Category Archives: Society

Quote of the Day: “The one genuine revolution of our time”

A Libyan rebel at the frontline near Sultan, south of Benghazi, Libya, Friday, March 18, 2011

With ongoing developments in the Middle East — and the Midwest — in mind, here’s Frye in “On Human Values”:

“Ever since since about two hundred years ago, for a variety of reasons, and for better or worse, man has embarked upon a program of revolution. In the centre of that revolutionary program I see democracy. That seems to me to be the one genuine revolution of our time. . . . Therefore, one cannot identify democracy with a form of government like republic or monarchy. It is a process, and a process which, I should say, following the terms of the French Revolution, is a pursuit of liberty, equality and fraternity. If you pursue liberty and forget about equality you get laissez-faire, which ends in a most abominable tyranny. If you pursue equality and forget about liberty, you get a totalitarian state, which also ends up in an abominable tyranny. And consequently, the central revolutionary process of our time pursues simultaneously liberty and equality.” (CW 24, 15)

(Photo: Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

Ides of March


The assassination of Julius Caesar in HBO’s Rome — ugly, the way these things always are

Frye in one of the notebooks on Renaissance literature:

The liberal who sits & hopes that somebody will assassinate Hitler of McCarthy or Huey Long is Brutus without Brutus’ courage & responsibility. He thinks of such people as destroying human relations by engrossing power. That is, essential social relations to him are the personal ones: he has no tragic conception of society. Antony, with his ruthlessness, his use of others (Lepidus) as “property,” his contemptible rhetorical tricks & his exploiting of Caesar’s will is still able to consolidate a society. He never makes a human contact: his loyalty to Caesar is the exception that proves the rule. . . Caesar does make personal contacts, & makes himself impersonal by an effort of will: as is said, the way to flatter him is to tell him he can’t be flattered. (CW 20, 268-9)

Frye: “There can be no general elite in a democratic society”

Jon Stewart exposes the hypocrisy of those who begrudge teachers their union-negotiated $50,000 a year plus benefits salaries but also fiercely defend the Bush tax cuts for the top percentile of wage earners and defend the kleptocracy and billion dollar bonuses of Wall Street. Watch the video here.

Frye in The Modern Century captures nicely the sinister forces now openly undermining American democracy, especially a “general elite” employing immediately recognizable agents provocateurs — Ailes, Palin, O’Reilly, Beck, Limbaugh, and so on — who are attempting to consolidate political and economic power while simultaneously instilling confusion, fear and resentment in an already assailed general population through the incessant clanging of tin pot patriotism. Replace “John Birch Society” with “Tea Party,” “nostalgic intellectuals” with “neo-conservatives,” and “those who readily identify themselves as belonging to some kind of elite that a closed myth would produce” with mealy-mouthed white bread demagogues like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, and this passage is fully up to date:

In the democracies there are many who would like to see a closed mythology take over.  Some are hysterical, like the John Birch Society, who want a myth of the American way of life, as they understand it, imposed on everything. . . . Some are nostalgic intellectuals, usually with a strong religious bias, who are bemused by the “unity” of medieval culture and would like to see some kind of “return” to it.  Some are people who can readily imagine themselves as belonging to some kind of elite that a closed myth would produce.  Some are sincere believers in democracy who feel that democracy is at a disadvantage in not have a clear and unquestioned program of its beliefs. . . [T]here can be no general elite in a democratic society: in a democracy everybody belongs to some kind of elite, which derives from its social function a particular knowledge or skill that no other group has. (CW 11, 66-7)

Everybody belongs to an elite — like, say, teachers and nurses and police officers and fire fighters, who represent their common interests by way of labor unions; much the same way corporations have their common interests represented by Republican legislators and the “corporations are people too” Supreme Court of Roberts/Scalia/Thomas/Alito.

Frye on Democracy, Laissez-Faire and Oligarchy

“Democracy should work as a force for the underprivileged.” Northrop Frye, interview in The Telegram, 25 March 1950

On a couple of occasions I’ve received comments about the political direction the blog takes on current events, typically in the form of “What does this have to do with Frye?” (I get the same thing when it comes to popular culture.) My response has been that Frye was always critically engaged with the world around him, most conspicuously during his decades-long stint at The Canadian Forum. His politics were unambiguously to the left (he was in fact a lifelong social democrat), and his observations on political matters are frank and detailed. Although some people might not like it, he lived long enough to make pungent remarks about two prominent North American conservatives of the 1980s: Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney. It’s not difficult to imagine what he might have said about George Bush and Stephen Harper.

