3 May 2020 — The American Herald
Mohsen Abdelmoumen: What do you think of the intention of Western governments to use tracking in the Covid-19 crisis? Are governments not using the pretext of this epidemic to control their populations? Isn’t this method fascism?
Dr. Michael Welton: The world has seen many plagues and pestilences in its past and recent history. But nothing like this—a global lock-down that has forced billions of people to self-isolate in order to stop the Monster from consuming us before our evening meal. Arundhati Roy has asked this provocative question: “What is this thing that has happened to us?” And, most significantly, this “thing” is happening to us at a crisis point in the Neo-liberal globalized economic disorder. Covid-19 has lit up the sky like an electric lightning storm, exposing its’ shameful weaknesses and trouble-spots. Ruling classes of the world, once exposed, know their days may be numbered. They are going to fight bitterly to hold on to power and wealth and oppress and trick the citizenry to do so. No surprise, then, to see that authoritarian governments like China, Hungary, Serbia or Israel are tracking their citizens with digital devices. We live in the “age of surveillance” now and a global Pandemic provides ample opportunity to practice the state’s ability to know where we are, what our temperature is and what we bought yesterday as well as whether we are a threat to the overlords who are grinding us down. Tracking terrorists and safe distance defiers feed into each other. China has intensified its use of video-surveillance and facial recognition technologies. Linked with the development of intricate tracking devices, authoritarian states are also trying to curb freedom of speech and postpone elections (Serbia and N. Macedonia). The virus exposes fascist tendencies even in democratic governments.
In your opinion, isn’t it necessary for the Left in Canada, in the USA and in the world, to recognize itself in order to propose a serious alternative to dying capitalism?
This is an excellent question. The world-wide Left is in disarray, confusion and fragmentation. Wolfgang Streeck has observed in recent writings that the emergence of a de-regulated Neo-liberal globalized economy caught the Left asleep and complacent as the social welfare state disintegrated around them. The post-modern intellectual climate didn’t help, and could only manage to foster an identity politics that couldn’t imagine an alternative beyond the Neo-liberal Order if its life depended upon it. A rather pathetic example of the disintegration of the Left in the US is to hear old Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) activists actually calling Americans to support Joe Biden, the old worn-out war-monger. Can we possibly imagine that he would set the US in a new direction in the service of creating a just world order? My position now is that it is waste of energy to enlist support for Biden to get rid of Donald Trump. Reminds me of a carnival shooting gallery. You shoot one bad guy and another one pops up. Rather, the Left must pause for a significant time to consider what can be learned from the socialist past and carried forward to build a vibrant deliberative democracy. Honneth (in The idea of socialism ) argues that the world socialist heritage was founded on a defective intellectual infrastructure, now bereft of emancipatory power. The US hegemon, both its ideological servants and instruments of nation-state destruction, has sledge-hammered any twitch of socialist aspirations in all the countries of the world. Martin Jay, a leading critical theorist in the US, raises serious doubts about the feasibility of our ability to ‘disentangle an idealized, unrealized version of socialism that can still inspire confidence from all the distorted, ineffective, and often counterproductive alternatives that litter history may thus be expended on other urgent tasks.” And Jay thinks that means defending the “democratic” adjective rather than striving for “socialism.”
You wrote a very interesting article ‘What’s in it for me? Turning citizens into customers.” When we turn the citizen into a consumer, can we still talk about democracy? Don’t you think that multiple cyclical crises are a direct consequence of capitalist policy?
I don’t think that we can talk about “democracy” when we turn the citizen into a consumer. We delude ourselves into thinking that voting permits us choice of political direction. In the present Neo-liberal order, the party system has been reduced to instruments to maintain corporate power in one’s own country and anywhere else in the world. Progressives in Canada thought that, by kicking out the egregious Stephen Harper, and electing Justin Trudeau they were changing political direction. But Trudeau’s foreign policy has been even worse than Harper’s, who tried bloody hard to turn Canada into a militarized nation, ready to serve the hegemon at the drop of the gun. The Trudeau government was mindlessly pro-Israel, its then foreign minister, the cagey Chrystia Freeland, a Russophobe and supporter of fascist elements in Ukraine, the government pursued the overthrow of Venezuela through hosting the Lima Group of bandits in Ottawa, and supported every sanction the US slapped on Iran, Venezuela, Russia, China or North Korea. The CBC seldom raises a word about Canadian foreign policy or the dubious actions of Canadian mining operations. Critical voices exist; but they reside in and around small journals like Canadian Dimension or the web-site Rabble.ca (the former more consistently critical of US imperialism, the latter more liberal egalitarian, with links to the union movement).
