Wednesday, October 31, 2012

My Log 325, Oct 31 2012: I find a wonderful work of humanism that entranced me half a century ago, and has entranced me again this week: Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlo Levi.

Portrait de Carlo Levi by Carl Van Vechten, ph...
Portrait de Carlo Levi by Carl Van Vechten, photographer (created/published: 1947 June 4) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The cover for a 2006 paperback edition of Chri...
The cover for a 2006 paperback edition of Christ Stopped at Eboli. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 I am re-reading a good number of books that mightily impressed me half a century ago when I was an eager youngster. Some of them I have found disappointing. But one that certainly stands the test of time as a magnificent work is Carlo Levi’s remarkable memoir of a year spent in southern Italy, when he was a 1930s anti-fascist and was exiled to three years in a village so remote it sounds like it belonged to another planet.
          I had already read this book when, in 1954, I visited the Venice Biennale, one of the world’s great art-shows. I was 26 at the time, had started my career in journalism in New Zealand in 1945 as a sports reporter, and was only just beginning to find out what the real world was like. I was innocent of the values of art (as of most other values, I may add, in parenthesis) and it is perhaps not surprising that the two rooms I happened on that were filled with Levi’s intense, brooding paintings of the southern peasants about whom he had written such a memorable book, should have hit me like a bomb. I can still recall their black eyes, gazing out at us almost in an accusing way, as if just by virtue of looking upon their images we were somehow accepting some measure of blame for their hapless condition.
Levi, having studied medicine at university, later chose to follow an artistic life as a painter and writer, but when he arrived in this poverty-stricken village to which he had been assigned by the Fascist authorities, he found himself, willy-nilly forced into action as a doctor, in spite of the lack of equipment and medicines.
“Of children I saw an infinite number,” writes Levi. “They appeared from everywhere, in the dust and heat, amid flies, stark naked or clothed in rags; I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty. My profession has brought me in daily contact with dozens of sick, ill-kempt children, but I never even dreamed of seeing a sight like this. I saw children sitting on the doorsteps, in the dirt, while the sun beat down on them with their eyes half-closed and their eyelids red and swollen; flies crawled across the lids, but the children stayed quite still, without raising a hand to brush them away…. The women, when they saw me look in the doors, asked me to come in, and in the dark, smelly caves where they lived I saw children lying on the floor under torn blankets, with their teeth chattering from fever. Others, reduced to skin and bones by dysentery, could hardly drag themselves about…”
And so it went on, and on, as this well-educated exile, who wanted to spend his time painting, was forced by the ineptitude of the two local doctors to undertake healing missions that he knew in advance were more or less futile.
Where the book picks up is when he turns to describing the local authorities, the venal Mayor, the drunken priests, the corrupt landed gentry. He found that every priest who had occupied the post in the parish had given birth to children, who were whisked off to some religious orphanage and brought up there. Many of the village women had a reputation as witches, who followed a strict series of   outlandish imperatives. Some women had given birth to as many as 15 children, most of them to different men, but most of them died.
As he investigated the   hopeless social circumstances of the peasants, who tried fruitlessly to bring produce out of the barren clay that overlay the rocks of the surrounding hills, he began to understand how they said they were not Christians in these villages, because “Christ stopped at Eboli”, further north.
One of the most revealing and pathetic of Levi’s descriptions, and one that gives an adequate impression of the hopelessness that pervaded the region, is of his first visit to the village priest, Don Trajella. “He was subject to intestinal hemorrhages, but, misanthropic as he was, he said nothing and continued to walk about the village without paying them the least attention. Don Cosimina, the kindly postmaster, the only friend of the old man, who spent hours in the post office reciting his epigrams, begged me to pay him a friendly visit and at the same time see if there was anything I could do for him.”
So he went off, and found the priest living with his mother in an impoverished hovel. “He hastened to offer me wine, which I had to accept in order not to hurt his feelings, in spite of the fact that it was in the glass that his mother and he must have used for years without washing, at least to judge from the black, greasy crust around the rim. Don Trajella had no servant and by now he was so accustomed to the filth that he no longer noticed it.”
Levi noticed he had some books that lay covered by dust and dirt. “What do you expect?” asked the priest. “In a place like this --- he is talking of some art-works he performed when younger --- there’s no point in reading. I had some fine books…There are some rare editions among them When I came here the swine that carried my books smeared them with tar, just to annoy me. I lost all desire to open them and I left them just like that on the floor. They’ve lain there for years.”
This surely is an indifference, a sense of hopelessness carried to the nth degree, and it is all the more impressive in that it comes from the local priest responsible for the spiritual welfare of the populace.
“I’ve done nothing” ---he is talking of some art-works that he performed when younger --- said the priest, “ever since I’ve been here among the heathen, in partibus infidelium, bringing the sacraments of Mother Church, as they say, to these heretics who will have none of them. Once upon a time such things (indicating his art-works) amused me. But here they’re quite impossible. There’s no point in doing anything in this place. Have another glass of wine, Don Carlo.”
Yet in spite of their indifference and negativity, Levi seems to have developed an affection and admiration for these tough peasants, who had resisted every army, every religion, every ideology that had washed over them during the centuries, and had somehow or other survived.
His conclusions as to what might be done about their enforced isolation from the mainstream of human life, even more than from Italian life, were somewhat complex and surprising. The problem, he wrote, had three dimensions: First, “we are faced with two very different civilizations, a pre-Christian civilization and one that is no longer Christian, stand face to face. As long as the second imposes its deification of the State upon the first, they will be in conflict….Peasant civilization will always be the loser, but it will not be entirely crushed…. Just as long as Rome rules over Matera (the major town in the region), Matera will be lawless and despairing, and Rome despairing and tyrannical.”
Second: the trouble is economic, the dilemma poverty. The land has been gradually impoverished, forests removed, rivers often run dry. “There is no capital, no industry, no savings, no schools; emigration is no longer possible, taxes are unduly heavy, and malaria is everywhere. All this is in large part due to the ill-advised intentions and efforts of the State, a State in which the peasants cannot feel they have a stake, and which has brought them only poverty and deserts.”
Third (and the most interesting part of this equation) is the social side of the problem. Surprisingly, Levi absolves the owners of the big landed estates of primary responsibility. “Rather, (the peasants’) real enemies, those who cut them off from any hope of freedom and a decent existence, are to be found among the middle-class village tyrants. This class is physically and morally degenerate and no longer able to fulfil its original function. It lives off petty thievery and the bastardized tradition of feudal rights. Only with the suppression of this class and the substitution of something better can the difficulties of the South find a solution.”
To perform this, he writes, the Italian State will have to be renewed from top to bottom.
I need write no more about the page by page stimulus offered by this exceptional work of humanism, which hit the post-war world like a bomb and made of Carlo Levi an honoured writer and artist. Rather surprisingly, when an amnesty was offered to honor the fall of Addis Ababa in the Italian war against Ethiopia, and the political exiles were declared free, all the other exiles in the region hurried to get out of it. But Levi, drawn to the peasants and their problems, and their fierce unyielding resistance to authority as he was, lingered for a good ten days before he managed to pack up and take his leave.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Link of the Day Oct 30 2012: A remarkable article by GEORGE LAKOFF FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT, says Hurricane Sandy was the result of “systemic causation” by global warming.

