TGIF

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Who among us, after a hard week at work, has not bellowed (or at least muttered): TGIF? Depending on your point of view, the G stands for either God or Goodness and we are thankful the weekend has arrived. Unless of course you are in the service industry in which case you have long hours and rowdy customers to contend with (and the faint hope of decent tips).

In any case, neither God nor Goodness has anything to do with having two days a week to ourselves. While the Bible (and other religious texts) calls for a day of rest, this was generally interpreted as a day spent in service to the church. Certainly, serfs in the middle ages didn’t sit around watching sports and drinking beer (although it was a fairly common breakfast food). When their work for their feudal Lord was done, they spent most of Sunday working in church fields for their heavenly one.

As for goodness, the owners of the means of production have never been driven solely (or at all) by altruism. These are the people who brought us sweat shops and child labour.

Few societies have valued leisure time as much as our own. Sure the Romans were notorious for their frequent holy days and mass celebrations – but their economy was run by slaves, who only got a break for one day a year when during Saturnalia,  they got to give the orders. Though, of course, they were careful not to go to excess. After all, it was back to the yoke the very next day.

The weekend, like almost everything we value in modern society, was gained for us by the struggle of working people, almost always organized into collectives called unions. A quick perusal of the newspapers of the nineteenth century and you will see endless diatribes about the evils of workers’ organizations. By God, they were teaching factory workers how to read! What next, the vote?!

Days off, shorter working hours, coffee breaks, unemployment benefits, health care (no matter how mediocre), pensions and disability insurance – all of these were wrested from society (that is, the rich) by the collective actions of workers and their allies in the intellectual class and the more progressive churches. Yeah, social gospel used to be a thing before most churches lost their way and became more concerned with limiting human rights than expanding them.

Nowadays, people like to say that unions are a relic of a by-gone era – even though they haven’t been around as long as capitalism or consumerism – and have outlived their usefulness. We should get rid of them or break their power. But every American state who has followed that route has sunk into a quagmire of lower employment, greater poverty and more rich people filling their pockets at the taxpayers’ expense (cause you know the first thing on a billionaire’s list of things to do is: avoid taxes).

So as you kick back and enjoy your weekend, maybe you should spend a moment thanking your grandfather and mother for the struggles they went through on your behalf. And maybe take a look at your own workplace and wonder if a little collective action wouldn’t do some good.

But that’s ten minutes.

The Rising Left

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Fifty years from now, historians may look back on 2014 as a turning point in western politics. Yet another turning point. After nearly 30 years of the Right ascendant – dating from Reagan, Thatcher and the collapse of left wing opposition in most western countries – or in the case of England, its neutering under the market friendly war monger, Tony Blair, the left is rising again.

It is a matter of small steps and, like many changes, it all began with a book. The publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century generated massive debate even among those who have never and will never read it. It was the first comprehensive critique of capitalism in many decades and, while Piketty himself – an unabashed Marxist – claims that he wishes to preserve the market system from its own self-destructive urges, he has renewed the debate about whether capitalism is all that it’s cracked up to be. Notably, he has called into question whether free markets produce free societies.

His general conclusion is that they do not.

Piketty is not alone about his criticism of capitalism. The new Pope, while hardly liberal on most social issues, has issued several ringing condemnations of capitalism and its impact on the environment, world peace and social justice. He too advocates reform rather than overthrow but nonetheless, it has forced a major wedge between Catholics and fundamentalist Christians in the USA. His speech this week before Congress should be… interesting.

Meanwhile in Europe, left wing parties – truly left wing parties – are making a comeback. The re-election of Syriza in Greece, when pundits and pollsters were predicting a significant loss or even a defeat at the hands of the right wing opposition, was a triumph of moderate socialism over both neo-liberal and extremist left elements. Their victory has given comfort to similar parties across Europe and could lead to some interesting results in elections this year in numerous countries. In France, the criticism of Socialist president Hollande comes as much from the left who say he is not socialist enough as from the racist right of LaPen.

