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Now / Then

It’s important, now and then, to separate the discussion of how practical utopias will function from what it will take to get there.  If we don’t do this then-and-now thinking now and then, all sorts of stuff from the ludicrously impractical world we call “normal” and “practical” tends to drift in to our plans for practical utopia.

When people pat themselves on the back for their pragmatism by saying of a particular utopia, “impractical,” they can get away with such nonsense (as if the “real” world were a convincing demonstration of “practicality” and “functioning”) by exploiting the gap between a good working utopia (simple) and the steps necessary to getting there (a little harder).

I think we should start with the range of social contracts we want and that most people would want were our utopia already established.  It’s not true that there’s no commonality about what people want.  If you ask people whether they want polluted or clean streams, neighborhoods from which you need to take a vacation or neighborhoods from which you don’t, solar or mountain-top-removal, people have more in common than otherwise.  They might think it’s hard to get to utopia but most people know what they want.  So it’s important as practical utopianists that we work from both ends at the same time, especially from the social contract we want back to now, not merely, as we usually do, from the screwed up now tinkering forward to the social contract we want.

Nowtopianists add this feature as well: that we have already set up as much of nowtopia in the cracks, in the “against” of touching and of abutting the empire, as we can get away with.  If we don’t have this, we lose the joy.

Everywhere on the left I see this basic misunderstanding about the society we want versus how to get there.  So every form and content of compromise with power and placation of the empire is being tried without any real strong sense of a social contract that we could live with.  This tinkering with the empire very, very quickly becomes the empire.  The Sierra Club eviscerates itself.  Greenpeace has a practical, rambunctious side that gets something done, and then undercuts itself by telling the stupid politicians how important they are.  I don’t listen to leaders, but I overheard yesterday some grad students saying Angela Davis had voted for Obama and was “disappointed.”  An Angela Davis disappointed by a mass murderer—doesn’t this tell us something about what the left has lost?

Ox, this one goes out to you as I hear you and the “TOSCA” people are getting ready to take over the state of California and you want me to talk about practical things environmentalists can do to stop rampant environmental toxicity.  It’s easy to get waylaid, as we’ve seen.  Environmentalists urge us to drive green cars in the city—so fascinated by the word green they forget that they’re urging people to drive in the city where not a single car is necessary.  Or think about environmentalists putting their stamp of approval on hybrid buses with now not one but two powerplants in them—I have yet to hear one of these giant puffing child-slaying cyclist-harassing monsters that didn’t have its gasoline engine at full filthy noisy burn.  Even this lie hasn’t been big enough, and Toronto buses now slap a sticker on the front of the buses—well away from the noisy engine—saying “electric.”  They got away with the moderate lie, no one scratching graffiti onto it, so they ramped it up to a bigger lie. This zombie environmentalism is us forgetting where we’re going and falling into the dream empire has for us, of consuming us in its rate of burn.

Such empironmentalism (that middle syllable set is “pyro” at the least) comes from forgetting the social contract we want and being swept up in what we could settle for, what “they” will “give” us.  The charge of “purity” that we often get—that in thinking we should hold out for the social contract we want we are too pure and impractical—is itself obscene because no matter how filthy and vicious the empire is, its most important feature is actually that it is impractical.  Or as the buzzword rightly has it now, unsustainable.  For what it’s worth, a starling shat on me as I typed that last sentence.  Scat color: striations of marble.  Starling body temperature apparently considerably higher than my skin temperature.

Leaderville, the empire, only gets away with looking “practical” to foolish environmentalists and the media experts to whom they suck up—and apparently to elders who were brave in their youth—because it’s radically adept at massively exporting its brutality to distant sectors.  The single most practical step any adult in the west can take for stopping the empire is to stop voting and stay away from the machinery of endorsement.  The Habermas paperback I got from my neighbor’s front yard yesterday in nowtopian fashion (Legitimation Crisis, 1973—what does it mean that my neighbor’s done with it?) talks on page 37 about a passive citizenry whose final and only right is to “withhold acclamation.”  We say, administer last rights on such a civilization.  Withhold acclamation!

If even our wise elders like Angela Davis and Ursula LeGuin can tell us to vote for leaders at all, let alone for brutes with long and vocal records of advocating mass murder like Obama, it is clear that democracy’s sway is impressive indeed.  This isn’t to say that for particular, local objectives we would never pay attention (obviously, always in the negative) to particular governments or their stooges, but we never lose sight of the fact that it is not just this particular government but all government that is the colonial power here absolutely without any leave from us other than the word itself: leave.  To the extent that TOSCA’s about passing power back to the people and getting rid of the machinery, we’re on board.

Davis (like me) is an abolitionist, for Christ sake.  Does she think the empire’s going to grant that to anyone?  Does she think she’ll get rewarded for good behavior?  I can’t help but note the irony of both Angela Davis and Michael Berubé holding forth, as they have at one time or another, in the little town in some cornfields in Illinois where I’d been imprisoned as a father of small children and threatened with a tenner for carfighting.  And what they hold forth on is leaderville’s importance.  Berubé’s belief is that anglo-America is basically functioning well but there were a couple of lapses when Evil took over (the usual perps—Thatcher, Bush), and we’re fine now.  Everyone puts their left hand on the scapegoat and it’s sent out of the camp.  Berubé (University of Illinois, excellent salary, Berubé ends with an accent ague, febrile) describes himself as a leftist, yet his project is to keep the empire propped up.  That’s the state of the public intellectual nowadays.  Practical sidebar for carfighters: cars are surrounded by an aegis of secret felonious runes that can only be decoded by justices who have driven to the courthouse.  Cars have what even Walter Benjamin might have called an aura.

The left thinks of itself as an important site of resistance, but sets up in miniature a version of the leaderville paradigm, with mommy and daddy “leaders” that they are “against” or “for” and over whose “administrations” they cluck their tongues, scandalized.  I hear over and over and over all these academics, otherwise really smart people with wonderful work, who when they get going on electoral politics turn into truculent babies who are afraid to step out into the real world.  I haven’t checked because I don’t want to heat up the Columbia River by consulting Google, but I’d be surprised if Angela Davis, or Mike Davis, for that matter, hadn’t written for this magazine.  We count them as fellow travelers.

The other day at the semiotics reading group it was like that Farside comic with all the cows on their hind legs talking about important philosophical concepts and then someone shouts “car” (or in this case,  “Obama”) and they get down on all fours and start grunting like barnyard animals.

Pay your fee in attention—that’s what the empire wants.  Feedom’s just another word for, uh, something else, as the semiotician said.

What should we do, practically, to stop all this toxicity in the world?  Are we sure we don’t already know?

DAVID Ker THOMSON lives in T’onto, ’rio, ’nada in the Great Lakes watershed.  dave.thomson@utoronto.ca

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