Pop!Tech 2008 - George Lakoff
Pop!Tech 2008 - George Lakoff (Photo credit: Pop!Tech)
Lakoff draws a distinction between “direct causation”, which occurs when some force is used directly to achieve an end, and what he calls “systemic causation”.

Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer,” he writes.  “HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS.  Working in coal mines is a systemic cause of black lung disease. Driving while drunk is a systemic cause of auto accidents.  Sex without contraception is a systemic cause of unwanted pregnancies.”  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

My Log 324 Oct 22 2012: Imagine! 44 Woody Allen films in repertory, the life’s work of a cultural icon

Cover of "Broadway Danny Rose"
Cover of Broadway Danny Rose
Woody Allen
Cover of Woody Allen

The cinema right under where I live in Montreal is running a season of all 44 of Woody Allen’s films. I have been looking forward to it immensely, but having seen four already, I am finding it so far a bit of a damp squib.

The first film shown, Take the Money and Run, was made in 1969, when Allen was 34, and was, I thought, a pretty poor effort, especially when one remembers that by that time he had already had several successful plays performed on Broadway, had written a few books, and was making a lot of money writing jokes for various TV shows. In other words, he was already a seasoned professional.

On the basis of my low opinion of that film, I decided to forgo Play It Again, Sam, and took a rest for a few days, not bothering to have another look at The Front, which I remembered as a good film about the Hollywood blacklist in which Allen played a person who offered his name to blacklisted, established writers, to allow them to continue to work, and Annie Hall, his romantic comedy set in Manhattan, and dealing with the love life of that city’s intellectual, angst-ridden thirty-somethings, and the film that marked the high point of his collaboration with Diane Keaton.

