Unprofitable Reflections on Democracy

May 22, 2010

by Paul and Joegodson

Joegodson took pictures during Haiti's most important national holiday: Flag Day, May 18. Many people left their marks around the festival grounds of Arcahaie. In this case, ''Thief Preval, Down with Preval.''

Canada’s Conservative Minister of Foreign Affairs has suggested that the Haitian government should hold elections as soon as possible. That Lawrence Cannon is pretending to distance himself from the puppet president, Rene Préval, tells you how serious is the political situation in Haiti. Haitians voted for Préval in 2006 precisely because he presented himself as a member of Lavalas under another name, a new party called Lespwa (Hope.) Haitians believed that they had found a way to outfox the Americans who had outlawed Lavalas and killed Lavalasians. Now, Préval outlaws Lavalas. So, what happens to Lavalas when it can’t be called Lavalas? Is it possible to kill hope?

People honour with flowers the commemoration to Aristide's restoration of Arcahaie, the national site dedicated to the creation of the Haitian flag in 1803, a moment of great pride among Haitians, when they ovethrew the French colonists.

In fact, the original lavalas movement began over twenty years ago as each exploited Haitian added himself and herself to the flow. That wasn’t easy, but required that people educate themselves and each other to accept responsibility for the society they created. It became truly a flood. In fact, the name lavalas, meaning flood, was chosen to describe what was happening. The party that is now called Lavalas took its name from the movement that defined democracy in a very different way than that concept is understood in North America. Now, in Haiti, the Lavalas Party is outlawed. But it is lavalas that is feared by those who want to control Haiti and Haitians.

In North America, throughout the twentieth century, capitalism was in real danger of being overthrown twice: after the First World War and before the Second. Both times, governments responded by outlawing the Communist Party that seemed to pose the greatest threat to the system that assures an effective transfer of society’s resources to the wealthy.  There is, as we all now know and many have known for centuries, no limit to how much wealth the wealthy will accumulate if people allow it. The wealthy will not say, ”No thanks, I’ve had enough.” Moreover, they have always eaten well by taking whatever bread might have been wasted on the hungry.

What is strange is that so many North Americans seem to believe that the people whom Jean Ziegler calls ”the new masters of the world” took a holiday after the earthquake. The Resurrected Plan of Death is built upon the necessity that Haitians be the poorest paid workers in the Western Hemisphere. There can be no improvement in their lives or the whole structure called Reconstruction will collapse as when an earthquake strikes.

North Americans have a strange notion of democracy. When I (Paul) used to be allowed to teach at Canadian universities, I had a difficult time communicating the fact that, in North America, democracy has historically meant the right to choose any government as long as it represents the interests of free market capitalists. In fact, many students lived with the unresolved contradiction that democracy means, at one and the same time, not-communist, not-anarchist, not-socialist and the-right-to-choose-anything. Humpty Dumpty is the consummate politician when he tells Alice that words mean whatever he says they mean. However, the process of undermining language takes time and an uncritical audience. There exists in our educational system a solid mass of students determined to get through university without challenging their assumptions. A great many professors oblige because they share the same assumptions as their students.

How should we understand the current situation in Haiti?

Haitian girls at Arcahaie admire the image of Caterine Flon sewing Haiti's first flag in 1803.

Only a minority of Haitians accepts the legitimacy of the Préval government. In order to get the electoral result that the World Bank and its chums need, it will be possible to outlaw popular parties, fix the ballot boxes, ensure that there are no voting stations in the slums and so few in the countryside that many voters give up or are harassed on their way to vote. That was what happened in 2006; but Préval, allowing himself to be seen as lavalasian, won anyway. Each election in Afghanistan since the invasion has exposed Western ”democracy” as a farce. However, no matter what happens, the Empire claims victory and carries on. In Haiti, the Haitians have won each election since 1990 and the Empire to the North has undermined every one. The 2006 election was funny. The Haitian poor told Préval what he stood for. He said okay. They voted for him. Then he did whatever Washington said. Now the Haitian poor say that’s not okay. Préval is trying to keep out of their way. That’s a good idea.

So, Haitians see Préval as a traitor. Washington uses the Préval stamp of approval to validate its Plan of Death. Lawrence Cannon, the Canadian Minister of Imperial Complicity, claims that new elections are needed to clear the air. Something stinks all right. Is Cannon serious? Is Cannon suggesting that the Canadian state is going to set a course whereby Canada respects the right of Haitians to control their own country? Does Cannon know what a truly revolutionary course he is setting for Canada? Are Canadians really ready to break with Washington and champion democracy? I’m really looking forward to this.

Since there is not a cynical neuron in my body, I believe that Minister Cannon is referring to the dictionary definition of democracy and not the Doublethink version when he claims to throw Canada’s weight behind the Will of the Haitian People. In fact, this is good news for me and the province of Quebec that is currently looking for a way to keep me off of its welfare rolls. I have a doctorate in History and competencies (as they say in Human Resources) that could be used advantageously to educate the Harper government and the Canadian public about how Canada fits into the global economy and how that arrangement has recently undermined our parliamentary democracy. It will take some energy to deprogram ourselves from the years of Cold War and post-Cold War propaganda. I have made a start on myself, but there is a long way to go. But one thing is becoming clear: Haitian and Canadian democracy are bound up with each other. How?

Last year, I was hired as a salesman for a very ambitious store that specialized in baby and children’s products. I advised clients on big-ticket items: furniture, bedding, and mattresses. The store carried almost everything available on the market. I took the opportunity to learn all that I could about the merchandise. Was the product safe for the child? What was known about the production process? What materials were used? Where did the materials come from? Who manufactured the product and under what conditions? Where? With what consequences for the environment?

