Tag Archives: democracy

The Referendum That Might Have Headed Off Flint’s Water Crisis

Michigan National Guard members go door to door to deliver water, filters, replacement cartridges and water test kits to residents of Flint, Michigan on January 19, 2016. (Photos by U.S. National Guard Maj. Joe Cannon/Released)

Michigan National Guard members go door to door to deliver water, filters, replacement cartridges and water test kits to residents of Flint, Michigan on January 19, 2016. Photo: U.S. National Guard Maj. Joe Cannon, Public Domain

by Alec MacGillis, ProPublica
March, 2016

The tragic lead poisoning of the Flint water supply in Michigan is a study in bureaucratic bungling, racial inequity and national media inattention. But the fallout from the crisis has obscured another lesson: There are consequences when those in power are able simply to circumvent the public will.

For two decades, Michigan has used emergency managers to supplant local elected officials and bring order to its most financially troubled cities. Flint has been overseen since 2011 by a succession of these state appointees, who have power to cut spending and sell off assets to raise money.

The city was under the authority of an emergency manager when it opted in 2013 to switch its source of drinking water from the Detroit system to a new pipeline being built from Lake Huron — and, most fatefully, to save money by drawing water from the Flint River in the interim. The city failed to add phosphates to the river water to prevent corrosion of lead pipes, at what would have been a cost of $100 per day.

Now public health workers are trying to determine how many of the roughly 8,600 children under the age of six in Flint have suffered lead poisoning from corrosion in the water supply and officials are deciding whether to replace all of the city’s 15,000 lead pipes — an estimated $55 million undertaking.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder Answers Media Questions in 2012. Photo: Michigan Municipal League, Creative Commons

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder Answers Media Questions in 2012. Photo: Michigan Municipal League, Creative Commons

There might not have been a super-empowered emergency manager at all in Flint if a 2012 referendum had been allowed to stand.

The saga dates to early 2011, when Rick Snyder took office as the state’s governor. The mild-mannered venture capitalist had run as a technocratic fix-it man for recession-wracked Michigan — “one tough nerd” was his Twitter handle and “relentless positive action” was his slogan. “I think we’re on a course that hopefully is a role model for other places,” he told me that spring. “Spending time on blame-placing has no value. Spending time on taking credit for anything has no value. The only thing that has value is actually accomplishing results that solve the problem.”

One of his first actions was to sign legislation greatly enhancing the powers of emergency managers. The state had in years prior deployed emergency managers in seven cities (including Flint) and the Detroit school system, but Snyder, the Republican-controlled legislature and the former Democratic legislator whom Snyder appointed as treasurer decided that the managers needed more authority.

The new law set earlier triggers for state intervention, and, crucially, authorized managers to modify the terms of collective bargaining agreements to cut personnel costs, the largest burden for cities and school districts. Snyder also proposed deep cuts in revenue-sharing for poor cities — an $8.1 million hit for Flint alone, equivalent to nearly half of the city’s deficit. “The taxpayers are in a very difficult situation now,” Snyder said at the time during a visit to Flint. “We need to show our citizens value for money.”

Not surprisingly, the new law angered the state’s public employee unions. But it also provoked backlash from an ad hoc group of activists who viewed the new law as inherently undemocratic, and who noted that there would be less need for Draconian action in the targeted cities (which were, for the most part, heavily African American) if the state hadn’t slashed funding for them over the years.

One of these activists was Amy Kerr Hardin, a former branch manager at a small bank in Northern Michigan, near Traverse City. In the summer of 2011, she and hundreds of others started collecting petitions to challenge the law in a referendum on the 2012 ballot. It was a slog: under state law, the entire law had to be printed on each petition, which amounted to a 26-page foldout. The petitions had to be segregated by each of the state’s 83 counties, so each canvasser had to carry a large bag, or even a wagon, filled with dozens of petitions in case he or she encountered a signer from another jurisdiction.

Hardin and her North Country comrades canvassed at farmer’s markets, the National Cherry Festival, and the Traverse City Film Festival. Their downstate counterparts hit football tailgates and the Blossomtime Festival in Benton Harbor, one of the cities under an emergency manager. It wasn’t easy explaining the issue — “it was pretty unsexy,” said Hardin — but the canvassers would try to make it concrete by describing consequences of the law, such as the risk that an emergency manager could sell Benton Harbor’s big lakeside park, one of its few assets. The effort received scant attention in the media — one press conference in Traverse City attracted only a single person from a little-known local outlet.

Eventually, though, the canvassers amassed 225,000 signatures, well above the required 162,000. They overcame a last-minute challenge over whether the petition font had been large enough. And on Election Day in 2012, 53 percent of the electorate voted to repeal the 2011 emergency manager law.

Any celebration was short-lived. A few weeks later, the legislature took up a bill to simply replace the repealed emergency manager law with a new, very similar one.

The replacement differed in some particulars — it gave local elected officials the right to propose alternatives to an emergency manager’s cuts, if they saved as much money, and to vote to remove him or her by a two-thirds vote (though only after 18 months.) But it retained the main elements of the rejected law, such as the power to modify union contracts and sell off local assets. The tweaks would only apply to future emergency managers, not the ones already governing cities and school systems. And the legislature attached a small budget appropriation to the new law, which made it impervious to referendum.

“It was an amazing power grab,” said Gretchen Whitmer, who was then the leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate. “It was stunning.”

