In today’s video I review the insights in Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections, as well as gems from leftist psychologists like Bruce Levine, Paul Moloney, and Gabor Mate. If you’re quarantined and feeling low, here’s a leftist take on why.
Brian Dominick is the author of Present as Prologue: A GenZero Novella, which describes the first phase of a youth-led, high-tech revolution in America. We talk about youth liberation, education, capitalism, and the liberatory possibilities and limitations of technological change. Interesting discussion about the idea of youth as a class.
A little video talking about some of the readings on parenting I found most helpful, and most compatible with leftist values (equality, freedom…)
A wide-ranging and admittedly bookish discussion with William Patterson historian Navyug Gill and frequent guest and sometimes host of the show, Dan Freeman-Maloy. We talk about postcolonial studies, history, and the British Empire, and the ways that its racism lives on.
I have been surprised by two electoral events in a few months: Trump’s election victory and the Colombian referendum on the peace accords. Both votes were very close, had low participation rates, and were expected to go the other way. If I were a closer watcher of British politics, I would no doubt have been equally surprised by the Brexit vote. In trying to learn from my own errors of analysis, I have come to these conclusions.
1. This is a world of bubbles.
One important and constant argument made on the left is for the need for independent media. The reason we believe in devoting resources and energy to creating and supporting independent media is to try to reduce our dependence for information on analysis on corporate media sources. Whether those sources support Democrats or Republicans, whether they are liberal or conservative, their corporate values and their business models trump the political considerations of their journalists or editors.
We used to focus our analysis of media bias against the corporate, agenda-setting media and especially their flagship newspaper, namely the New York Times. The NYT would receive the most criticism, not because it was the most biased, because there have always been many outlets to the right of it, but because it had the most influence. With the decline of newspapers and more and more people getting their information from different media – TV, social media, other web sources – audiences fragmented.
That fragmentation process is now complete. The agenda-setting media set agendas for only one bloc of Americans. Another bloc, the one that just elected Trump, uses a different set of media – one with its own set of assumptions and biases.
So my daily media routine goes like this: I use a carefully curated Twitter feed, following journalists and writers that I like and trust. When I have analyzed what I end up reading via Twitter, it seemed to me that I was clicking a lot of links to The Guardian, The Intercept, and Al Jazeera.
I make a daily round of outlets that I like and contribute to – Znet, TeleSUR, Ricochet, rabble, and some foreign outlets like El Tiempo in Colombia. I avoid material that depresses me except when I’m doing direct research on a topic. Because I don’t like to be made miserable constantly, I also look for news that is already presented with some analysis or even comedically – like John Oliver’s show. Because I actually want to write and do things, I don’t have time for much more than this or I would be consuming news all day.
In other words, I live in a bubble of my own selection. Being in that bubble is helpful to me because I know I have a community of people who I respect, who are like-minded and I get to spend time reading their insights. But left media outlets don’t have systematic surveying of every part of the US. For that kind of resourced, comprehensive coverage, I looked to the corporate media for insight – the NYT, CNN, etc. I relied on their news and their polling and tried to build my own analysis from there. And consequently, I was completely wrong.
I don’t think that there’s some alternative like scanning every bubble or spending lots of time interacting with media that supported Trump. You can get insights from inside your bubble. Arlie Russell Hochschild did serious research on what was driving support for Trump, and delivered it straight into my bubble on Democracy Now. Michael Moore predicted a Trump victory. The starting point though has to be that there is very little that forms a common basis for a national conversation – there are several different conversations going on with different assumptions and starting points. Fox News and Clear Channel on the one hand and the NYT and MSNBC on the other are all corporate media, but their audiences don’t understand each other and underestimate each other.
2. The poll that matters is the election.
Campaign strategists and voters relied on polls, and the polls were wrong. Politicians use polls to try to campaign scientifically, focusing attention where they can make gains according to how they are polling in the elections. But the polls are pseudo-science. In the last three elections I have followed closely (Canada 2015, Colombia referendum, and this last US election) I had a completely incorrect idea of what was going to happen because I relied on the polls.
With everybody, politicians and public alike, watching the polls, the election becomes more like a pseudoscientific exercise about watching percentage points go up and down and less like a public conversation about politics, policies, and laws.
3. The conservative base is not growing.
In Canada 2015, Stephen Harper lost the election with nearly the same number of votes (5.6 million) with which he won a majority in 2010 (5.8 million). Trump won the presidency in 2016 with 60.3 million votes, while Romney lost in 2012 with 60.9 million. In both countries the conservative base is not growing, but slowly shrinking. When they lose it is not because their base grows, but because the other side gets more votes (in the cases of Trudeau and Obama, a lot more votes).