The ultimate goal of Neo-liberal capitalism is to turn the world into a consumer paradise. Any commitment to providing ‘good work’ or “active citizenship’ to its citizens has been systematically under attack over the last 40 or so years. Democracy has been degraded and undermined. In his book, How will capitalism end? (2016), Wolfgang Streeck demonstrated brilliantly that a tottering capitalism engineered its own resurrection by identifying the purpose of life as striving for ever more “exquisite consumption.” Living to build with others a “co-operative commonwealth federation” has been dashed on the rocks: we were pressed to think of ourselves as customers on the prowl for the most enticing of goods. Now, individuals were integrated into society with few obligations. In a mature, affluent market, Streeck said, “buying something involves no more than picking what you like best (and an afford) from what is in principle an infinite menu of alternatives awaiting your decision, with no need to negotiate or compromise as one had to in traditional social relations.” This was “sociation by consumption.” In this high intensity consumer paradise, individuals can exit all forms of “collective identity”—traditional religious communities, neighborhoods, political parties, even one’s nation. Thus, Streeck argues powerfully that participation in a “community of consumption” replaces the integration of the citizen into a rights-bearing commonwealth where society is organized to enable human beings to develop and unfold their spiritual, moral, ethical and cognitive capacities. If one is convinced that one lives to consume and accumulate, then this radically reduces what it means to be human. To have has replaced being.
In these moments of ultra-liberal and imperialist offensive, don’t we need a great anti-imperialist movement at world level to counter the wars that serve the oligarchic minority that rules the world? Isn’t there a more than vital need for a union of peoples against the 1%?
There is no doubt in my mind that we need a great anti-imperialist movement at the world level. Fundamentally, the development of the form of global governance appropriate to our interdependent world of nation-states and a vast array of organizations associated with the UN is blocked. The consciousness of the peoples of the world declares itself to be world citizens. The global ruling class will not permit a new just world order to appear to enable a stable, decent collective life for all inhabitants of the world. Our species, with its evolved moral and cognitive capacities, has demonstrated that it has the creative resources to build this new world order. But the new cosmopolitan consciousness is stuck in a kind of log-jam. Something has got to give. Wolfgang Streeck in Buying time: The delayed crisis of capitalism (2014) has surveyed the European scene. Capitalism has won; democracy defeated. Now, matters of deep significance are decided by someone else and not poor little us, the miserable once-citizens. We’re all in the bleachers watching the game with lots of us packed into the cheap seats. We are permitted GMO popcorn and can cheer when told by advertisers. That’s it. That’s all. Even the former Greek Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis, urged the Left to save capitalism from itself.
But Streeck springs another unexpected reversal on his readers. He writes: “Capitalism as we know it has benefited greatly from the rise of counter movements against the role of profit and of the market. Socialism and trade unionism, putting a break on commodification, prevented capitalism from destroying its non-capitalist foundations—trust, good faith, altruism, solidarity within families and communities, and the like.” This ingenious argument, then, could be read to mean that capitalism’s defeat of its opposition—he says there exist today no authentic Left opposition parties in Europe or in Latin America—may be a “pyrrhic victory because capitalism cannot survive if it remains completely capitalist.” “Could it be that victorious capitalism has become its own worst enemy?” Streeck thinks it is; he also thinks that capitalism can come to an end without the presence of any alternative on the horizon. Under the coercive conditions of Neo-liberalism, the category of citizen itself has been hollowed out, gutted like the old cannery worker’s knife slicing through the belly of the salmon. Can a global, coherent deliberative democracy arise from the ruins and detritus of capitalism? It had better for the sake of the 99%! This may take some time, but we need to take note of the “green shoots” breaking through the cement everywhere.
