Dictating Freedom V: The Image of the Nation, Research Time, 31/08/2016

Continued from last post . . . So much has been written over the centuries about what sovereignty is, what it implies, its legitimacy, its nature. Philosophical thought is a method of figuring out the nature of phenomena too complex to describe in simple terms. 

It’s a mistake to enter a philosophical debate with the preconception that your purpose is to settle it. As I hope yesterday’s post made clear, big, complex institutions are at their most dangerous when we’ve settled debate about their nature, function, and existence. When we’ve accepted their existence and taken them for granted. 

When they become so invisible to us that we look right through them, even as we can’t imagine a world without them. Like a glass window through which I see my neighbourhood.

A protestor raises a banner against immigration
restrictions. A little context here.
Think about how complicated real communities of people are, especially in our globalized world of easy planetary travel and frequent migration. But it’s always been the case that any economic centre becomes a culturally diverse, plural community. Once diversity sets in and you leave people alone to get on with life, it compounds as people create whole new identities and cultures.

Human communities tend toward creating more social and cultural complexity. So why do we all take for granted this idea that a peculiar patch of territory controlled by a government institution needs total ethnic-cultural unity, homogeneity, and conformity to be a stable political entity?

How did the nation-state become the default political institution for the entire world?* The answer is in the philosophy of the modern period – attempts to work out a way of thinking that would shut down the violence of Western Europe’s religious wars.

* You can’t just answer “colonialism.” Yes, that’s technically correct. But that only accounts for the spread of that political form. Not its genesis. Europe (mostly Britain) had conquered about half the Earth by the 1930s, and Westerners equated political freedom with having your own nation-state. So decolonization was the institution of 100 or so sovereign states where there were once imperial possessions. It had become the default already.

Etienne Balibar draws from Jean Bodin’s ideas – as he tried to find a common image of France that would prevent Catholics and Protestants from killing each other. His solution – to describe it in very simple terms – was a state whose law was officially secular, unifying all people as subjects to a common crown.

That was fine for monarchies, but things got complicated when Western culture began developing democracy as a political ideal. Democracy means that we can’t be subject to a crown, so can’t rely on that subjection to produce social unity and peace. How can a community of diverse people be free without conflict? 

The West's most important innovator in the
philosophy of what a nation is.
The idea that millions (and now billions) of people could live together in mutual love and respect wasn't really getting much traction at the time. It was the 1700s, and people weren’t really taking Spinoza mainstream yet. 

Instead, we get the man Balibar regards as the principal innovator of the concept of the nation – Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I’m going to try to explain his conception of the nation in the shortest and most direct form I can here. I want to explain the idea to my readers, but I always want to articulate it in very direct and simple forms myself.

Rousseau took a book to explain a concept whose meaning is still being debated today. Balibar took a few pages of an essay to articulate one particular interpretation. I’ll take a few paragraphs of a blog post to explain my take on Rousseau’s ideas after reading Balibar.

The traditional objection to democracy is that it inevitably falls into discord and chaos that facilities an even worse tyranny to return stability. These objections are still at the heart of notable anti-democratic philosophers today. So peace and freedom requires reconciling the difference between rulers and ruled.

A social movement for democratic government expresses in material action the desire for peace and freedom. That desire is what Rousseau calls the “general will.” This is distinct from the “will of all,” which is his term for the collection of all the conflicting, niggling particulars that every individual in a society wants. 

The general will in its pure expression can only ever be vague – “Peace! Freedom!” Quite general, actually. But it’s still a material desire. That material desire constitutes the unity of the nation. 

Representative institutions channel that desire. In the name of peace and freedom, parliaments and congresses permit the reconciliation of all those individual wills into a more concrete expression – the rule of law, of a state’s legislation and institutions. 

Pictured: The last sovereign of Western culture.
So the law of a state is no longer the expression of a single person’s will – that of the king. It’s the mediated expression of the general will of the people for peace and freedom. 

What prevents cultural pluralism from seeming legitimate in a single state is that mediation in the expression. Only those who can participate in building the parliament – representatives and voters – can materially express their will for peace and freedom in state institutions. If the law excludes someone from participation, they’re excluded from membership in the nation.

But the law is still legitimate because it was produced through institutions mediating the general will of all who participate. That expression can desire the exclusion of others who may want to participate, by whatever quality offends the people and the representatives enough that they’re excluded. So we've solved the problem of unity, but only worsened the problem of exclusion.

The solutions of the present become the problems of the future. . . . To Be Continued

Dictating Freedom IV: Taking Our Borders for Granted, Research Time, 30/08/2016

Continued from last post . . . When something is taken for granted – and I mean on a social, society-wide level – our experience of the phenomenon has a really interesting structure. How do you experience something that you never notice?

It's like asking what your experience of glass is. We rarely ever experience glass. We literally look through glass all the time. We experience it as an absent presence. I’m having a little trouble, as I write, explaining this idea in the abstract in anything other than a few token gestures. They might remind you of how a mediocre teacher would discuss Husserl or Heidegger’s phenomenology.

But I want to keep talking about the nation-state. Politically, states and their borders are the glass of our politics, according to this tortured metaphor.* We're so accustomed to states and borders as a part of our politics, that we can’t even really see them until their structure gets broken. 

* I feel like this post is a really intense example of the model of blogging as the nakedly public first draft. I’ve grasping really vainly for the appropriate expressions, and I feel like I’m only barely making myself understood. I like the title, though. It feels like something a Trumpist would write, but my actual ideas about borders would make a Trumpist’s head explode.

