Lets Have a Conversation About Kevin O’Leary

 

Image result for Kevin O'Leary

To some degree, I’ve known Canadians to feel a sense of superiority of the United States in terms of the political sphere. Canadians are proud of their single payer health care system, and view themselves as more progressive and open than their neighbours to the South. This sense of superiority was illuminated in the recent election of Donald Trump in the US. I’m not sure that I’ve met or talked to a Canadian who can’t believe that what has happened in the US did happen. Every Canadian I’ve talked to has been highly critical of the new American President. There is an apparent sense that “something like that couldn’t happen here”. This strikes me as  ironic, given the fact that, during my political science education in the United States there were similar feelings about how a person like Silvio Berlusconi – the Italian oligarch who can be seen as a good reference for what a powerful businessman might look like as a head of state (his time in office was rifled with scandal) – could never get elected in the US.

With the ascendency of Trump, the Canadian sense of superiority (which may have dimished during the co-current leadership of Obama and Harper) seems to have, anecdotally at least, returned to many Canadians. And yet, many of these same Canadians, have turned towards conservative business mogul Kevin O’Leary as the future face of the conservative party of Canada. Mr. O’Leary is, in many ways, not all that different from the newly elected POTUS. He has had controversial views on poverty and climate change, refusing to believe the latter and suggesting that 3.5 billion people in poverty is “fantastic news”:

But, the real similarity is not in terms of personality. O’Leary is not President Trump. He’s even said so himself. He provides a more Canadian right wing alternative to the populist and outright xenophobic, anti-globalization movements that have occurred across the Western world (seen in the advent of Brexit in the UK, President Trump in the US, Geert Wilders’ The Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, etc.). Now, I don’t think that O’Leary is xenophobic or anti-globalization, but he is a wealthy businessman in the breed of Berlusconi and Trump, and his popularity in Canada signals a similar shift in the Canadian political process.

The populist movements in various countries have each been unique to their individual country. One wouldn’t expect Le Pen’s rhetoric to be the same as Trump’s. Yet, each of these movements have tapped into the populist rage surrounding failing economies, reduction in wages, and work shortages. Again, unlike his opponent Kellie Leitch, I do not see evidence that Mr. O’Leary has tapped into the xenophobic elements of this movement, (a fact that I am thankful for), but he, like Trump and Berlusconi, appears to be in a position to financially benefit from the political changes that he proposes. Despite this, many of the same people who hold a sense of superiority over the Americans voting for Trump will likely be enticed by someone like O’Leary. In the rest of this piece I intend to explore why, though he is different than President. Trump, Mr. O’Leary is and equally problematic political figure for Canada.

Why Comparisons to Trump Don’t Work

A number of articles have gone through the effort of showing why Mr. O’Leary is not the Canadian Donald Trump. I have seen articles by both CNN and Forbes (that latter of which is posted on Mr. O’Leary’s website)both of which suggest that the two men are not the same. Mr. O’Leary felt the need to establish a gap between him and the POTUS in one of his first videos as a candidate.As far as I can tell, these articles are quite accurate in their separation of the two individuals. They articulate the various personal and preferential differences between the two individuals. During his campaign, Trump established himself as an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim candidate. The same cannot be said of O’Leary who is the child of immigrant parents. Furthermore, I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests that O’Leary takes the same demeaning and threatening attitude towards women that has been shown over and over about President Trump.

The Forbes article for instance, contrasts O’Leary and Kellie Leitche. Leitche’s candidacy was based much more closely on the model presented by Trump (anti-immigration was at the forefront). As the article mentions, this is likely due to the savvy nature of Mr. O’Leary. Canada prides itself on a certain level of openness, and as Leitche’s message showed, a rhetoric akin to the message of Donald Trump is not as likely to work in the Canadian political environment. It is clear that, in terms of message and rhetoric, Mr. O’Leary and President Trump are not the same. I’d even argue that, when it comes to the basis of “social issues” (women’s rights, immigrant issues, indigenous rights, LGBTQ+ rights, etc.) Mr. O’Leary is far and away different from Mr. Trump.

However, positioning politics into two categories of “economic” and “social” is a reductionistic move which doesn’t account for the intersectional nature of their policies. While Mr. O’Leary might not be openly anti-indigenous, or anti-immigrant, or anti-women, these articles fail to account for the impact that O’Leary’s economic proposals of austerity (which we’ll get to below) will have on these populations. One does not need to be openly misogynistic in order to propose policy that is detrimental to women (for instance). Furthermore, these articles fail to account for one of the area’s in which O’Leary and Trump are on the same page: The environment. This final area of politics has, without doubt an impact on all other areas of government. Environmental policy is the most important legislation to be made by current and future governments. It impacts not only today, but the future of human and non-human life on earth.

In any case, I think that its important to examine what sorts of policies O’Leary might be likely to engage in. As a tool for this exercise, I thought that it would be useful to look at the actions which President Trump has enacted in his first 3 days in office as of Tuesday. (Thanks to me friend Dean for this list):

  1. Lied about the size of his inauguration crowd through his press secretary under the guise of “alternative facts
  2. Pushed through the passage of legislation that disparages indigenous peoples. Including, but not limited to a pipeline that Trump is invested in
  3. Defunding of the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities (which, to be honest, looks like a move towards a faux austerity, rather than populism)
  4. Threatened relationships with the USA’s closest allies (Canada and Mexico) by threatening the status of the North American Free Trade Agreement
  5. Cutting government funding to healthcare (repealing the APA)

Of these actions, which again, took place during the first 3 days of Trump’s presidency, which might Canadians expect if O’Leary was Prime Minister? There is nothing to suggest that O’Leary would like about inauguration numbers, so we can eliminate number one. Furthermore, given the status of Canada on the world stage, number 4 seems unlikely as well. Third, despite cuts to government being on the agenda, Canadians see our health care system with a sense of pride, so an outright appeal not only seems like political suicide, but an impossibility (though cuts in that area do seem possible under an O’Leary government).

