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Thomas Mulcair just can’t win. First, he tried to distinguish himself from other New Democrats though a mix of centrist politics, in the hopes of becoming a kind of NDP “Tony Blair”. That hasn’t worked out as well as hoped, failing to impress critics on his left and right, but ya know what they say about trying to please everybody…
That being said, he’s impressed me more over the past week than the entire rest of his tenure as leader combined, but that doesn’t say a lot. First, there’s his supportive statements toward Gary Freeman, extradited for a shootout with police dating back to 1969. Citizenship and Immigration minister Jason Kenney had branded Freeman a “Black Panther” and a “cop killer” in parliament, opposing his re-admission to Canada on “terrorist” grounds. As Mulcair (and even his American prosecutors) point out, there’s no evidence he was a Panther and only managed to hit the officer in the arm. Also worth mentioning is that Canada doesn’t officially consider the Panthers a “terrorist” group, and doesn’t seem to have a problem allowing Angela Davis to cross the border for a speaking engagement here next week.
Mulcair’s recent troubles, though, relate directly to one issue: pipelines. He recently made the trip to Washington, as so many other Canadian politicians have done recently. Unlike the rest, though, he didn’t pressure Obama to sign off on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Instead he warned about climate change and the economic plight of Eastern Canada. These remarks have not been well received across Canada, infuriating premiers like Alberta’s Alison Redford (Cons.) and Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall (NDP), as well as many federal politicians and media across the country. Viewed as scandalous, possibly treasonous, he’s accused of “not acting in Canada’s best interest”.
Now, as Mulcair and others have pointed out, there is nothing particularly scandalous about the Leader of the Official Opposition choosing to oppose government plans, even while abroad. That’s his job, and it’s the same thing Harper did when he held the position. So why is Mulcair in the spotlight? Because he criticized the Tar Sands, and chose one of the worst possible times to do it. Obama is heavily conflicted over the Keystone XL Pipeline – on one hand, he obviously wants to allow it. On the other, a very large part of his (possibly former) supporters are staunchly opposed to it, to the point where they regularly show up outside the White House in the tens of thousands, and line up by the thousands to be arrested just to make their point.
What makes this “scandal” all the more laughable is that Mulcair isn’t even “against” the Tar Sands – he simply favours a (longer) eastern route for the bitumen, hopefully involving some refining jobs along the way. For him, this might be an alternative, but for the industry itself, it would be a bitter compromise. They’ve been demanding the western (Gateway), eastern (Line 9, etc) and southern (Keystone) and more for years, with dreams including the infamous McKenzie valley pipeline proposal, Arctic shipping hubs and nuclear reactors in the oil patch. Whether or not other routes are constructed, the loss of Keystone would severely limit these ambitions, cutting billions or more out of projected profits.
These potential profits are increasingly becoming Canada’s new political Holy Grail – sought by all with the power to cure all ills. Far more than just the money, this development offers valuable political currency as well, such as the ability to fund budgets without unpopular tax rates and the massive number of new jobs created. Alberta, over the last decade, has shown how this can drive both economic prosperity and national political dominance, with our Prime Minister coming straight from the heart of Calgary’s financial district. Seeing this success in contrast to stagnating manufacturing in central Canada or collapsed fisheries in the east, many are hoping for a piece of this pie, whether it be in taxes, transfer payments, refining jobs or their own new dramatic resource extraction projects like Plan Nord and the “Ring of Fire”.
As many have noted, there’s plenty of precedent for what happens when nations become overly reliant on new oil revenues to pay their bills – it’s called the resource curse. Selling off natural capital to pay operating budgets can be a very popular move, as any number of Middle Eastern government officials can tell you, but what it does to the political process is usually downright ugly (as you’ll hear from most of their people). Excepting a few who’ve opted to charge high royalties and save large funds (ie: Norway), most lead an ugly path toward despotism, environmental destruction and/or war. Alberta’s financial strategy, of course, is the latter – charging low royalties and saving little for the future. The increasingly shrill cries over the fate of the Tar Sands from politicians across the spectrum and the big national papers only underscores how much these revenues are now being coveted. The more serious effects, though, are now being seen in widespread attempts to muzzle federal employees such as scientists, and now even Librarians. That the leader of the Official Opposition is not even “allowed” to threaten this agenda is telling, and it’s to his credit that he did it anyway. Whether it will have any impact remains to be seen.