When the glass shatters, we’re horrified, and can’t pick up the pieces without bloodying our hands.**

** Okay, that’s actually a pretty good metaphor. Getting there was torture, though, and I’m sorry about that, readers. 

Borders are in crisis today, with global flows of migrants making a mockery of their territorial controls. Even so, the legal structures of sovereign borders and state citizenship control can and often do make those migrants’ lives into different styles of hell.

One of Balibar's essays lays out three simple causes of how our state-centric political structure have begun to destabilize. They’re very complex phenomena in their affects, of course, but we can describe them as currents and changes pretty clearly and quickly.

And we can spot them pretty clearly if we have any basic idea about how politics functions today. They’re truisms by now, more facts that we barely take note of because we take them so much for granted. We have trouble conceiving of politics without states – Do we now also find it so hard to conceive of politics without these transformations?

Multinationals are free from constraint. By this, I mean that they aren't dependent for their existence and thriving on the particular state where they began. Corporations used to be dwarfed by the power of states and their laws. But now, the most powerful of them have collected so much financial power and wealth that they can dictate terms even to the more powerful state governments on Earth.

The entire world is open for business. Writing these essays when he did – in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Balibar is trying to process a cataclysmic event that we in the West all passed over much too quickly. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the communist bloc of allied states. 

Popular culture, and even our long-experienced political leaders all took the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union as an univocal victory for the West. The conception of the event was much too simple – “The Cold War is over! We won! Yahoo!”

Fuck's sake. I used to think about the end of the Cold War this way. I saw it unfolding on cable news, lying on my mother’s carpet in the basement apartment where we lived when I was a kid. I was eight years old when the Soviet Union fell apart. And our popular understanding of the time – even of the most experienced politicians we had – was no more advanced than an eight-year-old’s.

We're learning now – maybe about a decade too late – that the end of the Cold War was a more complicated social phenomenon than this. One that deserved the kind of philosophical attention that Balibar gives it. 

One part of Balibar’s analyses describes the end of the Cold War in a way that I hadn’t really thought through before. With the end of the communist bloc, there was now no part of the world where the mega-corporations of the world couldn’t go. They were the last states that refused to bend to the command of a multinational.

Enlightenment by communication. After what might at first seem a dour conclusion, Balibar gives us a genuine sense of hope. Our communication networks have spread around the globe. They're faster and more powerful than any such network that's existed before. And literally billions can join them.

We can learn about and support each other’s struggles more easily now than we ever could. As dangerous as that can be, it also comes with potential for liberation. States no longer have such tight controls on what their people can learn. An information underground is much easier for everyone to access. 

That means we can organize for real democracy better than we ever have before. And it’s a truly global process. Our communication networks help demonstrate to each of us individually that the Earth is a single system politically, communicatively, and ecologically.

So what do we do with this knowledge? That’s the key question for global democracy in our century. What would a world without states and borders look like? . . . To Be Continued

Dictating Freedom III: What's So Special About These Shapes? Research Time, 29/08/2016

Continued from last post . . . In the context of today’s global economy, the concept of sovereignty and a state's borders are a kind of weird anachronism. 

Borders have immense power. Just ask anyone who's had their refugee application rejected, who are stuck in an Australian detention camp in Nauru, or fear post-Brexit deportation away from life, livelihood, and friends. 

But the macroscopic flows that constitute the seriously crushing power of Earth's economy today pay no attention to borders. One country can’t stop a currency crisis across its whole region just because the mess started in another country’s stock exchange. 

Australian protestors against their government's detention
centres for illegal immigrants.
Yet a government still has the power to control who can live and work legally within its sovereign territory. This is the great contradiction of globalization. The economic relationships and flows throughout the Earth make borders porous at best and useless at worst, and render the concept of sovereignty obsolete. 

I should hesitate before I call this a contradiction. There’s a tendency in marxist thought, for example, to call any such tension between phenomena a contradiction. That tradition has been pretty influential in how we understand economic transformation, at least from a left-wing perspective.

But this talk of contradiction is a mistake. The most important reason why is that the term implies too much logic in the world. There’s no literal contradiction in state border controls co-existing with globalized macroeconomic flows. It’s not a matter of X and not-X. 

It’s better to talk of tensions, destructive conflicts, cross-purposes, and opportunities for one to exploit the other. It's not as if the continued existence of sovereign powers over borders in a state’s arsenal have stopped illegal immigration. 

You can lock them up in camps when you catch them – and it’s easier to catch them when you’re an island state like Australia – but ultimately, you can’t catch them all. The state government can, in the name of protecting its sovereignty, hold unsanctioned migrants back from being able to make legitimate claims for protections and rights. But that doesn’t actually help anyone.

Migrants move because of the same macroeconomic phenomena that structures international trade and communication. Migration is one of those phenomena that constitutes the global patterns of our planet’s economy. 

Instead of somehow forcing them to return to where they came, the denial of rights common to all legal migrants and citizens-by-birth just makes those illicit migrants easier to exploit. Just consider how many Latin American immigrants to the United States are stuck working under the table for shit wages and no protections. Or consider how the non-citizen labour of many Gulf Arab countries constitutes a literal slave class.

Don't think that just because I’m a proud Canadian, I won’t call out our own government’s abuse of migrants. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is a festering blight on Canadian democracy. 

This program brings foreign workers to Canadian businesses for periods of several years, where they work without access to basic rights. Their employers are literally their patrons, and they live in Canada at their leisure. Its existence prevents countless poor and working class people from being able to immigrate to Canada. 

