Archives for category: Politics

When people think of Canada, they think of hockey, needless apologizing, and Tim Horton’s coffee because associating national identity with a corporation couldn’t possibly be the worst idea ever. None of these are things I would call “values,” however. Canadian values are a funny thing. Mostly because Canada is an abstract social construct that only has the meaning humanity gives it, and as a social construct, cannot actually have values. It’s like saying money has values. Usually this is why the concept of Canadian values doesn’t come up very often. The only people silly enough to consistently ascribe values to their nation are Americans, and that’s mostly due to the fact that America has been desperately trying to anthropomorphize itself throughout its entire history.

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Things Americans value, as depicted by this image: weeping openly, nature, and destroying their own flag

But north of the border, we do try every now and again. Our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to dictate “shared values” that supersede any nationalistic urges, claiming that, “openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice” are what unite us, rather than any hard-line Canadian identity. It sounds nice, right? I’m not Canadian because of any geographic truth about my birth and current living locale (the traditional construct of nation being the socially agreed upon borders drawn haphazardly across the globe which demarcate which laws you are compelled to follow), but now I’m Canadian because of my patriotic adherence to this list that Trudeau made up… or had written for him. Either way, it’s essentially nonsense.

However, when most people think about Canadian values, they think of Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s “Canadian Values Test” which would forbid any incoming immigrants and refugees from entry lest they agree to certain “values;” values presumably widely contrasted to any Liberal leader’s version of them. The lunacy of pan-Canadian values aside, people were mostly in favour of broad, incredibly vague, yet still hypocritical values being enforced at the border.

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We are open, compassionate, just, and respectful people. You need to be just like us in order to come in. (Yes, I know this is the American border under Trump. We have our own hypocrisies, they’re just more difficult to find in a Google Image Search relevant to immigrants or refugees)

Why is there pressure from political organizations to promote absolute values within the citizenry? It makes no sense from a practical viewpoint. Laws are the enforceable side of values, but nobody is going to go beyond that to enforce “openness” and “respect” as laws because more often than not those spouting these platitudes are those most likely to disregard them. They’re also impossible to define. Is it respectful to respect a woman’s right to choose, or to respect the life which began at conception? Values are individualistic and subjective to the point where they are entirely meaningless on any kind of macro scale.

Politicians and their pundits aren’t actually speaking about values when they discuss values because, as discussed, that is a meaningless prospect. What they are talking about is purity. Values aren’t the thing; everyone being the same is the thing. We want a country that is untainted by foreign aspects that will defile the sanctity of our nation. We only want those who are like us. We don’t want to be infested by those… types. If this sounds like dog-whistle racism, well, who can say?

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Can you imagine some foreign elements contaminating this water? Society is just like that. If anything foreign is introduced, it poisons us all. It’s not racism. This metaphor is incontrovertible.

Purity has its defenders. Jonathan Haidt suggests that the divide between conservatives and liberals is predicated on their different moral foundations. Liberals predominantly adhere to a creed of reducing harm and emphasizing fairness, while conservatives focus on harm and fairness as well, but introduce respect for authority, in-group coherence, and purity into their moral baseline. This is why the harrumphing about “values” usually comes from conservative talking points.

Except coming up with something that conservatives typically agree on and deciding that must make it “moral” (a surprisingly relativistic understanding of morality, considering the accusations of relativism usually come from the conservative aisle) isn’t ethically valid. Morality is the systemic regulation of our relationship to the Other. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas states that our individual freedom must justify itself in the face of the Other. “Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself, feels itself to be arbitrary and violent.” All alone, morality cannot exist and our actions are infinitely free, but when we come across someone new, we realize that our actions mean something in a relationship, and the ignorance of that relationship can only be exploitative. Purity is the necessary exclusion of the Other. It literally cannot be a moral foundation because it precludes the very existence of a moral relationship.

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In order for me to interact morally with you, I need a “you” to interact with

Unfortunately, politicians bring up values to pander to immoral standards of social purity because they don’t want to talk about the stuff that actually matters: policy decisions. The more we’re all talking about abstract, unfounded notions of pan-national values, the less we’re talking about taxes, environmental policy, and the housing crisis. I don’t have to promise something that you can call me out on when I fail to deliver; I just need to stroke your underlying xenophobic fears, and I’ll get elected. All I need is the right kind of rhetoric. If my polling numbers go down, I can just ramp up the rhetoric because rhetoric doesn’t require any kind of meaningful follow through.

So. What have we learned. Purity is the opposite of morality. Macro-level values are meaningless. And if anyone ever brings up these things in a political debate, it’s because they really don’t want to be talking about the concrete things they’re actually planning on doing. Also they’re probably a smidge racist.