As I pursued each of these questions, I was at first appreciated for the knowledge that I was contributing to the company. However, in every single case, the questions ultimately came up against a wall of obfuscations, resistance, ridicule, and resentment. In some cases, I exposed unethical and embarrassing business practices. In at least one case, the president of a major Quebec company was forced to publish a totally inadequate and incomprehensible press release defending his products. While I soon outsold even the long-term employees, we were all paid a miserable salary that could not sustain even my minimalist lifestyle in a one-bedroom apartment in Montreal.

Since I answered every question honestly, it was not unusual for a simple purchase to initiate a philosophical discussion about the global economy, society, and ethics. On the other hand, many customers defined themselves by what they purchased, the way they purchased it, and the social identity that resulted from those possessions. The mirror image exists in the free-trade zones in Haiti where workers are degraded precisely because they have nothing to sell but their labour. They have little idea of the monetary value, in the North American market, of what they produce. The more the superrich are celebrated in North America, the deeper the inhumanity towards those who produce their signs of wealth and power. We have arrived at an extreme form of commodity fetishism.

After about seven months of intense self-education, I came to the conclusion that it was impossible to honestly promote anything in the store. The products to which I am referring are no different from those available everywhere in Canada. I challenge the reader to find a product that is produced ethically from the raw materials to the final sale. So, I handed in my resignation documenting the difficulties and asking that we address them. Of course, my resignation offered two weeks notice should it not initiate a conversation to confront the issues. The two weeks’ notice was not necessary. In fact, I lasted only two minutes more in the store.

In order to sidestep the non-disclosure clause of the original employment agreement, I documented everything at length in a request for Employment Insurance with Service Canada. In that way, my experiences entered the public domain. I soon had a call from the Montreal office. A woman had been assigned the task of determining if I qualified. If I was deemed to have quit, then I didn’t. If my resignation was justified, then I did. So, she became the arbitrator between the company and me. We each made our case. I continued to argue that it was unethical for me to sell products that I had already determined to be unsafe (or produced unethically) and others for which information was being withheld. Like all Canadians that I discussed this with, the Service Canada employee at first asked me how this store could even exist in Montreal. I told her this represented every store in Montreal and every store in Canada. After a number of conversations, in which she took my arguments to the enterprise to see if they had the answers that I had never been able to attain, she told me that, if I did not hear from her again, then my claim – and my claims – would be accepted. Indeed, Service Canada must finally have come to accept the state of our consumer culture, as the claim was processed in my favour.

When Prime Minister Harper of Very Little Heart prorogued Parliament the latest time, most analysts argued that he was motivated by the need to save the government from the embarrassment of the Afghan detainee scandal. In fact, I suspect that his marching orders came from business to nix, for the second time, the Consumer Product Safety Bill, this time Bill C-6. The previous prorogation of Parliament had put an end to its predecessor, Bill C-52. I have written critically at length of Canada’s participation in the war on Afghanistan (see an upcoming issue of the Journal of Canadian Studies) and the detainee issue. I suspect that this time, the government killed two bills with one prorogation.

Bill C-6, as its name suggests, dealt only with the safety to Canadian consumers of the final product. Many of the customers that I came to know were sincerely concerned, as am I, with working conditions and environmental degradation abroad. Bill C-6 did not address the issues that would unite Canadians with foreign populations and ecologies. It was a divisive bill in that sense; it accepted the divisions that already structure the global economy. In other words, it frames the issue in terms of the health and safety of the Canadian consumer in isolation from that of ecosystems and workers abroad or, for that matter, inside of Canada. Still, the limited requirement that companies demonstrate that some of the products they sell are not harmful to Canadian consumers rallied business to attack the bill on the grounds of the need to protect Canadians against government intrusions into private affairs. (Some products, because huge sectors of the economy fall under other legislation. In any case, business circumvents existing legislation, as my research in the store taught me. Everyone counts on the ignorance or complicity of retailers and consumers.) Canadians actually listened as propagandists told them that Bill C-6 threatened their privacy, while the anti-terrorist legislations introduced by all Western ”democracies” after 9-11 got a pass. Where does one begin?

I cannot accept the nationalist narcissism that grounded Bill C-6. Of course, Bill C-6 was attacked on other grounds, and may never be passed in any form. And while I know from my personal experience in the store that global issues of justice concern both Anglophone and Francophone Quebecers, it is experience that separates the materially comfortable from the wretched of the earth. Here is where we need to understand commodity fetishism at work. If Canadians cannot get Bill C-6 through their Parliament, then how will they ever be able to champion the rights of populations subjugated to the will of the imperial countries led by the United States and backed up by NATO, the United Nations, and strategic client states? Bill C-6 was only ever intended to protect Canadians from dangerous products and that was too much for the masters of the world. Experience: my experience of Haiti, my respect for Haitians, and my deep affection for my friend and co-author Joegodson prevent me from seeing my life and possessions exclusive (in both senses of the word) of them.

Haitians honour the first leader of their country, Dessaline. Dessaline ripped the white strip out of the French flag, symbolically refusing the colonial order. Caterine Flon sewed the two strips back together using strands of her own hair. Haitians live by their founding myths that resonate in the present.

I enter the issue of the reconstruction of Haiti with no illusions about the intentions of the rich to profit from the tragedy. In the normal course of world affairs, the rich force the wretched of the earth into poverty and misery in order to profit from them. In fact, the richer force the less rich into poverty to profit from them. The fact that so many people believe that they can donate money to help Haitians – that will be allocated by Bill Clinton, George W Bush, the World Bank, and complicit NGOs – tells me that we, as a society, are incredibly naive.

 But lavalas is alive and lespwa cannot be killed.

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