Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Thanks Rob Ford: For Putting Toronto in touch with its Inner Detroit

Thanks to Rob, we’re an internal combustion city again, a city of the Great Lakes, up there with Buffalo and Cleveland, humming on the wheels of motor town, twinned with Detroit, our inner Detroit.

Thanks to Rob, we’ve abandoned our Amsterdam cycling perversion.

Thanks to Rob, from coast to coast to coast, let the word go forth that we have no elitist culture in this big town of banks. You’ve done more for national unity by taking away any reason for Canadians to hate us than the National Ballet of Canada ever could.

Thanks to Rob, we don’t have to aspire to the dreams of Jane Jacobs, let alone those of David Crombie, and John Sewell.

Transit City’s burning, thanks to Rob.

Thank you Rob, for easing the pressure on us to be Alphaville. Best of the Betas, an Indytown is who we are.

Long live the Gardiner Expressway, Toronto’s carbon emission belt, belt that keeps us chaste from water, cafes, theatre, and learning. Thanks Rob.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Harper’s Christmas Special: The Myth of How Fortress North America will boost Canadian Exports to the U.S.

Over the past quarter century, it has been a commonplace for right-wing continentalists to insist that without binding agreements between Canada and the United States, Canadian exports will be shut out of the American market.

In the mid 1980s, members of the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney and business lobbyists, who supported free trade with the U.S., insisted that day by day, week by week, rising protectionism in the United States was shutting Canadian goods out of American markets. In truth, only about five per cent of Canadian exports were the subject of trade disputes. More than half of Canadian exports to the U.S. took the form of internal transfers within American owned firms.

With a short list of exceptions, the U.S. government and regional American political heavy weights were not interested in retarding shipments of raw materials, including oil and natural gas, and semi-fabricated products to the United States, mostly by U.S. firms. And Washington did not want to block exports of assembled automobiles and auto parts (overwhelmingly by U.S. companies) to the U.S. Besides, this trade was conducted under the terms of the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact.

The outcome of that critical debate---which big business and the Tories lost----54 per cent of voters opted for the anti-free trade Liberals and New Democrats in the 1988 federal election, while 43 per cent voted for the pro-free trade Conservatives, was the signing of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. With fewer voters but a majority of seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives carried the day.

The treaty to which the Conservatives appended their imprimatur was a puzzler. It stipulated that U.S. firms would be accorded equal treatment in Canada with Canadian firms when it came to subsidies or tax incentives. It further stipulated that Canada was barred from reducing its petroleum exports to the U.S. below the level of a rolling average of exports over the previous three years. And it also barred Canada from establishing a two price system for Canadian petroleum---with a lower price for the Canadian domestic market while Americans were charged the world price.

With the above provisions which made it very difficult for Canada to establish an industrial policy and which gave Washington considerable authority over Canadian energy policy, how did the Mulroney government do on the matter of guaranteeing access for Canadian exports to the U.S. market?

Not well, at all. While the relatively low tariffs between the two countries were quickly removed, both the U.S. and Canada kept their own trade laws. No set of common rules, or code, was agreed on to govern allowable subsidies or tax incentives for companies involved in trans-border trade. While bi-national panels were to be set up to adjudicate trade disputes when they arose, the panels were only empowered to rule on whether each country had correctly applied its own trade laws. Each country was permitted to mount countervailing duties on goods imported from its partner when its authorities concluded that the other party was seeking an undue advantage for itself in a particular sector.

Thus there has been a string of cases in which the U.S. has mounted duties on Canadian exports since the FTA, and its successor NAFTA, went into effect. The most noteworthy of the disputes has involved softwood lumber, but the U.S. has also charged Canadian exporters of baby food, steel, copper pipe and other products with dumping their products into the American market.

Absurdly trade disputes between Canada and the U.S. have continued under so-called free trade. While most trade between the two countries flows freely, it did so before the FTA and NAFTA were implemented. One thing that the “free trade” regime does not guarantee is free trade.

There is a simple, and critically important, reason why despite the huge concessions made by the Mulroney government in negotiating the trade treaties, Canada did not obtain secure access to the U.S. market. The United States is unwilling to pool sovereignty with Canada or Mexico even in the narrowest of ways. The U.S. government, therefore, has never been prepared to replace U.S. trade law with a common North American trade law whose highest court of appeal would be a common North American court, with members drawn from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Pooling sovereignty is the essence of the trade arrangements in the European Union. The Americans were totally unwilling to pool sovereignty with other countries when the FTA and NAFTA were being negotiated. And they remain as implacably unwilling to do so today.

And that takes us to today’s bid by the Harper government to deepen the Canada-U.S. relationship in a so-called Fortress North America deal. Just as Conservatives were prepared to give away the farm in return for nothing a generation ago, they want to do more of the same today. We can call this the Harper government’s Christmas Special. The plan is to negotiate a deal with Washington and to lock it in place over the holidays and in January before the House of Commons resumes sitting.

The Harperites are making the case that the Canada-U.S. border needs to be “thinned” so that the recent dramatic decline in Canadian exports to the U.S. can be reversed.

It is true that Canadian exports dropped dramatically following the economic crash in 2008. Indeed, Canadian exports to the United States plunged by $50 billion in a single year. Why? The Harperites would have us believe that this dramatic and worrying development can be addressed by negotiating a Fortress North America deal with Washington.

In truth, the border became “thicker” in the aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. As a part of its response to the attacks, Washington deployed additional manpower to its Mexican and Canadian frontiers. While crossing times at the Canada-U.S. border grew longer after September 11, Canadian exports climbed steadily in the years prior to 2008.

The steep decline in Canadian exports to the U.S. after the crash had nothing to do with border controls. What the members of the Harper government refuse to face is that the crisis that burst to the surface in 2008 has unleashed a basic shift in the nature of the global economy. The U.S. will not carry the economic weight it has carried in the past. The American share of global economic output is in decline from about 20 per cent of the total to about 15 per cent. While that still makes the United States a considerable player, the centre of gravity of the global economy is shifting to Asia. That’s why Australia’s economy, with its Asian focus, is doing so well while Canada’s is sputtering.

That’s what makes the determination of Stephen Harper and the business lobbyists to tie ourselves even more tightly to the U.S. so maddeningly shortsighted. They are living in the past and are turning their backs resolutely against the future. Indeed, an adamant refusal to face the future is the hallmark of Conservative policies more generally than with respect to Fortress North America.

The Harperites refuse to acknowledge the two crucial realities of our time, peak oil and climate change. Experts across a range of fields, from geology to geo-economics and the U.S. military, say that world petroleum production will peak in the next few years and then will began an inexorable decline. The rise of China, India, Brazil and other countries coincides with peak oil. Their soaring demand for petroleum means that oil prices, with fluctuations along the way, are headed higher. Get ready for gasoline prices of $3.00, then $3.50 and $4.00 a litre. They’re coming.

Along with the destructive fury of climate change, peak oil will compel the reconstruction of the world’s cities. Greater urban density will be the order of the day with suburbs in decline. Public transit will be ascendant with multiple tram lines, also known as LRTs, crisscrossing metropolitan areas. Regional and national transportation systems will be rebuilt with the emphasis on rail---high speed rail in populous regions. Along with the opening of a Rob Ford exhibit in the Royal Ontario’s Museum’s dinosaur collection, there will be a fierce debate about whether to expand or shrink the role of nuclear energy.

Prior to the mid 1920s, Canada did more trade with Europe (principally Britain) than with the United States. There is no “natural” reason why the U.S. should remain Canada’s overwhelmingly dominant trading partner. Great commercial shifts have occurred in the past; they will occur in the future.

The Harper Government’s determination to enclose Canada in an even tighter embrace with the U.S. is as misplaced as was the appetite of Canadian high Tories a century ago to cocoon this country in an Imperial Federation with declining Britain.

And Fortress North America, while useless for Canada, would nonetheless come with a steep price for this country.

To “thin” the border and to “thicken” the common Canada-U.S. border with the rest of the world, Canada will have to harmonize its refugee and immigration policies with those of the United States. While some face saving device on these issues can be found to satisfy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff who has said he would not countenance harmonization, that will be the essential result. Canada will be required to share vital information with the CIA, the FBI, U.S. Homeland Security, and other U.S. intelligence agencies about Canadian citizens and other residents. There is already much information sharing about Canadians with U.S. agencies. Fortress North America will invite American agencies right into the lives of Canadians. The Canada Border Services Agency, and Citizenship and Immigration Canada, will be harmonized into the broader framework of equivalent American agencies. The inter-operability of these agencies will be further extended to draw the Canadian Armed Forces even more fully into an American command structure.

And after all this has been done, how much more rapid will the crossing of the border from Canada to the U.S. become? Not much.

That’s because the Americans are very skittish about security on their borders. It wasn’t long ago that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano repeated the old and untrue yarn about some of the hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks crossing into the U.S. from Canada. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has always been a stern critic of Canadian security and the dangers to the U.S. on its northern border.

There’s another reason why the Obama administration won’t really give much on the matter of border “thinning.” Such thinning would be seen in Mexico, as well as by Latinos in the United States, as undue favouritism on behalf of Canada. As they prepare for the 2012 presidential election, the Democrats will be unwilling to do anything to hurt themselves with Latino voters. It’s a non-starter.

That doesn’t mean that the U.S. won’t be willing to sign onto an arrangement with the Harper government though, proclaiming the achievement of a Fortress North America. It’s just that the deal will be an empty shell as far as Canada and Canadians are concerned.