It won’t be all that long until we have another election, and for once, it seems like the NDP might be fielding a serious contender. Harper and Mulcair are now roughly tied in polls approval ratings (though Harper leads by a distance at disapproval). Barring the entry of a certain political dynasty, Mulcair stands a chance of becoming our next Prime Minister, and it’s still hard to tell what that might mean. These latest moves have given me more hope than most so far, but I must admit, I’m still apprehensive. There’s a good interview with local Professor and notorious activist Kevin McKay on the subject which just came on CFMU’s Progressive Voices the other day, which articulates these concerns well. If “winning” means making big sacrifices in the party’s traditional beliefs, is it really winning? On the other hand, after all these years of Harper, I’d almost settle for Bob Rae. Such are the limitations of electoral politics.
The real battles with the Tar Sands are taking place at the local and grassroots levels right now, on both sides of the border. Through a growing network of civic action and civil disobedience, these pipelines and others are being challenged across North America (did you know Hamilton’s Council discussed Line 9 today?). Left to their own devices, there are few if any who’d stand up to the allure of petro-profits from the Tar Sands and it’s subsidiaries, but the growing popular pressure is proving difficult to ignore. Instead of a debate over who or where gets this infrastructure and the associated risks and profits, it’s starting to verge on a debate about whether we want this disastrous gigaproject to happen at all. That might be the conversation they’re afraid of, but it’s also the one we need to be having right now.
Four years ago, Americans elected Barack Obama. Not just the nation’s first black president, he stood as a symbol of “hope” and “change” after two painful terms under George W Bush.
Today, America heads again to polling stations, but this time, neither “hope” nor “change” is on the ballot.
Looking back, such optimism seems painfully naive. What did people expect? That Barack would shut down the war machine, reverse the bailouts and usher in Canadian-style health care? That America’s legendarily vicious and racist prison system would be reformed? Or maybe just that they’d be given the rights to protest over these issues, should they decide to?
Obama promised change. In too many ways, though, these changes were simply a continuation of the transformation which had begun under George W. Bush. The War on Terror has now become a borderless policy of drone bombings. Bailouts continued and Obama (backed heavily by bankers in 2008), and certainly hasn’t reigned in Wall Street. He repeatedly flip-flopped on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Obamacare is almost universally despised and watered down beyond comparison. Protesters were treated to coordinated, nearly simultaneous evictions of Occupy encampments in public squares across the country, coupled with mass-arrests, countless undercover operatives and the ongoing Grand Jury investigations of anarchists in the Pacific Northwest. And then there’s the explosion of arrests, detentions and deportations of immigrants, doubling under Obama.
Would any of this improve under Romney? Of course not. He’s clearly a lot smarter than Bush or Reagan, but I’m not sure switching in a puppet-master in place of the puppets is really an improvement. His career as a vulture capitalist at Bain Capital offends even die-hard republicans – what does it say when somebody might be too rich and greedy to be a conservative?
America’s two party system is a marvel of modern propaganda. They’ve taken false dichotomies of left and right to an entirely new level, institutionalizing them in so perfect a balance that a shift in support of even a few percent to any third party would tip the scales in favour of ‘the other side’. No matter how similar the competing parties’ platforms, the atmosphere is so polarized that it’s totally normal for people to speculate that the president (Obama, Bush, Reagan etc) might actually be the antichrist. Every election, therefore, becomes a nightmarish threat that a candidate representing everything you oppose might be elected, no matter how you feel about the other guy. Anybody but Bush, right?
