A Basic Failure of Imagination, A History Boy, 29/04/2016

I finished the film script for You Were My Friend yesterday, I still have a lot of work to do for a bunch of creative projects. Building the profile of Sunnyvale Psychochronography, preparing my presentation material for the book panel on Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity in Calgary in a month’s time and some related articles for the Reply Collective, and building a more robust Patreon page.

On the day I wrote this post (yesterday), I also had an interview for a job that could actually end my last four years of underemployment and low income. It could finally be the start of my second career. So I was a little nervous about that.

But, if I’m going to say one event really hit me this week as part of the narrative of my life, it was when the Newfoundland and Labrador budget came down, and the resulting protest movement kicked into gear.

Newfoundland doesn't have a strong history of effective
protest, like these organizers in Britain, aside from some
oppressed union organizing in the 1950s. But I think
the current generation is finally, at long last, different.
Atlantic Austerity

You might find this weird, because I haven’t lived in Newfoundland since 2008. But I think of the Ball budget as the culmination of the whole reason why I’m glad that I left Newfoundland when I did.

Their provincial Liberal government has produced an austerity budget that essentially turns Newfoundland and Labrador into Canada’s equivalent of Greece. It’s set to become an economic basket case with no real public services of any kind, offloading the fiscal mistakes of Danny Williams’ leadership entirely to its population, who will suffer in widespread poverty for generations. 

The province’s new tax burden is disproportionately hitting the poor and working class. Services are being cut to such levels that they will not exist – including health care and education. The government is making no attempt to generate demand to stimulate economic activity. They are simply cutting people off from what they need to live decently and saying that it’s all in the need of keeping a good fiscal house in order.

The economic crisis has a cause. The provincial government did not have enough cash reserve or investment holdings to see the province through any tough times that might be caused by any drop in the price of oil. 

I could tell from his first political victories that Danny
Williams substituted superficial patriotic imagery and
rabble-rousing for real political engagement with the
people of Newfoundland and Labrador. It had all the
hallmarks of demagoguery to distract from autocracy
and corruption.
And no one listened to me when I'd say so.
The Most Foolish Hero Worship

In the late 2000s, no one believed the price of oil would ever drop. The universal love of Danny Williams prevented any criticism of his governments’ actions from being taken seriously. He had sincere approval ratings across the province at a level that some dictators feel insecure about faking

Williams’ problem was not his high levels of government spending. They were his insistence on also cutting taxes and corporate levies for the resource sector at the same time, and his creation of a state-run energy monopoly in Nalcor. 

He built a government and inspired a culture across the province that revelled in the prosperity of the moment without a single thought to contingency planning or a shred of criticism or accountability. I could tell, as Williams gained a reputation more like a Messiah than a man, that this would not end well. So I left.

And everyone in the old country thought this was wonderful because they were all getting rich from oil money. No one ever thought that spending without saving or economic diversification was a good idea. No one ever thought that a leader whose popularity put him beyond critique could be dangerous in the long run. 

The truth about Newfoundland is that it’s a culture where very few people actually ever think. I hope that will finally change soon. But I cannot be part of any attempt to try.

The politics of empty demagoguery, populism, and Little
Big Man autocracy go back to the beginnings of
Newfoundland and Labrador's story in the Canadian
federal state.
The World’s Only Example of Dependency Theory

Newfoundland is one of the oldest settler cultures of North America. They’re proud of their self-reliance. But that self-reliance has never been political, only a brazen toughness against physical adversity. Newfoundland’s population has never bothered to take control of their own political existence. 

Now, I’m not talking about political independence as a nation-state, which is a centuries-out-of-date romanticism in Newfoundland culture that had a popular revival in the Williams era. I mean that Newfoundland’s political culture has never been capable of finding the resources for prosperity and progress among its own people. 

From the moment of settling, Newfoundland’s population has been entirely dependent on oligarchies for anything beyond basic subsistence. For centuries, the colonizing fishers (after exterminating the indigenous population) let themselves be dependent on whatever food and cash aid they could receive from British fish merchant associations.

