Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Québec's New Direction?

Tonight I had the chance to listen to the inaugural speech of Québec's new premier, Pauline Marois. I heard it while I was in transit to Ottawa from Montréal, and it got me reflecting on the realities of Québecois politics, and why I'm proud to be a new resident of the province.

Marois, the province's first female leader, was elected in September. The party won only four more seats than the incumbent Liberals, ending nearly a decade of Jean Charest's continuous rule. Numerous scandals of 2012, notably the Charbonneau Commission investigating corruption, and the Printemps d'Erable student strikes, contributed to the waning popularity of the conservative and federalist Parti Liberal du Québec (PLQ).

The Parti Québecois (PQ) was widely expected to win the election, and they managed to win a minority mandate. Parliament first sat yesterday, and the inaugural speech (the equivalent of the throne speech) was this afternoon. In her hour-long address, she articulated the four planks upon which the government will stand, which will be explained below.

First, Marois committed her government to move toward eliminating corruption. She specified that corruption "not a Québec phenomenon", and that there needs to be a greater emphasis on getting money out of politics, evoking Réné Levesque as an inspiration. Montreal is currently at the centre of a massive corruption scandal, but it's important that the reach of money into politics is a significant problem in many other jurisdictions such as Ontario (with e-health and Ornge) and the United States (with its Super PACs).

Second, the PQ will focus on building the economy. Where the previous government introduced neoliberal reform in order to produce growth, the PQ is investing in making sure that economic activity is incremental, environmentally sustainable, and that it benefits the province as a whole. Potential reforms to taxes and financial regulations were hinted at, but the major thrust is investing in local economies rather than pursuing large international trade deals.

Third, the government wants to foster a better sense of solidarity. This is to be achieved in numerous ways, most notably through the expansion and defense of Québec's large social welfare state. Marois specifically discussed expanding access to the existing universal daycare programme, bettering school environments, offering in-home care, and hiring more physicians. These measures are designed to make sure that all generations of Québecers are being taken care of, and that everyone can participate in society. This was paired with a very strong rhetoric on the liberation of women, achieved by allowing the state to further encroach into the domestic sphere for care of children and the elderly.

Fourth, the PQ will continue to protect Québec's language identity. Obviously this is by far the most controversial item, but it is a solid principle nonetheless. Talk of separation was left out in favour of discussing the importance of fostering a strong Québec based around the French language as the tie that binds.

All told, there are some significant problems with Marois' speech. For one, it is entirely unclear how she intends to actually finance these proposed changes. The expansion of the social welfare state is indeed an excellent idea, but on a practical level, there was no indication from the premier about changes to income taxes, for example. Moreover, Marois was certainly playing politics regarding the anti-corruption plank. This was the policy position taken by the Coalition Avenir Québec, and now that there is a commission pointing out just how involved senior politicians in the province were, Marois is capitalising on the disdain coming from ordinary residents.

But with that in mind, Québec's political direction is one that I feel pretty proud of and that I can certainly support. Marois hit on some very important issues from my perspective, namely: resisting cultural hegemony through protection of the French language, propping up the social welfare state, emphasising the idea that all Québecers are important to the future of the province, and supporting green initiatives in order to protect the natural beauty of Québec.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Québec Summit on Co-operatives

Last week I spent four days at a once-in-a-lifetime conference, the 2012 Québec Summit on Co-operatives. The meeting attracted nearly three thousand attendees from over ninety countries. The Québec Summit was the first meeting of its kind, a gathering of the world's leading co-operatives, fleshed out with academics, activists, members of NGOs, and co-op federations and associations.

The meeting was truly a marvel. It showcased the unity of a somewhat disparate movement, demonstrating that it was very possible for co-ops to compete with business enterprises in the global economy. The atmosphere was charged, fueled by several high profile guests such as Québec Premier Pauline Marois, performer Gregory Charles, and alter-globalist Riccardo Petrella. While the experience was moving because of its sheer size, there are several aspects that jump out at me as concerns, which is the subject of this post.

The most auspicious in question was the role of Desjardins. Desjardins is a financial co-operative, a federation of caisses populaires, in Québec which has expanded outside that market. It is the largest co-operatively owned financial institution in North America, and it is also the largest financial institution in Québec, with 45 000 employees and roughly 80 per cent of Québec residents holding at least one account. Desjardins is an excellent enterprise with a serious focus on providing services that people need. It consistently ranks highly in terms of social responsibility projects, and it plays a key role in supporting the growth of the co-op sector. Of course the size of Desjardins speaks to the capability of co-operatively run businesses to become players in free market economies, but the issue is that Desjardins is virtually unchallenged in terms of its size and scope.