With those three options out of the way, we might look at the two options which can be seen as examples of things that an O’Leary government would likely enact. Thus far in his campaign, O’Leary has focused on cutting government through austerity measures and reducing taxation. His ideology seems to be that of a trickle down economic theory which has been popular in right wing circles since Ronal Reagan (and has been repeatedly shown to help the wealthy, rather than the working or middle class). Thus, it seems like that, given the opportunity, Mr. O’Leary would defund arts and humanities research. Now, if you don’t think that the arts and humanities are worth funding, I’m not going to try and convince you otherwise in this blog post. I’ll just say that art and the humanities allows for the development in culture that brings about positive political and social change. Cutting funding to these areas of study would ultimately harm the future of Canada in politico-social ways.

Image result for NoDAPL

The issue that may be more concerning is the pushing through of the Dakota Access Pipeline. In his video “I’m not Donald Trump” O’Leary suggests that he would curb regulation, cut taxes (likely refering to Trudeau’s governments increase on those making >$200,000/year), and cut the recent carbon tax. It seems likely that O’Leary’s pro-business demeanour would be in favour of something a kin to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It should be noted that this wouldn’t really be a change from the current Canadian government (who also deserve a heap of criticism) who recently passed Pipeline expansion. O’Leary might not be openly xenophobic or sexist, but if we look at the policy he is likely to enact, he likely thinks that economic policy is more important than the lives of the indigenous people’s that are harmed by pipelines. When electing a leader we need to ask ourselves the following question: When push comes to shove, do we want a leader who will fight for the rights of oppressed populations or do we want a leader who will continue the oppression of these people’s in order to obtain economic prosperity? In the case of Kevin O’Leary (and, unfortunately, Trudeau as well) it seems that economics will win over human rights

In this way, O’Leary has a striking resemblance to not only Trump, but other right wing movements. His goals seem focused on building up the workforce through trickle down economic measures by lowering regulation on business while simultaneously cutting taxes and public funding.

O’Leary’s Stated Goal: The Destruction of Trudeau’s Legacy

Again, in his video “I’m not Donald Trump”,  O’Leary states that he “was amazed when Trudeau didn’t pivot after the Trump election in the US. He kept on taxing, kept on with carbon, kept on with regulations and as a result there are no more jobs in this country. It’s a very uncompetitive place now, and I’m going to go to Ottawa and fix it in 2019.” It is interesting that O’Leary suggests that taxation and regulation have led to the decrease of jobs in the country. It is unlikely that Trudeau’s policies have anything to do with unemployment, which has remained fairly stead since 2014 (after the highest rate in the last 15 years in 2010). We do see a dip in GDP over the last two years, but this is likely the result of the drop in the cost of oil, rather than any of the policies that Trudeau has put into place (See also: 1, 2). One might recall that the failing economy which led to the ousting of Stephen Harper (who O’Leary resembles as well) were the result of these same failing oil prices.

O’Leary has been cited as saying of Trudeau “I’m going to unwind everything [Trudeau] did when I get in there,” O’Leary promised. “Canadians won’t remember his name after I’m there for 100 days.” This seems fairly reminiscent of the current republican platform which – rather than positing their own political agenda – is completely centred on repealing everything that Obama has done over the last 8 years (i.e. Getting rid of environmental protections, gutting funding to the arts and humanities, dismantling the affordable care act, to name a few). What does a similar move look like in Canada? What would O’Leary undermine or overturn that Trudeau has done?

Well, what things has Trudeau done during his time in office? He’s implemented a new tax thresh hold for households making over $200,000/year (all income over $200,000 is taxed at 33%) while instituting a tax cut on the 2nd tax bracket or “middle class” (those making between $44,701 and $89,401 pay at a 20.5% rate on that income, down from a previous 22%).It is unclear whether O’Leary would reverse the 2nd tax bracket back to 22%, but it seems likely, given his rhetoric, that he would do away with the 5th tax bracket and 33% rate. In terms of corporate tax rates (currently at a federal rate 26.5 percent – which admittedly doesn’t include provincial rates which add 11-16%), these taxes have gone up since the Harper government, but are still much lower than any point between 1987 and 2009. It is unclear if O’Leary would reduce corporate tax rates further, and it is unclear how a reduction in these tax rates would benefit anyone other than large business and business owners. The argument might be made that more business would move to Canada in the event of a cut in corporate tax, but the tax would likely need to be an amount that would cripple the federal government.

In terms of environmental issues, Trudeau has a mixed resume. On the one hand he has introduced a carbon tax, but at the same time has approved two oil pipelines in BC. Given his pro-business, anti-regulation stance, it seems likely that O’Leary would do away with the Carbon tax, while allowing the pipelines to continue. Under an O’Leary government, Canada would likely return to Harper era draconian environmental policies. In doing so, O’Leary, along with Trump, signals our future doom through the disposal of environmental protection. Mr O’Leary doesn’t seem to believe in climate change, and his stance toward environmental protections reflect that. With 2016 being the hottest year on record (for the third year in a row), along with the fact that we will likely blow past the 2 degree thresh hold sooner rather than later, it seems that we’ll likely begin to see the impacts of climate change in our lifetime. In fact, many have argued that  aspects of the Syrian Refugee Crisis can be tied to climate change.ith the world heating up, we will likely experience more droughts leading to further humanitarian crises and concerns. We need leadership that takes climate change seriously. Even if our neighbours to the South do not believe that we need to live ecologically, Canada needs to stand up for our values of care for creation. An O’Leary government will lead to an increase in destruction of the earth, not a curbing of our already problematic policies.

Furthermore, if we stay with actions surrounding the refugee crises, Canada was one of the Western leaders in bringing in refugees. Under the #WelcomeRefugees initiative, Canada has accepted almost 40,000 refugees.While this includes a mix of private and publicly funded support, does it not seem likely that a government and Prime Minister promoting austerity would cut funding from any refugee program? This isn’t to suggest that O’Leary will turn to the xenophobic rhetoric of Trump and others, but it does suggest that there will be cuts to public support of refugees.

