and polar ice caps, raising sea levels, causing more destructive hurricanes, floods, and droughts and increasing ocean acidity. So far corporations, governments, electoral parties and the media are largely indifferent.

When presented with the evidence, profit-seekers may concede that perhaps something should be done. The claim that climate change is just a theory is used to justify inaction: no particular storm, hurricane or flood can be directly blamed on the burning of fossil fuels; perhaps the sun or tides or other natural cycles are to blame. Anyway, the threat is in the distant future — long beyond normal quarterly or annual financial reports, beyond the four or six year terms of most governing parties.

In The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert points to a direct, indisputable connection between rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the increasing acidity of oceans.

A third of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere rains into seas. Carbon dioxide dissolved in water becomes carbonic acid. As aquatic acidity rises, the shells of crustaceans weaken and dissolve. Billions of micro-organisms along with lobsters, oysters and coral reefs can no longer survive. As crustaceans disappear so do the creatures that depend on them as food sources, fishes and land animals like human beings.

Kolbert is a staff writer for The New Yorker who earlier published, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. As its title indicates, The Sixth Extinctionfocuses on epochal species extinctions. Current science records six major extinctions. The Fifth Extinction, the most widely known, wiped out dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It is attributed to a massive meteor strike off Yucatan. The immediate shock wave caused wide destruction. Clouds of dust then enveloped the planet, altering climates and vegetation.

Scientists call the current extinction, the Sixth, the Anthropocene, the human-caused extinction. The capacity of human beings to alter environments can be traced back at least 11,000 years when large animals, like mammoths, began to disappear. Since then, humans have leveled great forests, altered and blocked the flow of major rivers.

For the last 500 years global exchange and industrial capitalism have dramatically transformed flora, fauna and micro-organisms everywhere. Humans have added massive amounts of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to soils and waterways. Our dependence on fossil fuel energy has increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to levels not seen in millions of years.

How much of a threat is rising carbon dioxide levels? The past may give us a glimpse of what could happen.

The Third Extinction, the End-Permian, 250 million years ago, was triggered by a massive release of carbon dioxide — from causes not yet understood. Temperatures soared. The chemistry of the oceans changed dramatically. As waters acidified, reefs collapsed; dissolved oxygen levels fell; aquatic organisms that relied on oxygen suffocated. They were replaced by others that used sulfur as an energy source. These gave off hydrogen sulfide, a toxin to most organisms on land and sea. “Glassy purple seas released poisonous bubbles that rose to a pale green sky.” Ninety per cent of land and ocean species disappeared.

Today rising carbon dioxide levels are measurably increasing the acidity of oceans. Coral reefs are shrinking in the Caribbean, off Australia and elsewhere. Other sea life is already under threat. In early 2014, Vancouver Island scallop producers reported that ten million scallops had failed to mature. British Columbia oyster stocks have also declined dramatically.

The Sixth Extinction leaves no doubt that carbon dioxide emissions are a looming catastrophe, far more serious than the profit-seeking establishment would have us believe. The problem is capitalism, a system that entitles major shareholders and top corporate executives to direct economies in their private interests. Capitalist competition drives corporations to maximize profits. Corporate control of the media makes people believe that profits are more important than employment, decent wages and the environment.

The Sixth Extinction makes it clear that action to cut reliance on fossil fuel energy is needed urgently. It is also a popularly written sketch of the evolution of scientific revolutions. Its many anecdotal asides make it an easy read.

Al Engler

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
 by Elizabeth Kolbert
(Henry Holt and Co.,
 2014; $28.00)

 

Rebuilding the commons through economic democracy

5 Apr

Who runs your workplace?

For most of us the answer is a boss, who reports to a higher boss, who reports to an even higher boss, who reports to a … all the way up to the “owner” of the enterprise. This is called a chain of command.

The words “chain” and “command” are both suggestive of a fundamental truth: Today’s rules about the power of bosses and workers evolved from a time of masters, servants and slaves. While many norms and expectations have changed over the years the fundamental truth that bosses give orders and workers are required to obey remains the same.

This explains the use of the term “wage slavery” by some who oppose capitalism. It suggests that working for wages is similar to being a slave. The Wikipedia entry on wage slavery offers a good introduction to the subject, pointing out the concept is much older than capitalism and that even ancient Romans argued accepting wages for work put one into a slave-like position. The idea that giving up your free will for any reason or length of time makes you a slave is as old as wage work itself.

Interestingly, the usage of the term wage slavery has diminished as a greater and greater proportion of us work for wages. The notion that most of us are effectively slaves is probably too uncomfortable to contemplate. And, of course, not talking about this serves the interests of those who profit from our labour.

But I’d like to suggest there’s another reason as well.

As more and more of us work for wages it becomes more and more normal and we lose the sense of an alternative. I was reminded of this while reading Peter Linebaugh’s stimulating new book Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance, a series of 15 essays “written against enclosure, the process of privatization, closing off, and fencing in.”

Contrary to the mythology of a modern, progressive and democratic capitalism replacing backward feudalism, most ordinary people had more say in their day-to-day work life before our current economic system came along. In fact, the rights and privileges of “commoners” (the majority of people, whose independent livelihood depended on the shared commons) were destroyed as part of capitalist expansion. To this day, everywhere capitalism goesthe rights and privileges of indigenous people disappear as the commons are enclosed (become private property) so that rich people can steal their profits.

When commons were common, through tens of thousands of years, people mostly developed technology and systems of usage that respected the land, ocean, river, forest, grassland and creatures that lived there. They did this because it was in their collective self-interest to do so. This was reflected in their religions and how their societies were organized, including the ways people thought of themselves.

Mutual respect, independence, collective responsibility, reciprocity, community and what we would now call a sense of ecology were encouraged because all served a society that held its resources in common.

As Linebaugh points out in Stop Thief, 200 years ago poets bemoaned the loss of these values as well as the ugliness created when capitalism enclosed the land and resources that people depended on for their livelihood. Capitalism waged war on the rights, privileges and ideology of commoners. Enclosure of the rest of the world (colonialism) was the logical next step. That war has continued ever since, with today’s military interventions, as well as the mass marketing of never-ending consumption and individualism just the latest in a long line of assaults.

But this is not just interesting history. People who work for wages today can learn important lessons from those who resisted, and continue to resist,the enclosure of the commons.

We should learn that:

  • Every enclosure of the commons is an assault on the environment. The point of capitalism is to exploit nature and other human beings for private profit.
  • Our strength is always collective; it flows from the commons. As individuals we are weak and defeated.
  • We must insist that everywhere people work together be transformed into a commons. The factories, the shops, the distribution systems, all the places of our employment — the entire means of production — are a commons enclosed by capitalists in order to profit at our expense.
  • To create an environmentally sustainable, healthy, nurturing economy requires we no longer accept being wage slaves. We must take responsibility for what we do. We must understand that our world is a commons, not private property, and begin to act collectively to protect the resources that belong to all of us.
  • We must re-learn the values of mutual respect, independence, collective responsibility, reciprocity, community and living in harmony with the environment that were once the hallmarks of commoners.

During most moments of sudden, great change in human history people have been motivated by rights that were lost, insisting they be restored.

To accomplish the great change necessary today let us demand that which requires social labour be recognized for what it is, the common property of all. Let us rebuild the ways of thinking, the social relations, as well as the rights and responsibilities that were lost when our commons were enclosed.

The term that best describes what we would be fighting for is economic democracy. The commons was always an economic democracy.

The term also helps explain a key flaw in our current so-called democracy — power flows from control of the economy, which is “owned” by a tiny minority.

The most successful social movements in the past two centuries have all pushed for an expansion of democracy. The fight for economic democracy would be a continuation of these movements.

Let’s build an economic democracy to rebuild the commons!

Gary Engler

Understanding the intellectual whores of capitalism

28 Mar

There’s nothing worse than ignorant and opinionated.

You know the type: Most mainstream newspapers have at least one; they dominate radio talk shows and certain TV “news” networks.

Loud supporters of the existing economic system who deny inequality is a problem or even claim it doesn’t exist.

Business leaders/columnists/celebrities/media hacks and the “think tanks” they come from who also deny climate change is a problem or even claim it doesn’t exist.

Apostles of greed who claim to be “conservative”, defend chemical-laden, genetics-manipulating industrial food production, ignore all the ways corporations poison our environment, ridicule anyone who points out there must be some limit to the exploitation of the earth’s resources, promote the use of private automobiles, hobble public transportation (and every other public good) by promoting tax cuts, love pipelines and usually claim to speak on behalf of the “middle class” or even the “little guy.”

How should we respond to these defenders of the status quo who frequently pretend to rail against a mythical left-wing media agenda?

Argue with them? Quietly loathe them? Ridicule them? Ignore them?

I’d like to make the case for understanding and pity as the most appropriate reactions.

First, to understand them we must examine the role they play, the first step of which is to recognize whose interests they represent, which is another way of asking: Who would pay them to say/write the things they do?

The answer is, of course, the people who profit most from pipelines, tax cuts, unlimited growth, a private automobile dominated landscape, industrial food production, chemicals poisoning the environment, pipelines, global warming and an acceptance of income inequality.

But why would the billionaires and mere multi-millionaires whose fortunes depend on the continued flow of profits from oil, agribusiness, automobiles, chemical, real estate, media and capitalism in general think it worth their while to handsomely reward thousands of cheerleaders who endlessly repeat a few shallow ideas on the sidelines of capitalism?

Because it is necessary. The wealthy 0.01% minority who rule over the 90% majority understands that the future of their system depends on convincing or paying off 9.99% of the population who become the opinion leaders, the managers, the foremen, the supervisors, the small businessmen and the other shock troops of the system. The rich are like the pathetic men who frequent red-light districts — they must pay for it — and the right wing columnists/celebrities/media hacks/researchers do it for money, often working in the political equivalent of brothels, called think tanks.

The choices offered young writers, journalists and academics who aspire to earn a decent living at their craft are not great today. There are many more opportunities to voice opinions supporting the system than to criticize it. If you do get a job in a shrinking newsroom or social science department the best way to get ahead is always to support the existing power structure, not oppose it. Arguing in favour of the rich and powerful certainly pays better.

And in a time when the Left seldom confronts capitalism, confining its criticisms to tinkering around the edges, rather than offering a vision of an alternative system, should it be a surprise that the easiest route to intellectual success is selling out to the highest bidder?

Media whores are not that much different than the women and a few men who earn a living from selling their bodies. (And I do apologize to every sex-trade worker who is offended by the comparison to Rush Limbaugh.) They too are just trying to survive; they are typically people who don’t have many alternatives; they are often victims of abuse by a system that penalizes intellectual non-conformity (amazing the number of conservative pundits who claim a left-wing background); the ones who do really well at it typically claim they actually enjoy it.

Given the similarities between these two forms prostitution doesn’t it make sense that we respond to both the same way?

We don’t hate streetwalkers or harangue them; we mostly pity them because of our understanding that they are products of sexism and other forms of oppression.

So too should we pity the sycophants of the rich and powerful because we understand they are nothing more than the intellectual prostitutes of an economic system that attempts to buy, sell and profit from everything we do.

Gary Engler

Book reveals real Rwanda story: Imperialism at work

19 Mar

The Rwandan genocide — think you know the story?

Deep-seated ethic enmity erupted in a 100-day genocidal rampage by Hutus killing Tutsis, which was only stopped by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). A noble Canadian general tried to end the bloodletting but a dysfunctional UN refused resources. Washington was caught off guard by the slaughter, but it has apologized for failing to intervene and has committed to never again avoid its responsibility to protect.

In Rwanda and the new scramble for Africa Robin Philpot demolishes this version of history.

Philpot points out that while the official story begins April 6, 1994, any serious investigation must go back to at least October 1, 1990. On that day an army of mostly exiled Tutsi elite invaded Rwanda. The Ugandan government claimed 4,000 of its troops “deserted” to invade (including the defence minister and head of intelligence). This unbelievable explanation has largely been accepted since Washington and London backed Uganda’s aggression.

More than 90 per cent Tutsi, the RPF could never have gained power democratically in a country where only 15 per cent of the population was Tutsi. Even military victory looked difficult until International Monetary Fund economic adjustments and Western-promoted political reforms weakened the Rwandan government.

The RPF also benefited from the United Nations Assistance Mission For Rwanda (UNAMIR) dispatched to keep the peace. According to Gilbert Ngijo, political assistant to the civilian commander of UNAMIR, “He [UNAMIR commander General Romeo Dallaire] let the RPF get arms. He allowed UNAMIR troops to train RPF soldiers. United Nations troops provided the logistics for the RPF. They even fed them.”

On April 6, 1994, the plane carrying Rwandan Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian Hutu President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down. A French judge pointed the finger at Paul Kagame and the RPF. But the head of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Canadian Louise Arbour refused to investigate evidence implicating the RPF. When the ICTR prosecutor who took over from Arbour, Carla del Ponte, did look at the RPF’s role in shooting down Habyarimana’s plane the British and Americans had her removed.

Habyarimana’s assassination sparked mass killings (but no planned genocide, according to the ICTR). Five days after Habyarimana’s death an internal US memorandum warned of “hundreds of thousands of deaths,” but Philpot notes, “even though they knew that the massacres would occur and that millions would flee to other countries, the Americans devoted all their efforts to forcing the United Nations to withdraw its UNAMIR troops.”

UNAMIR would have blocked the RPF from capturing Kigali, something Washington supported to undermine French influence and to improve the prospects of North American companies in the nearby mineral-rich eastern Congo.

Rarely heard in Canada, Philpot’s version of events aligns with that of former UN head Boutros Boutros-Ghali, civilian head of UNAMIR Jacques-Roger Booh Booh and many French investigators. Presumably, many Rwandans’ also agree but it’s hard to know as Paul Kagame ruthlessly suppresses opponents, regularly labeling them génocidaire.

Ottawa has supported this witch-hunt. Philpot points to the example of a former Rwandan prime minister denied a Canadian visa: “The Prime Minister of the government that supposedly ended the genocide had now become a génocidaire. Canada had already received Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramngu with all honours in December 1994 when he was looking for funding to rebuild Rwanda under the RPF. Either Canada’s institutional memory is short and selective or, more likely, the country has a policy of supporting the RPF government at all costs.”

This book is an invaluable resource for understanding the Rwandan tragedy and countering those who cite it to justify Western military interventions.

Yves Engler

Does death by car not count?

11 Mar

When a plane carrying 239 people disappears and everyone is presumed dead, the world’s TV networks devote hours of coverage to the tragedy. Newspapers run long and detailed stories. Experts are interviewed to discuss probable causes and remedies.

Government safety boards investigate and produce reports. There seems a genuine attempt to learn from what happened in order to prevent the same death and destruction from ever occurring again.

Contrast that to the reaction of death by automobile.

The latest year for which we have statistics (2010) 1,240,000 people died in vehicle crashes across the globe. That’s 3,397 people per day or 142 per hour. Vehicles kill more people every two hours of every single day than died in the Malaysian Airlines crash. And that’s only counting so-called accidents.

Hundreds of thousands more are felled by cancers and other ailments linked to automobile emissions. According to an MIT study, in the US alone 53,000 people die every year from illness attributed to automobile pollutants.

The greenhouse gases emitted by vehicles have also put millions at risk from diseases, disasters and droughts tied to climate disturbances. The Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimates that climate change is responsible for some 400,000 deaths per year, a number expected to hit one million by 2030.