I’ll admit, it’s easy to be impartial from Canada (where increasingly, our politicians depose themselves), and perhaps I’d feel differently from a swing state. The sad fact remains, though, that “less wrong” doesn’t make somebody right, and “voting against” rarely brings in much better.
I have a dirty secret. I love Barack Obama, and I think he’s the best thing that’s happened to America in a very long time. Honestly. People needed to see that somebody who as a thousand times the person and leader that George W Bush was could step into the same position and make all the same mistakes. People needed to have their illusions shattered. Perhaps they even needed to be tear-gassed and kettled to see that a new President simply cannot bring the kind of change they seek. Four years later, America has matured in a way which finally sees some separation between politics and petty partisan rivalries. Whoever wins tonight, nobody’s going to feel like anything’s over.
You’ve heard of SOPA and ACTA. as well as Canada’s new rejection of digital privacy rights (bill C-30) and Harper’s dreaded “Crime Bill” (C-10). It seems like every day another assault on our rights is written up and signed into law. While some, like SOPA, shrivel away when they’re shown the light of day, many are far stronger, and see very little attention. The legal framework of our society is taking a radically authoritarian turn, and it’s being witnessed at all levels.
H.R. 347 – America’s “Anti-Occupy” Law
US Congress just passed an amendment with only three votes against (all Republican) which makes threatens to criminalize many forms of protest, especially around officials or government offices. All that’s needed now is Obama’s approval. The amendment would make it a federal offence (rather than a misdemeanor), “to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions.” This would especially relate to any area occupied by the president or other officials protected by the Secret Service, and no longer require “knowing and wilful” intent.
In too many ways, this is reminiscent of the “Public Works Protection Act” which became so notorious during Toronto’s G20. It imposes a “no-protest-zone” which follows officials anywhere they go and protects all institutions they enters. Laws like these mark an important turning point from an era where potentially disruptive behaviour was tacitly allowed (or lightly punished) because of the potential for constructive protest to a state of affairs where such protests are the main motivation behind their prohibition. Nowadays, political protests are considered exactly what’s considered dangerous.
This idea should have stayed in science fiction. In Britain, though, it’s coming closer to reality. In Surrey and West Midlands police departments have invited bids from private firms for investigations, as a means of coping with blanket 20% cuts to police budgets. The proposed contracts could be worth billions. Some police services have already been contracted out in Britain, and this follows similar trends in America of private prisons and “military contractors” (mercenaries).
Any kind of privatized services threaten to make the institutions involved far less responsible and accountable to the public. Violence, though, isn’t just another government service – it’s the fundamental service provided by the state. Without a role as enforcer, what exactly is the state? If other institutions are providing this enforcement, at what point do they become the state? And who, then, holds power?
A final dishonourable mention goes to a policy which barely exists, at least officially, and is in as many ways a “crime” as a law. The use of assassinations as a tool of American foreign policy has reached new heights under Obama. Bombings, drone strikes and commando raids have killed thousands, pushing further beyond borders into undeclared war-zones with more than half of those killed being “false positives”. It goes, of course without saying that this is against American, international and local laws (in a “war crimes” kinda way), but of course nobody expects this to go to trial. Instead, these actions re-write the rules of the game – proving institutions like the UN and ICC toothless, and cementing American power in ways no UN resolution could.
Power, Law and the State
Laws are a part of a much broader mediation with power. We’re subject to numerous smaller sets of rules within institutions as well as constant orders and demands from all levels. Laws like the Magna Carta or American Bill of Rights have always been a stabilizing influence which limited immediate state power for the sake of broader legitimacy. They set out how one could be punished for breaking the rules, but also set limits on those punishments. While it might tie the hands of authorities to punish somebody in particular as much as they like (in theory), it also protected the institution from the revolts and reprisals which typically follow such despotic actions. One need only look at Rodney King, or any other victim of police brutality who’s inspired riots throughout the last few decades to see how risky these excesses are for the rest of the state. It is these legal rights, often the product of long, hard struggles, which set nation-states apart from warlords and mafias, which give “the people” a reason to tolerate their leaders.
