Monday, May 30, 2005

Springtime in Paris

Writes John Vinocur in the International Heral Tribune: "The EU can go nowhere, in its current phase, without the regenerated support of its voters, or a deep re-examination of its ambitions, largely pushed forward by elites - and ridiculously out of touch, we now know, with the electorate of its quintessential nation."

The proposed European Constitution, rejected by the French in a vote over the weekend, is likely to go down in flames as the Dutch and the British vote in the weeks ahead. And though headlines like the one in today's Globe and Mail proclaim that the result is a blow for European unity, the opposite is more likely true.

Because, ultimately, the vote this weekend wasn't about European unity, against which there is no real sentiment. As Kirstin Boomhall writes in the Times, "The French have never repudiated a 'European' cause in the past. That they have done so now demands deep contemplation."

No, it was a vote about what sort of unity Europe would enjoy. And this proposal wasn't the product of a political groundswell of opinion at all; it was, rather, the result of a process we have seen altogether too much of in recent years and one which has been rebuffed by voters every time they get the chance.

The Financial Times, surprisingly, hits closest to the mark: "What the debates in France and the Netherlands have demonstrated is a great desire among ordinary voters to have a real say on the future of the EU. They have not been properly consulted for far too long. The wrong reaction would be for EU leaders to retreat once more behind closed doors, call off the political process and try to save the parts of the treaty they like best in a constitutional fudge."

Though it will no doubt be depicted as something else in the world press, what voters in France rejected was the sort of thinking that produced the Lisbon agenda, a framework for economic development that, as Vinocur says, "a blueprint for Europe's economic conversion from statism to an openness that could challenge the United States."

The problem for framers of the European constitution is that Europeans - and most people, when they get the chance to say so - don't want to convert from the rights and freedoms inherent in what Vinocur calls 'statism' to the repression and corruption inherent in what Vinocur calls 'openness'.

The Independent editorializes: "They (the French voters) wanted a document that would be more 'left', more socialist, and a more explicit defence of workers' rights than the one they had before them. They dismissed the advice of those, such as their president, who insisted, rightly, that in these respects the treaty was no different from the documents to which France - and the other EU members - were already bound."

Had I been a voter in France, I too would have voted against the proposed constitution. I know this because, in very similar circumstances, in Canada, in 1992, I voted against a very similar document, the Charlottetown Accord. Like the European Constitution, the Accord was championed by the politicians, lauded by the press, and had the unequivocal support of business and commerce.

In Canada, as in Europe, we were promised that the Accord would lead to a new and distinctively Canadian confederation. And as in Canada, "many voters suspected exactly the opposite: that it would be used by faceless technocrats as a vehicle for bringing in the American free-market model. 'If you look at every sentence, every turn of phrase, practically every article has a mention of markets,' Anne-Marie Latremoliere, a 57-year-old graphic designer, said after casting a 'no' ballot. 'We want Europe to be a beautiful place,' she said, 'and this is certainly not it.'"

Some pundits are calling the French win, as they called the Canadian vote, an expression of the "rage of the disgruntled." The French press can scarcely contain itself, Le Monde calling the result "a masterpiece of masochism..." and le Figaro saying "everything is turned upside down." But in Europe, as was the case in Canada, some balance has been restored.

What needs to be understood - and understood clearly - is that the French vote is not an aberration, not, in fact, an unusual result, but a continuation of a sentiment expressed by the public at every opportunity. It is the same sentiment expressed by protesters during the famous pepper spray incident at APEC in Vancouver in 1997, the Battle of Seattle in 1999, Genoa in 2001, and the ultimate failure of the WTO talks in Mexico in 2003.

How this resonates: "Good news from France, above all for workers and popular classes. The 'no' of the referendum was not a 'no' to Europe, but to this treaty which re-proposes the Maastricht model in part, without the possibility of expansive economic politics and common social politics, and in part European institutions lacking democratic basis," said the deputy speaker of the [Italian] Senate, Cesare Salvi. "The French referendum campaign, long and enthusiastic, saw a socialist and Left 'no' as the winner."

What, it seems to me, is happening is that people are beginning to grasp that the basic structures of our countries' governments and our world's government are fundamentally undemocratic.

We see where this is overtly so in places such as Ukraine and Georgia massive uprisings and overturning of rigged election results, a manifestation of a democratic will fostered, not by the supposed champions of democracy (who prefer to invade and impose some sort of Darwinian capitalism) but through the gentle and grassroots funding by people like George Soros.