But the deadliest feature of an automobile-dependent transportation system is the resulting sedentary lifestyle. The World Health Organization calculates physical inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths annually.

Researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital recently concluded that diabetes and obesity rates are up to 33 per cent higher in suburban areas of Toronto with poor “walkability”. Another study published in Diabetes Care found that new immigrants who moved to a neighborhood with poorly connected streets, low residential density and few stores close by were 50 percent more likely to develop diabetes than long-term residents of walkable areas.

The rise of the private car has greatly undermined active forms of transport. At the start of the 1900s the typical US resident walked three miles a day; today the average is less than a quarter mile. As a result, most adults fail to meet the minimum recommended levels of physical activity (30 min. of light activity five days a week).

The major reason for the reduction in walking is that the private car’s insatiable appetite for space has splintered the landscape. Distances between living spaces, work and commerce have simply become too far to make walking or biking practical.

But there is another reason people have stopped walking: Cars have made us lazy. The more we use them the more we cannot fathom traveling without them. One survey suggests the extent of psychological dependence is extreme. An average American is only willing to walk about a quarter mile and in some instances (such as errands) only 400 feet. Otherwise, the people private vehicles have created, let’s call them Homo Automotivis, take the car.

The true extent of auto-dependence is revealed by drivers willing to wait five minutes for the closest parking spot to where they are going rather than park a block away and walk. The car has produced a state of mind where walking a few extra feet is a defeat.

It has also produced a paranoid state of mind, particularly among those caring for the young. A recent British study of four generations of eight-year-old children in Sheffield found a drastic decline in the average child’s freedom to roam. In 1926 an eight-year-old in the Thomas family was allowed to go six miles from his home unaccompanied, while today’s child, notes The Daily Mail, “is driven the few minutes to school, is taken by car to a safe place to ride his bike and can roam no more than 300 yards from home.”

Canadian children are much less likely to walk to school than their parents’ generation. According to Active Healthy Kids Canada, 58 per cent of today’s parents walked to school when they were young while only 28 per cent of their children do. Partly as a result, only 5 per cent of Canadian children get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day.

Driving children to school is an outgrowth of the greater distances that have come with automotive focused urban planning. But it is not only children living far from school who aren’t walking. One US study found that 87 percent of students living within a mile of school walked in 1969 while today only a third make the same trek.

It is less that children cannot walk to school and more that Homo Automotivis parents, fearing for their children’s safety, prefer to drive them. The most commonly cited fear? Not bullying or kidnapping. The major reason cited by parents for restricting unaccompanied travel: traffic danger.

But when parents use cars to protect their children from other cars, it results in notoriously dangerous schoolyard pickup areas and the very justification for driving their kids to school: a deadly vicious circle.

How have we gotten ourselves into this auto-produced mess? More important, how do we escape?

A  start might be taking death by car as seriously as we take plane crashes.

Yves Engler

Sustainability and capitalism: Can we have it all?

30 Jan

From a speech given at the One World Week Forum at the University of Warwick on January 30, 2014.

Can capitalism solve the problems of global warming and growing inequality?

It seems to me this is like discussing the issue of inappropriate hyper-sexual imagery bombarding 11-year olds and then asking: Can Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga fix the problem?

Real capitalism, not the theoretical version taught in school, is a system of minority rule in which a few people profit at the expense of others.

Real capitalists are always trying to cut their costs and increase their profits, which leads to unemployment, falling wages, rising economic disparity and not paying for the environmental damage they cause.

Private ownership of what are social means of livelihood produces incentives for capitalists to pass along the real costs of industry to communities, workers, future generations and other species.

Private ownership makes growing inequality inevitable. A system can proclaim itself democratic, but if a minority holds most of the economic, and therefore social and political power, that minority will inevitably reward itself, its power will grow and ever-expanding inequality will be the result.

Capitalism is sociopathic. Its ideologues, like the late Margaret Thatcher, reject the social, claiming only individuals exist. Yet capitalism has driven individual producers to the fringes of economies. Most people, ninety per cent in the U.K., depend on wages or salary, working with others in cooperative, coordinated labour — social labour, but directed by wealthy minorities for their own profit.

Capitalism promotes greed. It boasts of this. So why would we be surprised when a small minority with most of the power looks after itself, in effect telling the rest of us: “Screw you and the planet you live on! We don’t care about global warming because we have the money to buy a nice place regardless of how high the oceans rise.”

Capitalism requires constant growth to satisfy its need for more profit. But what happens when the environment needs a smaller human footprint? When, at least in wealthier countries, we must learn to live with less stuff?

History shows capitalism reacts badly to declining markets. When the economy shrinks for a sustained period the system goes into crisis. Banks crash, unemployment grows and capitalists often turn to war to get their profits rising again.

The truth is a sustainable economy is incompatible with a system that constantly demands more profit.

To quote the greatest living English political philosopher, Russell Brand: “I know what the fucking system shouldn’t do. It shouldn’t destroy the planet and shouldn’t create massive economic disparity.”

Like Russell we know what we don’t like. That’s the easy part. But how can we get rid of capitalism and what is the alternative?

To answer we must go back to the issue of power and how to distribute it in a way that promotes the common good, a key element of which is a healthy environment. The best way is through more democracy. REAL democracy. Economic democracy.

Do you want an equitable, sustainable economy? Then help overthrow capitalism and create an economic democracy.

What exactly does this mean?

Let me give you an example: With the one pound one vote system that governs corporate capitalism, Richard Branson, with a net worth of 3.5 billion pounds get 3.5 billion votes. In comparison you (pointing) get 147 and you get 58. Most of you poor buggers owe more than you own so you get no votes at all. Economic democracy means giving everyone the right to a voice and an equal vote in their communities’ economic decisions. When everyone has an equal right in decision-making, economies will be motivated by general wellbeing, not private profit. Economic democracy means eliminating the divide between workers and owners by making everyone an owner. Economic democracy means multiple owning communities  — local, regional, national, international — so that power does not become concentrated in the hands of a single central state. It means that wherever social labour occurs a system of democracy manages the enterprise.

Imagine companies that are democratically run by workers together with a local, regional, national or international government, whichever is appropriate to that enterprise; companies whose mandate it is to promote the common good, rather than the narrow self-interest of rich shareholders; companies that no longer have incentives to destroy the planet, but rather face real penalties for harming the environment.

Now, I know what at least some of you are thinking. This is not realistic. Your ideas are just pie in the sky. But the truth is capitalism has already created what one might call “objective conditions” that do indeed make economic democracy possible. Most people in most countries already depend on social labor. Most of you, if you find paid employment, will be salaried or wage workers. If we choose to fight for it, we can expand one-person, one-vote decision-making into every area where people work collectively, which is most of our economy. If we elect governments committed to it we could pass laws that limit private property to what is truly private and doesn’t give an individual power over others. We could create a system of social ownership with multiple democratic owning communities.

If we accomplish these three things — replacing corporate ownership with social ownership, replacing capitalist entitlement with equal human entitlement and replacing master-servant relations with workplace democracy — the system that drives enterprises to maximize profits, regardless of the consequences, would no longer exist.

Capitalism and sustainability, can you have it all? No. But there is a much better alternative: Economic democracy, a system that will offer authentic jobs, a nourishing work-life balance, your fair share of power and a healthy environment. This sounds like the essentials of a good life to me.

Gary Engler

Video: Understanding Capitalism — Idiocy

5 Jan

Capitalism uses unemployment to keep workers in line

1 Jan

A just society should provide everyone with access to a job yet nearly 2 million Canadians can’t find work.

Officially 6.9 per cent of the Canadian workforce is unemployed. But this number rises to 10.3 per cent when those who’ve given up searching for work are included. Counting “discouraged workers”, about 1.8 million Canadians can’t find a job.

Looked at from a different perspective, StatsCan announced last week that there were six job-seekers for every job available in September. Counting “discouraged workers” that number increases 50 percent.

Incredibly, some consider Canada’s unemployment rate a success. In his October throne speech Stephen Harper misleadingly declared that “Canada now has the best job creation record in the G-7 — one million net new jobs since the depths of the recession.”

This isn’t simply self-promotional rhetoric. Policy moves suggest the government is little concerned by the large number of Canadians out of work. Over the past two years they’ve curtailed Employment Insurance benefits, increased the age at which people can receive Old Age Assistance and slashed public-sector employment.

While the government would never say as much publicly, some among the corporate-funded think tanks argue that having over 1 in 10 Canadian workers out of a job is actually too few. “Canada’s unemployment rate dangerously low” was the title of an April Financial Post article by Philip Cross, Research Coordinator for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Hostility to anything approaching full employment reflects the growth of neoconservative policies. Over the last three decades the idea that everyone should have access to a job has largely disappeared from political discourse. But it used to be fairly common.

In the 1963 election Liberal leader Lester Pearson ran on a “Sixty days of decision” platform that included a pledge of full employment and during his time as Prime Minister Canada’s official unemployment rate dropped below 3%. Similarly, the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which was adopted in 1966 and signed by Canada in 1976, called for the right to employment. It recognizes that “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

Instead of focusing on peoples’ right to employment, policymakers today emphasize property rights. In effect, this has meant extending patents, easing safety/environmental regulations on corporations and enabling investors to move to low-wage jurisdictions.

While these policies certainly benefit some, few of us gain our income from owning property. The vast majority of Canadians are wageworkers, their dependents or retired wageworkers. And without a job it’s difficult to get by.

But a job is not only about paying the bills. What one does is generally an important part of a person’s identity and most people want to feel like they are contributing to society. Persistent unemployment can be psychologically damaging for individuals.

It’s also socially damaging. Mass unemployment is a waste of peoples’ energy and ingenuity. Imagine what the 1.8 million Canadians out of work could accomplish if they were mobilized to develop green energy sources or to expand mass transit and childcare services.

But how do we mobilize all this latent human energy. One socially useful way to stimulate employment would be to have the government significantly expand its role in mass transit and childcare. Another would be to push Corporate Canada, which is sitting on over $575 billion in cash, to invest in renewable energy.

It’s time to rekindle the idea that all adults have the right to a job. There are 1.8 million Canadians waiting to better contribute to their society.

Yves Engler

Workers suffer while rich profit from oil sands fever

27 Dec

A clear diagnosis of the Oil Sands fever variant of Dutch Disease may be just what the doctor ordered to rally Canadian workers in the fight against global warming.

A rapid increase in natural resource investment and revenue usually drives up a nation’s currency. This generally makes other industries less competitive and can greatly weaken a country’s manufacturing base.

Widely known as the “Dutch Disease” (named after a period of rapid expansion of the natural gas industry in the Netherlands), this well established economic paradox has become a taboo subject in this country. Canada’s highly class-conscious elite is worried that manufacturing workers might make common cause with environmental groups and even some business sectors to challenge the carbon/profit bomb known as the tar sands.

A recent Pembina Institute/Equiterre report titled Booms, Busts and Bitumen argues that Canada’s economy is facing “Oil Sands fever”. The study points out that the Bank of Canada believes one-third of the Canadian manufacturing sector’s decline has been caused by a more expensive dollar, which rose alongside the price of oil from $.61 US in 2002 to $1.10 US in 2007 (and has hovered near par since). The study concludes that 40% to 75% of the currency increase has been caused by rising commodity prices, principally oil.

The higher price has led to a boom in production and export. Between 2002 and 2012 energy grew from less than 13% of total Canadian exports to over 25%. And if plans to double tar sands production over the next decade are realized, this dependence will increase.

A February Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study gives a sense of the jobs impact of Oil Sands fever. The Bitumen Cliff notes: “The forestry sector lost close to 30,000 positions. And the manufacturing industry, of course, haemorrhaged nearly a half-million positions. For every new job created in the petroleum sector during the past decade, 30 have been lost in manufac­turing. Across all of the export-oriented goods industries… net employment declined by almost 520,000 jobs in the past decade.”

While the precise job toll is debatable, the rapid growth in tar sands exports has undoubtedly hurt manufacturers.

Despite the obvious link between tar sands expansion, a higher dollar and a decline in manufacturing, corporate sycophants denounce any politician or established organization that draws attention to the relationship.

Federal Leader of the Opposition Tom Mulcair was aggressively attacked for raising the issue as was former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. In response to the Pembina/Equiterre report Financial Post editor Terence Corcoran called the mainstream Pembina Institute “off-kilter … fomenter of oil sands phobia … keen on triggering a nation-splitting debate over the oil sands.” For his part, Sun Media’s Lorne Gunter wrote: “Left-wing environmentalists should just come clean: they hate the oil industry, they hate profits and love big government.”

Both Corcoran and Gunter cited a recent Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME) study lauding the tar sands. It notes: “In recent years, much of the discussion linking the oil sands with manufacturing has included so-called ‘Dutch disease,’ with any supposed relationship being characterized as inherently negative. While the effect of the rising dollar has impacted the competitiveness of the Canadian manufacturing sector, especially exports, the underlying problem was poor labour productivity, lack of diversity among customers, and lower rates of overall capital investment. While increased investment in the oil sands may have strengthened the Canadian dollar, it is by no means the root cause of the challenges faced by Canadian manufacturing. Rather than having a negative impact on Canadian industry, the oil sands are providing a customer base for manufacturers.”

While most sane people would argue it makes little sense for the lobbying arm of Canada’s export-oriented manufacturers to dismiss oil-fuelled currency increases that have added 5, 10 or 30 percent to their costs, the CME is a highly ideological institution. When environmental or labour regulations add a few percentage points to their costs it goes berserk. For instance, before Parliament ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002 the CME claimed that reducing greenhouse gas emissions 6% from 1990 levels by 2012 would cost the country 450,000 manufacturing jobs. (Perhaps CME researchers should check to see if they didn’t mistake a minus sign for a plus symbol since the trashing of Canada’s Kyoto commitments through tar sands expansion has contributed to significant job losses in manufacturing.)

The CME tends to represent the voice of its biggest members, many of whom have plants in other countries. They can shift operations to lower-cost jurisdictions or use the threat of moving jobs to force wage and benefit cuts.

But that’s only part of the explanation for the CME’s pro tar sands position. That organization is in fact a mouthpiece for capitalists who are more widely invested than ever before and thus less wedded to particular firms. Without too much difficulty they can move their capital from lower margin to higher profit industries. It’s all about chasing profits and damn the negative consequences for workers.

In recent years the tar sands have been a major source of profit making. The Parkland Institute estimates that oil sands operators realized pre-tax profits of $260 billion between 1986 and 2011 (the public owners of these resources received less than 10 per cent of that sum). Over the past decade Canadian resource companies’ profit margins have nearly doubled the service, manufacturing and “nonfinancial” sectors of the economy. According to a late 2011 calculation, the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange topped $379 billion.

The boom in tar sands profits and stock prices clearly benefits leading Canadian capitalists. A recent Canadian Business magazine profile of the “100 richest Canadians” explains: “Collectively, the individuals on the Rich 100 are worth $230 billion, more than the total gross domestic product of many countries in the world, including New Zealand, Ireland and Portugal. And this year has been one of their best ever. Their combined net worth surged by more than 15% … While the actual economies of Canada and the U.S. aren’t faring particularly well, so long as the U.S. Federal Reserve maintains its stimulus program, stock markets will tick higher.”

The “100 richest Canadians” – and the rest of the 0.01% of top shareholders who control most corporations – dominate corporate lobbying associations such as the CME and they also have significant influence with many think tanks, university departments and news outlets. Like their wealthy patrons, these institutions tend to back whatever generates the most profit (that’s the point of capitalism after all). As a result, there’s little interest in discussing the deleterious job impacts of Oil Sands fever.