You made a pertinent observation in your book “Designing the just learning society: a critical inquiry” where you talk about the power of money in society. In your opinion, how can a society be organized differently and effectively to defend the interests of human beings and not those of big capital?
I wish I had the magical and mysterious power to gaze into a crystal ball and provide the blueprint for a society organized to serve the needs of all of us. But I can’t, and more considerately, we need to begin with the affirmation that it is the “combined intelligence” of humankind, evident in thousands of egalitarian projects, that are committed to the flourishing of humanity and the world it shares with all other creatures, in their teeming millions. This combined intelligence of humankind carries an immense wealth of insight into what human beings and animals need to flourish. Our collective knowledge—in the arts, literature, humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, religious thought–as well as our brilliant technological creations certainly attests that we cannot plead ignorance regarding the negative consequences of continuous hunger, illiteracy, endless wars, predatory resource extraction and oppression on billions of people in our world. One could sit in Indigenous villages of Canada and the world with men and women and kids who could tell you what they need to flourish—to develop their capacities as human beings. In fact, Indigenous people are teaching their oppressors about the sacred nature of land and its inhabitants. The basic features of the lifeworld—decent housing, health, and educational formation—must not be privatized. Pharmaceutical goods must also be de-privatized. We could identify several curricula that must be part of the basic features of the good life: the lifeworld curriculum, the work curriculum and the political curriculum. The lifeworld curriculum must enable youth to acquire a critical mental outlook that enables them to stand tall, hold their heads high and speak truth to power. The work curriculum must provide work that is meaningful and participative. Its meaningfulness is tied closely to the development of an autonomous personality. And the political curriculum must prepare citizens to learn to participate in the public learning spaces where they make decisions pertaining to collective issues. These are brief comments on the alternative society we desire. The Neo-liberal global order does not meet our needs to flourish as creatures who live in the midst of natural systems that, once ruptured or destroyed, end up destroying everything else—birds, turtles, chimps and us.
You wrote an article entitled “Two theories of democracy.” Doesn’t big capital have a great need for consumers rather than citizens? Aren’t the countries that claim to be democracies more like oligarchic regimes?
In this article (and many other writings) I have tried to make the case for a deliberative form of democracy, drawing mostly from Jurgen Habermas’s writings on civil society and public spheres. Although we cannot declare that “deliberative forms” (such as citizen’s juries and forums) are not present in contemporary political life, we can state strongly, I think, that in the catastrophe of Neo-liberal anarchism and geo-political chaos—with its truth decay and fake news and frenzied propaganda—that it is mighty difficult to discover truthful and accurate perspectives on the great issues of our day. The public sphere is murky and confusing. Those countries claiming to be democracies are oligarchic. This is glaringly evident as we watch, dumb-founded, the US democracy disintegrate under Trump’s tyrannical rule. To paraphrase the 16th century French essayist, Montaigne, our imaginations now torment us at will, making us feverish, despite whatever good health we may have at the moment.
In your opinion, isn’t the concentration of most of the major media in the hands of big capitalists undemocratic? Doesn’t the working class need its own media outlets?
The concentration of the major mass media in the hands of big capital is an integral part of the Neo-liberal political-economic order. The mass media control the narrative and slavishly read their scripts from boardrooms and the war office. In the last two decades, the US and Canadian mass media have not deviated from the anti-Russian narrative, particularly as they succeeded in reversing the truth regarding the US overthrow of the Ukrainian government. The CBC (note: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) did not permit any alternative perspective or viewpoints. It almost seemed that then Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland was writing the anti-Russian script for the CBC. In fact, from a cynical vantage-point, one can also wonder if the US Foreign Office sends scripts to the Canadian government telling them what to promote in their news broadcasts (Israel can do no wrong, don’t touch it; Promote the reprehensible Juan Guaido as legitimate president for Venezuela; Support sanctions on Iran and Venezuela even though this will cause the death of thousands). There is a desperate need the international working class to have its own media outlets. The director of the influential Le Monde Diplomatique, Ignacio Ramonet (editor from 1991-2008), believes that massive transnational media corporations have evolved formidable profit-making machines as well as acting as the ideological arm of globalization. Thus, they contain the demands from the grassroots. Le Monde Diplomatique has called for the creation of Media Global Watch. Ramonet has argued that “freedom of enterprise cannot be permitted to override people’s right to rigorously researched and verified news.”