The Labour party in England has also taken a hard left turn with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, a severe repudiation of Blair and his moderate allies. He didn’t just win; he hammered his more moderate opponents. While the hysterical right wing media proclaimed the end of Labour as a viable option and focused on his unwillingness to sing the national anthem, Corbyn himself comes across as both principled and reasoned – someone who knows what has gone wrong and means to change it. With the recent revelations of PM Cameron’s university behavior – and what it says about the British right wing – Corbyn is looking better every day.

And in America? While everyone is focusing on the antics of crazy-as-a-loon Donald Trump, avowed socialist Bernie Sanders is making inroads against heir-apparent to the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton. While I doubt either Sanders or Trump will be President, it does make for interesting times.

Meanwhile, in Canada, we wait in vain for the real left wing to show up. But Canada always does run ten years behind the times in most things.

And that’s ten minutes.

Labour Day

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Once in a while I read where some plutocrat has complained that proposals to raise taxes – even a little – are class warfare. I like that. They are admitting that everything the Occupy movement said, everything unions have said for years, everything progressives have argued for decades is true. America is a class system. The old lie that social class doesn’t matter in the land of opportunity is exactly that – a lie. Class exists and the rich are determined that nothing occurs to change that or even to ameliorate it.

So it has ever been. The rich, some of whom obtained their wealth through innovation or organization – a few even through hard work or superior intelligence – have always defended their position. And why not? Being rich is a nice thing. Of course if they really believed that wealth was a reward, they would oppose inheritance and demand their children earn their own money. But that’s never going to happen – even Warren Buffet gave his kids a hand up if not a handout.

Many of the rich have done nothing to deserve their wealth – they are mere parasites feeding off the corpses of their parents’ or grandparents’ efforts.

But let’s get back to the idea of class war. It is after all, Labour Day weekend, the time set aside to celebrate the victories of organized labour over the worst aspects of an oppressive system. It is also a signal of the great accommodation that labour made with the rich: we’ll let you survive (unlike say the Romanoffs in Russia) in exchange for a fair share of the pie.

For a start we have a weekend – every week – not just on special occasions. Labour got us the five day week, the eight hour day, vacation pay and most statutory holidays. Labour fought on the streets and at the ballot boxes to get us pensions, and some form of health care (including the one brought in by Obama). They fought for the idea of ‘overtime’ to be recognized and they helped get our children out of chimneys and off of factory floors.

Virtually every positive benefit that average people have was fought for and obtained by union members and their supporters. The exact same fight is now going on right around the world.

With the same responses. Just as American and Canadian and European workers faced the violence of the state and the private police forces of the factory owners, just as many of them lost their lives to build a better world, union leaders and members face violence and persecution.

But they will win – for the simple reason that there are more of us than there are of them.

But the rich fight back – buying politicians like Scott Walker to break unions and roll back progress – while handing out more and more benefits to the parasitic plutocrats. And by paying media outlets to persuade people to back the side that doesn’t stand for their own self-interest. The great accommodation is at risk.

Time will tell whether they will succeed or whether they will end up on the trash heap of history.

Meanwhile, have a happy Labour Day.

And that’s ten minutes.

Cuban Diary

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Spending a week at a resort in Cuba can easily distort your view of what the country is like. People are being entrepreneurial and there is plenty on sale – tours and trinkets and, of course, rum and cigars. But make no mistake; this is still the land of Fidel and Che.

It is obvious once you leave the artificial and carefully isolated worlds of the resorts. The images of the revolution are everywhere, posters with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s face and slogans, monuments to victories of the revolution. Travel down to Santa Clara and you are welcomed to the city of Che Guevara.

Is it a façade? Some Americans say so – they insist that the Cuban people yearn to be free of the yoke of socialist servitude. Of course, these are the same prognosticators who insisted the Iraqi people would welcome them as liberators and the wars of the Middle East would be ‘self-financing.’ Didn’t quite work out that way, did it? I sometimes wonder where those guys are now – Cheney and Wolfowitz and the rest. Back cowering in their bunkers I suppose.

