From the moment Karl Marx put pen to paper, pro-capitalist political commentators and academics have attempted to bury his ideas. But successive generations of political activists have continually turned to Marx’s ideas, from the best working class fighters who joined the various communist and socialist parties in the early 20th century to the student radicals who stood up to the horrors of Vietnam war in the 1960s, embracing his searing indictment of capitalism and his argument for revolution.
Today, with millions around the world plunged into the indignity and pain of unemployment, hunger and homelessness, and with whole swathes of the Middle East torn apart, Marx’s ideas have an enduring relevance. They are essential for understanding why modern capitalism is so obscene. For those of us who want to win a society free of the misery and class inequality that scar our world, they are also indispensable as a guide to action.
“Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – capitalists and workers”
– The Communist Manifesto
Despite all the pronouncements that class doesn’t exist, that the biggest divisions are those between nations, sexes, or cultures, Marx was right about the nature of capitalism. It is a system defined by the exploitation of the working class by the capitalists. When Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto and later, Capital, capitalism dominated only in pockets of Europe and North America. Most of the the world’s population were peasants, independent farmers or tribal groups.
However, capitalism quickly became a global system. Around the world, peasants were thrown off their land and pushed into rapidly-developing urban centres. The working class and the capitalist class grew as nation states were established. Society became polarised between these two main social classes. The working class, which includes white collar and blue collar workers – anyone who has to sell their capacity to labour power to a boss in exchange for a wage – is now more than 2 billion people.
The capitalists on the other hand are a tiny part of the population. Yet they wield enormous power through their private ownership and control over the means of producing wealth in our society, whether that’s arable land, the mines, the offices or the factories. They are the ones who get to decide what gets produced and how it’s distributed, who will have a job and who will be thrown into poverty. They are the ones who decide whether our natural resources will be plundered or preserved. They are ones who can make or break governments.
As society has become polarised between the working class and capitalists, it has been increasingly marred by grotesque inequality. This is part of the structure of our society, and it helps to explain why the classes not only exist, but are “hostile camps”. Wealth doesn’t just come from thin air. The profits of the capitalists are not a product of their genius or hard work. They come from paying us less than the value that we produce at work. And because the capitalists are locked into competition with each other, they’re always seeking ways to cut costs and maximise the profits they can squeeze out of us.
Capitalism is therefore characterised by a never-ending struggle between labour on one side against the capitalists and their allies in the parliamentary and legal system on the other. This class struggle is waged over the rate of exploitation, over safety and conditions at work, over whether essential services like hospitals and public transport that working class people rely on will be publicly funded or privatised, and so on. This class struggle is sometimes hidden and at other times it is part of an open battle. It can be clearly seen in the attempts by governments to slash social spending and hold down wages.
“What the capitalist class therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers”
– The Communist Manifesto
Marx was also right when he argued that the only group in society capable of fundamentally challenging the inequality, war and oppression was the very class that was most impacted by these things – the working class. The horrors of capitalism inevitably push all its victims to resist. But Marx argued that the working class has a special capacity to be the system’s gravediggers.
Marx saw the working class as the agent for revolutionary change for several reasons. First, we have numbers on our side. As the poet Percy Shelley famously put it, “Ye are many, they are few”. But more important is the centrality of workers to production and profit making. Without our labour in the workplace, not a single wheel of industry would turn, not a single product would be produced. If we withdraw our labour, the source of their profits would dry up.
No other group has this power to challenge the functioning of capitalism in such a fundamental way. The working class brings together all people – blacks, whites, gays, straights, men, women, etc. While everyone has a different identity in some way, it is as workers that they can truly wield power.
While capitalism forces workers to compete against each other for jobs, housing, university places and so on, it brings us together in the world of work where we need to cooperate with each other for our workplace to function. Similarly, to bring the economy to a halt, individual heroism won’t do. It requires the active involvement of our workmates. The need for collective action in turn requires that workers build democratic organisations that can inspire solidarity and convince and organise the majority of workers to take action.
This collective nature of working class life and struggle under capitalism gives us the capacity to reorder society in the interests of the majority. In seizing control from the capitalists, workers can’t simply divide up the factories, the hospitals and the offices and share them out individually – one person taking a steel furnace, another a heart monitoring machine, another a photocopier. Obviously, none are sufficient for sustaining life. The only way workers can abolish the conditions of exploitation is to collectivise and socialise the means of production and distribution, democratising all aspects of production and decision making. Given the interdependent nature of the world economy, this process would have to be international, hence Marx’s call for workers of the world to unite.
