by Geoff Olson
In the 1987 film Someone to Love, Henry Jaglom plays a loose version of himself: a guy directing a play starring his real-life actor friends. In one scene, the house lights come up and reveal a portly figure watching from the back of the theatre.
In response to Jaglom’s questions, the famed filmmaker Orson Welles launches into a long soliloquy on loneliness, singlehood, gender relations, slavery, and
Welles cautions his director friend that he is “speaking from the cheap seats, not Mount Sinai,” before asserting that society is still coming to terms with “the great revolution of our time, the liberation of women. But by liberating women we are freeing the last of our slaves. And for fifteen, twenty thousand years, there has never been a civilization ever, including the great democracy of Pericles in Athens … that has not been maintained by slaves.”
Welles adds that it has only been within the past 200 years that anyone thought slavery is wrong. “We have yet to see whether a civilization can be based on equality. It’s a brand new idea,” he observes, puffing on a cigar.
A left-leaning thinker who rightly regarded women’s liberation as advancement, Welles wasn’t talking about what should be. He was dispassionately commenting on what was, is, and what might be, given humanity’s dark history of exploiting its own kind.
The cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris once observed that the employment of women in the expanding, postwar information and service economy in the United States came at the expense of a prior class of slaves, men who migrated by the millions into cities looking for factory jobs after America’s industrialization had swallowed up many small farms. From the ’50s on, employers gave higher priority to white females with college educations over uneducated African-American males, who might prove to be more demanding of rights.
The working parts of Harris’s socioeconomic model are complex, but suffice it to say that the corporate world made its peace with feminism once it figured out how to exploit it. “By the early 1960s the baby-boom parents were finding it increasingly difficult to achieve or hold on to middle-class standards of consumption for themselves and their children, and the wife’s job had begun to play a crucial role in family finances,” Harris wrote in his 1987 book Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Everyday Life. The massive productive forces of corporate capitalism demanded continuous consumption, and the long-term consequences for family life were as predictable as Newtonian ballistics.
Today it’s virtually impossible for a middle-class couple to raise a family on one wage.
This has meant a Pyrrhic victory for women and couples, especially those with children. But it’s nothing most of us would want to trade for the human rights deficit suffered by women across the developing world. Had he lived to the present day, Welles might have been surprised to learn there are still an estimated 27 million slaves across the globe, most of them women and children. Even the global trade in sugar, the devil’s candy that fuelled the African slave trade, still relies on indentured black workers in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.
Yes, the abolition movement ended serfdom, officially, across the industrialized democracies, followed by women’s emancipation in the U.S. and Europe. The world has advanced in terms of reducing slave levels relative to global population. Yet new forms of civilization’s toxic habit appear to be on the rise. Slavery has an odd resemblance to pornography in that we all think we can recognize it right away when we see it — but like pornography, slavery can assume forms that have a veneer of legality if not respectability. Thanks to the “world is flat” ethos of globalization, in which a race to the bottom smacks down on “level playing field” worthy of George Romero, we are starting to see the latest version of labour exploitation arrive on our shores. It is serfdom in all but name, disguised with the euphemism “temporary foreign workers program.”
The recent uproar over RBC’s employee relations has drawn public attention to Canada’s temporary worker permits, which allows tens of thousands of foreign workers to work at wages less than those negotiated for Canadian labourers. This is hardly a progressive trend for women and men, whether foreign and domestic. More on this topic next week.
Most of us would like to believe that 19th-century abolitionists banished slavery from the world for good. But as science fiction author Philip K. Dick once observed, “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” There are an estimated 27 million slaves worldwide to this day, most of them women and children working under the threat of violence and unable to walk away from their bondage.
The relative numbers of slaves to population has declined over the past two centuries; that appears to be evidence for civilized progress. That said, 27 million slaves is 27 million too many, and that number doesn’t include all sweatshop workers, or temporary workers flown from one contract site to another like livestock with carry-on luggage.
There is a serpentine line from the collapsing garment building to the shirt on your back, and from the locked-door factory floor to your newest electronic gadget. Many small hands have touched the cat’s cradle of electronic components nestled in your fingers, but the fetishization of commodities tends to banish the workers responsible from our imaginations. And we become less curious with every upgrade of our high-tech devices.
It’s a kind of tunnel vision that many global corporations do little to address, with their implausible deniability drawn from daisy chains of manufacturing subcontractors. Yet a loss of peripheral vision has close-up consequences in our own labour relations. For instance, for years First World workers have accepted unpaid internships as a matter of course, even though these arrangements can best be described as a soft and fuzzy serfdom, paying out dreams instead of dollars. Whatever happened to the idea that an honest day’s work deserves an honest day’s wage? Lost to tunnel vision.
