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On Understanding Capitalism



AT ONE POINT during the night that Occupy Wall Street was destroyed, a half-circle of riot cops pinned a group of protestors to a wall. At that moment, when everything was falling apart and people were crying and wandering through the night amid the tear gas, artificial light, and amplified police noise, one of the trapped protesters screamed, “Mic check!” I don’t remember exactly what he or those echoing him then said, but the cops seemed startled. There was a sense, if only for a moment, that the initiative had shifted. We quickly saw that it hadn’t. But hearing Occupy’s emblematic tactic used not to conduct routine matters in the park or to perform activism in a grad school auditorium but rather amid the movement’s very destruction seemed to crystallize Occupy’s fundamental defiance.

Left organizations, such as the now-defunct International Socialist Organization, were caught off guard by Occupy Wall Street, which they had initially dismissed as an irrelevant gathering of politically immature anarchists. As soon as the movement’s electric spontaneity ignited, however, left organizations scrambled to associate themselves with it. And, once it was systematically smashed by the federal government and the NYPD, these organizations clucked that such a leaderless movement had been bound to fail all along.

With the 10th anniversary of Occupy approaching, left organizations have still not entirely escaped the movement’s shadow, which can be seen in Hadas Thier’s A People’s Guide to Capitalism. Thier aims to elucidate Karl Marx’s Capital (volumes one through three), and, conveying the exceptional relevance and power of Marx’s thought with clear and engaging prose, she often succeeds. She begins by denaturalizing capitalism’s historic origins in primitive accumulation (“dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” as Marx put it) and guides the reader through discussions of the labor theory of value, the origins and function of money and profit, and the mechanisms of capital accumulation and crisis, before concluding with a discussion of credit and finance.

The book works particularly well as a primer, supplying readers with ample history and theory with which to repudiate capitalism. Capitalism is efficient, you say? What of its systemic use of planned obsolescence and the astronomical waste evident not only in the competitive production of marketable exchange values (while millions go hungry) but also in landfills, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, so massive that they can be seen from space? Anyone can make it under capitalism, you say? But if the entire working class somehow “made it” (meaning in practice that they acquired Porsches and joined the exploiting class), capitalism would instantly collapse — whom would they exploit? It is a system that both needs and reproduces poverty. For instance, full employment is prevented lest it produce inflation; labor is a business cost, after all. Meanwhile, those “lucky” enough to have jobs cannot afford to retire from them without assistance from outside the market (e.g., Social Security).

Interestingly, though, Thier does not address some of the most ubiquitous arguments for capitalism. Namely, if we are to eliminate private property and, with it, capitalism’s ever-present threat of “work or starve,” what mechanism will a future system use to motivate people to work? And once the wealth that capitalism previously produced is redistributed, what mechanism will then be used to ensure that future wealth is generated? On the one hand, these are loaded questions containing capitalist presuppositions regarding the nature of work, production, and wealth. And the notion that critics are required to provide solutions to the problems they criticize is similarly fallacious. A doctor does not refrain from providing a diagnosis just because there is no cure for the disease. Or, as Anton Pannekoek noted in Workers’ Councils, there is little point in developing blueprints for the future society, since revolutionary struggle will invariably result in entirely unanticipated problems while rendering many existing ones irrelevant. With revolutionary consciousness born of struggle, we will be positioned to see what we currently cannot.

On the other hand, it is fair to ask just who the “People” are that Thier is seeking to guide. Assuming that her readers are not confined to the minuscule ranks of the already converted, the non-committed ought to be convinced of what the fight for communism can mean. This is a question not of blueprints, as Thier recognizes, but of values and imagination. Yet few will be motivated to enter such a struggle in the first place, which will require far more daunting sacrifices than voting for Bernie Sanders, if the goal is merely an improved version of today’s wretched society.

Alternately, nobody should be expected to accept on faith Thier’s assertion that “socialism would use every advance to make more time for humans to rest, play, and thrive.” Thier supports this claim by quoting Leon Trotsky’s promotion of leisure, yet she notably severs Trotsky from the Soviet experiment that he helped inspire and violently defended. If, however, one can blame the counterrevolution for Trotsky’s violence, it is far more dubious to blame external forces for Lenin’s enthusiastic praise of the dehumanizing labor strategies of the American mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor. Thier herself condemns Taylor’s scientific management but does not consider why Taylorism was so amenable to not only capitalists but also the world’s most important socialist leader, who had in fact decried Taylorism until he took over the state. Rather preposterously then, Thier dodges the significance of the Soviet Union altogether by waving away the “false ‘socialisms’ of the totalitarian states of the past,” leaving us to guess at the ways in which the USSR’s socialism was false and preventing us from drawing any lessons from either its accomplishments or its failures.

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How Canadian churches are helping their communities cope with the wildfires



As wildfires burn across Canada, churches are finding ways to support their members and the broader community directly impacted by the crisis.

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, as of June 13, there are 462 active fires across Canada – and 236 of them classified as out of control fires.

Whether it’s through phone calls or donations to community members, here’s how a few churches across Canada are handling active wildfires and the aftermath in their regions.