So the next one I took in was Interiors, made in 1978, but already his tenth film. In other words, this guy had already made as many films as most directors make in a lifetime, and he was experimenting with various styles, this one being a sort of homage to Ingmar Bergman, that deals with a semi-hysterical family of three sisters whose lives are plagued (although they would never have described it this way) by a guilt-tripping mother.   Something about this film seemed to me not to wash: from Bergman, such themes seemed to represent his view of life. Somehow this seemed like an effort by a filmmaker to pretend he was a intellectual, and one as emotionally-wrought as Bergman.  Although the companion with whom I saw the film was ecstatic, personally this was another of the films that I didn’t really like.

Okay, on another six years (and five films) to one of my all-time favourite Allen films, Broadway Danny Rose, which I saw last night. I had seen it at least three times before, but this time it seemed to me even greater than on earlier occasions. Danny Rose’s story is told by a bunch of old Broadway professionals who are sitting around eating bagels in a delicatessen and get to swapping yards about the pathetic career of this figure of fun. Danny is the worst of agents, who always represented the worst of acts --- a one-legged tapdancer, for example, as well as the world’s worst ventriloquist, a stuttering Venezuelan whose act was so terrible it had even been booed by a hall of five-year-olds. Then there was the guy who made animals from balloons for whom Danny prophesied a great future, and the washed up Italian crooner who had a hit thirty years before, and whom the film catches just when he is in the middle of a nostalgia revival that is getting him more gigs than he can handle (on cruise ships, for example, and women’s service dinners.)  He is a fat, self-pitying, drunken wreck, but Danny Rose is devoting himself selflessly to his cause, on the assumption that everything in life is personal, that life is meaningless unless your every action is not  impregnated with a personal affection and concern.

Part of the deal with the crooner is that he is cheating on his wife with a tough blonde (played wonderfully by Mia Farrow) whose two brothers happen to be enforcers for the Mob. Faced with his biggest gig yet, the crooner announces he cannot perform unless the blonde is present, but she is angry with him for something or other, and Danny offers to “be your beard”, in other words, to find the blonde and persuade her to accompany him to the performance.  So begins the juice of this beautiful little movie, when Allen meets Farrow and together they undergo a series of madcap adventures that culminate in their turning up at the performance, which is a triumphant success.

The blonde has been bugging the crooner to change managers, because her view is that Danny Rose is doing nothing for him: so after the success of his concert the crooner drops on Danny the news that he is proposing a change in management, something that, in a memorable scene strikes Danny like a thunderbolt: how can anyone be so disloyal, so greedy, so ambitious that their personal relationship has meant absolutely nothing to him?

So the move comes to its climax, where Danny Rose is serving a Thanksgiving dinner of frozen turkey to the various pathetic acts he still represents. Arrives the blonde, who has been worrying ever since she failed to speak up for Danny when the crooner dumped him. She has come to apologize to him, offering to be friends with him; but he has been so hurt he rejects the offer, and she walks away. Surrounded by his pathetic friends, he thinks it over, runs after her, and the movie ends on this happy note, a series of scenes that could bring the tears to anyone’s eyes.

What a great movie!  I can hardly wait to the screening of another of my favorites, Radio Days, later in the week, another exercise in Allen nostalgia. After all, when a guy writes, and directs a movie a year for 44 years, it stands to reason they are not all masterpieces. He may have made some clunkers, but he has also made some wonderful films, and in my lexicon of these we are moving inexorably to the delightful Vicky Christine Barcelona, the movie which brought him back to the top rank, made in 2008 (when Allen was 73) and a movie that I have already seen with delight at least three times.

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

A solemn crowd gathers outside the Stock Excha...
A solemn crowd gathers outside the Stock Exchange after the crash. 1929. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My Log  323  Oct 4 2012: A Last Word on Eric Hobsbawm, the wonderful British social historian, whose death at the age of 95 I referred to in a recent blog. In August 1996 I wrote the following article for Canadian Forum magazine, based on my reading of Hobsbawm's book about what he called Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century. The article testifies to my high regard for his intellectual and social wisdom.


