Democracy is Effigy


Those who have, those who used to have, and those who are trying to have. But they are all united in their imbecile worship of Authority.  

—Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education

You’ve said you don’t get involved in politics because it isn’t political.  What’s the alternative to politics?  

Muhammad Ali, the boxer, and Antonio Inoki, the wrestler, went fifteen rounds without doing each other any damage.  Inoki tended to stay on his back with his legs up, keeping out of range of Ali’s hands.  Ali got some sore shins, an Inoki elbow at one point, and that was about it.  The point is that a boxer and a kicker didn’t have the basis for a somatic conversation.  People who believe in leaders and people who don’t will have a strange time having a conversation, as the presuppositions are so different.  Once initial premises are granted, certain things follow. But I don’t see why either side would want to grant this.  From our side, the only thing nuttier than abdicating our responsibility and sending it to masters is agreeing to live under those masters.  Still, we inhabit a world in which we are raised from the get-go to think we can’t get by without leaders, so if one is going to participate in that conversation at all, it has to be by means of prodding at some of the presuppositions in leaderville.  It is especially distressing for environmentalists to see our brothers and sisters in leaderville, and we know we should make every effort to reach out to them. 

How do you view voting that is winnable by a green?  Once local levels have greens in office, wouldn’t it be possible to target federal seats?

I have to warn you that people like us who believe that life’s just food, shelter, and curiosity don’t really see what "federal levels" are for—these distant federations are usually interested in maintaining the kinds of things real greens aren’t interested in: highway infrastructure, a strong economy, defense, all the naive unthought ways of being in the world that just aren’t practical anymore (perhaps they never were).  We’re moving on, by contrast, and living with current realities rather than pretending, like they might have been able to in the nineteenth century, that a growing economy and a healthy world are compatible.  

If we were able to pull off a zero-growth economy, wouldn’t we need to make decisions at a fairly high level to make sure it stays at a steady state?  What about healthcare, where the best system would be having everyone in one big pool…

You’re talking about economies of scale, the sorts of savings and efficiency that come from doing a lot of things at once.  If you’re going to need carrots for the next three meals, chop a bunch right now, that kind of thing.  Instead of the usual response to your question from someone in my position, which would be to warn you that in that direction lie (lie!) the supposed efficiencies of capital with its dangerous principles of interchangeability and reification (one product/person pretty much the same anywhere in the system), I’d like to notice something more oblique. Your question implicitly links security and healthcare, which a casual observer might not think are particularly related to each other.  But you’re probably on to something.  At seewalk-the-ungoogleable we think that a more fully embodied citizenry—let’s even drop that political word “citizenry” and go with individuals—that a more fully embodied group of people will be able to take care of themselves better.  Security and health arise not from systems of dispensation (with an important pun in that word) but from strong individuals in strong ecosystems knowing each other.  Of course it’s true that a cluster of highly varied riverine utopias strung along a thousand miles of river (with the imbrication of lives that necessarily comes from being forever upriver and downriver of someone) may be vulnerable to a bunch of thugs with machine guns, but we need to be very clear in the first instance that the machinery of such guns is the fault of capital, not a necessary part of the human condition.  We’ll be ridding ourselves of the detritus of capital for millennia, but that’s even more reason to start now.  Indeed, we have already begun.

A big reason that representatives at a higher level don’t really represent people today is that a large chunk of citizens—of neighbors—are having no say in decisions whatsoever.