But environmentalists and union activists should be making common cause by explaining how tar sands profits that go to the rich and powerful cost Canadian workers hundreds of thousands of jobs. Expansion of the tar sands and the resulting bouts of Oil Sands fever may be good for capitalists but it will further weaken the job market and do great harm to Canadian workers.

 Yves Engler

Workers and their unions must fight climate change

24 Dec

For those of us in the labour movement, tis the season to ponder what good our unions can do in the upcoming year and to renew our commitment to a key principle: What we desire for ourselves we wish for all.

At this time of year, while many of us focus on gifts, it is easy to desire the latest gadget, that new car or even a remodelled bathroom. But, most of us would agree, in the grand scheme of human priorities, certain fundamentals are more important than simply acquiring more things.

For example, decent housing, nutritious food, public education, a safe and loving atmosphere to nurture every child and access to quality healthcare would all be understood by most union members as essential, rather than as simply “stuff” that would be nice to possess. In other words, when we come together in a union we acknowledge certain basic social priorities. Thus the first unions fought for a living wage, the eight-hour day, public schools, pensions etc., not simply more money. Without the basics of life, being able to buy more things is meaningless.

And that’s how we need to think about our environment and especially global warming.

There is nothing more important than a healthy environment. Without that, all the other fundamentals — food, housing, education, family, leisure, pensions etc. — are at risk. If human activity, in the pursuit of accumulating more stuff, destroys the liveability of our planet, we will have done a great wrong to all creatures, including ourselves.

And the best evidence we have is as categorical as science gets. Humans have caused climate change by pumping ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and we must quickly cut these emissions.

Here’s how one leading climate change expert put it earlier this month:

“We need a radical plan for cutting emissions to avoid the radical repercussions of climate change,” said professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre, based at the University of Manchester in England. “To do this, industrial countries have to cut energy use by around 8-10% each year or 60-70% over the decade, and we have to start now.

“Low-carbon supply and incremental reductions are no longer sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change. We have to have early, rapid and deep reductions in emissions and this can only be achieved in the short term through reductions in energy use.”

Will corporations that dominate the world economy provide us with the “rapid and deep reductions in emissions” that scientists tell us must happen soon to avoid environmental catastrophe? No.

Rather than cutting back on emissions we see corporations invest billions in the tar sands, fracking, offshore drilling and digging up more coal, because all are profitable.

Our current economic system requires ever expanding profit. As a result, if corporations were people they would be diagnosed as psychopaths. They are ruthless in the single-minded pursuit of profit. Psychopaths feel no empathy for their victims. They do not care if the consequences of their actions could soon be the overheating of our planet to the degree that our grandchildren no longer have a habitable environment.

So who will fight to protect our planet?

For 175 years unions have fought for justice, democracy and to make life better for all. We helped end child labour and slavery. We fought for universal franchise and equal rights for all. These battles required enormous sacrifices to overcome opposition of the rich and powerful.

Sacrifices will be necessary as well to stop global warming. Many brothers and sisters earn their living extracting oil, building cars and mining coal, industries that must shrink or disappear to save our planet. This raises difficulties inside the labour movement.

But progressive unions were not deterred by similar contradictions in the struggle for civil rights or against sexism and homophobia. Similarly we must not shy away from battling climate change.

Unions must defend our common interests. There is no more important common interest than the health of our environment.

Gary Engler

Canada serves corporate interests around the world

22 Dec

Should the primary purpose of Canadian foreign policy be the promotion of corporate interests?

Canada’s business class certainly seems to think so. And with little political or ideological opposition to this naked self-interest, Harper’s Conservatives seem only too happy to put the full weight of government behind the promotion of private profits.

Recently, the Conservatives announced that “economic diplomacy” will be “the driving force behind the Government of Canada’s activities through its international diplomatic network.” According to their Global Markets Action Plan (GMAP), “All diplomatic assets of the Government of Canada will be marshalled on behalf of the private sector to increase success in doing business abroad.”

The release of GMAP is a crass confirmation of the Conservatives’ pro-corporate foreign policy. In recent years the Conservatives’ have spent tens of millions of dollars to lobby US and European officials on behalf of tar sands interests; expanded arms sales to Middle East monarchies and other leading human rights abusers; strengthened the ties between aid policy and a Canadian mining industry responsible for innumerable abuses.

While some commentators have suggested that GMAP is a “modern” response to China’s international policy, it actually represents a return to a time many consider the high point of unfettered capitalism. Often in the late 1800s wealthy individuals not employed by Ottawa conducted Canadian diplomacy. The owner of the Toronto Globe, George Brown, for instance, negotiated a draft treaty with the U.S. in 1874, while Sandford Fleming, the surveyor of the Canadian Pacific Railway, represented Canada at the 1887 Colonial Conference in London.

From its inception the Canadian foreign service reflected a bias towards economic concerns. There were trade commissioners, for instance, long before ambassadors. By 1907 there were 12 Canadian trade commissions staffed by “commercial agents” located in Sydney, Capetown, Mexico City, Yokohama and numerous European and U.S. cities.

Despite this historic precedent, in the 21st century it should be controversial for a government to openly state that economic considerations drive international policy. Yet criticism of GMAP has been fairly muted, which may reflect how many progressives feel overwhelmed by the Conservatives right-wing aggressiveness in every policy area.

Or perhaps there’s a more fundamental explanation. The mainstream political/media establishment basically agrees with the idea that corporate interests should dominate foreign policy.

In response to GMAP, Postmedia ran a debate between John Manley, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and a member of the advisory panel that helped draw up the Conservatives’ plan, and former foreign minister and leading proponent of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, Lloyd Axworthy. While Manley lauded the Conservatives’ move, Axworthy criticized it as “bad trade policy. The best way to enlarge your trade prospects and to develop a willingness for agreements and to improve economic exchange is to have a number of contacts to show other countries that you are a willing and co-operative player on matters of security, on matters of human rights, and on matters of development.”

Axworthy did not express principled criticism of the Conservatives’ move; he simply said that “trade prospects” — a euphemism for corporate interests — are best advanced through a multifaceted foreign-policy. Widely lauded by the liberal intelligentsia, Axworthy reflects the critical end of the dominant discussion, which largely takes its cues from the corporate class. And Canada’s business class is more internationally focused than any other G8 country.

Heavily dependent on “free trade” Canadian companies are also major global investors. The world’s largest privately owned security company, GardaWorld, has 45,000 employees operating across the globe while another Montréal-based company, SNC Lavalin, has engineering projects in 100 countries. Corporate Canada’s most powerful sector is also a global force. The big five banks, which all rank among the top 65 in the world, now do a majority of their business outside of this country. Scotiabank, for example, operates in 50 countries.

The mining sector provides the best example of Canadian capital’s international prominence. Three quarters of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada or listed on Canadian stock exchanges. Present in almost every country, Canadian corporations operate thousands of mineral projects abroad.

With $711.6 billion in foreign direct investments last year, Canadian companies push for (and benefit from) Ottawa’s diplomatic, aid and military support. As their international footprint has grown, they’ve put ever more pressure on the government to serve their interests. There is simply no countervailing force calling on the government to advance international climate negotiations, arms control measures or to place constraints on mining companies.

There’s also limited ideological opposition to neoliberalism. Few in Canada promote any alternative to capitalism. Until unions, social groups and activists put forward an alternative economic and social vision it’s hard to imagine that Canadian foreign policy will do much more than promote private corporate interests.

Yves Engler

Remaking Mexico’s oil industry on behalf of the 0.1%

16 Dec

MEXICO CITY  — Are we living in a time when ordinary people have forgotten their history, when all those who fail to remember the past will be condemned to relive its harsh reality?

I thought of this as two Canadian tourists marched with thousands along the Paseo de la Reforma last week to demonstrate opposition to the energy “reform” bill being debated by Mexican legislators. The new law would allow foreign oil giants into the country for the first time in 75 years.

Certainly the people who had come from every corner of the country to form a human chain around the Mexican Senate and Chamber of Deputies were well aware of history and cited it on their signs, in their chants, speeches and songs that began in the early morning and continued until late at night. (The noise, traffic jams and thousands of riot police were scaring off tourists and locals alike.) For the students and others banging on the metal barricades surrounding government buildings changing the constitution to allow foreign multinational companies to exploit the country’s oil and natural gas resources is a return to the bad old pre-1930s era when Mexico’s government exercised less real power than the foreign corporations that controlled its vital energy sector. Posters taped to the barricades harkened to history. One read: “The Spanish came to steal the yellow gold for trinkets. The gringos are coming for the black gold … Are you going to stay silent?”

In fact, the 1938 expropriation of the world’s second largest oil industry, which was the first nationalization by a capitalist country, and the creation of government-owned Pemex are celebrated throughout Mexico and their significance in transforming the country is taught in schools.  Kids learn how oil profits that once went to foreign investors remained in the country to build schools, roads and provide social services. The moderately leftish president, Lázaro Cárdenas, who confronted and defeated the British and American oil giants of the day, is honoured with streets, parks, schools and other buildings named after him and is generally considered one of the founders of modern Mexico.

Ironically it is the party that Cardenas was instrumental in creating, the ruling PRI, together with the more overtly right-wing PAN, that over rode the constitution with a two-thirds vote in both the Senate (95-28 on Tuesday) and lower house (353-134 on Thursday). All that is left for the bill to become law is approval by 17 of the 31 state legislatures, most of which are controlled by the PRI and PAN.

Given the statues and school curriculum, it is difficult to argue that ordinary Mexicans are unaware of the history of their country’s oil industry and the excellent reasons to retain “the peoples” ownership of this vital resource. Indeed, a survey published in June, before the legislation was introduced, showed 65 percent of Mexicans opposed foreign investment in the oil industry. Most clearly believe that the oil belongs to the people and profits should be invested in the country’s future rather than fatten the bottom line of ExxonMobil, Shell, BP or Chevron.

In reality the problem confronting Mexico is not the lack of historical memory. It is the lack of real democracy. It is the power of the ruling class, both international and Mexican, to get their way. The people who will benefit from an influx of foreign capital and a reintroduction of “free enterprise” into the oil industry know full well that this legislation will ultimately be bad for most Mexicans, but they don’t care. Their primary concern is how to enrich themselves.

The cheerleaders for capitalism proclaim loudly for all to hear “greed is good” and yet we act surprised when capitalists act in their own self-interest, ignoring the common good.

Mexican capitalists will destroy government-owned Pemex (as they have been trying to do for decades) because for them any economic activity that does not produce private profits is useless — worse than useless, because it may offer an example of an alternative economic system.

What is happening to the Mexican oil industry is another in a long line of international rollbacks of anything that limits the power of the 0.1% richest people around the world, who take the vast bulk of profits from the capitalist system.

Until we, the 90% who work for a living and have the power to take over, rise up and challenge this minority rule of the 0.1%, things will continue to get worse. More social programs will be chopped, more nationalized industries will be sold off to private interests and our so-called capitalist democracy will continue to prove itself no more than a system of one dollar, one vote.

The sellout of the Mexican oil industry is just the latest example of where capitalism is taking us.

Gary Engler

Do we have enough time to fix global warming?

13 Dec

Even Vladimir Lenin was surprised when the Russian Revolution began in 1917.

Is this just an interesting historical tidbit or a profound example of how fast seemingly stable political, social and economic systems can collapse?

The subject of how long lasting our current system really is comes up frequently in discussions about global warming and what we can do about it.

Usually the conversation goes something like this:

“Scientists tell us we’re getting close to the point of no return. We don’t have much time left to drastically cut our carbon emissions.”

“Yes, but corporation keep investing billions in the tarsands, in coal, in building ever more private automobiles. The oil sector, that’s where the money and jobs are.”

“Even the people who understand global warming is a problem need jobs.”

“Governments pay lip service to combating global warming, but in reality they follow the money too. Big corporations buy them off. They run everything.”

“The problem is capitalism. Capitalists require ever-expanding profits and will do anything to keep them flowing. That’s just the way the system is.”

“So what can we do about it?”

“Get rid of capitalism.”

“How likely is that?”

“I guess it depends on how many people come to the same conclusion and are willing to do what it takes to change the system.”

“In other words, it’s hopeless.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Look around, people don’t care. They’re too busy shopping or worrying about their own private problems. People are too scared to join a union, let alone overthrow capitalism.”

“Things can change, very quickly.”

And that’s where the story about how the Russian Revolution surprised everyone comes up.

For those of us who understand the importance of acting quickly to reduce carbon emissions and that capitalism is incapable of dealing with this urgent problem, the question of how fast we could build a new, environmentally friendly economic system is critically important.

Is there time or are we cooked? Literally.

The answer depends, in large part, on one’s views about how “revolution” occurs.

If you believe that major change only happens after long years of organizing by dedicated, professional revolutionaries building a party that can lead the masses into a brave new future, then human beings today are probably like a lobster in a pot just before the chef turns on the burner: “I don’t know what all the fuss is about. This water seems quite comfortable to me.” It’s doubtful if we have the time to develop the cadre necessary for taking over a system as complex and all-encompassing as world capitalism.

On the other hand, if you believe in the power and ability of ordinary people to rise up when confronted by a crisis that affects us all, then it is possible to be optimistic. If the system you want to build begins with working people around the world taking over the reins of the economy and replacing capitalist minority rule with economic democracy, then that could happen relatively quickly. Yes, it still requires “leaders” working hard, talking and organizing, but history offers many examples of ideas spreading quickly and then people acting upon them.

The critical element — the “objective conditions” — already exists. Capitalism itself has created an economy overwhelmingly dominated by social labour. This gives the working class the potential power to take over almost every part of the economy in the vast majority of major economies around the world.

Most people in most countries are workers. If we chose to do so, we could easily expand one-person, one-vote decision-making into every area where people work collectively, which is most of our economy. We could limit private property to what is truly private and doesn’t give an individual power over others. We could move to a system of social ownership where multiple democratic owning communities based on the appropriate level of government — local, state/provincial, national, international — replaced corporations. If we did these three things the system of greed that propels capitalists to earn profits, regardless of the consequences to our environment, would no longer exist.

Saving the planet from global warming and ensuring a future for our grandchildren are powerful incentives for billions of working people to participate in this necessary global movement.

Can it happen quickly enough? Yes.

Will it happen quickly enough? That is up to us.

Gary Engler 

The truth is Canada supported apartheid

10 Dec

It’s enough to make one who knows even a little history gag.

The death of Nelson Mandela has led to an outpouring of vapid commentary about Canada’s supposed role in defeating South African Apartheid. “Canada helped lead international fight against Apartheid”, noted a Toronto Star headline while a National Post piece declared, “Canada’s stance against apartheid helped bring freedom to South Africa.”

Notwithstanding this self-congratulatory revisionism, Canada mostly supported apartheid in South Africa. First, by providing it with a model. South Africa patterned its policy towards Blacks after Canadian policy towards First Nations. Ambiguous Champion explains, “South African officials regularly came to Canada to examine reserves set aside for First Nations, following colleagues who had studied residential schools in earlier parts of the century.”

