Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Unhappy at work? Grab a partner and fight capitalism!

After much delay, the long-anticipated guest post from Jac has been completed. It's a little lengthy, but well worth your time. As always, submit any comments or questions you may have so I know I'm not just posting to myself.

About two years ago I hit the streets armed with a 3-year liberal arts degree and did something that many new university grads are finding frustratingly improbable: I found a full-time, unionized job with benefits, a job that pays a living wage, and, most importantly, a job that I love. It's a job that appears to have been designed with me in mind, a job teaching literacy to prison inmates. It's the perfect job for a bleeding-heart bookworm, grammar aficionado and prison justice activist. I spend my days circling adverbs with car thieves, helping the Native Syndicate edit their poetry, and showing my students that yes they can learn fractions – and in fact they probably already know how to divide an ounce into quarters. On a good day, I go home at night thinking that I make life a little better for some of the most beleaguered victims of socio-economic disparity, and that's all I've ever really wanted to do.

On a bad day, I watch one of my students finish his sentence and walk out the front door of the Winnipeg Remand Centre with no jacket on and all his possessions in a plastic bag, knowing that I'll almost certainly see him again in three weeks' time, and I realize that in the grand scheme of things, what I do makes no difference at all. My students return to the social conditions from which they came – poverty, addiction, and chaos – and a slightly improved knowledge of sentence structure is unlikely to change those things. Let's face it, even a Grade 12 diploma is unlikely to change those things.

Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of capitalism knows that our economic system is a hierarchy, that some people are required to suffer on the lower rungs of the ladder so that those at the top can be unnecessarily wealthy. Those of us who are partway up try to assuage our own guilt by telling ourselves that those at the bottom are there for a reason, and they could improve their lot in life if only they would get it together, get sober, get motivated, and most of all, get educated. But while individual poor people may share the condition of being uneducated, the class of “the poor” does not exist due to a lack of education. It exists because it needs to exist in order for the hierarchy to be maintained. And even in the unlikely event that a good portion of my clients became sufficiently educated to get decent jobs, this would not mean fewer people in poverty and in jail. It would only mean different people in poverty and in jail. And even in the impossible event that every one of the desperately poor got a Grade 12 (or even a university) education, this would not mean full-employment and an end to crime and poverty. It would only mean a decrease in the market value of a Grade 12 or university education. This is already happening, of course. It's why our parents' generation could get a good union job with a Grade 12 diploma but our friends still wait tables with a university degree. Education is the solution? I am at a total loss to convey just what irresponsible, mean-spirited bullshit I think that is.

I'm unlikely ever to be successful in educating my students out of poverty, and to be honest, if I ever “succeeded” in my mission to promote conventional employment and respect for the law as the solution to life's problems, and I walked by a Burger King to see one of my students who formerly made a decent living selling illegal street drugs wearing a hair net and scooping french fries to collect $9.00 an hour, I don't know that I would feel triumphant. In fact, I am quite confident that I would go home and weep like I've never wept before.

On the one hand, I love my job and I think there's some value in spending my days being the kind of person who is kind to inmates. On the other hand, without serious social and economic reform, I am wasting my time. Worse than wasting my time, I am promoting the ridiculous and victim-blaming idea that education by itself is the answer. I am telling these guys that if only they would learn to read better, they would have a good job and a good life. Ultimately, I am just giving them false hope.

And because I spend 40 hours a week dispensing false hope and collecting a paycheque from it, I not only prop up an economic system I denounce, I also forfeit half of the waking hours that I could be using to write angry letters, march in the streets, and otherwise rail against the establishment. As it is, I am, like most working people, tired at the end of the day and concerned mainly with cleaning my apartment and making a sandwich.

But people need to eat to live and need to work to eat, so what's the answer? Is it, like my best friend and fellow radical, Rob, proposed, to defy economic participation altogether and flee to a commune? Sounds tempting, but isn't that just shirking responsibility? It's not even me that the system is harming, it's all those inmates (and the un-incarcerated poor, and the folks working at Burger King, and the folks working overseas making our shirts and our shoes...). How, in good conscience, could I just leave?