I have often wondered if alternative media penetrate through the dense maleficent fog of the mass media. I do not have an expansive understanding of the wide variety of web-sites or other sources of news. If you imagine you are an archaeologist and start digging for sites offering a variety of alternative perspectives, lots of artefacts can be uncovered. This morning I was looking at the Electronic Intifada and learned more details about Israel’s denying Palestinians access to medicine. And, despite the Pandemic, Israel was continuing to raid homes and schools, confiscate food parcels and assault Palestinians in the Gaza. Not a peep of protest from the UN or the West. Last night I was viewing the organization Food Secure Canada’s web-site and discovered a powerful social movement I knew too little about. But the big issue we face is to the extent to which alternative media breaks through into the perceptual range of ordinary citizens. Is there an invisible wall that bounces back critical commentary and restricts dialogue and debate to a narrow band of thinking? Certainly, the CBC seldom even imagines that a lucid, knowledgeable critic like Yves Engler has anything worthwhile to say on Canada’s uncritical support for the US coup in the Ukraine or Canada’s machinations in Haiti. Reporters, it seems to me, never ever read critically oriented work of scholars that could shake them loose from subservience to US ideology, a form of Pandemic in its own right. In some countries we know (from reading Reporters without Borders’ reports) that if you venture to “speak truth to ignominious power” you get locked up (or worse).
Don’t you think that the alternative press has a great role to play in awakening consciences to the lies of capital’s media?
It certainly does have a great role to play! We inhabit an age of truth decay and consciences must be awakened. Our critical sensors must be trained to probe the dark nooks, crannies, hidden basements, dirty alleys to bring injustices and a dirty deeds into the light of day. I think that the alterative press has a fundamental task ahead of it: it must articulate a common framework for human flourishing. Otherwise, the very idea of a new, more just and egalitarian society will be derided, mocked and destroyed. Some pundits have already consigned “socialism” (a symbol of resistance to capitalism) to the dustbin of ideas- no-longer-relevant. We must build the co-operative commonwealth characterized by mutual respect and recognition. The present Pandemic attests to the fact that we are capable of co-operation and care for others. There are hundreds of stories circulating that show we competitive beasts with little attunement to the suffering of others.
Reformers and sorcerer’s apprentices keep on claiming that after this coronavirus crisis, it will be necessary to give a human face to capitalism, and I am thinking of the French Minister of Economy Bruno Le Maire, among others. Don’t you think that this epidemic has revealed that it is imperative to bury the capitalist system forever?
Old Marx wrote of the “gravediggers of capitalism,” imagining that the capitalist system would so crush the proletariat that it would necessarily coalesce into a collective entity that would overthrow the capitalist relations of production, ushering in a humane communist era. Well, capitalism is still alive and is in the midst of another crisis. Here I recall Frederick Jameson’s quip that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” We must be careful, I think, imagining it is in its death throes. In a serious crisis, say the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, capitalism seemed pretty tottery. But some Keynesian state interventions got it rolling again in the post-WW II era. We can expect that the ruling classes will display warm hearts and smiling advertisements and spread some money around. They will become socialists with an inhuman face. Once the Pandemic crisis passes, back to their old ways. But what, exactly, will begin to move us into a better, more just, post-Neo-liberal era? At the moment, right-wing politicians like Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford, who just a few months ago, was cutting back hiring of teachers and nurses, funding to help autistic children and an universal basic income experiment, like the tin man, suddenly got a heart as the idea of austerity was cast to the winds and millions poured out from government coffers. Can the soldiers of Neo-liberalism return after the Pandemic ends to an austerity regime? This will be difficult—the Pandemic has exposed to the light of the day how badly underfunded our senior care facilities are as well as the insecurity of many kinds of work. And how unprepared the health care system was for the Covid-19 Pandemic.
