Category Archives: History

contemporary and past developments

What we might learn from Weimar….

They say that you always know when a political discussion or argument is degenerating — and quickly. It’s when your opponent (or perhaps you have done so on some occasions yourself?) sinks to invoking the name of ‘Hitler’ or ‘Nazis’ to discredit some left- or right-wing political leader, group or party (depending on your political leanings). These over-the-top comparisons are a sign that there is probably little point in continuing to engage in a debate with such an individual.

Equally, in the USA during the 1960s the hippies and anti-war protestors were apparently fond of using the term ‘fascist’ to refer to the establishment, the Democratic Party, the police and so on. Later, when people used the term to refer to leaders like Thatcher or Reagan or Mulroney, I always objected pointing out the historical meanings associated with the term that had represented a particular political movement (and moment) of the 1920s and 1930s, of which Nazi-ism was but one permutation.

(Of course, there has been a rise of neo-fascist movements and parties since the Second World War, and these have organisations have invoked or acknowledged their historical predecessors or identified with them in some way.)

Yet, there is a danger in throwing out the lessons of the Weimar Republic when we avoid mentioning Hitler’s name. It’s not that I think calling one’s opponent or their hero(es) Hitler or similar names is a useful tactic — I don’t — but that this attitude has meant that it is almost impossible to get beyond the detritus that exists about Hitler and his henchmen.

There were lessons that Weimar has for democratic societies that remain unlearnt, for the most part. First of all, there is confusion about how Hitler came to power in January 1933. The most frequent question that I remember from my undergraduate course on ‘inter-war Germany’, which frequently evolved into debates with my classmates, was whether the Nazis ‘seized’ power or used the system against itself? (I assume that it remains a question in history classes that focus on the Weimar Republic to this day.)

From what I could determine from my readings (and what I believe I argued for) was that they had used the system against itself, passing laws forbidding demonstrations, restricting rights and freedoms, establishing the first concentration camps (but for political prisoners first, before Jews and other so-called ‘sub-humans’) and so on.

That, in essence, the Nazi Party used ‘legal’ means to undermine the Weimar Republic, turning the democratic state into the authoritarian (or totalitarian) state.

I also remember being introduced to articles that argued that had the Weimar Republic had the same system of first-past-the-post governance as Canada/UK/Australia/New Zealand/USA, Hitler would have actually come to power one to two years earlier than he did. This argument clearly contrasted with the Allied re-organisation of West Germany after the war in which Parliament was restricted to political parties that obtained at least five percent of the popular vote before they would get representation. The argument by the Allies was that all those small parties, of which the Nazis (NSDAP) had been only one, had been a threat to the stability and longevity of Weimar.

Yet, what the Allies (and others) did not recognize, or at least did not take into account, in their reshaping of the political structure of West Germany, was that all kinds of local, regional and national elites (political, business, cultural), the judiciary (for the most part), elements of the military and police (although there were exceptions to the rule, such as Berlin, where the police force had not been supportive of the Nazis) as well as the suburban and rural middle classes had supported the Nazis. Many of those who supported the Nazis did so for reasons of ‘security’: that is, they feared ‘democracy’ more than they did fascism or Nazi-ism. Indeed, it was the SPD, the German socialists, who were the only force that fought to defend the Republic from the Nazis and the German Communist Party (KPD), which attacked both the SPD and the Nazis (but that is another story).

Democracy is a ‘messy’ form of governance but the rise of forms of ‘fascism’ or authoritarianism, which exploit the ‘weaknesses’ of democracy have to be opposed. It’s not encouraging in a democracy when we are expected to bow down to ‘bureaucratic correctness’ rather than encouraged to stand up and speak for ourselves and for others who are disadvantaged under the system. See, for example, the kind of twaddle peddled by critics of Idle No More or Occupy Wall Street about the ‘correct’ way to protest or ‘register’ disagreements with the system. What I remember from my courses and from my own studies of this era, and which I think is important to be aware of, is how a democratic system was used against itself.

Are those who undermine or exploit the ‘weaknesses’ of the Parliamentary system, and/or use exploit the ‘letter of the law’ (rather than keep to its ‘spirit’), to advance their own political party and/or corporate power, against the public interest and the public generally, guilty of a form of authoritarianism? Or of usurpation of power won at the ballot box? Fascism was one historical form of authoritarian or totalitarian power, which exploited the weaknesses of representative democracy. When fascism comes again, it won’t necessarily be dressed in black or brown shirts and hob-nailed boots. It could quite easily come dressed in expensive suits, sipping Chardonnay and beaming with a big friendly smile.