It took aback even some of her Republican colleagues, three of whom voted against the replacement. “The people spoke loud and clear,” said Tonya Schuitmaker, a Republican who had voted for the 2011 law. “I gave deference to them and why they did not want it.” Mike Kowall, a Republican who had also voted for the 2011 law, wouldn’t back the new measure. “I was not going to go against the vote of the people,” he said.

The newspaper in the conservative western Michigan town of Holland was also opposed to the “galling” maneuver, saying that while it backed the emergency manager law in concept, “that doesn’t justify the short-circuiting of democracy.”

In an interview, Randy Richardville, who at the time was the Republican leader in the Senate, justified the maneuver by calling the referendum into question. “Quite frankly, the proposal was not written very well,” he said. “The language in the proposal was not enough to explain to the people what was trying to be done.” Andy Dillon, the then-treasurer, said the referendum had not been adequately vetted prior to the election because its opponents had focused their attention on successfully opposing another ballot question, to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. “There was like zero effort put into defending that law,” Dillon said.

So instead of fighting the referendum when it was before the voters, its opponents simply overruled it. Snyder, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, signed the replacement law on Dec. 27, 2012. Less than four months later, Flint’s emergency manager signed an agreement moving the city into the new water system. Three months after that, he settled on the Flint River as the interim source.

To Whitmer, who is now contemplating a run for governor in 2018, there is a link between the disregard of the referendum result and the circumvention of local authority in the emergency manager law. “This is the exact thing you get when you combine austerity measures with callous disregard for local people,” she said.

Hardin, the branch manager turned activist, won’t go so far as to claim vindication. But she notes, darkly, that the arduous task of collecting the petitions would have been easier if state residents had been aware of just how big the stakes were.

“We had to come up with scenarios of real things that could happen,” she said. “If we had said, ‘We could poison an entire city under this scenario,’ no one would have believed us. It would have been too wild.”

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Democracy scores

Saudi Arabia held rare elections this weekend. For the first time since a ban on their participation was lifted, Saudi women voted — and several were elected to municipal councils.  As the BBC reported, “Elections of any kind are rare in the Saudi kingdom – Saturday was only the third time in history that Saudis had gone to the polls.”

Marine Le Pen in 2012. Photo by Jannick Jeremy/Wikipedia

Marine Le Pen in 2012. Photo by Jannick Jeremy/Wikipedia

Meantime in France, strategic tactics and a late surge in voter turnout dashed the ambitions of the country’s anti-immigration, anti-European Union populist National Front.  “The far-right party in France, the National Front (FN),  failed to win a single region in elections Sunday despite record results in the first round, as voters flocked to traditional parties to keep them out of power, according to early estimates,” reported Agence France-Presse.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen lashed out with bizarre accusations of “intellectual terrorism” and being “undemocratic” after  the majority of voters and the mainstream parties worked together to overcome her party’s ambition to rule.

What is most interesting is that Le Pen would have prevailed under the winner-take-all systems used in many countries, notably highly-polarized U.S., Canada and Britain. (Disclosure: I support proportional representation.)

Democracy — our ongoing, optimistic experiment in human agency, raised its head this weekend. And for today at least, in two places at least, it kept it.

— Deborah Jones

Stories currently on our Contents page include a focus on Climate, China’s impact on housing bubbles, religious extremists in the US, Photo-essays including Reuters’ Photos of the Year, and a trove of eclectic great reads available nowhere else.

Recommended for a Sunday think, from F&O this time last year:  The perils of the last human: flaws in modern economics, by Warwick Smith.

“Our economic system funnels our will into the pursuit of material prosperity and comfort. This is the very opposite of freedom. It stifles creativity and forces our life energy inwards instead of outwards, turning us into what Nietzsche describes as “the sick animal”. Despite our material prosperity we suffer from “affluenza” and write self-help books to each other in an attempt to diagnose and treat the panoply of mental and physical afflictions caused by our wealth.

“The fact that our economic system is a social construct means that we have made a choice, even if an unconscious one, and that we can remake that choice.” ….  Click to read Warwick Smith’s essay.*


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America’s Lying Season


October, 2015

It’s the lying season in American politics.

Lies fall from politicians lips like leaves fall from the trees in autumn. Most of the heaviest lying is taking place on the national level, at the moment particularly within the Republican Party (more on that below). But you can find lying at almost every level of political office.

Here in Virginia, where I currently live, we have an election this week. It’s not a big election. No governors nor senators nor a president being elected. Just elections for the state house and senate, local sheriff, the other odd office. But lying is on full display. Candidates lie about the policies they would enact. They creatively ‘embellish’ past achievements. And they lie about, and twist, the things their opponents have said and done. And often these are not little lies, but great big whoppers, sometimes made of whole cloth.

And when lying doesn’t work, fear is the fall-back strategy.

“Be afraid, be very afraid of electing my opponent because his or her election means your pocketbook, your religion, your guns, your children’s school, your very lives, might be in danger.”

Truth is more elusive than Susquatch and just as well hidden. And like Susquatch, the question is, does it really exist?

It certainly doesn’t among the men and women running for their parties’ respective presidential nominations. While Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are no saints when it comes to truth telling, they are novices compared to the Republican candidates.

You would need a calculator to keep track of the lies and fabrications spun out like cotton candy during this party’s recent presidential debates. Donald Trump, for instance, is a veritable Grand Master of Outrageous Statements. And Dr. Ben Carson, who is just as bad as Trump at inventing scenarios but lacks his over-the-top craziness, and so is taken more “seriously” by observers, just plain lies.

