To delve into the political landscape this week, we’re going to get back to basics. The most basic of the basics: the atom.
Pre-Socratic philosophers Leucippus and Democritus were the first to bring the concept of the atom to bear on the material and natural worlds. Their atoms — literally, uncuttables — are unchangeable bits of matter that cluster and bounce around in space — literally, void — and form the basis for the entire macroscopic world, the world we live and breathe and build and think and die in. While atomism, in large part, put to rest some nagging difficulties around time and the possibility of motion (see Zeno’s paradox), a whole slew of interesting questions then arose around the relationship between parts and wholes.
This early, material understanding of the atom, the smallest unit, went on to inform philosophical thought not just in the natural sciences, but also in ethics and politics. How should we organize society, if individuals are nothing more than their constituent atoms and void? Fast forward some millennia, and English Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes proposes the social contract, an agreement wherein individuals cede some of their individual freedoms for tangible benefits, perhaps under state protection.
Where does this leave us? Nearly all Western institutions are steeped in this sort of social atomism, wherein the individual forms the smallest or most basic unit in a society and the principal function of the state and legislative bodies revolves around negotiating the delicate balance required to administer some form of the social contact. (Of course, social contract theory presupposes a controversial primordial “state of nature,” where humans are fundamentally self-serving and violent creatures.)
The questions we face today, around the relationship between the individual and the collective, are complicated by the power of multinational corporations, transnational flows of capital, and geopolitical relationships. But in many ways, questions about the relationship between parts and wholes persist.
Capitalism and its most recent iteration, neoliberalism, has turned the status of individual into the individual’s worst enemy. Just like the atom was eventually revealed as comprised of even smaller, subatomic particles, the individual too has been broken down further. And in many arenas, the cultural marketplace included, capitalism has atomized society beyond the individual. We are now conglomerates of discrete identities, data sets, tastes, functions, and units of attention, to be broken down and sold and traded and transformed. And yet, capitalism ensures that the myth of the integrated individual prevails. The narrative of choice is a smokescreen; the possibility of collective action becomes increasingly impossible and imperative.
And so, in reading this week’s labour news — which, we know, has always been about the importance of collective action and bargaining over individual or corporate interest — we dare you to think about parts and wholes, collectives and individuals.
Read Lynne Fernandez’s analysis about the suspiciously named “right-to-work” laws in the United States, which thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision now also undermine public sector unions, and their viability in Canada. And spend time with Nima Maleki’s analysis of how mutated definitions of work, wage, and economy empower corporations and subjugate workers’ collectives.
In other rabble news
Ed Finn continues our inquiry into economic justice and state protections with an analysis of Canada’s social spending. While Canada’s per capita GDP has soared, its rate of social spending has declined to just 17.2 per cent of GDP, putting us behind even the U.S. in social spending. Why? It’s not an issue with generating sufficient revenue, but a deeply entrenched problem with distribution and resource allocation, one that impacts families, children, the environment, and working-class Canadians. This, Ed writes, is the real Big Short.
On June 8, Ontario woke up to the news that Doug Ford would be Ontario’s new premier with a Progressive Conservative majority. With all that has meant for the province, including severe cuts in social spending and reverting back to an archaic sex ed curriculum from 1998, Ontarians have found momentum and hope with the set of progressive MPPs elected to Queen’s Park bent on standing up to destructive policies and politics. Our new Ontario Fightback series brings you the second installment of interviews and responses from progressive MPPs across the province. Read them here!