Postscript: I forgot to add that we shouldn’t forget about the judiciary’s collusion with the Nazis, as well as the military’s and support from the academy.


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Harper: Pensioners as ‘Threats’ to Economy? Reveals much about how work is ‘downgraded’

The comments that Prime Minister Stephen Harper made about the “threat” that Canadian elders represent to the economy and future of the country at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, should not have been unexpected.

Harper has never forsaken nor rejected his neoliberal beliefs and support for the corporate elite (who have been framed by the occupy movement as the “1%” [though they tend to be a much smaller group of closely linked people than this figure suggests], as opposed to the rest of us, the “99%”). For Harper and his ilk, what furthers the bottom line of private, for-profit corporations is of value. The people, though, who make a corporation or government or any other organization work, are not.

Perhaps, Harper has read too much of the “Great CEOs” of history. It’s not just Harper, though. So much in our corporate-owned and controlled media extol the virtues and values of the “great men of business” without a thought about the people who actually do the work. None of them would be worth their bonuses without us, the 99%, doing all the work.

This is the same as the Caterpillar lock-out of nearly 500 workers at the Electro-Motive Diesel Plant in London, Ontario, on 1 January 2012 because the executives wanted to cut their wages and benefits by more than 50%, even in spite of huge profits made by the company. This is how the members of Canadian Auto Workers Local 27 are rewarded for decades of hard work, increased productivity, skills and expertise?!

Just as Caterpillar appears to have little use or regard for the human beings that make the goods, so do Harper and the Conservatives show how little they value what retired workers have done for this country over the previous decades.

Yet, many of these hard-working Canadians have been ripped off by executives and governments. For example, provincial and federal governments allowed or even enabled executives to raid the pension funds of employees in the private sector, and now politicians, like Harper, turn around and complain that the public pension system is not sustainable. Or that public sector workers have pensions that will allow them to retire (modestly) and even that is somehow wrong.

This is part of the de-valuation or degradation of work and its value in society by the very elites that benefit from the work of the 99%.

It also explains Harper’s degradation of the work of our elders, people who have worked and followed the rules all their lives. They’ve struggled to build this country and worked hard.

I think it is worth (re)reading Bertolt Brecht’s poem from to get the perspective from the 99%:

“A Worker Reads History”

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

(See this link to follow up some informative comments and thoughts on Brecht’s poem:

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June 30 – What does a pension mean to you?

As a young child, I remember awaking in the wee hours of the morning and listening in the dark as my father prepared to go out to work as a deckhand on ferries moving crew, cargo and passengers between various islands in cold, sleet, rain, fog, wind, and sun, too!

My father, along with thousands of other seamen, got millions of passengers, employees and employers, families, relatives, tourists, and others, travelling between various islands and the mainland, safely to and from their destinations.

While I learned to hate the idea of what work might mean for me (I was too young to realise how it might change), I knew all too well what it meant for my father: early to rise, away for five days, a week or more at a time, and sometimes also away from home at Christmas and birthdays. His family grew up and experienced life as he spent (reluctant) time away from family – and at times appeared remote from our concerns.

Yet, once he got full-time – unionised – employment, my siblings and I (there were eight of us, including foster children) benefitted from the fact that my father’s earnings during the late 1960s and 1970s ensured that my mother could stay home with the children. (Talk about a ‘family-friendly’ policy – something you won’t hear these days from Tories or Republicans!!)

My father dreamed of retiring after a life-time spent at work, helping companies make profits, ensuring passengers arrived safely at their destinations and raising a family where the children were able to become relatively socially (and financially!!) mobile: moving up and out of the working class into the middle class. A result of both my father’s and my mother’s love of education, learning and books, as well as their belief that, while they made sacrifices for us in terms of their job prospects, respect and dignity on the job (and in life generally – since so many people’s sense of their own self-worth was dependent upon their occupations in life!) and ‘creature comforts’, they could reasonably expect that we would have a better life ahead of us.