Obama (2008, 2012) and Trudeau (2015) were able to generate enthusiasm that Clinton was not. Perhaps Sanders would have generated that kind of enthusiasm, but he did not win the nomination. Many leftists who want substantive moves towards greater equality and peace were excited about Sanders, but neither Obama nor Trudeau really promised such moves. They won anyway. The Democratic Party might not see a move to the left as the best strategy after this loss.
Trump may have won by promising to make America great again, but he is incapable of solving or even understanding any of the problems we face. Solutions for environmental, social, and international crises will have to come from the left. Surviving the Trump presidency will be a challenge.
Independence of thought will be an important survival skill.
In the four years that it took to negotiate this peace deal, Colombia has been moving inexorably towards October 2, the day that the people could have their say about the deal that would end the five-decade long war. The polls predicted an easy win for the “yes” side. The government’s negotiators and the guerrillas (FARC) campaigned for a strong “yes” vote. This was the best deal that could be had, they said.
There are around 34 million Colombians eligible to vote out of a population of around 48 million. My own prediction was that about half of that would vote in the referendum and around 70% of them would vote “yes”.
But the ‘No’ won with 6,422,136 votes, defeating the ‘Yes’ who came in with 6,361,762. A difference of 60,374 voters. A difference of less than half a percentage point of the 12.8 million who voted. An even smaller fraction of the 21.2 million who didn’t vote.
With peace at stake, why was abstention so high? High abstention is a feature of recent elections – it was high in the 2014 election as well – with 32.9 million eligible voters in 2014, just 14.7 million voted, and only 7.8 million of those voted for the winner, President Santos.
But Santos and the peace bloc weren’t able to get that number to vote “yes”. What happened?
The polls predicting an easy “yes” victory may have played a role. Why would “yes” voters feel the need to vote if the outcome was a foregone conclusion? The “no” side, by contrast, was mobilized by the ever-polarizing ex-President and war candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez.
The areas most affected by the war voted “yes”, while most of the cities voted “no” (Bogota and Cali, however, voted “yes”). Hurricane Matthew may have played a role, since the Caribbean Coast has been severely affected by the war and was expected to be a “yes” stronghold.
Disenchantment with the process played a role. After four years of negotiations, the people were being asked to show up to rubber-stamp a process the parameters of which they did not have a say in setting. Most of them chose not to show up at all, and half of them voted not to give the rubber stamp. Though Colombia’s social movements voted “yes”, they had critiques of the process – that the war against the people would continue under this peace, that the economic model had been left untouched, that their voices were heard only in tokenistic ways at the table. These feelings, and not just the right-wing opposition organized by Uribe, may have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm for the “yes” side.
Before despairing of eternal conflict, however, let us clarify what this result was and was not.
It is certainly not a mandate for war. At a virtual tie (50.23% no, 49.76% yes) and with almost twice as many abstainers as voters, this can only be read as a sign of division and a lack of consensus, not the unequivocal statement of a vengeful electorate.
It is not driving FARC straight back into the jungle – certainly not right away. FARC immediately communicated that they view this result as a sign that they must work even harder for peace, and reiterated that they will continue to use only words as their weapons in the days ahead. The cease-fire stands. The negotiators will be back in Cuba this week.
President Santos walked out of the palace to a spontaneous demonstration of people chanting “We Want Peace! Not One Step Back!” and told them, and the media that he would continue to work for peace and that the peace process would continue to move forward. His next step was to call a meeting of all political parties to find a consensus process to move forward. It is unfortunate but inevitable that Uribe’s spoiler party will have to be a part of this process.
The most likely way forward will be to try to make adjustments to the accords that will make it acceptable to at least a substantial number of the “no” campaigners and try to pass them. The “no” side’s main issues were with the “transitional justice” proposals for guerrillas who had committed crimes, with some of the land reform and redistribution proposals, and with the conversion of FARC into a political party. Unfortunately these were also the key points making the deal acceptable to FARC – so the work of making the adjustments will not be straightforward or easy.
One of the campaigners for the peace deal, liberal former senator Piedad Cordoba, tried to find a silver lining, telling TeleSUR that voters had given Colombians an opportunity to dialogue again. Perhaps the “yes” side took the support of the people for granted. As the process moves forward after this turn, proponents of peace are unlikely to forget this hard lesson.
For the past eleven years, since the coup and overthrow of the elected government in 2004, Haiti has been deemed so dysfunctional, so failed, a state, that the international community has decided to run it directly. UN troops patrol its streets. Nongovernmental organizations oversee most aspects of social provision. Donors provide the finances. The resources and reach of the government is limited. There were elections in 2010/11 and there will be a runoff presidential election at the end of December – both of these took place under this limited-government, maximum-international-community, regime (which could be called ‘donor rule’ and which I have called ‘Haiti’s New Dictatorship’). The 2010/11 elections were politicized and unfair. They banned the most popular party, Fanmi Lavalas, from running. The first round of the current elections have been characterized by massive fraud, and Haitians know it. They have no confidence in the elections. They are protesting, and their protests are met with tear gas from police – one of the few things that the government is allowed to do (though this important duty is often shared with the UN).