A socialist balance sheet for the 20th century


Published in The Canadian Forum, July/August 1996

The year after I was born the economy of the Western world collapsed. The drama began on Wall Street, but quickly reached into the tiny farming village in the far south of New Zealand where I had become the sixth child of a carpenter who built farm gates and cow byres.
My family was plunged into crisis. Three of my older brothers had to leave school and work for my Dad for nothing, so that he could ease his fam­ily through the Great Slump. My fourth brother was told on Friday that he was leaving school on Monday to go work for a building supply firm. He did as he was told and was stuck for ten years in a job he hated.
At the other end of the country, far to the north, my wife Shirley’s parents were struggling in the same way. Every penny was precious, clothes were handed down through the family, every bus or ferry ticket was a significant expenditure, every vegetable grown in the family garden an important re­source. Her father was a labourer in a factory, a courageous man who defied the perils of an age of mass unemploy­ment to help form a union and, later, to elect the first Labour government.
That socialist victory in 1935 lifted the spirits of working people. A year after the election, my wife’s grand­mother, an elderly Maori born in 1855, gave Shirley a watch for her birthday. Thanked effusively for this wondrous gift, the old lady said, with calm but total conviction, “Don’t thank me, dear. Thank Michael Joseph Savage.” He was the Labour Prime Minister.
I have often marvelled at how for­tune has favoured me. A child of the Depression, yet too young to be really affected by it; too young to go to war; and then, as the world emerged from war, an adult revelling in years of full employment, economic plenty and the beneficence of what we now call the welfare state. And yet the fact is, I was born smack in the middle of what his­torian Eric Hobsbawm in Age of Ex­tremes: the Short 20th Century calls the, “Age of Catastrophe”, which he de-­ scribes as the most brutal era in the history of civilization.

