BC Book Awards

bc book prizes

Celebrating the year’s brightest & best

Publishing is obsessed with “winners,” but I’ve always thought literary prizes are earned while winners are for lotteries. Still, awards recognize writers, endangered in our post-truth, anti-intellectual world. And they help sell books at a time when too many people don’t read and the average human attention span has shrunk to less than the seven seconds of a goldfish’s memory.

Since 1985, the non-profit West Coast Book Prize Society has drawn attention to the achievements of writers, publishers and illustrators in our part of the world. Since you are now reading, Common Ground hopes the 33rd annual BC Book Prizes’ list, and a bit about each, will encourage you to continue reading and support local writing.

Douglas Coupland, recipient of this year’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence. Photo courtesy of Random House,

Douglas Coupland has earned the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence. His first novel, the 1991 international bestseller Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, popularized such terms as “McJob “and “Gen X.” He’s published 13 novels, two short story collections, seven non-fiction books, drama, film and TV screenplays. Coupland’s latest works include the novel, Worst. Person. Ever., an updated City of Glass, and a biography of Marshall McLuhan. His art includes “everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything,” exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery and Royal Ontario Museum.

The Lieutenant Governor’s Award, established in 2003 by Hon. Iona Campagnolo, is $5,000. The awards – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s literature, children’s illustrated literature, books about BC and the BC Bookseller’s Choice – are $2,000 each.

Jennifer Manuel receives the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for The Heaviness of Things That Float (Douglas and McIntyre). The story: the lonely world of Bernadette, a community nurse, who’s served for 40 years on a remote west coast First Nations reserve. A compelling debut novel, it explores the delicate dynamic with non-native outsiders and evokes desolate, beautiful and untamed Vancouver Island.

The Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize recognizes contributions to enjoyment and understanding of BC. This year’s winner is Mapping My Way Home: A Gitxsan History (Creekstone Press) by Neil J. Sterritt. His book traces European explorers and adventurers in the economic hub of 150 years ago, at the junction of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers. A Gitxsan leader, Sterritt also shares stories of his people, both ancient and recent.

The 2017 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize was presented to Deborah Campbell for A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War (Knopf Canada). In 2007, on assignment for Harper’s magazine, she witnessed millions of displaced Iraqi refugees flooding into Syria during the increasingly violent aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion. By personalizing the ongoing tragedy, she provides deeper understanding of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis and deep ramifications that war has had on the Middle East.

Adèle Barclay earned the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You (Nightwood Editions). She is quoted as saying, poetry is “a counter-spell to the Neoliberal, patriarchal, white supremacist, mess… Poetry resists, something that is at home with messiness and paradoxes. I think radical kinship or radical kindness and being public about emotional vulnerability… saying those things out loud, is political. Or at least I hope so.”

The Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize for best illustrated book was awarded to My Heart Fills with Happiness (Orca), written by Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Julie Flett. The charming board book not only celebrates indigenous culture and community, but also everyone’s ability to find joy in the small details of everyday life.

The best non-illustrated book written for children – Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize – is awarded to Iain Lawrence for The Skeleton Tree (Tundra Books). A nail-biting, page-turning survival story, it’s packed with psychological suspense and action, focused on an evolving relationship between two boys stranded in the Alaskan wilderness. Like all 15 books by this acclaimed author, including Gemini Summer, which earned the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature, this is a wonderful read for all ages.

Finally, the 2017 Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award is bitter-sweet. It’s awarded to Richard Wagamese, who died in March, at age 61. Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations (Douglas and McIntyre) is among 13 books by one of Canada’s foremost First Nations authors and storytellers. Honest, evocative and articulate, this is a collection of hard-won wisdom by the late, self-described “spiritual bad-ass.” More than ever, First Nations stories are being shared.

Finalist authors tour BC schools and libraries. And the Society also coordinates the adopt-a-Library program.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola Island-based banjo player, gardener, writer and author of Our Clinic.

Trans-Pacific Partnership mistakes never to be repeated

photo of David Christopher

by Meghan Sali

By now, most of you have heard of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a sweeping international agreement brokered between 12 nations across the Pacific region, including Canada and the US.