The last decade has witnessed, in Canada, America and Britain as well as countless others, a dramatic legal shift away from these limitations. Using threats of terrorism, cyber-crime and gang violence among others, a dramatic number of legal and policy changes have come into effect which tear up basic restrictions on the way we can be watched, classified and punished. Of course any honest look at our history shows that these “rights” never really applied, but the fact that it’s still happening shows that the policies of the Palmer Raids, McCarthyism or COINTELPRO never really ended – they just went dormant for a while. In this latest revival, they’re threatening to become a permanent and acknowledged part of operating policy, which puts us all in a very dangerous position. If a government cannot rule based on (implied) democratic legitimacy, it must rely on fear.
In times of great civil discontent, where economies stagnate and leaders are loathed, there is a grand tradition in American politics: start a war. Instantly, such actions polarize the public and kick-start production, and may well gain access to valuable foreign resources. The Bushes did it, Clinton did it, and now it looks like Obama may do it.
It’s hard to believe this is happening. It’s hard to believe it’s even threatening to happen. After the global embarrassment that was the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq, the constant undeclared war in Pakistan or the emerging ugly details of NATO’s effect on Libya, one would think they wouldn’t be eager to do this again. Recent wars taxed coalition forces well beyond what they’d thought possible, and it’s hard to imagine where either the funding or the soldiers for such a war would come from. They’ve also failed to stop the spread of “Islamic terrorism” or perform any effective “nation building”. Worst of all, they’re once-again relying on the spectre of “WMDs” to drive the nation into war, even after the three letters came to symbolize everything wrong with George W Bush’s presidency.
Do I want to see Iran building nuclear reactors? No. There’s obvious military applications to all “peacetime” nuclear equipment – a predictable result of their military origin. Like too many other technologies, this is a humbling reminder that sometimes ploughshares can be beaten back into swords. That being said, I’ve seen nothing so far to indicate that Iranian reactors are a specific threat other than the sabre-rattling of the Iranian government, and know enough about nuclear technology to understand that any workable array of warheads is still years off. In any case, it’s very likely that these weapons, should they ever be build, would be used primarily as a deterrent, since there’s little doubt it would be scoured off the map by American and Isreali nukes should Iranian leaders be stupid enough to launch the few they have.
There is every reason here to discourage the spread of all nuclear technology. “Peacetime” reactors have already kick-started the weapons programs in India, Pakistan and China (thanks largely to Canadian firms). This would leave no market for “legitimate” purchases of uranium and no convenient cover for enrichment activities. Beyond that, the single best way to discourage weapons programs would be to dismantle our own. If America and Isreal want a nuclear-free Middle East, they could make it happen far more easily than any others. Sadly, the disarmament of their many nuclear weapons is off the table, as is any serious critique of the nuclear industry as a whole.
Iran’s allies have not been silent, especially Russia. Putin is now threatening the largest nuclear build-up since the cold war, and given that there’s a Russian military base in Iran, they’ve been none-too-pleased with talk of more war in the region. Active Russian involvement could turn such a conflict into WWIII, and there’s no telling where that could end. Putin, of course, has his own massive unpopularity (and upcoming elections) to deal with, and a war would serve him just as well as the others.
The winners here will not be the people or America, Iran, Russia, Israel or any others, but the leaders, of all stand to gain tremendously from the increase in nationalism and jingoism it would create. All have been threatened in the past year by massive popular protests, and all are ruled by militaristic zealots of one form or another. States are fundamentally violent institutions, and have no qualms about mass-murder when deemed “necessary”. No matter what cost a war would exact from “their” people, they may well feel war is in their own best interest.