For this being one of two official ICA events in the International Year of the Co-operative, there was a sense that Desjardins itself had a disproportionately large stamp on it- perhaps explained by the fact that it was responsible for ensuring the success of the event, financially, logistically and in every other way.  Still, it would have helped enormously to have the Summit at least somewhat more participatory. Desjardins had 75 full-time staff organising the conference, with tasks varying from the logistical such as finding sponsors and designing logos to the substantive such as picking speakers. It is also a significant concern that the CEO suggested that Québec hold a second summit of this kind, organised and supervised by Desjardins again - however, I have since heard that she has backed down on this claim. While I am certainly glad that Desjardins was able to pool resources in order to put this event on, I am troubled by large institutions leading a movement without keeping close to democratic principles or the realities on the ground. Desjardins absolutely should continue to support summits and congresses, but it would be far more preferable that it come to to table as an equal player with other members of the co-op world.

This co-optation was very much reinforced by the use of several studies that were commissioned to showcase co-ops. Firms such as McKinsey and IPSOS were contracted to legitimise research that would be palatable to people outside the world of co-operatives. These organisations polled various groups in order to determine where the co-op sector was successful and where it was not. The information, in a lot of regards, was very helpful, notably that many people just don't know what a co-operative is, and that the best way to remedy this would be to state this more clearly. However, the sleek packaging of these reports was designed not just to present some useful data, but the medium is the message. Data from a respected, international, mainstream, and "objective" firm is designed to help co-operatives fit better into the existing economic status quo, rather than work to change it by being a recognisable alternative. Further, a very significant focus was placed on profit. This discourse of profit was not situated in terms of keeping the co-op operational, nor was it tempered by sustainability either socially or economically. The idea was the pursuit of profit, much in the same sense that it is routinely discussed by large transnationals.

Another issue was the lack of diversity amongst panelists. Predominantly, this relates to youth, women, and non-Westerners. There was a serious rhetoric that these groups flourish in co-operatives and that they are indeed not only the future, but the present of the movement. While the keynote speakers were very diverse, the plenary discussions (which were essentially roundtables) were surprisingly homogenous. Very few plenaries featured speakers who were female or from outside Europe and North America. What is perhaps more shocking, however, is that youth were virtually excluded from speaking.  

One last element that I'd like to mention is that there was an incredible lack of emphasis on the role of the state. Whether from the leaders of large co-ops, from researchers, or from other organisations, there seemed to be few that argued that it was the prerogative and responsibility of the state to invest in the strengthening of the co-operative sector so that it can become self-sufficient. There was even a roundtable discussion about capitalisation, but this was effectively balanced out by another plenary that suggested that government involvement (from a regulatory perspective) tends to create trouble. What was interesting was that intervention was shaped as state funding paired with crippling regulation, without really having a positive discussion of them together and how that might manifest itself.

I don't intend to paint a monolithic picture of the Québec Summit as negative. While these are elements that I, and many of my colleagues, found distressing or uncomfortable, there were certainly some incredible highlights. There were two associated events, the Imagine Conference, presented by St. Marys University, and a conference on Worker Co-operatives presented by Le Reseau. These events were great, but the registration was separate from the main conference, and thus not everyone benefited from them (the Imagine Conference, for example, had about 600 participants instead of the 2800 at the Summit).

Another important element was that the conference billed co-ops as high profile, essentially attracting public interest, attention from activists, and serious academic analysis. The event was actually well covered in the media, in particular the French-language press in Canada. This function was also supported by the Imagine Conference, which presented a radical perspective about economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Among other things, the Dean of the St. Mary's Business School, Dr. Patricia Bradshaw stated that St. Mary's University was committed to continue to disseminate the research findings.  She stated, "We want to collaborate with other academic departments.  We seek to form a network of university partners committed to co-op development.  We need to develop programs whereby students can run co-ops."

Fortunately, one of the most impressive parts of the summit was the keynote address, made by Riccardo Petrella, an Italian co-operator, economist, and alter-globalist. His address challenged the notion of development, urging the co-op sector to focus on meeting social needs, remaining close to communities, to nature, and to values of democracy.

In all, the conference was an excellent chance to meet fellow co-operators, and as someone who is brand new to the sector, it was a remarkable chance to see just how diverse the movement is. Speaking to colleagues and to new friends allowed me the chance to see what some of the major debates and tensions are within the movement.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Modern Islamophobia

Everyone who knows me knows that one of the causes I am most passionate about is fighting Islamophobia. I've blogged about this before, most notably with a post I wrote called "Draw Muhammed Day". Islamophobia is a trend that ebbs and flows in the Western world. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 there has been a very visceral attitude of secular and religious Westerners to Islam, one that can be turned on and off with virtually the flick of a switch.

