Category Archives: Politics

The Missing Women’s Inquiry and State Autonomy

In February 2009 I wrote this post about the Robert Pickton trial, in which I pointed out that Max Weber’s conception of the state having a monopoly on violence leads to the exclusion of the victims from the whole legal process:

Pickton threatened the autonomy of the state by using physical violence without permission, which is why he is being prosecuted by the state rather than by a lawyer working for the women. Considering the Crown symbolism, in fact, the women have very little to do with this trial whatsoever.

The dubious arrangement of state-funded legal representation in the BC Missing Women Commission of Inquiry is a nice illustration of this fact. As noted by The Dominion:

The provincial and federal governments are providing funding for the one lawyer for the Attorney General of BC, three lawyers for the Department of Justice Canada (RCMP), nine lawyers for the commission counsel, two lawyers for the Vancouver Police Department, one lawyer for Rossmo (former VPD), two lawyers for the Criminal Justice Branch (prosecutors), and one lawyer for the Vancouver Police Union—19 legal representatives in total for the justice system representatives.

One lawyer is provided to represent a fraction [ten] of the families of the missing and murdered women represented at the commission; no funding will be made available to the Aboriginal, sex-trade and women’s groups—many of which knew the women intimately.

Weber says, “If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be.” A more equitable distribution of power, one in which regular civilians are permitted to criticize on a level playing field the application of state autonomy, is evidently perceived as a massive threat.

The Strange Paradox of Libertarianism

Reading the section in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma about Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm is making me have some thoughts on libertarianism. Polyface Farm is an exemplary model of alternative agriculture—alternative to the mainstream military-industrial model, that is. Instead of reducing everything to machine-manageable monocultures, Salatin’s farm is run on the basis of the fairly simple idea that letting plants and animals act like themselves is the best way of creating healthy, sustainable food. Instead of getting cows to eat corn while standing ankle deep in their own shit, for example, let them eat grass and roam around the fields a little bit while they’re at it, so that they and the grassland both work together as key parts of a complete ecosystem. The ins and outs of how Salatin applies this principle to grow tons and tons of food with virtually no inputs aside from chicken feed, all while improving the health of his land, is covered in detail in Pollan’s book. Naturally, he does a much better job of explaining it than I would.

No, the problem I have with Salatin’s views on agriculture have nothing to do with the agriculture itself, but rather on the way he sees libertarianism as the solution to the global deck of cards that is the modern industrial food system. Like a lot of rural types, Salatin’s libertarianism comes from his personal experiences and the accumulated wisdom of his rural heritage. On the personal experience side of the coin, his particular frustrations have arisen from those points where the implementation of his agricultural principles has come up against government regulations that are designed to regulate gigantic corporate feedlots rather than small, decentralized farming communities. His desire to process and sell his own beef, to cite only one example, has been kaiboshed by the regulations regarding the slaughter of food animals. Because his agricultural model works so well, every time he comes up against a regulation that prevents him from implementing it as fully as he would like, he understandably becomes somewhat more soured on the idea of centralized government—the government, it seems to him, is not only complicit in the perpetuation of the military-industrial approach to agriculture, but it is also one of the major forces impeding small farmers’ attempts to put into practice alternatives that are more sustainable, less polluting, less dependent on fossil fuels, more environmentally friendly, and more delicious than the mainstream approach.

To the maximum extent possible, Salatin and his family have opted out of the mainstream approach. From an agricultural perspective, they hardly have any reliance on external inputs like seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and from a personal perspective, a huge proportion of the food they consume on the farm, not to mention the buildings and machinery, are produced or manufactured right there on their property. This ideal of self-sufficiency is a cornerstone of libertarianism, and it’s no surprise that rural types, who have a firsthand perspective on the production of sustenance from the land, are more inclined to libertarianism. (A person from the city might have a harder time imagining being self-sufficient, if they’ve spent years and years picking up plastic-wrapped chicken breasts from the local Walmart Supercentre.)