Although often referred to as a trade deal, in reality, the TPP would have had profound impacts on the lives of the nearly 800 million citizens of the TPP nations, well beyond that which is traditionally within the scope of trade. It would affect digital rights, the environment, labour rights, health care, public services, even undermining the accountability of our democratic institutions by allowing corporations to sue Canada in secretive tribunals.

The TPP was negotiated in near-total secrecy; powerful corporations were given a privileged seat at the table while citizens and public interest groups were excluded from the talks.

At OpenMedia, our work on the TPP constitutes the single, longest-sustained campaign in our history. We have been deeply concerned about how the TPP’s copyright and intellectual property provisions would dramatically change how citizens use the Internet, criminalizing online activities, invading our privacy and costing our digital economy millions.

That’s why it was good news when public pressure pushed both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump into pledging to reject the TPP in the run-up to last year’s US presidential election. The subsequent withdrawal of the US from the TPP has effectively put the deal on its deathbed, although remaining TPP nations are in discussions about resurrecting it in an alternative format.

What does this mean for Canada? Why did the TPP prove to be so unpopular among the Canadian public? And what needs to be done to restore public trust in future trade processes?

High-profile trade negotiations are due to take place in the coming months: on NAFTA, with China, the UK and Pacific nations. Thankfully, Canadians have the answers.

Our recently-published Let’s Talk TPP Citizens’ Report, shaped by input from nearly 28,000 individuals who submitted feedback to the official TPP consultations, sheds light on why so many Canadians opposed the TPP and outlines what needs to be done to restore public trust in trade processes.

The most common reason given for opposing the TPP was simply that Canadians weren’t consulted. Stephen Harper’s government conducted negotiations that excluded the public entirely. The Trudeau government, on the other hand, launched a consultation process, but by then the deal had already been signed, with the result that Canadians were effectively being asked to take it or leave it.

Our report’s findings were clear: Canadians want the federal government to formally withdraw from the TPP and to ensure much greater transparency and genuine public engagement in future trade deals. Canadians’ desire for active citizen engagement to ensure the final product of any future trade negotiation reflects the broad needs of the public, rather than the narrow desires of powerful corporations.

Put simply, Canadians cannot support trade deals made in secret. And, with so many crucial negotiations close on the horizon, that’s a lesson the federal government needs to take to heart.

Read our report at LetsTalkTPP.ca/report and help by sending it to your local MP using our tool at LetsTalkTPP.ca

Meghan Sali is communications specialist for OpenMedia, a community-based organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. openmedia.org

Relationship skills for today’s complex world

by John Gray

Both men and women require a new kind of emotional support that embraces greater authenticity, intimacy and personal expression. Gone are the days when a woman was required to be submissive and dependent on men and a man had to carry the burden of providing for his family alone.

This change has created incredible new opportunities, both for relationships and individuals. People have the opportunity to be themselves in ways they never could before and to embrace characteristics beyond those of their traditional gender roles, allowing for relationships of more profound intimacy than ever before.

But these changes also bring significant new challenges. We must learn to successfully express our masculine and feminine qualities in ways that reduce, rather than increase, our stress. And we must learn how to support our partners’ new needs as they do the same for us.

Just because women today work side by side with men in the workplace and men participate more in raising their children, it does not mean men and women are the same. Our roles are certainly changing but our biology is still very different. And because men and women are different, we react to the changes in our roles in different ways, ways that are often misunderstood and misinterpreted by our partners.

These challenges relate to single people as much as to couples because the changes in our modern relationships are a reflection of the changes that are currently happening within us as individuals. The new insights we receive by going beyond Mars and Venus are necessary not just for romantic relationships but also for our own happiness as well as that of our children.

What we are witnessing is a dramatic shift in the context of our relationships. Trying to have successful relationships today while using the skills and insights developed for traditional relationships over thousands of years is simply not enough and does not work.