Even second-tier candidates know the game. Candidates like Carly Fiorina lie about seeing controversial videos, and Jeb Bush lies about what his brother did in the war on terror. They refuse to admit that they are wrong, even when confronted with the facts, because admitting you lied is the worst of all possible political sins.

But Trump and Carson are too outrageous, each in their own way, to be ultimately victorious. And candidates like Fiorina and Bush are too irrelevant to worry about.

It’s the quiet lies and twisted truths of Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz that are more worrisome. Some of their policy statements defy mathematical and scientific logic, but in the lying season you are not judged on your truthfulness, but on how well you can tell the lie and your ability to maintain the lie.

And when, now and then, the media plucks up enough courage to actually say, “Hey, that’s kinda B.S.”, the cries of bias ring out like church bells on Christmas Day. In the GOP, the cries are almost always of liberal media bias, while in the Democratic Party, the cries tend to be more focused on the individual journalist being “unfair,” rather than the entire group.

After a while, you get tired of the people who are supposed to represent us treating democracy like shit.

Then again, maybe they represent us better than we would like to admit.

It’s no blazing insight to say that politicians lie in order to get elected, and keep lying so that they can remain elected. Politicians have been doing it forever.

What’s different is our willingness to accept these lies. Thanks to things like polls, focus groups, surveys, social media, etc., politicians know exactly which types of lies will work with what group of people and in what area. They tailor their lies so that confirmation bias becomes their greatest political asset. (Trump says all Mexicans are dangerous and bad, although stats show that whites have a far greater incarceration rate. Truth doesn’t matter, because these lies play to the confirmation bias of the GOP’s racist base, for whom the lie was told in the first place.)

Mendacity has become the political standard and truth-telling is seen as stupid and a sign of weakness. But perhaps even worse is that ‘truth’ has also taken on a new meaning. It is no longer absolute, but is now only relevant to particular groups in particular ways. In a very post-modern sense, truth is what a politician tells you is true, regardless if it is or not.

And this, for me personally, is the great danger. Lies have become the ‘truth’ for too many people. Genuine truth creates too many problems: it asks us to change, to be different, to move out of our comfort zone in order to create a better democracy. Believing lies are true lets us off the hook. Our democracy shrinks and becomes sterile, but we remain ‘safe.’ And this is particularly true in Western nations in the past decade.

As I said above, it is the lying season in American politics. I’m afraid it’s become the only season we have left.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

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Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.





Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

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Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

October, 2015

Canadians are committing an act of insanity.

Insanity being doing the same thing again and again, and expecting a different result.

On October 19 millions of Canadians are marching to the polls to repeat a time honoured tradition: throw the rascals out! The rascals in this particular situation happened to be the Conservative party who without a doubt deserve to be thrown out.

In its place it is looking more and more like we will substitute the Liberal party, who were the rascals being thrown out a few years ago. Basically every couple of elections we throw the rascals out and replace them with the previous rascals.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

We could try the NDP, of course. And there might be some differences, a few important. But looking at the way that NDP provincial governments have operated over the years, they also tend to turn into the rascals who need to be thrown out at some point.

For the problem, dear Brutus, lies not in our politicians, but in ourselves.

In Canada we like to derisively point a finger at the United States and say “things are so much better here.” And they are in some ways. But after living 35 years in Canada and 25 years in the United States, the differences are a lot more public relations than they are reality.

It’s not as bad as the United States, but basically in Canada we have created a self-perpetuating system that encourages people not to get involved in their own country, to give up, to believe that they can’t make a difference.

Much like the US, it is a system that favours the rich over the poor, whites over everybody else, and corporations over democracy. We might dress it up a little differently, but other than the act of actually voting we really don’t have much control over what happens in the country.

This is compounded by the fact that the people we elect to represent us almost always ended up being co-opted by the system, particularly if they happen to be in government.

Many years ago I was actually involved in the political process. I was the hot young whippersnapper president of the youth wing of the Nova Scotia Liberal party. It was a time after the first fall of Pierre Trudeau and there was lots of talk of reinvigorating the party amongst all us young folks. We all believed the party had lost touch with its roots and we were determined to change it. I had become friends with a Western provincial youth president and I remember long hours talking to him about the kind of things we’d like to see changed.

Several years later, after I had left the party (let’s just say we disagreed on a few things) I ran into him on a street in Ottawa. We talked for about half an hour and in that time I realized that he become one of them. He gotten a job with a federal cabinet minister and was now just repeating all the same things that we used to be so opposed to.

I don’t blame him. It’s hard not to be sucked in. At some point your concern for the good of the country is replaced by your concern for the good of the party.

Hand-in-hand with this is the way the mainstream media treats elections. While the emphasis on the horse race isn’t quite as pronounced as it is in America, it’s still what sells newspapers. Or commercials on TV. And that is all the media really does care about.

Oh journalists may care about more, but their corporate masters don’t. And so the examination and reporting on substantive issues is assigned to obscure pages of a media website, and forgotten about in the rush of reporting of niqabs, how many people turned up for a rally, and the daily mistake.

And finally there is us. A real case of “I have seen the enemy…” The Canadian public is, by and large. like a big slobbering Labrador. We might get annoyed once or twice, and bark a bit, but most of the time you can calm us down by just rubbing our tummies.

We’re moving into a period of history where Canadians will be challenged on several very important fronts: how will we deal with immigration and multiculturalism in the 21st century, what about climate change climate change, are we ready for technology increasingly replacing people, what about our education system, can we afford our health care system, how about how we elect our politicians?