After much contemplation, I came up with what has come to be known as The Plan: a slight reformulation of the traditional 1950s child-rearing arrangement. Two partners conspire to share a home and a lifetime (or, more realistically, part of one). One brings home the bacon (that's me), and the other devotes half of their waking hours to writing angry letters, marching in the streets, and otherwise railing against the establishment. No children are produced. Both partners evangelize their chosen lifestyle to anyone who can be convinced to listen, in an attempt to create a new cultural and social movement, one in which every one hour of complicity with capitalism will be counterbalanced by one hour of spousal rebellion.
You need a partner for this activity, obviously. By unrelated coincidence I promoted my best friend and fellow radical, Rob, to object of romantic interest just a few short months after I first conceived of The Plan. He was still hung up on the commune thing, but like any good couple, we compromised, and settled on eleven years of The Plan, followed by migration to a hippie commune of his choice. Or maybe we will start our own.

One commenter on the blog made the very good point that the working partner in a Plan arrangement may come to feel like a martyr if they believe that only their spouse is doing fulfilling work. Fortunately, I don't think this will be true for me. I do love what I do, almost more than anything else; it's just that the only way I can actually live with myself is if it's not all that I do. Sharing half my salary with someone whose purpose is to make a real difference gives me the kind of guilt-alleviation that I imagine donating $100 to charity gives to other people who feel bad about the fact that they're not poor but that some people are.

But to those other people, I say: it's not enough, and will never be enough, and I think you know it. Do something more, now! Grab a partner and fight capitalism! You'll have less guilt and be happier at work, and you'll have someone to clean the apartment and make sandwiches with at the end of the day.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Short Discussion on Homelessness

Keep an eye out for a cameo by a certain extra smart and extra cute couple of Sociology geeks.

Credit: Keri Guenther and Amy Guenther (It's a project they did for their first year Sociology class)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Questionable Answers to Answerable Questions

Q #1 - Do you know whether this has ever been thought of and practised before, via an intentional plan?

A #1 - I have never heard of anyone doing anything like this before. I did some snooping around the ol' internets and I couldn't find any other descriptions of people doing something equivalent to The Plan (specifically, full-time volunteer activism while being financially supported by a partner-in-thoughtcrime). The search terms “full-time activism” and “professional volunteerism” brought up results about how to either earn money while volunteering/activisting or parlay volunteering/activisting into paid work down the road. However, I concede that it is extremely unlikely that what Jac and I are doing is completely unique and original. This seems like a good place to talk about the origins of The Plan. I'll come clean now and confess that I didn't come up with it. In fact, I was openly sceptical and hostile to the idea when I first heard about it. Jac will make a guest post soon detailing the origins of The Plan and why she thinks it can work for her.

Q #2 - The one potential flaw that stands out to me is that one partner gets to do rewarding work while the other has to sacrifice by doing a job they may really not enjoy (or may even hate). It reminds me of the way some partners will work to put the other through school or some such training. But the difference is that what you're proposing sounds like an indefinite arrangement, not a temporary one. It might be more equitable for both partners to work part-time and both to engage in volunteer/social-justice-type work of their choosing. Otherwise, their relationship might be jeopardized by the working partner and the socially-active partner growing apart in terms of interests. Or, the partner making all of the sacrifices -- while initially willing -- might, after years of this situation, come to feel resentment for being the sacrificial victim for the sake of a Greater Good.

A #2 - These are all excellent issues to bring to the attention of anyone who is contemplating doing The Plan themselves or who are questioning whether or not we can pull it off. Jac and I have already discussed the many ways that The Plan could go wrong and have come out the other side with a reasonable amount of confidence that we can make it work for at least the next 11 years (after that, we retire to a commune).

As I mentioned in a previous post, the person who is working a regular 9-5 type job and earning the money required to provide for the basic needs of both members of the partnership has to love their job. It can't be a miserable, meaningless, tedious career where they watch the clock every day and just pray for quitting time to arrive. The fulfilment gained by the wage-earning partner through their support of the work of their activist partner will probably not be enough to sustain their happiness. Their job, by necessity, should also partially fulfil their desire to do “good works” (in a non-Christian sense). And yes, The Plan is intended to be a permanent arrangement.

