In a quiet moment in a café in Montréal this past week, I sat down and asked myself why the concept of sustenance as a right has taken a back seat? What is the reason for our inability to connect the dots and therefore connect the issues? Is it acceptable to scatter and disperse our energies over a number of issues and not unite on root causes? I started scribbling down some notes. In a nearly purgative moment, I realized that I had managed to spew out nearly twenty pages of notes on the S-pen on my Android, without stopping. Here they are, then.
Why “sustenance” gets sidelined in these times
Our impetus to get to the root of a problem is often curbed by our enthusiasm and the immediacy of a victorious moment. Positive forces override the negative. We rejoice when we are vindicated on a single issue. We have won one battle. We wait unconsciously for the next one. We go from one issue to another.
Sometimes the negative forces triumph. Then we are engulfed in the dastardliness of an act, and mobilization against the offending forces becomes a matter of course, an immanent reflex. We congregate in solidarity. A demonstration locks down traffic on rue Ste-Catherine. A mosque witnesses a massacre of cruel proportions. Almost the entire population is moved, ashamed, disgusted, and expresses extraordinary support for the community. Two weeks after the carnage, once again a bill proposes a renewed discussion on national identity. What is the connection between National Identity and Global Capital, we may ask? Who is behind revamping these debates? And why?
A mosque witnesses a massacre of cruel proportions. Almost the entire population is moved, ashamed, disgusted, and expresses extraordinary support for the community. Two weeks after the carnage, once again a bill proposes a renewed discussion on national identity.
A nasty homophobic incident happens in the neighbourhood, and people stand by the victim, like a rock. Police misconduct, which seems to be increasing exponentially against indigenous communities, especially women, galvanizes us.
In Paris, a 22-year-old Black man gets assaulted by police with batons. His wounds show evidence of sexual assault causing anal tearing. The police finally say it is “unintentional rape.” Paris lights up as the disenfranchised riot again.
Standing Rock mobilizes us. Black Lives Matter brings us together in Cabot Square, Montréal. Then all falls quiet as the lines of defence held by indigenous protesters and their supporters are bulldozed and their camps are removed. We launch a campaign against Breitbart, the “alt-right” mouthpiece that has launched a crafty campaign to mobilize right-wing populism. Some of us succeed in informing advertisers that they are supporting racists and misogynists. The ads get pulled. These are big victories in our world of “issues.” But after the outrage comes a period of calm. A poignant lull. Until the next issue comes along. Issues that touch us and yet allow us to move on to the next issue, which could also be profoundly disturbing. We do not always find the connection between one issue and another. We cannot always trace things down to their root cause.
Address the root cause? Or the symptoms?
As an engineer, I am trained to look for a root cause, not just the symptom. If we wish to prevent a flaw or problem from recurring, we keep asking WHY it occurs – at least 7 to 10 times. When the Challenger exploded, the immediate wisdom was that an untested O-ring was the guilty party. It caused flammable gas to escape, which ignited on the vehicle’s re-entry. Was the specification for the temperature range of the O-ring clearly stated? Was the specifying engineer knowledgeable about the temperatures that could be attained during re-entry? Were the insulation tiles adequately secured to provide the insulation required? Also, was a specifying engineer fully aware of all the failure modes? And in that case, did the engineer inform his/her superiors? If so, did the superiors get overruled by senior management? Was there a rush to launch this vehicle on a particular symbolic date? Arriving at the root cause is often a long drawn-out process of asking WHY several times. Treating the symptoms rarely solves the problem. It delays resolution while offering what is always a temporary reprieve. This discussion on sustenance requires us to pursue a discussion on the larger scope of systemic change based on a vision of society, and not simply travel from one issue to another, however just.
Right to drinking water
Let’s put root cause diagnosis aside for now and examine the issue of what really constitutes sustenance. The thematic statement for this particular issue states the following: “Sustenance implies minimum nourishment. Physical and intellectual. Adding agency, encouragement, facility to subsist and survive.” Let us consider water as a fundamental requirement for sustenance.