When questioned by Pollan about the possibility of this small, local, polyculture-based farming system eventually overtaking the military-industrial approach, he indicates his belief that “all we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse”—dispensing with the government altogether, I suppose, much like his own family has done to the maximum extent possible. In fact, he believes that the process of mass opt-outs has already begun, as evidenced by things like the increase in the number of farmer’s markets, the rise of metropolitan buying clubs, and the growth in popularity of “artisanal” approaches to production among, say, readers of Mother Earth News. What he seems to forget is that the ideals embodied in the Whole Earth Catalogue in the sixties—a similar attempt at opting out of the  military-industrial mainstream—had as good a chance of ensnaring the mainstream of America then, and look how that turned out. (In fact, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma to see how that turned out.) At least back then, the movement had a convincing veneer of soul—farmers markets are also increasing in popularity here in Vancouver, but it probably has more to do with people opting in to our thriving economy of guilt-free, greenest-city-in-the-worldTM goods than it does with a popular desire for a new form of social and economic organization. Indeed, this is the city where the ex-president of Happy Planet juices—”a company with soul”—went on to become God’s gift to Canada’s most gentrification-happy property developers.

In Salatin’s case, though, it appears that one of the major problems with his kind of libertarianism is that by opting out to such a degree, he apparently ran the risk of losing touch with the realities of the rest of the world. It’s only because he has opted out so vehemently, in other words, that he can take this perspective on the future of agriculture. (“There were plenty of books in the [Salatins’s] house,” Pollan writes, “but, aside from the Staunton daily newspaper, which devoted more space to local car crashes than the war in Iraq, little media (and no television) penetrated the Salatin household.”) From the perspective of someone living in the city, such as myself, it’s hard to see Salatin’s viewpoint as anything other than hopelessly utopian—especially as more and more people flock to cities all over the world. By opting out to such a degre, Salatin is privy almost exclusively to the negative aspects of government—the overbearing regulations, the complicity with the industrial economy, the centralization—or, at least, the aspects of government that he is privy to are grossly out of proportion.

I would never try to argue that the government’s regulatory systems are perfect, or even that they’re significantly better than mediocre, but I do see these regulations as one of the few things that are (barely) keeping the industrial system from burgeoning right out of control. The regulations may inhibit some of Salatin’s activities, because of their narrow scope or other flaws, but they also regulate the activities of a lot of massive organizations, much more massive than his, that have the potential to cause a great deal more harm than they’re already causing. Think about what BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and ChevronTexaco want to do in the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge, for instance, but can’t because of government regulations.

This is what leads me to believe that rural-style libertarianism is essentially a selfish political philosophy. It’s a philosophy characterized by willing ignorance. You don’t like what goes on in the cities and the industries, so you just choose to ignore it altogether, to leave it out of the equation when you’re thinking about how to make things better.

What strikes me as particularly bizarre about someone like Salatin disparaging the role of government in inhibiting his freedoms is that the same rhetoric is routinely proffered by people like Charles and David Koch. When he ran for vice-president of the Libertarian Party in 1980, David Koch ran on a platform of intense deregulation, including the outright elimination of regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and the National Labour Relations Board (not to mention the public school system—the Salatins have opted out of that too). The reasons for this aren’t difficult to figure out—if companies like Koch Industries and Cargill don’t have to worry about environmental, health, labour, or trade regulations, then they can make a lot more money by cutting wages, abrogating decent working conditions, dumping waste into creeks, drilling for oil in Canyonlands National Park, doing away with sanitation measures and safety equipment, firing people indiscriminately, lying to consumers about what’s in their products, and so on. These are all things that companies want to do right now, and by and large the only thing stopping them is government regulations. It’s certainly not scruples and good conscience. As John Ralston Saul observes in The Collapse of Globalism, it has been shown time and again since the beginning of the industrial revolution that “market leaders, if left to themselves, would, on average, act badly,” largely because market leaders tend to prioritize money making over everything else.

This view, at least in relation to the hippie generation, is shared by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in The Rebel Sell:

The hippie counterculture shared many of the individualistic and libertarian ideas that have always made neoliberalism and free-market ideology such a powerful force on the right wing of the American political spectrum.

Aspects of Heath and Potter’s book are compromised by their tendency to overgeneralize and equivocate, but I do think that Salatin’s case serves as an apt illustration of their thesis that people tend to get caught up in utopian ideas about social reformation to such a degree that they overlook, even as temporary measures, shorter-term, practical reforms that can be implemented right away to make things better than they are now. “After the holocaust,” argue Heath and Potter,

the left began to distrust many of the basic building blocks of social organization, such as social norms, . . . laws and bureaucratic forms of organization . . . . As a result, the left has found itself mired in insuperable collective action problems, and unwilling to use some of the basic organizational methods that all human beings must employ in order to overcome these difficulties. The preference for individual consumer activism in response to environmental degredation, rather than state regulation of externalities, provides the most clear-cut example.