How do you explain the fact that a simple virus was able to bring down, even momentarily, an entire deadly capitalist system built on profit and gain?
We will be trying to sort this question out probably for years to come. One view might be that Neo-liberal global capitalism’s glaring inequities and injustices in society were exposed as people tried to cope. Those millions working in the gig economy—members of the precariat—were thrown to the wolves. The most vulnerable members of the society—people already sick, those living in nursing homes, recent refugees, and indigenous peoples—have suffered more than anybody else as the virus has swept through our cities, towns and villages. With millions of workers now unemployed and with the demolition of small businesses, we realized how precarious our existence actually is. Lots of us work two or more jobs and carry too much credit. What is exposed, essentially, is that the privatization of what used to be social (things like public health care, public education [including universities], affordable housing) has undermined our sense of autonomy and it brings to the fore previously unknown fears about our future. And, with the global fossil-fueled economy slowed down, the air in China is cleaner, animal life has returned to areas disturbed by industry and the water in Venice is cleaner than it has been for some time. This deadly capitalist system may not be able to proceed as it has for four decades. Are the days of a fossil-fueled global economy numbered? How long will we citizens allow our needs to be trampled on? How long will we, the workers of the world, permit our working lives to be unstable and precarious? How long will we, the citizens of the world, allow the build-up of military armaments while billions go hungry?
The capitalist system destroyed the public hospital under the pretext of profitability and profit. Speculation is taking place on protective masks and hydro-alcoholic gel, tools that are in short supply but indispensable. We have also seen countries stealing from each other the equipment to protect themselves from this disease. Don’t you think that this crisis, in addition to having shown us the bankruptcy of this system that the spin-doctors of capitalism assured us was the best and that there was no alternative, has revealed to us that capitalism is not only at the mercy of a simple virus, but that it is completely immoral?
We can see the glaring destruction of the public hospital under the pretext of profitability at work in the US. Their response to the Coronavirus-19 has been dreadful. As American deaths have mounted, Trump has sought to find a scapegoat for his ineptness in China. Stealing masks and needed medicines reveals how greed has consumed our sense of obligation to care for others. In this Pandemic crisis, the nation-state’s self-interest has reared its ugly face. In this regard, it is particularly telling that Habermas, Honneth and other European critical theory luminaries have launched a project to create “coronabonds” to assist the poorer members of the EU. How long can the chaos of the present international dis/order persist?
Isn’t President Trump a mere executor of the military-industrial complex like all the other US presidents?
In the end, Trump is an instrument of the military-industrial complex that has spread itself world-wide. But he is erratic, unpredictable and nasty. Trump’s off-the-cuff, out-of-mind suggestion that disinfectants, if injected, might cure the Coronavirus-19 might push us to add “deranged” to the list. But perhaps he is most comprehensible as the defender of the old “American First” ideology that, since 9/11 and the Iraq invasion in 2003, has cut itself loose from working within the framework of the UN Charter of Human Rights and International Law. This detachment from the rule of law and international peace treaties as well as the de-regulation of the Neo-liberal economy has turned the mighty US into a malevolent rogue state. It does what it pleases. If the global community is unable to move beyond Trump’s nihilistic world-view, hunger for self-aggrandizement and power, we are in for a long, dark night of the soul.
In your opinion, isn’t the climate change issue central to the struggle for the emancipation of the human race?