Some observers may throw up their hands and say, how could you expect credible elections, Haiti is a poor, dysfunctional country. But Haiti has had fair elections – they occurred in 1995 and in 2000, before the UN took over. The international community, which has been governing Haiti directly since 2004, is the body that is incapable of running a fair election. As in Haiti, so in Afghanistan, where the 2014 presidential elections were won by Ashraf Ghani, after which the international community imposed a power-sharing arrangement with the loser, Abdallah Abdallah. An extraordinary agreement was brokered as part of this, that the exact vote totals would not be made public.
The first-world version of what is happening in Haiti and Afghanistan is what Tariq Ali calls the Extreme Centre, in which political parties are indistinguishable from one another on most important issues, and alternate in power. Under such conditions, with major issues out of contention, fair elections are acceptable to elites.
The rich Western countries have their own problems with elections, of course. The most famous case was the US presidential election of 2000, with voting machines and ballots that were made incomprehensible for voters, supreme courts intervening to prevent recounts of votes, and other stranger-than-fiction happenings. Electoral cheating in Canada in 2006 and 2011 was relatively minor by comparison. When Jeremy Corbyn became the Labour leader in the UK, a general there told the media casually that there might be a military coup if he ever won a general election.
If electorates could be relied upon to do the right thing, then there would be no need for cheating by those in power. Many tyrants have mastered the art of elections theater: Egypt’s President Sisi managed to win the 2014 presidential election with an astounding 96.91% of the vote. Syria’s President Assad held elections in 2014 in a country where most people were running for their lives, and in which his army and its opponents were slaughtering large numbers of voters. He won a remarkable 88.7% of the vote. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who recently got term limits lifted so that he (and he alone) can keep running for president, won the 2010 election with 93%. Kagame’s neighbours, Joseph Kabila in the DRC and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, use some of the same techniques, including arresting opponents and terrorizing the press, but they have had much more modest success (Museveni only won the 2011 election with 68%, Kabila won the 2012 election with a mere 48.95%).
Some countries don’t bother with the pretense. Two examples: Israel doesn’t pretend to give the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, whose lives it controls to the last detail, any say in how they are occupied. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, one that also schedules beheadings and crucifixions of youths like Mohammed Nimr, who is still very much in danger. The Western governments that watch keenly and comment severely on the fairness of elections in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia do happy, multibillion-dollar business with apartheid Israel and the Saudi Kingdom.
But the pretense clearly does matter. Very few countries get the kind of immunity that Israel or Saudi Arabia do. Despite the openness of the fraud and the incredibility of the results, most dictatorships do hold electoral exercises. In most cases, the appearance of electoral legitimacy is important enough to keep up elections theater, even if electorates are not powerful enough in many places to actually impose their will through elections.
On the other hand, there are still fair elections, ones where the electorate actually has a say. One example: Narendra Modi’s BJP were surprised to lose the recent elections in Bihar, in which the electorate gave their verdict on the BJP’s unsubstantiated claims of development and their anti-secular, divisive program. Another example: while the wealthiest and most powerful nation in human history continues to struggle with incomprehensible combinations of paper ballots and voting machines, Venezuela has managed to create a voting system that is very difficult to defraud (and I believe that at least at one time its voting machines were made in the USA – at least the machines contributed to fair elections somewhere).
Even these real elections pose dangers, because the belief in electoral legitimacy is not shared by all contestants. The BJP’s desire to make India a Hindu nation conflicts with India’s democratic constitution. If the Venezuelan opposition comes to power in December, it is unlikely that it will respect the constitution or maintain the integrity of the electoral system.
Elections matter. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be so much effort put into manipulating them, limiting options available to the electorate, and preventing them from being free. Nor would so many tyrants still feel they need to go through the motions of demonstrating that they have elections, however unfree. But a world of free, fair, meaningful elections with choices for voters is still a distant utopia.
And even where there are relatively fair elections, good electoral systems are always at risk. Electoral systems are not technical matters run by disinterested parties. They are political, which is why even the most disinterested-seeming parties, like the international community ruling Haiti, can’t seem to get them right. To get them right, the international community would have to value Haitian democracy more highly than its own continued rule, and believe that Haitians had the right, and the ability, to make their own decisions about their government. That kind of democratic feeling is surprisingly rare, especially among those who have grown accustomed to ruling, unelected.
First published on TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Elections-Theater-20151126-0008.html
John Ralston Saul — author, president of the writers’ organization PEN International, and former vice-regal consort to former governor general Adrienne Clarkson — has had considerable influence in Canada and elsewhere. His unique style of writing can be recognized after just a few lines. He is hyper-educated, filling his work with references from the West in the 1600s to the present day, with the occasional leap back to the ancient Greeks or Romans. He takes a much broader historical sweep than almost any other writer who touches contemporary topics. 