I am comfortable, therefore, to post critiques of the political right in the liberal spirit Frye embodied, and I am always on the lookout for passages from the collected works consistent with the opinions expressed here. This is particularly true regarding the behavior of an increasingly aggressive economic elite that for the past thirty years has begrudged the poor the assistance they require while stripping the middle class of a fair share of the wealth they generate. In the 1940s, Frye readily characterized such trends as the emergence of a North American brand of fascism. There isn’t any good reason we should hesitate to do so now. It is a direct threat to democracy, which Frye seemed to think of as a secular form of salvation. It is also a nullification of the primary concerns he regarded as the full expression of both corporeal and spiritual life. If there’s any lingering doubt about this, below is another quote to add to the collection already compiled here over the last few months, this time from “Trends in Modern Culture.” As always, Frye sets the standard for feet-on-the-ground idealism: the recognition of and the working toward the better world we could create if only we had the courage to push this one aside.

As the conception of democracy has matured, it has separated itself from its vague background of Utopian optimism.  Many Americans still believe that laissez-faire is the economic aspect of democracy, but there is a growing realization that laissez-faire by itself does not lead to democracy, but to oligarchy, and thence to managerial dictatorship. Laissez-faire by itself is antidemocratic: all progress in the conditions of the working classes has been wrung from it in a kind of cold civil war. . . . (CW 11, 251)

Quote of the Day: “A co-operative state is necessary to preserve us from chaos”

Frye in correspondence with Helen Kemp:

“I think with the C.C.F [Co-operative Commonwealth Federation] that a co-operative state is necessary to preserve us from chaos.  I think with the Liberals that it is impossible to administer that state at present.  I think with the C.C.F. that man is unable, in a laissez faire system, to avoid running after false gods and destroying himself.  I think with Liberals that it is only by individual freedom and democratic development that any progress can be made.” (CW 1, 155-6)

The Communist Manifesto

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto on this date in 1848.

Frye in “Varieties of Literary Utopias” takes note of the similar dark underlying assumptions of revolutionary American and Marxist views:

The terms of this argument naturally changed after the Industrial Revolution, which introduced the conception of revolutionary process into society.  This led to the present division of social attitudes mentioned above, between the Marxist Utopia as distant end and the common American belief in the Utopianizing tendency of the productive process, often taking the form of a belief that Utopian standards of living can be reached in America alone.  This belief, though rudely shaken by every disruptive social event at least since the stock market crash of 1929, still inspires an obstinate and resilient confidence.  The popular American view and the Communist one, superficially different as they are, have in common the assumption that to increase man’s control over his environment is also to control over his destiny. (CW 27, 209)

Glenn Beck’s wild chalkboard fantasies connecting Obama to the rise of a new Caliphate funded by George Soros may have an indirect relation to reality — but only  as a paranoid and inverted projection of the interests he represents.  The increasingly hysterical cohort on the right and the dirty Commies it associates with even modestly left-of-centre politics have much in common: a revolutionary outlook that promotes unrestrained industrialism and ruthless exploitation of the environment, resulting in the illusion of mastery which only enhances degraded social conditions.  We are currently seeing this in the U.S. as the Republican agenda in Congress and at the state level becomes more obvious: massive unemployment accompanied by the rending of the social safety net and cynical efforts to roll back hard won collective bargaining rights. This is yet another way of obscuring the unprecedented theft of public and private wealth through government-abetted Wall Street scams, and then transferring the blame to undermine the unionized middle class whose share of national wealth has been flat since Reagan/Thatcher.  We know about the economic collapse of the old Soviet Union overseen by an insular ruling elite not answerable to the will of the people or the rule of law.  What might be the equivalent here?  Maybe something like the 2008 collapse of the financial markets engineered by the greed and incompetence of a kleptomaniacal ruling class always in need of bailouts and tax cuts.

Perhaps Beck might trace this out on his blackboard.  It’s completely doable.

“We worry less”

Yes, that’s “top 1%” and “bottom 80%

Frye in The Modern Century:

In political thought there is a useful fiction known as the social contract, the sense that man enters into a certain social context by the act of getting born.  In earlier contract theories, like that of Hobbes, the contract was thought of as universal, binding everyone without exception.  From Rousseau on there is more of a tendency to divide people into those accept and defend the existing social contract because they benefit from it, and the people who are excluded from most of the benefits, and so feel no obligation, or much less, of it.  (CW 11, 41)

From the notorious 2005 Citigroup Plutonomy memo:

➤ The World is dividing into two blocs – the Plutonomy and the rest. The U.S., UK, and Canada are the key Plutonomies – economies powered by the wealthy. Continental Europe (ex-Italy) and Japan are in the egalitarian bloc.
➤ Equity risk premium embedded in “global imbalances” are unwarranted. In plutonomies the rich absorb a disproportionate chunk of the economy and have a massive impact on reported aggregate numbers like savings rates, current account deficits, consumption levels, etc. This imbalance in inequality expresses itself in the standard scary “ global imbalances”. We worry less.

From yesterday’s Toronto Star:

In keeping with the government’s vision of making Canada a low-tax jurisdiction, the Conservatives have been gradually cutting taxes on corporate profits since 2007.