This is very much an appropriate final question. The world is in the midst of experiencing a perfect storm: the combination of forces has created an unusually bad situation. In Montaigne’s words, we are “in thrall to uncertainty.” Language used to characterize our era over the last half century—“risk society,” “existential insecurity,” “age of anxiety” or “age of precarious”—has intensified. However, as strange as this might seem, the Russia Today (RT) news site has published several articles mocking Greta Thunberg’s “environmental jihad.” Climate change, so it is argued, is a side-show; wait and see how happy we will be to see airplanes spewing their fuel into the air and watch the monster trucks gouging black stuff from the Tar Sands of Fort McMurray. But it is not a side-show and Thunberg is no mere whining fanatic. One has to be blindly stupid to not read the hand-writing on the wall. Humankind has radically altered the world since the Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th century. We are the supreme predators on earth, willing to destroy 75% of the world’s forest, dump plastics into oceans, disrupt the ozone layers, massacre animals on land and fish in the sea, invent increasingly gargantuan machines in order to rape the earth of its minerals and leave it bereft of a sustainable eco-system to gain profits. Destruction of the earth is inextricably tied to rising temperatures, melting of glaciers, intensified storms and raging wildfires.
We are now living in the age of the Anthropocene. One of the markers of the Anthropocene age is mass extinction of species. Since 1970, we are told, one-half of all animal species have seen a significant decline in numbers. In Kenya there were 167,000 elephants; now there are around 25,000. Jennifer Baichwal and Nicolas de Pensier (in their film Anthropocene: the human epoch) reveal why: poachers murder elephants for their ivory tusks. The Kenya government moved to stop poaching and, in 2016, one hundred and five tons of elephant ivory went up in flames. Their fire, one commentator observes, was a “virtual sculpture” which “gives a visceral understanding of human-caused extinction.” Watching this raging fire, one can hear the crackling and almost feel the demonic heat. It is a landscape of the battlefield.
Living in the Anthropocene era means that humankind can no longer tell its story apart from a deep recognition of our on-going monstrous impact on the earth (to which Edward Burtynsky’s exhibition of wall-size photographs, Anthropocene, attest). Dipesh Chakrabarty (“The climate of history: four theses,” Critical Inquiry, 35, Winter 2009) states that: “The geologic now of the Anthropocene has become entangled with the now of history.” This observation carries many consequences. As a historian, I can no longer separate geologic time from the chronology of history. For centuries these two times have been unrelated. Many scholars date the Anthropocene from the industrial when we switched from wood to large-scale use of fossil fuels. But, Chakrabarty points out, “The mansion of modern freedoms [inherited from the Enlightenment era] stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.” They can run out. So will our freedoms.
Our understanding of “freedoms” needs radical revision. We must also face how we will act when we humans are the “main determinants of the environment of the planet.” If this be so, then we cannot restrict our analyses to matters of justice for the poor and oppressed. This kind of analysis is limited; it won’t do anymore. If the human-transformed world—as manifest in Burtynsky and associates artistic work—destroys the foundation of life itself, then thinking only of “justice for the poor” won’t do the trick. The poor and rich will be dead and it will be too late for any justice to all creatures to be done. To be sure, we learn much from astute analyses of the unfolding of capitalism within the West and its imperial domination of the rest of the world. Held at the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa in 2019, the Burtynsky, de Pensier and Baichwal Exhibition provides evidence that monstrous and reckless industrialization connects to the “history of life on the planet, the way different life-forms connect to one another, and the way mass extinction of one species could spell danger for another. Without such a history of life, the crisis of climate change has no human ‘meaning.’”
Our present situation in the global Pandemic presses all humankind with the big questions: Who are we as a human species? What is our purpose on this pale blue dot? What have we done to this beautiful place, whirling in an unfathomably immense universe? Where, when all is said and done, are we headed?
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Professor Michael Welton?
Michael Welton received his Ph. D. from UBC in the history of education and social history and has taught at Dalhousie University and Mount St. Vincent University. He is currently a faculty member in educational studies at Athabasca University. His books include In defense of the lifeworld: critical perspectives on adult learning (1995), Designing the just learning society: a critical inquiry (2005) and biographical studies of Fathers Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady. The Coady biography, Little Mosie from the Margaree: a biography of Moses Michael Coady (2001), won the prestigious Imogene Okes Award for outstanding research presented by the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education. His most recent book is Unearthing Canada’s hidden past: a short history of adult education (2013). Professor Welton explores the interplay of Critical Theory with our understanding of the learning dynamics of history.