We see where this is less conspicuously so, in the courtrooms and college campuses where the battle against punitive legislation such as the World Intellectual Property Organization treaties and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is being taken to the street through guerilla filesharing tactics, underground networks, activism and protest. Everywhere, it seems, that you look, the same issues arise, the same factions are aligned - the battle to create community wireless networks, the battle to unionize Walmart, the battle to preserve forests, the battle to feed children instead of bankers, the battle to end child labour... the list goes on and on.

Treaties like WTO, WIPO, Charlottetown, and the proposed European Constitution would put the corporations in power, the corporations who, at every turn, are trying to privatize, monetize and own our lands, our homes, our resources, our ideas, even (through today's corporate religion) our very souls. These are the people the treaties crafted in unelected boardrooms and private conferences would put into power.

And let's be very clear. These people are not democrats; indeed, at every turn they try to evade the will of the people. Witness the machinations Europeans were witness to this past year as at every twist and turn the legislation that would not die - European software patents - came back to life over and over again, appearing even, at one point, as part of fisheries legislation. At every turn, they favour closed door meetings to which the public - or even representatives of the public - are most definitely not invited.

When we read about agreements like NAFTA and WTO we hear about free and open trade. And when we read about WIPO we hear about fostering creativity and progress. But the opposite is true. In the name of fostering markets, these agreements limit the right of the people - as expressed through their governments - to do things like provide social services, enforce environmental regulations and protect human rights. Moreover, they provide corporations, in the form of actual or threatened lawsuits, the power of veto over such legislation, based on the principle that a loss of actual or potential profit must be compensated.

These agreements, in short, are massive abrogations of government powers to a corporate culture that is unrepresentative, undemocratic, and in its worst moments, repressive and dictatorial. It is a final cessation of power to a corporate culture that can already buy most of the legislation it wants, exercises almost unrestrained control over the media, and which is to dominant social and economic force of our time.

And they wanted the French voters to hand control over to these people?

I have said this before: a society cannot be considered to be democratic unless its institutions are democratic. And as our society moves more and more of its public good into ownership and governance in private hands, its institutions are becoming less and less democratic. The legal and economic frameworks being designed to implement this are, at every turn, being rejected by the voters. And yet still they press ahead, evidence not only of the sort of non-democracy we live in today but of the sort of soft totalitarianism we may expect in the future.

Against this stands only a smattering of activists: of long smeared and discredited trade unionists, of criminalized and vilified file sharers, of branded communist proponents of community networks, of vilified environmental activists, of inprisoned and silenced human rights activists, of unruly and unkempt anti-WTO and anti-war demonstrators, of patent-busting open source authors, of criminal tresspassers, guerilla gardeners, cryptologists, hackers and phreakers.

And today, the people of France.

There is and will be a new day dawning, a springtime in Paris, where the green hills ring with the sound of a free people. There is, and will be. Because, given even half a chance, the people will rise up, and make it so.

Saturday, May 28, 2005


David Wiley struggles with these words from Teemu, "The aim of reaching everyone is immoral. It seems to be a project of expanding the banking concept of education where “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.”

The crux of the matter: "Envisioning true help as a one way power relation and 'deposit' mechanism seems wrong to me."


There are three ways 'help' can become immoral:

- By attaching conditions to help. "I will help you, but you have to..." changes the 'help' relation to something else. Donors of help often ask for recognition, preferential treatment, payment in kind, or some such thing. This is no longer 'help' per se; it is a commercial transaction imposed under conditions of duress.

- By imposing help. Even if the help is genuine, the imposition of help creates or reveals an imbalance of power between the helper and the recipient. By imposing help, one is being clear that he could impose other measures as well - payment, performance or whatever. Imposed help is a sort of commercial transaction in which the possibility of payment is deferred. (p.s. forced piano lessons are not 'help' no matter how helpful they are).

- By creating the need for help. I suspect this concept lies behind the 'banking' argument. The need for help in the developing world arises as a result of the hoarding of wealth and resources by the wealthier world, and even the extraction of wealth and resources from the poor communities to the benefit of wealthy communities. The reason we need to 'provide' an education to such nations is that the conditions that would have otherwise enabled an education have been blocked by prior actions. What ought to happen, it would be argued, is that instead of a sort of 'help' being provided, rather, a 'repayment' for the hinderance we have already caused ought to be provided.

Frankly, I believe that much 'help' we provide the poor, either in our own countries or in developing countries, falls under one of these three categories. I met with someone in Nova Scotia recently who, through the best of intentions, is providing computer access and training to people on welfare in the United States. But in order to qualify for this help, the recipient must satisfy certain conditions - taking a course in computing, for example. At this point is ceases to be 'help' - it becomes a commercial transaction whereby one person is using his position of economic advantage to steer the development of another into a certain direction.