Canada also supported South African apartheid through a duplicitous policy of publicly opposing the country’s racist system yet continuing to do business as usual with this former British Dominion. It’s true that in 1961 John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government called for South Africa to be expelled from the British Commonwealth. But this position was not a moral rebuke of apartheid. “Nothing has been more constant in Diefenbaker’s approach than his search for a tolerable way of averting South Africa’s withdrawal,” commented an External Affairs official at the 1961 Commonwealth meeting where South Africa left the organization. Diefenbaker pushed for South Africa’s exclusion in an attempt to save the Commonwealth. The former British colonies — notably in South Asia and Africa — threatened to leave the Commonwealth if South Africa stayed. This would have been the death of the British Empire’s Commonwealth. Diefenbaker’s lack of principled opposition to apartheid helps explain his refusal to cancel the 1932 Canada-South Africa trade agreement.

Sentenced to life in prison in 1964, Mandela, joined 1,500 black political activists languishing in South African jails. In June 1964 NDP leader Tommy Douglas told the House of Commons: “Nelson Mandela and seven of his associates have been found guilty of contravening the apartheid laws … [I] ask the Prime Minister if he will make vigorous representation to the government of South Africa urging that they exercise clemency in this case”? Lester Pearson responded that the “eight defendants … have been found guilty on charges of sabotage and conspiracy … While the matter is still sub judice [before the courts] it would, I believe, be improper for the government to make any public statement on the verdict or on the possible sentences.” This author found no follow up comment by Pearson regarding Mandela.

Widely viewed as a progressive internationalist, Pierre Trudeau’s government (1968-1984) sympathized with the apartheid regime not the black liberation movement or nascent Canadian solidarity groups. Throughout Trudeau’s time in office, Canadian companies were heavily invested in South Africa, enjoying the benefits of cheap black labour.  In October 1982 the Trudeau government delivered 4.91 percent of the votes that enabled Western powers to gain a slim 51.9 percent majority in support of South Africa’s application for a billion-dollar IMF credit. Sixty-eight IMF members opposed the loan as did 121 countries in a nonbinding vote at the U.N. General Assembly. Five IMF executive directors said South Africa did not meet the standards of conditionality imposed on other borrowers. The Canadian minister of finance justified support for the IMF loan claiming that “the IMF must be careful … not to be accused of meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign states.” A few months later, Ottawa opposed IMF funding for Vietnam because of its occupation of Cambodia (largely to stop the Khmer Rouge’s killing).

Officially, the Trudeau government supported the international arms embargo against South Africa. But his government mostly failed to enforce it. As late as 1978 Canadian-government financed weapons continued to make their way to South Africa. Canadair (at the time a Crown company) sold the apartheid regime amphibious water bombers, which according to the manufacturer, were useful “particularly in internal troop-lift operations.” (The official buyer was the South African forestry department.) In the early 1970s the Montréal Gazette discovered that the RCMP trained South African police in “some sort of liaison or intelligence gathering” instruction.

Supporters of apartheid would say anything to slow opposition to this cruel system. At a 1977 Commonwealth meeting, Trudeau dodged press questions on post-Soweto South Africa suggesting that Idi Amin’s brutal regime in Uganda should be discussed along with southern Africa. For its part, the Globe and Mail argued in 1982 that “disinvestment would be unwittingly an ally of apartheid” since foreign investment brought progressive ideas.

After decades of protest by Canadian unions, churches, students and others, Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government finally implemented economic sanctions on South Africa in 1986. The Conservatives only moved after numerous other countries had already done so. “The record clearly shows”, notes Ambiguous Champion, “that the Canadian government followed rather than led the sanctions campaign.” Unlike Canada, countries such as Norway, Denmark New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina also cut off diplomatic ties to South Africa. Even U.S. sanctions, due to an activist Congress, were tougher than those implemented by Ottawa.

From October 1986 to September 1993, the period in which economic sanctions were in effect, Canada’s two-way trade with South Africa totaled $1.6 billion — 44 percent of the comparable period before sanctions (1979-1985). Canadian imports from South Africa averaged $122 million a year during the sanctions period.

Canada did business with the apartheid regime and opposed the liberation movements. Ottawa’s relationship with the African National Congress (ANC) was initially one of hostility and then ambivalence.

Canada failed to recognize the ANC until July 1984 and then worked to moderate their direction. In an August 1987 letter to the Toronto Star, Foreign Affairs Minister Joe Clark explained the government’s thinking: “Canada has been able to develop a relationship of trust with the … African National Congress that it is hoped has helped to strengthen the hand of black moderates.”

With apartheid’s end on the horizon, Ottawa wanted to guarantee that an ANC government would follow pro-capitalist policy, contrary to the wishes of many of its supporters. The man in charge of External Affairs’ South African Taskforce said that Ottawa wanted an early IMF planning mission to the country to ensure that the post-apartheid government would “get things right” from the start. One author noted: “The Canadian state has entered fully in the drive to open South Africa to global forces and to promote the interests of the private sector.”

Ottawa’s policy towards apartheid South Africa was controversial among Canadians. There was an active solidarity movement that opposed Canadian support for the racist regime and to the extent that Canadian politicians played a role in challenging South African apartheid it was largely due to their efforts.

Yves Engler

CEO fat cats purring all the way to their Swiss banks

5 Dec

Last week in Switzerland big money staved off an important challenge to big paychecks. But the sentiment that spurred a Swiss effort to tie executive compensation to common workers’ wages will not be defeated so easily.

A Sunday ago Swiss voters said no to a referendum question that would have capped executive compensation at 12 times the lowest paid worker in the firm. After gaining over 130,000 signatures to put the question to voters, proponents of the initiative were overwhelmed by a flood of money claiming a “yes” vote would drive companies away. Early polls found 46% of the Swiss public opposed to the 12:1 pay measure but with opponents spending up to 50 times more than the “yes” campaign, 65% ultimately voted “no.”

According to supporters of the measure, the average Swiss CEO made 43 times the average wage in 2011, up from six times in 1984. A number of top Swiss CEOs make more than 200 times their employees’ wage.

But Switzerland’s CEO-to-worker pay differential appears socialistic compared to North America’s. After the U.S., Canada has the second highest CEO-to-worker pay ratio. Last year, for instance, the CEO of BCE, George Cope, received $11.1-million in compensation. This staggering sum is nearly 200 times more than what a Bell Canada technician in Toronto makes and 2,000 times the pay of an Indian call-centre worker who responds to Bell customers.

Despite making 200 times the average industrial wage, Cope was not the best-paid executive in Canada. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ summary of Canada’s 100 highest paid CEOs in 2011, the $11.1 million Cope made in 2012 would have placed him just off the top 15. Incredibly, the CEO of Canadian Pacific, Hunter Harrison, took home four and a half times Cope’s pay.

In recent years the difference between regular employees’ pay and CEO compensation has grown rapidly. A recent Globe and Mail survey found that ratio has reached 122-1 at Canada’s biggest firms, up from an average of 84-1 a decade ago. Using a different set of data, the CCPA and AFL-CIO put the Canadian CEO-to-worker pay ratio significantly higher.

As a flagrant symbol of growing inequality, executive pay is increasingly facing political challenge. While the 12:1 initiative was defeated, in March more than two-thirds of Swiss voters supported a referendum question requiring companies to give shareholders a binding annual vote on executives’ pay, while outlawing bonuses to executives joining or leaving a business or as part of a takeover. Similarly, some EU officials have suggested that shareholders should be given the right to vote on the ratio between a company’s best and worst paid workers.

The French government took office last year saying it would limit executive salaries at state-controlled companies to a maximum of 20 times that of the lowest-paid employees and on Wednesday, Ontario New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath called for the salaries of CEO’s at the province’s hospitals, electrical utilities and other public sector agencies to be capped at $418,000, twice the premier’s annual salary.

Politicians should legislate a maximum pay differential between the best and worst paid workers in all companies. How about a ratio of 20 times that’s steadily reduced over time?

It may be difficult, but I’m sure CEOs like Bell’s George Cope could learn to cope on a million bucks a year.

Yves Engler

Unions should lead the fight against global warming

4 Dec

What is working class culture?

This question arose as part of a conversation about convincing members of Canada’s newest union, Unifor, to make saving the planet from climate change a priority.

“You’ll run up against working class culture,” said a friend who considers himself an anarchist.

“What do you mean?” I responded.

“Consumerism. High paying jobs with lots of overtime to buy ever more stuff, two cars, a big house in the suburbs with NASCAR and hockey on the two big screens in the basement, plus Housewives of Vancouver on the TV in the kitchen,” he said. “And how many thousands of your members build cars, dig up the tarsands and work in oil refineries? How can people with jobs like that ever be environmentalists?”

The first response I thought of was: “Are you saying soldiers never turn against war? Because history proves they do,” which spun the argument in another direction.

But the subject of working class culture lingered. Is there one and is it defined by consumerism? Or are there many, including ones opposed to the “culture” that TV tries to convince us is how we all live?

And regardless if there is only one, or many, where does it/they come from? Does culture simply happen or is it imposed upon us? Is it something that we can consciously build?

Certainly working class movements in the past have sought to educate themselves in an attempt to create an explicitly anti-capitalist culture. Many social democratic, anarchist and communist groups, including unions, grew into mass movements precisely by challenging the dominant ideology and suggesting an attractive, believable alternative. Rather than bemoan, but accept, the culture that rulers imposed on the working class, social democrats, anarchists and communists instead talked and listened to their fellow workers, convincing them that an alternative to capitalism was desirable, possible and necessary.

Those of us who understand that capitalism is environmentally unsustainable must do the same work today. We must inform people about the importance of immediate action to slow global warming and fix other ecological rifts that threaten human existence on our planet. We must challenge the notion that capitalists will solve environmental problems when in fact they are the ones who profit from mining the tarsands and building the pipelines which threaten our children’s and grandchildren’s future. We must point out that constant economic growth (unsustainable on a finite planet) is at the core of capitalism. But most important of all, we must offer a vision of an alternative to capitalism. This system must be environmentally sustainable, more democratic, provide a comfortable life and be fun to build.

One such alternative to capitalism is economic democracy. This means replacing master-servant relations with workplace democracy, replacing capitalist title with equal human entitlement and replacing corporate ownership with social ownership. The essential ideas of economic democracy are: Expanding one-person, one-vote decision-making into every area where people work collectively, which is the vast majority of our economy; Limiting private property to what is truly private and doesn’t give an individual power over others; Replacing corporations with multiple democratic owning communities based on the appropriate level of government, local, state/provincial, national or international.

In an economic democracy individual greed could not overrule the collective good, which would be determined by democratic means. When the majority of people understand the causes and dangers of global warming, their governments and collective enterprises would become agents of change rather than barriers. Entrenched interests who profit from spewing ever more carbon into the atmosphere would not control them. If workers and communities ran industries, such as the automobile and oil sectors that must change or disappear if we are to make the necessary drastic cuts in carbon emissions, they would be a lot less likely than profit-addicted corporations to blackmail society into supporting private interests that damage the environment. Worker and community owned enterprises would support just transition strategies to move jobs from polluting to sustainable industries. They would also be much more likely to promote an alternative culture of artistic leisure over mindless consumerism.

Environmentalists in and outside the union movement should not cite “working class culture” as an excuse to avoid raising critical issues about the jobs we do. Hundreds of millions of workers have proved capable over the past two centuries of managing the contradiction of opposing capitalism while seemingly dependent on capitalists for their jobs. Pointing out how capitalists use jobs to blackmail us into supporting their interests helps people understand why capitalism is the problem, not the solution. Rather than being a barrier to environmental understanding the fact that capitalism cannot do what is necessary to repair the damage it has already done, is a powerful argument in favour of building a working class alternative to the current system.

Strong, democratic, environmentally conscious, militant unions are one of the keys to success in this project. Such unions do not shy away from difficult but necessary discussions.

Gary Engler

Workers are not anti-trade, but oppose more for the rich

15 Nov

Since announcing the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) three weeks ago, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have repeatedly labelled those questioning the deal as “anti-trade.” But this Canada-European Union accord is one part trade and four parts corporate bill of rights.

While the government has promoted the part of the agreement that would eliminate 98 per cent of all tariffs, this masks the fact that these are already low (or non-existent) on most goods traded between Canada and the EU. A Royal Bank report released last week notes that mining, oil and gas products represent 45 per cent of Canada’s exports to the EU and most of these materials already enter the EU duty free.

On combined bilateral trade of $85 billion a year, EU exporters currently pay $670 million in tariffs while Canadian producers pay only $225 million in duties. To put this sum into perspective, eliminating all current Canada-EU tariff payments will barely cover the increased drug costs caused by another part of the agreement. The extension of Canadian patents under CETA is expected to drive up already high pharmaceutical drug costs in this country by between $850 million and $1.65 billion a year, according to a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study. In other words, Harper’s Conservatives are proposing to add a billion dollars or more to the cost of our health care system, in return for a cut of less than $900 million in tariffs, most of which will benefit European producers. Is this really a good deal for ordinary Canadians?

And, one might ask, what does extending patents have to do with free trade? In fact, as a type of monopoly, patents stifle competition, which is supposed to be a pillar of free trade ideology. Of course the powerful brand-name drugmakers pushing the patent extension are more interested in increasing their profits than economic theory.

Another part of CETA that has little to do with expanding free trade is the investor state dispute settlement process. Modelled after the North American Free Trade Agreement’s Chapter 11, this aspect of the accord will give corporations based in Canada and the EU the ability to bypass domestic courts and sue governments for pursuing policies that interfere with their profit making. The Conservatives pushed for an investor state dispute process in CETA even though there’s been a growing international backlash to these type of accords and under NAFTA’s investor dispute process Canada currently faces more than $2 billion in lawsuits.

A number of other CETA provisions also strengthen investors’ rights to the detriment of democracy. For example, the agreement gives multinational corporations unprecedented rights to bid on public contracts. This will weaken provincial and municipal agencies ability to buy local and pursue other environmental and socially minded policies.

Concurrently, the accord makes it more difficult to set up new publicly operated social services. For instance, a municipality unhappy with private water delivery could face a suit if they tried to remunicipalize (or de-privatize) this service.

CETA also locks in reforms to the Telecommunications Act buried in last year’s 450-page omnibus budget. The Conservatives’ changes allow foreign-controlled corporations to buy a majority stake in telecommunications companies holding up to 10 per cent of the Canadian market (and then grow without limit from there). Under the banner of “free trade,” CETA will make it extremely difficult for a future Canadian government to reverse recent reforms to the Telecommunications Act. This is just one more example of the Conservatives sneaking through their ideological agenda without proper, transparent debate in Parliament.

Recently International Trade Minister Ed Fast told the House of Commons that “the NDP remains beholden, both financially and organizationally, to the big union bosses and anti-trade activist groups.” For his part, Harper told the press that “ideological opposition to free trade in Canada is really, today, part of a very small part of the political spectrum — a very small and extreme part — and for that reason I think you will find very few Canadians who are opposed in principle to having a free-trade agreement with Europe.”

Yes, few Canadians oppose trade with Europe “in principle,” but CETA is only partly about trade. The deal mostly benefits multinational corporations and it isn’t “anti-trade” to say so.

Yves Engler

If Canada was truly democratic

7 Nov

What would a trade agreement intended to benefit all Canadians look like?

This is of more than academic concern right now as the Harper Conservative government will eventually unveil the full details of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

From what we know about it now this agreement is little more than a ‘corporate bill of rights’. It gives corporations even more power to shift investment as they see fit and directly strengthens their interests in everything from public procurement to patent laws.