The problem with the idea of having both partners earning part-time and being activists part-time is that it might lead to both aspects suffering from a lack of focus. By having each partner devoting themselves almost fully to their chosen pursuits, I believe they will be able to make more efficient use of their time and achieve more in terms of advancement/effectiveness. Another consideration is that by avoiding paid work, the activist partner avoids being tainted by the rigid structures that often come with the hierarchical organization of most jobs. Their mind can also be freed from the concept of only doing work for direct material reward. Finally, on a purely practical note, part-time jobs that pay a living wage are much more rare than full-time jobs that do the same.

The risk of having the mindsets of the partners diverge is very real. It seems to me there are two major areas where they might drift apart: political orientation and knowledge/intelligence. It is reasonable to hypothesize that the activist partner might become more politically radical because they spend a lot of time actively attempting to fully comprehend the harsh realities of the world we live in and will constantly surround themselves with other politically radical people. I don't think this will be much of an issue for Jac and me due to the fact that we are already just about as politically radical as people can get (anti-capitalism, socialism, anarchism, vegetarianism, anti-theism, voluntary human extinctionism, etc.). The obvious move to a more extreme position would be from vegetarian to vegan. Jac and I already agree that it makes sense to eventually transition to veganism for ethical and health reasons, so that wouldn't be problematic either.

In terms of intellectual drift, Jac has hypothesized that years of activism and self-education on my part could potentially result in my becoming smarter than her, a situation which both parties would find unappealing. We are starting off at basically equal knowledge levels, although I'll give her a slightly more than slight edge in that department. The development of a knowledge gap will be combated by sharing activist activities whenever possible, often reading the same news articles (which I can help sort through and bring the cream of the crop to her attention), sharing book lists, and frequently discussing political/philosophical/current events issues with each other.

I wouldn't feel right commenting on any feelings of victimhood on behalf of Jac, so I'll let her cover that issue in a future post.

If anyone has any more questions, comments, or concerns, post them in the comments below. I would love to hear from you and I'll attempt to make a careful thought out response to any questions I receive.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Two taser jolts, a handful of punches/elbows to the head and a dozen knees to the body. Maybe that skinny punk kid will think twice about giving up peacefully next time. The victim in the video is 19-year-old Cody Bousquet. He stole a car and led police on a high speed chase. One of the boys in blue you see in the footage is Ryan Law, nephew of Winnipeg Police Chief Keith McCaskill. I had seen this story covered in the news, but had never actually watched the raw footage before I started doing some research for this post. I don't know how anyone can watch it and say that the police were justified in their use of force. Watch carefully and towards the end you'll see one of the cops stare right at the camera. Is that the way innocent people behave? (more info)

Eric Russel Daniels is another recent victim of police brutality and has joined the list of people who are now dead thanks to our City's Finest. (details)

Pantera - The Badge

Young and dumb, truth and justice fantasy.
Fresh out of the academy.
Five time loser bust his head, make your day.
Unless you're paid off to look away.
Do you think this corruption will ever stop?
What makes a person wanna be a cop?
Ran a red light, storm the house and bust the guy.
Do you like to see his children cry?
Pick-up a hooker, take her for a little ride.
But get sucked off on the side.
Sworn to serve and protect, forget the killing,
Badge wearing fascist villain.
Pissed in the street, you bust the guy.
Do you like to see his children cry?

The badge means you suck, a child lays there dead.
As you look back, what goes through your head?

Some still call him pig.
Some still call him pig.

On a lighter note, the International Day Against Police Brutality rally that took place in Winnipeg on March 13th was a tremendous success. All the hard work that members of Copwatch and other organizations put into the event paid off. It was a beautiful sunny day, a healthy crowd of ~75 showed up, there were poignant and powerful speeches, delicious food was provided by Food Not Bombs and the fuzz left the marchers unmolested. I don't think it could have possibly gone much better.