According to an article on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, “Two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade. The numbers show that 400 out of 618 First Nations in the country had some kind of water problem between 2004 and 2014.”[i] The same article further notes, “Chronic government underfunding of water systems is to blame for the lack of progress, said Emma Lui of the Council of Canadians. She said a national assessment commissioned by the federal government found $470 million was needed per year over 10 years.” Is it a priority for the Government of Canada to spend 470 million per year for the next ten years? Is there a vision to ensure this particular aspect of sustenance? Possibly not! The government has other priorities, carefully cultivated for the needs of those classes whose interests are significantly more important to it than those of indigenous communities or the rest of the 99% of the population.
Perhaps the notion that indigenous people living on reservations should have the same constitutional right to clean drinking water as non-indigenous people has not really dawned on the city people! Can you imagine the Borough of LaSalle in Montréal not having clean water for two decades?
The issues are also complicated, many will explain. There is Native sovereignty. There are broken treaties. There is the Indian Act and all its amendments. There are broken communities. Alcoholism, suicides, misappropriation of funds – all the usual deflections that a settler state finds appropriate to lay the blame on. There are remote communities where contractors do not want to work to build water treatment plants. Difficult to haul materials there, they say. In the end, it is not a priority and a settler state will do anything to wish it away, until and unless all “Indians” become Canadians! Does anybody really want to solve the problem at the root? This is an issue that could perhaps be solved. But there is an institutional gridlock in place. It goes beyond the single issue of water rights. Perhaps the notion that indigenous people living on reservations should have the same constitutional right to clean drinking water as non-indigenous people has not really dawned on the city people! Can you imagine the Borough of LaSalle in Montréal not having clean water for two decades? Indigenous communities simply do not have political and economic clout. They are powerless. They are like a shadow of guilt that appears from time to time over the skies of Canada. Root cause is never reached. Sustenance is bypassed.
The Vietnam War as a turning point
Radicals and dissenters reached a period of success and credibility after the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War. Civil rights, Black consciousness, social revolution, alternate lifestyles had assumed centre stage, and an intellectual overthrow of the family-centred, family-values oriented conservative mindset had occurred. A victory of some sort had been won. The US ruling class and whatever it represented to the world was essentially defeated in Vietnam, physically and morally. A US president had been impeached. Over 60,000 GIs had come back in body bags. (Of course, the fact that 1.5 million Vietnamese and Indo-Chinese people had perished was not of consequence to most Americans, really.) Many conscientious objectors had crossed the border into Canada, who by now have thousands of grandchildren growing up as Canadians. A state of victory had been proclaimed.
The “paper tiger” was shown up for what it was! Imperial might was not just military. It was also the pinnacle of a complex system involving industry, employment, livelihood, financial definitions, finance export, banking systems and cultural hegemony. All this had been exposed for what it was and still is. The proclamation of victory by the majority of the masses was actually a dulling moment. A pivotal point of numbness had been achieved. Exuberance was followed by complaisance. The idea of analyzing and understanding the comprehensiveness of institutional and systemic controls was put on the back burner. Complaisance was kind of inevitable after this “victory.” The contradiction between labour and capital, between owners and owned, between the haves and have-nots – or to put it very simply, the root cause of inequality, poverty, loss of buying and saving power – was set aside.
The universities that gave birth to dissent were also the ones where academics now had relatively new freedoms (this is much after all the post-HUAC,[ii] post-McCarthy period). Courses and curriculum were being incubated that essentially gave birth to cultural politics. Academics had started to redefine the entire Left perspective from a variety of ways – away from the fundamental contradiction between labour and capital. Social groups decided to identify themselves as class conscious groupings, and the meaning of class was being redefined or appropriated.
Issues and identities
Actually, at the end of the Vietnam War and perhaps even earlier, the politics of cultural identity became an easy outlet, as long as it identified white patriarchy as the main enemy. So every confabulated issue that could rally a few dozen people became a cause that could mobilize against the symbolic image of the misogynist beer guzzler who sat at the end of the day in front of a TV and spewed out ignorance about the rest of the world. In effect, Carrol O’Connor’s role as Archie Bunker in All in the Family became the classic target to diss the white working-class family and get a great laugh out of it. Homophobia, environmental waste and pollution, racism and white privilege, and biblical white supremacy, anti-evolutionary groups became the easy target and basis for education and organizing. And you could always add on First Nations rights, settler colonization, eco-feminism, anti-science, the drug and health insurance lobby and also the chemical, GMO, military-industrial complex, and eventually even human rights as a worldwide concern, to teach about and mobilize around. Amnesty International, a dour, boring, geopolitically-motivated NGO, gained left-wing celebrity status. Sexual preference and gender orientation became strong lines of segregation within the movement for social change.