For both men and women, providing each other the new support necessary to create a fulfilling relationship is a tall order. Most men have no role models for providing this kind of support. I know I certainly didn’t. Our relationship training came from watching our fathers, who may have been skilled in the old model but not in this new one. By going to work every day to provide for their families, our fathers could fulfill most of our mothers’ relationship expectations.

This journey of transformation into someone who knows their own needs and is able to support their partner’s is not immediate. But you can begin this journey now; you don’t have to wait for your current partner or a future partner to join you. All it takes is for one partner to change and the relationship will change. Eventually, as one person becomes a better partner, the other comes along.

When you are coming from a place of fulfillment, you have more to give. When your heart is fully open, and you have new gender-specific insights regarding your partner’s new needs, not only will you experience a higher level of fulfillment but also, with your help, your partner will be able to respond better to your own new needs. It rarely works to ask for more when you are dissatisfied with what you are getting. But even more important, it never works to ask for more when your partner is not getting what they need.

To improve your relationship, your first step is to find your way back to opening your heart without depending on your partner to change. Your second step is to feel, say, or do what you can to help them. By giving them what they need, they will be way more inclined to give you what you need in return. Your third step is to ask for more in small increments while giving your partner big rewards for giving more. This is your formula for success; expecting more without giving more first is a formula for failure. In addition, expecting too much too soon will also sabotage all your efforts.

By understanding what is most important
to your partner’s fulfillment, you can
more successfully target your energies and love. Both men and women in relationships need to find their own happiness first without depending on their partner changing. Likewise, a single person must find their happiness without depending on finding the perfect partner for them.

To be happy and fulfilled in our relationships, we first need to be happy and fulfilled in our lives. It is unrealistic to depend on our intimate relationships as the sole source of fulfillment. When we create a life rich in friendships, family, exercise, good food, meaningful work or service to the world and have plenty of opportunities for fun, entertainment, education, personal growth, and spiritual devotion, then having a loving relationship can make us even happier. To experience lasting love in relationships today, you must find a baseline of happiness by fulfilling your other needs separate from your needs for an intimate relationship.

It is much easier to drop a bomb than to drop our egos and find love. It is much easier to escape the pain of our broken hearts by running away from love. But those who continue to try are the most noble and deserve more love and encouragement, even – especially –when they make mistakes.

Today we all want more – from our lives and from our relationships. The good news is that we can have more. But first, we must learn how to get it.

Excerpted from the introduction to Beyond Mars and Venus: Relationship Skills for Today’s Complex World by John Gray. (BenBella Books)

EVENT March 25

Women’s Health Show 9:30am – 6pm
Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, 900 W. Georgia.
Bestselling author John Gray is a special guest.
Talk: Beyond Mars & Venus (his new book).
Full details at www.womensvoicehealthshow.com

This island Earth

island planet

by Geoff Olson


• More of a tourist than a traveller, I’m standing on an outcropping of volcanic rock in the Caribbean, scratching away at my archipelago of bug bites. My guide Calvin, a relaxed fellow with dark skin and blue eyes, notices my agitation and stoops to pluck leaves from a nearby plant used as a local medicine for wounds. He shows me how to apply sap from the leaf’s stem. Using my other bites as a control group, I wait to see if the itching stops in the applied area. It seems to work.

Barbuda – often confused with or mispronounced as “Bermuda” or “Barbados” – is a small, flat coral island in the Caribbean, only 17 degrees from the equator. It is ruled by neighbouring Antigua, 29 miles south, a nation with a governor general and a constitutional monarchy led by the Queen. Most of the 1,800 inhabitants of Barbuda are descendents of the slave trade.

Barbuda’s dusty roads and dilapidated buildings make the island appear to be a ramshackle place, although it’s blessed with one of the longest stretches of pristine beach in the Caribbean, at 17 miles in length. Calvin says life on Barbuda is casual and I take his friendly, laid-back demeanour as evidence. He says he not only works as a tour guide but also as the island’s minister of roads; I’m not sure if he’s joking, but he adds that Barbuda’s residents take on multiple jobs to serve their own needs. If there’s something you can’t do and need done surely there’s someone you know who can and will. Barbudans will spend years building their own homes, adding this or that when money comes along. When their concrete, hurricane-hardened homes are finished – on property they own – they have something to pass on to their children, mortgage free.