Like Brian Mulroney before him, Stephen Harper is all too anxious to give away Canadian sovereignty in return for nothing. A photo op and a few pretentious words is all these Conservatives have ever required.

Fortress North America is coming at us much faster than free trade did. The only way we can avert it is to make the political cost too high for Harper.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Guns: What the Proponents of Fortress North America Want You to Forget

The Canadian proponents of Fortress North America want you to think about the prospect of speedier passage across the Canada-U.S. border for goods and people. They propose that we “thin” the border between the two countries and “fatten” it around Canada and the U.S. against the rest of the world.

The proponents are fond of calling up images of the ease of passage for motorists travelling between EU countries such as France and Germany. There, drivers are not required to stop at customs posts when crossing the border.

What the Fortress fanciers don’t tell you is that the governments of European countries that removed border controls spent years assuring themselves in negotiations that they all had similar regulations for hazardous products before they opened their frontiers to one another. They weren’t prepared to open the gates if one country had a more lax regime for hazardous products than the others.

The problem for Canadians is that we live next door to the gun capital of the world. In the U.S., home of the cherished Second Amendment, that gives Americans the right to bear arms, a wide range of handguns and high-powered, rapid-fire weapons, are legal products. Americans possess more than two hundred million guns. In some states such as Virginia, high-powered weapons, that are not legal in Canada, can be purchased with ease at gun shows.

Some U.S. states such as Massachusetts have much tougher gun laws than Virginia and other states from the old Confederacy. But those laws are of little use. Gun owners can just drive into Massachusetts with their weapons in tow. A high proportion of the gun crimes in New York City are committed with weapons brought into the city from Virginia.

Once, to observe the American gun culture up close, I enrolled in a gun-training course offered by Smith and Wesson in Springfield, Massachusetts. Many of the participants in the course were from out of state and they brought their firearms with them.

On the other hand, I’ve seen Canadian Customs officials seize the guns of Americans crossing into Canada. On one occasion at the crossing from Calais, Maine to St. Stephen, New Brunswick, I watched a Canadian official explain to the members of an American family that they’d have to leave their weapon with Customs and then pick it up on their return trip home.

Canada already has a serious gun problem. Over half the guns used in the commission of crimes in Canada have been illegally smuggled into the country from the United States. Most of the weapons smuggled from the U.S. are high-quality, semi-automatic handguns. Smugglers commonly place the guns in hidden compartments in their vehicles when they cross the border. Some duct-tape them to their bodies.

“Thinning” the border would be an invitation to criminals to import many more guns into Canada. Opening the border to the free passage of motorists with no customs stops----EU style---would effectively mean that Virginia’s guns laws would apply in Canada. Today’s Canadian gun problem would become a gun epidemic.

Presumably the attraction of Fortress North America is that crossing the border will be easier and quicker. But easier and quicker border crossings mean more U.S. illegal guns in Canada, the easier the crossing the greater the flow of weapons. That’s axiomatic.

Of course, we could always try to convince Americans to abrogate the Second Amendment and join the civilized world on the matter of guns…..

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

MEET ROBMAN: TORONTO’S MAYOR IS A SUPERHERO

(This is the first in an occasional series on Robman, Toronto’s mayor, who dons a pink cape and flies into combat on behalf of taxpayers.)

On the morning when he takes office, December 1, Toronto’s mayor leaves for work at the crack of dawn. He drives through the streets of the still mostly sleeping city in a non-descript Chevy Van---licence plate Rob Ford---that’s the name he goes by when he appears in the guise of a mild-mannered civilian.

Along with him in the van are one or two other guys----same size, shape and haircut---a reasonable precaution.

Once inside the office, where only a few hours earlier David Miller and his satraps frolicked in the gravy, an assistant hands Rob Ford a one liter bottle that contains a secret potion that has been passed down through generations of Fords since cave dwelling times.

In a single gulp, Ford swallows the concoction, which contains, among other ingredients, sour cream, potatoes, coconut milk, a chip butty, and a double-double of chocolate. Ford sits calmly for a moment. Then a gurgling wells up from within him. Wings sprout, fully feathered from his shoulders, and a pink cape springs down his back.

Standing on his webbed feet, Robman takes flight. He wings three times around the office and lands standing on the desk.

Robman dictates Directive Number 1 to his terrified secretary who mutters, “I thought he was just a nebbish from Etobicoke.”

Robman dictates in clearly enunciated, grammatically immaculate sentences: “Transit City is dead. Shovels in the ground or no shovels in the ground. Bombardier can suck a pickle. As for the workers in Thunder Bay, let them eat Saskatchewan durum number one. “

“It is my insufferable will that no new LRT line shall ever sully the soil of Scarborough.”

“And while we’re at it, I’m cutting the paper clips allowance for all city councilors.”

“There ends Directive number one.”

“But Your Worship,” sputters his secretary “at one stroke of a pen, you’ve thrown away hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of dollars earmarked for Toronto taxpayers by Queen’s Park. Won’t it be hard to explain that you’ve blown a bundle on day one?”

“You’ve forgotten that I’ve slashed the paper clip allowance, mere mortal,” Robman replies, his wings whirring impatiently and his pink cape streaming behind.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Stop Fortress North America: Don’t Let the Harper Government Make a Secret Deal with Washington

The Harper government is engaged in secret talks with the U.S. government to negotiate a sweeping Fortress North America security deal with Washington.

For over a decade, Fortress North America has been a favourite goal of the political right and continental business. The deal poses a major threat to Canadian sovereignty. Whatever proponents of the deal say, its implementation will force Canada to harmonize its immigration and refugee policies with those of the United States. And it will require Canadian government agencies to share much more private information about Canadian citizens and residents with American agencies than they already do. The deal will invite the FBI and the CIA right into our lives.

For those who think that this won’t matter much, it is vital to remember that what happened to Maher Arar nearly a decade ago was precipitated by the Canadian government’s sharing of information with the U.S. He was the canary in the mine shift----the warning that many more of us could be next.

Canada has already moved a long way down the road to defence arrangements with the U.S. that could conceivably allow the U.S. to effectively seize control of Canada during a global geo-political crisis.

The sweetener for the deal that is now in the works is that its ratification will mean quicker shipments of goods across the Canada-U.S. border. This is hardly a vital matter for Canada. It’s true that over the past two years Canada’s exports to the U.S. have plunged. But that’s because the U.S. has a weaker economy than it did before the crash and its demand for our products has declined. Such a development should motivate us to find other partners for commerce around the world, not to climb ever more into a relationship with a country whose global economic power is in decline.

The only reason we know about the secret talks between Ottawa and Washington is because of media leaks. The plan is to unveil the deal with Washington in January. Then a joint ceremony is to be held with Stephen Harper and Barack Obama appending their signatures to the agreement. After that, the details of the deal are to be hammered out between officials from the two countries.

In the meantime, the members of the Harper government refuse to say a word about this.

We know from WikiLeaks that CSIS is home to those who believe that Canadians are na├»ve about the threat of terrorism. We can expect the members of the Harper government to get lurid about the danger of terrorists when the deal with Washington is made public. The truth is that we now face a real threat to our nation’s sovereignty from those who hold the highest offices in the land.

Canadians need to get loud right now to stop this covert attack on our national sovereignty. Despite the chest-thumping phony patriotism and flag waving of the Harperites and their friends, this government has always been committed to a deeper continental union with the United States, an idea that is profoundly contrary to the interests of Canadians, now and in the future.

All of us need to take on this fight. We can’t leave this one to the tepid opposition parties in the House of Commons.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Greed is Good: The Canadian Right Comes Into Its Own

Much though I hate to admit it, Canada’s right-wing has achieved a new maturity, self-confidence and ebullience. Gone are the days when right-wingers were little more than liberal wannabes who looked awkward and out of place in public. Now they’ve come out of the shadows for all of us to see.

Who can deny that they have a style all of their own? Without a hint of embarrassment, they’re redefining the country.

“Put that in your pipe you left-wing kooks,” proclaimed Don Cherry as he addressed the inaugural meeting of Toronto’s newly elected city council. During the swearing in ceremony for Mayor Rob Ford, Cherry placed the chain of office around the neck of the city’s new chief executive.

“I’m wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything,” said Cherry reveling in the right’s moment of triumph. But he had a warning for the new mayor, telling him point blank what he’d be facing, “with these left-wing pinkos. They scrape the bottom of the barrel.”

You have to hand it to Ford for not playing it safe with the invitation of the Coach to set the tone for the new Toronto. As Cherry said of Ford: “Rob’s honest, he’s truthful, he’s like Julian Fantino. What you see is what you get. He’s no phony.”

And Rob Ford is not alone in wearing his rightist credentials as a badge of honour.

Every morning on CBC television, you can see Kevin O’Leary, the venture capitalist, entrepreneur shouting that “greed is good and I love money.” It’s in a promo for the Lang and O’Leary Exchange the show he co-hosts. He also brings his swashbuckling talents to the Dragons’ Den.

So much does CBC television love O’Leary that many mornings you get to see him in his skivvies, working out in the gym while he tells a breathless Heather Hiscox a thing or two about why government should get out of the way of investors, or why the Euro and the EU are bound to go the hell.