As my grandparents did. Italian immigrants in the years after the Second World War, who became patriotic Canadians, living the rest of their lives in Montreal. If the TFWP existed in Canada in the 1950s, they would never have been allowed to stay here, and I would never have been born.

Trudeau's popular image is as a "hero of the left," but he
has changed virtually nothing substantial from the
ideologically-driven Harper era of Canadian governance.
Stephen Harper’s government gets credit for the TFWP, but its current form was a product of Jean Chrétien's Liberal government. When he was running for Prime Minister last year, my own party leader refused to answer my public question about the TFWP because the program wasn’t supposed to be part of the official NDP platform. And that added to my reasons to drop support from Tom Mulcair to lead the party.

Justin Trudeau, despite his “sunny ways” public image, has refused to take action to dismantle this sucker-punch to Canadian democracy. People still come to Canada on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and are still deported forever from Canada according to its rules. It’s hypocritical and discriminatory against the poor, and it must end.

All this because state governments still have the power to define who within their borders gets access to legal protections and the recognition of their claims to rights. Yet not only do the major currents of a globalized economy make state borders ridiculous, even their own history does.

State borders are ultimately contingent – there is nothing necessary about why any given state has the physical shape on the maps that it does. State borders are the end result of centuries of negotiation with neighbouring governments, the fiat of conquering colonial armies, and more generally, war.

Yet we still treat our governments’ powers over our borders as sacrosanct. Understanding how silly borders are is the first step to democratizing them . . . To Be Continued

Dictating Freedom II: The Apprentice Citizen, Research Time, 26/08/2016

Continued from last post . . . So in this post, I want to get more into the hypocrisy of citizenship. Because all of Etienne Balibar’s essays on nationalism include different angles and approaches on the same underlying idea – that a society can’t be genuinely democratic while its institutions still rely on border controls.

This is a pretty radical policy idea and philosophical concept. Because it kind of undermines the concept of sovereignty. You know, the concept on which all of existing international law depends. And the institutional setup of states themselves. 

Canadians of my generation grew up being told how
welcoming, open, and multicultural our country is. But
there are always complicated factors, like the existence
of territorial borders themselves.
No one ever said freedom would be easy, I guess. And when you take Balibar’s analyses seriously, it marks a pretty intense challenge to the institution of the state and our entire international legal framework. 

Take nothing for granted, nothing as obvious. That’s supposed to be the fundamental starting point of philosophical thinking.*

* Though I actually saw this attitude pretty rarely among philosophers working in the Academy when I was there. Regardless of sub-discipline or camp. But that’s a History Boy post for another day.

Balibar isn’t the first to discuss a fundamental anti-democracy in the imposition of borders and border controls. One of Canada’s most impactful historians, Harold Troper, has said the same. Even after Canada’s explicitly and purposely racist immigration policies were stripped away, the author of None Is Too Many still points out that our laws treat Canadian citizenship as a privilege to bestow on an elite few.

Some of my good friends are immigrants to Canada, and it’s quite a long and involved process. It involves evaluations of your potential economic productivity, assessments of your personal and political history, and even tests of your knowledge of Canadian history and law. 

The refugee application involves even more screening, assessment, evaluation. This for someone fleeing from the devastation of a war, persecution, or ecological catastrophe.

Application processes for citizenship function as a reward for behaviour. And Balibar makes a solid argument that such behaviour is a supplication. A prostration before the culture and values that the state laws articulate as the majority stance. 

You submit to state authorities and enter a state of tutelage. You become a student of your new country’s history and values. And your prize on graduation is the guarantee that you can live inside the borders of the country with a promise that the state will protect and not itself act against your rights. 

The next post in this series will go into more detail on
the ethical and political travesty of Canada's
Temporary Foreign Workers Program. Ultimately, it's
the most egregious and visible demonstration of the
anti-democratic nature of border control, a law that
empowers authorities to make blatant class
distinctions about who even has the right to apply
for permanent Canadian citizenship.
Until you’re awarded citizenship, your rights aren’t guaranteed. Canada, generally speaking, will still respect your rights in the abstract. Even though you won’t hold all the civil and legal protections of a citizen, the state won’t arbitrarily violate non-citizens.**

** Anymore. For the most part.

But the guarantee only comes (for a migrant) after this submission to state authority. The guarantee includes the right to stay on the territory inside the border for as long as you want. 

Even in largely (or at least officially) post-national countries like Canada, which has decoupled its identity from a specific cultural, religious, or ethnic heritage, this minimal assimilation remains. 

Now, assimilation is different from cultural change. All cultures and people change over time, whether or not you want to admit it. Assimilation is when a relation of dominance and submission drives a person’s or a community’s cultural change – when a minority becomes majoritarian, when difference collapses into conformity.

But for a democracy (an all-the-way-down, every-vector-of-human-existence democracy), the only conformity should be conformity to ideologies and moralities that encourage the proliferation of difference. Because democracy is freedom in its political context. And freedom is, in an ontological context, the proliferation of difference.

So when you look at the philosophical and ethical problems that immigration raises, here’s how they test your commitment to democracy. Ask yourself – Does my period of tutelage, my country’s apprentice citizenship, encourage the proliferation of difference? 

If it does, then you’re at least on a democratic track. Well, you’re on a democratic track within your borders. Because there are a lot of social and economic pressures that the institution of borders exacerbate, worsen, and turn into sites of violence and abjection. 

Canadian civic studies tests in our citizenship applications are the least of the indignities millions suffer in their migrations for a better life. . . . To Be Continued

Dictating Freedom I: Histories of Racism, Research Time, 25/08/2016

Contemporary Canada embraces immigration from all corners of the Earth. This is a part of the Canadian state, government, and wider culture that I love. 