There are no supermarkets, Calvin’s brother Jala tells me, just “supermake-its” where Barbudans trade goods and services among themselves. There is something to be said for subsistence living; this is no debt-driven economy with wageslaves punching the clock to service their credit cards and home mortgages.

Islands are often described variously as hothouses, hotbeds or laboratories of natural selection, with flora and fauna found nowhere else. Wildlife is sped up in geological time on islands, with speciation and extinction playing leapfrog. But it’s not just biological evolution that’s accelerated. From Ganges Harbour to Reykjavík, new ideas and new ways of life can catch hold on islands in ways that are improbable or impossible elsewhere.

As a 22-year old naturalist aboard the exploratory ship, the Beagle, Charles Darwin spent 19 days on the Galápagos Islands in 1835. His main interest was the geology of the volcanic island, but his curious mind leapt from lava flows to the colourful range of birds across the island chain. Each island had its own unique avian species and this discovery seeded the young naturalist’s mind with the initial evidence for the theory of evolution through natural selection.

Darwin would have appreciated the new studies in “island biogeography.” In this context, an island “is any area of suitable habitat surrounded by an expanse of unsuitable habitat,” according to ecologist Robert MacArthur of Princeton and biologist E. O. Wilson of Harvard University. This includes not just actual islands, but untraditional islands “such as the peaks of mountains, isolated springs in the desert or expanses of grassland surrounded by highways or housing tracts.”

The ultimate piece of biogeography is Earth itself. The most worthwhile thing to come out of the American-manned space program wasn’t moon rocks; it was the first iconic photograph of planet Earth from thousands of miles away. Homo sapiens had its first collective ‘aha’ moment not looking out to the distant stars, but rather looking back from the perspective of space, on its island home floating in blackness.


Just as islands, in the traditional sense, are evolutionary toyshops, their distant lure has spurred human beings into astounding feats of invention. For thousands of years, trained sailors from Micronesia could literally look at ocean waves and judge the direction of an island from up to 40 miles away by how its unseen presence affected wave motions.

Natural selection is value-neutral however, making “progress” a tricky word. Just as biological evolution has produced monarch butterflies and tapeworms, cultural evolution has resulted in both choral music and napalm. The lure that drew sailors of the Neolithic into the Pacific infected the great naval powers during the Age of Exploration. Four mildly to highly addictive substances – coffee, chocolate, sugar and tobacco – drove sailors, soldiers, slavers, privateers and pirates across the Atlantic like a plague of locusts. Britain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands and Spain carved out trade routes across the waters, using millions of African slaves as both tradable commodity and the raw labour to extract tropical wealth – all the while warring among themselves for global dominance.

The islands of the Caribbean became gears in the terrible machinery of slaving, trade and conquest. “The distortion and dehumanizing of human institutions and human lives caused by crack cocaine today is nothing compared with what the European desire for sugar did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” wrote Terence McKenna in his 1992 book Food of the Gods. A museum in Antigua reveals the mind-numbing record of slavery in the Caribbean, with Africans stacked like cordwood on slaving vessels and traded like livestock in open markets. Abolitionists succeeded in officially banning slavery throughout the Old and New World by the 19th century. But it was the island of Haiti that led the way in 1804, with a slave revolt leading to the world’s first black republic.


In the past half-century, the wealthy citizens of industrialized democracies have found a more sophisticated use for the islands of the Caribbean: as places to secretly stash their money. A recent conservative estimate puts the money held in offshore tax havens at an astounding $21 trillion US; approximately the size of the Japanese and US economies combined.

The Financial Secrecy Index rates tax havens according to secretiveness, with the highest class being the Maldives and Nauru. The second highest class includes Bermuda, Vanuatu, Grenada, the Marshall Islands – and surprise, surprise – Antigua and Barbuda. Through these unregulated accounts an estimated $1 trillion flows as the annual cross-border flow of the proceeds of financial crimes, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.