Whereas Salatin’s model of agriculture is right on—there’s no question about that—his belief that it’s going to spontaneously catch on and eventually overtake industrial agriculture is hopelessly naive. And the salient point here is that by opting out of mainstream society, he has entitled himself to take this viewpoint. He’s like Heath and Potter’s survivalist living on a compound in Montana with a generator and a shotgun—he may have it figured out for himself, but his political philosophy really only extends to the boundaries of his property. This is the paradox of libertarianism: Salatin’s approach to ecological sustainability in agriculture is spot on, yet he ends up supporting policies—like deregulation—that have the potential to destroy the very thing he’s fighting so hard to protect. A system of smart and effective regulations has the potential to do vastly more good right now than Salatin’s approach does, and if an agricultural utopia comes next, then that’s a bonus.

(Disclaimer: Everything I’ve said about Salatin is based on Pollan’s book, and I recognize that the book may not be a complete characterization of Salatin’s philosophy. Again, I’m not criticizing Salatin’s farming practices, just his political philosophy.)

The Olympics are here

The Grauniad has a good summary of why many Vancouverites are anti-Olympics.

The Olympics are yet another painful example of a public-private partnership gone awry. Taxpayers have been surreptitiously soaked by private developers who’ve created a real-deal budget-buster for the city. Were it not for an emergency infusion of taxpayer money to cover cost overruns, the Olympic Village would be half built. The closer we get to the Olympics, the more people agree with [Am] Johal that “The Olympics are a corporate franchise that you buy with public money.”

Olympics protesters aren’t anti-sport, and they’re not against patriotism, they merely recognize that once a neat idea like the Olympics becomes an opportunity for corporate executives to make a lot of money, everything else that matters to regular people, like the arts, community, human rights, homelessness, privacy, free speech, etc., becomes a low priority for the people in power.

Tax Havens Gardens

In May 2006, councilor Peter Ladner introduced and passed a motion to increase the number of community gardens in the Lower Mainland to 2 010 by the year 2010, as part of Vancouver’s “Olympic legacy.” Recently, since the economy took a dive, commercial property developers have taken this suggestion up with aplomb, but not because their hearts are two sizes too big.

According to Charlie Smith at the Straight, the tax break is roughly 80%, and the city stood to lose $650 090 this year from this type of reclassification. According to Alan Garr at The Courier, this amount gets transferred onto the tax responsibilities of other landowners; back in February, he calculated that each plot in the garden at Davie and Burrard was being subsidized by taxpayers in the amount of $3450, or roughly “$350 for the space needed for one tomato plant.” In May, the Straight reported that 17 lots had been converted since 2007, and another six were in the works – as Global notes, five of those had come through as of the beginning of December, and the garden in question was under review. Considering the apparent popularity of this tactic, the amount of lost revenue is likely nearing a million dollars.

To make this more aggravating, reports that the city council’s current policy on dealing with this loophole is to defer to the BC Assessment Authority, who is more or less doing what it’s told to do by the tax laws that govern it, so who knows when we can expect city council to do anything about it. Gregor Robertson, everybody’s favourite liberal businessman, has been supporting a major tax shift away from commercial properties and onto residential properties since before he was elected mayor, which, according to the Straight, amounts to a four percent increase for residential landowners and a zero percent increase for commercial landowners. This policy is being written into the same budget that’s about to cut $20 million in city services next year, including a $3 million cut in community services, a $2.8 million cut to parks and recreation, and a $1.4 million cut to the public library system.

Oh, and don’t forget that somewhere in there the city scrounged up $450 000 to spend on $350 uniforms for the Host City Team to wear during the Olympics.

Bruno Latour on science

The CBC documentary series Ideas did a 24-part series entitled How To Think About Science. In Part 5, Bruno Latour said this:

When I did this work on science practices, no one understood it. It was taken as a “debunking” of science. So I was very interested because I never though that that had to be debunked. I though it had to be studied and described, but not – debunking never interested me. And yet it was taken by people as debunking. So I became very interested in that argument – why is that people, when you describe science, […] people believe it is a debunking? So what’s their idea of society when a description of science becomes a threat?