The one-sidedly pro-corporate nature of the agreement reflects the power that corporations yield over discussions of international trade. Despite the corporate world’s current stranglehold over international economic decisions, a here and now People’s Alternative to CETA is feasible.

To protect multinationals from the scourge of “discriminatory” government policies, CETA includes an investor-state dispute settlement process. This will give corporations based in Canada and the EU a new supranational tool to sue governments for pursuing policies that interfere with their profit making.

But rather than giving even more power to the top 0.1% richest people in the world, who are the investor class, an economic accord driven by a People’s Alternative would set up a labour-state dispute settlement process. In these tribunals workers could sue governments that fail to force employers to abide by labour law and International Labour Organization statutes.

CETA also gives multinational corporations unprecedented rights to bid on public contracts. In a bid to create a “level playing field” for multinationals in public procurement, the agreement will weaken provincial and municipal agencies ability to “buy local” and pursue other environmental and socially minded policies.

Instead of undermining public agencies’ ability to pursue ecological and social goals when tendering contracts, a progressive economic accord would prod firms to follow the highest ecological and social standards within the trading area. A People’s Alternative would give priority to firms that cut their carbon emissions in line with the stronger levels mandated by the EU. It would also prioritize companies that establish works councils, which give workers some formal voice in the operation of the firm and are common throughout Europe.

Under CETA Canada will lengthen the time drugs remain under patent, which is expected to drive up already high Canadian pharmaceutical drug costs by more than $850 million a year. Instead of extending Canadian patent laws to more closely reflect Europe’s rules, why not harmonize daycare programs to reflect the best of the trading area?

Most European countries provide public day care services, which have both costs and benefits to the economy. According to the logic that says trading partners are supposed to be on similar economic footing, it makes as much sense to standardize daycare systems as it does patent rules.

Another argument presented to justify extending patents is that it will lead to more research and development taking place in Canada. But, over the long-term, publicly funded day care would better accomplish this objective. Particularly beneficial to the intellectual development of poor kids, quality public day care increases the likelihood that disadvantaged children will be successful in school and contribute to future innovation.

With the corporate perspective so thoroughly dominating public debates on international trade it can be difficult for critics to do anything more than oppose the current policy direction. But when we disentangle the “economy” from what’s good for corporations a pro-people international economic accord is entirely feasible.

If we enjoyed real democracy, our governments would consult the people about their priorities in trade agreements.

If we lived in an economic system of one-person-one-vote, rather than the one-dollar-one-vote corporate system we have today, trade would flourish but trade agreements would look much different. They would be concerned with benefiting ordinary people, not just the already wealthy and powerful.

Yves Engler

Working for a living in an irrational economic system

1 Nov

Our economic system is pretty funny, eh.

I don’t mean of the belly laugh sort, but rather the ironic variety (although a decent argument could be made that many elements of modern work life have the humour quotient of a Three Stooges skit).

There was a rally Thursday to support unionized cleaners working in Cadillac Fairview buildings in downtown Vancouver who are paid in the $12 per hour range. Cadillac, self-described as “one of North America’s largest investors, owners and managers of commercial real estate” and owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, has given its former $12 per hour cleaning contract to another supposedly unionized company that pays its workers $10.50 per hour.

These hard working people, mostly immigrant women, clean the offices of financial analysts, brokers, accountants, lawyers, executives and others, mostly men, who are paid five to many hundred times more.

Among the many ironies in this sad situation is the realization that the harder and more important the job the worse it pays. The more pointless and socially unnecessary the work the more cash is thrown at the person.

Keeping buildings where we work clean is pretty important. Making the clothes everyone needs to wear, picking the vegetables and fruit that keep us healthy, making sure urban sewers don’t get blocked, or picking up garbage are all important and difficult jobs, but how much are people doing them paid?

Gambling, on the other hand, pays extremely well, if it’s the sort that rich people do. Of course we’re told that what they do on Wall Street or Bay Street is part of the real economy and only what happens on the Las Vegas Strip is gambling.

But it seems to me, real gambling is when you don’t understand what is going on. Think about it: If I bet my pension on whether or not the little ball is going to fall in a red slot or a black slot, at least I can see what happens. If I hand it over to a mutual fund, I don’t have a clue.

How many of us really understand how the stock market works? Sure, we nod in agreement when the analyst comes on the six o’clock news and says: ‘Bond prices rose six basis points and the Dow dropped 43 points today on news the September durable goods figures were higher than expected.’ Say what?

If I put my hundred on the table the least they can do is show me the cards to prove whether I won or lost. On a Las Vegas craps table I see the pit boss check the dice. Cameras cut down on cheating. On Wall Street? No pit boss, no cameras, not even some guys named Guido and Tony to take a cheater out in the alley. Two years after some company steals ten billion, the government starts a court case that lasts another 14 years with appeals and at the end of it all, five rich guys lose their trading privileges.

But I digress.

If you want to earn the really big dough in capitalism you get a job in one of those Cadillac Fairview-owned buildings buying and selling numbers, letters and symbols that only exist on a computer screen. They call this working in the financial sector, but is it that much different than gambling?

And even better paid than those doing the buying and selling are the guys who give advice about which numbers, letters and symbols — that only exist on a computer screen — to buy and sell. Best paid of all is the guy who hires all these people and then sits back and lets them do their job. He’s called a hedge fund manager and can pull down a pay cheque of two million per week or more if he’s really, really good at convincing other rich people to let him “invest” their money.

Sure, some of these number pushers are smart and even have a lot of education, but is what they do socially useful? Compared to cleaners or seamstresses or fruit pickers or garbage guys?

They “make” money, that’s all, something that is supremely valued in our current economic system, but which when judged by any sort of authentic human experience is nothing more than fantasy.

It’s as if the world were one gigantic cornfield, but instead of harvesting it for food, we build mazes because they fascinate the people with money. Cornfield owners can earn huge profits if they invest in mazes. Trillions of dollars change hands, with the really big bucks going to the experts who design them and those who help people find their way through the mazes. But the people who grow the cornfields are paid barely enough to live on.

The truth is, the cleaners of Cadillac Fairview buildings — like the people who grow the corn — perform easily identifiable useful work. The same cannot be said for many of the people who work in the buildings.

What does this reality say about our economic system?

Gary Engler

Has the NDP capitulated to the rich?

28 Oct

This past week may come to be seen as a watershed moment in the NDP’s capitulation to neoliberal capitalism. The nominally social democratic party effectively supported a major corporate ‘trade’ accord all the while opposing an International Monetary Fund call for a more progressive tax code.

Last week the NDP basically endorsed the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) the Harper Conservatives have negotiated with the European Union. The accord will greatly expand the power of multinational corporations. By extending Canada’s patent protections, CETA will drive up already high pharmaceutical drug costs. It also weakens provincial and municipal agencies ability to “buy local” by giving multinational corporations greater rights to bid on public contracts. Maybe most egregious, the accord gives corporations based in Canada and the EU the power to sue governments in special investor friendly tribunals if they feel public policy impedes their profit-making.

Despite these corporate giveaways, NDP Trade Critic Don Davies released a statement saying, “New Democrats welcome progress towards a comprehensive new trade agreement with the European Union.” To justify this position Davies pointed to the social democratic credentials of Western Europe. “The NDP has long maintained that Canada should have deeper economic relations with the European Union, democratic countries with some of the highest environmental and labour standards in the world.”

Interestingly, the NDP was less fixated on democratic standards when they voted for the Canada Jordan ‘free’ trade agreement at the end of last year. In that case they were desperate to point to a ‘free’ trade agreement they had supported so the party happily turned a blind eye to the lack of independent labour unions and elections in the country as well as the Jordanian monarchy’s prosecution of individuals for “extending one’s tongue” (having a big mouth) against the King.

In another sign of the NDP’s capitulation to rule by the rich, the International Monetary Fund is proposing a more progressive tax policy than Canada’s ‘Left’ party. Last week the usually neoliberal minded IMF released a paper that noted, “tax systems around the world have become steadily less progressive since the early 1980s.” To rectify this the Fund’s Fiscal Monitor presented an argument to increase income taxes on high earners to 60 to 70 per cent and even suggested a capital levy on wealthy households.

Long a proponent of socially devastating austerity policies, the IMF basically proposes a return to the income tax levels that were common three decades ago. At the start of the 1980s Canada’s top tax bracket was over 60%, which is some 15 percentage points higher than today’s rates. (In 1948 incomes over $2.4 million in 2013 money were taxed at 80%).

A social democratic party motivated by bettering society — rather than simply taking power — would have jumped on the IMF proposal. Instead, the NDP leader was busy repudiating the party’s Toronto Centre by-election candidate, Linda McQuaig, who previously argued that tax rates should be 70% on the rich.

“Be careful, she has never said anything different from party policy [since becoming a candidate],” Thomas Mulcair told the National Post. “She is a public intellectual who has written all kinds of things. But we’re the ones who have to put an offer before the Canadian public … Personal income tax increases are not on the table.”

At some point progressive minded party members will have to ask themselves how far down the neoliberal path they are willing to travel. In the meantime they should tell the NDP leadership they oppose CETA and want substantially increased taxes on the wealthy.

Yves Engler

Russell, the revolution’s name is economic democracy

26 Oct

In the match between comedian and journalist it was a straight sets victory for the funny guy at the Who Makes More Political Sense Grand Slam event near Wimbledon.

Hundreds of thousands have already watched the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman take on Russell Brand in an interview about the need for revolution, a sign that the subject is of more than passing interest.

While it should not be surprising that humour was more effective than earnestness, it was curious to watch how effective Brand’s self-acknowledged ignorance about politics was in scoring political points. Perhaps it was because it made him seem more like the vast majority of ordinary people who know that something is wrong with our economic and political system, but can’t articulate an alternative.

Brand hit an ace when challenged about how he would do things differently and responded by saying what the system shouldn’t do. It “shouldn’t destroy the planet and shouldn’t create massive economic disparity,” he said.

In those ten words he brought together the most important political issues facing humanity today. And they share common roots: Power. Or the lack there of.

Both growing income inequality and the inability to deal with our looming environmental crisis are a result of the concentration of economic and social power in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

In our one dollar, one vote economic system that power inevitably becomes political power. In every system throughout history economic and social power always became political power (then military power).

If left unrestrained, those with more economic, social and political power will use it to get themselves an even larger share of the economic pie, regardless of the effect on the environment or other people.  That’s how the system works.

So, money is power, but it is also a result of power. More money, more power, more money, more power — a virtuous cycle if you are among the wealthiest 1%, but a vicious cycle if you belong to the 99%.

This concentration of power in the hands of the few is the enemy of democracy, which is why so many people are concerned about rising income inequality. But it is also the source of the powerful resistance to dealing with global warming and other looming environmental catastrophes. Oil and coal, for example, make money for powerful people.

Once this reality is understood the question of what to do about the problem of growing income inequality and fixing our environment needs to be reframed as: What can we do to fix the inequality of power?

Answers in the past have included: High taxes on high incomes (up to 90% in many countries); Inheritance taxes on the wealthy; Taxes on all forms of property; Nationalizing sectors of the economy to bring them under “public” control; Encouraging the growth of unions. Most people call this package of policies Keynesianism.

All of these measures do reduce the power of the very rich and have in fact worked well for ordinary people in many countries. Prosperity was the result. The gap between rich and poor shrunk. And capitalism survived, despite protestations of the wealthy and their sycophants.

Capitalists survived so well that they eventually reversed many of these reforms. They demanded and won drastic cuts in their taxes, the privatization of nationalized industries and the destruction of unions. Even in most of the countries that once proclaimed themselves socialist or communist, capitalism has returned. New capitalist classes have emerged. The result has been growing inequality.

Is this return to the past proof that capitalism and inequality are inevitable? Just the way things are? That capitalism is natural or god-ordained? That we like it? That the economic elite is better than the rest of us and deserve what they get? Or is there a better explanation?

These are questions that I would have liked to hear Russell Brand answer. And here is my suggestion for what he should say:

Minority rule is what makes growing inequality inevitable. A system can proclaim itself democratic, but if a minority holds most of the economic and therefore social and political power the result will be the same: The minority will inevitably reward itself, its power will grow and ever-expanding inequality will result.

So we are back to the question of power and how to distribute it equally. The answer is more democracy. Real democracy. Economic democracy. Workplace democracy. Social democracy as it was originally conceived.

We need to experiment to find the best ways to have workers and communities democratically administer the economy, to look after our environment. We need multiple owning communities so that power doesn’t become concentrated in the hands of a central state. We need to eliminate the divide between workers and owners by making everyone an owner. Everyplace where social labour occurs — people working in coordination with others — must be governed by democratic principles. We must get rid of incentives to destroy the planet.

That’s the sort of revolution that I think Russell Brand was talking about.

Gary Engler

Illegal in Canada, but tax-supported in Israel?

22 Oct

In Canada it is illegal to restrict the sale of property to certain ethnic or religious groups but many of our business people and politicians promote an organization that does exactly that in Israel.
Into the 1950s restrictive land covenants in many exclusive neighbourhoods and communities across Canada made it impossible for Jews, blacks, Chinese, Aboriginals and others deemed to be non-”white” to buy property. It was not until after World War II that these policies began to be successfully challenged in court.
In 1948 Annie Noble decided to sell a cottage in the exclusive Beach O’ Pines subdivision on Lake Huron to Bernie Wolf, who was Jewish. During the sale Wolf’s lawyer realized that the original deed for the property contained the following clause: “The lands and premises herein described shall never be sold, assigned, transferred, leased, rented or in any manner whatsoever alienated to, and shall never be occupied or used in any manner whatsoever by any person of the Jewish, Negro or coloured race or blood, it being the intention and purpose of the Grantor, to restrict the ownership, use, occupation and enjoyment of the said recreational development, including the lands and premises herein described, to persons of the white or Caucasian race.”
Noble and Wolf tried to get the court to declare the restriction invalid, but they were opposed by the Beach O’ Pines Protective Association. Both a Toronto court and the Ontario Court of Appeal refused to invalidate the racist covenant. But, Noble pursued the case — with assistance from the Canadian Jewish Congress — to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a 6-to-1 decision the highest court reversed the lower court’s ruling and allowed Noble to purchase the property.
The publicity surrounding the case prompted Ontario to pass a law voiding racist land covenants and in 2009 the Conservative government defined the Noble and Wolf v. Alley Supreme Court case “an event of national historic significance” in the battle “for human rights and against discrimination on racial and religious grounds in Canada.”
Six decades after the Supreme Court delivered this blow to racist property covenants, a Canadian charity that discriminates in land use continues to receive significant public support. Ottawa provides financial and political support to the Jewish National Fund, which owns 13 percent of Israel’s land and has significant influence over most of the rest. Established internationally in 1901 and nine years later in Canada, the JNF’s bylaws and lease documents contain a restrictive covenant stating its property will not be leased to non-Jews.
A 1998 United Nations Human Rights Council report found that the JNF systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the country’s population. According to the UN report, JNF lands are “chartered to benefit Jews exclusively,” which has led to an “institutionalized form of discrimination.” Similarly, after an Arab Israeli couple was blocked from leasing a house in the mid-1990s, they took their case to Israel’s High Court, and in 2005 the court found that the JNF systematically excluded Palestinian citizens of Israel from leasing its property.
More recently, the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices detailed “institutional and societal discrimination” in Israel. The report noted, “Approximately 93 percent of land was in the public domain, including approximately 12.5 percent owned by the NGO Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews.”
For their part, JNF Canada officials are relatively open about the discriminatory character of the organization. In May 2002, JNF Canada’s executive director for eastern Canada, Mark Mendelson, explained: “We are trustees between world Jewry and the land of Israel.” JNF Canada’s head Frank A. Wilson echoed this statement in July 2009: “JNF are the caretakers of the Land of Israel on behalf of its owners, who are the Jewish people everywhere around the world.”
The JNF’s bylaws and operations clearly are incompatible with Canada’s legal rejection of racist property covenants. Yet JNF Canada, which raises about $8 million annually, is a registered charity in this country. As such, it can provide tax credits for donations, meaning that up to 40% of its budget effectively comes from public coffers.
On top of its charitable status, JNF Canada has received various other forms of official support. Alberta and Manitoba, for instance, have signed multimillion dollar accords with the JNF, while Harper’s Conservatives are strong supporters of the organization. Over the past sixteen months ministers Jason Kenney and John Baird have spoken at JNF galas, while Peter Kent toured southern Israel with officials from the organization. On December 1, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is set to be honoured at the JNF Negev Dinner in Toronto, which will be the first time a sitting Canadian prime minister has spoken to a JNF gala in the organization’s 100-year history.
Does Harper support the JNF’s racist land use policies?
Independent Jewish Voices has launched a campaign to have the JNF’s charitable status revoked for racist land use policies and playing a role in dispossessing Palestinians. On December 1 Harper will be greeted by protesters in Toronto, while a protest is also planned for the JNF gala in Ottawa on October 29.
In 2011, Stop the JNF in England pushed Prime Minister David Cameron to withdraw his patron status from the JNF. Additionally, at least 68 members of the U.K. parliament have endorsed a call to revoke the organization’s charitable status because “the JNF’s constitution is explicitly discriminatory by stating that land and property will never be rented, leased or sold to non-Jews.”
Here in Canada it would be nice to see progressive politicians such as NDP MP Libby Davies or Green Party leader Elizabeth May circulate a similar call to their colleagues in the House of Commons. At least some federal politicians must oppose Canada subsidizing racist property restrictions.