Read any of his books, and you will come away with new stories: about a French resistance fighter during WWII named Jean Moulin, about a female contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi named Elizabeth of Hungary, about the 18th-century Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli. You can read about how ancient Greece’s civilization began to flower because of the cancellation of debts by Athenian statesman Solon, or how the current period of globalization looks from New Zealand and Malaysia.
In a series of books about Canada, he has resurrected the history of responsible government and the political leaders Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, arguing they showed the world that you could “talk your way out of the Empire,” a method that was adopted by dozens of other countries after Canada showed the way.
JRS brings fascinating characters to life, as well as tragic statistics. From one of his books I found out that in some years Alberta brought in more money from gambling revenues than from tar sands royalties, so low were the royalty rates and so high was the stealth tax set up through promotion of gambling among society’s elderly and vulnerable. Elsewhere he describes how Canada entered a health care crisis not because single-tier public health care is unaffordable but because of a decision in the 1990s to lower the number of doctors available to the population.
A central point he returns to in all his work about Canada is the need for Canadians, especially elites, to shed their inferiority complex relative to the United States, United Kingdom, and France. Canada is an interesting place, with a basis to build a better relationship between Indigenous people and those who have immigrated here than exists in most other places. The betrayal of that relationship, and the possibilities for repairing it, the responsibility for which lies on the non-Indigenous population, is the theme of his latest book, The Comeback.
In two major critical tomes, Voltaire’s Bastards and The Collapse of Globalism, JRS criticizes Western society for being out of equilibrium. Balanced humanism, he argues, requires the exercise of six human qualities: common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory, and reason. Our society has held reason above all else, leading to pathologies in every part of life, from politics to economics, from war to the arms trade, from NGO activism to academia.
Part of why it’s so valuable for leftists to read JRS is that he starts from a different place and uses different referents, yet comes to many of the same conclusions. He advocates democracy, inclusion, the public good, and egalitarianism, but eschews what he calls ideology with a phrase he constantly invokes: “whether of the left or the right.” Thinking about these values and ideas and how they relate to leftist values of equality and solidarity, about how his stories relate to the ones we constantly return to, is a valuable part of the kind of dialogue and debate that JRS advocates.
While the absence of almost anything leftist means there is usually a lot in JRS’s work that leftists don’t know about, it also means that he paints an incomplete picture.
The remarkable story of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez includes the exercise of many of JRS’s six human qualities. Chavez worked as an instructor in a military school, attempted a coup against a corrupt neoliberal regime, took personal and public responsibility for it and went to jail, came out and explicitly rejected the armed path to power, and helped lead a movement that has, by any definition, advanced the public good in Venezuela and in Latin America. But JRS dismisses Chavez as a “nationalist populist.”
Cuba, with its extraordinary health care system and genuine south-south solidarity in countries such as Haiti, a place where thousands and thousands of Canadians travel to as tourists every year in defiance of the U.S. blockade, is never mentioned.
Haiti, whose elected government was overthrown in 2004 in one of the most disgraceful operations Canada (and the United States and France) has been involved in recently, is also never mentioned. Nowhere in JRS’s remarkable array of stories appears the astounding history of the indemnity extracted by France from Haiti for the crime of leading the first successful slave revolt and liberating itself. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led Haiti’s fight for freedom, does not get to be one of the characters JRS brings to light. Neither does Charlemagne Peralte or Bolivar. Too bad for us, because I bet JRS could have made connections that the rest of us missed.
The Zapatistas explicitly used “their word as their weapon,” and their uprising was one of the first and most original and powerful indigenous uprisings to repudiate globalization. The solidarity movement included thousands of Canadians, including many Indigenous people. Yet in his book The Collapse of Globalism, JRS dismisses the Zapatistas as having launched “an old fashioned bloody uprising in Chiapas.” Couldn’t we expect more respect for an uprising that was all about the power of words and the dignity of Indigenous people from the president of PEN, someone who is trying to argue to Canadians that Canada needs to change its relationship with First Nations?
Can a discussion of the collapse of globalism proceed in an informed way without any of these reference points? It evidently does. But there is a great deal lost in the process, and the result, one might say, is unbalanced.
A calculated monstrosity
The ethical imbalance shows up in JRS’s discussion of military issues, which runs through several of his books and was put together in his famous 2004 lecture at Canada’s military college, “A new era of irregular warfare?” Insurgency and counterinsurgency are the mainstream form of conflict in today’s world, he argues, because of the vast superiority of Western armies and the consequent inability of those who face Western armies to meet them head-on. Western armies continue to ignore this and prepare for WWIII, not thinking about how to deal with insurgencies, including addressing root causes and looking at political solutions. (These latter points are more implied than directly made by JRS).