By 2015 under this plan, the share of federal government programs paid for by corporate income taxes will have shrunk to 12.3 per cent from 20.8 per cent in 2000.

Andrew Sullivan in today’s Daily Dish:

The logic behind president Obama’s budget has one extremely sensible feature: it distinguishes between spending that simply adds to consumption, and spending that really does mean investment. His analogy over the weekend – that a family cutting a budget would rather not cut money for the kids’ education – is a sound one. We do need more infrastructure, roads and broadband, non-carbon energy and basic science research, and some of that is something only government can do. In that sense, discretionary spending could be among the most important things government could do to help Americans create wealth themselves. And yet this is the only spending Obama wants to cut.

But the core challenge of this time is not the cost of discretionary spending. Obama knows this; everyone knows this. The crisis is the cost of future entitlements and defense, about which Obama proposes nothing.

When it comes to the fraud perpetrated by our society’s most advantaged (the 1% who currently own approximately 38% of national wealth), there is no social contract in any meaningful sense.  There is only licenced theft rationalized by the lie that economic success is ultimately a moral issue: if you play well, you win big.  After the collapse of the financial markets two years ago and the trillions of dollars of bailouts for those “too big to fail,” we are under no illusions, we know that simply isn’t true.  It’s a hoax.  It’s a fix.  Everything about our “social contract” has been rigged for the past thirty years to transfer wealth upward at an accelerating rate, whatever economic and social vandalism is committed along the way.  Our political class now has little to do with average voters — except insofar that votes against their own economic interests be must tricked out of them with promises that are never kept.  Our politicians have gone from being public servants to dead eyed enablers of the rapacious corporate class who are now their only real constituency.  It is a shame, and it has happened in plain view of everyone.  And that makes it a big reason to worry more than we do.

Quote of the Day: “Fools should have full liberty to speak”

Glenn Beck yesterday — and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

Frye in one of the late notebooks:

What is important about free speech in a democracy is not only that everyone has the right to express an opinion, however ill considered, but that fools should have full liberty to speak so that they can be recognized as fools.  (CW 3, 410)

“Full mooner” is the term emerging from the mainstream punditocracy to describe the increasingly unhinged Glenn Beck, whose rants are more and more like watching Plan 9 from Outer Space; jaw-droppingly awful but also inadvertantly hilarious.  It’s got to be the most licit approximation there is to being high on shrooms.

Mary Shelley

Maybe the most iconographic moment from the 1931 film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

On this date in 1851 Mary Shelley died (born 1797).

Frye in “The Times of the Signs” cites Frankenstein to make a point about the responsibility we bear and the potential we possess with regard to the world we make.

When Blake or Morris or D.H. Lawrence attack or repudiate our technological culture, therefore, they are really saying that if man is too lazy to mould his world according to his real beliefs, and tries to abdicate his responsibilities by trusting to some kind of automated progress, he is actually releasing the most sinister and vicious impulses in himself, and the end of it is logically either the total destruction made possible by modern physics or, far worse, the unending tyranny made possible by modern communications.  Hence the preoccupation of so many writers with the themes of mad scientists and parody Utopias like 1984.  One thinks particularly of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose monster is popularly supposed to be a symbol of man’s enslavement to the mechanisms he has created.  Actually, the monster is portrayed with a good deal of sympathy; the many references to Milton’s Paradise Lost in her own story make it clear that the real theme is the responsibility that man takes on when he recognizes the extent of his own creative powers.  If what he creates is monstrous, merely viewing it with horror is hardly enough.  The moral of such fables is that man can never avoid the challenge to examine his own beliefs, his desires, and his visions of society at every step of new discovery.  The future that is technically possible is not necessarily the future that society wants or can accept.  To be fatalistic about this, to assume that whatever can happen must happen, is the way to develop “future shock” into coma.  (CW 27, 355)

George Orwell

From the 1985 film adaptation of 1984: The principle of perpetual war explained (video not embedded: click on the image and hit the YouTube link)

On this date in 1950 George Orwell died (born 1903).

Frye in The Educated Imagination:

The essential thing is the power of choice.  In wartime this power is greatly curtailed, and we resign ourselves to living by half-truths for the duration.  In a totalitarian state the competition in propaganda largely disappears, and consequently the power of imaginative choice is sealed off.  In our hatred and fear of war and totalitarian government, one central element is a sense of claustrophobia that the imagination develops when it isn’t allowed to function properly.  This is the aspect of tyranny that’s so prominently displayed in George Orwell’s 1984.  Orwell even goes so far as to suggest that the only way to make tyranny permanent and unshakable, the only way in other words to create a literal hell on earth, is deliberately to debase our language by turning our speech into an automatic gabble.  The fear of being reduced to such a life is a genuine fear, but of course as soon as we express it in hysterical cliches we are in the same state ourselves.  As the poet William Blake says in describing something very similar, we become what we behold.  (CW 21, 490)