Yves Engler

Economic democracy is the solution to global warming

18 Oct

Why are greenhouse gas emissions not being drastically curtailed? As carbon dioxide levels rise, temperatures rise, oceans become more acidic, polar ice caps melt, sea levels rise, the atmosphere absorbs more water. Floods, hurricanes and droughts become more frequent and more destructive.

Science makes it clear that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil, natural gas—and biofuels.

In September 2013 scientists on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their conclusion: the burning of fossil fuels at current levels will lead to devastating warming within this century. In 2012, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study reached the same conclusion. This was a surprise since it had been financed by Charles Koch and led by Richard Muller, one of the few reputable scientists who had remained a global warming sceptic. Shortly after the release of the Berkeley study, the U.S. association of meteorologists, who had not taken a position on global warming, announced that they accepted the science.

In the face of the scientific consensus and worsening natural disasters, corporate capitalism responds by investing billions in fracking, tar sands, deep sea petroleum development, and expanding pipelines.

Although some individual capitalists are alarmed by global warming, capitalists as capitalists focus on maximizing profits. In theory, green industry could be just as profitable, but profits are made on existing corporations. In resource extraction, materials processing, agribusiness, manufacturing, international trade, communications, and finance, profits are based on cheap energy from fossil fuels.

Supporters of the system claim that capitalism empowers individuals. Capitalism has actually pushed individual enterprise to the fringes of economies. No more than ten percent of populations are self-employed. In Canada and the U.S. ninety percent depend on wage and salary work. Although capitalism gives individual capitalists title to means of livelihood—title that is bought and sold for private profit—wage and salary workers are actually engaged in cooperative, coordinated social labor.

Corporations, capitalism’s dominant institutions, are minority-owned collectives that dominate markets, monopolize supplies, and control technologies. The twenty largest transnational corporations have more revenues than most governments.

Corporate governance is neither democratic nor egalitarian. Those with the most shares have the most votes. Less than one in four own any corporate shares. Most corporate shares are owned by less than five per cent of populations. Major shareholders and top executives, who combined are less than 0.1 percent of populations, control most corporations.

Under capitalism, the productivity of social labor has substantially increased. Aided by technology and expanding markets, humankind can now deforest entire continents, level mountains, dam major rivers, deplete mineral reserves, and fish sea life to extinction. Meanwhile, private title allows corporations to give priority to profits and to externalize environmental costs, to pass these on to communities, workers, future generations, and other species.

In the 1970s, neo-conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan initiated what are now called neo-liberal policies. Taxes paid by corporations and the wealthy were cut. Laws and regulations were changed to make it more difficult for unions to organize and to make gains in collective bargaining. Public utilities and services were privatized. Capital was freed to move abroad in pursuit of cheaper labor, lower taxes and weaker environmental standards. As capitalists got richer, they gained more capacity to dominate political agendas and to manipulate the media and the outcome of elections.

So long as capital-owning minorities are entitled to direct economic and political activity in their private interests, private profit will take precedence over human wellbeing. The alternative is economic democracy. With economic democracy, community ownership would replace corporate ownership. Everyone—wage and salary workers, the self-employed, the unemployed, students, and the retired—would have a right to a voice and equal vote in their communities’ economic decisions. Workplace democracy would replace master-servant relations.

When everyone is equally entitled, communities will focus on meeting human needs, on providing employment and social services, on sustaining and improving the quality of present and future life. Instead of focusing on what is the most profitable, communities—responsible to all equally—would aim to balance employment opportunities with available labor. Public revenues would be balanced with needed social services. Imports would be balanced with exports. Industrial activity would be deliberately limited to the carrying capacity of environments.

Humankind cannot afford to delay action until the system changes. We must act now to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As individuals we can walk instead of driving, live in smaller residences, travel fewer air miles, eat less meat and choose produce grown organically. But so long as capitalists are entitled to direct economies in their private interests, corporations will continue to externalize environmental costs. The corporate media will continue to identify happiness with consuming more. Most employment will continue to depend on capitalist profit.

Isolated individual action has little impact, but human activity does transform the natural environment for good and ill. Capitalists can pass on environmental costs; humankind cannot.

We can begin by acting together to reduce damage to the environment. Some action—far too little—is already being taken to cut dependence on fossil fuels. Cities can be reconfigured so that most people can walk or bike to work, to school, to entertainment and recreation.

Investment in public transit can reduce dependence on private automobiles. With current technology, wind and solar energy could be much more widely used. Geothermal and waste heat networks would further reduce fossil fuel emissions. Governments could speed up development of cheap, safe, plentiful sources of energy. Public investment—freed from nuclear weapons interests—could determine whether breeder reactors would eliminate radioactive waste, and whether thorium reactors would eliminate the danger of meltdowns.

International agreement to raise average tariffs from the current five percent to thirty percent (as in the 1950s and 60s) would increase local production in agriculture and manufacturing, replacing fossil fuels with human energy. The revenues raised would help provide governments with the funds needed to redirect social labor to more sustainable ways of meeting human needs. Substantially increasing taxes on corporations and the highest incomes would further increase public revenues and would have the added benefit of reducing the money available to promote narrow capitalist agendas.

Communities can act now to assert their right to veto damaging industrial activity. Parties and coalitions can be formed to give priority to human wellbeing. Campaigns for electoral reform can make governments more transparent and responsible to general human interest. Expanding social entitlements, the right to food, housing, education, health care, employment and basic income would reduce dependence on capitalist profit.

Al Engler

What we want for ourselves, we wish for others in foreign policy

16 Oct

Should the “right” of a foreign corporation to make a profit trump governments’ attempts to create local jobs, improve environmental regulations or establish laws that raise royalty rates?

Most Canadians would say no.

But that’s what the Conservative government is pushing poor countries to accept if they want Canadian investment.

Barely noticed in the media, Canada recently concluded negotiations on a foreign investment promotion and protection agreement (FIPA) with the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire. In a press release Minister for La Francophonie Christian Paradis said: “The investment agreement announced today will provide better protection for Canadian companies operating in Côte d’Ivoire.”

Since the start of the year Ottawa has signed similar agreements with Tanzania, Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon and Zambia while over the past few years Canada has concluded FIPAs with Madagascar, Mali and Senegal. Ottawa is currently engaged in FIPA negotiations with Ghana, Guinea, Tunisia and Burkina Faso and plans are likely afoot to pursue bilateral investment treaties with other African countries.

According to the government, “A FIPA is a treaty designed to promote and protect Canadian investment abroad through legally binding provisions and to promote foreign investment in Canada. By ensuring greater protection against discriminatory and arbitrary practices, and by enhancing the predictability of a market’s policy framework, a FIPA gives businesses greater confidence in investing.”

These treaties give corporations the right to sue governments — in private, investor-friendly tribunals — for pursuing policies that interfere with their profit making. They are modelled after NAFTA’s notorious Chapter 11.

The FIPAs signed with African countries are largely motivated by Canada’s mining industry. Over the past two decades Canadian mining investment in Africa has grown over 100 fold from $250 million in 1989 to $6 billion in 2005 and $31 billion in 2011.

The owners of Canada’s mining industry have greatly benefited from three decades of neoliberal reforms in Africa, notably the privatization of state-run mining companies, loosening restrictions on foreign investment and reductions in resource royalty rates. As an early advocate of International Monetary Fund/World Bank structural adjustment programs, Ottawa has channeled hundreds of millions in “aid” dollars to supporting economic liberalization efforts in Africa. The Conservative government’s current FIPA push represents a bid to entrench some of these neoliberal policies.

Canadian mining companies that have benefited from privatizations and loosened restrictions on foreign investment in Africa fear a reversal of these policies. Their concerns can be somewhat alleviated by gaining the ability to sue a government if it expropriates a concession, changes investment rules or requires value added production take place in the country.

The ability to sue — or threaten a suit — is particularly valuable to mining companies facing local opposition to their projects. As the Council of Canadians points out, “Canadian mining companies are using FIPAs with developing countries to claim damages from community opposition to unwanted mega-projects.”

Last week Infinito Gold sued Costa Rica for $1-billion under a Canadian bilateral investment treaty with that country when the government failed to approve a controversial gold mine. The Calgary-based company launched this suit even though polls show that more than 75 percent of Costa Ricans oppose its proposed Crucitas mine and the Supreme Court of Costa Rica denied Infinito permission to proceed with the project on three occasions.

Many Canadian-owned mining sites across Africa are bitterly resisted by local communities and there’s been a great deal of social upheaval around the mines. Canadian mines have spurred war in the Congo, killings in Tanzania and environmental devastation from Kenya to Ghana.
Of course, the dominant media has largely ignored the conflict wrought by Canadian mining companies. Much the same can be said of their role in buying up Africa’s natural resources or Ottawa’s role in facilitating it. The dominant media prefers to focus on how Chinese companies are buying up the continent even though on a per capita basis Canadian corporations have taken control of a great deal more of Africa’s natural resources than China’s.

Unfortunately, the Left has sometimes reflected (and perpetuated) this type of thinking. While a number of independent journalists and small collectives have exposed the destruction wrought by Canadian mining projects, there’s been little opposition to these African FIPAs. On the other hand, there’s been significant opposition to the FIPA Canada recently signed with China.

A recent Leadnow.ca callout to raise money for the Hupacasath First Nation’s legal challenge to the Canada-China FIPA provides an example of this ignorance/indifference towards African FIPAs’. The e-mail has a picture of a woman holding a “Stop FIPA” sign and calls on members to send a note to Conservative MPs to tell them “they will pay a steep political price if they try to pass FIPA.” While Leadnow’s opposition to the China FIPA is to be commended, it need not be done in denial/opposition of the fact that the Conservatives’ have passed a slew of FIPAs’ recently.

One reason the China FIPA has received more attention is that Chinese companies have invested significant sums in Canada while most of Canada’s other FIPA partners have not. In terms of the African FIPAs the investment flow is unidirectional with Canadian companies overwhelmingly dominant.

All too often, criticism of bilateral investment treaties and free ‘trade’ agreements take a nationalistic tone with opposition focused on the ways in which the accords strengthen the rights of multinational corporations in this country. Since African companies have little invested in Canada there’s few short to medium term consequences for Canadians with the African FIPAs and thus little opposition expressed.

But this is short-term thinking. The past 25 years of neoliberalism has demonstrated quite clearly that these policies are being pursued in lockstep globally and that they exacerbate inequality and ecological destruction everywhere.

If we oppose “investor-rights” agreements in Canada we must oppose them everywhere.

Yves Engler

Taking responsibility at work requires taking power

15 Oct

Something about the Canucks versus Canadiens hockey game Saturday night has stayed with me, producing a mental itch that won’t go away.

It wasn’t Dan Hamhuis scoring on his own net on a whiffed pass, double ricochet off Roberto Luongo , although that will haunt the Canuck defenceman for the rest of his career.

It was in a break from the action when my TV screen filled with beautiful images of crystal clear streams, healthy salmon and pristine British Columbia back country. A kind and gentle voice praised the incredible environment that Mother Nature has bestowed on this province. One felt a sense of soothing comfort, tinged with pride at having chosen to live in this part of the world.

It was a commercial promoting the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. An ad for a project that is an essential part of what one could argue is the greatest single environmental threat currently facing the planet.

After the initial shock at the over-the-top doublespeak of using our love for nature to promote a pipeline proposal to transport some of the most carbon intensive oil on the planet, I began to wonder who would sell their soul, along with their creative energy, to create a piece of propaganda that would have amazed George Orwell himself.

Somewhere, a group of artists, or at least reasonably creative women and men, had sat in an office discussing how best to convince a skeptical public (polls have shown well over 60 per cent of B.C. residents opposed) on the merits of building a pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the west coast.

Imagine these human beings, not much different from you or me, pitching proposals, exchanging ideas and debating the merits of various creative approaches to ignoring climate science, disregarding the likelihood of breaks in any pipeline, discounting the well-reasoned fear of shipping accidents and completely overlooking the opposition of First Nations whose land the pipeline must cross.

“Let’s sell them on a pipeline by showing pretty pictures of nature,” one of them says. “And use a voice that people trust to brand the pipeline as environmentally friendly.”

“That’s it,” says another. “That’s it exactly. It’s the same as selling beer. If we can convince young men that getting drunk makes them more attractive to women, we can easily use people’s love of nature to sell a pipeline.”

“Exploit the very thing that the pipeline will destroy to sell it, that’s hardcore,” says yet another. “Deviously wicked.”

“I love it,” says the client.

And not one of them feels the least bit guilty for helping to destroy the livability of our planet. Why? Because they are just doing their jobs.

So the commercial is written, produced, directed, location scouted, lighted, costumed, filmed, acted in, edited, catered, etc. and not one of the dozens of people making it feel the least bit guilty for contributing to global warming, because after all, they too are just doing their jobs. Likewise the sales rep at the TV station, the traffic person, the director, master control operator and every other worker from Calgary to Fort Mac to Vancouver who take no responsibility — all are also just doing their jobs.

Am I the only one who is bothered by this? “Just doing my job,” sounds eerily similar to “just following orders,” a soldier’s excuse for committing a war crime. Is this where our economic system’s pursuit of ever-greater profits has led us? The sum of our individual actions is creating an environmental disaster but none of us are responsible?

I’m pretty certain most who work in Fort McMurray understand how destructive what they do is to the environment. I feel confident that the vast majority of creative people involved in selling products that are bad for us understand what they are doing. Most may prefer not to think about it, but they do understand. They believe there’s no choice. Acting like you don’t care is simply what it takes to successfully earn a living.