Yet cultural evolutionary novelty can go in all kinds of directions. Several years ago, an island in the Northern Atlantic became the focus of a big money scam of more recent vintage: the international fad in deregulated banking and zombie funds. When Iceland got caught up in the madness, local herring fishermen suddenly became newly minted bankers, while homeowners mistook their homes for ATMs rather than ticking time bombs. It all unravelled in 2008, bringing people into the streets banging pots and pans, demanding accountability from their leaders.

Relative to the size of its economy, Iceland’s banking collapse was the largest experienced by any nation in economic history. But the Icelanders were in no mood to take a post-meltdown economic prescription from the sources that had sickened them in the first place. Icelanders nationalized one bank, put three others into receivership and instituted capital controls. Told they could no longer expect the same standard of education and health care that their parents had taken for granted, Iceland went it alone and managed their own affairs. Most notably, authorities indicted Icelandic banker Sigurdur “Siggi” Einarsson, head of the Kaupthing bank, along with nine senior executives. Bailouts, nei. Jail-ins, ja.

According to Wikipedia, the Icelandic Financial Crisis is commonly referred to have officially ended August 31, 2011. In other words, in spite of a severe recession, the sky did not fall over Iceland’s geothermal springs and brightly painted homes. (In contrast, a handful of nations in the Eurozone have reluctantly swallowed their IMF/ECB/EC austerity medicine after massive street protests, with shattered economies and record unemployment to show for it.)

Meanwhile, just for fun, in 2010 Icelanders elected a comedian as mayor of Reykjavik.

The defeat of the centre-right municipal government of Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir by Jón Gnarr and his Best Party was widely regarded as punishment of “serious” politicians for their role in Iceland’s 2008-2011 credit crisis. Other parties were secretly corrupt, said Gnarr, so his party promised to be openly corrupt, although he also promised a drug-free Althing (parliament) by 2020. After his victory, Gnarr announced he would refuse to form a coalition government with anyone who had not watched the HBO series The Wire.

The Icelandic people take their humour dark. The 2010 eruption of the nation’s tongue-twisting volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, momentarily darkened North Atlantic skies and grounded transatlantic flights, inspiring some local wag to note, “It was the last wish of the Icelandic economy that its ashes be spread over Europe.” Yet post-meltdown Iceland has done better than other sovereign nations by rejecting the bloodletting procedures of technocratic quacks. The rejection was a novel idea implemented on an island, with all the evolutionary practicality of the specialized beaks on Darwin’s finches.


In 2006, I took a floatplane to Salt Spring Island to hear former US Assistant Secretary of Housing Catherine Austin Fitts address the Salt Spring Monetary Fund, a group of residents rethinking how money works in their community. (The island even has an ATM that issues Salt Spring Dollars in exchange for regular currency.)

The brilliant Fitts is an enthusiast for alternative currencies and fostering communal nuclei for new ways of thinking and living. In a newsletter from her online forum for financial advice, solari.com, she writes about one of her partners, an entrepreneur who grew up on a small island. “He once explained why small islands produce a much higher percentage of people who are good at starting and building successful businesses. He said that it was because someone who grows up on a small island sees how everything is connected… He said that America is just a very big island, but most Americans do not know this – nor do they understand that the planet is also just an even bigger island.”

There are two classes of privileged people on Island Earth, Fitts notes: those afraid for the health of their chequebook and those afraid for the health of their community, nation or planet. She demonstrates how these two concerns are intimately linked.

“The folks who feel that their biggest problem is their financial equity – falling yields on their investment portfolios – have yet to see that they cannot enjoy capital gains unless their living equity is preserved. That is, our neighbourhoods and children need to be kept safe, and we need to understand that the very things that will contribute to their safety – an increase in real human productivity, honest feedback systems and a restoration of personal accountability – will also lead to huge increases in collective investment capital in the economy.

The folks who feel that their greatest problem is living equity – that they and their children are not safe and our environment is being destroyed, or that we are committing genocide in other parts of the world (or down the block) – have yet to see what the real issue is. We cannot achieve personal safety when yields for both retail and institutional investors are dependent on profits from organized crime, trickery of the investing public and government guarantees that promote unproductive investment and personal behaviour. Only when we achieve real economic growth based upon concrete increases in productivity, accounted for and disclosed on an honest basis, can we be both safe and wealthy.”