This question was a response to the backlash that he received because of his first book, entitled Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Fact, based on his use of the term “social construction” to indicate the book’s focus on the social aspects of scientific practice. He indicated that it was never his intention to debunk science, and that he only intended to enrich science by providing a more thorough and socially-grounded explanation of how science is actually done. After people began expressing distaste at the idea that scientific fact could be “socially constructed,” he came to realize that the possibility of this distaste is predicated on a dualistic view of the world that posited a sharp demarcation between nature and culture. Under this paradigm, science can be viewed as purely rational, and consequently a mere description of nature unaffected by the messy social influences of culture. Thus, a description of scientific facts as being socially constructed threatens to make science “disappear,” because it does not fit neatly into the nature/culture paradigm. (Compare arguments that gender is socially constructed; opponents of this view often feel as though traditional gender roles are in danger of disappearing. Because the view of gender as being “natural” rather than “social” fits so well into a dualistic nature/culture worldview, the acceptance of a paradigm that legitimates social influences on gender is hard to swallow, despite it’s being ostensibly more thorough.) Not surprisingly, Latour suggested that the split between nature and culture is merely political, and that it serves institutions that are in a position to benefit from speaking for one side or the other: science for nature, and politics for culture. I’ve repeatedly stated, here and elsewhere, that the nature/culture dualism is frustratingly normalized, and that things that are posited as purely in the realm of one or the other are almost always affected by a combination of both. I agree with him that overcoming this false dichotomy is a critical project. Latour seems unduly optimistic, though, when he suggests that, in David Cayley’s words, “this myth […] is now clearly finished, undone by an ecological crisis in which human and non-human agencies are clearly blended” (namely, global warming). This may be the case in philosophy of science circles, as it seems to be in academic feminist ones, but I think this dualism still underscores a vast majority of people’s understanding of the world and serves as the basis of their decision making about issues that affect it, and that fact legitimates the existence of, for instance, climate change deniers in the highest echelons of power.

Republicans teabag America

Oh man, the Republicans keep getting in deeper:

For those of you in the dark, here is the definition of “teabagging” that Maddow is having a field day with.

Lexicographers take note

The CBC recently announced that they would reduce executive bonuses by 50% next year, to which the Canadian Media Guild members, who face massive layoffs and wage rollbacks in the coming year, replied, “The CBC execs get bonuses?!”

Bonus outrage is officially all the rage these days. Nonetheless, the whole blowup over the AIG bonus debacle–which set this ball rolling in the first place–has its roots in a simple semantic problem. Most people conceive of a bonus as something extra. Business executives conceive of bonuses as a natural extension of their salary, subject to the same contractual obligations and expectations.

When the team of executives hired to fix AIG with the help of $170 billion from the government agreed to work for a salary of $1, it gave the impression to the public that they were taking a huge hit for the good of the world’s financial system. In reality, as people found out a few days ago, they actually agreed to work for a salary of a dollar, plus a million dollar “bonus” at the end of the year, which was just as contractual an obligation as their salary was. The trouble is, when the people who naively conceive of a bonus as being something extra heard that these AIG execs were getting million dollar bonuses, they got outraged, because there was obviously no fiscal success on the part of the company that would justify the distribution of an extra million dollars to each executive at the end of the year.

Of course, the bonus wasn’t extra at all. The executives signed a contract that stipulated they would receive an effective salary of $1 ooo oo1. When Liddy got pressured by Congress to allow clawbacks of %90 of that amount, the execs saw it, rightly, as a clawback of %90 of their salary for that year.

Obviously, in hindsight, calling contractually obligated yearly payments to corporate executives “bonuses” is horribly misleading and disingenuous, especially coupled with the announcement that the AIG bailout team would work for $1 salaries. This was an obvious and flagrant attempt to mislead the public, and it has been ever since the concept of contractual bonuses became the norm in executive retention. Nonetheless, it would be nice if corporate execs just played it straight and called the bonuses “salary,” because at least then we would all be talking about the same thing during discussions of exorbitant executive pay rates.