And who can top Tom Flanagan, the godfather of Canada’s New Right, and one-time mentor to Stephen Harper, for his candour? The University of Calgary political science professor told the CBC program Power and Politics that he thought WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange “should be assassinated.” He went on to add that “Obama should put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something.”

Later Flanagan issued a statement in which he apologized for counseling the elimination of the man who has terrified the American Empire, the mouse who has made the elephant tremble.

Apology or not, Flanagan’s poise and comfort in his own skin are there for all to see.

The new voices of the Canadian right have taken the measure of those who oppose them and they are not cowed. They show how good humoured they are by appearing regularly on the CBC, the public network whose very existence is a symbol of the old Canada they are sweeping into the dustbin.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Korea: How Wars Can Start Between Countries Whose Leaders Don’t Want War

It is generally assumed that when a great war breaks out, at least one of the parties to the conflict wanted it. That assumption can be wildly wrong. None of the regimes at the helm of the powers that went to war against one another in Europe in 1914 wanted a great war. But they got one through miscalculation, bluff and counter bluff. Four years later, millions of people had been killed and three of the great powers of Europe had been torn to shreds, four if you count the Ottoman Empire.

The conflict in the Korean peninsula is super-charged with many of the same combustible materials that blew up Europe nearly a century ago. The chances are that the present crisis will not end in a great war. But the potential for that outcome is certainly there.

Here’s how the First World War started.

In June 1914, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, traveled to Bosnia to observe military exercises. In the southern reaches of the empire, Bosnia was located next door to Serbia, whose political leaders and nationalist activists hoped to create a South Slav state, Yugoslavia, that would tear a large chunk of territory out of Austria-Hungary.

Nationalist agitations were eating away at the integrity of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of the First World War. Despite warnings that the visit of the Archduke to Bosnia and the military exercises could lead to trouble with Serbian nationalists, the government in Vienna decided that it had to go ahead with its announced plans. Cancelling the Archduke’s journey to Bosnia would only fan the flames of Serb extremists in the opinion of the empire’s rulers.

The military exercises were held; the archduke and his wife attended. Then the royal couple visited Sarajevo and a would-be assassin stepped into the street to hurl a bomb at the Archduke’s car. Franz Ferdinand coolly seized the bomb and hurled it out of harm’s way where it exploded. Instead of rushing the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne out of town, the visit to Sarajevo continued. A last minute change in the route taken by the archduke’s car brought him and his wife face to face with another assassin from Serbia, who shot and killed them both.

The date was June 28, 1914. The countdown to war began. From then until the outbreak of a European war, there were many twists and turns that don’t need to be recounted here.

The Austro-Hungarian regime concluded that this was an opportunity to capitalize on the Europe-wide sympathy in their favour in the aftermath of the assassination and to deliver a blow to the Serbs to remove them as a threat to the integrity of the empire. Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally Germany was prepared to go along with Vienna’s plan to get tough with Serbia. How tough was another matter.

Russia, whose rulers saw themselves as the protectors of their “little Slav brothers” was not willing to allow Austria-Hungary to launch a military strike against an isolated Serbia. Meanwhile, the pre-eminent concern of those at the helm of France was to prevent anything from undoing their alliance with the Russians. If they were ever to face a war against Germany as they had in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French wanted it to be a two-front war with the Russians attacking Germany from the east.

Only a little more removed were the British, the allies of the French and the Russians, who were much more committed to defending France against a German attack than either the British public or the members of the British Parliament had been informed.

On the evening of July 23, the Austro-Hungarian government addressed an ultimatum to the government of Serbia, giving the leaders in Belgrade until 6.00 p.m. on July 25 to reply. The ultimatum insisted that the Belgrade regime agree to a list of ten demands, including the disbanding of ultra-nationalist Serb organizations, the banning of publications directed against Austria-Hungary, a direct role for the government in Vienna in judicial proceedings against the planners and perpetrators of the assassination, the arrest of certain named individuals, and steps to prevent arms and explosives from being sent across the border to South Slav nationalists in Bosnia. The ultimatum was drafted to so demean Serbia and interfere with its sovereign authority that government leaders in Belgrade would have to turn down at least some of its demands.

Vienna wanted a localized war against Serbia. But Russia’s government was not prepared to let this happen. On July 25, the Tsarist government ordered the partial mobilization of its armed forces, a measure that deeply alarmed the rulers of Germany. In the doctrine of the day, the side that mobilized first was reckoned to have an immense advantage over its foes. Mobilization, therefore, would mean war.

Just prior to 6.00 p.m. on July 25, the Serbian government formally replied to Austria and when the Austrians determined that Belgrade had not acceded to all of the demands in the ultimatum, the Austro-Hungarians broke diplomatic relations with the Serbs. On July 28, Austria Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Efforts were made by the leaders of the now fully alarmed governments of the other major powers to find a peaceful solution. Especially in Berlin and London, governments floated various proposals to halt the rush to war. But the imperative that determined the outcome was the insistence of the generals that mobilization on one side had to be countered with mobilization on the other and that once the military machine was set in motion, frontiers had to be crossed and war had to ensue.

The Russians ordered general mobilization and that was followed by general mobilization in Austria Hungary. On August 1, the French and the Germans mobilized. Then came the declarations of war. When the Germans demanded that Belgium allow German troops to cross Belgian territory en route to an invasion of France, and the government in Brussels said no to this, Britain declared war on Germany. It is almost certain that Britain would have gone to war even without the violation of Belgian neutrality, but the German assault on little Belgium cemented the support for war of the British cabinet, parliament and public.

Thus began the war that no one wanted.

What about Korea today?

North Korea, the ally of China, is going through a regime change. Power is being transferred from the ailing Kim Jong Il to his son Kim Jong Un, a delicate exercise which carries with it the potential for a coup d’etat against the family dynasty.

At such moments, a secretive regime such as the one in Pyongyang is concerned, above all else, with asserting its strength, both at home and abroad.

That’s where relations with South Korea and its major ally the United States come into play.

The Korean War ended in an armistice, with a ceasefire on July 27, 1953, between the warring parties----the South Koreans, the Americans and other United Nations forces on one side and the North Koreans and the Chinese on the other. The war brought the U.S. military into direct conflict with the Chinese, and threatened the world with the use of nuclear weapons by both sides, since the nuclear-armed Soviet Union backed North Korea and China in the conflict.

No peace treaty has been signed in Korea. Border disputes in Korea, both on land and sea, have resulted in incidents along the frontier in the past, including the recent shelling by North Korea of a South Korean island. Two South Korean marines and two civilians died during the assault. Earlier this year, the North is believed to have launched a torpedo attack on a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors.

Over the last few days, the United States and South Korea have been holding joint military exercises off the west coast of the Korean peninsula in the Yellow Sea. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, led the forces in the drill.

The trouble with the Yellow Sea is that it is China’s front door. The Chinese government does not like to have U.S. aircraft carriers on the seas a mere five hundred kilometers from Beijing. For decades, China’s leaders have objected to any entry into the Yellow Sea by American aircraft carriers. Just prior to the current exercises, Beijing issued a warning that it is opposed to what it calls any “unilateral military act” in the area without its permission. Chinese military leaders have rhetorically asked whether the United States would allow China to hold military exercises just off its east or west coasts.

We have learned from the recent Wiki Leaks releases, to no one’s surprise, that Chinese authorities have told the Obama administration about the frustrations of dealing with the paranoid regime in Pyongyang. It is one thing for the Chinese to share light moments with Americans about the wackiness of North Korea’s rulers, it is another to think that the Chinese would be happy with having a U.S. ally entrenched on their frontier in the event of the collapse of the Pyongyang regime and the unification of the Korean Peninsula under the rule of Seoul.

What makes Korea so dangerous is the presence of four governments that cannot afford to be seen to back down. The North Korean regime obviously falls into that category. But so too does the current government in Seoul that is publicly committed to taking a hard line in response to any military incidents initiated by the North. And the Obama administration is far from strong in the aftermath of the drubbing the Democrats received in the recent Congressional elections.

President Obama is looking weak everywhere at the moment. He can’t talk the Republicans into ratifying a nuclear weapons treaty with Russia right now---he needs a two-thirds vote in the Senate for ratification---and the Russians are warning of a possible new nuclear arms race.

So Obama can’t afford to back down in Korea----thus the presence of the USS George Washington.

Beijing may go along with all of this. But the rulers of China are well aware that they run the world’s new superpower and they’ll only stand for so much provocation in the Yellow Sea.

We’ll likely get through this incident in one piece. But what about the next one, and then the one after that? The assassination the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 was not the first grave crisis to embroil the European Great Powers in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. It just happened to be the one that got out of control.

That kind of problem exists in Korea. A sudden incident, given the array of forces in the region----the assassination of a South Korean leader for instance, or some other dramatic development----could trigger a chain of events that no one could stop. That’s how leaders who don’t want a war, but who can’t afford to back down can end up sending the Great Powers they rule into conflict against one another.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wake Up: Arbitrary Rule is All Around Us

We live in a dangerous, disordered time. The flashing signs are there to warn us that, both at home and abroad, those who are at the helm of the socio-political order do not preside over outcomes that make even a modicum of sense. Arbitrariness is the order of the day.

We see this alarming reality in decisions being made close to us as well as in other parts of the world. Here are six stories, some more important than others, that convey the capricious disorder of the times in which we live.

