Canadian history and politics #4: Slumming It at the Rodeo: The Cultural Roots of Canada’s Right-Wing Revolution by Gordon Laird – 1998

Slumming it at the Rodeo is a scathing work of social and cultural criticism. It portrays Canada’s 90’s wave of right-wing populists (Mike Harris, Preston Manning and Ralph Klein) as thriving in an era marked by insecurity, fear and even “revenge” and “retribution.”

Free market populism is set alongside 90’s cultural trends like New Country (remember Garth Brooks?) and the rise in fast food franchising opportunities as well as the whole canon of modern Western film. In common according to the author: ready made, homogenized, nostalgic and inauthentic consumer experiences.

This book clarifies Canadian politics. Populism is actually quite normal for Canada and it rose to a backwards peak in the 90’s, eventually culminating in Stephen Harper being prime minister. This seems to put Canada on a different timeline as compared to other more coherent (less regional and more solidly nationalistic) Western democracies.

If there’s a problem with the book, it’s the premising of idealism and liberal nicety as an adequate response to right-wing cowboys. Whatever else can be said about them, tax cuts and franchising opportunities are material responses to insecurity. An eloquent response would have to address the material as well.

Canadian history and politics #3: The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent by Martin Lukacs – 2020

The Trudeau Formula kicks off with a striking insight: the Trudeau Liberals are much cozier with corporate Canada than were the Harper Conservatives. The Business Council always gets its way in the end (so the author convincingly demonstrates) but while Harper personally kept the economic elite at a cold remove, lobbying has skyrocketed under the Liberals and Justin schmoozes with the super-rich.

Another savvy consideration this book provokes is that Trudeau’s symbolic progressivism has had Stephen Harper, Donald Trump, Jason Kenney and Doug Ford as convenient points of comparison. With political foils like that, progressive expectations can be very low.

The most comprehensive chapter deals with Trudeau’s finessing of indigenous affairs. The Liberals (Trudeau, his cabinet, and communications/campaign Svengali Gerald Butts) are shown to have perfectly situated themselves as disingenuous managers of First Nations for the benefit of business, brilliantly and cynically turning the page from the exhausted Harper approach.

The most disturbing chapter recounts the Liberals shameless machinations behind the controversial sale of Light Armoured Vehicles (deviously called “Jeeps”) to Saudi Arabia. Canadian made equipment has been used in horrible atrocities, there’s little doubt. How could it be? We’re talking “the largest arms deal in Canadian history” – a lot of money and jobs.

The author concludes the book optimistically, alluding to “social movements” and noting his own involvement in drafting the “Leap Manifesto” – a leftwing policy plan that was cause for great controversy in the NDP. I’m inclined to dismiss this “conclusion” as lefty-book boilerplate but not without regret. The author has dissected “The Trudeau Formula” in a way that may not be surpassed. That he can muster optimism in the face of it is inspiring.

Quotes about democracy

“What we call a democratic society might be defined for certain purposes as one in which the majority is always prepared to put down a revolutionary minority.” -Lippmann

“Our life is connected more and more with experts, but on the other hand, we are less prepared to accept other people’s judgements when making decisions… Democracy is the continual struggle between the expert and the common man.” -Neurath

‘Democracy, and demo­cratic liberties, for all that they are relative and precarious, nonetheless still afford the working class better conditions under which to struggle for its own interests.’ -Thorez

“But the democrat, because he represents the petty bourgeoisie — that is, a transition class, in which the interests of two classes are simultaneously mutually blunted — imagines himself elevated above class antagonism generally.” -Marx

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society… It is the intelligent minorities which need to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically.” -Bernays

“That rifle on the wall of the labourer’s cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.” -Orwell

“Societies organized around a hierarchy of privilege can afford multiple standards, but a democracy cannot. Double standards mean second-class citizenship.” -Lasch

“The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions similar to those which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon the Leader in foreign countries. The battlefield is accordingly here -within ourselves and our institutions…[it] can be won only by extending the application of democratic methods, methods of consultation, persuasion, negotiation, communication, cooperative intelligence, in the task of making our own politics, industry, education, our culture generally, a servant and an evolving manifestation of democratic ideas.” -Dewey

Quotes about the masses, the people, the mob, crowds, the multitude etc.

“Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions, that is where serious politics begin.” -Lenin

“Under the label of Socialism…the masses are but fodder for the prosperity of a few individuals, the most worthless and polluted ones at that.” -Solzhenitsyn

“Print technology created the public. Electronic technology created the mass.” –McLuhan

“What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.” -Arendt

“The future belongs to crowds.” -DeLillo

“Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.” -Fanon

“Noisy festivals are a necessity. Idiots love noise, and the multitude are idiots.” -Napoleon

“The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own. It can be termed the collective or creative consciousness.” -Durkheim

“Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.” -Trotsky

Quotes about “the state” (strong “statements” haha!)

“What really constitutes a state is a matter of trained intelligence, not a matter of ‘the people.'” -Hegel

“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” -Mussolini

“The worth of the State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.” -John Stuart Mill

“The first principle of a civilized state is that the power is legitimate only when it is under contract.” -Lippmann

“The State is the coldest of all cold monsters, and coldly it tells lies: ‘I, the State, am the people’.” -Nietzsche

“The modern state, 𝙣𝙤 𝙢𝙖𝙩𝙩𝙚𝙧 𝙬𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙞𝙩𝙨 𝙛𝙤𝙧𝙢, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital.” -Engels

“Once the running of a state involves a permanent and massive shortage of historical knowledge, that state can no longer be led strategically.” -Debord

“The organizations of this individual freedom were merely the knives with which anti-individual forces shredded the Leviathan and distributed its flesh amongst themselves.” -Schmitt

social media notes #1: TikTok audios

TikTok is “a highly musical version of social media because it works based on endlessly repeated snippets of audio.” On TikTok, users can make videos using popular audios as a type of template.

TikTok audios themselves become “memes” which -in their endless repetition and use as an intelligible creative starting point- are ultimately more significant that any visual cues that a user will find repeated on the platform.

Part of what makes TikTok compelling is that audio is very intimate and therefore emotionally engaging. Audio sticks in human memory and creates a nostalgic feeling. For example, some popular TikTok audios are the most emotive moment of a contemporary song. Endlessly repeated, these snippets can put the user-listener in a trance-like state.

Audio is primal. As humans we can “reproduce” audio naturally and instinctively by speaking, singing or humming. Reproducing a visual -as in a scene or picture- is much more challenging and abstract.

TikTok has taken this fundamental component of human culture -reproducing audio- and automated it. I’ve already called TikTok audios “memes” but I think that might understate things. What are they though? Poetry? Incantations? Chants? War cries? Maybe something entirely new.

Canadian history and politics #2: The Sport and Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich Are Stealing Canada’s Public Wealth by Linda McQuaig – 2019

Sport and Prey is first a history book that trades in case studies of public works and state entrepreneurship past, and second a plea for more of the same in the present. A historian isn’t supposed to be such an activist but McQuaig can’t be contained.

The stories of Connaught Labs, Canadian National Railway, public banking, Ontario Hydro and the twin histories of the oil and gas sector in Alberta and Norway are illuminated with entertaining anecdotes. Closer to the present day, the privatization of the 407 (by the Harris government) is made to rankle.

The top historical highlight: McQuaig’s recounting of the CNR’s pioneering use of onboard radio outright seduces and puts the reader at a past cutting edge breakthrough in time and space.

But perhaps the most pressing and contemporary insight in the book is that Canadian banks got a huge bailout during the Global Financial Crisis, but that crucially (and quite unlike the USA) it was managed outside of politics, avoiding public scrutiny.

The author seems nostalgic for past eras of enlightened noblesse oblige (Adam Beck, Peter Lougheed, oh my!). Who wouldn’t be at least sympathetic in the current era of vapid Justins.

Canadian history and politics #1: Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution by John Ibbitson – 1997

Promised Land, written while Mike Harris was still premier of Ontario, is not a simple book to review now. Yes, the analysis is slanted in support of the Harris government, but this friendliness furnishes insight into the ideological and social justification for the government’s actions.

Within and between sometimes belaboured descriptions of day to day events, the author cuts the the heart of the matter and exposes the sublime nature of the Harris phenomenon: an incredibly coherent movement derived from a serendipitous combination of social forces.

A middle class backlash against leftwing governance, a youthful, aggressive, true believing and party building tendency, a caucus of small business owners and a brooding, experienced and resentful leader created a perfect storm of right-wing governance. This “self made” coalition of “affluence” took the fight to their opposition with little reservation.

The 90’s were the key decade in recent Canadian political history. A wave of cultural despair in provincial English Canada combined with a suburban tax revolt to yank politics rightward. Really, it’s all still shaking out in increasingly tortured iterations.

C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

“Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps.” The average person is unaware of the connection between mass social change, the individual and society. He or she does not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay.