In any case, if we care about concerns over ecological, social, or humanitarian concerns, we need to be wary of someone like Kevin O’Leary who promotes economic prosperity over everything else. We must not succumb to the ideology that everything can be reduced to its economic potential and efficiency. If Canadians care about these issues at all, they should not entertain the possibility of a person like Mr. O’Leary as Prime Minister of Canada. Many are frustrated with the Trudeau government – for legitimate and illegitimate reasons – but moving towards a politics that further prioritizes the economy over everything else is not a solution, its simply adding to the problem.

Can We Be Nonviolent

Last week, I attempted to present an understanding of what constitutes violence. I’m still not sure that I did a good job of this, but for now, we’ll work with the definition that I gave near the end of last week’s post: That violence goes beyond physical violence and is working in the civil wars of structural violence. These forms of violence can, together, be understood as any attack which harms a person, an animal or the planet. Throughout the rest of this piece, I plan to use the term “Zoe” (adopted from Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman) as a word for these three categories (persons, animals, planet) in its uniting of life. This week I hope to explore the possibility of nonviolence. It should be noted, that this is not a discussion of whether or not we should be non-violent, but rather whether we can actually be nonviolent.

In conversation, pacifism is often presented in a violence/non-violence dichotomy. I wish to suggest that this sort of view is reductionist, and doesn’t take a full account of the actual phenomena of violence in the world. I wish to return to the example from last week that is given by Terry Eagleton in Why Marx was Right. Unlike last week, this week I’ll actually provide the full example. Eagleton makes the following claim about pacifism:

“The only pacifist worth arguing with is one who rejects violence absolutely. And that means rejecting not just wars or [violent] revolutions, but refusing to tap an escaped murderer smartly over the skull, enough to stun but not kill him, when he is about to turn his machine gun on a classroom of small children. Anyone who was in a situation to do this and failed to do so would have a lot of explaining to do at the next meeting of the PTA” (Eagleton, Chapter 8, Why Marx was Right)

While I’m not sure that I completely agree with Eagleton’s dismissal of pacifism outright, I do think that this is an example that is worth exploring. It is worth exploring precisely because of Slavoj’s Zizek’s sentiment that “Sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do”  (a sentiment humorously portrayed in this video). In the scenario granted by Eagleton, each of us is presented with an either/or. We can either use violence to stop the murderer, or we can do nothing and allow him to kill the children. Neither of these examples strikes me as inherently “non-violent”. In fact, attacking the murdered strikes me as much less violent than not acting. In this way, Zizek is right, performing a violent act is much less violent than not acting.

This is, of course, an extreme example. It is an example that we will most likely never find ourselves in, and its presentation as an either/or suggests that its scope is extremely limited. But, I think that we can expand the example to see how we face similar decisions within modern capitalist society. Last week we explored the structural violence that takes place in the world, and I used Lazzarato and Alliez’s article “To Our Enemies” to suggest that we are always already acting within a multiplicity of civil wars. This structural violence places us in the midst of a conflict where all of our actions are already imbued with violence. We can, of course, attempt to take measures that lead to the least amount of violence, but even then we are still performing violent actions.

I think that our goal should be to reduce violence against Zoe, but the unfortunate reality of a world with imbued violence is that any action we make already is violent against zoe. Timothy Morton gives the example in a number of his lectures where he says something along the lines of if we’re being ecologically kind to bunny rabbits, we’re not being so kind to bunny rabbit parasites (I’ll update if I find the actual quote). The act of being kind to one aspect of zoe, can be violent against another. A classic example of this would be the use of pesticides. By helping plants thrive, we perform violence against bugs that would typically eat those plants. This isn’t to say whether pesticides are good or bad, but only to recognize that in performing actions that intend to help, we are often violent in other ways.

So this leads me to the question about the possibility of non-violence. If the idea is to not perform violent action in any way, then non-violence strikes me as an impossibility. No matter the action performed, some violence will occur. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to be non-violent. I think that our ultimate goal should be to live in ways that are as ecologically peaceful as possible. This is to say that we should attempt to reduce violence against Zoe to the extent that we are capable.

 

Reference:
Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx was Right. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011.

What is violence?

... that Dr. King's legacy commitment to non-violence presents to us

While studying for my undergraduate degree, I identified myself as a pacifist. A burgeoning radical thinker, I detested the idea that violence could be used for good. Why would one use violence as a solution when many of those who we hold up as ideal — Ghandi, MLK, one could argue Jesus — were committed to radical stances of non-violence and pacifism in response to the violence that they faced.

My pacifist ideals were shattered when reading a book by Terry Eagleton. In the book (Why Marx was Right) Eagleton presents a scenario in which a gunman has taken a group of school children hostage. In the scenario you have the opportunity to either take him out through violent means (such as shooting him with a gun) or he will kill the children. Given such a scenario, it seems like violence is not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do.

Today, I still detest violence, but I’m not sure that I can call myself a pacifist. This is not because I view pacifism, or striving for pacifism as wrong, but , at least in part, I am not convinced that pacifism is a possibility. Like the scenario proposed by Eagleton, there are some scenario’s where violence in the only response to a violent situation. This is a thread I wish to explore in this week and next week’s blog posts.

Before I begin, I wish to recognize that I do not agree with the often straw manned understanding of pacifism as a sort of “passive-ism” wherein individuals refrain from any action whatsoever. I recognize that non-violent protest is an active, affirmative action that attempts to dismantle violence through its antithesis.

Now, there are a couple of aspects of non-violence that I would like to consider. This week, I hope to provide a brief interrogation into the question “What is violence?” I believe that an examination of what constitutes violence can help us determine the possibility of non-violence. Next week, I hope to explore the dichotomous nature of violence and non-violence by suggesting that this view of the world is too rigid in its structure.