And sure, it is certainly possible that the West’s bloody campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel’s wars against the Palestinians and Lebanese, proceeded without careful thought about insurgencies, without much thought at all about the political and human costs of Western actions in those countries.
But it might also be possible that Western counterinsurgents have thought about this a lot and act with indifference to civilian lives, in order to secure their interests in those parts of the world. Reading Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land, or Breaking the Silence’s recent report about how the Israeli army fought in Gaza in August 2014, you don’t get a sense of people who haven’t thought about counterinsurgency.
You get the sense of people who have thought a lot about how to be aggressive against defenceless populations. You get a sense of people who have applied their minds and their vast resources to precisely that problem, with precisely the monstrous results that we see.
Of course, JRS barely ever touches Israel or Palestine, as to do so would be to drive himself straight out of the mainstream. (He did, in 2013, add his name to an open letter signed by Canadian writers opposed to Israeli evictions of South Hebron Palestinians and Negev Bedouin.) It’s too bad, because his writing on the subject would be interesting.
Applying his values and arguments to the Israel-Palestine conflict might have him arguing for a bi-national state, or an inclusive solution that treats everyone like human beings. He might find obscure stories in Jewish or Arab histories of hope, or examples from other parts of the world of a “positive nationalism” that could override the “negative nationalism” currently deployed to devastating effect against Palestinians.
None of this would help him against the organized pro-Israel forces that would go after him, forces that include most of the Canadian political class including its prime minister and challengers. But as the president of PEN, which advocates for freedom of expression, and as an author who has repeatedly talked about the importance of courage for writers, he could be expected to take a stand, at the very least, against Israel’s very detailed and constant war against Palestinian writers and culture.
JRS, or at least readers who rely on him, ignore Israel and Palestine at their peril. In The Comeback, JRS argues that the inevitability of history is on the side of Canada’s Indigenous people. They are making a demographic, civilizational, and political comeback, and non-Indigenous people can accept it gracefully or disgracefully, but they are going to have to accept it. (This position on the inevitability of history is one JRS made fun of in The Doubter’s Companion, specifically making fun of Marxists, lumping them in with neoconservatives).
But that isn’t true. Canada could treat Indigenous people as a military threat (read Douglas Bland’s novel Uprising for a fictionalized scenario along these lines) and try to contain them, denying their rights while stealing ever more of their land and resources. There was a time when Canada, Israel, and South Africa shared information and ideas of how to suppress indigenous populations. South Africa has exited the club, but it didn’t disband it — and Israel and Canada are closer today than they ever were.
Even if Canada’s approach to Indigenous people does not worsen, JRS’s ideas may be insufficient to make it better. Radical critics of The Comeback, Hayden King and Shiri Pasternak argued in the Literary Review of Canada that while “to a large extent” JRS “gets it,” his proposed remedies at the ballot box and in the courts have so far led mostly nowhere and will continue to lead nowhere for Indigenous peoples unless there is a “Canadian comeback” that allows society to move away from “the mythologies of liberal capitalism.” They contrasted JRS’s ideas with those of Indigenous scholars Glen Coulthard, Audra Simpson, and Leanne Simpson, whose recent books offer a deeper re-envisioning of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous in this country. 
When JRS discusses the Rwandan genocide and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he does so in a fairly schematic way, taking the perspective of Canadian general Romeo Dallaire. He concludes that the West’s slowness to act was the problem. But Alan Kuperman, in his book The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention, argued that a small intervention could have saved lives, but not prevented the genocide. Meanwhile the West’s unconditional support for Rwanda’s ruler, Paul Kagame, since before the genocide was a contributing factor in what happened and the decisive factor in the mass deaths in the DR Congo from 1996 on.
Adding Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Rene Lemarchand, Mahmood Mamdani, and Fillip Reyntjens to his reading list would round it out enough for JRS to see that the problem was not speed, but an intervention into Rwanda’s civil war and then Rwanda’s proxy wars that was guaranteed to produce mass deaths but which, because it did no harm to Western interests, was, for the West, free of consequence.
JRS’s military analyses have two problems. First, as discussions of whether the counterinsurgency strategies and interventions work or don’t work, they ignore the illegitimacy, the criminal nature, of these interventions and their unavoidable devastation of civilian populations. Second, they lead to some pretty weird political places. Instead of a straightforward anti-war or anti-imperialist view, JRS’s readers might end up demanding of their elected officials improved counterinsurgency doctrine and practice.
Such demands would be to the benefit of no one, the public good least of all.
A fictional view of capitalism
Another imbalance in JRS’s writing is in his discussion of economic matters. Unlike most writers, he is able to discuss taxes with minimal rationality, without the kinds of crazy taboos that surround most discussion of taxes. I think that his persistence in discussing taxes this way over the decades (along with others such as Linda McQuaig) has played a role in the fact that politicians can finally start to make arguments about taxes in public.