I’m not so sure were ready to deal with this regardless of who wins the election. Most likely we will just sit back, let the Blue Jays distract us, let them rub our tummies, and not do much of anything to repair our broken system … until it’s again time to throw those rascals out!

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

Click here for more works in F&O’s Focus on Canadian politics



Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.








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When Democracy Becomes Controversial

Poet, editor and professor Stephen Collis,  and cell, molecular and biochemistry professor Lynne Quarmby, were on October 13 awarded the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

The professors took part in a peaceful protest in the fall of 2014 on Burnaby Mountain, against test drilling for a proposed pipeline expansion by American energy giant Kinder Morgan. The Trans Mountain pipeline carries bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands through British Columbia to a port on Canada’s west coast, for transfer to tankers that ship it to refineries in Asia. Collis and Quarmby were among scores of protesters arrested, and also included in a small group sued by the company later sued; the suit was dropped in January. The Sterling prize was awarded the week before Canada’s national general election Monday October 19, in a campaign in which pipelines are a major issue. Quarmby is a candidate for the Green party.

With permission, F&O publishes Collis’s acceptance speech.

Stephen Collis, Lynne Quarmby, and xxx. Photo by Emma Campbell.

Stephen Collis andLynne Quarmby, left. Photo by Emma Campbell.

By Stephen Collis 
October, 2015

Our argument tonight, stated as simply as possible, is this: If what Lynne and I have done constitutes anything “controversial,” it is so only because of the problematic state of our current democracy, for all we have done, in our opinion, is exercise “normal” and supposedly long-standing democratic rights of assembly and public speech. Democracy, now, produces a fundamental contradiction which anyone engaging in the political must wrestle with: we feel we cannot help but participate in the current democratic system (there are so many urgent issues to address)—voting, supporting parties and candidates, participating in public debate, even running for office—at the same time, we can have little faith in the ability of our political system, as currently constituted, when it comes to the most pressing issues we face (such as climate change, the geographical displacement of populations, and Indigenous rights and land claims), and so we must also take direct action outside of the electoral and representative apparatus of governance. To live today is to live in a world of such contradictions. Go vote on Monday, but do not stop there, and do not stop demanding, and taking steps to build, a more just, more open, more equal and more participatory political system.

Another way of approaching this: controversy, however figured—along with informed, respectful argument and passionate disagreement, as well as acts that can be seen as confrontational or disruptive, acts which sometimes may involve non-violent civil disobedience—should really be understood as part of the healthy functioning of a democracy. They are evidence of the people taking autonomous control of and responsibility for their lives. If such acts themselves come to be characterized as “controversial,” rather than essential, then something is rotten in the state of our democracy.

Our discussion tonight of what, exactly, might be “controversial” about direct democratic action will pass through the lenses of our personal stories this past year, the particularity of our fields of research, and the critique we are levelling with our words and our actions.

For me, my involvement in the Kinder Morgan resistance this past year was unavoidable. I had for a number of years been writing about and participating in social justice and environmental justice grassroots movements. I had been concerned about climate change, social inequality, Indigenous land claims, and our government’s seeming inability, or lack of interest in, doing anything about these issues. When Kinder Morgan came to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, to cut trees and conduct seismic testing for their new pipeline last September, they came into my back yard. I have a 20-year relationship with Simon Fraser University, so this mountain is one of my homes, a place where I have spent a good portion of my life, and I care about it, as a place and as a community. I care about local First Nations title to this land upon which I am a settler. And I care about the state of this world, the natural environment upon which we all collectively depend, and the future my and your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will inherit. “Kinder Morgan,” it may be worth noting, in perhaps not the best German translation, can be taken to mean “tomorrow’s children.” This accident in corporate naming is telling.

I could, on my way to and from work, stop on the mountain and join others keeping watch in the forest. I could, and soon did, play the role of a spokesperson for what people were trying to achieve on the mountain. And I could write—and I did write—as Lynne did too.

For me personally, one of the most instructive, and chilling, moments was having my writing read aloud in the BC Supreme Court, by Kinder Morgan’s lawyers, accusing me of conspiring against their company. “Underneath the poetry,” the lawyer said of a blog I had written (and I quote), “is a description of how the barricade was made”—thereby unintentionally echoing the famous Situationist slogan: sous la plave, la plage (under the paving stones, the beach). It was a good day for poetry—it mattered enough to be cited in court—even if it was a bad day for this one poet.

That one sentence spoken by that lawyer on November 5 2014 continues to haunt and shape my work (including my forthcoming book of poetry, Once in Blockadia). Of course, I’ve always mostly been interested in what was “beneath the poetry”—the Real, the material world of exploitation and repression, and collective struggles for justice and freedom and our complicated social relations. But now that the two-headed monster of the corporate state has tipped its hat—that it, too, is very interested in what’s “beneath the poetry,” and the sort of veiling that literary and other cultural expressions may engage in—well, quite simply I’m still trying to process this new piece of information.

The connection between poetry and politics, poetry and social justice and social movements, is primary to the work I do in my academic field. In a recent publication I referred to the sort of work I do as a form of “embedded poetry”—like an “embedded” journalist, I write from a position within groups undertaking certain actions in the social field. Obviously this is anything but dispassionate, distanced or objective research; it is a committed creative and critical practice. But the literature that doubles as social commentary and in fact at times as a form of social “action” also has a long tradition about which I teach and write, as well as engaging in it in my own creative practice.