In other ways, one route out of our collective mess – perhaps the only route – is to start thinking like people with some inkling about their limits both geographically and communally. Islanders.


image © Enlife

Whatever happened to the promise of leisure time?

Marx and Mechanics

Art and text by Geoff Olson

• You might see one or two at a collector’s fair or antiquarian bookshop: dog-eared copies of Popular Science magazines from decades past, with covers promising a sunny future of expanded leisure time. There might be, for example, an illustration of a beaming Caucasian family in a hovercraft, weaving past city spires on a technicolour holiday.

For years, 20th century futurists prophesized the contraction of working hours, insisting this would be a source of celebration rather than concern. There would be plenty of free time to take advantage of increased productivity and technological progress. Every other day would be Family Day. Even junior would have a jet pack.

Only the first half of that proposition, the part about jobs disappearing, has turned out to be prophetic. It’s the second half about comfortable leisure time that’s gone sideways. From the factory floor grasslands of Detroit to the defanged ‘Irish Tiger’ of Dublin, the industrialized world is swollen with millions of surplus workers who are bunking with parents or couch-surfing with friends. The digitization of film, music, print and almost every other form of cultural output – automation, in other words – is accelerating job insecurity everywhere.

There’s a saying in Chicago business circles: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” So how did the underclass end up as toast for the .01 percent? How did we get from the can-do optimism of Henry Ford’s first assembly lines to today’s Age of Austerity, with levels of unemployment in the industrialized west not seen since the Great Depression? And why do so many of us seem to be working harder than ever, holding down multiple jobs for lesser pay, if we’re lucky enough to be in the job market at all? What happened to the promise of expanding leisure time from the spiritual ancestors of today’s TED speakers?

Economists scratch their balding heads and litter their blackboards with chalk marks, but can’t seem to come up with consistent answers. Most insist that the free market, even one dominated by monopolies and cartels, is its own best solution. However, at least one scholar predicted the present disorder of high unemployment, diminished wages and globalization as a logical consequence of capitalism. His name was Karl Marx.


In 1997, New Yorker economics correspondent John Cassidy recalled a conversation with a college friend who ended up working on Wall Street at a big investment firm. “The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right,” he told Cassidy. “There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the economist who resurrects Marx and puts it all together in a coherent model. I am absolutely convinced that Marx’s approach is the best way to look at capitalism.” After this counterintuitive encounter, Cassidy dipped into an anthology of writings of the long-dead white male and discovered he was mostly in agreement with his friend.

In this age of bailed-out banksters and proles served pink slips, Marx is enjoying something of a resurrection. In 2009, a speech by Ryerson political economist Leo Panitch – a Marxist – became a cover story for Foreign Policy magazine, the bible of the Washington political establishment. Canadian author Ronald Wright drew from Marx’s analysis of economic history in his 2004 Massey Lecture series, “A Short History of Progress.” In 2011, economist Nouriel Roubini, the man who forecast the financial crisis of ‘08 declared that the German-born thinker “was partly right.”

According to Marx, the capitalist pursuit of surplus value results in squeezing the worker for ever-greater amounts of output, most often by demanding longer hours. In his magnum opus, Das Kapital, the author rifled through reports of factory inspectors and newspaper articles to lift the veil on the horrifying working conditions in Victorian England factories, in which child labour was the raw material for the industrial revolution.

Marx knew there was only one way to avoid this trap – the workers “have to put their heads together and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier by which they can be prevented from selling themselves and their families into slavery and death by voluntary contract with capital.”

But even collective action offers no final protection against automation, Marx noted. Under the right circumstances, capitalists find expenditure in labour-saving machinery to be a money-saving gambit over time, with the added benefit of reducing a problematic work force. Automation also intensifies the competition for jobs, by creating what Marx calls an “industrial reserve army” of the unemployed – a “mass of human material always ready for exploitation.”