JRS criticizes the West for letting the Third World debt continue, despite how simple it would be to write off. He criticizes the West for creating an arms industry for export, creating an economic incentive to feed violence all over the world. He criticizes narrow views of society, what he calls the “economic prism” approach, which see people as essentially self-interested.
In Canada, he criticizes the elite for stealing the wealth of indigenous lands and denying Indigenous people the benefits of that wealth. These failings he attributes mainly to a narrow form of reason and to what he calls managerialism. The economy is run by managers, he says, not by real owners or capitalists.
Capitalists, as opposed to managers, take risks, and with their own money. They expose themselves to the market and to competition. Managerialism has marginalized these real capitalists, JRS argues. But this view of capitalists is fictional, perhaps one of JRS’s “positive myths.”
When JRS quotes such “real owners,” he quotes people like Peter Munk, whose Barrick Gold is currently making fortunes despoiling indigenous territories in various parts of the world, and whose board has a revolving door for Canadian politicians. At one point JRS quotes Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, who analyze the behaviour and strategies of real capitalists, who are, as theories from two centuries ago predicted, primarily interested in accumulating fortunes at society’s expense, not making useful products, creating wealth, or exposing themselves to competition.
Nitzan and Bichler also analyze what they call the weapondollar-petrodollar coalition, an economic bloc involving flows of weapons from the West, oil from the Persian Gulf, and dollars back and forth, which JRS also has written about in different ways since the 1990s. His criticism of countries including Burma has been stronger and more direct than anything directed at Saudi Arabia. A friend recently pointed out that JRS seems to avoid criticism of Saudi Arabia despite its competitiveness with ISIS for beheadings, its misogyny, its suppression of free expression, and its recent bombing of civilians in Yemen. 
This leads to one of JRS’s fundamental points about elites. They can be responsible or not, but in his view, they are always present. But this, too, puts apples in with oranges for comparison.
Leftists, especially anarchists, and indeed any real democrats, seek a society where the only elite is one of esteem, people who might be admired for the exercise of their talents for, well, the public good. Such an elite would be completely different from today’s 1%, with their net worths equal to small countries, pay scales hundreds of times those of the average worker, elaborate webs of deceit to avoid taxes, backhanded benevolence through charity (which JRS rightly criticizes), and ability to influence politics through corruption and patronage.
Calling both of these groups “elites” is confusing and narrows what we might imagine to be possible. JRS would surely not want to limit our ability to use our imagination, to imagine a better, more equal world?
The Supreme Court and Indigenous rights
JRS makes several rebukes against leftists, some of which are well taken. In his discussion of NGOs, he argues that by remaining outside of electoral and democratic contests, NGOs are implicitly arguing that they don’t believe in democratic legitimacy and don’t seek it. He makes an interesting comparison with pre-WWI union-based reformers, who had incredible influence but did not translate it into institutionalized power.
Chavistas in Venezuela, Lavalas in Haiti, Palestinians running for national elections and inside the Israeli Knesset, and the Zapatistas in Mexico have all struggled with this issue intellectually in life-or-death situations. What are the limits of staying outside? What happens when you try to get inside? What is the price of one or the other? Can you keep your integrity?
Another rebuke to the Canadian left and the activist community is the failure to realize the significance of decades of recent Supreme Court decisions that have the potential to change the relationship between First Nations and non-Aboriginal people in Canada. If JRS is right, more of us should be thinking about how to use these judicial decisions as tools to expand indigenous sovereignty. His historical criticisms of 19th-century Canadian leftists Papineau and Mackenzie and their errors are also well worth considering.
An implicit critique comes from JRS’s basic philosophy. Because society is imbalanced, he argues, we have become obsessed with structure instead of content. By content, he means ideas. Most leftists, whether consciously or not, believe in some variation of Marx’s idea that ideas flow from one’s material situation and material interests, and they consequently look for structural problems and solutions.
JRS rejects this view. His books are full of structural critique and, in later books, policy suggestions. But he views bad structures as flowing from bad ideas, while most of us believe the reverse. The difference may not matter very much, since we have to battle with both ideas and structures all the time, but it is there.
JRS has much to offer leftists. The ability to see historical examples in today’s events, to revisit history for both inspirational and cautionary tales, and to weave them into “positive myths” could enrich our thinking. The idea of a balance of human qualities, of egalitarian societies that can bring out the best in all of their citizens — these are as much leftist ideals as anyone’s.
To the extent that his readers can find historical context, or common sense, or surprising facts or stories that help them to resist the mind-numbing propaganda we are all subjected to daily — whether about the latest terror threat or the need for poor people to suffer more to enrich those already wealthy — there is an opening for left values of equality and solidarity to take hold.