This is the attitude of people who feel powerless. It is the attitude of a soldier who has learned the negative consequences of ever questioning an order.

Our economic system gives the power to decide most things to a small number of people motivated by greed. Most of us must follow orders if we are to succeed. Our ability to choose is confined to decisions like Coke versus Pepsi. We feel powerless because that is our reality.

To take responsibility requires taking power.

This is the mental itch that won’t go away: How do people who feel powerless take power and build a world with a democratic economic system where we collectively decide what to produce and how, rather than let the profit motive decide all?

We better quickly figure out an answer because all the science tells us it will soon be too late.

Gary Engler

The NDP should move to the left on foreign policy

12 Oct

Is the NDP the solution or part of the problem for those us who promote a Canadian foreign policy that favours ordinary people around the world?

While pushing arms control measures and oversight of Canadian mining companies, this ‘Left’ party generally backs the military and a Western pro-capitalist outlook to global affairs.

In 2011 the party supported two House of Commons votes endorsing the bombing of Libya. The party’s most recent election platform called for maintaining the highest level of military spending since World War II. In a more recent display of militarism NDP veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer joined some veterans in criticizing an agreement between retailer Target and the Royal Canadian Legion allowing red poppies to be sold outside the company’s stores. “We agreed that outside the front doors would be ideal and obviously if the weather is inclement or they prefer they are welcome to stand inside the double doors as well,” said Target spokesperson Lisa Gibson at the end of last month.

But this wasn’t good enough for many red poppy sellers who want to set up inside. So Stoffer demanded that Target “let these veterans into their stores, set up their tables and sell the poppies” and called on the company “to allow them [red poppy sellers] to come into the store at all times.”

Remembrance Day Poppies commemorate Canadians who have died at war. Not being commemorated are the Afghans or Libyans killed by Canadians in recent years or the Iraqis killed two decades ago or the Koreans killed in the early 1950s or the Russians, South Africans, Sudanese and others killed before that. By focusing exclusively on ‘our’ side Remembrance Day poppies reinforce a sense that Canada’s cause is righteous, a sentiment often used to promote wars.

One wonders if the NDP is willing to call on Target to allow peace organizations to set up tables and sell anti-war white poppies?

The same day Stoffer criticized Target, Michael Byers, a former NDP candidate and Thomas Mulcair leadership campaigner, co-authored aNational Post opinion piece titled “Putting Politics Before Soldiers”. Based on a report Byers co-authored for the Rideau Institute and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the article argued that Harper’s Conservatives are spending $2 billion to buy tanks that are no longer necessary since the US military has shifted its counterinsurgency tactics. The article glowingly cited the Petraeus Doctrine, which is named after General David Petraeus who was in charge of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The doctrine calls for soldiers to engage with and support local people so as to erode any incentive they might have to side with insurgents.”

The article said nothing about the thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed by the US-led forces implementing the Petraeus Doctrine. Nor does Byers’ report call for a reduction in Canada’s high-level of military spending.

While promoting US counterinsurgency tactics and red poppy sellers, the NDP was quiet on the recent visit to Toronto by Africa’s most blood-stained leader, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. Nor have they said much about Ottawa’s support for the Egyptian military’s ongoing repression or foreign minister John Baird’s anti-Iran efforts with the Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies.
It wasn’t always this bad.

A new biography about one of the NDP’s more courageous MPs touches on the party’s tendency to support the foreign policy establishment. In a published excerpt of Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics, Vancouver NDP MP Libby Davies told the book’s author: “Some people are concerned that we’ll slide, especially on foreign affairs. He [Robinson] was an outstanding voice on foreign affairs when he was critic for so many years. He never shied away from things… People wanted it. They wanted a party that actually had a real, critical position on foreign affairs — that wasn’t the Time magazine version … and that’s, I fear, what we’ve come around more to now.”

Robinson was willing to aggressively and creatively challenge the foreign-policy establishment. He was a founder of the Canadian wing of Parliamentarians for East Timor and questioned Canada’s role in the 2004 overthrow of Haiti’s elected government. In a particularly principled action, Robinson responded to Israel’s effort to seal off Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Ramallah by trying to travel there in October 2002. This act of solidarity unleashed a media storm, prompting NDP leader Alexa McDonough to strip Robinson of his role as foreign affairs critic.

Robinson’s time as foreign critic represents a shining moment for the party’s international policy (It should be noted, however, that Robinson backed the 1999 bombing of the former Yugoslavia, only turning critical over a month after it began.). His term also highlights the tension within the party between those who support a critical approach and those basically willing to go a long with the Canadian foreign policy establishment. Unfortunately, the latter group has generally determined the NDP’s international policy.

At its 1949 convention the CCF, the NDP’s predecessor, passed a resolution supporting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Even worse, the party also expelled two elected legislators who were critical of NATO.

While officially the West’s response to an aggressive Soviet Union, in fact NATO was established to blunt the European Left and extend North American/European power in light of the de-colonization taking place in Asia and the Middle East. NATO planners feared a weakening of self-confidence among Western Europe’s elite and the widely held belief that communism was the wave of the future. External Minister Lester Pearson was fairly open about NATO’s purpose telling the House of Commons in March 1949: “The power of the communists, wherever that power flourishes, depends upon their ability to suppress and destroy the free institutions that stand against them. They pick them off one by one: the political parties, the trade unions, the churches, the schools, the universities, the trade associations, even the sporting clubs and the kindergartens. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is meant to be a declaration to the world that this kind of conquest from within will not in the future take place amongst us.” Tens of thousands of North American troops were stationed in Western Europe to deter any “conquest from within”.

The other major motivating factor for the North American elite was a desire to rule the world. For Canadian officials the north Atlantic pact justified European/North American dominance across the globe. As part of the parliamentary debate over NATO Pearson said: “There is no better way of ensuring the security of the Pacific Ocean at this particular moment than by working out, between the great democratic powers, a security arrangement the effects of which will be felt all over the world, including the Pacific area.”

In the eyes of Pearson and the US leadership NATO’s first major test took place far from the north Atlantic in Korea. After the Communists took control of China in 1949 the US tried to encircle the country. They supported Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, built military bases in Japan, backed a right-wing dictator in Thailand and tried to establish a pro-Western state in Vietnam. The success of China’s nationalist revolution also spurred the 1950-1953 Korean War in which eight Canadian warships and 27,000 Canadian troops participated. The war left as many as four million dead.

The 1950 CCF convention endorsed Canada’s decision to join the US-led (though UN sanctioned) war in Korea. It wasn’t until huge numbers had died and China entered the war that the CCF started questioning Ottawa’s military posture.

In the early 1950s Iranians pushed to gain greater benefit from their huge oil reserves. But the British had different plans. As one of the earliest sources of Middle Eastern oil, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (British Petroleum’s predecessor) had generated immense wealth for British investors since 1915.

With Anglo-Iranian refusing to concede any of their immense profits, Iran moved to nationalize the country’s oil industry. It was a historic move that made Iran the first former colony to reclaim its oil.

Despite calling for the nationalization of numerous sectors of the Canadian economy, the leader of the CCF criticized Iran’s move. On October 22 1951 M.J. Coldwell told the House of Commons: “What happened recently in Iran [the nationalization of oil] and is now taking place in Egypt [abrogation of a treaty that allowed British forces to occupy the Suez Canal region] is an attempt on the part of these reactionary interests to use the understandable desire of the great masses of the people for improvements in their condition as an excuse to obtain control of the resources of these countries and to continue to exploit the common people in these regions.” The CCF leader then called on the federal government to “give every possible aid to the United Kingdom in the present crisis.”

Mohammad Mossadegh’s move to nationalize Iran’s oil would lead the US and UK to orchestrate his overthrow in 1953. The CCF failed (or at least it’s not recorded in the Hansard parliamentary debate) to criticize Ottawa for backing the overthrow of Iran’s first popularly elected Prime Minister.

No issue better reflects international policy tensions within the party than Israel/Zionism. Initially the CCF opposed the nationalism and imperialism associated with Zionism. In 1938 CCF leader J.S. Woodsworth, stated: “It was easy for Canadians, Americans and the British to agree to a Jewish colony, as long as it was somewhere else. Why ‘pick on the Arabs’ other than for ‘strategic’ and ‘imperialistic’ consideration.” At its 1942 convention the CCF condemned Nazi anti-Semitism but refused to endorse Zionism. “The Jewish problem can be solved only in a socialist and democratic society, which recognized no racial or class differences,” explained a party resolution.

But before Israel’s creation the CCF officially endorsed the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In September 1945 new CCF leader M. J. Coldwell said the Zionist record in Palestine “in terms of both social and economic justice” spoke for itself. Three decades later, in 1975, NDP MP and former leader Tommy Douglas told Israel’s racist Histadrut labour federation, “The main enmity against Israel is that she has been an affront to those nations who do not treat their people and their workers as well as Israel has treated hers.” This speech was made eight years into Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip and a quarter century after 800,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 war.

While better today, this extreme deference to Israel has yet to be expunged from the party. In May 2008 the soon-to-be NDP leader, Thomas Mulcair, was quoted in the Canadian Jewish News saying, “I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and in all circumstances.”

The NDP ought to shake off its history of supporting the Canadian foreign policy establishment. Beyond the moral imperative, sticking to mild and safe criticisms may be a losing electoral strategy.

Forceful and creative criticism of the Conservatives’ foreign policy could be a way to pushback against Jason Kenney’s successful outreach with immigrant communities (more than 20% of Canadians are born outside the country). The Conservatives have played off the fact that immigrant communities are generally more socially conservative. While this may be true, individuals with a strong connection to another country would also tend to be less supportive of Western domination, which the Conservatives have strongly pushed.

Additionally, Harper’s foreign policy has been designed to please the most reactionary sectors of the party’s base — evangelical Christians, right-wing Jews, Islamophobes, the military-industrial-complex as well as mining and oil executives. To a certain extent the Conservatives view international policy as a relatively low political cost way to please the party’s right wing base (the clearest example of them taking a more extreme position on foreign policy is the Conservatives’ refusal to give Canadian aid to projects abroad that include abortions — even for rape victims — but Harper strongly opposes efforts to challenge abortion domestically).

Could this same thinking not work for the NDP? Is there not a counter block of individuals and organizations focused on issues ranging from international climate negotiations to Palestine, global peace to mining justice? Wouldn’t a forceful and principled NDP position on these issues help galvanize party activists?

With average Canadians more knowledgeable and interested in international affairs than ever before, it is likely. But party strategists fear that the dominant media will lambaste the NDP for expressing forthright criticism on many international issues. The media would. But the growth of online news and global television stations makes it easier than ever — if the party cared to try — to defend critical positions on issues such as the recent coup in Egypt or Canada’s indifference to Paul Kagame’s murderous escapades in the East of the Congo.

Ultimately, the options for the NDP is reasonably straightforward: work to create an electoral strategy that significantly improves Canadian foreign policy or continue to make opportunistic appeals to veterans, the military and those who believe a “Time Magazine version” of international affairs. The latter option is tantamount to being complicit with current policies and — if elected — becoming the agent of a pro-corporate/pro-empire Canadian foreign policy.

Yves Engler

Why would any young person support capitalism?

11 Oct

They say you get more conservative, nostalgic for the past and critical of young people as you age. In my case it’s true, but maybe not in the same way most people expect.

This 60-year-old grandfather’s conservatism is reflected in a growing respect for the institutions, programs and social services that previous generations of ordinary working people built through organizing and struggle. I believe in preserving these institution, programs and social services despite the onslaught of right-wing choppers and cutters who proclaim “progress” when in fact people’s lives are being made worse.

My nostalgia for the past is reflected in fond memories of huge anti-war demonstrations, picket lines packed with people determined to get a good union contract and the feeling of being one among millions who believed another world was possible.

And I do sometimes ask myself what’s up with young people today. Mostly I’m just amazed they’re not out in the streets making a revolution.

I mean, they’ve got a hell of a lot of good reasons. Aside from the ongoing crap —war, the latest empire trying to dominate the world, poor people being screwed, aboriginal people being screwed, racism, sexism, other forms of discrimination — the economic system has put a huge bulls-eye on young people’s backs and the environment is about to collapse.

University and college costs at least six times more than it did when I was young and this at a time when you need a graduate degree just to get an unpaid internship. Youth unemployment is high and rising. And the jobs that are available? Suck-up service jobs. Smile and say, “have a good day,” or you won’t get a tip, if you’re lucky enough to have a job where you get tips. More likely you don’t have any incentive to smile except fear of a pathetic power-deprived supervisor who will ream you out for telling a customer your true feelings.

But let’s say you do get a decent job working for the government or making things in a factory or working in an office, the current economic system says you’re worth less than your parents and you damn sure don’t have a right to a decent pension and benefits. All that stuff is being cut back because the system can’t afford it, or so the people running things say.

A steady job? That’s not how it works anymore. Retire at 65? Sorry no, if you’re under 40 you’ll have to work years longer than your parents to qualify for any sort of pension. And all those good union jobs that people once enjoyed? Forget about it, the system has decided to crush unions. Or in the unlikely event you do find a union job, the new reality is lower wages for new hires.

Since the era of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher the system has gone out of its way to screw young people. Since the stupid capitalists took power the system says it can no longer afford the wages, benefits, social services and rights that the smart capitalists managed to provide in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. (But it can afford war and bailouts for banks.) Ever since the rise of neo-conservatism (also called neoliberalism) in the 1970s the cheerleaders of capitalism on crack have been up front about attacking unions, pensions, public education, healthcare and social services — all stuff that people over 50 got to benefit from, but which young people are told they can’t have.

Then to top off all this shit, people under 40 and their kids are the ones who will really feel the effects of global warming.

So, what’s with a generation that accepts punch after punch and then insults on top of the beating, barely raising a peep in protest? How could anyone under 40 support capitalism? Why aren’t they organizing, striking, picketing and marching?

Sure they have more distractions than we had: video games, the Internet, texting, Tweeting, Facebooking etc, But most of these could be put to good use rabble rousing the revolution, if the dream was there.

Most likely young people are so brainwashed by the system that they simply can’t imagine another world is possible. Consumerism and its evil twin individualism are the most likely culprits. Both have been pushed down the throats of young people the past four decades like bird parents stuff regurgitated food into the beaks of their babies. Buy, buy, buy. Me, me, me. Both these isms lead to ill health, alienation, and social paralysis. Inaction is the result.

And who is responsible for pushing individualism and consumerism? People my age. The me generation. Hippies. The turn on, tune in and drop out crowd. The feel-gooders through substance abuse. Individualism and consumerism were their bag.

Teach Your Children was the name of a famous 1970 song. We did, but now we can only hope that they are wise enough to unlearn much of what they were taught.

Take some advice from a grandfather: Dream of a better world with a democratic economic and social system. A system that lives in harmony with the environment rather than one that wrecks our planet. Get involved to make it happen. Take action, especially collective action. You’ll have the time of your life.

And teach your children well.

Gary Engler

Capitalism or a healthy environment — time to choose

4 Oct

If all you care about is making more stuff, capitalism may be the best system ever. But if you want to save the planet from environmental catastrophe our current economic system is a dead end.

I remember in my socialist youth often being told: “Your ideas sound good but that’s just not how things work in real life.”

Today, in my socialist sixties, these same words seem appropriate as an analysis of mainstream environmentalism.