Before the financial meltdown of ‘08, why did a Wall Street investment guru congratulate Washington for holding the unemployment rate at eight percent, when a lesser figure would presumably be more socially desirable? Likely because eight percent is too small to incite mass unrest, but big enough to warn off the working 92 percent. Marx: “The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active army of workers; during the periods of overproduction and feverish activity, it puts a curb on their pretensions. The relative surplus population is therefore the background against which the law of the demand and supply of labour does its work.”

The bearded prophet’s most hotly contested thesis is that capitalism invariably leads to the increasing ‘immiseration’ or impoverishment of the workers. Economic professors have misinterpreted this as an absolute drop in wealth, says conservative British journalist Francis Wheen in his study Marx’s Das Kapital. “Look at the working classes of today, with their cars and microwave ovens: not very immiserated, are they? The American economist Paul Samuelson has said that Marx’s entire oeuvre can safely be disregarded because the impoverishment of the workers ‘simply never took place’ and since Samuelson’s textbooks have been the staple fare for generations of undergraduates in both Britain and America, this has become the received wisdom.”

Wheen dismisses this as a “myth’ and proceeds to pop Samuelson’s balloon: “What Marx did say was that under capitalism there would be a relative, not absolute, decline in wages. This is demonstrably true: no firm enjoying a 20 percent increase in surplus value will hand over all the loot to its workforce in the form of a 20 percent pay rise.”

Marx was referring to the “lowest sediment of society” – what we know today as the underclass – who would see a widening gap between themselves and the upper tiers as capitalism evolved. There are plenty of statistics showing that, over the past 40 years, income disparities have increased not just between the nations of the world, but within many of them as well. In a global race to the bottom, First World blue-collar and white-collar jobs have been outsourced to the developing world, in places free from bothersome labour rights and minimum wages. India is often held up as a winner in the globalization game, yet the nation’s growing middle class and a spearhead of obscenely wealthy nouveau-riche have done little to improve the lives of millions of immiserated slum dwellers in Mumbai, Calcutta and elsewhere.

As productivity increases, the gains are not translated into greater leisure time for workers, but demands for even greater output from them, Marx insisted. This certainly holds true in the maquiladoras and free trade zones around the world, with their sweatshop workers cranking out track shoes, smartphones, and other export goods. (Marx said expanding productivity leads to periodic “crises of overproduction” in the industrialized west – what we now call the business cycle – where an excess number of goods and services chase a dearth of paying customers.)

There is an unwritten history of the struggles of nameless men and women in Canada, the US and other industrialized countries, who organized and petitioned in the early years of the 20th century for the eight-hour workday and other workers’ rights. Today, the concessions wrung from big business by the International Workers of the World and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, among other groups, are in danger of being weakened or withdrawn altogether. For example, unpaid internships, which are nothing more than a way to extract free labour through hollow appeals to resume inflation, are now widely accepted and unquestioned.

That, in a nutshell, is what Eurozone austerity is all about. The arsonists (banksters) are in charge of the fire department, taking their axes to the social sector – all to service debts that are mostly of their own making. (According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the people of Greece, supposedly a land of layabouts, worked on-average 2,032 hours in 2011 – a hairs-breadth less than the legendarily hard-working South Koreans, at 2,090 hours.)

Deindustrialization began in the late seventies in the US and the jobs exported to other parts of the world for lower wages are boomeranging back to the continental US (“bringing the Third World home” in the words of MIT media critic Noam Chomsky). In spite of this unhappy pattern, some US economists are optimistic that the information economy will pick up the slack from years of downsizing, outsourcing, relocating and union decertification. Yet the hopes pinned on social media may be as dubious as the portrayals of hovercrafts and jetpacks in vintage editions of Popular Science – at least in the near term. To take just one sobering factoid, you could take all the employees from four of the biggest social media organizations – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Groupon – and seat them in Madison Square Garden.

The average British employee now puts in 80,224 hours over his or her working life, compared with 69,000 hours in 1981. Similar figures hold in the US and Canada and that’s not including the labour voluntarily added beyond work hours, through email and other digital communications. Many of us are working harder for less than our parents did and growing numbers can’t find decent paying jobs of any kind. Productivity has gone up in North America for the past 30 years, while real wages have fallen or stagnated over the same period of time. Where have the profits gone? Mostly into the pockets of plutocrats, of course. That is the story of surplus value, retooled and retold for a technocratic age.


