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An Invitation to Practical Utopians

Beyond Democracy

by DAVID Ker THOMSON

Why do you vote?

From the earliest time that we can remember as children, democracy has meant freedom, and everyone knows that voting is an expression of what we truly want as we express our freedom. If there are problems with democracy, our instinct is to find a culprit other than democracy itself. We are so certain that democracy is the same as freedom that we look down on people who question it. People who don’t vote are “apathetic,” and people who think they have better ideas are “utopian” and “impractical.” Bad countries are ones where people can’t vote. Questioning democracy is like questioning goodness—it’s so self-evidently true and good, why would anyone question it? It’s “obvious” that we need leaders or else nothing would ever get done, and it’s “obvious” that the way to choose them is to vote for them. In short, it’s not worth thinking about whether democracy is worth it.

What have leaders done for you lately?

Not thinking about democracy is the way it keeps getting passed down from generation to generation as an obvious good. People tend to have two registers of what they think of as a good world, and these tend to be more or less opposed to each other. If you ask people what leaders are for, they’ll list things like roads, protection for their families, environmental protection, and level playing fields for business opportunity, and they’ll mention really practical things, like filling potholes and taking out the garbage. But if you ask the same people whether they approve of the government’s latest wars, or whether the latest wars have made them safer, they’ll typically say no. And if you ask them whether the pursuit of level playing fields has created a world in which the average small business has a chance equal to that of a corporation with lots of money for lobbying, the answer is just as “obviously” no as it was “obvious” before that government is necessary.

Don’t we need leaders to get us healthcare?

I hear that the executive of the empire has granted healthcare to his childish subjects. Hail the leader! Let us know how that works out for you. I’ve been a street person for much of my life, but now the kids and I horn in on my wife’s plan. Thank God that here in ’nada my wife’s plan is there for when we need it, like getting the cancer caused by cars in town, or getting run over by one, because the “universal healthcare” we have here is a joke. Long live wives and other antidotes!

Practically speaking, don’t we need leaders?

Democracy is a system for self-flattery at the most practical level. To become part of the normal adult political discussion, we typically need to show that we are “practical” thinkers, unlike pie-in-the-sky dreamers who don’t understand basic things about the world, such as that someone needs to take out the garbage. Once we can address mild, friendly, indulgent contempt in the direction of people who mean well but “just don’t get it”—for example, people who don’t understand the basic infrastructural economics of how we fill potholes and why—then we have entered political adulthood and can have exciting and important discussions about this or that political candidate. We are not just voters, we are mature voting adults and have assumed the mantle of worldly wisdom of our society. Yet if you ask the very same people who “know” that potholes in big cities must be fixed why we need urban automobile traffic in the first place, especially in a nation trying to reduce its air pollution, the answers are much less confident. And if you ask why most garbage needs to get taken “out” (is it a girlfriend?) when there are simple, practical means for composting it on site, answers will, again, vary. So even the most obvious practical reasons for democracy are actually the beginnings, rather than the end, of a conversation about what is practical.

*Prolixity alert: That’s 674 words. This article is longer and more exhaustive—I didn’t say exhausting, but you were thinking that, weren’t you?—than most of the seewalk series. It’s meant to be archival rather than journalistic: to answer in some detail various objections to the activist nowtopian life, and to store these responses in an important publication against an uncertain future. If you agree to stop voting and start sticking things in various exhaust pipes (maybe even mine), or at the least to venerate, say, Mike Roselle, the anti-mountain-top-removal activist, as a prophet, than you can skip down to the bio section at the bottom for the week’s important (and frankly frightening) news. Obama lovers, your punishment is to keep reading. Also to enjoy your new healthcare. I’ll return to my regularly scheduled immature commentary next week.

Democracy may not be great, but it’s the least bad option.

You can vote for one of two similar scumbags who can get elected, or someone else who can’t. That’s the least bad? If your kid comes home from school and says there’s going to be an important vote in rape club to have fewer rapes, would you encourage her to vote for less rape, or get rid of the club? Why would you endorse a system where at least one of the candid-hates is a murderer by giving it any attention at all? Western parliamentary democracies were designed to consolidate power in the hands of the bourgeois (what can now be seen as proto-corporate) elites who, unlike landed aristocracies, were efficient at deploying power at a distance.