How could a guy get so lucky? While my older brothers were in the army, while mil­lions of decent people around the world were scrabbling desperately to keep body and soul together, and mil­lions were later mercilessly herded into concentration camps and gas ov­ens, or condemned to starvation in massive famines, or reduced to hud­dling in the cellars of bombed-out, once-beautiful cities, I was a teenager playing cricket and football on idyllic summer evenings and getting a demo­cratic education in a good high school.
Hobsbawm explains how, in 1914, human beings began a retreat from the material, intellectual and moral pro­gress of the 19th century into a state of absolute barbarism unparalleled in his­tory. I didn’t know it, but capitalism, the predatory economic system in which I grew up, was mired in a deep crisis from which it was rescued only by the mobilization needed to win the Second World War.
For some reason I grew up disliking the system, and always expecting to be on the wrong side of authority. Perhaps that sense came from a day when I was 14 and the headmaster of my high school told us all during a chemistry class, “There’ll be no millionaires in the future, you know.” It was a classic mistake in futurology, but it had a big effect on at least one pupil, and I wish there were more headmasters like him today.
Or perhaps my political values came from the time (I was still in my teens) when a dissident member of the La­bour Party toured the country to per­suade people that the banks should be nationalized. His speech was serious politics, expressed to a serious audi­ence, and it drew 1,500 people on a Sun­day night in our small city. That’s what politics should be like, I felt — dissent­ing voices, constantly arguing for im­provements in society. We were far, then, from the era of the seven-second sound bite.
Perhaps my belief in socialism came from the knowledge that, in our small country, we had somehow managed to build a humanist tradition. New Zea­land was one of the first countries in the world to have an old-age pension (1898), and the first in the English-speaking world to create a national health scheme (1938), described by Sav­age as “applied Christianity” (and brought in, of course, as later in Britain and Saskatchewan, against the shrill opposition of all the conservative ele­ments in society).
I never had any doubt that the wel­fare state was good. And now Hobsbawm, in his magisterial survey of our century, confirms that it was the welfare state that actually saved capi­talism from its own worst instincts. Those who had fought that war to end all wars believed things would never again be the same, that the old order had to give way to a new and better world. “The Great Slump [of the 1930s],” writes Hobsbawm, “confirmed intellectuals, activists and ordinary citizens in the belief that something was fundamentally wrong with the world they lived in.”
Hobsbawm's marvellous book (writ­ten at the ripe age of 77) takes me by the hand and, unlike any other book I have ever read, explains my life to me.
The “Age of Catastrophe” ended in 1945, the very year I left high school and became a worker. Throughout what is now called the developed world, people who’d suffered began to insist that the harshness of the economic system be alleviated. The Scandinavian coun­tries began their remarkable years of social engineering, aimed at improv­ing the collective welfare. The British electorate kicked out their great na­tional hero, Winston Churchill, even before the war was finished; the La­bour government that succeeded him, embracing the reformist thinking of Keynes and Beveridge, introduced fundamental measures designed to ameliorate the living conditions of the common people. Thus we entered the era of the welfare state, described by Hobsbawm as the “Golden Age of Capitalism”, successor to the "Age of Catastrophe”.
It is profoundly satisfying to note that these years of my adulthood brought “the most dramatic, rapid and profound revolution in human affairs of which history has record”. Amen to that: I have been not only a beneficiary of the welfare state, but a firm believer in it and a proponent of it. And that will never change. I have never voted for a Conservative (and I never will), because Conservatives do not want an egalitarian society. I have always known that more than any other politi­cal system, democratic socialism con­cerns itself with the quality of life of the ordinary working person.
My wife and I left New Zealand in 1950 to take a good look at the world —a trip from which we never returned.
In many ways the world, although still recovering from the great conflict, was a beautiful place, easy to move around in. For a few years we lived a sort of personal odyssey, a couple of relatively innocent youngsters gobbling up expe­rience: we stood wide-eyed under the Gateway to India, cycled past unimag­inable graveyards in destroyed Euro­pean landscapes, talked earnestly with German ex-soldiers, hung goggle-eyed over French charcuterie and patisserie shops, and tramped through museums, marvelling at the great artworks of our century.
“It was like the whole world was waiting for us,” Shirley said recently. “We were able to do whatever we wanted, and go anywhere.” For one thing, we had British citizenship, and much of the post-Imperialist world was open to us for that very reason. By the time we completed our odyssey, we’d been immigrants into four countries.
We went to Australia first, where we found the right-wing Menzies gov­ernment. Sick-making! The next year, fed on a diet of Gandhi and Nehru and the glories of the struggle against colonialism, we went to India, three years after partition. Hundreds of thou­sands of refugees were living on the sidewalks. For the first time we came into contact with how things had been, and still were over much of the world, during the "Age of Catastro­phe”.
We saw people dying from starva­tion and children lying on sidewalks, their bones sticking through their skins, literally minutes from death. We worked in a rehabilitation colony for refugees north of Delhi. There we met splendid people, animated by the left-wing ideals in which we believed, working to overcome the horrors of the system they had inherited from the British; and others, more complacent, more conservative, who were quite content to take their salaries and carry on as if nothing needed to be done. For a time we lived among the poorest peo­ple in the world, Indian peasants, and they embarrassed us with their hospi­tality, overwhelmed us with their gen­erosity of spirit.
Now we began really to understand the terrors of poverty and lack of op­portunity; the urgency of equalizing wealth in every corner of the globe; the horrors of race discrimination, a major legacy of colonialism; the need for peo­ple to embrace each other, regardless of colour, creed or social condition.
Faced with the reality of a brutal world, I began to interpret modern his­tory as an inexorable movement to in­troduce decency into the management of human affairs. In my reading of it, this movement began with the Tolpud­dIe Martyrs, the six agricultural la­bourers in Britain who first dared to take a union oath in 1834, and were transported to Australia for their brav­ery. Their action gave rise to the la­bour-union movement, for which, in the next 150 years, thousands of people laid their bodies on the line against harsh employers and brutal conditions. Equivalent movements were under way throughout the world — against colonialism, racism, apartheid, and eco­nomic and social injustice — and I be­gan to understand that all these strug­gles were one. I came to believe that there has never been anything more decent and inspiring, at any time in history, than this slow development towards an egalitarian world, this strug­gle to improve the lot of common peo­ple everywhere.