Many Cubans are deeply proud of what they have wrought in the face of opposition from the most powerful nation in the world. They readily acknowledge that some of it was done with the support of the Soviet Union – but if anything they are even more proud of what they did after the Soviet system collapsed and they were left truly on their own. Many Cubans resent the interference of the USA – interference that has gone on since the days of the Spanish American war. They do not hesitate to inform you that the existence of the naval base in Guantanamo Bay (and you know, they say, what is done there) is illegal not only under international law but under American law.

Winning over Cuba to the American way will be a challenge.

One of the most moving sights I saw in Cuba – saw anywhere in some time – was the memorial to Che Guevara in Santa Clara. The external part was all monumental – a 20-ton bronze statue of Che in guerrilla outfit and rifle, gazing resolutely to the future. The friezes were equally monumental. But the interior of the memorial – where no photos are allowed and no mementoes provided is a fundamental reflection of the legacy of Che to ordinary Cubans.

It is a chamber like a mountain cave – there is a small pool and fountain with plants lit by a tiny skylight. Along one wall are life-sized cameos of heroes of the revolution – those who died in battle or like Che in the effort to spread the cause farther afield. Che is there but his face is no larger and has little more prominence than all the others. These are simple human expressions, some grim, some laughing, all intense and determined. Men and two women who died doing what they believed to be right and necessary.

This was the true memorial – human faces sacrificed to build a humane society. It’s hardly perfect. There is a lot of poverty but little inequality. Health care and education are free and access to the best universities is provided based on merit rather than money. Everybody works at something and no-one goes without the basics of life.

I wonder if it can survive the coming onslaught of American money and attitudes. I hope so.

And that’s ten minutes (Cuban time)

Charity

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Faith, hope and charity. These are the three great virtues. Faith is not one I practice or even much understand — I think the secular humanist, rational empiricist description I use for myself pretty much explains that.

Hope is another matter. I am by nature an optimist. The glass is not only half full; it is filling up and getting bigger. And it’s not hope based on faith. There is plenty of reason to hope. You might think not — but that’s only the 24-hour news cycle talking. Compared to what was happening thirty, fifty or a hundred years ago, we practically live in a paradise.

But we’re not there yet.

Charity seems to be the tie breaker — except here my views are — ambivalent. I certainly give to charity. There are four charities that get my money every single month and a half dozen more that get contributions from time to time through the year. There are a lot of problems in my city, my country and around the world and I recognize the need to help where I can.

Generally, I give a little more than average but less than some. Ironically, as a percentage of income I give less than people much poorer than me. I’d give more except… I don’t really believe in charity. It is after all pretty paternalistic. You can’t help yourself — so I’ll play Santa Claus and help you. It makes me feel good and it makes you feel… both grateful and resentful, I suspect.

What I really believe in is a collective responsibility of society to ensure that everyone has the basics of a decent life. We have patched together a kind of social safety net but it is largely unreliable, full of gaps and designed to make recipients feel bad about themselves — even when that guilt has no reasonable outlet. Circumstances often play against people from getting out of poverty — whether because of illness, disability, addiction, mental health problems, lack of skills, too many dependents, etc.

The welfare system is both inefficient and expensive. Far more effective (and cheaper to administer) would be a guaranteed annual income — an idea that has been promoted by spokesmen and politicians from left, right and centre.

The naysayers suggest that it would destroy the incentive to work. But the evidence says otherwise. A multi-year study was conducted in a Manitoba town and it showed that a GAI didn’t significantly reduce the work incentive. The main group leaving the work force was teenagers resulting in higher graduation rates from school. It actually reduced governmental and health costs, eliminated the need for welfare and improved mental health and community cohesion.