Foreigh aid routinely violates at least one of these conditions. Most aid programs, for example, require that the materials purchased for the provision of aid be purchased from the donot nation. Moreover, such aid very often carries significant obligations on the part of the recipient (these days, the obligation is to 'respect human rights', to 'promote democracy' or to 'fight terrorism'). No matter how beneficial the obligations, it is no longer 'help' but rather a commercial transaction - even if the donors don't see it that way (the recipients certainly do, though, which is why they express rather less gratitude than you might thing (just as you are somewhat less than effusive in your thanks to a grocery store clerk)).

To take another snippet from the post: "It has been my experience (both in everyday life and in multi-year service opportunities overseas) that the one who 'gives help' always receives greatly in return, and the one who 'receives help' always gives greatly in return." This may be true - it probably is true, and forms the heart and core of Taoism, but if this is the expectation and motivation for undertaking to help someone, then what is provided is not 'help' properly so called but rather an vendor-initiated transaction with deferred terms and conditions.
So what is help? 'Help' - properly so-called - is aid given, at the request or initiation of the recipient, without conditions or expectations of future gains, and where the helper is not the cause of the conditions necessitating help in the first place.

You find a wallet. You pick it up and return it to the person. This is 'help' if and only if:

- the person actually wants the wallet back,
- there is no expectation of reward for your honesty, and
- you didn't steal the wallet in the first place.

Finally, help in the instructional context. What would qualify as help?

- we make the materials and services for an education available for use by people who need it, but with no requirement that they do, and no expressions of anger or disappointment if they don't

- these materials and services are offered without conditions - we don't ask for recognition, money, links, thanks, or any other sort of recompense (this is not as easy as you think - people who support causes you genuinely detest will take advantage of your help, but it ceases being help the moment you restrict usage of your help to the 'good' people)

- these materials and services are genuinely new and cretaive enterprises, that is, they go over and above mere recompense for the wealth you have gained as a result of the exploitation of the developing world or the poor in your own country. What this, in practise, means, is that your help continues to be available even after they become as rich (or as well educated) as you are; there is not a condition of 'need' attached to your help. Help does not submit to a means test.
David is right. There is a great need for help in the world. What saddens me is that, despite so many ostentations pretensions of the offering of help, there is so very little genuine help in the world. Everybody, it seems, has an angle.

And it is that, I think, that Teemu was flagging - and while my advice would be most certainly not to take it personally, I think that his words serve as a healthy reminder how difficult genuinely moral behaviour can be.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Failing to Connect

Lawrence lessig writes of a talk he gave in South Africa promoting Creative Commons. he writes:

there was a general view at the conference that this was wrong. That we hurt developing nations, for example, if we give them knowledge for free. They should have to pay for the truths we create. It weakens them, the argument went, if they can just take what we have discovered. Better to encourage their industry of science than to destroy it by simply spreading the truths that science here has created...

the extremist from the CR economy sees what they've done as good, and assume more of a good thing is better. It's not. And it is demonstrably true that it's not. And as is my way, I will now spend weeks of regret for so totally failing to find a way to make that completely pedestrian point clear.
I replied to Lessig as follows:

I don't hink that the point you were trying to make is pedestrian. And while I doubt that your talk was a failure, I think that the point you were making was less obvious than you perceive.

After all, it has its analogies in the world of the production of physical goods. There are three models here as well:

- ER - you buy something, you pay for it

- CR - the government buys things, compensates producers, and provides them to consumers for free

- FR - you receive foreign aid

One of the significant problems with a developing economy is that there isn't a lot of money. This weakens the utility of CR, because the government doesn't have enough money to compensate producers, and hence, you get an economy of poorly compensated and hence poorly produced goods. CR assumes a certain level of prior wealth, which for developing countries and for all practical purposes leaves the choice as between ER and FR.

Now it is frequently argued that in developing countries, except in emergency situations, the net effect of foreign aid is to hinder development of a local economy. The dumping of free food on a nation, for example, prices food below the level of sustinance for local farmers, in effect killing the local farming industry. After the Tsunami, for example, it was common for governments to refuse certain types of aid for precisely this reason.

That leaves ER as the only means for a developing nation to generate any level of internal wealth, and so, it is not surprising that this was the option favoured.

I don't think it's a straightforward thing to argue against this line of reasoning. Starting from the basic presumptions that (a) professors want to make a good living, and (b) their governments don't have enough money to pay them well, it seems a bit much to expect them to cheerfully contribute their production for free, nor either to welcome the importation of free and competitive product from wealthy nations.