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”
– The German Ideology
Today, pretty much every idea pushed by the education system, the media, advertising companies etc. justifies capitalism. Ruling ideas include the notion of social mobility – that if we work hard, anybody can make it. They also include the idea that the competitive, individualistic, dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism reflects, not the interests of the elite, but instead our human nature. And because of this “nature”, any attempt to radically alter society through revolutionary struggle will inevitably end in dictatorship, so we’d better not try.
Once again, Marx was right when he argued that a key weapon in the hands of the ruling class is ideology – systems of ideas that attempt to naturalise their privileges and the subordinate position of the majority of people. This isn’t surprising: the capitalist system tramples on the needs and desires of the majority of people in the interests of a minority. To preserve the status quo and stop the gravedigging, they have to both break up the majority and win some of us over to the idea that nothing else is possible. The ruling class has at its disposal the means of disseminating and promoting its ideas on a huge scale.
Take the mass media, which have the capacity to shape public debate on a national scale. They are far from neutral observers. To deflect attention away from the real problems – like crap public transport and overcrowded hospitals – the media help stoke anti-refugee sentiments whenever they decide to give politicians prime time coverage to talk tough about “stopping the boats”. Why would anyone even notice, let alone resent, desperate refugees if it weren’t for the mass media carrying front page stories announcing their arrival?
Another key institution for the dissemination of ideas in our society is the education system, where we’re taught that to get by in society you need to obey the rules and respect or at least tolerate the authority of those above you. These are the types of classroom lessons our rulers hope you will take with you into workforce. We’re also taught about how history is made by great men (and very, very occasionally great women), downplaying the role that masses of ordinary people have played in creating historical change.
The reality of life under capitalism also plays a role in reinforcing pro-capitalist ideas. For instance, because of sexist discrimination in our society, women are generally in lower paid jobs which carry less authority. This fact can in turn reinforce the ideology that women are naturally inferior. The norms under capitalism can become established as natural rather than being seen for what they are – a social construction.
However, while ruling class ideas are dominant, they are never completely hegemonic. Lived experience under capitalism not only reinforces ruling ideas, it also clashes with them. For instance, the promise of social mobility that capitalism holds out to us is continually dashed against the rocks of economic crisis. The clash produces contradictory and mixed ideas in workers’ heads. Most workers accept aspects of capitalist ideology at the same time as holding oppositional ideas. If this weren’t the case, if we were all brainwashed, radical social change would be all but impossible. The civil rights and women’s movements, which were a direct challenge to the ruling ideas, could not have happened.
Key to undermining these ruling ideas is the class struggle itself. When workers go on strike it can reveal to them the real social power that they do have. It can reveal just how indispensable we are to the capitalists and how little we actually need them. It can also undermine the bigoted ideas that workers may hold, because successful working class struggle requires unity in action and solidarity.
Divisions that the capitalist class tries to sow, like sexism and racism, can be overcome because the special oppression of one section of the working class sets back the entire class. As Marx wrote in Capital, “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”.
“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”
– Theses on Feuerbach
Marx was not an armchair thinker. He argued that just understanding the world – knowing the real reasons for war, knowing about the lies the ruling class push, knowing that their wealth is based on our exploitation – was not going to change it. For Marx, gaining a deeper insight into the contradictions of capitalism was not some purely intellectual exercise. The point of developing theory was so that it could inform his political practice. The point of learning about historical struggles was so he could better understand the most effective levers for changing society.
Ideas alone were insufficient for altering the world around us. It wasn’t the ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality that chopped off the heads of the aristocracy during the French revolution. For ideas to have force, especially those that run completely counter to the common sense under capitalism, they need to be organised and embodied in the actions of working class men and women, which is why Marx played a leading role in radical organisations such as the Communist League.
Far from being a mechanical determinist, Marx understood that the victory of socialism over capitalism was not inevitable. Capitalism, despite being wracked by internal contradictions and periodic economic crisis, is not going to collapse of its own accord. Revolutionary social change needs to be fought for. Indeed, to achieve any progressive social change we need to demand, agitate and organise for it. If you want to see an end to the murderous wars; if you want to win genuine equality for LGBTI people; if you want to see the refugees freed from the concentration camps, then you need to put your actions where your mouth is. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, “Power concedes nothing without a demand”.