In an unintended sort of way, academia gave birth to the politics of identity – and issues that had to do with economic exploitation, colonization, deprivation, inequality and poverty were consequently either sidelined or taught by a dwindling group of “orthodox Marxists,” for the most part.
This is not the place to debate these issues in detail, but it is clear that people came together more around issues and went back to their separate enclosures afterwards, rather than coming together to challenge the system that spawned the issues. A universal enemy had been consciously or incoherently targeted. No wonder the white working class and middle class had a brooding feeling that when all was all said and done, they were being put against the wall.
On the one hand, there were orthodox theorists who stuck to their guns (Kantian morality or Hegelian idealism) and insisted that the classical transitions in European social development were universally applicable. That feudalism was followed by capitalism. That the bourgeoisie was universally liberalist and was destined to outwit the barons and that this was true of the whole world. That workers were paramount and peasants and lumpen-proletarians had to be tutored and led. On the other hand, there were the post-colonial theorists who asserted that subaltern consciousness could not be absorbed into the Eurocentric framework. That cultural identities, super-structural consciousness of folklore, rituals, methods of resistance and ways of organizing were not necessarily universal. That the West could not impose its exalted philosophies on the East. In an unintended sort of way, academia gave birth to the politics of identity – and issues that had to do with economic exploitation, colonization, deprivation, inequality and poverty were consequently either sidelined or taught by a dwindling group of “orthodox Marxists,” for the most part.
The real corporate conglomerates, meanwhile, sat around, smiled and even donated here and there to causes like the inner-city housing blight, anti-KKK-church-bombing-related charities, AIDS foundations, women’s self-help causes and refugee relief. Not that these issues were not important. They were significantly necessary, but they were all done at the expense of looking away from something else. Liberalism had arrived and was on fire! Neo-liberalism was about to arrive!
The real plight of labour (those who create value in the economy) as the fundamental element in creating tangible products during an eight-hour work shift that would then be costed and priced and put into competition in the “market place,” became a side issue. Except for traditional Marxists, nobody was interested in how the “worker” was a transferable commodity between capital and the worker’s labour. If he or she worked eight hours a day, and the owner of the factory chose to keep a gross profit margin of let’s say 25%, then two hours of the shift went straight into the “contribution.” To put it another way, this mode of production could have allowed the worker to go home at the end of six hours and be paid adequate wages for sustenance, if the owner took home no profits! Six hours was enough for his/her sustenance! Sustenance was directly counterposed to profitability. More profits, less sustenance.
The issue of conflict between those who produce and those who own the means of production was not vigorously discussed. The issue itself of sustenance for the individual was forgotten.
Of course, this kind of logic is untenable, is it not? We are bombarded with questions: “Who manages the business? Who organizes the cash flow, the banking, the floor management? Who takes on the risks and thinks of innovation?” The issue of conflict between those who produce and those who own the means of production was not vigorously discussed. The issue itself of sustenance for the individual was forgotten. The issue of the transferability of labour and capital in the societies we live in was made passé. In fact a recent OECD document[iii] no longer talks about human labour and capital. It refers to “human capital.” The human input has become so marginal in the new economy that it is agglomerated. This article goes on to suggest that with the evolution of technology, a speeded up, knowledge-based “human” can actually substitute the “labour” aspect and transform itself into “human capital.”
As the Reagan-Thatcher behemoth rolled in (somewhat surreptitiously) and further disenfranchised the working poor, the stage was set for identity and cultural politics to be the main staple of humanities and social science education in the universities. Actually the “alt.righters” are quite correct in stating this. Academia had spawned a libertarian soapbox of sorts, where anything but the real issue was good for a 3-credit march to a baccalaureate. The essence of “free trade” and globalization, meanwhile, was being quietly seeded in the soil outside. The Left was oblivious that within their own fold, fissiparous trends had set roots. The lowering of material and labour costs, de-regulation, making taxes look like anti-people legislation, the notion that tariffs needed to be removed and the concept of “trickle-down” wealth was carefully nurtured. People bought into it because a cathartic social change in the West was inconceivable. Gradual change, peaceful change, social democratic change was the unwritten mantra. Meanwhile, in the wake of atrocious experiments in lab-grade socialism as with the Khmer Rouge, the totally chaotic attempt at a “cultural revolution” in China, and lastly, the collapse of the Soviet Union (which had by then completely degenerated into a ruthless, bureaucratic state capitalist entity), left-wing social revolutionaries were disoriented and marginalized. They were ready to tag along anywhere. And tag along they did, with identity and cultural politics. The fundamental contradiction between labour and capital was put aside.