The question “what is violence?” is, without a doubt, a difficult one to answer. Often when we talk about violence we talk about violence of a physical nature. Violence of this variety can be seen in a battle during warfare, or in a physical assault. Violence of this sort could be interpreted as physical violence against the body of some other being (whether they be human, animal or Gaia). But how far does this extend? We would likely agree that if someone punches you in the face, that the punch is a violent act. However, what if we look at a disciplinary system such as a school? Schools manipulate the bodies of the youth who attend them through regimented habits. Students bodies are forced into regimented systems regarded when they can sit or stand, when they are allowed to talk or stay silent, when they are allowed to get up and walk around, go to the bathroom, etc. One could interpret these actions as violence that affects the bodies of students to conform to certain societal standards. But would we usually think about this as violence? Is it physical violence, or violence of another variety?

E-flux recently published an article entitled “To Our Enemies” by Maurizio Lazzarato and Éric Alliez. The article offers the insight that within our contemporary systems of capitalism, we are always already within a flux of violence — or, as they deem it, civil war. Their second thesis reads as follows:

“Capitalism and neoliberalism carry wars within them like clouds carry storms. While the financialization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to total war and the Russian Revolution, the 1929 crash and European civil wars, contemporary financialization is at the helm of global civil war and controls all its polarizations.”

Violence is always swirling around us. Lazzarato and Alliez argue that we are surrounded by civil wars that are constantly being fought. A prime example is the increasing violence against women in the United States. Populism and neo-facism are increasingly destroying the rights of women in terms of their autonomy — their control over their bodies. This is a violence which isn’t physical but directly attacks a woman’s freedom of choice through the legal system. If we understand these events as systemic acts of violence, we must extend our definition of violence beyond the physical to the structural as well. These structural forms of violence occur everywhere. Within the United States alone we see attacks on people of colour through mass incarceration and police violence; we see attacks on women in the aforementioned loss of autonomy in regards to personal anatomy; we see attacks on transgender and non-binary people with the loss of the ability to go to the bathroom; we see attacks on disabled people through our design processes which ignore the abilities of those who cannot walk, cannot see, or cannot hear; in these ways, and so many others, there are active attacks on peoples within the United States which rage not on a physical level, but a systemic, structural level.

To extend our look at structural violence, I wish to argue that escaping violence is an impossibility. Within western nations, by law, everyone must wear clothing. Walking around naked will result in some sort of criminal fine – whether it be monetary or jail time, I’m not sure. In any case, the system makes us wear clothes. In order to wear clothes, we need to either purchase or produce our own clothes. For the sake of argument, we’ll look at an individual who needs to purchase clothes. Now, the systems which exist make it impossible to really purchase clothes that escape societies of violence. Unless one has a substantial degree of wealth, one is likely forced into buying clothing that was made in hostile conditions for below a living wage (likely in a foreign country, but not necessarily). Furthermore, the item likely had to be shipped from wherever it was made. In this example, we can see that, by purchasing a shirt, I’e already participated in a system that is inherently violent. Violence is produced against the worker who is working for next to nothing to produce this clothing. It is also produced against the ecological system through the shipping of the material to where I purchase it. One might try to counter this argument by looking towards a local-vore type movement, but even then there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Furthermore, the reality is that being a local-vore requires a substantial amount of wealth, which is nearly impossible to ascertain without some form of violence.

Despite what we’ve explored above, we still do not have a substantial understanding of what constitutes violence. What we do have are examples of violence – with the suggestion that violence is more than simply physical. So what is violence? For a working definition, that I’m not quite content with, I’d like to posit that violence is an attack on a person, animal or the planet which harms or limits that body in some way. This definition attempts to encompass both physical and structural violence, and it also includes violence that isn’t physical or structural (such as the violence that took place during the cold war).

To close, I provide a brief excursus: Often, the liberal call to “non-violence” is merely an attempt to make passive groups that are being physically violent. An example in recent years has been the imperative of nonviolence given by white moderates to people of colour in response to rioting over the violence against black individuals by the police force. The call of the media is often that these protests ought to be non-violent, rather than violent. The reality of the situation is that the majority of these protests are already nonviolent in the traditional sense (i.e. they are not producing physical attacks against other people). These calls for nonviolence, then, call to end these protests through a making passive of the protestors. To some degree, these calls for nonviolence signal a particular kind of act that could be considered violence: property damage. But, if we take our definition of violence as an attack on the person, animal or planet (depending on how far we wish to extend violence), property damage does not properly fit into these criteria.

On Positive and Negative Liberties

While reading through Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge I began to ponder on the role that systems of rules play within our discourses on liberty. Foucault’s text sets out to define Archaeology, and comes to the conclusion that “Archaeology defines the rules of formation of a group of statements” (167). For Foucault, there are certain rules that make any discourse possible – and it is archaeology will attempts to show what these rules are. A common example that he uses within the text is the discourse of medicine. Medicine comes about because of a series of rules that allow medical discourse to take place.These rules prescribe what subjects are discussed within the discourse, what methods are utilized, etc. Within any discourse there are rules of this sort that limit what can be talked about. What struck me while reading is that these rules can have implications for both positive and negative liberty. They perform the action of making a discourse possible as well as confining it to a certain number of topics.

Initially, this made me think about grammar. To the annoyed 5th grader, grammar is a nuisance which infringes upon one’s liberty to perform whatever writing function they wish. Rather than simply using words, grammar forces them to learn a set of rules that disciplines their writing and speaking styles. While this 5th grader might see grammar as an imposition on their liberty, they might eventually begin to see the positive aspects of grammar. It is grammar, of course, that makes any communication possible. Without grammar the structure of our sentences would disappear, making any sort of conversation impossible. In this way the confines of grammar constitute a positive liberty. Rather than promoting freedom from something, they advance the freedom to do something. In the case of grammar the rules allow us the freedom to speak and communicate with one another.

Contemporary western political discourse is inundated with negative conceptions of liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from something. A basic example of negative liberty is that I have the freedom from infringement on my personal speech (i.e. I have freedom of speech). When we speak of freedom in this way we are speaking of freedom from some constraint (taxes, immigrants, courts, etc). Negative liberty is an important component of our culture. It is a key concern of many of the freedoms that we hold dear — freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to vote for whomever you wish, freedom of speech, etc. — but with all of the focus on negative conceptions of liberty, positive conceptions are often left to the wayside.

Plato on the Fall of Ancient and Modern Greece - The Imaginative ...