Just a cursory glance at history confirms this. It is working class people who had to fight to win the eight-hour day. It is working class people who have had to fight for and continue to fight for equal pay for women. None of these gains were handed to us by some impersonal law of economic development. Nor were they handed down by some benevolent politician. The leopard has not changed its spots. Twenty-first century capitalism continues to be steeped in the blood and suffering of ordinary people. It’s high time our generation learned how to fight with passion and tenacity against this beast.
Toronto-area rapper blames systemic racism for months of misdiagnosis
TORONTO — When Matthew John Derrick-Huie went to the doctor with chest pain and shortness of breath in 2017, he didn’t know he was about to embark on a two-year medical nightmare.
The 24-year-old Canadian rapper who goes by the stage name “John River,” told CTV News that he went to the emergency room five times before doctors took him seriously and on that fifth visit, they gave him a spinal tap to test for meningitis.
“I felt I had been trying and pushing so hard with every fibre in my body,” he said. “I’m not a quitter. I don’t think I’m weak. I don’t believe in giving up in any capacity in my life and even for me, I was unbelievably outmatched.
For the next 60 days, River visited family doctors, specialized clinics and emergency rooms as often as 30 times in search for an answer, but failed to find one. Some doctors told him he was suffering from anxiety and depression and prescribed him antidepressants, but he knew that wasn’t the issue.
“One physician told me that I was in a depressive state and I just didn’t realize,” he said.
“I said: ‘Respectfully, I lost my house twice when I was 17, my cousin who used to live with us was murdered…with all due respect, if I was going to have an anxious breakdown, I feel like it would’ve happened already.’”
It wasn’t until River’s family took to social media that they were able to find a doctor who would take a look at River’s case. The doctor soon discovered River’s brain was sagging in his skull due to low cerebrospinal fluid levels. The doctor believed River’s spinal canal had been leaking since that meningitis test two months prior. Cerebrospinal fluid leaks are a known complication of spinal tap procedures.
”I understand (cerebrospinal fluid) leaks are what some people would call a rarity and a difficult diagnosis, but I don’t think that’s applicable here,” he said.
Rivers questions why doctors didn’t follow up with him after the original operation and given him an immediate treatment to fix the leaking.
“They knew they had given the patient a procedure in which you told him: ‘For the next two days, you may feel like you want to die.’ If you don’t proceed with a follow-up procedure, one would have to assume that that patient is still out there.”
River required eight months of recovery and also wonders why no one would listen to his pleas for help.
“I absolutely, unequivocally, no doubt, feel that it absolutely had to do with the fact I was a young black man,” he said.
River adds that he felt multiple instances of racism as he dealt with health-care providers, including one visit when a nurse accused him of visiting the hospital solely for drugs.
“She said to me: ‘I know you are here for drugs, why don’t you just tell us which drugs they are and we’ll expedite this process,’” he said. “How is it within a two-minute time period (that) you were able to come to the distinction that I either came to your hospital to abuse narcotics or to sell narcotics?”
River said it was only after he spoke publicly about his medical situation on Twitter that other members of the black community reached out to him with similar stories dating as far back as the 1970s.
Dr. Onye Nnorom, a family doctor who works with the University of Toronto to advance the health of black people in Canada, said River’s experience in the health-care system is one of many similar stories she’s come across.
“I do hear about experiences of racism and I’ve heard about it not only from my patients, but also from family members (and) from colleagues, so it is certainly a problem,” she said. “I think one of the biggest problems is that we’re not able to collect data to demonstrate it.”
Nnorom adds she’s also heard from black patients who’ve been accused of seeking drugs instead of medical care.
“The (health-care provider) is making assumptions about their appearance and thinking that they’re a drug dealer,” she said. “That’s going to affect the way the health-care provider is able to diagnose and treat the patient.
“From the patient’s end, that really makes a person feel like they’re not being respected.”
Racism within the Canadian health-care system is not only an issue among black Canadians. In 2017, an external review found several Indigenous women had felt pressured into sterilizing themselves immediately after childbirth at a hospital is Saskatchewan.
Additionally, a report concerning the case of Brian Sinclair, who died of a treatable bladder infection in 2008, found emergency staff at a hospital in Winnipeg ignored him for 34 hours because they assumed he was homeless or intoxicated.