This brings us to Canada’s temporary foreign worker’s permit program. Up to 33,000 companies in Canada have applied to use temporary foreign workers, and there were 338,189 of these workers on our shores on Dec. 1, 2012. This isn’t just a minor riff on free trade’s promise of a mobile labour force; it’s shaping up to be the plutocrats’ Trojan Horse for bypassing contractually bargained wages with domestic workers.
When corporations parachute in lower-paid foreign workers to fatten their profit margin, they are not delivering any new goods and services in exchange. Political scientists refer to this as “rent-seeking.” Temporary foreign workers don’t always get a raw deal, but some find themselves in the position of debt slaves or contract slaves. Debt slaves work for loans in which the time period and work conditions are often unstated. Contract slaves sign off on agreements that are often not honoured by the company.
If you think exploitation of foreign workers only happens in the Gulf states, think again. In April, over three dozen Latin American workers won a wage settlement from SNC Lavalin after the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the infrastructure megafirm discriminated against them in wages, accommodation, meals and expenses during construction of the Canada Line rapid transit line (speaking of tunnel vision).
Even the World Bank withheld a loan from SNC-Lavalin after allegations of bribes involving SNC-Lavalin officials on a Bangladesh bridge project. Not that bad global PR is necessarily a bar to Canadian business. In January, a consortium of companies led by SNC-Lavalin won the provincial contract to build the Evergreen line rapid transit project in Metro Vancouver.
The film director Orson Welles once mused on the likelihood of a civilization based on universal equality. Humanity has been on a path away from state-sanctioned slavery for centuries, yet temporary worker programs – which allow transnational corporations to pit the working class of one country against the working class of another – puts a question mark back onto Welles’ words, as do inventive new management techniques for exploiting rank-and-file workers. When U.S. firms take out life insurance policies on their own employees – with the firms named as beneficiary – and internally refer to the practice as “dead peasant insurance,” it should scare the Dickens into wageslaves everywhere.
Thankfully, Ottawa recently did one smart thing to address a market dislocation of its own making, by repealing regulations that allow corporations to pay temporary foreign workers 15 per cent less than domestic wages for high-skilled positions, and five per cent less for low skilled positions. It’s a start.
“I think, though, this is not a time to commit sociology, if I can use an expression.” — Prime Minister Harper, April 25, when asked about the alleged terrorist plot against a VIA rail train.
I remember how the addiction began. In my late teens I signed up for a sociology course to top up a liberal arts semester in college. I recall two instructors; a woman who stood front of the class reading from Time magazine, and some guy from Kenya whose voice broke into a falsetto whenever he got worked up about class divisions.
Even though the course barely produced a buzz in yours truly, it turned out to be the gateway drug for harder stuff. I began to roam the streets on my free time, haunting used bookstores and hauling my finds back home to my bedroom, safe from my parents’ prying eyes. “Are you committing sociology in there?!” my mother would demand from outside the door as I mainlined a paperback copy of Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity. “No ma,” I yelled back. “I’m just abusing myself, honest!”
“Alright dear, just be careful with the books,” she trilled. “You could go blind from all that reading.”
I had a serious “thinking problem” even in my late teens, and my parents knew it. (They encouraged me to take up editorial cartooning, a profession that involved less mental strain.) In any case, I soon discovered the work of Eliot Aronson, the scholar who came up with the concept of cognitive dissonance. I read his 1972 treatise The Social Animal from end to end and my mind was seriously blown. To date, Aronson’s book has gone through 11 editions, expanding each time like a red giant star with additional research about why humans behave the way we do. It’s the kind of information that some Tories would probably prefer we ignore, about power relations, mob psychology, and whatnot.
In my 20s, I started committing sociology more openly. On dates I would pepper conversations with asides about resource mobilization and demographic models. I was like an unfunny standup comic stealing colleagues’ material to win approval — and I had a serious jones for more material.
I soon discovered MIT media critic Noam Chomsky and started getting into the heavy stuff. But huffing hardcore sociology/political science texts without spotters felt risky. Luckily, I was able to connect with other overeducated junkies in Kitsilano who introduced me to their favourite brands, like Sapir-Whorf, Durkheim, and Reisman. We’d host all-night bull sessions where the beer and content analysis flowed, with only slight damage to the walls, floors and ceilings.
It wasn’t enough. In my 30s I wanted to commit sociology in deed as well as word. I fantasized heading out into the mean streets of Vancouver with a ring binder and cassette recorder to interview squatters and conduct victimization surveys. Alas, without a postgraduate degree there was more chance of me perishing than publishing. I was a dabbler, a dilettante, although I knew my way well enough around the indentured, student-for-life crowd to get into trouble.