Plato

in the tenth book of The Republic Plato argues against democracy for the reason that it promotes negative liberty to the detriment of society. In 558 b-c Plato writes, “We said that no one who had not exceptional gifts could grow into a good man [sic] unless he were brought up from childhood in a good environment and trained in good habits. Democracy with a grandiose gesture sweeps all this away and doesn’t mind what habits and background of its politicians are; provided they profess themselves the people’s friends, they are duly honoured” (p. 294). Throughout much of The Republic Plato makes the case for an educational program that would produce the ideal leader — a philosopher king. The ideal leader can only come about through a series of harsh educational regiments. These educational regiments take place as constraints on the individual who is attempting to become a philosopher king. From one perspective these restraints can be seen as attacks on an individuals liberty (and education can for sure be used as a means of discipline and control, c.f. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish), but within the context of becoming a leader, they allow for the individual to attain certain practices that would be impossible without constraint.

Part of what Plato is attempting to show in The Republic is that too much negative liberty is detrimental to an individual. Too much negative freedom leads to chaos. If we return, for a moment, to the discussion on grammar we might try to imagine a text that exists without the constraints of grammar. When imaging such a document one might be reminded of a random texts from Borges’ The Library of Babel where the texts, void of any semblance of grammar, appears to us as pure gibberish. The grammatical rules that are in place allow us to communicate with one another. These rules can provide us with the ability (at least to some degree) to flourish or perhaps — in Aristotelean terms — to reach our telos.

From a religious perspective this shouldn’t appear to be anything new. Within the religious sphere — even more so than in the political sphere — we are quite obsessive about positive liberties. In You Must Change Your Life Peter Sloterdijk writes about the ways that religion uses liturgy and ritual to shape the habits of believers. Religion creates social hierarchies that can only be climbed if one performs the rituals (or Anthropotechnics) which shape ones desires and habits to the degree that one’s body is affected in such a way that these habits become second nature. For many religious peoples the goal is to not simply refrain from our sinful desires, but to shape our bodies in such ways that those desires no longer even occur to us. In this way, religion uses educational constraints that allow for flourishing. Through the restraints imposed by religious practice one is granted the freedom to flourish within the religious sphere.

similar results jacob s ladder jacob s ladder circa 1925 european ...

Depiction of “Jacob’s Ladder”

These systems of rules that exist within the political and religious spheres hold implications for liberty in both the positive and negative senses. In these religious practices, for instance, we can see clear examples of times where these rules move from positive liberty to infringing on negative liberty. One can look to the barbaric practice of conversion therapy as an example of this. It seems to be the case that when we stop understanding these systems of rules as helpful tools that allow us to flourish and transform them into universalizing truths that must be followed, they stop providing us with positive liberty, and begin to infringe upon our negative liberties. We must remember that the rules which give the ability for positive liberty are not universal rules. They are confines which exist in order to allow us to do things, to fulfill things. When these rules lose any flexibility and become written into law, they fail to participate in any notion of liberty, and instead fall into the realm of discipline and control.

in this way, we can see that the distinction between a positive liberty and an infringement on negative liberty is not so clear cut. To make things more difficult, one might see a positive liberty as a clear infringement on a negative liberty (and vice versa). Where we draw the line is likely up to our political or religious ideology. So far as it is possible, however, we must attempt to examine how we are using the rules that we have established. So long as our rules are allowing us to flourish and grow into the people that we want to be, we can see these rules as positive influences. It is when our rules start to become inflexible and oppressive that we ought to take the time to re-examine, change, and, perhaps, abolish them.

 

Works Cited:

Foucault, M. (1982). The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language. New York: Vintage.
Plato. (2007). The Republic. (D. Lee, Trans.) (New edition). London: Penguin Classics.

On Gentrification

... : Historic Second Ave. undergoes transformation in Cass Corridor

A photo within Cass Corridor

In terms of gentrification, I sometimes feel that my life and belief stand in contradiction. Ideologically, I stand opposed to gentrification, yet, with my current living situation, I could be seen as an agent of gentrification. The neighbourhood within Detroit that I live in is signified with two titles: Cass Corridor and Midtown. Cass Corridor has been known “as a poor downtrodden area” by locals to Detroit, and a history of the corridor can be read here. Recent movements, (spearheaded by wealthy elites such as Dan Gilbert) have led to increasing rebranding efforts in key neighbourhoods near and within the downtown core. The Cass Corridor has faced similar rebranding efforts. The neighbourhood has been renamed “Midtown” in an attempt to make it appear more friendly to outsiders than the old Cass Corridor. This rebranding is partially responsible for the influx of wealth into the Corridor which has displaced populations who have historically lived here  including the homeless the artists, the musicians, the workers, the elderly, and the mentally ill.

I currently live in this area of Detroit, in one of the older buildings that has not yet been renovated. Yet, I could still be classified as a wealthy young professional (though the wealthy part might not be the best designation at the moment, I still have the spending power and relative safety net that most people do not). Because of this designation, I have sometimes pondered whether or not I am morally complicit in the gentrification efforts of this community. I am an outsider who moved into this community, and without a doubt I’ve taken up a space that could have been filled with someone else who has lived here for a lot longer than I have. I have wondered about my place in this community and this city, and I think that it is important for me to analyze the way that gentrification works in order to understanding my role in the gentrifying efforts of Detroit. Do I have responsibility in this or not?