I was originally opposed to the idea of doing the march without a parade permit from the police. The justification that it was symbolically hypocritical to ask our oppressors permission to protest them didn't outweigh my percieved risk for violence caused by inciting the police by stopping traffic without giving fair warning. In the end, not getting a permit was definitely the better choice. Apart from marching past a few cop cars, we didn't see any police officers and I felt safe and sound the entire time. From now on, I might insist that any rally be done without a permit. These are our streets, not theirs.

Check out the Winnipeg Copwatch website and facebook group.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Story of Stuff

I don't want this blog to just become a series of links to other websites, but this thing is simply too good not to share. Annie Leonard really knows how to construct an argument so that even the most brain-washed-by-capitalism person can comprehend it. Please watch the video and check out this link for 10 things you can do to help solve the crisis.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Defection Part III

Below is the letter I received from the Archdiocese of Winnipeg in response to my request to formally defect from the Catholic Church. It is very politely worded and on the fanciest stationary I have ever seen. It's pretty faint, but if you look closely you'll see a giant crest watermark in the middle of the page. Now you know where all that collection plate money goes.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Watch this Cat Video

Nuking the Nuclear Family

The concept of the nuclear family became popularized during the post-WWII period. In this familial structure, an adult woman and an adult man are married and procreate in order to produce ~2.5 offspring. The role of the husband/father is to go to work in order to earn enough money to pay for a car or two, the mortgage on his 3 bedroom house and the day-to-day needs of his family. The wife/mother does not work for a salary and instead performs household chores such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children. This arrangement is highly problematic due to the rigidly defined gender roles, the financial dependency of the wife on her husband and the glorification of consumption by conflating it with human worth and success.

In contemporary western societies this half-century old formulation of what it means to be an adult still persists, albeit with some slight variations. Women are no longer necessarily confined to the home and often have careers of their own. Men and women make attempts to share house-hold chores equally. It is more common and acceptable for gay couples to live their lives in nuclear bliss. All things considered, I think we've taken two steps forward and two steps back. Both parents are now working in order to amass more wealth so they can buy more things. This is done to demonstrate status to their neighbours and replace the attention that their children are no longer receiving. Eternal togetherness is still enshrined in the sacrament of marriage and allowing a marriage to dissolve is still deemed immoral; or at least not as good. Finally, you still have reproduction taking place. Billions of vaginas expelling billions of cogs for the corporate machinery and billions of dull-eyed consumers to spend their hard-earned money on whatever the corporate machinery tells them to spend it on. There's got to be a better way!

Well my friends, there is. It's called The Plan. Let me tell you how it works. This scheme can function with two or more persons of any gender and with any level of intimacy between them. However, it would probably be ideal if the conspirators had compatible sexual orientations and were sexually involved with each other (because “sex is fun and pleasure is good for you!”). In a two partner Plan situation, one is devoted mostly to earning a salary through gainful employment (preferably, in a job that is as close to ethically clean as possible and one they love to do) and the other does not work for pay. Sounds familiar right? The difference is that instead of wasting time raising children, the non-salaried member works exclusively in the realms of self-education, social justice, volunteerism, ethical consumption and activism. This way, neither partner gets distracted by trying to both change the world and earn a living at the same time. It also allows one partner to be publicly politically radical in such a way that may get them terminated from most jobs. By having only one member of the team be a wage slave, this allows the couple to earn less and spend less (participate to a lesser degree in capitalism) while still earning enough to live. Also, by living in or near poverty the Planners maintain a similar perspective to the most marginalized members of society. My hope is that this blog will serve as a blueprint for other people to live a lifestyle similar to The Plan; not only for the sake of working towards a better world, but also in order to provide a pool of like-minded individuals for partners to trade off with once members of a couple tire of one another.

In summation, The Plan is part radical relationship redesign and part model for ethical living. It isn't so much a complete explosion of traditional family living, but more of a drastic mutation (by way of nuclear radiation?) where the end result is so warped and shocking that it is hard for most people to even recognize the conventional underpinnings (I came up with the title of this post before I really thought it through but it's too clever to not use, despite its less than complete accuracy).