Our money ran out in India, and we had to leave. We arrived in Britain just in time to see the Labour Party go down to defeat, the restoration of Churchill as Prime Minister. And now I began to realize that the very decency of socialism, its very democratic ethos, was its major handicap. The wealth-­owners had no scruples, and did not hesitate to lie about left-wing govern­ments, twisting the lie into people’s minds by using the immense levers for influencing opinion that lay within their control.
In Britain (as earlier in New Zea­land), it had been a self-educated work­ing-class politician, Aneurin Bevan — one of the great political orators of our century — who had forced through the National Health Act, the cornerstone of the British welfare state. This was a major achievement in a society as class-ridden as Britain, and even the govern­ments of Churchill, and later of Macmillan (both of whom we lived un­der), never set out systematically to de­stroy what Labour had built. For me, that was a key point. The values of the welfare state were becoming en­trenched in every civilized society. They were permanent. Or so I naively thought.
When we came to Canada in 1954, we found the CCF/NDP injecting their mildly leftist ideas into the main­stream political discourse. I came to believe that the existence of this party was perhaps the main thing that dif­ferentiated Canada from the free-en­terprising United States. I supported (but never joined) the CCF/NDP, and voted for them until Bob Rae’s apos­tate government effectively disenfranchised people like me, and I couldn’t make my cross for them, even while holding my nose.
But time moves on; influences change. The welfare state had been built by a gerontocracy that dated back to the First World War, and bore the scars and memories of everything that had happened since. But by the 1960s, the children of those people as they grew into adulthood had been sun­dered from that historical memory. They grew up in a prosperous, free-spending world, a fully-employed gen­eration for whom political awareness was gradually replaced by private feel­ings and desires, such as those ex­pressed in the famous posters of the 1968 student revolt in France: “I shall call anything that worries me politi­cal”; “I take my desires for reality, for I believe in the reality of my desires”; “When I think of revolution, I want to make love”. Perhaps to the dismay of their parents, they seemed ready to em­brace what Hobsbawm calls “the un­limited autonomy of individual de­sire."
Such people were not equipped to oppose in any effective way the im­mense power of those who controlled wealth. Hobsbawm writes: “The old moral vocabulary of rights and duties, mutual obligations, sin and virtue, sac­rifice, conscience, rewards and penal­ties, could no longer be translated into the new language of desired gratifica­tion. Once such practices and institu­tions were no longer accepted as part of a way of ordering society that linked people to each other and ensured social cooperation and reproduction, most of their capacity to structure human so­cial life vanished. They were reduced simply to expressions of individuals’ preferences....”
The creation of a generation with such beliefs was an unexpected side-ef­fect of a social liberalization whose ad­vantages, Hobsbawm says, “seemed enormous to all except ingrained reac­tionaries."
Much  about the new mass-society isolated people, rather than drawing them together. Perhaps we are all guilty. Many of us have become accustomed to (and, in my case, have insisted upon) the privacy and detachment of an indi­vidual’s life jn the modern city. Even some of our welfare measures, de­manded by socialists for so long, have changed social  relationships in ways that increased anomie among people. In fact, we have had little choice: the temper of the times, not our individual choices, dictates such things.
I have never really understood why the welfare state has fallen out of fa­vour with the public. (Or has it? Maybe that’s just propaganda, relentless and unceasing, and successful.) Hobsbawm gives many interesting explanations, some economic, some psychological.
By 1980, the wealth-owners felt con­fident enough in their power to launch an attack, as Churchill and Macmillan had never dared to do, on the very bases of the welfare state. Ronald Reagan, their political spokesman, seemed like an idiot, but he knew how to put over simple ideas on television. One of those ideas — the most dangerous, as it turns out — was that the government he headed was the enemy of the people who had elected it. This hatred of gov­ernment, propagated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, has be­come embedded in the public consciousness as more or less the norm. This has made it relatively simple for the right to carry out its real agenda: the diversion of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich, something that has been achieved with lightning speed in the last decade.
As a consequence, the wealth-own­ers have obtained a stranglehold over money, trade and the economy. This state of things has shown up at every level of society. For example, at the lo­cal level, hundreds of people had to be willing to risk imprisonment to stop the corporate rape of Clayoquot Sound, and even then they didn’t really win. In Ontario in recent months, we have had to watch helplessly as a neo-­conservative government has ruth­lessly closed halfway houses, women's shelters and enterprises manned by the mentally handicapped.
At the national level, voters were flummoxed by Mulroney, and the propaganda with which the wealth-owners supported him, into approving his plan to sell the country to Ameri­can big business. At the global level, international financial speculators, us­ing uncontrollable high-tech commu­nications, have been able to force our governments to abdicate their respon­sibility to legislate in the interests of their citizens (e.g. the Chretien gov­ernment’s pathetic cave-in on NAFTA, and the 1995 Martin budget).
And back in New Zealand, the re­cord of social legislation I grew up to be so proud of has been thrown into the dustbin by a Labour government that never mentioned its plans to the voters who elected it; and the country has been transformed (a huge success story for conservatives!) into one of the four most inegalitarian nations in the devel­oped world.
There is great irony involved: throughout the “Golden Age” it appeared that the welfare state had saved capitalism from its own worst instincts. But the real rea­son that capitalism had succeeded, Hobsbawm writes, was because “it was not just capitalist”. Profit maximization and accumulation of wealth may have been necessary conditions for its success, but they were not in them­selves sufficient. Slowly, from the 1970s, the global economy became less stable as economic growth faltered, government revenues ceased to in­crease and, in these more straitened economic circumstances, the welfare state began to weigh heavily even on its strongest proponents, such as the Swedes.
Then the cultural revolution in val­ues that capitalism created, expressing that “unlimited autonomy of individual desire”, began to erode the very bases of capitalism itself. Hobsbawm is eloquent on the irony: looking down on the ruins of the communist regimes that had opposed it, “capitalism tri­umphed at the very moment when it ceased to be as plausible as it had once seemed. The market claimed to tri­umph as its nakedness and inadequacy could no longer be concealed.”
Finally, it has become clear that capi­talism has run out of control. What Hobsbawm calls “the iron logic of mechanization” has clicked in. It has long been assumed that alternative em­ployment would be created for those thrown out of work by machines, just as the peasantry, in an earlier time, had been absorbed by the Industrial Revo­lution. But now it is obvious that this is not happening. Under the pressure of the “prevailing free-market ideol­ogy”, government has ceased to be the employer of last resort, and workers are once again at the mercy of private firms “which, by definition, consider no interest but their own pecuniary one”. So we have the creation of huge, impoverished Third World urban populations and, in the developed world, the emergence of a significant underclass, now growing rapidly every­where.