Canada hasn’t always had such an open attitude to immigration from parts of Earth that aren’t Western Europe, as you can tell by examining many terrible injustices in our history. Canadians should never forget that Canada was specifically founded as a country for white people only.

I was certainly no Stephen Harper fan, but I was glad he
formally apologized for Canada's expulsion of Sikh
refugees in 1914. However, there are plenty of Canadians
who maintain that non-white immigration must be
Chinese and Indian immigration to British Columbia sparked race riots in 1907 – white Canadians held parades demanding the refusal and expulsion of Asian migrants from the country, vandalizing Chinese-owned businesses. Canada had already installed a tax on Chinese immigrants, and had legislation since 1885 specifically aimed at discouraging Chinese people from moving to the country.

The most visible incident of Canadian racism against Asian immigrants was the refusal of the passengers on the vessel Komagata Maru in 1914. The ship, carrying nearly 400 Punjabi migrants, was refused permission to dock, and sat in Vancouver harbour for two months. On its return to India, 19 of its passengers were massacred by British troops, and the rest imprisoned.

Most infamously, Canadian authorities turned away the St Louis, a ship carrying 907 European Jewish refugees, who tried to settle in Nova Scotia in 1939. Hundreds of these rejected Jews later died in the death camp network. 

Both Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, William Mackenzie King, and Quebec’s most prominent politician Henri Bourassa, were well-known for their rabid hatred of Jews. The year 1910 saw an anti-Semitic pogrom in Quebec City, where rioters vandalized many Jewish-owned businesses.

So I’m rather glad things have changed.* So much so that I consider Canada to have become a leading edge in forging a new concept of nation and national community that breaks from the tradition of requiring or forging ethnic-cultural unity. We seem to be the country in the world closest to becoming post-national.

Colten Boushie, a young man murdered while
trying to get his flat tire fixed. This must never
be our Canada anymore.
* A great deal has not changed. Alt-right racist movements have taken hold in Canadian online culture, racist violence continues against indigenous Canadians, encouraged and abetted by police and elected officials. And Quebec continues to suffer hideous racist violence against Muslims and Jews.

Etienne Balibar wrote the essays that became the book We, The People of Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the European Union still appeared the true leading edge in overcoming nationalism. The optimism of this time lay in the EU’s supra-national institutional framework.

Here was a set of institutions that had the potential to forge a new cultural identity. A new image for people to identify themselves, which was designed explicitly as an antidote to the poisonous nationalism that fuelled Europe’s previous centuries of war. 

The identity of the European citizen (with a personal and community level ethnic heritage) would build a community of multicultural brotherhood. The identity of the federation citizen.

But Balibar identifies problems set in European institutions from the start. All the particular errors of institutions and governance that set the fall of the European dream in motion can fit into two broadly defined categories. 

Democratic deficits in the pan-European institutions. We’ve probably heard the most about this through the last few years of anti-EU activism from both the democratic and nationalist sides. The concerns and mandates of the EU’s democratic institutions like the European Parliament are too separate from the daily concerns of Europe’s people.

Nigel Farage has become the most effective nationalist
saboteur yet of the European Union.
Deeper than that in a policy context, the European Union’s parliament didn’t even have to be that visible in daily life to earn its legitimacy. Support for a united Europe depended on an implicit deal that many throughout the continent expect to be honoured. European union (as in, a union of Europe) legitimates itself as it produces guarantees.

Guarantees of economic and military security, yes. But also forums for democratic participation – the same civil forums that nation-states have historically provided when they dedicate themselves to democratic governance. Europe had to functionally supplant the democracy-facilitating role of nation-states for the whole continent at once.

Hypocrisy in European citizenship. I’m going to continue this in greater detail tomorrow, but I should introduce it here, having already given the Canadian historical context I come from.

As Balibar sees it, the EU made a serious mistake in letting its member states keep control over citizenship. The EU imported all of its member states’ citizens to become EU citizens at the federation’s supra-national level. But it imposed no demands on members to open their citizenship rules beyond their national definition.

Sorry, I should say, their ethnic-national definition. Because plenty of European member states have citizenship laws that still discriminate on ethnic grounds. Many Turkish-Germans are not citizens, for example, despite being third or even fourth generation Germans. 

From Gegen Die Wand, a wrenching drama film about
the experience of Turkish-Germans and Turkish
immigrants to Germany.
Probably the most horrifying example – Roma have virtually no citizenship rights in Hungary, Romania, and many other central European countries, marginalized to the point of cultural genocide since the actual genocide of the Holocaust. 

Canada has contributed to this, since the Harper government’s designation of all EU member states as “safe countries” instantly and permanently invalidated the refugee claims of thousands of Hungarian Roma. It destroyed their one chance at building a dignified life. 

So for all the idealistic talk and hopes of the European Union to build peace among this continent of peoples perpetually at war, it still left an underclass. Immigrants, migrants, and minorities. The exclusionary powers of the nation remained when dealing with these groups.

What hope is there for a European Union that could not end the entrenched racism of European culture and institutions? . . . To Be Continued 

Never Forget That Freedom Is Fragile, Jamming, 24/08/2016

There was one incident at Lunaza that sticks in my mind. There were a lot of wonderful events. Basking in the joy of a new arts and music community’s rebellious and joyful spirit. Talking for an hour or so with my old friend EP at our campsite. 

It is a bit of a strange thing to pop up in the middle of a
field in The Goulds. The local locals didn't much like it.
Photo by the GF.
But there was one incident that expresses not only a perennial problem with being a progressive artist in Newfoundland. It’s also a very local expression of a broader issue that’s dominating contemporary politics in the West. 