And they, at least, would be able to view that from the comfort of a small, tidy pension which would enable them – unlike their own parents and grandparents – to be free from the compulsion to work until their death, as my father’s father – my own grandfather – had done (had to do!).

A small, but decent (and well-earned) pension that rewarded them for the diligence and loyalty for working hard at unsung jobs, that recognised the work that was still necessary for the movement of goods and people, and for the personal sacrifices that people, like my father, made to do a job in the present to enable a future for their/his children.

My father, left school at 13 years of age, but was self-taught. At a time when merchant seamen had only books (rather than satellite telly) to entertain them (after gambling and/or drinking away their money!!), my father became not just an auto-didact, but a parent who wanted to teach his children to experience a real life of education, knowledge and learning. An education that would take them away from being stuck with getting up at an ungodly hour to do a thankless task for decades.

Pensions are also a recognition that when you give up a part of your life to ensure that certain tasks are carried out, you lose the opportunity to engage in other activities and (possible alternative career paths) – and it is this loss of opportunity which is part of what pensions also represent.

It’s not just the potential that their own lives might have had that people lose, when they do these thankless tasks, but that their own lives may be shortened or become otherwise less fulfilling because of a lack of opportunity to realise their own potential.

That is, pensions are not just a means to which people have contributed as part of their financial planning for life after work, but that we have to recognise that people lose out other possibilities, other potentials that remain unrealised, because – for whatever reason – they chose, or were forced to choose, a life that excluded other opportunities.

My father always talked about how much he would have loved to have been a teacher, a second-hand bookseller, a writer and so many other things. The opportunity for my father never arrived. However, he had hopes that we would not have to live the lives that he had: moving in and out of unemployment; moving from job to job; being ripped off by employers; and so  on.

Knowing that a pension would allow one enough to live on in at least minimal comfort at the end of 30, 40, 50 or 60 years of working is an expectation that should be offerred to every man, woman and child, regardless of their position or which position they have ended up in!

Everyone should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labour, shouldn’t they?

When people think that governments and politicians should just be able to rip up people’s pensions, they never consider perhaps how those people made sacrifices that enabled the economy to function, goods and people to be transported, and so on.

And, that these working people made great sacrifices during their working lives. Why shouldn’t they be able to retire?

Why do we think that only CEOs should enjoy the fruits (profits) of your labour?

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Harper’s Attack on Working Canadians and Trade Unions: Is it ‘Class War’? (Part 1)

If you were in any doubt, it is now clear where Stephen Harper – and every Conservative MP (because they do as they are told) – stands on ‘labour relations’ in Canada.

He is firmly on the side of management (or more specifically, the CEO class) (just in case you had your doubts). Harper’s perspective is understandable: while he has always been consistent (in putting elite interests first), he does value working Canadians (for photo-ops), just as long as they don’t get ideas above their station, like Air Canada customer agents and those uppity letter carriers.

Whether legal or illegal, trade unions are the oldest, democratic organisations of the working class. They are the one and only way that workers have any chance of getting anything close to their fair share of what they produce or from the services they provide.

I know it feels like the 1930s all over again, where ordinary Canadians had to fight the state for their basic rights, before they became law: the On-to-Ottawa Trek; labour camps in British Columbia; the Regina police riot. These were aspects of what many would call ‘class war’ because it was the rich and the state against working, unemployed and starving Canadians.

Their rights to free speech and free assembly were stolen by the state. Just as they were stolen in many countries throughout Europe in the 1920 and 1930s, as fascists and reactionary parties in countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Italy and Germany, outlawed unions and political parties, and imprisoned socialists, communists, anarchists, homosexuals, Roma, religious minorities, liberals and democrats. (Of course, these regimes varied in the degree of their authoritarianism.)

People often forget that private corporations were supported by these right-wing regimes throughout Europe, including the Nazi Reich, because of a fear of communism. Fascists often set up ‘corporate’ or ‘yellow’ unions to control workers to the benefit of private corporations because the working class – and even the peasantry in many places – were getting quite ‘uppity’ (you know, ideas above their station in life).

The right to strike, even if it had existed, was frequently met with indiscriminate and brutal violence. In the Netherlands, it was the Dutch trade unions that organised to oppose the Nazi deportation of Jews in February 1941 and the Nazis just opened up with machine guns on the workers. Trade unions, alongside socialist, anarchist and communist organisations provided the main – sometimes the only – resistance movements in most countries under Nazi occupation (frequently the others joined shortly before the Allies rolled in to liberate their towns and cities). In many cases, there was a ‘class war’ going on within those countries as the wealthy and the elites sided with the fascists, even when they were being occupied.