Westwood Hills, N.S.: St. Nicholas Anglican Church

In Nova Scotia, St. Nicholas Anglican Church and other churches in the area are collecting money for grocery cards to give to families impacted by the Tantallon wildfire. 

Right outside of Halifax, N.S., the Tantallon wildfire destroyed 151 homes. More than 16,000 people evacuated the area due to the fire.

The fire is now considered contained, but Tanya Moxley, the treasurer at St. Nicholas is organizing efforts to get grocery gift cards into the hands of impacted families.

As of June 12, four churches in the area – St. Nicholas, Parish of French Village, St Margaret of Scotland and St John the Evangelist – raised nearly $3,500. The money will be split for families’ groceries between five schools in the area impacted by the wildfire.

Moxley said she felt driven to raise this money after she heard the principal of her child’s school was using his own money to buy groceries for impacted families in their area.

“[For] most of those people who were evacuated, the power was off in their subdivision for three, four or five days,” she said. “Even though they went home and their house was still standing, the power was off and they lost all their groceries.”

Moxley said many people in the area are still “reeling” from the fires. She said the church has an important role to help community members during this time.

“We’re called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless and all that stuff, right? So this is it. This is like where the rubber hits the road.”

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Is it ever OK to steal from a grocery store?



Mythologized in the legend of Robin Hood and lyricized in Les Misérables, it’s a debate as old as time: is it ever permissible to steal food? And if so, under what conditions? Now, amid Canada’s affordability crisis, the dilemma has extended beyond theatrical debate and into grocery stores.

Although the idea that theft is wrong is both a legally enshrined and socially accepted norm, the price of groceries can also feel criminally high to some — industry data shows that grocery stores can lose between $2,000 and $5,000 a week on average from theft. According to Statistics Canada, most grocery item price increases surged by double digits between 2021 and 2022. To no one’s surprise, grocery store theft is reportedly on the rise as a result. And if recent coverage of the issue rings true, some Canadians don’t feel bad about shoplifting. But should they?

Kieran Oberman, an associate professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom, coined the term “re-distributive theft” in his 2012 paper “Is Theft Wrong?” In simplest terms, redistributive theft is based on the idea that people with too little could ethically take from those who have too much.

“Everybody, when they think about it, accepts that theft is sometimes permissible if you make the case extreme enough,” Oberman tells me over Zoom. “The question is, when exactly is it permissible?”

Almost no one, Oberman argues, believes the current distribution of wealth across the world is just. We have an inkling that theft is bad, but that inequality is too. As more and more Canadians feel the pinch of inflation, grocery store heirs accumulate riches — Loblaw chair and president Galen Weston, for instance, received a 55 percent boost in compensation in 2022, taking in around $8.4 million for the year. Should someone struggling with rising prices feel guilty when they, say, “forget” to scan a bundle of zucchini?
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The homeless refugee crisis in Toronto illustrates Canada’s broken promises



UPDATE 07/18/2023: A coalition of groups arranged a bus to relocate refugees to temporarily stay at a North York church on Monday evening, according to CBC, CP24 and Toronto Star reports.

Canadians live in a time of threadbare morality. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Toronto’s entertainment district, where partygoers delight in spending disposable income while skirting refugees sleeping on sidewalks. The growing pile of luggage at the downtown corner of Peter and Richmond streets resembles the lost baggage section at Pearson airport but is the broken-hearted terminus at the centre of a cruel city.

At the crux of a refugee funding war between the municipal and federal governments are those who have fled persecution for the promise of Canada’s protection. Until June 1, asylum seekers used to arrive at the airport and be sent to Toronto’s Streets to Homes Referral Assessment Centre at 129 Peter St. in search of shelter beds. Now, Toronto’s overcrowded shelter system is closed to these newcomers, so they sleep on the street.

New mayor Olivia Chow pushed the federal government Wednesday for at least $160 million to cope with the surge of refugees in the shelter system. She rightly highlights that refugees are a federal responsibility. In response, the department of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada points to hundreds of millions in dollars already allocated to cities across Canada through the Interim Housing Assistance Program, while Ontario says it has given nearly $100 million to organizations that support refugees. But these efforts are simply not enough to deliver on Canada’s benevolent promise to the world’s most vulnerable.

The lack of federal generosity and finger-pointing by the city has orchestrated a moral crisis. It’s reminiscent of the crisis south of the border, where Texas governor Greg Abbott keeps bussing migrants to cities located in northern Democratic states. Without the necessary resources, information, and sometimes the language skills needed to navigate the bureaucratic mazes, those who fled turbulent homelands for Canada have become political pawns.

But Torontonians haven’t always been this callous.

In Ireland Park, at Lake Ontario’s edge, five statues of gaunt and grateful refugees gaze at their new home: Toronto circa 1847. These statues honour a time when Toronto, with a population of only 20,000 people, welcomed 38,500 famine-stricken migrants from Ireland. It paralleled the “Come From Away” event of 9/11 in Gander, N.L., where the population doubled overnight, and the people discovered there was indeed more than enough for all. It was a time when the city lived up to its moniker as “Toronto, The Good.”

Now, as a wealthy city of three million people, the city’s residents are tasked with supporting far fewer newcomers. Can we not recognize the absurdity in claiming scarcity?

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