1. In Ontario, the Special Investigations Unit that reviews complaints against police has released a report that concludes that in two specific cases during the G20 summit in Toronto last June, excessive force was used. But just when it appears that the system might work and deliver some semblance of justice, that hope is instantly dashed. SIU director Ian Scott has concluded that the offending officers cannot be identified and, therefore, cannot be charged. In the case of one man who was arrested, and sustained a fracture below his right eye, the SIU determined that the police used excessive force. But the badge number on the man’s arrest sheet did not correspond to the assigned badge number of any Toronto police officer. Even Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has acknowledged that up to 90 officers were not wearing their name-tags during the summit weekend. He says he will discipline the officers who chose to make themselves unidentifiable, but they are not being charged with an offence.

The only conclusion we can reasonably draw is that a large number of officers were out of control during the policing of the summit. Because the police won’t come forward to testify against their fellow officers, the cover up works. Officers who assault people on the street, even when the assaults are videoed, get away with it because follow officers won’t say a word against them. When the police act more like a gang of thugs than like professionals who uphold a set of standards, they become untrustworthy, a force that neither serves nor protects.

And what do those in charge do about this? Next to nothing.

2. A shocking video plainly shows Ottawa police officers violently subduing and strip searching a woman, in an incident that occurred two years ago. Stacy Bonds, whose only crime was to ask police officers why they had stopped her in the first place was taken to a police station where a male officer cut off her shirt and bra. We only found out about this disgraceful incident because a judge was appalled by the behaviour of the police and ordered the public release of the video. After he watched the security camera video, Ontario Court Justice Richard Lajoie stayed charges against Bonds for assaulting police and condemned the police behavour as a “travesty” and an “indignity.”

What was the crown thinking when it went ahead with the prosecution of Stacy Bonds in this incredible case, in which she was the victim and the police were the perpetrators? In how many instances, where there is no video and no judge who blows the whistle, do prosecutors go along with brutal cops in bringing charges against wholly innocent people?

Now, we are going to get an internal investigation into this incident, an investigation that could take months. What will happen to the officers---a slap on the wrist?

3. The next issue takes us into the realm of national politics.

Why did the federal Liberal Party aid and abet the Harper government’s decision to extend Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan beyond July 2011?

Instead of holding the Conservative government to account for doing a U Turn that will keep close to one thousand Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan after the date when parliament had decided to withdraw them, the official opposition has joined forces with the party in power.

Canadians have long since concluded that the war in Afghanistan is not about a struggle for the rule of law, the rights of women, and democracy, but is being waged on behalf of a corrupt regime that is closely tied to warlords and the drug trade, a regime whose hold on power was sustained in a deeply flawed election. At least, with the passage of time, Canadians had a right to anticipate an end to a mission that has seen 153 of our soldiers killed and billions of tax dollars poured into a bottomless pit.

Now an understanding between the Conservatives and Liberals---a deal in all but name---has arbitrarily extended a mission whose architects know full well that it is military in character. Soldiers, who are posted in a theatre of war, even if they are involved in training, stand in harm’s way. The price of this mission, in blood and treasure, has already been too high as far as Canadians are concerned.

Behind closed doors, Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae have made a mockery of the Canadian parliamentary process.

4. Abroad there are stories that illustrate what happens when the people in charge are so rich that they simply have no contact with everyday human reality.

New York’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg has appointed a millionaire media executive, Cathleen P. Black, as chancellor of New York City’s public schools, the largest public school system in the United States. Black, a corporate executive and magazine publisher, has no educational experience whatsoever. Under New York State law, a candidate such as Black, who has no qualifications for the job, requires a waiver from Education Commissioner David Steiner to obtain the position. The law states that a waiver can be issued only to those “whose exceptional training and experiences are the substantial equivalent of such [educational] requirements and qualify such persons for the duties of a superintendent of schools.”

Not only does Bloomberg’s appointee lack any such “exceptional” training, she did not attend public school herself and sent her own children to private boarding schools in Connecticut.

Continuing the control of public schools by elites who have established about one hundred privately run charter schools in New York in recent years, means more opportunities for profit-making educational institutions, more years of crowded classrooms in public schools, and a future in which those at the helm have no clue about the needs of students whose families are bearing the burdens of the economic crisis.

Let’s see if Black gets the waiver.

5. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, a coalition government is in charge, led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the descendant of a long line of financiers who intermarried with royal and aristocratic bluebloods. Cameron attended Eton and Oxford.

Surrounded by “Old Etonians” on the front bench of his government, Cameron has slashed public sector spending in the most drastic cuts in Britain in half a century. Over the next four years, the UK government will axe half a million jobs from the public payroll, while sharply reducing welfare payments and trebling the tuition fees of university students. The draconian cuts to employment in the public sector are certain to lead to a loss of private sector jobs dependent on the demand formerly generated by the spending of those whose public sector jobs are being eliminated.

In Britain, the income gap between the rich and the rest of the population is returning to levels not seen since the end of the First World War in 1918. The chief executives of companies listed on the UK’s FTSE 100 are now annually paid an average of 4.9 million pounds, an increase in one year of more than fifty per cent. That equates to two hundred times the average wage in the country.

While wage and salary earners are facing very tough times, the wealthy whose economic thinking caused the crash, are doing better than ever.

But don’t imagine that David Cameron isn’t thinking of the mass of the population. He’s declared that the day that William and Kate tie the knot at Westminster Abbey next spring will be a national holiday. The man has a heart.

6. Last week, the United States celebrated Black Friday, the day that retail companies hopefully move over to the black from the red as customers charge through the doors to get their hands on the goodies. Black Friday is now so important that the day notionally begins earlier in the week, before the turkey is served and while it is being served, and it continues all weekend long and into the following Monday.

It took decades for Americans to amass personal debts that today amount to about $12 trillion. The indebtedness of Americans as individuals and the indebtedness of the U.S. government----now about $14 trillion---were hugely important factors in triggering the economic crisis in which the world is mired.

But to save America and its economy, the debt-ridden American consumer needs to be prodded, cajoled, tempted, beseeched and implored to head for the malls to spend, spend, spend. A disproportionate amount of the goods they buy are made in China and their heroic spending efforts will drive up the nation’s trade deficit and its indebtedness.

What we are seeing is lemmings stampeding for the cliff. Call it Lemmingnomics.



These stories of arbitrary rule and of regimes in which the wealthy casually make decisions that hurt most of the population are linked. Brutal cops, governments that violate the norms of parliamentary government and leaders who enrich their own class of people at the expense of everyone else are the consequence of the shocking inequality of our age. The idea of citizenship is in retreat, democracy is declining and money is calling the shots.

Time to do something about it?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Afghanistan: How about a Little Reality from the Opposition Parties?

The other day, in separate interviews, NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar and Liberal Foreign Affairs Critic Bob Rae spoke to CBC News about the future of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.

From their tone, they sounded as if they were musing about the pros and cons of an extension of the TransCanada Highway and how many clover leaves the road ought to have. From neither of those worthy gentlemen was there the slightest hint that we are talking about an ill-conceived mission in a disastrous war, about which people have been repeatedly misled for years.

Dewar said that Canada’s military mission should end in July 2011 as scheduled and that after that date Canada should shift its attention to civilian projects in Afghanistan. He pointed out that to date ninety per cent of our effort has been military, that we’ve done our part on that front, can hold our heads high, and should now shift to civilian aid. He speculated that the Harper government’s about-face on extending the military mission, without a vote in Parliament, might have been cooked up in a deal with the Liberals.

Fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

In his CBC interview, Bob Rae, who traveled to Afghanistan a few months ago, and later opined that the Liberal Party supported a Canadian commitment that could “include a role in training the Afghan army and police” after 2011, was critical of the Harper government for its lack of clarity about the future of the mission. Tell us exactly what you have in mind, involving how many soldiers, and costing how many dollars and we might go along, Rae seemed to be saying to Harper.

He appeared still to be prepared to countenance the training of Afghan troops by Canadian soldiers and said he couldn’t understand why the NDP didn’t want to train a single soldier.

If I have to choose, I’ll take Dewar’s line over Rae’s.

But what’s missing in all this is any frankness about what’s gone on in Afghanistan. For years, Canadian soldiers have been fighting in this dirty war. One hundred and fifty-two of them have died, fifteen hundred of them have been wounded and Canada has so far spent $18 billion on the mission.

We’ve been fighting on behalf of a government that is deeply implicated in corruption, that is tied to warlords, and that has close connections to the drug trade.

The Karzai regime, with the backing of the Obama administration, has been negotiating with elements of the Taliban to end this phase of the conflict.

While figures in the Pentagon and the U.S. foreign relations establishment have recently signaled a willingness to prolong the military mission well beyond July 2011 the date when the Obama administration has pledged to begin a major withdrawal of troops, the point of the new emphasis is to convince the Taliban, the Afghan regime and U.S. allies that the Americans are determined to continue the fight.

Meanwhile, the White House has been insisting that there is no change in U.S. planning. Americans are weary of the war in Afghanistan, and much of the base of the President’s party wants a firm timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.

What is now underway is a drive to come up with a settlement between the Karzai regime and some of the insurgents so that Obama can claim success and start bringing American troops home in time for the 2012 presidential election campaign. The peace settlement that may be in the works will not be one that will gladden the hearts of those who hope for an agenda in Afghanistan that will extend human rights, the rights of women in particular, and progress toward democracy.

Canadian political leaders, especially members of the opposition, should address the hard realities of the conflict we have been engaged in when they speak in Parliament this week. Canadians are sick and tired of phony assurances about the progress being achieved by the West’s military mission in Afghanistan. For once, how about the truth?