Here's a story that’s unique to a very particular place. About an hour or so before their security staff arrived, the field where Lunaza Festival took place was visited by nine teenagers on ATVs and a pickup truck. They knocked over one of the decorative obelisks and almost did the same to their port-a-potties.

Razziki the organizer and I both understood what these creatures were. Skeets. Newfoundlanders know what I mean. Every society has these purposely ignorant, small-minded, perpetually immature, racist, homophobic, bullying dicks. 

But it seems – at least from my perspective – that Newfoundland has a peculiar version of these creatures. The Newfoundland Skeet shares with all its compatriots around the world the same resentment and hostility toward weird and artistic people. Where the Skeet differs, is that he doesn’t seem content to leave them alone.

It doesn’t even seem to matter when an artistic community can make money for the city and the province. No, “Techno music’s all weird and faggoty!” and “What’s all this gay shit propped up on wooden sticks?” These are people who laugh when they break something that belongs to someone else.

Those fuckers on their ATVs don't have nearly the
class that Ricky and Julian have in their little fingers
as they stir the ice in their drinks.
Their attitude is an aggressive hatred of the strange, unusual, and creative, precisely because it’s strange and unusual when their own lives are dulling repetitions. Out on the quad, ride around the dirt roads, eat, sleep, drink, fuck, repeat. Building anything noticeably unique is a demonstration of the futility of their thoughtless lifestyles. 

They hate it, and lash out.

This is a struggle that I think plays out throughout human society in a lot of different contexts. Thinking back on my personal experience over the last few years, I feel as though this attitude has contributed to some of the weirdnesses I’ve noticed in the Toronto startup scene.

I’ve come across a lot of job descriptions that, frankly, seem to chase trends – always just a little too late to really capitalize on them. And when I talk with business leaders, asking them about their ideas, I see bandwagon attitudes fairly often. “Everyone’s really starting to do X, so we’ve got our own spin on it.”

The city’s startup culture has plenty of enthusiasm, but on the whole, seems more intent on following what’s already peaked in Silicon Valley rather than developing fresh ideas and business approaches that grow more organically in Toronto’s and Canada’s cultural contexts.*

* I’m satirizing this attitude with a character in the current film version of You Were My Friend. Madison’s boss at a crashing sharing economy business gives us a lot of laughs with his enthusiasm. Thanks to a timely Patreon donation, that ridiculous man now has the name of my first Patron. I’m glad he has a good sense of humour.

A fear of the strange, of the unusual, of what’s never been seen before.

I’m speaking in very broad strokes when I say this – No, maybe I should say, instead, that I’m focussing on only one aspect to think in very vague, speculative terms, about a disturbing common feature to a lot of events that seem quite different.

Border patrol agents in Arizona, charged with keeping
the foreign out of the country. Did I make a suggestion
there? When does such a suggestion stop being a drunken
speculation and become a philosophical insight?
What does a band of ATV-riding halfwits have to do with the entrepreneurial (self-styled) elite of Canada? They react very differently – one bullies, the other blinds themselves. But there’s a common feature in their aversion to real difference, the genuinely unfamiliar and unusual. 

One group bluntly knocks the weird stuff over. One group just turns away from the weird stuff and pursues familiarity even when the familiar starts to fail.

Consider one application of this idea – aversion to the new and strange as a foundation of many diverse human habits. Over the next few days, I’m going to dig into Etienne Balibar’s thoughts on nationalism and state institutions. 

I’m already seeing aversion to the new and strange as the ground of a lot of the most violent nationalisms of our time. Balibar’s analyses trace how the institutions we live in can encourage those dangerous feelings. 

Call this one a prologue.

Sites of Actualizing Freedom Out to the Goulds, Jamming, 23/08/2016

This break turned out to be longer than I thought. While I was in St John’s, I ended up getting virtually no time to write. I squeezed out some remarks for the Syria Film Festival Coordinator AtoZ’s speech at a TIFF event. But it was literally a list of lines and jokes barely a page long that I burned off before going to my cousin’s wedding.

It was a fantastic wedding too. Not only do I think my cousin Cornbread has finally found someone able to tolerate his artistic ego and comically savant-like inability to do basic practical household chores, the Jammer is a generally cool, extremely chill, well-accomplished artist in her own right. 

It’s taken him a while to find a good balance in his life this way. The west coast has been good to him. I just hope Victoria isn’t destroyed by a massive tectonic displacement in the next few decades. 

My only regret is that I was an idiot and forgot to sign his guestbook. But I promise I was there – there is photographic evidence of it. And you can screencap the last few paragraphs, print the image, and paste it in your guestbook. The fact that this is essentially a public apology has taken care of enough public shaming.

Lunaza's DJs largely had a good sense of variety. St John's
is, frankly, too detached from the continent's major techno
culture hubs to get caught up in fresh trends. So the scene
seems to be a collection of young music historians who
plug decades of different styles into the same sets. They
don't chase trends, they absorb them.
Philosophically, though, I was most excited by the techno party I attended with GF earlier that weekend. Lunaza has yet to gain a large-scale profile beyond the St John’s electronica scene, which is good in some ways, but dangerous in others.

Being a latecomer to Ontario and Quebec’s festival rave circuit, I think what I see has a lot of potential. There are political limitations, of course. Hippie culture on the whole has been thoroughly corrupted, healthy rebellions becoming self-destructive paranoias.