This is what I find so useful and fascinating—both as a subject I study and a methodology I employ: poetry, especially, provides the generic wherewithal to imagine ourselves as vocal agents of change and actors on the stage of social transformation. Poetry is still shaped by speech and the oral imaginary. In a poem, we can say public things we otherwise do not have the opportunity or occasion (or perhaps even freedom) to say, and we can address situations, individuals, the body politic and even abstract entities in ways that would not otherwise make sense. And yet, this imaginary by which we speak to that which it is often impossible to speak is a crucial political imaginary too. Democracy, I would argue, is nothing less than a mechanism to allow impossible speech: the collective speech of and between communities, the speech of and to large and abstract forces that affect us all in the broadest, and therefore sometimes decidedly intangible, ways. Such speech is absolutely necessary to our social wellbeing, and while “publicness” seems to be something which has been steadily eroded over the past three or four neoliberal and austerity filled decades, poetry and other literary arts remain a place where the voice of honest indignation (as William Blake called it) is kept alive.

Here’s perhaps a bit of controversy: we’re not living in a democracy. Not, at least, if we take seriously the idea that a democracy is a system of rights and freedoms enshrining the self-determination of a community’s constituents. As many thinkers are now pointing out, western democracies in fact function much more like oligarchies than anything else—as a recent Princeton study suggests of the United States:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

This is likely news to no one. Consider Bill C-51, a piece of legislation which the majority of legal experts in Canada deride as unconstitutional and, frankly, undemocratic. Consider the “close working relationship” between the current Conservative government of Canada and its “friends” in the fossil fuel industry—to the point at which, as documents have revealed, the government has over the past four years implemented exactly those policy and regulatory changes industry has asked for—down to each dotted i and crossed t. Then of course there is the denial of the will of the city and the majority of the citizens of Burnaby in the Kinder Morgan case on Burnaby Mountain, and the way various levels of government run roughshod over Indigenous rights and title in the rush to approve and develop multi-national fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure and trade deals.

I could of course go on. But consider this: a recent Fraser Institute report suggests that “democratic institutions are not relevant for an enhanced feeling of life control.” The report adds that economic freedom, specifically, “exerts a positive impact on life satisfaction, while democracy remains insignificant.” Here’s where we are heading under the current neoliberal phase of capitalism and governmentality: democracy is “insignificant”; you can find “life control” and “life satisfaction” through economic (as opposed here to social) freedom alone. Interesting. And who, we might ask, has access to this singularly significant “economic freedom”? Hmm…I wonder.

Let’s step back from the brink of democracy’s twilit last gleaming. The era in which modern democratic institutions developed, over the past two to three centuries, is also the era of capitalism’s full and eventually global development. It is also the era of colonialism—if we stretch this analysis back just slightly into the seventeenth century, when the British parliament, at least, began to exert more power, and in which global exploration and expropriation began to expand beyond Europe in earnest. All these socio-historical phenomena—capitalism, colonialism, and what we have come to refer to as “democracy”—are linked processes. They are phenomena unleashed by the drive of elites to increase their influence and wealth—and thus productive forces—supported by a rapidly developing ideology of limitless economic growth and competition—through the private ownership of land and labouring bodies (sometimes the bodies themselves, literally, at other times simply the labour time of those bodies—although it has often amounted to the same thing).

In the historical narrative I’m offering here, democracy—the “granting” of democratic rights and the gradual implementation of a slowly expanded franchise—functions as a “containment system,” intended to corral popular will and opinion—to cordon it off while the important business of colonization and capital accumulation proceeded and expanded (as indeed it continues to proceed and expand, in diverse ways). We might say that the rights and freedoms we do have were “granted” only because of popular unrest and resistance: the commons demanded change, and elites gradually offered various sops and allowances and “privileges” which were eventually stitched into a system (which we have deigned to call democracy), constantly modified, which allowed a semblance of the participation of the “will of the people” while continuing to serve the interests of the accumulation and radically uneven distribution of wealth.

If we, the commons, made some gains in the past through popular resistance, we can do so again. Indeed, I would argue that we have not yet gone nearly as far as we need to in this direction. In this regard, I recall the words of Henry David Thoreau, who in his essay Resistance to Civil Government, wrote: “Is a democracy, such as we have known it, the last possible improvement in government?”

So—maybe there’s something more important here that the word “democracy” obscures. Maybe what we really need to focus on is the demos, the commons, and the ability of the commons to manage and maintain its shared planetary resources. This is the controversial thing Lynne, and myself, and many others did: we stood on the remnant commons of public space and unceded territory and demanded that the commons be heard, be acknowledged, and be followed.

I return to the question of controversy. Is it really controversial to act to protect our shared natural environment? Is it really controversial to place ecological values ahead of economic ones, or to demand economic practices that are in harmony with ecological values? IF it is, then we are truly in a bad way. And certainly legislation such as Bill C-51 attempts to mark out those who stand in the path of the economic’s triumphant parade over the body of the ecological—especially Indigenous land defenders—as controversial, deviant, even terrorists.