One night at the Fraser Arms pub, some no-neck McGill undergrad challenged me to a duel. He led with Marxist-Leninist boilerplate, calling me a “reactionary bourgeois sentimentalist.” This oaf didn’t know that I had these sorts of moves down backwards. “Material, historical forces are responsible for false consciousness phantoms like you, hoser,” I growled back. He staggered back against the bar, took a deep breath, and then came at me spouting German philosopher Walter Benjamin, which I wasn’t expecting. Followed by Lacan, Derrida, Foucault and Marcuse. I was doubled up in agony when he dropped the bomb: Adorno. I was in way over my head with critical theory and just managed to escape out the side door with my damaged ring binder and bloodied ego.
I can’t say I learned my lesson from that bruising exchange; I was still young and there were more bar fights in my future. But today as a middle-aged man I recognize my mental limits. I commit sociology only indoors and on weekends with a few aging friends who like a little Howard Zinn with their Zinfandel.
My mother was right, and so is the Prime Minister. Thinking is dangerous.
The Vancouver Courier, May 17
The 24-hour news cycle doesn’t favour long-term memory. The continuing fallout from the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, barely registered a blip in the mainstream media by the time the U.S. Senate snuffed a tepid gun control bill in April. Similarly, the February meteorite that lit up Russian daytime skies with the energy of several Hiroshimas came and went like a firefly compared to the weeks-long gigawattage of the “Gangnam Style” video by the Korean rapper Psy.
As for Fukushima, some may have to wrack their memories for a reference. Is that a brand of digital cameras or a roll of sushi?
The rewritten press releases, puff pieces and paper-thin investigative reports in most dailies do little to counter the average news consumer’ gnat-like attention span, shrunk to the length of 140 characters by social media. Still, even I’m surprised how quickly the B.C. Liberal’s last big scandal vanished down the media memory hole, with local reporters trumpeting the party’s recent “surge” in the polls.
In early March, Kim Haakstad resigned over a 17-page “Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plan” that she helped draft as Premier Christy Clark’s deputy chief of staff. Haakstad sent the document to several Liberals through her private Google email account. The secretive operation, with government money earmarked for partisan purposes, planned apologies to select ethnic groups for “historical wrongs” as a cynical ploy to win hearts and minds at the ballot box.
Clark’s $11 million Bollywood film award fiasco in April looked a lot like an extension of an attempt to buy ethnic votes. Bottomless cynicism or out-of-control careerism? Either way, in the unlikely event the B.C. Liberals return to power, we can anticipate exactly what we experienced with Gordon Campbell three times in succession: a hazy memory of being wined and dined before waking up with a Sidney Crosby-sized headache and our undies around our ankles. It’s impossible for me to list all the controversies connected with the party’s 12-year reign. But for the benefit of our long-term memories, here’s a partial list.
The B.C. Liberals: 1) Ripped up legally binding, negotiated contracts in the public sector; 2) Closed courthouses; 3) Rolled backed employment standards legislation; 4) Introduced a new $6 “training wage” at two dollars an hour lower than minimum wage; 5) Introduced a bill for reducing the minimum work age to 12 years; 6) Expanded provincial gambling; 7) Closed hospitals, cut beds and shut long-term care facilities; 8) Laid off nurses and health care workers and privatized services, 9) Handed Pharmacare and MSP operations over to a U.S. firm, Maximus, which had been fined twice for failing to reach contractual targets; 10) Shut down or reduced funding for independent offices like the provincial Ombudsman, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, and Elections B.C.
Whew. Hang on, 10 more…
11) Cut air and water quality protection; 12) Gutted the Forest Practices Code; 13) Lowered standards for wildlife protection; 14) Presided over the expansion of industrial fish farms; 15) Eliminated the Independent Office of the Child, Youth and Family Advocate; 16) Broke the promise not to introduce the HST and withdrew it only after massive public outcry; 17) Unveiled under-projected, treasury-sucking megaprojects, from the $900 million Vancouver Convention Centre to the $560 million renovation and retractable Asshat for B.C. Place; 18) Failed to resolve questions about the B.C. Rail sale, including the $6 million payout for Basi and Virk’s legal fees; 19) Failed to supply details on the funding cut to provincial drug safety evaluations by the UBC-based Therapeutics Initiative; 20) Recently approved a misleading print ad for 24 Hours designed to resemble a front page news story.
Clark recently ran a red light on a dare from her 11-year-old son, with a reporter present in her car. Although her automotive lesson in family values doesn’t compare to Gordon Campbell’s arrest for drunk driving in Maui in 2003, it’s interesting that the B.C. Liberals’ reign could be bookended by irresponsible driving decisions. Whether or not you think the former talk radio host should be piloting a province, let alone a vehicle with a minor in it, there are at least 20 good reasons why her party should be pulled off the legislative road and slapped with a four-year driving suspension for DUIL (Driving Under the Influence of Lobbyists).