Friday, November 12, 2010

On Afghanistan: Harper’s Casual Betrayal of Canadians

Far away from home, while Parliament is not sitting, the Prime Minister of Canada announces that Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan will be extended beyond July 2011, the date when it was due to end. Prior to his stunning about-face in Seoul, Harper had insisted that after the withdrawal next July only the “odd (military) guard” at an embassy would remain.

Overwhelmingly, Canadians want to end this tawdry mission, which has never been about the goals members of the Canadian government have claimed we are fighting for. To date, 152 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, and 1500 have been wounded----to return to a country that has made few plans for their long-term care. Others have come home with serious psychological traumas.

Canada has spent $18 billion to date on this mission, which has supposedly been to assist a government that is committed to the rule of law, the rights of women and, with the passage of time, a fully democratic regime. At best, the Karzai regime is “Taliban light.” Whenever Karzai has found it politically convenient to shore up his alliances with warlords and fundamentalists, he has been prepared to throw the rights of women to the wolves. Then, in response to tut-tutting from the West, Karzai dons his human rights garb for the cameras.

Not only is the regime we support not committed to human rights and democratic government, its close collaborators are profiting from the drug trade.

This is a regime that runs foul detention centres, for those taken prisoner in the war. The vile conditions and abuse of inmates in these medieval establishments has been repeatedly reported by reliable observers, among them Canadians. Despite efforts by members of the Canadian government and military to hide the facts, Canadian forces have been shown to have handed over prisoners to those who proceeded to abuse them, as we knew they would.

Haven’t we had enough of this?

Everyone knows that Karzai, with the approval of the Americans, is now negotiating a deal with elements of the Taliban to end the war, or more accurately, this phase of an ongoing war. The Obama administration wants out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. As in the case of South Vietnam in the early 1970s, the idea is to win a few military victories on the ground, endorse a deal with some members of the Taliban, and get out.

Media reports suggest that the Conservative government is planning to offer close to one thousand military instructors and support staff to serve in Kabul from 2011 to 2014. This is an extension of the military mission, pure and simple. The term “trainer” is often used as a euphemism for those who go into battle with unreliable troops to make sure they fight. The Conservatives are claiming that the trainers will operate “inside the wire” and will not actually go into conflict.

Can we believe a word the members of the Harper government say, when they have misled Canadians at every turn on the mission in Afghanistan?

If Harper gets his way, more Canadians will die, and billions more will be spent.

For members of the Canadian and other western governments, for private security firms in the U.S., and for many others, Afghanistan has become an industry. The powerful, who are deeply implicated in what has gone on in this war, are seeking a way to cover their tracks and get out of this quagmire without provoking the fury of those back home whom they have deceived. Their day of reckoning will come.

It’s time for Canadians to get out of Afghanistan as a first step toward playing a role in the world in line with the values we proclaim, values that now ring hollow in the mouths of the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Demagogic Right Plays a Tough Game in Tough Times

Two years after the great crash of 2008, an economic meltdown that exposed the forces of greed for what they are, the political right is more ferocious than ever. Having presided over the unleashing of the most severe economic crisis since 1929, the right concedes nothing and claims everything. It’s exactly what we should have expected.

The hard right feeds on the carrion by-products of societal breakdown. It revels in the divisions of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation that can be sharpened among the people during hard times. It stirs the resentment of non-union workers against those who are union members, the antipathy of private sector employees against those in the public sector. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the hard right used the fuel at hand to play the same games, to considerable effect in North America, and to catastrophic effect in continental Europe.

In the United States, Canada, and Europe, the face of the hard right is etched on the politics of our time.

While Barack Obama was fighting to save capitalism and Wall Street from itself, spending his political capital on corporate bailouts, the far right was sliming him with hate. For some among the ranks of the far right, Obama is an alien, born outside the United States, who has illegally come to the presidency. Last week, Tea Party darling Sarah Palin used Twitter to list as a “favourite” a tweet linked to a photo of a sign labeling the U.S. president a “Taliban Muslim.” This week, she thought she had gone a little too far and claimed that this had been an accidental “favouriting.”

Others portray Obama as a centralizer, determined to take all power into the hands of government, so he can destroy the American way of life.

Obama’s Democrats were routed in elections to the House of Representatives by candidates whose top priority is to ensure that the Bush administration’s tax cuts, for those making a quarter of a million dollars a year and more, remain in place. Funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers and hosted by Fox News, the Tea Party populist revolt corralled angry voters to take aim at Obama while ignoring corporate assaults on the environment, ensuring that the super-rich are lightly taxed and that financial institutions can go back to being unregulated.

The right’s political recipe----a quick return to balanced budgets----would dispatch the United States into a depression, if implemented. Meanwhile, it has been left to Obama to keep capitalism intact by doing the heavy lifting on behalf of Wall Street, while the right prepares to take the White House in 2012.

In truth, if American right-wingers win the White House and majorities in both houses of congress two years from now, they will quickly drop the idea of the balanced budget. From Ronald Reagan to John A. Boehner, from George W. Bush to Sarah Palin, the right has not cared about Washington’s fiscal health. All they care about is letting corporate giants do what they like, while not having to pay for it, or being required to clean up the mess. For the American right, the deficit is an ideological weapon to be wielded against Democrats. It is a convenient flag under whose folds, the right gets to rail against serious spending to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure and to reconstruct the country’s transportation systems and its cities to combat climate change. The right loves to rant about the picayune cuts it would make by abolishing the Department of Education, National Public Radio, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy deports thousands of Romani people to Rumania and bans the wearing of the burqa to distract attention from the right-wing government’s legislation that will raise the age of retirement in the republic. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel proclaimed that attempts to turn her country into a multicultural society had “utterly failed.” “We feel connected to the Christian view of humanity that is our identity,” the Chancellor said in a speech to the youth wing of her Christian Democratic party. People who do not accept that view “don’t belong here”, she concluded in a speech widely interpreted as pandering to anti-Muslim sentiments in an effort to boost flagging support for her government.

The city of Toronto has its own tea potty in the form of mayor-elect Rob Ford. Within minutes of being named the winner by local TV stations, Ford declared an end to “the gravy train at city hall”. Ford, whose wealth comes from the label company his late father founded, talks vaguely about corruption at City Hall. But the men and women who are his real targets are those who collect the garbage and drive streetcars, buses and subway trains. He wants to contract out garbage collection, a way to cut the pay of those who do the job. He also hopes to make the Toronto Transit Commission an essential service, to take away the bargaining power of TTC drivers. In addition, he’d dump Toronto’s “fair wage” policy, which ensures that contractors doing business with the city must pay about the same wage as city employees doing comparable work. This rich man’s idea of showing respect for taxpayers----his mantra---is to make the people who work for the city do their jobs for a lot less pay.

Fordism is about making Toronto a city whose employees can’t afford to live in the municipality they serve.

The new mayor has views that range far and wide. On bike lanes: “I can’t support bike lanes. Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks. My heart bleeds when someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

On police crackdowns at the G20 summit: “I think the police were too nice. I would have had a zero tolerance approach.”

He’d cut off any municipal funding for Pride Toronto, has mused about Toronto already having enough immigrants, and thinks Oriental people are slowly taking over because they “work like dogs”.

In tough times, the members of the political right play tough. They foment prejudices and hatreds among the Have Nots to ensure that no one effectively takes on the Haves.

Are they prepared to compromise? You’ve got to be kidding.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What should be on the Wider Agenda as Parliament meets?

Canadian politics has been reduced to a series of small battles in a static war as the parties jockey for position for the next federal election.

As the politicians skirmish in Question Period, it is as though they are operating inside a hermetically sealed bubble, where they almost entirely shut out the enormous changes that have been rocking the world since the onset of the global economic crash two years ago.

The crash has called into question the verities on which our socio-economic system has been based for the past three decades. But if you read the record of debates on Parliament Hill since the last election you’d have almost no idea that anything unusual was going on. It’s not that debates about stimulus, pensions, and employment benefits don’t matter. They do. What the debates fail to reflect is any wider consideration of the way our socio-economic system is organized and the priorities it establishes, the ways it privileges a few at the expense of the many.

It’s no surprise that the Harper government defends the existing order. But where are the fundamental challenges from the other side of the House? The Liberals are cautiously keeping their heads down, hoping the Harperites self-destruct. The members of the BQ conceive their role very narrowly as the defenders of Quebec’s share of the budgetary pie, not an inconsequential matter, but it rarely leads to basic questions about the socio-economic order. If a fundamental challenge is going to come from inside the House, it has to come from the NDP. Now and then, NDP members do raise important questions about pensions and EI benefits, about the environment, and Canada’s role in Afghanistan. That is important. What the NDP almost never does, however, is to question the system itself, the neo-liberal order in which we live.

If there was ever a period when basic debate was needed, it is surely now, a time when it is clear to so many across the world, that the crisis in which we find ourselves has not gone away, is not being resolved.

In the past, CCF and NDP members of Parliament actually dared to call into question the corporate capitalist order. We could use some of that now. What follows is a perspective on how the debate can be conceived.