Here is the harsh reality:

Capitalists make huge profits from destroying the planet. The capitalist drive to maximize profits explains the externalizing of environmental costs. Capitalism allows small minorities to profit at the expense of others. Private ownership of what are social means of livelihood allows capitalists to make decisions that pass the real costs of industry to communities, workers, future generations and other species.

Worse, capitalism requires constant growth because it always needs more profit. Making ever more profit is what motivates people to make investments. But what happens when the environment needs a smaller human footprint? When, at least in wealthier countries, we must learn to live with much less stuff?

All the evidence shows capitalism is really lousy at dealing with declining markets. Every time the economy shrinks for a sustained period capitalism goes into crisis. Banks crash, unemployment rises and wars are often necessary to get capitalism out of its crisis.

Supporters of capitalism claim the system is based on freedom and choice, but when it comes to the environment for many people this amounts to the freedom to choose between destroying the planet or having a job. The promoters of tar sands, fracking, coal mining and pipelines are explicit about this and in fact go even further. The business pages are full of stories quoting the captains of the carbon-industrial complex telling us what amounts to: “You must choose between economic prosperity and what is good for the environment, because you can’t have both.”

If we continue with capitalism they are correct.

Yes, some so-called environmentalists do look to capitalism for solutions, but that’s like asking the fox to fix the henhouse. You can’t be a serious environmentalist and support capitalism. A sustainable economy is incompatible with a system that constantly demands more profit.

Now that the human population has passed seven billion, it should be obvious that we inhabit a planet of finite resources. But population growth is not the problem. Human energy remains our most precious and underutilized resource. Once basic material needs for food, clothing, housing and healthcare have been met, human wellbeing depends less on consumption than on opportunities for education, employment, social participation and social recognition.

Science leaves little reasonable doubt that the burning of currently known reserves of coal, oil and natural gas will push atmospheric carbon dioxide levels past a tipping point, after which rising global temperatures will irreversibly undermine the conditions on which human life as we know it depends.

Despite the weight of evidence and the urgency of the problem, capitalism rests on the expansion of fossil fuel production and use.

Around the planet trillions of dollars are being spent to develop massive deposits of shale oil and gas. In Canada capitalist investment is focused on expanding oil production from tar sands. The promoters claim that these developments will create jobs. But the funds required to extract and transport that fuel will create far fewer jobs than would be produced if equivalent amounts were spent on the development of solar, wind and geothermal power. Far more jobs could be produced with investments in the production and distribution of local agriculture, clothing, shoes and communications products. More jobs would be created by investments in childcare, elder care, social housing, public transit and other green infrastructure.

But capitalism prefers investments in fossil fuels because corporate profits now largely depend on cheap fuel. Equivalent profits cannot be made meeting actual human needs.

So, we have some important choices to make: Support capitalism or support the environment. Build a different sort of economic system that can prosper in harmony with the environment or fiddle with capitalism as our planet burns.

Gary Engler

The roots of terror in Kenya

28 Sep

There are no shades of grey, no nuance or even cause and effect in the simplistic world view proclaimed by the current Canadian government.

The Conservatives’ response to the horrific attack in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall has been to thump their chests and proclaim their anti-terror bona fides.

The fight against international terrorism is the great struggle of our generation, and we need to continue with the resolve to fight this,” bellowed Foreign Minister John Baird. For his part, Stephen Harper boasted that “our government is the government that listed al-Shabab as a terrorist entity.”

But the prime minister has ignored the fact that his government also played a small role in the growth and radicalization of the organization responsible for this terrible crime in Kenya.
After the failed US invasion of Somalia in the early 1990s (Black Hawk Down) American forces once again attacked that country in December 2006.

After the Islamic Courts Union won control of Mogadishu and the south of the country from an assortment of warlords, American forces launched air attacks and 50,000 Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia. According to a cable released by Wikileaks, the US under secretary of state for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, pressed Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to intervene.

Ottawa supported this aggression in which as many as 20,000 Somalis were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. Throughout 2007 and 2008 when the US launched periodic airstrikes and Ethiopian troops occupied Somalia, Ottawa added its military presence.

At various points during 2008, HMCS Calgary, HMCS Iroquois, HMCS Charlottetown, HMCS Protecteur, HMCS Toronto and HMCS Ville de Québec all patrolled off the coast of Somalia. In the summer of 2008 Canada took command of NATO’s Task Force 150 that worked off the coast of Somalia.

The Conservatives’ public comments on Somalia broadly supported Ethiopian/US actions. They made no criticism of the US bombings and when prominent Somali-Canadian journalist Ali Iman Sharmarke was assassinated in Mogadishu in August 2007 then foreign minister Peter Mackay only condemned “the violence” in the country. He never mentioned that the assassins were pro-government militia members with ties to Ethiopian troops.

The Conservatives backed a February 2007 UN Security Council resolution that called for an international force in Somalia. They also endorsed the Ethiopia-installed Somali government, which had operated in exile. A February 2007 Foreign Affairs release noted: “We welcome Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed’s announcement to urgently convene a national reconciliation congress involving all stakeholders, including political, clan and religious leaders, and representatives of civil society.” In April 2009 the Somali transitional government’s minister of diaspora affairs and ambassador to Kenya were feted in Ottawa.

Supported by outsiders, the transitional government had little backing among Somalis. AnOxfam report explained: “The TFG [transitional federal government] is not accepted as legitimate by much of the population. Unelected and widely perceived as externally imposed through a process that sidelined sub-national authorities and wider civil society, the transitional federal institutions face strong allegations of corruption and aid diversion.”

In maybe the strongest signal of Canadian support for the outside intervention, Ottawa did not make its aid to Ethiopia contingent on its withdrawal from Somalia. Instead they increased assistance to this strategic ally that borders Sudan and Somalia. Among CIDA’s largest recipients, Ethiopia received about $150 million annually in Canadian aid from 2008 to 2011.

Aid to Ethiopia was controversial and not only because that country invaded and occupied its neighbour. An October 2010 Globe and Mail headline noted: “Ethiopia using Canadian aid as a political weapon, rights group says.”

In early 2009 Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somalia (they reinvaded in late 2011 and some 8,000 Ethiopian troops continue to occupy parts of the country). The Conservatives helped the multi-country African Union force that replaced the Ethiopian troops. “Canada is an active observer in the (African Union) and provides both direct and indirect support to the [Somalia] mission,” explained a heavily censored June 2012 government briefing obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

In 2011 Ottawa contributed $5.8 million US towards logistical support for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) while in February 2012 Canada announced a $10 million contribution for the deployment of a Ugandan Formed Police Unit to Somalia. “Indirectly, Canada is engaged in training initiatives through (Directorate of Military Training and Co-operation) to enable (African Union) troop contributing nations through the provision of staff and peace support operations,” noted the above-mentioned internal briefing.

The US paid, trained and armed most of AMISOM. In July 2012 the Los Angeles Times reported: “The U.S. has been quietly equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to wage a widening proxy war against the Shabaab. … Officially, the troops are under the auspices of the African Union. But in truth … the 15,000-strong force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon, trained and supplied by the U.S. government and guided by dozens of retired foreign military personnel hired through private contractors.”

In October 2011 thousands of Kenyan troops invaded Somalia and they remain in the country under AMISOM. “Kenya, in many ways, was simply carrying out the West’s bidding,” noted a recent Globe and Mail editorial.

Al Shabab claims its killing of shoppers and mall workers in Nairobi was a response to Kenya’s military invasion of Somalia. Since the Ethiopia/US invasion in late 2006 the group has waged a violent campaign against the foreign forces in the country and Somalia’s transitional government. During this period al Shabab has grown from being the relatively small youth wing of the Islamic Courts Union to the leading oppositional force in the country. It has also radicalized. Rob Wise, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, notes that Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia transformed al Shabab into, “the most powerful and radical armed faction in the country.”
Al Shabab has turned from being a national organization towards increasing ties to Al Qaeda. In July 2010 the group pulled off its first major international attack when it killed 74 in Kampala in response to Uganda’s occupation of Somalia.

Canada’s support for foreign intervention in Somalia has not gone unnoticed. When a group calling themselves Mujahedin of Somalia abducted a Canadian and Australian in October 2008 they accused Canada and Australia of “taking part in the destruction of Somalia.” They demanded a change in policy from these two countries. Similarly, in October 2011 an al Shabaab official cited Canada as one of a handful of countries that deserved to be attacked.

Portrayed by Washington and Ottawa as simply a struggle against Islamic terrorism, the intervention in Somalia was driven by geopolitical and economic considerations. A significant amount of the world’s goods, notably oil from the Persian Gulf, pass along the country’s 1,000-mile coastline and whoever controls this territory is well placed to exert influence over this shipping.

There are also oil deposits in the country. A February 2012 Observer headline noted: “Why defeat of Al Shabaab could mean an oil bonanza for western firms in Somalia.” With plans to invest more than $50 million, Vancouver-based Africa Oil began drilling an exploratory well in northern Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region at the start of 2012. This was the first significant oil drilling in Somalia in two decades. The Canadian company didn’t escape the eye of Al Shabaab. A Twitter post from the group’s press office called Africa Oil’s contracts “non-binding”. “Western companies must be fully aware that all exploration rights and drilling contracts in N. Eastern Somalia are now permanently nullified”, the group’s spokesperson wrote. In an interview with Maclean’s Africa Oil CEO Keith Hill acknowledged the “significant” security risks and costs for their operations in Somalia but he noted the rarity of a “billion-barrel oil field.”

The 2006 US/Ethiopia invasion of Somalia has spiraled into ever more foreign intervention/local radicalization, which has caused a great deal of human suffering. This destructive cycle needs to be broken.

If the Conservatives have any concern for the people of Somalia — and neighbouring countries — they’d stop their anti-terror chest thumping and end their contributions to this violent cycle.

Yves Engler

Capitalist entitlement is the EU problem

21 Sep

The movement to occupy on behalf of the ninety-nine percent has flagged, but the wealthiest one percent have not relented in their campaigns to enrich themselves at the expense of others. This was made clear in the 2012 World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland. The tone was set by Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. He blamed Europe’s social entitlements for current government debt problems, and then came back home to call for cuts in Canada’s pension entitlements.

Europe and Canada are facing crises of unsustainable entitlements, but social programs are not to blame. In Europe the countries with the most comprehensive social programs — Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands — are not facing severe deficit crises. The countries that are — Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and the U.K. — have far less generous social programs.

Rapidly expanding capitalist entitlement began in the 1980s with the election of neo-conservatives Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Brian Mulroney. Their governments rejected government intervention to maintain employment and consumer demand, substituting what they called supply-side policies, claiming that putting more money in the hands of the rich would increase the supply of money available for investments and employment.

Since then, the governments of most countries have adopted supply-side policies. Taxes on higher incomes, on corporations, on capital gains and dividends have been methodically lowered. In the 1950s and 1960s the effective tax rates on the highest incomes in Canada and the U.S. were 70 percent. In the early years of this century, these had fallen to 30 percent, much the same rate as paid by median income earners. (A smaller number — who may earn millions a year from capital gains and dividends — pay as little as fifteen per cent of their income as taxes.) As the tax on upper incomes fell, government revenues as a proportion of total income fell, even though governments increased sales taxes, value-added and payroll taxes.

Putting more money in the pockets of the rich did not lead to more investment. In fact, the rate of growth in private and public investments was higher in the 1950s an 60s than in the 1980s to the present in North America and Europe. The super rich do have money to spend on luxuries, private jets, yachts, and mansions. As money was available for financial speculation, share prices grew faster than the real economy, increasing capitalist claims on existing means of livelihood. To sustain and increase profit margins, corporations turned to places with cheaper labour, further reducing domestic employment. As disparities between rich and poor widened, governments with shrinking revenues were faced with expanding needs for social programs.

In Europe the most prosperous countries were shielded from the most damaging consequences of neo-conservative policies by more comprehensive social entitlements—pensions, unemployment insurance, retraining, and childcare. Poorer countries have not been as fortunate. Europe’s problem is not overgenerous social programs, but the failure to harmonize social conditions.

The European Union began with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, a time when most governments accepted the responsibility to maintain employment and improve living standards. Initially signed by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and West Germany, the Treaty of Rome envisioned a Europe with a common market for goods, workers, services, with common transport and agricultural policies, and with a European social fund that would help harmonize social conditions in all countries.

As it now exists, the European Union began with a treaty signed in Maastricht, Holland in 1992. By this time, most of the continent’s major political parties had come to adhere to the Washington Consensus, a set of policies promoted by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum. Its ten points can be summarized as holding that governments should give transnational corporate interests precedence over domestic employment and enterprise, and give creditors’ interests priority over social programs.

In harmony with the Washington Consensus, the Maastricht Treaty provided for a common currency, common interest rates, and agreement to limit government deficit and debt levels. The idea of a social fund was dropped and no effort was made to harmonize wages or living standards.

For a time, the economies of poorer countries like Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and Spain did grow substantially. Their lower wages did attract investment until countries with even lower wages like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovenia joined the EU. As the continent’s major corporations moved more operations east in pursuit of cheaper labour, workers’ income declined; markets stagnated.

Before the financial crash of 2007-08, the decline in employment and markets was masked by bubble economies — European versions of the U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis. Interest rates of one per cent and lower in Japan and the U.S. allowed German, French, and U.K. banks to borrow abroad and to lend these funds at three or four per cent to countries desperate for investment. As it became obvious that debts were unsustainable, interest rates jumped to six and seven per cent and to double digits. As more public revenues were diverted to pay creditors, governments cut spending and employment. In the U.K., Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece unemployment rose to ten per cent and higher. Youth unemployment rose to 20 per cent, 30 per cent, and even fifty per cent. Nonetheless governments focused on creditors’ interests continue to promote spending cuts which will increase unemployment and reduce consumer demand.

Stephen Harper in Davos encouraged further attacks on social entitlements. He then came home to call for reduction in future pension entitlements here. Why? Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors currently costs less than three percent of Canada’s national income. Factoring in the expected growth of the population of seniors, the cost will rise to around four percent. In Italy, public pensions cost fourteen percent of national income. The current conservative coalition insists that Italy will have no problem meeting these obligations.

Yes, prolonged public deficits can lead to future problems. Costs of borrowing may rise. The value of a currency may erode. Taxes may have to be raised. For minorities preoccupied with maximizing capitalist profits, these are concerns. For majorities who depend on income from labour and social entitlements, declining wages, and reduced benefits are far more serious problems.

Deficits would not be problems for governments focused on the interests of the vast majority. Unsustainable debts would be written off, reduced, and rescheduled. What remains would be paid at fixed low interest rates. Where financial institutions that engaged in reckless lending practices must be bailed out to sustain credit markets, public funds would become public equity. Publicly owned financial institutions, transparently and democratically regulated, would focus on providing access to credits for community-owned, cooperative, and owner-operated enterprises.

To weaken the power of transnational corporations, governments would actively expand social entitlements, institute guaranteed annual income legislation, expand access to pensions, health care, post-secondary education, and public child care. The public revenues required could be raised through steeply graduated income taxes on the highest incomes. Tobin taxes on financial transactions and international agreement to raise tariffs enough to encourage domestic production for domestic markets everywhere would generate further public revenues.

Instead of giving priority to the interests of capital-owning minorities, governments would focus on policies that sustain employment, working-class income, and social entitlements. They would promote and support initiatives the are intended to provide everyone with a voice and equal vote in their communities and employment.

Al Engler

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