What can we do? First, we can accept that the “Peace Movement” against Bush was largely a failure. There were demonstrations constantly for years, with some of the largest numbers since Vietnam and was profoundly nonviolent, but the effect on policy was almost unnoticeable. Eventually Bush was driven from power, but Obama is proving to be no more peaceful. If they attempt to go to war again, it won’t be enough to stand, chant and sing in the streets. If a popular movement is going to effectively resist this war, it’s going to have to physically interfere with the functioning of these war machines. Modern militaries are incredibly destructive forces, but they rely on modern economies to supply them with weapons, equipment and personnel. A general strike, a tax revolt or any serious challenge to the authority of the American government would give them far more to worry about than military adventurism in oil-rich foreign nations. Unfortunately, even this possibility means the same leaders have every reason to brutally repress any and all dissent “at home”, as has always been the way in these conflicts.
A century ago, the world was in a very similar state. The industrial revolution had transformed the globe and “robber barons” were conquering entire regions. A tide of popular unrest, particularly around work, had been growing for decades and unions like the IWW were starting to have very serious effect. Then, like now, governments pursued a strategy of military build-up as a result. In response to militarization in the build-up to the war, there were serious plans afoot for a general strike and other measures which would have forced peace on the warring governments. When the war began, many sided with the government (especially manufacturing unions) and countless others were arrested, deported or killed, a process which only accelerated after the war (particularly for anarchists). It’s impossible to know how many millions of lives would have been saved if popular movements had acted differently, or which of the century’s most brutal tyrants might never have emerged.
Given the political tensions, the mounting debts, the crumbling alliances and the worsening resource crisis, we have all the ingredients for a very serious war. What does that tell us about those in power? That mass-murder is seen as an acceptable form of political gamesmanship and economic stimulus? That oil is becoming so scarce that world powers are willing to take incredible risks to control the supply? Does it simply state that the lives of those involved are so cheap that they aren’t worth consideration? Or just that they’re willing to utterly destroy any territory they can’t personally control? This ugly background paints all of our local struggles in a very different light – we aren’t just fighting for ourselves. This has never just been about Canadians or Americans and it isn’t just our personal interests at stake here. If we claim to care about peace or freedom, we cannot stand by and watch this happen. We, the people of nations who’d wage war from afar, are the only ones in a position to do something about it. That gives us a responsibility, will we act on it?
Gasoline prices are on the rise again, now well above $1.33/l here and now over the dreaded $4/gallon mark down south. This is prompting all the traditional ire and rage, and it’s happened so many times in the last decade that it’s now a familiar tune. Gas companies are “gouging us” by raising prices well above actual oil prices, and keeping them high long after oil prices drop. The solution posed, of course, is to have politicians legislate the price down by going after oil companies, gas stations and speculators. Obama is now threatening to cut billions in subsidies from oil companies, to prove (as he ramps up his next campaign) that he’s doing something. but will it help?
The first question we need to ask is clear: are oil prices rising? Yes. The price of a barrel of oil now is around five times what it was a decade ago, and now twice what it was after the Crash of 2008. Is speculation a part of this? Definitely – it always is in markets. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. We’re running out, and it’s really beginning to show. Are we approaching “peak oil”? At this point, we may already have passed it.
Peak oil doesn’t mean that there’s an unmovable line on a graph that oil production must follow. It does mean, though, that maintaining this decade’s level of production (highest ever, but unable to increase much) is going to get harder and harder: ie: more expensive and more carbon intensive. It also means that the longer we stretch it out, the steeper the decline will be when we stop, since the total amount of oil left can only drop.
There is enormous political pressure, both from the public and from the private sector to keep oil prices artificially low, since oil is used in nearly everything we do and price increases spread fast. Demand is rising much faster than supply and the only way to shield ourselves from the massive price increase this is generating is to pump oil out as fast as possible. We’re relying on dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, oil sands/shale, offshore drilling, warzone oil and many other options, but all are showing many of their own problems. In the long run, it really only amounts to working as hard as possible and accepting the highest costs in an effort to get the lowest price possible. Not a wise business policy, especially when many nations rely on oil reserves to feed their populations.
