Trip Report for Naked Capitalism Meetups in Burlington, VT and Montréal, PQ

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

We had our Naked Capitalism meetup in Burlington Thursday, August 17, and our meetup in Montréal on Friday, August 18. Seven NC readers attended the Burlington Meetup, some coming a long distance; fourteen — I think, we had to add a table — came to Montréal. I thought both numbers were remarkable; strangers coming together for no other reason than that they read the same blog speaks to a great hunger for connection, IMNSHO, and speaks well of the blog. In Burlington, we met at Zero Gravity Brewpub at Flatbread (excellent craft beer, excellent pizza). In Montréal, we met at Le Café Cherrier (cuisine bourgeois, again excellent, and bringing back very happy memories for me. And a big hat tip here to the Montréal organizer for selecting the venue; I’m anonymizing them because I’m not sure they wish to be named). Both meetups were very convivial — conviviality is important — and both establishments let us sit and chat for a long time.

I hadn’t been to either city in at least a decade. (Burlington is a rest stop on the bus route to Montréal, so I’ve at least wandered about Burlington for an hour many times.) Burlington’s population of ~42,000 isn’t that much greater than Bangor’s ~33,000, but Burlington feels like a small city in a way that Bangor does not; it is consciously a center. Perhaps Bangor’s urban “renewal” debacle in the ’60s, where the old city hall and the train station were leveled and replaced by parking lots and banks, and all other commercial life was sucked out to the malls and big box stores on the periphery, accounts for the difference. In Bangor, there is nothing like Burlington’s Church Street marketplace, a brick “walking street” with small shops, not all chains, also a result of urban renewal. Burlington also has a new and pleasingly architected transport center, which made me think “Good governance!” when we pulled in. Not to say that Burlington is a paradise; City Hall Park, on the other side of the street from Zero Gravity Brewpub, is apparently where one goes to get stabbed. And I’m sure if I could read the signs, I’d see traces of the opioid epidemic everywhere, in Vermont as in Maine. Still, in Burlington, the presence of Lake Champlain lifts the heart, as does the active street life. Unfortunately, although we got a Momentum organizer in London, trained by Sanders organizers, we didn’t get any Sanders organizers in Burlington. Sad!

Some cities, like Berlin or Manhattan, are said to have “luft,” an exhilarating crackle in the air, like the tickle of champagne bubbles. Montréal has always had that feeling for me, and it has not changed much in the decade or so since I’ve been there; that’s a good thing. Montréal, too, has an improved bus station, which is good, because the old Voyageur station was down-at-heels and discouraging. I spotted many more a louer (“for rent”) signs in store-fronts on Ste Catherine’s street, the logical (though not physical) East-West commercial main drag, where I also saw many new apartment blocks, presumably condos. I also noticed that downtown’s Concordia University (a gateway to professionalism for first-generation college-goers) has grown enormously, whether from administrative imperialism or real need I can’t say (and I didn’t have time to compare it to McGill, a research university, like Harvard). I also noticed transport was much more expensive, both taxis and the Metro (happily now extended off the island). However, entering a Metro station, I still heard that distinctive, continuous, high-pitched sound, I think from the escalators deep down into the rock of the Mountain, and smelled a faint burning odor, from the rubber wheels of the subway cars braked to a halt. And the three-notes-rising chime to signal the car’s motion was the same in principle, though the actual recording seemed to have changed. Of course, Canada has an opioid epidemic as well.

But enough of nostalgia and travelogue. Here are some of the things I learned; I’m going to combine all the points into one list (partly because, amazingly, we had a slight overlap between the two groups). There’s a good deal on New Orleans (NOLA) because Quebec seemed to act as a strange attractor for NOLA residents and aficionados:

Burlington has a hunger problem but there are food pantries seeking to alleviate it.

Confederate monument defenders travel from site to site, which you know because the same faces appear on TV in different clips at different sites.

There is a #takeemdown hashtag for taking down Confederate monument, and at least one organization — “Take ‘Em Down NOLA,” — built round that hashtag (“Live updates: Take Em Down NOLA wants more monuments removed”).

NOLA Mayor Moon Landrieu has taken down 4 of 100+ Confederate monuments. He gave the contract for that to a firm from Dallas that charged the city ~$2 million. The contractor subcontracted the work to a local, black-owned firm, paid half the invoice, and stiffed them on the rest. Lovely!

During the recent NOLA flooding, the pumps weren’t staffed.

A controversy on whether the left’s lack of “theory” mattered; pragmatists as an object of scorn. For myself, I grant that the line between pragmatism and opportunism can be a fine one; but it exists. I also think theory is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. “Reality is more cunning than any theory,” as I think the Bearded One says, though I can’t find the source for the quote.

Much talk of expatriation; Honduras considered less than ideal.

I’m drawing a blank on the three-volume work by a well-known American political scientist who said, back in the ’90s, to (in short form) “get out while you still can.” It wasn’t Sheldon Wolin; it may have been Chalmers Johnson, author of The Blowback Trilogy: Blowback (2000), Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis (2007). Of course, there may well be more than one work with that theme. Rome wasn’t burnt in a day.

UPDATE An attendee writes to tell me:

[T]he trilogy author was Morris Berman, who is a cultural historian of some note.

The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, Why America Failed form his decline of the USA trilogy.

He is an insightful thinker on these issues, drawing upon the centuries old “American” story starting with the first grifters, the original settlers.

Berman has lived in Mexico for some years now.

The Canadian Conservatives represent Big Oil; the Canadian Liberals represent Big Banks. (Whether these two are the same is another question.)

I asked about Le Carré Rouge, the wildly creative Montréal student protest (“manif“) of 2012 (see here and here), which I view as the last of the Occupations that began in Tahrir Square and circled the globe. The answers I got:

1) The movement had weekly meetings/caucuses and there was constant feedback and adjustment. Each meeting proposed a task for next week;

2) The movement saved every Quebec student C$1500 in tuition — whether a year or in total I don’t remember, but either way it’s a significant concrete material benefit;

3) The movement leaders entered electoral politics, two joining the Parti Québécois, and one to the more interesting Québec solidaire.

Sears really is terrible wherever you go.

Walmart beats down its suppliers, impoverishes its staff, and destroys the communities and firms where it locates. It’s so ginormous — if I have this right — that this behavior will destroy the capacity of its customers to purchase its products. If something cannot go on forever, it will stop, but the time to short Walmart is not yet.

* * *

I’m sure there’s a lot more I haven’t remembered to write down, since both meetups ran quite late, very enjoyably. I was not able to speak to everyone as much as I should have, for which I apologize, and I’ll try to do better next time!

NOTE A few readers have expressed a desire for a small meetup in the Bangor area. My dance card for September is pretty full, but Friday, September 15 would work for me. (I realize I’d be “outing” myself to any locals who haven’t made the connection, but at this point my online identity is sufficiently gauzy — certainly to a professional — that it probably doesn’t matter much anyhow.) If anybody wishes to contact me on this topic, here’s my email: lambert [UNDERSCORE] strether [DOT] corrente [AT] yahoo [DOT] com; I’ll go by responses to see whether it’s worth doing. I think attendance of one or two would be discouraging, so there would be no point going ahead, but if we ended up with five or six, as in Portland, that would be great.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.