Against North American Politics: The Big Picture, or halas!

Returning to Toronto from a situation where politics is a matter of survival, not only for individuals on the margin but for a community as such, has made me bored with the everyday political rattle of Toronto. Today apparently council voted to remove a bike lane. This is clearly a bad thing – but I have trouble caring about it. It’s just one more little defeat, not insignificant, but no more significant than the little victories achieved when this type of inadequate and unsafe bike-lane is installed. I can as easily as the next person (perhaps more easily) become embroiled in a discussion about the technicalities of city planning, sustainability, relative safety, the externalizing of automobile costs in the form of un-perceived risks onto cyclists who benefit drivers by freeing the roads of heavier traffic, etc… But, in order to become obsessive about this kind of debate (which in truth simply sets the God of efficiency/ge-stell against the God of profit and selfishness), you have to believe – or forget that you don’t believe – that these kinds of little traumas are battles in some big-picture of building a better society, or saving the planet from carbon emissions, or, or, etc…

But halas! (It’s enough!) This politics of a million individual priorities, where everyone has their own personal values and their own personal way of harmonizing the values of capitalism with efficiency and sustainability, and says “if only we passed this kind of tax”, or “if only we subsidized this kind of activity” – this fails to mobilize me. Not because I think some particular assemblage of values it pursues is “false”, or because its highest goals of pursuing a better society, a fair society, or a sustainable society are “bad goals”, or even that they are not necessary (in the case of climate change, these goals are by any human standard absolutely necessary). But rather because values are social, and the quality of a politics can not only be judged by their correctness with respect to a hypothetical outcome, but also and more importantly by the unity and political force, which usually means resistance, that they mobilize in a society. The way values are mobilized here have the sense of “flogging a dead horse” – groups tend to be too interested in their own internal perfection to adequately value the need for social unity, which always means compromise, and also means being historically and culturally (situationally) appropriate to your own time and place.

To puts things simply: if the conflict isn’t clear – then how can we expect politics to coalesce into movements. Even in places where the strife and danger is much clearer and present than here, there are huge difficulties in mobilizing around a set of values in such a way that creates the political force or resistance to pursue those values. Why do North Americans think that unity can be formed around solutions to problems, when we continue to disagree on what the problems are? And in a conflict, it’s not enough to isolate the problems, you also have to identify and isolate your enemy. By focussing on solutions, we imagine that our politics is not about conflict, but simply a large rational discussion in which those of us who think some values are good for society should put them forward and try to convince others why they should agree with us, while our millions of opponents do the same. But those who remove bike lanes (or approve coal power stations, or allow the police to run rampant over civil liberties, or build freeways instead of subways, or shut down passenger train travel, or subsidize SUV production, or approve tar sands development, or privatize Dundas Square, or remove bus routes in low income neighborhoods) don’t  do it because they’ve been convinced or have failed to be convinced by some great arguments – they do it because they act in their interests and in the interests of their friends. When they do it, it’s a win for “their team” – and it’s not the team that the people trying to convince them in good faith otherwise are on.

We’d be better off recognizing that although our politics is boring and individuated, it’s no less a conflict than situations where the tensions and divisions are more poorly concealed. And given ecological realities, the stakes aren’t really any lower – but implicitly we all believe they are, and this is sustained by various ideological functions – most importantly the assumption that the simplest thing is for things to remain the way they are and it takes force to move things away from the status quo, which ignores the huge amounts of violence and ecological destruction which are required to sustain what is sometimes aptly called “business as usual”.



4 thoughts on “Against North American Politics: The Big Picture, or halas!

  1. “Toronto cycling activists were gnashing their spokes and rending their spandex after city council voted to kill the Jarvis Street bike lanes on Wednesday. Put in only last summer, the curbside lanes are to be pulled right back out again by the end of next year. It looks like a huge step backward. In fact, it could turn into a big win for cycling in the city.

    Almost lost in the hubbub over Jarvis was the fact that council also voted to push ahead with Toronto’s first network of separated bike lanes. That means cyclists will be able to travel on lanes that are not just painted lines on the asphalt, like those on Jarvis, but fully separated from car traffic.
    Council voted to build separated lanes across the Bloor Viaduct, to start design work on separated lanes for Sherbourne, Wellesley, Harbord and Beverley and to look into separated lanes on Richmond and Peter or Simcoe. The result would be a system that would take cyclists smoothly and safely from, say, the Danforth to the financial district or from the University of Toronto to the waterfront without having to fight their way through mixed traffic.”

  2. Your entry reflects how politics provides different issues around which people can engage. One advantage concerning engagement at a local level is the increased ability to effect the change.

  3. Separated bike lanes on the Bloor Viaduct in Toronto is excellent. We have had the Dunsmuir Hornby separated lanes in Vancouver for about one year. As a cyclist, I feel very safe using it. I also enjoy the concentration of bicycle traffic which is now assembling on it.

  4. Engagement at the local level does provide increased chance of seeing changes, but only if there is sufficient consensus on what change is needed. Any political demand or movement, even cyclists and the demand for a safer cycling infrastructure, can be criticized for being middle class, fat-phobic, or patriarchal – as well as all the normal criticisms from “war on cars” crowd. The success of cycling activism depends on strength against the oil-right, but also on not becoming fractured by the perfectionist left.

    The point I’m trying to make, is that engagement which focuses on the local level risks not ascertaining the major forces behind the things we like and the things we don’t like. I think it is a reactionary tendency to concentrate on every little thing that is bad, because it keeps people from seeing the big picture.

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