If Lynne and I have indeed participated in a controversy, it is largely, to my mind, a controversy centered on one aspect of our work as academics. It is not our research that is necessarily controversial, nor is it our teaching. Rather, it is our public outreach and service to the wider community—our functioning as “public intellectuals” (if such beasts are not yet extinct), and our taking of SFU’s mantra—engaging the world—perhaps a little more literally than intended. Advocacy is often a part of what academics do, both from within and outside their respective fields. You might also characterise what Lynne and I have done as to take our social analysis and critique—our understandings of the functioning of the physical and social worlds—and put them at the service not just of our disciplinary community, but at the service of the wider community as well. This is perhaps another form of “embedded” cultural practice—embedding knowledge production and dissemination not in the rarefied and disciplinarily bound institution alone, but in the very communities that are struggling for social change from below—and further, to actually form that knowledge in a collaborative and grassroots milieu.

We have without question desired to be of service. But again I have to ask, what here is controversial or even exceptional? In the kind of political life that I would see as living up to the concept of democracy—of real, participatory democracy—such “engagement,” such direct collective social action, would neither be controversial nor extraordinary. It would be expected. It would be a normal part of daily life—and indeed we would have to reconceive daily life so that it allowed and supported a more fulsome participation in a more autonomous, localized, and engaged form of community self-governance (a topic of discussion, perhaps, to reserve for another occasion). Now imagine—if engaging the world was taken to mean direct and active participation in our own collective self-governance, as well as the attendant ascendancy of the rights and responsibilities of citizens over corporations, we might have to redefine engagement—we might in fact have to rebrand SFU as having a new, more radical mandate—one of revolutionizing the world.

Copyright Stephen Collis 2015


Click here for more works in F&O’s Focus on Canadian politics

The Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada.

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, by Martin Gilens, Princeton University, and Benjamin I. Page, Northwestern University: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?aid=9354310

Steve picStephen Collis is a Professor of English at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. His many books of poetry include The Commons (Talon Books 2008; second edition 2014), On the Material (Talon Books 2010; awarded the BC Book Prize for Poetry), and To the Barricades (Talon Books 2013).  He has also written two books of criticism and a novel, The Red Album (BookThug 2013).  His collection of essays on the Occupy movement, Dispatches from the Occupation (Talon Books 2012), is a philosophical meditation on activist tactics, social movements, and change.  In September 2013 Coach House Books published DECOMP, a collaborative photo-essay and long poem written with former SFU student Jordan Scott. Visit his site at SFU here.

Related on F&O:

The images below were taken in the autumn of 2014 of the protest on Burnaby Mountain against test drilling for a proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. Trans Mountain delivers bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands through British Columbia to a port on Canada’s west coast, for transfer to tankers shipping it refineries in Asia. Photos by Gavin Kennedy and Deborah Jones.




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Noteworthy: prescriptions on inequality

Worth reading:  A joint American-British report today prescribed new policies aimed at reducing the growing gulf between haves and have-nots in Western democracies, using case studies from several countries.

Lawrence Summers

Lawrence Summers

The middle class has not fared well lately in advanced economies roiled by globalization, technological change and a shift in economic power from people to corporations, said the report. Headed by Lawrence Summers and Lawrence Balls, it said “economic growth, even coupled with productivity growth, is no longer enough to ensure middle-class income growth.” It called for “progressive public policy choices … to ensure that all of their citizens share in economic success.”

Produced by the Center for American Progress, the report cites case studies and makes recommendations on minimum wages, family-friendly labour standards, profit sharing, education, infrastructure investment, governance and climate change. Its recommendations aim to “create stable, sustainable growth by encouraging both the public and private sectors to focus on the long term,” and calls for cross-national cooperation to “boost economic and financial stability, all the while preventing a race to the bottom on international tax competition.”  An excerpt:

History tells us that societies succeed when the fruits of growth are broadly shared. Indeed, no society has ever succeeded without a large, prospering middle class* that embraced the idea of progress. Today, the ability of free-market democracies to deliver widely shared increases in prosperity is in question as never before. The primary challenge democracies face is neither military nor philosophical. Rather, for the first time since the Great Depression, many industrial democracies are failing to raise living standards and provide opportunities for social mobility to a large share of their people. Some of those countries that have produced economic growth have done so in a manner that has left most of their citizens no better off. This is an economic problem that threatens to become a problem for the political systems of these nations—and for the idea of democracy itself.

The citizens of industrial democracies continue to value their freedom and their opportunity to participate in the task of self-government. But they also count on their political systems to create circumstances in which they can use their talents and their labor to provide a decent standard of life for themselves and their families. When democratic governments and market systems cannot deliver such prosperity to their citizens, the result is political alienation, a loss of social trust, and increasing conflict across the lines of race, class, and ethnicity. Inclusive prosperity nurtures tolerance, harmony, social generosity, optimism, and international cooperation. And these are essential for democracy itself.

The economic troubles of the democracies also erode support for the democratic idea around the globe. In our time, advocates and apologists for anti-democratic regimes argue that the democracies are no longer capable of managing their problems or creating a sense of social dynamism. Democracies are cast as sclerotic, inefficient, and ungovernable. We believe that this critique is wrong today, as it has been historically. But countering this persistent attack on democracy requires that free economic and political systems restore their vitality and reclaim their ability to deliver on the promise of prosperity for all.

It has always been the mission of progressives to ensure rising prosperity and opportunity. A strong, inclusive economy is the platform for a socially mobile, optimistic, and successful society. While the economic mission of progressives is unchanging, the means of its achievement change from generation to generation as the economy evolves. Today, we are living in the age of globalization and technological revolution. Both have delivered much benefit to society, but have reshaped the political economy of western industrialized countries in ways that challenge the middle class and those striving to get into it.