Some people are now waking up to this fact. A recent paper from the NYU Law School on Integrity has stated that Government calculations on the costs/benefits are fundamentally skewed. By imposing a “now or never” outlook, they never explored the option of simply waiting. Cleaner and cheaper technologies will inevitably exist in the future, and we’ll likely be able to sell at higher prices, too. And while it’s written about America, exactly the same could be said about Saudi Arabia or anywhere else.
If we hadn’t been highly subsidizing the price of oil until now, it would already be much higher. But what would that mean? We’d already be a lot less reliant on it. We’d already be using less (which paradoxically, might mean we’d be paying less at the pump now). We’d have more bikes and solar panels, and probably be eating much healthier food. The longer we refuse to admit that oil is actually running out, the rougher that eventual transition will be. As we can now see from the volatile world economy, we’re not saving ourselves any money by going on a mad dash for the last of endangered resources, and unfortunately many of the first casualties of the 2008 crash were the same green energy programs that might have helped us deal with this.
It’s easy to pretend that gasoline and oil prices are high because corporations are greedy and corrupt. It’s absolutely true. But it’s not the whole story. We, as people, can’t fix this problem by getting angry and demanding that our leaders “fix” it. Politicians and corporations aren’t going to take us “off the grid” because there’s nothing in it for them. But every time the price of gas goes up, there’s a little less in it for us to play along.
FOr another two days, protests in Wisconsin have continued. It appears that despite attempts from union leadership to persuade teachers to return to work have failed, and schools across the state are again missing their teachers. These protests, it seems, will not be easy to “call off”. Governor Walker has refused to budge a well, and state Democrats, now supported by President Obama, have threatened to stay away for weeks. At noon Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine played on the steps of the occupied legislature.
Conservative conspiracy theorists at Fox News have been quick to blame this all on Obama and the DNC. Strange, seeing as he’s been far from kind to unions lately. Other pundits have claimed that the American public agrees with governor Walker after a Rasmussen poll found favourable votes. Quickly, though, it was learned that this poll was highly questionable.
If these protests and those like are coming as a surprise, then it is because of the frames of reference used are so skewed. Mainstream media sources have long done everything they can to avoid covering actual social movements for fear of “bias” or offending their established sources and advertisers. In their stead, they cover officially sanctioned parties like the democrats or media-savvy vocal minorities like the Tea party. These protests, like so many others, are growing straight from the grassroots, and that isn’t something that was supposed to be able to happen. The realities of tens of thousands of people marching in the streets is finally forcing us to confront the illusion that people are sheep, destined only to follow one leader or another. What we’re now seeing is that such leaders are far more important to stories about protests and revolutions than they are to those movements themselves.
Solidarity protests are now spreading throughout the US. Thousands are expected in Columbus Ohio this afternoon to continue their own fight with local anti-labour laws, and are gathering now.
The news about the world economy just keeps getting worse. And hoping to repeat of the global meltdown which just hit us, Barack Obama is going to try a bold new strategy – he’s going to give another hundred billion dollars in corporate tax cuts.
This new heap of public cash, to add insult to injury, is doing this under the guise of “Research and Development”. Every president since Clinton, has boosted this particular tax credit, and it’s a big part of how public money makes private investment possible.
Highlights of this plan include over 150 000 miles of new highways, and a whopping 4000 miles of train tracks (a ratio of 1 to 37.5 in favour of roads), as well as expanding the tax credit for things like new tractors or computers to 100% into next year.
Obama’s budget deficit is already around $1.4 trillion, around triple the 2008 number. The price of these tax breaks, like the rest of the bailout spending, is simply being heaped on the public debt.
I would scream that this is nothing more than public money buying private property, but it is. We’re not only buying corporations the capital and infrastructure they need, we’re doing it on credit.