The underlying idea of the financial system that has crashed was that it is the investment of capital that creates wealth. Beginning with the neo-conservative revolution at the end of the 1970s in Britain and the United States, de-regulating capital so that it could flow anywhere without restriction was understood as the key to unleashing the market forces that would make the economy grow. Let investment travel to all parts of the world, allow businesses to acquire one another, and remove remaining protective trade barriers, and a better world would be established, in the developing countries and the developed countries alike. Utopianism and greed were bound together in the chemistry of globalization. This revolution---most accurately depicted as neo-liberalism, although its was unleashed by neo-conservatives---realized the dreams of capitalists as never before. The nation state, mobilized during the post-war decades, to serve labour as the junior partner of capital in the advanced countries, was tamed to put mobility of capital ahead of all else. De-regulation and technological revolution combined to free capitalism not only from trade unions and the state, but from the restraints of time as well. Capital could be transferred at the flick of a cursor from anywhere to anywhere. Virtual transfers of capital quickly dwarfed commerce in commodities. Markets never closed.

Be careful what you wish for. Utopia unleashed became dystopia achieved. The world made safe for investors became a world where workers were exploited on an unprecedented scale, cities mushroomed into barrios for the dispossessed, the impoverished braved the seas in their quest for jobs and survival, and environmental catastrophe loomed. In the end, neo-liberalism wrought its own self-destruction, much in the way Soviet communism had a couple of decades earlier.

In the economically advanced countries, those who run the dominant corporations, lead the major political parties, and set the agenda for business schools, economics departments and pro-business think tanks aspire to reconstructing the neo-liberal order. That is not to say that these people, representing quite different organizations, and nurtured in diverse national cultures, do not hold a wide range of views about what ought to be done. It is not unfair, however, to ascribe to the overwhelming majority of these people the broad desire to re-make the world to be essentially the way it was on the eve of the crash. This assertion is not rendered invalid because many people in the economic and political elites want to reform and re-regulate financial systems and fiscal arrangements so that sub-prime housing meltdowns, the collapse of financial institutions, and the dangerous consequences of various forms of indebtedness to avoid future global economic catastrophes. What they do want, in general, is to restore capitalism to health to allow its pre-crash system of rewards to prevail.

Now what? Should humanity mobilize its political, economic and societal skills to painstakingly reconstruct the system that has crashed? That is certainly the goal of the Obama administration, the Cameron government in the U.K., the Harper government in Ottawa (to the extent that it has any understanding of what is happening), and other governments in the West. Even if Barack Obama understands that the financial sector in the U.S. had grown too large and must be cut back in size as the U.S. economy recovers, it is nonetheless his intention to recreate American and global capitalism with its rewards and its priorities essentially unaltered.

This is a historic opportunity, however, for people around the world with entirely different aspirations to come to the fore. During the neo-liberal era, the hegemonic power of the ruling ideas pushed alternative conceptions about to order the economy to the margins.

In comparison to the post-war era when a comparatively wide range of socio-economic options were being broadly advocated and considered, the past three decades has been a time of ever narrower legitimate options. It has been the age of TINA---there is no alternative---an age of reaction during which the concept of citizenship has been eroded, the social state has been substantially dismantled and those who control capital have been empowered as never before in all of human history.

That is not to say that during this time progressives did not fight large battles. They even won some of them. Most significant have been the struggles about the environment, gay and lesbian rights, anti-racism, and the rights and aspirations of women, in particular their reproductive rights.

The long retreat of the past thirty years has been on the terrain of the collective power and rights of working people all over the world, from the best paid salary earners in the advanced countries, to the super-exploited wage earners in the garment factories in the poor countries. As organized labour has been thrown on the defensive and social and educational programs have been rolled back, the power of capital has grown ever more complete. The extent of the retreat is captured in the increasing reliance on the philanthropy of the rich and the super-rich in a wide range of fields.

A contradictory outlook faces wage and salary earners throughout the world today. On the one hand, the savage economic downturn and the loss of many millions of jobs around the globe, has reduced the bargaining power of labour still further. Highly visible has been the massive political and corporate pressure on unionized Canadian and American auto workers to accept enormous cuts to their overall remuneration, in the form of reduced pay and benefits and slashed payouts to retired auto workers. Similar pressures have been applied to workers around the world to force them to make do with lower wages and less generous benefits. The existence of a gigantic reserve army of unemployed workers strengthens the government and corporate assault on wage and salary earners.

On the other hand, there is the visible failure of the neo-liberal system world-wide, the reduction of the top corporate managers in the eyes of humanity from demi-gods to greedy incompetents. Never in history have the rulers of the economic system been so humiliated as over the past two years.

Populist anger against financiers has boiled to the surface, not only in the United States, but in many countries. Those who direct, or formerly directed, major financial institutions are no longer believed by the general public. Nor are those at the helm of governments, although some have more credibility than others. The low esteem in which those who steer the economy are now held has opened the door to new ideas, or the restatement of old ideas, from across the political spectrum.

On the political right in the United States, Tea Party inspired Republicans have returned to the political verities that constituted the right-wing stock in trade before the crash. Rather than facing up to the role of their policies in generating the economic catastrophe, the Republicans are promoting their belief in small government and in tax cuts. On the face of it, this may seem a short-sighted, even foolish, political strategy, and perhaps events and the passage of time will prove that it is.

But if Obama’s cautious policies, aimed at restoring American capitalism, by and large, to the way things were before the crash, are deemed a failure, things could turn out very differently. In that case, the door will be opened not only to the ideas of the Republican Party, but to all manner of populist demagoguery on the far right. The conditions that face us are similar to those of the 1930s in one very important respect. When centrist politicians and their policies do not ameliorate the desperate economic plight of millions of people, powerful authoritarian movements spring up to grapple with the anxieties of the age with programs that are the very antithesis of democracy. In the 1930s, the fascists and the Nazis filled the void when mainstream democrats dithered and failed to come to grips with urgent problems, such as mass unemployment and poverty. And the solutions of the authoritarians can involve, not merely the elimination of democratic rights, but the imprisonment of thousands, and in the most extreme cases the murder of millions.

A progressive alternative is urgently needed, an alternative that will not cloak the current crisis in exclusionism, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the denial that humanity has pushed the planet to the brink of environmental collapse----the goodies that are on offer in the shop windows of the far right. The vigour of the progressive response to the crisis will depend on the ability of movements around the world to rise to the challenge not only of the socio-economic and environmental problems that plague our world but also to the campaigns of the intolerant who will use these problems to promote false solutions based on hate and scapegoating. In many parts of the world today, the walls of hate are going up in the form of anti-immigrant sentiment and religious fundamentalism.

The descent into xenophobia, cynicism and anxiety in many countries has been vastly exacerbated by the effects of the economic crisis. But that descent began long before the crash. For the past quarter century, mainstream political parties of all shades have utterly failed to cope with the widening gap in income and wealth between a small segment of the population that has been enormously enriched and the vast majority of the population of the advanced countries, and much more so, the population of humanity as a whole. The economic collapse has made the failure to address the problem of the widening wealth and income gaps even more urgent. The boiling anger of those who are shut off from the possibility of advance can open the door to an advance for progressive politics, but it can also feed into the agenda of those who fabricate lies that the world is run by some ethnic or religious group that can be isolated and attacked. For the Nazis, the theory was that the world was run by Jewish financiers, who had stabbed Germany in the back during the First World War.

Today, the world is plagued by new theories that are used to marginalize people: in Europe, there is fear of Muslim immigrants and their descendants; in America, fear of Hispanic immigrants; and in many parts of the world there is propaganda from religious fundamentalists who seek to blame our ills on people of other faiths. These forms of hatred can be used to tell people that immigrants are taking jobs away from the French, that newcomers are robbing the American middle class of its standard of living, or that God has a divine plan for people of particular faiths that must not be thwarted by the designs of others.

While exclusionism is omni-present, so too are the progressives. Before the crash and since its onset, a wide range of progressive movements has been putting the case for a new economics to serve humanity and to safeguard the planet against environmental ruin. These movements are diverse, pluralist, and democratic. Among them is heard the voices of social democrats, socialists, liberals, humanists, environmentalists, non-fundamentalist religious believers, feminists, trade unionists, urban activists, anti-poverty organizations, students and writers. A new politics of the planet has been taking shape. Its philosophical origins are ancient as well as contemporary. This politics of the planet takes unique forms in each country, arising out of particular cultures and conditions.

The broad challenge is to reinvigorate democracy at the local and national levels, while advancing programs that for the first time in history are in keeping with the interests of people everywhere. The perspective has to be planetary. But unlike the corporate agenda that has stripped away effective power from the level of the nation state, and from working people, the progressive agenda needs to return effective power to nations so they can design their social systems, govern their own economies and act as stewards for their share of the planet.

If this sort of agenda sounds as though it is alive with paradox and contradiction, it is. It is the reverse of much that has driven the global agenda of the past three decades, during the so-called age of globalization. Globalization has, in truth, drawn all people and all nations into a closer set of relationships with one another. But the relationships have been based on amplifying the power of the few at the expense of the many on a wide range of fronts, so much so that we can conclude that globalization has effectively paralyzed democracy to an alarming extent.

While it has been claimed by its proponents that globalization has opened borders and reduced the power of the state, in fact, globalization has opened borders to the flow of capital and has reduced the power of most of the states of the world leaving the socio-economic future to be shaped by a handful of states (the United States most important among them), while borders have been closed to most of humanity.