My response has two parts.

The first part is that the argument thus far has been told from the point of view of the producer. This something I commonly encounter when speaking to university audiences. Producer audiences take producer perspectives. But the primary beneficiaries of non-ER forms of distribution are consumers. So I try to be clear that my intent is to address the needs of consumers. And that CR and even FR are of great benefit to consumers, so much so that they become almost inevitable, and that the road producers need to travel with me is an exploration of how to preserve the interests of producers in a consumer oriented economy.

It is at this point I advocate for something like a CR model. And while I agree that governments of developing nations cannot afford to pay for CR distribution, I argue that it is clear that more wealthy nations can pay this amount, and that therefore the direction we should take is to ensure that producers in developing nations are able to share in the paymen ts made by wealthy nations to producers.

This, indeed, addresses the same problem with FR. If foreign aid were composed of aid purchased from local economies by rich nations and distributed to the poor, it would have no negative impact on the local economy; indeed, by stimulating demand an d an infusion of capital into the local economy, it would have a positive effect.

Had I been in a similar situation - and with benefit of your experience (for I confess I would have taken a line very much like the one you did) I would argue for FR and CR economies on the basis of their potential to generate payments for production of goods for which there is no local demand (because of cost, not need), and where local distribution isw thereby enabled. In other words, you get to sell your product to an export market and keep it locally.

Interestingly, though, in order for this to happen, the greatest changes need to take place, not in developing nations, but in developed nations. A characteristic of many foreign aid programs is that the materials purchased to provide foreign aid are purchased from the donor country. It is necessary, in order to ensure a worldwide distribution of revenue, to spread these pruchases around, to ensure that content creators in less wealthy nations are paid through programs funded by wealthy nations.

I have no illusion that this short ourline is a complete answer. But it does give me a frame for any remarks I would ever make in such a context. I would not say something along the lines of, "Here's what you should do..." Rather, I would say, "Here's what I think my country should do, and the steps I am taking at hoime to ensure that this happens." I suspect that if I told such an audience I am trying to develop a market for their production, I would receive a much warmer reception.

But, of course, this - like all predictions - is subject to empirical verification.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Not Fallen

The conservative blogosphere - Amereican and Canadian - is making a big deal over a motion passed last night that they claim is a vote of non-confidence in the government. Here, here, here, here, here , here , and here - looks like the marching orders got out to the attack swarm without a hitch.

This is, of course, patent nonsense. The vote was a recommendation to a committee that it call on the government to resign. Not that you'd know this by reading any of the conservative blogs.

I don't know what points they think they are gaining by spreading this sort of lie and misrepresentation. It's not like a confidence motion won't take place - it will take place, either on the budget vote (exected soon) or during one of the opposition days (also expected soon).

Where the truth lies, of course, is that the Conservative Party, in an alliance with the separatist Bloc Quebecois, wants to defeat the government without actually taking responsibility for it. They want to be able to turn around and say, but we didn't really force the government to resign.

Why? Because they don't want to face the electorate having defeated what was generally a popular budget. They don't want to explain why they rejected funding for the militrary, rejected diverting the gas tax to municipalities, rejected the royalty agreement with Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, rejected the money set aside to meet our Kyoto obligations.

They also don't want to have to explain why they forced an election only a year after the last one, why they forced an election when a clear majority of Canadians have said they don't want one, why they forced an election mere months after having said they would support the government on - yes - the budget.

Of course, none of this matters to the Conservatives. Only one thing does - after some bruising testimony at the Gomery commission, the Conservatives have made some gains in the polls, which leads them to think that, if an election were held now, they might win. In other words, the Conservatives' political game plan has nothing to do with what's good for Canada, it is pure and blatant opportunism.

Yes, Paul Martin should hold a budget vote now. Put it to the test and hold the Conservatives accountable. Now.

And the Conservatives and the conservative blogosphere should try being honest. If they can.

p.s. Given the interest the American right has shown in our coming election, one expects that they will hold their wailing to a dull roar when some foreign publication - like, say, the Guardian - tries to sway voters in the next presidential election.

The Value of Work

Someone wrote in DEOS just the other day, "Is a terrible, boring, mind-numbing job better than unemployment, or not? Will the society/economy accomodate the thing called "intelligence" or will it only accomodate some people's intelligence?"

We have all, of course, heard the official answer to this sort of question. It is always better to work. Work gives you dignity. Work helps the economy. Work means that you are not merely a parasite living off the work that others do. If you think certain jobs are "beneath" you, then you not only display your own ignorance, you also demean the people already working in those jobs.

And let's face it. If you don't work, then your quality of life will be even worse than when working at one of those jobs. I have spent time on unemployment, and even a summer on welfare, when I broke my wrist. Trust me, living on $400 a month - which is about what I got when I worked at 7-Eleven - is infinitely better than living on the $86 a month I got from welfare. Our institutions are set up to discourage people from living on welfare, and they do a very good job - only the desperately needy or the doggedly unemployed are on welfare.

Goodness knows, I was happy enough to get the 7-Eleven job in the summer of 1982. The oil boom in Alberta had just collapsed, I had taken one year of university classes, I had no money and no prospects of getting money, and something, anything, was better than nothing. And I stuck with 7-Eleven through to the end of the summer of 1984, working full time in the summer and on vacations, pulling the night shift weekends during the school year. After all, 7-Eleven was just the latest in a series of such jobs I had held (leading to an employment history sufficiently varied to warrant a timeline just to keep track).

Working at the store was sometimes pretty busy, but at three o'clock Sunday morning there is plenty of time while stocking shelves to ponder one's role in the larger economy. One thing I knew for sure: I wouldn't be working there if I didn't have to. I had much better things to do at that time of the day, not the least of which was to sleep. It's hard to say that working at the 7-Eleven hurt my GPA (spending 20 hours a week in the student newspaper office probably played a role). But it didn't help.

And I have wondered ever since those days why it is that we have structured society in such a way as to ensure that many people suffer considerable hardship if they don't work in such positions, and that many more suffer considerably more hardship because they cannot work.

For after all, let's think for a moment about just what it is that companies like 7-Eleven, McDonalds, and their ilk, contribute to the economy. Oh, no doubt, we could point to them and say they employ x number of people, that they have corporate earnings of such-and-such, that they contribute so many millions of dollars to the gross domestic product. But these indicators show us nothing other than the fact that they are money mills: money goes in, money goes out. But what do they produce?

Because, after all, the strength of an economy is not in how much money flows through it. Measures of the flow of money are meaningless when it comes to determining whether or not a society is actually wealthy. The strength of an economy is measured, minimally, by what it produces - that is, what food it raises from the ground, what minerals it mines, what wood it hews from the forests, what power is produced in its plants, what amount of finished products is produced in its factories, what innovation is produced by its researchers, what cultural and other artifacts are produced by its artists.

And, indeed, even the measure of production is a misleading indicator, because there is a great deal of production that produces no wealth whatsoever. My favorite example is, of course, the pet rock, which would no doubt have been included in the manufacturing statistics, not to mention the GDP, but which consisted entirely of empty production. And it is not hard to look around and find numerous other products of dubious or negligible utility. The wonder of it is that they gain any market at all, and of course they would not, were it not for that other engine of empty production, the marketing and advertising industry.

The fact is, we produce much more than we need, and once the market for things that we need has become saturated, we produce things we don't need. The production of things we don't need generates jobs - and we need jobs, remember, because otherwise people would starve - and in order to ensure the constant purchase of things we don't need we also produce the means, through marketing and advertisement, of persuading people that they do need these things. And we count this ever-mounting spiral as something called 'progress', and as the GDP numbers march steadily higher, we say the economy is getting better.

Adbusters, of course, has been running with a campaign over the course of the last few years centered around the theme, Is economic progress killing the planet? because, after all, when you use more and more resources to produce things you don't need, you place an increasing strain on the carrying capacity of the environment, and if economic progress is not measured in relation to this carrying capacity (and, arguably, it's not), then the more you 'progress', the poorer you become.

And I think that's a good point, and if Adbusters can ever get its commercials on the air (they have, of course, been blocked in their efforts to advertise things like Buy Nothing Day, it being bad for the economy and all), I'll support them. But I think there's a deeper point here, one we don't often consider, and that's the enormous waste of what might be (wrongly) called 'human resources' as well. Because the main thing that occurred to me as I stocked shelves at a 7-Eleven is that I was not feeding the hungrey, I was not educating the illiterate, I was not housing the homeless - I was not, in other words, producing anything of value to our society whatsoever.

And if you accept this, I realized, then it follows that I was as much of a drain on society as I would be were I unemployed. And if I am a drain on society, I asked myself, then why am I spending my nights at 7-Eleven? One way or another, my useless non-production had to be supported, which meant taking some amount of money (a pittance) out of the national wealth, and giving it to me. And it seemed to me that, for the same contribution to society (ie., none), I could be making myself better, rather than making someone else richer. But I wasn't, and moreover, if I tried, I would be forced to starve.

In 1982, the Canadian government launched a study into economic reform in Canada. The resulting report, the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, was better known as the MacDonald Commission report. This report is most famous for recommending a free trade agreement with the United States, an agreement that was eventually signed and with morphed into today's NAFTA.

But the report also recommended that, in order to address poverty (more than a little of which would be caused by free trade), Canada establish a Universal Income Security Program (UISP). What such a programj would be, in essence, is a guaranteed income program. "The gains at lower earnings levels would have been... unprecedented in size; the Commission cited gains of $5,000 to $7,000 among families with earned incomes in the $8,000 to $10,000 range." In other words, it would have changed the equation. We would no longer be faced with the choice between meaningless work (where work was to be had) or starvation.

I will leave the topic of free trade to another day, save to observe briefly that I am in general supportive of free trade, which is not the same as being supportive of NAFTA or the WTO. For the present moment, I am more concerned with the part of the MacDonald Commission report that we did not get, a guaranteed income.

Why didn't we get it? Well, as the report I cite above argues, a major concern was that a guaranteed income would have raised taxes. Another concern was that it would redistribute wealth, "raising questions about its political feasibility." And while it is argued that the report did have an impact on subsequent social program development, things like child poverty and education funding remain problems in this country to this day. And people still flip burgers at McDonalds and give out change for overpriced trinkets at 7-Eleven.

In other words, the analysis suggests that we could not afford anything like a guaranteed income, that it would cost too much to support every person in the country. But this is ridiculous. We could easily afford it; we have the productive capacity to do it. We already produce far more than we need. What we do not have is an economic system that would support such a fundamental change in society.

Because, after all, the day people realized that the would receive a living wage for doing nothing, a significant number of them would immediately quit their jobs. It is likely that every fast food chain and convenience store in the country would close shortly after such a program; they could not offer a wage high enough to entire people out of their now comfortable retirement. Numerous other industries would be similarly affected. There would be an immediate and severe labour shortage.

But, remarkably, we would survive. Because we do not need McDonalds or 7-Eleven in order to get by. Indeed, most of the work performed by people earning a minimum wage is not, in a strict sense, needed. So those jobs would disappear. The remaining jobs, those that are essential, would suddenly begin to pay more, in order to attract people to them. And it would suddenly make more sense to ensure that they are properly equipped and supported so they can do their work efficiently. The nature of janitorial services would change almost overnight, for example.

The thing is - when you give everyone a living wage, you can no longer force them to work, but you can entice them to work, by giving them sufficient incentive. Because the cost of work has increased, you ensure that people who do work that is valuable are paid what its worth, while you give people who were doing work that was valueless their time back, to do with it what they will.

Now the real boogeyman of a guaranteed income raises its head: "What," some people will ask, "if those people do nothing? What would their incentive be?" Well - horror of horrors. Some people might do nothing. But there is no reason to believe that most people would do nothing. No reason to believe it at all. Because, in the main, people do not require an incentive to lead happy and productive lives. They need an incentive only if they are to be forced into near slave-labour.

We would, for example, expect a proliferation of the arts. Enough people live today at less-than-starvation wages in order to be able to write, paint, sing, act and perform any manner of cultural pursuit; with guaranteed income even more of them would do so. We would expect a proliferation of scholars and philosophers: with the requirement to work no longer driving people into cookie-cutter training programs, people would pursue their own aptitudes and interests. We would see many, many more restored cars, hand-crafted furniture, four-table restaurants, home gardens and home restorations, as people engaged in the sort of creation and building that interests them.

We would, ultimately, see a wealthier society. It would consume less, but what it consumed would be better. We would see much greater emphasis on production efficiencies, as the labour surplus currently existing would no longer pose a barrier to technological innovation. And we would see a happier society as no person would ever need to live in fear of economic ruin or starvation. There would be a much greater sense that we're all in this together, a much greater willingness to cooperate and share, a much stronger sense of family and community.

You know, it is amazing how much your life brightens when the Sword of Damocles is taken away. And it is amazing how much harder you work, how much more productive you become, when you are working for yourself, producing something of value, than when you are working for some faceless Other, producing nothing of substance.

Monday, May 09, 2005


Sixty years is a long time, more than a lifetime for many people. Sixty years is how long ago the Second World War in Europe ended, sixty years after six years of difficult and often brutal warfare.

Fourteen years is a much shorter span of time, and it is the space between the end of the war and the year of my birth. When I was young the span seemed infinite, but now, at the sixty year mark, the converse seems true, and I realize how closely my own history is tied to the history of that conflict. After fourteen years, the memories were still fresh, the wounds still open.