Our report is about embracing the new economic opportunities of the 21st century by finding ways to ensure they serve the vast majority of society. In previous eras, political institutions have responded to economic transformations to ensure prosperity is shared: the New Deal in the United States and the European social welfare state; the “third-way” politics of putting people first of Clinton and Blair by investing in people and reforming institutions. Just as it took the New Deal and the European social welfare state to make the Industrial Revolution work for the many and not the few during the 20th century, we need new social and political institutions to make 21st century capitalism work for the many and not the few. …. read Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity on the site of the Center for American Progress. (You will leave F&O’s site)


Help sustain independent, non-partisan and professional journalism by buying a $1 day pass or subscription to Facts and Opinions. An online journal of first-rate reporting and analysis, without borders, F&O is employee-owned, does not carry advertising, and is funded entirely by readers. Click here to purchase a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. Receive free blog emails via the form on FRONTLINES. Please tell others about us.


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Value for money: journalism and politics

© Greg Locke 2013

From Photo-Essays. © Greg Locke 2013

Everybody is asking for money this week, to beat year-end deadlines. It’s exhausting.

As well as giving money that works sideways at best — to charities and NGOs, from conservative think tanks to environmental groups — I wish more people would be straightforward and donate directly. In my books, the best value is in *real* professional journalism, and in donations to the political actors that have the power to make a difference.

Political parties and candidates are verboten for non-partisan reporters, so I direct my own limited funds to supporting journalism. Quality  journalism is the ultimate democratic project: how will our legislatures, and systems of distributing goods and services, fare without common, evidence-based, non-partisan information sources to inform our decisions? Journalism is, in some ways, an extension of the education system. Unlike the education system, there is little public discussion about it, and even less public support.

There are several outlets that rise above the flood of junk media but, personally, I pay to subscribe to the New York Times, the public-sphere  equivalent of a world heritage site. This year, in addition to pouring resources into Facts and Opinions, which I co-own with my colleagues, I gave a few dollars to a handful of local independent media, and also to ProPublica. ProPublica and the Times are American, but I think they’re worth supporting by anybody, anywhere, because their newsrooms keep tabs on the American politicians and corporations that have an outsize influence on the world. Also, unlike many outlets that defer to advertisers, funders or ideological owners,  they walk the walk on ethics.1

— Deborah Jones



1. New York Times Standards and Ethics: http://www.nytco.com/who-we-are/culture/standards-and-ethics/
    ProPublica Code of Ethics: http://www.propublica.org/about/code-of-ethics/


Help sustain independent, non-partisan and professional journalism by buying a $1 day pass or subscription to Facts and Opinions. An online journal of first-rate reporting and analysis, without borders, F&O is employee-owned, does not carry advertising, and is funded entirely by readers. Click here to purchase a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. Receive free blog emails via the form on FRONTLINES. Please tell others about us.

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Ideal democracy hears both whispers and shouts

By John Wright,  University of Newcastle
December, 2014

The hustings (Charles James Fox), by James Gillray published 1796. National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikipedia Commons.

The hustings (Charles James Fox), by James Gillray published 1796. National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikipedia Commons.

To have a healthy democracy, it is not enough to hold regular elections, or for every person to get one – and only one – vote. At the heart of democracy is the idea that by voting for a particular party, the people confer upon that party legitimate authority to govern.

But if a vote is to justify a ruler’s claim to authority, a number of conditions need to be met.

What is a person doing when they tick a box on an election paper? Most directly, they are expressing a preference to be governed by that party.

They will usually have reasons for choosing that party over another. Perhaps they believe interest rates will be lower under that party, or the economy will be better-off. Or, perhaps they think that party will make their country a fairer place to live. Overall, they may think that party is more likely to make Australia the type of place the voter thinks it ought to be.

Now it may be a matter of debate whether or not the voter’s reasons are well-founded. Consider the belief that “interest rates will remain lower under Party A”. Although a voter might sincerely believe this to be true, they may or may not have good reasons for the belief.

Unless the voter is an economist, they will rely on the expressed views of others for their opinion. And it seems reasonable to suppose the voter will be influenced by voices that have gained prominence in public discussion.

We now come to a central point. Public discussion may be more balanced and comprehensive, or less balanced and comprehensive. Some points of view might be given a thorough airing, while others are barely heard at all.

Now suppose, hypothetically, public discussion was strongly skewed in one direction. A voter – let’s call him Smith – decides to vote in a certain way as a result of being exposed to this one-sided discussion. More specifically, he decides to vote for Party A because the discussion to which he has been exposed tells him they will keep interest rates lower.

Only after the election does Smith learn there was another side to the issue. He might, for example, discover that, actually, interest rates were no more likely to remain low under Party A. He might then declare, “If I had learnt about this other side before the election, I would have voted the other way.”

Under these circumstances, would we say that Smith’s vote had helped confer legitimate or justified authority on the elected government? I think we are inclined to say that if it did so, then it did only to a reduced or qualified extent.

And if many people would have voted the other way had they been exposed to a more comprehensive or balanced public discussion – in particular if the outcome of the election would have been different – then we might say the government’s claim to have justified authority would be at least reduced. It might even be claimed that, in the relevant sense, the government does not have justified authority.

This seems to suggest that, in a democracy, if an elected government is to have a strong or full claim to justified authority, public discussion before the election must be “sufficiently” comprehensive and balanced. The more comprehensive and balanced, the stronger the elected government’s claim to justified authority.

This raises the question: “What ensures that public discussion will be comprehensive and balanced?” A brief answer is: it is more likely to be comprehensive and balanced if all wishing to have a say in the public discussion have a more or less equal power to be heard.