Capitalism and corporatism are thus, like their enabler democracy, essentially unstable and always in crisis because they are always referring elsewhere. Transnational capital flow has always been anticipated by democracy, a bad bargain that asks the masses to surrender their power to a distant mime or ‘representative’. The masses always suspect a trick but can’t quite put their finger on it. Terrible candidates are always offered, and still everyone is always saying that democracy represents our wishes—how can it be? A very basic question to ask supporters of democracy when they come banging on your door is this: why aren’t you supporting the No Vote when it’s what you mean? We all know that no one really wants to vote for these assorted scumbags. Instead we vote for The Other Guy. So why doesn’t democracy let us say what we mean? And we all know the answer. If the No Vote were broadly available in western democracies and each person were given one plus or minus vote, the unimaginable would happen: western democracies would register totals in minus numbers (don’t the mathematicians sometimes call these imaginary numbers?). A huge minus number—that’s the real vote of confidence about democracy. That’s what we all really mean. The rest of you should get out of the way and stop wasting everyone’s time. Three billion of us don’t vote, but we’re dragged into the gutter by you eager beavers [apologies to beavers—I promise to make this up to you].

Are leaders smarter and more ethical than average people?

If the value of democracy is so self-evident, why can so few people answer this question in the affirmative? The belief is that by bad luck or temporary skullduggery, the set of candidates this time just happens to be disappointing.

In fact, however, the tendency for candidates to lack morals is constitutive to democracy, since candidates with their own morals are less likely to be elected than those who borrow morals from their constituencies. And atypical intelligence also tends to be weeded out for the same reason—it doesn’t win.

The kind of intelligence that thrives in this system is cunning, which is to say, an agile intelligence capable of quickly discerning which direction the wind is blowing in. What kind of personal morality thrives in democracy? None. What a voter is saying with his or her vote is in essence, “here, take my intelligence and morality. I’m not using them.”

But if everyone just did anything they felt like, things would fall apart.

True, but irrelevant. In fact, this belief that anything other than democracy is anarchy or totalitarianism is one of democracy’s great propaganda successes. There are many forms of leadership that are not democratic (i.e. distance-oriented) but are consensual and local, and more interestingly, there are forms of social contract that do not involve leadership at all. Leadership is, after all, a way of getting someone else to do at a distance what we could do better right here with our local social unit. There are many varieties of social unit that do not exhibit democracy’s salient feature—the distancing mechanism of the vote. My own preferred form is just one of many, but I happen to like it: the Y-shaped neighborhoods and federations (conversations, really) of neighborhoods called watersheds.

Nice theory. What about Hitler?

This belief that invoking Hitler proves that the speaker is more practical than his interlocutor is an entrenched one. It supposedly does wonderful work in showing that the speaker is practical—has thought things through to their logical conclusion. Similar supposedly unanswerable put-downs of utopian thought are used to suggest the need for more police, more prisons, more wars against this or that unruly insurgent element in ever more distant places. In short, what we need is supposedly the show of a “firm hand.” But recall that Hitler rose to power from the midst of a democracy enraged by the destruction from the Great War, the war to make the world safe for democracy, the one in which our grandfathers and great-grandfathers went off to Europe in a display of stupid patriotism at the behest of arguably stupider politicians, an indulgence in witless mass filicide still celebrated nostalgically every November here in ’nada with the wearing of little red flowers that look like the bloody exit wounds of bullets. Even people who are inclined to be against war will typically admit that our side was pretty foolish in the first of the world wars of the last century, but that in the second war Hitler had to be stopped. As practical utopianists, we say, by contrast, that it’s time to start making connections about our own guilt, in this and every war, and that the response now is for us to admit how much democracy played a part in the rise of Hitler.

But shouldn’t we at least admit that we need a small number of leaders and police?