I think that an examination of how gentrification works can be useful in attempting to determine who has moral responsibility within the system. This exercise will, of course, be simplistic and not touch on the more nuanced and complex realities that exist within systems of gentrification, but it can allow us to determine how gentrification generally works. Cities are composed of a variety of neighbourhoods, each with varying cultures, peoples and costs. People tend to live near people who are similar to them. This takes place because of sorting efforts which take place as a result of various socio-economic phenomena. I want to suggest that there are both “organic” and “planned” sorting efforts. For instance, we can see that people of a certain culture or racial identity tend to live together. On the one hand, a more organic sorting takes place in that people who move to a new country tend to want to live near people who share their culture and language. As a result of this, we see places like “China Town” and “Little Italy” pop up within urban spaces. Yet at the same time there are “planned” sorting efforts which result in similar circumstances. Historically, we see many neighbourhoods implement rules that restrict the neighbourhood of only people who are white. In both of these cases people are sorted based on conditions that they don’t really have that much control over. In terms of “organic” cultural sorting efforts, one could move to a neighbourhood with no relation to their culture, but given the language barrier this seems close to being impossible. The conditions of culture are impossible to ignore as a strong factor in this sorting effort. In terms of a planned sorting efforts, these flows are impossible to ignore. One cannot move into a neighbourhood that one is barred from by law. Thus, it is material conditions, rather than intellectual actions, which lead these sorting efforts to occur. On top of cultural sorting efforts, we also see class based sorting efforts. It would be a mistake to suggest that the cultural and the economic sorting efforts to not intersect – they do – but given the simplistic nature of this exercise, I will not go into detail about this here. Economic sorting efforts would seem to be more organic than planned. Typically, people will move into an area that they can afford. Thus, people of similar economic wealth tend to congregate in similar areas. The material flows of wealth tend to  determine where someone will live. A city is composed of a multiplicity of little neighbourhoods which come about through a variety of sorting mechanisms. These neighbourhoods are divided in terms of wealth and culture (and probably other factors as well). Gentrification begins to occurs when a poorer area’s culture begins to be transformed by more wealthy interests. This tends to occur in a number of stages. First, poorer, creative types (often white), tend to move into a lower income (often non-white) neighbourhoods. These creative types may be motivated by a number of things (living authentically, the thrill of a different world, or even a fictional “blank slate”) but often the most prominent factor is cheap rent. Poorer artist types, looking for cheap rent go and buy or rent property within a poorer area of town (which, because racism has led people of colour to, generally, receive less payment for their labour, tend to be predominated by people of colour). These poorer white artists move into the community and begin to transform the space by transforming the art and culture. This creative class transforms the area into a more trendy, bohemian space. Others white people see the area not as it was, but now as a trendy area that they can move into. Wealthy land owners see this, and use it as an opportunity to buy property and transform the space by creating new housing and business that wealthier white professionals can purchase and frequent. Often (as is the case in with Cass Corridor/Midtown, as well as the transformation of Core City to West Corktown) these wealthy business people will attempt to rebrand a space in order to make it more appealing to young, wealthy professionals. This removes negative connotation from the neighbourhood. All of this results in land and rent prices rising in the area, which also raises property task. These rises in cost lead to a forcing out of community members who have been living in the area for decades. The history of the community and neighbourhood is effectively erased and replaced by a  trendy white faux utopia. An act of artisanal imperialism.

Given all of this, who is at fault in this equation? Who should be held morally responsible. Most of the individuals within this system of gentrification are not attempting to actively gentrify an area and drive those who have lived there out. Instead, people are driven by the material flows which force them to take certain economic actions. Outside of the efforts of capital to capitalize on a gentrifying and rebranding effort, it is difficult to place blame on individuals within gentrification efforts. Rather, when considering gentrification we must consider that it – like racism, sexism, transphobia, and other instances of oppression – is the result of the systems of oppression that exist within our societal spheres. People are reacting to material flows, and these flows exist within systems and machines of oppression which result in unintended results of gentrification. Thus, while it seems easy to blame individuals for gentrification, it would be better to focus on the primary cause of its creation: flows of capitalism. Once we see these issues as systemic we can stop blaming each other and start looking at the root of the problem.

Returning to Horseshoe Theory

A couple of weeks ago, I made a Facebook post complaining about someone using horseshoe theory in an argument regarding fascism. For those who aren’t familiar with the theory. Horseshoe theory believes that the political spectrum looks like a horseshoe with the “far right” and the “far left” actually being quite close together.

File:Political spectrum horseshoe model.svg - Wikimedia Commons

A diagram of horseshoe theory.

Ultimately, it is a theory used by centrists to attempt to persuade others (and themselves) that centrism is a superior political theory to politics both on the left and the right. Proponents of the theory will often turn to the authoritarian regimes of fascist Germany and communist USSR to suggest that, at their ridges, communism and fascism are essentially the same. Yet, this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of communism and fascism, those two historical examples, and the political left and right. Fascism retains ultranationalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, protectionist trade, strict hierarchical enforcement (i.e. race and class hierarchies), and a mixed/privatized economy. This was the case in fascist Germany where Hitler promised the bourgeois that he would outlaw labour unions in his rise to power.

“Hitler kept his promise to capital. After being declared Chancellor in January 1933 he outlawed both workers’ parties and the trade unions within a few months. Thousands of Social Democrats, Communists and trade unionists were arrested and murdered.”(Source)

Nazi Germany did not attempt to socialize the economy as proponents of horseshoe theory might have you believe. They were proponents of privatized industry – something far away from the socialist approaches in the USSR. Even though I don’t believe that the USSR represents an actual example of communism (particularly with and after Stalin it functioned as state capitalism), it didn’t hold ultranationalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, protectionist trade, strict hierarchical enforcement and a mixed/privatized economy as central tenants of its ideology (though it may have practiced some of those things). The only real similarity between the two regimes was that they were authoritarian. Proponents of Horseshoe theory might use this to suggest that authoritarianism is intrinsic to both the far right and the far left in an attempt to prop up their theory, but this is absurd. It reveals a complete ignorance of multiple political ideologies on both the right and the left: most notably anarchist or autonomous ideologies on the far left which completely shun any institutional political authority.

Thinking about the horseshoe theory, I’ve come to think that this discussion comes about because of a larger error which is taking place. I’ve come to see the idea of a “political spectrum” in general as one that is, itself, problematic. The political spectrum is not a fixed entity, and political theory or ideology do not need to condition themselves to fit into its structure. Horseshoe theory attempts to fit all of the political into a neat little classical liberal box which believes that all political ideology flows out of liberal/conservative dichotomy. Horseshoe theory reduces all of political ideology to notions of liberty (both social and economic, to varying degrees), but political ideologies tend to not fit into these structures. Both “leftist” and “rightist” politics should not be forced into the categories of “more liberty” or “less liberty”, but rather should be understood under the nuanced positions of each theory or ideology.