As we entered the 1990s, as familiar ways of life crumbled, people began to lose their bearings. It was now that “a culture of hate” (largely propagated by the American entertainment machine with its individualist values) began to show up in the lyrics of popular music and the growing cruelty of films and television programs.
Take, for exampIe, the changing ethos of the American fllm, one of the world’s dominant forms of popular cul­ture. In the early westerns, violence — the sock on the jaw as the solution to all personal problems, the gunfighter shooting it out with the bad guys on behalf of an innocent community —was seen in the context almost of a fairy tale. By the 1960s, however, what Hobsbawm calls “the technology-based triumph of sound and image” had vir­tually put to rout all of the assump­tions about classical or elite culture with which earlier generations had grown up. The images that now accom­pany us from birth to death are those of advertising, consumption and mass entertainment, the sounds those of commercial pop music. The depiction of violence in a good guys-bad guys context has gradually evolved into a glorification of violence as an end in itself.
All of this, of course, has spun over into political conflict. A few years ago, even violent political protesters recog­nized certain limits to their behaviour. Now we live in a world where the United States can send bombers to Libya in violation of all previously rec­ognized norms of international behav­iour, with the object of "taking out” the Libyan leader; where a terrorist tar­geted by the Israeli security forces picks up a phone and has his head blown off; where that act gives rise to a series of awful events in which ob­sessed religious fanatics are willing to meet their maker so long as they can “take out" dozens of their hated ene­mies. A culture of hatred indeed, spreading inexorably throughout the world.
Thus we arrive at Hobsbawm’s troubling and superb final chapter, his summary of hu­man life as we head “towards the mil­lennium”’ confronting “problems for which nobody has, or even claims to have, solutions”.
For the first time in two centuries, he writes, we lack any international system of structure. New states are popping up almost every year. And identity politics, the right of ethnic groups to self-determination, which he describes as a “combination of intellec­tual nullity with strong, even desperate emotions” (he includes Quebec nation­alism in this stricture), has become po­litically powerful in a time of disinte­grating states, creeds and institutions. The conflict between Soviet-spon­sored command socialism and free en­terprise, which has dominated the world for so many decades, “may turn out to be as irrelevant to the third mil­lennium” as 16th-century religious conflicts were for later centuries. But more worrying is the disorientation that has hit those who would advocate a mixed economy, combining private and public, market and planning, state and business — the type of economy that has created the most impressive results in the history of economics.
In addition, demography and ecol­ogy have become the two central issues, requiring that a balance be struck among humanity, the resources it con­sumes, and the effect of its activities on the environment. “No one knows, and few dare to speculate how this is to be done,” Hobsbawm writes. “One thing, however, is undeniable. [The solution] will be incompatible with a world econ­omy based on the unlimited pursuit of profit by economic enterprises dedi­cated, by definition, to this object and competing with each other in a global free market.”
Hobsbawm finds three aspects of the global economy “alarming”. These are:
•    the “squeezing of human labour out of the production of goods and services”, and the failure to provide other work for those dis­placed;
•    the inexorable movement, in a global labour market, towards creation of widespread impover­ishment (even in the developed countries); and
•    the loss, as a result of the triumph of free-market ideology, of the in­struments that nation-states need to manage the social effects of eco­nomic upheavals.
“The world economy is an increas­ingly powerful and uncontrolled en­gine. Can it be controlled, and if so, by whom?” he asks.
Again, a cruel irony: economic or­thodoxy has begun to eliminate social security at the very time that mass un­employment appears to be settling in as a permanent feature of the modern economy. The nation-state is in de­cline, battered by a world economy it cannot control, and by its own appar­ent inability to serve its citizens and maintain public law and order.
Yet Hobsbawm warns that “the state, or some other form of public authority representing the public in­terest”, has become more indispensable than ever, if the social and environ­mental inequities of the market econ­omy are to be countered. The state is still needed to allocate and redistribute income if we are to have an equitable society.
“It is absurd to argue,” he writes, “that the citizens of the European Community, whose per-capita share of the joint national income increased by 80 per cent from 1970 to 1990, cannot afford the level of income and welfare in 1990 that had been taken for granted in 1970.” With this simple but devastat­ing proposition, he explodes the ridicu­lous economic policies that are trans­forming Canadian life for the worse in 1996.
He leaves us with a question that I believe should be put to every senior-level high school class, so that young people can get a realistic handle on the world they are now confronting.
What will happen, he asks — “the scenario is not utterly fantastic” — if present trends continue and we de­velop a society in which 25 per cent of the people are working, 75 per cent are not, and the economy is producing twice as much per capita as it is now?
“Who, except public authority, would and could ensure a minimum of income and welfare for all? Who could counter the tendencies to inequality so strikingly visible in the Crisis Decades? To judge by the experience of the 1970s and 1980s, not the free market.”
Of course, the free-market ide­ologues— people such as Michael Walker, Andrew Coyne, David Frum, Clare Hoy, Brian Mulroney, Mike Harris, Ralph Klein, Preston Manning et al, mean-spirited people whose views are hammered into us by the mass media (“which is now a more important com­ponent of the political process than par­ties and electoral systems”, writes Hobsbawm) — hate the very idea of equality. They care nothing about the answer to such a question.
Our future is not safe in their hands. They have taken us back in a giant leap to the world of uncertainty from which we thought the welfare state had rescued us. It looks as if all the battles of our fathers will have to be fought over again.
Whether generations dominated by “the unlimited autonomy of indi­vidual desire” are equipped for this fight is a major question that will be answered in the next decade or so. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the welfare state saved capltalism from revolution by those millions who were oppressed by its harsh rules. But if the welfare state is no more (as the neo-conservatives hope and pray), what will save capi­talism next time around? Hobsbawm is clear about one thing: free-market economics cannot, by their very nature, solve the huge economic and so­cial problems of the near future. Is it conceivable that within 20 years or so, those millions who are now being so heartlessly dropped off the social and economic scale will get their act together and rise in rebellion against their oppressors?