Should we? Do we? Have we ever actually hazarded this experiment? The thing about this supposedly practical way of thinking about things—the need for lean government, as the libertarians put it—is that it remains hypothetical. Here in nowtopia we say of the skeleton crew of government: let’s find out. Get rid of the ninety percent of government that’s over-the-top ludicrously stupid immediately, and then quickly pare down the supposedly necessary remainder. Does anyone really believe that there are even ten percent of these politicians who are smarter and more ethical than we are? If you start at the other end, where people actually live, what people want is simple and is all about food, shelter, and curiosity. We want neighborhoods that are nice enough that we don’t need to take vacations away from them. And at that level, communities themselves are—no surprise—better at having their own interests in mind than is some proxy along the Ottawa River or in the Chesapeake.

What’s nowtopia?

Nowtopia is a place for very practical human interaction. We are often called radicals and anarchists (sometimes admiringly), but we think it is governments that are radical and anarchist. Think about it. Who is more radical and anarchist, the people who go off to distant lands killing Afghanistan’s babies and supporting an empire killing babies in Iraq, or people like us who believe in food, shelter, and curiosity? Even at the municipal level of government, we want to ask: which is more anarchistic, the Toronto government that wants to maintain the urban killing fields where the American automobile is dominant in the streets, slaying children and spreading cancer and costing billions, or those of us at seewalk who have yet to see a good reason for any truck or car in the city? Here in nowtopia, which has already happened and will get better as we slough off more government and government-protected corporatism, food is the only thing we really need much of besides glass for passive solar collection. We’re not waiting for some distant revolution. Food can be grown on site or brought in for a few conversion years on the underground trains called subways and the on-the-ground trains called streetcars. Who’s the radical, those of who believe in children in the streets, or those who believe in the killing machines? As I write here downtown this moment, a red-tailed hawk floats above the garden, above the watershed, above nowtopia.

What’s seewalk?

Seewalk goes by many names and spellings—SeeWalk, see? walk!—to suggest its essentially oral, street-level identity. As CWOC it is City Without Cars. It’s sometimes displayed backwards so that it’s visible in car mirrors co-opted to announce the dawn, and the noontime, of a continuingly renewed era: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. Unlike environmental organizations, seewalk is a disorganization and never registers with government because it is, in a deep, heartfelt sense, at odds with all government, with all forms of state violence, which is to say with all forms of state. Seewalk is characteristic of many nodes in the net in this century—light, fast, flexible, bending where government violates it, but never quite breaking. It can flicker on the net but cannot, paradoxically, be googled. Versions which appear in static formation on the net cannot, by definition, be the real thing. Our own relationship with seewalk is scribal and reflective—a tribute. Seewalk itself, the real thing, can never be caught.

Seewalk counts as members somewhere between three billion people who do not vote or endorse governments, and no membership at all. It cannot be destroyed because, from a government point of view, it does not exist. It is in the hearts of all practical people. It has no leaders, though some of its people—average people—have been imprisoned.

SeeWalk’s authority at street level is in proportion to the desire of all people in the cities to cease polluting and killing and to find, without government permission, new ways to live without violence to people and animals. Seewalk is a pragmatist’s urban utopia, with wheelchairs and skichairs as the central mechanical feature of the streets, with children playing everywhere after having torn down the “No Playing in Street” signs, and with leaders emancipated from their self-slavery to go do something useful instead of “lead,” whatever that is. And that something useful is generally this—grow food.

Seewalk is absolutely against bike lanes, a form of consignment-to-reservation of the city’s more vigorous citizens so that car culture and its various thefts might continue unchecked in the streets, so that people can be sickened and killed, and after having had their health stolen be given the phony consolation prize called “healthcare.”

If you’ve read this far, you might be a seewalker yourself. Look for the secret sign of the seewalker amongst your neighbors, a scissoring motion made by the legs while in a standing position, or a forward flick of the wrist or stick on a wheelchair which is boldly setting out the wrong way into government-sponsored traffic. We have our heroes. We hope you’ll join us.

DAVID Ker THOMSON lives in Toronto. This article is dedicated to the ideas of March: to Toronto writer Dr. Peter Watts, found guilty of “resistance” on March 19th in America, and to artist Michael Dickinson, found guilty of “insulting the prime minister” in Turkey on March 9th, both with two-year sentences looming over them. These sentences are part of the larger paragraph of empire. He can be reached at: dave.thomson@utoronto.ca

      

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