A case in point is the plight of desperate people who take to flimsy vessels to sail from Africa to Europe, all too often dying during the voyage, in the hope that they will be able to make a living in Europe for themselves and their families. Similarly, tens of thousands of Mexicans take their lives in their hands each year to attempt to make it past the growing army of border guards into the United States where they can work for low pay and with no job protection to make a living in a country where the political rhetoric has increasingly reduced these migrants to the status of pariahs. The American economy would be hard pressed to function without these illegal immigrants, but on the political right the measure of political correctness is for politicians to advocate the denial of all social and educational benefits to these workers and their children. Across the developed world, the barriers are going up to stop desperate economic refugees from reaching the promised land.

The democratic agenda needs to regard this staggering inequality as the most important matter to be addressed. Unless it is effectively addressed, little else that is achieved will matter very much.

Putting the world on the road toward equality will call forth as much creative energy as the great democratic upheavals of the 18th century. Power needs to be returned to nation states so that their citizens can address inequality within their countries at the same time as an agenda to address the inequality between nations is established. Such a power shift can only be achieved through the mobilization of the democratic energies of a wide spectrum of the population.

It’s not hard to locate the issue on which this majority can be mobilized. The issue is the economic treadmill on which the majority in the developed world finds itself. Wage and salary earners are on an economic treadmill. On average their living standards have not risen for the past several decades and they are increasingly plunging into debt to finance the purchase of homes and to send their children to post secondary educational institutions whose tuition has been skyrocketing in many countries. The huge economic gains of this period have gone only to a few. For instance, twenty years ago the remuneration of a top American corporate manager was forty times that of a typical employee. Now typically the top manager makes one hundred and ten times as much.

Wage and salary earners are increasingly conscious of the emergence of levels of inequality that have not been seen since the aristocratic age that preceded the American and French Revolutions. Those at the helm of the advanced economies tout the idea of “flexibility”, the notion that the investment of capital and the location of enterprises should be directed by the marketplace to wherever in the world they can be most effective. For instance, one respected voice representing this point of view is the Economist weekly magazine in London. On January 20, 2007, the Economist proclaimed that “these are the glory days of global capitalism…This newspaper has long argued that a mobile society is better than an equal one.”

The argument being made here, with which many with the point of view of the Economist will stoutly disagree, is that inequality has gone too far to be compatible with a vigorous democracy.

Returning a good deal of effective economic sovereignty to nation states does not mean erecting economic walls around countries. That is neither desirable nor possible in our age. In fact, what it means, above all, is a shift in the control of capital from the ever larger financial holdings that now exist to local, regional or national holdings. What drove the world to the yawning inequality of the neo-liberal age and then to the crash and the economic cataclysm that has followed was the existence of ever larger pools of capital controlled privately. The control of capital has always been at the centre of capitalism. And those who control capital have always had the whip hand. During the neo-liberal age, however, the use of capital was increasingly de-linked from the expansion of productive capacity. Instead, in the mega-extension of the financial sector, especially in the U.S., the investment of capital through a wide range of financial instruments was increasingly used to siphon profits out of the bubble economies that developed first in the dot.coms and then in housing. Financial sector parasitism was the consequence of neo-liberalism and the central cause of the crash.

Progressive advance means setting things the right way up in the economy so that the people at large become the masters of capital and not the other way around. Placing pools of capital in local, regional and national holdings and democratizing both the control of capital and of the workplace needs to be the next great chapter in the history of democracy. There is, to be sure, no easy fit between this step and the one that needs to accompany it---the establishment of a much more equitable relationship between the wealthy and the poor countries of the world.

Will advantageously placed nations use their privileged positions to assure more for themselves than for those with whom they conduct commerce in poorer countries?

The short answer is yes, certainly. But in a world with capital pools divided up into local, regional and national holdings, the balance of power could effectively shift toward a new, democratic, political coalition, involving rich and poor countries. A politics of local, national and global development, dedicated toward more egalitarian outcomes and sustainable environmental policies, could emerge.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. The neo-liberal system is in pieces and cannot be put together again. Nor should humanity attempt it. It’s time to move on to a better future.

Monday, September 20, 2010

John Baird: A Gun in One Hand and a Cosmo in the Other

Fourteen of the sixteen most recent police officers to be killed with guns in Canada were shot with long guns.

Overwhelmingly, police chiefs across the country regard the gun registry as a vital tool that protects their officers especially when they are dealing with domestic disputes. Frank Eisner, chief of police for Greater Sudbury, right in the heart of long gun country in northern Ontario, who strongly supports the registry, has made the point that Sudbury police use the registry, in particular, when called out on cases of domestic disputes and violence in the home.

As Mavis Moore, a seventy-two year old Saskatchewan woman who has been an avid hunter over the years, told the Toronto Star, the gun registry question is “not a matter of rural versus urban. It’s a public safety issue. How many women and children in rural Canada are threatened in their own homes with a gun? More than we want to know, I think.”

Moore, who enjoys guns, supports the registry, not least because she can still remain the time she looked up the barrel of a .22 a man was pointing at her and her mother when she was four years old.

A recent Harris/Decima poll found that 47 per cent of rural women want to keep the registry while 40 per cent would abolish it.

Conservative House leader John Baird ignores the concerns of police officers and rural women.

He represents a riding in the west end of Ottawa where not much more moose hunting goes on than in downtown Toronto. But it’s the dastardly “Toronto elites”, Baird says, who are out to thwart the will of rural Canadians on the issue of the registry. According to Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Glen Murray, when Baird is not out fulminating against “Toronto elites”, he’s hanging out with them enjoying cosmos----a cocktail made with vodka, Triple Sec, cranberry juice and fresh-squeezed lime juice or sweetened lime juice---in the glamorous Byzantium Toronto bar and restaurant. That’s where Rusty (Baird’s nickname) can just get on with being an unabashed member of the elite he claims to disdain.

Baird and Stephen Harper are well aware that polls consistently show that a plurality of Canadians favour keeping the registry. The Harris/Decima poll found 48 per cent of those polled favouring retention, with 38 per cent supporting abolition. But they refuse to compromise on the issue. Changes could be made to the rules of the registry to ensure that it will always be free, easy to access, and with no threat of criminal charges for non-compliance for the first two violations.

The last thing the Conservative high command wants is a solution on the issue that would suit almost everybody. They only care about it as a wedge. They want to wave the bloody shirt of the nefarious registry during the next election.

Baird’s calculation is that even though most of his constituents undoubtedly favour retention of the registry, he won’t pay a political price for his abolitionist stance. He figures that those who are passionate about killing the registry are much more likely to make this the issue that will determine how they vote than is the case for the larger number who would keep the registry.

Good for Baird. He can go on being a poseur on behalf of gun owners, while enjoying cosmos in the heart of wicked Toronto, and seeking the support of Ottawa voters.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Peacocks and Buzzards: Coming Soon to a Neighbourhood Near You

In these post-crash times, as governments switch from stimulus to cutbacks, North America and Europe are resigning themselves to a long stretch of bad economic times. Unemployment and underemployment, public servant and union bashing and doors closed to the young are hallmarks of this dismal time.

For a few, though---bad times for the many create golden opportunities. Not everyone is hurt by the low wages that accompany high unemployment, or the prospect of a long spell of flat or falling (especially in the U.S.) real estate prices.
While low taxes for the well-heeled do next to nothing to spur economic growth, they do help make life sweet for the haves.

Two types of people who have money---we’re not talking about the super-rich---and who are adapting well among today’s fauna, can be called the peacocks and the buzzards.

The peacocks are a lot richer than the buzzards, but both of these feathered species have found places to sun themselves. Peacocks are those with high incomes----think of partners in corporate law firms----and are typically in their fifties. They’ve spent a ton of money sending their kids to private schools where they learn to network with others of their class. (The education is optional, but high grades are guaranteed even for the mediocre and the lazy, to complement the tuition.)

Even when the peacocks are still groaning under the weight of the bills to dispatch their offspring to Ivy League universities where grade inflation is a la mode, they’ve reached the stage where they want something big for themselves. They’re old enough to hunger for something permanent, a monument to their personal achievement. Flashy cars are no longer enough.

By the time they’re in their fifties, even the wealthy experience shuddering glimpses of their own mortality.

Through the ages, the monument chosen by the rich and the powerful to commemorate themselves has been the grand house, or more accurately the personal mausoleum.

The pharaohs of Egypt oversaw the building of the pyramids where they would be entombed. In them, they planned to luxuriate with their belongings in the next, and eternal life.

Later members of ruling classes had castles and mansions constructed to accord them a measure of immortality.

Today’s peacocks are the latest to display their brilliant tail feathers as they seek the permanency that goes with the grand dwelling. To this end, they purchase large abodes even after their descendants have flown the coop. Just as often, they oversee vast makeovers of their existing homes in fashionable districts.

In these super-renos, everything is torn out of the shell of the existing house, including staircases and walls. Rooms are enlarged, shrunk or jettisoned. Huge new island strewn kitchens are created for the peacocks, as are enormous bathrooms. What people do in these lavish Water Closets, I don’t want to know. Home design and paint specialists are brought in to advise. Temperature controlled wine cellars are installed. Typically, the existing stock of furniture is replaced with the latest designer pieces to go with the renewed edifice.

One man I know of mounted a large Rembrandtesque oil portrait of one of his ancestors along a soaring staircase. He has taken to calling himself William Peter the fifth.

While renoing, the peacocks rent another fashionable house for six or eight months.

Peacocks preen for other peacocks.