In 2018, the Canadian Public Health Association acknowledged that “we are all either overtly or inadvertently racist and that the influence of this racism affects the health of individuals and populations” and offered several recommendations for all levels of government and health-care providers, including a complete review of their policies and to provide “system-wide anti-racism and anti-oppression training for all staff and volunteers.”
Kathleen Finlay, the CEO and founder of The Center for Patient Protection, called River’s treatment “appalling.”
“Anytime a person presents multiple times to a hospital or a health-care provider for the same symptoms or worsening of their symptoms, that should send up big red flags, that should not be happening,” she said. “Fortunately, the outcome here worked out well, but patients can actually die in these situations.”
The Ontario Ministry of Health declined to comment directly about River’s case, but said in a statement Thursday that the government “is committed to providing all people in Ontario with a health-care system that is focused on them.”
“(The People’s Health Care Act, 2019) states that the health-care system should be centered around people, patients, their families, and should be guided by a commitment to equity and to the promotion of equitable health outcomes,” a spokesperson for the department wrote in the statement.
The ministry adds it does not collect data on a patient’s race that could be used to measure access to treatment.
River, who was nominated for a MuchMusic Video Award in 2015, took two years away from music to deal with his health situation. He has since returned to his promising career and plans to advocate for equality within the health-care system.
“The only thing that’s on my mind every day is how much pain I went through,” he said. “I could never consciously allow somebody else to go through what I went through.”
“If we save one life because of the pressure that we apply today, then I can say to myself: ‘OK, I did my job.’”
River’s first song since the ordeal, titled “Burn the Boats,” discusses his misdiagnosis and how he is now “back from the dead” following the complications.
ROTHENBURGER: What we need in this country is a special racism court
ANOTHER PERSONALITY LOST his job Friday over racist remarks.
The latest offender is Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters, who resigned after revelations he used racist slurs against a player a decade ago.
The case is pretty typical when it comes to process. An indiscretion is revealed, social media lights up, an employer assesses the damage and acts accordingly. Loss of employment is often the resulting punishment.
There’s got to be a better way, a practical approach based on common criteria and effective assessment.
Aside from legislation against hate speech, the court of public opinion has mostly been in charge of defining racism and the appropriate punishment for those found guilty of it.
Social media are the vehicle of choice both for committing acts of racism and for meting out retribution, but racism means different things to different people.
Quoting the dictionary definition of racism is of little use, since we have a habit of either expanding it or contracting it to fit our own opinions for each situation. As an exercise, consider the following, and rank them according to your own view of the seriousness of the offence.
1. A hockey commentator chastises “you people” who immigrate to Canada but don’t wear poppies on Remembrance Day.
2. A prime minister is found to have worn “brownface” at costume parties.
3. An NHL coach makes racist remarks to a hockey player.
4. A woman taunts people sitting near her in a restaurant, saying they aren’t true Canadians.
Are any of these situations more egregious than the others? What factors do you consider in defining them as racist, or not, and in making your own judgment as to what should happen?
In each of those cases, apologies weren’t enough. Don Cherry tried to apologize but was fired anyway. Justin Trudeau apologized and almost, but not quite, lost his job. The woman in the restaurant apologized but was fired. Bill Peters apologized but was suspended, then resigned.
Immediacy isn’t always an extenuating factor, either. Cherry was immediately fired from his TV job, and so was the Lethbridge woman in the restaurant, but Trudeau’s and Peters’ indiscretions happened years ago. There seems no statute of limitations when the public’s indignation is aroused.
What about intentions? Does it matter if someone offends inadvertently, or is ignorance no excuse? It’s pretty clear, for example, that Trudeau wasn’t trying to be racist — he just likes to dress up on occasion, and has a habit of making bad choices.
Was Don Cherry intentionally being intolerant, or did he just get carried away with his fervor about the need to honour veterans? Many have said the latter. Did Cherry understand that “you people” is widely viewed as being racist, or is it just the way he speaks?
Clearly, there’s a difference between using racial slurs to intentionally belittle someone, but is the end result the same?
Premier John Horgan last week announced the creation of the Resilience BC Anti-Racism Network. By the sounds of it, it’s mostly an information, training and prevention program, not one that hands out punishment, but it might prove to be an important step.