Mistrust of pharmaceutical companies’ motives has become a dedication to Falun Dafa and anti-vaxx activism – opposition to global violence has become conspiracist anti-Americanism easily manipulated by Putinist propaganda. A liberating drug regimen of pot and occasional acid has become the self-destructive addiction of nitrous and way too fucking much acid.

But at its heart, the techno festival is a free space of a temporary respite from the hustle and madness of contemporary life. Precarious existence in an unstable economy gives way to a communion with a more natural ecosystem, as well as a community of like-minded cultural rebels. 

Our socio-economic guarantees may have collapsed, but these parties can create a space where a low-consumption lifestyle at least feels plausible. It's a space of social and intellectual freedom.

Lunaza offers one such space that hasn’t yet grown to such a size that its financial investment turns it into an elite zone. You have to pay for a ticket, and there are logistics to subsidize with that admission fee. Port-a-potties, deco, the stage and sound system. Paying the musicians, organizers, and workers. But the atmosphere was sociable, relaxing. 

Most importantly, Newfoundland hasn’t been a serious victim of global climate change – it’s still cool enough there to avoid heatstroke during a day of camping, which wasn’t something I could say for rural Quebec. Or Toronto.

Ideally, these parties should be music and arts festivals where people from all over the world can meet and learn from each other. They’re places where you can discover new identities, personalities, and styles of life. You can conceive of greater possibilities for humanity than you have before.

These are the summits that can really build peace, because ordinary people from all walks of life can meet – our social and moral minds expand. Combine this with aesthetic stimulation from being surrounded by music and art for days, as well as mental relaxation from an intense country experience. It can literally strengthen and expand the mind.

I don’t need drugs to have fun.

Unity & Freedom III: Raising Goats, Research Time, 18/08/2016

Continued from last post . . . Any kind of exclusion ultimately undermines democracy. It creates communities of the privileged and the downtrodden – it creates races.

Because race isn’t real in the same sense as an ethnicity, a culture, or a community is. Race is different than all those things, despite the attempts of racial supremacist communities – generation after generation – to convince us that there’s a substrate to race that makes it something more than systematic exclusion.

From a rally by Jobbik, the radical nationalist political
party of Hungary – rabidly anti-Semitic, anti-Roma.
Try to prove that there's an ethnic basis for race? You find real ethnic diversity within race and the history of racialization patterns changing so much that the categories contradict each other.

How about a genetic basis for race? Don’t make me laugh. Genetics is way too complicated to be any workable substrate for traits on the massively general scale of races.

And cultural substrates for race? This is how racism against Muslims is usually expressed. But culture is also too changeable and mutable for the absolutes of racism. You might be able to make that charge to an ignoramus, but as soon as anyone discovers anything about the real cultural diversity* of the globe’s billion-or-so Muslims, it falls to pieces.

* As with all human culture, its complexity is fractal. Human variety never escapes complexity and paradox.

There are a lot of ways for a racialization process to begin. For a catalogue, just look at human history. The history of European global empires, especially, but human history in general. The slave trade, colonizer-colonized relationships, settler-indigenous relations, any vector that creates a majority-minority dynamic.

If I can describe what racialization is in the most general terms, it’s taking some particular person and making them an Other. No longer understanding another in terms of their singularity, but according to a vector (or many vectors) of difference from you.**

Emmanuel Levinas is the only theorist of the Other in
the broadly "Continental" set of 20th century European
philosophers who I could really deal with. Because his
work is all about foregrounding the singularity,
uniqueness, and infinite potential of each Other we
** When I worked in the academy, I was never quite able to put my finger on why so much talk in “Continental” philosophical studies about the Other (with a capital O) never excited me, and sometimes made me feel squidgy and strange. 

Most people who consider themselves progressives do their best not to take part in any racializing behaviours or thoughts. Even most conservatives or nationalists have (at least until relatively recently) avoided articulating their politics in racial terms. But you can’t really have nationalism of any kind without a racializing process. As in the rise of Trumpism, it’s best simply to be honest with yourself about that.

But as modern democrats, we end up caught in the most insidious racialization that there's ever been. A citizen's racialization of the foreigner. And because the philosophy of modern democracy has defined the achievement of freedom as occurring through the state, the citizen believes his freedom to be universal. 

The democratic state is just the instantiation of freedom. Freedom itself is universal. But if the material space of freedom is defined by territorial boundaries and citizenship documentation, then it isn’t universal. The state doesn’t achieve a universal freedom – it's a material restriction of freedom by territory, birth, and law.

This is the heart of the critique that Etienne Balibar brought to the people and politics of Europe when he published We, The People of Europe in the early 2000s. 

That moment may have been a critical tipping point, when it was still possible to achieve the ideals of the European Union, and before the now-pretty-much-unstoppable rise of racist nationalism that the EU was supposed to starve to death.

That time is past, I think. And we're left with a much more dangerous time. But Balibar's philosophy at that missed moment of opportunity can offer us some ideas to rebuild our dreams in reality. Or at least give us ideals to carry through as we try to survive the current convulsions.

Unity & Freedom II: Rights Have Always Been Privileges, Research Time, 17/08/2016

Continued from last post . . . It can sound a little crazy to hear it. I know this because even as I type the argument out – writing the post you’re reading right now – it feels crazy to say it. The promise of the entire modern conception and institution of democracy just doesn’t measure up.

The reason why is rooted in its vehicle. The state is the institution that a community uses to achieve democracy. The state is the realization and guardian of freedom. We can’t achieve democracy without a state to operate democratic governance. We also need the security and military forces of the state to protect our democratic freedoms from foreign and domestic threats.