When I was the age of sixteen, I went on a high school trip to England and Scotland (my next overseas trip would be in 2001, to Australia). I remember seeing bombing damage from the war, somewhat overgrown but still there (it was pointed out to us). I remember visiting the Cathedral at Coventry and thinking that the ruins, still fresh, seemed like ancient history. Last year, when I visited Vienna, I could see the new 60s style buildings that had replaced bombed-out apartments. And just this year I visited Palermo and could see for myself the gaping holes that remain in the city. Even after all these years.

In a column commemorating the end of the war, Canadian author Gwynne Dyer took pains to point out that the Second World War wasn't anything like the second such conflict. The Thirty Years War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years War, and the Napoleonic Wars all qualify as world wars, in the sense that they took their conflicts to the four corners of the Earth. Canada's history has been written in such wars, from the fall of Quebec to the expulsion of the Acadians to our first major victory, at Vimy Ridge. Go to Australia and you will see the same history written, albeit through Australian eyes.

Dyer makes the point, well takem, that such conflicts not only occurred on a regular basis (approximately once a lifetime) but also that they have the same essential structure: that the balance of power between two alliances of major powers collapsed, and that therefore the alliances that had preserved the peace made a total conflict inevitable. What characterizes all of the wars listed above is that all of the great powers were involved. What also characterizes them, as Dyer notes, was the widespread descriuction and loss of life on inhuman scales.

In another column over the weekend I read about the need not to forget the lessons of the war. The lessons, not surprisingly, centered around Adolph Hitler, and the fear expressed by the author is that as living memory of the man fades, he will become an artificial figure, something no more than Julius Caesar or Napoleon. One of our months is named after the former, and the memory of the latter is today celebrated in his home country, and the danger is that Hitler, too, may be regarded in this light, as something less than pure evil.

If this is the lesson - that Hitler was evil - that is to be remembered from the Second World War, then it is the wrong lesson. It's not that Hitler wasn't evil; the man whose name is today synonymous with evil certainly qualifies under any definition of the term. No, the mistake lies in fostering the belief that Hitler was somehow unique, that he stands alone as a personification of evil. But even using Hitler's own behaviour as a standard, he is far from alone. The lesson to be learned, and what is most distressing, is that Hitler's brand of evil is appallingly common. Common enough, we should add, to ensure a regular succession of wars. Including, once a lifetime or so, a world war.

Indeed, in the span of years since the fall of Hitler there has been no shortage of leaders determined to emulate the quality, if not the scale, of Hitler's dark side. Stalin certainly qualifies. Mao, in his Cultural Revolution days, qualifies. Idi Amin, who single-handedly depopulated Uganda, qualifies. Pol Pot qualifies. The twentieth century saw no shortage of bloody dictators bent on terror, genocide (or as we call it these days, ethnic cleansing), murder and massacre. What distinguishes Hitler from this mob is not his own peculiar brand of evil, but that he was able to leverage it into a conflict between the great powers.

Even moving outside the realm of world leaders, we can see such evil instantiated. One wonders, for example, what Charles Manson would have done given control of a world power. Or Ed Gein. Or Osama bin Laden. Or Timothy McVeigh. Or any of the hundreds other, thousands other, some of whome have been caught and imprisoned, others of whom continue to roam the streets. Or some of those who have not manifest their evil but have stood within a whisper of power and therefore, the capability to unleash their will on the world.

What we should have learned, but manifestly did not, is that war is no longer an effective means of solving disputes between the great powers. We should have learned, but manifestly did not, that the cost of war, even in victory, far outweighs the rewards. Look, even, at the recent conflict in Iraq, where the most heavily armed nation in history took on an essentially unarmed nation and occupied the country in the space of a few days. The cost of the war, in the hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of American war dead, illustrate clearly that any conflict against a significant foe would be devastating to both victor and vanquished.

What sets the pieces in motion, what makes it possible for a world war to break out, is the calculation by one side or another that a war will solve the problems of the day, whether foreign or domestic. This mood well entrenched in the population, it then becomes only a matter of time before someone more closely aligned with evil than with good tips the scale and pushes us over the brink. The cause of wars is and always will be the belief that wars can be successful.

As Dyer notes, in the horrified aftermath of the Second World War world leaders realized that the next war would be even more devastating, and they swallowed their significant distaste for each other long enough to set up an institution that essentially outlawed wars. Not that it prevented wars; far from it. But the institution represented the collective statement that no country would be allowed to profit from a war, that the territorial and other gains so common in previous wars would not be allowed to stand.

