Water off a duck’s back

The rains have started falling here in Vancouver. It’s the kind of rain that brings with it a feeling it won’t end any time soon. My two youngest children are at a neighbour’s house playing inside with their kids, and two neighbourhood kids are here inside playing with my oldest. We’re all inside today.

We took advantage of the weather and cleaned the aquarium, after a month or so of neglect. This summer has been a whirlwind of daily activity. It’s a local motto “If the sun is shining, we go outside.” or “the tv is off” there are local variants to the motto, but the point is, sunshine is a precious resource not to be squandered.  Greenie, however, seems to enjoy her overgrown space. Greenie is a five year old Green Terror. She lives alone. Here’s another lesson picked up quite spontaneously by a five year old, “If you don’t want to be lonely, don’t eat your friends.” That sort of sums up the long and sordid tale of our aquarium’s inhabitants.

Greenie, originally uploaded by Rodger Levesque.

And now I’m taking advantage of the weather to catch up on some writing. I tend to plan to write more than I ever in fact write. I even write about what I plan to write instead of actually writing, but those who write know planning is the easy part, actual writing is hard and takes time. Writers love rainy climates. Tom Robbins writes an ode to the writerly Northwestern climate in his Ducks Flying Backwards. If you live on the wet coast and write, you should read this.

I’ve been meaning for months to write up Alternatives to Growth. The praise for the book is on its website, and inside the book’s front cover, so I don’t need to add to that. What I’d like to do right now is situate it in a discussion of the Left about the Left. I say “like to” because I don’t think I’m quite capable of doing that sufficiently, but I have a vague idea, and we’ll find out soon enough just how inarticulable it is.

I’m a lay-writer,meaning not part of the academic left, not an expert/master, so the left I will be writing of may be neither the common nor the academic concept of left.  There’s nothing more common than newspaper columnists, so when I came across Rick Salutin’s article on the Left, I suffered that motion sickness so often caused by immaterial logic. In this article, Salutin holds a concept of the left, he looks in two places, doesn’t see his concept of the left and in newspaper writer style concludes in his opening that the left doesn’t exist; equating the left with a phantom limb.

For Salutin the Left is manifest in a political party and plays its role of difference within the hierarchy.

More marginal parties, like the old Reform or the old CCF-NDP, play a different role: they float innovative ideas like populist democracy or socialism. But a narrow focus on power means a shrinking focus on those ideas. Why notions like democracy or socialism, which have (or had) lots of general appeal, fare so poorly in an electoral context is a mystery I’ll leave for a more contemplative time.

The left is a historical concept for Salutin. It would be too simple to dismiss Salutin as a relic, because upon a deeper reading this little article totally blows my mind. Someone once said that we see things as we are. You can follow that line to a conclusion that to know the world you must know yourself. This line is often corrupted by new age spiritualists who fixate on knowing your true self, and then discounted as new age spiritualism by more realistic thinkers who fixate on objective reality. Salutin’s writing shows this type of error. He holds an idea of a real left. When he looks in the world for this reality he can’t perceive it.

There’s an old anarchist line that the problem with scientists is that there are too few of them. Salutin could benefit from a more scientific method in his writing. This article is exemplary. It’s incredibly short, but contains a whole world of conceptual confusion. Salutin is literally writing down things he can’t see. The concept he’s looking for is blocking his vision, but his senses are in working order.

If you’re a genuine left commentator like Yves Engler (Who? you say) with four good books to your credit, you probably financed your magnum opus on Canadian foreign policy by working nights at a Montreal hotel and only rarely sneak onto those left-wing channels.

Here Salutin reveals a “genuine left commentator” but because this writer is rarely published in the mainstream, and because right wing confusionists complain of the left wing mainstream, Salutin concluded that there is no left wing media, and this is generalized into no left, even though he can clearly see Yves Engler.

He introduces us to one of the left and then asks:

where is the phantom Canadian left? Who is it? Is it?

Then he goes on to say that “there’s lots of left activity but not much definition.” I’m not exactly sure how to read this. There is “left activity” but no left? Whose definition is at issue here?

The old centrepiece of socialism is either missing or under heavy, tentative reconstruction. (I’d put my money on an anarchist version.) Unions, once the left’s backbone, are in serious decline precisely when most working people need a way to resist the power of an increasingly compact corporate sector. It’s unclear whether labour can rejig itself to meet that need. There’s lots of disparate activism to support foreign “struggles” (Haiti, Free Gaza) along with environmentalism, save public health care, etc. But in mainstream party politics, or in the mainstream media — Poof! Now you see them, now you don’t.

He again tells of left actions but that they’re not mainstream, or even acknowledged by the mainstream he can’t see a left. What’s amazing is that the mainstream media’s trick of denying dissent any logic or rationale, and sometimes the very existence of dissent, this form of magic, this slight of mind has confused Salutin to the point that he can’t even see what he’s written down.

It’s within this confusion that I will be discussing, another genuine left commentator, Conrad Schmidt’s work. (at some point in the future).

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