The economy was part of the excuse of ‘the national interest’ because of the Great Depression and frequently these reactionary and fascist groups focussed on ethnic and religious minorities as the source for various problems, not just economic ones. (By the way, this is NOT some facile attempt to equate Harper’s Conservative Party to any fascist or reactionary party in Europe in the 1930s because the situation at present is different and the Conservative Party is very different to what the old Tory Party, of even a generation ago, was. However, their view of workers and the ‘common [wo]man’ are revealed in their approach to the issues that matter.)

But, it took a second world war of working people fighting fascists and their allies to win fair treatment, dignity and respect and the post-war social contract of: full employment with good jobs; healthcare; decent housing; and the welfare state. These objectives were achieved, in part, because the ruling classes of Europe, Canada and the United States were still worried that the USSR might be a threat and win over working people (it is hard to understand its appeal for younger generations, such as mine, but at one time, those who had faced and fought the fascists and reactionaries, the Soviet Union appeared as a possible alternative to western capitalism).

However, it is important to remember that corporations are not adverse to dealing with authoritarian regimes by any means. In fact, many have actively supported military and fascist regimes. It’s important to remember this because workers’ rights are as key to the rule of law in any democracy as the rights of women, gays and lesbians, children, ethnic minorities and others. Rights are rights because they are not negotiable.

Unfortunately, Harper’s use of back-to-work legislation (or threat of) in these two labour disputes (Air Canada customer agents; Canada Post workers) sets a precedent for the State taking one side in labour disputes. This creates an imbalance. It will set back labour relations at the very least. On the other side, workers will have to organise ‘illegally’, just as they did in the 19th and early 20th centuries and under reactionary, fascist and authoritarian regimes (as happens today in Communist China); workers will have to use every possible means at their disposal to influence management.

If postal workers are going to get less than what Canada Post offered them, why bother negotiating? Well, of course, you cannot APPEAR not to negotiate. So, Canada Post can appear to be even more reasonable than Harper!

But, really, what incentive does CP have to negotiate? Or any corporation for that matter? Remember, Harper spent millions on security over the G8/G20, and did not appear concerned about the indiscriminate and brutal use of force against peaceful protestors or even innocent Canadians.

Is Harper trying to copy the Chinese? They have unions that are controlled by the Party/State (i.e. ‘yellow’ or ‘company’ unions) and because of unrest since the global financial crisis, the Communist regime has been forced to increase workers’ wages.

(By the way, has anybody else noticed? If Communism is so bad, why do all the corporations move to China? Supposedly, corporations – or capitalism – is equated to democracy here in the West, yet all the big corporations have been quite happy to move their production lines there. Indeed, they get on rather well with the top apparatchiks! I’m not sure how much democracy the Chinese workers got. But, oh, big profits for CEOs!

The example of China demonstrates that corporations are not interested in democracy any more than they are interested in paying more than the minimum they can get away with. They want a workforce that can be controlled – or at least can be stopped from going on strike or demanding more of the profits made from their labour. It’s what Franco did, Pinochet in Chile, the Mexican governments since the 1950s, and so on.

I’m sure Harper will be rewarded for his actions by the corporate elite when he is finished being a politician (as well as getting a real gold pension – never mind the plates!). Once you’ve been Prime Minister, I am sure a lobbying job or a seat on a board of directors would be a piece of cake, eh?! Just check out how other (Conservative) ex-politicians are doing – it’ll give you an idea.

What happens if they manage to get all public and private sector workers reduced to the same basic status as a Wal-Mart ‘associate’: part-time work; no benefits and no pension? (Wal-Mart has encouraged or helped its ‘associates’ apply for food stamps and other forms of government assistance, right?) Perhaps, Canadian workers will get some scraps off the CEOs’ tables once they learn to grovel and beg – or ‘bow and scrape’ as they used to do in feudal Europe!

Well, once all working Canadians are reduced to McJob wages, I hope you’re not a small business, because who is going to be able to afford your goods and services?

Nortel pensioners? Postal workers? RIM employees?

Next post: From ‘Class war to Civil war’: The metaphor…

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