Unfortunately the results of that study were kept buried for years and the data has only recently begun to be examined. You have to wonder why, don’t you?

But that’s ten minutes.

Ethics

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Military intelligence and jumbo shrimp — these are pairs of words that people often say — jokingly or otherwise — don’t belong together. Some would say the same thing about business ethics.

However, in my experience, businesses often, in fact, almost always, act in an ethical manner. That is, they calculate what is right for them to do in a given circumstance based on a set of consistent values.

The problem is: ethics does not equal morality. Ethical behavior is based on what the normative values are in play in any given society. What is ethical in western capitalism would not be ethical in a society based on other principles — socialism, anarchism, environmentalism, feminism. These value systems may partly overlap with that of the capitalist or they may not overlap at all. (Generally, all societies place a value on human life — but how much value is the area of deviance).

I don’t expect businesses to operate according to my values and, indeed, most of them wouldn’t survive very long if they did. But it is possible to discover ethical systems that are more closely aligned to my values than others and that’s usually what we mean by things like ethical investing, or ethical consuming. As ethical members of society — and remember that may mean following the general values of our society or another consistent, but not incompatible, set of rules (Values are related to vision; ethics, how we operationalize or move towards that vision) we can make personal and collective choices.

The primary value system of most corporations is to maximize value for their owners but other rules can be at play. One ethical rule that frequently gets businesses into trouble in a global economy is: we will follow the law. But whose laws will they follow — the country of their origin or the country where they are doing business? In some countries, giving gifts to your potential customers is viewed as not only legal but a necessary part of the business process. In other countries, they are considered bribes. Many a corporate executive has gone to jail in the west for practices that were not necessarily unethical in the countries where they were doing business.

This is where it gets complicated. Should we require businesses to operate as if they were operating under our laws or our values system? And how is that different from imposing our values on other cultures? I, personally, don’t have a hard time answering this question. Do you?

And that’s ten minutes.

Party of One

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I sometimes think of myself as a party of one. Not in the restaurant sense but the political one. This is true, of course of most people. Where could you possibly find a political party — by definition a mass organization — that matches your views and values point by point? Yet partisans seem to do it without having to do mental back flips. Identification with party is a tremendously powerful lure for some people and they are willing to ignore — more likely not see — their party’s flaws. Just as they cannot see the value in any other party’s viewpoints. A recent study suggests that party identification is an even greater dividing line in the United States than race. Quite astounding when you come to think of it.

I understand the urge. The desire to be part of something bigger than self is more or less universal. Even libertarians feel the urge to form parties. I once saw an advertisement on a university campus for the Anarchist Club. Were they kidding? Were they even aware of the irony?

When I was younger, much younger, I felt the same way. At the time I was a New Democrat — and defined myself as a social democrat. I’ve moved to the left since then and what’s more moved towards the ultra liberal or even libertarian end of the spectrum. That’s right I’m a socialist anarchist. Or a libertarian socialist, whatever label turns your crank. Not many of us and certainly not organized into parties.

Well, what does that mean? Primarily I’m concerned about inequality in all its forms — not just economic but racial, gender, power and so on. At the same time I demand personal responsibility, a recognition that personal actions can make a difference and that choice, even when limited by all the constraints of inequality, is something we make as individuals. So freedom is major goal for me but not freedom from consequence.

I’ve take those tests that measure your political compass and I discover this strange isolation. Of major world figures, my values most seem to match the Dalai Lama (I like the laughing thing) and Ghandi (yippee, peaceful resistance) and I guess that’s not bad company.

But it does create a bit of a conundrum for me. I’m also a democrat and believe in our oh-so-flawed system of voting. It’s all we have sometimes (though that too is a choice). So who do I vote for? Over my life I’ve voted a lot of ways; now, I try to vote for the least worst. They all look bad from my political standpoint — but they are all capable of doing some good. It’s the least harm that matters these days. So I vote strategically and work for change in other venues.

But that’s ten minutes.