The pace of change has increased and the typical person is now impacted by “world history.” Colonies are freed, revolutions occur and totalitarian societies rise. The “means of authority and of violence become total in scope and bureaucratic in form.”

Men sense “that older ways of feeling and thinking have collapsed and that newer beginnings are ambiguous.” People need “the sociological imagination” to summarize what is going on in the world and its connection to what is happening “within themselves.”

This imagination “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals.” The sociological imagination connects biography and history.

The individual can come to understanding only by “locating” themselves in a group of peers. People are made by circumstance and contribute “minutely.” We’ve learned that “the limits of human nature are frighteningly broad.”

Classic social analysts consistently orient themselves with three questions: “What is the structure of this particular society as a whole?,” “Where does this society stand in human history?” and “What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and this period?”

The sociological imagination can “shift from one perspective to another,” from the political to the psychological and from the most remote to the most intimate.

An “issue” as identified by the sociological imagination often involves “a crisis in institutional arrangements.” To understand the challenges in the private or personal you must frequently look beyond them. Awareness of the social structure and the ability to use this knowledge with great sensibility is the ideal.

A key contemporary question: how do major trends impact values? After all, a threat to values is experienced as a crisis. In the absence of values, experience is coloured by malaise, indifference, anxiety and apathy.

The 1930’s were an explicitly political period but nowadays “great public issues as well as many private troubles are described in terms of ‘the psychiatric’ -often, it seems, in a pathetic attempt to avoid the large issues and problems of modern society.”

The chief danger today “lies in the unruly forces of contemporary society itself, with its alienating methods of production, its enveloping methods of political domination, its international anarchy -in a word, its pervasive transformations of the very “nature” of man…”

A Theory of Mass Culture by Dwight Macdonald – Summary Essay

The following is a summary of A Theory of Mass Culture by Dwight Macdonald. He was a mid-20th century cultural critic.

High culture and mass culture are properly separated. Mass culture is the proper term as opposed to popular culture. Why? Because something can be popular without having been calibrated to a mass audience.

Political democracy and popular education broke the elite hold on culture. Business took advantage by using new techniques of cheap production to serve a fresh crowd of consumers. Modern technology like movies and television are particularly well suited to distribution at scale.

Kitschthe German word for mass cultureextracts from high culture. Eventually kitsch begins to draw on itself. Folk Art preceded mass culture as the common peoples culture and was “from below.” In contrast, mass culture is dictated from above and geared to passive consumers. Mass culture demolished the wall separating high from low and integrated the masses into a degraded form of high culture.

High and low culture now compete intellectually which is absurd and chaotic. High culture is threatened by the brutal overwhelming quantity of kitsch. Kitsch “predigests art for the spectator.” Everything is mixed and scrambled together, destroying value judgement. After all, judgement would imply “discrimination” and mass culture refuses to discriminate. “All is grist to the mill.”

Academicism was an institutional artistic movement that attempted to compete with mass culture “by imitation.” In contrast, the Avant Garde refuses to compete. The height of Avant Gardism was 1890-1930 when “bourgeois values” were challenged both politically and culturally. The “chronic state of war”including “Cold”does not encourage rebellion in art or politics. Since its 1890-1930 high point the Avant Garde has been watered down with mass elements.

There is nothing more vulgar than sophisticated kitsch. The advent of sound film blurred the lines between Hollywood and Broadway to the detriment of both. Chaplin was Folk Art. Technological division of labour ended genuine artistic authorship as it fragmented aesthetic unity. A deep and shared cultural tradition can maintain aesthetic unity but the USA does not have one. The culture worker is just as alienated as the labourer.

In the age of mass culture children access grownup media and adults consume kid’s media. “Momism”sentimental worship of motheris all too common in this context. Peter Pans result from the cult of youth.

The mid-20th century saw the rise of entertainers as “idols of consumption” in contrast to an earlier era personified by “idols of production.” Detective stories went form starring “scientific” characters like Sherlock Holmes to featuring bumbling incompetents. The masses don’t understand science and interpret the superficial aesthetics of sciencelaboratories and white coatsas Frankenstein-style “horror.”

Critics of mass culture don’t realize that it is not consumed by “people” but rather “masses.” Organization as a mass means loss of identity and atomization. Sheer scale is a challenge as there are simply too many people. In genuine communities there is a mutually beneficial relationship between the individual and the wider group. Not so with mass man, he doesn’t have a community at all.

Click here for another summary essay criticizing mass culture.