The death of Jamal Khashoggi has lead to a lot of public outcry against Saudi Arabia, and yet the responses from a lot of world leaders has been pretty non-committal. They spout a lot of rhetoric about the horrifying nature of such a crime, but when it comes to a response of substance, they openly cite money as the reason they’re just plumb not going to do anything about it. This leads me to a question: how much does it cost to kill a journalist? Actually, scratch that. Saudi Arabia has been going after dissidents for a while, and there was that whole “anti-corruption” campaign wherein all political opponents to the Crown Prince were arrested and jailed. The behaviour is nothing new, but the target is, so let me rephrase that. How much does it cost to kill a journalist for an American Newspaper who also happens to be a US resident?

The price tag for US President Donald Trump is currently $450 billion, but it could even be as low as $110 billion because Trump speaks whatever happens to be on his mind, be it a lie, an untruth, and, maybe through the law of averages, the occasional half-truth, so who knows what the actual cost of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia is? Given Trump’s personal enjoyment of harm being committed against journalists, one can certainly speculate that even if no money was on the table, Trump would be hesitating to condemn their brutal murder.

Trump not giving a shit about brutal dictators committing heinous acts is not news. However, Trump is not alone on the world stage as he is on so many other occasions. Our very own Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is unlikely to cancel a $15 billion arms contract, citing a $1 billion cancellation fee. We might put the arms deal on hold, pending the conclusion of the investigation being conducted jointly between Turkey and… Saudi Arabia? Oh good, at least we know it won’t be biased. Presumably it will be reinstated once this whole thing simmers down.

France‘s President Emmanuel Macron won’t even address halting arms sales, despite European pressure lead by Germany’s Angela Merkel. France sells about $12.6 billion worth of arms to the Sauds. The UK isn’t planning on giving up its £4.6 billion in arms sales either. Nor the Spanish government, who decided after all to sell Saudi Arabia a bunch of bombs, because if they didn’t, Saudi Arabia would not buy its warships, meaning Spain would lose €1.8 billion on top of the €9.2 million from the bomb deal.

Now I know what you’re thinking. We all need to sell Saudi Arabia military equipment, because if we didn’t, they wouldn’t be able involve themselves in Yemen’s civil war to create “undeniably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by far!” Or murder children! Or actively promote cholera outbreaks by bombing so many hospitals that those bombings even have their own Wikipedia page! We have a moral obligation to sell armaments to Saudi Arabia, and that’s why it’s such a difficult decision to abandon those deals! I know, I know. I know.

I know.

However, if we ignore our righteous indignation at those hundreds of thousands of ultimately irrelevant Yemeni children for two seconds and get back to the importance of one American resident, we’ll see that it costs at least a billion of your local currency to dismember a journalist from the Washington Post.

I truly believe that this is enough information for a bitingly sarcastic blog about arms dealing and Saudi Arabia, but I do have one more thing on my mind. When I first heard Donald Trump deny flat out that he would implement financial repercussions on the Saudi government because $110 billion is too much money to throw away on some paltry journalist’s death, it reminded me of the bank bailouts of 2008. “Too big to fail” was the soundbite at the time, claiming that too much of the American economy was invested in these literal criminal organizations to implement any real consequences.

Am I saying that Saudi Arabia has too much of a monopoly on arms sales and that our countries should spread our military equipment around more diversely to not be in the pocket of any particular corrupt tyrant? No. I think that in our current guns versus butter economic divide, the radical lopsidedness of our focus is becoming suicidal. What I’m saying is that if you have a system that demands infinite growth by companies that seek the largest market share, those who grow faster, or who started out big, will naturally consume their competition in their unending greed. In more Marxist terms, capitalism tends toward monopoly. Hence, the banks, the media conglomerates, the tech firms, etc.

Saudi Arabia does not have a monopoly on military equipment. We can always just turn to Israel to support their war crimes if we feel that same burning desire to cause humanitarian crises. My problem is that we live in a system where wealth equates to power, and we applaud this. We revel in it. My problem is wealth. Arms deals, war crimes, and the destruction of the economy are all intrinsically immoral, sure, but having the power to get away with it is the true crime. That power is wealth, and any outrage directed at the Saudi government must include within it the complicity of all our governments in perpetuating the power of wealth, and the system itself that allows and encourages its accumulation.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that taxes are theft. We work hard for our income, and the government just comes right in and takes the money that we earned without our consent! That’s stealing! The government steals. Now, the government can legally do many things that private individuals cannot do. It can confine and relocate people against their will. It can kidnap children. It can even commit violence if it deems it necessary for a safe society. However, the one thing people cannot abide over any other crime is theft. Nobody cares about foster kids, criminals, and immigrants, and so state intervention only matters where my finances are concerned!