As an independent country, the bulk of the population was still economically dependent on trades and handouts from a business class based in St. John’s and Britain. The mythologized 1947-8 referendums never had true independence on the table: only a choice between a return to the pre-Depression status quo of a nation-state economically dependent on a British-linked oligarchy or becoming an autonomous province of what was, at the time, a Canada still dominated by Anglo-Ontarian social conservatives.

When the cod fishery collapsed in the 1990s,
Newfoundlanders never tried to find new ways to make a
living. They just moved away, went on government
assistance, or eventually joined the Nova Scotia
crab fishery. It's a wonderful soil for hardy vegetable
agriculture, but no one has ever thought to grow food
on an industrial scale except for an ill-conceived
government-supported cucumber greenhouse.
As a province, Newfoundland’s political culture shifted from open oligarchy to a kind of hair-brained populism. Smallwood: “Confederation will bring us riches!” Peckford: “Oil revenue and a poorly-organized greenhouse business will bring us riches!” Williams: “Oil revenue actually is bringing us riches!” All this peppered with a little empty nationalism to distract from the emptiness of their claims.

Postcolonial theory developed a concept called dependency. It said, in very short form, that a colonized country remained shackled after nominal independence because its economy and culture would be forever linked to the dictatorship of their colonizing powers. 

This hasn’t quite been true for colonized people in Africa and Asia because they still have strong cultural memories of self-sufficiency. When they’re able to overcome local dictators who use nationalist rhetoric to justify taking over the old oppression machinery of the colonial state, they do just fine.

Newfoundland’s white culture has never not been dependent. They have no real tradition of self-governance. They have never not been controlled by an elite. Newfoundland has never had the cultural cognitive resources for actual democracy: people banding together to build and direct their own lives and communities.

With Bernie Sanders winding down his Presidential
campaign, some moronic pundits will say that his
movement is over. But this was never his movement.
Like Jeremy Corbyn, the movement chose him as an
electoral standard bearer, an established politician with
compatible ideals. But they're both relics from the times
in the 20th century when social democracy was a
reasonable proposition.
Until Now, Maybe

One generational shift that’s been taking place lately is a revival of ideas in the West that were once – and are often today – dismissed and abused as communist: social democracy where local communities work together across the world to build a just and fair society throughout Earth.

Most communist governments around the world didn’t actually do that, of course. The Bolsheviks, Mao Zedong, and the Castro Brothers – the 20th century’s leading communist revolutions – did what I just described those tinpot postcolonial dictators as doing. 

They took over an oppressive state apparatus and exponentially amped up that oppression. They ran their governments on principles of totalitarian collectivization, which eventually scaled back their intensity from mass suicide to state-controlled bureaucratic socialism.

But the communist movement is more complicated than this, despite what the descendants of Friedrich Hayek would have you believe. For example, the first communist activists in the 19th century organized in the popular movement to end the slave trade. And America’s first organized resistance to communism was a society of conservative slave-holders, outraged at this movement that would force them to relinquish their ownership of black people.

We see around the world today social movements that have seen through the lies of new liberal politics and philosophy. We now, popularly, understand that regressive tax systems, deregulation of finance and environmental protections, and the expansion of a global labour pool without expanding workers’ rights results in total economic disaster.

The demonstrations against austerity in Newfoundland
have begun, led by a globally plugged-in generation.
They've learned in solidarity with activists in the US and
Europe. I have hopes that real democracy can finally take
root in Newfoundland, when people realize that they
can control their own lives. Democracy is the politics
of the human desire for freedom. #WeWillWin
In North America, the social movement that began with Occupy is the driving force of this changing popular attitude. We aren’t yet sure what balance we’ll eventually have to strike between the legitimacy of absurdly extreme wealth, progressive tax enforcement, ecologically harmonious infrastructure, poverty alleviation, and demand-driven economic policies. 

It won't be anything like the socialism of the 20th century, with its over-reliance on government bureaucracy and authority. It should be driven by the same network politics that create the social movement in the first place, with a focus not on the state, but on people.

And if the people of my birth province join this movement and fully understand it, they might finally end up ready for real freedom.

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