Very true, but lack of representation is only half of the essential problem with democracy.  The other half is representation itself.  So the problem when you enter the Faustian pact of democratic enfranchisement is that you don’t get represented, and that you do.  This is what I meant when I said that leaderville and seewalk might not be able to have a conversation.  For us representation is a terrible, dark force.  Why would you ever want to send yourself in miniature somewhere else?  We know that in most cases, and for systemic reasons that have nothing to do with whether we happen to think some particular politician is a nice guy, politicians are either less ethical or less intelligent than we are, and sometimes both.  But even if we found a superman version of ourselves, it would be wrong to have her or him go elsewhere and do what we know we need to do here—grow food, make connections with people, look them in the eye, shake their hand, make connections with the natural world.  Representation is a franchise, a little place to sell uniform goods controlled from Elsewhere.  From its inception in Greek slave states,  democracy can be traced as the systematic incorporation of effigy as the guiding spiritual principal.  This is our inheritance in the West, and our parliamentary democracies merely make the lineage of effigy explicit. 

Even with direct democracy we still need to make decisions about issues that affect large groups of people. So how is that done? Would it be something like this parpolity—participatory politics—idea, or do you still not like the idea that there are higher level clusters?

The most devastating attack against nowtopian communities comes not from the outright hostility of conservatives, with the sort of compliant press we’re familiar with from the likes of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, which work appropriately in their own interests in rearguard fashion to save their cultural accumulation.  The hardest thing to see is people who might be fellow travelers who sigh and dismiss our work as lovely but impractical, as if there were something practical in the long run about capital and leaderville.  The implication is that even if we were to get a nowtopian community up and running, we would need practical protection from some political entity with a more substantive critical mass than ours.  In its boldest formation, this criticism suggests that without leaders we would have a situation “where every man did that which was right in his own eyes,” to use the Biblical phrase, and we’d have the Nazis or the cowboys.  As if the Nazis and cowboys instantiated any such thing!  Far from being a cautionary tale about wayward individualism, the Nazis are the end product of our own brutal “Great” war to make the world safe for democracy, and cowboys were a particular market response inside late-nineteenth-century capital.  We like the participatory in “participatory politics” and the direct in “direct democracy,” but we don’t quite see how such arrangements advance the cause.  They look derivative, as if leftists, in order not to lose credibility with the establishment, were drawing lines of power relation in imitation of their betters.  “Nested councils, courts, police”—these suggest that we are afraid to appear impractical in the eyes of the system.  But the belief that humans run amuck without superior military force is an idea so sympathetic to corporations, capital, and democratic interference, that we should maintain a healthy dose of skepticism. 

I’ve been teaching a little at a private high school recently.  I’ve been a street person on and off throughout my life, including several years in which I walked the streets of most American cities armed with numchucks, and I’ve spent plenty of time running away from people who wanted to hurt me, guns at my head, a .38 in my brother’s mouth once, the whole thing.  You’d think I’d be the jaded old one who would laugh at naive youth who don’t understand what it’s like in the real world.  It’s the other way around.  These sweet fifteen-year-old kids telling me how brutal the world is!  I have to laugh.  The fact is, that in the real world people are people.  Assholes come and assholes go.  Leaderville, standing armies, police, shows of force—these make people angrier and more dangerous, not more secure.  We’ll figure it out as we go along.  The point is to get dismantling leaderville as fast as we can, while still enjoying as much of a nowtopian life as is possible right here and now.  The single most practical thing any person can do to save the world is to disengage from the franchise. 

* * *

Apologies to CounterPunch reader Zach Pelchat for slightly tinkering with his questions for the sake of brevity.  This is part of a longer conversation that will undoubtedly continue.  Thanks also to journalist Geoffrey Mosher for the insight implied and explied in his questions (he interviewed me yesterday on these topics for his own dark purposes), and to the film-makers, political strategists, beer drinkers, and people with odd affiliations like Canadians, Parti Rhinocéros sympathizers, and Americans, all of whom have accessed me through CP and challenged me to continue revising the practicality of nowtopian principles.  I am disappointed to report that I did not think of the word ‘nowtopia’ myself.  I first heard it from author Chris Carlsson, who spoke in our Zamboni shed here in Dufferin Grove Park a couple of years back. 

David Ker Thomson is a once-and-future professor at the University of Toronto.  dave.thomson@utoronto.ca  


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