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Big Government when it comes to people I don’t like; small government when it comes to me

One of the more prominent libertarian thinkers that popularized the concept of illicit taxation is Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (so titled because libertarianism, as an extreme reduction of state, is inherently anarchistic). Nozick presents a thought experiment which I will paraphrase in order to use really simple maths. You work 40 hours a week, making $100 an hour. You’re doing all right. That’s $4000 a week, but the government decides that it’s going to tax you 10% of your earnings, and takes away $400. What this essentially means is that for the last four hours of your work week, you’re working for free under the authority of the government. The higher the taxes, the more unpaid working hours. This isn’t just theft, it’s slavery! Maybe this is why people just fuck about on Friday afternoons, as a means of sticking it to the The Man for having to endure slavery wages just before the weekend.

While there are certainly problems with this argument, we’ll leave it as is for now.

Let’s turn to the feudal system. The peasant produces $4000 worth of goods, and has to pay his lord $400 each week. Similar to the slavery tax system illustrated above. Now, let’s mix it up a bit. The peasant is still producing $4000 worth of goods, but instead of paying the lord taxes, the lord collects the $4000, and pays the peasant $3600 for his labour. Ha! Ridiculous, right? Okay, let’s be a bit more realistic.

The peasant is still producing $4000 worth of goods, but instead of paying the lord taxes, the lord collects the $4000, and pays the peasant $400 for his labour.

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If that. Isn’t it nice having a say in how taxation will affect the community? Democracy sure is great. I wonder if such a concept has ever been imagined in the second scenario?

If the peasant’s labour really only costs $400 a week, then the extra $3600 is what famed beard-haver Karl Marx called surplus value: money that is added on to the cost of production basically so the person (or minority of people) who own that production can continue to grow their wealth without having to actually do anything. In a word, profit. This money, more or less equivalent to the stolen taxes of our initial example, does not go to community projects, however, but to the pockets of a private owner.

The issue that people are going to take with my examples is likely going to be that of consent. So you might think, well, I didn’t agree to no social contract, why should I abide by it and pay these exorbitant taxes!? And you’re right, that is a legitimate criticism of the social contract theory. Abide by the social contract under which you are born or go to jail is not a meaningful choice in any sense. Social contracts are not inherently just, and resistance against them may be legitimate. Universal acquiescence is no form of morality.

What about our second peasant who is paid wages instead of owning his own labour and paying taxes? Nozick and other libertarians would say that they agreed to this contract with the lord, and if they don’t like it, they could quit and get another job as like a blacksmith or something. Nozick says that not getting a livable wage is like being rejected by the prettiest girl at the dance. Everyone wants to date the prom queen, but if that doesn’t work out, you just keep going down the list of available women until finally you get to the partner that is manipulative and abusive, and you stay with them because nobody wants to die alone. Again, this is a paraphrase of his argument, but he literally says that since it’s fair for women to reject us (he’s big into hetero masculinity), it’s fair for companies to reject us from livable conditions too. Kind of important to consider this the next time the libertarians in the alt-right talk about being entitled to women’s bodies.

redistribution of sex

Or the liberal media, apparently

Nozick’s argument makes all kinds of terrible assumptions. For example, ownership is often inherited or influenced by nepotism, even entrepreneurs typically come from already wealthy families, which would be the equivalent of the prom queen being passed down through the generations of prom kings rather than through any merit-based wooing process; women don’t have a systematic incentive to be abusive and manipulative the way profit-driven companies do; and nobody’s child will starve if their parent can’t get a date. If the dating system is rigged so that the suitor has only the most abysmal options available, and they’ll die if they don’t pick one, then the metaphor might be more appropriate. It would also make those dating shows that much more interesting to watch.

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But this time, if you’re voted off, you can’t afford your kid’s desperate medical operation

If we acknowledge that the “choice” between accepting the social contract or jail is not a choice, then it follows that the “choice” between accepting tyrannical labour conditions or death is not much of a choice either. If taxation is theft, it’s not much of a stretch to use the same argument against surplus value. Both involve others profiting off of labour in which they take no part.

Except, in order for a community to function as a community, participation in its maintenance is required. Communities are a collective. It’s not something that’s debatable. Taxation is a fairly straightforward and simple measure to extract funding for that maintenance, and income tax is a fairly equitable way of going about it. Universal acquiescence is certainly dumb, but thinking for two seconds about how a community works and what that would require very quickly reveals the need for public options funded by the collective.

The theft of the ownership class has no other motive beyond personal gain. If you had to choose between one theft or the other, why are we so quick to pounce on taxes instead of the exploitation of labour? Denouncing the community while advocating greed is the whispered maxim of capitalists.

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Maybe not so much whispered as shouted from the rooftops. Remember when unbridled avarice was considered a bad thing?

Or you could abandon both forms of theft and embrace true anarchism. Not the anarcho-capitalism of modern libertarianism, but left libertarianism. Libertarian socialism. Anarchy. Take it for a spin. See how you feel.