Attempts to map the political spectrum can get pretty messy…

Political ideologies do not need to neatly fit within a spectrum of the political for the spectrum itself is no more than a mere taxonomy, a device for organizing knowledge of various ideologies. To suggest that it is otherwise – thus granting the political spectrum ontological priority over political ideologies – would be to render the political spectrum a transcendental property. This is absurd. There is a multiplicity of political ideologies that are disparate from one another in a multiplicity of ways. These cannot be nicely mapped onto a structure that attempts to rule them. The ideologies exist prior to the structure, and the structure simply seeks to understand them.

Is this not true of most taxonomic classification? That they are useful as organizing devices, but fall flat on their faces when taken as universals?

Why did the Christians desire Trump?

Just a note before I begin. I thought that I would just mention that this piece is pretty rough. I wrote it to work through my thoughts on the most recent election. It is by no means polished, but I wanted to post it as my blog post this week. My opinion is just one of many think pieces and responses, and it doesn’t really bring forward any opinion or insight but my own struggle to grapple with the results of the recent election. Please feel free to offer feedback or advice on this as I continue to struggle with the political and theological. Because this is more of a personal reflection I haven’t cited strongly. If desired I can look to find citations for facts and evidence that I’ve presented offhand. The purpose of this is not a rigorous investigation into the theories I’ve provided, but a personal grappling which may someday turn into such a rigorous investigation.

Image result for God bless America

Introduction

On the evening of November 8th I felt anxiety and shock. This wasn’t necessarily anxiety for myself (Despite being an immigrant to the United States, I was thrown into this world with a whole heap of privilege), but rather, an anxiety for all of those who don’t have the privilege of being a white, straight, cisgender, male identifying person. My anxiety goes out for the people of the future, and the horror of the world that they might be able to live with. My anxiety goes out to our non-human friends, and to the earth. Who knows what the current administration might hold for these groups?

In the wake of this anxiety, I’ve been trying to make sense of why people voted for Trump – especially the estimated 80% of white evangelical voters who voted for him. I do recognize that a good number of Christians likely voted for Trump in order to gain a conservative Supreme Court. I get that, but at the same time I still find it horrifying that so many Christians took to the voting booths and voted for a xenophobic bigot. Christianity, as I understand it, holds to the central tenants that we must love one another unconditionally, that we must help the oppressed, and serve those who persecute us. Xenophobic nationalism does the exact opposite of these things. Those evangelicals who voted for Trump did not vote in favour of the oppressed or the persecuted – they voted for the oppressor and the persecutor. This is what I’ve been struggling with.

What I’ve been trying to situate is this: why did the Christians desire Trump? What caused evangelical Christians – en mass – to go out and vote for a candidate and party that seems paradoxical to the teaching of Christianity? This post will show my rough conclusions on the topic. I begin by looking at the death of God in the 19th and 20th century to show the need to develop and create new gods. From there I explore the transformation of Christianity into the American religion, a chimera of Christianity and capitalism. Under this framework, I examine the principal claim of the Trump campaign: “Make America Great Again” by suggesting that this assertion is synonymously a call to “Make God Great Again”, “Make Capitalism Great Again” and “Make Whiteness Great Again.”

This post seems especially pertinent given recent events which include increases in violent attacks  against minority groups in the United States and the release of a horrifying video showing “alt-right” Nazi propaganda with a focus on white power. This latter group has ties to Breitbart media and Stephen Bannon who is a “alt-right” proponent (read: Nazi) and was recently announced as President elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist and Senior Counselor.

The Death of God

“‘Whither is God’ He cried, ‘I will tell you. We have killed him – you an I’”

Nietzsche’s cry of the death of God is often misunderstood by people who don’t read Nietzsche. People like to throw out (or criticize) the claim that “God is dead” without actually unpacking what that means. The Death of God is the loss of ground. This loss of ground might be the loss of empirical ground, moral ground, immunological ground, etc. For instance, Peter Sloterdijk writes that, throughout Christendom, God functioned as an sphere or ground that provided immunological protection against the external or outside. Developments in modernity led to the shattering of this sphere. With the ability and desire to transverse the globe through scientific and technological advancement, humans no longer needed God to account for many of the mysteries of the world. Enlightenment thought’s emphasis on rationalism and science provided explanation for the mysterious. God was no longer necessary to provide a grounding principle for experienced phenomena.  With an increase in global travel, the outside was no longer as terrifying making the protection that God provided meaningless.

In Nietzsche’s writing, God’s death is the demise of a moral grounding. Unlike the empirical and rational spheres, the moral retains an element of mystery. Questions of morality cannot be answered through empirical or rational means in the same way that questions relating subjects like biology or physics can. Nietzsche is writing during the 19th century when the church is still a central agency within the European public sphere. Yet, Nietzsche sees that the actions of those around him are not grounded in a morality based on Christian principles. Nietzsche fears that the God whom the people profess has, in essence, died, because no one is following Her. What Nietzsche fears in the Gay Science is a loss of the moral ground and a fall into nihilism – a groundlessness. The Gay Science the madman cries out in vain over the loss of God. It would be a mistake to call Nietzsche a proponent of nihilism: Nietzsche initially mourns the loss of the moral grounding, fearing that the people are governed by nothing (Nietzsche comes to affirm the groundlessness, but that is for another post).

The American Religion

“What, after all, are these churches now if they are not the tombs an sepulchres of God?”

What, then, comes after the death of God? One way of responding to the death of God is to replace God with another God or gods. This requires retaining the religious qualities of the Christian deity, while attributing those characteristics to Her replacement. In leftist and neoliberal circles, N/nature has taken on the attributes of the divine. Jeremy Butman states that “as the Christian God retreated after Descartes, the attributes traditionally ascribed to Him — goodness, perfection and permanence — were in different ways transposed onto the body of nature.” Christianity’s notion of the divine provides a foundation or ground for the contemporary liberal movement of environmental sustainability. God, as traditionally understood, is ignored or considered insignificant, while the attributes of God are retained.