The unions and students, you ask?
For those of you who may remember, during the May ’68 strikes that paralyzed France, workers with spanners in their hands came to the barricades in large numbers. The workers of Renault and other auto manufacturers, along with steel workers and their unions came with large banners and stood with the students. It is symbolic that they had their spanners in their hands, because the technology then necessitated that a spanner or a bolt-tensioner was an essential tool in the hands of the worker. So, when they struck work, as in a “tool down strike,” they brought things to a halt. In today’s technology, a worker most often does not need a spanner. A robot comes and does the torqueing after the worker has pressed a button or placed parts in a carriage. The knowledge of the worker is embedded in software or firmware. Not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion. It facilitates consistent quality. But from the larger issue point of view, the worker is much more marginalized.
Later on, when “free trade” morphed into “globalization,” the students who had come through a generation of identity and cultural politics in universities began to understand that something was fundamentally wrong. Because factories were closed down, entire city blocks were in a state of abandon, parents no longer had sustainable home economies, tuition fees had skyrocketed and education itself was being made into a class-based privilege rather than a right, household savings had dwindled, and the very real possibility of not going to college was looming – the resistance against free trade and globalization started. In cities across Europe, Turkey, Japan, Chile, Brazil, Seattle and Quebec City, riots against the G7 broke out.
Yes, there were unions in some of the marches, but they did not approach the barricades. Actually, there was very little co-ordination or interest on the part of the unions. Their politics were invariably centred on economistic struggles. Steelworkers’ unions historically were rarely interested in equal opportunity for women, let alone abortion rights. Students and young people did not mobilize around factory gates as they had before when workers were picketing. (In the ’70s and ’80s, there was widespread community support for garment workers’ strikes in England and taxi workers’ mobilization in NY, and a new labour militancy was built. These were industries where exiles and migrants suffered enormous indignity, and the ruthless working conditions and built-in racism of the employers spurred the community to rally around the workers.)
In many respects, the defeat of the US in Vietnam resulted in a lackadaisical Left, forgetting about the political vision of a sustainable society.
So, in this new context of globalization, students and youth had very little preparation for understanding the fundamental contradictions in society. Instead they were quite well-versed on the environment, cultural rights, group consciousness and affiliation on gender issues, sexual preference, solidarity with migrant labour, anti-racist coalitions, anti-war mobilizations, and forms of anti-capitalism that were far removed from the factory gates and more interested in the shatter-potential of attractive glass facades of head offices. Globalization, the Davos cabal, the banking mafia and the origins of the IMF-engineered meltdown led to calls for grassroots democracy and “Arab Springs,” which in turn inspired the Occupy Movement. Once again, workers’ unions were not really present. The economy had also evolved from a manufacturing-driven economy to a service/leisure/knowledge-driven economy. The most intense presence, if any, came from health workers’ unions and other service-oriented industries like hotel, transportation and postal workers. The traditional unions lent their names but had little presence. Basically they became politically listless.
Sustenance is a demand for just payback for the value created at the point of work, and the right to survival and leisure.
So, the pacifists and anti-war activists went back to their tombs of despair – the universities – and taught an eclectic mix of subjects, vaguely pointing to the evil system we all inhabited. Everyone was fed up with foreign wars, and the embryonic Right was born out of the insults and defeat in Vietnam. In many respects, the defeat of the US in Vietnam resulted in a lackadaisical Left, forgetting about the political vision of a sustainable society. Often obscurantist and sometimes valuable affiliations and identities became a sandbox for academic meanderings.
Sustenance is a demand for just payback for the value created at the point of work, and the right to survival and leisure. Leisure is a right. Personal liberation is a right. Freedom! Freedom for an individual of discrete physical and intellectual contours and dimensions in a co-operative society is a right. Free association is a right. Sustenance is not debatable.
[ii] House Un-American Activities Committee – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_Un-American_Activities_Committee
[iii] See the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development website: http://www.oecd.org/site/progresskorea/44109779.pdf