Rudy Giuliani in 2001 as the face of solidarity in the face
of terrorist acts. The ultimate goal of Al Qaeda – and
later ISIS – international terrorism is to frighten and
radicalize Western democracies into breaking that
solidarity that holds a democratic community together.
Giuliani hasn't worked out so well on that score.
Do we? Do we really? I’m pretty sure several major social movements of the century so far have put these into doubt. Black Lives Matter has documented countless police killings of innocent civilians, casting shade on the state’s fidelity to protect us. The Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq showed definitively that a democratic state could be as myopically aggressive as the most blinkered dictatorship.

And the whole reactionary political movement we're experiencing right now is a sign that democratic institutions can’t even necessarily guard democracy from breakdown. 

But all these are contingent problems. Institutionalized police violence is the latest version of the cultural legacy of a country built on slavery.* The Bush Administration was driven by the anomalous, downright weird triumphalist ideology of the Project for a New American Century – turning the alleged Cold War’s ‘victory’ into a mandate to conquer and control the world. 

* And in the Canadian case, a country built on the cultural genocide of its indigenous peoples.

Trumpism, Brexit, and European nationalism are schisms whose engines are racial resentment overflowing with society-wide rage at unjust, oligarchical globalization.

Yet the contingent problems, when you look for patterns and recurrences, seem more like singular expressions of the same fundamental problem. Institutionalizing democracy in a state results in a troubling paradox. I’m not sure if that paradox is fully vicious, or if there’s some constructive result somewhere to be found.

The promise of democracy is universal. Everyone can live under a democratic system of governance, and the freedom democracy offers is the best for humanity. Great, awesome. I love it so far.

After a devastating war with neighbouring Sylvania,
Freedonia's technocratic dictator Rufus T. Firefly began
a decade-long process of restoring parliamentary
sovereignty to the government and dismantling the
military court system that had sentenced former
Secretary of War Chicolini for his merry-go-round of
political betrayal.
But we achieve democratic government by building democratic states. The state is defined by territorial borders, which create a sacrosanct sovereign zone. Say Freedonia is a functioning democracy with a full set of economic safety nets and civil rights, and Sylvania is the military dictatorship next door. 

State sovereignty protects Freedonia from Sylvanian subversion and invasion, but also keeps Sylvanian citizens desperate for freedom locked behind the border. Supposedly universal democracy becomes a matter of arbitrary privilege. 

You were born in Freedonia? Great for you! You get to experience universal freedom. Except it isn’t so universal, because the only way to achieve freedom is through your state, and Sylvania isn’t being very cooperative about that.

Now visit Turmeszistan, which has democratic institutions, but a class of people who can’t make use of them. They carry Turmeszi passports, birth certificates, driver’s licences, and other government IDs, but they aren’t allowed to use the same public facilities as mainstream Turmeszis. 

Maybe the distinction is religious, or caste-based, or depends on some legally-defined ethnic heritage. But the distinction is enforced by state law and popular morality. Either way, Turmeszistan has created races – groups of people defined by their differing access to privileges and freedoms. 

Some people are excluded from the freedoms that are supposedly universal, according to democratic values. That’s obvious in the Jim Crow society I described in the United States – I mean Turmeszistan. 

But it’s the same process as happens in South and North Korea – I mean Freedonia and Sylvania. The arbitrary laws and moralities about the sanctity of borders and where they happen to lie excludes Sylvanians from the supposedly universal democratic aspirations of Freedonia.

The democratic theory of Europe’s Enlightenment period developed a conception of political freedom where it could only work through the administration of a state. The state would unify a people, but it also excludes people – the enfranchised citizens are an in-group, and their border is a line that keeps people out.

Those excluded people can achieve their universal right to democratic freedom, but only by having a state of their own. Yet that state would suffer the same problems – it would exclude non-citizens, and possibly create underclasses of citizens without full rights. 

Democracy administered by a state is universal, but only for a majority. Minorities and the foreign are shut out of the deal. Where things get horrifying is when public morality develops a shape designed to keep them out . . . To Be Continued

Unity & Freedom I: Democracy Corrupt at Birth, Research Time, 16/08/2016

I sometimes think that states on the European model were built for empire, right from the start. That’s not just because Antonio Negri explained in Empire how imperialism is basically the same governance structures of the nation-state on a global scale. 

I mean, my uptake of Negri’s arguments are a big part of that. I first read Empire in 2007, so these ideas have been part of my political thinking for nearly a decade. But they were gestating through my academy years. Only recently did I decide to act on them, getting involved with critical activist voices.

We can't ignore it any longer.
Maybe the times decided for me, even if I was a little late.

Contrasting what I've read of Negri with what I've been reading of Etienne Balibar is interesting, though. I remember reading about how Balibar is considered a liberal counterweight to Negri’s ideas in this broad field of left-wing European academic political thinkers. 

Yet I find their premises and traditions quite similar. At least philosophically. Balibar just seems to have a little more faith in institutions like the European Union to revolutionize how people think of themselves ethically. That is, as communities, nations, ethnicities, identities.

I think the EU had that potential, even though by now it’s been thoroughly squandered. I’d rather we keep a strong memory of what was lost than believe that wrecked potential never existed in the first place. Otherwise, we’d lose all hope that we can do better.

If you read the link above, Yascha Mounk writes that the most powerful political movement in Western society right now is about stripping the liberal values from democracy. 

What he calls illiberal democracy keeps the institutional levers of democracy like elections while enforcing internal racial and class hierarchies, excluding immigrants, and stifling critical speech and political activism. I’d call it nationalism by ballot box.