Conservative circles did not, in the same way, retreat from Christianity. God, the church, and the religious fervour remained accepted truths within these groups. For many, the belief in God still remains a central precept to one’s life. This is especially the case in America, where Christianity is still upheld as a stronghold. Yet, even from the earliest conceptions of America, we see that ‘God’ is not identical to the God of Christianity. The classic quote of Benjamin Franklin that “God helps those who help themselves” shows the merging of the American mythos with that of the Christian mythos. Within America, particularly in protestant America, the role of capitalism and Christianity begin to merge.  Weber’s protestant work ethic communicates a blending of capitalist and protestant forces. The difference between capitalism and Christianity become opaque. Many would attribute the prosperity of America’s free market on the centrality of Christianity within the nation. Within this mythology, American exceptionalism bled into American Christianity.

Walter Benjamin writes that capitalism adopts religious structure and tendencies to become, itself, a religion. In America it becomes difficult to toe the line between the  religion of capitalism and the religion of Christianity. Together these forces would become what I’ll term “the American religion.” The Bible suggests that one cannot serve two master, one cannot serve both God and money. In order to solve this problem – so that  this religion could retain both the God of capital and the God of Christianity – it was necessary for the American religion to merge the two deities. As Benjamin writes in Capitalism as Religion “God’s transcendence has fallen, but he is not dead. He is drawn into the fate of man” (p 260). God doesn’t die for the American religion. God is retained within capitalism. Benjamin writes at length on the merging of capitalism and Christianity into the American religion:

“Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, without dogma. Capitalism itself developed parasitically on Christianity in the West–not in Calvinism alone, but also, as must be shown, in the remaining orthodox Christian movements – in such a way that, in the end, its history is essentially the history of its parasites of capitalism. Compare the holy iconography of various religions on the one hand with the banknotes of various countries on the other: The spirit that speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes….Christianity in the time of the Reformation did not encourage the emergence of capitalism, but rather changed itself into capitalism. Methodologically [it] would be [productive] to first examine what associations money has adopted with myth in the course of history – until it could draw from Christainity enough mythical elements in order to constitute its own myth.” (p. 263-264)

The American religious myth might be the most strong example of Benjamin’s claims. A country where Christianity and capitalism merge into the central mythology and religion in order to become the true American religion.

Making America Great Again

What does it mean to “Make America great again”? At the time of Trump’s campaign the economy was doing decently, unemployment was quite low, and America, by generally used metrics, was doing pretty well. What is failing – in the eyes of some, at least – is the great American religion. Despite unemployment being low, wages for many white workers have stagnated since the 1970s while the cost of living has continued to rise. This is a major issue, and one that both the left and right should be critical of. Elsewhere, many see the atheism of academics and elites as a certain godlessness that goes against not only Christianity but America. “Progressive values” of free choice abortion and same sex marriage are seen as direct attacks on Christianity, but this is a Christianity imbued with social and class antagonism which see the move towards egalitarian institutions as a direct attack on the American religion. This Christianity is spearheaded by the patriarchy and social antagonisms of capitalism. The American religion places an emphasis on individualism (c.f. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps). Thus, when proponents of the American religion see themselves falling, they see their religion under seige. A need was created to “Make America great again” which functioned as a rallying call to “Make the American religion great again” while simultaneously working towards “Making Christianity/Capitalism/Us (White, evangelicals) great again”.

The use of “again” signals the fact that this call is inherently reactionary. The American religion must have been great at some point for it to be returned to. Given the rhetoric of the Trump campaign it doesn’t seem far fetched that this (imaginary) past existed some time when there was stricter separation between the races, a time when White communities were allowed to deny access to Black people; the time of Jim Crow. This is emphasized in the campaign rhetoric surrounding Islamic refugees and Mexican immigrants. American greatness can only be realized through the eradication of the Other. A return to greatness is conditional on building a wall on the Mexican border and insinuating the dismissal of Islamic refugees from the country. Xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric is necessarily tied to the promotion of the great American religion. Keeping people who aren’t white out of America functions as the innermost ethic of making America great. (This isn’t even to mention the promotion of ‘stop and frisk’ as a means of controlling the Black community.) In order to make America great,  America must first be cleansed of all its undesirables – it must be cleansed of those who aren’t white so that it can be made great for those who are.

Desiring Greatness

“No, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point, under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism”

Much like the crowd who desired Barabbas, and the masses who desired Hitler, evangelical Christians desired and elected Trump. This was caused, at least in part, through the polymerization of Christianity, capitalism, whiteness and patriotism under the guise of the American religion. The Christians desired greatness. They desired the return to the greatness of the American religion. What American evangelicals believed was that their God – their great religion – was under threat (whether this religion was ever great, and whether it ever ceased to be great is another conversation). In the minds of many individuals this great religion needed to be saved.

Will Trump be able to make their religion great again? We cannot let that happen. Because making the American religion great requires the elimination of the Other. It means oppression for many who are seen as minor within the American landscape. We see this already in the propaganda of right wing Nazi groups in the United States – groups that are no longer afraid of professing white supremacy – and we see it in the attacks on individuals who do not fit the privileged norm. This is not something that I, nor any person who professes that love should conquer hate, should hope for. We must fight against the desire for hate with an affirmation of love, affirming differences rather than attempting to homogenize them. The God of America may have won the election, but we cannot allow it to win the day.

 

Citations and Mentions

Benjamin, W. (2005). Capitalism as Religion. In E. Mendieta (Ed.), C. Kautzer (Trans.), The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers (pp. 259–262). New York ; London: Routledge.

Butman, J. (2016, August 8). Against “Sustainability.” The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/opinion/against-sustainability.html

Gilles, D., & Guattari, F. (1994). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University Of Minnesota Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1974). The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. (W. Kaufmann, Trans.) (1 edition). New York: Vintage. Thesis 125.

Sloterdijk, P. (2014). Globes: Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology. (W. Hoban, Trans.). Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext.