Archives for category: Social Criticism

Would you ever sell yourself into slavery? If you think this is a paradox, remember that slavery is not simply unpaid labour, but giving up our control to the whims of another. Slaves were property, not unpaid labourers. The conditions of the slavery aren’t even that important; I don’t think anyone would go back in time and choose to be a slave, even if they got to be a house slave. Slavery isn’t abominable because of the conditions, though they certainly didn’t help, nor was it anything to do with the type of labour involved since all of that labour still exists today with little controversy. Slavery was abolished because it took away our liberty as human beings.

Maybe you’re a bit more cynical. I was a quite vague in my offer, but perhaps a huge cash sum might change your mind? The thing is, though, if any amount of money tempts us to give up a fundamental condition of our human nature, then that desire can only be driven by desperation. If the thought arises that this amount of money might make life more livable, it is only blinding us to the fact that a life of slavery is less than a life. We cannot abandon liberty and still be fully human.

Now, if we wouldn’t accept a single cash buyout to enter into slavery, then why do we accept smaller, biweekly payments in the form of a wage? The conditions of our labour today remove from us our autonomy just as much as any plantation, even if the conditions might be better. If you disagree, ask yourself how able you are to say no to your boss, and how able your boss is to say no to you. There is a disparity in freedom there, and it very likely isn’t favouring you. Any ability to say “no” to your boss that you possess today was fought and bled for by unionists before you. The pittance of liberty we possess at work was not given but taken, and, under many employers, is slowly being clawed back.

You might be skeptical. If you aren’t happy with your job, you can just pick up and leave for another, right? But consider this: how many employers are there out there right now that allow you to say no to your boss? How many employers are there that don’t follow this fundamental relationship of capital ownership? Trading one plantation for another is not liberty.

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“Let’s work next door. I hear they only give out ten lashes for insubordination instead of twenty!” Businesses might offer perks to compete for your labour, but never liberty; all you receive are allowances from your master.

Maybe you dream of one day becoming the boss, then you’ll have freedom! Climb that corporate ladder! Regardless of how unfeasible this might be in reality due to the disparity of opportunities, the number of aspirants, the nepotism and politics of advancement, this is still the dream of the hooker wishing to become the pimp. Regardless of where you might fall along the spectrum of middle management, it is still an immoral system. Self-interest and greedy delusion are not sufficient justification.

The movie Office Space exists and is so relatable because we all inherently recognize that the disparate hierarchy we possess in our workplace is ultimately degrading. We agree to it because if we don’t work, we starve. We agree out of desperation.

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And yet if Peter’s new boss asks him to come in on Saturday, he is still in the same predicament as in the beginning of the film. His relationship to work has not changed.

In our work today, we live less than a life. What we need is autonomy in our labour. What we need is a voice in the conditions of our labour. We demand democracy in our politics, but remain blind to it for the eight hours or more we slog through in our employment. We’ve been convinced we’re free because we have a few tired hours after work to spend the money we’ve been allowed on streaming television, forgetting that those hours required workers to die because the bosses of the past couldn’t be bothered to allow us even that.

Is that what we want? A life where our few pleasures are those “allowed” to us by our employer? Or do we want a say in our lives? Do we want real choice? If we do, what then are we willing to do for our liberty?

We all know what left-wing identity politics looks like. It’s someone saying, “I’m black, and that’s the only thing that’s important about me!” Or someone else saying, “I’m a woman, and therefore I’m oppressed!” Historically marginalized groups whining about how they’ve been historically marginalized, and how that marginalization bleeds into the present. Boo-freaking-hoo. Also, they’re all postmodern neo-Marxists on top of it. This doesn’t actually mean anything, but that doesn’t stop it from being the highest condemnation of left-wing identity politics that most people can think of.

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Stalin’s best-kept secret was all the hidden pogroms for those who used the wrong gender pronoun

What’s interesting is the less-considered right-ring identity politics. And I don’t mean the, “I’m a straight, white male, and I’m being replaced by a black, dyslexic trans-woman!” kind of identity politics, though that certainly plays into it. I mean more the, “AH! That Muslim is going to blow up my twin towers!” or, “AH! That immigrant is going to rape my entire extended family!” or, “AH! That Mexican is going to bring the drugs into my delicate community!” Whereas left-wing identity politics is about the identity of the self, right-wing identity politics focuses on the identity of the Other.

Now, this isn’t some romantic idealization of the Other as some exotic utopian fantasy (which is very much a thing, and has its own problems as an ideology), but one driven by fear. Machiavelli is credited with prioritizing fear over love as a method of governance, and while he is commonly interpreted to mean fear of the ruler, that fear can be directed outward to great political effect. If the populace is afraid, it is far more likely to accept authoritarian control. There’s no need to worry about the bogeyman, daddy’s got you. Just do as daddy says, and things will be okay.

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Whatever kind of Daddy you’re into

A big problem with identity politics, left and right, is that no group is homogeneous, and so categorizing any group will always be disingenuous. The problem with right-wing identity politics in particular is that the reality and statistics are often skewed because fear is the ultimate goal, and if reality doesn’t back up that someone who looks different is inherently a threat, by Jove we’ll make them a threat.

The politics of fear never lets up, which is why right-wing identity politics is so dangerous. Imagine if the white nationalists get their wish, and all the blacks, Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, gays, whatever, leave America. We’ll even say peacefully to avoid any overt Nazi parallels. Since the politics of fear was never based on reality in the first place, the underlying goal being emotional manipulation in order to maintain dominance, new out-groups would need to be created. All of a sudden people might start remembering that the Irish and Italians weren’t considered white, once upon a time, and then it’s time for them to go. And so on.

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Do you really think ‘hate’ has a retirement plan?

Diversity is a thing forever now. The world is global. This is not something that can be undone. Sorry? But also, at the same time, I’m not sorry. What this means is that pluralism must be included as a given in any on-going political conversation. Fear of the Other reeks of obsolescence and hangs on only in the propaganda of despotism. There’s no such thing as the bogeyman. It’s time to grow up.

I am a drug and alcohol counselor. I am at least okay at my job; clients will occasionally tell me they feel better after having spoken to me, which is as good a metric as any, and the odd client might even stop using drugs and/or alcohol if the stars are aligned just so. It’s a complicated career in which the measures of success are vague, yet regardless of whether or not I’m successful (whatever that means), a new client will always come in. This new client with their new idiosyncrasies are, more often than not, fundamentally similar to the old one. The tide comes in, the tide comes out, then, as per the pull of the moon, the tide comes back in again.

There will always be drug addicts, right? One must imagine Sisyphus happy in order to avoid the soul-crushing burnout of facing off against the boulder of the opioid crisis. And yet, even in the name, its immutability is questioned. It is called the opioid ‘crisis’, not the opioid ‘way of life’. A crisis is temporary. Solutions are possible. Causes can be identified.

Of course, a crisis can simply be an act of God or a natural disaster. There might be those who argue that nothing can be done about this crisis since its causes are out of our hands. Fentanyl is a thing now, so people will just die more because of it. There is some merit to this argument: Fentanyl is certainly deadly and more prevalent which is going to inevitably lead to more deaths. As any consumer advocate would tell you, the solution to a deadly product is of course a well-regulated market, but this ignores why people might seek out Fentanyl in the first place. Even if people take healthy doses of untainted heroin (or meth, or crack, or all the other drugs now laced with Fentanyl), this still doesn’t change the tide.

There are several theories about the causes of addiction. Trauma is a big one, and yet trauma is not preordained. The trauma of neglect is often predicated on poverty which can be alleviated through wealth redistribution (consider that there is more than enough housing for everyone, despite large numbers of homelessness. Similarly, we have enough food to feed the planet. Supply is not the issue, distribution is), livable minimum work standards (since many of those in poverty do indeed work), and so on. Trauma based on domestic abuse can also be curtailed if we shift masculine culture away from domination and violence.

There is also the lack of connection that drives addictive behaviour. This connection has been driven out of society by the cultural forces of individualism and competitiveness, and can just as easily be reduced by the imposition of their opposites. Solidarity with coworkers and neighbours, an emphasis on community values, respect for nature, and a reignition of hope; these too will reduce the need for the synthetic connections induced by narcotics.

Of course, there is also simple education. Not the education that tells us that drugs are bad. Drugs are actually amazing. Drugs offer solutions to problems when nothing else seems to have worked before. An individual, often having gone through trauma or who is suffering from mental illness, does not know how to cope with that trauma or illness. Along comes drugs, and all of a sudden the baggage associated with those things don’t seem so awful now! What needs to be taught are healthy coping skills as well as information on mental health that will help identify and then deal with these developmental dangers before addictive alternatives become the norm.

You may note that none of these things involve cognitive behavioural therapy, nor harm reduction, not even admitting you are powerless over your addiction and that your life has become unmanageable! The methods of dealing with those in addiction (with their varying degrees of effect) are only ever reactive, and ignore the systemic issues that produce drug addiction in the first place. Social fixes ought to attack the root of the problem rather than focus on managing its aftermath.

One of the stories I tell myself to endure the Sisyphean drudgery of endless addiction is the story of the curmudgeonly old man and the beach full of starfish:

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

This metaphor does help me feel better about the work I do, because ultimately helping one person live a better life is a worthwhile goal. It matters. However, the metaphor fails because a tide is by definition unstoppable, and drug addiction is not. The starfish have not been washed up onto the beach by some immutable fact of nature, they have been pushed by cultural ideologies, economic oppression, and brutish stigma.

Why bother with drug counselling? It does help, but it will never stop the tide.