The book  referred to in this article is Age of Extremes: the Short 20th Century, by Eric Hobsbawrn, published by Abacus, London, 1995, 627 pages, $19.95  paperback.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

My Log 322 October 2 2012-10-02 Disgraceful remarks blaming Mulcair for Jack Layton’s death are not assuaged by an insincere apology

English: Jack Layton making NDP transit announ...
English: Jack Layton making NDP transit announcement. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 I am developing what I can only describe as a visceral distaste for the Canadian Conservatives, whose behaviour towards political issues of the day makes one gag.
The recent major issues --- attacks on the UN by our witless Foreign Secretary a man so gormless that I am told his staff have to plot how to reduce his face time vis-à-vis visiting Foreign Secretaries, who so often speak three and four languages, and conduct themselves with polish and diplomatic intelligence; the sucking up to US policies in all things; the obeisance before Israel; the vengeful, vindictive attitudes to Canadians in trouble, particularly if they are of the Muslim faith ---- all these are so well documented and so offensive to ordinary people with a modicum of decency as to need no further elaboration from me.
Let me just mention one recent example which seems to epitomize the level of tasteless drivel  that the Conservatives normally exhibit.  Their MP Rob Anders recently criticized Thomas Mulcair, the first NDP leader to pose a real threat to the governing party in our history, for, of all things, having hastened the death of the former NDP leader Jack Layton by insisting that he overwork himself during the last election.
That such a distasteful claim should ever have been made is enough to beggar description. That such a gutsy, selfless political performance as that given by the dying NDP leader, as he stumped the country on his cane should have been demeaned by such insensitive comments certainly beggars belief. Yet this is the kind of attitude we have grown accustomed to in the era of Stephen Harper, who sets the smarmy tone from the top.
That Anders has apologized for his remark makes no difference: if he had even a modicum of decency in his bones he would have  shrunk from making such a charge, and his apology changes nothing, in my opinion.
All it does, for me, is to confirm the shoddy standards according to which Harper and his disgraceful gang carry out the government of  this country, causing every person with the slightest pride in some of our notable past achievements to hang his head in shame. Are we ever going to get rid of these guys?

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Monday, October 1, 2012

Link of the Day October 1 2012: The death of Eric Hobsbawm

Karl Marx (1818-1883)
Karl Marx (1818-1883) (Photo credit: Wikipedi

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