So, yes, leftists can learn a lot from JRS. But one of the effects of people like him is to make us look even crazier than we already do. If someone who is willing to criticize everything from the arms trade to the Third World debt to managerialism to our society’s irrational views on taxes, who criticizes the West for its failures in the former Yugoslavia and Burma and Nigeria, who argues for a transformation of Canada into a reciprocal relationship between indigenous and immigrants (and implicitly for an abolition of the settler category), if such a person still won’t criticize Israel, capitalism, Canada’s role in Haiti, or Rwanda’s role in the DR Congo, if such a person can’t see anything interesting in Venezuela, Chiapas, or Cuba, then those of us who do must really be crazy.
Too bad for us? Maybe. But maybe too bad for the elusive public good, too, if leftists and genuine public intellectuals like JRS can’t meet somewhere.
[First published at Ricochet: https://ricochet.media/en/447/why-leftists-should-read-john-ralston-saul-critically]
 Noam Chomsky is an exception. So was Eqbal Ahmad.
 King and Pasternak titled their article “Don’t Call It a Comeback,” and in his response JRS didn’t seem to catch the LL Cool J reference. It seems that his encyclopedic knowledge did not encompass Mama Said Knock You Out, an album that came out two years before Voltaire’s Bastards.
 There is some indirect criticism though. In a discussion about Ottawa (on pg. 248) in A Fair Country, JRS points out that “Two ugly embassies of dictatorships and one ugly condo… now stand side by side on Sussex Drive with Rideau Hall, 24 Sussex, the National Gallery, Foreign Affairs and the embassies of our closest democratic allies… One of the dictatorships is a particularly fine model of repression when it comes to free speech and women’s rights.” The Ottawa Citizen, reviewing the book, listed Sussex Drive embassies: France, South Africa, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The dictatorships on that list are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and the “fine model of repression” is almost certainly, by process of elimination, the Saudi Kingdom.
In his 2011 book The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, gives an explicit institutional analysis that explains what many faculty in North America have been feeling intuitively as their institutions have changed around them. The main change in universities in recent decades, Ginsberg argues, has been the rise of administrators at the expense of the core activities of the university – research and teaching. It matters, he argues, because administrators and professors have different world views. To professors, the university is a means to certain ends, all having to do with knowledge: the creation of it, the development of it, and the sharing of it. To administrators, teaching and research are means to the institution’s ends. They are business lines, which an institution can take or leave, depending on what suits the current institutional goals (profit, or simply the expansion and growth of the administrative part of the institution). In an administrative world view, then, closing down an english department or a math department and allocating those resources to a parking lot is a perfectly rational thing to do.
The tone of Ginsberg’s book is refreshing, and I suspect very deliberately irreverent. Power in an institution depends on maintaining a mystique of insiders who attend exclusive meetings (retreats, seminars, etc.), who are aware of insider language (including particular fads and acronyms), and hierarchies of titles and authority. Ginsberg describes the administration as ‘deanlets’, and pokes fun at their principal activities, including the production of strategic plans, media relations to maintain an institution’s image, travel to seminars and workshops to meet other administrators in person (even if the topics of these workshops is the irrelevance of in-person instruction in the face of e-learning), and of course, the cultivation of relationships with wealthy donors.
The irreverent tone and the damning collection of facts, figures, and some shocking anecdotes describing the rise and effects of the all-administrative university fleshes out a core institutional analysis of how the administration came to power at the university. Ginsberg points to three key developments. First, administration used to be done by faculty who did administrative tasks for a few years before returning to their scholarly and teaching activities. Today, university administration is an alternative career track. Many scholars who go down the administrative path neither plan to nor do return to scholarship, and slowly become what they are surrounded by. Second, administration has developed independence from the faculty in two key ways: independence from faculty’s administrative work was achieved by expanding administrative staff, and independence from the university’s core mission was achieved by expanding the role of private donors. Even if public funds and student tuition still pay most of the bills, a relatively small percentage of money from private donors buys the administration, and the donors, significant control over the institution’s future.
Ginsberg concedes that faculty are far from perfect. “They can be,” he writes, “petty, foolish, venal, lazy, and quarrelsome” (pg. 201) But with administrative power comes new pathologies. Indifference to the university’s core mission means indifference to academic freedom and the possibilities for real creativity, innovation, and social progress that can result; the treatment of research and teaching as business lines comparable to other activities results in shirking, squandering, and outright fraud and corruption; an administrative philosophy emphasizes preparing students for the workplace in low-level vocational and skills-training instead of thinking of the university as a place for human development, where students can grow and challenge and change their own views and, perhaps even come to think about what in the world they could and should change for the better, with their new knowledge.