The United Nations has failed in so many areas but in this at least it has been successful. The North Korean attempt to invade the south was repulsed. The Indonesian conquest of East Timor was never recognized and eventually repealed. The Israeli conquests of the Six Day War were never entrenched in law and have been slowly rolled back. China's occupation of Tibet is regarded, even fifty years later, as just that. South Africa was not permitted to maintain a permanent hold over Namibia.

There are certainly good reasons to argue about the failures of the United Nations. About the aforementioned Idi Amin, it did nothing. The Nigerian war against Biafra evoked commentary, but nothing more. About the slaughters a generation later in neighbouring Rwanda, it did far too little, far too late. The ethnic cleansings undertaken in Bosnia and Kosovo it just watched.

But what it did do is keep alive the lesson of the Second World War. Not merely the lesson that Hitler was evil, but that war itself is evil. That war itself is worse than any problem that might lead us into a war. That even apparently 'successful' wars, in the long run, cost us far more than we could ever hope to gain.

Right now, that dark side of humanity is riding high. It is a side that believes that, through the showering of a nation with bombs and with the exercise of military might, there can be successes. Iraq is a model, we are told. It shows that military force can be used to remove an evil and to instill the values of the victor (in this case, ostensively freedom and democracy) and to vanquish those that would stand in its way. That the resistance continues years later is viewed as a triviality. That the war pushed the alignment of great powers into a stand-off mode matters little. Nor is any note taken of the suggestion that other conflicts - such as, say, an invasion of Taiwan - could be successful.

Nor either are the costs being faily calculated. War pushes the boundaries; it allows us to regard as less evil that which in peacetime we would condemn outright. A nuclear-armed dictatorship in an untable region would normally be viewed as a threat in its own right, but Mussarif's Pakistan is instead courted as an ally. In peacetime a republic that tortured and killed its own people would be shunned, but in the current war it is showered with foreign aid. It is easy to slide down this path, isn't it, to slide down that thin line that separates those who fight evil with those who are evil.

It would today take very little to push us over the edge. It would, indeed, take nothing more than one evil person in one position of power. And whether that person is based in Washington of Beijing or Islamabad is increasingly a matter of chance. No, Bush - today's Bush, at least - isn't that man. He, like the architects of the other great powers, is merely setting the stage, putting into place out collecting unconsciousness, erasing the memory of the horrors of war, dismantling the institutions designed to prevent its eruption.

From time to time as I live my life in this interlude between the great wars I venture into a longstanding Canadian institution, the Canadian Legion. It is usually filled with old guys, their numbers decreasing with the years, so much so that they are staging membership drives in order to stay afloat. Pictures of bombers and battleships adorn the walls and the veterans sit around and play bingo and darts, drinking a glass of draft and complaining about the government.

Legions vary from region to region. The membership is different, the buildings are different, the atmosphere is different. Some have managed to make the transition to modernity, and as Canadian peacekeepers are experienced and decorated there is here and there a new youthfull membership is emerging. But what strikes one about the Legions is not how they differ but in how they are the same. In how they each bear portraits of the Queen and Prince Charles. In how each demands respect for the men and women who fought. In how each is decorated with the battle flags and insignia of the Canadian Forces. And in how each one, somewhere on the wall, usually near the entrance, place in a location nobody can avoid, the single two word slogan:

Never again.

I sometimes wonder whether we are capable of learning, whether we are capable of breaking out of this cycle of conflict that has wracked our civilization once a lifetime, whether we are capable of genuine peace. Not because I wonder whether evil can ever, finally, be eliminated, because I am not sure that it can. But because I wonder whether, somehow, we could ever manage to ensure that eveil cannot gain power, and even if it does gain power, cannot drive us over the brink. And I'm not so sure we can.

Because people forget. People forget about what Austria and Germany were before the most recent cycle of wars - they forget that these were not only centers of culture and learning, pinnacles of civilization, but also stable constitutional monarchies with more or less civilian governments, more or less democratic institutions, thoroughly modern nations in all respects, the envy of the world, the center of power and of commerce.

Nietzsche, writing at the height of this society, recalls a similar age: "Socrates guessed even more. He saw through the noble Athenians; he saw that his own case, his idiosyncrasy, was no longer exceptional. The same kind of degeneration was quietly developing everywhere: old Athens was coming to an end. And Socrates understood that the world needed him--his method, his cure, his personal artifice of self-preservation. Everywhere the instincts were in anarchy, everywhere one was within sight of excess: monstrum in animo was the common danger."

"The impulses want to play the tyrant," wrote Socrates, and we, today, see no shortage of the manifestations of such impulses. And if even Socrates could not save the Athenian people, and if even Nietzsche could not save the German people, who am I?

Memory is so short; it lasts only a human lifetime.