There's a deeper structural problem that Mounk’s insightful and terrifying analysis doesn’t dig for, though. He takes for granted that the state is the natural home for liberal democracy. He doesn’t hit on Negri’s point: that the state relies on unquestioned authority to function, and so is structurally anti-democratic. 

Being a good citizen of a state means following orders, doing what you're told. The fundamental gesture of democracy – democracy’s birth in every such moment, really – is “Fuck you.

They should never have let us listen to this in ninth
grade. Now we'll never do what they tell us. Except for
the ones who always do anyway.
One aspect of Balibar’s analysis in his essays on the (philosophical) nature of the EU focusses on the state as an exclusionary body. I discussed this a little bit yesterday. But the details are important. 

The European model of nation-state has a peculiar history, which only appeared like the universal model for government because European nation-states has powerful militaries that literally conquered the Earth a couple of hundred years ago. 

And that history makes European culture terrible at handling any kind of immigration – even in countries like Italy where immigration can only help the society and economy, thanks to their low birth rates.

Modern Europe's precursor actually was a unified identity: Christendom. Much of its identity forged through military conflicts with Muslim empires and ongoing persecution of Jewish and Roma minorities. As Christendom fractured among internal conflict, the nation-state emerged as the new institution of peace and unity.

However, this did nothing to bring peace to the region, since the nation-states had even narrower identities than the religious definition of European society. Nation-states had clearly defined borders, and those borders were for people with shared ethnic-linguistic identities. All others were excluded.

As long as states define themselves as nations, there will always be those left behind. Exclusion is necessary. And total. Just how total? . . . Hoo, boy. . . . To Be Continued

The Force of Becoming Majority, Research Time, 15/08/2016

An important part of Utopias will be my attempt to understand what makes a community – the social body that you want to exist according to a political, moral, and ethical ideal. A community is the thing you want to become a utopia.

As critical as I am of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal
Party, I am proud of the progress Canada has made
since its genesis as an Anglo-white supremacist
dominion of the British Empire to become a country
whose political ideals are omni-inclusion.
I’m a Canadian – my philosophical investigations and research come from that position in the post-imperialist era of the West. So the concept of nation and nationhood is inextricably bound up with our understanding of what a political community is. And that’s really unfortunate. As a wise Canadian once said, it’s just bogus and sad.

I think Canada is a very fortunate place for the new era – it seems to be the one country in the West (maybe even the world!) where the conception of the country has split from any traditional concept of nationhood. 

Generations of an open door to immigration has led to literally hundreds (if not thousands) of ethnicities becoming part of Canadian history and identity. My country is far from perfect, but I think we offer a model for how to build a new kind of civil state.

When I look at the situation in other countries of the West, I see that nationhood – that drive to define your countryman, exclude others (and Others) by any means – is violently reasserting itself. Last week, I picked up a book that I thought would be a useful theoretical exploration of nationhood, Etienne Balibar’s We, the People of Europe.

So far, it’s been remarkably enlightening. The book’s essays were culled from publications and lectures throughout the early 2000s, given in Western Europe and the United States. Balibar’s thinking at this moment takes place at a critical juncture – the nationalist parties of Europe were rising to the point that audiences around the world were taking notice. But Europe didn’t yet face a situation that would let them triumph.

With the refugee crisis from the Syrian civil war, Europe’s nationalists have their moment. Their political ascent in Europe may be unstoppable now – and millions will likely suffer from their policies. 

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's Front National, one
charismatic leader who can put a charming face on the
racial exclusion and nationalism that can destroy the
last, gasping ideals of the European Union.
In the early 2000s, the European Union was seemingly an unstoppable political entity. It would bring together in peace all the nations of Europe, a region that had experienced war for literally centuries. It would require an entirely new concept to justify that political unity, since the concept of the nation had justified the most recent centuries of war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.

The EU would become a mere bureaucracy without the participation of all its people in creating a new concept to underlie a political and social unity and community that would make a mockery of nationality. Balibar was writing in an era where, referring at least to Europe, that concept was still possible.

The concept of nation merges two social and political phenomena. One is the community itself, usually defined through ethnic commonality, cultural continuity, and a shared language. This ethnically-defined community expresses itself institutionally in the state, a bureaucracy of territorially-bound social control. 

The European tradition of liberal democracy that grew wrapped around the national concept offered a democratic universality. The rights and freedoms of people in a social community were developed and guaranteed through a citizenship contract with the state institution. 

State authority guaranteed your freedom. How democratic your society was depended on how open your institutional authorities were to changing the terms of the citizenship contract.

Etienne Balibar, author of We, The People of Europe, and
theorist of new possibilities for existence.
But this universality was only abstract. Practically, this still amounted to an exclusionary institution and morality. The universality of the rights of the citizens only applied materially to those citizens who could build their own national state. 

The minority could only access those rights by becoming-majority – collapsing their difference – or else carving out their own territorial enclave. But that would be yet another form of becoming-majority – what was once an imperilled minority now becomes an empowered majority enforcing its own social conformity on its own minorities.

Balibar discusses briefly the constitutional tizzy that came up in early republican constitutions in France, as they attempted to recognize the status of Corsica as a nation within France. It reminded me very much of Canada’s recent constitutional crises over the national status of Quebec. 

It amounts to a calamity – nationhood can admit no minority that is not at least in progress to become-majority. And the existing majority must also accept the becoming-majority of the minority. The fate of the Jews and Roma in Europe testify to this calamity in its strongest form.

So as I read and blog about Balibar’s examination of nationhood and the concept of nation, I’ll have this calamity at the forefront of my thoughts. As, I’m pretty sure, did Etienne himself.