The move came after Ravi Kahlon, the NDP MLA for Delta North, spent his summer travelling the province gathering ideas on how to deal with racism. He’s flying the idea of fining people for lesser offences relating to racism, the kind that currently don’t make it to court.
None of the examples I gave above was prosecuted other than by public opinion which, as I said, carries a lot of weight. The offences weren’t committed by organized hate groups, weren’t part of any campaign against minorities, didn’t involve violence.
But they have consequences, both to the perpetrator and the target. Society has decided it’s no longer the sort of thing we just put up with. The question is, how can their seriousness be defined, and how can appropriate repercussions be decided? There are no guidelines, and it would help if there were.
So, following up on Kahlon’s idea, what if a sort of bylaws court for hate offences was developed that could take care of things like the Burnaby convenience store case in which a customer berated clerks for not speaking English, or the examples above?
After all, we could take the position that racism is racism is racism, and one example is as ugly as the next, but is that really fair?
Suppose this special court operated under a set of criteria such as the ones I’ve mentioned. How much time has passed since the incident? Was an apology offered? Was the offence intentional? What language was used and to what degree are the terms offensive? Did it involve an overt slur? Did it occur in a public setting? Was it a first or second offence?
With those things in mind, our brief list might rank the restaurant rant and Peters’ insults ahead of the others, followed by Cherry and Trudeau. You might view it differently but the point is that one offence isn’t always the same as another, and that penalties should be somewhat different from one another.
Should those penalties involve community service? A public apology? Fines based on a system similar to traffic offences?
Such a system would have to be complaints based, and it would be a challenge to enforce. But each time it was, it would make a statement that if you engage in racist talk or actions, even though it falls short of violence or an all-out hate campaign, you’ll pay a price.
And, employers could make decisions based on these independent evaluations by the court system, instead of on the highly fallible court of public opinion.
Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops and newspaper editor. He writes five commentaries a week for CFJC Today, publishes the ArmchairMayor.ca opinion website, and is a director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remembering everyday violence against women and girls on Dec. 6
It’s the National Day of Remembrance for the 14 women who were killed at the L’école Polytechnique in Montréal for being women and for being students in a discipline that, at the time, was wholly male-defined.
Across the nation and on different social media platforms, the remembrance is being marked by symbols and personal testimonies.
It’s a reminder that the violence has not ended despite the overworked sector of civil society — women on the front lines in shelters, rape crisis centres and counselling centres.
While the collective outpouring of grief that marks this day is anchored in a remembrance of the murders of women at the polytechnique, it is also imperative that high-profile acts of violence don’t overshadow the everyday, routine forms of violence that women suffer.
Six deaths every hour
The report of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability notes that around the world, every hour, six women are killed by men they know.
Femicide, or the killing of women because they are women, is underpinned by patriarchal ideologies that define how women should comport themselves. This ideology, grounded in the belief that men own women and that women need to be controlled, is also at the heart of gender inequities.
Although the tragic events at the polytechnique occurred 30 years ago, women and girls in Canada today continue to suffer from the effects of patriarchal ideologies. They experience that patriarchy differently, depending on where they are located in the matrix of domination — the axes of race, class, gender, religion, age, ableism and sexuality that criss-cross society and heighten the vulnerabilities of some women more than others.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry reveals the extent to which Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ+ are dehumanized and subjected to violence. Canadian statistics reveal that a woman is killed every five days by an intimate partner or a family member. Murder is the finality in the continuum of violence that women and girls experience.
Privilege does not shield
We can’t forget these deaths — the murders that are reported in short, terse paragraphs in the news, or that are accounted for only by organizations situated in particular communities, or remembered by close family and kin.
These deaths testify to the presence and power of patriarchal values and traditions. Similarly, while groups like the incels have attracted power and attention, they remain the tip of the iceberg. There are countless everyday expressions of male power and violence that work to constrain women.
Much like how the focus on racism that tends to be restricted to the actions of extreme hate groups and their acts of violence, the systemic, everyday racism that permeates society also needs to be named and dealt with.
The takeaway of the murders at the polytechnique is this — violence that is endemic and coursing through society is violence that crosses the boundaries of race, class, age, sexuality, gender and religion. It’s violence that is anchored in the view that women are inferior, less than men, and to be controlled by men.
The 14 women killed at the polytechnique were white, middle class and educated, and this did not shield them from patriarchal violence. What then about the women who have no such privileges? How best can we remember them?
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