Not surprisingly, the peacocks, who are far from being billionaires, are ferociously opposed to any suggestion that they ought to pay higher taxes or should compensate those in their direct or indirect employ more handsomely. Bus drivers, garbage collectors, nurses and teachers are all over paid as far as they are concerned.

Then there are the buzzards, far less elegant than the peacocks, but with a shrewd eye for their own advantage nonetheless. To date, the buzzards have been more common in the United States than in Canada, as a consequence of the shattered housing market in so many American regions. But they are on their game in Canada as well, and the dim outlook for many real estate markets in this country bodes well for these sturdy carrion-eaters.

Buzzards migrate where housing markets have crashed and foreclosures are common. Among their favourite feeding grounds are California, Ohio, Michigan and Florida. Buzzards pick up fairly new homes for as little as twenty per cent of their pre-crash prices in America’s foreclosure capitals.

The expelled former owners and their families have gone who knows where. The buzzards settle where jobs are scarce, pay is low, crime rates are high, biker gangs thrive and parents often turn up with their kids to partake in the offerings at pre-school breakfast programs.

Buzzards hire cheap help to do up their houses and tend their lawns. At the local Wal Mart and second hand stores, they pick up furnishings and appliances at depression prices.

Buzzards are at work in a string of industrial cities in Southern Ontario, from Windsor and St. Catharines, to Welland, Brantford and Hamilton.

Peacocks and buzzards have clawed out spaces for themselves in our Darwinian world.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Rob Ford: The Man with the Midas Touch

Toronto mayoral candidate Rob Ford has unveiled his transit plans for the city he hopes to lead.

Ford is a lover of cars and a hater of cyclists. He plans to relegate two wheeled vehicles to the ravines of the city where they can spend time with four legged creatures. He’d like to send trade unionists and public employees to the ravines, as well.

As for streetcars, with or without dedicated lanes, Ford wants fewer of them. They slow down the flow of the SUVs.

To help move transit riders, he hopes to put the big bucks into building subways. His plan, with a price tag of $4.8 billion, was likely costed on the back of a lottery ticket. It bears about that much connection with reality.

Ford is supposed to be the “stop-the-gravy-train” guy. He spends sleepless nights counting rate-payers jumping over a fence.

That’s why his transit plan is so remarkable. New subways are by far the most expensive way to extend public transit. For every kilometer of additional subway, you can build more than fifteen kilometers (that’s a low estimate) of above ground transit lines.

How does Ford plan to pay for his “plan”? He’s going to try to hit up Queen’s Park for the money. And who pays the bills at Queen’s Park? Taxpayers----a lot of them living in Toronto! So while Ford safeguards the coins in your front pocket, he hopes to extract the folding money from your wallet.

With his Cadillac taste, Rob Ford is Toronto’s Goldfinger, the man with the Midas Touch.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Why the Gun Registry Vote Matters to the NDP

The outcome of the upcoming vote in parliament on the long gun registry matters to the NDP because the party has been suffering from a “What do you stand for" problem.

People with long memories know what the NDP has contributed to Canadian life. Medicare tops the list, followed by public auto insurance in a number of provinces, the championing of social programs, including decent pensions, and access for everyone who qualifies to post-secondary education. Once upon a time, the NDP fought for Canadian control of the Canadian economy, pushed for the creation of a publicly owned national petroleum company, Petrocan, opposed NAFTA, and even discussed the idea that wage and salary earners should someday own and control the enterprises for which they worked.

The CCF-NDP was established during the Great Depression to provide a sweeping program for the re-construction of Canadian society and the economy to replace capitalism with a broadly egalitarian alternative. Some called it the cooperative commonwealth, others social democracy and still others socialism.

The premise that drove the party and movement for decades was clear: by its very nature capitalism is an exploitative system that can never deliver true equality. The vision of a new kind of society motivated tens of thousands of Canadians to devote their lives to building the party.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the ideas and values alluded to above have very little to do with today’s NDP. If I were to tell a class of my students that the NDP currently stands for the transformation of Canadian society, they’d look at me with the smiles one reserves for those who ought to hang up their skates and give others a little ice time.

For the past quarter century, those who run the federal NDP have been dedicated to the proposition that the party should position itself close to the centre of the political spectrum, and should advance proposals that are pragmatic and practical. If fully implemented, the current NDP platform might slow the widening of the wealth and income gaps in Canada. That’s not a bad thing. But the party has trashed the vision thing. For those who believe that capitalism is a fundamentally flawed system, that Canada is unwise to put all its eggs in the basket of the American Empire, or who think that we have little time to halt the onset of irreversible environmental catastrophe, the NDP offers very little. Today’s New Democrats are liberals who are not even in much of a hurry.

That’s why the long gun registry vote matters so much to the federal NDP.

Once upon a time, the CCF did have a genuine base in rural Canada. When Tommy Douglas led the Saskatchewan CCF to office in 1944, the central plank in his platform was to protect a farmer’s home quarter section of land from foreclosure by the banks. Since then, the farm base of the NDP has steadily eroded as family farms have disappeared to be replaced by agribiz. Today, the NDP’s rural base is centred in regions where mining and forest products are the dominant sectors. Plenty of people in those regions own long guns and hunt.

For years, the gun lobby in Canada has propagated the idea among rural gun owners that there’s a basic difference between registering a car and a gun. Unlike the case of a car, registering a gun, the lobbyists say, is about freedom. The state ought not to know how many guns you have in your possession. Even if you make the registration free, and reduce the penalty for failure to register a fine of one dollar, they will object. For them, this is an issue of principle.

The principle, of course, has nothing to do with the Canadian experience. It is an outgrowth of the American Revolution and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which the U.S. Supreme Court interprets as giving individual Americans the right to bear arms.

Pushing the Second Amendment north into Canada is exactly what the gun lobby wants. This is a game for Tea Party wannabes, such as the Harperites. It makes no sense for New Democrats to be sucked into this maelstrom. Even if some members of the NDP are prepared to play games about the validity of registering long guns, the party cannot win a battle about who is prepared to serve up the biggest Tea Party.

Let the Harperites occupy that ground. As the facts come out, it becomes ever more clear that the long gun registry is a worthwhile and quite inexpensive law enforcement tool that saves lives. Plenty of people, it turns out, use long guns to assault other people and to take their own lives. Weapons need to be registered.

The flip side in urban Canada is also clear for the NDP.

If NDP votes in the House of Commons make the difference in killing the long gun registry, the Liberals will never let urban voters forget it. It will be their rallying cry in the cities in the next election. They will say that a vote for the NDP is a vote for Harper.

The last time that tactic worked big time for the Liberals was in 1993. I canvassed in Spadina in Toronto for the NDP during that election. At the door, I met people who were quite well disposed to the NDP but who were desperate to boot out the Conservatives. They planned to vote Liberal to get the job done. The fear of Harper’s dictatorial and irrational policies has been growing all summer. The desire to boot out Harper and to use whatever instrument is available to get the job done is on the rise.

The NDP, a party that doesn’t seem to have stood for much for a long time, is in danger of watching its votes slip away to the Liberals. And the clincher could well be the gun registry, an issue that is both substance and symbol. If the NDP can credibly be blamed for the demise of the registry, plenty of people in the cities will use that as their rationale for voting Liberal.

Watch out Jack.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Harper’s Party: The Curious Case of the Missing Conservatives

Despite its label and occasional bows to the lineage of John A. Macdonald, Harper’s Party is without conservatives.

Harper’s bazaar is inhabited by enthusiasts from the Christian Right, anti-government devotees, advocates of economic and political union with the United States, opponents of abortion, people fearful of gay pride festivities, haters of trade unions, those who think you should be nice to everyone who is not different, lobbyists for the oil industry, and those who fear that global warming is a pointy-headed conspiracy. Binding them together is a proverb: To those who have much, more shall be given; to those who have not, less is only plenty.

Missing in this potpourri are conservatives. Traditional conservatives are not frightened of the state. They don’t fear the census, and they don’t believe that registering cars, or guns is step one on the way to the shadowy men in the black helicopters swooping down and taking our shotguns away. They don’t think that someday those with four-wheel drive vehicles may have to take up arms against the state.

They didn’t support the original Tea Party in which white men dressed up as native people threw tea into Boston Harbour; and they don’t support today’s Tea Party, financed by billionaires, and dedicated to the proposition that ignorance is a qualification for political leadership. They are inclined to the view that the state should control the means of violence and do not adhere to the notion that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution(that the U.S. Supreme Court interprets as giving Americans the right to bear arms) is the fount of liberty.

Traditional Canadian conservatives regarded the strong state as essential for the construction of a country next door to the United States. They were prepared to underwrite railways they thought were necessary for the creation of a transcontinental Canada. When they were convinced that it was required---as in the cases of hydro electricity, bankrupt railways, the sale of liquor, and broadcasting----they were prepared to use crown ownership to achieve their ends. They were elitists, who acted on behalf of big business; they were skeptical about democracy, and they didn’t have a populist bone in their bodies. For a socialist like me, they were not to love.

But let’s not confuse conservatives with Harper’s crowd. On both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, the elements that make up today’s political right constitute a combustible, unstable force that threatens the viability of democracy. In the U.S. where they are stronger and can rally vast throngs in the streets, they have immobilized a timid Democratic administration and its Congressional allies. In Canada, where they hold office in Ottawa, they have to be more circumspect, waiting for the day when they have a majority and can let loose their full dictatorial impulses.

If any traditional conservatives are worried by the spectacle before us, now is the time to speak up.