An interesting chapter, and one I did not entirely agree with, was the chapter on “Realpolitik of Race and Gender”. In it, Ginsberg argues that students from oppressed constituencies strengthen administrative control when they make alliances with administration against faculty. To Ginsberg, academic freedom includes the possibility of discussing and debating matters that may make others uncomfortable. Democratic rules of debate and discussion, as well as of academic freedom and freedom of expression, should be the guide. The administrative solution, however, is to impose such things as mandatory trainings and Student Codes of Conduct – which, having a shaky legal basis, end up being unenforceable. The fact that they are legally questionable is irrelevant, however, because university administrations only apply these codes very selectively (and, I might add, in a politicized way). My disagreement with Ginsberg in this chapter is relatively minor, but I will note it: it is only that students from oppressed constituencies are more likely to turn to (false) administrative solutions if faculty are unsupportive.
The entire discussion is about a key question: who does the university belong to? Here, we might get some help by bringing in another book, Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press 2008). In it, Newfield discusses the threat of vast social change posed by the possibility that everyone in society might join the middle class by universal access to higher education. To Newfield, attacks on faculty privileges, on the obscurity of today’s scholarship, on the humanities and basic sciences themselves, on the attempts to use affirmative action and other tools to make the university truly inclusive – all of these were tools to stave off the prospect of a universally educated, multicultural middle class, with the capacity to shape and change the direction of the whole society. The ideas used to help roll this possibility back included: the notion of a meritocracy, in which the talented rose to the top in a society based on competition; the acceptance of inequality as a fact of life; the notion that market and business outcomes were the final arbiter of what was worth learning and thinking about. I would argue that, to the extent that faculty accept these latter ideas, we are undermining our own autonomy, our own academic freedom, and our own ability to contribute to the development of society through our scholarship and the development of our students through our teaching.
Returning to Ginsberg, who has his own ideas about what faculty have done wrong to facilitate the rise of administrative power. First, faculty have become too comfortable allowing administration to be done by others. Too busy to go to meetings? Too busy to take a part-time administrative post for a few years? Someone else is waiting to make those decisions for you. To take control again, faculty have to become more active – at all levels, but especially on boards of trustees. Faculty have to keep control of teaching away from external and administrative bodies. Second, faculty have succumbed to pressures to produce so many PhDs that the powers and freedoms academics were able to negotiate decades ago when PhD graduates were scarce have been eroded, in part because professors lack the power they had when there was no “reserve army” for universities to rely on. Administrations know that for every tenured academic in their system, there are others with PhDs who are struggling in the part-time, by-course system without any academic freedom or the hope of tenure. Ginsberg concedes that this point, and the idea of supporting the reduction or closing of many PhD programs, constitutes “especially bitter medicine”, and he has no obvious solution, only hope that through “regular two-way communication, members of the faculty and university boards might discover a formula for abating this unacceptable state of affairs.” (pg. 215)
To Ginsberg’s suggestions about what faculty need to do differently, I would add one: as a cantakerous bunch, faculty disagree with one another about many things, from curriculum to labor relations to politics in Israel/Palestine. If faculty cannot have these debates openly and according to democratic and academic norms, and instead seek to use administrative solutions on those whose politics they abhor, they are, again, undermining their own place in the institution, as well as the core mission of the university. If we use – and model – academic principles and respect free expression in debates with those we disagree with, we will be in a much better position to defend these principles against encroachment when our own interests are attacked.
Ginsberg’s arguments were built on evidence from U.S. universities, but to anyone working in a Canadian university, almost everything he describes is eerily familiar and frightening. I have been recommending his book to everyone because, as he says, “the university can be a marvelous institution”, and one “well worth protecting” (pg. 219)
First published on TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/The-North-American-All-Administrative-University-20150325-0044.html
I’ve been thinking about Chris Newfield’s 2008 book Unmaking the Public University a lot lately, and I wanted to reproduce one great quote from page 182, about what he calls “the tuition trap”: how by raising tuition fees, public universities undermine the case for public funding for universities, which shortfall they make up by raising tuition, undermining the case for public funding…:
“The tuition trap goes like this: The public is worried about college affordability, but its public university raises its fees. The university thus implies it does not actually depend on public funding, since it has the private resource of higher tuition at its fingertips. The university may also deepen this impression – that it can do without more public funding – by saying how good it is in spite of public funding cuts. Even worse, it may declare strong public funding a thing of the past in order to justify tuition increases or expanded fund-raising. Taxpayers then reasonably ask, if the university does not need more money, why does it keep raising fees? And since it keeps raising fees, why should we give it more public money?”
He goes on:
“If the university is just another cog in an economic system that is about getting ahead, charging as much as you can, maximizing your returns, and buying your way to the top, why should the general public pay for it?”
Both quotes from pg. 182.
Universities could be very valuable, making huge contributions to the general development of society and accessible to all. For that to happen, public universities have to get out of the tuition trap.