The most recent episode has been one of such frenzies of media attention. A low-budget production called "The Innocence of Muslims" was launched onto youtube, seen countless times by countless people around the globe. To not have heard about this controversy, you'd have to have been far removed from any media or anyone with access to media. My post this time around has to do, predominantly, with the media coverage of this event and, secondarily, with the general attitudes of the West toward Islam.

As I mentioned a second ago, 9/11 played a mammoth role in politicising Muslims as others. There has been a long history in the West of vilifying Islamic peoples and their cultures, but the climate after 9/11 brought a new perspective, with Islam threatening not Christianity, but democracy, capitalism, individualism, freedom of expression, secularism, pluralism, and other pillars of a modern Western society.

The film itself is something that I won't really comment on much. I think it's an atrociously poorly produced piece, but it's full of hate, stereotypes, and ignorance. The film, according to its producers, is designed to point out the hypocrisy of Islam and its prophet, Muhammed. The film has been viewed by hundreds of millions of people in countries all across the world. The response to it has been mixed, with many promoting the right to freedom of speech and others indicating that this is blatant hate speech. The debate is a challenging one, as striking a balance of censorship and expressive license is a major issue in most modern democratic states.

The film aside, the majority of the media coverage has centred around the rather noteworthy reactions in the Islamic world. Throughout the Middle East there have been significant protests since the middle of September. Groups of Muslims, largely urban youths, have gathered to express their anti-American sentiments, offended at the defamation of their god. These protests, which are an authentic expression of their religious fervour, have been augmented by a growing resentment in the Middle East toward American politics and culture. While the vast majority of these protests were peaceful, some protestors turned to violence, notably in Libya, where the US ambassador was murdered.

These events prompted the standard arguments. Islam is violent, or Muslims are uncivilised, or any other Islamophobic drivel. These presumptions and stereotypes are not at all new. These constructs are part of over a millennium of contact between Christianity and Islam, often marred with violence. The Islamic world is presented as brutal and savage while the Christian world is characterised as peaceful and ordered. There is a false sense of superiority on the part of Westerners that our societies are more advanced than those in the Middle East. Overwhelmingly, proponents of such a worldview are totally failing to understand Islam and are not deconstructing their privilege as Westerners.

The first part of this is not understanding Islam. Few realise that Islam is very close in content to Christianity. Because of the unfortunate history of conflict between the Christian West and the Middle East, Muslims have overwhelmingly been constructed as untrustworthy, immoral, unintelligent, foul, and aggressive. These characterisations were based on selected interactions with Muslims and ignore the significant contributions that Muslims have made to art, math, philosophy, and science.

The second element is the blatant hypocrisy. Muslims are thought to be intolerant and violent, which of course is contrasted with Western pluralism and agreeability.  This is absolutely incorrect for two reasons. Firstly, it suggests that there are not high rates of intolerance and violence in Western societies. This is clearly untrue, given the amount of discrimination and aggressive crime in places such as the United States. Moreover, in the historical context it is quite evident that Christians have been terribly aggressive, such as the sectarian violence of the Thirty Years War, the persistent persecution during the Reconquista, the brutal colonisation of Africa, and the Holocaust. Secondly, it holds Muslims to the same standards as the West, where different social, economic, and political factors have produced a vastly dissimilar realities. It's forgotten all too quickly that not only have Christians committed atrocious crimes against humanity all through the twentieth century, they continue to do so now.

I find this troubling because Westerners think that Islamic societies are backwards compared to North America or Europe. The reaction of Westerners to the protests and the murders has been predictable: Muslims are characterised as reactionary and blinded by their religious attitudes. This is quite clear in examining news media, but it's also a trend on the internet. The two best examples of this are an article published by the Onion, and a meme comparing Islam to atheism. Both of these are offensive because they treat Muslims as immature fanatics, incapable of operating in a pluralistic world like "everyone else".

It is particularly frustrating because Westerners are not deconstructing why Muslims are angry. Few Americans, for instance, realise that residents of the Middle East don't understand American-style individualism. The protests have been vociferously anti-American, and this is primarily because Muslims living in rather collectivist undemocratic societies presume that the video was produced or disseminated in part by the United States government. And it seems to make perfect sense from the perspective of Muslims that Washington might be participating in this given the terrible suffering that Muslim populations have experienced as a direct result of American foreign policy, particularly since the end of the Cold War.

There is much more to say about this topic, but I'll leave you with a final comment. The film and its reaction have highlighted what I believe is the new Islamophobia. It's not about attacking people's religion directly, it's about attacking all the items affiliated with it (terrorism, oppression of women's rights, lack of religious freedom, dictatorships, immigration) in order to discredit the religion and its culture. I'm very worried for the future of relations between the West and Islam given the incredible tension that is produced between government and between cultures.