In a society strongly divided into “haves” and “have-nots”, that power is not distributed equally. The wealthy will, in a variety of ways, be better able to get their point of view heard: they can afford advertising, publicists or lobbyists, they can help to finance “think-tanks” and, in a small number of cases, they can own media outlets.

Writing about the (rather worse) situation in the US, political scientist Lawrence Jacobs wrote, “Citizens with lower or moderate incomes speak with a whisper that is lost on the ears of inattentive government officials, while the advantaged roar with a clarity and consistency that policy-makers readily hear and routinely follow.”

A society that is split between rich and poor is a society split between those with the power to be heard in public discussion and those that lack such power. A society with a more equal distribution of wealth is one more likely to produce balanced and comprehensive public discussion and so more likely to confer fully justified authority on those elected on the basis of that discussion. Equality is good for the health of democracy.

Creative Commons

The Conversation

John Wright is an Australian academic. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Clouds over Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung, Creative Commons

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung, Creative Commons

Beijing has balked at loosing the virus of democracy that could sweep, ebola-like, from Hong Kong across the country and herald the end of the one-party state, writes International Affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe. He argues there is little hope that protests in Hong Kong will force Beijing to compromise, after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced in late August that Hongkongers in 2017 can freely elect their Chief Executive — but only after Beijing has selected candidates of unimpeachable loyalty. An excerpt of Manthorpe’s new column, Beijing will outwait Hong Kong’s Protesters (paywall*):

 Photo by Chet Wong

Photo by Chet Wong

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers took advantage of today’s Chinese national holiday to join students who have clogged the city’s streets for four days demanding Beijing deliver on its promise to give the territory democratic autonomy.

But the numbers do not look large enough to prompt Beijing to rethink its decision to keep control of the process by which the head of Hong Kong’s government, the Chief Executive, is chosen. The likelihood now is that the authorities will stand back, watch the protests run out of steam and wither of their own accord. If the protesters do get re-energized, the authorities may well feel the bulk of Hong Kong’s citizens will accept police action to clear the streets, so long as it does not involve riot squads, tear gas and pepper spray used against the protesters last weekend.

For Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, a serious review of its objectives, strategy and tactics is clearly necessary if it has any hope of achieving its objectives. There has already been fracturing of the movement and more rifts are likely. This carries the danger of militant factions emerging. Until now the demonstrations in favour of political reform in Hong Kong have been almost universally peaceful and even astonishingly courteous, with demonstrators clearing up their own litter before going home.

But frustration with Beijing’s obdurate refusal to acknowledge the aspirations of its citizens may lead some to turn to violence … log in first to read Beijing will outwait Hong Kong’s Protesters (paywall*).

Click here for Jonathan Manthorpe’s columnist page or here to subscribe or purchase a $1 site day pass.

*You’ll find lots of great free stories inside our site, but much of our original work is behind a paywall — we do not sell advertising, and reader payments are essential for us to continue our work. Journalism to has value, and we need and appreciate your support (a day pass is $1 and a monthly subscription is less than a cup of coffee).  If you’d like to give us a try before throwing pennies our way, drop me a note at Editor@factsandopinions.com, and I will email you a complimentary day pass. — Deborah Jones

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The Poison in Afghanistan Politics

KABUL, Afghanistan -- American Secretary of State John Kerry Shakes Hands With Afghan Presidential Candidates Abdullah and Ghani on August 8, 2014. U.S. State Department photo, Public Domain

KABUL, Afghanistan — American Secretary of State John Kerry with Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, then Afghan Presidential Candidates, August 8, 2014. Their back room deal over-rode Afghans democratic exercise, in which millions defied threats to have their votes cast, writes Manthorpe. U.S. State Department photo, Public Domain

Afghanistan’s unity deal contains poisonous seeds which will pollute the country’s politics, writes International Affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe. Afghans turned out in their millions, defying Taliban and other threats, to have their votes cast. Ghani, Abdullah, with Kerry and other outsiders as handmaidens, over-rode that democratic exercise, argues Manthorpe. “Their backroom deal keeps at the hub of power all the corrupt and often brutal regional warlords and dispensers of patronage who have blighted Afghan politics.” An excerpt of his new F&O column, Afghan unity deal ensures future conflict (subscription):

As rival candidates for power in Afghanistan signed a power-sharing deal on Sunday, an understandable sigh of relief swept through the corridors of power in those countries that have expended troops and treasure in the last dozen years trying to get the central Asian nation on its feet.

In the six months since the first round of the presidential elections it looked as though the whole Afghan project might collapse into new chaos as the two main candidates, former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, exchanged increasingly bitter allegations of vote-rigging.

It has taken vigorous and persistent arm-twisting by United States Secretary of State John Kerry and many others to bludgeon Ghani and Abdullah to agree to a government of national unity. Under the pact, Ghani will be President and Abdullah has been given the authority to appoint a Chief Executive – essentially a Prime Minister – a job he is likely to grab himself.

However, the details of the deal contain poisonous seeds, which will pollute the new Afghan political process in coming years, and probably within months. An early indication of the troubles ahead came with Abdullah’s insistence that the results of the United Nations-supervised audit by the Independent Election Commission of the results of June’s run-off vote for the presidency not be published …. read Afghan unity deal ensures future conflict (Log in first; subscription or day pass* required)

Click here for Jonathan Manthorpe’s columnist page or here to subscribe or purchase a $1 site day pass

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