The mad logic of gangster capitalism, in which bubble economies transfer wealth to the top even as they pop, has brought Marx’s overheated rhetoric and insightful analysis back for a second reading. Yet many activists on the left have doubts about the man and his associations. That’s not only understandable, but necessary. Marx’s ideas have been seized on by totalitarian villains who defined Marxism in their own terms – from Joseph Stalin to Pol Pot to Mao Zedong – to underwrite some of the worst atrocities in history.

Marx himself famously said after an encounter with some of his revolutionary followers that he didn’t consider himself a Marxist. I don’t consider myself one either, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see merit in his century-old ideas. I can accept the Marx’s diagnosis of political economy without swallowing his dialectical prescription: a mythical worker’s paradise following the withering of the state. (An old joke from the pre-glasnost East Bloc sums up the problem of ends and means: “What is the definition of capitalism? The exploitation of man by man. And what is the definition of communism? The reverse.”)

The elites would prefer that wageslaves distract themselves with every blade of grass, shrub, sapling and tree. At the dawn of the modern era, Karl Marx attached a box camera to a gas-powered balloon and photographed the entire forest from high above. The pictures have faded over time, but the horizon still looks much the same.


Time to revolt


Revolution Documentary
Revolution: direct action to save us, and the planet, from ourselves..

• Rob Stewart is the underwater filmmaker who, with Sharkwater, showed everyone it’s safe to go back in the water; what’s more, he opened our eyes to the barbaric practice of shark-finning. The film’s impact came from gorgeous, up-close footage of different species of sharks combined with hard-hitting sequences of finned sharks being tossed back into the ocean still alive and writhing. The film was an urgent message to take action. Revolution, Stewart’s latest documentary, is similar in its approach, but raises the stakes. This time, he’s out to “save the human.”

The doc is narrated as a personal journey with Stewart very much in the frame, as he learns about the critical state of many ecosystems around the world (including the tar sands) and gets involved with activists on the frontlines. He’s particularly interested in how the youth of today are campaigning for action on climate change, joining articulate youth delegates at UN climate talks in Cancun in 2010 and leading activists on 350.org campaigns.

Stewart’s prime focus is how climate change is taking its toll on the creatures that inhabit Earth’s largest carbon sink: the ocean. Ocean acidification, caused by humans pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is making it more difficult for marine creatures to form their protective shells. Coral reefs that once teemed with life are bleaching and dying off. Stewart’s mentor, professor J.E.N. “Charlie” Veron, “the godfather of coral,” tells us that such is the damage that no other human being will ever see the coral reefs as he has over his four-decade career. “The oceans have the potential to go belly up in the next 20 years,” one of Stewart’s diving buddies tells us, before diving into the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which has lost half its coral cover.

Stewart’s urgent call for a “revolution” – direct action, civil disobedience and applying pressure on politicians to act – will be a resonant one for many viewers. Time is running out. As University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver says, scientists have done their job; now it’s up to the politicians to do theirs.

The annual Reel 2 Real film festival returns this month (12-19), with around 80 films from 21 countries aimed at youth: from international dramas to films tackling issues like bullying. The festival opens with animation Moon Man, followed by a party and a 3D shadow puppet installation. The fest includes filmmaker Q&As, workshops, get-togethers and audience voting. Find out more at www.r2rfestival.org

Emperor (29th) is a creaky retelling of how the Americans “won” the peace in Japan after going nuclear, through understanding the psychology of the Japanese people and their emperor worship. The plodding storyline is hampered by constant melodramatic romantic flashbacks involving Matthew Fox as lead negotiator General Bonner Fellers. While intermittent scenes sparkle, usually involving Tommy Lee Jones playing to type as the gruff, no-nonsense General Douglas MacArthur, they quickly fizzle out.

Robert Alstead is making the documentary Running on Climate (www.runningonclimate.com).